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What does the summit between Barack Obama and Gulf leaders mean? 15, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, The Gulf, Yemen.
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The following article was published by The Daily Telegraph on 14th May and can be found here.

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Anger at America

The US’s refusal to stand by the ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the face of Arab Spring protests was taken badly in the Gulf. If America can break one multi-decade relationship, the Gulf states fear, perhaps America would, if protests erupted, break their own long relationship.

President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ rhetoric amplified and drove home these concerns; here was proof of the US’s focus shifting away. And theObama-led decision to engage with Iran has been greeted with a mixture of scorn and horror as the sum of all their fears – a so-called ‘Grand Bargain’ with Iran – begins, for some, to materialise.

Indeed for years the Gulf states, like a jealous partner fearful of being spurned for another, has fretted that America might seek to come to a widespread accommodation with Iran at their expense. The logic runs that in return for a complete halt to Iran’s questionable nuclear programme, America would somehow defer to Iran’s interests in the Gulf region at the expense of its Sunni Gulf allies. An extra advantage and motivating factor of this ruse would be that Israel’s security would be bolstered without a theoretical Iranian nuclear threat, and thus the US could disengage from the region.

While such a series of events has a certain logic to it, the reality is somewhat different.

Explicitly implicit guarantees

The fact is that the US will be the prime security guarantor for the region for the foreseeable future – decades at least.

The US has constructed for itself or otherwise has the run of a litany of huge and important military bases around the Gulf region that will remain central to US power projection throughout the wider Middle East region.

Though the US may no longer be hooked on Gulf oil as it once was, its own supplies of unconventional hydrocarbons coming increasingly on-line in recent years, the Gulf region remains the linchpin of world hydrocarbon production and as such is of central and critical importance to the world’s economy.

As the state with the largest open economy in the world, America’s interest in securing a broad peace in this region is unshakable and America’s self-image as the world’s indispensable nation also behoves it to quite explicitly provide for the region’s stability.

Indeed, this is another curious aspect of this whole issue. Several Gulf leaders have gone to America to lobby Mr Obama for a greater US role in the region. They would ideally like explicit, formalised US guarantees of protection for their states.

Such explicit guarantees are entirely off the table, but, whether through existing arrangements or the region’s pivotal importance to the world’s economy, America remains – no matter Mr Obama’s preferences – deeply intertwined in the region. It is the same with the UK.

For example, whatever bilateral defensive or security agreements are or are not signed and sealed with Qatar are irrelevant. If something catastrophic happens in the Gulf state, Britain is obliged to send the cavalry if we are to keep the lights on. Qatar’s liquefied natural gas, arriving multiple times per week in the UK via tanker, is crucial in the UK’s energy mix.

Moreover, America has sold tens of billions of dollars’ worth of arms to the Gulf states in recent years. This kind of investment is far from a one-time deal: you do not just fly over an F-16, C-130, or Apache helicopter, park it at the airbase and wave goodbye: the necessities of through-life maintenance, upgrades, supplying, and training for such equipment spans decades and is yet another facet of almost inseparable US-Gulf interaction.

This is not to deny some level of US lowering its focus on the Gulf. But after leading two wars in three decades in the Gulf, the latter of which cost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and is widely seen as a failure, a US drawdown is an obvious necessity.

But any domestic rhetoric exhorting the US to leave the region, a fiscally-led preference to drawdown resources, or even a presidential preference to disengage America where possible can all be trumped by the realities on the ground.

Careful what you wish for

The status quo has, therefore, not really changed. America under Mr Obama has shifted its focus away from the Gulf, but remains deeply entangled in the region.

There is an element of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and other Gulf-led unilateral military strikes in recent months that appear to be not-so-subtly aimed at America. “If you won’t secure the region, we will,” seems to be the Gulf retort.

While regional states stepping up and taking more control in their own security affairs may be greeted hopefully in the White House, Mr Obama should be careful what he wishes for.

The Saudi-led seven week bombing campaign in Yemen meandered along being far more effective at causing humanitarian suffering than halting the Houthi advances, with a barely-believable 15.9 million people – 61 per cent of Yemenis – needing humanitarian assistance, according to the World Health Organisation. Indeed, the realisation is dawning that beyond bombing whatever targets it can find, Saudi Arabia really does not seem to have any kind of strategic plan.

The Gulf states are far from wreaking upon the wider Middle East the kind of peace that the US brought to Iraq when it upended and hollowed out the state leaving a brittle, weak state from which no functioning government emerged. But their efforts to forge a coherent, effective opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria or to counter the Houthis in Yemen do not bode well.

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How far is Saudi-Iranian rivalry fuelling Yemen war? 8, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen.
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The following article was published by the BBC and can be found here.

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The Saudis see growing Iranian influence everywhere – to the north in Iraq and Syria, to the east in its own country and in Bahrain, and now pointedly to the south in Yemen.

But this view belies the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics, overemphasises the role of Iran, and is unlikely to lead to anything approaching a successful conclusion, as is being seen with the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which is yet to achieve its stated aims.

The Houthi moniker, originally but a clan name, has been associated with the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam and, thus, by overly simplified if not erroneous extension, the “Twelver” Shiism predominant in Iran and Shiism in general.

Firstly, Houthis are not all Zaidis, and neither are all Zaidis Houthis. And secondly, Zaidism is considered to be the branch of Shiism least in dispute with Sunni doctrine.

Whatever the religious similarities between the Houthis and Iran, there is an implicit notion that any commonality matters. Whether nominally united or separated by faith, it is seldom as determining a factor in action as it is fatuously perceived.

None of this is to ignore commonalities between Iran and the Houthis.

Map showing Houthi and al-Qaeda areas in Yemen (22 April 2015)

Both display a vociferous anti-American and anti-Israeli streak, and there are obvious instances of the Houthis co-operating in some way with Iran in recent years.

A day after the Houthis took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa in February, an aviation agreement with Iran was signed and an Iranian Mahan Airlines plane landed in the city.

Domestic dispute

But simplistically labelling the Houthis as “Iranian-backed” obscures the domestic nature of the conflict which predates the Arab Spring.

Zaidis ruled parts of Yemen for almost 1,000 years until 1962 and were even supported by Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

But then the Houthis, who emerged as a Zaidi revivalist movement in the 1990s, fought a series of wars between 2004 and 2010 against the Saudi-supported central Yemeni state led by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who also happens to be a Zaidi.

Religious divisions have, therefore, played a surprisingly minor role in the past until they were deepened not least by Saudi Arabia’s attempts in the 1990s in particular to spread its own austere version of Sunni Islam in Yemen.

The Houthis believed that such policies were designed to further marginalise their position, given their historic powerbase of Saada province being right on the Saudi border.

Spoils of war

The numerous wars fought against government forces gave the Houthis all the training and combat experience that they needed to humiliate Saudi forces when they intervened in Yemen in 2009 and to apparently fare so well against the recent air campaign launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

More importantly perhaps, many years of war have festooned Yemen with weapons.

There are plenty of accusations that Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons. Some reports lack credibility, like Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV’s insistence that 185 tons of Iranian weapons miraculously made it through the international naval taskforce currently blockading Yemen.

Other stories, like the Iranian dhow that was stopped on route to Yemen in 2013 with a range of advanced equipment, are far more plausibly an example of Iranian weapons shipping.

While one UN Security Council report noted independent verification was unable to confirm the allegations, a more recent, as yet unreleased one, concluded that a pattern of Iranian support had emerged.

Houthi resilience

Nevertheless, a perennial problem with such instances is that the evidence of Iranian involvement often comes from sources that have a vested interest in plugging such a line: whether from the Saudi, Yemeni or American side.

External supplies notwithstanding, an obvious source of weaponry for the Houthis came thanks to a new-found agreement with their erstwhile adversary, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seemed to support the Houthis in their takeover of Sanaa in autumn 2014.

This gave the Houthis the opportunity to help themselves to an unknown quantity of US weaponry from army bases captured curiously easily.

Overall, the perennial resort to the “Iranian-backed Houthi fighters” logic is problematic as it simplifies the conflict too much and mandates too much of an external focus.

If Iran is the major source of supplies, then an air campaign to destroy stores and interdict resupply might make sense. But this logic is being sorely tested by the complete lack of a collapse of the Houthis (quite the opposite, so far) in the face of the bombing onslaught.

Al-Qaeda ascendant

Similarly, the urgency to combat the Houthis lest some hypothetical Iranian proxy force develops on the Arabian Peninsula means that, as a direct corollary, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has received a free pass to expand its orbit of power.

Recently, the group reinforced its hold on Mukalla in the southern province of Hadramawt taking over an airport, a military base, and a prison, freeing dozens of prisoners including AQAP leaders.

Given that AQAP remains the core US interest in Yemen, such a turn of events will surely have given its leadership pause to reconsider its open support of the Saudi campaign.

It would not be surprising if US cautions about the knock-on effects of the campaign enabling AQAP played a role in Saudi’s announcement on 21 April 2015 that it was ending the air campaign.

But the sense that the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are simply winging their policy in Yemen is inescapable.

In lieu of anything approaching a cogent, strategic plan, the short-termist resort of bombing to win does not inspire hope for the near future.

What does the increasing assertiveness of Persian Gulf states mean for regional security? 15, April 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf, UK, Yemen.
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This article was published by The Daily Telegraph on 15 April 2015. The original can be found here.

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DESERT SHIELD

For much of the past two centuries, security in the Persian Gulf has been underwritten by the Ottomans, the British, or the Americans though a web of treaties, security guarantees, and military bases.

But this is changing.

Irked by the US pivot to Asia, insulted by how quickly America dropped the former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring after decades of support, and incensed by American negotiations with their Shia rival, Iran, the Arab Gulf states are increasingly asserting themselves across the Middle East.

Aside from financially and diplomatically supporting various groups in ongoing regional conflicts just as they have been doing for decades, for the first time, the states are actually using some of their expensively procured military kit in anger.

In Libya, the UAE (alongside Egypt) used their fast-jets to bomb Islamist militias to try to turn the tide of the conflict. Results, though hard to dissemble in the militia-swaddled failed state, appear to have been strategically negligible.

More prominently, Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Arab coalition of 10 states against the Houthi rebels in the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen. Over 1200 bombing sorties have not altered the strategic picture, though over 600 people have been killed, a majority of whom are civilians, thousands have been wounded, over 100,000 displaced, and millions are now without power and water.

Diplomatically too, some of the Gulf states are hardening their positions, adopting a George W Bush-like ‘with us or against us’ strategy.

The (initial) cancellation of negotiations with the Anglo-Dutch oil company BP, the refusal to allow a British nuclear submarine into UAE waters, and halting the use of long-established British military trainers are a part of the UAE’s increasingly forthright pressure on the UK to conform to its policies.

In particular, Abu Dhabi’s leadership is concerned with, from their perspective, the UK’s lax controls on Islamists residing in London and the Government’s wider laissez-faire policy towards groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

A 2014 report into the group commissioned by David Cameron and written by the UK’s top Arabist diplomat was aimed at assuaging such fears, but because it did not come back a damning indictment of the group, it has not been released.

Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia is cashing in its chips. Based on a long, deeply intertwined relationship with Pakistan, the Kingdom called on the Pakistani government to make good on their implicit promises and provide troops for the offensive in Yemen. But the Pakistani parliament unanimously rejected the Saudi request, to anger and threats of reprisals from affronted Gulf states.

A scathing but potentially accurate conclusion might be that Arab states could hardly do a worse job of securing the Persian Gulf region than America and its allies in recent years. But the bloody and ineffectual bombing campaign in Yemen hints that the approach of the region’s indigenous states is hardly more refined or successful.

While America might have been encumbered by a lack of knowledge of the region and its nuances, the Gulf states are equally encumbered by their own prejudices. In particular, the inability of the Sunni states to avoid foisting a sectarian dynamic onto any and all regional problems is depressing.

Certainly, Iran is often an active, difficult, meddling regional state, but it is neither omnipotent nor irrational, and the evidence for its support for the Houthis is patchy at best.

And the heat may well increase for the UK too, caught between two poles. Evidently, there is a desire to maintain historic ties and build military sales, underpinned by the plausible argument that the current set of leaders in the Gulf are as good as it gets without the remotest hint of any viable alternative. But with leaders actively interfering across the region as per their world view, they can be, on occasion at least, difficult to support.

But the British Government has brooked bad press in this regard before; notably by maintaining particularly close relations with Bahrain during its Arab Spring problems, under the credible rubric (as yet not particularly effectively spelled-out) that continued close British relations are essential to gently but effectively shape policy in the longer run.

The December 2014 announcement of a ‘permanent’ British naval base in Bahrain is a symbolic gesture of solidarity from the UK amid these wider, changing circumstances. Now more than ever, as the Arab Gulf states begin to edge to the forefront of maintaining, theoretically at least, regional peace, the British assertion of quiet influence in the Gulf states will be tested.

Qatar withdraws from Yemen mediation 15, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Yemen.
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Qatar has officially withdrawn from its role as part of the GCC mediation in Yemen, seeking to winkle President Saleh out of power.

Saleh has castigated Qatar on numerous occasions recently as an interfering power. So while the Qatari reason for its departure is that it is angry at the lack of progress – a perfectly valid point – it might help pave the road for Saleh’s exit.

The GCC mediation in recent weeks has picked up somewhat as Yemen has come ever closer to exploding. Their myriad of problems – Houthi rebellions; intra-tribal strife; chronic water shortages; a profound lack of jobs and economic development; Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula; a staggering youth-bulge; and an absolute lack of the most basic democratic structures – are finally becoming un-avoidable for the GCC. Though it must be noted that they have, to this point, avoided Yemen’s fundamental problems studiously and with great will power to date (Qatar aside).

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.

Saleh on Qatar’s Mid East conspiracy web 7, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Yemen.
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Yemen’s President Saleh gives an absurd interview to Russia Today, during which it – quelle surprise – slavishly bobs its head at appropriate times. The best bit is Salah’s broadside against Qatar which is – of course – involved in a web of conspiracy theories across the Middle East.

Today, Qatar is financing the chaos and unrest in Yemen, Syria, Egypt and, perhaps, all over the Arab world. They have lots of money, but a small population, and they simply don’t know how to spend so much money. They want to be a significant country, though – in the Persian Gulf and in the region in general. To that end, they are using the Al Jazeera TV channel. As you may know, many presenters of this channel have resigned following their disagreement with the policies of the state.

Yemen sacks chess team after Israeli match 22, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Yemen.
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Yemeni authorities sacked their national chess team after it emerged that they played a match against Israeli opposition at the recent world championships in Belarus. What a mature decision.

Qatar to mediate (again) in Yemen 15, July 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Yemen.
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Qatar is to attempt to mediate in the Yemeni conflict once more.

Back in 2006-7 Qatari mediators (including the Emir, the Foreign Minister and the Crown Prince) sought to mediate a solution to the Houthi Yemeni conflict. They suggested that the Houthi leaders relocate to Doha (with a nice house and a stipend) and refrain from making any public statements as part of their proposed solution. The Qatari attempts failed. Whilst I had simply assumed that Saudi had, in some way, shape or form, interfered and scuppered the deal, apparently, the Yemeni authorities (and their advisors) thought that Qatar was trying to pursue a line of mediation overly ‘kind’ to the Houthis.

Qatar have a mixed record in mediation. They succeeded in securing a very important medium term solution in Lebanon and are in the midst of mediating (with severe difficulty) in Darfur. Unlike many regional mediators (such as Saudi and Egypt, for example) Qatar can bring a high degree of neutrality to most of their mediations. Additionally, they are relatively cash rich and are willing to use their money to facilitate mediation.

If, therefore, the conflict in Yemen is approaching something that might be described as a ‘ripe moment’ then Qatar may well have the attributes to bring the parties closer.

I look forward to some comments from knowledgeable Yemen people…

Hat tip: Mari

On Yemen’s ‘lawless’ spaces 31, January 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Yemen.
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The Waq al Waq blog makes an excellent point about Yemen’s “ungovernable/lawless” spaces that policy makers and journalists refer to so frequently, namely that they do not really exist. Rather, these spaces adhere to a different set of laws.

“Most so-called “ungoverned” spaces are in fact alternatively governed, typically by entrenched tribal laws and customs regarding the use of violence, mediation of conflict, and dispensation of justice. Such regions may be “sovereignty free,” but they are rarely Hobbesian.”

I bring this linguistic distinction up because I believe it is incredibly dangerous for policymakers, journalists and analysts to operate on the assumption that these areas in Yemen are indeed “lawless.” That is not the case. But thinking that it is often leads to mistakes of policy and writing, which makes Yemen over into some sort of blank map on which the author’s fantasies and imaginings can be projected.

There are laws and customs here. Just because they are not known does not mean they are not important.

The 60s, the UK and the Yemen 15, January 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in UK, Yemen.
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This is another link to a fantastic Adam Curtis blog posting. Here he delves into the history of the Yemen and finds it something of a pivotal place with Britain’s actions there in the 60’s having direct and traceable relations to what’s happening today in much more subtle ways that simple ‘Yemen as a failed state’ narrative. It also includes some fascinating BBC archive footage of what is decidedly not Britain’s finest hour.