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Grappling With the Implications of Saudi Arabia’s Transition 26, February 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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On 23 January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud died and his half-brother, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, in a smooth transition, became King. This was the sixth succession in Saudi Arabia since it formally became ‘Saudi’ Arabia in 1932 under King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud (d.1953).

So far, each Saudi ruler has been a son of the state’s founder, Abdul-Aziz. The first three kings (Abdul-Aziz, Saud, and Faisal) were in their fifties on ascending to the throne, their next two successors (Khalid and Fahd) were in their sixties, Abdullah was in his 70s when he became regent and in his 80s when he finally became King. Salman was three weeks into his 79th year when he became King. This mode of succession begs the question of what will the Kingdom do now that it is rapidly running out of compos mentis sons of Abdul-Aziz. This succession event was more important, therefore, in terms of what it sets in motion regarding the transition to the new generation than for weighing up the similarities and differences of Kings Abdullah and Salman.

The ministerial merry-go-round

Less than two months after eight new ministers were appointed under Abdullah, on assuming power, Salman swiftly instigated a raft of decrees shuffling the Saudi chess board once more. But, rather than the relatively cosmetic changes of the ministerial reshuffle of 8 December 2014, Salman’s changes concerned more important ministries and personalities. Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, a former intelligence chief, close US-ally (sometimes referred to as ‘Bandar bin Bush’), recently in charge of the Syria file, and who retained a key position advising Abdullah and as the head of the national security council, was sacked. Indeed, the council itself was dissolved, as were a dozen other committees and quangos. The upshot of this is the significant centralisation of the work of these defunct institutions to two bodies: the Council for Economic Development Affairs (CEDA) and the Council for Political and Security Affairs (CPSA).

One of Salman’s sons from his second marriage, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MbS), has gained significantly in the reshuffle. Aged somewhere between 29 and 35, MbS heads the hugely powerful CEDA institution. Though his father the King has followed the tradition of being his own Prime Minister, in effect, the purview of this position means that MbS is ‘Prime Minister in training.’ Of equal significance was his promotion to become the world’s youngest Minister of Defence; quite a surprise given his lack of a military background. He remains the head of his father’s court and so replaced the arch insider and power broker Khalid al-Tuwaijri , who was the head of the Royal Court for Abdullah and who is, according to some reports, now under house arrest.

Only Mohammed bin Naif al-Saud (MbN) can claim to have benefitted as well from the reshuffle. The 55 year-old MbN, a son of a former long-term Minister of the Interior and Crown Prince, Naif bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, has long been regarded as one of the most capable and efficient Ministers and consequently seen as primus inter pares of the second generation Princes in the race for the top job. He was promoted and officially anointed by the Allegiance Council [a body formed in 2006 to ratify such matters] as second-in-line to the throne. Though competition remains, as the second-in-line and as the head of the powerful CPSA, he is well positioned. In between MbN and the top job is Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, the 69 year-old promoted to Crown Prince by Salman. That his mother was a Yemeni slave girl was often assumed to put him out of the reckoning for the position of King, but he now finds himself a heartbeat from ultimate power.

So what?

Rooting around in the tactical weeds of the who, what, and why of the changes in Saudi Arabia’s elite politics is, while interesting, not necessarily that useful. Firstly, it is too early to draw any substantive conclusions as to the wider ramifications of the changes. Secondly, it is a debatable point as to whether it is more generally possible to accurately plot the trajectory of change in the Kingdom. So opaque is the politics that deveining a link between action and reaction, of not confusing causation with mere correlation, is tediously difficult.

An analyst wanting to paint a doom-laden picture could point to the replacement of the head of the infamous Saudi religious police who was, much to the anger of those within the organisation, (slowly) reforming the medieval intuition. Similarly, the Game of Thrones-style replacement of two of Abdullah’s sons from positions of influence could easily be spun into a narrative of archetypal Machiavellian cutting and thrusting political intrigue. The blowing of $32 billion on gifts and bonuses for Saudis – a sum, as Hubbard notes, larger than Africa’s largest annual budget in Nigeria – also does not inspire confidence as to wider issues of fiscal prudence.

Those in search of a more positive twist could point to the technocratic appointment of a trained lawyer as the head of the stock market regulator, the installation of a military-trained commoner as intelligence chief, or the appointment of the editor of the secular al-Arabiya news channel as Information Minister. Other examples of pragmatism reining over politics include the ministers of finance, foreign affairs, and, crucially, petroleum and mineral resources remaining in post.

The best an analyst can do is to humbly plot the potential contours of the implications of the changes starting with what seems to be certain.

The known knowns

Salman has been at the heart of Saudi decision making for much of the past half-century. Though Abdullah is believed to have had a significant impact on the direction of Saudi policies, there is no evidence that suggests that Salman was an especially reluctant follower. Abdullah, after all, made him his Crown Prince. Some kind of about-turn in the pace of glacially slow reform – with occasional faster spurts – instigated by Abdullah seems unlikely.

With a strong record within the Kingdom for probity and having dealt relatively effectively with a wave of bombings in the mid and late-2000s (including being nearly killed by the world’s first rectal-bomb), and an apparently strong relationship with America too, MbN remains the favourite to be the first leader of Saudi Arabia from the new generation.

But Salman’s changes have quite clearly catapulted his young son, MbS, into the wider reckoning. No one else has as influential a seat in both the economic and the security camps in Saudi Arabia, not to mention his role as gatekeeper to his father’s court.

While MbN seems to offer a tried and tested safe pair of hands, MbS does not. He has no pedigree of any import whatsoever to take to his new, centrally important roles in the Kingdom. Doubtless his father saw some signs within him that persuaded him to heroically over-promote this son over others, but these skills are yet to be seen on the wider stage.

The known unknowns

Given the near-vertical rise of MbS and the real power that he now wields but the profound lack of knowledge about his skills, this situation must be classified as concerning. Partly this is an issue of basic capability of the Saudi-educated young Prince. But partly this is about the installation of an entirely untried and untested Prince at the centre of Saudi politics for, potentially, a number of decades. Four Deputy Defence Ministers have been sacked in the last 15 months alone, which some analysts suggest may be to do with MbS’s growing influence; a notion given more credence now that he has been appointed Minister of Defence. This could, of course, be a good thing: perhaps he demands a level of professionalism that they could not meet; equally, perhaps the opposite is the case.

Linked to this issue is the wider speculation surrounding the battle for prominence of the Princes of the next generation. Given the historical importance of a military background or otherwise developing strong connections to some form of hard-power, there are three key princes: MbN the Minister of the Interior and head of the security-orientated committee, MbS as the Minister of Defence, and Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, who, though he has lost influence and backing of his brothers who were sacked from their Governorship roles, retains a loyal, effective, fighting force (and his brothers could well return).

La Plus Ca Change? 

Eschewing the fatalistic supposition that all of Saudi politics belongs to the realm of the unknown unknowns, it is tempting to conclude that the near-term successions are not looking too challenging. Muqrin is in line to take the throne and, though the strength of his mandate on becoming Crown Prince (i.e. the number of votes he received in the Allegiance Council) is not known, it may be assumed that he will succeed. But even if he does not, the only logical alternative in view at this juncture is MbN usurping him. Such an outcome, though not immediately likely, does not present too problematic a challenge.

Perhaps the only clear outcome from this past transition is that issues surrounding jumping down a generation have actually been complicated, potentially worryingly so, and not simplified. If MbN had been made second deputy Crown Prince amid a cabinet reshuffle, then the only reasonable conclusion would have been to see him as a clear favourite. But the rise of MbS in and of itself poses MbN a direct challenger with the portfolios to gather support and influence.

Qatar Just Isn’t That Evil 15, September 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The following article was published by the New America Institute and by Vox under a different title.

Cutting deals with the enemy is a part of American – and Western – history. America has negotiated with terrorists and guerrilla fighters since the days of William Howard Taft. The UK, too, has conferred with the violent Irish Republican Army and Spain with its domestic terror group ETA.

But some policy pundits argue that Qatar’s latest negotiating behavior is different. Sinister, even. In the past few weeks, Qatar successfully brokered the release of U.S. reporter Theo Curtis and U.S. service man Bowe Bergdahl from the Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra and the Taliban. Along with the homecoming celebrations came an uneasiness about Qatari motivations, and the nature of those terrorist organization relationships. Aside from these two examples, Qatar’s close relationship with Hamas concerns many. Some of the commentary on these issues makes some valid points that need to be answered, while some are faintly ludicrous. So let’s look at the facts.

The leader of Hamas has long been based in Doha, and Qatar seemed to play animportant role in recent discussions regarding ceasefires in Israel. Qatar also has long-held a panoply of links to moderate Muslim Brotherhood associated groups throughout the Middle East. Particularly notable, for example, is Qatar’s hosting since 1961 of one of the leading Brotherhood Imams: Yusuf Al Qaradawi. He vastly expanded his influence under Qatari auspices using Al Jazeera as a vehicle to reach millions of Arabs. Qatar is also one of two states where the austere creed of Salafi, Wahhabi Islam prevails; the other is Saudi Arabia. To some, such links and associations are a context of enough circumstantial evidence to condemn Qatar as some kind of terrorist financier.

But this caricature of Qatar as a Machiavellian nation, secretly and actively supporting terrorism, just does not chime with the reality of the state.

But this caricature of Qatar as a Machiavellian nation, secretly and actively supporting terrorism, just does not chime with the reality of the state. Its leadership in recent decades has been arguably the most liberalizing in the Arab Middle East, though granted that’s hardly a difficult title to claim.

When offered several choices of how to reform Qatar’s schools by US think-tank the RAND Corporation, Qatar’s leadership chose the option with the deepestchanges explicitly modelled on the US school system. In higher education, six US and three other Western Universities have been established in Doha grafting a font of predominantly US soft power onto Qatari society providing the option of a liberal arts education.

What’s more, Qatar is home to one of the most iconic and powerful female role models in the Middle East. Sheikha Moza, the wife of the former Emir and the mother of the current Emir, is a highly visible stateswoman and the only Gulf first lady to be regularly seen. She is the founder and driving force behind the Education City project (where most Western universities are housed) as well as a raft of domestic social policies and charitable foundations, such as the WISE education awards, seen as the Nobel prize of the education world.

Nor should it be forgotten that Qatar actively cultivated relations with Israel in the early 1990s. There was an Israel trade office in Doha from 1996 to the late 2000s as Qatar actively sought (but eventually failed) to boost relations, such as by selling gas to the Jewish state.

Unless it is being suggested that Qatar undertook these efforts as some kind of a divisionary tactic, which is surely a ludicrous notion, it is difficult to peg Qatar as some kind of retrograde, terrorist-supporting state.

What is more likely is that Qatar wants to use its role with the likes of the Taliban and Jabhat Al Nusra as political gambits to reinforce the critical niche role that it can fulfil for important international allies. In a region that sees a major conflict every decade and where Qatar is a tiny, relatively intrinsically defenceless state, boxed in by historically belligerent, far larger states – Saudi Arabia and Iran – the central tenet of Qatar’s modern foreign policy has been to make the state as important as possible to as wide a range of important actors as possible.

Of course, these policy underpinnings don’t explain the actions and motivations of all Qataris. It is entirely possible if not likely, as some reports have noted, that there are individual Qataris not connected to the government that actively support groups like ISIS and who take advantage of lax Qatari financial controls. Indeed, the US Government has criticized the Gulf States including Qatar for not controlling personally collected, charitable money. Qatari authorities must do more to stop and sanction these individuals.

Some would sensibly counter, however, that the level of support or the freedom that states like Qatar show some apparent terrorist financiers indicates that, secretly, they support their cause. While it is possible that there may be some sympathisers in the elite (there was an example of this in the 1990s, see thissummary) there are more persuasive explanations.

To understand the Qatari perspective, you need a realistic view of the Middle East. Hamas may be a violent terrorist organisation by most definitions, but is also an elected political group that commands significant support. Though Qatar’s support facilitates the group, it is a fact on the ground that is not changing with or without Qatar’s help. That many in the Middle East see Hamas as engaging in resistance with what little means they have against one of the most advanced militaries in the world further complicates the issue.

The worst that can then be said of Qatar is that it is supporting regional groups to augment its own regional influence, in which case it joins the list including all Middle Eastern and Western countries trying to do exactly that.

So too with Jabhat Al Nusra. A reprehensible terrorist group it may be by most definitions, but it is often understood as representing a significant force on the ground: it is an actor that needs to be reckoned with.

None of this is an attempt to excuse terrorism or to try to claim that, for example, Hamas is anything other than a terrorist group. But it is to say that there are great swathes of people who would disagree with that characterisation and therefore it is pragmatic in a Kissinger-esque way to deal with the realities as we find them not as we wish they were.

The overarching tone of Qatar’s domestic and foreign policies of recent decades suggests that its interaction with these groups stems not from a blood-thirsty desire to wage war to facilitate the shelling of Israelis. Instead, Qatar acknowledges the realities that, for example, Hamas, like it or not, is a powerful and popular actor in the central conflict of the Arab world or that with more extreme groups like Nusra, it is better to have a contact with them than not.

Not only can these contacts contribute to releasing hostages – without ransoms being paid in this case – but demonstrably without an ideological motivation to support killing, Qatar must be using these links for a future political process. The worst that can then be said of Qatar is that it is supporting regional groups to augment its own regional influence, in which case it joins the list including all Middle Eastern and Western countries trying to do exactly that.

Can Qatar, Saudi Arabia ease tensions at Gulf Cooperation Council? 24, August 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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It’s the gravest diplomatic crisis the Gulf Cooperation Council has ever faced — but as leaders from the six-member Arab alliance prepare to meet in Jeddah, are things about to get even worse?

The root of the current problem? Qatar simply will not do as it’s told by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have spent months trying to force the energy-rich nation to fundamentally alter its foreign policy. Bahrain, the UAE and the Saudis withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March, and have kept up the pressure ever since.

Read the rest of the article on CNN.COM

Qatar 2022 teeters towards disaster 6, June 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The following article can be found at the New America Foundation.

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For some time now, Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 football World Cup has looked to be far more trouble than its worth. Stinging media attacks have been relentlessly pillorying the state and its bid process, putting the country under a magnifying glass like never before. Human rights concerns and corruption issues have been the focus of much of the coverage and many are now questioning whether Qatar will – after all this trouble and difficulty – host the World Cup at all.

Indeed, the 2022 World Cup saga continues with a huge leak of emails to the Sunday Times in the UK, which the paper accompanied with 12,000 words of analysis castigating and criticizing the bid process. The emails printed by the Times do not necessarily reveal anything new in type, just volumes more damaging examples of people involved with the Qatari bid  – mostly Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari former FIFA executive member – acting in…[consults lawyer]…unorthodox ways. Bin Hammam stands accused of, to put it charitably, being exceedingly overly generous to important delegates and other officials throughout the world with financial gifts and expenses. Much of this appears to flout FIFA rules.

The British media-led scrum to attack Qatar is at times neither accurate, with at the very least key names being repeatedly confused, nor edifying; but then again, that’s not what they are there for. They are there to sell copy and Qatar is thoroughly in their crosshairs of late. Indeed, the 2022 World Cup story combines a variety of tempting targets for the British press, tabloid and broadsheet alike: indignant rage, football, rich foreigners, human rights wailing, and glitzy corruption.

There is, as ever, a certain amount of hypocrisy surrounding this whole situation. The British press were, unsurprisingly, hardly as vociferous in their criticism when England shamelessly courted votes for the World Cup vote by playing friendly matches or wheeling out David Beckham, the former England captain, or Prime Minister David Cameron to woo specific voters. Equally, though, they did not engage in the kinds of mass expenditures that Qatar did to persuade key voters around the world.

Indeed, look at the Qatari bid. A key plinth of the bid was the promise to package up and ship off some of its stadiums to countries in need of stadia post-World Cup. Who decided the recipients of each stadium – and how – is unknown, but what is for sure is that if you are looking for a stadium, only with a successful Qatari bid do you stand a chance of receiving one.

Those in Qatar may well look to the rough ride they are getting and compare that to Russia who won the right to host the 2018 World Cup at the same ceremony as Qatar. Against a backdrop of increasing homophobia, rampant corruption, and energy extortion, Russia nigh-on invaded a sovereign state, annexed a section of that state using – to put it mildly – questionable means, yet in terms of football at least, Russia remains mostly ignored by the press. And, strangely, no one seems to be asking whether their bid was squeaky clean?

Yet understandably suffused with a concentration on Russia’s military shenanigans, the press has leapt over its bid and gone straight to the more salacious story in Qatar. Human rights have been front and center. Report afterreport has battered Qatar’s reputation and with often good reason. The standards for workers’ rights are simply not good enough. Ironically, this is the positive impact of the World Cup: it is fundamentally an agent of change in the country.In recent weeks the Qatari authorities announced changes and improvements to the scriptures that most trouble workers’ rights in the state. No, these changes are not enough, and their implementation remains to be seen. But this is unequivocally a step forward, and it is purely thanks to the pressure of the World Cup and its negative coverage.

Given a magic wand, I suspect that the new administration in Qatar that took over in summer 2013 would happily swap hosting the 2022 World Cup for an easier life. It has prompted tens of billions of dollars of spending, some of which is necessary (roads and a subway system) but much of which is seen as wasteful (stadiums and foreign consultants). While from the Western perspective, the incremental changes expected in the labor laws in Qatar are a good move, they are seen flatly as a pain and undesirable from the Qatari perspective: they want to retain control. Moreover, the 2022 World Cup is a touchstone issue that encapsulates the direction of travel in Qatar: that of a quasi-westernizing orientation with increasing openness to foreigners and their wanton ways; the perennial refrain being how will Qatar cope with drunk English football fans singing and swaying down the Corniche, the sea-side waterfront?

In lieu of a magic wand, Qatar’s elite will simply have to hunker down and lawyer-up. Whether the 2022 World Cup actually goes ahead is a question for legal professionals and FIFA insiders, not Gulf experts or Qatar’s elite. Qatar’s central concern at the moment is that one of their champions, Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s seemingly perennial President, has cooled his support recently, even calling Qatar’s hosting of the tournament a ‘mistake’. The moment that Blatter, who is running again for President (after he said he was not seeking re-election), sees more mileage in throwing Qatar under the bus to further his ambitions, Qatar has a big problem to add to its ever-growing list of 2022 issues.

British national interest in the Gulf: rediscovering a role? 20, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf, UK.
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iaa

 

My article for the journal International Affairs has been published in the May 2014 issue. The abstract is below and the link to the article ($) is here.

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The British government is in the process of re-energizing its relations with the Gulf states. A new Gulf strategy involving a range of activities including more frequent elite bilateral visits and proposals sometimes touted as Britain’s military ‘return to east of Suez’ are two key elements of the overarching strategy. Such polices are designed to fall in line with British national interest as identified by the government-authored 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS), which emphasizes the importance of security, trade, and promoting and expanding British values and influence as perennial British raisons d’etat. In the short term, the Gulf initiatives reflect and compliment these core interests, partly based on Britain’s historical role in the region, but mostly thanks to modern day trade interdependencies and mutually beneficial security-based cooperation. However, there is yet to emerge a coherent understanding of Britain’s longer-term national interest in the region. Instead, government-led, party-political priorities, at the expense of thorough apolitical analysis of long-term interests, appear to be unduly influential on the origins of both the Gulf proposals and the NSS conclusions themselves. Without a clear strategic, neutral grounding, both the Gulf prioritization and the NSS itself are weakened and their longevity undermined.

 

 

Qatar tries (but fails) to enter the 20th century 15, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Qatar’s much anticipated announcement on reforming the system that controls and regulates foreign workers (the kefala system) was, in the end, an anticlimax.

Firstly, let us clearly lay out what has changed for those working in Qatar today:

Nothing.

Instead, as Dohanews reported, the proposed reforms announced represent the “first step” in changing the labor laws, which is somewhat curious given that these broad topics have been discussed for much of the last decade. The National Human Rights Committee, after all, was established back in 2002, while periodic announcements as to reports, consultations, reviews, and potential changes have been periodically referred to since the mid-2000s.

Fundamentally, it is no shock that Qatar is considering overhauling its draconian kefala system and that specifically the two key elements of it – exit visas and transfer of sponsorship – were going to have to evolve.

A few new pieces of information about some theoretical future system were mildly interesting, but given that all of this needs to be run through Qatar’s legal and legislative processes, how can anyone have any confidence of what will come out of the other end?

Retaining control 

The current plans are almost comically watered-down as it is. Seemingly the Qatari government can hardly bear the concept of not having some ultimate control on workers leaving the country. The exit visa is being retained in the form of some ‘once and for all’ exit visa while ordinary exit visas are to stay but employees now will – theoretically, at some date in the future – have to deal directly with a Qatari government bureaucracy; something I’m sure all workers look forward to.

One genuinely interesting move is that employers will – theoretically, at some date in the future – no longer be liable financially for their employees. As an argument for retaining the exit visa, this argument is odious in and of itself, but with this leg gone, there is nothing but malice-laden greed for those seeking to retain the ability to stop employees leaving the country.

Simply put, this attitude towards workers is just not palatable or commensurate with how a state should be operating in the twenty-first century. The tenor of the relationship and the tone of the law speaks to a bygone age. It is immensely damaging for Qatar to so grimly cling on to such a relic of a law.

Similar to the exit visa issue, it appears that the Government cannot bear to give up control of workers transferring jobs entirely. If you have a fixed term contract and it finishes, you can – at some theoretical date in the future – change jobs with no problem. But if your contract is indefinite, you need to work there for five years before being allowed to change. I wonder how employers will restructure their contracts now?

Penalties: missing the point

Fines have been increased for withholding workers’ passports. This is a part of the basic ‘we have laws against this stuff’ defence, used ad nauseum at the UN last week. Yes, Qatar has laws and now larger fines, but this wholly misses the point: they’re just simply not enforced. Workers have had rights for years in Qatar (in the most basic way) but they are often summarily ignored and even when employees try to ‘use’ these rights, the rights of the employers are flagrantly more powerful.

Lost opportunity 

This whole debate is immensely frustrating not least because it was avoidable. I had two immediate thoughts when Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Firstly, Qataris don’t have a clue as to the level of scrutiny that they and their country will receive from the international press. Secondly, and linked to the first point, overall 2022 is a good thing because it will force changes in Qatar’s draconian kefala system.

Change was and is inevitable. The working practices here which generally do not befit a modern country can’t remain. This, I think, is the basic reality, but one that Qatar’s government has avoided at all costs.

Instead of taking this opportunity to grasp this difficult, thorny issue, the problem has been left to fester. The international press has been merciless, egregiously rude and ill informed at times, but this was always going to be the case when Qatar left itself so open. What mealy-mouthed changes that Qatar undertakes now will be analysed in great detail, pulled apart and it will appear that Qatar has – as, indeed, it has – been reluctantly bullied into making as few changes as it could get away with.

Instead of using the best practice as evidenced by Shell’s sector-leading example in Doha for its Pearl GTL project and Qatar proudly taking the lead in championing workers’ rights across the region and the world, we have this slow, painful eking out of concessions.

I know perfectly well that the majority of Qataris want the situation to stay as it is. I know that many may feel somewhat overwhelmed by the foreigners in their country, and want some kind of extra control and that any changes would have been unpopular. But the elites have on occasion – rightly, as far as I see it – taken decisions for the betterment of their country that clearly ran against the social current, yet not on this issue.

If Qatar were known for supporting sport, Al Jazeera, mediation, Arab Spring support of varying varieties, and as the hub in the Gulf that guarantees a gold standard of safe, reliable, trustworthy employment practice – and let’s face it, the bar is hardly that high – the rewards on human capital attraction and retention would be immense. Instead, the tortuous process that escalates rancor on both sides will continue as these new proposals wind their way through Qatar’s legal and legislative systems, doubtless shedding credibility and protections as the years go by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why an elected Majlis in Qatar will not work 11, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The following Tweet simply and succinctly sums up for me why an elected Majlis in Qatar that actually has any power will not work.

It refers to a story in a local paper here in Doha quoting elected members of Qatar’s toothless ‘Central Municipal Council’ complaining and arguing against a recent hike in the price of diesel fuel. The core of the complaint is that the price hike will effectively be passed on to consumers in one way or another. While there may be some logic to this concern, I am struck by the similarity of this complaint to the exact genre of complaint that has so paralyzed Kuwait’s Parliament in recent decades.

Discussions about democracy in the Gulf unerringly come back to ‘the Kuwaiti example’. In short, though many in the Gulf may admire the relative freedom of action afforded to Kuwaitis and the power of its Parliament, potentially a real check on Emiri authority, few would actually want Kuwait’s system given its lamentable recent experience. As I wrote in 2011, 2012, and 2013 [and I suppose I’m now due to write the same article in 2014], there are fundamental problems at the heart of Kuwait’s democratic style of politics. In short, the issues are:

  • A ban on political parties frequently forcing candidates to make their own platform, which are typically so-called ‘service’ platforms i.e. parliamentarians promising to deliver more subsidies and other goodies for their constituents;
  • ‘Service’ platforms feed off historical differences in Kuwaiti society: in short, groups enfranchised in recent decades see this as an opportunity for them to get ‘their share’ of Kuwait’s wealth, which has been monopolized by other segments of society who have had far longer access to wealth and power;
  • The Prime Minister is appointed and he appoints to the Cabinet. Without the formalized input of the elected Parliamentarians, there is often little ‘buy in’ to the Cabinet and an antagonistic tone is set;
  • Before the Arab Spring, Kuwait’s politics was energized by growing youth movements, which were even more catalyzed by the Spring itself, which lent greater impetus to those seeking change and a greater access to wealth;
  • The only method available to the Government to keep the show on the road in recent years has been the increasing dispensation of cash. For example, from 2005 to 2013 government wages have risen from $6.7 billion to $17 billion. Though Kuwait’s oil revenues increased during this time period, there have been repeated and increasingly concerned warnings emanating both from within and outwith Kuwait as to the dangers of such levels of spending. The IMF, for example, predict that if the current spending rates are maintained, Kuwait will have exhausted all its oil savings by 2017.

While only some of these factors may be at play in Qatar – there are, for example, no similarly large cleavages in Qatari society as there are in Kuwait – the fundamental issue is the same. Would-be MPs in Qatar, in the absence of political parties, would inevitably fall back on a ‘service’ platform, which as the Kuwait experience has shown all too clearly has a caustic influence on long-term decision making and planning.

 

How personal politics drive conflict in the Gulf 7, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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The following article can be found on Steven Cook’s blog over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I love all the countries of the Gulf, and they all love me.” With this less than subtle statement, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the vocal Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood scholar tried to do his part to repair regional relations in the Gulf that have badly frayed in recent weeks. Long-brewing discontent erupted in early March with the unprecedented withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar. Subsequent mediation from Kuwait’s Emir has led the protagonists to the cuspof a modus vivendi, and a vague document has been agreed upon.

But core differences remain. Qatar is alone in the region in providing financial, material, and rhetorical support for popular governance around the Middle East. It can do this because its domestic security is strong and, without internal restrictions to speak of such as a strong Parliament, its elite is unusually unconstrained and capable of pursuing unusual foreign policy tangents such as assiduously supporting the new movements in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Such aid, which has been frequently channeled through Brotherhood connections, resonated favorably across much of the region. This allowed Qatar to play an important role in emerging popular revolts, keeping the autocratic monarchy with no meaningful elections on the right side of wider public opinion, while also laying the foundations for new, potentially close regional relations. Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, however, without as pliant a domestic context and driven by the intention of thwarting new Islamist actors, seek the firm reinstatement of the regional status quo ante.

In November 2013, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah presented Qatar’s new, 33-year-old Emir – a man one-third his age – with a document demanding a total reorientation of Qatar’s foreign policy under the guise of promoting regional security. In the face of conflicting interests between Saudi and Qatar, this was Abdullah’s attempt to cow Qatar and get its renegade regional foreign policy under control; something he had tried but failed to do for decades with Tamim’s father, Hamad. Tamim demurred, but  Abdullah was nevertheless led to believe that the Emir had acquiesced to the Saudi leader’s way of thinking. Yet Qatar’s rhetorical support of the Brotherhood continued and Qaradawi stoked ire across the region in early 2014. In January he accused Saudi Arabia’s leaders of not believing in sharia law and he also declared that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has “always been against Islamic rule” prompting its foreign ministry to summon the Qatari ambassador to explain the lack of an official denunciation or apology.

In March of this year, Qatari representatives facilitated the release of thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns held in Syria since in December 2012 with – according to some reports – a ransom of $67 million. From the Saudi perspective this was a clear example of Qatar adversely intervening in the conflict and further fermenting a petri dish in which jihadi groups grow, prosper, and strengthen. Saudi authorities also see Qatar fermenting similar problems in Saudi’s own backyard in Yemen where Doha stands accused of channeling itssupport through the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah party.

Despite their own material and financial support for suspect groups in such conflicts, Riyadh clearly believes that Qatari actions encourage jihadism, which represents a threat to Saudi security. Given the bitter Saudi experience with domestic terrorism in the mid-2000s and its large, relatively porous borders with Yemen and Iraq, fears are growing in the Saudi elite of the impact or ‘blowback’ of returning, more radicalized, and battle-tested jihadis. This is the reason that the remit of Minister of the Interior Muhammed bin Nayef has recently been extended to cover Syria and Yemen and why the Saudi leadership issued a decree in February making it illegal for their citizens to fight in regional conflicts.

The withdrawal of the ambassadors from Doha had little practical effect. Gulf diplomacy is conducted at a much higher level, but it was a public and unprecedented rebuke. Leaks to the press about the potential Saudi escalation including the cancellation of an impending airline deal by Qatar Airways in Saudi Arabia or potentially closing the land border to Qatar, added to a sense of near naked extortion.

The nature of the mooted compromise agreement that the Kuwaitis hammered out does not augur well for long-term stability. The agreement is thought to demand that Qatar curtails funding for a range of media organizations in the Middle East that are critical of the policies of the Gulf States; expels Brotherhood members currently living in Doha; halts its support of the Brotherhood and the Houthis in Yemen; and stops naturalizing Gulf citizens fleeing states as opposition members or Islamists. Though Qatar has, according to reports, now agreed to implement these statutes, it is difficult to see how Doha could possibly do so without fundamentally shifting its foreign policy, something it is most unlikely to do.

Since the late 1950s Qatar has provided various kinds of support for the Brotherhood. Even without a meaningful religiously based commonality – Qatar being theoretically closer, ironically, to the Saudi interpretation of Islam – Qatar often found Brotherhood members both available and sufficiently qualified to staff its emerging bureaucracies. This filled a basic need, while also allowing the Qataris to diversify away any existing dependency on Saudi Arabia in such matters. The Brothers, who settled in Qatar over the decades, whether notable ideologues like Qaradawi or those with the loosest of affiliation to the group, found Doha to be a safe and secure location. These relationships came into their own during the Arab Spring, when their potential for influence increased, for a time at least. Though the Brotherhood is once more deeply repressed across much of the region and should never be seen as a group in “Qatar’s pocket,” there is an unusually deep connection that has been cultivated over decades.

Qatar enjoys this relationship because neither the Brotherhood nor any similar groups poses a challenge to the country. Indeed, the local Brotherhood branch disbanded itself in 1999. Additionally, Qatari society is so small and close-knit, and the socioeconomic bargain so strong, that the ruling elites feel entirely and understandably comfortable supporting a group that offers an alternative arrangement of government. Saudi Arabia, however, does face a challenge from the Brothers in two ways. Firstly, the Brotherhood offers a competing form of Islamic government, one that was realized for a time in Egypt and that directly challenges Saudi Arabia as the beacon of Islamic governance. Secondly, Saudi Arabia faces politicized Islam as an oppositional force: Discord throughout the Kingdom could be channeled by the Brotherhood and used to confront the royal family. The UAE has similar fears, stemming from the disparities in wealth between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the northern Emirates. The government also insists that it has rooted out dozens of Brothers who were planning to disrupt the status quo. Equally, the UAE’s de facto leader, Mohammad bin Zayed, is known to have a deep distrust and dislike for the group that directly shapes the state’s policy.

Given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, there is no turning back the clock; their antipathy is now institutionalized state policy. In the aftermath of the ambassadorial withdrawal, dozens of Qataris changed their Twitter profile pictures to photos of the Emir.  Qataris – even those who do not support the Brotherhood – were clearly signaling that they would not be  bullied into changing their policy. So while Qatar could theoretically change tack and join the bandwagon, such an about-face would be seen as a capitulation and would be received poorly back in Doha. Also, aside from the legacy of the policy toward the Brotherhood in Qatar, if there has been a central theme in the country’s foreign policy in the last twenty-five years it has been one of unambiguously asserting Qatar’s independence from Saudi Arabia. Reasonable accommodation has been made in the past, such as in 2008 when Qatar controlled to a greater degree Al Jazeera coverage of Saudi Arabia to ensure the return of the Saudi ambassador to Doha after a six year absence, but the current proposals seek strategic change. Part of the mooted accord attempting to resolve this latest crisis hints that once more Al Jazeera’s coverage might be on the table and Qaradawi is, for the time being at least, cooperating by toning down his rhetoric. But without precisely the kind of meaningful change that Qatar cannot undertake, relations seem set for an extended cold snap, punctuated by personally-led spurts of anger, potentially peripatetically lurching relations from one mini-crisis to the next.

Al Jazeera mark II 6, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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It has been known for some time that Qatar has been planning to launch a new news channel based in London. Half of the ‘Al Arab Al Jadeed [The New Arab]’ venture began on 30th March 2014 with the news website, while the expected TV channel is still in the works. Many have puzzled as to why Qatar, which has already spent untold billions on its main broadcaster, Al Jazeera, would sink money into another venture, while other have mocked the decision.

The driving force behind the whole venture is Azmi Bishara. The colorful Doha resident who has seemingly been influential behind the scenes in Doha for some time now and is the head of the Arab Centre for Policy Studies, which is in the process of expanding to become a Masters degree-awarding institution. Under Bishara’s leadership, AL Arab Al Jadeed is thought to provide a counter weight to Al Jazeera Arabic, which unabashedly tows a pro-Muslim Brotherhood line. Despite the mockery, there is a certain logic to this. It strikes me as perfectly sensible for Qatar to attempt to balance out its image as a slavish Ikhwan-supporting state, for that is how it is viewed by some, though the truth is inevitably much more nuanced.

Aside form Al Jazeera, Qatar has long sought to boost its ‘soft power’ – to use the hackneyed phrase – using media. Aside from Al Jazeera, one of the ways that it wanted to boost the Libyan opposition was by establishing  Libya al-Ahrar TV station. Qatar is also believed (or rather rumored) to be behind a range of other media ventures elsewhere in the Middle East, such as the Al Jadeed channel in Lebanon. Qatar’s elite clearly feel that as a small country with a minimal ability to project power because it is such a physically small place, using its key resource – cash – to buy asymmetric soft power is a wise investment. This is not such a bad calculation.

As for the more conspiracy minded notions that Emir Tamim is pursuing this Al Arab Al Jadeed venture because his hands are tied when it comes to altering Al Jazeera because it was started by and is somehow still under the ‘protection’ of his father, Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani, there are more persuasive (and likely) if less entertaining reasons afoot. Firstly, purging Al Jazeera may be too vocal or obvious a sign that Qatar has given in to the Saudi-led tub-thumping, some of which has allegedly demanded that its coverage be altered. Clearly Qatar needs to give some ground, but it wants and needs to do this in as quiet a way as possible. Clearing house at Al Jazeera, though I have argued that it would be a beneficial idea overall, would understandably be an obvious sign of change. Secondly, it is practically impossible to change bureaucracies. They have a profound inertia all of their own. Even in Qatar where the Emir is relatively unconstrained, the leadership has shown over and over again that it prefers to duplicate bureaucracies rather tackle them head-on. Hence the creation of the Supreme Councils over the years to actually make meaningful, effective institutions as opposed trying to reform the old bureaucracies in charge of the same fiefdoms.

 

 

The drive-by Qatar article 29, April 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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I can almost hear the editor haranguing the journalist:

Yes, Qatar is interesting, but it’s all been done before…we need a new angle…find me something new.

And so the journalist comes to Qatar. Another in a long series of drive-by articles. Even the late, great Anthony Shahid wrote a stinker of an article back in 2011 for the NYT (an ephemeral skyline, Al Jazeera, World Cup, Moza, etc., etc.) on a 36-hour trip to Doha. Perhaps it’s Qatar’s fault that it somehow elicits such articles?

So the premise of this new BBC article is that Qataris are unhappy because they’re the richest people on earth. Quite the counterfactual, alternative way of thinking: bonus points from the editor.

It starts as ever with the contractual skyline note: seemingly it’s rising like an ‘artificial forest’ at the moment. Then – kudos! – a Qatari is interviewed. She notes that Qatar’s economic life has changed. Certainly it has. And that families have become separated. Well, absolutely speaking, I suppose this is the case: more Qataris have their own houses now so don’t all live together, so they are more separated. What else could be complained about with this logic? That kids going to school means less ‘quality time’ at home with the family eking out an existence? That modern medicine deprives families of spending weeks mopping each others’ brows when they are sick thanks to its ‘advances’ quickening recovery times?

The article continues.

You can feel the pressure in Doha. The city is a building site, with whole districts either under construction or being demolished for redevelopment. Constantly snarled traffic adds hours to the working week, fuelling stress and impatience.

No you can’t. Qatar is like any other growing city in the world: there is traffic and there is construction. And is working in Doha any more stressful than in London or New York? I suspect not; working hours are, on the whole, not comparable to such places.

The article then stumbles on a genuine and concerning change: divorce rates rising and the obesity problems. But this gets 23 words only noting that there is a problem. That’s it.

We then learn that Qataris get lots of stuff for being Qatari and Qatari students – unlike all students all over the world?? – feel pressure when leaving education looking for work. Indeed, what a nightmare it must be for graduating Qataris to “be faced with 20 job offers.” Really, with this sentence, the article jumps the shark in a naked attempt to magic up controversy where plainly none exists.

More moaning ensues about the Qatari-ex-pat divide. Sure, this is worth discussing, but I suspect that not much more than a couple of conversations went into the article so when we get deep, meaningful quotes like:

The sense is deepening that, in the rush for development, something important has been lost.

I become suspicious that in the yearning for profundity all we’re getting is more trite clichés.

The problem of Qataris being raised by maids is a genuinely interesting topic and one that needs extensive study.

As for a  sexagenarian Qatari woman complaining that life used to be “beautifully simply”, I don’t know where to start. Suffice to say that I imagine that today’s air-conditioning, education for her children, exponentially wider opportunities for all, trips to London for holidays, and trips to Frankfurt for medical treatment might begin to help her reconcile her awful modern existence.

The article then jumps the Orientalist shark (again). We’re off into the desert to drink camel milk “fresh from the udder”. The noble Qatari “chewing thoughtfully” reminiscing about back in the day when things were “much better”. Naturally.

There is something to be said about Qatar’s sense of siege, but perhaps with less sense of drama. But it is deeply wrong to suggest that Qataris want to keep the kefala system in place in order to avoid undermining their “cultural values” or some such guff. Qataris want to keep it because it offers them control over foreigners so they can be evicted and because it is cheap. There are no noble reasons behind it.

After half a sentence on regional politics we are told that cleanliness is an obsession in Doha: I must have missed that. And the article is finished off with the most stupid quote yet, noting that Qataris have “lost almost everything that matters.”

Suffice it to say that Edward Said is gyrating in his grave.

 

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