Qatar is not Bahrain or Kuwait 8, November 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar.
Tags: Arab Spring, Bahrain, bahrain arab spring, Kuwait, Kuwait parliament, kuwait problems, Qatar, Qatar arab spring
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The following article appeared on Dohanews.co last week
While media outlets find it convenient and practical to generalize when it comes to reporting on “The Gulf” or the now 24-month-long “Arab Spring,” these terms can be problematic as they simplify complex issues.
For example, take the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. On the surface, these countries have many similarities in terms of tribal structure, intermingling of families, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and economic and political systems.
But the differences between the nations, and even in cities within one country, are stark. Riyadh and Jeddah – let alone in comparison to somewhere like Muscat – are poles apart and – to engage in a different sort of generalization – Kuwaitis are far more politically garrulous than their Qatari cousins.
So, will the similarities mean that the Arab Spring will sweep across all Gulf States, or will some difference impede its passage? Let’s take a case-by-case approach.
Kuwait has relatively a long, mercantile history. One author even dubbed Kuwait “the Marseilles of the Gulf” – such was the port-city-melting-pot nature of the place. This helped give rise to a rich and relatively independent merchant elite that exists alongside the ruling Al Sabah family.
This dynamic in which the ruling family must contend with other powerful players has set the feisty tone of politics in Kuwait. In contrast, Doha was never as cosmopolitan or as prosperous a city and consequently no merchant class could develop independent of Al Thani power. This meant that politics was, as it remains today, dominated by the Al Thani family.
Today the merchant families in Kuwait have mostly “joined sides” with the Al Sabah against those dubbed “the opposition.” Much of the opposition are referred to as tribal and Islamist in nature and were enfranchised later on in the 20th century when the Al Sabah needed more support. Initially they were grateful to the Al Sabah for giving them a passport and supported them in Parliament.
More recently, however, they have realised that they are in the majority in Kuwait and now feel that they deserve more power. In the ( annulled) previous election, they won 34 of the 50 seats, demanded nine Cabinet posts (of sixteen), were offered three and took none.
The battle lines are thus set broadly between the older, established, richer elites and the “younger” interlopers looking to get their share and upset the status quo.
While there has historically been tension of varying degrees between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain, the key dividing line was largely a socio-economic one. Though there was certainly a correlation between Sunni and Shia in terms of greater opportunities for Sunni Bahrainis, the tension was typically not manifest in an overtly sectarian way.
The Arab Spring changed that entirely. To some degree this was a state-sanctioned ploy to specifically and overtly use the sectarian angle as an effective way of corralling support against the uprisings in Bahrain. Though they may have been successful in halting any significant changes, this came at a terrible cost not only in terms of deaths and arrests but in terms of profoundly polarizing Bahraini society.
Qatar possesses none of these key dynamics. It has neither a highly active public, political debating culture; latent sectarian concerns; nor deep and widespread socio-economic disparities among citizens. Moreover, it has a tiny indigenous population and prodigious riches to shower upon them.
Yet Qatar’s stability is not obtained through this alone, for its leadership has been putting Qatar on the international map in largely positive ways for over a decade now. This has changed the international perception of Qatar from having no reputation whatsoever – or being “known for being unknown” – to now being known for its mediation, Al Jazeera, sporting initiatives and supporting various factions in the Arab Spring. Overall, I believe that most Qataris are – if anything – pleased with this burgeoning reputation.
Just like every other state on Earth, Qatar does have its problems and its population has its grumbles. The pace of change and apparent “Westernisation”concerns some, while others want more transparency and a say in how the country is run.
By virtue of its proximity and its fraternal ties, Qatar will remain deeply concerned and interested in what transpires as its fellow GCC States wrestle with the Arab Spring. But barring a black swan event or a sea-change in attitudes, Qatar will remain as insulated as ever from the Spring.
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.
On Bahrain & RUSI 14, June 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar.
Tags: Bahrain, Bahrain RUSI conference, Derasat RUSI conference, RUSI conference
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My views on the current problems in Bahrain are clear. They appeared in the Guardian at the end of last year and they are not flattering. Allow me to quote the opening paragraph:
To paraphrase the quote most often attributed to John Maynard Keynes, I reserve the right to change my mind should new evidence present itself, but so far there is no proof whatsoever of Iranian interference to any significant degree in Bahrain’s internal affairs. Certainly Iran is not “responsible” for the recent uprisings in Bahrain.
Again, in a less than flattering manner, I discuss Bahrain in terms of the Gulf Union for RUSI here and for Foreign policy here; I’ve blogged about the Bahraini security crackdown here; I lay bare Bahrain’s core security concerns here; I criticise a puff piece on Bahrain here; I discuss the tragedy of the KSA intervention in an article titled The Endgame in Bahrain for RUSI; I wrote about the dynamics of Sunni/Shia issues in the Gulf for someone here; I’ve noted the typical lack of evidence when accusing Iran of perfidy in the Gulf here; I disemboweled a shocking Wall Street Journal article on Bahrain here; and I refer to the Bahraini authorities’ molehill of evidence of Iranian interference here.
Does this mean that RUSI as an organisation, my employers for some time now, is thus to be dumped in the anti-Bahraini pot? Not so much. And does RUSI’s organising of a roundtable in Bahrain mean that RUSI is automatically dumped in the pro-Bahraini pot? Not so much.
While there are clearly deep differences between writing some articles on a topic and entering some kind of relationship to put on a series of events, neither one necessarily represents the totality of opinion in a given organisation.
I’ve not been involved in the preparation or execution of the roundtable event in Bahrain and I’ve not attended the sessions, so what I say is coming from secondary sources.
Obviously, it appears that the Bahrainis have stacked the deck and have not issued visas to people that they agreed could attend the events. This is a monumentally silly thing to do. It looks absurd, it attracts all the wrong kind of attention, and is deeply counterproductive as Kristian Ulrichesen, one of the spurned attendees and a genuine Gulf expert eloquently notes in Open Democracy. The only note of caution that I would insert here is to say that a touch of judgement should perhaps be reserved until one sees the results (RUSI’s commentary, analysis, reportage) of this roundtable.
There is a logic to castigating RUSI noting that it should not lend the fevered rantings of a segment of opinion in Bahrain the forum to rant further. This makes sense to some degree, but to my mind is profoundly undercut by the deeper need to engage.
The first article that I ever wrote for publication in February 2008 discussed this exact point in relation to KSA (Asia Times Online here, and the same idea for Infinity Journal here). In these articles I cite the (depressingly reoccurring) example of a maid in early 2008 in KSA who was to be whipped because she was raped after getting into a car with men to whom she was not married. Yet this absurdly barbaric sentence was quashed by King Abdullah thanks in large (if not quantifiable) part to the storm of Western-led pressure. If my memory serves me well, even Hilary Clinton got in on the act.
I suggest, therefore, that Western engagement in KSA, which is – obviously enough – done mostly on a Government/commercial basis, was profoundly important in this case. Moreover, it does not seem to be a huge leap to me to suggest that had the West disengaged from KSA as there is significant pressure to do, then America’s or Britain’s key role in KSA would be replaced by Russia or China, and I think we can be certain that neither Beijing nor Moscow would have batted the proverbial eyelid about this poor victim who was to be whipped.
[Lest any trolls descend on this last paragraph: no, I’m not trying to suggest that profit-seeking western companies are performing altruistic duties in KSA, but that there are clear, positive ramifications of engaging in KSA nonetheless.]
In a similar vein, I just don’t see the utility of disengaging with Bahrain. I don’t see what would be gained or how it would improve the situation. Does anyone really think that what Bahrain needs is further isolation, condemnation, and finger-wagging? Or, to put this another way; would such an approach lead to some kind of an equitable solution faster? I don’t presume to understand how one can effectively and quickly facilitate the sides in Bahrain in coming to a compromise of some description, but I think that engagement by RUSI or HMG or whomever is likely to be a (small) part of the answer.
Like all RUSI researchers, I write this post in a personal capacity, for the Institute does not hold a corporate view, precisely in order to encourage a free flow of ideas.
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.
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.
British Embassy in Bahrain attacked? 5, December 2011Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain.
Tags: Bahrain, Bahrain British Embassy, British Embassy Bahrain bomb
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A small bomb went off near the British Embassy in Bahrain’s capital Manama. The relatively small device went off underneath a bus parked 50 meters away from the Embassy.
Some points to note:
- This incident comes at a time of tension between the UK and Iran (re: embassy bootings out) and during the Shia festival of Ashura.
- Nevertheless, without wishing to be fatuous, no one can say with 100% accuracy that the British Embassy was the target. 50m is no small distance. Of course, it is likely, but if you’re that close to the Embassy why not lob it over the wall or leave it next to the wall/gate – anything other that sticking it under a bus?
- I shudder to think of the hay that the Bahraini authorities will make with this; adding to their already notable molehill of ‘evidence’ of Iranian nefariousness in Bahrain.
- If the Iranians wanted to attack the British Embassy in Bahrain (or elsewhere) I would suggest that they could – so to speak – do a damn sight better job than a home-made explosive device left under a bus vaguely near a British Embassy.
- If the Bahraini authorities really want to push this line about this being proof of Iranian influence in Bahrain, then I suggest that this augers for just how little influence they have.
- If this incident was done by someone with links to or sympathies with Iran (which is, of course, perfectly possible) then this person either: 1) Is incredibly dim (see point 3) in that now the Bahraini authorities will have yet more excuse in their eyes to crack-down further should they so choose. 2) Is rather Machiavellian (see point 3) in that they are trying to draw on more of a repressive response from the Bahraini authorities. Either which way, the Bahraini police ought to pursue a measured response.
WSJ article on Iran and Bahrain 6, October 2011Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain.
Tags: Bahrian Shua, Iran, Iran in Bahrain, Shia in Iran
I have written on numerous occasions about Iran and Bahrain (here here and here). I am neither Bahraini nor Iranian. Nor do I have a gripe with either side. Nor am I a dyed in the wool conservative or a pinko liberal. I try to come at the issue of the Shia in Bahrain, the stalled pearl ‘revolution’ and the question of Iran’s involvement therein as neutrally as possible. I try to caveat what I say and have frequently noted my openness to listen to and evaluate new evidence.
Thus far it is my conclusion that Iran has not played a significant role in the uprisings in Bahrain. There is quite simply not the evidence in the public domain to support such a statement. Which is why I was so interested in this article published in the Wall Street Journal. I was looking forward to reading some critical scholarship or analysis that eschews the tired and typical generalities of nasty Iran.
Alas I was disappointed.
The following is the entire article with my comments underneath. As per my blog’s style, I have commented in a dry and sometimes sarcastic manner. This is not to be mean or disrespectful, but, frankly, it’s a disgraceful article that deserves all the derision it gets.
When the history of the 2011 Arab uprisings is written, Bahrain’s chapter will likely be the most unexpected for a casual reader. Though military rule was lifted in June and widespread public protests have not been seen since March, Bahrain’s place in the region’s upheavals remains deeply misunderstood.
So far, so intriguing. I’d agree to some degree; all of us are operating from behind some kind of veil of ignorance; we don’t know the inner workings of the Bahraini MOI or the King’s mind, so what we do is draw educated assumptions and suggest sensible explanations.
Bahrain is not just another falling domino in the Arab Spring. Nor is it experiencing a surge of spontaneous resistance by its people against their rulers.
There’s no spontaneity to it? At all. None? Not even a bit? Not a tiny bit? A teensy tiny bit? That is a HUGE deceleration to make.
Rather, Bahrain is the victim of a long cycle of intrigue and interference aimed at replacing the moderate and modernizing Khalifa regime with a theocracy under Tehran’s thumb.
And these two things are mutually exclusive? I’d beg to differ.
This spring, as protesters camped out in Manama’s Pearl Square by night and hurled stones by day, Iran mobilized its public-relations teams, which read scripted newscasts denouncing the Khalifa family.
Aaah! The dreaded media wing of the evil Republic! Run for the hills! Not….PR!
Meanwhile, Tehran’s military drafted intervention plans.
Yer what!!?? Proof please.
Though even if one assumes that such plans have been made – which I can well imagine and have no problem admitting (I’m well aware that Iran is extremely far from a benign actor: see Kuwait earlier this year) – I’d personally have thought that they’d have been there for ages. Not, as he directly insinuates, having being conjured up post-Spring.
Western observers and governments took the bait and shied away from addressing the true origins of the violence, instead urging Bahrain to show restraint.
Mmm…because Western states like, oh I don’t know…America…so love to play down the Iranian threat…RI-diculous
The misreading was doubly disappointing given Tehran’s long history of working to upset Bahrain’s domestic stability. Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, the country’s leaders have assumed that their revolution represents the aspirations of Shiites throughout the Mideast.
That is why they have worked to undermine the Sunni Khalifa family’s legitimacy in Bahrain by promoting an ideology of Shiite empowerment.
When Nateq Nuri, advisor to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed Bahrain as Iran’s “14th province” in 2009, he was only restating well-worn rhetoric from the revolution 30 years prior.
Today there is an intimidating imbalance of power between Iran and Bahrain.
Umm…anyone know of any fleets based in Bahrain? Anyone?? Venture a guess??? Could have sworn I saw a LOT of big grey ships last time I was there.
Iran’s standing military numbers 510,000—roughly two-thirds of Bahrain’s entire population. Bahrain would have little to worry about if Iran were content merely to grandstand and make threatening noises. But Tehran has taken concrete steps over the last 30 years to destabilize and de-legitimize Bahrain’s leadership, both directly and through proxies.
Iranian subversion began in December 1981, when the Tehran-based Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) attempted a high-profile coup. An Iranian-trained team of Shiite Bahrainis were to simultaneously attack telecommunications services and Bahrain’s airport, and would assassinate key members of the Khalifa regime. In the ensuing chaos, Iran would send in its military and establish a new theocratic regime similar to its own.
I’ve never come across any proof of this, but am willing to believe it…no-one is trying to say that Iran is a cuddly neighbour
The coup failed, but the experience spurred the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which today includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Under the December 1981 Saudi-Bahrain Security Pact, Saudi Arabia placed its entire “potential in the service of Bahrain’s security.”
That didn’t stop Iran from working to extend its power. But in the late 1980s, Iran overplayed its hand when it started mining sea lanes in an attempt to control the Persian Gulf. Four days after a U.S. frigate struck an Iranian mine in 1988, the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis to sweep Iran’s naval presence from both sides of the Gulf.
Having been checked militarily by the U.S., Iran began to deploy more clandestine methods in its quest for regional control. When unemployed Bahrainis rallied at their government’s labor ministry in 1994, Iran filled the country
with propaganda advocating a Shiite intifada characterized by “democracy” and “equality.” Tehran even offered to mediate as the “Days of Rage” grew in ferocity and Bahrainis faced daily acts of violence in the unrest, which lasted until 1999.
Mounting evidence of Iran’s duplicity prompted the U.S. to permanently station its Fifth Fleet in Manama in 1995. Taking the move as a provocation, Tehran intensified its intifada
and began training Bahraini Shiite fighters in Iran.
Proof? But again, I’m willing to suspect that some folks were indeed so trained. (My only point being that this is not rock-solidly ‘true’)
Among other efforts, Tehran established a military wing for Hezbollah in Bahrain, which attempted another coup in June 1996. Bahraini authorities thwarted the plot only by preemptively arresting dozens of suspects, and the kingdom continued to operate under de-facto martial law that didn’t end until 1999, when Sheik Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa died and his son and successor took over the kingdom.
The new King Hamed bin Issa Al Khalifa promptly ordered an end to emergency rule, instituted a general amnesty for political prisoners and reestablished Bahrain’s popularly elected Shura Council. But while many hoped that Hamed’s gestures would ease Bahrain’s religious tensions, the liberalizations only saw the Shiite community become more militant.
…and they had no grievances about which to agitate?
The current uprising, or so-called Pearl Revolution, in fact did not begin this year but dates back to 2008, when Bahraini authorities arrested senior Shiite clerics accused of conspiring against the government. The sporadic violence that ensued culminated in still another attempted coup. Then in December 2008, 14 people were arrested on suspicion of planning a series of terror attacks against commercial centers, diplomatic missions and night clubs in Bahrain.
The arrests unleashed still more violence. It was against this backdrop that Iran’s Mr. Nuri called Bahrain Iran’s “14th province,” a statement greeted by joyous chants of agreement from Bahrain’s Shiites.
All of them? Every last one? All chanting in unison? Were you counting? How are you judging whether a chant is joyous or not? Or merely merry? How about elated or just loud? And what exactly does this mean? What level of support does this denote?
Despite such revanchism, in the spring of 2009 Hamid declared another amnesty,
What a guy.
this time pardoning some 170 prisoners who had been charged with endangering national security, including 35 Shias on trial for allegedly trying to overthrow the government. Normally, this would provide space for reconciliation. But again, Iran’s efforts to push Bahrain into full-scale civil war have kept tensions hot.
Thirty years of intransigence
An interesting word choice. One with which I’d agree. But ‘intransigence’ is not exactly explicit, direct and persistent interference, now is it?
reveal the extent of Tehran’s determination to turn Bahrain into an Iranian satellite.
Of course Tehran would love to have Bahrain under its fold. I don’t disagree.
So Iran’s machinations during this year’s protests should have had the international community rushing to support Bahrain, not ostracize it.
Aaah…the crux. The key bit. The core. The proof. The evidence. The schizzle. The skinny…what machinations? What? Specifically? Literally? Explicitly explain what machinations you’re talking about. Using real evidence, what have been Iran’s machinations? This is T H E key question. One which has not even been remotely touched upon in this article.
Instead, too many decision makers were still lost in the rhetoric of the wider Arab Spring. The specifics of each country are whitewashed in favor of one simplistic mantra: that the Arab peoples have been oppressed by their leaders and want democratic reform.
Most have…most do.
This is only partially correct in some cases and fundamentally erroneous in Bahrain.
So you are explicitly saying that there has been no oppression by Bahrain’s elite on the Shia? This is factually what this paragraphs says. This is a bold, bold claim and one that ignores a wee mountain of evidence
Instead of simply reading demonstrator’s placards, leaders need to understand the country’s history. Bahrain is in the midst of an existential struggle against a vastly superior foe. Meanwhile, in Iran, the international community is content to listen to calls for moderate reforms coming from immoderate ayatollahs.
Nice word play at the end.
All in all this is a shockingly bad article. For several reasons
Are the Shia in Iran incapable of doing anything themselves? Are they unable to resist the lure – the moth to the flame – of Iran’s calls? Are there no issues with Bahrain’s Shia looking to a significant degree to Najaf and Karbala?
While some may look to Iran as the leading/only Shia state to some degree, what does this mean? That they support the Iranian football team? Prefer Persian food? Will martyr themselves for Ahmadinejad? Or…well…nothing at all. My point is not that all Shia do not take orders from Iran; surely some do but what is equally sure is some do not.
And here I’d look to the instructive example of the Iran Iraq war. Shia versus Shia in brutal trench warfare replete with chemical weapon attacks. By this kind of absurd narrative one would expect the Iraqi Shia to down tools and join their Shia brethren in Iran; after all Khomeini was in his revolutionary pomp. Yet did this happen? Not at all. They killed each other by the hundreds of thousands.
While Iraq is obviously vastly different from Bahrain, this example is just to show that this dialectic is vastly more complex than Iran clicks its fingers and the Bahraini Shia jump. Which is exactly the kind of simplistic assumption that underpins all such ridiculous articles.
Facts on the ground
I think the author needs to do a bit of wider reading regarding the Shia situation in Bahrain, particularly regarding socio-economic disenfranchisement.
I realise that at times we (us outside of governments) do not have access to grade A proof, should such a thing exist. But when one is making such accusations as in this piece, it is incumbent, at the very least, for the author to be specific.
I wholly agree that – or rather, as far as I know – Iran have a sporadically nefarious history with Bahrain. And that this fact should inform – but not cloud – our assumptions and research subsequently.
But when beginning discussing the Pearl Revolutions and Iran’s role therein, we need to be honest and note that – thus far? – there is simply no evidence of Iran’s involvement. Printed stories in Iran just do not count as anything more meaningful than a bunch of printed stories. Is that it? Is that the proof of Iran’s involvement: journalists’ witterings?
I’m not trying to be obtuse; I understand that Iran have a vested interest in upsetting the status quo in Bahrain and have, it seems, a history in this; but this is a serious accusation, and ‘form’ or, to put it another way, circumstantial evidence, just will not do.
On Iran and the GCC 22, August 2011Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Iran.
Tags: Bahrain, Iran, Iran and the GCC
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The Guardian have published an article of mine on the GCC fixation with Iran. Despite a bit of butchery with the editing robbing my opening sentence of its mojo, it is still, I feel, worth a read!
Tags: Abu Musa, Emirates Abu Musa, Iran Abu Musa, Pearl Rounda Abu Musa, Pearl roundabout
I can’t believe that I missed this when the story first broke.
Evidently the Iranians have a super sense of high mirth and constructed a fake ‘pearl roundabout’ as a monument to the epicenter of the Bahraini protests, which was subsequently destroyed in Manama. Moreover, not only did they ironically immortalize the roundabout, but they built it on the disputed island of Abu Musa, which the Iranians nabbed from the Emirates in 1971.
The GCC, Yemen & Bahrain: Inside Story 8, May 2011Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, The Gulf, Yemen.
Tags: Al Jazeera inside story, Bahrain conflict, David Roberts, GCC Bahrain, GCC mediation, GCC mediation Yemen, Inside story, Qatar mediation Yemen
Here are some of my thoughts on the GCC in Yemen and in Bahrain.
Obviously, hindsight is 20:20, but I now realise that I ought to have confronted the Saudi fellow more robustly. Live and learn. Oh, and I need to E N U N C I A T E some more. And I’m fairly sure that I look nothing like that…and I’m certain that I sound nothing like that either.