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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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Tunisia & the benefits of hindsight 9, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa.
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Published in April 2010, many people have come across this book on Tunisia unerringly failing to discern the way things would go. The Arabist has highlighted perhaps the worst paragraph, its final conclusion:

Authoritarianism in Tunisia could prove to be very durable, and not simply because the government represses opponents. A majority of Tunisians may determine that the benefits of the status quo outweigh the individual and collective costs that a transition would require them to pay. In fact, the country’s history and its current balance of political forces make this the safer bet over the medium term. It does seem clear, though, that political change in Tunisia will not come about through some dramatic event that suddenly replaces the existing order with a new one. The stability–reform dialectic

Not for one second do I write this to sneer at this author. I would imagine that his book is fairly well grounded in history and approximated the best that social scientific predictive powers could do (can you tell which side of the Soc Soc/US v UK debate I am on?). But things happen, some of which simply defy prediction.

Similarly, I find myself defending the likes of David Held. While I don’t know the in-depth bits and pieces of the case, I don’t find the notion that Saif was always a despot bursting to get out and Held was a fool for being fooled particularly persuasive. Yes, there were a number of pointers that Saif was not a nice piece of work (to say the least) and for this reason alone, perhaps Held ought not have interacted with him. This, however, is a different question.

Specifically on the notion that Saif was ‘always’ likely to become some blood-thirsty dictator or some such notion, I’m not sold. I don’t think that it takes much imagination to foresee – minus the Arab Spring (!) – Saif eventually taking over from his delusional, vicious father and leading Libya on something of a more normal path (note I don’t say that he’d be a paragon of virtue and democracy).

 

On Qatar in Libya 2, October 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
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I’ve been so horrendously busy of late that I’ve not even had time to publicize my latest article on Qatar in Foreign Affairs. Thus far it’s got a lot of good comments, so thanks to all. And a quick thanks to the editors too who made it even snappier.

On Qatar and Libya 13, April 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
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I’ve penned an article in Foreign Policy looking at Libya and Qatar. The tantalising strap line/little summary of the article is

Could tiny Qatar send ground forces to Libya?

And before anyone tries to sling me out of Qatar, can I point out that this is a mooting article; a thought piece. I’ve not been listening in at the windows of the Army HQ here. Honest.

Arab involvement in Libya 23, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Qatar.
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On 12 March the Arab League, having suspended Libya’s membership, voted in favour of supporting a United Nations (UN)-backed military action against Libya in the form of enforcing a no-fly zone. Limited and careful as their wording was – Syria and Algeria balked at the phrase ‘foreign intervention’ – it is still extraordinarily rare for Arab states to come together to support any kind of international military campaign against a fellow Arab state.

The official reason that the Arab League supported some kind of intervention or involvement was for the need to ‘protect the civilian population’.[1] Yet this is hardly an adequate explanation. Humanitarian concern is rarely – if ever – the ultimate arbiter of decisions in the international arena, where notions of absolute sovereignty are habitually prized above all else.

Shifting Focus

The more international and local media focuses on shots of a Libyan plane crashing to the ground or Tomahawk missiles being launched from Western battleships off the Libyan coast, the less the media is focusing on other simmering conflicts around the region. For example, because Saudi Arabia voted for some kind of action against Libya there has been, ipso facto, less coverage of its own sporadic domestic protests and intervention in Bahrain.

Moreover, at a time of ferment throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it may be considered opportune and useful for leaders, wary for their own sake, to show that they are aware of the prevailing mood and will ‘combat injustice’ when they see it. As long as these sentiments can be harnessed and focused externally, it may be felt – rightly or wrongly – that such actions will go some way to establishing revolutionary credentials with minimal domestic reforms. Or, more to the point, given the near-universal popular support for the opposition against Qadhafi’s onslaught, maybe Arab leaders were afraid of not supporting some kind of action and the potential domestic ramifications thereof.

A leader cognisant of the prevailing mood, aware of the potential dangers of fighting against the current of international opinion and consequently supporting action against Qadhafi, may also garner support from America and other Western countries. This, in and of itself, given Western proclivities for favouring change in Iran but not Saudi Arabia, in Libya but not in Bahrain, would be a savvy path to tread.

Qatar and the UAE

Initially, American officials noted that the Arab League would have to ‘participate’ – simply offering rhetorical support would be insufficient.[2] Curiously, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates emerged as the Arab states taking the lead in supporting the no-fly zone.

Most assumed that Qatar, for example, would support efforts by allowing America to use Central Command – based near Doha – to oversee operations. However, it now appears that Qatar is contributing six of its Mirage 2000 fighter-jets along with two cargo planes. The UAE was also expected to contribute twelve F-16s and twelve Mirage jets for use against Libyan targets.

Motives

It is theoretically easier to understand the UAE’s desire to join in with this operation. In recent years the UAE has spent tens of billions of dollars on importing a wide variety of armaments, so much so that from 2006 to 2010 it accounted for nearly a quarter of all major weapons deals in the Middle East.[3] Given the UAE’s strategic location, it is logical to assume that these weapons were bought explicitly for defence purposes. Therefore, a high-profile demonstration of their potency may, in addition to their acquisition in the first place, contribute to the UAE’s deterrence.

In contrast, Qatar’s security is not based on the deterrence value of their own military, which has received but a fraction of materiel as compared to the UAE, but on the presence of America’s Central Command. Rather, in sending fighter aircraft to Libya, Qatar is pursuing its default policy of the past fifteen years, consistently seeking the international limelight, usually in a humanitarian or educational context. Certainly, this is the first time that Qatar has used such raw, hard power, for it typically concentrates on far softer methods, but the underlying reasoning is the same: to take part in a popular action to assuage, for example, a humanitarian crisis.

Cold Feet

Yet as Qatari jets near Libya, Arab support wavers. Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, complained on 20 March about the scale of the attacks on Libya.[4] The loss of Arab support, given existing issues with Russia and China, would be highly damaging. However, the very next day Moussa, in conjunction with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, reaffirmed Arab support for the action. His earlier wavering has been widely ascribed to his expected candidacy for the Egyptian Presidency, hence decrying the loss of civilian life from Allied attacks for domestic Egyptian consumption.

Even with Moussa’s renewed support of the mission, there are growing murmurs of discontent throughout the Arab world and beyond.[5] Fundamentally, in addition to growing casualties, even with the need to appear to ‘understand’ and ‘support’ the will of the people in the face of Qadhafi’s onslaught, many governments fear the precedent that they may be setting by allowing – nay supporting – regime change.

Moreover, the latest reports to emerge regarding the UAE deployment suggest a key shift in policy. The National, the UAE’s flagship English language newspaper, reported that the UAE would limit its support to humanitarian aid and not military action over ‘disagreements with the West over Bahrain.'[6]

This is an interesting move. Despite the official reasoning, the core motive of this change has nothing to do with the West’s attitude towards Iran’s involvement (or lack thereof) in Bahrain’s troubles, but instead highlights just how sensitive the Emirati government is towards the prevailing sentiment. When the Arab consensus was pro-intervention, they supported it. Yet now that such sentiment is wavering and – crucially – civilians are being inadvertently killed, the calculus has evidently changed. The cost of Emirati pilots mistakenly killing civilians in an increasingly unpopular conflict where Qadhafi is reportedly ‘recruiting’ civilian shields for installations means that they will eschew the potential benefits (bolstering their deterrence, etc.) for fear of prompting domestic unrest.

Qatari Contribution

Qatar has a similar calculation to make. Yet not only has the state historically been quite a contrarian, often eschewing the typical consensus, but it is not a federation with demonstrably poorer relations within it. In short, there is a greater opportunity for unrest in the UAE, specifically in the northern Emirates, than there is in Qatar. The risk of causing civilian casualties must be weighed against the potentially iconic and positive footage on Al Jazeera of a Qatari jet spearing through the air on a ‘humanitarian mission’, acting as the very personification of Arab support.

Moreover, it is important to point out that Qatar’s contribution is far from token. Though specific figures are difficult to obtain, Qatar’s deployment probably accounts for the majority of its operational fast-jet wing and the transport wing of its Air Force. Clearly, Qatar is making a strong, public and Western-oriented statement in joining in with the military operations.

Nevertheless, there are risks. While Western allies will be extremely grateful for this significant show of support and there is much kudos to potentially garner, Qatari jets causing collateral damage could be highly damaging. Indeed, it would make sense for, if operationally possible, the Qatari Mirage jets to attack the most inanimate of inanimate targets or to strictly enforce the no-fly zone, minimizing the risk of civilian casualties. Such an outcome would be best not only for Qatar and the coalition, but potentially for Libya as well.

Notes

[1] Ethan Bronner & David Sanger ‘Arab League Endorses No-Flight Zone Over Libya’ New York Times 12 March 2011

[2] Ibid

[3] Gavin Davids ‘UAE is top weapons importer in Middle East’ Arabian Business 16 March 2011

[4] Donald Macintrye ‘Arab support wavers as second night of bombing begins’ The Independent 21 March 2011

[5] Colin Randall & Kareen Shaheen ‘Cracks begin in international anti-Qaddafi coalition’ The National, 23 March 2011

[6] Kareen Shaheen & Ola Salem ‘Ex-airforce chief says no to UAE planes in Libya’ The National, 22 March 2011

Libya’s new flag? 25, February 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa.
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I’ve always liked flags and often wonder whether I ought to have been a professional vexillologist.

This is the flag being used by swathes of the opposition in Libya. It is the Libyan flag that was flown to celebrate independence from the Italians. It was finally taken down in 1969 to be replaced by a pan-Arab red, white and black tricolour, according to Al Jazeera. This in turn was replaced by the current all green flag, intimately associated with Gaddafi, in 1977.

The red band on this flag, as ever, signals the blood of those who fought for freedom. The black band is thought to refer back to an older flag, the green band is for prosperity, apparently, [I’d have thought it would be Islam…] and the sickle and start represent the main religion, Islam (too?).

Here’s hoping that this flag can be held aloft at the UN sooner rather than later.

 

State Department spokesman in Libya gaffe 10, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa.
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I feel exceedingly sorry for State Department spokesman PJ Crowley. On Tuesday he was commenting on Libya’s absurd call for an absurd Jihad against Switzerland. He replied that it reminded him of Gadaffi’s absurd speech to the UN:

I can recall lots of words and lots of papers flying all over the place, not necessarily a lot of sense.

To this mildest of quips, Libya is threatening to take some kind of action against US business interests in Libya. I’ve no doubt that the basket-case Gadaffi will use this incident to embark on another absurd rant about some absurd topic. The man is just such an idiot.

If one had only to contend with his rants that would be one thing, but his anti-Swiss crusade began after his son brutally attacked hotel staff at a Hotel in Switzerland. Hannibal’s history as a monumentally unpleasant person is well documented x x x . The sooner that Gadaffi the elder lays down his costumes and retires to the OAPs home where most senile people of his age go, the better. And the sooner Hannibal seeks help or is imprisoned for his actions, the better.

Hat tip: Abstract JK