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Examining Qatari-Saudi Relations 28, February 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fadallah’s fallout: CNN & FCO 10, July 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, UK.
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The recent death of Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah has led to two further casualties. First, the British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy posted a comment on her blog about Fadallah.

Sheikh Fadlallah passed away yesterday. Lebanon is a lesser place the day after but his absence will be felt well beyond Lebanon’s shores. I remember well when I was nominated Ambassador to Beirut, a Muslim acquaintance sought me out to tell me how lucky I was because I would get a chance to meet Sheikh Fadlallah. Truly he was right,” she wrote.

The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints. May he rest in peace.

This eulogizing comment drew heavy criticism from Israel and the right wing press in the UK. She later apologised.

Octavia Nasr CNN’s Middle East editor tweeted that Fadallah’s was

one of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot

She was soon forced out of her job. Seems freedom of speech only goes so far

The Times of London breaking news story: 28, May 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria.
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Syria accused of arming Hezbollah from secret bases

Hezbollah is running weapons, including surface-to-surface missiles, from secret arms depots in Syria to its bases in Lebanon, according to security sources.

You don’t say?

Hezbollah’s tourist complex 26, May 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Lebanon.
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Hezbollah have announced that they are opening a tourist complex commemorating the 10th anniversary of Israel’s retreat/pull-back from southern Lebanon. They will display their own weaponry along side Israelis heavy weaponry along with the usual Middle Eastern unbiased commentary. Fun for all the family.

Hat tip: MEI Editor

Neocons enraged by new Arab Miss USA 19, May 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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Rima Fakih is the first Arab American Muslim winner of the Miss America title. Many congratulations to her. Alas, others do not share my sentiments. Indeed, some on the right wing in America see insidious plots afoot. Daniel Pipes – who else? – lists a number of recent winners of beauty pageants who are all – shock, horror! – Arabs or Muslims and asks if there is not some kind of affirmative action going on. He neglects the obvious; that Arab woman are frequently exceedingly beautiful.

Yet the best crazed, ill-informed and spurious rant goes to Debbie Schlussel who is aghast to discover that Fakih comes from Southern Lebanon and her family is – according to her ‘intelligence sources’ (!) – a veritable nest of Hezbollah supporters, soldiers and sympathisers. Of course, without quoting anyone by name, she reals off these ‘charges’ and comes out with a few classics along the way, such as how the barely clad Fakih is – somehow – promoting the subjugation of woman. I am sure that Germain Greer might well agree, but for wholly different reasons.

Hezbollah on the famous Hummus victory of 2009 27, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Lebanon.
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Say what you will about Hezbollah but when it comes to eeking victory out of the mildest and most inconsequential success possible, they are second to none. They, quite seriously, (for I don’t know quite how well their sense of irony is developed (not too well, I’d wager)) wrote an op-ed in their mouthpiece eulogising Lebanon’s recent ‘success’ at wresting the mantle of largest ever pot of hummus away from the ‘Jewish entity’.

Lebanon was set on Saturday to set a new world record and mark a new victory on Israel by preparing a two-ton plate of Humus (Chick-pea), thus beating an Israeli record two years ago when the Zionist entity prepared an 800kg plate of this pure Lebanese appetizer.

Under the watchful eyes of the adjudicator, they poured 1,350 kilograms (2,976 pounds) of mashed chickpeas and 400 liters (13,525 ounces) of lemon juice into the mega-sized pottery dish, cheered on by hundreds of onlookers.

The chefs gathered around their dish upon receiving the Guinness certificate and sang an a capella version of the national anthem before joining hands to dance the traditional dabke in celebration.

Organizers have hailed the event as “a patriotic event of national scale. “El Hommos Lebnaneh (Hummus is Lebanese) is an attempt to break the current Guinness world records of hummus and tabbouleh, reaffirming the Lebanese proprietorship of these two dishes,” said a statement issued by the industrialist association and food syndicate, which planned the event.

Nassrawi added that Lebanon was working on registering Humus at the European Union by presenting a full dossier with information that document when the first ever Humus plate was made in Lebanon, when it was first canned and how it was named Humus Bithini (thick sauce made of sesame oil). He added that the goal was to regain the real identity of Humus and stop Israel from exploiting it for its benefit.

Hezbollah’s graduation ceremony 19, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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Hezbullah's Graduation

As Time reports, there are a few differences between a graduation ceremony at Harvard and Hezbollah. First, Hezbollah’s graduates don’t get a degree as such, for there is no University; second, Hezbollah’s male graduates are trained and probably seasoned guerrilla fighters, whilst the same can probably not be said of Harvard’s graduates; and third (to name but three differences), as the author points out,

the most noticeable difference between a Hizballah graduation and one at Harvard is that the keynote speaker at this ceremony appeared via telecast from an undisclosed location because he is being hunted by assassins.

Truer words have, indeed, never been spoken.

Lebanon’s terrorist chic 27, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Lebanon.
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There is an excellent post at semi-expert about the fetishisation of aspects of the Lebanese-Hezbullah discourse in the Western media. The well-written article roams from the ‘terror-tourism” of less than adventurous non-experts of the Middle East who get whisked around Beirut which results in “the usual enormously shallow analysis” to other themes of this pornographic writing genre such as a bizarre fascination with clothing, bars and (the more understandable fascination with) elections. The author persuasively identifies several sources for these penchants.

There are guns and strange bearded men, and both will grab an editor back home and a writer eager to show off his access to a closed world that is vaguely menacing. There is the legitimate fact that Hizbullah plays a definable role in Lebanon, so that it makes no sense not to cover the party. However, when was the last time a journalist sold a story on the inherent pluralism in Lebanese sectarianism? Once you’ve woken the editor up and told him that this defines Lebanon more accurately than Hizbullah does, he’ll still choose the riveting clarity of a Hizbullah peg.

Leave aside that Hizbullah is not so terribly closed an institution. It is in fact very easy to gain access to Hizbullah, it’s leadership, functions, and neighborhoods of influence. Hence some of the journalistic stuff struttin’. Beirut still holds the reputation as being the space of civil war and kidnappings by those strange and bearded men. And to have been there marks one as having gained some kind of arcane insight into the netherworld.

Regarding women’s clothing:

Another thing that grabs editors is prattle about women’s attire – of all types. This one fom a recent edition of Der Spiegle is an especially egregious and voyeuristic example of the genre. For God’s sake “Damascene perversion”? and “Palestinian women have the wildest taste”?

Juan Cole: Many Shiite young women are every bit as chic and oriented toward Paris fashion as their Maronite Catholic peers

Hitchens: Women with head covering were few; women with face covering were nowhere to be seen. Designer jeans were the predominant fashion theme.

Miller: Beirut is at least two cities—the modern capital with its chic designer shops, expensive bars, raucous nightclubs, and billboards advertizing [sic] breast augmentations and tattoo removals, and…Hezbollah’s southern suburbs…patrolled by the Party of God’s own traffic police and security forces. No breasts or even hairdos are on display here.

On bars and elections:

In all of this, the talk of those bearded men, and those scantily clad women, as well as the preoccupation with the amount of alcohol consumed in the Arab world (a new addition to the genre here about a return to the drinking and whoring ways of the days of Saddam), seems framed in such a way as to offer the hope to consumers of the major Western news outlets that those people over there are not so bad, even if they are somewhat quaintly odd, so long as they seem willing to adopt some of our ways. Never mind that those ways when placed into a Western context are condemned. The piece about drinking and other vices practiced in Baghdad discusses men gathering round a cockfighting pit and speaks with apparent approval of a relative renaissance of the oldest trade. And of course your reporter cannot pass up the opportunity to describe the clothing:

“She dresses in a head-to-toe, skin-tight black chador, and she is adorned with several pounds of solid gold bracelets, pendants, necklaces, earrings and rings, her response to the financial crisis.The female workers in the nightclub wore rather less clothing, but nothing that would be considered risqué on a street in Europe”

Here are a few links to the types of articles that the author has in his sights.

x x x x

I highly recommend you read the article in its entirety. Excellent stuff.

Hat Tip: the ever-excellent Arabic Media Shack

Pressure for the US to recognise Hamas 16, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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Stephen Walt over at the new Foreign Policy blog quotes the Boston Globe which lists US scholars, practitioners and ‘senior statesmen’ that believe that the US ought to be negotiating with Hamas. In addition to Walt himself, it is rather distinguished bi-partisan list: Brent Scowcroft, Henry Siegman, Carla Hills, Ted Sorensen, Lee Hamilton, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Wolfensohn, Nancy Kassebaum, Paul Volcker and Chuck Hagel. The odds, however, of the US administration following the UK example (who decided to recognise Hezbollah recently) appear to be slim. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

The UK recognise Hezbollah 10, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Lebanon, Western-Muslim Relations.
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The British have broken with their somewhat illogical policies of the past and are now recognising Hezbollah. A Foreign Office spokesperson is quoted on Al Jazeera as saying, “Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this.” When it is put like this, one wonders how they managed not to recognise them in the past. Moreover, it puts the US’ lack of recognition in a critical light. See Roger Cohen in the NYT for a thorough examination of this issue.