In Translation: Atwan on the Gulf and the Brothers

Our In Translation series is back in 2013 thanks to the support of Industry Arabic, the translation service you should use for your professional, academic, NGO or whatever needs in Arabic. Please check them out.

What better way to start the year than to look at the big picture in the region. The war of words from the UAE against the Muslim Brotherhood this month — with senior Egyptian officials making the trip to Abu Dhabi to appeal, unsuccessfully, for the release of 11 Egyptians accused of setting up a Muslim Brotherhood franchise in the UAE — has highlighted yet again the wider apprehension of Gulf rulers about the rise of the movement in the region. This echoes the same rulers’ reluctance (apart, arguably, from Qatar) to embrace the 2011 uprisings. In the piece below, the editor of al-Quds al-Arabi (the only Arabic-language London-based paper that is not controlled by Saudi Arabia, which normally adopts a more Arab nationalist line than its counterparts al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat) maps out the regional dynamics of the tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and Gulf autocrats.

I particularly like the paradoxes he highlights, from these autocrats’ traditional reliance on ultra-conservative sheikhs for their legitimization (and how some of these sheikhs are now getting out of control, largely because of social media) to the Brotherhood’s undemocratic methods of operation as a secret society to the fact that they represent the strongest force pushing for more formal democracy, such as an elected parliament.

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"The Uprising is Over. But What Is the Price of Bahrain's Victory?"

The Uprising is Over. But What Is the Price of Bahrain’s Victory?

So asks Bahrain watcher Justin Gengler in a post on September 30 regarding the state of the protests there that began on February 14, 2011 in the island nation, where despite an ever-growing dearth of international media coverage, tweeps are still being arrested for criticizing the ruling family, the riot police are surrounding entire villages to go after “enemies of the state,” whether they are dissidents or street thugs, and jail sentences are upheld against doctors who treat injured protestors:

[T]he uprising proper has ended.  Or, rather, it was made to end by the sweeping security response initiated with the State of National Security and subsequently entrenched via Bahrain’s effective “sectarianism as security” political strategy.  In this sense, the actual rebellion has long been over, and “major combat operations,” as some like to say, essentially were concluded with the second clearing (and for good measure razing) of the former Pearl Roundabout.

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The Iranian rial and the price of Saudi chicken

Any connection here? 

The Iranian Regime Is In Trouble - World Report

The devaluation of Iran's currency, the rial, by as much as 40 percent in the last few days has made it very difficult for the average Iranian to afford everyday food stuffs. It is no surprise that protests have broken out in Tehran's central bazaar and its surrounding streets. The bazaar is a critical pillar of support for the Iranian regime. The loss of confidence among Iran's merchant and business classes could shake the foundations of the Islamic Republic.

Chicken price rises lead Saudis to tweet - FT.com

Saudi Arabians are forgoing one of their favourite foods as a Twitter campaign against high poultry prices spreads.

The “Let it Rot” campaign urges Saudis to refrain from eating chicken to punish traders who they say have raised prices by about 40 per cent in the past two weeks.

Saudi Arabia is a leading supplier of chicken, a staple in the country, to neighbouring countries and an export ban imposed this week in an effort to defuse the anger is likely to trigger regional shortages.

One would think not if Saudi chicken are domestically produced. Still, there's much schadenfreude about the troubles of the Iranian economy (which appear not to target regime officials, as "smart sanction" advocates argued, but ordinary people in the hope that this will put pressure on the government — something that led to a disaster in Iraq) and much less about Saudi Arabia's.  

Here's an argument that the rial's devaluation is not as serious as might appear, because the government itself is the main foreign currency earner. The conclusion:

Does all this mean that Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse, as Israel’s Finance Minster reportedly said?  The answer is no, because most of the economy is shielded from this exchange rate, though not from the ill effects of the sanctions, which will continue to bite for a while. Would it cause sufficient economic pain that would push the Iranian government to make concessions in its nuclear standoff with the West?  The answer is not likely.  The multiple exchange rate system, as inefficient as it is, will protect the people below the median income, to whom the Ahmadinejad government is most responsive.

Update: Paul Mutter has a round-up of the issue of the Iranian rial at PBS' TehranBureau

The social media batteground in the Gulf

 On the one hand, it's deeply worrying that the government is seeking to create a surveillance culture that encompasses spying on all digital media.

On the other, that same government would struggle to arrange a children's party if provided with a clown, a bouncy castle, some children and an unlimited supply of jelly.

The satirist Daily Mash on new British online surveillance laws 

Hamza KashgariOn the one hand, a Wahhabi fatwa against Twitter. On the other, a princely stake from an Al Saud in the platform.

And on the other other hand, a growing campaign across the region to censor - and censure - dissent from social media users that is no laughing matter.

Social media is certainty shaking up the Kingdom. Hamza Kashgari was arrested for "blasphemous" tweets - his supporters now assert that so desperate were the Saudi authorities to make an example of him to score points, they pressured Malaysian officials into arresting and extraditing him while he was traveling around Malaysia, and then lying about this by claiming they had detained him at an airport.

In addition to the aforementioned fatwa, at least three Saudi journalists have been arrested and detained for their role in participating in or covering Shia demonstrations in the eastern part of the country. As Toby C. Jones noted, the Shia demonizing campaign of spring 2011 had as much to do with fear of losing influence in Bahrain - and perhaps more so - as it did with fear of having to make concessions to the country's Shia citizens and rein in the Wahhabi establishment:

In Saudi Arabia, in dozens of places, hundreds of protesters routinely assembled, calling for relatively minor concessions, including greater religious tolerance and the release of Shiite political prisoners. But confronted by the sweeping changes underway across the region, officials claimed that the protests at home and especially in Bahrain, if they were allowed to succeed, would lead to a catastrophe - a democratic state next door controlled by a Shiite majority, one they insisted would take marching orders from Tehran.

Given the heavy-handedness of the Saudi authorities, online anonymity is a safer way to organize than congregating in a town square. But the net is heavily monitored nonetheless, and stepping out into the sun rarely ends well. "March 11—the intended Day of Rage—came and went without mass protest," Madawi Al-Rasheed wrote last month, and in the process of turnout and crackdown, at least one Saudi YouTuber was disappeared by the authorities.

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The childishness of Gulf geopolitics

The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to the island of Abu Musa has caused quite a stir among the GCC states. Iran occupies the island (and other nearby ones) but the UAE says they were acquired by Iran illegally and belong to the Emirates. 

The picture on the right shows a Google Earth screengrab of football pitch built near an airport on Abu Musa. I guess the Iranians decided to send a message about the Gulf being theirs. One only wonders why they had to do so in English rather than, say, Farsi or Arabic.

[Thanks, PM]

Dispatch from Qatar: Pigeons 36, Falcons 0

Joseph Hammond sent in this dispatch from Qatar.

This past weekend Qatari falconers and falconry fans gathered for the start of the 3rd Qatar International Falcon and Hunting Festival and event which will see some 1300 birds and their owners compete before it concludes on February 2nd. The festival will also include dog racing, target shooting demonstrations and a “Junior Falconer” competition all held under the patronage of Shiekh Joaan bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Prizes include new luxury landcrusiers for the winners.

Journalists which made the hour drive near the Saudi border, where the event was held, had to wait on the roadside for off-road transport to the desert location of the event. A Qatari organizer arrived in his land cruiser. The driver tossed a dead pigeon from the backseat before journalists climbed in. As the press was taxied to the event, the owner’s prized falcon road “shotgun” next to him.

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Egypt: worrying about the wrong foreign funding

In July, a mini-crisis of sorts erupted between Egypt and the United States over foreign funding. The spark was probably the congressional testimony of the new US ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, in June, in which she said that the US was earmarking $40m for USAID democracy and governance spending.

By late July, the $40m figure was being cited in the Egyptian media, and sometimes was inflated to $60m, the figure that the US State Dept. had considered spending earlier in the year. Public records showed that most of the money went to the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the International Federation for Electoral Systems (IFES) — some of which they no doubt redistributed to local partners. The media began to raise up a storm, while the government demanded clarifications from the US.

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UAE Activists on trial

The piece below has been contributed by Jenifer Fenton, a freelance journalist based in the UAE, formerly with CNN.

Five activists charged with opposing the government and insulting the country’s leadership returned to court on Monday in the United Arab Emirates. Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist and blogger, and four others - who face up to five years in prison if convicted - have pleaded not guilty.

Behind closed doors in Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court the prosecution called two more witnesses who testified about the activists’ internet articles and blogs. There was a gathering of about 50 pro-government demonstrators outside the courthouse who protesting against the five: Emiratis Mansoor, Nasser bin Ghaith, Fahad Salim Dalk and Hassan Ali Al Khamis; and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, who does not carry identification papers.

Earlier this year, Mansoor was among 133 Emiratis who signed a petition to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Supreme Council of the seven Emirates asking for the country to have direct elections.  The group also asked that the Federal National Council (FNC) be granted legislative powers; the body is only an advisory one.

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The U.S.-Saudi “Special Relationship” and the Arab Spring

The following long piece was contributed by Arabist reader Paul Mutter.

Recently, the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies announced the engagement of a Saudi princess to a Bahraini prince. A substantial bridal party has preceded her, though: 4,000 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, mostly from Saudi Arabia, have arrived in Bahrain since March 14th, 2011. Some 1,600 Saudi soldiers will remain in the country indefinitely to safeguard the regime there from further “disturbances,” i.e., pro-democracy protests.

Bahrain’s government will be seeking accommodations for these soldiers in the form of new, permanent GCC bases. This process will be helped along by the billions of dollars in aid that Bahrain is set to receive from the GCC.

The GCC presence has freed up the hard-pressed Bahraini security forces to take more “proactive” actions such as these. The U.S. has called on all parties to exercise restraint – though this has fallen on deaf ears with respect to Bahraini security forces.

Some dowry. 

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Some thoughts on GCC enlargement

There's been a lot of ink spilled — and some pretty funny jokes — about the surprise announcement that Jordan and Morocco might join the GCC. I'll let someone else provide the Gulf logic for this move (see below) and follow that with some links to pieces looking at things from various angles. But first I want to talk about this generally and then from the specifically Moroccan perspective.

The GCC announcement appears to me first and foremost an economic and political stabilization package for two countries that are traditional security subcontractors to the GCC states as well as frequent recipients of their largesse — and which have similar political systems but are much more fragile because they are not insulated by wads of oil money. The Iran aspect has been trumpeted, but Morocco and Jordan were already on that bandwagon anyway, so I think it's secondary.

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Paradise Lost: the original Gulfies

A fascinating paper by British anthropologist Jeffery Rose suggests that, about 8,000 years ago, what we know as the Persian or Arab Gulf was home was above water and inhabited. A kind of Middle Eastern Atlantis, if you will, where an original Gulfie civilization prospered away from the deserts.

Veiled beneath the Persian Gulf, a once-fertile landmass may have supported some of the earliest humans outside Africa some 75,000 to 100,000 years ago, a new review of research suggests.

At its peak, the floodplain now below the Gulf would have been about the size of Great Britain, and then shrank as water began to flood the area. Then, about 8,000 years ago, the land would have been swallowed up by the Indian Ocean, the review scientist said.

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Gulf justice

The backwardness of the religious and political leaders of the Gulf Arabs, combined with their vast wealth, has been the undoing of the contemporary Arab world — perhaps even more so than all the wars with Israel. From HRW:

Saudi Arabia: Where Fathers Rule and Courts Oblige

Saudi judges have repeatedly granted fathers the right to interfere arbitrarily in their adult children's private lives, in serious violation of their right to privacy and to establish families freely, Human Rights Watch said today. Fathers have imprisoned their adult daughters for "disobedience" and prevented their marriage, and have been granted custody over a grandchild without valid reason, all with the support of the courts.

UAE: Spousal Abuse Never a ‘Right’

A decision by the United Arab Emirates Federal Supreme Court upholding a husband's right to "chastise" his wife and children with physical abuse violates the right of the country's women and children to liberty, security, and equality in the family - and potentially their right to life, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling, citing the UAE penal code, sanctions beating and other forms of punishment or coercion providing the violence leaves no physical marks.

Rami Khouri on Rodham-Clinton

Rami Khouri — whom I consider one the most thoughtful and analytically incisive Arab commentators around — gives Hillary Clinton a well-deserved putdown. Here's his very articulate take:

Two Clinton statements during her Gulf trip this week were particularly revealing of why Washington continues to fail in its missions in our region. The first was her expression of concern that Iran is turning into a military dictatorship: “We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament, is being supplanted, and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship,” Clinton said.

Half a century of American foreign policy flatly contradicts this sentiment (which is why Clinton heard soft chuckles and a few muffled guffaws as she spoke). The US has adored military dictatorships in the Arab world, and has long supported states dominated by the shadowy world of intelligence services. This became even more obvious after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Washington intensified cooperation with Arab intelligence services in the fight against Al-Qaeda and other terror groups. 

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Biggus Dickus

Oh, the joy of this reporter:

A high level Pakistani diplomat has been rejected as Ambassador of Saudi Arabia because his name, Akbar Zib, equates to "Biggest Dick" in Arabic. Saudi officials, apparently overwhelmed by the idea of the name, put their foot down and gave the idea of his being posted there, the kibosh.

Akbar Zib is no newcomer to politics, in fact you could say he's a pretty big deal. This long-ranging high level diplomat has worked with some of the largest members of world governments, players charged with negotiating the outcome of the world's current events.

Other GCC countries have refused [Ar] his credentials, too. Via Anonymous Arabist.

Links for 10.14.09 to 10.18.09

Is Obama giving up on democracy in Iran? | Because Haaretz really, really cares. ✪ 'Delegitimization of Israel must be delegitimized' | Great pic on this FLC post. ✪ Al Jazeera English - Focus - Leadership 'let down' Palestinians | As`ad AbuKhalil. ✪ ANALYSIS / U.S. using Goldstone report to punish Netanyahu - Haaretz - Israel News | Ridiculous argument. ✪ Egypt: 29 years between a president and his heir | Bikya Masr | Ayman Nour on Mubarak's Egypt. ✪ Nationalism in the Gulf State | A LSE paper on GCC nationalism by Neil Partrick. ✪ In Morocco, editor imprisoned, court shutters paper - Committee to Protect Journalists | al-Michaal newspaper closed over articles on king's health. Also rumors of closing down of Le Journal, TBC. ✪ ei: EI exclusive video: Protesters shout down Ehud Olmert in Chicago | "The demonstration was mobilized last week after organizers learned of the lecture, paid for by a grant provided by Jordan's King Abdullah II." ✪ FT.com / UK - Storm over Egypt's Israeli links | On the Hala Mustafa / normalization debate. ✪ Citing Work Of Right-Wing Intern Spy, GOP Accuses Muslim Group Of Infiltrating Hill With Intern 'Spies' | TPMMuckraker | "Four House Republicans are charging that the Council on American Islamic Relations is infiltrating Capitol Hill with undercover interns, and they're basing the charge on a WND-published book that itself is based on the work of a man who posed as a Muslim to infiltrate CAIR as ... an intern!" ✪ Confessions of an AIPAC Veteran | Helena Cobban profiles Israel operative Tom Dine. ✪ Brian Whitaker's blog | The son also rises | Seif Qadhafi gets put in charge of, well, almost everything. ✪ First Egyptian School Closes For Swine Flu - Daily News | Mere de Dieu girls' school -- a stone's throw from Arabist HQ -- closed. ✪ U.S. Iran plan is a bunker-busting bomb - thestar.com | That's not very nice.
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Links for 09.09.09 to 09.10.09

The Reporter’s Account: 4 Days With the Taliban - At War Blog - NYTimes.com | ✪ ISRAEL: Prime Minister Netanyahu's secret trip to...where? | Although Arab press said he went to an unnamed Arab country, it's more likely that secret trip was to Russia to meet Putin over military cooperation with Iran. ✪ RUSI The Gulf States and a fourth Gulf War | The GCC in the event of a confrontation with Iran. ✪ Israeli rights group says 320 minors died in Gaza war (AFP) | Israel's "War on Kids". ✪ Libyan Jihad Revisions — jihadica | Yet another jihadi revisionist book.
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Oh Brother, Can You Spare an F-16

How the Middle East is providing recession protection for government-connected US weapons manufacturers:
WASHINGTON — Despite a recession that knocked down global arms sales last year, the United States expanded its role as the world’s leading weapons supplier, increasing its share to more than two-thirds of all foreign armaments deals, according to a new Congressional study. The United States signed weapons agreements valued at $37.8 billion in 2008, or 68.4 percent of all business in the global arms bazaar, up significantly from American sales of $25.4 billion the year before.\\ ... The increase in American weapons sales around the world “was attributable not only to major new orders from clients in the Near East and in Asia, but also to the continuation of significant equipment and support services contracts with a broad-based number of U.S. clients globally,” according to the study, titled “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations.”
Note that it's not just Middle Easterners paying out of pocket for this, but also the American taxpayer who is underwriting some of these purchases in form of military aid designed to redirect US funding to those arms manufacturers. This is not just a question of US jobs in this sector, since many of these manufacturers collaborate with foreign firms, and of course their profits are shared among their global shareholders, not just American ones. And it's not just oil-rich states. The article adds:
The top buyers in the developing world in 2008 were the United Arab Emirates, which signed $9.7 billion in arms deals; Saudi Arabia, which signed $8.7 billion in weapons agreements; and Morocco, with $5.4 billion in arms purchases.
Morocco is a relatively resource-poor state that receives considerable amounts of aid (from the West and from Gulf allies) and faces no serious conventional threat; yet it has for instance decided to get a bunch of F16s. Its regional rival is Algeria, in the context of the Western Sahara conflict, and Algeria is itself making significant purchases (especially from Russia.) The silly arms race between Algeria and Morocco, two countries that have poor rankings in UN human development reports and deep socio-economic problems, is useful all around: for Moroccan and Algerian generals, for governments selling the weapons (thus cementing alliances and dependence relationships), and of course for the companies. In this context, it's no surprise there is little genuine interest for solving the Western Sahara conflict or encouraging Moroccan-Algerian reconciliation. In the Persian Gulf, one sees not only the patterns of dependence of absolute monarchies on this recycling of petrodollars into weapondollars (here's more on the petrodollar-weapondollar coalition in the Middle East), but also the built-in interest in maintaining high threat levels and the possibility of war (for instance in talking up the possibility of an attack on Iran and its consequences).
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Links for 08.09.09 to 08.13.09

Moises Naim -- A New Recipe for Autocrats Around The World - washingtonpost.com | Some good stuff there, but he goes to easy on Mossad and the CIA - they would not be scapegoats if it wasn't sometimes true! The Groping Elephant in the Room: Sexual Harassment in the Arab World « the long slumber | More from The Long Slumber on sexual harassment in the Arab word - recommended, thought-provoking reading. شارك - حوار مفتوح لشباب مصر مع جمال مبارك | Tell me this man is not running for president... Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle | Mother Jones | Nothing to do with the Middle East, but outrageous. BBC NEWS | Middle East | Frustrated dreams of young Egyptians | Living in the City of the Dead: "I dream of leaving this place. One day we will buy a new home and pretend we have lived there all our lives." Get Good at Arabic « MediaShack | Good tips on picking up the lingo - this method really works although it means you must be disciplined and dedicated (and have no other job, ideally). Even if it might seem a tiny bit exploitative. 'Just World News' with Helena Cobban: Agha, Malley, and some other ideas | Helena Cobban's critique of the Malley/Agha op-ed, saying it's quite banal. Well yes and no: it's banal because experts and many Israelis and Palestinians have known it for a long time (that it's about 1948), but it's still important to reiterate the point because politicians (in Israel/Palestine, among the two diasporas and among foreigners) still pretend otherwise. Op-Ed Contributors - The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything - NYTimes.com | Malley and Agha say it's all about 1948: "For years, virtually all attention has been focused on the question of a future Palestinian state, its borders and powers. As Israelis make plain by talking about the imperative of a Jewish state, and as Palestinians highlight when they evoke the refugees’ rights, the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel." Les ministres israéliens divisés sur la libération de Marwan Barghouti - Proche-Orient - Le Monde.fr | Israelis pols split about whether or not to free Marwan Barghouti. Dar Al Hayat - Ayoon Wa Azan (Why Are Men Allowed to Wear Dresses?) | Jihad al-Khazen suggests (jokingly?) that Gulf Arabs buy up the Observer, which is shutting down (alas, although perhaps they shouldn't have spent so much money on stupid lifestyle supplements and Nigella Lawson pageantry.) Will the leader of Lebanon's Druze really form an alliance with Hezbollah? - By Lee Smith - Slate Magazine | Weird Slate story in whcih Walid Jumblatt is celebrated as hero, disowns his old friends, and they react: "His former American friends are not amused. "I don't believe for a minute that he's sorry he met with the dreaded neocons, and I'm sorry he feels somehow compelled to say that," said Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration's deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy. "I just hope he keeps sending all of us that nice wine from the Bekaa."" Three soldiers, Al-Qaeda leader killed in Yemeni clashes - AL SHORFA | Note that this site is funded by US Central Command. I don't know much about Yemen, but isn't it rather odd to refer to the insurgents in Yemen to al-Qaeda (as opposed to people motivated by local grievances, as a recent International Crisis Group report argued)? Le Figaro - International : Mauritanie : attentat suicidedevant l'ambassade de France | Suicide bombing outside French embassy in Mauritania.
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Links for 08.09.09 to 08.12.09

Get Good at Arabic « MediaShack | Good tips on picking up the lingo - this method really works although it means you must be disciplined and dedicated (and have no other job, ideally). Even if it might seem a tiny bit exploitative. 'Just World News' with Helena Cobban: Agha, Malley, and some other ideas | Helena Cobban's critique of the Malley/Agha op-ed, saying it's quite banal. Well yes and no: it's banal because experts and many Israelis and Palestinians have known it for a long time (that it's about 1948), but it's still important to reiterate the point because politicians (in Israel/Palestine, among the two diasporas and among foreigners) still pretend otherwise. Op-Ed Contributors - The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything - NYTimes.com | Malley and Agha say it's all about 1948: "For years, virtually all attention has been focused on the question of a future Palestinian state, its borders and powers. As Israelis make plain by talking about the imperative of a Jewish state, and as Palestinians highlight when they evoke the refugees’ rights, the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel." Les ministres israéliens divisés sur la libération de Marwan Barghouti - Proche-Orient - Le Monde.fr | Israelis pols split about whether or not to free Marwan Barghouti. Dar Al Hayat - Ayoon Wa Azan (Why Are Men Allowed to Wear Dresses?) | Jihad al-Khazen suggests (jokingly?) that Gulf Arabs buy up the Observer, which is shutting down (alas, although perhaps they shouldn't have spent so much money on stupid lifestyle supplements and Nigella Lawson pageantry.) Will the leader of Lebanon's Druze really form an alliance with Hezbollah? - By Lee Smith - Slate Magazine | Weird Slate story in whcih Walid Jumblatt is celebrated as hero, disowns his old friends, and they react: "His former American friends are not amused. "I don't believe for a minute that he's sorry he met with the dreaded neocons, and I'm sorry he feels somehow compelled to say that," said Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration's deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy. "I just hope he keeps sending all of us that nice wine from the Bekaa."" Three soldiers, Al-Qaeda leader killed in Yemeni clashes - AL SHORFA | Note that this site is funded by US Central Command. I don't know much about Yemen, but isn't it rather odd to refer to the insurgents in Yemen to al-Qaeda (as opposed to people motivated by local grievances, as a recent International Crisis Group report argued)? Le Figaro - International : Mauritanie : attentat suicidedevant l'ambassade de France | Suicide bombing outside French embassy in Mauritania.
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