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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Prisoner X and the Dubai debacle 15, February 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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Haaretz

The Prisoner X case in Israel is interesting for a few reasons.

Firstly, Bibi’s reaction to try to block Israeli papers from reporting on this incident smacks of the most pointless Mubarak-esque finger-in-the-dam mentality. We just do not live in that kind of world anymore. Instructing Israeli papers to ignore the incident as the story flies around the world is not only utterly futile but creates the impression that he has not learned anything from regional events. Was there any chance that this story would not have broken in Israel eventually?

Secondly, quoting the hugely reliable Kuwaiti press (…) the New York Times speculates that the reason Prisoner X was in such unusual custody was because he was involved in the Dubai assassination incident back in 2010. Apparently he was in the process of disclosing Mossad’s involvement and was thus arrested and incarcerated in this way such was the potential fall out were he to (or because he already had) disclose(d) information about Mossad’s involvement.

I have never quite understood this incident. How the Dubai authorities and countless op-eds across this part of the world mocked the Mossad for this ‘failure’ of an operation has never made sense to me. Around 20 Mossad agents waltzed into Dubai through its key international airport hub, sauntered to the hotel in question, mingled around, went to the room, killed the chap, wandered away, leisurely returned to the airport and skipped merrily through Dubai International Airport once more. How this is not a catastrophic and embarrassing failure for Dubai’s police force and domestic intelligence service I just don’t know.

OK, the suspects were caught on camera and I am sure they hoped it would be assumed that the chap died of natural causes but what does it matter? They killed him with ease and escaped with not so much as a murmur from Dubai’s authorities. So many congratulations to the Dubai police for putting together such a riveting series of pictures, better luck next time with – you know – actually catching them and stopping the assassination, perhaps?

And what do the Israelis care as to the embarrassment of this incident? It shows the impunity with which they can operate across the Middle East and their resolve in assassinating key leaders. I’m sure they were at least half pleased when the whole thing broke.

So to me, at least, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that Prisoner X received such special treatment over this incident. I assumed that he had something to do with leaking Israeli nuclear secrets and this still seems the most likely thing to me, but I suppose we’ll never know.

Of KSA and the Gulf Union 13, July 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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I wrote the following article for e-International Relations on KSA and the Gulf Union, but this time with extra subtle literary allusion.

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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.

Looking Forward

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.

 

Gulf Disunion 3, May 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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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.

The GCC’s anti-revolutionary expansion 26, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) celebrates its thirtieth anniversary in May and by way of celebration it is mooting the inclusion of two other countries. Yemen is not being considered for membership, even though it long wanted to join, is situated within the eponymous Gulf, borders two current members, shares tranches of historical memory as well as cultural similarities and is in profoundly desperate need of regional political and economic support. Iraq, a Gulf state bordering two current GCC members, sharing a similarly extensive historical record with its neighbouring states and plainly in need of the economic assistance that GCC membership could offer, is also not being considered

Instead, Jordan and Morocco are the countries in question. Though Jordan is not a Gulf country, it is contiguous to Saudi Arabia whereas Morocco’s capital – Rabat – is separated by at least six countries, the Red Sea and nearly six and a half thousand kilometres from Muscat, Oman’s capital: even Shanghai is closer. Given these geographical anomalies, what sort of union could seriously be made between this group of countries?

The GCC

The GCC was founded in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent alteration of the regional order caused by the offensive role played by Iran in the Gulf, which led to the Iran-Iraq war. In search of common support, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman joined together. Initially hopes were high that this union would herald the beginning of greater economic, political and cultural unity among members. Three decades on, and aside from a few relatively minor accomplishments, the GCC has been remarkably unproductive.

Its lack of tangible end product is surprising. The group of states involved possess a common language, religion, geography, history, culture, economic make-up and many face similar problems; to name but one, all of them fear Iran to a greater or lesser degree. Yet even under these circumstances and with an archetypal example of a common ‘enemy’ which – as Rene Girard described – would often bind countries together, the GCC are a remarkably argumentative bunch.

The economic union and single GCC currency, for example, is a long running saga. Initially proposed in 2000 and scheduled to come into force in 2010, the latest estimates now point to somewhere around 2013. In the mean time, the UAE pulled out of the currency, seemingly not able to withstand the notion of the GCC Central Bank being based in Riyadh and not Abu Dhabi.

In military matters, the Peninsula Shield force too, comprising elements of all the GCC countries, is a shell of a fighting force. A study conducted in 2000 by a Lieutenant Commander at the US Naval War College is scathing of the Peninsula Shield as a whole. [1] Not only was there a ‘nearly complete lack of interoperability’ among the various units but the training was comically bad, so much so that ‘success’ on a gunnery exercise was judged on whether you could ‘get the ammunition out of the muzzle. The number of hits is ignored.’ Since 2000 things did not improve much given that the Peninsula Shield force was all but abandoned as the 2000s wore on. In 2008 it was resurrected under the mandate of a ‘Rapid Reaction Force’ but little was heard of it until its surprising intervention in Bahrain in February.

Why now?

This is not the first time that other countries have been invited to join the GCC. In 1991 after, just after a crisis – Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – the GCC sought to station Syrian and Egyptian troops in the GCC under the auspices of the ‘Damascus Declaration’. This idea soon fizzled out.

After another crisis – this time not the invasion of a member but an arguably bigger threat to all; the Arab Spring – again the GCC is moved to action. Yet the invitation of Jordan and Morocco appears to be a curious move.

The initial assumption is that the GCC are just expanding their club of Sunni Kings (with Oman being an exception; they are mostly Ibadi). Were Morocco and Jordan to join then all monarchies in the Arab world would be tied into the GCC. Obviously, the GCC with their significant wealth would then be able to support their fellow Kings to a greater degree: after all, no one in the GCC wants to set the precedent of one of their brethren falling from power to a republic or even set a tone of greater constitutionality.

Following on from the Damascus Declaration precedent, the GCC could be motivated by the notion of facilitating an official path for the stationing of Jordanian troops in the Gulf. Not only are the Jordanian armed forces the most professional Arab force, but the Gulf Kingdoms clearly do not trust their own forces. Historically, many rested on foreign guarantees of power from the Ottomans then the British then the Americans on whom many rely to this day. Moreover, the recent example of the UAE’s development of a mercenary army is a devastating indictment on the lack of confidence that they have in their own armed forces.

The idea that these states would join together to augment their collective strength is also – at least in theory – persuasive. Indeed, there are two possible blocs for the GCC to unite against. First, there is the sectarian divide which has come to the fore in recent months, whereby the GCC could band together their political and military capabilities versus Iran. After all, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah who coined the phrase ‘the Shia Crescent’ in 2004. Second, this new configuration of states could come together as a bulwark against the two potentially resurgent Arab states that traditionally sought to dominate the region: Egypt and Iraq.

Anti-revolution

Yet arguably the most persuasive driver of this unusual policy stems from the fact that the GCC states want to draw a line in the sand: no more revolutions. This initiative is heavily led by Saudi Arabia with the UAE following closely behind. The revolutions have profoundly perturbed the powers that be in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Seeing Tunisia’s regime fall was interesting if slightly perturbing; seeing Egypt’s regime fall was earth-shakingly concerning: if Mubarak with his three decade-long vice-like grip on power in a country that experienced 5 per cent growth per year that was staunchly supported by America can be evicted, anyone can. After Mubarak, Syria and Libya began to wobble alarmingly and any such concerns in Bahrain were viciously halted with Saudi Arabia’s help and mandate.

The notion of Jordan and Morocco joining the GCC is, therefore, arguably first and foremost a way of stopping the roll of the revolutions; halting its momentum. Any recent progression in Morocco and Jordan towards a more representative, constitutional monarchy would in all likelihood be halted as an intrinsic part of the GCC deal.

Will it come to pass?

The GCC is replete with half-baked and unrealised initiatives. Such a profound change would surely take this organisation, which typically operates at a glacial pace, many years to arrange, during which time the idea will most likely be quietly shelved. Indeed, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait appear to be far more reticent about the expansion.

Qatar and Kuwait in particular are secure in their own borders have very little to fear from the Spring Revolutions. Oman meanwhile probably does not want to see an extra two hungry mouths to feed, fearing that while they would never be left to starve and fend for themselves, they would most likely ipso facto get more support if Jordan and Morocco are not included.

The only caveat to this is that Saudi Arabia is profoundly concerned by recent events as indicated by the unprecedented intervention in the Bahrain troubles. Under these circumstances, and given how much politics across the Gulf is dominated by personalities, they could potentially strong-arm this move through the GCC: after all, unusual times call for unusual measures.

It is also worth noting that this move is not necessarily supported in Jordan and Morocco. Certainly, many may be pleased at such a union given the potential economic benefits that might transpire. However, not only would the trickle-down of any GCC cash take some time, but many realise perfectly well that joining the GCC would, as mentioned earlier, in all likelihood shelve any movement towards a more democratic system.

It may be a good thing for the GCC were this union not to come to pass. Already and despite the aforementioned similarities, there is an intrinsic disunity within the GCC and a bizarre lack of identity; of clarity of mission. The inclusion of the other states would make deciding what the GCC is actually there to do yet more of a challenge. Thus perhaps the GCC’s lack of an ability to make a decision will, for once, be its saving grace.

NOTE

[1] The Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield Force’ Glenn Kuffel, Naval War College (7 February 2000)

Iranian flotilla heads for Bahrain 16, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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2 comments

An Iranian naval convoy of activists, students and professors is heading to Bahrain to protest at what they see as the legitimate demands of the Shia population there being ruthlessly oppressed with the open support – if not direction – of regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia.

The flotilla insists that it will ask for permission to enter Bahraini waters, which will surely be refused.

This action will now be the face of Saudi claims that Iran is interfering in Bahrain’s domestic politics, a view that is utterly entrenched in the Kingdom and elsewhere throughout the Gulf. Indeed, overall there has been little appreciation that the Shia in Bahrain may have legitimate grievances that ought to be given a voice. Instead many Gulf countries, strongly led by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and of course Manama have been propagating the notion that practically all of the troubles are down to Iran.

Technically speaking, this incident should pass without a hitch. First, the flotilla will never be granted access to Bahraini waters, which they claim they will seek. And second, the Bahraini (or Saudi) ships which will intercept them should they progress further will surely be aware that there will be approximately a million cameras on the Iranian boats ready to capture any images of ‘unprovoked brutality against a humanitarian convoy’.

Yet this overlooks two things.

Firstly, one must not forget what a profound mess the Middle East’s best trained armed forces made of a flotilla intervention last year.

Secondly, there is a wholly poisonous Sunni-Shia, Arabian Gulf-Persian Gulf atmosphere in the region at the moment. Moreover, Saudi Arabia appear to be edging away from simply following the American lead and are striking out on their own in terms of a more muscular, assertive foreign policy. Under these circumstances, not only is it unfortunately possible to see them using this example of ‘Iranians entering GCC waters with…umm…hostile intent’ as an excuse to act but more generally in this febrile atmosphere I would not remotely put it past Saudi or Bahraini sailors to take a pot-shot just for the hell of it.

The GCC, Yemen & Bahrain: Inside Story 8, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, The Gulf, Yemen.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
2 comments

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.

RIP: Ras Al Khaimah’s Saqr Al Qasimi 29, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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2 comments

Sheikh Saqr al Qasimi of Ras Al Khaimah, one of the longest surviving Monarchs in the world, has died. In his early 90s, the Shiekh has been gravely ill for some time. He has been succeeded by his son and Crown Prince, Sheikh Saud who has essentially been ruling the Emirate since 2003.

Earlier this year there were rumors that Sheikh Khalid, the former Crown Prince, was making a bid to regain the title of Crown Prince. In 2003 Sheikh Khalid was ousted in a coup supported by Abu Dhabi. The reasons for the coup are murky at best. Notions that Khalid was too staunchly pro-Iranian and anti-American, including allegedly leading an anti-war protest during which an American flag was burned, abound but, in truth, the real reasons are unknown.

What made this story all the more interesting and intriguing was that Khalid employed a high-end PR firm from California to – essentially – get him back in power. Californian Strategies instigated a successful 21st century campaign replete with a website, propagating what amounted to an ‘anti-Saud narrative’ and high-profile meetings for Khalid. While none of this should really come as a shock, somehow – frankly – it just did; I just  didn’t previously associate the typical Royal court machinations of a Gulf Emirates with multi-million dollar PR agencies. Given the money involved, however, this was clearly naive.

Sheikh Khalid is currently contesting the decision to anoint Saud as leader. In a You Tube video, he said that he would

accept the outcome of a constitutional vote, not a decision taken by others for their own economic benefit.

However, as in 2003, today Abu Dhabi is firmly behind Saud; it appears as if Khalid’s attempts to gain the throne will have to wait. Not only does Abu Dhabi want to avoid the controversy of changing Crown Prince/Sheiks at such a time (just think what kind of precedent that would set) but they want to resist ‘giving in’ to an ‘American’-inspired, PR campaign.

Update:

One of the Gulf’s best analysts, Simon Henderson at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, adds – as ever – a few interesting bits of info. He notes that Sheikh Khalid is

effectively under “palace arrest,” with newly installed concertina wire encircling his compound and UAE federal security forces with armored troop carriers serving as guards, preventing him from attending his father’s funeral.

and that the UAE Embassy in Washington sought to revoke his position as an ‘official delegate’ of the UAE this past year.

Qatar considers sponsorship system 11, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, The Gulf.
Tags: , , , , ,
5 comments

Bahrain and Kuwait have already announced that they will alter their kefala sponsorship systems. While neither are wholly getting rid of such draconian systems, the fact that conversations on reform are at least being heard is a good start.

Qatar too is beginning to have its own debate. The government is said to be considering moves to guarantee workers’ pay and gratuities. Despite the fact that most manual and domestic workers are paid a pittance, their wages frequently fall in arrears. Within a week of arriving on Doha I heard of two large-scale instances where workers had not been paid as the employers were away on their holidays. The groundsmen at Doha hockey club, for example, would turn the sprinklers on as we were about to start playing to ‘vent’ their anger and, I suppose, to try to get the players to agitate on their behalf.

On the more fundamental question of Qatar abolishing its sponsorship and exit-visa systems, progress looks grim. The Qatari Chamber of Commerce has successfully lobbied to retain both these facets of Qatari labor law, despite the growing understanding that they are outdated, unfair and contribute to workers’ rights being abused.

Although the trend is gradually turning against the sponsorship and exit permit systems in the GCC countries, Qatar’s private sector says it would continue to back the above rules.

Of course the Chamber of Commerce backs such laws! In much the same way that a Turkey will never vote for Christmas and the Catholic Church isn’t going to vote for a gay Pope, a lobbying group whose role is to make things as pro-employer as possible will never willingly vote for human rights over profits.

Exactly this type of pressure in Bahrain led to the watering-down of their proposed reforms. Instead of allowing all workers to change jobs if they so choose [yes, the rights being argued for are this basic] domestic workers are still prohibited. Also, the kefala system has manifestly not been abolished: today it is the Labour Market Regulation Authority that sponsors workers and not individuals or agencies.

The fact that the Qatari government caved-in to its business lobby highlights just how strong it must be. Ordinarily, one might expect that Qatar would be leading the way on these kinds of topics. In recent years Qatar’s image has been built championing itself as some kind of progressive if not faintly liberal state, promoting values of education, tolerance and openness. This push has come from the three most powerful people in the country: the Emir, HBJ (the Foreign and Prime Minister) and the Emir’s wife. For them, therefore, not to reform such an egregiously harsh and manifestly illiberal blot on Qatar’s image shows the kinds of give and take that needs to go on. Neither can this triumvirate rely on wide-spread public support: such laws do nothing for Qataris themselves; indeed, if they do anything to them it is ‘inconvenience’ them. Until a ground-swell of domestic or international pressure is reached, there is little the government can do.

 

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