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Qatar’s diplomacy shunned 29, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Syria.
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Qatar engages in various diplomatic forays the most famous of which being the startling resolution of the intra-Lebanese disputes back in 2008. Yet, as a short article in Lebanon NOW reports, their attempts to offer assistance are not always taken up. On this occasion Assad of Syria apparently firmly rejected any notion of Qatar mediating between Saudi and Syria earlier this year.

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Gause on the Middle East 20, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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Gregory Gause has another excellent article, this time in Foreign Affairs discussing the rule of the Middle East. Here’s the key paragraph:

…the new administration needs to remind itself of the rules of the local game — the traditional contest for influence among regional states. It is played out more in political terms than in military ones, although the possibility of violence is never far. The players are the stronger regional powers (Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey) and the playing fields are the weaker powers (Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories) whose governments cannot prevent outsiders from interfering in domestic politics. The tools of influence are money, guns, and ideology — and the scorecard is judged by the political orientations of the weaker states.

By this metric, Iran is doing rather well. In Iraq, its influence is greater than that of any other regional power. Iran’s closest Iraqi ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, did not do well in recent provincial elections, but Tehran’s ties to the political party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and to the Sadrist movement, a Shia party built around Muqtada al-Sadr — both of which fared better in provincial elections — remain strong. Meanwhile, Hamas, Iran’s longtime client, emerged from this winter’s war against Israeli forces in Gaza bloodied but unbowed, much as Iran’s ally Hezbollah did from its own war with Israel in 2006. Hamas and Hezbollah now dictate the course of politics in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, respectively — far more so than the central governments controlled by “moderate” Arabs with pro-Western inclinations.

To anyone with a fair knowledge of the Middle East, nothing that Gause says is particularly new. Rarely, however, is swathes of Middle Eastern history, politics, intrigue and modern-day machinations so well summarized.

Lebanese Embassy Opens in Damascus 17, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Lebanon, Syria.
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Twenty years after agreeing to do so, Lebanon has got around to opening/been allowed to open its Embassy in the Syrian capital, Damascus. The initial agreement was reached at the Ta’if Accords back in 1989 which nominally ended the Lebanese Civil War.

Despite protestations to the contrary, this is clearly (another) a nail in the coffin of Syria’s wider ambitions to incorporate Lebanon back into its borders, stemming from teary-eyed notions of a greater Syria. True to form, however, Syrian officials did not attend the flag raising ceremony. Apparently they ‘forgot’ that it was happening on Sunday. Very believable…

UPDATE

Here is a link to a – frankly – far better article than mine discussing this embassy issue.

A Saudi-Syrian Rapprochement? 10, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia, Syria.
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The Khaleej Times has an interesting article discussing Saudi attempts to affect a rapprochement with Syria. It is no secret (to put it mildly) that as a rule Saudi and Syria often find themselves on opposite sides of the fence. Relations plummeted after the (alleged…) Syrian backed killing of Rafik al Hariri, the Saudi citizen and general Saudi protégé, in Beirut in 2005. Their relations were further frozen when Saudi, amongst others, pressured Syria to withdraw from Lebanon the same year.

Such a reconciliation and potential augmentation of their relationship would dovetail perfectly with Saudi’s grand strategy to weaken Iran or at least, improve their hand against Tehran. With Syria and Iran being close allies for nearly three decades now, their alliance of interest, commonality and practicality, will be difficult to break up. However, Saudi has the money to potentially have a reasonable go at doing just that. Indeed, this is something that Iran can most certainly not offer Syria: ready cash. Just how much money talks, however, remains to be seen. It is worth remembering that American  is seeking to get Syria onside too. Thus Syria has two potential cash cows to milk, should they choose to. Needless to say, Assad will have to walk this particular tightrope very carefully. Being seen as giving in to America (akin to Libya, for example), abandoning their traditional ally Iran when they are clearly standing up to the Americans and siding with the ‘half-men’ of hereditary rule in the Gulf, whom the Syrian President ridiculed recently, would lose him significant credibility which, being unpopular domestically in Syria already, he can ill afford.

Are the Saudis at it again? 19, October 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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It is entirely possible to look at the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a long struggle with religious forces. The very existence of the country is premised on a Faustian bargain of sorts between Muhammad Ibn Abd Al Wahhab and Muhammad Ibn Saud where each one was (and their descendants still are) utterly reliant on the other. The Al Saud’s provide the base for the Wahhabis to practice and proselyte their religious doctrine and the Wahhabis in turn provide the Al Sauds with the necessary religious sanctification as well as a proven ability to whip the masses into a religious fervor when needed.

As the powers of the Al Sauds and Wahhabis waxed and waned relative to each other, so did their relative influence over each other. For example, the Wahhabis found themselves in a strong position just before Operation Desert Shield when the Saudi government desperately needed the religious blessing of the Wahhabi clergy to sanctify their decision to allow large numbers of US troops onto Saudi soil. The Wahhabis duly provided a declaration supporting the government but demanded a high price for their official approval: yet stricter controls over many aspects of Saudi society. Kepel, the noted French Arabist characterises this deal as completing the Kingdom’s fall into “bottomless Islamization.”

Perhaps the clearest example of the Al Saud’s dependency on Wahhabi legitimacy occurred in 1979 when the Grand Mosque at Mecca was overrun by fundamentalists seeking to usher in the next eschaton.  This was a stark and brazen attack at the very core of Al Saud’s legitimacy: that of their safe custodianship of the holiest place in Islam. After the debacle was finally ended (with the help of French Special Forces) the Al Sauds pumped massive amounts of money into the Wahhabi clergy to proselyte the faithful yet further and prove their religious credentials, rather than engage in any attempt to understand, ask questions or resolve why this group took the fantastic step of attacking the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

However, the Saudis were fortunate. At the time of the Mosque debacle, the Soviets were invading Afghanistan. This, therefore, gave the Saudis another way to repair their image, bolster their legitimacy and get rid of the most dedicated and hard-line fundamentalists who could have threatened their regime: along with America they supplied men, arms, equipment and money to the Afghan resistance.

Eventually, of course, the Mujahedeen returned home and the Saudis were in an even worse situation. Not only were the proselytized, fervent and passionate men returning home, but they were now combat veterans with a range of guerrilla warfare skills. To make things worse, not long after their return, Iraq invaded Kuwait and implicitly threatened Saudi’s biggest oil fields in the east of the country, next to Kuwait. The Al Sauds, however, did not turn to their veteran Mujahedeen, but to the Americans and their grand coalition. This was an epic slap in the face for Bin Laden and the rest of the Mujahedeen. It is these remnants of the Afghan War that were overwhelmingly responsible  for  the wave of terrorism that spread across the world in the nineties and early twenty-first century, from Dhahran to Bali and from to Madrid to New York.

Peculiarly enough, in the aftermath of the September the 11th attacks it was the Al Sauds who were in the ascendancy relative to the Wahhabis. They were under enormous pressure to act in some tangible way, shape or form to reign-in the extreme anti-American Wahhabi tendencies within their society. Numerous reforms were enacted none of which were that far reaching, but the Wahhabi position was nevertheless weakened to some degree. It took the Saudis two years to begin to make any meaningful changes and only then because of the devastating attacks in the Kingdom itself, which finally drove home the point to the Al Sauds. Yet this chastening experience – that of sponsoring religious fanatics only to receive severe blow-back some time later – does not appear to have altered Saudi strategic thinking, for there is growing evidence that they are doing precisely the same thing again, only in Lebanon and not Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia along with Jordan and other Sunni countries have been concerned for some time about a so-called Shia crescent descending on the Middle East. Stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, Saudi for one has been taking steps to seek to mitigate the strengthening of Shia power where possible. According to Seymour Hersh, Saudi has joined up with their erstwhile Afghan partner, the US,  in sponsoring Fatah Al Islam to act as a Sunni counterweight to Shia Syrian forces in Lebanon. Saudi is believed to have provided not only funds but around 15-20% of the fighters, for example, at the Nahr Al Bared refugee camp conflict in 2007. One further factor no doubt adding to Saudi’s anxiety in Lebanon was the rout of Hariri’s offices in West Beirut by Shia Hezbollah on the 7th May this year.

One corollary of all this is perceptibly worsening relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Following on from the banning of Saudi daily newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat back in summer 2006 over their coverage of the war in Lebanon, another pan-Arab Saudi paper has been banned. On the 29th September this year, Al Hayat was banned because of its coverage of the bombings in Damascus.  Yet it is these attacks which are, potentially, the true harbinger of worse things to come. The most recent of these attacks killed 17 Syrians and injured around 14 near a significant Shia shrine in Damascus. This act of terrorism was condemned around the world but significantly not in Riyadh where the government refused to comment. So was this an example of a Saudi trained and funded Jihadi from a Sunni camp in Lebanon coming across the border and seeking to attack Syria? That is certainly what Bashar Al Assad’s regime is telling the world; hence their deployment of Special Forces and troops along parts of the Lebanese border to ostensibly stop foreign Jihadis entering the country. There are, therefore, persuasive arguments suggesting that the Saudis have reverted to their failed policies of the past and whilst it may sound ridiculous to repeat old mistakes, if it is true, they are not the first and certainly will not be the last to do so.

An inadvertently frank assessment of the Syrian economy by the Finance Minster 25, September 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria.
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It can almost be a little embarrassing when someone, trying to impress or cover for something, produces a story so utterly inept, so poorly thought through and which ultimately clearly, concisely and almost devastatingly makes exactly the opposite point. There can surely be no greater example of this than the Syrian Minister of Finance, Dr. Mohammed al Hussein, and his recent article in Al Thawra describing why Syria is the country least affected by the recent financial troubles.

Rather than paraphrase it myself, I will leave that to Tariq Al Homayed, a writer for Al Sharq Al Aswsat, who quite beautifully skewers Dr Al Hussein’s comically awful article.

In the article, the minister said, “We can confirm that the Syrian economy, out of all the regional economies, has been least affected by this crisis.” He added, “The reason for this goes back to restricting the channels through which this crisis could pass to enter Syria…some of the best ways of which are through financial institutions, financial markets, investments, foreign currencies and foreign trade.”

Please pay attention to the minister’s explanation: “The Syrian financial market is yet to be born, and the financial institutions and banks are still in their infancy, the capital of which is mostly domestic and even if there is non-Syrian capital, in most cases the source is Arab.”

What the finance minister is trying to say, in simple terms, is that Syria has been saved from this international financial crisis because his country has no financial market and because of the regression of banks and financial institutions in Syria, as well as the lack of foreign investments. Any Arab investments are merely grants or accompanied by political motives.

Therefore, the finance minister is attributing his country’s escape from the international financial crisis not to the strength of the Syrian economy but to its deterioration and underdevelopment.

The question that should be put to His Excellency, the Syrian minister of finance, is: If you do not have a financial market or strong and dynamic banks and financial institutions, or foreign investments, then what need is there for a ministry of finance?

Thanks to Across the Bay for the pointing out this article.

Close Saudi-US ties lead to Arab anger 24, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia.
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The recent visit of President Bush to the region has elicited predictable responses from predictable sources. Various critics of the US have used this opportunity to berate the Americans for – amongst other things – preaching peace on the one hand, and imparting billions of dollars worth of weapons on the other. These points do have some validity, but, because of the quarters out of which they come, it is no great shock.

Additionally, you don’t need a political science degree to realise that Syria will not like the cordiality afforded the to Americans this past week. However, usually, you’d expect them to keep these views to themselves. However, the Saudi newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat reports a spat between the Syrian Ambassador to Egypt (as well as to the Arab League) Yusuf al-Ahmad and the Saudi Ambassador to the League, Ahmad Abdulaziz Qattan, at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.

The Syrian Ambassador suggested that it was not appropriate to give the US President such a welcome, bearing in mind the US’ support of Israel. To this, the Saudi Ambassador vociferously defended Saudi Arabic, and pointed out that the US – a long term ally of Saudi – had physically defended Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War.

Of course, when questioned about this later on, this argument became ‘banter’ between friends, and the comments of the Syrian Ambassador were – apparently – not aimed at any country in particular. Naturally.

http://www.asharqalawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=1&id=11556