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The GCC, Yemen & Bahrain: Inside Story 8, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, The Gulf, Yemen.
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Here are some of my thoughts on the GCC in Yemen and in Bahrain.

Obviously, hindsight is 20:20, but I now realise that I ought to have confronted the Saudi fellow more robustly. Live and learn. Oh, and I need to E N U N C I A T E  some more. And I’m fairly sure that I look nothing like that…and I’m certain that I sound nothing like that either.

Bahrain tries Iranians for spying 13, April 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Middle East.
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Two (or possibly three) Iranians are facing charges in Bahrain for spying for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). They were allegedly meeting with various nefarious people:

with the intention of undermining Bahrain’s military, political and economic status and harming the nation’s interests.

This action comes soon after Kuwait tried and convicted members of an Iranian spy ring. Diplomats were expelled, recalled and a fuss generally made. Ahmadinejad denied that any Iranians were spying in Kuwait. After all, he cheekily mused,

there’s nothing to spy on in…Kuwait

In the past Kuwait has had reasonably good relations with Iran. Their Ambassador in Tehran even – shock, horror – suggested that the term Persian Gulf was more appropriate than Arabian Gulf. Yet the atmosphere in recent months has turned for the worse.

It is difficult to work out the exact extent of Iran’s interference or spying on this side of the Gulf. The default position of many in these parts seems to be an unequivocal “of course they are spying” without that much evidence. These trials may well be good examples of assorted Iranian perfidy but it’s difficult to tell. I think that the GCC States ought to have paid more attention to a fable about an annoying boy, his sheep and a wolf.

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.


[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>

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

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

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

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

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

Does any of this really need much analysis?

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David B Roberts, Deputy Director RUSI Qatar

Bahrain…what else? 21, February 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain.
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Just about everybody expected protests in Bahrain. Most expected serious problems for the Government. Some expected some stiff repression. Few thought that the governmental pay off (over $2500 per family) would sate protesters.  No-one expected governmental forces to open fire on sleeping protesters in the middle of the night.

The Bahrain situation is far trickier, it seems to me, than Egypt and Tunisia. While, of course, in the latter two countries there are many people who are enfranchised by the government i.e. on their side, they were, I’d have thought, in the minority. Yet this is not as much the case in Bahrain.

Yes, I know that a few years ago the statistics were that Bahrain was made up of 70% Shia and 30% Sunni. Yet this has changed. Wholesale importing of Sunni from, well…anywhere, has taken place and this divergence has been, so some degree, redressed. Though specific numbers are difficult to come by, a 55-60% Shia majority sounds about right to me. Moreover, one must not just boil this down to an ethnic issue. Economics is perhaps the key divider, though this does, of course, tend to split somewhat down ethnic lines.

Either which way, this leaves a very sizable proportion of Bahrain’s population – at the very least a third – largely supporting the government. While it is possible to see this as a recipe for a nightmareish civil war, I expect, thanks largely to the shootings, the Government to give in quite some way.

It is hardly as if the Shia or, to put it a better way, those disaffected with the government, have hugely outlandish desires. Sure, some want to get rid of the Monarchy but most just want some kind of equality and – here’s that watchword of the revolutions so far – respect.


The Daily Hate’s shocking Bahraini puff-piece 26, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain.
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I’m not a fan of the British tabloid The Daily Mail, or the Daily Hate as it should patently be known. Quite literally founded on the principal that it should give its readers something to ‘hate’ everyday, the paper continues to peddle sensationalist drivel usually involving demonizing Muslims or foreigners as a whole.

The latest joke of an article that I’ve come across is the puffiest of puff pieces on Bahrain. Presumably in the backlash of the negative press reporting in the West about Bahrain’s current crisis and their severe crack-down on pro-democracy protesters, an intrepid Daily Mail reporter was dispatched to Bahrain to do an in depth report on the delights of Manama as a tourist destination. Truly I can’t remember reading such a vapid piece of pseudo-journalism.

While I perfectly understand that this article is in the Travel section of the paper, is it really too much to expect a word – just one word – about the massive human rights abuses currently going on in Bahrain? Moreover, ignoring the fact that this article really ought to have been shelved given the current issues in Bahrain, even for a Travel section, this piece could not have been written more favourably were it dictated by Bahrain Tourism Inc. No critical comments at all? Nothing? Everything was just that perfect?

Truly, this is a nauseating article in massively bad taste.

Hat tip: CMD

PS. If you type ‘Daily Hate’ into Google, the first result is the Daily Mail’s homepage…even google agrees with me.

Fattest girls in the world: in Bahrain 21, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain.
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Emirates 24/7 notes that Bahrain has the honor of having the fattest women in the world. Kuwait keeps up the GCC end coming in a a credible 5th.

Countries with most overweight girls

1. Bahrain 42.4% (with BMI over 25)

2. USA 36%

3. Portugal 34.3%

4. Spain 32%

5. Kuwait 31.8% 6= Australia 30% 6= New Zealand 30%

8. England 29.3% 9. Bolivia 27.5% 10. Sweden 27.4%

Bahrain v Togo…sort of 14, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain.
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Bahrain played Togo at football (soccer) on the 7th September and won 3-0. The only problem is that Togo never actually sent a football team to Bahrain. Curious. Investigations are underway.

Bahrain: ‘US can’t attack Iran from Manama’ 21, August 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Bahrain.
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The Bahraini Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifah, has stated that Bahrain will not allow America to use its military bases in Bahrain to attack Iran. He further stated that Bahrain’s military agreements with America were purely for defense.

The U.S have an enormous and expanding Naval Base south of Manama’s downtown. U.S. Naval Central Command and the 5th fleet is based there. There is also an airfield ran by the Navy at Bahrain’s International Airport.

Bahrain has a complicated history with Iran. Many Iranians believe that Bahrain is technically a province of Iran. Only in 1971 did Iran officially recognise the Al Khalifah as independent rulers of Bahrain in a quid pro quo for ‘understandings’ regarding the Abu Musa and Tunb islands that Iran subsequently took from the Emirates. Yet, sporadic statements emanate from Tehran reiterating their claims to the islands. Such instances terrify Bahrain and other smaller Gulf States. Iran dwarfs the smaller Gulf States in strategic terms. Only with their U.S. umbrella can they retain their independence.

This situation is worse for Bahrain with its Shia majority ruled by the Sunni minority. Insidious notions of Iranian or Shia 5th columnists acting as internal rebels perhaps along a Hezbollah model are of acute concern in Bahrain (and elsewhere in the Gulf). These fears are made worse by the slow but sure ending of Bahrain’s rentier bargain. With oil all but finished, the Manama government can not simply doll out welfare in all its numerous forms to, essentially, buy the acquiescence of groups in society, as the other Gulf States do as a matter of course.

America’s guarantees and the stationing of its forces in Bahrain are, therefore, central to Bahrain’s security. However, Bahrain and not America has to live with Iran but a few hundred kilometers across the Gulf. They can not employ the hard US line towards Iran; they must seek some kind of accommodationist, working relationship. This can also be very clearly seen with Qatar. Only yesterday, a press release emerged of the Qatari Foreign Minister in Tehran uttering the usual platitudes regarding Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme whilst visiting Ahmadinejad.

It is exactly the same for Bahrain here. They are well aware that the American presence in Bahrain antagonizes Iran quite seriously. Though they are not willing to countenance getting rid of this umbrella, they are willing to make such rhetorical concessions. By insisting that American troops are there for ‘defense’ purposes only and by saying that offensive strikes cannot be launched from Manama, they are simply trying to placate Iran; to make their day-to-day life easier.

Also, one must not forget that all politics is local; there are elections in Bahrain soon. Such a statement might resonate well with a significant minority in Bahrain who see Iran in a positive light.

In reality, it would seem to be an empty gesture. The notion that America’s Navy would not be involved were there to be a conflagration with Iran is unrealistic. Moreover, it would seem highly unlikely were there some kind of clause in the basing agreement dictating what America could and could not do with its forces.