The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged gulf
In Translation: And if Qatar folds?

There has been an avalanche of commentary on the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt (and a bunch of hangers-on) in the last couple of weeks. Some tell you one side or another is going to win, others worry it's the beginning of a new regional war. Everything is pointing to this crisis lasting longer than those who initiated it (Saudi and the UAE) intended it to. Whatever happens in the end, the crisis shows the interplay of several lines of tension among regional powers, from the Iran-Saudi divide to Islamist-anti-Islamist polarisation and revolutionary vs. counter-revolutionary narratives. The overlap is confusing, and so much of the media treatment (including in the US and UK press, a sad statement of the influence of Gulf money and ideology) absurdly biased.

The piece below is written by the noted Lebanese leftist intellectual Gilbert Achar, most recently the author of a well-reviewed book on the Arab uprisings, Morbid SymptomsAlthough it is published in the Qatar-owned London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, Achcar has the merit of being a cheerleader for neither Qatar nor its opponents. He traces the history of Qatar's tensions with its neighbors, the spectacular rise and potential fall of its aggressive foreign policy, its bet on the Muslim Brotherhood, and its opponents' successful efforts to roll back the Arab uprisings. For Achcar, the fundamental difference between the two camps is that Qatar sought to adapt to the Arab Spring by banking on the Muslim Brotherhood successfully harnessing its energies, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought to roll it back and restore the establishments that were shaken by the uprisings. It is a view underpinned by his assessment, in Morbid Symptoms, that another revolutionary wave looms –  one that may very well wash away those who seek to resist it and reward those that seek to ride it.

As always, this translation is made possible by Industry Arabic. Use them for your Arabic needs.

Campaign Against Qatar is Latest in Series of Attacks by the Region’s Old Establishment

Gilbert Achcar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 7 June 2017

To understand the significance of the violent campaign launched by the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini, and Egyptian governments against Qatar, we must look beyond the vagaries of the Qatari ransom money allegedly held by Iraq and the charges leveled against Qatar of supporting terrorism. Such charges lose all credibility when they come from actors that have for decades engaged in just that, we must return to the scene before “Arab Spring” to see how it was affected by the Great Uprising.

During the reign of Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emirate of Qatar took an approach to regional affairs not unlike Kuwait’s after it declared independence from Britain in 1961. The announcement outraged the Republic of Iraq, which demanded the emirate be restored as part of its territory. But Kuwait benefited from the tension that existed between Iraq, under the leadership of Abdel Karim Qassim, and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which advocated acceptance of Kuwait’s Arab independence over its status as a British protectorate. And in order to deter its Iraqi neighbor from ambitions of annexation, Kuwait pursued a policy of Arab neutrality, maintaining good relations with the two poles of the so-called “Arab Cold War,” Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The similarity is that Qatar, as is well-known, has a historically strained relationship with its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, particularly since declaring independence from Britain in 1971. After seizing power in 1995, Emir Hamad pursued a policy that sought to make up for the emirate’s small size by reinforcing ties with the two main axes of regional conflict, as evident by extensive deployments of US troops throughout the Gulf: the United States and the Republic of Iran. Qatar’s success is most obvious in its ability to simultaneously host the United States’ most important regional airbase and cultivate its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. The policy of good relations with opposing forces also manifests itself in Qatar successfully establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, while also supporting Hamas.

Qatar’s role during the reign of Emir Hamad was not limited to cultivating good relationships with different parties in the Kuwaiti sense, which is neutral and negative, but it also used its substantial wealth to play an active role in regional politics by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. When Saudi Arabia renounced the Brotherhood, after sponsoring it since its inception in 1928, due to its opposition to American intervention in Kuwait in 1990, the weight of Qatar’s political role greatly increased with the establishment of Al-Jazeera, which resonated with Arab society by welcoming Arab voices of opposition, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.

So when the volcano of the Great Arab Uprising erupted in 2011, Qatar was able to play a significant role through its sponsorship of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera. As a result, the two axes of conflict that had dominated the Arab world – the old establishment and the fundamentalist opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood – found support in the Gulf Cooperation Council. But while Saudi Arabia supported the old establishment throughout the region – with the exception of Libya where it remained neutral and Syria where sectarianism produced an alliance (between the Assad regime and) Iran – Qatar supported the uprisings, especially where the Brotherhood was involved, with the exception of Bahrain for obvious reasons. The conflict between the Emirate and the Kingdom since the onset of the “Arab Spring” was evident by Qatar’s support for the Tunisian uprising, while Saudi Arabia granted asylum to deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Moreover, the Obama administration saw Qatar as a means to ward off the danger of Arab uprisings that might take root in a way that would threaten US interests. So it played both sides, at times supporting the old establishment with Saudi Arabia (as in Bahrain), and at others, trying to contain the uprisings with Qatar through the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (like in Tunisia and Egypt). But Qatar’s role urging Washington to adopt a policy of keeping pace with the uprisings was a cause of Saudi indignation, and outraged the United Arab Emirates, which had designated the Muslim Brotherhood public enemy number one. The pressure the two Gulf countries placed on Qatar continued to build after Qatari bets on the Muslim Brotherhood failed to pay out when the Egyptian army overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and violently suppressed the Brotherhood. That was followed by Emir Hamad’s decision to step down in place of his son, the current Emir, Tamim, only to see Gulf pressure reach its first peak in 2014, forcing the new emir to change course.1

After the peak, it seemed that the Gulf conflict had come to an end. Through the consensus of the three aforementioned gulf states to support the Syrian opposition against the Assad Regime, which strained relations between Qatar (and with it, the Muslim Brotherhood) and Iran, and, later, Qatar’s participation in the military campaign against Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis in Yemen – all against the backdrop of a new king ascending to the Saudi throne – it seemed as if peace between GCC members was possible. This trend has been supported by Saudi Arabia’s longtime pursuit of a Sunni consensus against Iran that includes the Muslim Brotherhood and coincides with tension between Riyadh and Cairo. The trend also aligned perfectly with the politics of the Obama administration.

However, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States changed the equation. The new president is a supporter of a policy of confrontation in the face of change and revolution in the Arab world. He is also extremely hostile to Iran and has an intimate friendship with Israel. Some of his closest advisors have classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, concurring in this with the UAE (as evidenced by recently uncovered correspondence of its ambassador to Washington). This fundamental change in the equation led Saudi Arabia to reconcile with al-Sisi’s Egypt, who together, accompanied by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, launched the current frenzied attack on Qatar in order to impose a radical change on its policy.

Thus, the latest episode reversing the Great Arab Uprising and the counterattack launched by the ancien regime all across the region, supported in most arenas by the Gulf axis and by Iran in Syria and Yemen, is almost complete. But a new uncontainable wave of revolution is coming sooner or later (indeed, its harbingers are already visible in Morocco and Tunisia).2 If this day comes and there is no one to contain it, then Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may well regret eliminating Qatar’s role within this space.

Gilbert Achcar is a writer and academic from Lebanon

  1. Note that Emir Tamim came to power in Qatar a week or so before the overthrow of Morsi, not after. ↩︎

  2. Here Achcar refers to the protests in southern Tunisia (mostly Tataouine) and in Morocco (starting in the Rif). ↩︎

Christopher Davidson's "Shadow Wars"

Christopher Davidson is a British academic and the author of several books on the Gulf (generally quite critical of the petro-monarchies there.) Longtime reader Amjad compiled together an interview Davidson gave on Twitter on the occasion of the release of his new book, Shadow Wars. We are reproducing the interview below – with light editing for punctuation etc. – as it may be interest readers for its out-of-the-mainstream approach to the Arab Spring. It’s not an endorsement of the book, which we have not read, but looks interesting if it sheds light on the policies of Gulf states during the last six years.

In the long view, to what degree are Western governments responsible for the ongoing conflict in Syria?

The Western powers have repeatedly sought to interfere in Syria for a number of decades - the latest conflict is born out of using 'Arab Spring' as diplomatic coverage for the overthrow of an antagonistic regime to the interests of the West's allies While UK had plans pre-2011 to use Syrian Muslim Brotherhood & 'armed men', in 2011 strategy shifted to West's allies funding proxies.The latter (Saudi, Qatar, etc) expected a Western airstrike intervention (as with Libya), and, frustrated, had to push US's 'red lines'.

Did the West have a part to play in the failure of the Arab Spring?

The nationwide revolutions in Tunisia & Egypt saw discomforting overthrow of dictators who had opened up their economies to Western investment & had played the game of the 'War on Terror'. Their overthrow wrong-footed the US govt. But very rapidly a series of counter-revolutions began (or rather 'reactions') as the West's key regional allies began to sponsor (1st) Islamist parties that could continue to prevent formation of inclusive, democratic (& secular) societies, & could uphold capitalist structures and (2nd) hard-man 'deep state' military dictatorships, when Islamist parties proved unable to keep people off the streets. The 'Plan B' was then to re-direct the 'Arab Spring' to states antagonistic to West (Libya, Syria, etc) & willfully foster revolutions. Saudi, UAE, Qatar, etc., all played key roles at govt level in destabilizing these long targeted Arab states, under Arab Spring banner. As 'revolutions' in Libya/Syria failed to garner full national support, a mix of direct interventions (Libya)& indirect (Syria) was needed.

Why don't we hear much about Yemen?

Yemen is commonly perceived as a problem for the US/UK, as their key ally Saudi is haplessly bombing civilians. But in many ways the conflict helps keep the two main regional powers (Saudi & Iran) in a useful stalemate behind their proxies. The US can now trade freely with both sides (since the Iran deal), & can keep Saudi arms spending high, even at a time of low oil prices. Saudi is no longer the world's oil swing producer thus has lost its centrality in US foreign policy. The Yemen fiasco/tragedy puts Saudi in a very difficult position, as it still relies on US protection (as evidenced today), and has nowhere else to really turn to. A good comparison would be the costly Iran-Iraq stalemate of the 80s: the US's Arab allies supported Saddam, while the US found a secret means of supplying Iran with what it needed (Iran Contra) so as to keep it 'in the game' & prevent neither side from winning.

Do you think the Russians think we are as bad &corrupt as we think they are? Are we just as bad as each other?

In Syria, Russia has responded to a formal govt request for assistance. It is constrained in being able to bomb ISIS As the US-led coalition effectively operates no-fly zone over most of ISIS's territory. Russia/Syrian/Iran aircraft cannot fly there The US even has an airbase in far north-east of Syria, barely miles from easy ISIS targets. But turning to the bigger question Russia is rightly anticipating that any further intervention (e.g. ground troops) could lead to a repeat of an Afghanistan situation where in the 80s it intervened to help the People's Democratic Party against an Islamist extremist uprising backed by the US/UK in cooperation with Saudi/Pakistan, which eventually led to Soviet forces getting their own taste of a Vietnam (the US's objective) Today in Syria (& Iraq) we see many of the same characteristics of the 80s jihad in Afghanistan, with heavy accompanying propaganda.

What did you hope to achieve when you set out writing this book?

By drawing on recently declassified documents, leaked correspondences, interviews, and court subpoenaed files, the aim was to tackle an entire 'regime of knowledge' that largely depicts the Western postcolonial involvement in Arab world as being benign.

Moving beyond the obvious examples of the 2003 Iraq invasion, it aims to show how an elaborate network of proxies & clients have helped ensure access to cheap resources & cheap labour for foreign companies and (e.g. in 2011) have been co-opted to remove threats More broadly, it used comparative historical analysis to demonstrate that fingerprints of earlier counter-revolutions from 20thC can be found all over the Arab Spring counter-revolutions. Including the UK-US actions in Russia (post revolution), Malaya, Kenya Guatemala, Iran (1952), Syria, Iraq (1950s-60s), Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua (great example), Afghan jihad, jihadists in Balkans, etc.... And in terms of aims for the book: if one wants the MidEast to recover, one must identify the real root causes of its afflictions

And if one wants the essentially peace-promoting Islamic faith to be saved, one must identify how it is being co-opted by external powers (with local, reactionary allies) to generate extremist cults capable of stifling (and fighting) progressive/nationalist forces.

The Tasreebat

Baheyya, in her first post in a long time, commenting on the latest of the extraordinary leaks from the inner sanctum Egyptian military laste year, before Sisi became president:

The recent leaks, however, take things to a new level. The generals don’t just rubbish their Gulf backers; scorn Egyptians as a starving, miserable mass; and generally ooze contempt for anyone outside their ranks. The recordings reveal how, in private, Egypt’s peak military officers see themselves. In frank, relaxed banter, they discuss how to milk the Gulf monarchs for more billions; rue the Nasser military’s non-profiteering mindset; and generally come off as money-grubbing hirelings ready to deploy military force anywhere in exchange for cash.

Thus in a five-minute conversation, the generals unmask their own elaborate self-mythologizing as nationalist, selfless public servants who have rescued Egypt and the region from an Islamist cabal. They reinforce critics’ longstanding claims that the Mubarakist Egyptian military defends not the national interest but its own sectional concerns.

. . .

Shortly before announcing his presidential bid, Sisi dictates to Kamel how to approach the Saudis for more money, making a clear distinction between the military’s own funds and the public treasury. “Look, you tell him we need 10 [billion] to be deposited in the military’s account. You tell him, that when God willing I win [the election], that 10 will then work for the state. And we want another 10 from the Emirates and another 10 from Kuwait. That’s in addition to a handful to be put in the Central Bank to balance the 2014 budget.”

When Kamel chuckles heartily and says that the Saudi head of the royal court Khalid al-Tuwaijri will faint on hearing of such huge sums, Sisi says, “Man, their money is like rice, man! Come on, ya Abbas ya Kamel!”

Wow. Just wow.

AsidesThe Editorsegypt, gulf
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.

War against the Muslim Brotherhood Divides the Gulf

Abdel Bari Atwan, al-Quds al-Arabi, 11 January 2013

Whoever has been following the media in the Gulf – and the Saudi media in particular – has probably gotten a sense of the fierce campaign being waged against the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist currents more broadly, as well as the major preachers in the Gulf. Their influence has been on the rise recently thanks to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and yet the dedicated security apparatuses of the various countries in the region have had a harder time controlling and blocking these outlets than they did with newspapers and websites.

Dubai’s chief of police Lieut. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim pioneered this campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and was one of the first to issue vehement warnings about the danger they represented, but many articles appearing in the Saudi and Emirati press have begun to follow in his wake. This is happening in such a way as to suggest that there are bodies high up in the state that would like to open up a front against them, whether in Egypt – where they are sitting at the threshold of power – or within the Gulf itself.

This war against the Brotherhood, and perhaps later upon the Salafi currents, represents a break with the historical alliance that has existed between conservative Gulf regimes and these figures. This alliance ensured the stability of these regimes and helped combat all the leftist and nationalist ideas that constituted a threat to this stability in the eyes of the rulers. The question that is now on everyone’s mind is why has there been a sudden reversal of opinion in the Gulf against the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, when this ideology was embraced and supported over the past 80 years. In the aim of helping control Gulf youth, Muslim Brotherhood intellectuals and professors were even allowed take over the education sector, set curricula, and establish proselytizing and charitable associations, not just within Gulf countries but throughout the entire world. How did this relationship of warm, strategic friendship morph into a bitter fight – at least on one side, for now — between the ruling regimes in the Gulf and the Muslim Brotherhood?

The response to these questions can be summed up in the following points:

  • Governments in the Gulf have realized that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “global” movement governed by an international organization. This means that the loyalty of the organization is to the Supreme Guide in Egypt, and not to local authorities, not even to the head of the group in these countries.
  • The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has taken control of the process of forming the next generations by setting local curricula. This has led it to dominate the armies and security services, which has left it more prepared than ever to overthrow the ruling regimes and seize power. This is the main fear of the Gulf regimes.
  • With the liberal and leftist currents in Gulf countries weakened by decades of repression and persecution, the organized Islamist currents have become the leading candidates to launch Arab Spring revolutions for change in the countries of the Gulf.
  • Religious and Brotherhood currents in particular enjoy a financial independence that sets them apart from the other currents, due to their intricate organizational networks and the fact that their backers possess considerable financial resources due to their control of large companies and financial institutions in Gulf countries especially. This has allowed them to combine political and economic power.
  • Islamist movements enjoy significant support in popular milieus because their ideology centers on the Islamic faith. Their control over mosques — whether directly or indirectly — translates into five miniature daily meetings and one large weekly meeting every Friday.
  • Non-jihadist Islamist movements – and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular – practice self-control and avoid any collision with the state. This explains the Brotherhood’s silence in Egypt concerning the attacks in which it has been targeted. It has kept calm and sent delegations to the Emirates to solve the arrests crisis through diplomatic means. It was no surprise that Saudi writers accused the Muslim Brotherhood of employing the "principle of taqiyya[1] among its organizational practices.

Gulf countries – to put it briefly – are worried about the MB’s control of Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan, and its attempts to gain power in Jordan, Yemen and Syria. This would leave the countries of the Gulf surrounded on all sides, and at risk of falling into the new orbit of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a sort of political “domino” effect. For the ruling regimes in the Arabian Peninsula, there are positives and negatives in this fierce campaign in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf against the MB movement. The positives lie in the attempt to shore up the internal front and reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, in our view, this awakening seems to have come too late, as there is no alternative partner to rely on in the absence of leftists and liberals, who do not have strong roots in the conservative societies of the Gulf. Moreover, any new attempt to strengthen the liberal current still has only a limited impact, such as the decree issued yesterday by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to include 30 women in the Consultative Assembly. This is a step that will create more problems than solutions, in particular with the Wahhabi establishment that backs the regime, which is opposed to equal roles for women in society.

On the other hand, the danger of this campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood is that it could lead to a clash with the religious establishment and a large number of influential preachers, such as the sheikhs Salman al-Awda, Muhammad al-Arifi, Safar al-Hawali, Mohsen al-Awaji, and Ayed al-Qarni. Some of these figures count more than one million followers on Twitter, a number that is steadily increasing.

The prominent Saudi preacher Salman al-Awda recently joined a campaign calling for the Consultative Assembly to be elected, while others have called for strict accountability for how public funds have been spent, as well as for oversight of the country’s new budget, which has reached its largest yet at 223 billion dollars. There is also a strong drive to prosecute princes who illegally seized control of millions of hectares of land.

Senior officials in the Gulf believe that there is an alliance between Egypt, Turkey and Qatar behind this expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood that aims to dominate the entire region and which must be resisted. This is what explains the growing rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the bitter war that the Emirates is waging against the Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt through its support for the opposition National Salvation Front.

It must be acknowledged that the Gulf countries’ fears are warranted, since this new triple alliance could prove dangerous if it consolidates, sticks together and perseveres, since it possesses all the necessities for military might (Turkey), financial might (Qatar) and strategic manpower (Egypt). This alliance is progressively and rapidly taking the place of the Egypt – Saudi Arabia – Syria triad that governed the region over the past forty years, removed Iraq from the equation and paved the way for peace with Israel.

If the first triad depended on close ties with the West and America, the new triad in on the same exact course, and may perhaps form even closer ties with America – at least temporarily – with Barack Obama in power.

The Syrian regime will emerge as the chief beneficiary from this volatile conflict with the front that is opposed to its survival and which backs the armed opposition that is trying to topple it. The Muslim Brotherhood is in fact the backbone of this (official) opposition, while the jihadist Al-Nusra Front has the greatest presence on the ground. The independence of this group at once represents a tremendous danger to both the Syrian regime and the countries of the Gulf.

From the steps taken recently by the Saudi authorities in deciding to ban sectarian Salafi channels to Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s statement that he welcomes a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria and that the issue of al-Assad’s departure should be left to the Syrian people – when he had previously been a hawk about arming the opposition – there are many indicators that the Saudi position is evolving, and confirm reports that secret communications between Damascus and Riyadh have picked up again.

Saudi and Gulf preachers have been flocking to Cairo, most recently Dr. Muhammad al-Arifi, who gave a sermon at the Mosque of Amr ibn al-’As at the heart of the capital, in which he called on businessmen from the Gulf to invest in Egypt and not the West. This is one of the most tell-tale signs of the new landscape in the Gulf: governments are forcefully opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, while influential preachers are in the trenches defending it.

In this brief sketch, we cannot forget Iran’s new pilgrimages to Islamic Cairo, with the Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s visit, the hospitality that he received, and the invitation that he extended to President Mohamed Morsi to schedule a visit to Iran. Iran has a good nose for the developments that are taking place in the region and is adjusting its calculus to exploit them in the service of its own interests.

The coming weeks and months will be full of surprises. There is nothing we can do but wait, watch and study closely the new interactions, alliances and rapid changes we expect will occur, changes that will radically reshape the region.

  1. Taqiyya means dissimulation — the practice of hiding one’s religious beliefs for advantage, survival or another reason. It is a Shia (and Druze and Alawi) doctrine used to allow hiding one’s faith in times of persecution. Muslim Brothers are often accused of practicing taqiyya by their opponents but this use of the term is inappropriate — there is no religious doctrine of dissimulation in the MB, since it is not a religious sect but a Sunni social and political movement with no single spiritual school, and any case while Sunnis allow hiding one’s religion in exceptional circumstances, they do not use the term taqiyya. So in this context it is more of a dig MB perfidy and infiltration that plays on anti-Shia sentiment.  ↩
"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.

To reference the “failed February 14 uprising” is seen as insulting the very memory of those who died, and who continue to die and risk bodily harm, in their pursuit of basic societal and political reform. In fact, however, it is simply to admit the overwhelming material and tactical superiority of one side over the other, a military dominance that students of insurgency and civil war have long noted.

With its sustained deployment of police and military units along with a labyrinthine edifice of security checkpoints, the state has largely succeeded in penning demonstrators into their respective villages, now isolated even more than they were prior to February 2011 (which is saying a lot). (More recently, the state has shifted to allow protests in finite areas, namely along al-Budaiyi’ Road, while blocking them elsewhere.) Such an effort, combined with the decades-long exclusion of Shi’a from those professions that entail the use of weapons, has created a sort of double defense.

Bahrain has also seemingly won its other war on the international front. Having done its diplomatic duty in allowing the BICI to investigate the uprising, it has successfully resisted pressure to do anything more. On the contrary, since December 2011 political change has been in the opposition direction. As witnessed]( once more only days ago, protesters continue to be met with deadly force in confrontations with police.  Activists, including Nabeel Rajab and most recently Zaynab al-Khawajah, have been sentenced to prison for no more than insulting the prime minister and King Hamad, respectively. One political society (’Amal) has been dissolved, while another (al-Wifaq) may be on the brink.

Looks like those PR Newswire plants and anti-Iranian tirades paid off. Of course, such massaging of the facts on the ground don’t alone account for this. The US’s overriding concern was its 5th Fleet, but even the US saw no such thing as an Iranian hand in the protests. It wasn’t inclined to take anything but the most tepid of steps in support of the protestors, regardless, having “lost” Egypt and Tunisia already.  Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was willing to throw thousands of security officers across the border, terrified of what might happen in its Shia-heavy Eastern Province should dangerous thoughts like constitutional reform spill over, as the Washington Post reported recently, outlining how Shia activists and (Wahhabi) security officers are trading bards (and according to both sides, gunfire) in the key, but impoverished, oil producing region.

While some demonstrators have resorted to violence and sectarianism, Gengler has  shown how the regime used disproportionate force against the opposition and worked to make the atmosphere as sectarian as possible to discredit the predominantly Shia initiators of the protests. Not unlike how Assad wants the world to think that his fight can be reduced to a narrative of cosmopolitan Syria versus angry Sunni peasants (beards!) and foaming-at-the-mouth jihadists (even thicker beards!) being armed by a neo-Ottoman Empire.

The Syria comparison (minus the snark, obviously) is Gengler’s. He sees a Bahrain now increasingly riven by sectarianism, as two of the short-term benefits the monarchy won for itself was a more energized Sunni minority and a discredited Shia parliamentary bloc. These accomplishments diffused the “Arab Spring” in the Gulf state, to the delight of the royals, but what are you left when your core supporters are now demanding a bigger slice of the welfare cake to “keep the peace,” and the critics now view the constitutional reformers as naive at best, Quislings at worst?

To turn an old Russian saying on its head, no matter how hard you hit them, they don’t stay quiet forever afterwards. 

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 -

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.

The newest social media "subversive" stirring controversy in Saudi Arabia is @Mujtahidd, who is exposing many unwelcome details about the lives of the rich and powerful in Saudi Arabia, such as the jetsetting Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd and Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid bin Sultan. Those he has tweeted about find themselves deluged with angry questions about their alleged extravagances, such as “did your new estate in Riyadh cost the state 12 billion riyals?”, or accused of pocketing billions of riyals from arms deals and construction contracts. @Mujtahidd asserts that endemic graft is costing the country 500 billion riyals annually. @Mujtahidd’s moralizing anti-corruption drive has apparently struck a chord among 290,000 followers in digging up old scandals and warning of new ones involving the House of Saud.

Media monitoring, as practiced by governments in Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and Iran (to name a few), is not so much enforced by datacenters, wiretaps and informants but by searches of TV stations by police, days in a holding cell and the warrant officer's truncheon. The technology, of course, plays an increasingly vital role, not least because it makes it so much easier to prepare a mound of "evidence" to the prosecution's satisfaction. As Sultan Al Qassemi notes, governments and their supporters are becoming more social media savvy too: despite clerical criticism of the internet, the Twitterverse exploded with criticism of Kashgari from self-described "devout" Muslims.

Criticism of Gulf states' human rights records or military policies has proven to be dangerous for social media users in the UAE - where several bloggers have been detained on charges of "sedition" and "blasphemy" for daring to report on activists and criticizing members of the royal family – and Oman. The same goes for the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has arrested several reporters and bloggers who've criticized corruption in the government. Ironically, arrests such as these seem to be among the few tasks that Tel Aviv and Washington implicitly trust Ramallah with. 

In Iraq, a new law that has been proposed lock internet users away for life they were proven to have "compromis[ed] the independence of the state or its unity, integrity, safety, or any of its high economic, political,  social, military or security interests" or "implement programs or ideas which are disruptive to public order." Considering that around only 2.5% of the population has ready internet access, this law demonstrates just how unpleasant Iraqi bloggers - as both independent observers of daily life and fixers for foreign media in Iraq - have become to the government (defenders of the law will cry havoc over a Baathist apologist on WordPress to make their case). Reports from Iraqi citizens on decaying infrastructure, missed opportunities, officials' power trips and sectarian violence are not exactly civil society efforts conducive to cementing what to many Iraqis appears an oligarchy of parliamentarians and police generals. And to the west in Syria - where Western "retail" surveillance technology has been popping up from the U.S. and Germany - censorship is and has long been the norm, especially now that the demonstrations of 2011 have led to open war among the regime and anti-government militias. 

This is the other side of cyber-security, the more immediate one than all the industrial sabotage malware or avionics-compromising logic bombs. Censorship of dissent through cyberspace "has a broader meaning in non-democracies: For them, the worst-case scenario is not collapsing power plants, but collapsing political power.”


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

Photo by Shaji Thottathil

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.

Early Bird Special

Despite this hiccup, the organization ran smoothly. Following the Friday prayer a large buffet of traditional Arab cuisine was served to falcon owners, foreign fans, security guards and the TV crew for the event in a large tent.

But, chicken kebabs proved to be the only birds being eaten on the first day of the festival. The 36 falcons in the first round of the competition failed to catch a single pigeon. Each pigeon (chosen by lottery) was given a small head-start before a falcon was released in pursuit. But, not one of the 36 Falcons released during the event recorded a kill due to strong winds. The first day of the event was designed as a qualification round for rookie falcons.

Some two hundred spectators sitting upon golden King Louis-Farouk chairs, shaded by a canopy watched the action through expensive binoculars. For a while others watched on two large deathtron Jumbotron TV screens. At first the two hundred or so fans were engrossed in the action. Gradually the crowds lost interest as it became clear high winds were preventing the falcons from making kills. Soon the atmosphere was more festive than sporting.

Some in attendance commented that pigeons were a poor replacement for hubara, quail hunted by falconers around the globe. One of the organizers, Mohammed Saad Al-Romeh had returned early from a hunt in the deserts of Algeria to attend to the festival. Though happy with his expedition he conceded that hunting quail in Algeria was less than optimal "The best places to hunt are in Iraq and Iran" he explained.

Millennium Falcons

The festivals participants believe that falconry is an important expression of Qatari culture and a link to thousands of years of tradition. However, Qatari women seem to have a different take on the event. Some believe falconry has become an expensive hobby and an obsession. Entry level birds can be purchases for 10,000 dollars while an elite bird can cost as much as 150,000 dollars.

Reem, a young Qatari woman asked to comment on the day of the event shared her thoughts: “My brother is obsessed with his falcon.” She explains that he often stares at it for hours and takes it to the veterinarian over phantom concerns about its wings. Indeed falcons must be trained everyday to form a partnership between the falcon and falconer. Despite this bond, tracking numbers are attached to the leg of every falcon to help locate strays. As Reem explains falcons sometimes have flight plans of their own: “Sometimes my brother’s bird gets away and when this happens we have received calls from the UAE, ‘Dude we found your bird, come pick it up'. ”

Indeed the UAE has hosted a rival Falcon event of its own which also bills itself as the largest falconry event in the world. However, the Qatari organizers believe bird-for-bird the Qatar International Falcon and Hunting Festival is the king of the wings.

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.

Part of this is an old fight that would reoccur frequently in the Mubarak era, over Egyptian anger at money being given Egyptian NGOs without its authorization. In 2009, the former US Ambassador, Margaret Scobey, has gotten the US to change policies and allow Egyptian approval. It was part of the patch-up in bilateral relations after the chill Bush administration, and it sent a negative message much more important than the actual cash.

I remember that during the occupation of Tahrir Square in July, the question of foreign funding was on the protestors’ minds too. They demanded to know what the US was using this money for, and who was receiving it.

Fast forward to this month, and the question of foreign funding is changing tack. A few days ago, the Egyptian press revealed (from government sources) that several of the largest transactions to civil society organizations have come from the Gulf, not the West.

The numbers are quite telling. According to these reports, over LE181m ($30m) was given to the Ansar al-Sunna association, a very conservative religious group, by Qatar’s al-Thani Foundation. Kuwaiti and Emirati religious associations also donated significant sums, ones that dward what secular human rights groups might be receiving at the moment.

Think that US democracy aid to Egypt this year is about $40m. A single transaction from Qatar was $30m. The generals must be looking at the US funding and thinking, “this is peanuts.”

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.

Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University who knows the five activists said he does not think calling for reforms is a crime but that the case should be left with with the judicial system. Hopefully, the fairness of the trial is guaranteed and the men will be thought of innocent until proven guilty, he said.

The activists’ trial comes as the UAE is preparing for its second FNC elections on September 24, in which almost 130,000 Emiratis will be eligible to vote. Previous elections were held in 2006, when just more than 6,500 Emiratis were allowed to take part. There are 40 members of the FNC. Half of its members are elected by the electoral college and the other half are nominated by the rulers of their Emirate. 

The FNC’s second elections are an improvement on 2006, however they fall short of universal suffrage, said Abdullah, who is not eligible to vote in September. “I don’t see any reason for delaying universal suffrage in the UAE and granting the FNC full legislative power.”

The UAE has not experienced the unrest that is sweeping the region, but it appears to be feeling the pressure to reform. The country is investing in water and electricity supplies in the northern Emirates, building thousands of homes to distribute to Emiratis and creating jobs for its citizens.

The UAE leadership is sensitive on a couple of levels, said Christoper Davidson, a Middle East expert at Durham University. Domestically, the wealth gap between the poorer and wealthier emirates is growing and there is resentment building in the northern emirates, he said. And the illusion of stability for the Gulf monarchies, with the events in Bahrain and Oman, is gone, Davidson said. The UAE has shown they are aware of problems in the Emirates, however given the arrest of the activists and clamp down on other institutions, the UAE is saying to its citizens “that we are not willing to talk to you while we are fixing them.”

The five activists have been detained and held in preventative custody since April. On the heels of their arrests, the UAE also dissolved the elected board of the Jurists Association and the Teachers’ Association replacing both boards with state appointees.

The Jurist Association was said to have violated the UAE’s Law on Associations, which bans NGOs from interfering “in politics or in matters that impair State security and its ruling regime,” according to Human Rights Watch. Sunday, dozens of Arab intellectuals, academics and human rights activists, among others, released a statement of solidarity with the five men in detention and have called on international organizations to “work on releasing prisoners of conscience and opinion.”

The petitioners mirrored an earlier call by four rights groups, including Amnesty International and HRW, to end the trial. “The UAE government is using defamation as a pretext to prosecute activists for peacefully expressing their beliefs about the way their country should be run,” Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International, said in a press release. The UAE has ratified Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, according to HRW.

While the Emirati leadership does not seem in real danger of losing power, the changes the UAE are making show that no one in the region is immune to the calls for political reform, said Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha Center. “This is a trend that has started. It has a very long way to come. How a regime, family, leadership responds sets the tone for what comes next.” The trend in the UAE has been for greater political say, but given the angst of the region, stability is valued, Shaikh said. A few weeks before he was detained, Mansoor tweeted “I wish to see UAE moving toward constitutional monarchy as a formula balancing between current situation and prospected reform.”

His trial continues at the end of September.

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. 

And at main site of the pro-democracy demonstrations in the Bahraini capital of Manama, a public plaza (formerly) known as Pearl Square had been remodeled and renamed the Gulf Cooperation Council Square to expunge any associations with Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Bahraini nationalism.

“Now even the Arab counterrevolution has its heroic square,” opined the German news outlet Der Spiegel.

 It is fitting that the square has been renamed after the Saudi-dominated GCC because the Saudis have been working hard to keep the winds of “Arab Spring” from blowing into the Persian Gulf. Human rights in the region rank rather low on both countries’ list of priorities.

 The US has sanctioned this counterrevolution. The “special relationship” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has stood the test of time based on mutual interests—oil for security. It is therefore not surprising that this alliance continues unabated as Saudi Arabia attempts to manage and turn back the winds of revolutionary transformation, from Bahrain to Yemen.

 “Commentators have long speculated about the demise of Saudi Arabia as a regional powerhouse. They have been sorely disappointed”, wrote Prince Turki, an influential former Saudi intelligence director. “The kingdom’s wealth, steady growth and stability have made it the bulwark of the Middle East. As the cradle of Islam, it is able to symbolically unite most Muslims worldwide.”

That bulwark would not exist as it does today without U.S. support.

But over the course of the “special relationship,” the U.S. had aided and abetted active measures that Saudi officials, including members of the royal family, took in financing Islamist organizations for decades. After 9/11, the relationship has become particularly strained between the two powers because of continued private financing of Islamist organizations well after their use for the US had abated.

But, despite mistrust, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are actively practicing containment against Iran, al Qaeda and the “Arab Spring.” Their overall interests in the region remain the same – which is bad news for the demonstrators.

Shia Scares

The “Arab Spring” is clearly an unsettling development for both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, despite all the talk in Washington about the democratic aspirations of Arab peoples (as an aside, the Palestinian people’s aspirations, a grave concern for both Israel and the U.S. are noticeably absent from such official plaudits).

Protests have already removed pro-U.S. and Saudi-friendly leaders in Tunisia (whose exiled president now resides in the Kingdom) and Egypt (the Saudis, for their part, now fear Egyptian rapprochement with Iran: Der Spiegel reports that the Kingdom has promised the new transitional government US$4 billion) and Syria (though no friend of either power) is becoming a potential flashpoint.

Discontent in other Arab monarchies, such as Jordan and Morocco, has caused consternation in the House of Saud – even though neither Morocco nor Jordan are Gulf countries, the Saudis have been pressing for their acceptance into the GCC (which, if it is now looking for a new name, ought to consider “The Holy Alliance).

Red Scares have long since given way to Shia Scares in the region. The reactionary fear in these countries is very real: with growing Shia populations, the minority Sunni monarchies of the Gulf states face increasing pressure from their subjects for change and see an Iranian (meaning, “Shia”) hand in everything. There is a growing sense of abandonment by the U.S. in Riyadh over the supposed Shia threat, according to Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid [Ed note: Obaid is in fact an advisor to Prince Turki): 

“As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat. The emerging political reality is a Saudi-led Arab world facing off against the aggression of Iran and its non-state proxies [Hezbollah, Hamas] and Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilize the Arab monarchies.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudis have made overtures to Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia towards a policy of containment toward Iran. “The U.S. shouldn't be counted on to restore stability across the Middle East,” Prince Bandar, who served as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005, is said to have told a group of Pakistani generals recently.

Concerns over a reputed Iranian “fifth column” in Bahrain (Iran supports the protests in this Shia-majority country ruled over by a Sunni royal family) remain pronounced among GCC (and U.S.) officials. The U.S., despite expressing some human rights concerns, has largely praised the actions of the Bahraini monarchy in managing demands for greater democratization and warned against Iranian interference.

"The US has not been as supportive of human rights activists in Bahrain as it would be in other circumstances, and it's not putting as much pressure on the Bahraini government as it's putting on Yemen, Syria and other countries where the government is engaged in suppressing protests," Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al Jazeera. According to her, Saudi pressure is exercising a significant influence on U.S. politics.

The U.S., though, needs no allied pressure to keep its head down over Bahrain. President Obama recently met with Bahrain’s rulers to discuss the strategic situation in the region, and with good reason: Bahrain is the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

And while Washington has observed this studied silence over human rights violations in Bahrain and (with Saudi help) is now ramping up a “drone war” in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yemen: A “Backstop” against al Qaeda

One could compare Yemen’s historic relationship with Saudi Arabia to that of Mexico’s with the U.S.: intervention in a 20th century civil war, a discriminatory economic relationship and even a border barrier (purportedly aimed at “keeping out” illegal immigrants). Saudi involvement is only increasing in response to unrest and pro-democracy demonstrations in Yemen.

Though not happy with the content of the pro-democracy protests (and ever worried about al Qaeda and Iranian influence in Yemen), the Saudis are hoping to ease out a besieged President Saleh, while at the same time do what they can to maintain Saudi influence in the country.

Although the U.S. publically supports a negotiated solution in Yemen (that will probably result in President Saleh’s removal), there is much talk in the U.S. of the Yemen becoming “another Afghanistan.” The rationale for the “drone war” is that it will prevent al Qaeda from finding a new safe haven.

The U.S. blames AQAP for failed attempts to destroy U.S. planes, the (abortive) actions of the “Times Square bomber” and the Fort Hood shootings. WikiLeaks disclosures reveal the extent of the “drone war” is larger than previously thought and that the Yemeni government is fully involved in it (in contrast to the drone campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

It is difficult to tell just how the “Arab Spring” has affected official U.S. policy in Yemen, but consider this: a “secret CIA airbase” in the Mideast is reported to be under construction to enable this expanded effort. The AP reports that the U.S. views the new airbase as “a backstop, if al-Qaida or other anti-American rebel forces gain control.”

Charity Begins at Home 

At home, the Saudis have moved quickly to suppress any stirrings of unrest relating to the “Arab Spring.” It would be an understatement to suggest that the U.S. looks the other way over Saudi human rights abuses – but unfair to say that the Saudis are inherently “worse” than other allies because they are “Arab” or “Muslim.” Strategic importance outweighs such “trivialities” as human rights when strategic allies are concerned – Musharraf’s Pakistan, Mubarak’s Egypt and Pinochet’s Chile, for instance (and, of course, in Bahrain).

That said, U.S. silence on human rights in Saudi Arabia is deafening (especially when compared to, say, U.S. statements directed at Iran). Whether it is has been on the suppression of public demonstrations (demonstrations by workers have been suppressed for decades, and striking was even made illegal in 1965), lack of religious freedoms (even for Saudi Arabia’s own Shia Muslim population), the indentured servitude that non-Saudi “guest workers” endure, or the arrest of women who have protested the country’s ban on female drivers, the U.S. response has been, in the words of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, “quiet diplomacy.”

Domestically, the Saudis have moved quickly to buy off dissent with new social spending programs, reports Foreign Policy. This approach is not new, though, but the scale of it is (US$130 billion this year alone). And that is partly due to ever-increasing discontent within the Kingdom.

In addition to financing housing and employment programs (as well as beefing up the bureaucracy), some of this money will go to the country’s religious establishment. “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,” according to Foreign Policy.

Indeed, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia founded upon the basis of a religious-royal alliance, religious legitimacy is a vital competent of the House of Saud’s “legitimacy.” Wahhabism, a particularly Puritanical strain of Sunni Islamism, is the ideological glue that has held the country together since its founding in 1932.

”We are back to the 1950s and the early 1960s”

“We are back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when the Saudis led the opposition to the revolutions at that time, the revolutions of Arabism,” according to a Saudi political activist speaking to The Washington Post.

The “We,” of course, is a royal we: it refers to both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., who have maintained a “special relationship” for decades. The relationship between the two powers animates their responses to the “Arab Spring.” To understand it, though, we will have to go back before the 1950s.

“Such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary”

U.S. involvement with Saudi Arabia began with oil concessions in the 1930s. However, a formal engagement between the two countries had to wait until the closing days of WWII.

On February 14, 1945, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with King Saud on board an American warship in the Red Sea. That meeting established the prenuptial agreement for the two partners: American protection of the Kingdom in exchange for oil access.

Since that meeting, the U.S. has increasingly committed itself to defending Saudi sovereignty (Saudi oil’s sovereignty, to be precise: the U.S. partly managed Saudi oil exports through a consortium called Aramco during much of the Cold War).

A succession of early Cold War policies (such as the Eisenhower Doctrine) entrenched the U.S.’s postwar presence in the oil-rich Mideast. By 1980, following the Iranian Revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. President Carter had declared that:

“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

During the 1980s “Tanker War” in the Gulf, in which Iran and Iraq attacked each other’s shipping and that of other nations, the U.S. made good on its word to use force to protect its interests there.

The “special relationship” deepened following the Iran-Iraq War (of which the “Tanker War” was an extension of) with the first Gulf War. Saudi Arabia, demanding intervention and even giving religious sanction to Coalition forces, subsequently served as a base for the first Gulf War coalition.

American subsidization of Saudi Arabia’s defense (to the tune of US$60 billion in 2010 alone) has long freed up Saudi oil revenues for other uses: modernization programs, foreign investment, extravagant royal lifestyles, a social safety net . . .

And financing Islamist terrorists.

Support for such organizations, such as al Qaeda, has been the justification (well, one of the justifications) for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, of Iraq in 2003, the extension of the “War on Terror” to Yemen, and U.S. opposition to organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad.

The U.S. has taken Saudi Arabia to task at the urging of the U.S. intelligence: after 9/11, the Bush Administration pressured the Saudis to share more information with them on terrorist suspects and cooperate with investigations of terrorist financiers – and the Saudis obliged.

But, this pressure was the exception to the norm: over the course of the “special relationship,” the U.S. had largely ignored active measures that Saudi officials, including members of the royal family, took in financing Islamist organizations.

And, during the Cold War, the U.S. aided and abetted these endeavors.

”We can live with that”

As noted earlier, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established by a religious-royal alliance. The Wahhabi religious establishment dominates social life, regulating religion, morality and education. As the clergy has gained greater power at home, Wahhabism has increasingly become Saudi Arabia’s leading export after oil.

The U.S. helped this along after 1945. After WWII, U.S. officials naively saw “Islam” (not really caring about or understanding sectarian differences) as a counterweight to socialism and nationalism.

When nationalists could not be cajoled or bought, the U.S. (and its allies), would turn to Islamic organizations to assist in demonizing and undermining them, as was the case in Egypt (under Nasser) and Iran (under Mossadeq).

The real religious boom, though, did not begin until 1979. The timing could not have been more opportune because of several factors: the Shah of Iran had been deposed in a popular revolution in 1979, leading to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan that year

And, most importantly, Saudi Arabia found itself awash in oil revenue – and in the midst of an identity crisis. It was a perfect storm that brought the U.S. and the Kingdom closer together than ever before.

In the winter of 1979, a group of Saudi radicals took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holy of holies. The radicals’ leader declared himself the Madhi, or savior, of all Islam and called for an overthrow of the “tainted” House of Saud. With the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran (whose very existence challenged the legitimacy of the Saudi Islamic state) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan also occurring in 1979, it was a tense year, to say the least, in Saudi Arabia.

Though the “Madhists” were defeated after a bloody siege of the Grand Mosque, the Saudi establishment was deeply shaken by the events of 1979 and looked to advance religious initiatives to regain domestic and international initiative. Support for the Afghan mujahedeen, and increased deference to the Wahhabi clergy at home, was the solution the establishment settled on.

Enter the U.S., smarting from its humiliation in Iran, hoping to give the Soviets a taste of Vietnam in Central Asia.

The Saudis eagerly became the primary channel for U.S. aid to the mujahedeen during the Soviet-Afghan War. The Bank of Credit and Commerce International, now defunct, was utilized by the CIA to fund the Afghan mujahedeen (and other secret programs).

Hundreds of millions of Saudi dollars went to promote Wahhabi-influenced religious schools in Pakistan for young Afghan refugees that engendered the Taliban. The Pakistan’s military political leadership supported these developments as well, benefitting from Saudi largesse.

“There was little impetus to step back and ask big uncomfortable questions about whether Saudi charities represented a fundamental threat to American national security,” writes Steve Coll in Ghost Wars:

“American strategy . . . was to contain and frustrate Iran and Iraq. In this mission, Saudi Arabia was an elusive but essential ally. Then, too, there was the crucial importance of Saudi Arabia in the global oil markets.”

The Taliban received further Saudi support in the form of guidance on implementing a harsh Sha-derived legal system (which included a copy of the Saudi religious police, the mutaween). Before 9/11, though, the U.S. was not overly concerned with such things. In fact, in 1997, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid reported a U.S. diplomat as saying:

“The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.”

Or rather, we could until 9/11.

”Kernel of Evil”

Saudi money, from official and unofficial sources, flowed to extremist groups all over the Muslim world. Although this had long been known within policymaking circles, the fact that fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers (and, of course, al Qaeda financier and demagogue Osama bin Laden) were Saudi that prompted a closer look at the Kingdom in the U.S., though the Bush Administration sought to deflect some blame from the Kingdom (and themselves).

In 2002, a controversial and widely commented on RAND Corporation study titled “Taking Saudi Out of Arabia” described Saudi Arabia as: “the kernel of evil . . . . active at every level of the terror chain.”

The Saudis, the Pentagon-commissioned study contended, sought to “spread Wahhabism everywhere” and to “survive by creating a Wahhabi-friendly environment – fundamentalist regimes – throughout the Moslem world.”

The study landed analyst Laurent Murawiec (d. 2009), a French neoconservative, in hot water (he also advocated seizing oil fields and Mecca & Medina), but it was indicative of the mood at the time, reviving old U.S. designs on seizing Saudi oil as a “worst-case scenario.”

Congress began conducting inquiries and referring to the Saudis as state sponsors of terrorism. Before 9/11, U.S. officials often let such Saudi peccadilloes slide. This is not so much the case nowadays.

As a result, the “special relationship” isn’t so special anymore. Many in the royal family opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (they were none to happy about the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, either, nor Saudi-bashing in Congress and FBI pressure to share information on Saudi charities with them). The Saudis asked the U.S. to leave their bases after the conclusion of “major combat operations” in Iraq, a request the U.S. complied with by building up its assets in neighboring Qatar. The influential Prince Bandar, who once referred to the U.S.-Saudi alliance as a “Catholic” marriage, certainly seems to have his doubts these days about the strength of the “special relationship.”

The Saudis have increasingly made overtures to China and Russia since 2003. Chinese and Russian military hardware (as well as diplomatic support) has fewer strings attached.

Ultimately, though, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have the same interests they have had for decades: maintaining the status quo in the Gulf. Iran has replaced the USSR as a source of mutual concern, and maintaining internal stability in the Middle East (even at the expense of democratization) has been a plank of the U.S. platform in the region since 1945 (and of the British and French before them).

Events at home, once again, helped bring the two closer together, because in 2003, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) first emerged. Arab fighters who had escaped the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan were returning to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations formed the core of AQAP.

A campaign of targeted killings and vehicle bombings tore through the Kingdom before petering out after AQAP relocated to Yemen and al Qaeda’s central apparatus turned its attention to Iraq.

These attacks (which failed to produce an uprising of any sort) led the Saudis to cooperate more closely with the U.S.-led “War on Terror.” The U.S. praised Saudi efforts to crack down on homegrown terrorism, and cooperation between the two (over such things as terrorist financing and renditions to Guantanamo Bay) increased – well, sometimes, that is.

In any case, by the mid-2000s, the furor over Saudi perfidy had partly subsided as all eyes turned to Iran’s nuclear program and influence in post-Saddam Iraq.

”As, if not more, indispensable”

So for all the talk of the Saudis striking out on their own, things are very much business as usual between the U.S. and the Kingdom these days. For instance, an arms deal is on the table involving the Saudi receipt of “warships with integrated air and Aegis missile defense systems, as well as helicopters, patrol craft and shore infrastructure” and a program to “train a new Facilities Security Force (FSF) designed to protect sensitive Saudi oil installations . . . to reach 35,000 strong” (although the U.S. bases there are closed, U.S. military trainers continue to work in Saudi Arabia).

The Facilities Security Force is rather indicative of the pillars of the relationship: protection of U.S. oil interests, as well as military cooperation against any actors – democratic, terroristic or otherwise – that threaten the Kingdom and U.S. influence in the region.

Even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound up in this oil, as Prince Turki – who masterminded the CIA links to the mujahedeen during the Cold War – has made clear:

“American leaders have long called Israel an “indispensable” ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region — not least the Arab street — who are as, if not more, “indispensable.” . . . .There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.”

One commentator predicts that U.S. support for the Israeli position on Palestinian statehood will prove to be “just not as indispensable as affordable energy.” Whether this will hold true for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict remains to be seen, but it has certainly held true for most other issues between the U.S. and the Saudis. 

Whatever happens at the UN this fall, though, the counterrevolution in the Gulf will continue. Neither the U.S. nor the Kingdom is truly willing to risk upsetting the Persian Gulf over the Palestinians.

Paul Mutter would like to thank Professor Deepa Kumar of Rutgers University for her assistance with this article.


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.

Jordan is nexus to Iraq and Israel/Palestine, with a largely characterless, corrupt and politically supine king. It shares with most Gulf countries a shallow sense of identity and political legitimacy, complicated by the Israeli-Arab conflict. Morocco is a more grounded place, far across the other side of Africa, but strong relations with the Gulf are rooted in these countries' conservative, pro-US (during the Cold War and after), anti-radical policies. I can get why Jordan, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia, might want to join the GCC. For Morocco the picture is much more divided.

On the one hand, Morocco is an energy-poor country that has in recent years received billions of aid (in dollars and in oil) from the Gulf. It is a source of immigration, of security (over 6,000 Moroccan troops are stationed in the UAE according to some estimates, and senior security officials have long provided their services to the emirs there) and diplomatic support (remember when Morocco unilaterally ended diplomatic relations with Iran?) Various people at the top of the regime have close relationships with senior Gulf princes — for instance former Moroccan FM Mohammed Benaissa has gone into business with Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. There are even families ties: Moulay Hisham, the king's estranged cousin, is a cousin of al-Waleed Bin Talal because their fathers both married daughters of former Lebanese prime minister Ryad al-Solh.

On the other, the official reaction to the announcement in Morocco has been cautious and the public's reaction has been an either amused or angry "WTF?" Moroccans fundamentally see themselves as different, in their mores and culture, to the Khalijis. Jordanians have (for half the population) at least a shared Bedouin culture and the Hejazi connection (the Hashemites are originally from the Hejaz, the Western part of Saudi Arabia). But Moroccans feel only distant historic ties to the Gulf, and over half are Berbers who feel no tie at all. There has been no effort to prepare the public and sell it to them. It might represent, for many, a golden goose: prospects for easier emmigration to the Gulf. But it also stirs up feelings of resentment against Gulf haughtiness — only last summer there was a scandal over the Saudi perception of Moroccan women as loose (no doubt because there is a brisk prostitution business in the Gulf, with Moroccans among the few Arab women more easily found). And among the Moroccan elite, there is some contempt for uncouth and nouveau riche Khalijis, lacking Maghrebi refinement. 

I am usually all for regional integration, and the GCC is a relatively successful model for the region (although that's really because there are no other successes). Morocco could benefit economically from such an arrangement. But at a time when there is more pressure on the monarchy to reform than ever before, I cannot but help fear that some of the Gulf countries — notably Saudi Arabia — have an interest in not seeing any Arab monarchy evolve towards a real, democratic, constitutional monarchy. And that is a price too high to pay.

Also: Arabist reader J. Hammond writes in with this contribution:

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced  this week that Jordan and Morocco are likely to join the economic and political union of the six Gulf States. The sudden announcement has been widely seen as a "circle the wagons" move by a group of worried monarchs.

The Gulf Cooperation Council is seen by some as an European Union type organization in the making. Since the founding of the GCC in 1981, the group has pursued greater integration on a number of issues ranging from trade to football. The GCC is even pursuing a currency union.  A recent piece in the Jordan Times noted that:

"For decades, Jordanian skilled labour has worked in the GCC countries, contributing to their development. Over 350,000 Jordanians work there. They are highly appreciated for their competence and sought out to fill important positions." 

Both Morocco and Jordan are popular destinations for Gulf tourists. With Morocco and Jordan as full members, the population of the GCC would nearly double. But, unlike the European Union which formed from an economic agreement (the 1950s European Coal and Steel Community) the GCC was first founded as a defensive pact and has became increasingly economic in nature.

This wave of expansion shows that security remains an important part of GCC equation. Both Jordan and Morocco have long coordinated with the GCC on security issues. Jordan has sent 800 personnel to the Saudi-led GCC operation in Bahrain. Indeed, Jordan's military professionalism is well known throughout the region. Morocco has also not hesitated in coming to the aid of GCC countries in the past. The country sent 13,000 troops to assist coalition forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Secondly, like the Gulf monarchies, Morocco's relationship with Iran has been rocky.

The GCC move is a confident one. The Arab monarchies at present appear far more stable than their republican peers. For example, Qatar and the UAE have not seen any large protests throughout the ongoing "Arab Spring". Still, this expansion of the GCC implies that the fates of the Arab world's monarchies are intertwined. With Jordan and Morocco in the tent, all Arab world monarchies would be in one single, club of kings.

Extra links:

  • / Middle East & North Africa - Gulf states’ overtures delight Jordan
  • Morocco and Jordan ask to join GCC - The National
  • Elliott Abrams: Pressure Points » Blog Archive » The GCC: “Carefully Considered Reform” or Reactionary Politics?
  • GCC throws economic lifeline to Jordan, Morocco |
  • Le Maroc invité à un club très fermé?
  • ANALYSIS-Arab dynasties lure Jordan, Morocco into anti-Iran bloc | News by Country | Reuters
  • Counterrevolution in the Gulf - By Kristian Coates Ulrichsen | Foreign Policy
  • gulfnews : Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf: An attempt to steal the show
  • AFP: Jordan, Morocco could boost GCC 'monarchy club'
  • 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.

    There are a lot of important consequences for our knowledge of the history of human evolution and history:

    "Given the presence of Neanderthal communities in the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates River, as well as in the eastern Mediterranean region, this may very well have been the contact zone between moderns and Neanderthals," Rose told LiveScience. In fact, recent evidence from the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome suggests interbreeding, meaning we are part caveman.

    The Gulf Oasis would have been a shallow inland basin exposed from about 75,000 years ago until 8,000 years ago, forming the southern tip of the Fertile Crescent, according to historical sea-level records.

    And it would have been an ideal refuge from the harsh deserts surrounding it, with fresh water supplied by the Tigris, Euphrates, Karun and Wadi Baton Rivers, as well as by upwelling springs, Rose said. And during the last ice age when conditions were at their driest, this basin would've been at its largest.

    In fact, in recent years, archaeologists have turned up evidence of a wave of human settlements along the shores of the Gulf dating to about 7,500 years ago.

    "Where before there had been but a handful of scattered hunting camps, suddenly, over 60 new archaeological sites appear virtually overnight," Rose said. "These settlements boast well-built, permanent stone houses, long-distance trade networks, elaborately decorated pottery, domesticated animals, and even evidence for one of the oldest boats in the world."

    Rather than quickly evolving settlements, Rose thinks precursor populations did exist but have remained hidden beneath the Gulf. [History's Most Overlooked Mysteries]

    "Perhaps it is no coincidence that the founding of such remarkably well developed communities along the shoreline corresponds with the flooding of the Persian Gulf basin around 8,000 years ago," Rose said. "These new colonists may have come from the heart of the Gulf, displaced by rising water levels that plunged the once fertile landscape beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean."

    And of course it makes a certain mythological flood story seem much more likely:

    And there's a hint of mythology here, too, Rose pointed out. "Nearly every civilization living in southern Mesopotamia has told some form of the flood myth. While the names might change, the content and structure are consistent from 2,500 B.C. to the Genesis account to the Qur'anic version," Rose said.

    Perhaps evidence beneath the Gulf? "If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands," said Rose, quoting Douglas Adams.

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