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Gulf Troika Troubles 23, April 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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The following article was published on 13 March 2014 by the New America Foundation. The original article can be found here.



It had been coming, some might say, for years. The announcement of the removal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini Ambassadors from Qatar is the latest step in worsening relations between the brotherly Gulf States. The Gulf troika are angry that Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, angry that Qatar has typically taken a conciliatory line towards Iran, angry that Qatar did not support Saudi sponsored groups in Syria, and angry overall that Qatar just will not do as it is told.

This dispute remains – at the moment – limited to individually unimportant acts of political showmanship. Yet, the Gulf is a region that does not need any more complications. If clashes in the region that supplies much of the world’s oil and gas transcend from rhetoric to reality, they could undermine economic recovery efforts around the world.

How did we get here – and how likely is this to blow up into a larger, regional conflict? First, a little background on the Gulf: At first glance, one might expect the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to get along better. They are united to varying degrees by broad religious beliefs with Sunni Islam serving as the dominating denomination. The same families, tribes, and economic systems spread across the GCC states; hydrocarbon industries dominate, which has contributed to the creation of similar political systems. And in the face of Iran, an ideologically, historically, politically, and religiously antithetical state menacingly close by, it would be natural to assume that GCC states would overcome their differences and coordinate their action. In fact, the Iranian threat was the instigating factor behind the formation of the GCC.

Aside from a lack of the necessary maturity of the GCC states to overcome their differences, the key reason for their divisions lies in US protection agreements. Coddled with security agreements and reassured with the presence of huge US military bases in the region, the GCC states don’t feel the pressure to overcome disagreements at the behest of overarching security concerns and are insulated from the realities of their region.

The announcement of the removal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini Ambassadors from Qatar is the latest step in worsening relations between the brotherly Gulf States.

The subsequent bickering has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the early 1990s it reached the level of border clashes between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and in 1996 Riyadh is alleged to have support of a counter coup against former Emir Hamad Al Thani after he took over from his father in 1995. This sour bilateral relationship limped on until 2002 when Saudi Arabia finally had enough and removed its Ambassador from Doha. He did not return until 2008, symbolic of Saudi Arabia finally coming to terms with the independence of Qatar. Though it became independent from Britain in 1971, Saudi Arabia’s rulers still saw the Qatari Peninsula as essentially part of Saudi Arabia: it had extracted taxes from those on the Peninsula, it commanded the loyalty of large tribes draped across the ‘border,’ and Qatar’s leadership in the 1970s and 1980s had shown deference to the Kingdom.

The post-1995 leaders were different. They sought to carve out Qatar’s independence, implementing a raft of policies that served to simultaneously antagonize Saudi Arabia and ram home Qatar’s independence. It worked: Qatar riled the leadership in Riyadh and unequivocally established Qatar’s independence.

Eventually, with the return of the Saudi Ambassador to Doha, the countries reached a compromise:  Saudi Arabia understood that it could not control Qatar anymore, but the more egregious examples of Qatar’s behaviour – notably Doha-based news organization Al Jazeera’s pointed Saudi-focused exposés – had to stop, which they did.

The Arab Spring upset this negotiated truce. Qatar used the links that it had been cultivating for decades with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel most of its support and it was initially successful. It played an important role in the removal of at least two entrenched leaders in the Middle East: Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Mubarak was a stalwart who had friends in the Gulf. Worse still, he was replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood Government: a movement that had long been anathema to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In particular, both countries feared the group’s influence domestically. Now, their brotherly state, Qatar, was directly boosting an organization that had created a movement with the power to marshal the support of hundreds of thousands of Muslims.

Qatar used the links that it had been cultivating for decades with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel most of its support…It played an important role in the removal of at least two entrenched leaders in the Middle East: Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

As Qatar’s support for various Muslim Brothers became increasingly a problem for neighbouring Gulf states, so too the speeches from Qatar by the Muslim Brotherhood’s most prominent cleric, Yusuf Al Qaradawi, were becoming symbolic of the burgeoning differences. In late January 2014 he accused the UAE Government of being ‘against God’, which drew a predictable reaction on social media and led to the summoning of the Qatari Ambassador to the UAE Foreign Ministry for an explanation. This occurred around the same time that he was also uncomplimentary about Saudi Arabia’s links to the military junta in Egypt and rumors surfaced about deep anger in Riyadh as to Qatar’s meddling with Houthi rebels in Yemen. These exact issues have antagonized before, but in this new climate, they have taken on a new importance.

Diplomatic relations haven’t improved much since the start of the Arab Spring. But the recent withdrawal of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini Ambassadors doesn’t indicate big change if it is merely symbolic. What Qatar’s leadership needs to work out is whether this is instead one more step along a continuum of escalation.

Because it could be that the UAE and Saudi are in the process of escalation, or they could simply be trying to change Qatar’s discourse and direction; to cow the independent streak that it has displayed for two decades. They may be trying to take advantage of the young Emir in his first year in office.

Emir Tamim is now stuck between the Scylla of not being able to capitulate in the face of such pressure and the Charybdis of needing to normalize relations to a degree lest the situation escalate even more. The closure of Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, for example, would be devastating in the short term at least for Qatar’s economy, which is hugely dependent on this link in lieu of a port of sufficient size.

The closure of Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, for example, would be devastating in the short term at least for Qatar’s economy, which is hugely dependent on this link in lieu of a port of sufficient size.

So what’s Qatar to do? Emir Tamim’s options are limited. In private and over time, Qatar can promise to quieten down its support for its various Muslim Brotherhood contacts around the Middle East. Many of them have in any case been outmaneuvered in recent months and are less useful today. Restoring a semblance of non-biased reporting and editorial control at Al Jazeera Arabic by redefining its editorial line or removing some journalists, could restore the channel’s image, which has plummeted recently as its Muslim Brotherhood-supporting policies have gathered strength. This would be good for Al Jazeera’s wider reputation, good for Qatar, and placatory to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In the coming weeks, the Emir of Kuwait will launch a mediation effort, a reminder that Kuwait and Oman have not joined in this boycott: That’s not surprising given Kuwait’s fractious domestic politics and Oman’s independent stance. It also underscores an important point: This is not a united GCC front against Qatar.

Since the initial Ambassadorial withdrawal, Emirati and Saudi journalists have been pressured to stop writing for Qatari newspapers: I am sure that that Qatari press will survive. If relations remain at this nigh-on puerile level, then we can hope that Saudi and the UAE have finished for this round. Though the Kuwaiti Emir may offer a shorter-term palliative, for a lasting truce, we might have to wait for leadership changes in the two antagonistic states: something that is likely not that far away in both states given the ages and ill health of their leadership.


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

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

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

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

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

The known knowns

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

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

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

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

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

Known unknowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown unknowns

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

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

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

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

A trip to the Kingdom 18, January 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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I am currently in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at a conference to discuss the region in light of these ever so changing times. It’s always interesting to come to the Kingdom and even better when you’re here with leading academics and the most erudite and informed of Saudis. Some thoughts:

– It’s been at least six months since I visited another GCC country so it’s nice to go to Riyadh to be reminded of the differences between the states (or at least two of them). Everyone knows that Riyadh is a huge city but only flying over it and driving through it do you see the level of sprawl with the city forever splurging into the desert in a low-rise tide of villas. Doha it is not.

– We visited the Saudi National Museum. I had no idea that Saudi’s history was as extensive as it appears to be; a true ‘crossroads of civilization’ as one Saudi put it. As yet it seems that much of this history going back thousands of years has barely begun to be uncovered and the Kingdom must be one of the least touched but richest countries on earth for archaeologists.

– The discussions that I attended in the Saudi capital were of the highest caliber  The Saudi academics and attendees – all Western educated – were hugely impressive. They were articulate, erudite and intelligent which is – of course – no surprise given how long Saudi has been sending its best students abroad. Qatar cannot and can never hope to compete; it just doesn’t have the critical mass of people to engage in this kind of education. Indeed, I am happy to be corrected, but I suspect that there were more political science PhDs in the conference room alone than political science PhDs earned by all Qataris in the last decade.

– There was staunch Saudi support for Bahrain. The arguments were nuanced and far more erudite than the usual ‘it’s Iran’, though this refrain was used too. Two trends of argument were interesting in particular.

Firstly was the notion of ‘what do you expect?’ If there were a popularly elected government via perfect elections then this would be Shia-led given the population dynamics and such a government would be – so the argument went – intrinsically disposed to the Iranian government creating some kind of a Shia bastion just off KSA’s coast. The analogy of the Cuban Missile Crisis was used to illustrate this point. I don’t agree with this logic, but it makes a certain sense.

Secondly, it was interesting how the West’s worst activities were used as cover for Bahrain’s worst activities. The Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were used as a calling out of the West’s double standards. ‘Look at the things you [sic] do when your ‘national security’ is at risk. It is the same in Bahrain’. While I don’t agree with this – one should hardly use the atypical, controversial and maligned activities of the West as a model or the most base excuse – this is a powerful argument in its own right and reminds one of how easily eroded the theoretical moral high ground can be.

– The talks were attended by a senior Saudi Prince. He came for the opening evening lecture and the subsequent dinner. Much to my surprise he came back the day after for the 12 hour day of presentations and talks and came for dinner again that evening. He was erudite, engaging, open, witty, and substantively contributed to every panel discussion. There was no ceremony about his presence and he took the bus in the evening to the second dinner. For a variety of reasons I just can’t imagine the same happening almost anywhere else in the Gulf.

– Saudi itself was the center of much of the discussions. A UK based academic gave an excellent if familiar ‘Saudi is in financial peril’ talk and it is impossible to disagree that going forward a decade or so the combination of increasing salaries in the increasing Government sector, the struggling private sector, the surging domestic energy demands of the Kingdom and a range of structural issues such as industry’s dependency on cheap fuel mean that the Kingdom is facing huge challenges. He also noted that Saudi’s Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) was staggeringly high.

There is no answer to these challenges but the numerous Saudis around the table were somewhat weary of these concerns having heard very similar versions of these ‘Saudi is ok now but in 5 years…’ for decades now. Of course those around the table were the elite in the Kingdom and are unrepresentative of the Saudi population as a whole. Nevertheless in defence of the Kingdom, so to speak, they made some good points. 1) The Kingdom has proven to be surprisingly resilient before. 2) There is a staggering amount of waste – ‘fat’ as one contributor put it – in the Government sector that can be seen as an area for streamlining as and when budget pressures necessitate. 3) The Saudi Government controls up to 75% of the economy and could privatize industries if the buffers really were approaching giving them a potentially huge windfall. Of course none of this is straight forward – the modern age, as an American contributor pointed out, has a raft of unique, new and resilient structural changes (media openness etc) and cutting fat is not necessarily that easy – but these were, I thought, interesting points. I still think that Saudi is facing catastrophic challenges in the next 15 years but the issue demands a lot more thought that I’ve been able to give it thus far.

Other random points:

– The Ottomans legalised gay marriage [CORRECTION] decriminalised homosexuality in 1876

– Istanbul is the biggest Kurdish city

– Apparently the US Embassy Ministry in Baghdad has approximately 1000 Americans working there but only 7 Americans who speak Arabic. Good stuff.

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.


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.


Saudi Arabia’s succession: runners, riders, and dynamics 16, June 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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The key positions in Saudi Arabia are still mostly held by sons of the founder the modern Saudi state, Abdulaziz Al Saud (or Ibn Saud, as he is commonly known). This means that those in power are often exceedingly old and thus in ill-health and the death of two Crown Princes within nine months testifies to this concern.

There is a paradoxical issue here. On the one hand, the passing of power from one man to the next does not make a huge amount of difference. Change in Saudi Arabia occurs at a glacial pace. There is just no room for a new, dynamic leader to take the top job, ‘clean house’, and institute significant changes. Thus, there is no real concern that immediate policies and practices will change. However, simultaneously, Saudi Arabia’s politics is heading towards a cliff of some description. It is running out of sons of Ibn Saud and the stints in power of coming Kings will necessarily be short. There need to be practices and procedures in place to manage the transition to the next generation, the grandsons of Ibn Saud. An Allegiance Council was set up to deal with this but this is essentially untested and everyone is fully aware that it will only play a role if it is allowed to by the more powerful Princes.

Another key piece of the succession pie lies in the blocks of power within the Kingdom.

The Sudairis

Carrying a disproportionate amount of sway are the descendants of Ibn Saud and his marriage to his favored wife, Princess Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi. Former King Fahd was the leader of this block and held power – nominally at least – from 1982 to 2005 allowing several Sudairi to be firmly inculcated into seats of power in Saudi Arabia. Despite this ‘good start’, this branch has suffered recently so some degree, with the deaths of Crown Prince Sultan in 2011 and Crown Prince Nayef.

Nevertheless Sudairis still include Defence Minister Salman, Deputy Minister of Interior Prince Ahmed, a former Deputy Minister of Defence Prince AbdulRahman, and Prince Turki, who seems to be agitating after his return to Saudi Arabia for a position.

The Faisals

Successors to King Saud, the immediate successor to Ibn Saud, the current long serving Foreign Minister, Saud is the leading Faisal member. Other prominent Faisals include Prince Khalid who has the centrally important role as Governor of Mecca, and Prince Turki who was the intelligence chief from 1977-2001. Turki was subsequently Ambassador to America and the UK, but subsequently disappeared from view for some time, though he retains a latent importance.

The Abdullah faction

The current King, Abdallah, has, so to speak, his own faction. He forged his place as head of the well regarded Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) from 1962-2010 as key to balancing to the ordinary Saudi Arabian Land Forces under Sudairi control. His problem stems from the fact that he has no full brothers in key positions, so his power has been invested in his sons.

Miteb was recently given charge of the SANG in a move which guarantees that he will be powerful for the foreseeable future, while Khalid is on the Allegiance Council, Mishal is the Governor or Najran province, and Abdulaziz as an adviser in the Royal court.


Runners and riders

Salman bin Abdulaziz (b.1936, Defence Minister)

Elevated to Defence Minister in November 2011 after being Governor of Riyadh. In his 9 months at the MOD he became highly respected for his work ethic and his desire to implement changes to the archaic practices and procedures. He is widely seen as likely to be elevated to Crown Prince.

Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (b.1945, Saudi Intelligence Chief)

A Minister with a key portfolio and an impressive track record in his post. Moving him would be a tricky matter and he does not have a good lineage, with his mother being non-Saudi. Unlikely to become Crown Prince. Could move to Defence, but will probably stay where he is.

Khalid Bin Sultan (b.1949, Assistant Defence Minister)

Performed poorly in battle in Yemen in 2009 and thus was not elevated to Minister of Defence when his father died. Given this public rebuke, he cannot become Crown Prince, but could conceivably finally become Minister of Defence if Salman becomes Crown Prince, though this is far from guaranteed.

Bandar Bin Sultan (b.1949, Former Ambassador to America)

Formerly a hugely important figure who has more recently been lost in the proverbial desert. Despite this and his non-traditional lineage on his mother’s side, he is a widely respected figure who could play some role.

Saud Bin Faisal (b.1941, Foreign Minister)

Widely respected but old and ill. There has been talk of him stepping down from the Foreign Ministry so taking on another role would seem to make no sense.

Prince Turki Bin Faisal (b.1945, Former intelligence head; UK & US Ambassador)

Still an influential and ethereal figure today. A chequered history, though, and a decidedly non-conservative streak suggest that he will not be promoted.

Mishaal Bin Abdulaziz (b.1926, Former Defence Minister, Governor of Mecca, Chair of Allegiance Council)

Far too old even in a Saudi context to be considered.

Sattam Bin Abdulaziz (b.1941, Governor of Riyadh)

Recently became Governor of Riyadh, a key position; it is distinctly possible that he would be elevated at some stage.

Ahmed Bin Abdulaziz (b.1941, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Deputy Governor of Mecca)

Largely overlooked thus far, Ahmed nevertheless has a strong reputation and could conceivably find himself with another job in the coming weeks.


Mohammed Bin Nayef (b.1959, Assistant Minister of the Interior)

He has earned an excellent reputation in the MOI for improving its counter-terrorism and intelligence abilities though being a worldly, un-dogmatic, and diligent worker. Would have been a clear leader to be a future Crown Prince had his father lived to be King. Will still be among the key contenders; he is the son of a key Sudairi after all, though he is very young.

Khalid Bin Faisal (b.1940, Governor of Mecca)

The Governorship of Mecca carries with is significant responsibility and prestige. He has been in the post for five years now. He is one of the older candidates of those not a son of Ibn Saud, which in the Saudi context could be significant.

Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah (b.1963, Deputy Foreign Minister)

Formerly of the SANG where he spent over a decade, he has for almost a year been the Deputy Foreign Minister. He is also on the board of KAUST, hoped to be one of the key institutions of change in Saudi Arabia, and stands a good chance of being the next foreign Minister at least.

Abdulaziz bin Salman (b.1960, Minister of Oil)

His position as Minister of Oil guarantees him a prominent role in Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen how much Salman will seek to elevate him.

Miteb bin Abdullah (b.1953, Commander of SANG)

In control of arguably the most potent army in Saudi Arabia and carries significant sway. Certainly a potential for future Crown Prince, though it depends upon whether his father can make a deal to see this come to fruition after he passes, or whether he can arrange a ‘second Deputy Prime Minister’ spot as he did for Nayef in 2009, effectively lining him up to the throne.

Mishaal Bin Abdullah (Governor of Najran Province)

Najran Province borders Yemen and is thus of huge strategic importance to Saudi Arabia. This kind of ‘training’ can be played upon to secure his future elevation in position.

Mohammed bin Fahd (b.1951, Governor of the Eastern Province)

Like Mishaal, with ‘training’ in such a key areas as the Eastern Province, Mohammed is potentially ready for a higher role.

On the death of Crown Prince Nayef 16, June 2012

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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has died at the age of 78. He had been ill for some time, apparently suffering from some form of cancer, and had received long-term treatment in America and he was recently recuperating in Geneva when he passed away.

Nayef was elevated to the position of Crown Prince in November 2011 with the death of former Crown Prince Sultan. However, in reality Nayef had been the second most important individual in Saudi Arabia for some time given Sultan’s profound incapacity.

That the Saudi Royal family has suffered another key death within a year is concerning but can come as no surprise. The leadership is universally old with the King being somewhere in his late 80s or some reports suggest that he could even be 94 by now. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with the twilight years of the Soviet Union with Brezhnev dying in office in 1982 to be replaced by Andropov who lasted 18 months in office, and then Chernenko who barely lasted a year. While the move to a new generation of leadership took another leap forward with Nayef’s death, it will not happen just yet as Defence Minister, Salman will become likely Crown Prince.


Nayef is the twenty third son of Ibn Saud, the key founder of the current Saudi state, and the half-brother of King Abdullah. He is one of the key Sudairi brothers, born of the most influential and important mother of Ibn Saud’s children in 1933, and he received all of his schooling in the Kingdom with no long-term studies abroad unlike many of his compatriots. After a short stint as the representative of the Principality of Riyadh, he became the Deputy Governor of Riyadh and later the Governor. From 1970-1975 he was the Deputy Minister of the Interior and he was the Minister of Interior from 1975 onwards. This position gave Nayef substantial power and prestige and he expanded the Ministry of the Interior exponentially and today it is an enormously powerful organisation pervading Saudi Arabia. In March 2009 Nayef became the Second Deputy Prime Minister and in November 2011 he became the Crown Prince with the de jure reality finally catching up to his de facto powers.

His reputation is that of a fierce conservative. Though there is no doubt that he has been an arch proponent of the Saudi Arabian line on Bahrain and has been deeply involved with various crackdowns in the East of Saudi Arabia over the years, this reputation is somewhat overblown and it is better to see him as a staunch pragmatist and conservative, rather than a zealous religious-conservative.

Nayef has four sons of whom the most important by some distance is Mohammed Bin Nayef, who was second in charge of the MOI and will take over now. There have been rumours for some time that the MOI itself will be split up into two organisations and another of his sons, Saud, would take over, but this is only supposition presently.

Abroad, Nayef has had an important role for many years. Despite his staunch and conservative nature, he has engaged in various overtures or at least discussions with Iran over the years, and was believed to be one of the key proponents behind Saudi Arabia’s troop and armament deployment to Bahrain in 2011.

In terms of reforms, though Nayef is, as noted, portrayed as some kind of arch-conservative (which is true in certain circumstances) it must not be forgotten that he presided over one of the key emancipatory actions for women in modern Saudi history: the imposition of ID cards. This allowed women to, by themselves for the first time, open bank accounts, sign up for University and similar moves. Though Nayef did not do this for women’s freedoms, but instead for purely security-driven concerns, it highlights again that he was willing to be pragmatic when necessary.


It is likely that Salman, 76, the former Governor of Riyadh and Defence Minister will become Crown Prince now. A body called the allegiance council was established some years ago to preside over such changes, but should not prove problematic in this instance.

Subsequently, the picture become much more murky. There are other Princes who are the sons of Ibn Saud – Prince AbdulRahman (b.1934), Prince Ahamd (b.1940) and non Sudairi sons too, such as Prince Muqrin. But they too are old, in varying degrees of ill health, and are, at the most, stop gaps. Saudi Arabia needs to come to terms with moving the leadership down a generation to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, yet this would likely be a highly fractious decision. With Prince Salman waiting in the wings, it is unlikely to happen this time, though the leadership will surely discuss who is to be next; a difficult but crucial decision for the future of the House of Saud and Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf Union that Never Was 20, May 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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The following article appeared on RUSI.org on 17 May 2012.


The leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council met on 14 May in Riyadh to discuss the formation of a new Gulf Union. This Union was to entail even closer relations between the states. In particular there were high expectations that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would form some kind of a deep Union, potentially as a pilot before the other states joined. Or so it was thought.

Instead, essentially nothing has emerged from this key meeting. This highlights that while the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) States have common histories and common problems today, there remains key, perennial, and divergent opinions as to the best way to assuage these concerns.
Saudi Arabia leading the way

Saudi Arabia is a conservative country in many ways. It is not flashy with its policies and while it does occasionally engage in fanfare it generally operates with reservation and careful reflection. Yet in the run up to the recent consultative meeting, Saudi authorities and a stream of editorials had been hyping the importance of this meeting and the expected outcomes. The loyal Sunni press in particular relentlessly banged the GCC unity drum, championing the ‘inevitable’ coming together of fraternal states against the spectre of Iran and its numerous perfidious policies.

Their logic flows that Bahrain, a fellow Sunni Kingdom, is – depending on who you read – either under attack from Iran or at least suffering from Iranian-inspired activities that have energised the majority Shia community in Bahrain. This led to a response from the Bahraini Government, which has, among other things, adversely affected the Bahraini economy. Saudi Arabia has stepped in to physically and economically secure Bahrain in recent months and a Union between the two states is the inevitable and sensible conclusion to protect Sunni interests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia from a further descent into Shia-inspired violence.

The level of expectation of some kind of outcome from this summit was high, given the hype surrounding the meeting and the breathless commentary. Yet any dispassionate analysis of a putative GCC Union reveals that such an outcome is highly unlikely.
Distrust of Saudi Leadership

For the ruling Al Khalifah family in Bahrain, the situation does not look good. The economy is suffering badly and highly reliant on continued Saudi support. This is compounded by the social fabric of the country being ripped asunder and polarised; law and order is a mess with riots, protestors being killed, and reprisals being taken against the police. All of these issues highlighted Bahrain’s murky international image, coming again to the fore after the recent Formula 1 race.

Yet, despite these difficulties, to submit Bahrain to some kind of Union with Saudi Arabia would be a huge gamble by the Bahraini monarchy. Despite Saudi Arabia’s unwavering support, for which most Sunni Bahrainis are deeply grateful, joining a country thirty-nine times bigger and with a population twenty-two times bigger is a different proposition. Depending upon the depth of the Union, such a measure could be considered to be surrendering Bahrain’s sovereignty to Saudi Arabia. And such an outcome – realised or not – would please neither the majority of Sunnis nor Shia.

For most Government supporters there is just no need to join with Saudi Arabia: Bahrain already receives considerable support from Saudi Arabia. While those in Riyadh, according to some sources, have become impatient with the ongoing struggles in Bahrain, the chances of them removing military or financial support are remote. As for the Shia, there would likely be an immediate and vociferous reaction against such a notion with fears that it would mean the deep entrenchment of a staunchly anti-Shia position.

As for Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), neither have hugely positive relations with Saudi Arabia. For Qatar, after many difficult years, the rapport with Saudi has improved, but still the states disagree fundamentally on key topics, such as how to deal with Iran. While Abu Dhabi in particular supports Riyadh’s line on key topics such as Iran there are outstanding issues. There are sporadic border disputes and the UAE pulled out of the GCC Common Currency when they learned that Riyadh would host the central bank. The fact that the UAE only sent their Deputy President, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to the recent summit shows a calculated snub and a reluctance to take such a Union seriously at present.

Oman, despite being somewhat reliant upon Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States for economic support, was the first country to pull out of the GCC Monetary Union in 2007 and is wary of any eroding of its sovereignty that a Union might entail. Kuwait is beset with its own political problems at present and, depending on the level of the Union, would likely be concerned that its political progressiveness be hampered by such a move dominated as it would naturally be by Saudi Arabia and its less than progressive political system.
Is the Idea Finished?

The GCC states are not against improving their joint relations or boosting economic cooperation. But the fact that this move was so strongly led by Saudi Arabia, the state that dwarfs all other GCC states combined, is concerning for the smaller states.

Fears that a Union might be a slippery slope to greater cohesion in which the individual states and their nascent identities and social practices would be subsumed in a Saudi-dominated context dominate. An egalitarian Commonwealth of Gulf States, as suggested by a Saudi expert on a recent research trip to Riyadh, might be a suitable way to square this difficult circle, but otherwise Saudi Arabia’s apparent good intentions will be lost through a base fear of absorption and homogeneity.

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.

Santorum or Ayatollah Khamenei? 1, March 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia.
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The ever interesting ForeignPolicy.com has just the most super article at present; a wee guessing game for you all to try to work out who said what: the GOP’s gift to the Democrats Rick Santorum or Iran’s holy keeper of the flame, Ayatollah Khamenei?

1. “We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth.”

2. “We believe in democracy and we also believe in freedom, but we do not believe in liberal democracy.”

3. “Although the literal meaning of socialism is equitable distribution of wealth, it is associated with other concepts which we hate. Over time, socialism has come to be associated with certain things in society that are unacceptable to us.”

4. “The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness.”

5. “This is not a political war at all. This is not a cultural war. This is a spiritual war.”

6. “This is a war between two willpowers: the willpower of the people and the willpower of their enemies.”

7. “Go back and read what the sirens did once you arrived on that island.… They devour you. They destroy you. They consume you.”

8. “The American people’s hatred for Iran is profound.” Oh wait, we got that one backward. Sorry. It should read:

8. “The Iranian people’s hatred for America is profound.”


Answer 1: Santorum, Answer 2: Khamenei, Answer 3: Khamenei, Answer 4: Santorum, Answer 5: Santorum, Answer 6: Khamenei, Answer 7: Santorum, Answer 8: Khamenei


Examining Qatari-Saudi Relations 28, February 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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German newspaper Die Welt recently reported that Saudi Arabia held a meeting with fellow Gulf States to discuss what should be done to counter increasing Hezbollah activity – but it did not include Qatar in the discussions. The clear implication was that Saudi Arabia’s elite do not appear to trust their Qatari counterparts in respect to sectarian issues. This should not necessarily come as a surprise; Qatar and Saudi Arabia, despite a recent rapprochement, have long-standing issues which may potentially be exacerbated by those very sectarian concerns. Another strand of tension emerging in a region already shot through with concerns and affecting one of the more active and stable countries – Qatar – would not be a welcome development for anyone.

Historically, those ruling in Qatar have always been significantly weaker than their surrounding competitors. As such their key tactic, from the late eighteenth century onwards (from when Qatar’s modern history is typically dated), was to ally with one power against the depredations of another. Qataris sought to ally with whomsoever would give them the most autonomy, often leading them to them change their alliances with frequency and alacrity. The Wahhabi powers, descendants of whom continue to form a key part of the ruling Saudi Arabian political bargain to this day, though their powers have waxed and waned, were perennially caught up in this Qatari bandwagoning game.

As the third and current Saudi state was consolidated under Ibn Saud at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was clear to both the Qataris and the British – then nominal protectors of Qatar – that should Ibn Saud so choose, he could, as one political resident put it, “eat up Qatar in a week.” Unsurprisingly, simple geostrategic calculations of state power dictated that Qatari leaders needed to keep Ibn Saud as an ally, for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it was soon known, was infinitely more powerful in every measurable metric. The close relationship changed to a more overt, but still implicit, Saudi suzerainty over Qatar after the 1971 British withdrawal from the East of Suez. From 1971 to the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia was the de facto protector of Qatar and while Qatar was technically an autonomous, sovereign nation, in reality its leadership repeatedly looked towards Saudi Arabia for policy direction.

It was in the 1990’s that this relationship began to show a marked deterioration. Firstly, Qatar’s then-Crown Prince, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, appeared to chafe under Saudi suzerainty and wanted to take his country on to a firmly independent trajectory, eschewing Saudi Arabia’s overarching leadership.
Secondly, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia and its eastern oil fields, Saudi Arabia’s scramble to invite in Western coalition forces to defend its Kingdom made it abundantly clear their own armed forces were not sufficient even to protect themselves. The chance that Saudi forces could protect Qatar as well – as had been implicitly understood in the 1971-1990 Saudi-Qatari relationship – was therefore rendered a moot point and a major pillar of their relationship crumbled. In preparation for the coming American action in the Gulf, Qatar signed military agreements with the US in 1991-2 allowing American forces to base themselves in Qatar. The need for any kind of Saudi protection promptly vanished.

With Qatar now so openly intimating its desire for greater autonomy, Saudi Arabia reacted. Rhetoric from both sides increased and led to a border skirmish on 30 September 1992, leaving three soldiers dead. Egyptian mediation temporarily resolved the situation only for tensions to flare up again in 1994.
Thirdly, in the early 1990’s, Saudi Arabia sought to block any Qatari attempts to export its gas by pipeline to the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait, claiming that it would have to transverse Saudi territory in some way. Saudi had also found more gas reserves and was unwilling to facilitate further potential competition in the region.

Finally, after Crown Prince Hamad seized power from his father in 1995 in a peaceful coup, Saudi Arabia, aside from maintaining support for the ousted Emir, is widely believed to have financially supported at least one coup against Hamad. While this pointed, personal action has scarcely been forgotten seventeen years later, some also argue it acted as the final coup de grace, plunging Saudi-Qatari relations into deep freeze.

Qatar reacted in a variety of ways. The broadcaster Al Jazeera was set up in 1996 and soon began to focus relentlessly on Saudi Arabia and Egypt. While the palace is suspected of having encouraged this ploy, there is no evidence of any direct interference, nor would any be needed; Doha is a small place and Al Jazeera knows perfectly well what it can and cannot discuss.

Riyadh – along with all other Arab countries at one point or another – reacted furiously. This was, it must not be forgotten, the first time in the history of the Arab world that there was prolonged media coverage over which the rulers had little control. Ambassadors were routinely recalled, the Qatari Emir was frequently beseeched to try and temper Al Jazeera, and Al Jazeera’s offices were peripatetic in their presence in countries across the Arab World.

Also to Riyadh’s displeasure, Qatar also continued with policies it had begun in the early 1990s, seeking better relations with Iran. Also, the new Emir sought a relationship with Israel, which included the opening of an Israeli Trade Office in Doha in 1996 and attempts to sell Qatari gas to the Jewish State. Both of these policies hit raw nerves in Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia’s elite was furious with Qatar’s hosting of top-level Israeli diplomats and their burgeoning relations, it was arguably the improvements in relations with Iran that they found even more inflammatory.

It is difficult to overstate just how antithetical Saudi Arabia and Iran are. They stand on different sides of the key Islamic divide; Iran has a 5000 year pedigree, Saudi Arabia has no such history as a cohesive territorial unit; Saudi Arabia is a conservative Monarchy, Iran is an explicitly revolutionary republic; Iran relies most heavily on asymmetric defence in the form of the Revolutionary Guard and groups like Hezbollah, whereas Saudi Arabia relies on American-backed traditional military might; all the while with both countries vying for the mantle of ‘leader of the Arab World’, a prize of central importance to their basic ruling bargains.

Lastly it is important to note that each profoundly fears the other. From the Saudi Arabian perspective in particular, there are enormous fears that Iran’s Shia will somehow deliberately infect their eastern province, where the majority of Saudi’s Shia are sit atop the majority of the oil reserves and processing facilities, and on this topic particularly Saudi Arabia will brook little compromise.
It took Saudi Arabia thirteen years to come to terms with Qatar’s independence of thought and action. In 2008 the Saudi Arabian Ambassador returned to Doha after a five year absence that had stemmed from the aforementioned disputes. On his return, Saudi Arabia solicited and achieved guarantees from the Qataris that Al Jazeera’s outspoken and vociferous coverage of the Kingdom would be toned down, which it duly was. Since this rapprochement, relations have improved slowly but surely, despite the odd lapse.
The greatest test came in March 2011 when Saudi Arabia led the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield troops and tanks into Bahrain to show support for the beleaguered Sunni ruling elite. Qatar, like Oman, did not send any troops or police aside from unconfirmed rumours that one or two Qatari policemen were sent in a token gesture of support.

The crux of the issue is that Qatar deals with Iran in a fundamentally different way to Saudi Arabia. Sharing the world’s largest gas field with Iran and as a small country with no strategic depth, Qatar sensibly chooses not to goad the Iranians. Instead, when sporadic and pointed comments emanate from Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, Qatar will invariably seek to calm tensions. Over the years, Qatar has even tried to normalise relations with Iran and the GCC, inviting Iran to the annual GCC summit in 2007 – much the fury of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Additionally, Qatar has long established relations with Iranian proxies Hezbollah, which it has even donated money to in the past.

Qatar does not pursue these policies because it fundamentally enjoys good relations with Iran and its proxies as compared to its Arab neighbours, but because it wants to maintain the façade of ‘good, fraternal, cordial relations’ (as they are always termed in the press releases) to act as a safety valve for Iran in particular and to remind Tehran that should the worst come to fruition (some kind of serious military conflict) that Qatar has, all along, been seeking peace and reconciliation with the behemoth Shia state.

Specifically, Qatar are concerned that Iran, if it so chose, could perhaps seriously impinge upon its ability to obtain, process, and ship gas from the shared field. 2004 saw examples of Iranian Revolutionary Guard members apparently destroying and looting unmanned Qatari rigs. It is this kind of low-level, sub-war but still serious incident that Qatar is seeking to avoid in its efforts to improve its relations with Iran. For its part Iran likes the idea of ‘cordial’ relations with Qatar being widely known to show that it does have ‘an Arab friend’ and that the US and Saudi containment of Iran has not worked.

‘They lie to us, and we lie to them’ was how the Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, was quoted in Wikileaks, characterising the Qatari-Iranian relationship; an apt summation, which highlights the capricious but mutually conducive state of Qatar’s Iranian relations.
The level of Saudi Arabia’s bellicosity in retaliation against perceived Iranian interference in Bahrain puts this Qatari policy in jeopardy. For Saudi Arabia in this war-like frame of mind a Qatar that fraternises with Iran, potentially undermining GCC unity against this nominally shared enemy, is a liability.

Yet Qatar finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In reality a severely angered Saudi Arabia could be highly damaging for Qatar. Not only could it block Qatar’s diplomatic initiatives but they could well interfere with, for example, the through-put of supplies (concrete etc.) that Qatar needs from Saudi Arabia in order to build its infrastructure up for the 2022 World Cup. Any easily-applied Saudi pressure over these sensitive issues could have serious ramifications but equally Qatar is fundamentally unwilling to antagonise Iran to any serious degree for the fears already outlined above.
Saudi Arabia’s apparent exclusion of Qatar from its discussion with fellow Gulf states on Hezbollah, if it is true (which is by no means certain) provides a clue as to the level of paranoia in Riyadh. That Qatar should be excluded as if it constituted a security threat is an absurd notion. Moreover it highlights that Qatar’s actions in seeking accommodation with Iran or by maintaining links and supporting organisations such as Hezbollah has serious consequences; while this one suspected incident may appear, in isolation, to seem relatively benign, Doha finds itself having to dextrously play its game of balancing competing and incongruent sides.

If Riyadh continues to view Doha’s elite as a liability and begins to isolate Qatar where possible, aside from the potentially practical implications for Qatar, there are potentially serious ramifications for Qatar’s international role. Thus far in the Arab Spring with Qatar to the fore but with Saudi Arabia often supporting its moves from the rear, these two states have operated successfully. A Qatari policy without the Saudi Arabian clout and backing is liable to be significantly weaker. In this revolutionary age, if Qatar’s role is hampered without Saudi’s support, then this leaves the region without a state willing to push the boundaries of regional politics, which could herald a return to greater Arab passivity and studied ignorance of the violence taking place in their midst.