On KSA: The Knowns and the Unknowns 6, April 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Saudi Arabia, Saudi knowns and unknowns
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This article was published by YourMiddleEast last month.
In 2003 Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary, uttered his now infamous speech about what was and was not known about the link between Iraq and supplying terrorist groups with weapons of mass destruction.
“there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
While the language is deeply contorted, Rumsfeld’s tripartite system of segmenting classes of information is not an unreasonable rubric to use when assessing an issue. Given the latest intrigues in the elite of Saudi Arabia that had analysts scrambling to engage in the Arab version of Sovietology to explain a completely unexpected move, the application of any logical rubric to this most convoluted of issues is welcome to ascertain exactly what we know we know.
The known knowns
On 1st February 2013 Prince Muqrin Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud was appointed Second Deputy Prime Minister in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This appointment shocked Saudi watchers as the received wisdom suggested that Muqrin would be ineligible because of his Yemeni lineage on his mother’s side. While Muqrin becoming Crown Prince and King is now a likely outcome, the fact that few expected him to be there in the first place acts as a prompt to revisit some of these known knowns.
The position of Second Deputy Prime Minister is important and has signalled ‘Crown Prince in waiting’ in recent transitions even if it has been unfilled at times, notably from August 2005 to March 2009. Nevertheless, Muqrin’s continued ascent is not certain. The 1992 ‘Basic Law of Governance’ and the 2006 ‘Allegiance Council’ are both mechanisms that endow, respectively, the King and the Crown Prince in conjunction with leading Princes the power to amend those in line to the throne.
While one may expect Murqin – a relatively spry sexagenarian or septuagenarian (the ages of Saudi Royalty belonging in the ‘known unknown’ category) – to rise to the office of King relatively soon particularly given the age and increasing infirmity of the King and the Crown Prince, this too is far from certain. King Fahd (r.1982-2005) was incapacitated for most of the last decade of his rule, yet neither he nor his supporters thought it better for him to step aside. In Kuwait complete physical and mental incapacity did not forestall Saad ascending to the office of Emir in 2006. In that instance it was Kuwait’s vocal and uncontrollable Parliament that forced him to resign after only nine days ‘in power.’ Bar typical intra-family squabbling, Saudi Arabia has no equivalent that could push through such a measure were it needed.
It is also implicitly assumed that Muqrin’s promotion means that Saudi Arabia’s rulers will now have to move to the next generation. Since the founding of the modern state of Saudi Arabia by Ibn Saud in 1932, rule has passed directly to one of his sons. King Abdullah, the current incumbent, became King when he was in his eighties, while two of his Crown Princes (Sultan and Nayef) have already died while Crown Prince Salman is believed to be largely infirm and in his late seventies.
Given that Murqin is the youngest son of Ibn Saud this means that several of his older brothers have been passed over in his favour. In Saudi Arabia where there is a premium placed on age seniority, this suggests that they have run out of suitable sons of Ibn Saud and a generational shift is imminent. While this is, again, logical if not likely, it must not be forgotten that should Salman or Murqin become King they can install whomever they choose, as long as they can corral support for the decision.
While the generational jump to Ibn Saud’s grandchildren could be postponed the eventual shift is the central known unknown of Saudi politics.
Muhammad Bin Nayef, the son of the former influential Minister of Interior and Crown Prince, leads speculation after becoming the first of the second generation to oversee a principal Ministry when he took over from his uncle Prince Ahmed as Minister of the Interior in November 2012. Believed to be highly capable in his former role in Counter Terrorism at the Ministry with an impeccable lineage and enough influence already to meet officially with President Obama in January 2013, he was a strong candidate for the post of Second Deputy Prime Minister and remains prominent.
However, things are not always what they seem in Riyadh. Many assumed that Muqrin’s abrupt removal as head of intelligence in July 2012, coming in the wake of increasing public criticism, was a sign of him losing power. Instead this move was a precursor to assuming the position of second in line to the throne.
Instead of sifting through the minutiae of each candidate’s CV and family linkages or investing too heavily in court gossip, it is more fruitful to seek a set of guidelines and factors that will inform the decision-making.
Firstly, there are traditional factors to consider. He must be a grandson of Ibn Saud and while age seniority is important, as Muqrin’s ascension and Muhammad Bin Nayef’s replacement of his uncle at the Ministry of the Interior showed, it is clearly not a defining concern. Of greater importance is a demonstrable track record of effective leadership in an august Ministry or an important region. The challenges facing Saudi Arabia are legion and a would-be ruler from the next generation will have to prove that he has the pedigree and the aptitude to work effectively.
Though senior Princes confirm a putative Crown Prince, they have to take into account an element of popular support. Similarly, given the inequalities in the Kingdom and the place that corruption is widely believed to have had as lending impetus to the Arab Spring, a relatively uncorrupted reputation would be an advantage.
Any candidate who can carefully craft such an image will reap significant gains given the importance of presenting a positive public face. The use of the press by much of the elite in Saudi Arabia is barely one step up from Pathé news. Bland press releases with little actual news but with plenty of references to the religious formalities conducted before, during, and after each meeting are adorned with pictures of King Abdullah or other leading Royals with unfeasibly black beards and moustaches. Given the increasingly media savvy Saudi citizens, as shown in a recent survey that found Riyadh to be the 10th most active city in the world on Twitter, such anachronistic media handling is all the more jarring.
The fact that Muqrin has no recorded full-brothers or sons with top-level experience suggests that he may be a relatively impartial arbiter. His well documented closeness to King Abdullah hints that he would look to an effective, technocratic successor as opposed to being concerned with austere religious credentials. But most of all he will look for the consensus candidate; someone that can command authority quickly in a Kingdom that strives for stability above all else.
An unknown unknown is unknown but one can posit from where critical, game-changing concerns may arise.
An Arab Spring redux may strike Saudi Arabia. The economic dynamics and disparities in the Kingdom are acute. The Saudi ‘Arab Spring Budget’ designed to counter nascent protests with a flood of new jobs, pay increases, and house-construction projects worked but fundamental issues remain. Another incident such as the 2009 Jeddah floods which diverted attention to gross corruption and mismanagement could ignite latent anger. Equally, the continued implosion of Bahrain or Kuwait’s Parliamentary wrangles escalating to wide-spread civil unrest could instigate troubles, particularly in Saudi’s combustible Eastern Province where Shia-based unrest continues.
Given the ill health of King Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman, and the relatively advanced years of Muqrin, a series of quick successions is not out of the question. Any number of permutations could force the new elite to arrive at hastily contrived arrangements. With the potential of a grandson of Ibn Saud sitting on the throne for multiple decades with the corollary that other members of his generation lose their opportunity at attaining the top job, there is ample reason for those overlooked to agitate in the wings for a better spot.
While the future of Saudi Arabia could be an unknown unknown with untold effects from existing or future challenges destabilising the Kingdom, Saudis have heard such pronouncements on a regular basis for decades. Yet the Kingdom prevailed. There may not be anyone in the near future who could match the figure of King Abdullah who has overseen nearly two decades of tumultuous Saudi history and commands widespread respect for his slow modernising moves. But elite interests, while factional and facing new internal issues, are all predicated on maintaining their exclusive grip on power; a deeply motivating and unifying concept.
A trip to the Kingdom 18, January 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Bahrain Saudi, Ottomans gay marriage, Rentier state, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saudi energy demand, Saudi oil
I am currently in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at a conference to discuss the region in light of these ever so changing times. It’s always interesting to come to the Kingdom and even better when you’re here with leading academics and the most erudite and informed of Saudis. Some thoughts:
- It’s been at least six months since I visited another GCC country so it’s nice to go to Riyadh to be reminded of the differences between the states (or at least two of them). Everyone knows that Riyadh is a huge city but only flying over it and driving through it do you see the level of sprawl with the city forever splurging into the desert in a low-rise tide of villas. Doha it is not.
- We visited the Saudi National Museum. I had no idea that Saudi’s history was as extensive as it appears to be; a true ‘crossroads of civilization’ as one Saudi put it. As yet it seems that much of this history going back thousands of years has barely begun to be uncovered and the Kingdom must be one of the least touched but richest countries on earth for archaeologists.
- The discussions that I attended in the Saudi capital were of the highest caliber The Saudi academics and attendees – all Western educated – were hugely impressive. They were articulate, erudite and intelligent which is – of course – no surprise given how long Saudi has been sending its best students abroad. Qatar cannot and can never hope to compete; it just doesn’t have the critical mass of people to engage in this kind of education. Indeed, I am happy to be corrected, but I suspect that there were more political science PhDs in the conference room alone than political science PhDs earned by all Qataris in the last decade.
- There was staunch Saudi support for Bahrain. The arguments were nuanced and far more erudite than the usual ‘it’s Iran’, though this refrain was used too. Two trends of argument were interesting in particular.
Firstly was the notion of ‘what do you expect?’ If there were a popularly elected government via perfect elections then this would be Shia-led given the population dynamics and such a government would be – so the argument went – intrinsically disposed to the Iranian government creating some kind of a Shia bastion just off KSA’s coast. The analogy of the Cuban Missile Crisis was used to illustrate this point. I don’t agree with this logic, but it makes a certain sense.
Secondly, it was interesting how the West’s worst activities were used as cover for Bahrain’s worst activities. The Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were used as a calling out of the West’s double standards. ‘Look at the things you [sic] do when your ‘national security’ is at risk. It is the same in Bahrain’. While I don’t agree with this – one should hardly use the atypical, controversial and maligned activities of the West as a model or the most base excuse – this is a powerful argument in its own right and reminds one of how easily eroded the theoretical moral high ground can be.
- The talks were attended by a senior Saudi Prince. He came for the opening evening lecture and the subsequent dinner. Much to my surprise he came back the day after for the 12 hour day of presentations and talks and came for dinner again that evening. He was erudite, engaging, open, witty, and substantively contributed to every panel discussion. There was no ceremony about his presence and he took the bus in the evening to the second dinner. For a variety of reasons I just can’t imagine the same happening almost anywhere else in the Gulf.
- Saudi itself was the center of much of the discussions. A UK based academic gave an excellent if familiar ‘Saudi is in financial peril’ talk and it is impossible to disagree that going forward a decade or so the combination of increasing salaries in the increasing Government sector, the struggling private sector, the surging domestic energy demands of the Kingdom and a range of structural issues such as industry’s dependency on cheap fuel mean that the Kingdom is facing huge challenges. He also noted that Saudi’s Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) was staggeringly high.
There is no answer to these challenges but the numerous Saudis around the table were somewhat weary of these concerns having heard very similar versions of these ‘Saudi is ok now but in 5 years…’ for decades now. Of course those around the table were the elite in the Kingdom and are unrepresentative of the Saudi population as a whole. Nevertheless in defence of the Kingdom, so to speak, they made some good points. 1) The Kingdom has proven to be surprisingly resilient before. 2) There is a staggering amount of waste – ‘fat’ as one contributor put it – in the Government sector that can be seen as an area for streamlining as and when budget pressures necessitate. 3) The Saudi Government controls up to 75% of the economy and could privatize industries if the buffers really were approaching giving them a potentially huge windfall. Of course none of this is straight forward – the modern age, as an American contributor pointed out, has a raft of unique, new and resilient structural changes (media openness etc) and cutting fat is not necessarily that easy – but these were, I thought, interesting points. I still think that Saudi is facing catastrophic challenges in the next 15 years but the issue demands a lot more thought that I’ve been able to give it thus far.
Other random points:
- The Ottomans
legalised gay marriage [CORRECTION] decriminalised homosexuality in 1876
- Istanbul is the biggest Kurdish city
- Apparently the US
Embassy Ministry in Baghdad has approximately 1000 Americans working there but only 7 Americans who speak Arabic. Good stuff.
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 the death of Crown Prince Nayef 16, June 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Crown Prince, Crown Prince Nayef dies, King Abdullah Saudi Arabia succession, Nayef, Nayef death, Nayef Succession, Salman Saudi Arabia, Salman succession, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia succession
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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has died at the age of 78. He had been ill for some time, apparently suffering from some form of cancer, and had received long-term treatment in America and he was recently recuperating in Geneva when he passed away.
Nayef was elevated to the position of Crown Prince in November 2011 with the death of former Crown Prince Sultan. However, in reality Nayef had been the second most important individual in Saudi Arabia for some time given Sultan’s profound incapacity.
That the Saudi Royal family has suffered another key death within a year is concerning but can come as no surprise. The leadership is universally old with the King being somewhere in his late 80s or some reports suggest that he could even be 94 by now. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with the twilight years of the Soviet Union with Brezhnev dying in office in 1982 to be replaced by Andropov who lasted 18 months in office, and then Chernenko who barely lasted a year. While the move to a new generation of leadership took another leap forward with Nayef’s death, it will not happen just yet as Defence Minister, Salman will become likely Crown Prince.
Nayef is the twenty third son of Ibn Saud, the key founder of the current Saudi state, and the half-brother of King Abdullah. He is one of the key Sudairi brothers, born of the most influential and important mother of Ibn Saud’s children in 1933, and he received all of his schooling in the Kingdom with no long-term studies abroad unlike many of his compatriots. After a short stint as the representative of the Principality of Riyadh, he became the Deputy Governor of Riyadh and later the Governor. From 1970-1975 he was the Deputy Minister of the Interior and he was the Minister of Interior from 1975 onwards. This position gave Nayef substantial power and prestige and he expanded the Ministry of the Interior exponentially and today it is an enormously powerful organisation pervading Saudi Arabia. In March 2009 Nayef became the Second Deputy Prime Minister and in November 2011 he became the Crown Prince with the de jure reality finally catching up to his de facto powers.
His reputation is that of a fierce conservative. Though there is no doubt that he has been an arch proponent of the Saudi Arabian line on Bahrain and has been deeply involved with various crackdowns in the East of Saudi Arabia over the years, this reputation is somewhat overblown and it is better to see him as a staunch pragmatist and conservative, rather than a zealous religious-conservative.
Nayef has four sons of whom the most important by some distance is Mohammed Bin Nayef, who was second in charge of the MOI and will take over now. There have been rumours for some time that the MOI itself will be split up into two organisations and another of his sons, Saud, would take over, but this is only supposition presently.
Abroad, Nayef has had an important role for many years. Despite his staunch and conservative nature, he has engaged in various overtures or at least discussions with Iran over the years, and was believed to be one of the key proponents behind Saudi Arabia’s troop and armament deployment to Bahrain in 2011.
In terms of reforms, though Nayef is, as noted, portrayed as some kind of arch-conservative (which is true in certain circumstances) it must not be forgotten that he presided over one of the key emancipatory actions for women in modern Saudi history: the imposition of ID cards. This allowed women to, by themselves for the first time, open bank accounts, sign up for University and similar moves. Though Nayef did not do this for women’s freedoms, but instead for purely security-driven concerns, it highlights again that he was willing to be pragmatic when necessary.
It is likely that Salman, 76, the former Governor of Riyadh and Defence Minister will become Crown Prince now. A body called the allegiance council was established some years ago to preside over such changes, but should not prove problematic in this instance.
Subsequently, the picture become much more murky. There are other Princes who are the sons of Ibn Saud – Prince AbdulRahman (b.1934), Prince Ahamd (b.1940) and non Sudairi sons too, such as Prince Muqrin. But they too are old, in varying degrees of ill health, and are, at the most, stop gaps. Saudi Arabia needs to come to terms with moving the leadership down a generation to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, yet this would likely be a highly fractious decision. With Prince Salman waiting in the wings, it is unlikely to happen this time, though the leadership will surely discuss who is to be next; a difficult but crucial decision for the future of the House of Saud and Saudi Arabia.
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.
Iran can ‘easily’ occupy Saudi Arabia 17, October 2011Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Iran, Iran can destroy Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia
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Let no one say that some Iranian Ministers do not have a good sense of humour.
Mohammed Karim Abedi, a member of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian parliament, confidently stated that ‘Iran was capable of occupying Saudi Arabia if it chooses [sic] to do so’.
Iran’s military forces have the ability to strip Saudi Arabia of its security whenever it wants and Saudi Arabia will not be capable of responding.
Wholly without irony with this belligerent statement, he was replying to the accusation that Iran was plotting to assassinate the KSA Ambassador in Washington DC [my thoughts on which will appear soon].
He also noted that Iran has infiltrated Israel with spies so that it now knows ‘critical information’ to be used should the two states ever come to blows. I’m sure that those in Tel Aviv are terrified.
Of course he sounds like an ass to us, but we’re hardly the intended targets: all politics is domestic, let’s not forget.
Saudi’s economic problems 30, August 2011Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Bad parenting, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia's economy, Saudi economic problems
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While in Carrefour this week standing at the checkout there was a burkad up woman in front of me with her 10-ish year old child. For seemingly no reason other than boredom (the queue was taking ages) the girl started to cry those pathetic, ‘I can’t really be bothered to put my all into it, I just want some attention’ type of crocodile tears. Any parents, those with experience of younger siblings or ten year old children will know what I’m on about.
In response, the mother thrust a Galaxy chocolate bar into the little girl’s hand: she continued to cry. A second Galaxy bar was offered: no dice. Then a king size Lion bar and a Galaxy chocolate drink carton were offered. A moment of indecision swept across the little girl’s face: should she relinquish here clearly superior bargaining position for just two Galazy bars, one king sized Lion bar and a Galaxy drink, or ought she push straight onwards and upwards…a kilogram or two of Cadbury’s, a gallon of Coke, a hectare of Choco-Choco Puffs or a Porsche Cayenne…clearly it was all within her reach. But, magnanimous in her
humiliation victory, she accepted her bounty, the non existent tears stopped welling and a brooding scowl resumed its place.
This atrocious parenting (yes, I said it) is a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s recent policies. In its desperate desire to appease the youth (in particular) in the Kingdom, the government has given out all the Galaxy and Lion bars in the land. Hunger sated for the moment and the restlesness in the Kingdom subsided.
But just as the parent in Carrefour will likely be reaping the whirlwind of such short-termist decisions for years to come, again, so too it is the same for Saudi. Indeed, the headline grabbing snippet from a recent article in Foreign Policy notes that Saudi will need an oil price of $320 per barrel of oil by 2030 if its ever more distended budget is to be balanced.
Aside from this acutely alarmist and selacious figure, the article is full of interesting snippets suggesting just how
screwed the Kingdom is challenging the coming years will be.
- Government spending now rising at 10% per year
- Add to this the great $130bn giveaway of 2011
- Funding the counterrevolutions around the Middle East – many billions
- 1/3 of budget spent on defence – rise versus the supposed growing Iranian threat?
- A crushing growth in domestic oil demand
- “One of the world’s least energy-efficient economies”
- OPEC competition from a revatilising Iraq, a post-revolutionary Libya and possibly Venezuela
- The growing spectre of non-OPEC oil supply growing
The good news is that these problems coming home to roost are some way off. If Saudi Arabia takes bold and decisive action now, it may well be able to find a suitable and sustainable long-term footing. The bad news is that this will never ever happen. So the Kingdom will rumble on, spending ever more wildly beyond its means until it eventually tries to chronically hike up the price of oil. When this fails or forces meaningful diversification (of supply or from oil) then one needn’t be a savant with clairvoyant talents to work out just how bitterly the powers that be will root for their own survival.
Hat tip: Abstract JK
Saudi women driving: I’m caring less and less 22, June 2011Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Indonesia to ban maids in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia, Saudi maid execution, Saudi women driving
I get regular emails sent to my Gulfblog.com account from various sources. One of them, curiously, is AIPAC with its own unique brand of selective vision. More recently I keep getting press releases regarding Hilary Clinton and the current issue of women in Saudi driving.
While technically and wholly rationally I think that women driving in Saudi is probably important as another baby-step in the direction of reform, more generally, I am simply caring less and less about the issue. Not because I think that it is not an important issues, not because I think women should not be able to drive and not because I am some kind of misogynistic prat, but because it is so clearly pathetically unimportant right at this very minute. Of course I am referring to the execution of the Indonesian maid recently who, from what I can see, had no due process of any meaningful description, no consular assistance and was being abused by her employer.
So in this light I just can’t get ‘enthusiastic’ about reform for women driving. Moreover, I think it is really rather awful for the driving issue to have grabbed the world’s attention as ‘an issue’ when such acts of barbarity continue in Saudi. Clearly, a maid having her head cut off is not newsworthy enough and once again Saudi rights trump those of the lowly maid.
Throwing money at ‘strippers’: a Saudi party 5, June 2011Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Saudi Arabia, Saudi party, Saudi party strippers, Saudi party throwing money strippers, Saudi throwing money
This video puts my parties to shame. I just cook some food, put on some music (not too loud) and sit around and chat. Rarely do I invite tens of strippers and just about never do I toss around bundles of cash. Guess I’m getting old.
And lest any Brit watch this clip and get smugly smug, I remind you of this.
KSA refusing overfly for Libyan rebels 8, May 2011Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
Tags: Libyan national transitional council, Libyan rebels, National Transitional Council, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia overfly rights
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Reports indicate that the acting foreign minister of the Libyan rebels has cancelled a trip to Qatar after Saudi Arabia refused him permission to overfly the Kingdom.
Traveling with the acting foreign minister were three other members of the rebels National Transitional Council who were held at Cairo Airport for 20 hours (I think we can all relate to that pain) before finally being sent back to Libya.
It seems that Saudi Arabia’s intrinsic fear of change and anger towards that little upstart of a country – Qatar – continues to shine through. Mature stuff.