My paper on contemporary Saudi-Jordanian relations ("Friends in Adversity") is available via the LSE's Kuwait Gulf Studies Programme. Click here to access the PDF on the LSE website. The writing of the paper was completed in June 2013.
"Turkey: Looking East and West", my article on Turkey and its relations with the EU and the Middle East, was published by Open Democracy in June 2013.
Clickhereto read the article on the Open Democracy website:
The House of Commons' Foreign Affairs Select Committee enquiry into the UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain issued its findings on 22nd November 2013. It includes some quotes from Neil Partrick's oral evidence to the committee. Click here to access the full report.
The enquiry began on January 22nd 2013. Neil Partrick appeared before the committee in the opening session alongside Jane Kinninmont of Chatham House
Clickhere or below for the broadcast version of the appearance, followed by two ex-UK ambassadors to Bahrain, Sir Roger Tomkys and Robin Lamb.
Gulf Union: The Talk Goes on - Neil Partrick, June 18th 2012.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah took his fellow Gulf leaders by surprise at their annual summit last December when he declared that the GCC should move from co-operation to “a union in a single entity”. The results of the ensuing consultative process involving officials and academics was supposed to have enabled the state leaders at their meeting in mid-May in Riyadh to decide what this union should look like. However, the decision was postponed, seemingly until December 2012 (although the Gulf states’ foreign ministers seem set to discuss it again in September).
It is believed that at the May Riyadh meeting the GCC leaders had before them two ideas. The first was a kind of “union of the willing”, consisting of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain but possibly also including Kuwait and Qatar; the second, a proposal that new GCC consultative bodies be founded to advise on practical steps toward union in specific policy areas such as defence and economy. Nobody expected that Oman, the “UK of the GCC”, would be in the first phase of any planned union. The UAE, which has kept out of preparations for a common currency due to a dispute over the location of the proposed central bank and which still has border sensitivities with Saudi Arabia, was not expected to come on board at this stage either.
National sovereignty remains a sensitive issue for all six member countries, especially among the smaller states who fear Saudi dominance, just as in the Euro Zone where German weight feeds resentments in other member states. The GCC already has a workable customs union, despite the complications of different rules applying to two member states’ trade with the US, and the annual spectacle of trucks from Abu Dhabi being held up for days on end at the Saudi border.
However, since its inception the GCC has not been able to agree on how to move beyond ad hoc co-operation on defence and diplomacy. Although largely founded out of fear of Iran, the GCC is still unable to act effectively as a bloc to contain it. Integrated defence and diplomacy could also allow the GCC to deal more effectively with the challenges of upheaval in the Arab world Different GCC member countries sometimes take quite different approaches to regional security and seek to position themselves globally in contradistinction to each other - with the most glaring example of this difference being between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While they have for the most part successfully presented a common front since the Arab spring, thereby enabling the GCC and the Arab League to take on more diplomatic substance, they are not in any sense bound together, other than on a case by case, bilateral, basis. In both countries there is a strong sense of the other seeking to be the preeminent Arab actor – something that any attempt by the GCC to move beyond trade to a union affecting political sovereignty will need to overcome.
The union idea attracts broad support outside of government, and not just among Saudi elites. Former Arab nationalists throughout the GCC hope that, on the right basis, the notion of Arab unity can still have a practical meaning across today’s Gulf. In Kuwait, which sees itself as the historic builder of Gulf co-operation due to its support for the nascent states of the lower Gulf – pro-Saudi Islamist opinion is in favour. Liberal opinion is more cautious, however, and the importance of safeguards for the autonomy of the Kuwaiti parliament is stressed. In Bahrain the leadership and its political allies seem the most unequivocal in their support for union, beginning perhaps with one forged with Saudi Arabia alone. Talk of a confederation of these two kingdoms, however, must surely be just that because the demographic realities of being one country in law, as well as in rhetoric, would be as uncomfortable for the Saudi leadership as for the Bahraini opposition.
In external defence terms, the GCC’s “Peninsula Shield” has never been a genuinely “joined up” force. Resistance to such a body has been long standing in the GCC, and the form of its intervention in Bahrain does nothing to alter the impression of Gulf defence matters being largely handled by a loose coalition. The increased talk about a regional missile defence shield would, if it materialises, make much more sense than sovereign missile defences on sometimes tiny patches of territory . However, this would integrate the Gulf states’ missile defence with the US and is not therefore a self-reliant, integrated, defence capability of the kind apparently being sought. Joining up defence procurement would go much further to end the established bilateralism of the six Gulf states with western military allies, but this is not a prospect looked upon with relish by Gulf leaders or, it seems, in western capitals.
All of this appears quite far off at present, and sceptics are perhaps justified in wondering exactly what further extended deliberation by advisers, as opposed to government leaders, can achieve. Saudi enthusiasts for a union argue that the UAE itself is a political model readily understood by all Gulf leaders, even if the legal and theoretical niceties of sovereignty are sometimes not.
Given all of this, the question is whether a political union, that mostly continues to elude even the EU, is something that the self-styled cooperation council of the Arabian Gulf states can really conceive of themselves agreeing to. If not, then the agreed limits, as much as the prerequisites, of a union need to be spelled out in order for this project to ever get beyond the drawing board.
The KSA and Syria (and Russia too)
May 31, 2012. In an Al-Watan interview a few days ago, Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister and special advisor to the Russian President, said that Moscow had no problem with a change at the top in Syria, but not by external military intervention. He also emphasised to the Saudi daily that Russia is on the same page as the GCC re Syria and stressed the value of intra-Syrian talks (as per the Annan Plan). I wonder if the Saudi government might be getting a bit tired of the SNC (which it has always been wary of, it seems to me) and its reluctance to talk to the Syrian regime. Perhaps the KSA might be willing to give some encouragement to the growing sense coming out of Moscow that Assad has to go, possibly along the lines of the GCC's Yemen Plan (which of course IS the GCC Syria Plan too, and in effect is what Annan is supposed to be trying to deliver). None of this means that the Annan Plan isn't in need of desperate life support, if not resuscitation. However Dr Fyodor Luykanov commented to the BBC this morning that the Russian government post Houla seems to be accepting that the game has changed and some kind of Yemen option for Syria is needed. The writer Luykanov is close to the Russian foreign ministry and thus his argument could suggest what Russian official thinking is becoming. Or it might be a bluff to stave of western and Arab pressure for more drastic solutions to deal with Moscow's ally in Damascus. However for the Saudis it does not seem to me that a role in the armed overthrow of a regime already presiding over a nascent civil war is that attractive (even if Qatar sees things differently from its geographical vantage point.)
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Who's Next After King Naif? October 22nd, 2011
The likely accession of Naif as Saudi king in the not too distant future throws the spotlight not just on a likely Crown Prince Salman but on Naif's two sons at the interior ministry. It is one of them who, with Naif's decisive input, could be the first of the next generation to rule.
A renewed Saudi-Iranian dialogue is being increasingly talked about, following Iranian foreign minister’s encouragement of it in a late June statement. There have been suggestions that it has already begun, although a semi official Saudi press report in mid July did not back this up. There is though the prospect of a round of talks being conducted in Saudi Arabia, should Iran concur, rather than supposedly neutral Kuwait that Iran first asked for. However, as in 2007 and 2008, when Prince Bandar bin Sultan played a major role on behalf of King Abdullah in conducting talks in Iran, the conditions for a meaningful understanding to be reached remain difficult, and some of the problems that prevented progress in a number areas then, remain in place today.
The Saudi Arabian owned, London published, Arabic daily Al-Hayat quoted foreign minister Saud Al Faisal in early July as commenting that dialogue is welcomed on the basis that Iran is a "big neighbouring country which has a role to play.” However he added that “for that role to be acceptable it must be within a framework that guarantees the interests of the Gulf states." Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister generally talks with the full authority of King Abdullah and his other foreign policy advisors. Al-Faisal's comments suggest that the Kingdom might be prepared to accept what Iran has long urged upon its Gulf Arab neighbours: that the importance of its regional position be properly acknowledged. This is not though to suggest that Riyadh would ever accept a diminution of its own brotherly, as it would see it, protective, role toward its relatively small GCC neighbours, nor that Gulf cooperation of a kind Iran has paid rhetorical lip service to since the 1990s is about to begin. It might though reflect an increased Saudi desire to find a post US drawdown in Iraq modus vivendi with Iran in the Gulf, and even to some extent in the Levant – not though in any sense a Saudi Arabia going it alone as it and its new nascent Gulf neighbours had to after Britain’s 1971 withdrawal.
A key factor in motivating the desire on the part of both countries to try to reach an understanding is Bahrain, where Saudi troops have been present since March. Iran resents this overt strategic assertion by its preeminent Gulf rival, while Saudi Arabia resents Iranian condemnation for what it regards as an invitation from one ally to another to assist in Bahraini internal security. The unspoken part of Saudi resentment is of course that it views the entry of its troops as a statement toward Iran who, in the unlikely event of a change of regime in Bahrain to a Shia republic, would be the strategic gainer, even if Tehran is not directly instigating popular revolt there. Indicative of the kind of statements that rile the Saudis is that of Ramin Mehmanparast, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, who commented in early July, “"We believe that Saudi Arabia has made mistakes in dealing with Bahrain as (the) people's demand should not be responded (to) through suppression." Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi later sounded ameliorative and plainly sought to bolster his earlier diplomatic impetus by emphasising Saudi Arabia’s importance in the region and claiming that Iran would not interfere in the events in Bahrain. While these formulations have been made by Iran before, they suggested good will and a desire to further exchange ideas. It is conceivable that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who is being encouraged by the Kingdom’s western allies to pull out his troops, will sanction an understanding with Iran that includes an overt Iranian commitment to Bahraini independence. This kind of formulation has echoes of the the Shah who effectively made Iranian claims to the Gulf island conditional on a UN consultation with Bahrainis that saw them assert their desire to be independent (It also arguably allowed him to take the islands contested with the UAE). With little for third parties to trade, and Iran under international isolation, it is difficult to find a diplomatic formula for Bahrain today however. The bigger issues now are Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and Afghanistan, and it is on these that dialogue will be even more difficult. Lebanon however did see some progress in 2008 between intermediaries for King Abdullah and Ali Khamanei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, who apparently agreed that the incipient civil war would not be in either of their two countries’ interest, and the violence was reined in part it seems due to the two leaders.
On Syria, Iran’s key regional ally, the Saudi government appears to have begun shifting from a degree of neutrality due to the potential downside for its interests of a possible regime change there, to a more critical position, at least as reflected in the reporting of its de facto state media and of its closely linked satellite broadcaster. The positions of Syrian oppositionists are getting increased coverage, while representatives are being interviewed on semi-detached media outlets like Al-Arabiya, the Dubai based satellite news station. In a sense this is a return to the status quo ante – some domestic Saudi journalists were in effect calling for the Kingdom to politically aid the downfall of the ostensibly “pro Iranian” Syrian government some time before the Arab Spring begun, while some Saudi clerics were initially allowed to respond to popular revolt elsewhere by urging the downfall of “irreligious” Arab governments. However, comments by official clerics were reined in and notably, a clerical intervention in Saudi foreign policy in June led to the arrest of Sheikh Yousef Ahmad, the organiser of a semi public expression of opposition to President Assad’s regime and to the arrest of a fellow Saudi clerical critic.
Saudi Arabia will though also be mindful of ongoing Shia militant challenges in southern Iraq with an Iranian linkage, Iran’s renewed attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan (after reports of a large Iranian troop build on its side of the border) and Kuwaiti concerns about alleged Iranian meddling in the renewed Kuwaiti-Iraqi territorial tensions. Saudi Arabia is no doubt interested in dialogue with Iran, but not to appease Iran, rather, as in Lebanon in 2008, to minimise the risks of conflict that would potentially damage its own interests. Saudi concerns over Iranian nuclear and strategic ambitions remain and are unlikely to be willingly acceded to. Writing in Al-Hayat in mid-July, the reformist and relative liberal domestic critic Khalid Al-Dakhil argued that the Saudi government has an opportunity in what he judges Iranian and Syrian weakness in the face of regional upheaval to gain the upper hand – it may in fact be that Saud Al-Faisal and the king’s other foreign policy advisors see that themselves and the other status quo powers –including Iran and Syria – have a mutual interest in pursuing dialogue to preserve their interests not make them collide. If true this is hardly the newest game in town even if it is more pressing.
Bahrain takes the Gulf back to the future April 1, 2011 Dr Neil Partrick
The dispatch of Saudi and other Gulf state troops to help quell the unrest in Shia majority Bahrain is helping to send the region back to the future. Wider unrest in the Arab world has largely been caused by popular frustration with authoritarian, corrupt regimes that haven’t delivered the good life for the majority. However in Bahrain the story is essentially one of the economic and political frustration of much of the Shia population vis-a vis a Sunni hereditary regime. The deepening of sectarianism as that conflict has played out on the streets has brought very different reactions in the Gulf to what was felt toward events in faraway Tunisia and Egypt. GCC governments, whose foreign ministers warned Iran in early April against “continuing interference” in their affairs, largely speak for their publics. Both Gulf government officials, and their many Islamist and liberal critics, see Bahrain through a sectarian prism related to domestic and regional security. Iran’s reach into the Shia populations of the Gulf is not yet seen as having become as developed and as threatening as it was in the 1980s when revolutionary fervour and the Iran-Iraq war particularly polarised Gulf Sunni opinion toward local Shia Arabs. However a shift is going on among both the Sunni regimes and the Sunni populations of the Gulf that has set back the inclusive political process in Bahrain, weakened the tentative steps toward inclusion taken in Saudi Arabia, and may even threaten political cohesion in Kuwait.
The unnamed Saudi government official quoted by David Ignatius in The Washington Post in late March as saying that his country’s troops are in Bahrain because “we don’t want Iran 14 miles off our coast” speaks for much Sunni opinion throughout the GCC. The subtlety of a Bahraini situation where the popular moderate Shia Islamist-dominated Al-Wifaq are pluralists with little sympathy for Iran, is, for instance, understood by liberal reformers in Kuwait. Events on the ground in Bahrain, however, and a related upsurge of sectarian tensions in Kuwait, where the Shia represent one third of the population, have created a dissonance in perspective - all politics may be local but behind the local is the hand of Iran. In Kuwait and more widely in the Gulf it is noted that the national flag is raised by Bahraini Shia street protestors, but it is claimed that it often has 12 triangles as opposed to the usual five, thereby supposedly symbolising “Twelver” Shiism and confirming a pre-planned “takeover” cooked up in Iran. When the Kuwaiti government resigned in late March in a constitutional manoeuvre to stave off parliamentary “grillings”, the hand of both Al-Sabah infighting, and of Iran and its ally, the Lebanese Hizbollah, were seen by the country’s Sunni reformers as orchestrating a good deal of the parliamentary “puppet theatre” in which an increasing number of ministers were being pressured by MPs.
Saudi troops, and the more modest contribution of troops from the UAE, and apparently a tiny quota from Kuwait and Qatar, are in Bahrain at the behest of King Hamad. He secured a decision by the GCC to in effect change the nature of its mutual security pact by sanctioning collective action against an internal challenge, however much an Iranian link may have been believed. The ruling Al-Khalifa’s earlier internal difference of emphasis on negotiations with the Shia-led domestic opposition gave way to a shared unity of vision with Saudi Arabia when the protests in Pearl Square became an occupation of Manama’s financial district. The instinct of both the powerful Saudi interior chief Prince Nayef and of King Abdullah had been at one as soon as the Bahrain crisis broke. As the Bahraini crisis grew, it was Saudi Arabia that was instrumental in ensuring that GCC cover was given to what is essentially a Saudi operation to, in its view, save the Al-Khalifa regime. A similar Saudi intervention occurred in the mid-1990s. The Saudi “occupiers”, in the eyes of Bahraini Shia and both the Iranian and Iraqi governments, are the “defenders” of Bahrain and the region from Iran in the eyes of much Gulf opinion. An economic counterpart to the Gulf intervention in Bahrain – a US$20bn fund agreed by the GCC to aid Bahrain and Oman – provides the wealthier Gulf Arab states with a less confrontational means to back the status quo in their poorer neighbours.
It is also widely noted in the Gulf, and most acutely in Kuwait, that the Shia-led Iraqi government and parliament in Iraq is openly hostile to the Saudi action and that the southern provinces are boycotting Saudi goods. Basra, where anti-Saudi regime and pro-Bahraini Shia feeling is particularly strong, borders Kuwait, as well as Iran. Memories of the Iraqi invasion of 1990 continue to colour Kuwaiti feelings, and in the current atmosphere they wonder how Shia solidarity might affect the behaviour of their mistrusted northern neighbour as well as Iran.
Saudi domestic setback following Bahrain uprising
King Abdullah had previously undertaken an embrace of moderate Shia Islamists in a wide-ranging official dialogue and facilitated modest municipality positions in the flashpoint Shia city of Qatif in the oil-rich Eastern Province. While a long way from the degree of representation that had until recently occurred in the Bahraini legislature, and which is enjoyed by Shia in the Kuwaiti parliament, it suggested a basis for further improvement. When careful Shia demonstrations got underway in Eastern Province, which have latterly embraced a call for Saudi troops to leave Bahrain, and demonstrations were even threatened by Sunnis in Riyadh, King Abdullah made it unequivocally clear that the Al-Saud will rely on the twin pillars of tough internal security and the Saudi brand of Sunni Islamic orthodoxy, colloquially called Wahhabism, to weather the storm. His address to the nation in mid-March effectively outlawed criticism from any quarter of the official clerical class and promised a big cash bonus to the so-called religious police, the mutaawa, whose role in policing morality enforces regime authority, and about whom he has previously been critical. His predecessor King Fahad did the same thing in response to Iranian militancy and ideological assertiveness in the 1980s. This backfired when the contradictions in the Al-Saud’s “Islamisation” helped encourage Saudi Islamist dissent in the 1990s and arguably even violent challenges to the state in the early 2000s. Notwithstanding the promise that long delayed municipal elections will take place among Saudi males in April, King Abdullah has signalled a definite shift of gear…. backwards. As such, his pronouncements will no doubt stifle what under his rule has been a more open Saudi media debate on the role of Wahhabism in Saudi public life.
Reaction in the smaller Gulf states
Kuwaitis have rediscovered a pride in the value of a representative legislature hitherto seen as unnecessarily obstructionist, believing that it will offset street pressure from any quarter. However a concern is growing that ineffectual Kuwaiti leadership and alleged Iranian malevolence is undermining this tiny country’s national unity. There is no doubt that the Kuwaiti leadership’s weakness in the facing of competing local Sunni and Shia pressures saw it make only a nominal military contribution to the GCC forces in Bahrain, perhaps best typified by the fact that its only acknowledged contribution is “naval units” dispatched to Bahraini waters. At the same time as the Kuwaiti government resigned, an apparent Iranian spy cell including a Kuwaiti that had penetrated the Kuwaiti armed forces were sentenced – to death in the case of some of the Iranian members - and Kuwait withdrew its ambassador from Tehran and ordered three Iranian diplomats to leave the country. While the Kuwait government is not as rattled by these events as it was by Iranian-backed activity in the country in the 1980s, there is a sense that the growing rhetorical hostility from Iran, which has Saudi Arabia in particular in its sights, is inflaming the situation in a manner paralleling three decades ago.
By contrast, in the other Gulf Arab states local politics are not coloured by the push and pull of sectarian interests among their nationals. The UAE has a miniscule population of Shia Emiratis. However it has for several years been concerned by Iranian sleeper cell activity, especially in Dubai where the Iranian national population is high. Attitudes in Qatar and Oman to an incipient, Iranian-linked, Shia “threat” in the wider region are more cautious. However Qatar’s good relations with Iran have not prevented an apparent token contribution to the GCC forces in Bahrain. Its population – containing large numbers of Sunni Arabs of Iranian descent but only a modest number of Shia – is less potentially vulnerable to Iranian external pressure than some of its neighbours. Oman’s Shia minority are mainly of Indian descent, integrated, and unlikely to be susceptible to Iranian influence. Political pressures there have seen the Sultan shed some powerful individual allies, but these events have little to do with Bahrain in sectarian terms.
Regional clash in Bahrain?
The important question going forward is what happens if Saudi and other GCC forces are overtly drawn into violent confrontation with Bahraini Shia. The widespread assumption in the Gulf that Iran is already assisting them, at least via Hizbollah, could then conceivably become an undeniable and very public fact, if only at the level of overt incitement. If Bahrain becomes a genuinely open and violent platform for a Saudi-Iranian regional struggle, this could further backfire on domestic regime-Shia relations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, if not further afield. The position of the Saudi Shia leadership in Eastern Province, and the enthusiasm of its intellectuals for a “new Saudi nationalism” has rested on a rather fragile combination of Al-Saud goodwill since the 1990s and a Shia public prepared to test whether its leaders can deliver practical benefits. These though have been in short supply as Wahhabist ideology continues to demean Shia in the classroom and the workplace, and when, just as in Bahrain, economic conditions in Shia-dominated towns remain poor. (The condition of Najrani Shia in the south of the country is not so susceptible to a change in the regional weather, but their grievances remain.)
Bahrain seems set to intensify wider disquiet in a Gulf where sectarianism and security are, sadly, the order of the day. This extends to perceptions to their south and north. State collapse in Yemen appears more plausible and the assumed role of Iran in backing Houthi Shia is expected to grow, as, in certain scenarios, is the role of Saudi Arabia in backing a range of actors. In Syria, Gulf feeling gravitates to the Sunni-dominated opposition on the assumption that a change of regime will bring friendlier foreign relations and an end to the Syrian-Iranian axis. Given the powerful role of Gulf money on both these fronts, then Gulf Arab and Iranian tensions will plainly not be confined to Bahrain. However it is on Bahrain that Gulf Arab worries about their own Shia communities and about Iran will as likely continue to focus. It will take a marked downgrading in sectarian tensions in Bahrain to offset the worrying implications of unrest there for the rest of the Gulf area.
Saudi Arabia: An island of calm in a sea of instability?
Dr. Neil Partrick
March 1, 2011.
The Saudi ruling family is becoming increasingly concerned at the attitude of its population toward the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world and has been taking a number of measures intended to pre-empt any possible fallout in the Kingdom. In late February the return of King Abdullah after three months absence undertaking medical treatment for a bad back was accompanied by a more generous financial package to address employment and other social needs of the Saudi public than might ordinarily have been expected. The US$36bn commitments included an expansion of welfare payments for the young unemployed, a 15% pay rise for all government employees, a commitment to fund the cost of all Saudi students studying abroad, new housing loans for young people, and the wiping out of debts to a number of government bodies. Probably less significant for most Saudis was a commitment to create a total of 1,200 jobs in four government bodies including the Royal Court.
The King’s largesse was in tune with the pre-emptive approach taken, unsuccessfully it seemed, in neighbouring Bahrain when a one off payment of US$2,650 to each Bahraini family was announced in early February and some cabinet changes in areas affecting jobs and welfare were announced a couple of weeks later; and in Kuwait in mid-January when the funding of free food for nationals was announced among other measures. The Saudi press trumpeted the popular response to the King’s return as affirming the Kingdom’s situation as an “island of stability” in a turbulent region. There were many young people on hand to greet the genuinely popular head of a system which has successfully fended off the threat of widespread instability in the past with a combination of a judicious use of energy-funded largesse and the tying-in of clerical, tribal and wider public opinion. Acceptance of the Al-Saud has been achieved through a heavy reliance, utilising official and semi-official “adopted” clerics, on projecting the Islamic fealty of the state and of the ruling family, and a long standing traditional “sheikhly” system of consultation in which grievances at the elite and popular level are often openly expressed. Behind this is, as in any functioning state, is the “monopoly of violence”, run in the Saudi case as a family affair. The Saudisation of the military, security and intelligence services, which are split between the King and several of his half brothers, means that the ruling family stay together or hang together. In this sense Saudi Arabia is comparable to Bahrain; family-based regimes, and states, are almost incapable of trying to fend off popular pressure by ditching their top man, as occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, or even an unpopular senior relative unless like Sultan his incapacity is no longer manageable. When King Saud exited the stage in 1964 in favour of Faisal, this was a family affair backed up with a clerical blessing.
It is possible that Abdullah will shortly follow the Bahraini lead and try to appease frustrations by making some cabinet level changes in areas affecting domestic policy, although one key portfolio, labour, was only changed in August 2010 and is held by a committed reformer, Adel Al-Fakieh. Given the Al-Saud internal political balance, King Abdullah is politically incapable of demoting half brothers holding more important job such as Prince Naif, the interior minister and second in line to the throne. There are signs, however, that more may need to be done to stave off discontent in the Kingdom, even if mass protest seems unlikely.
Abdullah’s ally, and controversial half-brother, Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, gave a live interview in mid-February on the BBC Arabic satellite TV station. Talal, known in the Kingdom as a liberal due to his overt criticism of the Kingdom’s political system in the early 1960s, for which he remains controversial in the Al-Saud, expressed concern about “evils” that would happen if Abdullah died without enacting substantive reforms to ensure the inclusion of the people in decision-making. Walid wrote an opinion piece for the US daily newspaper, The New York Times, a few days later in which he praised his uncle the King’s financial attention to the social needs of the public, but described the largesse as only a “step in the right direction” and that a “longer journey toward broader participation” involving young people would be needed. Such sentiments have been expressed at various points over the last 50 years. In the early 1990s the upheaval of the Gulf war encouraged a lively debate involving clerical and relatively liberal opinion, the outcome of which was the establishment by King Fahd of the majlis al-shoura (consultative council) and the writing of a Basic Law, a document akin to a constitution in a Kingdom whose only constitution is officially the Quran. In 2003 a number of Islamist and liberal intellectuals went public in urging reform, only to face imprisonment until Abdullah’s accession in 2005. An online Saudi petition launched in mid-February this year, at www.dawlaty.com, had, at the time this report was being written, over 1,500 signatories including a number of intellectual and cultural figures. The mostly non-clerical signatories backed a petition in favour of directly electing the majlis al-shoura and creating, in effect, a constitutional monarchy whereby the shoura council, not the king, would be the source of legislative authority and, seemingly, the determinant of who heads the cabinet, i.e. the prime minister (a function traditionally held by the king). The much-vaunted social media held to have been so significant in the process of youth-led change occurring in a number of Arab countries is, so far at least, not proving in Saudi Arabia to be a means for even virtual mass mobilisation. A promised “Day of Anger”, using the language of protestors in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, is scheduled for March 11th. However, as of late February, the Facebook page set up in support of the planned demonstration and the demand for a constitutional monarchy and a guaranteed living wage had not garnered much more than 600 signatories. There are relatively young Saudi bloggers in Arabic and English, some of whom have gone public in saying that the King’s financial handout was not enough. However it has mostly fallen to minority Shia opinion such as the Qateef-based activist, Tawfiq al-Saif, who has directly engaged with the Saudi leadership for 20 years, to go public in the international media in arguing that, given the current regional mood, such gestures would no longer work.
Unlike in some other Arab states, however, Saudi youth are still wary of exposing themselves to pressure from the security services. The lack of any major mobilisation, virtual or actual, is also due to the lack of a tradition of popular protest, at least among the Sunni majority in the Kingdom, and an apparent ongoing willingness to give King Abdullah the benefit of the doubt and to assume, as a number of Saudi bloggers have commented, that it is those around him who are responsible for holding back substantive change. There have though been some cautious signs of protest in the Eastern Province where in mid-February a literally silent demonstration in Awamiyah demanded the release of Shia political prisoners, which was responded to at Abdullah’s behest with the release of several such figures a few days later. There has also been an unverified claim from an exiled Shia activist that around one thousand people demonstrated in Qateef in late February urging the release of all remaining Shia political prisoners. Periodic demonstrations and wider signs of discontent have occurred in Shia areas like Qateef for more than 30 years, albeit that they are usually repressed. The Saudi leadership rightly senses that the upheaval in Shia majority Bahrain, a short drive from the Eastern Province, is being utilised by some Saudi Shia as an opportunity to carefully push for more substantive change in their own country than that wrought from a dialogue process under Abdullah that has incorporated some Shia leaders since shortly before he acceded as monarch. Both sides in the Kingdom are liable to be careful to not over-respond to the tensions that the Bahrain factor creates, however. The Bahraini king, Hamed bin Isa, who notably greeted Abdullah in Riyadh upon his return, has been informed that the Saudi king is willing to send Saudi troops to deal with any serious security problem, a role played by Abdullah’s Saudi Arabian National Guard in Bahrain in 1996. According to a report in late February in the semi-legal Saudi online newspaper, Elaph, this commitment was underlined by a conversation between Hamed and the Saudi interior minister and second deputy premier, Prince Naif. Naif controls a special forces unit.
For the Saudi Sunni mainstream a more obvious process of inclusion has occurred in the Kingdom compared to the Shia. Going against a government defined in overtly Sunni Islamic terms would be seen by many Saudi Sunnis as self-defeating and irreligious. In the current regional environment, and given the concern of many in the Kingdom about the aspirations of Iran, there will be further caution about any steps that could destabilise the Al-Saud monarchy. This, however, has not prevented some attempts by Saudi Sunnis to exploit the regional situation to advance demands for internal reform, something that small groups such as ACPRA (Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association), connected to pro-reform Sunni Islamists, has been publicly but carefully pushing since 2009.
In early February more than 50 Saudi women held a demonstration outside of the ministry of interior in Riyadh urging that the men from their families, who were arrested over several years and held on anti-terrorism charges, be tried or released. There has been a greater willingness for those in major Saudi cities to protest aspects of government policy in recent years, as evidenced by a reported protest in January against the perceived government inability to prevent renewed flooding in Jeddah. However protests outside the ministry of interior are especially bold –a protest outside a detention centre led to a violent clampdown in 2007, and a planned ACPRA sit-in outside the ministry was abandoned in December 2010. A lawyer who has defended arrested Sunni reformers in the past, Abdulaziz Al-Wohaiby, who himself is very much a part of the religiously conservative Wahhabi mainstream in Saudi society, helped found an illegal political party, the Islamic Umma Party, in early February. This was seemingly a symbolic move to reflect the desire of some Sunni Islamists and relative liberals for a constitutional monarchy. In the event seven of the nine founders, including Mr Al-Wohaiby, were arrested on the orders of Prince Naif; three were later released on condition that they recant their ambition to form such an organisation. In September 2007 Prince Talal advocated the founding of a political party to back Abdullah’s reformist agenda against what he identified as resistance from a “monopolistic group”, assumed to be a reference to Crown Prince Sultan and Prince Naif among other “Al-Sudairi” princes, but he too effectively recanted. King Abdullah does not welcome attempts at founding political parties, fearing regionalist or Islamist challenges in particular. His approach is top-down gradual change largely based on his intervention and encouragement rather than on institutional reform. Indicative of this, in February Abdullah also ordered that a Sunni academic arrested for internet political speculation in December be released while a renowned blogger had his travel ban rescinded.
It is possible that a developing process of periodic petitions and even modest protests will grow in response to the regional trend and building on relatively established political activism in the Kingdom. However it seems unlikely that major upheaval will occur. This is partly due to the caution of both Sunni and Shia reformers and the wider public, and partly due to the desire of King Abdullah to ensure that the state does not overreact in response to reformers’ demands. That said, given the importance of his role as a popular leader and, relatedly, as a constraint on the even more conservative instincts of Prince Naif, his son Mohammed, and other interior ministry officials, this begs the question about the consequences of the 87 year old Abdullah’s eventual demise. With the likely rule of a King Naif in the relatively short term, given Sultan’s very poor health, the issue becomes what will be the impact, not so much on what have been, thus far, only modest changes, but on the desire of reformers to maintain their currently cautious approach.
SELECTED ARTICLES 2010
Saudi-UAE Border Dispute Resurfaces Middle East International Vol. 2 no. 12 - 16th April 2010
A three day, 10km long, backlog of lorries stalled at the UAE-Saudi Arabia border crossing on April 1-3 was just the latest manifestation of tensions between the two ostensible Gulf allies. The incident, seemingly caused by a deliberate go-slow by Saudi border officials, followed an exchange of fire around March 16 between a naval craft carrying Saudi border guards and an Emirati coast guard vessel in the disputed Khor al-Udaid. Arguing that the Saudis had encroached into its sovereign waters, the UAE arrested two of them, before releasing them a week later. It was only then that news of the affair began to trickle out, albeit barely acknowledged by either country’s media. At the heart of heightened tensions between the two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members is a territorial dispute, despite their 1974 border agreement. Abu Dhabi has never been happy about what it sees as the restriction of its land and maritime border to the west and to the south, where the entirety of the output and most of the territory of the massive Shaybah oil field is in Saudi hands. A slight maritime border adjustment around Khor al Udaid encouraged the UAE to agree with Saudi Arabia to deposit the deal with the UN in 1993. However, since the death of the founder of the UAE Sheikh Zayyed al-Nahayyan in 2004, a more assertive public stance has been adopted toward a border agreement seen in Abu Dhabi as unfairly imposed as the price of recognition of the new state. In 2004 the UAE and Qatar formed the Dolphin gas consortium, bringing accusations by Saudi Arabia that the proposed maritime pipeline would infringe its territorial sovereignty. In 2006 further tensions were caused when the UAE planned a causeway linking it to Qatar, which again Saudi Arabia disputed the legality of, while the UAE government issued a map in line with its historic territorial claims, placing its western border alongside Qatar, excluding Saudi Arabia from Khor al-Udaid in the process, and running southward to include the Shaybah oilfield. A Saudi-Qatari rapprochement led to their bilateral border agreement in 2008 but the UAE made clear that it rejected a delimitation it saw as infringing on its western territorial rights. The GCC’s apparent progress toward monetary union, after landmark customs and common market agreements in 2003 and 2008 respectively, became victim to the rising tensions between the two states. In May 2009 the GCC decision to make Riyadh the location of the putative GCC Central Bank led directly to the UAE pulling out of the planned common currency, stating that Abu Dhabi was a more suitable location. For 10 days in June 2009 a foreshadowing of the recent spat was seen when massive tail backs were caused at the southern Abu Dhabi-Saudi border crossing as Saudi Arabia objected to new UAE identity cards featuring a map of the UAE whose territorial extent contradicted the 1974 agreement. Bank nervousness at the rising tensions prompted the Dolphin partners to announce an underwrite of the project’s seemingly increased financial risks. The offending Emirati identity card then prompted Saudi Arabia to announce in August 2009 that all UAE nationals travelling to Saudi Arabia would need to use passports in a move out of step with the simplified procedures operating in much of the rest of the GCC. In a UN submission in November 2009, Saudi Arabia urged that the outstanding offshore territorial delimitation be finally agreed, suggesting perhaps some modest room for compromise over Khor al-Udaid at least. However after last summer’s spats the powerful Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayyed took over his country’s recast border disputes committee, reflecting the importance the Abu Dhabi leadership attach to addressing the entire territorial issue. With the dispute now having been expressed by an exchange of fire, there is plainly a need for compromise. Both sides are keen to ensure that these periodic manifestations of their territorial dispute do not get out of hand. However there is an increasing likelihood that the economic interests at stake in the southern border area in particular will feed a further rise in tensions. Partly in response to rising domestic energy demands, prospective gas and oil projects on both sides of the border could easily inflame an already significant territorial dispute.
King promotes internal change partrickmideast - 13 March 2010
Since the accession of Abdallah as King in 2005, Saudi Arabia has seen marked internal improvements. Abdallah’s period as king has been blessed with oil-fuelled economic growth (the contraction seen in 2009 looks likely to be short lived). At the same time the domestic jihadi threats that convulsed the country in 2003-04 have been contained; and the Kingdom has begun addressing controversial social, educational and legal reform issues. Tough domestic security measures and mobilisation of the official clerical class effectively exiled the al-Qaida threat to Yemen from where it and northern Yemeni rebels constitute a security challenge to Saudi Arabia. The waging of the internal ideological and security war against violent Saudi jihadis drew on both the personal authority and status of the King and the capabilities of interior minister Prince Nayef and his son Mohammed. By contrast, social, educational and legal changes inside the Kingdom are almost exclusively a product of both the personality and political inclinations of Abdallah himself. They are not therefore irreversible developments liable to substantively alter domestic social and political relations. Specific political reform, another of Abdallah’s pet projects, was largely conceived of in terms of enabling the holding of local authority by elected representatives. This though has failed to progress beyond the partly elected local councils that both international and domestic pressure helped to establish in 2005. This is despite current government proposals for their number and powers to be modestly increased. It is in the arena of social and educational issues and related legal changes that the greatest activity has been seen since Abdallah acceded, but this is also an area where substantive change could prove the most elusive. Abdallah’s seeming openness to gradual reform has encouraged an active debate on social reform in the Saudi press, internet and in the more discreet majlises (semi-official, elite discussion groups). In turn the King has encouraged a number of governmental legal and educational responses. These include potentially significant steps for females such as the proposed ending of male guardianship and the government’s announced desire to outlaw child marriage. Problematically, such government proposals and suggestions, and the King’s encouragement of more benign legal judgements, come up against a complex and unpredictable legal arena and a contested government policy environment. The King’s interventions do not, as yet, constitute comprehensive government action. More coherent legal change could however come through the proposed new Supreme Court under which specialist courts, supposedly free of government interference and headed by properly trained specialist judges, will operate. Not conventionally seen as a political reform, the proposed legal changes are in fact deeply political and are seen by the Kingdom’s more conservative clerics, and by some non-clerical reformers, as a state challenge to clerical authority. The clerical establishment hope to contain the reforms’ impact by the control over training new judges that will be exercised by what is the currently the highest court of appeal, the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), and by clerical resistance to any changes to the heart of their power: the determination of “correct” Shariah law over civil and criminal matters. The theory behind the government’s proposed legal reforms is that greater and more focused judicial expertise will mean a more rational legal system. This does not automatically mean that the changes will enhance individual legal rights. The changed environment under Abdallah is already encouraging some lenient judgements on appeal. However it is not clear if the appeals that will be heard by the new Supreme Court will establish legal precedents, nor whether such precedents, or the possible codification of Shariah, would have a benign or a punitive impact. This uncertainty applies to the operation of foreign business as well as the rights of Saudi nationals. Higher education has seen its greatest change in the three-fold increase in publicly funded universities since 2005. However it is co-education that is currently the hottest education topic after the much celebrated opening last October of the co-educational KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science of Technology). Whether KAUST becomes an island of influence, and not just an island of excellence like its ARAMCO administrator, will depend on whether the Higher Education Ministry will be able to treat it as model for the universities that it actually controls rather than as the exception that many expect it to be. Reformers in the Kingdom, including many leaders of the Shia minority, recognise that children’s education is changing for the better. The new syllabus and teaching materials could help to create a less sectarian environment, dependent on teacher recruitment and attitudes. Education in general is seen by the government as key to addressing inter-related economic and social needs, and in particular the burgeoning population’s need for private sector jobs. Under Abdallah there has been a considerable expansion of specialist training colleges and more focus on nationalising some of the jobs currently performed by a large foreign workforce. Government progress in Saudi job creation however, is slow, and much relies on the uncertain future of ambitious new economic “cities” that will rely on the vagaries of foreign investment. There is enormous popular support for the King’s cautious but steady interventions on a range of social and legal questions. Sharing the unprecedented popular anger when floods in Jeddah in September 2009 killed at least 120 people, Abdallah had many local officials arrested and ordered an enquiry into what was widely seen as municipal incompetence if not corruption. The king’s authority made these steps possible but it cannot guarantee improved local administration in the future. Without clear and coordinated government policies designed to institutionalise change over the longer term, sustaining social improvements, or changes in the related areas of education, business and, more problematically, justice is not guaranteed either.
The Gulf Arabs and Yemen partrickmideast - 29th January 2010
The two hour London Conference on January 28th 2010 resulted in its neighbours and international backers agreeing to hold further conferences and fora to discuss Yemen’s development and security. It is possible that the involvement of the Gulf Arab states in the proposed meetings will go beyond reiterations of outstanding and possibly new aid commitments. Through the process of formal, multilateral inclusion in the proposed Friends of Yemen contact group, and as a result of the confirmation that the previously mooted GCC-Yemen conference will in fact take place in late February, the Gulf Arab states might begin to look at the issue as more than the management of bilateral relations with Yemen. To varying degrees, the GCC states’ response to Yemen’s urgent challenges has in recent times been mostly to proffer bilateral aid money and, specifically in the case of Saudi Arabia, to engage in unprecedented military action designed to enhance its border security, and to provide cash and intel to the Yemeni government to assist it in fighting al-Qaida. However a palpable effort is being made by the UK, with international support, to inculcate a sense of responsibility among the GCC states for Yemen’s long term fate. The hope is that their role will not just be that of a prospective cash cow, but that there will be coordinated and, for the most part, benign GCC policies towards its Arabian Peninsula neighbour. After 9-11 the GCC took some collective steps to bring Yemen into its institutional orbit, seemingly calculating that the old “inside the tent” adage was an appropriate response to the feared rise of regional jihadi threats, not least when Yemen had been the site of the attack on the USS Cole a year earlier. However this was hardly a fulsome embrace: Yemen was granted membership of the GCC’s education, health, sport and social affairs committees. Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh commented that perhaps membership of the GCC basketball team would be next. In 2005 the GCC summit in Abu Dhabi held out the prospect of Yemen’s full membership by 2015. Increasing Yemeni internal problems in the last few years have somewhat deflated what was in any case a contentious, and contested, GCC aspiration. Yemen’s equivocal stance in the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis had led directly to the slashing of bilateral aid and, arguably, more importantly, the massive cutting back of visas for Yemenis to work in the GCC countries. Yemen is a country whose population is greater than that of the national population of the GCC states put together, whose per capita income is one of the lowest in the Arab world, and whose state is barely functioning in the classic sense of holding the monopoly of violence. Responding to Yemen’s demand that its nationals be allowed to ease the economic gap, and in the process reduce domestic radicalism, by resuming remittance earnings at, in real terms, the levels of 20 years ago, raises a range of security and economic fears for the GCC states. In theory, the existential angst of GCC states who increasingly anxiously discuss how to bolster national identity amidst a sea of non-Arab and often non-Muslim migrant labour could be eased by providing easier access to their fellow Arabs from Yemen. However the experience of 1990-91 still affects attitudes toward all non-national Arab residents. Labour from the Indian sub-continent and increasingly the Far East has become preferred to foreign Arabs, while naturalising the latter in order to address demographic concerns has mostly been conducted on a very modest basis since the 1980s when regional radicalism first began to add caution to the Gulf states’ migration and naturalisation policies. Writer An Nga Longva has described the Gulf countries as “civic ethnocracies” where an often minority national population form the top tier of a system in which, at best, only partial citizenship is enjoyed by those without sufficient proof of long term family residence, while non-national Arab migrant labourers form a distinct minority among a large and often majority pool of foreign labour with limited legal entitlements. There are some ironic and very partial exceptions to the migration and naturalisation caution that are worth noting however. Bahrain has been keener than its GCC neighbours to grant nationality to Arabs from the “correct” sectarian pool, including some allegedly imported from the south of Yemen as well as from Saudi Arabia, while Yemeni nationals still form a significant portion of the ranks of the Dubai police: an antidote to wider security fears about Yemenis, one assumes. In general however the GCC states are very cautious about any significant increase in Yemenis residing in their country, in any guise, while the collective GCC impetus to increasingly incorporate Yemen into its proceedings seems to have dissipated. Hopes that the increasing desire for the Gulf Arab states to agree a common strategy on Yemen need to be seen in light of the fact that the GCC’s ability to forge a coherent common foreign policy stance on regional security questions has long been questionable. For example, the 1980s saw broad brush GCC statements urging an end to the fighting between Iraq and Iran, no matter that initially this would have left the greater aggressor, Iraq, inside Iranian territory. Efforts to engage Iran as the war turned in its favour were largely a bilateral matter, with Saudi Arabia and the then diplomatically activist Kuwait taking the lead before Iranian-linked regional radicalism helped weaken their enthusiasm. Statements on the Iran-Iraq war at annual GCC summits, albeit following a debate that famously pushed the Palestinians down the agenda in the months before the break out of the first Intifada, were pro-forma and not reflective of substantive collective GCC diplomatic endeavour. The GCC’s collective political response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was slow in coming, while GCC statements in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq were an attempt to square an impossible US strategic and Arab ideological circle at a time when GCC states were individually coordinating with the US their role in the upcoming invasion. In general the GCC’s ability to present a coherent approach to pressing regional issues, just like efforts to promote a collective GCC military capability, has been constrained by differing state interests, a feature, it should be said, shared by the EU and its misnamed “Common Foreign and Security Policy. However whereas Europe has been prepared to allow majority votes to grant collective EU authority over sovereign state decision making in a number of areas affecting external relations, the GCC’s consensus model of decision-making only really allows for statements of concern while the real business is done on a bilateral basis where interests are often differentiated. The seeming collapse of Yemeni unity in 1994 was seen differently in the Gulf, depending on whether a united Yemen was seen as a threat to individual national interests or a benefit. Today however GCC states do seem to share a genuine opposition to southern Yemeni secession. That said, they continue to be highly cautious, whether on Yemen, other key regional relations, or concerning GCC economic integration, about compromising their own national room for manoeuvre. The Saudi military intervention against alleged al-Houthi incursions from Yemen is a good example of unbridled unilateralism, albeit that it got a post-facto GCC statement of support. Of relevance to the lack of collective institutionalisation of GCC foreign policy is the lack of national institutionalisation of foreign policy among the individual GCC states themselves. Policy-making typically gravitates around a tiny handful of key regime players with limited consultation between them. In some cases semi-official think tanks enjoy the patronage of the more reflective of senior ruling family members. However there is no systematic inputting among officials or outside experts into a foreign policy making “process”. Gulf governments do not conduct brainstorming exercises, nor comprehensively explore policy options or possible consequences. This means that individual GCC state mediation initiatives – such as Saudi Arabia’s brokering of the 1990 Taif Accord on Lebanon and the 2005 Mecca Agreement among the Palestinians, or the Qataris brokering in 2008 of agreements among the Lebanese and between the al-Houthi and the Yemeni government – were more or less the beginning and end of the sponsoring state’s involvement. A ruler’s kudos and cash, and political desperation among the signatories, sealed the deals. However the heavy lifting of intensive on the ground follow up by trusted and highly capable diplomats was absent, while rival states in a number of instances helped queer the pitch. Given that the Saudi government and the al-Houthi have announced that they, currently at least, are no longer in armed conflict with each other, then active, concentrated, and united GCC state support will be needed to once again try to make a reality of the 2008 agreement. It is to be hoped that efforts to encourage the GCC states to join the formal politicking on, and not just the financing of, Yemen will be successful. Set against this is a demonstrated lack of meaningful coordination on foreign affairs both among and within the GCC states.
"The Gulf States and a fourth Gulf War" Dr Neil Partrick (September 2009) Published by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies
Internal upheaval has delayed Iran’s response, due this month (September), to the US offer of nuclear talks. The response of the international community to Iran's ongoing nuclear programme will be observed with keen interest by Gulf Arab neighbours whose attitude is governed by the overriding desire to constrain Iran’s regional role. This raises questions as to what options are open to them, including what part they would play in increased US economic or military pressure on Iran. Arguably the first modern Gulf war began with Iraq and Iran in 1980, and there is still unfinished business from that conflict for both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The eight year war effectively pitted the Gulf Arabs, with the partial exceptions of Oman and Dubai, against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Gulf states funded the Iraqi war effort, and Kuwait provided, or at least conceded, territory to Iraq’s military. In the first Gulf War, Kuwait, with Saudi Arabian backing, also gave the US a direct military role in the Gulf (defending Gulf Arab oil tankers from Iranian attack) that they have not relinquished since. Toward the end of the 1980s Gulf War, Iranian linked unrest during the haj soured Saudi diplomacy with Iran and a Saudi pilot downed an Iranian fighter over the Gulf. However, by 1996, reasons of state did not prevent the then crown prince, Abdullah, providing an official welcome in the Kingdom to the then Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani. The visit, highly controversial among the Saudi ulema (clerics), followed a series of mutual steps designed to engineer a Saudi-Iranian détente after the second Gulf War (1990-91) had effectively placed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran on the same side against Iraq. However, there were mutual suspicions on the part of both KSA and Iran and these very much remain today. An easing of Iranian hostility during the Khatami presidency is acknowledged in senior Saudi circles. The former Iranian leader, however, is perceived as having been largely ineffectual in substantive terms, a judgment that relates to how the Saudis and other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) view current events in the Islamic Republic. Gulf Arab states see the locus of Iranian power as residing with Ali Khamanei. The nuances of how the supreme leader has at various times over or underplayed his hand do not trouble the Saudis or the other GCC states. Saudi Arabia’s understandings with Iran in recent years have occasionally brought tactical concessions on both sides, reducing the risk of renewed civil war in Lebanon for example. However, most Gulf Arab leaders view Gulf hegemony as an Iranian national objective whether under a republic or a monarchy. US Policy The increasing factionalisation of the Iranian polity following the June election has contributed to the Iranian silence on US-proposed talks on the suspension of uranium enrichment. US-Iranian talks about temporary enrichment freezes may eventually take place, but verifiable enrichment suspension, always contestable, will be all the harder given that Iranian regime cleavages have deepened since the contested election. President Obama’s earlier warm words toward Iran made the Gulf Arab states nervous that the US might work with, rather than challenge, Iranian regional dominance – just as feverish Gulf speculation had accompanied the declaration by George W Bush’s administration in November 2007 that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons programme. The GCC states would prefer a robust US policy toward Iran that hopefully falls short of a fourth Gulf War. Like the first Gulf War, they would in some way be dragged into the next conflict, but possibly to far more devastating effect than thirty years earlier. US-Iranian engagement, the Gulf states argue, should not allow Iran to maintain aspects of uranium enrichment in exchange for supposed Iranian co-operation in Iraq or toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If however US-Iran nuclear talks cannot get started or stall, then the Gulf states’ fear of a US-Iranian détente will be eased, and, conceivably, US determination to constrain Iran would increase. The US State Department, officially at least, thinks that Iranian nuclear weaponisation is not possible before 2013. If true there is time for the US to prepare the diplomatic, economic and military means to counter this prospect. It can seek to build support for US military action should the soft power options fail, or choose to deepen the practical and psychological security props of its Gulf allies. Practical props could include a long-mooted US-backed missile defence shield for and within the Gulf, but possibly extending to Jordan, Egypt and, effectively therefore, Israel. For their part, the Gulf states are certainly not inclined to learn to love, or to even accept, the Iranian bomb. Some Gulf Arab leaders have in the past told influential US visitors that US air strikes on the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz, sooner rather than later, would be welcome. An Israeli strike is something else, however. In 1991 Saddam fired scuds on Tel Aviv. The US and its Gulf allies feared then that if Israel responded the Gulf regimes would effectively be in an alliance with Israel, a likely scenario in the event of a future Israeli attack on Iran. Gulf leaders understand that a successful outcome to the peace process would weaken Iran’s allies in Palestine and Lebanon. However, simply renewing a political process would not produce even modest Saudi political concessions toward Israel. While one or two of the smaller Gulf states might trade limited recognition of Israel for perceptible progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there is unlikely to be a quid pro quo that would include a tighter economic squeeze on Iran. Preparing options Getting the GCC on board for military as well as economic pressure on Iran remains important to the US, as and when increased pressure is needed. The potential territorial scope of the next Gulf war, and the US desire for diplomatic cover this time around, makes clear GCC backing extremely important. Washington will want to be confident that Gulf states would, from the outset, both back the US politically and place no limitation on it using their land as well as air space in what, after all, could be their own defence. Exhausting the non-military options with Iran – in contrast to US Iraq policy prior to the third Gulf War - is also an important part of that preparation as far as many of the GCC states are concerned. The Gulf states, however, will not want such steps to be at the expense of their own, US-backed, security, nor, in the specific case of Qatar, to threaten their maintenance of good links with Iran and Iranian-backed Arab radical groups; nor are the Gulf states likely to accept being in the forefront of a possible US build up of economic pressure on Iran. Containing Iran The fringes of the UN General Assembly in September will see moves to extend Security Council financial and military sanctions on Iran. However US government efforts to stop Iranian dollars washing around Dubai’s banks and its real estate market, for example, or even to stop the sale to Iran of refined oil products from Abu Dhabi, are something else. For several years it has been getting progressively harder for Iranians to conduct business in the UAE, but that has not prevented Dubai remaining an Iranian business hub – a factor that economic recession makes more attractive all around, and which Iran’s election fallout seems unlikely to hinder and may even assist. Increased US Congressional pressure on the Obama Administration to contain Iran economically, however, followed Hilary Clinton’s comment in April 2009 that ‘crippling sanctions’ could be adopted against a recalcitrant Iran. Proposals from the US Congress would specifically target oil exports to the Islamic Republic. Constraining oil imports from the Gulf and Europe, if they could be comprehensively agreed, would push up the economic costs for the Islamic Republic, literally and potentially, on the Iranian streets. Tough economic sanctions enforced by a US-led ‘coalition of the willing’, and a US nuclear umbrella for Gulf allies, are part of an emergent policy package – whether uranium enrichment freezes are (once again) agreed or not. For the US to put the squeeze on ordinary Iranians, however, and to expose the US’ Gulf allies economically and politically by obliging them to stop exporting refined oil products to Iran, would not make good sense for the Obama Administration. Yet it is a road that may be taken, short of other desirable options at present. Iraqi sanctions created an energy black market with business opportunities for Iraqi regime cronies and for the Gulf states. It also created unwelcome political heat throughout the Gulf. GCC options With the US committed to massive troop reductions in Iraq from 2012, the GCC states’ options, in this frontline of Iranian regional influence, are important. The need for the Arabs to up their diplomatic game in Iraq is acknowledged by well-placed Gulf nationals, who have welcomed the engagement by some GCC states over the last year. However, full Gulf engagement with Baghdad remains problematic when the KSA is absent from the diplomatic party. Saudi Arabia believes that Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki is essentially Iran’s man. Should the newly formed Iraqi Shia alliance remove him as prime minister either side of the 2010 Iraqi election, his likely successor seems no more likely to impress Riyadh. In the past Saudi Arabia issued threats to Iran to keep out of ‘Arab Iraq’, warning of Riyadh’s Arab options inside the Islamic Republic. That rhetoric has been toned down, even as Saudi-Iranian hostilities at the clerical level have been stepped up over the last year or so. Recently improved Saudi-Syrian relations do not present opportunities for Saudi leverage with Iraq either. Syria’s ability to use its porous Iraqi border as a lever with Baghdad and Washington is not something that Riyadh can exploit. KSA shares with the US a desire to crush Sunni jihadi fighters in Iraq, given its own internal security concerns. Iraqi accusations to the contrary in the wake of increased violence in Iraq appear to be playing to a well-rehearsed Iraqi gallery, and venting anger as Saudi Arabia keeps its distance from Baghdad. The KSA’s Iraqi political links are broad, and have long been so. However a concerted Saudi policy of funding Sunni Jihadis across its northern border, while hardly alien to past Saudi policy practice in parts of the Islamic world, would set Riyadh on a collision course with Washington before the US has even significantly redeployed within Iraq. Were the US to genuinely pullout – a scenario questionable in light of the recent US agreement with Iraq to militarily stabilise Mosul and Kirkuk – then all bets are probably off in Saudi Arabia’s competition with Iran. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies see that Iran’s power projection includes the soft power of religious and political propaganda among the Gulf Shia and wider Arab opinion, and armed intervention via perceived proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, and even to some extent in Egypt and Yemen. Saudi Arabia is determined to ensure that its southern neighbour is neither an Al-Qa’ida nor an Iranian base for the destabilisation of the Arabian Peninsula. It remains to be seen whether Saudi intervention in Yemen is stepped up from current efforts on the ground to use money to influence local tribal allies, to a more robust stance. The latter is unlikely to see a significant direct Saudi military role, a posture alien to its traditional foreign policy. Defend us but don’t involve us Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC are, as usual, unwilling to be in the frontline of US regional policy, but nonetheless cannot avoid it. They want Iran to be tackled, even militarily if this is the only way to deny it nuclear weapons power status, but they will as usual seek to minimise the risks that would be caused by a perceptibly anti-Iranian stance. Countering Iran may see more of the small diplomatic steps undertaken by some smaller Gulf states toward Iraq (and even toward Israel). However a combative Gulf posture economically, even militarily, toward Iran is unlikely without overt UN approval, and even then any attempted Iranian containment would probably prove leaky due to local Gulf political and economic interests. It will be for the US to decide whether containment plus military pressure is the way forward on Iran, mirroring the Iraq policy deemed appropriate during the 1990s. However, although Saudi and other GCC states’ assistance with such a policy is liable to be modest, it will be key to US efforts to build a political alliance against Iran and to the possible fighting of a fourth Gulf War.
The article below from Global Arab Network summarises a London School of Economics Research paper, ‘Nationalism in the Gulf States’ published in October 2009. The full paper is available here LSE Kuwait Programme Nationalism in the Gulf States - Challenges of Identity Dr Neil Partrick (December 2009)
This paper is the fifth so far in a series of papers being published by the London School of Economics which explore contemporary Gulf challenges. ‘Nationalism in the Gulf States’ argues that increasing government-led focus on national identity masks the inherent weaknesses of the Gulf Arab states. The sheer volume of foreign residents living in the Gulf, in tandem with the rise of Iran’s regional influence, has promoted much of the recent discussion about national identity. Together these factors have helped solidify a relatively narrow conception of the nation by encouraging what historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to as national “re-imagining”. In the Gulf this is taking place on a traditional basis that excludes not just the perceptibly threatening outsider, but effectively excludes large swathes of the national population too. This paper acknowledges that the emergence of independent states in the Arabian Peninsula is a comparatively recent event, and that nations of far longer standing are subject to various sub and supra state pressures. However the Gulf states’ inability to foster an inclusive national identity reflects authority built on a pre-state and non-national basis and this may present more challenges than just the passage of time. In the case of Sa’udi Arabia, the historical importance given to a religious mission, and its exploitation alongside tribal alliances in order to underpin al-Sa’ud authority, has made a more neutral state identity difficult to foster. In the smaller Gulf sheikhdoms and monarchies the authority of the ruling tribe has drawn on Islam more subtly, but, like the al-Sa’ud, they uses religion’s legitimating potential alongside tribal alliances in order to bolster authority. With state authority bound up in the person of the ruler, and with the tribal and other non-state identities that underpin him, the state loses out as the focus of loyalty. The post-1991 drive to create or reconstitute elected, or partly elected, legislative bodies in the Gulf states is seen by some as creating an institutional basis for national belonging. However these assemblies, like much else in local political life, are a platform for non-state interests to be played out, whether tribal, sectarian, or the overt interest of the ruling family i.e. the regime. This paper uses interviews with leading observers from each of the six Gulf Arab states to evidence the widespread sense that the functioning of their state is “pre-modern”, and that, as the Arab-German academic Bassam Tibi argues, new tribal solidarities are operating in “nation-state guises”. The legitimising tools of authority in these countries have historically been the basis for a struggle for authority among competing tribal interests. The muwahhidun (unitarians), more commonly known as “Wahhabis”, were a religious movement that expanded al-Sa’ud power throughout the Arabian Peninsula, helping to establish the borders of what became the modern state of Saudi Arabia on territory where loyalty had often been to other Arabian ruling families. The latter’s resistance to the muwahiddun required drawing on local tribal alliances and, as far as it was effective, British support. The importance of tribe in the authority of local rulers continues to be a feature of competition for authority within and between Gulf states today. When authority is comparatively tightly drawn i.e. between the ruling and allied tribes, then the state’s identity is unsurprisingly bound up in their identity rather than in an inclusive national identity. The paper argues that much of the contemporary Gulf emphasis on national identity glorifies a mythologised, and non-nationally distinct, bedouin past, an identity that usually excludes those without a “pure” Sunni Arab desert origin. This paper emphasises that throughout the world national identity is “imagined” (subjectively conceived), but, however unequal a nation’s citizens may be, it has to be the primary identity in order for nationhood to have substance. The dominance of what one local observer calls the “Arab thoroughbred” as the ultimate demarcation of belonging, has meant that those not drawn from the most important networks can feel, and genuinely are, less than full citizens of the country. The carrying of a passport does not entitle all nationals to the same “rights” regarding welfare or putative electoral participation, for example. Family lineage cut-off points of 80-90 years ago often determine whether a Gulf national is a part of the “in” or the “out” group in legal as well as cultural terms. The “out group” is often associated with an Iranian antecedence, regardless of whether an individual’s forefathers were Sunni Arabs: the community that dominates public and political life in the Gulf Arab states. Where Shia Arabs in the Gulf are able to enjoy common legal rights, they are largely excluded from the dominant national “imagining”. In the case of majority Shia Bahrain, there is a very different national conception between the ruling circles of power and many of the populace. The paper argues that these inequalities in national citizenship relate to the conception of what it means to be a national “citizen”. The word’s closest equivalent in Arabic, muwatin, is often translated as citizen but it literally means “(a) national” and this has nothing of the meaning associated with citizenship in democratic and republican states i.e. individuals within a specific territory holding equal, definable, and exercisable rights, not least in the determining of that nation’s government. For those in the Gulf without what is commonly referred to as citizenship i.e. the bidoon (those often long-standing Arab residents originating from within the Arabian Peninsula) and the large number of foreign workers, the nation is something from which they are both formally and informally excluded. If national identity is thus contradicted and compromised, the paper asks whether there are other nations or identities that have a stronger, or at least a growing, hold upon the populace in these states. Islam is often presented by state authorities, and publics, in the Gulf as central to their country’s national identity without there necessarily being any definable national religious characteristics. (A partial exception to this is perhaps Saudi Arabia, but the Kingdom was plainly not created from a nationalist struggle for statehood). For the most part, Gulf nationals are not looking to an alternative Islamic political structure to supersede their state. One political project that at one time appeared to threaten to do precisely that, however, was Arab nationalism, for which the primary identification was territorial and inclusive, at least for its Arab inhabitants. This paper points out that while Arab nationalism appealed to sections of the merchant elite, and to even some members of the ruling families, its ability to delegitimise (British-backed) rulers and their “national” territories passed its high water mark after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, given the failings of the Arab nation in any coherent political or military sense, and was killed off when Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 made Arab state boundaries sacrosanct. A khaleej (Gulf) identity is something that the paper argues has been promoted by Gulf leaders, particularly since the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, in an attempt to emphasise common links and interests among comparable political systems in the face of external threats and upheaval. It is hard though to see the birth pangs of a new nation amidst the manoeuvring of different Gulf rulers who are wary of compromising their authority beyond the limitations of the inter-regional economy. For Gulf nationals themselves, a sense of Gulf commonality is, the paper argues, broadly felt, but without the zeal that drove some to seek Arab political union in the 1950s and 60s. In summary, this paper argues that a narrowly-drawn conception of the nation predominates in the Gulf Arab countries where identities are focused on sub-state tribal and sectarian fealties and where loyalties to a larger national entity beyond the state are lacking. In the Gulf the state is a vehicle for narrow, pre-state, interests that command allegiance on the basis of sectional rather than national loyalties. Thus the debate on national identity obscures some very different conceptions of belonging, beyond that is a shared sense of threat from those who for the most part do not claim national membership.
Discreet Persuasion: Saudi Arabia's foreign policy Dr. Neil Partrick (July 2008) Published in The World Today, the magazine of Chatham House, London.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy rests on contradictory pillars. It asserts Islamic and Arab credentials, while standing beside the United States; backing regional compromise, but conceding little to Iranian interests. The recent ebb and flow of forces in Lebanon underlines the complexities. The eleventh hour deal in late May, which moved the country out of an eighteen month political impasse, and thereby seemingly preventing a slide to civil war, was the result of internal Lebanese factors and the regional balance of forces. The success of mediation by Qatar apparently contrasts with the failure of Saudi Arabian efforts – on its own and through the Arab League. However, while the perceptible neutrality of a tiny, but energy-rich, emirate made it a more politically-acceptable facilitator than the Saudi kingdom, the follow-through to settle unresolved factors in the Lebanese agreement is unlikely to be in the gift of Doha. Qatar’s success, like that of Saudi Arabia in a number of headline-grabbing diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East and beyond over the past two years, could prove short lived. The scale of the issues and the institutional limitations of policy making and follow-up by these would-be peacemakers is likely to weigh against durable progress. Saudi Arabia’s own diplomatic efforts in Lebanon have been part of its attempt to rein-in perceptibly malign Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. While increasingly active, Riyadh’s regional and extra-regional diplomatic forays have suffered from insufficient clout and institutional capacity. Saudi Arabia has a stronger foreign policy profile under the pro-active Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, who became king three years ago. In the Middle East, the wider Islamic world, and internationally, expectations have grown that it can build on growing economic strength and enhanced internal stability, exercising regional muscle to deliver progress on key issues. However, foreign policy has long-rested on the sometimes contradictory pillars of a defence alignment with the United States, and the assertion of Arab and Islamic norms. Conscious of its stewardship of Mecca and Medina as the land of the two holy places, and keen to work within an identifiable Arab political mainstream, Saudi Arabia cannot sign up to a perceived US Middle East agenda that conflicts with its ideological props. While the kingdom plainly shares the US’s desire to rein-in Iranian influence, it is keeping a firm distance from Washington’s touted regional alliance of ‘moderate’ states including Israel. At the same time, its identification with essentially Sunni Arab regional interests, means it largely ignores the US desire that it support the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is seen in Riyadh as Iranian-aligned. Proper Saudi backing for Iraq would require the US to ensure, and Iran to encourage, the interests of Sunni Arab Iraqis. This means a greater role in government, a bigger share of oil revenue, and an end to federalism, which Saudi Arabia sees as secessionism, and therefore Iraqi state weakness. The kingdom continues publicly to address its concerns and promote dialogue in the region and beyond, but its ability to deliver change in conflict situations is relatively limited. This is all the more so outside the Middle East. Last year, Saudi Arabia publicly intervened in the affairs of its south Asian ally, Pakistan, first aiding General Pervez Musharraf by preventing long-time Saudi resident and former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from returning to Islamabad, then backing a resumed role for him there in what became an evolving political process. Beyond financial backing for the emergent new government, however, there is little more Riyadh can do to affect the political outcome. Last year Saudi Arabia oversaw a national reconciliation conference for Somalia, but has little weight in East Africa to influence directly violent events on the ground. The country’s limitations are not helped by a foreign policy-making process confined to a tiny coterie around the King and lacking institutional capacity. This compounds innate national caution. Saudi Arabia prefers to avoid responsibility for political initiatives that are not already more or less nailed down. Political and financial backing are on offer, but not pro-active negotiation and follow-up. Whatever further discrete steps Riyadh takes on regional issues will be largely dependent on the action of others, principally Washington, which has long been the focus of its diplomatic forays. Saudi Arabia highly values its relationship with the US. Since Washington all but saved the kingdom in 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait, this alignment has become more obvious. Opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not prevent it from aiding the military operation. Periodically the tensions between the kingdom’s dual foreign policy props have caused major instability in Riyadh’s relations with Washington. After Saudi Arabia led the deploying of the oil ‘weapon’ in 1973-1974, the US considered seizing Saudi oil fields. In the wake of September 11 2001, the kingdom’s association with foreign Islamic radicalism, although previously encouraged by the US in Afghanistan, created serious problems in the relationship. That lesson has been learnt, not least after Saudi jihadis attacked the kingdom in 2003-2004. The country plays a much more cautious hand these days in the affairs of Afghanistan. Most important, Riyadh considers it has returned to the centre of US regional interests, not least given Washington’s need for regional support with the fallout from the Iraq war. President George Bush’s announcement in Riyadh in January that he will push through Congress a proposed $20 billion arms package, is seen as reflecting the country’s renewed importance. This does not mean though that it will sacrifice its perceived regional interests to uphold US policy priorities. The power of the state over religious officialdom means that ultimately it can secure rulings, or fatwas, backing controversial stances, whether in favour of the presence of US troops in 1991, or supporting the Madrid Middle East Peace Process in 1992. However, keen awareness of the domestic and regional tensions that the alignment with the US, or perceived US interests, can cause, limits how far it will move from the established foreign policy orientation. This also means that Saudi Arabia will not concede Iranian interests in Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine. However, it does seek regional cooperation, fearing both an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity, and the consequences of a US or Israeli war to prevent it. It will not follow the US preference for isolating Iran, much less flaunting its effective military alliance with Washington to get Iran to change direction. ‘Jaw jaw’ is believed in Riyadh to be better than ‘war war’. Unlike in 2003, Saudi Arabia is adamant that it will not be part of any military confrontation unless it is targeted. It is equally concerned that an incoming Democratic administration might compromise the kingdom’s interests as part of a wide-ranging US dialogue with Iran. Although initially unwanted, the US presence in Iraq is today viewed in Saudi Arabia as an important part of US containment of Iran. It does not want confrontation, nor what it would view as unwarranted concessions. Being defended, but not over-defended, is its preference. In theory, Saudi Arabia has more cards to play in Lebanon and an empowered ambassador, Abdel-Aziz al Khoja. However, despite some past success, Riyadh’s recent efforts to cooperate with Iran to prevent a descent into deepening violence came to nothing. To secure agreement on a Lebanese president and a new government, Riyadh worked primarily through an Arab consensus. It encouraged Iranian-alligned Syria to end what it believes has been Damascus’ promotion of political stalemate and violence. With Saudi-Arabia fully backing the target of alleged Syrian-linked violence – the international tribunal to investigate the killing of its ally the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri – then real compromise in Lebanon could continue to prove elusive. Meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are seen as part of the necessary containment of Iranian regional interests. However there is more at stake than this, Riyadh believes it has a political responsibility and a regional security interest in encouraging a resolution. Hence it led the re-launch of the Arab peace plan at the Riyadh Arab Summit in March last year and, reluctantly, attended the Annapolis peace conference in the US last December. Riyadh has always seen its efforts to promote Arab-Israeli peace as reliant on the US using pressure to secure a deal. Unlike the US, however, it believes that Hamas must be part of such an effort. Saudi Arabia oversaw the Mecca Agreement in February last year, hoping that this would enable inclusive Palestinian negotiations with Israel to begin. Frustration with the US’s lack of a coherent strategy to resolve the conflict saw Saudi Arabia talk in March of withdrawing the Arab peace plan. Ultimately it will not want again to be at odds with the US, its primary foreign ally. Therefore the kingdom is likely to urge the incoming administration, like its predecessor, to utilise the plan to deliver an agreement. Saudi Arabia’s own role is likely to remain discreet, providing funds and attempting private persuasion of the Palestinians and wider Arab and Islamic parties, but not advocating compromises beyond its stated positions. Foreign policy under King Abdullah is a more active assertion of long-held interests. It will remain careful to uphold them in both word and deed. ∞∞∞∞∞ In gas-rich Gulf, supplies fall short Dr Neil Partrick (March 2008) Published in the International Herald Tribune According to BP's latest "Statistical Review of World Energy," Iran and Qatar sit on 30 percent of the world's total natural gas reserves. Yet within the Gulf, the ability to meet the growing local demand for natural gas is being frustrated by underdeveloped supply mechanisms and limited regional cooperation. The state-dominated Qatari gas provider, QatarGas, aims to be the world's largest producer of liquefied natural gas, LNG, by 2010. But concentrating on securing the most favorable terms for its gas exports internationally, it has given top priority to supplying Europe, the United States and Asia, rather than its Gulf neighbors. In 2006 a joint venture between Qatar and Exxon Mobil awarded a $4 billion contract to Japanese and French companies to build a liquefaction plant to supply the U.S. market. Meanwhile, although there are plans for Qatar to supply a proposed inter-Gulf natural gas network, this is limited to just one undersea pipeline, connecting to the United Arab Emirates. This so-called Dolphin pipeline, inaugurated in 2005 and majority-owned by the United Arab Emirates, pipes 2 billion cubic feet, or 57 million cubic meters, of natural gas a day from Qatar to Abu Dhabi, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates. Tenders have recently been sought for an extension of the pipeline to Al Fujayrah, another emirate, while Oman, is also supposed to be linked to the Dolphin network next year. But Dolphin, while adhering to its contractual obligations, is supplying gas at levels far below the emirates' fast-growing needs, and a moratorium on additional extraction from Qatar's huge North Field has been extended to at least 2011, preventing any increase in volumes from passing through the Dolphin network until at least that date. Projections of future demand indicate that the natural gas needs of the emirates will double by 2015 from 5 billion cubic feet a day now, and could reach 15 billion cubic feet a day by 2020, Khalid al-Awadi, gas operations manager at Emirates General Petroleum, was quoted as saying last month by The Middle East Economic Survey, a weekly publication. The emirates themselves produce gas in volumes comparable to Qatar, but much of the output is associated with oil production and is therefore constrained by oil output quotas imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. If oil prices weaken, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries could agree to lower quotas, which would automatically reduce the emirates' natural gas output. Unable to gain access to gas from Qatar or Iran, the northern emirates of Ras al Khaymah and Al Fujayrah have been obliged to import diesel and coal to meet their power generation needs, said Simon Williams, a senior economist with HSBC in Dubai. "Demand has accelerated more quickly than anticipated and additions to supply have fallen behind," he said. "They've had little option but to look to alternative sources of energy supply. The irony of the Gulf importing hydrocarbon energy is not lost on anyone." Seeking to expand its production of non-associated natural gas - natural gas from reservoirs without crude oil - as a feedstock for its expanding petrochemical industry, Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004 awarded exploration and development contracts in the Empty Quarter to joint ventures between the Saudi oil company Aramco and foreign companies including Total, Royal Dutch Shell, Lukoil, Sinopec, Eni and Repsol. But so far the search there has produced no commercial discoveries, and Total pulled out in frustration in February. The deadline for the current phase of exploration is January 2009, and it is unclear if the international oil companies will renew their commitment after that. The complexities of the region's gas supply equation are well illustrated by the case of Kuwait, which, like the United Arab Emirates, produces gas almost exclusively as an associated by product of oil, and which hopes to start receiving LNG from Qatar in mid-2009 after negotiations that have dragged along since the mid 1990s. A discovery of non-associated natural gas was made in 2006, and production was expected to start in December last year; but the inexperience of the state oil company, Kuwait Oil, in non-associated natural gas production is stalling the project, according to the industry journal Oil and Gas Engineer. Kuwait's government is "laying strong emphasis on the need to import gas in the short term," according to Laura James of the Economist Intelligence Unit, "to tide over the power sector until gas production can be boosted." Kuwait has an existing deal to buy gas from Iraq. But that, like a United Arab Emirates' proposal to tie Iraq and Iran into a regional supply network, seems unlikely to take off without major foreign investment to Iraq's crude and associated gas sector. Speaking at a Middle East gas conference, John Roberts, an energy specialist at Platts, described the contribution that Iraq's gas sector could make to easing Gulf gas shortages as strictly an issue for the "long term." Even with foreign investment, Iraq's gas export potential would be limited by rising domestic demand, said Rajnish Goswami of the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. How much liquefied natural gas Kuwait will be able to buy from Qatar remains unclear, but the volume is unlikely to meet its expanding needs. Its efforts to pipe in gas from Qatar have been thwarted for years by Saudi Arabia, which asserted that the pipeline would cross its maritime waters. Political relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been sour for more than a decade, reflecting a range of foreign policy differences and supposed Saudi support for a deposed Qatari emir. But as wider regional tensions have risen, fellow member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have tried to mend the relationship. In December, the Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, attended a council summit meeting in Doha, the Qatari capital, but it remains to be seen if relations have improved to the point where the Kuwait pipeline may go ahead. Blocked in its efforts to buy from Qatar, Kuwait has looked also to Iran to meet its domestic energy needs. A deal with Iran dating to 2005 was supposed to supply piped gas at double the rate envisaged for the first phase of Kuwait's own non-associated natural gas program. But like many of Iran's external gas supply commitments, it has failed to materialize. Iran has rich sources of non-associated as well as associated natural gas and is keen to expand sales both to the region and internationally. But three decades of underinvestment, combined with an internal political fight over its own domestic needs and the U.S.-led campaign against trade and investment in Iran, have limited its export potential. Iran has signed multiple supply deals with its regional neighbors. Most recently, after a visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Bahrain last year, Bahrain predicted in February that an agreement to buy 1 million cubic feet of Iranian gas a day - almost as much as Bahrain produces domestically - would be in place by the end of this year. But such deals do not automatically equal supply. In December, Iran's limited ability to meet export commitments was underscored when arguments over pricing curtailed imports from Turkmenistan that were needed for electricity generation in northern Iran, while Iranian exports to Turkey were held back to meet domestic energy demand during a harsh winter. Iranian crude oil output also suffered from the halt in Turkmen gas imports after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, authorized some Iranian gas output to be switched from reinjection to meet energy needs in the north of the country. "Gas is essential for injection in Iran's oil fields, not just to expand production capacity, but also to maintain it at current levels," said Peter Wells, a director of Neftex Petroleum Consultants. Iran is now importing gas from Azerbaijan to make up the shortage of supply from Turkmenistan. Iran's domestic natural gas supply network provides low-cost gas for much of the country's housing. The Iranian government says it has reduced gasoline consumption by more than half by rationing vehicle fuel in the summer. But rationing heating or cooking fuel or reducing the domestic gas supply would be a much trickier political gamble. Heavy subsidies for domestic gasoline and natural gas use would need to be cut to switch supplies from domestic use to lucrative export markets. But Iran's highly factionalized political system makes that difficult. Any attempt to increase the domestic gas price "becomes difficult," Wells said, "given the objections of those who say that this will hurt the poor." Iran's energy minister, Gholam-Hossein Nozari, enjoys the support of the Iranian Parliament, where support for gas reinjection and suspicion of natural gas exports run high. Some Iranian lawmakers favor the "strategic diplomacy" of deals with neighbors and, more ambitiously, the completion of talks with international energy companies for the development of gas liquefaction facilities at the North Pars field. But the head of the energy committee, Kamal Daneshyar, has argued in parliamentary debates that Iranian gas reserves are running low and must be safeguarded. Despite the supply shortage, and the political feuding, some export pipeline construction is under way. One plan is intended to supply 600 million cubic feet of gas to the United Arab Emirates through Sharjah. The Iranian section of this pipeline has been completed, but it is not yet connected to the Mubarak platform in Sharjah. Another, more ambitious plan, the so-called peace pipeline is intended to supply Pakistan with 2.2 billion cubic feet a day by 2012 and later to reach India. But pressure by the United States on India could prevent it from joining the project. Meanwhile, speculation has been circulating in the United Arab Emirates that the Abu Dhabi energy company Taqa might agree to Iran's building a separate pipeline to supply gas to the emirates. The infrastructure for such a project is not in place, however, and U.S. objections would almost certainly prevent it. In theory, foreign investment could unlock additional gas for liquefaction projects and circumvent the Iranian domestic energy debate. But with U.S. pressure for international sanctions severely limiting financial transactions with Iran in both euros and dollars, and with the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian military conflict in the background, Western energy companies are resisting the increasingly insistent Iranian demands that they should commit to financing agreed-on liquefied natural gas projects. As a result, involvement by international energy companies is likely to remain stalled. Unless Iran can surmount its internal and external constraints, or the Gulf states set a higher priority on regional gas cooperation, domestic energy shortfalls in much of the region can only continue to rise. Gulf states, including the emirates, are turning to renewable and nuclear power to build energy self-reliance, and that trend can only increase if gas cooperation remains elusive.
Dire Straits for US Mid-East Policy: The Gulf Arab States and US-Iran Relations Dr Neil Partrick (January 2008) Published by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies
President Bush’s January 2008 Middle East tour comes at a time of considerable worry among the six states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC – Saudi, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman) about US-Iran relations. At the beginning of December 2007, just as the GCC was opening its doors in Doha to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the US’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) downgraded the Iranian nuclear weapons threat. In contrast, only a month later, US and Iranian naval forces appeared to come dangerously close to exchanging fire in the Gulf. Ahmedinejad’s unprecedented address to the GCC summit meeting in Doha proved to be a diplomatic blunder by both Iran and the GCC. The Gulf Arab participants judged the Iranian president arrogant for not mentioning Iran’s nuclear programme or the long-standing dispute with the UAE over three Iranian-held islands in his address to the GCC. Ahmedinejad chose instead to announce mainly rehashed ideas for “Persian Gulf” co-operation, which were received with only the minimum of diplomatic appreciation. Qatar had issued the invite, seemingly with Saudi connivance, and Ahmedinejad chose to use it for political theatre rather than to address GCC concerns. For Iran the summit could have provided an opportunity to try to exploit the distance that the Gulf Arabs have sought to put between themselves and US policy by mollifying, not accentuating, their fears. Before Ahmedinejad went to Doha, some conservative Iranian commentators were concerned that the trip could backfire in the hands of the President, but upon his return the media mostly talked it up as a diplomatic victory. The Gulf Arabs’ reaction to the publication of the NIE at the same time as the Iranian president was addressing the GCC was fear that a downgrading of the US case for war war would mean the upgrading of the case for jaw jaw. While Saudi Arabia has led the way in Gulf Arab engagement with Mr Ahmedinejad and Iran has maintained the ten year plus détente with the Gulf Arabs, the GCC feared that the US was now considering its own détente with Iran that could sidestep the GCC states’ interests. Furthermore the common ground between the US and the GCC states that Iran was the cause of many of Iraq’s ills appeared to be collapsing. The US State Department argued a few days later that Iranian policy was actually reducing attacks on US forces. This made the Gulf Arab states think that the US was preparing for a more significant engagement with Iran than their limited dialogue over Iraq. The alleged influence of former State Department intelligence officials in the NIE’s “re-assessment” of Iran may have not only been part of a Washington intelligence turf battle to stave off the prospect of war. It may also have been a very political move to push at fissures in the Iranian political class. Ahmedinejad’s political and economic policies are derided by all sides in Iran, but effective opposition to him has hitherto been undermined by his nationalist exploitation of US threats. However, the US has emphasised that the NIE judgement that Iran abandoned its weapons programme in 2003 does not mean that the Iranian threat has disappeared. US Ambassador to the IAEA Greg Schulte visited a number of GCC countries in December and argued that Iran still had capability “to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015 if the leadership chose to build one” Schulte’s talk to the Gulf Research Center, a Saudi-headed Dubai-based think tank, highlighted US concerns about Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities, its uranium conversion facilities, and its highly developed missile programme. On the eve of the US President’s trip to the region, US officials declared that five Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy boats had sailed close to three US ships in the narrow international waters of the Straits of Hormuz with the transmitted message “I am coming at you, you will explode in minutes”. The Iranians dismissed the interaction of the Iranian and US naval craft as little more than normal activity and publicly wondered what all the fuss was about. Western officials who have served in the Gulf note that similar incidents have occurred with less fanfare in the past, but, like the GCC states, stress how the latest incident warns of dangers still at hand. The outcome of these events is a palpable confusion among the Gulf Arab countries about what all of this means for American strategy toward Iran. They also wonder whether Iran will react to the downgrading of the US war option by conducting what the GCC states would regard as a more pragmatic policy in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine or by aggressively exploiting perceived US weakness by perhaps increasingly challenging the US navy in the Gulf. In relation to the former, Saudi officials concede that Iran has for some time been more willing than Syria to come to a deal with it on the Lebanese presidency and make up of the Lebanese government. Iran apparently encouraged Syria to support the January 2008 Egypt and Saudi authored Arab League plan to select General Suleiman as president and form a government over whose decisions only he would hold a veto. Saudi Arabia’s assumption of largely malign Syrian intent since the killing of Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005 means they are not predicting a dramatic breakthrough. However Syria’s desire for a successful Arab League summit in Damascus in March 2008, possibly with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah attending, could encourage them to adhere to the nascent Lebanese deal. Saudi Arabia had helped secure a US invitation to Syria to attend the Annapolis conference last November, and Hamas, backed by Syria and Iran, has sought to persuade Saudi Arabia to restore its mediation between the Palestinians. Dvelopments in Lebanon might therefore be a tentative sign that Iran is more inclined to build a bridge with both the Arabs and the US, and avoid the Ahmedinejad school of diplomacy seen in Doha. The comments in January of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei regarding the right circumstances for restoring relations with the US are a further sign, according to Gulf Arabs, that Iran is not looking for conflict. There may also be the beginnings of a thaw in Egyptian-Iran relations, recently assisted by Khamanei’s representative and Ahmedinejad’s nemesis, Ali Larijani, who travelled to Cairo for talks in early January. However Saudi Arabian and other Gulf Arab officials and analysts continue to emphasise the difficulty of knowing which part of the Iranian power structure is driving policy. For them apparent Iranian provocation in the Straits of Hormuz could be US overreaction, or an indication that Khamanei does not control an Iranian Revolutionary Guard that reportedly took overall charge of Iranian naval operations in November. Into this confusion comes an American president conducting his first visit to most of the Gulf Arab states in what is his last year in office. The GCC states are relieved to see that the US Administration’s Iraq strategy has reduced violence, partly thanks to Sunni Arab tribal councils fighting Al-Qaida, a policy enjoying the political and financial support of Saudi Arabia and some other GCC states. However, US regional policy is not well regarded by the Gulf Arab states. Saudi Arabia (and Egypt’s) reluctant attendance at the December 2007 Annapolis summit was based on a desire to encourage US re-engagement in a Middle East peace process. It was not based on any expectation of concrete progress. The Bush visit to the Gulf will see more US pressure on the GCC countries to “go the extra mile” to aid progress between Israel and the Palestinians and to support the Maliki government in Iraq. Gulf financial support for Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority was underlined at the Paris donors’ summit in December, but the GCC states are highly unlikely to do anything more substantive before they can judge the determination of the next US administration to deliver progress on the ground. Furthermore Saudi Arabia will not resume mediation in the Fatah-Hamas conflict without US assurances that a role for the latter in the PA would not derail Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. On Iraq, covert Gulf Arab efforts to back Sunni “moderates”, which worry the Shia Islamist-dominated government in Baghdad, are unlikely to be balanced by direct Gulf Arab support for Mr Maliki or any likely successor. Talk of reopening embassies and writing off debt will remain talk until the Saudis and others see substantive Iraqi government moves to address the demands of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. These include the re-entry of senior Sunni Arab officials into the ministries, military, and intelligence services; and a scrapping of a federalist structure seen as risking the collapse of Iraq. The Gulf Arabs do not buy the Bush administration’s “coalition of the moderates” agenda. They find the idea of Mr Maliki as a potential bulwark against Iran laughable, and anything that suggests normalisation with Israel before its own normalisation with a viable Palestinian state is unconscionable. The GCC states are more sympathetic to the US President’s message that Iran remains a threat, even though they are increasingly unsure just how much the outgoing US Administration still sees it that way. One well-placed analyst commented privately that an incoming US Administration could take the NIE, together with Khamanei’s message of “moderation” toward Washington, and fashion a “package deal” with Iran. GCC states would welcome a deal that incorporates their needs and reduces what they perceive to be the serious danger of a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. However, in the meantime they will remain wary of both US and Iranian intentions. Ultimately the Gulf Arab states will continue to side with the US, their strategic ally. At the same time they are unwilling to do anything to bolster current US Administration policies regarding Israel-Palestine and support for the Iraqi government that look suspect at best.
The issue of Iranian-UAE Trade
Dr. Neil Partrick (January 2008)
Based on a longer piece published in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s, ViewsWire.
The UAE authorities have recently started to take a more rigorous approach to regulating trade and investment relations with Iran. This is largely for the benefit of the US, which is setting great store by formal and, in particular, informal sanctions as a means of pressurising the Tehran regime into concessions on the scope of its nuclear programme—the American consulate in Dubai has a dedicated team of Iran-watchers monitoring developments. As yet, the effects of the UAE's measures on commercial ties with Iran have been relatively limited. Nevertheless, some Iranian business people with operations in the emirate are starting to get nervous. Trade preference According to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI), Iran accounts for about 14% of the emirate's total exports (including re-exports). DCCI figures show that Dubai's exports to Iran totalled Dh25bn (US$6.8bn) in 2006, of which some 60% consisted of re-exports, with much of the remainder coming from the emirate's free zones. Interim figures for 2007 suggest that trade volumes increased, with exports over the full year expected to exceed Dh30bn. Iranian investment in Dubai is hard to be sure of, but local sources reckon that the accumulated total could be as high as US$300bn, around a quarter of Iran’s estimated total foreign investments. Iranian businessmen canvassed by the Economist Intelligence Unit have expressed concerns for the future, however. They note, for example, that there has been an increase over the last few months in the number of Iranian businessmen in Dubai being refused residency visas after having set up companies in the emirate—which is normally just a formal prerequisite for gaining the right to operate. A head of an Iranian property services company said that this pattern has extended to other emirates in the UAE as well. Visa go-slow Nasser Hashempour, the deputy president of Dubai’s Iranian Business Council, said that at the moment this is only having a “psychological effect” on Iranian businesspeople in the emirate. However, he added that if Iranians see that there is not significant support in Dubai for operating their businesses they will “take their assets to another country”. Mr Hashempour said that what he sees as the “unofficial policy” of slowing down the granting of new visas for Iranians wishing to run companies in Dubai will, if it increases, “have a negative effect on those putting new investment in the UAE or (planning on) bringing new money”. He argues, however, that such a development would go against the grain of the open economic approach that has successfully driven development in Dubai and it would therefore not be in the interests of either Iran or the UAE. One prominent Iranian businessman based in Dubai commented that if the US sought to increase pressure on Iran by further constraining Iranian operations in the emirate, there is little that the local leadership could do to resist. At the formal level Iranian companies have come under more pressure through greater Emirati efforts to curtail trade in goods with a potential military or “dual use”. Some 40 companies were closed last year under this charge, and the UAE authorities in December impounded a vessel reportedly transporting chemicals bound for Iran via Jebel Ali. However, these measures did not alter the perception of one foreign diplomat based in the UAE that the impression of greater surveillance is largely “theatre”. Partners An estimated 8,000 Iranian businessmen in Dubai are operating as 49% partners in majority Emirati-owned companies, while around 1,000 are solely Iranian-owned businesses operating in the free zones. Despite US pressure on the UAE to curtail business links with Iran, UAE-owned banks are continuing to open letters of credit (LCs) to fund the import of goods from Iran by Dubai companies in which Iranian nationals are partners or sole owners. Mr Hashempour argued that the UAE banks cannot stop this financial support. However he conceded that they could become cautious in deciding whether to extend credit to fund the import of goods by Iranian-owned companies. At the same time businesses based in Iran are finding it more difficult to get LCs from UAE or foreign banks to fund imports from Dubai. UAE banks are concerned at the perceived increased risk of such a commitment. Iranian and other businesspeople in Dubai wishing to supply businesses in Iran are being affected by this development. Dubai’s lucrative textile trade with Iran, for example, has suffered as a consequence. Part- or wholly-owned Iranian companies in Dubai wishing to import from Iran are also affected by the reluctance of local banks to recognise LCs issued by the two main Iranian banks operating in the UAE, Bank Melli and Bank Saderat. This is the case even if the LCs are issued by their Dubai branches, said a leading Iranian businessman. US sanctions issued in October 2007, which targeted these banks among other Iranian organisations, further impacted on the willingness of UAE and other international banks to accept LCs issued by Iranian banks. As a Dubai-based Iranian businessman working in the real estate sector said: “If you are Bank Melli or Bank Saderat then their LCs are not accepted outside of Iran.” Other Iranian banks have only representative offices in the emirate. Going through lesser-known Iranian banks or moving outside of the banking system can add to the cost of goods to the end user. This does not, however, prevent Iranians in Dubai from doing business with the outside world or from supplying Iranian goods to third countries via the emirate. While there have, for example, been signs recently that China has been responding to US pressure not to allow its banks to provide LCs to fund exports directly to Iran, the plethora of Iranian partnerships and solely owned companies in Dubai has provided the means for China to extend its trading relationship via Iranian companies registered in the emirate. Back home It is not just political pressure that can constrain some Iranian businesses in Dubai, however. Inflation is a consideration for Iranian property companies. An Iranian property services company based in the emirate told the Economist Intelligence Unit that high costs in Dubai and the low returns on the ever escalating cost of property were making the real estate sector back home in Iran a more attractive bet for Iranians. There are increasingly “no incentives to come here,” he said.