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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.

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Can Qatar, Saudi Arabia ease tensions at Gulf Cooperation Council? 24, August 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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It’s the gravest diplomatic crisis the Gulf Cooperation Council has ever faced — but as leaders from the six-member Arab alliance prepare to meet in Jeddah, are things about to get even worse?

The root of the current problem? Qatar simply will not do as it’s told by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have spent months trying to force the energy-rich nation to fundamentally alter its foreign policy. Bahrain, the UAE and the Saudis withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March, and have kept up the pressure ever since.

Read the rest of the article on CNN.COM

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)

MEED: Qatar seeking to mitigate the worst of region’s unemployment 4, July 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) is the preeminent source of news and analysis on Middle East affairs. Its focus is by no means restricted to economic affairs. For anyone wanting to keep up to date with Middle Eastern affairs as a whole, and in particular those looking for harder to get reliable reporting on the smaller countries, MEED is essential.

For example, although I have been studying Qatar specifically and the GCC more generally for some time now, I had not come across Silatech, the Qatari venture to curb unemployment amongst the region’s young men and women. Enter MEED, which, as usual, offers an excellent introduction and analysis. Here are the salient points of Silatech.

– Silatech was established in 2008 by (who else?) Sheikha Moza, the Emir of Qatar’s most outspoken wife.

– “More than 30 per cent of the region’s estimated 320 million population are aged 15-29 and unemployment among this age bracket averages 28 per cent.”

– “The region has the highest rates of youth unemployment anywhere in the world and, with two-thirds of the population still under the age of 24, the challenges are set to multiply in the years ahead.”

– Silatech has a decidedly international approach and is not parochially Qatari in nature.

– “The organisation offers financial and institutional support to youth employment projects across the region. Other than schemes in Qatar, it is initially focusing on projects in Yemen, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Jordan. The percentage of 15-29 year-olds not in work or education in these countries ranges from 21 per cent in Jordan to 49 per cent in Yemen.

– “In Bahrain, where unemployment in the 15-29 age group is among the highest in the GCC, at 27 per cent, Shiite youths are regularly involved in violent street clashes with the local authorities.

– “The survey also lends support to the long-suspected belief that some young people in the GCC lack the motivation to work, according to Gallup. “In the Maghreb, Levant, Egypt and East Africa, lack of motivation was not an issue whatsoever,” says Dalia Mogahed, senior analyst at the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies. They were very motivated and wanted to work. The only place where that came up was in the Gulf, where young people said that one of the reasons they were unemployed was a lack of motivation to work, although a lack of quality work and proper training were more frequent answers.”

– “Most of the schemes that Silatech is supporting are based around a mix of education and retraining centres, which offer people the skills needed by businesses, along with improved access to capital and business support for entrepreneurs.”

– “In June, Silatech agreed to invest $200,000 to set up a microfinance fund with Al-Amal Bank targeted at 18-30 year-olds. It aims to offer loans to more than 800 entrepreneurs over the next two years and estimates this will create 1,000 jobs for young people.”

Elizabeth Bains, MEED

GCC missile defence? 1, July 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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It appears that America is seeking to link the GCC countries together in a joint missile defense system. Currently, the US has bilateral defence relations with all the states in the GCC, yet explicitly linking them in this way would be a new step. The article in The National continues to state that the US believes that there is something of a risk of “low-flying cruise missiles fired from close range.” Just what can they be thinking of?

The timing of such a statement is, of course, no surprise. Whilst such a notion may well appeal to the smaller, threatened GCC states, the technical difficulties of such a programme are surely substantial. However, just assembling the GCC states and perhaps coercing or persuading them to entertain and sign up to such a bargain would be a political coup for America and another clear sign of regional balancing against a potentially bellicose and dangerous Iran.

China and the Middle East – made for each other 27, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, China and the ME, Oil, Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Everyone wants a piece of the Middle East at the moment. Israel, unfortunately, takes this quite literally and seems intent on forever expanding its borders with uncomfortable overtones of lebensraum. American companies have, for the most part, been falling over themselves to find GCC cash to bail themselves out of their various woes. The list of those seeking investment is a veritable who’s-who’s of the American blue chip elite: Citigroup, General Electric, Dow Chemicals, and Merrill Lynch to name a few. The French seem to have placed, in a rather un-Gallic, highly capitalistic way, a price tag on their cultural heritage. For about $1 billion, you can now purchase priceless French art, plucked from the bosom of the most famous museum in the world, the Louvre. Furthermore, the French have also taken the name of their most prestigious university in vain by building ‘the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi’ with infinitely easier entry requirements. However, not only have the French been handsomely rewarded for the loan of their culture, but they now have a military base overlooking the straits of Hormuz, so maybe they knew what they were doing all along. Britain were predictably slow on the uptake and are now desperately searching for Middle Eastern cash to bail out the collapsing Northern Rock bank and moving further east, Dubai holdings have invested heavily in the Indian bank ICICI, as well as taking an estimated billion dollar stake in Sony of Japan.

Among those doing their utmost to make friends and influence states in the region are the Chinese. However, they are doing this in a less brash manner. Indeed, to some degree, they have been doing the opposite way by investing in the Middle East. For example, two Chinese state-owned companies are investing some $4 billion in Saudi aluminium production. This is but one half of an example of reciprocal investment between various Middle Eastern countries and China, and, more to the point, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.

China are the most natural trading partner for countries in this region. This may seem like something of a bizarre statement, but it stands up to scrutiny. As any good (or even only mediocre) economics student will tell you, two crucial factors when discussing trade are supply and demand.

In terms of supply, the Middle East has oil and money. According to the US Energy Information Administration, as of 1st January last year, the Middle East as a whole had 739 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, more than the rest of the world combined which amounts to 578 billion proven barrels. As for money, thanks to the bumper oil prices of recent years, the region is awash with cash. In total, Morgan Stanley estimate that in 2007 alone, Persian Gulf countries invested around $75 billion overseas. This, therefore, excludes the $500 billion that is being investing domestically in creating new super-cities, trying to look ahead to the paradigm changing day when oil runs out. The crucial point here is that this inflated oil price appears to be with us for the medium term, and, therefore, so do these record profits for Middle Eastern government and thus their ability to generously invest abroad.

As for demand, the same economics student would no doubt tell you that demand is infinite. This is meant in a theoretical way, but when discussing China, the theory becomes a lot more practical. China has a population of 1.3 billion people. By the year 2050, however, the UN population division estimates that (depending on which report you read) the population will rise to between 1.5 – 2 billion people. So not only do these people need their energy needs taken care of, but thanks to China’s phenomenal growth, many people have ever growing energy needs. With greater affluence comes greater demand for bigger and better houses and apartments and, of course, bigger and better cars, to name but two energy consuming factors. In 2007 alone, the Chinese car market grew 20% and overtook Japan as the world’s second largest automobile market, and with tens of millions of people waiting to dump their bicycles, this market is only going to grow faster in the coming years. The staggering conclusion of these factors is that, according to Commentary magazine, China’s demand for imported oil will grow by 960% over the next two decades.

Issues of demand and supply, therefore, are clearly suitably poised for a long and prosperous relationship. Yet there are many more factors to consider. After all, the rest of the world demands oil and will continue to do so for a long time yet. So what makes China so special?

For one thing, China do not have any historical or colonial baggage in the region. This could be construed as a good or a bad thing. For example, France’s long standing relationships with the Emirates clearly made it possible for Abu Dhabi to cede some land for a French military base, and America’s long history in Saudi Arabia made it possible for similar arrangements there in the past. I would suggest that the latter example is more instructive, especially considering the eventual outcome of the US bases in the land of the two holy places. China, however, has a clean slate; indeed, it was as late as 1990 when they officially recognised all GCC countries. There are no old policies to appease, apologise for or defend.

Another aspect that appeals to many governments worldwide is that China are very good partners to have in terms of demands exogenous to the deal itself: there aren’t any. For example, China will never lecture, pressure, castigate or otherwise try to impose their ideals on another state. This is a fundamental pillar of Chinese policy: the absolute and utter respect of sovereignty from criticism or interference. Thus, if a state is not appreciative of America’s lectures regarding full democracy or the rule of law (especially regarding the egregious hypocrisy of Guantanamo Bay) then they will certainly know that they would receive no such criticism from China.

Along the same lines, China make it easier for Middle Eastern companies to invest there. Whilst, as it was shown above, many countries have invested heavily in the West, there is still an element of quasi-racism. This was clearly shown in the Dubai Ports World controversy, where a furore erupted when it was revealed that a Middle Eastern company would be involved with security arrangements at American ports. This would, according to some woefully misguided segments of the American media, lead to security concerns. It is difficult to imagine such security concerns from the Chinese.

Lastly, with significant anti-Americanism in the Middle East, and significant anti-Arab sentiment in America and the West generally, China could offer themselves as a neutral alternative to the Middle East-American/Western axis. It is no great secret that parts of the Middle East have security concerns, which are answered in one way or another by the West generally or America specifically. For example, answered in terms of arms sales ($20 billion only last week) as well as physical protection, as in the Gulf War. However, it must not be forgotten that China has been supplying various countries in the region for a long time now. More to the point, China are more willing to sell certain weapons that the West are – generally – not willing to, such as ballistic missiles and related technology, which were sold to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war, to take but one example. Furthermore, with the amount of industrial espionage that Beijing currently engages in, certain aspects of their armaments technology may not be that far behind the US itself.

However, there are a few caveats. Firstly, America is currently the only power capable of offering a meaningful security blanket, such as the one that freed Kuwait and protected Saudi Arabia. Theoretically, were the Chinese to sell an Atomic bomb ‘off the shelf’ to Saudi, that might negate that particular US role, but such a reckless policy is highly unlikely for the cautious and long-term thinking Chinese. Secondly, the prevalence of American goods, ideas, motifs, restaurants, books, films, TV channels, and music throughout the Middle East, compared to the utter lack of Chinese equivalents, shows that America, or at least, its manifestations are not going anywhere. It does not seem at all likely that McDonald’s will turn into Jowza (dumpling) restaurants any time soon. American culture, therefore, may well be here for the next 100 years, even if the manifestations of American power and trade are not.