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Qatar is not Bahrain or Kuwait 8, November 2012

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The following article appeared on Dohanews.co last week

While media outlets find it convenient and practical to generalize when it comes to reporting on “The Gulf” or the now 24-month-long “Arab Spring,” these terms can be problematic as they simplify complex issues.

For example, take the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. On the surface, these countries have many similarities in terms of tribal structure, intermingling of families, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and economic and political systems.

But the differences between the nations, and even in cities within one country, are stark. Riyadh and Jeddah – let alone in comparison to somewhere like Muscat – are poles apart and – to engage in a different sort of generalization – Kuwaitis are far more politically garrulous than their Qatari cousins.

So, will the similarities mean that the Arab Spring will sweep across all Gulf States, or will some difference impede its passage? Let’s take a case-by-case approach.

Kuwait

Kuwait has relatively a long, mercantile history. One author even dubbed Kuwait “the Marseilles of the Gulf” – such was the port-city-melting-pot nature of the place. This helped give rise to a rich and relatively independent merchant elite that exists alongside the ruling Al Sabah family.

This dynamic in which the ruling family must contend with other powerful players has set the feisty tone of politics in Kuwait. In contrast, Doha was never as cosmopolitan or as prosperous a city and consequently no merchant class could develop independent of Al Thani power. This meant that politics was, as it remains today, dominated by the Al Thani family.

Today the merchant families in Kuwait have mostly “joined sides” with the Al Sabah against those dubbed “the opposition.” Much of the opposition are referred to as tribal and Islamist in nature and were enfranchised later on in the 20th century when the Al Sabah needed more support. Initially they were grateful to the Al Sabah for giving them a passport and supported them in Parliament.

More recently, however, they have realised that they are in the majority in Kuwait and now feel that they deserve more power. In the ( annulled) previous election, they won 34 of the 50 seats, demanded nine Cabinet posts (of sixteen), were offered three and took none.

The battle lines are thus set broadly between the older, established, richer elites and the “younger” interlopers looking to get their share and upset the status quo.

Bahrain

While there has historically been tension of varying degrees between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain, the key dividing line was largely a socio-economic one. Though there was certainly a correlation between Sunni and Shia in terms of greater opportunities for Sunni Bahrainis, the tension was typically not manifest in an overtly sectarian way.

The Arab Spring changed that entirely. To some degree this was a state-sanctioned ploy to specifically and overtly use the sectarian angle as an effective way of corralling support against the uprisings in Bahrain. Though they may have been successful in halting any significant changes, this came at a terrible cost not only in terms of deaths and arrests but in terms of profoundly polarizing Bahraini society.

Qatar

Qatar possesses none of these key dynamics. It has neither a highly active public, political debating culture; latent sectarian concerns; nor deep and widespread socio-economic disparities among citizens. Moreover, it has a tiny indigenous population and prodigious riches to shower upon them.

Yet Qatar’s stability is not obtained through this alone, for its leadership has been putting Qatar on the international map in largely positive ways for over a decade now. This has changed the international perception of Qatar from having no reputation whatsoever – or being “known for being unknown” – to now being known for its mediation, Al Jazeera, sporting initiatives and supporting various factions in the Arab Spring. Overall, I believe that most Qataris are – if anything – pleased with this burgeoning reputation.

Just like every other state on Earth, Qatar does have its problems and its population has its grumbles. The pace of change and apparent “Westernisation”concerns some, while others want more transparency and a say in how the country is run.

By virtue of its proximity and its fraternal ties, Qatar will remain deeply concerned and interested in what transpires as its fellow GCC States wrestle with the Arab Spring. But barring a black swan event or a sea-change in attitudes, Qatar will remain as insulated as ever from the Spring.

Read more: http://dohanews.co/post/34966683468/guest-post-why-qatar-is-not-bahrain-or-kuwait#ixzz2BdVgYPGD

Bahrain bans its oldest newspaper 23, June 2009

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Authorities in Bahrain have closed down the oldest newspaper in the country after a reporter alleged that Iranian President Ahmadinajad was Jewish. It is not known when Akhbar Al Khaleej (Gulf News) will reopen. An article – ‘Islamic Republic – Popular Fury’ by a female member of Bahrain’s Consultative Council, Samira Rajab, which slammed Ahmadinajad’s government is believed to have precipitated the closure, though this has not been officially confirmed. The author was repeating an oft mooted notion that Ahmadinahad has in fact changed his name from the Jewish name Saborjhian.

The immediate and somewhat drastic reaction of the Bahraini authorities is surprising. Bahrain has a majority Shia population of Iranian descent and thus perhaps it was to allay any potential issues there. Alternatively, Bahrain could have wanted to temper any Iranian reaction to the story. It was only a few months ago that the speaker of the Iranian Parliament bemoaned the fact that Bahrain used to be to be considered as Iranian territory. This drew a vociferous reaction from Bahrain as such statements hit an exceedingly raw nerve in Manama.

Their overly-placatory reaction to this story highlights the changeable nature of Gulf politics.Perhaps included in the Bahraini calculation is Iran’s war games exercises in the Gulf this week. Whilst such activities may well be somewhat threatening, the US fleet anchored in Manama and their stated desire to expand their port space in Bahrain, ought to assuage any Bahraini worries.

US expand military port in Bahrain 8, June 2009

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The ever-reliable MEED reports on the US acquisition of extra port space in Bahrain. Despite having their largest American military port outside the US already in Bahrain, the US clearly feel that they need more capacity and have thus bought up a former container port to convert to military use. Bahrain authorities will be pleased to hear this. Not only do they have to think (worry) about a potentially hostile Iran but relations with their disenfranchise Shia majority is getting increasing fractious leading to, as you can see, riots:

The MEED report, quoted at length below, also list some interesting facts about the US in Bahrain.

The 5th Fleet has some 3,500 personnel and 16 vessels based in Bahrain, while the total fleet numbers 25,000 sailors and marines, and close to 40 ships. The vacant facilities at Mina Salman will provide the navy with 15 extra berths, cargo and container facilities.The current lease agreement at the site sees the navy pay the Bahrain government $6.7m a year for use of its current 265,000 sq m of space in Bahrain, including harbour patrol space and berthing at Mina Salman, and aviation unit space at Bahrain International airport. The US will pay an additional $2.9m a year for the extra waterfront space.

“The navy’s lease agreement is renewed on a yearly basis, with an indefinite number of renewal terms,” says the spokeswoman.

The US is also seeking permission to build a flyover bridge linking its base close to Mina Salman with the port itself, to improve security for US personnel.

Had the agreement not gone ahead, other ventures for the site had been proposed. “If the base had not been there I think Mina Salman would have been converted into a tourist terminal but with the fleet next door that wasn’t really viable,” says a ports official in Bahrain.

Bahrain’s new commercial facility, Khalifa Bin Salman Port, received its first ships in April and is operated by the Dutch group APM Terminals.

The site has initial container capacity for 1 million 20-foot equivalent units.

Bahrain’s confusing Israel policy 6, October 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Middle East.
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Bahrain has no especially warm feelings for Iran, yet this has become ever more apparent in recent weeks. The Bahrain Foreign Minister called for some kind of regional grouping which would include Israel to meet to discuss regional issues. This, however, would involve recognising Israel (one would think…), something many in the region do not want. Indeed, this created issues within Bahrain with its significant Shiite, Iranian-supporting ‘minority’. Nevertheless, this is not the only sign of Bahrain’s attempts to discuss the thorny question of Israel. The Crown Prince himself was reported to have met Israeli officials in the World Economic forum summits in 2000 and 2003 as well as Sheikh Khalad’s meeting with his opposite Israeli number at the UN in 2007. Furthermore, Bahrain is a staunch US ally, hosting the US fifth fleet, among other examples of close ties.

This call for recognising and the setting up of a discussion group was, unsurprisingly, met with a definite no by Iran. Yet in a twist to this story, a Bahrain MP has spoken out to firstly castigate Iran for inconsistent policies and secondly ‘clarify’ the Bahraini statement by insisting that such a proposal would not – ipso facto – lead to a normalisation of relations. In short, there is no way of knowing what Bahrain actually intends to do in the near future. At their highest levels, they apparently seek some kind of relationship with Israel, yet are thoroughly hamstrung by Parliamentary opposition. There seems to be neither an easy nor swift resolution in sight for these complex matters.

Further signs of an Iranian regional rapprochement 1, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Foreign Policies, Iran, Middle East.
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It was suggested in an article earlier this week (‘Iran Threatens Reprisals’ 30th January) that Iran appeared to be softening its stance towards its regional neighbours. In that particular case it was Iran apparently relinquishing its previously asserted aim that countries which harboured US bases would themselves be attacked if the US launched an attack against Iran from those bases. Thus, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain – all with large US bases – would have been pleased to hear such an apparent change in policy, even if Iran retaliating against their countries was an unlikely prospect.

Additionally, in the past few months, there have been various signs of Iran edging towards a formal rapprochement with Egypt, which lends more and more credibility to the thesis suggesting that Iran are seeking to lower intra-regional tensions.

Iran broke off relations with Egypt after their involvement in the Camp David peace accords in 1978, during which Egypt negotiated with Israel. Iran saw this as a sign of betrayal and the two countries’ relations were further damaged for the coming decades when Anwar Sadat granted the deposed Shah of Iran refuge following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In the last few months, however, there have been a number of ministerial meetings signalling a thaw in relations. In December 2007, Ali Larjani the Iranian National Security Chief met with President Mubarak for discussions. This past week the speaker of the Iranian Parliament Gholam Ali Adel visited Cairo for a two day meeting orchestrated by the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). This visit followed quickly on the heels of Iran’s Director General for foreign policy for the Middle Eastern and North African affairs, who was in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the Palestinian refugee situation with Egypt’s foreign minister. Indeed, the very next day the Iranian foreign minister announced that Iran and Egypt are close to re-establishing diplomatic links.

Iran, therefore, are mending their fences in the region, not only with Egypt but with other countries such as Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Ahmadinejad’s visit to Mecca and invitation to the GCC meeting in Doha are proof, if it were needed, that Iran’s policy shift is bearing fruit. Furthermore, Iran are seeking to make friends and influence people further a field in China and Central Asia. Hence their (as yet unsuccessful) lobbying to be included in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

The ultimate goal of these foreign policy forays is to offset American and European attempts to isolate Iran and they seem to be doing a good job at it so far. This means that any American and European attempts to pressure Iran need to take into account these constantly evolving international relationships. Any kind of blanket or insufficiently nuanced strategy could well backfire in the long run. Indeed, according to Harvard political scientist Samantha Power, current US policies do not appear to have such as level of flexibility and understanding. One can only hope that, assuming the Bush administration is not going to revamp its policies in its twilight months, the new American administration, which ever it may be, can bring with them fresh but educated ideas of how to interact with Iran.

What does the increasing assertiveness of Persian Gulf states mean for regional security? 15, April 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf, UK, Yemen.
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This article was published by The Daily Telegraph on 15 April 2015. The original can be found here.

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DESERT SHIELD

For much of the past two centuries, security in the Persian Gulf has been underwritten by the Ottomans, the British, or the Americans though a web of treaties, security guarantees, and military bases.

But this is changing.

Irked by the US pivot to Asia, insulted by how quickly America dropped the former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring after decades of support, and incensed by American negotiations with their Shia rival, Iran, the Arab Gulf states are increasingly asserting themselves across the Middle East.

Aside from financially and diplomatically supporting various groups in ongoing regional conflicts just as they have been doing for decades, for the first time, the states are actually using some of their expensively procured military kit in anger.

In Libya, the UAE (alongside Egypt) used their fast-jets to bomb Islamist militias to try to turn the tide of the conflict. Results, though hard to dissemble in the militia-swaddled failed state, appear to have been strategically negligible.

More prominently, Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Arab coalition of 10 states against the Houthi rebels in the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen. Over 1200 bombing sorties have not altered the strategic picture, though over 600 people have been killed, a majority of whom are civilians, thousands have been wounded, over 100,000 displaced, and millions are now without power and water.

Diplomatically too, some of the Gulf states are hardening their positions, adopting a George W Bush-like ‘with us or against us’ strategy.

The (initial) cancellation of negotiations with the Anglo-Dutch oil company BP, the refusal to allow a British nuclear submarine into UAE waters, and halting the use of long-established British military trainers are a part of the UAE’s increasingly forthright pressure on the UK to conform to its policies.

In particular, Abu Dhabi’s leadership is concerned with, from their perspective, the UK’s lax controls on Islamists residing in London and the Government’s wider laissez-faire policy towards groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

A 2014 report into the group commissioned by David Cameron and written by the UK’s top Arabist diplomat was aimed at assuaging such fears, but because it did not come back a damning indictment of the group, it has not been released.

Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia is cashing in its chips. Based on a long, deeply intertwined relationship with Pakistan, the Kingdom called on the Pakistani government to make good on their implicit promises and provide troops for the offensive in Yemen. But the Pakistani parliament unanimously rejected the Saudi request, to anger and threats of reprisals from affronted Gulf states.

A scathing but potentially accurate conclusion might be that Arab states could hardly do a worse job of securing the Persian Gulf region than America and its allies in recent years. But the bloody and ineffectual bombing campaign in Yemen hints that the approach of the region’s indigenous states is hardly more refined or successful.

While America might have been encumbered by a lack of knowledge of the region and its nuances, the Gulf states are equally encumbered by their own prejudices. In particular, the inability of the Sunni states to avoid foisting a sectarian dynamic onto any and all regional problems is depressing.

Certainly, Iran is often an active, difficult, meddling regional state, but it is neither omnipotent nor irrational, and the evidence for its support for the Houthis is patchy at best.

And the heat may well increase for the UK too, caught between two poles. Evidently, there is a desire to maintain historic ties and build military sales, underpinned by the plausible argument that the current set of leaders in the Gulf are as good as it gets without the remotest hint of any viable alternative. But with leaders actively interfering across the region as per their world view, they can be, on occasion at least, difficult to support.

But the British Government has brooked bad press in this regard before; notably by maintaining particularly close relations with Bahrain during its Arab Spring problems, under the credible rubric (as yet not particularly effectively spelled-out) that continued close British relations are essential to gently but effectively shape policy in the longer run.

The December 2014 announcement of a ‘permanent’ British naval base in Bahrain is a symbolic gesture of solidarity from the UK amid these wider, changing circumstances. Now more than ever, as the Arab Gulf states begin to edge to the forefront of maintaining, theoretically at least, regional peace, the British assertion of quiet influence in the Gulf states will be tested.

Of KSA and the Gulf Union 13, July 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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I wrote the following article for e-International Relations on KSA and the Gulf Union, but this time with extra subtle literary allusion.

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In mid-December 2011 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for the Gulf Cooperation Council to move towards “a stage of union in a single entity”. What exactly he meant by this was never officially fleshed out, as is the way in the Gulf where public diplomacy is a rarity. Instead it was left for the editorialists, a few scattered comments by Ministers, and peoples’ fevered imaginations to fill in the blanks particularly in the run up to the following GCC meeting in May 2012.

Stalwart Saudi columnists extolled the virtues of the inevitable fraternal linking of states, their counterparts in the Iranian press castigated this move as divisive and provocative, and Western analysts resolutely pointed out the difficulties inherent in some form of a Union. As the May meeting approached, Riyadh was bedecked with GCC flags for the ceremony, the pro-Union editorials spewed out copy building on a bullish pro-Union speech by Saudi’s Foreign Minister Faisal, and an odd air of expectancy filled the region. Despite the obvious difficulties of such a Union and the myriad problems it would create and cracks it would paper over, it appeared as if through force of will alone Riyadh was going to pull a Unionised rabbit out of the hat.

Yet, to quote Lord Palmerston, states have neither permanent friends nor enemies, only permanent interests, and so it proved. The May meeting proved to be an anticlimactic non-event, with the only outcome being promise of another meeting in December 2012. Clearly the elite in Saudi Arabia colossally misjudged the whole situation.

It seemed to make sense

One can understand the frustration of Saudi’s elite. No country in the Gulf with the possible exception of Qatar at all welcomed the Arab Spring. For Saudi Arabia, a country which has enjoyed spectacular oil receipts for decades yet whose people suffer from profound unemployment, a lack of basic opportunities, badly aging infrastructure not to mention a repressive social atmosphere, the Arab Spring not only forced the Government to crack down in their eastern province but also splurge $130bn on a palliative budget to stem revolutionary-inspired ideas.

Moreover, on the Kingdom’s door step in Bahrain, the Spring had a deleterious effect on the fragile status quo. The Shia majority who have been economically and socially disenfranchised for generations rose up and were crushed with varying degrees of brutality.

This situation, which Saudi Arabia erroneously believed was caused by Iran, opened up a potentially critical wound right next to Saudi’s own Shia population sitting atop the majority of its oil facilities, which, they feared, could be exploited nefariously by Iran. The fact that America had abandoned so quickly – as Riyadh saw it – a long term ally in Hosni Mubarak in Egypt enraged Saudi Arabia who at some level feared that they too could suffer the same fate. Well, it was reasoned, if America was not going to shore up long-term friendly allies, Saudi would. Duly Saudi Arabia sent over a thousand of its troops and armoured vehicles into Bahrain in February 2011 as a show of force to defend Bahrain ‘against Iran’.

This military support bolstered years of economic support in terms of investment, shared oil receipts, and gifts. The Spring sent Western banks scurrying from Manama deepening Bahrain’s reliance on Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future. Indeed, given the calm and prosperous shores of Doha and Abu Dhabi but a few miles from Manama, there seems little chance that these western banks will return to Manama. Not only is Bahrain’s future, therefore, resolutely tied to Saudi Arabia but the ruling Sunni Al Khalifah family, facing such stiff internal issues, are doubly likely to rely on their fraternal Saudi brethren for support, particularly given the Iranian menace’s lurking stature (in Bahraini and Saudi eyes at least).

Quotes from the Bahraini King’s spokespeople even emerged just before the May meeting talking about the need to meet future challenges with “a more united front”. Yet it was not to be.

As for notions that the shared Iranian menace that all Gulf States face would force the smaller States to join Saudi Arabia in forming a protective Union similarly proved to be wide of the mark. This, despite examples of Iranian perfidy perennially peppering leaders’ speeches, Iranian spy rings being caught in Kuwait on several occasions, Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops attacking Qatari unmanned rigs in the shared gas field and any number of bellicose speeches emerging from the Iranian Parliament and Press.

Rhetoric versus reality

It is rather easy for the Arab Gulf States to agitate in one form or another about Iran’s perfidy. Such a policy is extremely popular domestically plugging into thousands of years of cultural, religious, political, and social animosity. It also neatly fits into modern political and regional dynamics and one can easily find some tangential evidence relating to Iran’s nefarious tentacles when necessary.

While the small Gulf States would like some form of reassurance against the Iranian threat – however they perceive it – there is an opportunity cost to be calculated. Specifically, while Iran poses some kind of threat, so too do the smaller states detect some kind of threat from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the regional Arab behemoth. Historically, politically and in terms of the basic building blocks of traditional power reckoning (population, country size, military might, economic sway) Saudi Arabia has long dominated the region. The smaller states, though they pack a post-modern punch themselves in various ways with their soft power ventures and such, nevertheless harbour concerns regarding Saudi’s sheer size and overbearing policies as evidenced in their Gulf Union push.

Additionally, a key but often overlooked facet is the insecurity throughout the newer, smaller Gulf States pertaining to their national identities. These states, it must not be forgotten, derive from essentially the same kind of cultural, familial, tribal, societal, economic, and religious background. There is until recently, therefore, little to necessarily differentiate a Qatari from an Emirati from a Saudi. The differences that have emerged in recent years in terms of the growth of a new identity with which to identify would be challenged and even eroded in the longer term were pan-regional ties to be emphasised at the expense of the sub-regional states.

Also, despite the often dire pronouncements in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama about Iran and its actions, it is difficult to escape the utility of these policy ploys. In short, whether the leaders genuinely believe that the Iranian threat is as dire as they maintain or whether they merely believe that by hyping such a threat this offers an easy way to galvanise and distract their domestic constituencies, is open to question. One could see a cost benefit emerging where the ‘threat’ posed by Saudi Arabia outweighs any realistic threat of Iran.

And this is not the first time that the Gulf States have undertaken policy by knee-jerk reaction. After the shattering invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 the GCC launched the ‘Damascus Declaration’. This was a plan to station Syrian and Egyptian troops in the Gulf to boost the deterrence of the region. In return the GCC States would undertake massive investments in the troop-sending countries. Needless to say, much like the recent notion of expanding the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan, this idea went nowhere and was quietly dropped.

Looking Forward

Many would note that the notion of a Gulf Union is not dead, merely that the decision has been moved towards the end of the year. Yet when the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait have shown such intransigence thus far, there is little realistic expectation that they will submit themselves to anything approaching a meaningful Union agreement. There are two clear conclusions to draw from this Unionising motion.

Firstly, that Saudi Arabia appears to believe its own rhetoric too much. The evils of Iran have been doing the Majlis rounds in Saudi Arabia for generations and it seems likely that the distinction between rhetoric and reality has been blurred. And while Saudi Arabia – the Lenny of the Gulf – may think that it is offering altruistic support to its allies, it must not forget that it looms large and is intimidating in its own right.

Secondly, while other Gulf States may over-hype the Iran threat sporadically for domestic purposes, there is nevertheless some sense of threat felt by all of the smaller Gulf States. With the swift refusal to discuss a tighter arrangement the other Gulf States signal the result of their cost benefit calculation falling firmly on the side of the status quo; to wit, that the fact that America is the key guarantor of security. With huge air fields, ports, and other facilities full of thousands of US personnel not to mention the world’s most advanced fighter jets and warships backed up by the most powerful military force ever seen, unsurprisingly, the smaller Gulf States don’t feel the need to run to Saudi Arabia, with its expensive but poorly trained forces. Only when this dependency upon America and its guarantees changes will the Gulf States move in the direction of meaningful closer cooperation.

 

Gulf Disunion 3, May 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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The following article appeared in Foreign Policy magazine online on the 2nd May 2012.

The leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait) will meet in May to discuss creating a closer federal unit among the states. The idea of closer integration was first put forward in December 2011 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and recently fleshed out in a speech in the name of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. The potential benefits of creating a $1.4 trillion economic area of 42 million people were championed, as were the potential benefits of close cooperation and coordination in defense and security policy. While all this makes sense superficially, it is all but impossible to see how a meaningful GCC Union could take place.

In light of the Arab Spring and its ramifications in the Gulf region, it is possible to understand the desire in Saudi Arabia to engage in such a union. Specifically, Bahrain has been wracked with protest since February 2011. Today, demonstrations are sporadic but ongoing while protesters continue to be killed and injured, police are increasingly being targeted in retaliation, and Bahrain’s Formula One jamboree in mid-April was severely tarnished. The underlying concerns in Bahrain for both the al Khalifa elite and their fraternal al Saud allies are that the protests are somehow being stoked and supported by Iran, using Bahrain’s majority Shiite population to “export the Revolution.” While little if any evidence can be found backing up such a claim (see Bassiouni’s report) this is nevertheless the prevalent fear in Riyadh and Manama. Hence Saudi Arabia taking the startling step of sending in several thousand Saudi troops and a variety of armaments into Bahrain as a show of defiant support in March 2011. This action to which the UAE also contributed troops, while Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman mostly obfuscated, was taken under the fig-leaf of a “GCC Peninsula Shield” force action; a moribund pan-GCC force originating from 1984 that has never possessed an ounce of efficacy.

Some kind of Saudi-Bahraini Union is being discussed as a precursor to a wider GCC Union. Such a bilateral union would normalize the Saudi-led military action in Bahrain to potentially pave the way for the permanent stationing of “GCC” troops in Bahrain, while signaling the death knell for any political resolution with Riyadh having a de jure say over such outcomes as opposed to its already potent de facto sway.

Some in the al Khalifa elite appear to be willing to be subsumed into such a union and this is a startling reflection of their heightened concerns. Given the lack of oil and gas resources in Bahrain, the exodus of European banks seriously damaging confidence in this key industry, the profound socio-economic problems that lie mostly unacknowledged at the root of Bahrain’s political troubles, and the hardening political crisis, there are concerns as to Bahrain’s longer term viability as an independent economic entity. Saudi Arabia already gives Bahrain’s elite huge subsidies and support and there is no sign that this could be reversed soon. From the al Khalifa perspective, therefore, if those in Riyadh are not willing to simply continue the economic support without deeper political concessions, with no end in sight to the political and economic crisis, securing guaranteed long-term backing from Riyadh to maintain the status quo may seem sensible.

Overall, while Saudi Arabia taking on Bahrain as a loss-making, politically unstable appendage with a majority Shiite population may seem to be unattractive, it is preferable to the alternative. They could conversely see the slow implosion of a fellow Sunni monarchy and the potential ascendance to power of the Shiites next door to Saudi’s Eastern province, which contains not only a majority-Shiite Saudi population but also most of the kingdom’s oil fields and facilities.

As for a wider GCC Union, Saudi Arabia has been trying and mostly failing to engender a united GCC line toward Iran. Oman, Dubai, and particularly Qatar have frequently broken rank and pursued more conciliatory policies to Riyadh’s dismay. Such a union, which may include some provision for a joint foreign policy along the European Union model, may be seen in Riyadh as a way to further the central Saudi goal of uniting against Iran.

Yet as hard as Riyadh might push for a Gulf Union as a means of achieving some kind of GCC foreign policy, expect Qatar, for one, to push equally hard in the opposite direction. The current Qatari elite came to power in 1995. It took 13 years with the return of the Saudi ambassador to Doha in 2008 after leaving in 2003 for Riyadh to realize that Qatar was a sovereign country with an independent foreign policy. Such hard-won independence will not be surrendered lightly, especially considering Qatar’s burgeoning, central role across the wider Middle East.

Moreover, what would Qatar, the UAE, or Kuwait, for example, gain from a Gulf Union? Qatar is at the apex of its international popularity currently and is per capita the richest country on earth. Surrendering powers to a union would seem to benefit Doha in no way whatsoever.

It is the same for the UAE. Though they are currently engaged in a battle with mostly non-existent dangerous “Islamist” elements within society, a topic on which they would likely appreciate some rhetorical back-up from neighboring states, the overall abdication of some autonomy would not suit the UAE. Indeed, the prime reason the UAE pulled out of the GCC single currency is that Abu Dhabi’s elite could not countenance the notion of the central bank being in Riyadh — hardly a communally spirited decision.

Kuwait is mired in its own problems with its perennially fractious parliament. The only sure thing about any GCC Union for Kuwait is that it would complicate and exacerbate its already Gordian parliamentary problems.

Oman, as a poorer relation would likely welcome some closer integration and see it as a hedge against future economic instability and Bahrain’s logic, looking down the barrel of long-term political instability and resultant economic dysfunction, is the same.

Another fundamental problem with any alliance is that it would dominated by Saudi Arabia. Geographically Saudi Arabia is more than five times as large as all other GCC States together and its population is around 10 million greater. For decades, geopolitically, Saudi Arabia has been used to leading not only the Gulf region, but arguably the wider Middle East and Muslim world. This combination of raw facts and Saudi’s historical position mandates, from Riyadh’s perspective, that it would “naturally” take the lead in any such union. And this will be profoundly unacceptable to Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE all of whom have forged independent paths in recent years.

Moreover, within recent memory each state can think back to decidedly unfriendly actions and policies from Saudi Arabia. For the UAE there have been frequent disputes with Saudi Arabia over its borders, which spill out and adversely affect border traffic between the two countries. In 2011 a UAE and a Saudi patrol boat exchanged fire, injuring the Saudi sailors who surrendered and were subsequently repatriated to the kingdom. While this was an isolated incident, it hints at wider, deeper bilateral concerns.

Qatar has long had rocky relations with Saudi Arabia. In the early 1990s Saudi Arabia refused to allow Qatar to pipe its gas to the UAE and to Kuwait; there were border skirmishes in 1992 and 1994; Saudi Arabia allegedly sponsored a counter-coup against Emir Hamad al Thani in 1996; Al Jazeera’s coverage of regional issues has long angered Riyadh; and Qatar’s independent foreign policy also sits poorly with those in power in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it is only recently that relations have picked up once more but the previous decade’s worth of lamentable relations have not been forgotten.

In Kuwait not only is Saudi Arabia’s intransigence blocking the proposed pipe for gas from Qatar remembered, but also there is little desire to join together. As the speaker of Kuwait’s Parliament, Ahmed al Saadoun, pointedly commented in February, such a union would be difficult for Kuwait to join “with countries whose prisons are full of thousands who are guilty of speaking their minds.”

Lastly, the notion that a Gulf Union might work because the peoples of the Arab Gulf region tend to come from similar religious, historical, social, and familial backgrounds logically makes sense, but so too could the opposite conclusion be drawn. That is precisely the lack of differentiation between a Saudi and an Emirati and a Qatari that will lead these modern day states to resolutely maintain these borders as a means of differentiating themselves from a GCC amalgam identity. Until there is a desire to fundamentally eschew borders in the Gulf region and do away with an Emirati identity in favor of a generic Gulf identity, without a pressing need to join together, a Gulf Union will not be supported.

In the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the Gulf States first came together to form a union: the 1981 Gulf Cooperation Council. It took this seemingly real, imminent, deeply resonant threat from Iran to force them together and even then, the GCC Peninsula Shield force was never effective.

While today those in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see a deep and concerning conflagration with Iran emerging, with Tehran’s tentacles allegedly to be found in Bahrain, Iraq, and the Levant according to the orthodoxy, there are key obstacles in the way to deeper security cooperation. Despite the procurement of hundreds of billions of dollars of equipment in recent years, the stories of chronic interoperability issues within armed forces themselves let alone across national armies or navies are legion. Saudi Arabia itself has four forces: its traditional army, navy, and air force, and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (an entire fourth force nominally to protect the king). Yet it is a case of never the twain shall meet and these forces are as much rivals with little if any cross-communication and training as they are united under the Saudi banner.

Yet the core reason why there will be no meaningful security or military cooperation is that the United States guarantees the security in the Gulf. Difficult decisions to subsume personal and state rivalries, to overcome ingrained problems with joint training and even joined up procurement can be avoided with a U.S. security umbrella. Indeed it may be instructive to note that Bahrain, the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is the only Gulf country seriously considering such a union and is also the only Gulf country about which there has been a debate recently about the removal of U.S. forces. Only when America, like the Ottomans, and the British before them, finally leave the Gulf will the Gulf States be truly forced to come to terms with their own security situation and will potentially countenance subsuming their national proclivities for a collective alliance.

Kuwait reaps the sectarian Gulf whirlwind 8, July 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwait’s Parliament is undergoing another crisis. The Deputy Prime Minister, Sheikh Ahmed Al Fahad Al Sabah, resigned in June rather than face an interpolation by disgruntled Members of Parliament (MPs). Though these interpolations are supposed to be a standard Parliamentary questioning tactic, in Kuwait they are described as ‘grillings’. They are usually highly accusatory, hostile and an ordeal that can last for hours on end. A grilling can be brought by any MP over any topic, though a quorum is needed to follow the grilling with a motion of no confidence. In the past MPs have used and abused interpolations to pursue their own partisan and disruptive agenda.

It is only since 2006 that it has been possible for the Prime Minister (PM) himself to be subject to a grilling. Previously, the Crown Prince was also the Prime Minister. But from 2003 to 2006, Sabah Al Sabah officially took over the title of PM from the ailing Crown Prince, Saad Al Sabah. This broke with tradition and the PM was now no longer also directly in line to the throne. The possibility of interpolating the PM thus emerged, though Sabah Al Sabah never faced this problem as it was clear that he would soon be Emir. His PM, Nasser Al Sabah and his governments, however, have had repeated problems.

Nasser’s first government was dissolved by the Emir when it was barely four months old after reformist MPs, in an unprecedented move, sought to grill the PM over issues regarding changes to electoral districts. In the new government there were, as always, a handful of changes in personnel, but the MPs had a solid majority and forced through the district changes that the Government and the Emir sought to block. Any notion of opposition unity after this success soon evaporated ‘leading to a situation in which highly factionalized parliamentarians use their tools with abandon in pursuit of no coherent agenda.’ [1]

Since then, the PM has faced another eight grilling requests by MPs and has formed seven cabinets in five years. In 2009 the Minister of the Interior became the first Royal Minister to face an interpolation and a subsequent vote of confidence as opposed to simply resigning beforehand. He passed and this ushered in a brief era of reconciliation. The PM followed suit in December 2009 and was grilled along with four other cabinet members in a twenty hour marathon session finishing at 5:30 in the morning. A motion of non-cooperation with the PM was soundly defeated with only thirteen of fifty MPs in support.

More recently, at the start of 2011 the PM faced another nine hour grilling and a subsequent motion of no confidence. Though he again passed, he did so only by a narrow and unconvincing three votes.  Similarly, in June he passed though twenty four members of the fifty member Parliament either abstained or voted to oust him: hardly a resounding vote of confidence.

What exactly are the key issues which so frequently flare-up and cause such anguish in the Parliament?

Corruption and privatisation

An abiding concern of the Parliament is corruption. Given the billions upon billions of dollars swilling around Kuwait, MPs are in a perennial state of fear that the elite is creaming off millions of dollars that rightly belong to the Kuwaiti people. As with every country on earth, they have some justification for these fears. Examples range from classic ‘company fraud’, such as the long ago but not forgotten Kuwait Oil Tankers Company saga to examples involving individual MPs or even the Prime Minister himself. In the latter example, an MP paraded one of the PM’s personal cheques around Parliament which was, he claimed, a clear example of the PM trying to bribe a fellow MP. The PM wholly denied the charge.

Linked with the fear of corruption is a fear of privatisation. Numerous MPs see the privatisation of Kuwait’s industries as the legalised theft of Kuwait and bitterly oppose such laws when they come to Parliament. They cite fears that either Kuwait’s elite or foreign speculators will come in, take over and make huge profits while the price will rise for the services that they charge. To some degree, these fears are well founded. Profits can be made if an industry is well run and when heavy subsidies are taken away prices can go up as the market adjusts to the real price of the service. It was only under the temporary hiatus of tensions in mid-2010 that a privatization bill and other desperately needed economic stimulus packages (some eighteen years in the making) finally made it through Parliament.

Royal intrigue

Kuwait typically operates under the unwritten understanding that power in the form of the Emir would alternate between the Jabr and the Salim branches of the Al Sabah family. However, this cycle has been broken recently. Not only did Saad Al Sabah – from the Salim side – only reign for nine days due to severe illness, but the current Emir, Sabah al Sabah – from the Jabr side – installed his half-brother Nawaf Al Sabah as Crown Prince and his nephew Nasser Al Sabah as the Prime Minister. The Salim side have thus been significantly emasculated from power and this dynamic is believed to be contributing to the rancour and acrimony in the Parliament.

More generally, many MPs seem to be persistently aggrieved by the lack of changes in the makeup of the Cabinet. As has been noted, the current PM has formed seven Cabinets. Rarely do more than two or three Ministers change from one to the next. Moreover, the key posts of Defence, Interior and Foreign Affairs are always held in Al Sabah hands.

Iranian issues

The institutional and nigh-on perennial issues that have plagued Kuwait’s Parliament in recent decades have been further complicated and embittered by the recent surge in Sunni-Shia tensions in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, ably and willingly abetted by Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, has deliberately foisted a sectarian lens onto the troubles in Bahrain. This has been done not only so that the states in question do not have to consider whether the Shia in Bahrain have legitimate grievances but because this suits their geopolitical world-view and fits their prejudices. Indeed, despite persistent accusations that Iran is ‘behind’ events in Bahrain there has been a stunning lack of evidence presented.

In contrast, specifically in Kuwait there is in fact evidence of Iranian involvement. A spy ring was discovered operating in the country and those involved were sentenced in May this year for passing on sensitive information to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. This news stirred Kuwait’s Salafi MPs and the Iranian Ambassador in Kuwait was expelled.

Subsequently they protested loudly and demanded to grill the PM over the fact that Kuwait did not contribute troops to the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) military support of Bahrain. Also, in the face of what they see as blatant Iranian aggression, the PM hosted Iran’s Foreign Minister and agreed to the return of the Iranian Ambassador – all in a bid to dampen tensions. This further irritated the Salafis. Indeed, they accuse the PM, who speaks Farsi and is a former Ambassador in Tehran, of weakening Kuwait’s national security by taking these calming actions. A group of MPs sought and failed to force him to resign in June over these matters. Within minutes of their failure, they had again tabled another motion to grill the PM.

Nevertheless, while he is ever more the focus of these tensions, they are not confined to the PM. Indeed, a serious fist-fight broke out in Kuwait’s Parliament in May between Shia and Sunni MPs under the gaze of a group of American lawyers invited to watch proceedings.

Impasse

Sectarian relations in Kuwait are, therefore, at a low ebb. The Prime Minister is wholly caught up in this conflict and has countless other detractors; he is the lightening-rod for all criticism from large sections of MPs and the public alike. Indeed, at least two youth groups Al Soor Al Khamis (the fifth wall) and Kafi (enough) have emerged recently, that have protested for the ousting of the Prime Minister.

The way forward for Kuwait is not at all clear.

It seems inconceivable that the Prime Minister could ever marshal an effective and compliant Parliament; his bitter history as the focus of the opposition’s ire, now compounded by his involvement in sectarian issues, makes him profoundly estranged. Even if this Parliament can stumble to its four month-long recess, the chances of everyone ‘forgiving and forgetting’ when the new term starts are slim to nil, even if the worst of the sectarian tensions are over.

Twice before has the Kuwaiti Emir unconstitutionally dissolved Parliament (i.e. dissolved it but did not reinstate it within the stipulated time frame). Sabah Al Sabah has insisted that he will not do this, even though he would be able to pass numerous important laws and packages that are currently jammed in the Parliament. Were he to do so, while some may feel that this would be a reasonable response to Parliament’s unedifying and damaging behaviour of late, in an era of Revolutionary fervour, there would soon be immense pressure on him to re-instigate the Parliament. Choosing another PM would be seen as a sign of weakness and would by no means guarantee a more pliant Parliament, yet, for lack of other options, it is one of the few tenable alternatives available.

NOTES

1 Nathan Brown ‘Moving Out of Kuwait’s Political Impasse’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (June 2009)

2 Habib Toumi ‘Kuwait no-cooperation motion unlikely to pass’ Gulf News 19 June 2011

Problems on the horizon for the Gulf States 10, April 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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Born in an era when the German Mark was trading at over four trillion to the Dollar and the League of Nations still sought to regulate international alliances, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who has lived through the inauguration of fifteen US Presidents, is truly a man of a different age.

Given what one might – rightly or wrongly – expect from a Saudi King who is nearly a nonagenarian, steeped in the austere, conservative Wahhabi culture of Saudi Arabia, some of his policies have been relatively enlightened. For example, he founded the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), which is a resolutely co-educational campus where Saudi’s feared mutaween (religious police) are not allowed to go, where women can drive and are not mandated to cover their hair.

A Shia Lens

Yet one sphere in which Abdullah certainly is hawkish and conservative is that of Saudi foreign policy towards Iran. Here Abdullah appears to subscribe to the notion that Iran is perennially seeking to undermine Arab societies in some way, shape or form. Unprecedented in modern times, the Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Bahrain exemplifies this logic, with Bahrain seen as the front line of a cold but warming war which must be defended against Iran at all costs.

Three primary currents of fear – noted in their order of their priority to the Saudi government – drove this extreme policy.

Firstly, Riyadh fears that the establishment of any kind of meaningful Shia participation in Bahrain’s government – let alone a representative Shia Parliament – may allow, if not actively encourage, some kind of a militant Shia beach-head on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. The notion that a Bahraini Hezbollah could emerge, or that some units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could be covertly based in Bahrain, but a few kilometres from Saudi Arabia’s key oil fields, is immiscible to Saudi Arabia’s core security purview.

Secondly, Abdullah does not want to see the installation of a Shia-led government in Bahrain at the expense of the Sunni Al Khalifah family’s power. Such an upheaval could be interpreted as the first step towards the emasculation of royal power in Bahrain, and Riyadh is loath to allow such a precedent to be set.

Finally, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid the establishment of any kind of strong Shia-led government so close to its own Shia population, lest contagion spreads and they too begin to demand more rights.

These events take place in the context of what many in the region see to be growing Shia power, as encapsulated by the notion of a Shia crescent ‘enveloping’ the region, as suggested by Jordan’s King Abdullah II in 2004. The recent expulsion of three Iranian diplomats from Kuwait convicted of spying for the IRGC [1] exacerbated tensions and further fostered notions of Shia encroachment.

This Shia lens through which many people in the Gulf (certainly not just Saudi Arabia) view regional politics means that, for example, the protests in Bahrain are not seen as a disenfranchised sector of society complaining and demanding equal opportunities and fair representation, but necessarily instigated by Iran. ‘You see the same people on the streets of Bahrain as on the streets of Iraq … these people … [are] sent by Iran to cause trouble’ as one Kuwaiti put it, linking the narrative of Iran fostering sectarian strife in Iraq with Bahrain. [2]

Is It Merited?

In many ways, this kind of vilification of Iran is exactly what Tehran wants. It strives to foster a reputation for itself as a mighty state with elite and highly capable armed forces, whose sole goal is to propagate the Revolution and the velayat-e faqih rule of law.

In reality, Iran is – to a large degree – a paper tiger. Considering that it is arguably the richest state on earth in terms of oil and gas deposits, economically it is surprisingly weak with a GDP per capita of around $11,000, high unemployment and inflation. Socially, it has the world’s highest rate of human capital flight (often referred to as ‘brain-drain’) and the world’s highest proportion of opiate drug-users. [3] Politically, the country is riven with conflict, as evidenced by the million-strong protests after the stolen election in 2010. Militarily it is outspent five to one by the UK, and even by the comparatively tiny United Arab Emirates (UAE). Moreover, as General Petraeus recently bluntly stated ‘The Emirati Air Force itself could take out the entire Iranian Air Force.’ [4]

Asymmetrically, Iran needs to be taken seriously: the Islamic movements that it spawned and still supports in the Levant are arguably as strong as they have ever been and contribute to Iran’s deterrence. Also, its IRGC irregular forces have been relatively well-funded when compared with its traditional armed forces, and it would be foolish to underestimate them.

Nevertheless, this Iran – the Iran reliant on endless rhetorical bluster and a desperate showmanship striving to live up to several thousand years of a proud and strong civilisation whose key strengths today are, in fact, ambiguity and other asymmetries of power – bears little resemblance to the perfidious and powerful Iran as envisaged by some Gulf Arabs.

A Rock And A Hard Place

Whatever the true extent of Iranian power and their actions on the Arab side of the Gulf, the simple fact is that Saudi Arabia acts as if their threat were compelling and imminent. This may have unforeseen implications for regional security.

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) met recently, and issued a joint statement in which Iran was accused of ‘blatantly … interfering in Kuwait’s affairs’ and of ‘continuous … interference in the domestic affairs of the GCC countries … and [instigating] sectarian sedition between … [GCC countries’] citizens.'[5] This is unusually aggressive and inflammatory language from the GCC States and reflects the point of view of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE more than Qatar or Oman.

Though Doha and Muscat may well be as uneasy about Iran’s motives or actions in the Gulf as other GCC members, they deal with Tehran in a different way, taking, where possible, more conciliatory approaches. For Qatar, the fact that they share and jointly exploit the world’s biggest gas field with Iran plays a key role in this decision and Qatari authorities are understandably wary of antagonising Iran.

Qatar and Oman will be under pressure to tow the GCC line, as they have in this instance. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait will want a united GCC front against Iran. While these two states will follow this to some degree, it would require a full reappraisal of their foreign policy towards Iran if this trend of difficult relations between the GCC and Iran were to continue. They are thus left with some difficult decisions, which might give them no choice but to antagonise either their fellow Arab States or Iran.

Notes

[1] Habin Toumi ‘Kuwait to expel three Iranian diplomats involved in spy ring’ Gulf News 31 March 2011 http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/kuwait/kuwait-to-expel-three-iranian-diplomats-involved-in-spy-ring-1.785663

[2] Personal interview (March 2011)

[3] For more statistics like this see ‘Iran is a Paper Tiger’, Intelligence Squared Debate, 24 February 2011

[4] Josh Rogin, ‘Petraeus: The U.A.E’s Air Force could take out Iran’s’, Foreign Policy, 17 December 2009 <http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/12/17/petraeus_the_uaes_air_force_could_take_out_irans>

[5] GCC states condemn Iran’s blatant interference in Kuwait’s affairs, Kuwait Times, 5 April 2011  <http://www.kuwaittimes.net/read_news.php?newsid=MTI3NDY1Njg5MQ>