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The UK recognise Hezbollah 10, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Lebanon, Western-Muslim Relations.
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The British have broken with their somewhat illogical policies of the past and are now recognising Hezbollah. A Foreign Office spokesperson is quoted on Al Jazeera as saying, “Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this.” When it is put like this, one wonders how they managed not to recognise them in the past. Moreover, it puts the US’ lack of recognition in a critical light. See Roger Cohen in the NYT for a thorough examination of this issue.

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Bahrain’s brave choice for its American Ambassador 6, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Not wishing to be outdone by America and their first female or non-White Presidential candidate, Bahrain have done their best to go one better, all be it in a slightly less prestigious role. Not only have they just announced that their new ambassador to America is going to be a woman, a forward move for the male dominated world of Gulf politics, but she is Jewish too.

This is a brave move by the small country. Those in the West will no doubt be pleased by such a more, some in the Middle East, less so. Particularly Iran who have a less than cosy relationship with Bahrain. Indeed, perhaps this is Bahrain’s way of pinning their colors to the Western mast, so to speak, much to the annoyance – no doubt – of Tehran. Yet despite this move and the fact that Bahrain have one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, they do not actually have diplomatic relations with Israel. Presumably, however, this is not that far off now.

The great American give away 17, May 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Foreign Policies, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Saudi Arabia are proud of the fact that they are the world’s largest swing producer of oil. They are the only country in the world with enough spare capacity to, at the drop of the proverbial and highly theoretical hat, pump out more of the black stuff. However, they are being – as you may have noticed – rather coy about putting their extra capacity where their mouth is. This fact is not lost on Gal Luft, the executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), a Washington based think tank specifically focusing on energy security. He was commenting on Bush’s seemingly fruitless visit to the Kingdom on MESH and concluded by suggesting that perhaps the best way for America to proceed would be to name an aircraft carrier the USS Ibn Saud. While this is unlikely to happen (!) it is only faintly less ridiculous and far less dangerous than the policy that the Bush administration is currently pursuing; namely helping Saudi obtain ‘peaceful’ nuclear technology.There are several issues with this. Firstly, has no-body else noticed that Saudi has some 262 Billion barrels of known oil reserves left, as this map neatly shows? They ought to be (literally) the last country on earth that would need alternative sources of fuel. Secondly, adding more nuclear issues to the Middle East does not seem to be the prudent course of action. The frosty Saudi-Iranian relations based on competition for leadership of the Islamic world and Sunni-Shia relations hardly need another complicating factor. Not to mention the potential knock-on effects of this with other Gulf countries, Egypt, Syria, Turkey and who knows who else looking over their shoulders’ at Saudi developments. Lastly, Saudi have dabbled in the nuclear playground before. There has been a mass of circumstantial evidence of Saudi’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons. Meetings between Saudi and Pakistani scientists and government officials, Saudi bankrolling of various Pakistani nuclear developments and Saudi’s acquisition of nuclear capable missiles from China are but a part of the puzzle.

There will, of course, be a number of safeguards including no doubt, IAEA inspections and who know what else. Yet these are, as has been proven time and again, not foolproof. And overall, is this is kind of message that the Bush wants to be sending? It is hardly a resolute stand against economic blackmail as some commentators are declaring it. Whilst this latter view is overstating the matter, giving the Saudi’s nuclear technology seems to be a high price to pay for…nothing. Nothing tangible at least. The Saudi’s need the Americans just as much as America need Saudi, primarily for the American security guarantee. The Saudi Army, Navy and Air Force, while modern and well equipped is generally regarded as being not capable of safeguarding the Kingdom as the Gulf War conclusively proved.  Indeed, the only thing that could change this status quo would be some wildly implausible course of action such as Saudi obtaining the bomb…

 

What’s the point of Kuwait? 1, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
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…was the title of an article by Mshari Al Zaydi of Saudi’s ‘Al Sharq Al Awsat. It is an interesting piece which discusses the Shia Sunni divide in modern Kuwait. This debate was recently sparked off when two Shia Kuwaiti MPs eulogised Imad Mughniyeh after his death in Damascus last month. This, somewhat unsurprisingly, caused an uproar in Kuwait and led to calls for them to be removed from parliament, jailed, exiled and so on.

However, I didn’t find the article especially interesting from that perspective, but because of the way that it discussed Kuwait’s role or raison d’etre in comparison with Saudi Arabia. Al Zaydi quotes a probably apocryphal story where a man who is tired of the morning prayers leaves Saudi Arabia and goes to Kuwait believing that he will not have to perform them there. To his disappointment he is awoken for the morning prayers in Kuwait the very next morning, to which he is supposed to have said ‘what’s the point of Kuwait?’

How general a feeling this is I can not say, but I find it interesting that from this point of view Kuwait is seen as a miniature but less strict Saudi Arabia. Kuwait is, of course, something of a paradox. It has one of the most progressive parliaments in the region with female representation, and female voting all correct and present. Yet, it is one of the few countries that bans alcohol entirely and they even have specific x-ray machines at the airports to catch those trying to smuggle it back into the country. But their paradoxical stance is apparent here as well, as if they find a bottle of Bombay Sapphire in your bag (or indeed nominally pork hot dogs) all they do is shrug their shoulders, put it under their counter and sell it on to you at a later date at an eye-wateringly expensive mark up. Kuwaitis are also a relatively cosmopolitan bunch and go travelling abroad a lot. The road thorough Saudi to Bahrain is, to say the least, well worn. And why are they going there? Like the Saudis who flood there in absurd numbers across the King Fahd Causeway every weekend, neither group are going there repeatedly for the nice views or to see cultural artefacts. 

But, as Al Zaydi points out, Kuwait was supposed to be, and indeed believed to be “a scene that was a model for the Gulf and was admired and appreciated by the people of the Gulf owing to the tolerance and development that it demonstrated.” Therefore, with the Shia Sunni tensions that this recent Mughniyeh episode has revealed, what is the point of Kuwait, if not to act as an antidote to such primitive urges?

However, I do not think that the picture is quite as grim as Al Zaydi paints it. I do not forsee Kuwait’s demise, having been riven in two by ancient tribal hatreds in any way, shape or form. Why? Simply because they have so much money in Kuwait. They are, overall, too busy counting the cash, buying Humvees, shopping in Marina Mall, holidaying in Cairo, Bahrain, and London, and eating out at TGI’s to have the time or indeed crass stupidity to mess things up when they are going so well at present.

The point of Kuwait at the moment is, therefore, to brazenly and boldly show how compatible Western and Arab culture can be. Kuwait is a country littered, imbued and infested with Americana, which the population have thoroughly taken to. Nevertheless, they have kept some of the more austere elements of Islam, such as the prohibition of alcohol. Of course, there are, from time to time, examples of hostility between these groups, such as the closing of the Virgin Megastore for a few days for carrying some quasi-salacious magazine. Yet, owing to no small degree to its epic windfall, Kuwait is a success and a model to be followed if at all possible.

http://www.aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=2&id=11956

Christofacism? 27, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute, made a brief but excellent point last Friday. He was commenting on the attack on the American Embassy in Belgrade by angry (Christian) Serbians and compared this act of violence to similar situations but involving Muslims. He quotes the neoconservative argument that “there was something deeply wrong with Muslims for protesting when they were kicked or expelled, saying that look, the Serbs have been harmed by US policies but they don’t go around attacking US embassies. ” As Cole succinctly puts it, “I guess they’ll have to find a new argument.” He goes on to sagely ask whether Fox news and the Republican Party will now start vociferously complaining about “Christofascism” – I some how doubt they will.

http://www.juancole.com/2008/02/three-events-that-changed-world.html

Iranian, Israeli and American relations 15, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Western-Muslim Relations.
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The University of Berkeley, California has a useful series of interviews with various people of various persuasions discussing various aspects of international relations and politics.

In this video, Trita Parsi, the Director of the National Iranian American Council discusses the surprisingly close relations between Israel and Iran over the past two decades.

Iran complain about France’s colonial outpost in the UAE 3, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in French IR, Iran, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Iran has made a formal complaint to the French Ambassador in Tehran about France’s recent announcement that they will soon set up a military base in the UAE. Tehran accuse the French of adopting an ‘unfriendly position’ towards Iran by agreeing to station troops across the Persian Gulf, and – for once – Iran do seen to have a logical case. Indeed, it is somewhat difficult to see what the French are actually getting out of running this base in the UAE. There appear to be few – if any – tangible returns for them. France do have significant historical links with the Emirates so perhaps they are defending their influence there with the acquisition of the base. However, it seems somewhat unlikely that the French would go to the significant trouble of setting up and manning a base in the Persian Gulf just for ‘old time’s sake’. Thus, the French appear to have acquired this base solely as a badge of international prestige, promoting the (erroneous) notion that they are still a ‘world’ power who can influence actors in a contested and crucial corner of the world.

As far as Iran is concerned, having a new foreign and somewhat hostile power (with a significant and brutal colonial history) barely 250km from their mainland is a disturbing prospect. This can surely only reinforce Iran’s feelings of isolation vis-à-vis the Western world. Whilst the analogy of the Cuban Missile Crisis does not fit exactly* to this situation, it is nevertheless somewhat instructive in terms of explaining the reaction of a state to the stationing of an unfriendly military presence close to home soil. To put this another way – how happy would France be if Iran suddenly set up a military base a couple of hundred kilometres from Marseilles under some flimsy pretext, seemingly with the sole aim of pressurising French actions?

Iran’s angry reaction is not only understandable but just. Whilst France would not (I can only imagine) engage in reckless military activities in the Straits, their presence alone in the area is simply one more complicating and pressurising factor that an already potentially combustible region could really do without.

* Whilst France are a nuclear power, surely they will not base their missiles in the UAE base? Thus, one of the key dynamics of the Cuban Missile Crisis is not there, at least until (if) Iran acquire their own weapons. Additionally, the level hostility between France and Iran is significantly lower than it was between America and the USSR/Cuba at the time of the crisis.

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2008/02/03/45105.html

 

Progress in Saudi Arabia for women’s rights 29, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
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The government of Saudi Arabia have sanctioned the creation of a charity championing women’s rights in the Kingdom. The Ministry of Social Affairs have initially allowed the creation of a charity called ‘Ansar al-Maraah’ (supporters of women). According to Arab News, the goals of the charity are to “help women improve their social, educational and cultural levels.” This comes at a time when Saudi appear to be vacillating between creating a more open society with announcements such as this one, and closing off Saudi society, as the pressure on Al-Jazeera to tone down its criticisms of the Kingdom suggests.

A Chinese military base in Iran? 28, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, China and the ME, Iran, Oil, Western-Muslim Relations.
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After France’s move to secure a military base in the UAE looking out at the Straits of Hormuz last week, it is no surprise that the Iranians are feeling yet more hemmed it. Kaveh L Afrasiabi , an Iranian expert has suggested that it might not be too long before Iran seek a Chinese base on Iranian soil to compensate and reinforce their security. This is, without doubt, a premature forecast. However, the logic at the heart of the argument is sound.

China’s ever expanding need for importing fossil fuels is well known. Indeed, in the coming years, China will be – from their perspective – worryingly dependent on shipments from both sides of the Persian Gulf. They have tried to compensate for this in many ways. For example, recently China has been exploring the potential of overland pipes from various Central Asian countries through to the west of China. However, no matter how optimistic projections are about such a project, the lion’s share of fuel would still need to be shipped from Iran and the Gulf countries through the Straits of Hormuz to China. Bearing this in mind, there seems to be no way that China, in the long run, would simply accept American stewardship of a sea passage so crucial to Chinese interests. At the moment, the Chinese have a naval base in Gawdar, Pakistan (just around the corner), from which they have limited power projection to the Straits. However, compared to the massive American bases in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, the Chinese base is far from adequate. The fact that the French have just announced that they will soon have a base in the region too is no deal breaker, but it certainly does not help ease China’s nerves, especially since the recent French-American rapprochement under Sarkozy.

As far as Iran are concerned, China are excellent trading partners. They have a guaranteed growing demand in the long term for their fossil fuels, they have the means to pay for it (in goods or cash), they have fairly sophisticated weaponry to sell to the Iranians, they have no (or at least, certainly fewer) compunctions about selling such weaponry or indeed nuclear related technology, they have a meticulous approach to never criticising other governments internal policies and as they are a member of the P5 on the UN Security Council, they have a casting and blocking vote there. They are, thus, very useful allies to have. Additionally, Iran are currently uncertain and not a little perturbed about American intentions regarding their nuclear activities. China too, whilst having good relations with the US right now, are by no means close to America. To choose just one example, the issue of Taiwan – deeply, deeply important to Beijing – is a divisive issue that reoccurs periodically between the two powers. Add to this the afore mentioned point about China not wanting America to be able to cut off their supplies so easily, and there is a definite dove-tailing of interests here: a Chinese base in Iran doesn’t seem so far fetched all of a sudden.

However, China are a country with a long-term view of things and there are no pressing needs right now to do something as drastic as establish a base in Iran, especially with their moment in the sun – the Olympics – coming up. However, the West generally, and America specifically need to be wary about forcing China and Iran closer and closer together. Such a situation, with a worried and recalcitrant China sated for fossil fuels and with an emboldened Iran with access to sophisticated weaponry and even advanced nuclear technology, is not that much short of a nightmare scenario.

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/JA29Ak03.html

China and the Middle East – made for each other 27, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, China and the ME, Oil, Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Everyone wants a piece of the Middle East at the moment. Israel, unfortunately, takes this quite literally and seems intent on forever expanding its borders with uncomfortable overtones of lebensraum. American companies have, for the most part, been falling over themselves to find GCC cash to bail themselves out of their various woes. The list of those seeking investment is a veritable who’s-who’s of the American blue chip elite: Citigroup, General Electric, Dow Chemicals, and Merrill Lynch to name a few. The French seem to have placed, in a rather un-Gallic, highly capitalistic way, a price tag on their cultural heritage. For about $1 billion, you can now purchase priceless French art, plucked from the bosom of the most famous museum in the world, the Louvre. Furthermore, the French have also taken the name of their most prestigious university in vain by building ‘the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi’ with infinitely easier entry requirements. However, not only have the French been handsomely rewarded for the loan of their culture, but they now have a military base overlooking the straits of Hormuz, so maybe they knew what they were doing all along. Britain were predictably slow on the uptake and are now desperately searching for Middle Eastern cash to bail out the collapsing Northern Rock bank and moving further east, Dubai holdings have invested heavily in the Indian bank ICICI, as well as taking an estimated billion dollar stake in Sony of Japan.

Among those doing their utmost to make friends and influence states in the region are the Chinese. However, they are doing this in a less brash manner. Indeed, to some degree, they have been doing the opposite way by investing in the Middle East. For example, two Chinese state-owned companies are investing some $4 billion in Saudi aluminium production. This is but one half of an example of reciprocal investment between various Middle Eastern countries and China, and, more to the point, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.

China are the most natural trading partner for countries in this region. This may seem like something of a bizarre statement, but it stands up to scrutiny. As any good (or even only mediocre) economics student will tell you, two crucial factors when discussing trade are supply and demand.

In terms of supply, the Middle East has oil and money. According to the US Energy Information Administration, as of 1st January last year, the Middle East as a whole had 739 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, more than the rest of the world combined which amounts to 578 billion proven barrels. As for money, thanks to the bumper oil prices of recent years, the region is awash with cash. In total, Morgan Stanley estimate that in 2007 alone, Persian Gulf countries invested around $75 billion overseas. This, therefore, excludes the $500 billion that is being investing domestically in creating new super-cities, trying to look ahead to the paradigm changing day when oil runs out. The crucial point here is that this inflated oil price appears to be with us for the medium term, and, therefore, so do these record profits for Middle Eastern government and thus their ability to generously invest abroad.

As for demand, the same economics student would no doubt tell you that demand is infinite. This is meant in a theoretical way, but when discussing China, the theory becomes a lot more practical. China has a population of 1.3 billion people. By the year 2050, however, the UN population division estimates that (depending on which report you read) the population will rise to between 1.5 – 2 billion people. So not only do these people need their energy needs taken care of, but thanks to China’s phenomenal growth, many people have ever growing energy needs. With greater affluence comes greater demand for bigger and better houses and apartments and, of course, bigger and better cars, to name but two energy consuming factors. In 2007 alone, the Chinese car market grew 20% and overtook Japan as the world’s second largest automobile market, and with tens of millions of people waiting to dump their bicycles, this market is only going to grow faster in the coming years. The staggering conclusion of these factors is that, according to Commentary magazine, China’s demand for imported oil will grow by 960% over the next two decades.

Issues of demand and supply, therefore, are clearly suitably poised for a long and prosperous relationship. Yet there are many more factors to consider. After all, the rest of the world demands oil and will continue to do so for a long time yet. So what makes China so special?

For one thing, China do not have any historical or colonial baggage in the region. This could be construed as a good or a bad thing. For example, France’s long standing relationships with the Emirates clearly made it possible for Abu Dhabi to cede some land for a French military base, and America’s long history in Saudi Arabia made it possible for similar arrangements there in the past. I would suggest that the latter example is more instructive, especially considering the eventual outcome of the US bases in the land of the two holy places. China, however, has a clean slate; indeed, it was as late as 1990 when they officially recognised all GCC countries. There are no old policies to appease, apologise for or defend.

Another aspect that appeals to many governments worldwide is that China are very good partners to have in terms of demands exogenous to the deal itself: there aren’t any. For example, China will never lecture, pressure, castigate or otherwise try to impose their ideals on another state. This is a fundamental pillar of Chinese policy: the absolute and utter respect of sovereignty from criticism or interference. Thus, if a state is not appreciative of America’s lectures regarding full democracy or the rule of law (especially regarding the egregious hypocrisy of Guantanamo Bay) then they will certainly know that they would receive no such criticism from China.

Along the same lines, China make it easier for Middle Eastern companies to invest there. Whilst, as it was shown above, many countries have invested heavily in the West, there is still an element of quasi-racism. This was clearly shown in the Dubai Ports World controversy, where a furore erupted when it was revealed that a Middle Eastern company would be involved with security arrangements at American ports. This would, according to some woefully misguided segments of the American media, lead to security concerns. It is difficult to imagine such security concerns from the Chinese.

Lastly, with significant anti-Americanism in the Middle East, and significant anti-Arab sentiment in America and the West generally, China could offer themselves as a neutral alternative to the Middle East-American/Western axis. It is no great secret that parts of the Middle East have security concerns, which are answered in one way or another by the West generally or America specifically. For example, answered in terms of arms sales ($20 billion only last week) as well as physical protection, as in the Gulf War. However, it must not be forgotten that China has been supplying various countries in the region for a long time now. More to the point, China are more willing to sell certain weapons that the West are – generally – not willing to, such as ballistic missiles and related technology, which were sold to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war, to take but one example. Furthermore, with the amount of industrial espionage that Beijing currently engages in, certain aspects of their armaments technology may not be that far behind the US itself.

However, there are a few caveats. Firstly, America is currently the only power capable of offering a meaningful security blanket, such as the one that freed Kuwait and protected Saudi Arabia. Theoretically, were the Chinese to sell an Atomic bomb ‘off the shelf’ to Saudi, that might negate that particular US role, but such a reckless policy is highly unlikely for the cautious and long-term thinking Chinese. Secondly, the prevalence of American goods, ideas, motifs, restaurants, books, films, TV channels, and music throughout the Middle East, compared to the utter lack of Chinese equivalents, shows that America, or at least, its manifestations are not going anywhere. It does not seem at all likely that McDonald’s will turn into Jowza (dumpling) restaurants any time soon. American culture, therefore, may well be here for the next 100 years, even if the manifestations of American power and trade are not.

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