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Russia enters the GCC arms market with a splash 28, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran, Russia.
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I’ve been a great fan of UPI news agency for some time now. It seems to have an unusually acute coverage of the Middle East, often picking up on stories that otherwise get missed, which it combines with professional analysis.

Their latest little gem is about Saudi Arabia’s potential purchase of Russian air defence systems. Whilst this may not appear that unusual, there are various interesting points to note about this.

– So far it is believed that Saudi might be seeking to buy as much as $4 billion worth of Russia’s S-300PMU air defence system. Some think, however, that Riyadh might prefer to wait for Russia’s more advanced S-400 system which has a range of 250 miles and the ability to counter sophisticated missile countermeasures. Russia is believed, however, to prefer to use the first few batches of S-400s domestically.

– Additionally, notions of Saudi buying 30 Mi-35 assault helicopters, up to 120 Mi-17 transports, 150 T-90 main battle tanks and 250 BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles are being mooted, according to UPI.

– It would be quite unusual for Saudi Arabia to purchase arms from Russia. Not only because of its heavy reliance on American and European weapons suppliers but because of questions surrounding the interoperability of Western and Russian systems.

– The most interesting aspect of this deal is that some see Saudi buying these weapons to make sure that Russia do not sell similar S-300 air defence systems to Iran. UPI writes that Russia ought to have delivered 5 highly effective S-300 batteries to Iran according to existing contracts though it has not claiming ‘technical difficulties’, which seems like the thinnest of veneers for US and international pressure. The UPI article sees Iran’s expulsion of Russian pilots recently as an angry reaction aimed at Moscow.

Gaddafi insults Qatari Emir 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
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Libya’s national embarrassment Leader has taken a decidedly underhand jibe at Qatar’s Emir Hamad Al Thani. Gaddafi opened the Arab summit which he is hosting in his home town of Sirte in Libya proclaiming that Arab citizens are “waiting for action, not words and speeches”. The irony that he said this in a speech clearly being lost on him.

Later on when Qatar’s Emir stated correctly that Arab leaders have achieved too little, Gaddafi replied that his guests – including 13 heads of State – would not do much better. He then said of the tall and heavy Emir that he is “better than me at filling a void” before laughing uproariously at his own joke. As soon as he finished laughing there was a barely audible sound of every Libyan cringing with (yet more) shame as their glorious leader humiliated their country for the n’th time.

Brazilian President to visit Tehran 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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The Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva will visit Iran in mid May. Uskowi quotes Lula stating that he’s going to Iran to tell President Ahmadinejad

I am against you building nuclear weapons, but I am in favour of you enriching uranium like Brazil does, to produce nuclear energy.

Why, exactly, Ahmadinejad will care what the Brazilian President says is unclear. Iran has close links with Venezuela, yet these are based on gas and on their mutual anti-American stance. Neither of these commonalities applies in the Brazilian case.

Lula has made it clear in recent years that he seeks a more prominent role in world affairs commensurate with Brazil’s size. There’s no better place to start than Tehran. Perhaps this is Lula placing himself cleverly as a ‘honest broker’ between the two countries, with good relations with both but a significant stake in neither.

Kuwaitis seeking to gentrify their names by adding ‘al’ prefix 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, The Gulf.
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Understanding tribal politics in the Gulf is exceedingly tricky. Whilst one can relatively easily identify numerous tribes and establish that they are originally considered to be bedu (historically quasi-nomadic people) or hadar (more settled people, often by the coasts) or from Iran, aside from generalized notions or clichés of Bedouin tribes being considered ‘less civilized’ than their hadar brethren, one is still mostly in the dark. How important are tribes today? What do tribes ‘do’? Are tribes little more than informal networks and the source of entrenched nepotistic practices? Do tribes still matter today when one no longer needs a tribe for physical protection?

Alas, as yet I can’t really answer too many of these questions, though I expect to get some answers this week.

The reason I bring up this topic is that I’ve come across a curious article about tribes in Kuwait. Seemingly many families are adding the prefix ‘Al’ to their names as they believe that this “gives them an advantage in business”. The survey reports that roughly 16,000 Kuwaiti nationals have does this in the last two decades to gentrify their family names to make them sound more regal and important. The author continues to conclude that Kuwaitis are doing this to follow the example of the ruling families of the region, the Al Sauds, the Al Sabahs and so on.

It must be said that the author doesn’t inspire confidence by writing

“Al”, meaning family…

as the basis of the article. It doesn’t. It means ‘the’. I realise perfectly well that if someone is called Abdullah bin Aziz Al Dosari, this ‘means’ Abdullah, son of Aziz of the Dosari family. In this sense, therefore, the ‘al’ does denote the family name. Yet surely no Arabic speaker would ever write “‘Al’, meaning family”.

I think that there’s a more technical problem too between ‘Al’ as in, for example, Al Attiyah (or any other non-royal name) and ‘Al’ as in Al Saud or Al Thani. As you can plainly see in English there is no differences between the two, yet this is not so in Arabic. The ‘Al’ in Al Attiyah is spelt ال whereas the ‘Al’ in Al Saud is spelt آل. The only difference is the little squiggle over the ‘a’ letter (the non-curvy one). Here I look to an arabic expert to confirm, but I think that this type of ‘Al’, known as an Alif Madda, is reserved for royal families only.

Nevertheless, ignoring this technical gripe, it’s an interesting article which argues against clichéd and stereotypical Gulfy notions of the ‘inviolability’ of one’s name and the prominence of family, for I would have thought that changing one’s family’s name would be an almost sacrilegious act.


Saudi & Abu Dhabi in naval skirmish 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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In a worrying development for regional security, naval forces of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi have been involved in an exchange of gunfire in disputed waters. Reports indicate that Abu Dhabi naval forces opened fire on a small Saudi naval vessel which had strayed into what they considered to be Emirati waters injuring two Saudi sailors and forcing their surrender. Captured Saudis were handed back to KSA authorities earlier this week.

Given that this was seemingly such a minor incident and the Saudis were handed back relatively quickly, it is tempting to assume that this was simply a quasi-game of harassment gone awry (just like with the RAF and Russian bombers that I reported earlier this week).

This incident has caught many by surprise. Whilst boundary disputes between the UAE and KSA are well-known, there have been no such clashes in recent memory. Saudi unsuccessfully sought to block Qatar building their Dolphin pipeline to the Emirates claiming that their agreement was needed as it passed through Saudi territory. Even though Abu Dhabi is essentially the richest city on earth and Saudi easily has the world’s largest oil reserves, neither side wants to forgo the potential oil under the disputed territory.

America will be displeased to see such an obvious clash between two key members of its putative coalition establishing a united front against Iran. Particularly so given that Doha hosts a conference on maritime defense early next week including speeches by Saudi and Emirati naval commanders.

The Gulf has an unfortunate combination of latent and overt tensions combined with – as far as defense is concerned – seemingly unlimited liquidity. It is, therefore, unsurprising to find that 5 Gulf countries are in the top 10 of world defense spending as a percentage of GDP. The Emirates are only behind India and China as world’s largest weapons importers. Furthermore, both countries receive some of the most up to date military hardware from the US, with the Emirates being the first country in the world agreeing in principle to purchase America’s THAAD defence system. More generally, America agrees to the massive build up of arms by Saudi and the UAE thinking that they will bolster their defense, their deterrence and balance the power of Iran regionally, not so they can take pot-shots at each other, much to the amusement, no doubt, of Tehran.

It is also interesting to note that this incident appears to have been largely hushed up. This is unsurprising. Despite this incident, KSA and Abu Dhabi are generally cooperative allies and are united in their mutual antipathy and suspicion of Iran. I very much look forward to seeing whether Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper covers this story, for it is clearly newsworthy, yet clearly a sensitive topic. This is, in short, a perfect test for their level of independence, or lack thereof.


I’ve changed a few words of this article. I misunderstood a few facts such as about the number of Saudi’s injured.

Abu Dhabi SWF fund manager Sheikh missing 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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The brother of the President of the UAE who is also ruler of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Ahmed bin Zayed al Nayhan is reportedly missing in a glider accident in Morocco. Ahmed Al Nayhan is the managing director of one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, Aida. He also sits on the Supreme Petroleum Council, Abu Dhabi’s primary oil regulatory body.

Estimates vary as to Aida’s net worth from a paltry $4oobn to nearly $650bn. Established in 1976 Aida recently invested in Gatwick Airport in London, Citigroup and Hyatt Hotels. It scores a lowly 3 out of 10 in the SWF Linaburg-Maduell transparency index.

Use bears to catch Bin Laden, of course 26, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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(Clearly the best photo I’ve ever posted. Many thanks.)

Using parachuting bears to catch Bin Laden is just one great idea submitted to the US Department of Defence in recent years.

Bears have scent detection that is far superior to bloodhounds! Trained bears with GPS and day/night cameras around their necks might be able to hunt down the scent of [Osama bin Laden], even in and through any caves and tunnels!!! Overnight, parachute some bears into areas [bin Laden] might be. Attempt to train bears to take off parachutes after landing, or use parachutes that self-destruct after landing.

“The authors’ names were withheld, but all spelling, grammar and paranoia are authentic,” notes Stars and Stripes.

Here’s another peach of a comment submitted to the DOD that the Guardian highlights:

Has anyone at the Department of Defense noticed that the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, and that when you dial emergency services in the USA you dial 911? If so, is this merely a coincidence

The death of the Arabic language? 26, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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Many people in the Gulf that I’ve spoken to in recent years fear greatly for the future of the Arabic language. This is to some perhaps surprising. It is difficult to countenance the notion of a people forsaking their own language when it is such a key feature of their religion, life and culture. Yet although Arabic will clearly never disappear, fears of its increasing marginalisation are real.

Abbas Al Tonsi, known to many an Arabic student for co-authoring the Arabic language text-book Al Kitab, has verbalised these fears. There are primarily two factors at play.

Firstly, the march of the English language, the lingua franca of business and economics as well as a whole host of other spheres, is continuing apace. In – as they say – an ever more globalized world, a firm grasp of English is becoming ever more important. Gulf countries are switching their education systems from Arabic-focused to English-focused to supply their future generations with one of the key skills enabling them and their country to compete effectively: English.

Secondly, compounding this problem, Al Tonsi places the blame on Arabic schools whose teaching styles, as anyone who as been in a government school in the Gulf can testify, leave a lot to be desired. Rote learning, drilling and grammar and emphasized ad nauseum, which is quite at odds with more advanced and interactive methods used in teaching English.

Bum bomb evolves: the breast bomb 26, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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I realise that alliteration can be rather a clumsy tool to use at times, but I’m finding it difficult to resist at the moment. Fox News quotes British intelligence agents asserting that there is a chance that female suicide bombers may be seeking to use

exploding breast implants which are almost impossible to detect

The story seems to be faintly absurd to me for several reasons.

Firstly, it’s Fox News reporting it.

Secondly, what’s worse is that Fox News borrowed this story from The Sun, the most tabloidish of British tabloids, which pays but the scantest of attention to the truth and relies on spectacular sensationalism, exaggeration and…well…breasts. [I love how the Wiki article describes the topless model as ‘tastefully nude’.]

Thirdly, the terrorist expert quoted, Joseph Farah, is, as far as I see it, not at all an expert on terrorism. He hasn’t written one book or published one academic article on the subject of which I am aware. I can only assume that no serious expert would agree with such a notion and so they called the arch-conservative, Limbaugh supporting Birther Farah to add the slimiest and thinnest veneer of ‘rigour’ to the article.

Fourthly, yes, of course, it is technically possible. Many things are technically possible. Yet we need to start to pare down the possible possibilities and come up with a reasonable list of things and threats to guard against.

In any case, as the bum bomber spectacularly proved himself, the human body is a great cushioning and absorbing device. Add to this the fact that the BBC proved quite well I think that a decent sized amount of PETN (as used in the pants bombing) will still NOT break the skin of a plane (even outwith the human body) and as far as I’m concerned I’ll not be obsessively scrutinizing women’s breasts on planes as a sensible safety precaution.

RAF intercept Russian bombers. Again 25, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Russia, UK.
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The RAF reported that roughly once every three weeks they are scrambled to escort Russian military aircraft that purposefully stray into British airspace back to international areas. The above picture was taken and released by the RAF of a Tornado F3 from RAF Leuchars escorting a Russian Tu160  Blackjack bomber out of Britain’s airspace on 10th March.

Russia’s petty game of cat and mouse with the RAF based in Scotland has been going on for sometime now. Can you imagine if British or French military aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons illegally and without warning entered Russian airspace? They would squeal, whine and rattle their saber has hard as they could. The double standards in this issue are just breathtaking.