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The GCC’s anti-revolutionary expansion 26, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) celebrates its thirtieth anniversary in May and by way of celebration it is mooting the inclusion of two other countries. Yemen is not being considered for membership, even though it long wanted to join, is situated within the eponymous Gulf, borders two current members, shares tranches of historical memory as well as cultural similarities and is in profoundly desperate need of regional political and economic support. Iraq, a Gulf state bordering two current GCC members, sharing a similarly extensive historical record with its neighbouring states and plainly in need of the economic assistance that GCC membership could offer, is also not being considered

Instead, Jordan and Morocco are the countries in question. Though Jordan is not a Gulf country, it is contiguous to Saudi Arabia whereas Morocco’s capital – Rabat – is separated by at least six countries, the Red Sea and nearly six and a half thousand kilometres from Muscat, Oman’s capital: even Shanghai is closer. Given these geographical anomalies, what sort of union could seriously be made between this group of countries?

The GCC

The GCC was founded in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent alteration of the regional order caused by the offensive role played by Iran in the Gulf, which led to the Iran-Iraq war. In search of common support, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman joined together. Initially hopes were high that this union would herald the beginning of greater economic, political and cultural unity among members. Three decades on, and aside from a few relatively minor accomplishments, the GCC has been remarkably unproductive.

Its lack of tangible end product is surprising. The group of states involved possess a common language, religion, geography, history, culture, economic make-up and many face similar problems; to name but one, all of them fear Iran to a greater or lesser degree. Yet even under these circumstances and with an archetypal example of a common ‘enemy’ which – as Rene Girard described – would often bind countries together, the GCC are a remarkably argumentative bunch.

The economic union and single GCC currency, for example, is a long running saga. Initially proposed in 2000 and scheduled to come into force in 2010, the latest estimates now point to somewhere around 2013. In the mean time, the UAE pulled out of the currency, seemingly not able to withstand the notion of the GCC Central Bank being based in Riyadh and not Abu Dhabi.

In military matters, the Peninsula Shield force too, comprising elements of all the GCC countries, is a shell of a fighting force. A study conducted in 2000 by a Lieutenant Commander at the US Naval War College is scathing of the Peninsula Shield as a whole. [1] Not only was there a ‘nearly complete lack of interoperability’ among the various units but the training was comically bad, so much so that ‘success’ on a gunnery exercise was judged on whether you could ‘get the ammunition out of the muzzle. The number of hits is ignored.’ Since 2000 things did not improve much given that the Peninsula Shield force was all but abandoned as the 2000s wore on. In 2008 it was resurrected under the mandate of a ‘Rapid Reaction Force’ but little was heard of it until its surprising intervention in Bahrain in February.

Why now?

This is not the first time that other countries have been invited to join the GCC. In 1991 after, just after a crisis – Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – the GCC sought to station Syrian and Egyptian troops in the GCC under the auspices of the ‘Damascus Declaration’. This idea soon fizzled out.

After another crisis – this time not the invasion of a member but an arguably bigger threat to all; the Arab Spring – again the GCC is moved to action. Yet the invitation of Jordan and Morocco appears to be a curious move.

The initial assumption is that the GCC are just expanding their club of Sunni Kings (with Oman being an exception; they are mostly Ibadi). Were Morocco and Jordan to join then all monarchies in the Arab world would be tied into the GCC. Obviously, the GCC with their significant wealth would then be able to support their fellow Kings to a greater degree: after all, no one in the GCC wants to set the precedent of one of their brethren falling from power to a republic or even set a tone of greater constitutionality.

Following on from the Damascus Declaration precedent, the GCC could be motivated by the notion of facilitating an official path for the stationing of Jordanian troops in the Gulf. Not only are the Jordanian armed forces the most professional Arab force, but the Gulf Kingdoms clearly do not trust their own forces. Historically, many rested on foreign guarantees of power from the Ottomans then the British then the Americans on whom many rely to this day. Moreover, the recent example of the UAE’s development of a mercenary army is a devastating indictment on the lack of confidence that they have in their own armed forces.

The idea that these states would join together to augment their collective strength is also – at least in theory – persuasive. Indeed, there are two possible blocs for the GCC to unite against. First, there is the sectarian divide which has come to the fore in recent months, whereby the GCC could band together their political and military capabilities versus Iran. After all, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah who coined the phrase ‘the Shia Crescent’ in 2004. Second, this new configuration of states could come together as a bulwark against the two potentially resurgent Arab states that traditionally sought to dominate the region: Egypt and Iraq.

Anti-revolution

Yet arguably the most persuasive driver of this unusual policy stems from the fact that the GCC states want to draw a line in the sand: no more revolutions. This initiative is heavily led by Saudi Arabia with the UAE following closely behind. The revolutions have profoundly perturbed the powers that be in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Seeing Tunisia’s regime fall was interesting if slightly perturbing; seeing Egypt’s regime fall was earth-shakingly concerning: if Mubarak with his three decade-long vice-like grip on power in a country that experienced 5 per cent growth per year that was staunchly supported by America can be evicted, anyone can. After Mubarak, Syria and Libya began to wobble alarmingly and any such concerns in Bahrain were viciously halted with Saudi Arabia’s help and mandate.

The notion of Jordan and Morocco joining the GCC is, therefore, arguably first and foremost a way of stopping the roll of the revolutions; halting its momentum. Any recent progression in Morocco and Jordan towards a more representative, constitutional monarchy would in all likelihood be halted as an intrinsic part of the GCC deal.

Will it come to pass?

The GCC is replete with half-baked and unrealised initiatives. Such a profound change would surely take this organisation, which typically operates at a glacial pace, many years to arrange, during which time the idea will most likely be quietly shelved. Indeed, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait appear to be far more reticent about the expansion.

Qatar and Kuwait in particular are secure in their own borders have very little to fear from the Spring Revolutions. Oman meanwhile probably does not want to see an extra two hungry mouths to feed, fearing that while they would never be left to starve and fend for themselves, they would most likely ipso facto get more support if Jordan and Morocco are not included.

The only caveat to this is that Saudi Arabia is profoundly concerned by recent events as indicated by the unprecedented intervention in the Bahrain troubles. Under these circumstances, and given how much politics across the Gulf is dominated by personalities, they could potentially strong-arm this move through the GCC: after all, unusual times call for unusual measures.

It is also worth noting that this move is not necessarily supported in Jordan and Morocco. Certainly, many may be pleased at such a union given the potential economic benefits that might transpire. However, not only would the trickle-down of any GCC cash take some time, but many realise perfectly well that joining the GCC would, as mentioned earlier, in all likelihood shelve any movement towards a more democratic system.

It may be a good thing for the GCC were this union not to come to pass. Already and despite the aforementioned similarities, there is an intrinsic disunity within the GCC and a bizarre lack of identity; of clarity of mission. The inclusion of the other states would make deciding what the GCC is actually there to do yet more of a challenge. Thus perhaps the GCC’s lack of an ability to make a decision will, for once, be its saving grace.

NOTE

[1] The Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield Force’ Glenn Kuffel, Naval War College (7 February 2000)

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Iranian flotilla heads for Bahrain 16, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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An Iranian naval convoy of activists, students and professors is heading to Bahrain to protest at what they see as the legitimate demands of the Shia population there being ruthlessly oppressed with the open support – if not direction – of regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia.

The flotilla insists that it will ask for permission to enter Bahraini waters, which will surely be refused.

This action will now be the face of Saudi claims that Iran is interfering in Bahrain’s domestic politics, a view that is utterly entrenched in the Kingdom and elsewhere throughout the Gulf. Indeed, overall there has been little appreciation that the Shia in Bahrain may have legitimate grievances that ought to be given a voice. Instead many Gulf countries, strongly led by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and of course Manama have been propagating the notion that practically all of the troubles are down to Iran.

Technically speaking, this incident should pass without a hitch. First, the flotilla will never be granted access to Bahraini waters, which they claim they will seek. And second, the Bahraini (or Saudi) ships which will intercept them should they progress further will surely be aware that there will be approximately a million cameras on the Iranian boats ready to capture any images of ‘unprovoked brutality against a humanitarian convoy’.

Yet this overlooks two things.

Firstly, one must not forget what a profound mess the Middle East’s best trained armed forces made of a flotilla intervention last year.

Secondly, there is a wholly poisonous Sunni-Shia, Arabian Gulf-Persian Gulf atmosphere in the region at the moment. Moreover, Saudi Arabia appear to be edging away from simply following the American lead and are striking out on their own in terms of a more muscular, assertive foreign policy. Under these circumstances, not only is it unfortunately possible to see them using this example of ‘Iranians entering GCC waters with…umm…hostile intent’ as an excuse to act but more generally in this febrile atmosphere I would not remotely put it past Saudi or Bahraini sailors to take a pot-shot just for the hell of it.

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

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

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

RIP: Ras Al Khaimah’s Saqr Al Qasimi 29, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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Sheikh Saqr al Qasimi of Ras Al Khaimah, one of the longest surviving Monarchs in the world, has died. In his early 90s, the Shiekh has been gravely ill for some time. He has been succeeded by his son and Crown Prince, Sheikh Saud who has essentially been ruling the Emirate since 2003.

Earlier this year there were rumors that Sheikh Khalid, the former Crown Prince, was making a bid to regain the title of Crown Prince. In 2003 Sheikh Khalid was ousted in a coup supported by Abu Dhabi. The reasons for the coup are murky at best. Notions that Khalid was too staunchly pro-Iranian and anti-American, including allegedly leading an anti-war protest during which an American flag was burned, abound but, in truth, the real reasons are unknown.

What made this story all the more interesting and intriguing was that Khalid employed a high-end PR firm from California to – essentially – get him back in power. Californian Strategies instigated a successful 21st century campaign replete with a website, propagating what amounted to an ‘anti-Saud narrative’ and high-profile meetings for Khalid. While none of this should really come as a shock, somehow – frankly – it just did; I just  didn’t previously associate the typical Royal court machinations of a Gulf Emirates with multi-million dollar PR agencies. Given the money involved, however, this was clearly naive.

Sheikh Khalid is currently contesting the decision to anoint Saud as leader. In a You Tube video, he said that he would

accept the outcome of a constitutional vote, not a decision taken by others for their own economic benefit.

However, as in 2003, today Abu Dhabi is firmly behind Saud; it appears as if Khalid’s attempts to gain the throne will have to wait. Not only does Abu Dhabi want to avoid the controversy of changing Crown Prince/Sheiks at such a time (just think what kind of precedent that would set) but they want to resist ‘giving in’ to an ‘American’-inspired, PR campaign.

Update:

One of the Gulf’s best analysts, Simon Henderson at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, adds – as ever – a few interesting bits of info. He notes that Sheikh Khalid is

effectively under “palace arrest,” with newly installed concertina wire encircling his compound and UAE federal security forces with armored troop carriers serving as guards, preventing him from attending his father’s funeral.

and that the UAE Embassy in Washington sought to revoke his position as an ‘official delegate’ of the UAE this past year.

Qatar considers sponsorship system 11, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, The Gulf.
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Bahrain and Kuwait have already announced that they will alter their kefala sponsorship systems. While neither are wholly getting rid of such draconian systems, the fact that conversations on reform are at least being heard is a good start.

Qatar too is beginning to have its own debate. The government is said to be considering moves to guarantee workers’ pay and gratuities. Despite the fact that most manual and domestic workers are paid a pittance, their wages frequently fall in arrears. Within a week of arriving on Doha I heard of two large-scale instances where workers had not been paid as the employers were away on their holidays. The groundsmen at Doha hockey club, for example, would turn the sprinklers on as we were about to start playing to ‘vent’ their anger and, I suppose, to try to get the players to agitate on their behalf.

On the more fundamental question of Qatar abolishing its sponsorship and exit-visa systems, progress looks grim. The Qatari Chamber of Commerce has successfully lobbied to retain both these facets of Qatari labor law, despite the growing understanding that they are outdated, unfair and contribute to workers’ rights being abused.

Although the trend is gradually turning against the sponsorship and exit permit systems in the GCC countries, Qatar’s private sector says it would continue to back the above rules.

Of course the Chamber of Commerce backs such laws! In much the same way that a Turkey will never vote for Christmas and the Catholic Church isn’t going to vote for a gay Pope, a lobbying group whose role is to make things as pro-employer as possible will never willingly vote for human rights over profits.

Exactly this type of pressure in Bahrain led to the watering-down of their proposed reforms. Instead of allowing all workers to change jobs if they so choose [yes, the rights being argued for are this basic] domestic workers are still prohibited. Also, the kefala system has manifestly not been abolished: today it is the Labour Market Regulation Authority that sponsors workers and not individuals or agencies.

The fact that the Qatari government caved-in to its business lobby highlights just how strong it must be. Ordinarily, one might expect that Qatar would be leading the way on these kinds of topics. In recent years Qatar’s image has been built championing itself as some kind of progressive if not faintly liberal state, promoting values of education, tolerance and openness. This push has come from the three most powerful people in the country: the Emir, HBJ (the Foreign and Prime Minister) and the Emir’s wife. For them, therefore, not to reform such an egregiously harsh and manifestly illiberal blot on Qatar’s image shows the kinds of give and take that needs to go on. Neither can this triumvirate rely on wide-spread public support: such laws do nothing for Qataris themselves; indeed, if they do anything to them it is ‘inconvenience’ them. Until a ground-swell of domestic or international pressure is reached, there is little the government can do.

 

The first Arab film nude scene 5, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria, The Gulf.
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Al Arabiyya has an interesting article (no, really…) on Nihad Alaeddin who is described as acting in the Arab world’s first nudity scene.

“We have to bring sex to the cinema because our audience is frustrated,” she told the New York Times. Good for her.

She first disrobed in a Robin Hood-type file filmed in Syria in the 1970s. Though, according to the article and the longing prose of its author it wasn’t overly salacious.

Profoundly shocking at the time, the scene is hardly considered as a scorching ‘hot’ one by modern standards with frugal glimpses of flesh during a mellow love scene.

I love how he wrote “frugal glimpses”: clearly, he wanted more.

She maintains that she

took off…clothes for a principle…If I wanted to do it for money I could have done it in the dark and made a lot more.

While this might sound like a ponsy artistes justification for smut, I really think that there’s an interesting grain of truth to it. It is surely so profoundly unnatural to – as clerics would prefer – try to strip sex and sexuality out of life and live a sanitized, chaste existence. They are fighting against the grain of human instinct and biology.

Indeed, a brief trip to Dubai or Bahrain to see drunk Saudis wobbling on the dance floor with red wine spilled all down their dishdashas and the legions of prostitutes frequenting hotels suggests that such repression is not working.

The most egregious case of open, obvious prostitution that I’ve ever seen in all my travels across America, Europe and Asia was in the Meridian Hotel in Damascus. At the stroke of 8pm around 20 heavily made-up women trooped into the bar and sat down by themselves. I’ve never seen a sight quite like it. Men would then go and sit down with them and have a 30 second conversation, some would tactfully drop their hotel key card down their cleavage and they would then leave the bar together. How romantic.

Civil Society in the Gulf 27, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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Sultan Al Qasseimi has authored an excellent article on civil society in the Gulf. Replete with many examples from around the region, the article is well worth a read for anyone with any interest in the area.

Initially, he notes that

At first glance it seems as though the six Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies have no civil society movements to speak of, but scratching the surface unveils a complex layer of organisations that exist side by side with the governments and in some cases have been merged into governmental structures.

Kuwait, rightly, gets a good examination.

In Kuwait, the social phenomenon of dewaniyas is a unique model for civil society. The Kuwaiti dewaniya differs from the rest of the majlises or men’s reception areas in Gulf in the sense that is more institutionalized where entire families contribute financially to its upkeep and tribal leaders can receive guests and visit with others. The significance of the dewaniyas in Kuwaiti society was evident when during his visit to Kuwait in 2007 the Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz called upon a number of dewaniyas including those of Al Shaya, Al Marzoog, Abdul Aziz Al Babtain and Mubarak Al Hasawi, leading Kuwaiti businessmen. It is not customary for Gulf leaders to casually visit the majlises of tribal leaders in each others countries, the custom would often dictate that they are visited at their place of residence but thus is the power of the dewaniya in Kuwait, its institutionalisation has cemented its importance. These majlises have even played the part of breeding grounds or incubators for political movements, ideas and civil society causes.

On the ‘threat’ that they can be perceived to pose

Today, the rise of Islamic movements in the Gulf has greatly hampered the work of civil society associations. Most Gulf governments are weary of civil society movements and fear they may be either affiliated with external elements or have Islamic tendencies. It is not uncommon to hear of arrests in some GCC countries of unnamed individuals who may later receive pardons by the ruler. For instance in Oman in 2005, 31 university professors and Islamic scholars were arrested and sentenced to jail terms of up to 20 years for “setting up an illegal organisation, raising funds and recruiting members”, essentially starting a civil society movement. Their charges of aiming to overthrow the government appeared to be increasingly unlikely since they were pardoned the following month.

An interesting development in Bahrain is the pragmatic nature in which the official sanctioned parties have started so called offshoot movements that are managed by young members of the association. For instance, Al Wefaq, the largest religious and political society in Bahrain, which controls 17 members in the 40-seat lower chamber of the bicameral parliament, established the Bahrain Youth Center that is headed by Habib Marzooq. In an interview with The National Mr Mazrooq highlighted the importance of social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter to attract young voters to the party. The Marxists Bahraini Progressive Democratic Tribune, also known as Al Minbar, also founded the Al Shabeeba Society or Youth Society headed by Isa Al Dirazi to attract young voters.

On their failures

I have argued in two articles in The National and The Guardian that a failure to develop civil society in the UAE and in Qatar in non-charitable initiatives, commendable as they are into areas such as human rights and democracy may be due to a continuous stride for capitalism in society. The UAE and Qatari media, along with the favourable existing commercial environment have also contributed to a feeling of apathy in the generations that were born in the post independence era of the 1970’s.

And the key point

Because a large number of the civil society movements heads are appointed by the governments in the Gulf they cannot be classified as grassroots movements.

This is very much what I’ve come across. The Qatari government, for example, will (relatively) lavishly support emergent civil society movements. For this support they install a Chairman or Patron (or some such figure) on the board. (In fact, it could be that new movements and groups are mandated to have a Chairman/Patron. I think I’ve heard this…any confirmation?) This inevitably inhibits the movement. Though, as Al Qasseimi notes, it’s not as if many/any of these civil society movements in Qatar or the UAE are anything more then altruistic-cum-environmentalist groups.

Hat tip: The irrepressible Illinoisian Imam

Homosexuality in the Gulf 22, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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An Emirati student, Mohammed Nour Al Deen Hussein, 23, has been sentenced to a year in jail for cross-dressing and posing as a male prostitute. The evidence is rather incriminating, including compromising pictures of him ‘red-handed’ on the internet. Rather optimistically, Mohamed unsuccessfully asked on appeal that the Judge cancel his prison term and pronounce him innocent.

Homosexuality is a highly taboo topic in the Gulf where it is illegal and ignored but present. The last but one time in the Gulf I was amazed by the number of makeup-wearing effeminate men in groups (of men) in Shisha bars. Plainly, while these men are not necessarily gay, speaking to Gulfy national friends, they intimated that ‘everyone’ knew one effeminate guy who was so inclined.

Indeed, Kuwait are mooting the introduction of quasi-conscription to combat what some see as the growing trend of effeminate and transvestite young men in the country.

Hat tip: Sultan Al Qasseimi

Global Competitiveness Index: the Gulf 14, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, The Gulf.
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Country 2010 GCI ranking 2010 GCI score 2009 GCI ranking Change from 2009 to 2010
Qatar 17 5.1 22 5
Saudi Arabia 21 4.95 28 7
United Arab Emirates 25 4.89 23 -2
Oman 34 4.61 41 7
Kuwait 35 4.59 39 4
Bahrain 37 4.54 38 1

Qatar again leads the Gulf in the latest World Bank Competitiveness Index. Indeed, they improved their standing significantly rising from 22nd to 17th in the world and are the highest place Muslim country. Saudi Arabia, who improved too, are now 21st in the world. But, according to various people cognisant of these things this raking is – how to tactful put this? –  a joke. The UAE fell two places to 25th while Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain rose.

Piggy censorship 9, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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Here’s the latest example of Gulfy piggy censorship.

For recent followers, here’s an old article I wrote earlier on this topic some time ago.