Qatar and rule by its people 25, April 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Democracy in Qatar, Education in Qatar, Qatar, Qatar domestic policy, Qatar elections, Qatar foreign policy, Qatari opinion
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The following article appeared on Muftah.org.
It is no secret that Qatar is not a democracy. While municipal officials have been elected since 1999, increasingly small popular participation in these elections reflects a widespread belief that the work of these officials is mostly insignificant. Indeed, the reality is that a small handful of people in Qatar make the majority of important decisions with relatively little external input.
The realm of foreign policy clearly exemplifies this kind of modus operandi. The Foreign Minister (who is also the Prime Minister) Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani is the key decision maker. Although trusted key lieutenants, such as the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Khalid Al Attiyah, also play an important role, all critical decisions must, as a matter of course, be sanctioned by the Emir or the Crown Prince.
While Qatar’s foreign policy is undertaken in the name of the Qatari people, it is unsurprising that there are no signs Qataris have ever really taken an active role in its formulation. Aside from perennial concerns with the Palestinian issue, the Foreign Minister does not pursue a given policy because of domestic opinion. Indeed, there is no evidence that Qatar’s foreign policy activism in recent decades is reflective of an approach, a whim, or an active desire among Qataris for their country to assume such a posture.
In fact, popular sentiment would appear to point in the opposite direction. Qatar is a small, conservative society and always has been. Until the 1990s, the state’s horizons were perennially limited to the region with brief forays into the greater international arena through involvement in international aid efforts, the non-aligned movement, and relations with non-regional countries as and when oil revenues permitted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nevertheless, in recent decades, Qataris appear to be broadly content with their state’s foreign policy pursuits. Certainly there has been no active, widespread domestic movement denouncing Qatar’s various initiatives. Instead, there appears to be something of a tacit understanding that foreign policy should be left to the rulers.
Of course, this does not mean Qataris are uninterested in their country’s foreign policy positions. Indeed, as Qatar continues to receive regional criticism for its financial aid and investment activities from across the Arab world, especially Egypt, many Qataris are increasingly angry at what they see as a rude rebuff of their financial support. Equally some Qataris privately question the wisdom of spending so much money on foreign policy activities or, for example, the country’s decision to provocatively unseat Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Yet, still, the majority do not display a discernible desire to affect the country’s foreign policy positions.
While internationally Qatar’s leaders may get something of a free ride, domestically the story is quite different. Even though Qatar is not a democracy, democracies do not hold an exclusive prerogative on reflecting the desires of their people. Indeed, Qatari citizens can and do have a significant impact on domestic politics.
Qatar is a close-knit society with only 250,000 citizens. News, gossip, and anger spreads like wildfire throughQatar’s majlis (the informal, regular, social meetings held in the evenings by many Qataris). The elite – though inevitably moving in privileged circles – are keenly aware of how their policies are received by the people.
Qatar has no history of systematically repressing its citizens, nor would such a move be tolerated. Instead, when issues potentially affect and anger citizens, the government inevitably reacts, often times by slowing the pace of legislation.
A recent article in the New York Times neatly highlighted one example of this strategy. The article profiled the appalling state of migrant worker rights in Qatar. Qatar is but one of several Gulf states that has discussed reforming its draconian kafala system for controlling workers in the country. Since at least 2010 reforms have been under consideration, recognising the need to make the system more equitable and to establish laws and procedures to stop widespread abuses that characterize the kafala system.
These efforts to open up and safeguard the system for workers have been blocked by domestic business entities in Qatar. Just as happened in Kuwait, both the local Chamber of Commerce and Qatari citizens, 95% of whom have a housemaid and over 50% of whom have more than two domestic servants, oppose the reforms.
The Times article quotes research undertaken by Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute finding that 9 out of 10 Qataris do not want the kafala system changed and 30% want it strengthened. With some understatement, Qatar’s Minister of Labor noted that while he recognised the need for change, it “must go slowly.”
There are other examples of direct government responses to public pressure, notably in the social and educational sphere. In 2012, for instance, the government issued a decree changing the language of instruction in several courses at Qatar University from English to Arabic. That this change went against Qatar’s national strategy, which prioritized the development of an English-speaking workforce to compete in the future economy, was ignored. Given the lack of suitable and relevant Arabic-language texts for these subject matters, the legislation also did not take into consideration that challenges to meaningfully implementing Arabic-based courses.
As the number of expats has increased and Qataris have become even more of a minority in their homeland, there has been an inevitable dilution in the traditional aspects of Qatari life. This process has been further exacerbated by Qatar’s headlong pursuit of international trade. As a result, popular desire to ring-fence certain aspects of Qatari culture and education are unsurprising. Indeed, it can be seen in the most curious of places, including a law signed into effect in 2011 to mandate that Arabic be the primary language for advertising on billboards in Qatar.
This leaves Qatar’s Shura Council elections (literally an ‘Advisory’ Council, which technically serves as a legislative body), scheduled for 2013 in a curious place. Assuming that elections go forward (quite the assumption given that they have been pushed back on several occasions) the thirty elected Shura members will join the Council’s fifteen members who are appointed by the Emir. Undoubtedly, their priorities will center on Qatar’s domestic arena. Money spent building the campuses of eight foreign universities as a part of Qatar’s Education City project, as well as on-going costs associated with their upkeep, will doubtless be a focus of discussion. Equally, controversial educationalreforms to Qatar’s primary and secondary education system, led by the RAND corporation, are still a sore topic as are a variety of other matters that reflect attempts to preserve Qatari heritage and culture in an ever changing country.
Given the population’s traditionalist tendencies and the progressive policies supported by the Qatari elite, it will be interesting to see how boisterous Qataris become once their representatives are officially elected to the legislative body. To pursue their vision for Qatar amid popular backlash, the elites will have to carefully marshal support for initiatives to drive Qatar forward and keep the country globally competitive.
It will also be interesting to see if the Qatari elite can continue to dominate foreign affairs without any challenge from the population. While some elected officials are likely to become more vociferous, current trends suggest that overall the international arena will remain almost exclusively under elite control.
Kuwait’s Self-Flagellation Continues 24, April 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
Tags: Barrack sentenced, Kuwait, Kuwait Arab Spring, Kuwait parliament, Kuwait unrest, Musallam Al Barrack
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The following article appeared on RUSI.ORG
Kuwait’s fractious politics has once more transcended protest to violence as the authorities sought time and again to arrest the former Member of Parliament Musallam Al Barrack. In mid-April, Al Barack was sentenced to five years in jail for undermining the status of the Emir when at a protest on 15 October 2012 he said ‘we [the people] shall not let you, your Highness, take us into the abyss of autocracy.’
However, four attempts to arrest Al Barrack later and he is still not in police custody. The farce of the attempted arrests involved the police not finding Al Barrack and sometimes with the former MP refusing to go with the police without a signed copy of the arrest document and the authorities’ inexplicable ability to actually come up with such a document. The escalating situation has led to increasing clashes at his residence.
The night of 17 April saw up to 10,000 supporters congregate at his house in a show of solidarity. An initial decision not to march that night soon changed with the crowd attempting to storm a near-by police station. The results were predictably bloody. A court decision on 22 April granting him bail to appear in May to appeal his sentence settled the issue, but only temporarily.
Al Barrack is at the centre of Kuwait’s political theatre and has become the focal point of the opposition. He is undoubtedly popular politician. He was famously elected with over 30,000 votes in the February 2012 election; a huge number in Kuwait and by far the most number of votes that a candidate has ever received. Even though the charges may be upheld in the May appeal and he may eventually go to jail in unjust circumstances, he is a long way from a Nelson Mandela figure.
Despite writing an article in The Guardian, Al Barrack is no liberal statesman and has supported some of the most distasteful conservative policies to emerge from Kuwait’s Parliament in recent years. In the context of a crackdown on Twitter users, Sunni MPs proposed the death penalty for Muslims who insulted God, the Quran, the Prophet or his wives. This move was made after a Shia Twitter user, Hamad Al Naqi, was arrested for blasphemy. Al Barrack, like many of his fellow Parliamentarians, vocally supported this motion. Only the intervention of the Emir using his privilege to strike down the law prevented it from being enacted. In a similarly sectarian vein, as Mona Kareem notes, Al Barrack has been a defender of the Bahraini regime and their crackdown on their Shia population. He also supports segregation in Kuwait’s education establishments.
A Pro-Government Parliament?
Al Barrack and a variety of other MPs who may loosely be described as ‘the opposition’ in Kuwait did not enter the December 2012 Parliamentary elections. The opposition boycotted the election after the Emir decreed changes to the voting procedures when Parliament was not in session. Although the Emir is allowed to take such actions, it is a grey area as to whether such an act needs to be voted on before it can directly affect the voting procedures. The opposition feared (probably correctly) that the new voting regime would have weakened their ever increasing grip on power in the Parliament. Rather than have their support adversely affected – and badly miscalculating that their burgeoning support in late 2012 could allow them to force the Emir to back down – they pulled out of the election.
Inevitably the Parliament elected in December 2012 was pro-government but with a lower turnout of just under 40 per cent. Shia candidates, who have often supported the government against the majority Sunni opposition, made large gains in particular winning 17 seats of the 50-member Parliament, more than doubling their representation in the previous Parliament.
However, as predicted at the time, by boycotting the elections, the opposition only left themselves with negative power: they can only affect politics in Kuwait by being as obstructionist as possible: Barrack’s thwarting of the police being the latest example of their tactics to whip up support against the government.
Any hope that the pro-government Parliament would help get Kuwait’s politics and projects moving again has been slow to materialise. While its intransigence does not reach the levels of previous opposition-led Parliaments, there has still been less cooperation than expected. Moreover, the government again finds itself trying to stave off splurging its budget surplus on debt-forgiveness and writing off interest on personal loans. The government in the form of the Finance Minister Mustafa Al Shamali rejected these proposals offered in early March 2013 and was ‘grilled’ (interpolated) in Kuwait’s showboating Parliament for his troubles.
Political Deadlock Over the Economy
One of the prime issues that divided the Kuwaiti Government and the Opposition was the former’s desire to avoid frittering away the Government’s surplus on buying people’s support. The government take the longer-term economic view that such actions are a cancerous factor in the Kuwaiti economy, hugely dis-incentivising the workforce at a time when Kuwait needs to be preparing for its post-hydrocarbon economy. Kuwait has plenty of oil left, but it is over dependent on this one source with over 90 per cent of the state budget coming from oil, the highest in the Gulf region. The opposition would counter-accuse the Government of trying to block a greater distribution of the state’s wealth.
With the Government not budging on this issue, the new Parliament is not passing the large and necessary infrastructure projects that Kuwait as a country has been needing for decades and the Kuwaiti political merry-go-around continues.
It was hoped that this Parliament might be more amenable to work with the government given the backdrop of the fractious months before the last election and the agreement among all Kuwaitis that Kuwait badly needs investment. Yet each parliamentarian wants to carve out his or her pound of flesh to take as a trophy to their constituents. In a political environment with no political parties, this is one of the key ways that a parliamentarian can distinguish themself in a given constituency: promising and bringing home the cash.
There are no easy answers for Kuwait’s troubles and no end in sight to the fractious politics, which seem destined to continue apace for some time to come. No sides are willing to compromise or subsume their goals to Kuwait’s overall longer term interest. In the meantime, the bitterness increases and the intransigence grows, while most Kuwaitis who simply want to get on with their life grow more and more exasperated as the factions fight it out.
On KSA: The Knowns and the Unknowns 6, April 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Saudi Arabia, Saudi knowns and unknowns
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This article was published by YourMiddleEast last month.
In 2003 Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary, uttered his now infamous speech about what was and was not known about the link between Iraq and supplying terrorist groups with weapons of mass destruction.
“there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
While the language is deeply contorted, Rumsfeld’s tripartite system of segmenting classes of information is not an unreasonable rubric to use when assessing an issue. Given the latest intrigues in the elite of Saudi Arabia that had analysts scrambling to engage in the Arab version of Sovietology to explain a completely unexpected move, the application of any logical rubric to this most convoluted of issues is welcome to ascertain exactly what we know we know.
The known knowns
On 1st February 2013 Prince Muqrin Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud was appointed Second Deputy Prime Minister in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This appointment shocked Saudi watchers as the received wisdom suggested that Muqrin would be ineligible because of his Yemeni lineage on his mother’s side. While Muqrin becoming Crown Prince and King is now a likely outcome, the fact that few expected him to be there in the first place acts as a prompt to revisit some of these known knowns.
The position of Second Deputy Prime Minister is important and has signalled ‘Crown Prince in waiting’ in recent transitions even if it has been unfilled at times, notably from August 2005 to March 2009. Nevertheless, Muqrin’s continued ascent is not certain. The 1992 ‘Basic Law of Governance’ and the 2006 ‘Allegiance Council’ are both mechanisms that endow, respectively, the King and the Crown Prince in conjunction with leading Princes the power to amend those in line to the throne.
While one may expect Murqin – a relatively spry sexagenarian or septuagenarian (the ages of Saudi Royalty belonging in the ‘known unknown’ category) – to rise to the office of King relatively soon particularly given the age and increasing infirmity of the King and the Crown Prince, this too is far from certain. King Fahd (r.1982-2005) was incapacitated for most of the last decade of his rule, yet neither he nor his supporters thought it better for him to step aside. In Kuwait complete physical and mental incapacity did not forestall Saad ascending to the office of Emir in 2006. In that instance it was Kuwait’s vocal and uncontrollable Parliament that forced him to resign after only nine days ‘in power.’ Bar typical intra-family squabbling, Saudi Arabia has no equivalent that could push through such a measure were it needed.
It is also implicitly assumed that Muqrin’s promotion means that Saudi Arabia’s rulers will now have to move to the next generation. Since the founding of the modern state of Saudi Arabia by Ibn Saud in 1932, rule has passed directly to one of his sons. King Abdullah, the current incumbent, became King when he was in his eighties, while two of his Crown Princes (Sultan and Nayef) have already died while Crown Prince Salman is believed to be largely infirm and in his late seventies.
Given that Murqin is the youngest son of Ibn Saud this means that several of his older brothers have been passed over in his favour. In Saudi Arabia where there is a premium placed on age seniority, this suggests that they have run out of suitable sons of Ibn Saud and a generational shift is imminent. While this is, again, logical if not likely, it must not be forgotten that should Salman or Murqin become King they can install whomever they choose, as long as they can corral support for the decision.
While the generational jump to Ibn Saud’s grandchildren could be postponed the eventual shift is the central known unknown of Saudi politics.
Muhammad Bin Nayef, the son of the former influential Minister of Interior and Crown Prince, leads speculation after becoming the first of the second generation to oversee a principal Ministry when he took over from his uncle Prince Ahmed as Minister of the Interior in November 2012. Believed to be highly capable in his former role in Counter Terrorism at the Ministry with an impeccable lineage and enough influence already to meet officially with President Obama in January 2013, he was a strong candidate for the post of Second Deputy Prime Minister and remains prominent.
However, things are not always what they seem in Riyadh. Many assumed that Muqrin’s abrupt removal as head of intelligence in July 2012, coming in the wake of increasing public criticism, was a sign of him losing power. Instead this move was a precursor to assuming the position of second in line to the throne.
Instead of sifting through the minutiae of each candidate’s CV and family linkages or investing too heavily in court gossip, it is more fruitful to seek a set of guidelines and factors that will inform the decision-making.
Firstly, there are traditional factors to consider. He must be a grandson of Ibn Saud and while age seniority is important, as Muqrin’s ascension and Muhammad Bin Nayef’s replacement of his uncle at the Ministry of the Interior showed, it is clearly not a defining concern. Of greater importance is a demonstrable track record of effective leadership in an august Ministry or an important region. The challenges facing Saudi Arabia are legion and a would-be ruler from the next generation will have to prove that he has the pedigree and the aptitude to work effectively.
Though senior Princes confirm a putative Crown Prince, they have to take into account an element of popular support. Similarly, given the inequalities in the Kingdom and the place that corruption is widely believed to have had as lending impetus to the Arab Spring, a relatively uncorrupted reputation would be an advantage.
Any candidate who can carefully craft such an image will reap significant gains given the importance of presenting a positive public face. The use of the press by much of the elite in Saudi Arabia is barely one step up from Pathé news. Bland press releases with little actual news but with plenty of references to the religious formalities conducted before, during, and after each meeting are adorned with pictures of King Abdullah or other leading Royals with unfeasibly black beards and moustaches. Given the increasingly media savvy Saudi citizens, as shown in a recent survey that found Riyadh to be the 10th most active city in the world on Twitter, such anachronistic media handling is all the more jarring.
The fact that Muqrin has no recorded full-brothers or sons with top-level experience suggests that he may be a relatively impartial arbiter. His well documented closeness to King Abdullah hints that he would look to an effective, technocratic successor as opposed to being concerned with austere religious credentials. But most of all he will look for the consensus candidate; someone that can command authority quickly in a Kingdom that strives for stability above all else.
An unknown unknown is unknown but one can posit from where critical, game-changing concerns may arise.
An Arab Spring redux may strike Saudi Arabia. The economic dynamics and disparities in the Kingdom are acute. The Saudi ‘Arab Spring Budget’ designed to counter nascent protests with a flood of new jobs, pay increases, and house-construction projects worked but fundamental issues remain. Another incident such as the 2009 Jeddah floods which diverted attention to gross corruption and mismanagement could ignite latent anger. Equally, the continued implosion of Bahrain or Kuwait’s Parliamentary wrangles escalating to wide-spread civil unrest could instigate troubles, particularly in Saudi’s combustible Eastern Province where Shia-based unrest continues.
Given the ill health of King Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman, and the relatively advanced years of Muqrin, a series of quick successions is not out of the question. Any number of permutations could force the new elite to arrive at hastily contrived arrangements. With the potential of a grandson of Ibn Saud sitting on the throne for multiple decades with the corollary that other members of his generation lose their opportunity at attaining the top job, there is ample reason for those overlooked to agitate in the wings for a better spot.
While the future of Saudi Arabia could be an unknown unknown with untold effects from existing or future challenges destabilising the Kingdom, Saudis have heard such pronouncements on a regular basis for decades. Yet the Kingdom prevailed. There may not be anyone in the near future who could match the figure of King Abdullah who has overseen nearly two decades of tumultuous Saudi history and commands widespread respect for his slow modernising moves. But elite interests, while factional and facing new internal issues, are all predicated on maintaining their exclusive grip on power; a deeply motivating and unifying concept.
Linguistic Composition of Iran 26, February 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
Tags: Iran, Iran languages, Iran map, Languages in Iran
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I love a nice map. The only thing better than a nice map is a particularly informative nice map, like this one on arab dialects or the one below.
Hat tip to @blakehounshell for pointing out this map.
On Prisoner X and the Dubai debacle 15, February 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, The Emirates, The Gulf.
Tags: Dubai assassination, Mossad, Prisoner x, Prisoner x assassination
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The Prisoner X case in Israel is interesting for a few reasons.
Firstly, Bibi’s reaction to try to block Israeli papers from reporting on this incident smacks of the most pointless Mubarak-esque finger-in-the-dam mentality. We just do not live in that kind of world anymore. Instructing Israeli papers to ignore the incident as the story flies around the world is not only utterly futile but creates the impression that he has not learned anything from regional events. Was there any chance that this story would not have broken in Israel eventually?
Secondly, quoting the hugely reliable Kuwaiti press (…) the New York Times speculates that the reason Prisoner X was in such unusual custody was because he was involved in the Dubai assassination incident back in 2010. Apparently he was in the process of disclosing Mossad’s involvement and was thus arrested and incarcerated in this way such was the potential fall out were he to (or because he already had) disclose(d) information about Mossad’s involvement.
I have never quite understood this incident. How the Dubai authorities and countless op-eds across this part of the world mocked the Mossad for this ‘failure’ of an operation has never made sense to me. Around 20 Mossad agents waltzed into Dubai through its key international airport hub, sauntered to the hotel in question, mingled around, went to the room, killed the chap, wandered away, leisurely returned to the airport and skipped merrily through Dubai International Airport once more. How this is not a catastrophic and embarrassing failure for Dubai’s police force and domestic intelligence service I just don’t know.
OK, the suspects were caught on camera and I am sure they hoped it would be assumed that the chap died of natural causes but what does it matter? They killed him with ease and escaped with not so much as a murmur from Dubai’s authorities. So many congratulations to the Dubai police for putting together such a riveting series of pictures, better luck next time with – you know – actually catching them and stopping the assassination, perhaps?
And what do the Israelis care as to the embarrassment of this incident? It shows the impunity with which they can operate across the Middle East and their resolve in assassinating key leaders. I’m sure they were at least half pleased when the whole thing broke.
So to me, at least, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that Prisoner X received such special treatment over this incident. I assumed that he had something to do with leaking Israeli nuclear secrets and this still seems the most likely thing to me, but I suppose we’ll never know.
Another Qatar football debacle 7, February 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: 2022 organisation, 2022 Qatar, Football Qatar, Qatar, Qatar 2022, Qatar World Cup, Spain, Sports Qatar, uruguay
When the World and twice-running European football champions are in town and playing the Copa América Champions, it would be rude not to go along and watch teams stuffed with the world’s best players. As much as I was looking forward to last night’s showpiece there was always a certain cynical reticence expecting the organisation around the event to be a mess.
It has been years since I saw England-Brazil in Doha, which was a disaster of planning including giving every fan in the stadium hard glow sticks to wave around in the dark, which soon became a rain of missiles pelting the front rows (who’d have thought?). Still, since Qatar has won the right to host the 2022 World Cup it must surely have learned how to organise one match by now…
There’s not a whole lot the 2022 folks can do about the traffic. But the fact remains that for 5k around the stadium the traffic was a complete disaster with a 15 minute journey to the Aspire complex (stadium area) taking over an hour. I don’t expect a subway system to be installed overnight but how about a park and ride system from key points in Doha? How about traffic police monitoring the road and stopping the hard-shoulder becoming the fast lane? How about advertising a few bus services? How about doing anything whatsoever aside from just ignoring the problem?
Entrance to stadium
‘Take your seats by 20:00′ the ticket said for the 21:00 kick-off. Sound advice but had anyone passed this nugget of information on to anyone working at the stadium? Walking around the stadium more or less each gate had long queues of people trying to get in as early as 19:30 (and doubtless before). My particular queue was a special one at somewhere around 200 metres long. I started queuing before 20:00 and didn’t get into the stadium until around 21:25, 25 minutes after kick-off and after the first goal.
I simply cannot fathom how they messed this up so badly leaving thousands of fans outside in interminably slow queues to miss the kickoff. You have x amounts of tickets sold and x amounts of seats (let’s leave the 2011 Asian Cup final debacle to one side for the moment) and the staff presumably know kick-off time. From there it is surely a fairly straight-forward formula?
I just can’t understand why all the major leagues in the world can manage this process on a weekly basis – checking tickets, checking security, etc – often for much larger crowds and yet Qatari authorities can’t manage this once every year.
Do they not realise they can’t actually organise a football match effectively yet? Surely they have an inkling in which case why not get Man Utd or Bayern Munich to show them how it is done – the teams are here often enough, get the ground staff too.
Adding to the rancour in the long-suffering queues was the usual issue of people pushing in left, right and centre with Qatar staff replete with red glowing batons standing around, having a chat doing – precisely literally – nothing.
By the time we got to the gate they weren’t even checking tickets and were just waving people in: lessons not learnt, it seems.
I arrived looking for a quick bite to eat before getting into the stadium; how foolish of me not to factor in the necessary waiting time (half an hour or more at a guess; I didn’t bother).
The trestle tables setup for the drinks were exactly like I remember from my school sports day complete with paper tickets for ‘water’, ‘drink’ and so on; a system they had abandoned. The people serving had no system (I serve, you do cash, etc) but it was just a free-for-all and - obviously - the person I dealt with couldn’t add up, stuffing the wrong amount of money into a torn cardboard box as the cash register.
Again, I just can’t understand the utter amateurism of this whole affair. Why not get a proper catering company in to do the job? Why not think a bit differently and have shawarma and karak stands dotted around instead of a couple inside the tents? I could have organised that myself in half an hour.
I am sure some things went right. They paid $4m to get Spain; well done. But I was far from alone in being utterly demoralised by this farce. I simply have no comprehension as to why Qatar continually spurns these opportunities to show that it can run a successful and largely trouble-free football match. Doubtless these things will be sorted by 2022 – though I said exactly the same thing two years ago – for at some stage someone will get around to experiencing a match in Qatar as a normal fan and not a VVIP…
Incidentally, I can’t describe the contempt that I have for the Goebbels-esque reporting from an Al Jazeera correspondent gushing at the organisation; what a shamefully bad snippet of journalism.
On Qatar and Mali 3, February 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
Tags: Al Qaeda, AQIM, Gao, Islamists, Mali, MUJAO, Qatar, Qatar Red Crescent, Qatar supporting Islamists
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Claims that Qatar is supporting a range of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Sahel are not new. In June 2012 the French satirical magazine Canard Enchaine quoted French Military intelligence sources asserting that Qatar was financially supporting various groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The reports are vague but usually refer to financial support from Qatar, while some refer to Qatari planes landing at Gao disgorging arms and even Qatari Special Forces entering the fray.
None of these accusations ring true given the general thrust of Qatari foreign policy. Ironically, however, it is Qatar’s recent actions particularly in Libya that make these accusations seemingly plausible.
The Qatari contradiction
Qatar is one of only two Wahhabi states and it did name its new state mosque the Muhammad Ibn Abdul Al Wahhab mosque late last year. But Qatar is a box full of contradictions. Alcohol is easily available as is pork. Women can drive (nor has this been an issue) and Qatar has the most visible, outspoken and influential female consort in the history of the Arab world. Western education systems are at the heart of the state and there is not even an official mosque in the entire propose-built, multi-billion dollar ‘Education City’ campus housing six American Universities as well as University College London.
Externally Qatar’s policies can appear confused. Support of America by virtue of the two huge US bases in Qatar and significant (usually unwelcome) outreach to Israel in recent years is contrasted with seemingly amicable relations with Iran and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. More recently a record of enormous investment in London and Paris has been contrasted to escalating support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and seemingly murky support of groups in the Sahel. Moreover, Qatar has been outspoken in its sub-state support of various groups in Mali’s regional neighbourhood in the last eighteen months.
A loose narrative has built suggesting that an ever increasingly confident Qatar is now beginning to support a range of ever more extreme Islamists across the region.
On the ground realities
Examining exactly what Qatar is doing in Mali is difficult. Qatar never enlightens anyone as to its foreign policy strategies or tactics and nor are there sufficient reliable sources of information in and around Mali.
The best one can say is that in addition to a lengthy history of interaction in the region the Qatar Red Crescent Society increased its capabilities in Mali in 2012 evaluating the state of the plight and the their potential response. This occasionally involved entering Mali from Niger to get to the critical city of Gao. According to an AFP article this in and of itself involved seeking safe passage from the MUJAO, an Al Qaeda offshoot.
The very fact that the two organisations came to this safe passage agreement may well be a root cause of much of the subsequent supposition, with many assuming the transit agreement to be a signal of deeper connections. Yet this is what the Red Cross/Crescent does; it sticks to its central tenet of neutrality in a conflict and deals with the realities on the ground making tactical deals to obtain access when it can.
There is no open source evidence available whatsoever that can back up assertions made by Sciences Po’s Sub-Saharan African expert Roland Marchal who suggests that Qatari Special Forces may have entered Northern Mali to train recruits of Ansar El Dine, which is part the Al Qaeda movement there. Indeed, aside from the Canard Enchaine assertion – which has even been partially retracted – there is nothing on which to base other assertions of Qatar financially supporting Al Qaeda affiliates in Mali other than supposition.
The majority of the hyperbole about Qatar seems to stem from the adage that there’s no smoke without fire. It is unsurprising that the Mayor of Gao accuses the Qataris of supporting terrorism. From his perspective he is making a heartfelt plea for French intervention and he sees the Qatari Red Crescent Society gaining access to territory held by MUJAO. Doubtless he puts one – Qatar, the Wahhabi, rich Libyan-Islamist supporting Gulf State – and one – the Qatari Red Crescent gaining privileged access in MUJAO controlled territory – together and comes to the conclusion that ‘Qatar’ is supporting the terrorists.
Marchal too follows this logic. Qatar was active in Sudan and then in North Africa supporting various Islamists with financial support and Special Forces therefore – QED – Qatar is active in Mali doing the same thing.
While some of this is plain alarmism from those who know little about Qatar, some of it makes sense. The argument that Qatar saw how effective its support of various Islamist groups in Libya proved to be and thus sought to reuse such tactics in Mali is a logical proposition. One could also note that gaining support in an area rich in hydrocarbons and agriculture is also potentially a sensible and explanatory as a motivating factor.
Equally, however, there are many reasons as to why Qatar would be highly unlikely to be meddling with Al Qaeda groups in the Western Sahel. Despite Qatar’s reputation as a Wahhabi and Brotherhood-supporting country Qatar’s most important allies are America, the UK, and France. Qatar has a limited domestic capacity to defend itself and finds itself in a region that has seen three wars in three decades and where it is sandwiched between the two regional behemoths, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have somewhat antagonistic histories with Qatar. The Qatari leadership is under no illusion as to where its security reliance lies; resolutely in Western hands.
Countering this notion one could argue that its leadership feels it can do what it likes as its importance is so great to these key countries. But an equally key part of the Qatar project is deeply concerned with its global reputation. Through cultural events; educational investment; a variety of sporting events; world-class conference facilities and associated apparatus; and other soft power building initiatives, Qatar places a significant premium on making itself attractive internationally. To boost investment, economic diversification and Qatar’s reputation overall it wants to be known as ‘that place where England played Brazil at football’ and that ‘will host the 2022 World Cup’; it does not want to become ‘that place that supported Al Qaeda in North Africa.’ Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – the group elected to power in several Arab states – is one thing, supporting Al Qaeda affiliates is another.
One must note that the narrative that has built up castigating Qatar suits the Algerian Government. The increasing break between Doha and Algiers with the latter bitterly resenting Qatar’s involvement funding Islamist groups in Libya and Al Jazeera fanning Islamist flames is no secret. Qatar hosting in exile Abbasi Madani, the co-founder of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Islamist party whose near election win in 1991 precipitated the cancellation of elections and Algeria’s bloody decade-long Civil War, doubtless irks the elite in Algiers too. Given the almost entire lack of actual evidence of the Qatari state nefariously supporting Al Qaeda associated groups in the Mali theatre and the way this notion fits with the Algerian Government’s desire to hit back at Qatar, it is unsurprising that at least one North African expert has suggested that ‘Algerian propaganda’ may well be playing a part.
Lastly it is worth pointing out that the small group of people who make decisions in Qatar relating to foreign affairs – the Emir, the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister/Foreign Minister – have shown no interest in the past decades of supporting hard line salafi elements such as Al Qaeda. It is entirely plausible that some Qatari money is finding its way to supporting nefarious elements in the Sahel and there may be Qatar-based charities that engage to such ends, but the odds of a member of the Qatari elite ‘ordering’ such a plan stretches credulity.
Overall, there appears to be no evidence for the more outlandish claims that Qatar is training or financing Al Qaeda-splinter groups. Not only would this idea contradict key tenets of Qatar’s foreign policy for decades now, but it is wholly unclear how useful it would be to befriend a group of extreme Sharia-devout Al Qaeda types in northern Mali. Even before they were being routed by the French, they were hardly a cohesive, structured organisation that could offer Qatar meaningful promises or guarantees.
Instead Qatar’s reputation as supporting certain, typically Brotherhood-orientated Islamist groups in North Africa and a melange of clichés about rich, Wahhabi, conflict-fuelling Gulfies seems to have coalesced, perhaps with some judicious prodding by Algeria, with a basic misinterpretation of the role and practice of the Red Crescent. The ‘Qatari policy’ that this theory asserts may chime with base fears and assumptions and fit snugly into existing narratives but in reality bears little resemblance to Qatar’s state foreign policy thus far.
A trip to the Kingdom 18, January 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Bahrain Saudi, Ottomans gay marriage, Rentier state, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saudi energy demand, Saudi oil
I am currently in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at a conference to discuss the region in light of these ever so changing times. It’s always interesting to come to the Kingdom and even better when you’re here with leading academics and the most erudite and informed of Saudis. Some thoughts:
- It’s been at least six months since I visited another GCC country so it’s nice to go to Riyadh to be reminded of the differences between the states (or at least two of them). Everyone knows that Riyadh is a huge city but only flying over it and driving through it do you see the level of sprawl with the city forever splurging into the desert in a low-rise tide of villas. Doha it is not.
- We visited the Saudi National Museum. I had no idea that Saudi’s history was as extensive as it appears to be; a true ‘crossroads of civilization’ as one Saudi put it. As yet it seems that much of this history going back thousands of years has barely begun to be uncovered and the Kingdom must be one of the least touched but richest countries on earth for archaeologists.
- The discussions that I attended in the Saudi capital were of the highest caliber The Saudi academics and attendees – all Western educated – were hugely impressive. They were articulate, erudite and intelligent which is – of course – no surprise given how long Saudi has been sending its best students abroad. Qatar cannot and can never hope to compete; it just doesn’t have the critical mass of people to engage in this kind of education. Indeed, I am happy to be corrected, but I suspect that there were more political science PhDs in the conference room alone than political science PhDs earned by all Qataris in the last decade.
- There was staunch Saudi support for Bahrain. The arguments were nuanced and far more erudite than the usual ‘it’s Iran’, though this refrain was used too. Two trends of argument were interesting in particular.
Firstly was the notion of ‘what do you expect?’ If there were a popularly elected government via perfect elections then this would be Shia-led given the population dynamics and such a government would be – so the argument went – intrinsically disposed to the Iranian government creating some kind of a Shia bastion just off KSA’s coast. The analogy of the Cuban Missile Crisis was used to illustrate this point. I don’t agree with this logic, but it makes a certain sense.
Secondly, it was interesting how the West’s worst activities were used as cover for Bahrain’s worst activities. The Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were used as a calling out of the West’s double standards. ‘Look at the things you [sic] do when your ‘national security’ is at risk. It is the same in Bahrain’. While I don’t agree with this – one should hardly use the atypical, controversial and maligned activities of the West as a model or the most base excuse – this is a powerful argument in its own right and reminds one of how easily eroded the theoretical moral high ground can be.
- The talks were attended by a senior Saudi Prince. He came for the opening evening lecture and the subsequent dinner. Much to my surprise he came back the day after for the 12 hour day of presentations and talks and came for dinner again that evening. He was erudite, engaging, open, witty, and substantively contributed to every panel discussion. There was no ceremony about his presence and he took the bus in the evening to the second dinner. For a variety of reasons I just can’t imagine the same happening almost anywhere else in the Gulf.
- Saudi itself was the center of much of the discussions. A UK based academic gave an excellent if familiar ‘Saudi is in financial peril’ talk and it is impossible to disagree that going forward a decade or so the combination of increasing salaries in the increasing Government sector, the struggling private sector, the surging domestic energy demands of the Kingdom and a range of structural issues such as industry’s dependency on cheap fuel mean that the Kingdom is facing huge challenges. He also noted that Saudi’s Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) was staggeringly high.
There is no answer to these challenges but the numerous Saudis around the table were somewhat weary of these concerns having heard very similar versions of these ‘Saudi is ok now but in 5 years…’ for decades now. Of course those around the table were the elite in the Kingdom and are unrepresentative of the Saudi population as a whole. Nevertheless in defence of the Kingdom, so to speak, they made some good points. 1) The Kingdom has proven to be surprisingly resilient before. 2) There is a staggering amount of waste – ‘fat’ as one contributor put it – in the Government sector that can be seen as an area for streamlining as and when budget pressures necessitate. 3) The Saudi Government controls up to 75% of the economy and could privatize industries if the buffers really were approaching giving them a potentially huge windfall. Of course none of this is straight forward – the modern age, as an American contributor pointed out, has a raft of unique, new and resilient structural changes (media openness etc) and cutting fat is not necessarily that easy – but these were, I thought, interesting points. I still think that Saudi is facing catastrophic challenges in the next 15 years but the issue demands a lot more thought that I’ve been able to give it thus far.
Other random points:
- The Ottomans
legalised gay marriage [CORRECTION] decriminalised homosexuality in 1876
- Istanbul is the biggest Kurdish city
- Apparently the US
Embassy Ministry in Baghdad has approximately 1000 Americans working there but only 7 Americans who speak Arabic. Good stuff.
On Kuwait’s latest issues 5, December 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
Tags: Kuwait, Kuwait elections, Kuwait opposition, Kuwait parliament, Musallam Al Barrack
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A couple of quick thoughts on Kuwait:
1) Had the numbers of protesters continued to be in the range of the first major protest back in October then I think we would have to look very carefully at Kuwait as in a dangerous place. Yet this is not the case. Even on the occasion in October despite claims from the opposition that there were over one hundred thousand people there I am yet to come across reliable evidence for this fact (though I am happy to be corrected).
2) Subsequent protests have – from what I can gather – been significantly smaller. The protest at Musallam Barrack’s arrest that was expected to be 100,000+ (and the opposition gave out tickets to try to prove this) but was much smaller. And so has every other protest since. The litmus test for this was the long planned protest on December 1. Again it appears that this was no where near 100,000.
3) Nevertheless, one cannot forget that Kuwait is a small country with around 1 million Kuwaitis. Thus several tens of thousands of protesters is still a significant number.
4) I am still of the opinion that the opposition have badly miscalculated. The Parliament will now be significantly less intransigent than its predecessors where the Islamist/Tribal opposition dominated and blocked anything and everything. There is a chance, therefore, that – shock, horror – Kuwait’s Parliament may actually get things done.
5) The Government now can undertake a relatively easy strategy to severely undercut a lot of the opposition support. a) Doll out some cash in the short term. b) Get something tangible done via the Parliament; show it is working and makes a difference to Kuwaitis. c) Give the newly appointed anti-corruption body some teeth and ideally a sacrificial lamb to show the elite is taking top level corruption seriously. None of this may be necessarily easy to do but it is surely easier now than it was before and nor is such a plan necessarily the best thing for Kuwait, but these are the options facing the Government if it is sensible from its perspective.
6) While such a plan would not undercut the hardcore tribal/Islamist elements it does not need to. Such a plan would take away broader support and sympathy leaving the opposition whittled down somewhat and their demonstrations getting ever smaller (as they already appear to be). This would place the opposition in an ever smaller minority, vociferously obstructing the continuation of Kuwaiti life and the normalization of Kuwaiti politics.
7) The opposition’s power has only ever been a blocking, negative power only now they have moved from intransigence in the Parliament to the streets (I don’t say this to denigrate the opposition you can only play the hand you’ve been dealt). Without the legal scaffold of Parliament they are simply demonstrating and will need to ever more increase the intensity of their protests to force the Government to change. They run the real risk that after several months of this dragging on – of them protesting and disrupting and especially if the Parliament can make headway – the wider population will become increasingly disenchanted or even angry with their cause in the search for reconciliation or simply in the desire to get on with normal life.
Kuwait needs ‘truth and reconciliation’ 12, November 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
Tags: Kuwait, Kuwait corruption
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I wrote the following article almost a year ago for a blog which has since disappeared. Though it is – of course – out of date, some of the conclusions drawn are still arguably relevant.
On the 4th December 2011, Sheikh Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah was appointed Kuwait’s new Prime Minister (PM). He took over from the perennially beleaguered Sheikh Nasser Al Sabah, the former PM who has been the focus of opposition ire almost since taking office in 2006. However, those hoping that this could act as fresh start were to be disappointed when only two days later on 6th December the Emir dissolved Parliament for the seventh time in Kuwaiti history. The Emir must now call for new elections within 60 days unless he is to rule unconstitutionally, as his predecessors did in 1976 and 1986.
Even by Kuwait’s rambunctious standards, its Parliamentary life has been unusually vociferous in recent years. In the face of entrenched, powerful and at times bitter opposition, former PM Nasser Al Sabah had to form seven new cabinets during his tenure and face three votes of no confidence. This anger peaked on 14th November when protestors who had set up camp outside the Parliament stormed the building, entered the debating chamber, sang the national anthem and departed.
Three systemic problems lie at the heart of this profound intransigence.
First, one of the key concerns galvanising support is Kuwait’s long and illustrious history corruption. The Prime Minister was accused of corruption when in November 2009 an MP brandished a personal cheque of his for $700,000 destined for another MP. More recently, in August this year a transaction involving $92 million was being investigated and by September sixteen MPs were being investigated in a cash-for-votes scandal totalling $350 million.
Second, Kuwait’s Parliament has few positive powers. It does not have a say in forming the majority of the Cabinet and thus frequently feels little compunction to cooperate with it. When bills do not get passed and laws become interrupted, the Parliament feels no responsibility or significant burden to compromise and reach an accommodation. Instead, their main tool is the interpolation (or the ‘grilling’ as it is sensationally known in Kuwait); the ability to question MPs as well as the PM and, with a quorum, to call for a vote of no confidence. Typically a standard Parliamentary tool, in Kuwait this has been used irresponsibly by a number of MPs pursuing fringe issues or those wanting to force Parliament’s dismissal.
Third, in 2006 Sabah Al Sabah ascended to the throne. He took over after the previous Emir was in power for only 9 days, such was the level of his incapacity. Typically the Kuwaiti leadership alternated between two sides of the Al Sabah family: the Salem and the Jaber. To all intents and purposes, therefore, aside from the 9 day reign of Saad Al Salem Al Sabah, leadership skipped straight from one Jaber Emir (Jaber Al Jaber Al Sabah: r.1977-2006) to the current Jaber Emir, Sabah Al Sabah. Though high level political machinations typically go on behind the scenes, it is thought that the latent anger in non-Jaber sides of the Al Sabah household is significant and that ‘disenfranchised’ Al Sabahs have been agitating against Sabah by stirring up trouble in the Parliament.
Clearly, there is no short or easy answer to Kuwait’s problems. Frankly, Kuwait needs a truth and reconciliation commission to air the grievances in public, for admissions of guilt to be offered, reparations to be made and for a cathartic process to take place for Kuwaiti society and government after which a new tenor can set in. Barring such an impossible eventuality, the best option is for a few corrupt sacrificial lambs to be offered up for slaughter on the altar of the public’s desire for vengeance.
Aside from such scapegoating, for a more holistic solution to take effect movement is not only required from the Parliament and the elite but painful concessions would be needed from Kuwaiti citizens too. No longer must they demand jobs for life in the public sector; guaranteed and often staggering year-on-year pay increases; sporadic personal debt bail outs; frequent hand-outs from the government or guarantees of no taxes or household bills. Such policies not only hamper private enterprise in Kuwait and maintain an insidious culture of state-dependency, but are, in the longer term, wholly unsustainable.
It is, however, difficult to see either Kuwait’s citizens magnanimously acquiescing to such a change in the basic ruling bargain or the elite sacrificing one of its own to satisfy the mob.
Instead, Kuwait will doubtless muddle along, lurching from disrputionist Parliament via quiescent (i.e. bought off) Parliament to disruptionist Parliament. Slowly but surely Sabah Al Sabah’s considerable respect and untouchable status will erode as he staunchly defends the status quo corrupti. Concurrently, the protestors will test and push the limits, the authorities will lash back sporadically while Kuwait’s economy will be ever more needful for the promised but held up stimulus, privatisation and investment packages, as the public sector inexorably grows, leeching away perniciously at the state.
This briefly sketched scenario is scarcely controversial or pie in the sky; indeed, it is basically the template of the past five years of Kuwait’s history. It will need an intelligent, persuasive figure to lead the necessary changes in the elite, the Parliament and the people if Kuwait is not to be doomed to repeat its failures for years to come.