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Artificial clouds & solar shades: the sensible answer 25, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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As you know the World Cup in 2022 will be held in Qatar. More specifically, it will be held in the summer in Qatar. One need not be a meteorologist or a veteran of the Gulf to know that this is not the world’s most sensible idea (as FIFA’s own technical report noted).

Still, c’est la vie and all that.

To counter the gross heat two super ideas have surfaced in the past few days: Artificial clouds and a floating solar powered shade. Great ideas. What can possibly go wrong?

But even were I to  – grudgingly – cover up my eternal cynicism for a moment or two, it must be pointed out that these ideas are really rather exceedingly far from remotely solving the problems. Crucially, the oppressive humidity will still be around (if not made worse by extra cloud cover). Back to the drawing board, fellas.

Hat tip: Oli Kay & Doha News

Arab involvement in Libya 23, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Qatar.
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On 12 March the Arab League, having suspended Libya’s membership, voted in favour of supporting a United Nations (UN)-backed military action against Libya in the form of enforcing a no-fly zone. Limited and careful as their wording was – Syria and Algeria balked at the phrase ‘foreign intervention’ – it is still extraordinarily rare for Arab states to come together to support any kind of international military campaign against a fellow Arab state.

The official reason that the Arab League supported some kind of intervention or involvement was for the need to ‘protect the civilian population’.[1] Yet this is hardly an adequate explanation. Humanitarian concern is rarely – if ever – the ultimate arbiter of decisions in the international arena, where notions of absolute sovereignty are habitually prized above all else.

Shifting Focus

The more international and local media focuses on shots of a Libyan plane crashing to the ground or Tomahawk missiles being launched from Western battleships off the Libyan coast, the less the media is focusing on other simmering conflicts around the region. For example, because Saudi Arabia voted for some kind of action against Libya there has been, ipso facto, less coverage of its own sporadic domestic protests and intervention in Bahrain.

Moreover, at a time of ferment throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it may be considered opportune and useful for leaders, wary for their own sake, to show that they are aware of the prevailing mood and will ‘combat injustice’ when they see it. As long as these sentiments can be harnessed and focused externally, it may be felt – rightly or wrongly – that such actions will go some way to establishing revolutionary credentials with minimal domestic reforms. Or, more to the point, given the near-universal popular support for the opposition against Qadhafi’s onslaught, maybe Arab leaders were afraid of not supporting some kind of action and the potential domestic ramifications thereof.

A leader cognisant of the prevailing mood, aware of the potential dangers of fighting against the current of international opinion and consequently supporting action against Qadhafi, may also garner support from America and other Western countries. This, in and of itself, given Western proclivities for favouring change in Iran but not Saudi Arabia, in Libya but not in Bahrain, would be a savvy path to tread.

Qatar and the UAE

Initially, American officials noted that the Arab League would have to ‘participate’ – simply offering rhetorical support would be insufficient.[2] Curiously, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates emerged as the Arab states taking the lead in supporting the no-fly zone.

Most assumed that Qatar, for example, would support efforts by allowing America to use Central Command – based near Doha – to oversee operations. However, it now appears that Qatar is contributing six of its Mirage 2000 fighter-jets along with two cargo planes. The UAE was also expected to contribute twelve F-16s and twelve Mirage jets for use against Libyan targets.


It is theoretically easier to understand the UAE’s desire to join in with this operation. In recent years the UAE has spent tens of billions of dollars on importing a wide variety of armaments, so much so that from 2006 to 2010 it accounted for nearly a quarter of all major weapons deals in the Middle East.[3] Given the UAE’s strategic location, it is logical to assume that these weapons were bought explicitly for defence purposes. Therefore, a high-profile demonstration of their potency may, in addition to their acquisition in the first place, contribute to the UAE’s deterrence.

In contrast, Qatar’s security is not based on the deterrence value of their own military, which has received but a fraction of materiel as compared to the UAE, but on the presence of America’s Central Command. Rather, in sending fighter aircraft to Libya, Qatar is pursuing its default policy of the past fifteen years, consistently seeking the international limelight, usually in a humanitarian or educational context. Certainly, this is the first time that Qatar has used such raw, hard power, for it typically concentrates on far softer methods, but the underlying reasoning is the same: to take part in a popular action to assuage, for example, a humanitarian crisis.

Cold Feet

Yet as Qatari jets near Libya, Arab support wavers. Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, complained on 20 March about the scale of the attacks on Libya.[4] The loss of Arab support, given existing issues with Russia and China, would be highly damaging. However, the very next day Moussa, in conjunction with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, reaffirmed Arab support for the action. His earlier wavering has been widely ascribed to his expected candidacy for the Egyptian Presidency, hence decrying the loss of civilian life from Allied attacks for domestic Egyptian consumption.

Even with Moussa’s renewed support of the mission, there are growing murmurs of discontent throughout the Arab world and beyond.[5] Fundamentally, in addition to growing casualties, even with the need to appear to ‘understand’ and ‘support’ the will of the people in the face of Qadhafi’s onslaught, many governments fear the precedent that they may be setting by allowing – nay supporting – regime change.

Moreover, the latest reports to emerge regarding the UAE deployment suggest a key shift in policy. The National, the UAE’s flagship English language newspaper, reported that the UAE would limit its support to humanitarian aid and not military action over ‘disagreements with the West over Bahrain.'[6]

This is an interesting move. Despite the official reasoning, the core motive of this change has nothing to do with the West’s attitude towards Iran’s involvement (or lack thereof) in Bahrain’s troubles, but instead highlights just how sensitive the Emirati government is towards the prevailing sentiment. When the Arab consensus was pro-intervention, they supported it. Yet now that such sentiment is wavering and – crucially – civilians are being inadvertently killed, the calculus has evidently changed. The cost of Emirati pilots mistakenly killing civilians in an increasingly unpopular conflict where Qadhafi is reportedly ‘recruiting’ civilian shields for installations means that they will eschew the potential benefits (bolstering their deterrence, etc.) for fear of prompting domestic unrest.

Qatari Contribution

Qatar has a similar calculation to make. Yet not only has the state historically been quite a contrarian, often eschewing the typical consensus, but it is not a federation with demonstrably poorer relations within it. In short, there is a greater opportunity for unrest in the UAE, specifically in the northern Emirates, than there is in Qatar. The risk of causing civilian casualties must be weighed against the potentially iconic and positive footage on Al Jazeera of a Qatari jet spearing through the air on a ‘humanitarian mission’, acting as the very personification of Arab support.

Moreover, it is important to point out that Qatar’s contribution is far from token. Though specific figures are difficult to obtain, Qatar’s deployment probably accounts for the majority of its operational fast-jet wing and the transport wing of its Air Force. Clearly, Qatar is making a strong, public and Western-oriented statement in joining in with the military operations.

Nevertheless, there are risks. While Western allies will be extremely grateful for this significant show of support and there is much kudos to potentially garner, Qatari jets causing collateral damage could be highly damaging. Indeed, it would make sense for, if operationally possible, the Qatari Mirage jets to attack the most inanimate of inanimate targets or to strictly enforce the no-fly zone, minimizing the risk of civilian casualties. Such an outcome would be best not only for Qatar and the coalition, but potentially for Libya as well.


[1] Ethan Bronner & David Sanger ‘Arab League Endorses No-Flight Zone Over Libya’ New York Times 12 March 2011

[2] Ibid

[3] Gavin Davids ‘UAE is top weapons importer in Middle East’ Arabian Business 16 March 2011

[4] Donald Macintrye ‘Arab support wavers as second night of bombing begins’ The Independent 21 March 2011

[5] Colin Randall & Kareen Shaheen ‘Cracks begin in international anti-Qaddafi coalition’ The National, 23 March 2011

[6] Kareen Shaheen & Ola Salem ‘Ex-airforce chief says no to UAE planes in Libya’ The National, 22 March 2011

A moan about food in Qatar 23, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Dearest reader, please excuse this dull rant but it’s been building for some time now.

One thing that I’ll say for Kuwait is that there was great – and really I mean great – food there. Qatar…not so much.

I live my life according to what’s next to munch. Food is important to me. My love for cooking it is only surpassed by my love of eating hence why Qatar is really rather a let-down.

To choose the core bone of contention for me, no where can I find, in this whole burgeoning city, Chinese/Thai/Korean frozen dumplings. This probably isn’t much of a burden to you, dear reader, given that the majority of you are not afflicted with a love of these things or with being stuck in Doha, but for me it’s really mish kways. Moreover, there doesn’t even seem to be any one dedicated Asian-esque supermarket thing at all. Only small sections in Carrefour and Mega Mart. Again, mish kways.

But, you’d think, at least I can get good Arabic/Lebanese food here? Well, yes and no: essentially, it’s mostly ‘alright’. Nothing remotely to compare to Mais Al Ghanim or Cafe Blanc in Kuwait or – frankly – Ranoush Juice/Maaroush in London. And what’s with the utter lack of small, cheap, dirty flafel/shwarma places in Doha? Why do these shaaby places seem to be all about ‘club sandwiches’? Why on earth would I want a crappy mighty-white sandwich with plastic cheese, fake ham stuff and semi-rancid mayonnaise when I should be munching on a shwarma or a greasy felaffel sandwich? I just don’t understand. Where’s Kuwait’s Abu Khodor when you need it?

Thai Smile and Thai Snack are the only silver linings in another wise drab and disappointing Qatari culinary ‘scene’ and even these places aren’t even close to being as nice as some Thai place in Kuwait whose name I’ve never known even though I went there on a weekly basis for two years.

Please…please…correct me if I’m wrong, dear reader.

Thus endeth the rant.






Palin in Israel-Palestine blunder 21, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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Sarah Palin, the gaff-prone Inspector Clouseau-esque soccer mom from Alaska is currently embarking on a foreign tour to enhance augment burnish establish rustle-up cobble together bodge fake some foreign relations credentials before running for President of the US of A. Wonderfully predictably Palin has made a whopper of a gaff already.

On a visit to – equally predictably – Israel, she did not realise that Bethlehem is not actually in Israel but the West Bank. So when her motorcade began to approach an Israeli check-point to leave Israel it slowed, scratched its proverbial head, felt a sinking feeling in the pit of its stomach and then performed a U-turn, scurrying away.

The Israeli Defense Ministry noted that she had not made any request to visit the West Bank, as is customary on such visits.

Truly the thought of this incompetent having her finger on the nuclear button worries me.

The Iranian response to KSA & UAE intervention in Bahrain 17, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia.
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Iran to respond to regional invaders

…was the title of an article on Iran’s Press TV.

The first line of the article is a quote from Hossein Naqavi, a member of Iran’s Majlis Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy:

The Saudi’s should know for a fact that Tehran will use all the power and potentials at its disposal to halt the oppression of the people of Bahrain.

Does any of this really need much analysis?

The only caveat to this that I’d make is that Iran is usually 95% bluster and barking (“all trousers” as we say) and 5% bite. These bellicose statements were guaranteed to come from Tehran. Actually how much truth there is to them is most certainly a different question.

Without wishing to state the obvious, the longer Saudi troops are in Bahrain, the greater the risk of Iran’s meddling. Not only will the opportunity of funding some group to take pot-shots at Saudi troops grow exponentially by the day, but Iran just sitting back as its local hegemonic rival stamps its authority on a patch of the Gulf to which Iran feels…umm…attached, would be seen as a sign of Iranian weakness and thus unacceptable.

Watch this space for the first signs of some Iranian money slithering its way towards Haq or some other Shia group.




News from Qatar protest 16, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Breaking news here from your blogger at the heart of the action in downtown Qatar. With a daring and commendable lack of heed for his own personal safety and blind to the numerous dangers ever present for intrepid reporters in these increasingly trying days, I – yes, I in person, on the ground – bring YOU the very latest of latest information about the scheduled protests in Qatar:-

Nada. Zilch. Rien. Sefer. Nuffin. Sweet F.A. Diddly squat. Bupkus.

I’m shocked.

The endgame in Bahrain: Saudi and UAE troops enter Manama 15, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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With escalating tensions and increasingly violent rioting on the streets of Bahrain’s capital, Manama, Saudi Arabia sent in troops to ‘stabilise’ the Bahraini Government. The UAE too has responded to the request from the Bahraini government to “contribute to the establishment of internal security and stability” and has sent at least 500 police.

Thus far there is no evidence that Qatar or Kuwait has taken part in this mission, though they have offered strong rhetorical and financial support for Bahrain.

The Saudi contingent is nominally part of the ‘Peninsula (Jazeera) Shield Force’, a multi-national task force of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Established in the mid-1980s to counter any potential Iranian threat, this force was soon beset with command and control issues and it is questionable if it was ever an active or effective fighting unit. By the mid-2000s it was defunct. In 2009, prompted by Yemeni incursions into Saudi Arabia, it was re-branded and re-tooled as a ‘Peninsula Shield Rapid Reaction Force’ though questions as to whether it could ever function as a genuine multi-national task-force remain.

The force’s raison d’etre has always been to preserve GCC security and unity. This explains the particular utility in using the ‘Peninsula Shield Force’ for the majority of the intervention into Bahrain; so it appears more like fraternal support based on mutually agreed common goals and identities than a heavily armed incursion to prop-up an unpopular, minority-based Royal government.

The entry of at least 1000 Saudi troops with armoured troop carriers and other assorted lightly armed vehicles plus the UAE contingent signifies a qualitative shift in the dynamics of the troubles in Bahrain. Until now there has only been stiff rhetorical and financial support from neighbouring governments.

GCC Royal families are, perhaps understandably, severely concerned about allowing any kind of republican precedent. While conditions are different in Bahrain as compared to their neighbouring states, the GCC leadership, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, appear to follow an ‘Article 5’ mandate: a threat to one Royal family is seen as tantamount to a threat to them all.

The Shia twist in Bahrain too will have contributed to their calculus. Typically, the Sunni-Shia dimension has been lazily applied as a lens to understand Bahrain’s issues. Certainly, it has been prominent, but – until recently – economic cleavages have been equally important as a delineating line in Bahraini politics. Yet the recent troubles have significantly exacerbated sectarian tensions and current Sunni-Shia relations are as bad as they have been in decades.

The key backdrop to this is the insidious notion of Iranian, Shia fifth columnists pervading Gulf States and Bahrain in particular. Certainly Iran has sporadically alluded to such threats in the past and has overtly described Bahrain as the ‘14th province of Iran’, which drew immediate and vociferous Arab denunciations. These Iranian concerns are particularly acute for Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent present in the UAE.

Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province is where the majority of Saudi Arabia’s Shia live. There are genuine and deep-rooted concerns in the Saudi government of further uprisings in these areas. On Thursday 10th March police fired into a group of Shiite protestors demanding the release of prisoners and the next day, on Saud Arabia’s ‘day of rage’, there were larger though peaceful protests in  Hofuf and Qatif in the east of the Kingdom. Riyadh is highly motivated not to give these protestors any encouragement from their religious brethren nearby in Bahrain.

After Abu Dhabi bailed out Dubai from its spectacular financial collapse, it set about emasculating Dubai’s power in the federation. One result is that Dubai’s ‘perennial’ role as an Iranian-friendly port city is coming under increasing pressure from Abu Dhabi and America. The recent uncovering of an Emirati ‘spy ring’ in Oman, allegedly there to investigate Oman’s Iranian links, further propagates the notion of the Emirates as highly concerned with Iran’s activities.

For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, therefore, this intervention is a calculated risk. Immediately, opposition groups in Bahrain castigated the entry of foreign troops as “a blatant occupation” or even as “an act for war” despite official protestations that the troops are there to protect official installations. Indeed, the soldiers and police from Saudi Arabia and the UAE arrived soon after Bahrain’s financial district, the core of its economy, was closed down by protestors.

There are real concerns that this move in and of itself may escalate the violence. For while the foreign soldiers and police are nominally in Bahrain to protect critical infrastructure, any footage of them arresting, subduing or otherwise harming a Bahraini protestor would be hugely incendiary in Bahrain and similarly provocative in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Moreover, the spectre of a proxy war in Bahrain between Saudi Arabia and Iran is apparent now that Riyadh has broken the taboo of direct intervention.

These actions further complicate an already Gordian problem for America. Thus far the reaction has been to simply note that “this is not an invasion” and Washington will surely head off any mooted Bahraini overtures at the United Nations for support. It is also worth noting that Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, was in Manama on Saturday for discussions with the Bahraini leadership, a critical US ally as the home of the US fifth fleet. The US Administration has denied that Gates was informed about this plan.

The events set in motion carry dark overtones. There is a real sense of fear that in their haste to avoid allowing a precedent to be set and to prevent any potential Iranian interference, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s actions may well precipitate these very outcomes. Ominous statements emanating from Tehran and an outraged reaction from the largely un-cooperative opposition in Bahrain, suggest that these actions have further polarised and inflamed an already highly troubled situation. The announcement of three months of martial law by the Bahraini King confirms the deeply worrying trends in Bahrain.

Aside from an ignominious withdrawal by the foreign troops and police, which would play incredibly badly in their own countries, or the dissolution of the opposition, which appears wholly unlikely, the only likely outcome is a delicate stalemate, which is liable to explode at any moment.

David B Roberts, Deputy Director RUSI Qatar

The revolution in Qatar 7, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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No, not that sort of revolution. Not at all. The vast majority of Qataris are a happy bunch. They have one of the most forward-thinking elites in the region, a comfortable life and after Qatar’s recent triumphs and on-going conflict resolution adventures, quite a sense of pride in their country.

So there will be no masses on the streets calling for revolution. Sure, a handful of people have been making all sorts of curious demands on Facebook, but, as I noted before, every country has their share of people on the lunatic fringe (and who is to say that those starting or ‘liking’ the Facebook pages are even Qatari?).

Instead, Qatar’s (mini; micro?) revolution will be played out as a struggle for greater freedom of expression. True, Qatar is the host of Al Jazeera and has no Ministry of Information stifling domestic press. But one needn’t be a Gulf expert to note that Al Jazeera is frequently criticised for not covering stories within Qatar while Qatar’s domestic press is tame to say the least.

But things are changing.

First, Al Jazeera ran a story criticising the Qatari government for holding a Qatari blogger. They quoted an (incendiary as ever) spokesperson for Amnesty International as saying that he is at risk of ‘being tortured’ while in Qatari custody. I personally doubt this very much, but this is not the point; it is the fact that they overtly and explicitly ran a story that criticised Qatari authorities. Though this has happened before, such events are few and far between.

Secondly, there was a surprising editorial in The Peninsula, a Qatari daily newspaper, openly criticising the self-censorship that Qatari journalists employ. It also noted that editors tend to ask for or demand uncritical pieces from their journalists, essentially, for an easy life. Kudos to The Peninsula for running this article.

This, it seems to me, will be how the Spring Revolutions play out in Qatar: as a (minor) battle or simply an argument for greater freedom of the press domestically.

The Qatari authorities have little to fear. As I said at the beginning, it is my honest opinion that the vast majority of Qataris are more then content with how things are currently going in Qatar. If a nation’s press reflects its readership at all, then although there will no doubt be one or two articles disagreeing with official policy here and there, overall, frankly I wouldn’t expect much to change.

Egypt’s Stasi moment 6, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt.
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After the fall of the Berlin Wall the East German secret police headquarters was ransacked, much like is happening now in Egypt. Back then people were staggered at the levels of spying that the secret police had conducted. Something like 1 in 20 Communist Party members was an informant and I even remember people’s ‘odour’ being bottled as some kind of way to track people or for some such silly reason.

The picture below, if it is what it purports to be, carries similar overtones. Who knows what’s next? Apparently there are salacious videos of Kuwaiti Princesses in hotel rooms in Alexandria…mish kways, as they say.

KSA bans protests…guess what happened next 6, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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One of the simplest but most important maxims of teaching is that consequences are critically important. Making some threat – detention, extra homework etc – only works if you have the power to enforce it. Otherwise you look like a fool threatening and not enforcing.

This is exactly the mistake that Saudi Arabia has just made. It banned protesting. Something that it has no power whatsoever to stop. So, to my mind, it just looks all the weaker when its direct command is not obeyed.

Not for one second did I doubt that protests would soon prove the folly of this absurd deceleration. Low and behold…protests. As if on cue. What a needlessly silly move.