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KSA and the Iranian Scientists 12, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia.
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A couple of times recently I’ve been somewhat annoyed with myself for not thinking outside the box. Last night at a lecture by James Piscatori, he quoted someone coining the phrase ‘internal sovereignty’ referring to the place of Islam in society in much of the Middle East. What a wonderful phrase. But why didn’t I think of it? I’ve been reading and writing about sovereignty and the Middle East for years in one form or another yet this notion never occurred to me.

Again today, the superb Times columnist David Aaronovitch asked why no one seemed to be suggesting that perhaps Saudi security services might seek to bump-off Iranian nuclear scientists. What a good point. I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s an excellent point that I feel I ought to have thought up myself. But c’est la vie.

The underlying principle that KSA would want to disrupt Iran’s presumed acquisition of nuclear technology is, of course, sound. Reality aside, KSA’s elite believe that any such change would immeasurably damage their  interests. Indeed, if Iran were to pass the threshold it seems to me a virtual guarantee that Saudi Arabia would buy a bomb ‘off the shelf’ from Pakistan, probably holding it as Israel does: making sure everyone knows they have it, but not announcing it.

However, I am sceptical as to whether in reality KSA security services could launch such an attack.

Like most Gulf States, KSA has outsourced its security to America. This has several key corollaries.

Primarily, this means that there is little pressure on KSA’s defensive forces to actually be good at what they do. This report, though old and referring to the GCC Peninsula Shield, highlights some of the typical problems that befall much of KSA’s armed forces. Problems of communication, motivation and discipline within the armed forces are legion. Indeed, when KSA sent its forces to attack the rag-tag Houthis in 2009-10, they were embarrassingly routed despite decades of expensive military acquisitions.

The key question is whether this attitude has spread to the security services too. Here – I confess – I am in two minds. For certainly KSA security services have reportedly become really rather efficient in recent years, particularly domestically. The Al Qaeda threat which rocked the Kingdom from 2004 onwards has been all but eradicated and the elite’s grip on domestic security appears to be strong.

Yet at the same time there are egregious examples of crass errors and a profound lack of professionalism. One might suspect that at the height of Al Qaeda attacks and at the world’s largest oil processing plant, security would be professional and competent; yet though Abqaiq’s central facilities were not breached in 2006 and the attackers were stopped by security measures, Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef subsequently said ‘we did not save Abqaiq; God did’. Hardly a ringing endorsement of KSA’s facility security. Moreover, US wikileak documents are replete with Saudi officials scrabbling to get US help to assuage their various security vulnerabilities. One’s conclusion must be that a direct and real threat is not enough to guarantee meaningful speed and professionalism of action.

Aside from such rationalisation, after having lived, studied and worked in this region for many years now, the notion of the Saudi security agency (the General Intelligence Presidency, for example) meticulously researching, rehearsing, planning and executing such a risky, dangerous and deft mission just seems highly unlikely. Never have I come across any snippet, source or story indicating that Saudi’s security agencies have attempted something like this before or would be capable of doing so. Obviously, this is not to say categorically that they did not, but to note that such an action would be wholly out of character and involve far more subtle and professional skill than is typically ascribed to such organisations.

Lastly, factors such as the proximity between Saudi and Iran, the very real risks that the operation could have gone wrong and the innate conservatism at play within the Kingdom suggest again that KSA was not behind such an action. The potential repercussions were Saudi found to be plotting such an operation are immense and would surely have found ill-favor with the geriatrics running KSA.


KSA to test its international students for alcohol on their return? 9, January 2012

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Likely striving for attention, a Saudi preacher has called for KSA students studying abroad to be tested for drugs and alcohol in their system on their return to the Kingdom at the airports.

While this will never happen and will join the long, growing and inventive list of utterances from KSA Imams/preachers, I find quite amusing the thought of who knows how many students in the UK and elsewhere hearing the news (down the pub) and panicking profoundly, if only for a short period of time.

And note how the preacher does not call for such tests to be run on nationals returning to KSA from Bahrain across the causeway; clearly, there aren’t enough jail cells in the whole Kingdom to cope with the undoubted ensuing avalanche of arrests and detentions.

Hat tip: Sultan Al Qasseimi

On the Iranian plot 19, October 2011

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My published my article on the absurd Iranian plot to kill the KSA Ambassador in Washington DC.

According to local news reports, a loud, indiscreet, rude individual, known for chronic absentmindedness, who has a small-time criminal record and who used to engage in drink, drugs and prostitution is allegedly the key mastermind in what was planned to be the second largest terrorist attack on American soil in history: to assassinate the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia in a Washington DC restaurant.[1]

If the Iranian establishment was behind this plot and was looking for the most unlikely of spies to throw authorities off the scent, then they have clearly succeeded. Yet it is not just the personality of the alleged principal agent that is unconvincing, but the plot as a whole. Worse still, the manner in which the US government has dealt with this alleged plot arguably shows a chronic misunderstanding of not only the Iranian security apparatus but the Iranian threat as a whole

The simple background

Iran has a long and illustrious history in fermenting terrorism abroad. And the Quds Force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, is the key international element charged with covertly pushing Iran’s agenda outwith its borders. In recent years, it is believed to have been highly active in Iraq, Afghanistan as well as in Syria and Azerbaijan more recently. Some also claim that it has been involved in stoking troubles in Bahrain, though there is no conclusive evidence of this. It is reasonable to assume that the Quds Force specifically, via its support of specific Taliban elements and of militias in Iraq, is likely to have cost the lives of numerous Americans. Though, again, solid evidence is difficult to come by, it is believed to have been a prime supplier, for example, of advanced roadside explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Abiding and fundamental differences are also manifestly present between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These two entities represent polar opposites in basic religious and political clashes that have been ongoing for over fifteen hundred years and their antithesis is as potent today as it has ever been.

In short, at a basic level, there is scope for believing that ‘Iran’ as a cohesive entity may well engage in just such an act. But such a view eschews all nuance and even a rudimentary understanding of Iran casts serious doubt on the contention that the elite in Iran are somehow behind such a plan.


To date, there is scarcely an example of Iran or the Quds Force ever contracting a non-Muslim group with whom they have previously had no dealings whatsoever to carry out an assassination. Considering that this plot would represent the most risky, most difficult and potentially dangerous plot that the Quds Force has ever undertaken, it stretches credulity to suppose that it would have been entrusted to a Mexican drug gang. With no trusted contacts whatsoever in this world, which is reputedly riddled with American agents, it would have been a catastrophic risk to take. While one may argue that the Quds Force were playing on this fact for added deniability, again, the stratospherically high chance of failure and its consequences would surely put paid to any such notions.

Whatever one thinks of the Quds Force, one cannot doubt their unfortunate effectiveness and grim professionalism over the years. Therefore, given what is widely understood about America’s prowess in telecommunication intercepts, it seems irrational, for example, that an otherwise meticulous and professional force would risk discussing their most secretive and audacious mission in history over an open telephone line.


Moreover, what would Iran gain from killing the Saudi Arabian Ambassador? Iran’s use of terror tactics in the past has been governed by clear strategic direction. For example, the exporting of IEDs to kill Americans was directly aimed at weakening America in Iraq to hasten their eventual withdrawal.  Yet no such objectives can be divined from this proposed attack. While a cursory pastiche of Iran’s objectives may countenance such an assassination, it simply does not translate into reality.

Some commentators may well argue that the allegations are consistent with Iran’s role as an irrational actor, with its pursuit of asymmetric means, its supposed basis in Shia messianism and its offensive references to Israel: but this is simply not the case. It is a coldly rational state. To offer one simple example: during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, at the very height of Ayatollah’s Khomeini’s rhetorical pomp in the aftermath of the Revolution, Iran merrily traded oil for aircraft spare parts with Israel: rhetoric is one thing, realpolitik is another.

Consider what Iran had to lose. The plan was to kill the Ambassador in a restaurant. Given the types of restaurants that he is likely to frequent, there would surely have been a sizable chance that other high-powered officials (congressmen, senators etc) would have been killed as collateral damage (a chronically important corollary that Arbabsiar – clearly not much of a strategic thinker – summarily dismissed). Such an act would be little less than an act of war.  And for all of Iran’s bluster, it is wholly and supremely aware that in a war with America it could have its army, navy, air force and nuclear facilities, as well as its oil and gas terminals obliterated.

Moreover, the timing of such a would-be attack makes no sense. In an era of ever greater scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record, the pressure will be piled on this weekend when the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran will deliver his first report which is ‘expected to excoriate the Iranian government for the treatment of its own citizens’.[2] Furthermore, in early November the IAEA is expected to share information with its board members regarding Iran’s research into fashioning nuclear weapons. The idea that Iran might seek to cause a distraction to detract from these events is plausible, but potentially instigating a war with America would be – to say the least – overkill.

Regionally, it is of little surprise to see Saudi Arabia leaping on the circumstantial evidence offered thus far as yet more proof of Iran’s perfidy. It fits snugly into Riyadh’s narrative which seeks to galvanise other Gulf States and America firmly against Iran and its ways. To be sure, Iran has engaged in all manner of terrorism-supporting activities in the past, some of which have directly affected Saudi Arabia. Yet Saudi Arabia’s latest push for recognition of the Iranian threat – that of Tehran’s support of ferment in Bahrain – while perfectly plausible and in keeping with Iran’s strategic modus operandi and outlook, simply does not have that much evidence backing it up thus far. Instances such as this one – where Iran is lambasted by all levels of the US government as guilty before being charged – further inclines those in power to gloss over other lacunas of evidence (e.g., in Bahrain) under the rubric that Iran ‘is bound’ to be guilty.[3]

As far as the leaders in Riyadh are concerned, they already have a mountain of evidence as to Iran’s intrinsic desire to destroy their country and their system of alliances. This instance will simply be added – prominently – to the pile and will be trotted out as and when required.

One swallow does not a summer make

While one or two Iranians appear to have been seeking to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador – and in his wildest dreams Ahmadinejad too may longingly hope to do something of this nature – it is simply not credible that a professional and experienced organisation such as the Quds Force is behind such an attempt. Nor is it remotely likely that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would have sanctioned such a risky, illogical move. It fits neither Iran’s general modus operandi nor does it boost their strategic aims.

The fact that American officials seem to so readily believe this caricature of a poor film script is both worrying and depressing. Indeed, it is not long since disastrous policies were similarly fashioned on the basis of incomplete evidence, sizable simplifications and a lack of a rigorous examination, which led to the gravest of consequences in Iraq. Thankfully in this case it is difficult to find one Iranian or Gulf expert of repute who will do anything other than question the affair as a whole and there is scarcely any appetite for war. Yet America will continue to counter Iran’s many and varied threats ineffectually if it cannot grasp the basic mechanics and motivations in question.

Fundamentally, Iran is governed by an elite that sees itself being encircled by hostile forces. To all points of the compass in Afghanistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain, Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait it sees an amassing of American troops not to mention the large-scale sale of the latest US weapons technology to Saudi Arabia and other Iranian neighbours. This is not to mention severe economic domestic difficulties in an age of regional revolutions. Iran cannot hope to react symmetrically and thus puts its efforts to augmenting its asymmetric defences. These include the supporting of Hezbollah and the Quds Force to the development of asymmetric technologies and doctrines, particularly in the Gulf.

Once America’s elite grasps that Iran is reacting out of fear; a genuine and deep-seated fear of change and of regional power realities, perhaps then it can appreciate that while Iran’s politicians feel the need to periodically bang the nationalistic, popular drum, they are nevertheless at pains to avoid egregious provocation with no palpable, tangible rewards: exactly what this absurd plan to kill the Saudi Ambassador would have delivered.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Steven Kreytak, Local terror plot mastermind described as more a ‘joke’ than a mastermind, statesman.com   http://www.statesman.com/news/local/local-terror-plot-suspect-described-as-more-a-1910853.html

[2] Barbara Slavin ‘Alleged Iranian Assassination Plot Suspicious, Experts Say’ http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=105442

[3] Matthew Lee ‘Clinton: Plot a Dangerous Escalation by Iran’ Washington Post http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/oct/12/us-aims-punish-iran-saudi-envoy-plot/

Iran can ‘easily’ occupy Saudi Arabia 17, October 2011

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Let no one say that some Iranian Ministers do not have a good sense of humour.

Mohammed Karim Abedi, a member of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian parliament, confidently stated that ‘Iran was capable of occupying Saudi Arabia if it chooses [sic] to do so’.

Iran’s military forces have the ability to strip Saudi Arabia of its security whenever it wants and Saudi Arabia will not be capable of responding.

Wholly without irony with this belligerent statement, he was replying to the accusation that Iran was plotting to assassinate the KSA Ambassador in Washington DC [my thoughts on which will appear soon].

He also noted that Iran has infiltrated Israel with spies so that it now knows ‘critical information’ to be used should the two states ever come to blows. I’m sure that those in Tel Aviv are terrified.

Of course he sounds like an ass to us, but we’re hardly the intended targets: all politics is domestic, let’s not forget.


Best headline ever… 14, September 2011

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You know the world is coming to an end when:



Hat tip: Umm…someone or other. Cheers


Arab Universities in world league table 5, September 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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I don’t really pay that much attention to University league tables. Well, I do, but I don’t think that they’re infallible by any means and we can all point to absurd examples of where tables chronically lie. But this list is somewhat sobering. Room for improvement, as they say.

Universities in the top 600 list

  1. 200 – King Saud University, Saudi Arabia
  2. 221 – King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, Saudi Arabia
  3. 300- American University of Beirut, Lebanon
  4. 338 – United Arab Emirates University, UAE
  5. 370 – King Abdul Aziz University, Saudi Arabia
  6. 377 – Sultan Qaboos University, Oman
  7. 488 – King Khalid University, Saudi Arabia
  8. 514 – University of Tehran, Iran
  9. 526 – Umm Al Qura University, Saudi Arabia
  10. 529 – King Faisal University, Saudi Arabia
  11. 533 – Qatar University, Qatar
  12. 534 – Cairo University, Egypt
  13. 551 – American University in Cairo, Egypt

And unless Kuwait University has simply been missed off by accident in the Gulf News article of the report, it is a chronic indictment of scandalous proportions that it is not in the top 550 overall.

Saudi’s economic problems 30, August 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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While in Carrefour this week standing at the checkout there was a burkad up woman in front of me with her 10-ish year old child. For seemingly no reason other than boredom (the queue was taking ages) the girl started to cry those pathetic, ‘I can’t really be bothered to put my all into it, I just want some attention’ type of crocodile tears. Any parents, those with experience of younger siblings or ten year old children will know what I’m on about.

In response, the mother thrust a Galaxy chocolate bar into the little girl’s hand: she continued to cry. A second Galaxy bar was offered: no dice. Then a king size Lion bar and a Galaxy chocolate drink carton were offered. A moment of indecision swept across the little girl’s face: should she relinquish here clearly superior bargaining position for just two Galazy bars, one king sized Lion bar and a Galaxy drink, or ought she push straight onwards and upwards…a kilogram or two of Cadbury’s, a gallon of Coke, a hectare of Choco-Choco Puffs or a Porsche Cayenne…clearly it was all within her reach. But, magnanimous in her humiliation victory, she accepted her bounty, the non existent tears stopped welling and a brooding scowl resumed its place.

This atrocious parenting (yes, I said it) is a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s recent policies. In its desperate desire to appease the youth (in particular) in the Kingdom, the government has given out all the Galaxy and Lion bars in the land. Hunger sated for the moment and the restlesness in the Kingdom subsided.

But just as the parent in Carrefour will likely be reaping the whirlwind of such short-termist decisions for years to come, again, so too it is the same for Saudi. Indeed, the headline grabbing snippet from a recent article in Foreign Policy notes that Saudi will need an oil price of $320 per barrel of oil by 2030 if its ever more distended budget is to be balanced.

Aside from this acutely alarmist and selacious figure, the article is full of interesting snippets suggesting just how screwed the Kingdom is challenging the coming years will be.

  • Government spending now rising at 10% per year
  • Add to this the great $130bn giveaway of 2011
  • Funding the counterrevolutions around the Middle East – many billions
  • 1/3 of budget spent on defence – rise versus the supposed growing Iranian threat?
  • A crushing growth in domestic oil demand
  • “One of the world’s least energy-efficient economies”
  • OPEC competition from a revatilising Iraq, a post-revolutionary Libya and possibly Venezuela
  • The growing spectre of non-OPEC oil supply growing

The good news is that these problems coming home to roost are some way off. If Saudi Arabia takes bold and decisive action now, it may well be able to find a suitable and sustainable long-term footing. The bad news is that this will never ever happen. So the Kingdom will rumble on, spending ever more wildly beyond its means until it eventually tries to chronically hike up the price of oil. When this fails or forces meaningful diversification (of supply or from oil) then one needn’t be a savant with clairvoyant talents to work out just how bitterly the powers that be will root for their own survival.

Hat tip: Abstract JK




The Saudi-Egyptian Causweay 17, July 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt, Saudi Arabia.
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So plans are vaguely afoot for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, or rather Saudi Arabia, to build a causeway linking the two countries together. What a wonderful joint venture undertaken in the spirit of good, fraternal and long-term friendship.

What, do we think, are the odds of this actually coming to pass; of it actually being built? Snowball’s chance in hell? Accrington Stanley winning the Champion’s League? Me ever finishing my sodding PhD? Sumfin’ like that, methinks.

Saudi women driving: I’m caring less and less 22, June 2011

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I get regular emails sent to my Gulfblog.com account from various sources. One of them, curiously, is AIPAC with its own  unique brand of selective vision. More recently I keep getting press releases regarding Hilary Clinton and the current issue of women in Saudi driving.

While technically and wholly rationally I think that women driving in Saudi is probably important as another baby-step in the direction of reform, more generally, I am simply caring less and less about the issue. Not because I think that it is not an important issues, not because I think women should not be able to drive and not because I am some kind of misogynistic prat, but because it is so clearly pathetically unimportant right at this very minute. Of course I am referring to the execution of the Indonesian maid recently who, from what I can see, had no due process of any meaningful description, no consular assistance and was being abused by her employer.

So in this light I just can’t get ‘enthusiastic’ about reform for women driving. Moreover, I think it is really rather awful for the driving issue to have grabbed the world’s attention as ‘an issue’ when such acts of barbarity continue in Saudi. Clearly, a maid having her head cut off is not newsworthy enough and once again Saudi rights trump those of the lowly maid.

Women driving: reform in KSA? Long, long way to go 19, June 2011

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My overriding reaction to these stories of women in Saudi Arabia driving is, well, somewhat dismissive. Yes, I understand that changes can only come incrementally and I realise that this could be a highly symbolic moment.

But, to bring the discussion back to earth with something that, well, matters I note that on Saturday an Indonesian woman in the Kingdom was beheaded for murdering a Saudi woman. Of course, she was a maid. I know basically nothing more about this crime and I’ll keep my own thoughts and prejudices to myself about this incident. But in this light, does it remotely matter if a few women go driving?

I’m wrestling with my own pessimism here, I suppose. Logically evaluating the trajectory of these things and recognising that, as I note, things take time, I suppose that I realise that Saudi just has its own pace. Still, probably wrongly, I just can’t get past their sporadic acts of utter brutality and unfairness and so simply couldn’t give a hoot about some Saudi women driving around.


I’ve just come across another word or two surrounding this executed maid. It seems that she was not allowed or offered consular assistance by the Saudi authorities. In a capital case. Revolting.

The same article notes that in a separate case, the Saudi appeals court overturned  a three year sentence for a Saudi woman accused of torturing her Indonesian maid who was admitted to hospital with broken bones and burns to her head and face.

What can one say to this? It’s all just beyond despicable.