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Linguistic Composition of Iran 26, February 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
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I love a nice map. The only thing better than a nice map is a particularly informative nice map, like this one on arab dialects or the one below.

Map Iran Languages.

Hat tip to @blakehounshell for pointing out this map.

On Prisoner X and the Dubai debacle 15, February 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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The Prisoner X case in Israel is interesting for a few reasons.

Firstly, Bibi’s reaction to try to block Israeli papers from reporting on this incident smacks of the most pointless Mubarak-esque finger-in-the-dam mentality. We just do not live in that kind of world anymore. Instructing Israeli papers to ignore the incident as the story flies around the world is not only utterly futile but creates the impression that he has not learned anything from regional events. Was there any chance that this story would not have broken in Israel eventually?

Secondly, quoting the hugely reliable Kuwaiti press (…) the New York Times speculates that the reason Prisoner X was in such unusual custody was because he was involved in the Dubai assassination incident back in 2010. Apparently he was in the process of disclosing Mossad’s involvement and was thus arrested and incarcerated in this way such was the potential fall out were he to (or because he already had) disclose(d) information about Mossad’s involvement.

I have never quite understood this incident. How the Dubai authorities and countless op-eds across this part of the world mocked the Mossad for this ‘failure’ of an operation has never made sense to me. Around 20 Mossad agents waltzed into Dubai through its key international airport hub, sauntered to the hotel in question, mingled around, went to the room, killed the chap, wandered away, leisurely returned to the airport and skipped merrily through Dubai International Airport once more. How this is not a catastrophic and embarrassing failure for Dubai’s police force and domestic intelligence service I just don’t know.

OK, the suspects were caught on camera and I am sure they hoped it would be assumed that the chap died of natural causes but what does it matter? They killed him with ease and escaped with not so much as a murmur from Dubai’s authorities. So many congratulations to the Dubai police for putting together such a riveting series of pictures, better luck next time with – you know – actually catching them and stopping the assassination, perhaps?

And what do the Israelis care as to the embarrassment of this incident? It shows the impunity with which they can operate across the Middle East and their resolve in assassinating key leaders. I’m sure they were at least half pleased when the whole thing broke.

So to me, at least, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that Prisoner X received such special treatment over this incident. I assumed that he had something to do with leaking Israeli nuclear secrets and this still seems the most likely thing to me, but I suppose we’ll never know.

Another Qatar football debacle 7, February 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Sp Uru

When the World and twice-running European football champions are in town and playing the Copa América Champions, it would be rude not to go along and watch teams stuffed with the world’s best players. As much as I was looking forward to last night’s showpiece there was always a certain cynical reticence expecting the organisation around the event to be a mess.

It has been years since I saw England-Brazil in Doha, which was a disaster of planning including giving every fan in the stadium hard glow sticks to wave around in the dark, which soon became a rain of missiles pelting the front rows (who’d have thought?). Still, since Qatar has won the right to host the 2022 World Cup it must surely have learned how to organise one match by now…

Or not.


There’s not a whole lot the 2022 folks can do about the traffic. But the fact remains that for 5k around the stadium the traffic was a complete disaster with a 15 minute journey to the Aspire complex (stadium area) taking over an hour. I don’t expect a subway system to be installed overnight but how about a park and ride system from key points in Doha? How about traffic police monitoring the road and stopping the hard-shoulder becoming the fast lane? How about advertising a few bus services? How about doing anything whatsoever aside from just ignoring the problem?

Entrance to stadium

‘Take your seats by 20:00’ the ticket said for the 21:00 kick-off. Sound advice but had anyone passed this nugget of information on to anyone working at the stadium? Walking around the stadium more or less each gate had long queues of people trying to get in as early as 19:30 (and doubtless before). My particular queue was a special one at somewhere around 200 metres long. I started queuing before 20:00 and didn’t get into the stadium until around 21:25, 25 minutes after kick-off and after the first goal.

I simply cannot fathom how they messed this up so badly leaving thousands of fans outside in interminably slow queues to miss the kickoff. You have x amounts of tickets sold and x amounts of seats (let’s leave the 2011 Asian Cup final debacle to one side for the moment) and the staff presumably know kick-off time. From there it is surely a fairly straight-forward formula?

I just can’t understand why all the major leagues in the world can manage this process on a weekly basis – checking tickets, checking security, etc – often for much larger crowds and yet Qatari authorities can’t manage this once every year.

Do they not realise they can’t actually organise a football match effectively yet? Surely they have an inkling in which case why not get Man Utd or Bayern Munich to show them how it is done – the teams are here often enough, get the ground staff too.

Adding to the rancour in the long-suffering queues was the usual issue of people pushing in left, right and centre with Qatar staff replete with red glowing batons standing around, having a chat doing – precisely literally – nothing.

By the time we got to the gate they weren’t even checking tickets and were just waving people in: lessons not learnt, it seems.


I arrived looking for a quick bite to eat before getting into the stadium; how foolish of me not to factor in the necessary waiting time (half an hour or more at a guess; I didn’t bother).

The trestle tables setup for the drinks were exactly like I remember from my school sports day complete with paper tickets for ‘water’, ‘drink’ and so on; a system they had abandoned. The people serving had no system (I serve, you do cash, etc) but it was just a free-for-all and – obviously – the person I dealt with couldn’t add up, stuffing the wrong amount of money into a torn cardboard box as the cash register.

Again, I just can’t understand the utter amateurism of this whole affair. Why not get a proper catering company in to do the job? Why not think a bit differently and have shawarma and karak stands dotted around instead of a couple inside the tents? I could have organised that myself in half an hour.

I am sure some things went right. They paid $4m to get Spain; well done. But I was far from alone in being utterly demoralised by this farce. I simply have no comprehension as to why Qatar continually spurns these opportunities to show that it can run a successful and largely trouble-free football match. Doubtless these things will be sorted by 2022 – though I said exactly the same thing two years ago – for at some stage someone will get around to experiencing a match in Qatar as a normal fan and not a VVIP…


Incidentally, I can’t describe the contempt that I have for the Goebbels-esque reporting from an Al Jazeera correspondent gushing at the organisation; what a shamefully bad snippet of journalism.

On Qatar and Mali 3, February 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
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An edited version of this article can be seen on RUSI.ORG

Claims that Qatar is supporting a range of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Sahel are not new. In June 2012 the French satirical magazine Canard Enchaine quoted French Military intelligence sources asserting that Qatar was financially supporting various groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The reports are vague but usually refer to financial support from Qatar, while some refer to Qatari planes landing at Gao disgorging arms and even Qatari Special Forces entering the fray.

None of these accusations ring true given the general thrust of Qatari foreign policy. Ironically, however, it is Qatar’s recent actions particularly in Libya that make these accusations seemingly plausible.

The Qatari contradiction

Qatar is one of only two Wahhabi states and it did name its new state mosque the Muhammad Ibn Abdul Al Wahhab mosque late last year. But Qatar is a box full of contradictions. Alcohol is easily available as is pork. Women can drive (nor has this been an issue) and Qatar has the most visible, outspoken and influential female consort in the history of the Arab world. Western education systems are at the heart of the state and there is not even an official mosque in the entire propose-built, multi-billion dollar ‘Education City’ campus housing six American Universities as well as University College London.

Externally Qatar’s policies can appear confused. Support of America by virtue of the two huge US bases in Qatar and significant (usually unwelcome) outreach to Israel in recent years is contrasted with seemingly amicable relations with Iran and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. More recently a record of enormous investment in London and Paris has been contrasted to escalating support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and seemingly murky support of groups in the Sahel. Moreover, Qatar has been outspoken in its sub-state support of various groups in Mali’s regional neighbourhood in the last eighteen months.

A loose narrative has built suggesting that an ever increasingly confident Qatar is now beginning to support a range of ever more extreme Islamists across the region.

On the ground realities

Examining exactly what Qatar is doing in Mali is difficult. Qatar never enlightens anyone as to its foreign policy strategies or tactics and nor are there sufficient reliable sources of information in and around Mali.

The best one can say is that in addition to a lengthy history of interaction in the region the Qatar Red Crescent Society increased its capabilities in Mali in 2012 evaluating the state of the plight and the their potential response. This occasionally involved entering Mali from Niger to get to the critical city of Gao. According to an AFP article this in and of itself involved seeking safe passage from the MUJAO, an Al Qaeda offshoot.

The very fact that the two organisations came to this safe passage agreement may well be a root cause of much of the subsequent supposition, with many assuming the transit agreement to be a signal of deeper connections. Yet this is what the Red Cross/Crescent does; it sticks to its central tenet of neutrality in a conflict and deals with the realities on the ground making tactical deals to obtain access when it can.

There is no open source evidence available whatsoever that can back up assertions made by Sciences Po’s Sub-Saharan African expert Roland Marchal who suggests that Qatari Special Forces may have entered Northern Mali to train recruits of Ansar El Dine, which is part the Al Qaeda movement there. Indeed, aside from the Canard Enchaine assertion – which has even been partially retracted – there is nothing on which to base other assertions of Qatar financially supporting Al Qaeda affiliates in Mali other than supposition.

The narrative

The majority of the hyperbole about Qatar seems to stem from the adage that there’s no smoke without fire. It is unsurprising that the Mayor of Gao accuses the Qataris of supporting terrorism. From his perspective he is making a heartfelt plea for French intervention and he sees the Qatari Red Crescent Society gaining access to territory held by MUJAO. Doubtless he puts one – Qatar, the Wahhabi, rich Libyan-Islamist supporting Gulf State – and one – the Qatari Red Crescent gaining privileged access in MUJAO controlled territory – together and comes to the conclusion that ‘Qatar’ is supporting the terrorists.

Marchal too follows this logic. Qatar was active in Sudan and then in North Africa supporting various Islamists with financial support and Special Forces therefore – QED – Qatar is active in Mali doing the same thing.

While some of this is plain alarmism from those who know little about Qatar, some of it makes sense. The argument that Qatar saw how effective its support of various Islamist groups in Libya proved to be and thus sought to reuse such tactics in Mali is a logical proposition. One could also note that gaining support in an area rich in hydrocarbons and agriculture is also potentially a sensible and explanatory as a motivating factor.

The reality

Equally, however, there are many reasons as to why Qatar would be highly unlikely to be meddling with Al Qaeda groups in the Western Sahel. Despite Qatar’s reputation as a Wahhabi and Brotherhood-supporting country Qatar’s most important allies are America, the UK, and France. Qatar has a limited domestic capacity to defend itself and finds itself in a region that has seen three wars in three decades and where it is sandwiched between the two regional behemoths, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have somewhat antagonistic histories with Qatar. The Qatari leadership is under no illusion as to where its security reliance lies; resolutely in Western hands.

Countering this notion one could argue that its leadership feels it can do what it likes as its importance is so great to these key countries. But an equally key part of the Qatar project is deeply concerned with its global reputation. Through cultural events; educational investment; a variety of sporting events; world-class conference facilities and associated apparatus; and other soft power building initiatives, Qatar places a significant premium on making itself attractive internationally. To boost investment, economic diversification and Qatar’s reputation overall it wants to be known as ‘that place where England played Brazil at football’ and that ‘will host the 2022 World Cup’; it does not want to become ‘that place that supported Al Qaeda in North Africa.’  Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – the group elected to power in several Arab states – is one thing, supporting Al Qaeda affiliates is another.

One must note that the narrative that has built up castigating Qatar suits the Algerian Government. The increasing break between Doha and Algiers with the latter bitterly resenting Qatar’s involvement funding Islamist groups in Libya and Al Jazeera fanning Islamist flames is no secret. Qatar hosting in exile Abbasi Madani, the co-founder of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Islamist party whose near election win in 1991 precipitated the cancellation of elections and Algeria’s bloody decade-long Civil War, doubtless irks the elite in Algiers too. Given the almost entire lack of actual evidence of the Qatari state nefariously supporting Al Qaeda associated groups in the Mali theatre and the way this notion fits with the Algerian Government’s desire to hit back at Qatar, it is unsurprising that at least one North African expert has suggested that ‘Algerian propaganda’ may well be playing a part.

Lastly it is worth pointing out that the small group of people who make decisions in Qatar relating to foreign affairs – the Emir, the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister/Foreign Minister – have shown no interest in the past decades of supporting hard line salafi elements such as Al Qaeda. It is entirely plausible that some Qatari money is finding its way to supporting nefarious elements in the Sahel and there may be Qatar-based charities that engage to such ends, but the odds of a member of the Qatari elite ‘ordering’ such a plan stretches credulity.

Overall, there appears to be no evidence for the more outlandish claims that Qatar is training or financing Al Qaeda-splinter groups. Not only would this idea contradict key tenets of Qatar’s foreign policy for decades now, but it is wholly unclear how useful it would be to befriend a group of extreme Sharia-devout Al Qaeda types in northern Mali. Even before they were being routed by the French, they were hardly a cohesive, structured organisation that could offer Qatar meaningful promises or guarantees.

Instead Qatar’s reputation as supporting certain, typically Brotherhood-orientated Islamist groups in North Africa and a melange of clichés about rich, Wahhabi, conflict-fuelling Gulfies seems to have coalesced, perhaps with some judicious prodding by Algeria, with a basic misinterpretation of the role and practice of the Red Crescent. The ‘Qatari policy’ that this theory asserts may chime with base fears and assumptions and fit snugly into existing narratives but in reality bears little resemblance to Qatar’s state foreign policy thus far.