On the Doha fire 29, May 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Doha fire, Qatar, Qatar fire, Villagio, Villagio fire, World Cup Doha fire
A fire at one of Qatar’s largest malls – Villagio – has killed 19 people including 13 children. A tragedy of this scale has not been seen in Qatar in recent times and has been felt deeply by all communities.
While an incident of this size is never to be expected, there is a certain grim lack of surprise that there was such an incident. There have apparently been three fires in the last 18 months at Villagio and Qatar’s other large mall, City Centre, suffered severe damage from a fire only few weeks ago.
Apparently in this incident it seems that the fire alarms only went off in some places; no one was encouraged/told to evacuate; the sprinkler systems malfunctioned; there were no maps for Civil Defence to use to coordinate their efforts; the initial Civil Defence reaction was to send in people without gas masks (!); and the nursery which was so awfully affected was a death-trap waiting to happen on the first floor with only one staircase for access, which was soon burned down forcing the Civil Defence people to hack their way in through the roof.
Why are there such problems?
First it needs to be noted that such an incident, in my view, could have happened anywhere in the Gulf. I don’t believe that such procedures are that much better at, for example, malls in Kuwait or KSA. Nevertheless, this incident happened in Qatar and we must examine it.
Part of the culture of management in Qatar is overly deferential. Overall there is a profound lack of initiative and a box ticking culture pervades. Diktats from on high often come thick and fast with little systematic planning overall. Conflicting policies are common. Yet no one below the elite level would dare criticise such policies for fear of retribution or reputational ‘damage’.
Qatar is a young country. It has the accoutrements of a modern state which can be bought in whole-sale, but the boring, decidedly not interesting but essential rules, regulations, and oversight purviews are sorely lacking.
Moreover, it is a basic human trait that it often takes a tragedy to galvanise people into action. British authorities knew that they had a huge problem with football hooliganism and crowd control in the 70s and 80s but it took the awful events at Hillsborough in 1989 for authorities to actually act. This is just the way that it is.
Qatar’s established media get an F- for their coverage. Late to the story and then patchy in their coverage, they have all been decidedly unimpressive. Believe it or not, QBS radio, Qatar’s key local station, did not lead with this story but with Sheikha Moza chairing a conference at the Convention Centre in its 18:00 bulletin the day after the fire. This is a profound indication of the levels of uselessness that pervade the local media, which are all but irrelevant to meaningful coverage of issues.
Instead it is Doha News, a ‘new media’ blog and twitter based news service, that has rightly received universal praise for its comprehensive coverage. Truly they have put all other news organisations however big or small to shame.
An investigation committee has been announced specifically to look into this incident and into fire safety more generally. There are several counts of criminal negligence that need to be accounted for both in the Villagio management structure itself; in the nursery for its apparent [perhaps I should say, 'presumed' - for we don't really know what happened there yet] lack of response; in the planning ministry for licensing such a nursery with such apparently poor evacuation procedures; in the Interior Ministry generally for its lack of oversight of basic fire safety procedures in such a key location; and in the Civil Defence and the other reaction forces for their seemingly chaotic response to an incident.
I hope that the reaction will not be the public arrest of some Philippine and Indian management-level people alone.
I also fear that there will be new misguided stringent rules. Don’t misunderstand me; tough new rules on fire alarm drills or procedure practice are welcome, but the authorities must resist the temptation to ram through new but ultimately ineffective knee-jerk laws to assuage the need to ‘do something’.
Does this incident have any repercussions for World Cup 2022 in Qatar? Not really.
Firstly, it is over a decade away which ought to give authorities a long time to evaluate such procedures and systems. Hopefully a rigorous approach to this issue will be instilled and in every day usage.
Secondly (and somewhat confusingly) whatever issues were present before this incident will still be present. For example, the desire to simply ignore ticket holders in the Asian Cup final between Australia and Japan and to fill the stadium for cosmetic purposes with ticketless workers to potentially create a security incident out of nothing; that kind of single, absurd decision taken by ‘a Sheikh’ who cannot be questioned will remain for it is ingrained in the culture here. Such decision making – rule by whim as I have dubbed it – can be quick and decisive but intrinsically suffers from a lack of strategic understanding and its consequences can be wide-ranging.
Of course there is no satisfactory way to conclude such an article. Fiendishly bad luck coupled with a seemingly long list of violations of best practice have resulted in an immense tragedy in Qatar. The slimmest of silver linings can, as ever, potentially be seen on the horizon in terms of future improvements in safety, not that this could ever amount to a sliver of comfort to the bereaved. Everyone’s thoughts are with them.
The Gulf Union that Never Was 20, May 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Bahrain, Gulf Union, Saudi Arabia
The following article appeared on RUSI.org on 17 May 2012.
The leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council met on 14 May in Riyadh to discuss the formation of a new Gulf Union. This Union was to entail even closer relations between the states. In particular there were high expectations that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would form some kind of a deep Union, potentially as a pilot before the other states joined. Or so it was thought.
Instead, essentially nothing has emerged from this key meeting. This highlights that while the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) States have common histories and common problems today, there remains key, perennial, and divergent opinions as to the best way to assuage these concerns.
Saudi Arabia leading the way
Saudi Arabia is a conservative country in many ways. It is not flashy with its policies and while it does occasionally engage in fanfare it generally operates with reservation and careful reflection. Yet in the run up to the recent consultative meeting, Saudi authorities and a stream of editorials had been hyping the importance of this meeting and the expected outcomes. The loyal Sunni press in particular relentlessly banged the GCC unity drum, championing the ‘inevitable’ coming together of fraternal states against the spectre of Iran and its numerous perfidious policies.
Their logic flows that Bahrain, a fellow Sunni Kingdom, is – depending on who you read – either under attack from Iran or at least suffering from Iranian-inspired activities that have energised the majority Shia community in Bahrain. This led to a response from the Bahraini Government, which has, among other things, adversely affected the Bahraini economy. Saudi Arabia has stepped in to physically and economically secure Bahrain in recent months and a Union between the two states is the inevitable and sensible conclusion to protect Sunni interests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia from a further descent into Shia-inspired violence.
The level of expectation of some kind of outcome from this summit was high, given the hype surrounding the meeting and the breathless commentary. Yet any dispassionate analysis of a putative GCC Union reveals that such an outcome is highly unlikely.
Distrust of Saudi Leadership
For the ruling Al Khalifah family in Bahrain, the situation does not look good. The economy is suffering badly and highly reliant on continued Saudi support. This is compounded by the social fabric of the country being ripped asunder and polarised; law and order is a mess with riots, protestors being killed, and reprisals being taken against the police. All of these issues highlighted Bahrain’s murky international image, coming again to the fore after the recent Formula 1 race.
Yet, despite these difficulties, to submit Bahrain to some kind of Union with Saudi Arabia would be a huge gamble by the Bahraini monarchy. Despite Saudi Arabia’s unwavering support, for which most Sunni Bahrainis are deeply grateful, joining a country thirty-nine times bigger and with a population twenty-two times bigger is a different proposition. Depending upon the depth of the Union, such a measure could be considered to be surrendering Bahrain’s sovereignty to Saudi Arabia. And such an outcome – realised or not – would please neither the majority of Sunnis nor Shia.
For most Government supporters there is just no need to join with Saudi Arabia: Bahrain already receives considerable support from Saudi Arabia. While those in Riyadh, according to some sources, have become impatient with the ongoing struggles in Bahrain, the chances of them removing military or financial support are remote. As for the Shia, there would likely be an immediate and vociferous reaction against such a notion with fears that it would mean the deep entrenchment of a staunchly anti-Shia position.
As for Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), neither have hugely positive relations with Saudi Arabia. For Qatar, after many difficult years, the rapport with Saudi has improved, but still the states disagree fundamentally on key topics, such as how to deal with Iran. While Abu Dhabi in particular supports Riyadh’s line on key topics such as Iran there are outstanding issues. There are sporadic border disputes and the UAE pulled out of the GCC Common Currency when they learned that Riyadh would host the central bank. The fact that the UAE only sent their Deputy President, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to the recent summit shows a calculated snub and a reluctance to take such a Union seriously at present.
Oman, despite being somewhat reliant upon Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States for economic support, was the first country to pull out of the GCC Monetary Union in 2007 and is wary of any eroding of its sovereignty that a Union might entail. Kuwait is beset with its own political problems at present and, depending on the level of the Union, would likely be concerned that its political progressiveness be hampered by such a move dominated as it would naturally be by Saudi Arabia and its less than progressive political system.
Is the Idea Finished?
The GCC states are not against improving their joint relations or boosting economic cooperation. But the fact that this move was so strongly led by Saudi Arabia, the state that dwarfs all other GCC states combined, is concerning for the smaller states.
Fears that a Union might be a slippery slope to greater cohesion in which the individual states and their nascent identities and social practices would be subsumed in a Saudi-dominated context dominate. An egalitarian Commonwealth of Gulf States, as suggested by a Saudi expert on a recent research trip to Riyadh, might be a suitable way to square this difficult circle, but otherwise Saudi Arabia’s apparent good intentions will be lost through a base fear of absorption and homogeneity.
Tags: Cultural map Middle East, Historical map middle east, map hijaz, map khalij, map nejd
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Gulf Disunion 3, May 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
Tags: foreign policy, Gulf Disunion, Gulf Union
The following article appeared in Foreign Policy magazine online on the 2nd May 2012.
The leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait) will meet in May to discuss creating a closer federal unit among the states. The idea of closer integration was first put forward in December 2011 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and recently fleshed out in a speech in the name of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. The potential benefits of creating a $1.4 trillion economic area of 42 million people were championed, as were the potential benefits of close cooperation and coordination in defense and security policy. While all this makes sense superficially, it is all but impossible to see how a meaningful GCC Union could take place.
In light of the Arab Spring and its ramifications in the Gulf region, it is possible to understand the desire in Saudi Arabia to engage in such a union. Specifically, Bahrain has been wracked with protest since February 2011. Today, demonstrations are sporadic but ongoing while protesters continue to be killed and injured, police are increasingly being targeted in retaliation, and Bahrain’s Formula One jamboree in mid-April was severely tarnished. The underlying concerns in Bahrain for both the al Khalifa elite and their fraternal al Saud allies are that the protests are somehow being stoked and supported by Iran, using Bahrain’s majority Shiite population to “export the Revolution.” While little if any evidence can be found backing up such a claim (see Bassiouni’s report) this is nevertheless the prevalent fear in Riyadh and Manama. Hence Saudi Arabia taking the startling step of sending in several thousand Saudi troops and a variety of armaments into Bahrain as a show of defiant support in March 2011. This action to which the UAE also contributed troops, while Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman mostly obfuscated, was taken under the fig-leaf of a “GCC Peninsula Shield” force action; a moribund pan-GCC force originating from 1984 that has never possessed an ounce of efficacy.
Some kind of Saudi-Bahraini Union is being discussed as a precursor to a wider GCC Union. Such a bilateral union would normalize the Saudi-led military action in Bahrain to potentially pave the way for the permanent stationing of “GCC” troops in Bahrain, while signaling the death knell for any political resolution with Riyadh having a de jure say over such outcomes as opposed to its already potent de facto sway.
Some in the al Khalifa elite appear to be willing to be subsumed into such a union and this is a startling reflection of their heightened concerns. Given the lack of oil and gas resources in Bahrain, the exodus of European banks seriously damaging confidence in this key industry, the profound socio-economic problems that lie mostly unacknowledged at the root of Bahrain’s political troubles, and the hardening political crisis, there are concerns as to Bahrain’s longer term viability as an independent economic entity. Saudi Arabia already gives Bahrain’s elite huge subsidies and support and there is no sign that this could be reversed soon. From the al Khalifa perspective, therefore, if those in Riyadh are not willing to simply continue the economic support without deeper political concessions, with no end in sight to the political and economic crisis, securing guaranteed long-term backing from Riyadh to maintain the status quo may seem sensible.
Overall, while Saudi Arabia taking on Bahrain as a loss-making, politically unstable appendage with a majority Shiite population may seem to be unattractive, it is preferable to the alternative. They could conversely see the slow implosion of a fellow Sunni monarchy and the potential ascendance to power of the Shiites next door to Saudi’s Eastern province, which contains not only a majority-Shiite Saudi population but also most of the kingdom’s oil fields and facilities.
As for a wider GCC Union, Saudi Arabia has been trying and mostly failing to engender a united GCC line toward Iran. Oman, Dubai, and particularly Qatar have frequently broken rank and pursued more conciliatory policies to Riyadh’s dismay. Such a union, which may include some provision for a joint foreign policy along the European Union model, may be seen in Riyadh as a way to further the central Saudi goal of uniting against Iran.
Yet as hard as Riyadh might push for a Gulf Union as a means of achieving some kind of GCC foreign policy, expect Qatar, for one, to push equally hard in the opposite direction. The current Qatari elite came to power in 1995. It took 13 years with the return of the Saudi ambassador to Doha in 2008 after leaving in 2003 for Riyadh to realize that Qatar was a sovereign country with an independent foreign policy. Such hard-won independence will not be surrendered lightly, especially considering Qatar’s burgeoning, central role across the wider Middle East.
Moreover, what would Qatar, the UAE, or Kuwait, for example, gain from a Gulf Union? Qatar is at the apex of its international popularity currently and is per capita the richest country on earth. Surrendering powers to a union would seem to benefit Doha in no way whatsoever.
It is the same for the UAE. Though they are currently engaged in a battle with mostly non-existent dangerous “Islamist” elements within society, a topic on which they would likely appreciate some rhetorical back-up from neighboring states, the overall abdication of some autonomy would not suit the UAE. Indeed, the prime reason the UAE pulled out of the GCC single currency is that Abu Dhabi’s elite could not countenance the notion of the central bank being in Riyadh — hardly a communally spirited decision.
Kuwait is mired in its own problems with its perennially fractious parliament. The only sure thing about any GCC Union for Kuwait is that it would complicate and exacerbate its already Gordian parliamentary problems.
Oman, as a poorer relation would likely welcome some closer integration and see it as a hedge against future economic instability and Bahrain’s logic, looking down the barrel of long-term political instability and resultant economic dysfunction, is the same.
Another fundamental problem with any alliance is that it would dominated by Saudi Arabia. Geographically Saudi Arabia is more than five times as large as all other GCC States together and its population is around 10 million greater. For decades, geopolitically, Saudi Arabia has been used to leading not only the Gulf region, but arguably the wider Middle East and Muslim world. This combination of raw facts and Saudi’s historical position mandates, from Riyadh’s perspective, that it would “naturally” take the lead in any such union. And this will be profoundly unacceptable to Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE all of whom have forged independent paths in recent years.
Moreover, within recent memory each state can think back to decidedly unfriendly actions and policies from Saudi Arabia. For the UAE there have been frequent disputes with Saudi Arabia over its borders, which spill out and adversely affect border traffic between the two countries. In 2011 a UAE and a Saudi patrol boat exchanged fire, injuring the Saudi sailors who surrendered and were subsequently repatriated to the kingdom. While this was an isolated incident, it hints at wider, deeper bilateral concerns.
Qatar has long had rocky relations with Saudi Arabia. In the early 1990s Saudi Arabia refused to allow Qatar to pipe its gas to the UAE and to Kuwait; there were border skirmishes in 1992 and 1994; Saudi Arabia allegedly sponsored a counter-coup against Emir Hamad al Thani in 1996; Al Jazeera’s coverage of regional issues has long angered Riyadh; and Qatar’s independent foreign policy also sits poorly with those in power in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it is only recently that relations have picked up once more but the previous decade’s worth of lamentable relations have not been forgotten.
In Kuwait not only is Saudi Arabia’s intransigence blocking the proposed pipe for gas from Qatar remembered, but also there is little desire to join together. As the speaker of Kuwait’s Parliament, Ahmed al Saadoun, pointedly commented in February, such a union would be difficult for Kuwait to join “with countries whose prisons are full of thousands who are guilty of speaking their minds.”
Lastly, the notion that a Gulf Union might work because the peoples of the Arab Gulf region tend to come from similar religious, historical, social, and familial backgrounds logically makes sense, but so too could the opposite conclusion be drawn. That is precisely the lack of differentiation between a Saudi and an Emirati and a Qatari that will lead these modern day states to resolutely maintain these borders as a means of differentiating themselves from a GCC amalgam identity. Until there is a desire to fundamentally eschew borders in the Gulf region and do away with an Emirati identity in favor of a generic Gulf identity, without a pressing need to join together, a Gulf Union will not be supported.
In the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the Gulf States first came together to form a union: the 1981 Gulf Cooperation Council. It took this seemingly real, imminent, deeply resonant threat from Iran to force them together and even then, the GCC Peninsula Shield force was never effective.
While today those in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see a deep and concerning conflagration with Iran emerging, with Tehran’s tentacles allegedly to be found in Bahrain, Iraq, and the Levant according to the orthodoxy, there are key obstacles in the way to deeper security cooperation. Despite the procurement of hundreds of billions of dollars of equipment in recent years, the stories of chronic interoperability issues within armed forces themselves let alone across national armies or navies are legion. Saudi Arabia itself has four forces: its traditional army, navy, and air force, and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (an entire fourth force nominally to protect the king). Yet it is a case of never the twain shall meet and these forces are as much rivals with little if any cross-communication and training as they are united under the Saudi banner.
Yet the core reason why there will be no meaningful security or military cooperation is that the United States guarantees the security in the Gulf. Difficult decisions to subsume personal and state rivalries, to overcome ingrained problems with joint training and even joined up procurement can be avoided with a U.S. security umbrella. Indeed it may be instructive to note that Bahrain, the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is the only Gulf country seriously considering such a union and is also the only Gulf country about which there has been a debate recently about the removal of U.S. forces. Only when America, like the Ottomans, and the British before them, finally leave the Gulf will the Gulf States be truly forced to come to terms with their own security situation and will potentially countenance subsuming their national proclivities for a collective alliance.