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France and Kuwait renew military ties 24, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in French IR, Kuwait.
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200508rafalezt9Kuwait and France have stepped up their military cooperation in a ceremony in Paris. The two armed forces undertook military manoeuvres recently but it has only been now that the deal for Kuwait to buy some 28 Rafael fighter-jets appears to have been officially agreed.

The Abu Dhabi based newspaper The National quotes the French Defense Minister declaring that this agreement heralds the beginning of France’s desire to “to regain its place and to play a full role to secure the stability and security of this strategic region.” However, analysts contacted for the piece are somewhat sceptical and see this gambit as little more than a sale’s exercise for Sarkozy. The truth, as so often, may well fall between these arguments.

France, it must be remembered, set up a military base in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, overlooking the Straits of Hormuz. For sure, a significant proportion of the reasoning behind this venture would be to give themselves prime position to supply the UAE with defense equipment and accouterments, given that the UAE are the world’s third largest arms  importers. Yet, stationing troops on foreign soil in such a volatile area is, it could be argued, is going above and beyond the call of duty to accrue sales for French arms manufacturers.

There seems to be, therefore, overall, a desire by Emperor President Sarkozy to – as ever – assure and guarantee France’s place at the top table of international relations. Indeed, this is hardly surprising given his predilection for the international lime-light and France’s often palpable desire to be seen as an equal world power.

Israeli flag flies in the Emirates 17, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, The Emirates.
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Even though Israel does not have any formal relations with the UAE, the Israeli flag flew at a recent meeting in Abu Dhabi of the International Renewable Energy Agency. Perhaps the UAE, like Qatar, feel that there is little to be gained from prolongued isolation of Israel and they seek to test the waters with such a minor event.

Dubai metro’s success 16, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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Metro airport

One the first day that the new Dubai metro was open to the public, last Thursday, some 67,000 people had given it a whirl. According to the UAE daily, The National, by Saturday night the total number reached 178,000 despite a few teething issues like delays and huge queues to get into some stations.

Many of the commuters on these trains were attracted by the novelty value of hopping aboard the Gulf’s first metro system. It remains to be seen, however, just how many will eschew their 4x4s and actually commute using the system. I’d tentatively suggest that the metro will become something of an ex-pat only zone with Emiratees unwilling to forgo the door-to-door advantage of their air conditioned cars. Only time…

Al Jazeera on UAE’s human trafficking violations 8, August 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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Hat tip: Victoria’s blog

Differing modes of development: Kuwait, Qatar & UAE 17, July 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Qatar, The Gulf.
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This article appeared in the Kuwait Times on 22nd July.

Tracking Trajectories: Differences in development, FDI in the Gulf’

It is curious how Kuwait and, for example, the Emirates, stemming from the same kinds of religious, cultural, linguistic, geographical, social and political backgrounds, have gone about development in such contrasting ways. From Dubai’s glitz and glamour, or – depending on one’s view point – crass and vulgar modernization, to Kuwait’s slow and steady approach, each country has come up with a remarkably different idea of the best way to proceed.

The briefest of glances at Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) statistics highlight these divergences. When, in 2007, Kuwait was receiving $123 million of FDI, Qatar was getting $1.1 billion and the United Arab Emirates were getting over $13 billion, more than one hundred times more than Kuwait.

The explanation for this is not immediately apparent. Both the UAE and Kuwait are oil-rich countries with around 7% and 8% of the world’s proven oil resources, respectively. Qatar too was a relatively rich country, with one of the world’s highest Gross Domestic Product per capita for some time now.

For sure, Kuwait was far more developed than Doha, Abu Dhabi or Dubai until very recently. These cities would have needed far more money to be spent on things that Kuwait City already had such as ample hospitals, schools, a road infrastructure and a large international airport. However, Saddam’s brutal 1990 invasion, laying waste to swathes of Kuwait, meant that Kuwait City was, it could be suggested, in need of as much reconstruction as Doha and Dubai was construction. Yet, historical FDI statistics clearly show that this is just not what happened with Kuwait averaging just $58 million of FDI from 1990-2000. Instead, Kuwait relied overwhelmingly – if not almost entirely – on their own resources to rebuild their country.

Even admitting that Kuwait was a richer country and had more funds itself to invest, lessening or even negating its need to seek international FDI, this is not enough to explain the profound lack of FDI that Kuwait receives. There must be, aside from Kuwait’s cash-rich balance, other reasons as to why their FDI is so abysmally low.

A brief look at a few more statistics may enlighten the situation. Transparency International, the world-renowned Berlin-based anti-corruption civil society organization, measures the ‘corruption perceptions’ of doing business in a country, where the least corrupt country, Denmark, is No.1. In their 2008 survey the UAE is ranked 35th, Qatar 28th and Kuwait a lowly 65th, surrounded by Cuba and El Salvador.

A different survey, conducted by commercial company ‘Doing Business’ under the auspices of the US based World Bank Group, ranked countries according to the ease of doing business.  Overall, in their 2009 rankings, Qatar comes 37th, the UAE 46th and Kuwait 52nd bordered by Namibia and Colombia. This particular survey works by rating a country according to a series of factors such as, for example, how easy it is to set up a business, how obtainable credit is and how easy it is to register property.

By far Kuwait’s lowest score in the factors that make up their final placing – coming 134th alongside Malawi and Cambodia – is in the ‘ease to set up a business’ category. Such a finding is wholly corroborated by anecdotal evidence, highlighting the bureaucratic hurdles that foreign companies are forced to deal with when seeking to setup in Kuwait.

It seems, therefore, that Kuwait’s institutions not only do not encourage FDI but in fact make it as complex and difficult as possible. Such a system cannot have come about by accident. Moreover, Kuwait, whilst not necessarily consciously raising barriers to foreign companies, nevertheless refuses to lower them. In short, Kuwait just does not want foreign capital and the foreign influence that goes with it.

This is, of course, in total contrast to the UAE and Qatar. Their strategies of development are based on extensive contact and interaction with the rest of the world. By inviting prestigious Universities to the UAE and Qatar, encouraging the recruitment of Western media outlets to base themselves in Dubai Media City, advertising themselves heavily as a tourism hotspot, hosting large sporting events and countless other projects, the Emirates’ and Qatar’s outlook is totally and irreversibly outward.

When Dubai was at the height of its pomp in the early 2000s, some in Kuwait clamored for the modernity or glamour that they saw further down the Gulf. Now that the Dubai bubble has firmly burst and their economic model has come under serious scrutiny and even criticism, many in Kuwait will now be thankful somewhat for their country’s steadier approach. Yet there is surely a common ground between Kuwait’s insular approach and Dubai’s dependence on ever increasing amounts of foreign capital that can simply not be realized.

Dubai paper suspended for 20 days 3, July 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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A state controlled Dubai newspaper Al Emirate Al Youm has been ordered to suspend publication for 20 days by an Abu Dhabi court. The paper under the auspices of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum published a front-page article back in 2006 suggesting that stables owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi, the Al Nayhan, engaged in horse doping. The court in Abu Dhabi upheld the defamation case put by members of the Al Nayhan family and imposed the harsh punishment which included a 20,000 Dirham ($5400) fine for the editor as well as the suspension of the whole paper for 20 days.

In terms of background it is perhaps worth noting that Sheikh Mohammed the ruler of Dubai was investigated by equestrian authorities for horse doping. Although he denied knowledge of this he accepted full responsibility. It could be suggested, therefore, that this article in one of his controlled papers was some kind of attempt to smear the rival rulers of Abu Dhabi with similar accusations. Horse racing along with falconry is an important aspect of the social construction of legitimacy and society in the Emirates. Success in such a regal sport, with all the connotations of power that come with it, are clearly important in the Emirates. In the same way, cheating at this gentleman’s sport could severely tarnish the reputation of those involved.

It is important to be aware of the fierce rivalry between the Al Nayhans and the Al Maktoums and the two cities. Whilst Abu Dhabi with its oil and gas has always had the upper-hand in the relationship, Dubai has often out-shined its neighbour in, for example, construction of the world’s most luxurious and tallest hotel, the tallest building in the world and by underwriting the growth of Emirates as a world-spanning airline. Abu Dhabi, by contrast, whilst being intrinsically far richer and more powerful, has taken a slightly different tack by seeking to become something of a cultural hub to Dubai’s brash luxo-tourism centre. They signed agreements for the first ever Louvre museum and Sorbonne University outside of Paris to be opened, for the construction of a Guggenheim gallery and branches of prestigious institutions such as New York University. This rivalry has been complicated recently by the financial collapse and Dubai’s severe troubles with the failure of its property model. This has increased their reliance on Abu Dhabi. There have been reports suggesting that Abu Dhabi, in return for bailing out Dubai and helping them more generally, wanted the control of Emirates airline, one of Dubai’s flagship projects.

This smear against the rulers of Abu Dhabi is, however, nothing compared to the recently released torture video showing one of the half-brothers of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi torturing an Afghan grain dealer for 40 minutes. This revelation, and the fact that the Emirate authorities knew about this for months but did nothing about it whatsoever, has, alongside migrant worker issues, apparently jeopardised many of their aforementioned flagship projects which were to be built on Saadiyat Island.

Hat tip: UAE Community Blog

Article catch up 21, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Central Asia, Iran, Kuwait, The Emirates.
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There’s a veritable flood of interesting stories today:

  • Quote of the day is taken from the World Politics Review Blog, with a firm and hearty hat tip thanks for Andrew Bishop.

We’ve now got upwards of 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the ostensible mission to eliminate the threat posed by 300 guys. In Pakistan. Think about that.

  • An article on Al Qaeda’s apparent new ties with an Iranian Sunni (yes, Sunni) terrorist group.
  • The UAE have pulled out of the proposed Gulf single currency. Whilst achieving such a milestone of integration would have been enormously difficult in any case, it now appears to be all but impossible.
  • The Kuwaiti Amir has reappointed his nephew, Shaikh Nasser, as the Prime Minister. This is highly unlikely to appease opposition MPs and calm the volatile and fragile nature of Kuwaiti politics, considering that Shaikh Nasser was, essentially, the very reason that Parliament was dissolved last month (for the fifth time in three years).
  • There’s another good piece covering the Kuwait election written by Brian Ulrich. The most interesting bit is when he quotes from Kristin Diwan on the reappearance of one of the original and fundamental societal clefts in the Arabian Peninsula between the settled people (hadar) and the nomads (bedu) who did not get settled into cities until the last century (if at all). [Brian writes] “(quoted with permission from a professional list-serve)”:

“The other area of dynamism in Kuwaiti politics is coming from the ‘tribal’ outer districts. I attended a HUGE and very well planned rally for women in the south of Kuwait near Ahmedi, and was duly impressed by the energy, which may have been amplified by the fact that it was held in an amusement park and most of the women brought a bevy of happy children in tow. As observant Kuwaiti social scientists have been telling us for years, these relatively late arriving citizens of Kuwait are becoming better educated and less willing to accept their role as ‘service’ candidates quietly accepting government jobs for loyalty to the rulers – especially as there are less jobs and services to give to their steadily increasing numbers. They may mobilize as a ‘tribe,’ but their complaints are essentially economic and full of historical resentment of the better off ‘hadhar’ of Kuwait’s inner constituencies. The democratically elected parliament gives them the perfect vehicle to press their economic demands, and goes a long way in explaining why many of the merchant-led Kuwaitis who championed Kuwaiti democracy can now contemplate an unconstitutional dissolution of it.”

Kuwait arrest Aussie for insulting Emir 23, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, The Emirates.
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Until recent developments in Iraq, Kuwait was usually considered to have had the freeest press as well as the most democratically advanced political system in the Gulf. Recently, however, there have been strains on the Kuwaiti political system, resulting in the Emir acrimoniously dissolving the Parliament and calling for new elections for the third time in three years. Some reports stated that at the heart of the matter was the ruling families inability to countenance the notion that they might be called to account for their actions. Their belief that they are utterly and unequivocally above cross-examination or explanation jars with fundamental democratic principles.

Indeed, another example of the exalted place of the ruling family can be found in the Kuwait Times. An Australian woman and a former Kuwait citizen has been arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the Emir. Again, this highlights just how precious the ruling family view themselves. These types of laws are to be found throughout the Gulf. The UAE is even currently trying to bring in a law to make it punishable if one writes negative comments about the economy.

It is easy to sit in the West and mock these kinds of crass examples of an archaic system that it doomed to eventual failure. What must not be forgotten, however, is that in their current political make-up many of the Gulf states are but a few hundred years old and some far less that that. Thus they are in the early stages of political evolution. They are simply going through the growing pains of working their way through and out of notions such as the divine right of kings that European states went through centuries ago.

France’s Abu Dhabi military outpost 16, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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The opening date for France’s new military base in the UAE has been announced. President Sarkozy will inaugurate the base in Abu Dhabi in May this year. Whilst it was reported some time ago, the opening date was something of a mystery until now. This is an important strategic move for both sides. For France, it assures their presence in a crucial and volatile part of the world, in addition to supplying supplying the UAE with military materiel. For the UAE, being less than 50 miles away from an often bellicose Iran at the closest point (not forgetting their borders with vastly larger Saudi Arabia), this will be seen as a hard security guarantee. This is a region, after all, that has seen three major wars in the last 20 years.

The Emirate’s nuclear plans 25, November 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, The Emirates.
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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will, according to an official, continue to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the creation its peaceful nuclear programme. The move to start negotiations over the possibility of the Emirates nuclear programme comes as electricity demand is expected to more than double by 2020 (from 15,000 megawatts to 42,000). This turn to nuclear power does sound, however, somewhat counterintuitive given that the Emirates (and especially Abu Dhabi) have such large oil and gas reserves. Furthermore, given that whenever Middle Eastern states begin discussing nuclear issues, it is often – rightly or wrongly – suggested that they have nefarious intentions, ought the UAE’s decision trouble the international community?

On the surface there seems to be no problem at all. The Emirates is a Western-orientated country with generally very good relations with the vast majority of countries in the world. They are reliant on various flows to and from the Western world, be in in the influx of Western tourism, Western educated skilled workers or Western companies along with their need of routes to sell their oil and gas, products and services as well as projects to invest in with their sovereign wealth funds. Their future, therefore, appears to be somewhat contingent on amicable and improving Western relations. Indeed, America and France, for example, both have military bases in the country and value the Emirates as a friendly nation in a critical region of the world and would, therefore, defend the Emirates to some degree. However, the question is to what degree? If, for a minute, the discussion can be taken along a more academic or even implausible route, when countries are faced with questions of existential importance, issues of status quo, trade and common ties become somewhat redundant. The only existential element that could possibly come into this equation is, of course, Iran.
Iran has been seeking to begin its own peaceful Nuclear programme for years now. The international community, however, do not believe Iran’s peaceful intentions and seemed determined to stop Iran from acquiring significant nuclear technology so that they could manufacture a weapon and thus deter the West from meaningful actions against it. However, it is not just the West that fears an Iranian nuclear power. Many of the Gulf states are somewhat perturbed by examples of bellicose rhetoric emanating from Tehran towards their favourable attitude towards the West generally and America specifically. Qatar and Bahrain arguably have the most to fear from an angry, nuclear powered Iran given that they host massive US military bases. Bahrain in particular has a huge Shia community which contributes to their nervousness. The Emirates too have a sizable Shia community as well as large natural resources that Iran might well be covetous of.

If Iran acquired a nuclear bomb, for example, it would be extraordinarily difficult for either the West or the Gulf states themselves to deter Iran from interfering explicitly or implicitly in their affairs, perhaps under the guise of safeguarding their Shia brethren. Furthermore, with Iran’s population reaching 100m in the coming years, its critical dependence on a high price of oil to maintain its budgetary needs (apparently Iran needs oil prices to be around $85 per barrel to break even), its weak and impoverished infrastructure, its large military, its problems with securing sufficient water resources and its difficult relations with both the West and some of its neighbours, the spectre of an un-deterrable Iran, coveting the vast wealth of the Gulf states could well have the Shaikhs and Emirs of the region scrabbling for the beginnings of a deterrent themselves.