Female flag carriers, the Olympics and the Arab World 30, July 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
Tags: Arab flag carriers Olympics, Arab States, Flag bearers, Flag carriere, London Olympics, Olympics, Qatar flag carrier olympics, Saudi Arabia female athletes
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As a devout opening and closing ceremony skeptic, I missed the first fifteen minutes of the London Olympics opening jamboree sure in the knowledge that they’re all naff, incomprehensible wastes of money or in the case of Beijing, a freakish show of iron population control and a waste of money. Curiosity got the better of me, however, and after I started watching I was enthralled.
After the theatrics had finished– James Bond with Queen Elizabeth II and all – I watched the start of the athlete procession planning to switch off and finally go to bed. But again, this too was oddly compelling and I noticed that there were a surprising number of female athletes as flag carriers for Arab countries.
It started off surprisingly strongly. After Algeria’s typical male opening Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, and Djibouti (of all places) were led out by ladies. Iraq and Jordan followed too with female flag bearers.
Eventually, with Qatar and Somalia surprising many by being led by female athletes, the final tally for the Arab world was nine out of the twenty-two nations being female-led, more than double the 2008 Olympic tally of four female flag bearers for Arab States.
Does it mean anything?
Given the near-parity of females to men leading out the teams in a region that is resolutely male-dominated, clearly something is afoot. Is the answer as simple as ‘the Arab Spring’? Do states’ athletic federations, extensions of the governments, feel obliged to field female flag bearers as some kind of notion that they are ‘moving with the times’? It is tempting to make such a conclusion, and there may be something to it, but aside from vague notions that this ‘might make sense’, there is no evidence on which one can draw.
A more fruitful approach would be to look at the states individually to discern if any rhyme or reason can be found.
No-one is surprised that Qatar led with a female athlete. Indeed, given the influence of Sheikha Moza here for many years now, QF’s emphasis on female empowerment, and the ever upcoming 2022, it would have been a surprise had they not led with a female athlete. This is wholly in keeping with the ‘Western-friendly’ face that Qatar likes to present at these jamborees. It is likely that they can’t make much of a splash on the pitches, fields, mats, and pools, but they can in other ways. Moreover, when you’re bordered by a luddite-like state like Saudi Arabia, I’m always convinced that the Qataris can’t resist poking and prodding away, noting that while they may be of the same religious denomination, they are nevertheless vastly different.
After being led out by a lady in Beijing, the UAE reverted to a man this year (who was dressed like some kind of paramilitary-type: very odd). I doubt that there’s much significance to this and while one could make jibes about the UAE trying to maintain a highly traditional status quo (to wit: Al Islah) above all else, this may be a digression too far.
Great play has been made of the fact that Saudi Arabia finally sent women to the Games. And they should be congratulated on this. But I almost think that they should leave their female athletes at home if they’re going to make them walk x paces behind the men; a truly medieval moment there, I thought, revealing a bit too much about the underlying mindset. And as for KSA’s bitter protests that they will withdraw their team if their female athlete cannot wear her hijab in her event, I truly can’t explain in words how little I would care if KSA withdraw. I utterly fail to see why anyone is giving this temper-tantrum the slightest attention.
No-one is overly surprised that Bahrain had a female flag carrier. It was thus in Beijing and this time around I’m not sure whether Bell Pottinger or Qorvis gave them any choice.
Seeing as Egypt can’t even arrange to buy non-knock off kit, I doubt that anyone could entertain a conversation about have a lady leading them out or not so they stuck to the norm. And otherwise in North Africa, aside from Morocco, it was as per usual.
But perhaps most surprisingly of all, what were the odds that Djibouti and Somalia would have female athletes leading the states out? Forgive my naivety and my resort to cliché, but these places don’t seem to be the most advanced places in terms of equality. Granted, it was a fifty-fifty choice for the Somali team with only two competitors, but still, they went for the lady; good for them. A good image to show to the world at least.
So, does this mean anything? I suspect not, though I am something of an incorrigible cynic. I think that a wave of feminism would be one of the greatest waves that could fall over the Middle East, but it does not appear to be that close at hand. As ever, it is one step forward and any number backwards. Certainly it is a good sign that KSA sent women for the first time; hopefully they will send more next time and they’ll not be made to derisively walk behind the men.
Syria: borders and international issues 22, July 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria.
Tags: Iran Syria, Russia Syria, Syria, Syria's borders, Syrian borders
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Twenty-four hours after a bomb killed three of the most important regime hardliners in Damascus, rebel forces took over the main border crossings to Turkey and Iraq. Though the current state of affairs is murky, latest reports indicate that the rebels still control all the Iraqi border crossings.
Importance of the Borders
Two weeks ago the rebels managed to take a Turkish border crossing briefly but not only was it retaken by Syrian forces but the Turks closed the crossing when it was under rebel control, so these recent events are not unique. Nevertheless, coming in the aftermath of the rebel surge that began with Operation Damascus Volcano, these incidents highlight that the rebels are gaining in strength relative to the Syrian armed forces.
Holding a border crossing is important. Theoretically, it could facilitate far easier the shipping of money, weapons, goods, and people into Syria. Yet Syria’s 2200km of land and sea borders have been porous for months. It has been the explicit policy of Qatar and Saudi Arabia at least to supply the rebels with some combination of money and arms since February and though uncovering concrete evidence of money trails or weapons shipments is notoriously difficult, it is reasonable to conclude that they have been true to their word.
Indeed, one can observe the number and size of the weapons belonging to the ‘Free Syrian Army’ increasing steadily and it seems likely that their recent successes would be fuelled by some form of significant support, be it in terms of money, weaponry, or training.
The international community is well aware of just how porous the Iraqi-Syrian and Turkish-Syrian borders are. It is with Turkish connivance that their border area is seemingly awash with supplies and Special Forces of all stripes while one of the key tribes living across the Iraqi-Syrian border is the Al Shammar. Not only was the mother of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia an Al Shammari but one of his many wives is from that tribal confederation too; the links are strong along the Euphrates for Saudi Arabia.
If the rebels can take, hold, and consolidate control of significant chunks of land in Syria, ideally abutting a neighbouring country as most of the more transient ‘zones’ have been thus far, then this is potentially of huge strategic significance.
In the Libyan operation the fact that the rebels so early on had a significant base from which to operate – Bengazi and its environs – was key. This meant that there was an area in which the rebels could congregate and begin to undertake a meaningful assessment of their inventory and capabilities. Moreover, these safe areas were critical to the influx of foreign support. The Special Forces of Qatar, for example, that played an important role in Libya, are understandably risk averse: seeing one of their soldiers captured by loyal Government forces would be devastating. Yet if there are reasonable guarantees of a safe zone in which to operate, then one can expect more support from countries such as Qatar.
Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah: ignoring political realities
Nevertheless, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah will not give up. Thus far this triumvirate has done its utmost to ignore the reality of the situation, disregarding the brutal humanitarian crackdown, in the vain hope that somehow Syria will return to the status quo ante bellum. At the beginning, from a cold, realpolitik point of view, there was a chance that Assad could have nipped the rebellion in the bud and their stance would – from their point of view – have been vindicated. Yet this is not what has happened and for some months now the three have continued their sunk cost accounting; ploughing on heedless of the genuine change in the status quo in Syria.
Hamas made the tactically astute move some months ago of distancing itself from Syria, despite the support that it offered over the years. But only a day after the devastating rebel attack on Syria’s elite, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a defiant, resoundingly pro-regime speech as a desperate attempt, it seems, to forestall the inevitable demise of the Assad regime. He sought to remind his followers of Syria’s critical role in supporting and arming the group in their struggle against Israel. By raising the spectre of Israel he is not very subtly trying to use the Middle East’s perennial political distraction to divert attention from Assad’s brutality. For once, he will surely fail.
Rational political calculus would dictate that Russia and Iran are working on a Plan B. Their forlorn goal of Assad staying in power is no longer viable. Their options for retaining a significant say in the future of Syria; access to the Mediterranean and checking Turkey’s influence (for Russia); and access to the Levant (for Iran) are slim to non-existent. Any kind of a candidate that could offer Iran and Russia such promises after the bloodletting brought on by Assad would be unacceptable to any future Syrian alliance. Indeed, it appears that Russia and Iran have almost guaranteed their estrangement from a future political arrangement by virtue of their political and material support for (and indifference to) Assad’s brutality.
While they may realise the futility of their position, without a viable exit plan they may feel they have no option but to carry on regardless. Better to accept their position in Syria is lost than accept this reality and be humiliated in a policy reversal.
Iran will react to this by upping their efforts to destabilise any transition in favour of palatable candidates that they will support. Given the make-up of the polity in Syria and their levels of penetration over the years, Iran may be able to retain limited operational capacity in a future Syria, even if it pales in comparison to their prized role in past.
Russia’s reaction, meanwhile, is more difficult to assess for they are engaging in a significant gamble. Clearly, Russia is largely unfazed about alienating swathes of the Middle East not to mention the majority of Syrians, believing that in time their position can be reasserted reasoning that states in the region will always need a counterbalance to the West, either diplomatically (security council votes), politically (backing certain politicians), economically (lucrative contracts or sanctions busting), or militarily (selling otherwise unavailable weaponry). Aside from the concern of taking a resolutely cold war mindset and applying its logic to the Syrian uprising in the midst of the Arab Spring in 2012 in an era of rising Asian powers, there is a potential hamartia in this plan.
Russia would do well not to underestimate the depth of the hatred it is fostering. Certainly, the next political class in Syria may see the advantages of engaging with Russia for one reason or another, but the public in Syria as elsewhere throughout the Arab World are no longer passive in politics and may not countenance such a move. Certainly, if Assad is foolish enough to use chemical weapons and were Russia still to play its perennial blocking role as one might expect, talk of an embargo of Russia across the Middle East would doubtless surface at the very least.
Western and Arab States cannot merely berate Russia and Iran; instead, they need to – as unpalatable as it may be – deal with their stance and try to find a way for these key states to deescalate their positions. If this were the 1940s, then the great powers would slide a note across the table to Russia, noting that they could retain x% influence over the future Syria, as Churchill did to Greece and other European nations in Moscow in 1944. But in a vastly different age where no such agreement could be enforced or countenanced, there are no obvious options available.
One alternative would be to cut Russia in particular out of discussions; bypass the UN Security Council entirely, while trying to mitigate their pernicious influence in Syria by upping the levels of military support using the new zones and suggesting and equipping an assault on the Russian port of Tartus to block off a key transit point for Russia’s reinforcements. This kind of bitterly difficult calculation would rely on the logic of greater losses of life in the immediate term for saving lives in the longer term and can only be conceived after deep deliberation not only of the logic of supplying of weapons but of the post-Assad Syria political makeup.
Bloody days ahead as the Assad regime is decapitated 20, July 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria.
Tags: Assad, Damascus, Damascus attack, Syria
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I wrote the following article with Michael Stephens for RUSI.
On the afternoon of 18 July a bomb blast in central Damascus striking at the heart of the regime of Bashar al-Assad did more to turn the conflict on its head in a few short seconds than months of fighting between the Syrian Army and the ‘Free Syrian Army’ or deliberations in the Security Council. The rule of the Assad dynasty in Syria is now facing the most testing period of its forty-one year reign. Four of Assad’s top advisors, Defence Minister Gen Dawud Rajha, Deputy Defence Minister and also brother in law of President Assad, General Assaf Shawkat, Deputy Vice President Gen Hassan Turkomani are dead, and Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar has reportedly also been killed . The national security headquarters in Rawda which collates information from peripheral centres around the country lies in ruins.
A tactical master stroke
News of the attack initially stated that Rajha and Shawkat had been killed. These two men were in the trusted inner circle of President Bashar Assad and their loss represents a profound blow to the regime. Both Shawkat and Rajha held extensive sway over the operations of the armed forces, they knew the urban battlefields well, and were ruthless in exploiting weaknesses among rebel forces. Even though a new Defence Minister – General Fahad Jassim al-Furayj – was soon named, these central figures with decades of contacts and experience are not that easy to replace. But before the regime had time to digest the magnitude of the loss, both Turkomani and al-Shaar also reportedly died of their injuries.
Initially thought to be a suicide attack, it then emerged from various sources claiming it was a remotely detonated device with suggestions that the attack had been planned for up to two months, with explosives being slowly smuggled into the building. On the day itself, apparently during a meeting in Shawkat’s office, the device was triggered killing the four key players.
The attack proved to be a tactical master-stroke. Not only did it shake the regime – perhaps fatally – to its core, but it more than achieved its immediate strategic effect, while filling the ‘Free Syrian Army’ with hope and celebration and rallying support. It also demonstrated a level of tactical cunning that had not been expected from the motley temporary band of confederates that are loosely referred to as the ‘Free Syrian Army’.
That a bomb was both smuggled into and detonated inside one of the most heavily defended buildings in one of the most heavily defended areas of Damascus raises questions as to the loyalty of Assad’s closest circle and those entrusted with their security. While the regime will pretend outwardly that all is well, the remaining key advisors will be nervously looking over their shoulders and keenly searching for signs of treachery around every corner. Cohesiveness among the remaining core of Assad loyalists will surely be tested in the coming days and the prevention of dissent and internecine conflict will be high on the agenda for Syria’s beleaguered President.
Tactical worries for the regime
Aside from tactical questions regarding the effect that this will have on Assad deploying his forces, arguably the more salient issue is the effect that this will have on the level of desertion in the Syrian Armed Forces. Estimates suggest that in addition to the twenty generals that have defected to Turkey they are joined by around one hundred soldiers per week. This rate shot up in the aftermath of this attack. In Idlib unconfirmed reports suggested that two and a half thousand soldiers had crossed the line while other reports suggested that 120 tanks had defected elsewhere, in addition to reports of defections across Syria.
If these reports prove to be correct and this trend continues, it is difficult to see how President Assad could regain momentum with his Armed Forces being riven with fear and the hugely buoyed ‘Free Syrian Army’ having their ranks swelled not only in manpower but potentially with heavier weapons.
This key attack was a part of Operation Damascus Volcano, the bombastically named assault on Damascus launched by the ‘Free Syrian Army’. Aside from a swift upsurge in attacks in the Damascene suburbs the day before, the army barracks overlooking President Assad’s Palace in the hills above Damascus was set ablaze the night before: a visual cue of what was to come.
The initial reaction of the Assad regime appears to have been to give their thug militia, the Shabiha, licence to storm into what are believed to be ‘rebel supporting’ districts of Damascus to exact revenge. Unfortunately, it seems that a stream of horror stories of brutality will be emerging from this specific incident in the days ahead, and cities all around the country will suffer as Assad exacts a brutal and unforgiving revenge.
Indeed, within hours of the explosion regime forces launched aggressive counterattacks in the neighbourhoods of Jaber, Mezzeh, Kafar Soseh, Qaboon, and Al Qadam. The rebels for their part have bedded into the mazy streets of the city but they will need to conserve ammunition, ensure supply lines remain open and well-defended, and maintain morale if their swift advances into the heart of Damascus are not to be tempered by an equally swift retreat.
One must not forget the salutary lesson from Yemen where, even after a near-fatal attack on President Saleh himself – leading to several months recuperation in Saudi Arabia -he was nevertheless still not ousted from power. Nevertheless, it appears that barring a major reversal of fortune, Assad’s downfall is to be measured in days or possibly weeks as opposed to months.
Yet this only enters Syria into the next chapter. One thing that unites all Syria analysts and watchers is a deep fear of a bloodbath of revenge as and when the Assad regime falls. Government attacks and ones that they have sponsored have been deeply brutal and have torn the social fabric of Syria asunder, profoundly polarising communities.
The role of the international community
The international community needs to move swiftly towards a plan that can be implemented to prevent deep purges taking place as and when the Assad regime finally falls. The Security Council whose deliberations were halted following the news of the attack will now sit later in the week to discuss a radically different situation. The Americans will look to seize the initiative and push through a strong resolution empowering the UN monitors to place the final clamps on the regime by bringing it financially to its knees if it engages in further violence against its citizens, which the regime surely must do to survive. These discussions will no doubt sit along with proposing a role for an international peacekeeping force to enter Syria post haste to ensure calm should Assad’s regime suddenly topple.
But for this to happen much will depend on Russia whose government has steadfastly stood by its increasingly beleaguered ally. But the corridors of the Kremlin will be filled with worried brows as a critical blow has been struck that may well signal the beginning of the end for Assad and for Russia’s strategic position in the region. If a diplomatic solution cannot be worked out before the regime fails Russia risks being faced with a hostile Syrian government comprised of opposition groups and those who have long suffered at the hands of Assad and his henchman. Such a result would be catastrophic for Moscow.
It remains to be seen of the Russians can break out of their dogmatic position on Syria and show some flexibility in the coming days, for the risks for the Kremlin in continuing to tow its obstinate path are high. Much will need to be considered as to how best they play out the coming end game, for Assad will now surely fall; the question is not if, but when.
Understanding Qatar’s Foreign Policy Objectives 19, July 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Foreign Policy Objectives, Qatar Foreign Policy objectives, Qatar's foreign policy
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I’ve written a piece for Mediterranean Journal on Qatar’s foreign policy. The opening couple of paragraphs are below and the rest can be found here.
Neither in the bowels of the Foreign Ministry nor in the Emir Diwan in Qatar is there a large-scale strategic plan underscoring and directing Qatar’s foreign policy before, during, or after the Arab Spring. There are no Machiavellian plans afoot to support the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region or to corral support against Saudi-led Salafi groups. Al Jazeera is not a tool of the Foreign Minister, Qatar’s desire to promote democracy does not make it any more hypocritical than any other state, the Qatari Emir is neither a lackey of America nor Tehran, and nor have there been several attempts on his life in recent years, as, for example, Syrian media outlets so adamantly claimed.
Wading through the reams of misinformation, clichés, propaganda, and vitriol masquerading as analysis and reportage of Qatar’s foreign policy and its objectives takes practice, perseverance, and a deep understanding of Qatar itself. Arriving at any firm conclusions is further complicated by the conservative and private nature of Qataris themselves and the lack of any kind of meaningful policy documents, whitepapers, official explanations, and overall transparency throughout Government.
The key to understanding Qatar’s foreign policies is to place them in the context of the State of Qatar itself. A clear and dispassionate grasp of the factors, be they social, economic, or political, that contributed to the milieu in which the policies were made is the first step towards a nuanced and transparent understanding of the emergent foreign policies.
Of KSA and the Gulf Union 13, July 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
Tags: Bahrain Gulf Union, Gulf Union, KSA, Saudi Arabia
I wrote the following article for e-International Relations on KSA and the Gulf Union, but this time with extra subtle literary allusion.
In mid-December 2011 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for the Gulf Cooperation Council to move towards “a stage of union in a single entity”. What exactly he meant by this was never officially fleshed out, as is the way in the Gulf where public diplomacy is a rarity. Instead it was left for the editorialists, a few scattered comments by Ministers, and peoples’ fevered imaginations to fill in the blanks particularly in the run up to the following GCC meeting in May 2012.
Stalwart Saudi columnists extolled the virtues of the inevitable fraternal linking of states, their counterparts in the Iranian press castigated this move as divisive and provocative, and Western analysts resolutely pointed out the difficulties inherent in some form of a Union. As the May meeting approached, Riyadh was bedecked with GCC flags for the ceremony, the pro-Union editorials spewed out copy building on a bullish pro-Union speech by Saudi’s Foreign Minister Faisal, and an odd air of expectancy filled the region. Despite the obvious difficulties of such a Union and the myriad problems it would create and cracks it would paper over, it appeared as if through force of will alone Riyadh was going to pull a Unionised rabbit out of the hat.
Yet, to quote Lord Palmerston, states have neither permanent friends nor enemies, only permanent interests, and so it proved. The May meeting proved to be an anticlimactic non-event, with the only outcome being promise of another meeting in December 2012. Clearly the elite in Saudi Arabia colossally misjudged the whole situation.
It seemed to make sense
One can understand the frustration of Saudi’s elite. No country in the Gulf with the possible exception of Qatar at all welcomed the Arab Spring. For Saudi Arabia, a country which has enjoyed spectacular oil receipts for decades yet whose people suffer from profound unemployment, a lack of basic opportunities, badly aging infrastructure not to mention a repressive social atmosphere, the Arab Spring not only forced the Government to crack down in their eastern province but also splurge $130bn on a palliative budget to stem revolutionary-inspired ideas.
Moreover, on the Kingdom’s door step in Bahrain, the Spring had a deleterious effect on the fragile status quo. The Shia majority who have been economically and socially disenfranchised for generations rose up and were crushed with varying degrees of brutality.
This situation, which Saudi Arabia erroneously believed was caused by Iran, opened up a potentially critical wound right next to Saudi’s own Shia population sitting atop the majority of its oil facilities, which, they feared, could be exploited nefariously by Iran. The fact that America had abandoned so quickly – as Riyadh saw it – a long term ally in Hosni Mubarak in Egypt enraged Saudi Arabia who at some level feared that they too could suffer the same fate. Well, it was reasoned, if America was not going to shore up long-term friendly allies, Saudi would. Duly Saudi Arabia sent over a thousand of its troops and armoured vehicles into Bahrain in February 2011 as a show of force to defend Bahrain ‘against Iran’.
This military support bolstered years of economic support in terms of investment, shared oil receipts, and gifts. The Spring sent Western banks scurrying from Manama deepening Bahrain’s reliance on Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future. Indeed, given the calm and prosperous shores of Doha and Abu Dhabi but a few miles from Manama, there seems little chance that these western banks will return to Manama. Not only is Bahrain’s future, therefore, resolutely tied to Saudi Arabia but the ruling Sunni Al Khalifah family, facing such stiff internal issues, are doubly likely to rely on their fraternal Saudi brethren for support, particularly given the Iranian menace’s lurking stature (in Bahraini and Saudi eyes at least).
Quotes from the Bahraini King’s spokespeople even emerged just before the May meeting talking about the need to meet future challenges with “a more united front”. Yet it was not to be.
As for notions that the shared Iranian menace that all Gulf States face would force the smaller States to join Saudi Arabia in forming a protective Union similarly proved to be wide of the mark. This, despite examples of Iranian perfidy perennially peppering leaders’ speeches, Iranian spy rings being caught in Kuwait on several occasions, Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops attacking Qatari unmanned rigs in the shared gas field and any number of bellicose speeches emerging from the Iranian Parliament and Press.
Rhetoric versus reality
It is rather easy for the Arab Gulf States to agitate in one form or another about Iran’s perfidy. Such a policy is extremely popular domestically plugging into thousands of years of cultural, religious, political, and social animosity. It also neatly fits into modern political and regional dynamics and one can easily find some tangential evidence relating to Iran’s nefarious tentacles when necessary.
While the small Gulf States would like some form of reassurance against the Iranian threat – however they perceive it – there is an opportunity cost to be calculated. Specifically, while Iran poses some kind of threat, so too do the smaller states detect some kind of threat from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the regional Arab behemoth. Historically, politically and in terms of the basic building blocks of traditional power reckoning (population, country size, military might, economic sway) Saudi Arabia has long dominated the region. The smaller states, though they pack a post-modern punch themselves in various ways with their soft power ventures and such, nevertheless harbour concerns regarding Saudi’s sheer size and overbearing policies as evidenced in their Gulf Union push.
Additionally, a key but often overlooked facet is the insecurity throughout the newer, smaller Gulf States pertaining to their national identities. These states, it must not be forgotten, derive from essentially the same kind of cultural, familial, tribal, societal, economic, and religious background. There is until recently, therefore, little to necessarily differentiate a Qatari from an Emirati from a Saudi. The differences that have emerged in recent years in terms of the growth of a new identity with which to identify would be challenged and even eroded in the longer term were pan-regional ties to be emphasised at the expense of the sub-regional states.
Also, despite the often dire pronouncements in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama about Iran and its actions, it is difficult to escape the utility of these policy ploys. In short, whether the leaders genuinely believe that the Iranian threat is as dire as they maintain or whether they merely believe that by hyping such a threat this offers an easy way to galvanise and distract their domestic constituencies, is open to question. One could see a cost benefit emerging where the ‘threat’ posed by Saudi Arabia outweighs any realistic threat of Iran.
And this is not the first time that the Gulf States have undertaken policy by knee-jerk reaction. After the shattering invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 the GCC launched the ‘Damascus Declaration’. This was a plan to station Syrian and Egyptian troops in the Gulf to boost the deterrence of the region. In return the GCC States would undertake massive investments in the troop-sending countries. Needless to say, much like the recent notion of expanding the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan, this idea went nowhere and was quietly dropped.
Many would note that the notion of a Gulf Union is not dead, merely that the decision has been moved towards the end of the year. Yet when the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait have shown such intransigence thus far, there is little realistic expectation that they will submit themselves to anything approaching a meaningful Union agreement. There are two clear conclusions to draw from this Unionising motion.
Firstly, that Saudi Arabia appears to believe its own rhetoric too much. The evils of Iran have been doing the Majlis rounds in Saudi Arabia for generations and it seems likely that the distinction between rhetoric and reality has been blurred. And while Saudi Arabia – the Lenny of the Gulf – may think that it is offering altruistic support to its allies, it must not forget that it looms large and is intimidating in its own right.
Secondly, while other Gulf States may over-hype the Iran threat sporadically for domestic purposes, there is nevertheless some sense of threat felt by all of the smaller Gulf States. With the swift refusal to discuss a tighter arrangement the other Gulf States signal the result of their cost benefit calculation falling firmly on the side of the status quo; to wit, that the fact that America is the key guarantor of security. With huge air fields, ports, and other facilities full of thousands of US personnel not to mention the world’s most advanced fighter jets and warships backed up by the most powerful military force ever seen, unsurprisingly, the smaller Gulf States don’t feel the need to run to Saudi Arabia, with its expensive but poorly trained forces. Only when this dependency upon America and its guarantees changes will the Gulf States move in the direction of meaningful closer cooperation.