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Iran’s oil exports map 15, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
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Here’s a quick and easy map from CNN showing where Iran sends its oil. I’d be more impressed, though, if it showed what percentage of oil Iran’s sales made in the countries in question.

Hat tip: ScottLucasUK





KSA and the Iranian Scientists 12, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia.
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A couple of times recently I’ve been somewhat annoyed with myself for not thinking outside the box. Last night at a lecture by James Piscatori, he quoted someone coining the phrase ‘internal sovereignty’ referring to the place of Islam in society in much of the Middle East. What a wonderful phrase. But why didn’t I think of it? I’ve been reading and writing about sovereignty and the Middle East for years in one form or another yet this notion never occurred to me.

Again today, the superb Times columnist David Aaronovitch asked why no one seemed to be suggesting that perhaps Saudi security services might seek to bump-off Iranian nuclear scientists. What a good point. I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s an excellent point that I feel I ought to have thought up myself. But c’est la vie.

The underlying principle that KSA would want to disrupt Iran’s presumed acquisition of nuclear technology is, of course, sound. Reality aside, KSA’s elite believe that any such change would immeasurably damage their  interests. Indeed, if Iran were to pass the threshold it seems to me a virtual guarantee that Saudi Arabia would buy a bomb ‘off the shelf’ from Pakistan, probably holding it as Israel does: making sure everyone knows they have it, but not announcing it.

However, I am sceptical as to whether in reality KSA security services could launch such an attack.

Like most Gulf States, KSA has outsourced its security to America. This has several key corollaries.

Primarily, this means that there is little pressure on KSA’s defensive forces to actually be good at what they do. This report, though old and referring to the GCC Peninsula Shield, highlights some of the typical problems that befall much of KSA’s armed forces. Problems of communication, motivation and discipline within the armed forces are legion. Indeed, when KSA sent its forces to attack the rag-tag Houthis in 2009-10, they were embarrassingly routed despite decades of expensive military acquisitions.

The key question is whether this attitude has spread to the security services too. Here – I confess – I am in two minds. For certainly KSA security services have reportedly become really rather efficient in recent years, particularly domestically. The Al Qaeda threat which rocked the Kingdom from 2004 onwards has been all but eradicated and the elite’s grip on domestic security appears to be strong.

Yet at the same time there are egregious examples of crass errors and a profound lack of professionalism. One might suspect that at the height of Al Qaeda attacks and at the world’s largest oil processing plant, security would be professional and competent; yet though Abqaiq’s central facilities were not breached in 2006 and the attackers were stopped by security measures, Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef subsequently said ‘we did not save Abqaiq; God did’. Hardly a ringing endorsement of KSA’s facility security. Moreover, US wikileak documents are replete with Saudi officials scrabbling to get US help to assuage their various security vulnerabilities. One’s conclusion must be that a direct and real threat is not enough to guarantee meaningful speed and professionalism of action.

Aside from such rationalisation, after having lived, studied and worked in this region for many years now, the notion of the Saudi security agency (the General Intelligence Presidency, for example) meticulously researching, rehearsing, planning and executing such a risky, dangerous and deft mission just seems highly unlikely. Never have I come across any snippet, source or story indicating that Saudi’s security agencies have attempted something like this before or would be capable of doing so. Obviously, this is not to say categorically that they did not, but to note that such an action would be wholly out of character and involve far more subtle and professional skill than is typically ascribed to such organisations.

Lastly, factors such as the proximity between Saudi and Iran, the very real risks that the operation could have gone wrong and the innate conservatism at play within the Kingdom suggest again that KSA was not behind such an action. The potential repercussions were Saudi found to be plotting such an operation are immense and would surely have found ill-favor with the geriatrics running KSA.


Canada’s naval defences scuppered by mussels 11, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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A floating fence designed to protect Canada’s navy ships has been scuppered by mussels and barnacles anchoring to the barrier and weighing it down.

My instant thought is that if this occurred in Egypt, we’d all be smirking at the press lambasting the latest perfidious action of the Israelis with their remote controlled sea food assortment. Sad but true.

The FT guff awards 9, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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From the Financial Times.

The 2011 winners…

Sound and Fury Cup – ‘awarded each year to the chief executive who makes a public pronouncement signifying nothing.’

The runaway winner is Cisco’s John Chambers…”We will accelerate our leadership across our five priorities and compete to win in the core.”

Worst euphemism for firing people.

This goes to Nokia, which last year announced that 17,000 people were getting the chop or, as it put it, that its operations were being “managed for value”.

Most spurious use of percentages over 100 per cent.

Devin Wenig of Ebay… He said he was a mere “1,000 per cent committed” to his new job but added an explanation that craftily kept up the mathematical theme. “At this point in my career, a big platform, big brand, and global impact were all part of what I was solving for in prioritising opportunities.”

Worst job title.

Dirk Beeuwsaert is GDF Suez’s Executive Vice-President in charge of the Energy International Business line.

The most heroic attempt by a management consultant to overcomplicate matters.

A consultant at McKinsey who said: “The assessment was based on international methodology and on ground-truthing.”

Worst email sign-off

Shortlist of five: Toodle pip; All heart; Smiles; To your success; and (following a threatening message) Thanks and Bless. All should have prizes, but as I can only give one, I’m choosing “Smiles”, which is both bogus and contains a baffling use of the plural. How many mouths does the sender have?

2011 Golden Flannel Award for utter gibberish from a company that should know better.

The winner is Manpower Group, for describing itself thus: “Our $22 billion company creates unique time to value through a comprehensive suite of innovative solutions that help clients win in the Human Age.” Which makes me nostalgic for the Jurassic Age because I don’t think dinosaurs had any truck with innovative suites at all.

Hat tip: @rupertbu

KSA to test its international students for alcohol on their return? 9, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Likely striving for attention, a Saudi preacher has called for KSA students studying abroad to be tested for drugs and alcohol in their system on their return to the Kingdom at the airports.

While this will never happen and will join the long, growing and inventive list of utterances from KSA Imams/preachers, I find quite amusing the thought of who knows how many students in the UK and elsewhere hearing the news (down the pub) and panicking profoundly, if only for a short period of time.

And note how the preacher does not call for such tests to be run on nationals returning to KSA from Bahrain across the causeway; clearly, there aren’t enough jail cells in the whole Kingdom to cope with the undoubted ensuing avalanche of arrests and detentions.

Hat tip: Sultan Al Qasseimi

Tunisia & the benefits of hindsight 9, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa.
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Published in April 2010, many people have come across this book on Tunisia unerringly failing to discern the way things would go. The Arabist has highlighted perhaps the worst paragraph, its final conclusion:

Authoritarianism in Tunisia could prove to be very durable, and not simply because the government represses opponents. A majority of Tunisians may determine that the benefits of the status quo outweigh the individual and collective costs that a transition would require them to pay. In fact, the country’s history and its current balance of political forces make this the safer bet over the medium term. It does seem clear, though, that political change in Tunisia will not come about through some dramatic event that suddenly replaces the existing order with a new one. The stability–reform dialectic

Not for one second do I write this to sneer at this author. I would imagine that his book is fairly well grounded in history and approximated the best that social scientific predictive powers could do (can you tell which side of the Soc Soc/US v UK debate I am on?). But things happen, some of which simply defy prediction.

Similarly, I find myself defending the likes of David Held. While I don’t know the in-depth bits and pieces of the case, I don’t find the notion that Saif was always a despot bursting to get out and Held was a fool for being fooled particularly persuasive. Yes, there were a number of pointers that Saif was not a nice piece of work (to say the least) and for this reason alone, perhaps Held ought not have interacted with him. This, however, is a different question.

Specifically on the notion that Saif was ‘always’ likely to become some blood-thirsty dictator or some such notion, I’m not sold. I don’t think that it takes much imagination to foresee – minus the Arab Spring (!) – Saif eventually taking over from his delusional, vicious father and leading Libya on something of a more normal path (note I don’t say that he’d be a paragon of virtue and democracy).


On Inside Story et al 5, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran, Qatar.
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Belated seasons greetings to all as well as a happy new year.

Blog posting has been thin on the ground recently, which is most annoying. What can I say? I’ve been profoundly mugged by the realities of a new job and lament the loss of the days when I was only very busy.

Still, I’ve been spreading the good word on a range of topics in recent weeks. Here’s a selection:

On Inside Story, not exactly at my most erudite [‘bits and pieces’? oy vey] but making some sense, inshallah, about Iran.

On BBC World waxing intellectually about Qatar and the Taliban office.

On Aussie radio rambling about Qatar’s history.

In the FT and AP wittering about Qatar and Paris St. Germain.

And in some random publications elucidating the finer aspects of something or other.


Decoding Iran’s Missile Tests 4, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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Over the Christmas and New Year holidays Iran undertook a series of naval exercises in Gulf waters, which included the test firing of a range of missiles, one of which could theoretically reach as far as Israel. While Iran’s military elite claimed that the tests were successful, given their record of exaggeration and the attempted manipulation of photos of missile launches, it is difficult to take such statements at face value.

Yet such tests are not really about tactical military preparations or the meaningful testing of a new missile. Instead they are designed to once again rattle the sabre, to remind both the Gulf states and in particular Europe and America of Iran’s military threat. In particular, these exercises and other bellicose statements in recent weeks about Iran’s ability to “close down the Strait of Hormuz” are aimed at pressuring European states not to back America’s new tough round of sanctions on Iran.
In other words, the exercises and the threats regarding the Strait of Hormuz are mostly a PR diplomatic bluff; yet this is not to say that they should be ignored.

The greater tensions in the Gulf and the more exercise that Iran feels it needs to put on, the greater the chance of a conflagration occurring by accident. Recent instances of the kidnapping of British Marines in 2007 and of Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) boats “buzzing” US warships in 2008 could easily have escalated quickly and were enormously incendiary and foolish actions by Iran.

US election season being underway may have prompted President Obama’s tougher new sanctions on Iran to shore up his “strong man” credentials and though America certainly does not want to instigate an actual confrontation with Iran in this post-Iraq era, provocative actions and miscalculations from Iran in the context of pressure from domestic, Gulf and Israeli lobbies could prove difficult to resist.

At the same time, Iran does not want a “hot war” in the Gulf either. Despite the constant inflammatory rhetoric emanating from Tehran, the elite knows full well that were a conflict to occur with US or Gulf forces in the region, even were Iran’s asymmetric forces to strike a blow or two, given the profound technological mismatch between Iran and America and its Gulf allies, overall it is not difficult to imagine Iran’s entire Navy, significant portions of its air force and any number of its petroleum installations being summarily destroyed. While this would temporarily solidify the Iranian elite’s position given the likely subsequent rallying of public support, such blows could be profoundly crippling.

While some suggest that Iran’s elite is intrinsically unstable or “irrational” and may actually seek such a conflict given that they are beholden to their religiously inspired Revolution, one only need recall that at the height of Khomeini’s rule in the 1980s, despite typically nasty rhetoric to the contrary, Khomeini engaged and traded with Israel. Iran needed spare parts for its fighters and Israel wanted oil: rhetoric is one thing; realpolitik is another.

Despite neither side wanting serious escalation, neither America nor Iran appear able to escape their cold war. Aside from a deep history of mistrust and proxy conflicts for more than three decades, today Iran feels profoundly encircled and afraid. It sees tens of US bases and tens of thousands of US troops to its north, south, east and west, not to mention US allies laden with advanced military equipment across from Iran in the Gulf.

Wholly unable to cope with such a conventional military challenge, Iran has instead engaged in augmenting its asymmetric forces both in terms of the IRGC and by supporting groups such as Hezbollah. This, in turn – in addition to persistent US claims that Iran has been involved with the supplying of, for example, IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq to kill US forces – has entrenched US implacability to Iran.

Thus today the “Great Satan” is a mainstay of Iranian politics and Iran is a byword for perfidy in US domestic politics, making reaching any accommodation difficult. Iran’s recent overture for diplomacy is cleverly timed for Tehran knows perfectly well that the Obama Administration will find it all but impossible to engage during the election season. Therefore, when America rejects this attempt, Iran can claim that it tried the diplomatic route but was rebuffed, much as President Obama did with his initial overtures after he was elected.

There are no easy exits on the horizon from this vicious cycle. Both sides know fundamentally that they need to talk, but both are constrained by their domestic climates, where accommodation and even discussion is seen – absurdly – as weakness. So too are Gulf states constrained in their relations with significant antipathy across the region to Iran. Yet the immutable relations between Iran and the Gulf states born of their unalterable proximity is perhaps the best hope for a future accommodation. Both HH the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, HE the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, and most recently Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Prime Minister of the UAE, have voiced sporadically reasoned and moderate views on Iran; yet much work and time is yet needed – not to mention a partner in Iran – for such sentiments to prevail and for a new Gulf security architecture to replace the current failing framework.

Published in The Gulf Times

The Taliban and Qatar 4, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Central Asia, Qatar.
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After months of negotiations it has been announced that the Taliban will open a representative office in Qatar. Initially, Afghan President Karzai rejected Qatar as the location of the office and even removed the Afghan Ambassador from Qatar, accusing the Doha Government of not consulting the Afghan Government on the matter. Yet at the end of December 2011, Karzai relented, no doubt having extracted some price for his acquiescence.

No details are known about the office yet, but it is unlikely to take on the role of a Consulate or retain any significant official diplomatic capacity for many years and even then not without the explicit approval of the Government of Afghanistan, which would simply not be given under current circumstances.


The benefits

Numerous previous efforts have been launched but failed. Two of the most recent forays for peace resulted in Western allies being swindled of hundreds of thousands of dollars by a Taliban impostor in November 2010 and a similar scam led to the assassination of the lead Afghan Peace negotiator in September 2011. This event in particular was a further catalyst for the opening of this office.

Now that a Taliban base is established, if it can be staffed effectively it should enhance the chances for finding some kind of an accommodation in Afghanistan. Without the dangerous and difficult spy-games of locating Taliban spokespeople; without the pressures of the in-country dynamics of the Taliban being a furtive, fugitive organisation and with a physical and metaphorical distance from the Afghan Taliban and their associated baggage – not to mention profound ISI-Pakistani influence –  hopes are that all will find negotiating easier.

Aside from causing problems for American Diplomatic Service Protection Officers, the representative office in Doha is likely to be a boon for America with negotiating made significantly easier. Indeed, the Taliban themselves will likely seek out the Americans for discussions; they want five of their comrades incarcerated in Guantanamo to be released, perhaps for the quid pro quo of the release of a captured US serviceman.

Why Qatar?

Qatar is something of a natural choice as a location for the office. The small Gulf State now has a long history of offering up its services in the name of peace. For many years it has supported peace negotiations in Darfur through funding an inexhaustible number of Sudan-Qatar flights along with unlimited hotel accommodation and facilities in Doha as well as getting deeply involved in the negotiations themselves. Also, in 2007 Qatar sought to find an accommodation between the Houthis and the Yemeni government and, with echoes of today’s decision, offered the Houthi leadership accommodation in Qatar in return for concessions.

Moreover, as a small Gulf country, Qatar clearly has no vested interests in supporting the Taliban or the Afghan Government and can be taken by both as a reasonably neutral mediator. Lastly, Qatar is also likely to be funding this entire venture, from the office itself to the numerous return flights that will be needed. Taken together these qualities and Qatar’s pedigree mean that the list of potential countries to host – and likely fund – the office was exceedingly short.

Qatar’s motivation is – as ever – to maintain its place at the centre of the world’s attention. There comes with such attention a certain safety in the glaring lights of the international scene, not something that can be scoffed at by a tiny, exceedingly rich state hemmed in by significantly larger neighbours with whom they do not have the best of relations, in a region of profound instability. More specifically, this exact role that Qatar is playing with this issue is the personification of Qatar’s recent strategy of positioning itself as the key interlocutor between the West and Muslim actors with whom the West has trouble dealing. This exact dynamic can be seen in Qatar’s recent role in Libya, where it hopes to place itself between Western states and the emerging Islamic government, after cultivating relations with, for example, Ali Al Salabi – one of Libya’s most prominent clerics – for many years. So too can one discern such a relationship with Qatar’s attempts to build and use relations with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen.

Step towards peace

Overall, while this move is certainly a step towards brokering some kind of peace in Afghanistan, opening up far greater possibilities of meaningful interaction between all sides, it is but the first step along a long and winding road. Qatari facilitation can be exceedingly useful, but it will still take courage on all sides to take the necessary concessionary steps incumbent upon all actors seeking to close violent conflicts.

Published on RUSI.org