jump to navigation

The Middle East and the Institutionalisation of ‘Least Bad’ Options 8, January 2016

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, The Gulf.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment


The following short article was first published by King’s College London’s Defence in Depth blog in January 2015.


In recent years, after the hope of the Arab Spring, Libya went from a swift revolution to a bitter civil conflict. Syria descended into utter Hobbesian chaos radiating refugees foisting crises on countries near and far. Egypt returned to the status quo ante. Tunisia continues to flirt with a successful political transition but suffers from regular, deadly terrorist attacks. Algeria remains frozen in its autocratic mould. The situation for the Palestinians is dire and hopes for a two state solution are as dim as they have ever been. The situation in Iraq inexorably deteriorates as the medieval fascists in Islamic State continue their rampage. And the Arab Gulf States are increasingly mired in a deep sectarian funk and have engaged in a brutal war in Yemen that will lead the way, as it were, for the downward trajectory to continue.

Yemen remains wracked by fighting. The campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been enormously costly in terms of lives and loss of infrastructure. And the state that was already on the cusp of humanitarian disaster is now resolutely in the midst of complete catastrophe. 82% of the population, some 21.2 million people, are classified as ‘in need’ by the UN, a near-unfathomable number more than those ‘in need’ in Syria. Worse still, when the conflict is over, the Gulf Arab states dealing with low oil prices and domestic budget shortfalls will struggle to rebuild what they have broken. Otherwise, the Houthis – the quasi-Shia group that the Gulf coalition is so eager to crush – though taking a pounding, are employing classic guerrilla warfare tactics, melting into cities, and hunkering down in their tribal and often mountainous terrain. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, the franchise that became a household name with its attempted attack on a US airliner on Christmas Day 2009, has enjoyed a resurgence without any concerted pressure from a central state. All these factors coalesce to make Yemen a depressingly likely candidate to follow Syria and Iraq down the road of becoming a state in name only that harbours and incubates terrorist groups that pose a grievous security threat to the wider international community.

Searching for positives is an exercise in hope over expectation. One would have to be excessively Pollyanna-like to expect that the cease-fire in Yemen or the peace talks in Libya to make a drastic difference. And one would have to be near-certifiable to expect, for example, the UK’s recent announcement of airstrikes against IS targets in Syria to make any kind of strategic difference. Perhaps a better imagination is needed to conceive of truly positive, important developments in the MENA region in 2016. But the experience of recent years simply does not lend itself to optimism. Instead, policymakers are left with depressing calculations of ‘least bad’ options that seem to worsen as the months go by. The region’s turmoil has to end at some stage, but there are no reasons to expect that this will be in 2016.

Female flag carriers, the Olympics and the Arab World 30, July 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

As a devout opening and closing ceremony skeptic, I missed the first fifteen minutes of the London Olympics opening jamboree sure in the knowledge that they’re all naff, incomprehensible wastes of money or in the case of Beijing, a freakish show of iron population control and a waste of money. Curiosity got the better of me, however, and after I started watching I was enthralled.

After the theatrics had finished– James Bond with Queen Elizabeth II and all – I watched the start of the athlete procession planning to switch off and finally go to bed. But again, this too was oddly compelling and I noticed that there were a surprising number of female athletes as flag carriers for Arab countries.

It started off surprisingly strongly. After Algeria’s typical male opening Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, and Djibouti (of all places) were led out by ladies. Iraq and Jordan followed too with female flag bearers.

Eventually, with Qatar and Somalia surprising many by being led by female athletes, the final tally for the Arab world was nine out of the twenty-two nations being female-led, more than double the 2008 Olympic tally of four female flag bearers for Arab States.

Does it mean anything?

Given the near-parity of females to men leading out the teams in a region that is resolutely male-dominated, clearly something is afoot. Is the answer as simple as ‘the Arab Spring’? Do states’ athletic federations, extensions of the governments, feel obliged to field female flag bearers as some kind of notion that they are ‘moving with the times’? It is tempting to make such a conclusion, and there may be something to it, but aside from vague notions that this ‘might make sense’, there is no evidence on which one can draw.

A more fruitful approach would be to look at the states individually to discern if any rhyme or reason can be found.

The countries

No-one is surprised that Qatar led with a female athlete. Indeed, given the influence of Sheikha Moza here for many years now, QF’s emphasis on female empowerment, and the ever upcoming 2022, it would have been a surprise had they not led with a female athlete. This is wholly in keeping with the ‘Western-friendly’ face that Qatar likes to present at these jamborees. It is likely that they can’t make much of a splash on the pitches, fields, mats, and pools, but they can in other ways. Moreover, when you’re bordered by a luddite-like state like Saudi Arabia, I’m always convinced that the Qataris can’t resist poking and prodding away, noting that while they may be of the same religious denomination, they are nevertheless vastly different.

After being led out by a lady in Beijing, the UAE reverted to a man this year (who was dressed like some kind of paramilitary-type: very odd). I doubt that there’s much significance to this and while one could make jibes about the UAE trying to maintain a highly traditional status quo (to wit: Al Islah) above all else, this may be a digression too far.

Great play has been made of the fact that Saudi Arabia finally sent women to the Games. And they should be congratulated on this. But I almost think that they should leave their female athletes at home if they’re going to make them walk x paces behind the men; a truly medieval moment there, I thought, revealing a bit too much about the underlying mindset. And as for KSA’s bitter protests that they will withdraw their team if their female athlete cannot wear her hijab in her event, I truly can’t explain in words how little I would care if KSA withdraw. I utterly fail to see why anyone is giving this temper-tantrum the slightest attention.

No-one is overly surprised that Bahrain had a female flag carrier. It was thus in Beijing and this time around I’m not sure whether Bell Pottinger or Qorvis gave them any choice.

Seeing as Egypt can’t even arrange to buy non-knock off kit, I doubt that anyone could entertain a conversation about  have a lady leading them out or not so they stuck to the norm. And otherwise in North Africa, aside from Morocco, it was as per usual.

But perhaps most surprisingly of all, what were the odds that Djibouti and Somalia would have female athletes leading the states out? Forgive my naivety and my resort to cliché, but these places don’t seem to be the most advanced places in terms of equality. Granted, it was a fifty-fifty choice for the Somali team with only two competitors, but still, they went for the lady; good for them. A good image to show to the world at least.


So, does this mean anything? I suspect not, though I am something of an incorrigible cynic. I think that a wave of feminism would be one of the greatest waves that could fall over the Middle East, but it does not appear to be that close at hand. As ever, it is one step forward and any number backwards. Certainly it is a good sign that KSA sent women for the first time; hopefully they will send more next time and they’ll not be made to derisively walk behind the men.




Cultural and Historical Zones Map of the Middle East 4, May 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

I’ve noted before the superb trove of maps available at the Gulf 2000 website, but here’s another one this time of the broad cultural and historical zones of the Middle East.


Map of religion in the Middle East 17, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This superb map is taken from the equally superb Gulf 2000 initiative at Columbia University, organized by the workaholic Gary Sick.

Bahrain tries Iranians for spying 13, April 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Middle East.
Tags: , , , , ,
1 comment so far

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.

An example of wasta 2, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
Tags: , , , ,

Wasta in the Middle East is guanxi in China. In the UK it would loosely be translated as some kind ‘connection’ that enables you to obtain advantage that, strictly speaking, you don’t deserve: it’s all about who you know, not what you know. While – clearly – this principle works to some degree in all societies, it is rather blatant in the Middle East; witness the man sauntering to the front of the queue in, say, the driving licence office.

Wasta is similar to nepotism. When I was asking some Qataris about this they – well educated, bright, articulate students – couldn’t believe that it was illegal in the UK. They considered it a duty for someone, if they have the power, to get a member of their family or one of their friends a job. An interesting cultural difference.

I was emailed the brief article below. This is, essentially, wasta in action. This is but one miniscule example of a pervasive system of wasta that governs the Middle East and certainly the Gulf. Too strong a wording you may think…I’m not so sure, but am always willing to listen to counter arguments.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor said intervention by influential people has prevented the ministry from taking action against an unidentified sitting MP, reports Al-Seyassah daily, quoting reliable ministry sources.
The same sources said the MP has recruited 1,050 expatriate drivers in a trading and contracting company owned by him and his two sons.
The sources added the ministry had sanctioned the employment of only 10 expatriate workers, but the MP went on to hire 1,040 more workers. However, it has been reported only six people work in his company.

Hat tip: James E

On the passing of dignitaries: Lee Kuan Yew wife dies 3, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, Opinion.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

Kwa Geok Choo, the wife of Lee Kuan Yew the founding father of Singapore and the mother of Singapore’s current Prime Minister, has died. The press release said that:

The family has requested that no obituaries, wreaths or flowers to be sent. All donations will go to the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) Health Research Endowment Fund.

Sultan Al Qassemi noted this story on his twitter feed and made an interesting observation.

Imagine an Arab leader not expecting flowers, wreathes & obituaries, in addition to endless visits. There would be serious consequences.

‘No censorship in UAE’…you sure? 15, August 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Media in the ME, The Emirates.
Tags: ,

UAE’s vice-President and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashin Al Maktoum recently said that

authorities in the UAE do not impose any restrictions on information or news about economic and financial issues.

Which is strange given the blatant censorship in UAE media over various internal matters. Perhaps he was confused. Or it slipped his mind. The pulping of the Sunday Times, leaps to mind as a relatively recent example.

Hat tip: CMD

Brace yourself: Fox News comes to the Middle East 7, July 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, American ME Relations, Media in the ME.
Tags: , , , ,

Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the ‘fair and balanced’ [sic] news channel Fox News is to open a Middle East station in conjunction with Saudi’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Fox News, famous for its uncomplicated, gun-ho and pro-Israel stance whilst maintaining a mocking notion of neutrality, does not seem like a likely partner. Their coverage of Middle Eastern issues is far from renowned or competent. Expect flashy, glitzy sets; female Lebanese anchors [probably the ones that left Al Jazeera last month] wearing an inch of makeup and simple coverage of complicated issues.

Their main competition is Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya.

The former was started in the mid-1990s by Qatar to – essentially – promote themselves. It was a revelation in the region: it discussed sensitive issues in an open and candid manner never seen before in the Arab world. This garnered Al Jazeera and Qatar enemies throughout the region who believed that Al Jazeera was acting as a provocative mouth-piece of Qatar’s Foreign Ministry. Saudi and Bahrain in particular felt that Al Jazeera ‘picked on’ them significantly in the early years. The Saudi Ambassador returned to Doha in 2008 after a 4 year Al Jazeera inspired absence and since then Al Jazeera’s coverage has calmed. Only last month Bahrain banned Al Jazeera from Manama after, it is believed, unfavourable coverage of poverty in the country. Egypt is also perpetually angered by Al Jazeera.

The latter was begun by Saudi Arabia as an alternative to Al Jazeera. Despite looking similar in a modern, Western, professional, CNN style, its coverage is far less controversial and really quite tame.

UAE press censorship 17, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Censorship, Media in the ME, The Emirates.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

Here is a perfect example of press censorship in the UAE.

This is the opening line from an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ras Al Khaimah wants to avoid the financial problems of fellow sheikdom Dubai and reduce its 5 billion U.A.E. dirhams ($1.36 billion) of debt after funding a development splurge with Islamic bonds, a senior official said.

This article was reproduced in Gulf News. But here’s their first line.

Ras Al Khaimah wants to reduce its Dh5 billion ($1.36 billion) of debt after funding development with Islamic bonds, a senior official said.

Surely there are laws about taking such content and changing it? If not there really ought to be.

An excellent hat tip to Sultan Al Qassemi.