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Qatar and rule by its people 25, April 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The following article appeared on Muftah.org.


It is no secret that Qatar is not a democracy. While municipal officials have been elected since 1999, increasingly small popular participation in these elections reflects a widespread belief that the work of these officials is mostly insignificant. Indeed, the reality is that a small handful of people in Qatar make the majority of important decisions with relatively little external input.

The realm of foreign policy clearly exemplifies this kind of modus operandi. The Foreign Minister (who is also the Prime Minister) Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani is the key decision maker. Although trusted key lieutenants, such as the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Khalid Al Attiyah, also play an important role, all critical decisions must, as a matter of course, be sanctioned by the Emir or the Crown Prince.

While Qatar’s foreign policy is undertaken in the name of the Qatari people, it is unsurprising that there are no signs Qataris have ever really taken an active role in its formulation. Aside from perennial concerns with the Palestinian issue, the Foreign Minister does not pursue a given policy because of domestic opinion. Indeed, there is no evidence that Qatar’s foreign policy activism in recent decades is reflective of an approach, a whim, or an active desire among Qataris for their country to assume such a posture.

In fact, popular sentiment would appear to point in the opposite direction. Qatar is a small, conservative society and always has been. Until the 1990s, the state’s horizons were perennially limited to the region with brief forays into the greater international arena through involvement in international aid efforts, the non-aligned movement, and relations with non-regional countries as and when oil revenues permitted in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nevertheless, in recent decades, Qataris appear to be broadly content with their state’s foreign policy pursuits. Certainly there has been no active, widespread domestic movement denouncing Qatar’s various initiatives. Instead, there appears to be something of a tacit understanding that foreign policy should be left to the rulers.

Of course, this does not mean Qataris are uninterested in their country’s foreign policy positions. Indeed, as Qatar continues to receive regional criticism for its financial aid and investment activities from across the Arab world, especially Egypt, many Qataris are increasingly angry at what they see as a rude rebuff of their financial support. Equally some Qataris privately question the wisdom of spending so much money on foreign policy activities or, for example, the country’s decision to provocatively unseat Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Yet, still, the majority do not display a discernible desire to affect the country’s foreign policy positions.

While internationally Qatar’s leaders may get something of a free ride, domestically the story is quite different. Even though Qatar is not a democracy, democracies do not hold an exclusive prerogative on reflecting the desires of their people. Indeed, Qatari citizens can and do have a significant impact on domestic politics.

Qatar is a close-knit society with only 250,000 citizens. News, gossip, and anger spreads like wildfire throughQatar’s majlis (the informal, regular, social meetings held in the evenings by many Qataris). The elite – though inevitably moving in privileged circles – are keenly aware of how their policies are received by the people.

Qatar has no history of systematically repressing its citizens, nor would such a move be tolerated. Instead, when issues potentially affect and anger citizens, the government inevitably reacts, often times by slowing the pace of legislation.

A recent article in the New York Times neatly highlighted one example of this strategy. The article profiled the appalling state of migrant worker rights in Qatar. Qatar is but one of several Gulf states that has discussed reforming its draconian kafala system for controlling workers in the country. Since at least 2010 reforms have been under consideration, recognising the need to make the system more equitable and to establish laws and procedures to stop widespread abuses that characterize the kafala system.

These efforts to open up and safeguard the system for workers have been blocked by domestic business entities in Qatar. Just as happened in Kuwait, both the local Chamber of Commerce and Qatari citizens, 95% of whom have a housemaid and over 50% of whom have more than two domestic servants, oppose the reforms.

The Times article quotes research undertaken by Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute finding that 9 out of 10 Qataris do not want the kafala system changed and 30% want it strengthened. With some understatement, Qatar’s Minister of Labor noted that while he recognised the need for change, it “must go slowly.”

There are other examples of direct government responses to public pressure, notably in the social and educational sphere. In 2012, for instance, the government issued a decree changing the language of instruction in several courses at Qatar University from English to Arabic. That this change went against Qatar’s national strategy, which prioritized the development of an English-speaking workforce to compete in the future economy, was ignored. Given the lack of suitable and relevant Arabic-language texts for these subject matters, the legislation also did not take into consideration that challenges to meaningfully implementing Arabic-based courses.

As the number of expats has increased and Qataris have become even more of a minority in their homeland, there has been an inevitable dilution in the traditional aspects of Qatari life. This process has been further exacerbated by Qatar’s headlong pursuit of international trade. As a result, popular desire to ring-fence certain aspects of Qatari culture and education are unsurprising. Indeed, it can be seen in the most curious of places, including a law signed into effect in 2011 to mandate that Arabic be the primary language for advertising on billboards in Qatar.

This leaves Qatar’s Shura Council elections (literally an ‘Advisory’ Council, which technically serves as a legislative body), scheduled for 2013 in a curious place. Assuming that elections go forward (quite the assumption given that they have been pushed back on several occasions) the thirty elected Shura members will join the Council’s fifteen members who are appointed by the Emir. Undoubtedly, their priorities will center on Qatar’s domestic arena. Money spent building the campuses of eight foreign universities as a part of Qatar’s Education City project, as well as on-going costs associated with their upkeep, will doubtless be a focus of discussion. Equally, controversial educationalreforms to Qatar’s primary and secondary education system, led by the RAND corporation, are still a sore topic as are a variety of other matters that reflect attempts to preserve Qatari heritage and culture in an ever changing country.

Given the population’s traditionalist tendencies and the progressive policies supported by the Qatari elite, it will be interesting to see how boisterous Qataris become once their representatives are officially elected to the legislative body. To pursue their vision for Qatar amid popular backlash, the elites will have to carefully marshal support for initiatives to drive Qatar forward and keep the country globally competitive.

It will also be interesting to see if the Qatari elite can continue to dominate foreign affairs without any challenge from the population. While some elected officials are likely to become more vociferous, current trends suggest that overall the international arena will remain almost exclusively under elite control.

Kuwait’s Self-Flagellation Continues 24, April 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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The following article appeared on RUSI.ORG




Kuwait’s fractious politics has once more transcended protest to violence as the authorities sought time and again to arrest the former Member of Parliament Musallam Al Barrack. In mid-April, Al Barack was sentenced to five years in jail for undermining the status of the Emir when at a protest on 15 October 2012 he said ‘we [the people] shall not let you, your Highness, take us into the abyss of autocracy.’

However, four attempts to arrest Al Barrack later and he is still not in police custody. The farce of the attempted arrests involved the police not finding Al Barrack and sometimes with the former MP refusing to go with the police without a signed copy of the arrest document and the authorities’ inexplicable ability to actually come up with such a document. The escalating situation has led to increasing clashes at his residence.

The night of 17 April saw up to 10,000 supporters congregate at his house in a show of solidarity. An initial decision not to march that night soon changed with the crowd attempting to storm a near-by police station. The results were predictably bloody. A court decision on 22 April granting him bail to appear in May to appeal his sentence settled the issue, but only temporarily.

Al Barrack is at the centre of Kuwait’s political theatre and has become the focal point of the opposition. He is undoubtedly popular politician. He was famously elected with over 30,000 votes in the February 2012 election; a huge number in Kuwait and by far the most number of votes that a candidate has ever received. Even though the charges may be upheld in the May appeal and he may eventually go to jail in unjust circumstances, he is a long way from a Nelson Mandela figure.

Despite writing an article in The Guardian, Al Barrack is no liberal statesman and has supported some of the most distasteful conservative policies to emerge from Kuwait’s Parliament in recent years. In the context of a crackdown on Twitter users, Sunni MPs proposed the death penalty for Muslims who insulted God, the Quran, the Prophet or his wives. This move was made after a Shia Twitter user, Hamad Al Naqi, was arrested for blasphemy. Al Barrack, like many of his fellow Parliamentarians, vocally supported this motion. Only the intervention of the Emir using his privilege to strike down the law prevented it from being enacted. In a similarly sectarian vein, as Mona Kareem notes, Al Barrack has been a defender of the Bahraini regime and their crackdown on their Shia population. He also supports segregation in Kuwait’s education establishments.

A Pro-Government Parliament?

Al Barrack and a variety of other MPs who may loosely be described as ‘the opposition’ in Kuwait did not enter the December 2012 Parliamentary elections. The opposition boycotted the election after the Emir decreed changes to the voting procedures when Parliament was not in session. Although the Emir is allowed to take such actions, it is a grey area as to whether such an act needs to be voted on before it can directly affect the voting procedures. The opposition feared (probably correctly) that the new voting regime would have weakened their ever increasing grip on power in the Parliament. Rather than have their support adversely affected – and badly miscalculating that their burgeoning support in late 2012 could allow them to force the Emir to back down – they pulled out of the election.

Inevitably the Parliament elected in December 2012 was pro-government but with a lower turnout of just under 40 per cent. Shia candidates, who have often supported the government against the majority Sunni opposition, made large gains in particular winning 17 seats of the 50-member Parliament, more than doubling their representation in the previous Parliament.

However, as predicted at the time, by boycotting the elections, the opposition only left themselves with negative power: they can only affect politics in Kuwait by being as obstructionist as possible: Barrack’s thwarting of the police being the latest example of their tactics to whip up support against the government.

Any hope that the pro-government Parliament would help get Kuwait’s politics and projects moving again has been slow to materialise. While its intransigence does not reach the levels of previous opposition-led Parliaments, there has still been less cooperation than expected. Moreover, the government again finds itself trying to stave off splurging its budget surplus on debt-forgiveness and writing off interest on personal loans. The government in the form of the Finance Minister Mustafa Al Shamali rejected these proposals offered in early March 2013 and was ‘grilled’ (interpolated) in Kuwait’s showboating Parliament for his troubles.

Political Deadlock Over the Economy

One of the prime issues that divided the Kuwaiti Government and the Opposition was the former’s desire to avoid frittering away the Government’s surplus on buying people’s support. The government take the longer-term economic view that such actions are a cancerous factor in the Kuwaiti economy, hugely dis-incentivising the workforce at a time when Kuwait needs to be preparing for its post-hydrocarbon economy. Kuwait has plenty of oil left, but it is over dependent on this one source with over 90 per cent of the state budget coming from oil, the highest in the Gulf region. The opposition would counter-accuse the Government of trying to block a greater distribution of the state’s wealth.

With the Government not budging on this issue, the new Parliament is not passing the large and necessary infrastructure projects that Kuwait as a country has been needing for decades and the Kuwaiti political merry-go-around continues.

It was hoped that this Parliament might be more amenable to work with the government given the backdrop of the fractious months before the last election and the agreement among all Kuwaitis that Kuwait badly needs investment. Yet each parliamentarian wants to carve out his or her pound of flesh to take as a trophy to their constituents. In a political environment with no political parties, this is one of the key ways that a parliamentarian can distinguish themself in a given constituency: promising and bringing home the cash.

There are no easy answers for Kuwait’s troubles and no end in sight to the fractious politics, which seem destined to continue apace for some time to come. No sides are willing to compromise or subsume their goals to Kuwait’s overall longer term interest. In the meantime, the bitterness increases and the intransigence grows, while most Kuwaitis who simply want to get on with their life grow more and more exasperated as the factions fight it out.

On KSA: The Knowns and the Unknowns 6, April 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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This article was published by YourMiddleEast last month.

In 2003 Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary, uttered his now infamous speech about what was and was not known about the link between Iraq and supplying terrorist groups with weapons of mass destruction.

“there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

While the language is deeply contorted, Rumsfeld’s tripartite system of segmenting classes of information is not an unreasonable rubric to use when assessing an issue. Given the latest intrigues in the elite of Saudi Arabia that had analysts scrambling to engage in the Arab version of Sovietology to explain a completely unexpected move, the application of any logical rubric to this most convoluted of issues is welcome to ascertain exactly what we know we know.

The known knowns

On 1st February 2013 Prince Muqrin Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud was appointed Second Deputy Prime Minister in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This appointment shocked Saudi watchers as the received wisdom suggested that Muqrin would be ineligible because of his Yemeni lineage on his mother’s side. While Muqrin becoming Crown Prince and King is now a likely outcome, the fact that few expected him to be there in the first place acts as a prompt to revisit some of these known knowns.

The position of Second Deputy Prime Minister is important and has signalled ‘Crown Prince in waiting’ in recent transitions even if it has been unfilled at times, notably from August 2005 to March 2009. Nevertheless, Muqrin’s continued ascent is not certain. The 1992 ‘Basic Law of Governance’ and the 2006 ‘Allegiance Council’ are both mechanisms that endow, respectively, the King and the Crown Prince in conjunction with leading Princes the power to amend those in line to the throne.

While one may expect Murqin – a relatively spry sexagenarian or septuagenarian (the ages of Saudi Royalty belonging in the ‘known unknown’ category) – to rise to the office of King relatively soon particularly given the age and increasing infirmity of the King and the Crown Prince, this too is far from certain. King Fahd (r.1982-2005) was incapacitated for most of the last decade of his rule, yet neither he nor his supporters thought it better for him to step aside. In Kuwait complete physical and mental incapacity did not forestall Saad ascending to the office of Emir in 2006. In that instance it was Kuwait’s vocal and uncontrollable Parliament that forced him to resign after only nine days ‘in power.’ Bar typical intra-family squabbling, Saudi Arabia has no equivalent that could push through such a measure were it needed.

It is also implicitly assumed that Muqrin’s promotion means that Saudi Arabia’s rulers will now have to move to the next generation. Since the founding of the modern state of Saudi Arabia by Ibn Saud in 1932, rule has passed directly to one of his sons. King Abdullah, the current incumbent, became King when he was in his eighties, while two of his Crown Princes (Sultan and Nayef) have already died while Crown Prince Salman is believed to be largely infirm and in his late seventies.

Given that Murqin is the youngest son of Ibn Saud this means that several of his older brothers have been passed over in his favour. In Saudi Arabia where there is a premium placed on age seniority, this suggests that they have run out of suitable sons of Ibn Saud and a generational shift is imminent. While this is, again, logical if not likely, it must not be forgotten that should Salman or Murqin become King they can install whomever they choose, as long as they can corral support for the decision.

Known unknowns

While the generational jump to Ibn Saud’s grandchildren could be postponed the eventual shift is the central known unknown of Saudi politics.

Muhammad Bin Nayef, the son of the former influential Minister of Interior and Crown Prince, leads speculation after becoming the first of the second generation to oversee a principal Ministry when he took over from his uncle Prince Ahmed as Minister of the Interior in November 2012. Believed to be highly capable in his former role in Counter Terrorism at the Ministry with an impeccable lineage and enough influence already to meet officially with President Obama in January 2013, he was a strong candidate for the post of Second Deputy Prime Minister and remains prominent.

However, things are not always what they seem in Riyadh. Many assumed that Muqrin’s abrupt removal as head of intelligence in July 2012, coming in the wake of increasing public criticism, was a sign of him losing power. Instead this move was a precursor to assuming the position of second in line to the throne.

Instead of sifting through the minutiae of each candidate’s CV and family linkages or investing too heavily in court gossip, it is more fruitful to seek a set of guidelines and factors that will inform the decision-making.

Firstly, there are traditional factors to consider. He must be a grandson of Ibn Saud and while age seniority is important, as Muqrin’s ascension and Muhammad Bin Nayef’s replacement of his uncle at the Ministry of the Interior showed, it is clearly not a defining concern. Of greater importance is a demonstrable track record of effective leadership in an august Ministry or an important region. The challenges facing Saudi Arabia are legion and a would-be ruler from the next generation will have to prove that he has the pedigree and the aptitude to work effectively.

Though senior Princes confirm a putative Crown Prince, they have to take into account an element of popular support. Similarly, given the inequalities in the Kingdom and the place that corruption is widely believed to have had as lending impetus to the Arab Spring, a relatively uncorrupted reputation would be an advantage.

Any candidate who can carefully craft such an image will reap significant gains given the importance of presenting a positive public face. The use of the press by much of the elite in Saudi Arabia is barely one step up from Pathé news. Bland press releases with little actual news but with plenty of references to the religious formalities conducted before, during, and after each meeting are adorned with pictures of King Abdullah or other leading Royals with unfeasibly black beards and moustaches. Given the increasingly media savvy Saudi citizens, as shown in a recent survey that found Riyadh to be the 10th most active city in the world on Twitter, such anachronistic media handling is all the more jarring.

The fact that Muqrin has no recorded full-brothers or sons with top-level experience suggests that he may be a relatively impartial arbiter. His well documented closeness to King Abdullah hints that he would look to an effective, technocratic successor as opposed to being concerned with austere religious credentials. But most of all he will look for the consensus candidate; someone that can command authority quickly in a Kingdom that strives for stability above all else.

Unknown unknowns

An unknown unknown is unknown but one can posit from where critical, game-changing concerns may arise.

An Arab Spring redux may strike Saudi Arabia. The economic dynamics and disparities in the Kingdom are acute. The Saudi ‘Arab Spring Budget’ designed to counter nascent protests with a flood of new jobs, pay increases, and house-construction projects worked but fundamental issues remain. Another incident such as the 2009 Jeddah floods which diverted attention to gross corruption and mismanagement could ignite latent anger. Equally, the continued implosion of Bahrain or Kuwait’s Parliamentary wrangles escalating to wide-spread civil unrest could instigate troubles, particularly in Saudi’s combustible Eastern Province where Shia-based unrest continues.

Given the ill health of King Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman, and the relatively advanced years of Muqrin, a series of quick successions is not out of the question. Any number of permutations could force the new elite to arrive at hastily contrived arrangements. With the potential of a grandson of Ibn Saud sitting on the throne for multiple decades with the corollary that other members of his generation lose their opportunity at attaining the top job, there is ample reason for those overlooked to agitate in the wings for a better spot.

While the future of Saudi Arabia could be an unknown unknown with untold effects from existing or future challenges destabilising the Kingdom, Saudis have heard such pronouncements on a regular basis for decades. Yet the Kingdom prevailed. There may not be anyone in the near future who could match the figure of King Abdullah who has overseen nearly two decades of tumultuous Saudi history and commands widespread respect for his slow modernising moves. But elite interests, while factional and facing new internal issues, are all predicated on maintaining their exclusive grip on power; a deeply motivating and unifying concept.