jump to navigation

On Cameron’s defeat in Parliament over Syria 30, August 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria, UK.
Tags: , , , , ,
1 comment so far

By a margin of 13 votes British Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote that would have led to the UK joining in punitive military action against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for his presumed use of chemical weapons.

This defeat despite the difficulties being telegraphed beforehand with Labor Leader Ed Milliband’s intransigence clear to all came as something of a shock and many columnists have seized upon it to tout a range of apocalyptic headlines. Some say that this is a huge blow to the US-UK ‘special relationship’, others see this as the UK abrogating its role as a world power, while others are heaping derision on Cameron emphasizing how this is humiliating for the Prime Minister.

I disagree with much of the commentary. I think much of it stinks of journalists cooped up in Westminster for hours on end and getting caught up in the emotion and adrenalin of one of the most extraordinary nights in British politics for many years.


…is alive and well in the UK. Nice to see. Whatever the reasons (and many of them are far from pure, judicious deliberations of the matters at hand) Parliament stopped a powerful Prime Minister from making a key policy decision. Given the carnage that a modicum of democracy spurred on in parts of the Middle East, this is not a facet of British political life that we should take lightly.

Ed Miliband

…is playing a dirty kind of politics. I personally fear that his decision to stand against the motion to punish Assad had far more to do with political posturing and point scoring than with the facts on the ground, such as we know them. I think it was a spineless, short-term decision that will embolden Assad and his ilk  and will do no good to the UK’s position in the world.  I was tempted to switch to Labour at the next election from the Lib Dems: no longer.

Britain’s role as a ‘world power’

…is concept that has now truly seen its day. For decades now the UK has not had anything like the power and influence of a true world power, but part of the British establishment nevertheless thought that by virtue of our language, the soft power of the UK and modest but still potent military power the UK’s role still far outstripped what one might expect from a country with the UK’s typical metrics. However, this decision not to intervene, to stand back and not to protect a central implicit rule of the international system – not to use chemical weapons – indicates that British Parliamentarians do not feel – by a small majority – that this kind of thing falls on the UK to enforce. This, it strikes me, is perhaps a seminal moment in this context; of the UK finally coming to terms with its middling power status, on whom the arduous burdens of enforcing tacitly understood laws in the international community does not fall.

The special relationship

…hasn’t been hugely special for a long time now. Nevertheless, the UK and the US were very close allies before the vote and will remain very close allies after the vote. While this leaves the US almost alone in potentially taking action, there can hardly be a bitter retort towards the UK: this action was taken by the British Parliament and is what we’re all about in the West…you know, democracy.

Arab indignation

…that castigates the UK for failing to help Syrians and for tacitly supporting Bashar Al Assad needs to redirected quickly, for it is getting increasingly irksome. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example, have over 250 top-line combat aircraft positioned in many ways in a far better location to be effective against Bashar. Though doubtless some exists, I have seen precisely no commentary whatsoever or call for Arab nations to actually do something meaningful. Moreover, this is a resolutely a situation in the heart of the Middle East; one might think that the Arab world would feel more obliged to actually do something [and I'll not even start on Yemen: a catastrophic situation on the very doorstep of many of the richest nations on earth but which is nevertheless failing spectacularly]. Say what you will about Qatar and its efforts in Syria, but at least it was trying as opposed to much of the rest of the Arab world that cowers away, bleating sporadically against and then for the West to ‘do something’ as the mood dictates.

The chemical attack

…was most likely carried out by the regime. Though the motivations are difficult to fathom, it seems unlikely that anyone else could have procured the necessary tons of chemicals and found a way to deliver them effectively. This, as far as I see it, is the top and the bottom of the case. Add to this panicked intercepted communications among the Assad forces, and the case appears to be relatively clear: it was the regime that carried out the attack. Whether it was ordered by Assad himself I think is a secondary consideration; he is the leader and he bears the responsibility for what his Government and forces do.


…are justified in my opinion. I think that they – if they ever come – will be extremely limited. Empty army and intelligence headquarters will be destroyed as well as (hopefully) aircraft, helicopters and tanks that have been to regularly used to attack civilian neighborhoods. This strikes me as entirely reasonable. Not only will this retard to some degree Assad’s ability to kill his people, but it will not force him from power and leave a vacuum. Also it will indicate that – eventually – the use of chemical weapons is punished. This is a taboo that is worth keeping taboo.

About these ads

The Consequences of Qatar’s Foreign Policy 28, June 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

The following article was published by Muftah.org on 26th June 2013

A few years ago, Qatar’s foreign policy could be described as maintaining an air of neutrality. Though it was no Switzerland, Qatar consistently sought to talk to all relevant parties involved in a given issue. From the 2008 peace talks on Lebanon to ongoing discussions about the Darfur conflict, Qatar’s relative neutrality was consistently on display.

Today, however, any sense of neutrality has evaporated from Qatari foreign policy. From the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Qatari government has consistently chosen sides in various conflicts.

It all began with extensive – if not obsessive – coverage by the state-owned Al Jazeera television network of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, goading and supporting the waves of change. Qatar also led international efforts against Libya’s former dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, financially, militarily, and politically. Today, Qatar supports the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Initially, Qatar’s support of the rebellions was applauded. As the country began channelling its financial and political support to certain political groups across the region, positive sentiments began to sour.

Over the last two and a half years, Qatar has redoubled efforts to involve itself in regional politics mostly through its existing relationship with Muslim Brotherhood groups particularly in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. This has pleased the Brotherhood leadership and its supporters who found themselves in the political majority in many newly emancipated states.

For others, Qatar’s money was seen as helping the Brotherhood in its bitter struggle for control in various post-revolutionary countries. In the eyes of these critics, Qatar was aiding and abetting the enemy.

It mattered little that this new tactic on the part of the Qatari government stemmed not from a shared ideological conviction or world-view, but from the fact that the Brotherhood was the most organized group, was most likely to win elections, and was one of the few new political parties with which Qatar had existing contacts.

Yet, the Qatari government consistently failed to clearly articulate these arguments. As a result, a mix of conspiracy theories and antipathy began to develop about Qatar’s perceived political intervention in various regional states.

Qatar’s attempt to vaguely explain its new positions as supporting popular emancipation and the dismantling of authoritarianism was mostly met with suspicion. As a result, Qatar’s image hit a new low. A steep drop off in Al Jazeera viewers around the region is one clear example of Qatar’s plummeting soft power.

The Qatari government’s public image is also suffering outside the Arab world, as demonstrated by a vicious spateof Qatar-bashing in the last 18 months.

In France, at present, it seems that Qatar can do no right. Recently, the French press reacted with contempt to anattempt by Qatar to invest €50m in Paris’ dilapidated Muslim-denominated suburbs. French media described the move as reflecting France’s failure to care for the welfare of its own citizens. Waving the banner of Islamophobia, some press outlets accused the French government of giving an untrustworthy Muslim nation the opportunity to radicalize France’s Muslim youth.

The Qatari government was dumbfounded by these reactions. From its perspective, the investment was intended to boost relations with France’s new President. Qatar saw no need to buy the loyalty of disaffected Muslim youth, who neither owned property on the Champs Elysees nor the shares in France’s key companies. These tangible assets and the importance of the wider bilateral relationship with Paris more generally were all that the Qatari Government was interested in.

Once again, Qatar’s image suffered because of how it conducted its political business. By failing to explain its behavior, Qatar helped to facilitate growing suspicion about its intentions.

This recent crisis has exacerbated already uncertain relations between Qatar and France’s new government. While Qatar enjoyed warm and intimate relations with President Nicolas Sarkozy, with its piquant hatred of the former president, the new French government has tarred the Qatari government by association.

In Egypt, events may be taking a similar turn. In early May, a long-expected deal between a Qatari government-backed investment bank – Qinvest – and an Egyptian partner, EFG Hermes dissolved. While other Qatari investments have recently succeeded, amid the fragility of Egypt’s political sphere and the public burning of the Qatari flag, it is difficult to discount the role of anti-Qatari sentiment in future relations between the two countries.

Qatar’s foreign policy remains dominated by the elite with the now former Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and current Emir and then-Crown Prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, setting the tone and strategic agenda and the Foreign Minister and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, undertaking the tactical business of conducting the foreign policy. This is both a blessing and a curse.

Qatari foreign policy can react quickly and nimbly to events without a great bureaucratic lag in processing and analyzing decisions. While foreign policy positions are plainly guided by a desire to maximize opportunities for the benefit of the Qatari state, they are also influenced by the decision-makers’ personal convictions to support subjugated Arab populations. At the same time, because Qatar’s foreign policy is made by a small cabal of men, it is unpredictable, largely uncodified, and receives little internal criticism.

It was one thing for Qatar to operate this way while it was scarcely a power in the Gulf region. Now that it is gaining international influence, the Qatari government cannot continue to pursue such a personalized and ad hoc foreign policy. Indeed, Qatar’s leadership needs to engage in a more nuanced, modern, and rounded approach.

In the case of Egypt, Qatar’s leadership must discern the stability of its footing and engage in constant re-evaluation of its tactics. If the government decides to support the Muslim Brotherhood, then it should also consider backing grassroots organizations to stave off resentment at the billions it has ploughed into the Egyptian Central Bank with little positive impact on daily life in the country. Equally, Qatar should consider investing in projects for the public good, initiatives to boost democratic accountability, or micro-financing funds aimed at small business start-ups, anything to divest itself of its reputation for solely supporting the Muslim Brotherhood elite. If it were to engage in these projects, it would also need to take necessary steps to inform the public of its work.

As maligned as Qatar’s reputation is becoming in certain quarters, the government’s ability to nimbly change direction means there is hope it can recalibrate its foreign policy approach in the future.

Qatar’s Foreign Policy Adventurism 27, June 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

The following article was published by Foreign Affairs on the 25th June 2013.

Earlier this month, the Taliban opened an official office in Doha, landing Qatar once more in Western headlines. That might have been part of Qatar’s plan: the decision to host such a controversial office is symptomatic of a desire to play a central role in a wide array of important diplomatic issues. Yet the debacle of the office’s first 36 hours shows just how far Qatar still has to go.

No sooner had the office opened, on June 18, than the trouble began. Despite assurances from the Americans and Qataris to the Afghan government that the office would be relatively low-key and would not resemble an embassy, the Taliban spokesman who opened the office did everything in his power to imply that he was representing a state. The Taliban anthem was played, an official plaque outside referred to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Afghanistan’s name under Taliban rule), and the flag of the Taliban in Afghanistan was raised at a mini opening ceremony. The media circus around the events did nothing to dispel the images of nationhood and power.

Karzai reacted furiously [1], recanting [2] on promises to send negotiators and pulling [3] out of talks with the United States. The U.S. airbase at Bagram also came under Taliban fire [4], leaving four U.S. personnel dead. After some frantic diplomacy on the part of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Qataris forced the Taliban to lower the flag — apparently by cutting [5] the flagpole in half and then removing it entirely. But the damage had been done, and the Taliban had scored a significant diplomatic victory.

The Qatari authorities could never have been expected to have total control over the Taliban, but they could have been expected to at least extract some guarantees that the Taliban would behave itself on opening week. (After all, what else would funding the office in its entirety have been for?)

Like the opening of the Taliban office, the talks that are supposed to take place there in the coming weeks do not inspire much confidence. It is true that both sides are exhausted from over a decade of fighting, and that both realize that neither can ever fully win. But there is still a deep gulf to bridge. The Taliban are fragmented, with no agreement about the extent to which the office in Qatar officially represents them. And, on the other side, Karzai hates the Taliban, mistrusts Qatar, and acquiesced to the talks only because he had no choice: after all, how could his High Peace Council refuse to go to peace talks? Meanwhile, James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who will head up negotiations in Doha, will be dismayed to find that he has to cool tempers and coax the partners back to the table before he has even arrived there.

Qatar’s role in all this was simply to provide a forum where the key protagonists — the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the United States — could come together to talk. Although that task might sound relatively mundane, it is critical given that in peace talks in 2010, a Taliban impostor posing as a negotiator walked off [6]with “a lot of money,” and, in talks in 2011, another impostor killed [7] the Afghan government’s lead negotiator.

For the Qataris, how the talks actually turn out is almost beside the point. Never lacking in ambition, the government has gone into overdrive in recent years. After dipping its toe into mediation and international engagement, notably in Lebanon in 2008 and in ongoing talks on Darfur, Qatar jumped into diplomacy in earnest during the Arab Spring. It began by supporting the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt before most other countries, particularly with its assiduous coverage of gathering protests on al Jazeera, the state-funded satellite channel. Subsequently, Qatar gave support [8]to opposition forces against Libya’s Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi and was the first Arab state to officially recognize the opposition after that. Although Western support was critical, the relatively quick removal of the entrenched dictator was interpreted as a confidence-building victory for Qatar’s foreign policy adventurism.

The Qataris hoped that the same trick would work in Syria. After informal elite-to-elite negotiations failed in 2011, al Jazeera began to cover the growing conflict in depth. By Spring 2012 Qatar was one of the leading suppliers of light arms and other supplies to the opposition. But the fears that the world had initially held about intervention in Libya — that the state would fragment, that the body count would rise, and that the government would ruthlessly repress its people — are now being realized hundreds of miles away.

A desire to make bold policy moves — be it quickly and overtly supporting Libya’s opposition, funneling arms to Syria’s opposition, or hosting a Taliban office — is almost unique to Qatar. An unusual combination of the state’s intrinsic security, which is provided and guaranteed by the United States, its great wealth, and its rulers’ desires to make Qatar a useful international actor, has transformed the state’s foreign policy. Not only, therefore, does the United States implicitly facilitate many of Qatar’s key foreign policies, but some policies — particularly those aimed at establishing discussions with a variety of groups with whom the United States has difficulty interacting (Hamas, the Taliban) — are aimed at making Qatar uniquely important to the United States.

Yet Qatar’s leadership is learning that operating at such a high and politicized level requires a level of preparation, planning, and execution that Qatar struggles to meet. After all, there are only 250,000 Qataris, and the state has had modern bureaucracies for barely a generation. It is no great surprise, then, that it lacks certain capacities. Qatar’s elite are simply willing to take the risks that their policies might go awry. Recently, though, there has been a greater reliance on international allies, such as Qatar’s passing of its Syria file [9] to Saudi Arabia, which appears to be part of an appreciation in Doha that it must take more of a multilateral approach.

Complicating foreign policy-making, too, are the changes [10] in Qatar’s leadership. Unusually in the Arab World, under no domestic pressure, the Emir of Qatar stepped down on June 25 in favor of his son and heir apparent, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. At the same time, the foreign minister, who is also the prime minister and has long been synonymous with Qatar’s foreign policy, is expected to step aside as part of a wider cabinet reshuffle. In one fell swoop, then, the two central architects of Qatar’s modern history will be gone.

The next generation of leaders is impressive and skilled at diplomacy. There is as yet no hard evidence that they will continue to make Qatar’s foreign policy as dramatic and interventionist as it has been in recent years. Yet it would be reasonable to assume some continuity: Qatar’s ultimate foreign policy goal will remain making itself as important as possible to a range of key international states. For Qatar, that is the key to living well as a small, wealthy state in an intrinsically unstable region. If the elite in Doha can marry the country’s desires with a nuanced appreciation of their own limitations and either take a more measured approach or act more multilaterally, Qatar could once more be a disproportionate force for good in its wider region.


[1] http://ti.me/10yCDRq
[2] http://on.ft.com/12i1DXh
[3] http://ind.pn/1c8Ho45
[4] http://bit.ly/14iuzS9
[5] http://bit.ly/12XJKUY
[6] http://nyti.ms/12l6zdN
[7] http://on.wsj.com/ogZi7i
[8] http://fam.ag/pad1NF
[9] http://atfp.co/16O6tnX
[10] http://on.ft.com/1aDtPvq

Qatar Emir Voluntarily Abdicates 25, June 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

The following article appeared on RUSI.org on the 25th June.

Once again Qatar leads its region and takes the world by surprise. After months of speculation and rumours, change is finally coming to Qatar. In stark contrast to leaders across the Arab World, without any popular pressure whatsoever, the Emir of Qatar, Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Thani, has passed power to his son and Heir Apparent, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Like his father did 18 years ago when he took power from his father, Tamim will spend the next few days greeting his fellow citizens taking their oath of loyalty before beginning the work of establishing a new Cabinet and Government.


Thirty-three year old Emir Tamim is one of the youngest leaders in the world and is approximately sixty years younger than his contemporary in Saudi Arabia. Though Qatar has seen abdications before (though not in the last two changes of power) this change is deeply unusual and has no recent regional precedent. Emir Tamim is expected to instigate a widespread reshuffle in the Qatari Government, which many believe will include not only younger Qataris but perhaps even female Cabinet Ministers.

While a younger Government and Emir Tamim will have room to stamp their own personality on Qatar going forward and may well bring some needed impetus to proceedings, no one expects large changes. The strategic direction of Qatar is set: it is an international focussed country, inextricably linked to a range of key countries. Without the leadership of Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani, one of many Ministers expected to lose or change portfolios, the more pointed nature of Qatari diplomacy may be smoothed and Qatar may not so readily launch itself into regional issues. Nevertheless, Qatar is unlikely to back away from its foreign commitments or significantly alter its approaches domestically.


Emir Hamad has transformed Qatar. From a small backwater with no regional ambition or capability of extending its influence as it entered the 1990s, under his leadership, Qatar has become an often pivotally important country on the international stage. From hosting two huge, critically important US bases for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; becoming the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG); starting the Middle East’s media revolution by founding Al Jazeera; becoming one of the world’s most prominent investors; and more recently actively supporting the Arab Spring: the legacy of Qatar’s Emir is extraordinary.

The Emir could not have done all this without his key lieutenant, Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, who has been Qatar’s Foreign Minister since 1992 and Prime Minister since 2007. HBJ as he is often known, has become one of the world’s most prominent diplomats and has overseen Qatar’s inexorable expansion in its foreign policy. He has also been the head of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority since 2005 and has led its key acquisitions around the world, but most notably in London.

Though in the recent past Qatar has enjoyed unusual success in its foreign policy, most notably in getting Lebanese factions to an agreement in 2008 and in the support of the Libyan rebels against Colonel Gaddafi, more recently Qatar has come unstuck. Like many actors, Qatar is at a loss of how to effectively support the rebellion in Syria. Their tactics thus far of supporting a motley group of opposition activists has not proven successful, while the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has been exacerbating sectarian tensions from Doha with increasingly shrill speeches and sermons. While Qatar is not alone in being befuddled as to how to solve the Syrian crisis, this is an ongoing issue that Qatar’s new elite will have to cope with immediately.

Going Forward

The two Hamads cannot easily be replaced. They were unique individuals in the history of Qatar and of their region who shared a similar vision and drive. However, the Emir has steeped his children including the new Emir, Tamim, in this vision and his work will not be unpicked. Indeed, the Hamads have inextricably tied Qatar into a range of international countries through its energy supply, its investments, and its wider government-to-government agreements. It would be almost impossible to rewind and for Qatar to retreat to an introspective focus. The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is yet another marker in the sand compelling Qatar to continue with its grand infrastructure projects and maintain its open attitude towards the world.

Tamim’s mother, the hugely influential Sheikha Moza, is still – for now – head of the Qatar Foundation – the multi-pronged social and educational charity in Qatar under whose auspices Education City containing several foreign Universities are found. Even if Moza were to step aside soon, she has inculcated her children into the Foundation’s goals and has made four of them (out of six including Moza herself) Board Trustees.

As for Tamim’s personal political inclination, aside from generic rumours suggesting that he is of a conservative persuasion, he is a relatively unknown quantity. Yet there is little evidence to support such a conclusion beyond Doha-based gossip. While Tamim was the impetus for supporting the pay rise for Qatari public workers and military officers – a classically traditional policy of Gulf rulers – thus far his key portfolios in Qatar are related to vastly expanding sporting access, boosting Qatar’s sporting pedigree around the world and making Qatar more food secure in terms of increasing Qatar’s ability to produce a meaningful percentage of its own food requirement using technology and careful management. These are hardly concerns typically associated with conservative tendencies.

Instead we need to sit and wait to see what Emir Tamim will be like. There is huge potential for him to set initiatives using his personal judgement, which will be keenly watched to discern more of an inkling as to his personality. Yet Qatar’s position in the world and its core interests have not changed.


The Genesis of Qatar’s Foreign Policy 19, June 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Egypt, Foreign Policies, Qatar.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

The following article appeared in Sada, Carnegie Middle East’s super online journal under the title ‘Qatar’s Global Bargaining Chips’.

The fundamental thrust of Qatar’s foreign policy stems from two interrelated factors: the limitations of its location and the elite’s appreciation of how best to overcome these constraints. Historically, Qatar has always been a small power among larger ones and this mismatch has forced the ruling elites to seek a range of protective agreements, while maintaining as much autonomy as possible.

The latest incarnation of an external guarantor for Qatar is America, whose protection was sought in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait. While Qatar gratefully accepts the US security blanket, its leadership nevertheless assiduously seeks to diversify its dependency on America. Not only does this potentially offer Qatar more freedom of action, lowering its ability to be pressured by the United States, but given that history clearly dictates that each and every suzerain will eventually leave, it is prudent for Qatar to prepare for this eventual possibility.

Qatar’s Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export strategy is a good example of this; it’s a savvy economic policy, a good use of Qatar’s prodigious gas supplies, and it ties Qatar into the economic-energy nexus of a range of important states around the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2011 Qatar delivered over 2000 million cubic metres of LNG to Belgium, China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, Taiwan, the US and the UK, while it delivered smaller quantities of LNG to Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Greece, Kuwait, and Mexico. This list includes four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and two temporary members. This is a useful set of countries with whom to have an energy relationship.

Countries like the UK, Japan, and China—who receive a significant percentage of their energy needs from Qatar—would be compelled to support the state if its energy security were threatened. In a volatile region where Iran frequently rattles the sabre, often threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, tying such important countries into Qatar’s continued prosperity is important. Similarly, whether Qatar wants support in international forums or with international investments, relations based on deep energy-interdependence can be a stepping stone.

This rationale can also explain to some extent Qatari-Egyptian relations in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution. Before the overthrow of Mubarak, the bilateral relationship was poor with Egypt blocking Qatari initiatives in the Arab League and in peace talks in Darfur, regardless of their merits. Yet now Qatar has restarted its relations using its connections with the Muslim Brotherhood to forge a close relationship with key actors in Egypt’s new elite. Moreover, Qatar has matched its rhetorical support with billions of dollars of aid for Egypt’s economy. By so overtly backing the new government in a time of crisis, for a short time at least the Qatari leadership can expect some combination of support for their diplomatic initiatives and plumb economic investment opportunities. While Qatar will not be buying the Pyramids or the Suez Canal as some scurrilous reports have suggested, it may have the opportunity to invest in the Suez Industrial Zone. Similarly, there are rumors that Qatar may obtain favorable exemptions from investment laws in Egypt in much the same way that it avoided certain property taxes in France.

While it may seem unlikely for a state to operate in such a way and to expect some kind of reciprocity, the Qatari perspective assumes otherwise. Policy is perennially made at the very top of the elite structure and the personal convictions, discussions, and agreements of the Emir can have profound effects on Qatar’s policies.

Indeed, as unfashionable as it is to note the importance of an initial humanitarian impulse, given the personalized nature of Qatari politics, it may have been of key importance when Qatar so assiduously and quickly supported the opposition forces in the Libyan uprising. Yet it is not the only factor in the equation. Aside from potential understandings of reciprocity, Qatar also boosts its image and soft power immensely by being so closely associated with the revolutionary movements, which is a potential boon, both externally and internally. And if Qatar can establish normal or perhaps privileged relationships with the new governments across the region, replacing the previously fraught relationships (i.e. with Mubarak’s Egypt and Gaddafi’s Libya) then this too may bring economic benefits with greater trade and investment.

The highly personalized nature of Qatar’s politics and foreign policy is why the recent rumored changes in Qatar’s elite (allegedly involving the Emir and the Foreign Minister) are so important. While Qatar’s strategic direction has been set by the Emir, with Qatar resolutely focusing on this international arena, always seeking to involve itself where possible, there is still significant room for personal conviction to alter trajectories. For example, the Crown Prince of Qatar, the son of the Emir and his influential wife, Sheikha Moza, will sooner or later guide Qatar’s policies by himself and has been imbued with the Qatari vision. In the areas where he has had control of policy, notably in the sporting arena and Qatar’s food security project, he has pursued innovative and striking policies, striving to place Qatar in the midst of international discussions and events focusing these topics. Initial assumptions, therefore, can only conclude that while a future Emir Tamim may not have the zeal of his father or the current Foreign Minister to controversially propel Qatar into ever more international incidents, he is unlikely to retrench Qatar’s internationalist position.

Qatar and rule by its people 25, April 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

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 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

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 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: ,
add a comment

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.

Known unknowns

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.

Unknown unknowns

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 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

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.

Map Iran Languages.

Hat tip to @blakehounshell for pointing out this map.

On Prisoner X and the Dubai debacle 15, February 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, The Emirates, The Gulf.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment


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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,448 other followers