The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Saudi Arabia
Is the State Dept. losing patience with KSA/UAE over Qatar?

There was a statement yesterday by the spokesperson of the State Department, Heather Nauert, whose language and tone seemed to be shifting blame/responsibility for the continuing Qatar crisis on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. See the video below at 01:00.

Transcript here:

Since the embargo was first enforced on June the fifth, the Secretary has had more than twenty phone calls and meetings with Gulf and other regional and international actors. The interactions have included three phone calls and two in-person meetings with the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, three phone calls with the Foreign Minister of Qatar, and three calls with the Qatari Emir. Numerous other calls have taken place with the leaders of UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and others.

**Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf States have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

At this point we are left with one simple question: were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long, simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?**

The Secretary is determined to remain engaged as we monitor the situation. He has been delivering the same message to other diplomats overseas. We are encouraging all sides to deescalate tensions and engage in constructive dialogue.

We once again call on all parties to focus on the core, regional and international goal of fighting terrorism, to meet the commitments that were made in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and to constructively resolve this dispute.

In Translation: Nationalism is the new sectarianism

While we await what the era of the Trump presidency will bring for the Middle East, local actors are not wasting time and trying to create their own realities. For Saudi Arabia, the setback faced in Syria (now ever more firmly in an Iranian-Russian sphere of influence) means a refocus on Iraq - arguably more important in its regional rivalry with Iran than a ravaged Syria. In the piece below, a writer for the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbollah, anti-imperalist, anti-Saudi and pro-Iran) argues that this shift underscores a new Saudi strategy based of reviving Arab nationalism to replace the Sunni-Shia sectaranism (or, as a new book argues, sectarianization) that is so often condemned and linked with jihadist extremism.

This article was translated by our partners at Industry Arabic – hire them for your translation needs.

Saudi Arabia’s Enticements: “Arabism” vs. the Resistance

Khalil Kawtharani, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 9 February 2017

Now that the plan to sow Sunni-Shia strife has failed and the weakness of the forces that Washington and Riyadh relied upon has become evident, and now that ISIS’ regional influence has declined sharply as the world has moved decisively against takfiri extremism, it seems that the new plan is in need of a different polarizing element — one based on focusing solely on Iran and portraying its regional allies as mere client actors. This means that the confrontation needs new labels, and Saudi Arabia could find no better banner to raise than “Arabism against Persianism,” which opens a path for the country to work among Shia and allows it to hope for political breakthroughs that had been impossible when it raised the banner of opposing the expansion of Shia influence.

About a year ago, Saudi Arabia returned to Iraq in formal garb. With the opening of its embassy in Baghdad, Riyadh ended a two decade-long era in which its presence there had been restricted to security channels.

However, the evolution represented by this diplomatic opening toward its northern neighbor — which followed the removal of Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival there, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — soon revealed that the kingdom’s intentions toward Iraq had not changed, intentions which Iraqis say have been characterized by negativity all along. It did not take long until the whole spectrum of Baghdad’s ruling coalition converged upon the need for the new ambassador to be withdrawn, accusing him of overstepping his diplomatic role and issuing statements which went beyond that which everyone considered acceptable, including those advocating for engagement with the kingdom. Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan — who had a security background — was removed, leaving the embassy to the chargé d’affaires, Abdulaziz al-Shammari, who is still managing the embassy because Saudi Arabia has not yet appointed a successor to Sabhan.

Sabhan was recently appointed Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, and he now seems to be a minister for practically everything save that which his title refers to. These days he monitors multiple regional issues (including Lebanon), none of which are related to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This can be explained by Riyadh’s insistence that he play his previous role (that of restructuring the “Sunni street”) with the matter no longer limited to Iraq.

Amid all these changes, one thing is still guaranteed: Saudi Arabia does not want the clock to be turned back with its northern neighbor, and it wants to leverage the divided Iraqi home front to achieve a breakthrough and prevent its Iranian adversary from gaining a complete hold over Iraqi decision-making. For all this, the Saudis believe it was still within their abilities to reserve a seat in the lineup of influential players in formulating the “new Iraq,” or, “post-ISIS Iraq.”

“Arabism” instead of “sectarianism”?

This being said, decision-makers in the palaces of Jeddah and Riyadh have become fully convinced of the need to change the region’s modus operandi in general and in Iraq in particular, given that it is such an important regional testing ground. The new approach, established silently, can be summed up in the idea of leveraging the nationalist rhetoric of Arabism as an alternative to a sectarian and religious discourse focused on the necessity of “defending the Sunni people against Safavid expansion.” The “expansion” Saudi Arabia wants to stand against will now be primarily “Persian,” after having previously been portrayed largely as “Magian Safavid.” Two factors have brought the Saudis to the aforementioned conclusion: First, the sectarian card is now played out after the spread of the terrorism phenomenon and after receiving international messages that this issue will soon wind down. Second, it now senses the need to attract a larger segment of Shias in Iraq, which there is no way to do through its previous sectarian discourse.

Beirut embassy

For some time, Saudis working on the Iraqi issue have been trying to prepare an expanded lineup including Iraqi figures with a nationalist background or who are inclined toward the rhetoric of Arabism. What they are seeking is to attract a larger spectrum of these figures, open up to them, and open permanent channels of communication with them — especially Shias and those who view Iranian policies in the region with suspicion. Indeed, the Saudi embassies in both Baghdad and Beirut have already seen a series of meetings with a number of Iraqi figures, some of whom have not been known to have previous ties to Saudi policy in Iraq. All of this has been conducted under the notable supervision of Thamer al-Sabhan. In his latest two visits to Beirut, he has spoken clearly and explicitly with those he met about the kingdom’s new approach in Iraq. Perhaps the Saudis chose Beirut to hold a portion of these meetings as a way of operating away from the embarrassment that could be caused by holding similar meetings in the Baghdad embassy.

“Free market” at the Iraqi borders

In this context, arrangements are underway to establish a free trade zone in the Saudi city of Arar, which is near the Iraqi border. Riyadh expects this project will provide cover for more dynamic action with various collaborators inside Iraq, far away from the security and logistical complications in Baghdad. The new market is to be a camouflaged platform for the new Saudi operations, which will require broader and more comprehensive action than was previously exerted. This project was preceded by Saudi activity in this area, however it had been at a different level. The volume of Saudi communication with the sheikhs of clans and tribes in Iraq’s southernmost area — which overlap with Saudi Arabia geographically — has become notable. Indeed, the Saudis have succeeded in winning the friendship of some of the sheikhs of the tribes present inside Iraqi territory.

This has intersected with the appearance, a few days ago, of a number of Iraqi guests at the Al-Jenadriyah festival held annually in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is keen to invite new names to the festival, and those in the know say the guest list is not selected arbitrarily. Additionally, other conferences have been arranged by Saudi circles, outside of the spotlight, to discuss “Iraqi national issues,” the means of confronting “Persian ambitions,” and how to present a new discourse in the media.

Upcoming parliamentary elections

How does Riyadh translate its new approach into tangible progress? Decision-makers in the kingdom believe that entry into the Iraqi arena involves passing through the gates of elections — the sole matter that ensures continued Saudi efforts to network inside decision-making circles in Baghdad. This can explain the Saudi focus on expanding extensive contacts with Iraqi movements and figures: for Riyadh, the matter is no more than a preliminary to leveraging the parliamentary elections.

However, these Saudi initiatives still face one obstacle – the electoral law, which controls who the potential winners will be in any electoral round. Because Riyadh suffers from having cut communication links with most political parties active in Baghdad, there is nothing left for it but to resort to finding counterbalancing independent figures and working to prop them up to benefit from them. There is no other way to achieve this aim than an electoral law that involves independent candidate electoral districts and a first-past-the-post system. If the system is approved, Riyadh hopes it will result in about 200 lawmakers in the new parliament who either affiliated with it or at least not suspected of being pro-Tehran, once the power of the political parties is broken — an issue which the political and religious authorities in Iraq have begun to pay attention to. Despite the calls to adopt a system of single-member districts — which some hope would inject new blood into ruling circles — the proposal will likely be withdrawn from discussion in the coming days.

Over the past two weeks, Riyadh has felt more comfortable in its operations in Iraq since the installation of the new American administration. In the statements of Donald Trump, the Saudis sense a wider margin for their activity in Baghdad, especially since the new president complains about Iran’s role in Iraq at every opportunity. The new era of Saudi-American convergence was confirmed with a question posed by an American official a few days ago to an Iraqi official about the possibility that Baghdad would abandon Washington for the sake of “others” after “all it had done to assist them in the war on terror” — a reference to the fear that Iraq will continue to draw closer to Tehran. Under the previous administration, Saudi rulers pleaded with former Vice President Joe Biden to strike Iran, only to find that their pleas fell on deaf ears. Now they finally sense that those days are gone forever, and a new age has begun.

In Translation: The Saudi Transition and an Anxious Egypt

Ever since King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne a few weeks ago, the Arab press has been rife with speculation that he intends to reset Saudi foreign policy. Some, particularly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, are speculating rather wildly that Riyadh wants to make peace with political Islam after financing the Sisi regime in Egypt that decimated the Brotherhood and encouraged similar anti-Islamist clampdowns elsewhere. Others have pointed to a Saudi refocusing Iran, rather than Islamism as the chief threat – particularly as the Arab Islamists have retreated in many countries. The idea of a Saudi push for a "united Sunni front" against Shia Iran and its regional clients makes some sense after the Iran-allied Houthis took control of Sanaa, leading Riyadh to once again reach out to the Yemeni Muslim Brothers as a counterbalance. 

The Sisi regime and its media has reacted quite badly to all this, particularly since so much of what stands as "ideology" of this regime is based around building the Brotherhood into some all-powerful bogeyman. The dependency of this regime on Gulf financing makes it doubly nervous to see a rapprochement between Salman and Turkey's Erdogan, who is perhaps the only regional leader that continues to call Sisi a putschist. In cutting through all the wild speculation surrounding Salman's intentions and the dual summits he held over the weekend with Erdogan and Sisi, some of the more plausible readings of Saudi intentions have come from Saudis themselves. Khaled al-Dakheel, a prominent columnist in al-Hayat, penned an interesting piece on this a few days ago, which we translate below. Note in particular the paragraph in which he lambasts the Sisi regime's obsession with scapegoating the Brotherhood and its inability to build a coherent alternative around which Egyptians could rally. 

Our In Translation series is made possible with the support of Industry Arabic, a full-service Arabic translation service staffed by experienced linguistic ninjas. They have a black belt in Hans Wehr. Please help them support us by hiring them for the next translation job you or your company has.


The Saudi Transition and an Anxious Egypt

By Khaled El-Dakheel, al-Hayat, 1 March 2015

After the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Egypt has clearly been vexed with anxiety, and the source of this anxiety is obviously Egypt’s worries about the political orientation of the new Saudi monarch Salman bin Abdulaziz. The biggest mouthpiece of this concern and anxiety has been the Egyptian media, which expresses doubt that the position of King Salman toward the Muslim Brotherhood is not as firm or decisive as that of the late King Abdullah, and that he may incline toward a rapprochement and possibly alliance with Qatar and Turkey. As a result, his stance toward Egypt would come with boundaries, conditions and requirements that did not exist under King Abdullah. In other words, there is anxiety that Saudi support for Egypt will decline, or that this support will be part of a new political package that the new Saudi crown deems important. Most likely this anxiety was present among Egypt’s leadership before the death of King Abdullah and before it was expressed by the media.

It is only natural and to be expected that Egypt would be worried about a change of leadership in an ally as important as Saudi Arabia and at a time as turbulent as this, especially amid the difficult political and economic circumstances in Egypt. However, what is not natural is the way that this concern has been expressed in the media, where it has reached a level of hysteria.

This was noted by Egyptian writer Mostafa al-Naggar in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 23 February, where he drew attention to the Egyptian media’s complicity in “vile slander against Qatar and in hitting the Saudi regime below the belt.” This indicates that at least some of the Egyptian media is still hostage to the discourse of the 1950s and 1960s, when vile words, veiled threats, and hitting below the belt were used to exert pressure and engage in blackmail. It did not occur to those responsible for this that resorting to such discourse provokes anxiety outside of Egypt, first because it means that Egypt – or at least some people in Egypt – have not changed since the region and the world have changed after the first popular revolution in Egypt’s history.

The second reason it provokes concern is because it suggests that the Egyptian media at least harbors a deep-rooted sentiment that the choice made by the Egyptian state after the 30 June Revolution may be more fragile that it appears. If this is the case, it really does give cause for concern. Amid the current unrest in the Arab world, Egypt’s stability, and before and after it the stability of Saudi Arabia, are no longer just a strategic interest for these two countries alone, but they are a strategic interest for the Arab world as a whole, as well as for the international system. It was on this basis that King Salman Abdulaziz offered reassurance that Saudi support for Egypt would not change.

Where’s the problem then? As I indicated, the problem seems to be in the manner and framework of this support. Some in Egypt would like Saudi support to be in the form of an open-ended royal gift or grant: a blank check, as they say. Saudi Arabia should not seek a rapprochement with Turkey, for example, because they sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood. This view ignores the fact that relations between countries are not based on such a viewpoint, a viewpoint that is sentimental and not political. The more rational, political viewpoint is that Saudi-Egyptian relations should not be contingent upon a certain stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood or a certain stance toward Turkey. 

If the stability of Egypt is a strategic interest of Saudi Arabia – and it is – Saudi Arabia must deal treat the Brotherhood issue as essentially a domestic Egyptian issue, and to approach it from the standpoint of its influence on Egypt’s stability first, then the regional repercussions and thus on Saudi Arabia second. From the same perspective, Saudi Arabia’s continued alienation from Turkey – as wished for by some in Egypt – does not serve regional balances at this stage, as these balances are the main pillar of the region’s stability and thus of Egypt’s stability as well. Turkey is one of the most important countries in the region in terms of economic and military capabilities and political role. This is in addition to the fact that it is a member of NATO and the G20, and enjoys a strategic position between the Arab world on the one hand and Israel and Iran on the other, as a country that possesses a clear political and economic project that is in contradiction with Israel’s settlement project as well as with Iran’s sectarian project. Turkey also is significant as the secular nation-state whose project and regional policies are most likely to intersect with Arab interests. However, before anything else, this presupposes that there is an Arab plan. At this moment, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the Arab countries best poised to consider launching and sponsoring such a project. This is what Saudi Arabia and Egypt should be occupied with, not Turkey’s stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

The irony is that in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has become a sort of ideological and political complex, a destructive complex that needs to be deconstructed, and a distinction needs to be drawn against the position towards the Brotherhood and what the country needs on the regional level. Egypt did not accept that Turkey described what happened on 30 June 2013 as a military coup. However, most countries in the world consider it to be a coup. Does this mean that relations should be cut off with these countries too? If it is important for Egypt that the world recognizes that what happened then was a revolution – which is its right – it must back that up politically and constitutionally at home before it tries to do so abroad. Then, if the Muslim Brotherhood issue blows up in this way, it is a natural result of the absence of an Egyptian intellectual and political project for the majority of Egyptians to rally around. In the same context, the scale of the Muslim Brotherhood issue both inside and outside Egypt indicates the continued crisis of governance in the Arab world, and this crisis is the primary reason that Arab countries suffer from stumbling growth and the resulting flare-ups that led to the Arab revolutions and it is because of this that they have hit intellectual and political dead-ends.

Here let us pause and ask: is that everything? Fortunately, it appears that what was impossible to achieve has begun to be achieved at least in part. Today is the second day of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit, and tomorrow begins his official visit to Riyadh. Today (Sunday) Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also arrives in Riyadh. Is this a coincidence or a prior arrangement? It does not look like there will be a meeting between the two leaders in the Saudi capital. However, their presence at the same moment might imply something. In any case, the Turkish premier’s visit represents a shift in Saudi policy in the right direction, and it will be a first step toward an expected change in the political stances of more than one country in the region.

Finally, let me repeat the conclusion I made to an article of mine here last year about the urgent need for a Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Turkey trio, noting that such a trio “in the current circumstances constitutes a strategic necessity for the three parties. These parties complement one another politically and economically, and coordination between them…would restore some balance to the region after the fall of Iraq and Syria, not to mention that it would form a barrier to Iran’s destructive role…It would also be a starting point to lay the foundations for stability in the current turbulent period.” (Al-Hayat, 13 January 2014) Is Egypt tilting even slightly in the direction that Saudi Arabia has already started down?

King Abdullah's mourners

It's been quite something to watch governments across the middle east -- and beyond -- pay tribute to Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah. Egypt cancelled the January 25 anniversary celebrations (the symbolism here is heavy as lead) and the UK flew flags at half-mast. Most Arab countries declared several days (or even weeks) of national mourning -- something they generally don't do when dozens of their own citizens are killed in tragic accidents or terrorist attacks. I guess Saudi military acquisitions (for the West) and investments and subsidies (for Arab neighbors) are worth that much. 

Western media has largely parroted the claim that the king was -- in the Saudi context -- some sort of moderate and reformer. This is really a stretch. While Abdullah did not seem to be as repressive and hidebound as other members of the royal family, he never put that family's power-sharing deal with the kingdom's fundamentalist religious clergy in question.

The idea that the house of Saud is being held hostage by religious extremists...they empower and fund those extremists, whether we're talking about the kingdom's own religious establishment or jihadist groups abroad. Yes there are tensions with the clergy sometimes -- tensions within an established alliance.

Not to mention Saudi Arabia's foreign policy, on which the late king presumably had some input: the kingdom has bankrolled and led a regional counter-revolution, going to great lengths to roll back the Arab uprisings, and to bury both mass social movements and political Islam. 

Qatar and Egypt still at odds despite GCC reconciliation

David Kirkpatrick reports in the NYT:

CAIRO — Shaking hands and kissing foreheads, the monarchs of the Persian Gulf came together this month to declare that they had resolved an 18-month feud in order to unite against their twin enemies, Iran and the Islamic State.

But the split is still festering, most visibly here in the place where it broke out over the military ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president. “Nothing has changed — nothing, nothing,” said a senior Egyptian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential diplomacy.

. . . 

But government officials on both sides of the gulf split now acknowledge privately that Qatar scarcely budged. Instead, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates suspended their anti-Brotherhood campaign against Qatar because of the more urgent threats they saw gathering around them.

A senior Qatari official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the joint communiqué supporting Mr. Sisi’s road map was merely a “press release” that carried little significance.

“We will always support the population of Egypt,” the official said. Al Jazeera was “editorially independent,” he said, adding that the other states “should not create political issues just because a channel is broadcasting what is happening.”

Although Qatar asked some Brotherhood members to leave Doha because of their political activities, only 10 or fewer have done so, according to Brotherhood leaders and Qatari officials. “We have not asked them to leave in any way, and we have not bothered them in any way,” the official said.

So what's really happened here, then, is that the the part of the al-Saud family that was very critical of Qatar because of Egypt got overruled by the part that's more concerned about Iran and Daesh, Qatar agreed to reduce the media infighting in the Gulf and perhaps participate to some extent in Saudi Arabia's calls for greater economic and military unity, and Abu Dhabi had to accept it because Riyadh said so. But I doubt they'll even be able to keep the media wars at bay for that long, so maybe it's more simply that the Saudis are finally learning to prioritize and not pick fights with everyone at the same time.

Saudi Arabia sentences Shia cleric to death for "sedition"

This is from Amnesty International's report on the death sentence handed down to a senior cleric from Qatif, in Saudi Arabia's eastern, oil-rich and largely Shia region. 

A death sentence passed today against a dissident Shi’a Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia for “disobeying the ruler”, “inciting sectarian strife” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations” after a deeply flawed trial is appalling and must be immediately quashed, said Amnesty International.
“The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Here is a short video clip  of Sheikh Nimr, arguing for justice rather than sectarian loyalty: "You're Shia; don't oppress Sunnis. You are oppressed. If you oppress anyone, even Sunnis, Allah doesn't love you. […] The oppressed should gather together against the oppressors. El Khalifa [the ruling family in Bahrain] are oppressors, but Sunnis are not responsible for them. El Assad is an oppressor, but Shias are not responsible for him. The oppressed cannot defend oppressors."

The sheikh supported the protests that have been ongoing in the Eastern province for several years. The prosecutor in his case has asked that he be crucified. From the BBC:

Officials said he rammed a security forces vehicle, leading to a gun battle. However, his family disputed the allegation that he resisted arrest and insisted that he did not own a weapon.
The cleric was held for eight months before being charged and reportedly spent the first four in an isolation cell at a prison hospital in Riyadh.
Activists and relatives say Sheikh Nimr, who has a wide following among Shia in Eastern Province and other states, supported only peaceful protests and eschewed all violent opposition to the government.
In 2011, he told the BBC that he supported "the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons... the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons".
His arrest prompted days of protests in which three people were killed.
Human Rights Watch said more than 1,040 people had been arrested at Shia protests between February 2011 and August 2014. At least 240 are still believed to be in detention.
No woman, no drive

Late last month a handful of Saudi women took to their cars to protest the kingdom's ridiculous ban on women driving. As I argue in a column for the New York Times' Latitude blog, the ban is a cornerstone of the country's gender segregation system (in a country that has been built around the automobile, it reduces women's mobility to nil), which in turn is a foundation of the religious establishment's authority -- over both women and men. That's also why Saudi men's support for this challenge is necessary and promising. 

I fantasize of a campaign to pressure US automakers to boycott the Saudi market (the industry's second-largest foreign market) until women there are allowed out of the back seat. 

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:

slide-28-1024.jpg
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.

Hits

Some of Mujtahidd’s tweets suggest access to clear insider sources. This occurred on 10 July, when he published a sting of negative information about the climate inside the Saudi Intelligence Agency. According to his sources, the Director did not understand the intel trade, employee morale was low, and the quality of the analysis being produced was frequently poor:

 

 

Shortly after, the Royal Court announced a change in leadership at the top. Whether his description of the situation inside the agency was accurate or not, the timing appeared to indicate advance knowledge of a major cabinet shift well before it happened. 

Moreover, Mujtahidd seems to have good sources inside King Abdullah’s entourage and frequently provides credible information about his health and travel schedule. For example, when Crown Prince Nayif died in early June of last year, Mujtahidd decisively predicted that the King would be too sick to attend the funeral, something that also proved true:

 

 

Misses

On the other hand, while Mujtahidd’s anonymity offers him a layer of protection from both the embarrassment of being wrong and lawsuits from the targets of his trash talk it also encourages at times sensationalism.

Take a series of tweets last Fall claiming that the Ministry of the Interior knew about certain planned terrorist attacks, yet did not stop them because Prince Mohamed bin Nayif, then Deputy Minister and responsible for counterterrorism, wanted to increase his influence within the Royal Family. When readers asked for supporting evidence, the all-too-convenient response was that doing so would put his sources in jeopardy:

 

 

Frequent exaggeration also undermines his credibility on certain issues.  One area where this occurs is on the issue of economic inequality. The gap between the super rich and average Saudis is in fact huge and no one disputes the stratospheric wealth of the most senior Royals but according to Mujtahidd’s “inside” information, the late Crown Prince Sultan left over $200 Billion to his heirs, which would have made him the richest person in the world: 

 

 

Another is the issue of land ownership. It is true that the accumulation of large chunks of land in the hand of a small group of elites over the last several decades is a factor in causing the lack of affording housing for average Saudis. Yet Mujtahidd’s tweets gives the impression that it is merely a few greedy Royals hoarding the best land and engaging in land speculation. The reality is that there are many factors causing the problem as the often highly nuanced discussions on Saudi television shows indicate.  

Overlook the Sensationalism and Understand the Agenda 

The key to analyzing the information in publicity-seeking Mujtahidd-style social media accounts is to put everything in the context of the broader political agenda. My guess is that Mujtahidd is a lawyer or perhaps a group of lawyers, who hope to push the Kingdom through their Twitter activity towards a more institutionalized, non-personality-centric system of government, in the form of a constitutional monarchy. 

This is probably the purpose of the constant broadcasting of detailed descriptions of the luxurious lifestyle of Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, a son of the late King Fahd and a minister without portfolio in the Saudi cabinet, covering everything from the size of his entourage to his Yachting schedule. Yet there are plenty of wealthy Saudis -- both Royals and commoners -- who live in similar luxury and are never the target of Mujtahidd’s wrath. Why the intense focus on one person?

Upon closer look, the point seems less about the travel per se, and more an indirect critique of the political system. What he really seems to be angry about is that the Prince is a member of the Saudi cabinet who (according to Mujtahidd) neglects his duties by spending so much time abroad. By focusing on the lifestyle details he is trying to get people to think more about what good governance entails. See this telling tweet where he basically says the scandal is more about a system where the King and Crown Prince are unable to remove an (allegedly) non-performing official:

 

 

The Ugly Truth about Saudi Political “Analysis”

It may be easy to dismiss Mujtahidd as a rumor-monger, but the simple fact is that nearly everything written about Saudi high politics is based on speculation.

Saudi Arabia does not have established institutions with centuries of precedent that provide rough guidelines for commentators to make reasonably accurate predictions about political trends. Instead its highest politics is effectively dictated by a small group of insiders who often have little interest in sharing their thoughts with outside academics or journalists. Unless one is part of that group, definitive statements about the Kingdom’s high politics are at best guesses.

Mujtahidd, however, seems to be close to members  of the Saudi elite and because he is willing to broadcast the information he obtains, is one of the best public sources on the Kingdom’s politics, even if everything he says has to be treated with extreme skepticism.

Also, the account’s analysis on less sensational topics often seems reasonable and can be a good window into the thought process of Saudi political insiders.  

An Insider or An Outsider? 

Nor should Mujtahidd automatically be viewed as a hard-core opponent of  “the system.” In some ways he even serves a useful purpose for the government.  

Most Saudi policymakers view the adoption of global standards of transparency and openness as critical to achieving the Kingdom’s ambitious long-term economic reforms. Certainly this is necessary for attracting the foreign partnerships and technology needed for large-scale projects like the Economic Cities or the development of manufacturing clusters. And on that basis, Mujtahidd’s is probably seen by many elites forces as helping foster a climate of an increased expectation of transparency and openness at the higher levels of business and politics.  

And Mujtahidd frequently encourages people to email him on an open Gmail account. If he were truly a rebel despised by the status quo, does anyone doubt that the authorities couldn’t shut him down?

Nathan Field is the co-founder of Industry Arabic.  Contact him at Nathan@industryarabic.com.

"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:

They may be spearheading the counter-revolution, but the Saudis are not just a status-quo force anymore. Like other states, they are restructuring to the new reality — preventing change in Bahrain, but backing it in Libya and, perhaps soon, in Syria. Having moved on from their anger at the Obama administration's abandonment of Ben Ali and Mubarak, they realise that for things to remain the same (for them), everything must change.

Two weeks ago, at a meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Geneva that I attended, Prince Turki outlined his proposal to deal with the region's most urgent issues through two broad arcs: reviving the Arab Peace Initiative (ie a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace rather than a separate Israeli-Palestinian one) and the decades-old idea of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction (ie tackling the Israeli and Iranian nuclear issues together, rather than ignoring the former and focusing on the latter.) The proposal was interesting not so much on its details as what it implied: a much more multilaterally-driven agenda for Middle East diplomacy. No more waiting for Washington to act first.

I would add that the now official rise of Prince Nayef accelerates this trend of a more pro-active Saudi Arabia, as the Arab League's decision on Syria suggests. This also means Saudi Arabia may be moving away from its role in lowering oil prices over the last year, particularly after its dramatic increase in spending. From the FT:

Khalid al-Falih, chief executive of state-owned Saudi Aramco, said on Monday that pressure on Riyadh to raise its output capacity had “substantially reduced”, the clearest indication yet that the world’s top oil producer is not pushing ahead with an assumed expansion plan to 15m b/d by the end of 2020. Including the oil fields in the neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Riyadh can produce up to 12.5m b/d.

The comments put a cap at least temporarily on a $100bn expansion program that started in the early 2000s when Saudi was able to produce about 8.5m b/d. The halt comes in spite of tightness in the oil market due to ongoing production disruptions in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Various tidbits

I’ve been traveling for 10 days or so now — after a week in Tunis, I am now in Istanbul — and I therefore missed some of the big regional stories. Some readers wrote asking me to weigh on various issues, which I will do quickly below.

Qadhafi’s death

Frankly, I did not want to comment on this one. I thought the videos circulating of Qadhafi, notably the one in which he is sodomized by his captors with a stick, were extremely distasteful. I totally understand that he was killed (he deserved nothing else) and had I been Libyan I would have done the same. But the manner in which this was done was tasteless, and does lead one to worry about the well-armed, adrenaline pumped youth who now rule the streets of much of Libya. It does not really inspire confidence for rule of law in Libya. And for me, the big event was the fall of Tripoli, since only small areas were still under the control of the old regime.

We’ll see how it turns out in Libya — which, it seems obvious, will be torn between the centralizing effect of getting most of the country’s income from oil exports and the strong regionalisms that dominate in the country. This has been a permanent fixture of Libya politics since the state’s creation. I hope they are able to find a stable political model to integrate the reality of strong locally-based politics with the need for central planning for the country’s development, and that the rivalties between the people of Nafusa, Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi (among others) can find a peaceful conduit.

Prince Sultan and Saudi succession

I don’t follow Saudi Arabia much, except that one has to to some extent to understand Saudi foreign policy and its regional impact. But I think this picture of the leading Saudi royals is telling: two are in a wheelchair, one cannot feed himself, and another is so fat he can barely move. They’re all super-old yet all their hair is jet-black. Yet, they are masters of the universe, among the most powerful men in the region and perhaps the planet. But they should really think about skipping a generation (not that I wish their regime well, of course.)

Egypt’s syndicates

There’s been much talk lately about how well or not well the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is doing in various syndicate elections. I haven’t followed all of these, but it seems they are over-selling how well they did in the Doctors’ Syndicate (where they won nationally but only have a slim majority in governorate-level syndicates). They lost big in Alexandria, which is a surprise as this is a stronghold for them. What’s interesting is that the MB tried to portray this as a big victory, which their enemies protested was an ploy ahead of the parliamentary elections. I think they did well, but not that well (no need to exaggerate the other way either). If you read French, Alain Gresh’s post on the matter is good.

The guy they supported (but who is not a member) just won the Journalists’ Syndicate election, but just barely (and the number of spoilt votes in the election is enough to to make the difference). The MB did poorly in the Cairo student elections earlier this year. I think the lesson is the MB, for all its organizational force, is not a hegemonic force among professionals and probably not nationally either. Which is good, not just because I’m not very fond of the MB, but also because Egypt needs pluralism more than anything right now. But I also think there is a tendency in the academic literature on Egypt to oversell the importance of syndicate elections to national politics. By definition, professional syndicates are a middle class battleground that is of little concern to over 60% of the population, after all.

The past two weeks have also seen major protests by police officers, as well as huge battle between the Lawyers’ Syndicate and the Judges’ Club over a judicial decree allowing judges to detain lawyers who disturb court proceedings. (I side with the lawyers because I’m not fond of judges, although in most countries a judge can declare anyone in contempt of court. But that being said I have not looked into it in detail.)

I see this as much pent-up frustration and unresolved differences sorting themselves out after the immobilism of the Mubarak era. It will be messy, and it’s necessary. Part of the difficulty of course is that few are 100% clean of working with the regime (including the MB) and that change is seen as disruptive and dangerous by many.

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.