Egypt and its patrons

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Why does Egypt receive between $1.3 and $1.5 billion of US aid annually?

"Because of Israel" is the most common answer to that question. Certainly, that is driving much of the American political wrangling over whether aid should be suspended. The New York Times reports that during the back-and-forth among the US and its allies leading up to Morsi's ouster, Israeli officials argued against cuts, and told the military not to put stock in US threats to cut off aid. The Israelis, like the US, greatly prefer the Egyptian security forces to be in charge of the country. Whatever, the depredations of Mubarak, the Brotherhood, or the counterrevolution, Egypt is too valuable for any American leader to risk "losing."

But though the Muslim Brotherhood signaled it might be less hostile to Hamas or Iran than Mubarak was, in practice the former president did little to change existing policies. Under Morsi's short presidency, the Egyptians even stepped up the destruction of smuggling tunnels into the coastal strip (moreover, the Egyptians were reportedly instrumental in negotiating an end to Operation Pillar of Cloud last winter).

Both Israel and Egypt have many shared interests in the Sinai, especially as the security situation deteriorates. Though Egyptian pressure on Gaza is massively increasing now, it was never seriously in jeopardy under the Brotherhood given that the terrorists and criminal gangs in the Sinai were going after both the SCAF- and Brotherhood-led Egyptian state, and it served Morsi little to champion the Palestinian cause while in office.

The massive corporate investment in Egyptian or Saudi defense expenditures certainly contributes to Congressional deliberations against aid cuts. And while one might examine the head of President Obama, and whether his reluctance to "take sides" really suggests a desire to reduce a US commitment to Egypt, the fact that the aid has not yet been publicly cut off suggests that Washington has tacitly taken a side: that of the military's, guarantor of the status quo.

It was, in fact, not just the Israelis telling General Sisi et al. to pay no mind to the US law that requires all aid to be suspended to a country if a coup takes place there. It was King Abdullah telling the Egyptian generals that the Kingdom would make up for any cutoffs in economic or military aid - the latter, almost assuredly in the form of American-made weapons in Riyadh's possession.

Riyadh's role is extremely important in all of this, especially with respect to Iran's containment. As the CNAS think tank noted in February 2011, Egypt's strategic importance in the wider region has nothing to do with the current deployment of US forces in the country, where the only fully staffed America military station is a US Navy medical center. It instead has to do with the nightmare scenario that would threaten the US's interests in the Persian Gulf: the sudden collapse of any one of the Gulf monarchies that host the radar sites, listening posts, airfields, and weapon emplacements pointing at Iran:

"The United States has no military bases of its own in Egypt. Its headquarters for directing air and ground troops in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in Qatar. Stockpiles of tanks, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and other war materiel are warehoused in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. U.S. missile batteries are deployed along the Persian Gulf's west coast. The U.S. Navy's regional headquarters is in Bahrain.

But in contingencies or crises, American forces have depended heavily on Egyptian facilities built with U.S. aid to U.S. specifications to accommodate U.S. forces as they move from the United States and Europe to Africa or westward across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf. American nuclear powered aircraft carriers, whose jets are playing a major role in Afghanistan, rely critically on their expedited use of the Suez Canal, giving them easy access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf."

Jane's Defence Weekly presented an analysis of commercial satellite imagery compiled between 2011 and 2012 to illustrate the expansion of US, UK, and GCC "conventional combat capabilities" in the Persian Gulf. The analysis highlighted the most salient points of this cooperation, which all ultimately leads back over that waterway and the Saudi desert to Egypt's own airspace and port facilities.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that the failure of the Brotherhood's political experiment in Egypt may be necessary for the House of Saud's survival is not farfetched. Though security concerns largely determine American actions, for the Saudis, there is also the matter of not wanting competition from the transnational Brotherhood as a mass Islamist movement.

While in years past, the Saudis supported the Brotherhood in Egypt - against Nasser, primarily, whose pan-Arabism and meddling in Yemen during the Cold War threatened the House of Saud's shaky legitimacy. But then the Brothers' messaging and aspirations began to appeal to dissidents within the Kingdom, as did other rival Islamist precepts, threatening absolute monarchy with the prospect of replacement. In recent years, top Saudi officials have made extremely negative remarks about the Brotherhood, most notably the late Crown Prince Nayef. Last month, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal fired a Kuwaiti preacher from his Al Resalah channel for having pro-Brotherhood leanings. As a Foreign Policy article recently noted about Saudi efforts to arm anti-Assad Syrian militias, "Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy."

Saudis like to share

For people whose society is organized into a rather extreme public/private divide, Saudis turn out to love sharing information about themselves online. It turns out they share the most of any country on earth.

From a slideshow by Mary Meeker, a renowned analyst on internet trends whose annual presentation at the D11 Conference is a geek favorite:

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Qatar and Syria

From an FT editorial:

However, the Qataris’ intervention in Syria, while boosting the revolt against Assad, has also created confusion. The Saudis support the handful of secular rebel factions and Salafi groups fighting the Syrian regime. The Qataris, by contrast, are less discriminating over who they support, and work through the Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema to Riyadh. As a result the Qataris and Saudis last year created separate and competing military alliances, a rivalry that has undermined the rebellion against Assad – and may have led to weapons ending up in the hands of jihadi militants.

 

Judging Anonymous Tweets: The Case of @Mujtahidd

This post about the Saudi tweep Mujtahidd is contributed by Nathan Field, who has lived several years in Saudi Arabia. Here's an interview with Mujtahidd for more background.

An important ongoing development in the Arabic Twittosphere is the surging followership of a Saudi user known as @Mujtahidd. With daily tweets ranging from sensational rumors and gossip about the Royal Family to credible-sounding inside information about the Kingdom’s politics, he has quickly gained 925,000 followers – nearly half during the last six months, and is becoming one of the most followed feeds not just in Saudi Arabia, but increasingly the wider Middle East.

The caveat, however, is that Mujtahidd operates anonymously and there is no way to verify the accuracy of many of his dramatic claims, which poses a challenge for commentators looking to Twitter to glean insights into the region’s politics.

While some may dismiss the information coming from such a site as unreliable --- social media’s version of the National Enquirer --  a close survey over time shows that, in balance, they can offer good insights into the politics of closed and heavily censored countries like Saudi Arabia.

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"Our steadfast pursuit of a freer Saudi Arabia"

A must-read, and courageous, letter from Saudi Arabia by Waleed Abu Alkhair in WaPo:

Every week, I am host to several dozen people at my home, most of them politically engaged Saudi youth. I started the salon after government and religious authorities clamped down on gatherings of liberal youth in cafes and bookstores in the wake of Hamza’s arrest, severely constricting the space for free expression in this city. The oppressive trend has accelerated as religious hard-liners have mounted a vicious campaign to cleanse society of what they deem “unbelief” and “deviant thought”: in reality, any ideology different from their own.

At one of the salon gatherings, I had the pleasing epiphany that religious hard-liners have begun to lose control of a young generation that is hungry for freedom. A brave young man responded passionately to clerics whom I had naively invited to participate in the salon and who had threatened him for supporting freedom of expression and belief, saying: “Who are you? Who are you to inflict your religious guardianship upon us? We are free, free to say what we like. You are just like us, not better. The era of religious guardianship is over.”

There was a stunned silence.

Rapt in admiration, I thought about how only 10 years ago I was expected to blindly obey the dictates of an Islamist organization — and how, then, I never would have dared to engage in a debate with its disciples. Those of us born in the 1970s, when extremist religious thought was at its apogee in Saudi Arabia, had a single choice if we wished to serve our communities: Join an Islamist organization.

This op-ed is couragerous in two ways: first in challenging the religious establishment in defending freedom of belief, but also in calling for a constitutional monarchy. Abu Alkhair is unable to travel from Saudi — let's hope it doesn't get him into more trouble, as I can't recall ever reading such a powerful liberal indictment of the Saudi system.

Saudi Arabia's changing foreign policy

David Ignatius brings an important point to his important audience:

Over this year of Arab Spring revolt, Saudi Arabia has increasingly replaced the United States as the key status-quo power in the Middle East — a role that seems likely to expand even more in coming years as the Saudis boost their military and economic spending.

Saudis describe the kingdom’s growing role as a reaction, in part, to the diminished clout of the United States. They still regard the U.S.- Saudi relationship as valuable, but it’s no longer seen as a guarantor of their security. For that, the Saudis have decided they must rely more on themselves — and, down the road, on a wider set of friends that includes their military partner, Pakistan, and their largest oil customer, China.

I wrote about this trend a few months ago, when the received wisdom still tended to be (outside of specialist circles) that Saudi Arabia was just sulking petulantly about the Arab Spring:

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What the al-Sauds don't want you to see

As the al-Saud dynasty engages over a mega-production over the death of Prince Sultan — one of the most profligate of the gerontocracy that rules Saudi Arabia — it might be good to remember that making films like the ones, above, on poverty in the kingdom, get you arrested. 22% of Saudis are defined as poor, according to the film, despite the vast oil wealth controlled by the al-Sauds.

Of Saudi Arabia and US policy

This BeastWeek piece by Eli Lake touches on the important topic of the Saudi-led counter-revolution and US policy: 

Retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who served as national security adviser in 2009-10, told a private meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the United States' Persian Gulf allies interpret the president's handling of the Egyptian revolution as a sign that Washington will dump their monarchies or governments if enough demonstrators take to their streets, according to a recording of the speech reviewed by The Daily Beast.

“We have paid a price,” Jones said of the decision to call for Hosni Mubarak's ouster. “Our policy with regard to Mubarak as interpreted by some of our closest Arab allies in the Gulf has not gone over well.”

“In their interpretation of our dumping President Mubarak very hastily, [it] answered the question of what we would be likely to do if that happened in their countries. So there is a chasm there that somehow has to be bridged,” he added.

Of course these "closest allies" are mostly Saudi Arabia, whose regime basically made 9/11 possible and then was very happy as the US tried to blame Iraq for it, then spent the last decade backing extremists groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as more generally financing extremist networks across the Arab world. And that is now backing the counter-revolutionary movements in the Arab world and underwriting poorer corrupt monarchies. If the Saudis are pissed off, this article does not really make clear what the price is. The kind of financing of religious radicals and conservative forces is something Saudi Arabia did before the  Arab uprisings, and is continuing to do after. The US did nothing about it before and won't do anything about it now, for various reasons, the most important of which is a foreign policy devised by military planners, oil executives and lobbyists.

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A couple of items on Morocco

Two quick items I wanted to flag on Morocco:

  1. A long interview of Prince Moulay Hicham (aka the "Red Prince") in Le Debat, in which the rogue royal says that he would wants to see the Makhzen disappear so that the monarchy can survive:

    Après la mort de mon oncle, j’ai continué de soutenir publiquement que le makhzen, c’est-à-dire le pouvoir patrimonial au Maroc, devait périr pour que la monarchie vive et serve les Marocains. Je me suis également prononcé contre le califat, autrement dit contre une monarchie sous l’autorité du «Comman- deur des croyants» mêlant prérogatives poli- tiques et religieuses. Tout cela, je le pense et le défends toujours, à la fois en raison de ce que je suis et à cause de ce que j’ai fait de moi.

     It's cited here but while no one's looking here's the full PDF

  2. A Wikileaks-leaked State Dept. cable sheds some light on why Morocco broke relations with Iran in 2009 — because the Saudis asked:
    Morocco broke diplomatic relations with Iran and began a campaign against its domestic Shi'a minority at Saudi Arabian instigation, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX. According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, Tehran had been using Morocco and its Embassy in Rabat for activities in Mali and Senegal. Domestically, XXXXXXXXXXXX emphasized that the anti-Shi'a campaign was aimed at neutralizing possible challenges to monarchist parties by Islamic groups in upcoming municipal elections. In addition, King Mohammed VI was seeking to reassert his position as a religious leader.

    The full cable is here. I have some skepticism about this explanation alone but of course Saudis were part of the picture.

[Thanks, C. and P.]

Saudi to US: Give us Predator drones to use in Yemen

This is a guest post by Paul Mutter.

U.S.-Saudi military cooperation in Yemen (which I reported on for The Arabist a few months ago) have not been without controversy. While the U.S. conducts it own drone strikes in Yemen against suspected al Qaeda targets and provides extensive funding, intelligence and training to government forces, it also provides satellite imagery to the Saudis, who conduct airstrikes and ground offensives against suspected al Qaeda targets and anti-government Shia militias. Given that much of the U.S.-Saudi joint effort has come in the form of airstrikes, many of the same objections regarding civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been raised over the air campaigns in Yemen. In February 2010, according to diplomatic cables from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh recently released by Wikileaks, the U.S. raised such objections with the Saudi Ministry of Defense, but was satisfied with their response to the matter and has continued supplying them with satellite data.

The Saudi military, never ones to pass up an opportunity to expand their capabilities, used the opportunity of a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to suggest that "if we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem [of killing Yemeni civilians].”

“Obviously, some civilians died, though we wish that this did not happen," Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khaled concluded, when the U.S. presented him with evidence that Saudi airstrikes were inaccurate and caused collateral damage to civilian facilities, such as medical clinics. 

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On Saudi spending

From an FP piece by Steffen Hertog, one of the best Saudi-watchers out there:

With a total estimated volume of $130 billion, the new spending measures are larger than the total annual government budget was as recently as 2007. They include the creation of 60,000 new jobs in the Ministry of Interior -- an agency that is already said to employ almost as many nationals as the whole Saudi private sector -- the building of 500,000 houses, the setting of a minimum wage of 3,000 Saudi Riyals ($800) in the public sector, one-time bonus payments for incumbent civil servants, the creation of a general unemployment assistance scheme, budget increases for various public credit agencies as well as supplementary funds for a number of religious organizations. Some of the spending is immediate, while other components will be rolled out during the coming years.

Many Saudis see the extra cash for religious institutions, including the religious police, as a reward for their vocal public stance against potential anti-regime demonstrations. Amendments to the Saudi media law announced in late April made it a crime to publish any material that insults the kingdom's grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Ulama and government officials. Dissidents feel that the regime is circling the wagons, and is underwriting its strategy with targeted patronage measures.

Emphasis is mine. Quick thought: Having been in some part responsible for making Pakistan what it is today, will the al-Sauds now make their own country like today's Pakistan?

The Saudi-led counter-revolution

The NYT covers the Saudi-led counter revolution, starting with a lede that is a hodgepodge of bombastic adjectives and mixed metaphors:

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia is flexing its financial and diplomatic might across the Middle East in a wide-ranging bid to contain the tide of change, shield fellow monarchs from popular discontent and avert the overthrow of any more leaders struggling to calm turbulent republics.

The NYT is obviously suffering from editorial cuts. OK, now that my writerly criticism is out of the way, to the meat of the story:

“We’re sending a message that monarchies are not where this is happening,” Prince Waleed bin Talal al-Saud, a businessman and high-profile member of the habitually reticent royal family, told The New York Times’s editorial board, referring to the unrest. “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”

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Against the grain in Saudi Arabia

Most analysts I've heard think Saudi Arabia can handle any tremors from the wave of unrest hitting the Arab world. This person goes against the grain, it's worth reading. I don't know much about the country, but I could think of no greater progress for the region than the fall of the al-Sauds. That's not what the person below is arguing, but one dares to dream. 

Karen Elliott House: From Tunis to Cairo to Riyadh? - WSJ.com:

Thirty years of visiting Saudi Arabia, including intensive reporting over the past four years, convinces me that unless the regime rapidly and radically reforms itself—or is pushed to do so by the U.S.—it will remain vulnerable to upheaval. Despite the conventional wisdom that Saudi Arabia is unique, and that billions in oil revenue and an omnipresent intelligence system allow the regime to maintain power by buying loyalty or intimidating its passive populace, it can happen here.

The many risks to the al Saud family's rule can be summed up in one sentence: The gap between aged rulers and youthful subjects grows dramatically as the information gap between rulers and ruled shrinks. The average age of the kingdom's trio of ruling princes is 83, yet 60% of Saudis are under 18 years of age. Thanks to satellite television, the Internet and social media, the young now are well aware of government corruption—and that 40% of Saudis live in poverty and nearly 70% can't afford a home. These Saudis are living Third World lives, suffering from poor education and unable to find jobs in a private sector where 90% of all employees are imported non-Saudis. Through new media the young compare their circumstances unfavorably with those in nearby Gulf sheikhdoms and the West.

Why do the Saudis need so many helicopters anyway?

From the news that the Bush-era deal for the sale of $60bn of weapons to Saudi Arabia:

The arms package includes 84 new F-15 fighter jets and upgrades to 70 more F-15s that the Saudis already have, as well as three types of helicopters: 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds. Saudi Arabia would also get versions of a satellite-guided "smart bomb" system, plus anti-ship and anti-radar missiles.

What will they use all of these helicopters for? Future incursions into Yemen? Riot control in Dhahran province? Counter-terrorism in the Empty Quarter? Helicopters, unlike F-15s, are not really for engaging another state (like Iran) in the case of a major regional conflict.

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Shias in Saudi

From Brian Whitaker's blog:
52694B83-AEDC-4947-8691-53C53A429748.jpg Hot on the heels of the Human Rights Watch report about discrimination against Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, I received this photo of a Shia Ismaili mosque in Khobar. Note the concrete blocks placed in front of the entrance. According to my source, security forces stormed the building yesterday and welded its door shut. They arrested the caretaker and about a dozen worshippers who refused to leave.
The HRW report is here, it condemns the "systematic discrimination and hostility towards Shia citizens." Meanwhile, in Egypt, officials are leveling accusations against Iran for spreading Shiism in the country. No doubt this is true -- Iran after all wants to spread its "revolution" and with it Shia ideas, just as Saudis and Egyptians have tried to spread Wahhabi or Azharite influence. But of course it also means increased discrimination against Shia Egyptians.
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Links for 09.01.09 to 09.02.09

The first Islamic search engine? - The Majlis | About imhalal.com which filters haram links out of searches. Seems pretty useless to me but it's fun to keep on searching for dirty words, and if you try you'll see the site does not work very well. ✪ ei: Liberation, not a fictitious Palestinian "state" | Hassan Abunimah on the Fayyad plan and the alleged Obama outlines for peace, which he describes as including "international armed forces in most of the Palestinian "state"; Israeli annexation of large parts of East Jerusalem; that "All Palestinian factions would be dissolved and transformed into political parties"; all large Israeli settlements would remain under permanent Israeli control; the Palestinian state would be largely demilitarized and Israel would retain control of its airspace; intensified Palestinian-Israeli "security coordination"; and the entity would not be permitted to have military alliances with other regional countries." And of course no right of return. ✪ Israel PM vowed not to freeze settlements: minister (AFP) | "AFP - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank, according to one of his ministers quoted on Wednesday." ✪ Brian Whitaker's blog | Trials of a Jordanian poet | One year for poet who used Quranic references in his love poetry, gets threats from MB, mufti calls him apostate. ✪ LedgerGermane: Rectum? Damn Near Killed 'Em! | Prince Muhammad bin Nayif's would-be killer had explosives stashed in rectum. Ouch. ✪ Quarante années de crimes | Ibn Kakfa on 40 years of the criminal Qadhafi regime, which "disappeared" many dissidents at home and abroad. ✪ Iraq's flawed media law | Brian Whitaker on the draft Iraqi media law, which resembles that of other Arab states.
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Links for 08.30.09 to 09.01.09

BlackRock divests from Leviev, an ‘NYT’ advertiser (and guess who doesn’t report it) | "Note that the NYT’s op-ed page has run more than a dozen jewelry ads by now from Lev Leviev, and they’ve never mentioned anything about the campaign against him." ✪ Why Barack Obama's energy-dependence talk is just demagoguery - By Prince Turki al-Faisal | Foreign Policy | A warning from Saudi's Prince Turki against "energy independence"? ✪ In Egypt's Desert, an Oasis Blooms Anew - WSJ.com | Yet another article focusing on Siwa's ecolodges, owned by Mounir Neamatalla of EQI. No mention of the talk in Siwa of how Neamatalla has acquired much prime land in the area, though. ✪ Memo From Cairo - Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates - NYTimes.com | Slackman on the perennial "what is permissible in a conservative society" debate. I think what's important here is to recognize the role of private media (several owned and at times run by outright secularists) is offering platforms that is outside the conservative mainstream. This is Naguib Sawiris' explicit project with OTV; but it won't make much of a dent until you liberalize Hertzian (non-satellite) TV and radio. ✪ Morocco and its king: Popular but prickly | The Economist | On 10 years of M6. ✪ Riding the sea at Gaza - The National Newspaper | On surfing in Gaza. ✪ Untold Stories: Afghanistan: Vetting the Embeds | Nir Rosen on a PR company's report on him when he tried to embed in Afghanistan.
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Links for 08.14.09

Egypt: the blinkers of expertise | open Democracy News Analysis | A very interesting critique of dominant themes in the coverage of Egypt by journalists and political analysts. ✪ Iran: A Yeltsin Moment is Needed | Oh savor the irony of newspapers owned by Saudi princes calling for reform and democracy in Iran. Besides, Yeltsin was a disaster (politically, economically and in terms of Russian human development) who led directly to Putin. ✪ Hilo Hero: René Goscinny | Nothing to do with the Middle East, but this is a great blog. ✪ Fustat: Gamal Mubarak song | Mohsen al-Sayed's song - I am going to have to get the lyrics. ✪ Gary Wasserman - The AIPAC Case and Anti-Semitism - washingtonpost.com | Ludicrously poor argumentation in this piece: that there was no conviction in the Rosen-Weissman case does not mean there was no wrongdoing, and this is in such bad faith: "Of course the case hasn't been all bad for conspirators. The same year AIPAC fired its lobbyists, it used the troubles to raise a record $45 million. And having opponents exaggerate a lobby's power ends up enhancing that power." So now he's concerned that AIPAC used the incident to raise money? ✪ EGYPT: Gamal Mubarak turns to the Web | Babylon & Beyond | Los Angeles Times | On Gamal's web call-in, Sharek: "All questions were filtered by NDP officials." Need I say more?
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