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Civil Society in the Gulf 27, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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Sultan Al Qasseimi has authored an excellent article on civil society in the Gulf. Replete with many examples from around the region, the article is well worth a read for anyone with any interest in the area.

Initially, he notes that

At first glance it seems as though the six Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies have no civil society movements to speak of, but scratching the surface unveils a complex layer of organisations that exist side by side with the governments and in some cases have been merged into governmental structures.

Kuwait, rightly, gets a good examination.

In Kuwait, the social phenomenon of dewaniyas is a unique model for civil society. The Kuwaiti dewaniya differs from the rest of the majlises or men’s reception areas in Gulf in the sense that is more institutionalized where entire families contribute financially to its upkeep and tribal leaders can receive guests and visit with others. The significance of the dewaniyas in Kuwaiti society was evident when during his visit to Kuwait in 2007 the Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz called upon a number of dewaniyas including those of Al Shaya, Al Marzoog, Abdul Aziz Al Babtain and Mubarak Al Hasawi, leading Kuwaiti businessmen. It is not customary for Gulf leaders to casually visit the majlises of tribal leaders in each others countries, the custom would often dictate that they are visited at their place of residence but thus is the power of the dewaniya in Kuwait, its institutionalisation has cemented its importance. These majlises have even played the part of breeding grounds or incubators for political movements, ideas and civil society causes.

On the ‘threat’ that they can be perceived to pose

Today, the rise of Islamic movements in the Gulf has greatly hampered the work of civil society associations. Most Gulf governments are weary of civil society movements and fear they may be either affiliated with external elements or have Islamic tendencies. It is not uncommon to hear of arrests in some GCC countries of unnamed individuals who may later receive pardons by the ruler. For instance in Oman in 2005, 31 university professors and Islamic scholars were arrested and sentenced to jail terms of up to 20 years for “setting up an illegal organisation, raising funds and recruiting members”, essentially starting a civil society movement. Their charges of aiming to overthrow the government appeared to be increasingly unlikely since they were pardoned the following month.

An interesting development in Bahrain is the pragmatic nature in which the official sanctioned parties have started so called offshoot movements that are managed by young members of the association. For instance, Al Wefaq, the largest religious and political society in Bahrain, which controls 17 members in the 40-seat lower chamber of the bicameral parliament, established the Bahrain Youth Center that is headed by Habib Marzooq. In an interview with The National Mr Mazrooq highlighted the importance of social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter to attract young voters to the party. The Marxists Bahraini Progressive Democratic Tribune, also known as Al Minbar, also founded the Al Shabeeba Society or Youth Society headed by Isa Al Dirazi to attract young voters.

On their failures

I have argued in two articles in The National and The Guardian that a failure to develop civil society in the UAE and in Qatar in non-charitable initiatives, commendable as they are into areas such as human rights and democracy may be due to a continuous stride for capitalism in society. The UAE and Qatari media, along with the favourable existing commercial environment have also contributed to a feeling of apathy in the generations that were born in the post independence era of the 1970’s.

And the key point

Because a large number of the civil society movements heads are appointed by the governments in the Gulf they cannot be classified as grassroots movements.

This is very much what I’ve come across. The Qatari government, for example, will (relatively) lavishly support emergent civil society movements. For this support they install a Chairman or Patron (or some such figure) on the board. (In fact, it could be that new movements and groups are mandated to have a Chairman/Patron. I think I’ve heard this…any confirmation?) This inevitably inhibits the movement. Though, as Al Qasseimi notes, it’s not as if many/any of these civil society movements in Qatar or the UAE are anything more then altruistic-cum-environmentalist groups.

Hat tip: The irrepressible Illinoisian Imam

Christine O’Donnell – “evolution is a myth” 26, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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And they keep on coming…

The Atlantic on Qatar 26, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The Gulf Blog is quoted in The Atlantic on Qatar’s foreign bits and pieces.

On September 5, Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, revealed another enigmatic relationship: He hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Doha. It is widely known in the region that Iran and Qatar have become closer allies since Ahmadinejad
was elected. The Emir and Ahmadinejad are close friends.

But the Emir has another friend, too– President Obama. U.S. Central Command has had a significant strategic presence in Qatar since 1996, and it built the current Army base, Camp As-Sayliyah – which has played a crucial role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – in 2000.  At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum held in Doha in February, Obama called Qatar “a place where our countries come together to forge innovative partnerships in education and medicine, science and technology.”

So how does the Emir maintain relationships with both Obama and Ahmadinejad without undermining the trust of either? And why is Qatar the only GCC country to attempt this seemingly strange balancing act?

“If people are confused about Qatar’s role, they shouldn’t be because it has worked,” says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “It’s not as baffling as it might be at first glance.”A closer look into current regional geopolitics helps explain how the Emir can afford to keep both countries close. And why it has been so successful at nurturing each relationship.

Geographically, the Gulf connects Iran to the West. But Qatar has by far the closest relationship to Iran of any GCC country. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as an enemy.  The United Arab Emirates, also close to Iran, is still angry about Iran’s seizure of Abu Masa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, three islands in the Strait of Hormuz, in 1971. Iran rushed to occupy the islands on the eve of the UAE’s independence, right after the British guarantor left the region.

“If you are Qatar, you look across the water and you think, when Iran did have the opportunity to take a few Arab islands, they did it,” explains David Roberts, a Qatari foreign policy Ph.D. candidate at Durham University in England who writes The Gulf Blog. “To me, that’s one example of part of the underlying mistrust between the two [nations].”
Despite that latent distrust, Qatar needs to keep up good relations – its livelihood as a nation depends on it. Ras Laffan, or RasGas, Qatar’s natural gas production company, maintains its gas terminal at the northern tip of the country – the part closest to Iran.

If a conflict erupts between America and Iran, Roberts says, Qatar would literally be caught in the middle. “Iran, if it wanted to, could click its fingers and sever Qatar’s money,” he says, adding that he thinks it highly unlikely that Iran would ever attack Qatar. But even so, “Qatar needs to have the ability to peacefully go about their business of sucking all the gas out of that giant field.” Iran, he says, could make that process very difficult.

Notably, the Iran-Qatar relationship is symbiotic: Iran needs Qatar as much as Qatar needs Iran. Ahmadinejad doesn’t want to appear isolated. Having friends makes him – and Iran as a nation–seem more balanced and less psychotic. And if America does attack Iran, it helps to have a rich, amicable neighbor to provide humanitarian support.

Qatar’s wealth is also a key factor in its more flexible, creative approach to foreign policy. In September, Global Finance named it the richest country in the world, according to its GDP per capita. Unlike Jordan and Egypt, other regional U.S. allies, Qatar doesn’t rely on U.S. aid. Its self-sufficiency means it can make its own decisions, and take policy risks, without seeking U.S. approval. Further, it’s more stable than Egypt and Jordan: the Emir is seen as a legitimate ruler, and there are no reported opposition movements brewing in the country.

Still, the question lingers: how does the Emir pull off hosting Ahmadinejad and U.S. Troops in the same country without any visible backlash from either side?

First, the United States understands -implicitly–that Gulf countries must invest in self-preservation. “There’s a recognition of the general tendencies of the Gulf states to hedge their bets,” says Steve Cook, a senior fellow of Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s always a question in the back of the minds of the leadership–how much faith can they put in the U.S.?”

Second, Qatar’s willingness to support the U.S. presence in the region indicates they are strongly on the U.S. side. Thus, the U.S. government trusts the Emir, it cuts him some slack.

“Because they are so clearly in our camp, they have the flexibility to try to reach out and retain some kind of positive relationship with Iran,” says Noah Feldman, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor at Harvard Law School, adding that it’s also in the U.S. interest to maintain connections to Iran because of its strategic place in the region.

But as the debate continues over a potential American strike on Iran, experts wonder increasingly how Qatar might be able to maintain the balancing act in the midst of conflict.
Would it force the Americans out of its country, and side with the Islamic Republic? Or would it back the Americans, and risk vulnerability to Iran’s predatory policies?

According to Hamid, Qatar would come out against the strike, and likely wouldn’t provide the U.S. with any type of support. However, the emergence of a conflict could give Qatar the chance to play its increasingly favorite role in the regional disputes – that of the mediator.
“Even if it does come to the point of violent conflict, Qatar is still going to be particularly well placed to help resolve it,” Hamid says.

The Daily Hate’s shocking Bahraini puff-piece 26, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain.
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I’m not a fan of the British tabloid The Daily Mail, or the Daily Hate as it should patently be known. Quite literally founded on the principal that it should give its readers something to ‘hate’ everyday, the paper continues to peddle sensationalist drivel usually involving demonizing Muslims or foreigners as a whole.

The latest joke of an article that I’ve come across is the puffiest of puff pieces on Bahrain. Presumably in the backlash of the negative press reporting in the West about Bahrain’s current crisis and their severe crack-down on pro-democracy protesters, an intrepid Daily Mail reporter was dispatched to Bahrain to do an in depth report on the delights of Manama as a tourist destination. Truly I can’t remember reading such a vapid piece of pseudo-journalism.

While I perfectly understand that this article is in the Travel section of the paper, is it really too much to expect a word – just one word – about the massive human rights abuses currently going on in Bahrain? Moreover, ignoring the fact that this article really ought to have been shelved given the current issues in Bahrain, even for a Travel section, this piece could not have been written more favourably were it dictated by Bahrain Tourism Inc. No critical comments at all? Nothing? Everything was just that perfect?

Truly, this is a nauseating article in massively bad taste.

Hat tip: CMD

PS. If you type ‘Daily Hate’ into Google, the first result is the Daily Mail’s homepage…even google agrees with me.

KSA to introduce permits for bloggers 24, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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The Saudi Arabian Information and Culture Ministry announced that all those who publish on the web on blogs or other online media will need to register with the government.

The official reason given was that this would help to cut down on libel and defamation and “is not intended to limit free speech”. Mmm. Not at all.

Currently, online media is the last bastion of vaguely free media space available. TV and newspapers have been carefully controlled, monitored, and regulated for some time now and are incredibly tame. The Government also has a history of arresting bloggers and banning countless pages of online content.

Never say no to Panda 23, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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Quite frankly one of the best adverts ever.

Hat tip: The Arabist

Stuxnet virus attacks Iran 23, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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The BBC reports that ‘high value’ infrastructure in Iran has been targeted by one of the most sophisticated computer viruses ever created.  ‘Stuxnet’ is designed to infiltrate systems via-USB keys. Then it searches the internal system for preset industrial control software made by Siemens where it can – theoretically – give the system new commands relating to, say, the temperature of a power plant. Siemens, however, maintains that they have had no such involvement in Iran for 30 years.

Though it has been found across the world, the concentration of Stuxnet in Iran along with the staggering complexity of the virus has led some experts to maintain that it must have been made by a nation state.

The inference in the article is clear; that America is waging a technological battle of sorts in Iran. This make a change from the typical storylines of this genre which tell of Chinese hackers repeatedly attacking Western government and private companies to steal secrets. The Chinese threat reached such proportions that Mi5, Britain’s domestic security service, issues stark warnings to the Government and Private Companies about China’s potential capabilities.

England cricket team to sue scurrilous slander 23, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Sub Continent, UK.
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I know that there are problems in the Middle East: Israel-Palestine and the Iranian cold war leaping to mind, but I simply must write instead about the great travesty of natural justice that befell the world last week. Brace yourselves, for what I am about to say is…well, utterly shocking; there’s just no other way to put it: THE England Cricket team was accused of cheating.

I know, I know…it shook me to my very core too. WHAT would the world be coming to if the England Cricket team , the very embodiment of truth, beauty and the essence, spirit and core of fair play thew a match? Clearly, it would be a harbinger of an imminent and deserved apocalypse.

Typically, it was a dastardly foreigner that shockingly accused the England Cricket team of cheating, trying to besmirch the reputation of Lords. Ijaz Butt, the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, said that England threw the third 20:20 test match against Pakistan in an attempt to divert attention from the utterly blatant cheating of numerous Pakistan players the week before.

This is a picture of an associate of the Pakistan cricket team accepting P I L E S  of cash from an undercoer reporter to arrange for certain fouls to be ‘made’ by the Pakistan players in the match at a prescribed time. People would place bets on when such a foul would occur and thus rake in a load of cash.

This picture is of the bowler overstepping the white line, thus fouling, on the exact ball that the newspaper was told to expect. This also happened numerous other times in the match.

The England team have, therefore, demanded that Butt offer a “full and unreserved” (and hopefully grovelling) apology to the team else they will sue. If such an apology is not forthcoming, I shall be calling my Member of Parliament to fire up the gunboats to save the Queen’s honor and dignity by giving this johnny-foreigner a damn good thrashing. Who’s with me?

Russia bans S-300 sale to Iran 23, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Russia.
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Russia has formally announced that it will not sell Iran its advanced S-300 missile defence system. Despite initially obfuscating whether they would sell them or not, given the latest round of U.N. sanctions, President Medvedev has banned their sale. This must also mean that the more advanced S-400 will not be sold to Iran either.

Not receiving these supplies is a blow to Iran’s air defense systems, leaving their critical sites relatively undefended given the technologically advanced American and Israeli aircraft. Iran are instead continuing work on their own IR-300 defense systems though their effectiveness and date of operation is unknown (to me at least).

Back-channel diplomacy for US & Iran in NY 23, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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Haaretz reports that U.S. and Iranian diplomats met in New York and are seeking to establish covert lines of communication between the antagonistic states. They even suggest that these discussions may be as a prelude to the establishment of unofficial diplomatic relations.