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Momentous Changeover in Oman

(Posted 11 January 2020)

In 1974, Ian Skeet published a book titled Muscat and Oman: The End of an Era.  With the passing of Sultan Qabus b. Sa`id, it is certainly the end of another era.  Qabus presided over just under 50 years of change.  The change has embraced moving from an impoverished country with a reclusive sultan to a rapidly developing economy, an educated and growing population, and a standard of living unsurpassed in Omani history.  Before 1970, Oman’s ruler sought to block the outside world out and, when he couldn’t ignore it, let Britain handle its affairs.  Qabus’s father, Sa`id b. Taymur, has been amply criticized for his attitude and policies – and undoubtedly deserves maligning for much of it although not all.

By most appearances, his son Qabus, schooled in East Anglia and trained at Sandhurst and with the British Army of the Rhine but afterwards also “home-schooled” in Arabic and Islamic law in Salalah, seemed to be far more progressive and visionary than his father.  But it is easy to gloss over the similarities, the tendency to seclude himself in Salalah and the marked distance from his family, for example.  Sa`id b. Taymur’s problem was that the genesis of Oman’s oil era and his slow, measured response came far too late to save him.  It was Sa`id b. Taymur who started Oman’s first modern port, which came instead to be called Mina Sultan Qabus.  Qabus certainly adopted a far more ambitious and equally far more rapid approach than his father, as any socioeconomic indicator will show.  Nevertheless, the sultanate remains still far from being able to produce a sustainable post-oil economy.

It will be the responsibility of Sultan Haytham b. Tariq, Qabus’s anointed successor, to finish that task.  The new sultan embodies many of the qualities necessary to perform well as sultan.  Having met with and held conversations with both Sultan Haytham and his father Sayyid Tariq, it seems fair to say that Haytham, as well as his brothers As`ad and Shihab, shares a close resemblance to the father.  This is true not only physically, but in his stolid, assured manner, intellectual outlook, and air and history of competence.

But Haytham is not Qabus and only time will reveal whether he has the vision, the determination, and the control to carry out Qabus’s vision of what Oman is to become.  It seems unlikely that Haytham will embark on any radically different policy, either domestic or foreign.  The system has been created and honed to fulfill the requirements of the sultan and Haytham undoubtedly will embrace that system, at least initially.  It will also be important to see what roles and/or positions that the new sultan’s brothers As`ad and Shihab play.

The new era begins today and one can not only hope but feel confident that Oman’s remarkable progress over the last 50 years will continue unabated.

Bahrain's Persistent Troubles

[Originally produced for the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center and published on the NOREF website (26 February 2013)]

Executive Summary

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have appeared to have largely escaped the turmoil sweeping through the Arab world since early 2011.  But outward appearances are deceiving nowhere more so than in Bahrain.  The Arab awakening did not create the eruption of Bahraini popular protests in February 2011 but, given a century of grievances in the island state, it provided encouragement.  The struggle between the regime and ruling family on the one hand and an increasingly restive citizenry does not bode well for the future.  Muted criticism from Western countries has only stiffened the tough posture of the hardliners within the ruling family and generated resentment from a growing proportion of Bahrainis.  Despite the initiation of a renewed, government-sponsored “dialogue,” the chasm between the two sides remains as wide and deep as ever.
Bahrain is the poorest of the GCC states and it has also seen the most dissidence and articulation of grievances of any of the six members.  For most of the last two decades, its Shi˓ah villages have been under frequent or virtual assault and its young men (and women) have intermittently but persistently battled security forces in the streets.  It is not a civil war and the situation is not comparable to the bloody developments in Syria, for example.  Yet, the last two years have seen a ratcheting up of confrontation between government and opposition, and the regime’s noticeably harsh response of repression.
Recent developments in Bahrain are not the product of a so-called “Arab spring.”  Instead, Bahrain had its “spring” during 1999-2001 when a new ruler initiated dialogue with the largely Shi˓ah opposition, Bahrainis in political exile were allowed to return, initial moves toward reconciliation were started, and nascent political parties, termed “societies,” were tolerated.  The government favored Sunni societies, predominantly Islamist, although some differences soon appeared.  The principal opposition societies have been the predominantly Shi˓ah al-Wifaq and the smaller and mixed-sectarian Wa˓d.
But the door to further steps towards reconciliation slammed shut in 2001.  The country stumbled through an uneasy stalemate until two years ago when a new round of confrontation began.  This period saw a profusion of demonstrations, the occupation of Pearl Roundabout and its clearance by brute force, the arrest of Shi˓ah doctors at the country’s principal hospital, the arrest of leaders of a splinter group from al-Wifaq and their conviction of treason, charges and counter-charges of attacks on security forces and torture of detainees, trials of human rights activists, and the emergence of Twitter and other forms of social media as a means of dissemination of information and for the organization of protests.

Bahrain’s Uniqueness Among the Gulf Monarchies

The argument for the legitimacy of Gulf monarchies is that (a) the ruling families arose out of the tribal framework and (b) that this aspect of “traditional” legitimacy is overlaid with the distribution of benefits from oil income (a social welfare system), resulting in an additional aspect of “modern” legitimacy.  While it can be said that this argument still holds true in general, considerable dissatisfaction with the behavior of rulers and ruling families has been growing as existing systems have become corrupted and tilted towards the interests of elites.  The growing education and sophistication of the citizenry in general has produced expectations of greater participation (particularly informal participation through, for example, civil society).  Ruling families have been slow or loathe to accept such demands.
Bahrain is the weakest link in terms of legitimacy in the Gulf monarchies.  Its history varies from the other smaller Gulf states.  Rather than arising politically from the indigenous social and political environment as happened elsewhere in the Gulf, Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifah family conquered the islands in the 18th century.  They have ruled since then in large part with the assistance of other tribes originally from the Najd in what is now Saudi Arabia.
In economic terms, there are almost two Bahrains.  One is the glitzy ultramodern world of luxury hotels, expensive malls, fine houses in new developments around the country, and an extensive system of motorways criss-crossing the main island.  The other is the world of the Shi`ah villages, where government-supplied utilities, roads, and other amenities are noticeably absent or poorer than in neighboring Sunni villages.  Bahrain’s paltry oil production and struggle to find alternative sources of income means that unemployment is inordinately high, especially among young Shi`ah.
Furthermore, the divide between ruling family and ruled is greater in Bahrain than neighboring states.  This is due, in large part, to the untrammeled status of the Al Khalifah, the senior members of which essentially are above the law.  This superior attitude and favored situation has persisted throughout the two and a half centuries of Al Khalifah rule.

A Century of Political Tension and Opposition

There is a long history of political tension and opposition in Bahrain, which gives a gloomy continuity to the difficulties that persist until today.  Much of the history of tension centered on labor struggles, such as strikes by pearl divers and later employees of the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) and other, newer, state-supported industrial concerns, in addition to scattered sectarian and ethnic disputes earlier in the 20th century.  (This is in addition to the problems caused by a large imported labor force largely from the Indian subcontinent, which has been a target of resentment by unemployed Bahrainis.)  But at the same time, there has also been a recurrent political aspect to strikes, demonstrations and articulated grievances.  Familiarity with the history of political opposition in Bahrain is necessary for understanding of the present crisis.
The British-imposed abdication of the ruler in 1923 provoked the formation of a Bahraini National Congress that pressed the government for reforms and less British interference.  Its leaders were soon exiled to India.  A “constitutional movement” appeared in 1938, inspired by similar impulses in neighboring Kuwait, with both Sunni and Shi˓ah representation and representing both merchants and BAPCO workers.  Its demands were rejected, the BAPCO strike leaders were fired, and some activists were exiled to India.
Organized opposition re-emerged in the 1950s when the bi-sectarian Higher Executive Committee or Committee for National Unity was created to voice long-standing grievances and press demands for reforms.  While the top British representative in the Gulf sought to mediate between the committee and the government, a demonstration in November 1956 against the British role in the Suez invasion got out of hand and the committee’s leaders were arrested.  Three Shi˓ah leaders were imprisoned in Bahrain while three Sunni leaders were exiled to St. Helena in the Atlantic.
Opposition in the mid-1960s was orchestrated more by relatively strident nationalist elements, including the Arab Nationalists’ Movement, Ba˓thists, and Marxists.  A strike against BAPCO expanded into a general strike, which in turn descended into violence and a number of deaths occurred before the government regained control.  Later, some of the opposition were elected to the new National Assembly, created in 1973 after Bahrain received its full independence.  Government efforts to force more stringent security measures through the assembly received stiff resistance and as a consequence the assembly was suspended two years later and some of its members were arrested under the new security provisions.  Numerous opposition figures either left the country on their own accord or were deported.
Civil unrest continued at subsequent intervals.  An attempt by security forces to end a service at a Shi˓ah mosque in early 1994 touched off another round of opposition, this time focused on rural Shi˓ah with leadership provided by Shi˓ah religious notables as well as more rejectionist Shi˓ah underground movements.  Demonstrations were shadowed by outbreaks of violence combined with increasing government repression.  The uprising caused hardships in Bahrain, deterred foreign corporations and individuals from remaining in the country, and compromised Bahrain’s global standing.  The situation was only defused by the accession of Shaykh Hamad b. ˓Isa to the rulership in 1999 and his active efforts to redress some of the grievances, to allow freer expression of differences in the media, and to permit the free return of many of the political exiles.  However, this “thaw” lasted only two years until Hamad proclaimed himself king in 2001.  The incipient process of reform remained in stalemate until 2011.

A New Round of Confrontation (2011-2013)

The demonstrations of February 2011 were less the expression of a reaction to the so-called “Arab spring” taking place elsewhere, and more the continuation of a long struggle.  It is true that the occupation of the Pearl Roundabout was inspired by Egyptians’ occupation of Tahrir Square and that popular uprisings elsewhere had an encouraging effect on Bahraini opposition.  However, as shown above, there has been a long history of grievances and strong and often defiant reaction to government apathy or hostility.  In a more immediate sense, the events of February 2011 and after were the natural, delayed reaction to the disappointment with King Hamad, who seemed to lose interest in carrying out real reforms after 2001.
The reaction of the Al Khalifah to the renewed popular opposition in 2011 was extreme and focused on repression rather than reform or dialogue.  The security situation reverted to the atmosphere of the 1990s uprising.  Indeed, it was even worse with indiscriminate attacks, both verbal and physical, on extensive numbers of Shi˓ah, even those who had cooperated with the government, as well as some Sunnis.  The regime resorted to demonizing opponents, engaging in naked intimidation through an expatriate-heavy security apparatus, and actively seeking to delegitimize its majority Shi˓ah population, as expressed through extensive arrests and the destruction of numerous Shi˓ah mosques.  Twenty activists were convicted of seeking to overthrow the state and sentenced to jail terms of various lengths, including eight years to life imprisonment.
The opposition of the past two years, as for the previous 40 years, has been focused in particular on the prime minister (and the king’s uncle), Shaykh Khalifah b. Salman.  Khalifah, who has become one of the richest men in the Gulf, had fiercely resisted any change throughout his career, regarding it as capitulation.  He appeared to be virtually on the point of retirement with his nephew, King Hamad b. ˓Isa, in the ascendancy before February 2011.  It is possible that Shaykh Khalifah saw an opportunity in the emerging unrest to regain his position vis-à-vis the king, as well as to guarantee his son a prominent position in the government.  Therefore, it seems plausible to assume that he coordinated with Riyadh for GCC Peninsula Shield (but mainly Saudi) troops to enter into Bahrain.  In addition, he seemed to form an alliance with fellow hardliners, Shaykh Khalid b. Ahmad (the minister of the royal court) and Shaykh Khalifah b. Ahmad (the minister of defense), and to gain some control over the Bahrain Defense Force (previously the preserve of the king and the heir apparent).
The idea of a monolithic Al Khalifah regime should be treated with some caution.  Indeed, many Bahraini observers contend that the ruling family has split into opposing camps.  The heir apparent, Prince Salman b. Hamad, is regarded as the member of the family most willing to seek dialogue and thus resolution, as shown by his announcement on 13 March 2011 about a willingness to discuss parliamentary reform, naturalization, corruption, and sectarian issues.  This initiative was rendered moot when Peninsula Shield units crossed into Bahrain the following day.  The king’s position is regarded as somewhere between his son and the hardliners.  On the one hand, he defused the tense situation in 1999 by taking active measures towards reconciliation and he has expressed a desire for dialogue at intervals during the 2011-2013 crisis.  On the other hand, he abruptly ended any initiative in 2001.
One of the negative effects of the events of 2011 was the polarization of many Sunnis and Shi˓ah into opposing and often hostile camps.  In part, this seemed to be a deliberate regime strategy to mobilize Sunni support against the Shi˓ah opposition by inculcating the fear that the Shi˓ah wanted to replace the monarchy with a republic with Iranian help.  Not coincidentally, a government-inspired Sunni Gathering movement emerged as a counter to Shi˓ah organization.
Within a few months of the outbreak of the demonstrations inspired by the Arab awakening on 14 February 2011, a 14 February Youth Coalition took shape amongst disaffected and increasingly radicalized Shi˓ah.  Apparently created to coordinate opposition activities at the street level, it remained completely separate in organization and in goals from the Shi˓ah opposition societies.  Wrapped in secrecy, the coalition established a pattern by which it would identify strategic targets and then alert its supporters by Twitter and other means to form flash mobs to occupy them until police arrived to arrest the occupiers.  In the following two years, the coalition continued to act as an organizing agent for street protesters and gained significant credibility with much of the disaffected Shi˓ah youth.  As a consequence, al-Wifaq has been in danger of losing control over the more impatient elements of its natural constituency.  While the coalition seems not to have advocated violence, there is a real and worrisome possibility that organized violence may accompany increasing demands for the ouster of the Al Khalifah ruling family.

International Responses and Backlash

The situation in Bahrain has sparked widespread international criticism by media and human rights groups, even more so than the previous crisis in the 1990s.  Indeed, concern has been expressed by individuals and grassroots organizations that would have been hard-pressed to identify where Bahrain was prior to 2011.  Western governments, particularly the United States and Britain, have mildly voiced concern.  In retaliation, the Bahraini regime has promoted stories in the Bahraini press attacking the US and the UK, including one in which Britain was accused of acting like a colonial regime.  Hardliners within the regime suggested that there was a conspiracy between the United States, Britain, Iran, and Israel against the Al Khalifah.  The previous British ambassador was snubbed by the Bahraini government on his departure from the country.
The US government has voiced muted criticism in publicly urging the Bahraini government to do more to resolve differences.  But if stronger action has been taken behind the scenes, there is no visible result.  Conventional wisdom holds that the US does not wish to upset the Bahraini government (read Al Khalifah) for fear of jeopardizing its access to facilities for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.  In fact, it is truer to say the shoe is on the other foot.  Bahrain sorely needs both the financial stimulation that the US Navy brings to the islands and the political support of the United States in its attempt to place blame on Iran.  Conventional wisdom also holds that the US holds back because such a course of action would upset Saudi Arabia.  This may well be true but it needs only be stressed to Riyadh that significant reforms are necessary in order to preserve the tranquillity of the state in Bahrain, to prevent the spread of unrest to neighboring GCC states, and to present a united front against external threats, all key objectives in Saudi foreign policy.
What can other countries do to help alleviate the situation?  Stronger European pressure, both publicly and privately, as well as both multilaterally and bilaterally, may help to convince the Bahraini regime – including the hardliners – that it must take international opinion into account and conform to the rule of law.  The alternative is a return to the atmosphere of the 1990s.  Most notably, a chorus of extemporaneous and coordinated public statements urging the Bahraini government to carry out all the recommendations of the recent Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and to institute equal rights and treatment for the country’s majority Shi`ah are called for.  Such actions must be, of course, be tempered by sensibilities in Bahrain and a spirit of encouraging cooperation and not condemnation.  The recently renewed prospect of a national dialogue provides a perfect opportunity to urge both sides to work actively towards reconciliation.

The Immediate Future

On 21 January 2013, King Hamad proclaimed a new initiative for a national dialogue.  Such calls had been voiced previously by the crown prince, notably in March 2011 and in December 2012.  The first died almost immediately with the the dispatch hours later of Saudi and other GCC troops to Bahrain.  The second was received coolly and nothing came of it.  Will this third attempt, with the weight and authority of the king personally behind it, prove more successful?  Although al-Wifaq and other opposition groups cautiously embraced the initiative, other opponents derided it in demonstrations as no more meaningful as previous calls and the abortive dialogue that foundered in July 2011.  Al-Wifaq’s provisional approval of a dialogue seemed to hinge on its demand that the crown prince take part in the talks, rather than the government’s conception of its role being simply a moderator between opposing factions.
In the absence of an agreed-upon framework for talks, the possibility any progress in easing the deadlock is purely speculative at present.  It is undeniable though that previous efforts over the past two years and, indeed, since King Hamad succeeded his father, have not borne much fruit.  There is no indication that the hardliners on either side – the hardline faction within the ruling family or the 14 February Coalition and its intransigent street followers on the other – are at all engaged in seeking a real dialogue.  Without their cooperation and eventual acquiescence, there can be no reconciliation.

Qatar's International Role:  Branding, Investment, and Policy Projection

[Originally produced for the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center (December 2012) and published on the NOREF website (19 February 2013)]

Executive summary

Since the 1980s Qatar has achieved prominence and even notoriety in the Middle East, and recognition around the globe. This transformation is a direct result of the palace coup d’état in 1995 when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani overthrew his father and set a new direction for his country.

Qatar’s newfound prominence can be seen the result of three overlapping strategies for survival and influence: cultural branding, financial investment and policy projection. These strategies have been desirable, even fundamentally necessary, because of Qatar’s small size combined with its enormous wealth. However, Qatar’s policies are not without controversy, in particular the accusations that it is supporting Islamist groups and political parties, and that its support for revolution and democracy abroad is coupled with continuing repression at home. 

Even well into the 1980s Qatar was one of the smallest, the least populated and themost overlooked of the small states of the Gulf. Its oil production seemingly had peaked and Doha was the least attractive capital in the Gulf. The situation has changed dramatically since then as Qatar has achieved prominence and even notoriety in the Middle East and recognition around the globe. This transformation is a direct result of the palace coup d’état in 1995 when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani overthrew his father and set a new direction for his country.

 Qatar’s newfound prominence can be seen as the result of three overlapping strategies for survival and influence: cultural branding, financial investment and policy projection. These strategies have been desirable – even fundamentally necessary – because of Qatar’s small size combined with its enormous wealth. Although the population of the country is about 1.8 million people, only some 15%, or about 270,000, are Qatari nationals. As the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG), Qatar’s per capita income is over $100,000 per year.


 Branding a state is a difficult, long and expensive process requiring the creation or exploitation of a unique niche or set of niches. In its early initiatives Qatar seemed to be attempting to emulate nearby Dubai’s success. But successful branding for Qatar requires achieving distinctiveness. Significant efforts have been channelled into cultural and sports branding that have included:

·         the annual Qatar Cultural Festival;

·         the magnificent Museum of Islamic Art, as well as museums of history, photography, textiles and modern art;

·         the Al Jazeera satellite television station, which ushered in a new era of critical and controversial broadcasting in the Arab world;

·         the establishment of Education City with local branches of a number of prominent U.S. universities, as well as offices of the Rand Corporation, the Brookings Institution and the Royal United Services Institution; and

·         the creation of Qatar Airways and its development into one of the world’s major carriers.

 In addition, major sporting events have been held or are scheduled to be held in Qatar, including:

·         the ExxonMobil Open tennis tournament;

·         the Qatar Masters golf tournament;

·         the Qatar International Rally in auto racing;

·         the Asian Games; and, controversially

·         football’s FIFA World Cup in 2022.

 The exercise in branding has increased the prestige of the country and raised the recognition of Qatar around the world. It may further or deepen the legitimacy of the micro-state and thus enhance the prospects of its survival. But once Qatar found itself on the global map, it was necessary to entrench and broaden its presence and visibility. Oil revenues and the explosion in LNG income in recent years has provided the country with a golden opportunity to develop a bold investment strategy.


 Qatar’s investments – in and outside the country, as well as both state investments, through the sovereign wealth fund and other government agencies, and private investments – receive frequent attention. Prominent stakes or acquisitions in recent years have included:

·         stakes in Barclay’s Bank, Credit Suisse, Sainsbury supermarkets, the London Stock Exchange, Volkswagen, Porsche, Hochetief AG, Harrods and the Raffles Hotel in Singapore;

·         real estate investments in London in Canary Wharf, the Chelsea Barracks site and the recently completed Shard (Europe’s tallest skyscraper); and

·         more than €1 billion of investments in France, including a majority stake in the Paris Saint-Germain football team.

Most obviously, these investments reflect a sound economic policy of recycling oil and gas income into future income streams. But they also serve to spread awareness of Qatar’s financial strength and, with good management, its legitimacy as an international economic force.

Policy projection

Branding and investment have raised the small country’s visibility and ensured future returns. But neither – separately or in combination – assures the country of power and influence. Consequently, the regime has embarked in recent years on the third prong of its overall strategy: policy projection or “soft power” (a better description than power projection, since Qatar has very little actual power beyond its deep purse). Policy projection seems to have been one of Sheikh Hamad’s central objectives from the start of his reign. From the earliest years of his reign he demonstrated a propensity for conducting bold, but risky regional policies:

·         After replacing his father as emir in 1995 he accused his neighbours of supporting his father’s attempts to regain power.

·         Al Jazeera quickly established a history of alienating other Gulf and Arab states, although it remained notably reticent when discussing Qatar.

·         Sheikh Hamad seemed to take the risky course of thumbing his nose at Saudi Arabia on various issues, culminating in the boycott by Saudi Crown Prince ‘Abdullah of a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) summit in Doha and to the abandonment of a natural gas pipeline from Qatar to Kuwait that would have crossed Saudi territory.

·         Although the long-disputed set of border issues with neighbouring Bahrain was finally settled in 2001 by an International Court of Justice judgment, relations continued to be punctuated by squabbles, and plans for the ambitious Bahrain-Qatar causeway were suspended in 2010.

Sheikh Hamad was able to take these risks because he guaranteed the country’s safety by strengthening his alliance with the U.S. and offering it facilities in Qatar, notably the al-Udeid air base, which also houses U.S. Central Command forward headquarters.

These facilities proved to be of enormous help before and during the Iraq invasion of 2003 and ensured that the emirate received prominent mention in the media, as well as the appreciation of the U.S. and its allies.

With the country’s protection secured, Sheikh Hamad struck out on an ambitious plan to put his country on the diplomatic map through meetings in Doha of:

·         the U.S.-backed Middle East and North African Regional Economic Meeting, with Israeli representation (1997);

·         a World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting that gave Qatar extended exposure through the continuing Doha Round of trade negotiations (2001);

·         the Organisation of Islamic Conference Summit (2003);

·         the Second South Summit of the Group of 77 (2005);

·         the UN Climate Change Conference (2012); and

·         its election to a two-year term on the UN Security Council (2005).

Qatar also sought to engender goodwill through its provision of $100 million in aid to the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and its pledge to invest heavily in France’s poverty-stricken suburbs in 2012.

In recent years, Sheikh Hamad has increasingly pursued efforts to create a broader, more openly activist foreign policy, firstly through mediation and then through intervention in regional issues:

·         Qatar mediated a signed agreement between Sudan and Eritrea in Doha in 1998.

·         Qatari representatives engineered a ceasefire in Yemen between the government and al-Houthi rebels in the north of the country in 2007, and continued their mediation efforts in subsequent years on their own and in conjunction with the GCC.

·         Qatar brokered an agreement in Lebanon that created a national government, including participation by Hizbullah in 2008.

·         The country arranged for a signed peace agreement between the government of Sudan and the Darfur rebels in Doha in 2010.

·         Qatar’s relations with Israel (which had included an Israeli presence in Doha) cooled as the emirate deepened its ties with Hamas and the emir made an unprecedented visit to Gaza in 2012.

More serious interventions emerged as a consequence of the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012.

·         Firstly, Qatar switched from diplomacy to active intervention against Qaddafi in Libya, providing combat jets, cruise missiles, military advisers, ground troops and assistance in the marketing of Libyan oil. Even more controversially, the emirate began bankrolling Libyan rebels, in particular Islamist groups, by pushing their role in the Libyan National Transitional Council. This action followed charges that Qatar had promoted Islamists elsewhere, including al-Shabaab in Somalia.

·         Qatar’s relations with the Assad regime in Syria also underwent a transformation, beginning with Doha’s calls for Arab observers to be sent to Syria and followed by the provision of military aid amid similar charges that the emirate was supporting Islamist figures and groups.

As Qatar wades deeper into controversy, the question inevitably arises of whether Qatar has “bitten off more than it can chew”. When does policy exuberance outstrip reserve and cautious, sound policymaking?

Reservations over Qatari foreign policy have been raised over two issues. Firstly, it has been alleged that Qatar seeks to support Islamists in civil wars, presumably in line with the country’s traditionally conservative nature. Supporting sides in civil wars not only potentially creates dangerous enemies that neutral diplomacy would not, but providing backing to Islamist groups antagonises many Arab governments and individuals, and worries Western governments.

At the same time, many observers note the apparent hypocrisy of Qatari official contentions that it is supporting democratisation in the Middle East while continuing to exercise strong control at home. A pertinent case in point is the recent sentencing of a Qatari poet to a lengthy prison sentence for criticising the emir and his son. Other activists, including homegrown Islamists, have suffered similar fates in the past. This case has again drawn negative attention to the emirate, and observers have noted the fact that Al Jazeera has not mentioned the case, unlike other satellite news channels in the region.

These actions should raise concern about the sagacity of some of Sheikh Hamad’s policies. While there seems to be little danger that Qatari objectives will diverge sharply from those of Western powers, quiet and friendly efforts to encourage restraint may be called for.

The Year of Oman's Discontent

[Originally published in The Middle East in London (University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies, London Middle East Institute), October-November 2011]

One hears little of Oman in the international media.  Mention is most likely to be found in the travel pages as it has grown as an attraction for tourism.  The country is commonly described as calm, peaceful, and hospitable; one Danish journalist years ago likened it to an “Islamic California.”  But perceptions shifted slightly in 2011 as Omanis followed the example elsewhere in the Arab world and inaugurated their own activism.  That such a development should happen in quiet Oman, however, should not have been such a surprise.

Oman began its efforts and political and socioeconomic development only in 1970, when the present Sultan, Qabus bin Said, overthrew his isolationist father.  Not surprisingly, the early stages were tentative and rather rocky.  Socioeconomic development required expertise, infrastructure, and planning, which was difficult to come by in the early years.  Progress in development was also impacted by the emergence of an entirely new and narrowly based political structure.

The new sultan unquestionably presided at the apex of authority and had little need for reference to his family (unlike elsewhere in the Gulf) or politically powerful religious figures, tribal leaders, or military commanders.  At the same time, Sultan Qabus was inexperienced, having spent the six years after his Western education in near-seclusion in Salalah in the south of the country.  As a consequence, consultation and advice was confined to a small circle of advisers, most of them non-Omanis.

While these advisers may have benefitted the country with their expertise and contacts, all too often their principal interest was in building their own fortunes.  As more Omanis took up high positions and acquired influence with the sultan, the pattern of combined service and personal aggrandizement became institutionalized.  The sultan rarely acted against individuals unless they were seen as particularly egregious.

It is striking that this system with all its faults has still produced an enviable record and evidence of socioeconomic development.  But Oman still faces enormous problems.  Oil production generally has been dropping in recent years.  While exports of liquefied natural gas have bolstered the government’s income stream, they will never be as profitable as oil.  Furthermore, a growing amount of gas is required for domestic use.

Meanwhile, Oman’s population has exploded since 1970.  Thousands of secondary-school graduates enter a stagnant jobs market every year.  The sultanate is one of the relative “have-nots” of the Gulf Cooperation Council and there is a wide disparity between the prosperous middle-class enclaves of Muscat – not to mention the palatial estates of the elite – and the average Omani.

Perhaps as many as 80% of all Omanis were not alive in 1970.  They have no idea of what life was like before that seminal year and therefore do not feel the same loyalty and gratitude to Sultan Qabus that their elders did.  Instead, many have discreetly criticized the waste and favoritism for years.  The state brooks no dissent, civil society is weak, and the only fora for discussion have been the sometimes tolerated blogs.

With all this in mind, it is therefore not surprising that young, disaffected Omanis should follow the example of their fellow Arabs and gather in protest in early 2011.  The first protest march took place in Muscat in mid-January with demands for better wages and controls on rising prices.  But as the protests continued, there were also political demands for expansion of the powers of the elected consultative body, the Majlis al-Shura, and the replacement of long-serving ministers.

The protests soon spread elsewhere in Oman, especially Salalah in the south and in the Batinah to the west of Muscat – as well as in Ibri in the northwest and Sur in the far east.  Suhar, the major town in the Batinah, was particularly significant since it is the nexus of government plans for a major industrial base for the country.  Private companies, including the national oil company and the national telecommunications company, were also hit by strikes.

The government’s initial response was to raise the salaries of civil servants and security forces, increase pensions, and announce the creation of 50,000 jobs.  But this did not stem the protests.  Eventually, the Sultan replaced a number of his ministers – including the minister of finance, the minister of the Royal Office, and the head of the police – with a number of Majlis al-Shura members.  He also promised more powers to the elected Majlis al-Shura and its appointed companion house.

At the same time, however, the government reacted forcefully against repeat demonstrations and one or more persons were killed by rubber bullets in Suhar in late February, while a number of others were injured.  The Globe Roundabout at the main entrance to Suhar was only re-opened after a month of occupation by protesters but a subsequent demonstration saw another protester killed by a rubber bullet.

Instead of subsiding, strikes spread to other commercial entities, as well as the Rusayl industrial complex, and protesters demanded trials for the dismissed ministers and other government officials on charges of corruption.  More than two hundred protesters who had been arrested earlier were pardoned in mid-April while another 27 were put on trial.  More arrests followed in May, although most of the protesters were released afterwards.

In contrast, a wave of convictions followed in June:  21 men were sentenced to jail in Ibri on charges of arson while another 15 were sentenced to jail a week later.  Another 55 were convicted in Jalan Bani Bu Ali in eastern Oman and 13 more in Suhar later in the month.  An additional dozen were sentenced in Suhar in July, prompting a new round of mass protests against the arrests and convictions.

What is most striking about the agitation in Oman is not so much that it happened but that it has been so prolonged.  There is no doubt that the Sultanate of Oman has made great strides in its development since 1970.  But political development and economic constraints have not kept pace with this progress.

Essentially, the political system remains little changed since those early days of the 1970s.  It remains heavily dependent on a single personality, Sultan Qabus.  While he justifiably has earned respect for setting the nation on the road to relative prosperity (and in carving out a remarkably viable foreign policy), he has tolerated many abuses of the public trust by his officials and maintained a certain distance from his people.  July 2011 marked the 41st anniversary of his taking power and, given his age and lack of a son and heir, there are continuing concerns over succession.  

The events of this year unequivocally demonstrate that increasing numbers of Omanis seek a voice in the decision-making process but the paternalistic nature of the political system continues unabated.  Without significant change, this year’s relatively mild pressures may well be transformed into active dissidence and more insistent demands in following years.


Bahrain's Disappearing Shi`ah Mosques

[Original publication on this website, 31 May 2011. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

The following links provide evidence that the destruction of Shi`ah mosques by the Bahraini government was because of retribution and not because of their "illegal" construction.  For nearly a century, the Bahraini government has been harsh in its repression of dissent.  But the government's actions in 2011 have crossed a multitude of "red lines" (even in a relative sense) that seem to lessen the separation of Bahrain (along with the other GCC states) from such "police" states as Libya and Syria.  These developments suggest that the idea that authoritarian Gulf monarchies, and especially their ruling families, essentially provide for the welfare of their people even as they restrict freedom of expression and political participation while preserving considerable privileges for ruling families and associated elites may be little more than a lie. 



Bahrain's official tally shows cost to Shiites of mosques crackdown

Bahraini Awqaf table of destroyed mosques (in Arabic)

Map of demolished mosques (with photographs)

Turmoil in the Arabian Peninsula

[First published as an E-note by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, 12 April 2011.]

The Arabian Peninsula – that is, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states plus Yemen – has been for the most part touched only superficially by the wave of political instability and popular unrest that has affected much of the Arab world.  The GCC states are governed by ruling families that mostly have been in charge for more than two centuries.  They can be more accurately characterized as being sclerotic than instable.  Saudi Arabia, for example, has had only six kings since 1902.  Sultan Qabus in Oman has ruled for more than 40 years; until just a few years ago, he was one of the junior leaders.  Yemen has an extremely fractious past and the present regime has an abundance of troubles; still President ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih has led the country for 33 years.

But it cannot be denied that the contagion of unrest, dissidence, and popular revolutionary sentiment that so far has toppled autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt has infected the Arabian Peninsula.  Yemen is on the brink of toppling; Bahrain keeps control only through the application of repression once again; Oman withstands persistent protests for the first time; and Saudi Arabia exhibits a familiar unyielding attitude mixed with nervousness.


Without doubt, the most serious situation exists in Yemen.  ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih was virtually unknown and unrespected when he slipped into power in 1978.  Since then, he has maintained and strengthened his hold over the fractious polity by a combination of shrewdness, the construction of an inner core of support, a reliance on extensive patronage, the maintenance and management of a state of chaos, and, in his own metaphor, dancing on the heads of snakes.

But the wily survivor seems to have been slipping in recent years.  His manipulation of unity between north and south Yemen in 1990, followed by the victory in the 1994 civil war, resulted in a northern occupation of the south that southerners resoundingly resent.  Southern opposition coalesced about 2007 into a largely peaceful movement that seeks either independence or autonomy and southern activists in 2011 have found common cause with northern opposition.

While conspicuously failing to manage this serious threat to his regime, Salih has allowed a serious rebellion in the extreme north by the so-called Huthis to continue without foreseeable resolution.  A series of all-out campaigns against Huthi strongholds failed to defeat the movement while exposing the military weakness of the regime, antagonizing most of the population of the north through indiscriminate shelling and bombing of villages, and even embarrassing neighboring Saudi Arabia when it was forced to take large-scale action against the Huthis after fighting spilled over into Saudi territory.

Furthermore, the regime’s game of courting and denying Islamists, including Islamist extremists, has strengthened the extremists’ position.  Once Salih realized that such a policy could not continue indefinitely, his pursuit of an alliance with the United States against the extremists polarized Yemeni attitudes and provoked groups such as al-Qa˓idah in the Arabian Peninsula to target government officials for execution.

At the same time, these three very serious challenges to the Yemen regime’s longevity transcend more fundamental problems bedeviling the Arab world’s poorest state.  Yemen has been surviving financially thanks to fortuitous oil revenues.  But the level of oil production and oil revenues has been waning.  While the inception of liquified natural gas exports will help soften the fall, Yemen’s principal foreign-exchange earner by far will not last long.  Yemen is an agricultural country with rapidly growing urbanization and a mushrooming and very young population.  Its water supplies are on the verge of depletion, standards of living are extremely low, and the growing legions of youth have few jobs prospects.  Even in the best of times, Yemen’s future is clouded – and these are perhaps the worst of times.

As of now, ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih is hanging on by his fingernails.  Longstanding popular dissatisfaction with him was, until recently, manageable through his manipulation of a political system – a system that with an elected parliament and relatively free press seemed on the surface to be open.  He nurtured an efficient power base relying on his immediate family, his own and an allied tribe, and his control of a compliant and tribally dominated military apparatus.

But the winds of change blowing in from the north of Africa brought simmering popular discontent out into enormous street demonstrations.  As in Cairo, Salih’s ill-advised attempt to meet peaceful opposition with force did much to change the balance of power.  Resignations of members of his party and members of his cabinet multiplied.  The most prominent Islamist, ˓Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, announced his opposition.  The al-Ahmar brothers, sons of the most prominent tribal leader in the country who died in 2007, declared for the opposition.  Finally, ˓Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (a member of Salih’s own tribe and no relation to the al-Ahmar brothers) and four other generals joined the other side, leaving large swathes of the countryside outside central control.

On the surface, this seemingly would have spelled the end for the president and there were persistent rumors that a negotiated exit strategy was imminent.  But caveats can be attached to the actions and position of each of the above personalities.  Zindani, one of the founders of the Islamist-tribal-conservative al-Islah Party, had been in “loyal opposition” already since Salih dropped al-Islah from his government.  ˓Abdullah Husayn al-Ahmar, the father, had been prominent in Yemeni politics since the revolution of 1962.  But even though he last served as Speaker of the Parliament until his death, he too was a member of the loyal opposition.  His sons do not carry the same authority and, since his death, they have tended to waver in their political positions, although the strongest of them, Hamid, is thought to have ambitions.

Generally, it has been considered that years ago General ˓Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar had forged a pact with Salih providing that ˓Ali Muhsin would succeed Salih as president.  This understanding was threatened in recent years as Salih attempted to maneuver his son Ahmad into position to succeed him.  ˓Ali Muhsin was in charge of combatting the Huthis – some would say that he instigated the fighting in the first place – but his failure to crush the Huthis weakened his position and perhaps was engineered by Salih through the withholding of the necessary military assets.  It can be considered that all of the above figures have acted as opportunists, sensing the end of the Salih regime and positioning themselves for the future.  Furthermore, all can be described as part of the elite that has dominated Yemeni politics in the last few decades – i.e., they are opposite sides of the same coin that the protesters in the street reject.

The GCC seemed to have brokered a deal that would allow Salih to leave without punishment but then inveterate politician backtracked on his promise.  At the time of writing, the GCC’s intervention remains in play.

Assuming that ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih does depart the scene in the immediate future, there is no clear picture of what a post-Salih Yemen will look like.  Who shall succeed him?  Will the military step in to take charge, as it has done in Egypt and in many other Arab countries in the past?  But which elements of the military?  ˓Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar is a powerful figure but essentially part of the establishment (and perhaps has signalled his departure from the political scene) while Ahmad ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih remains in charge of the elite and powerful Republican Guard.


Bahrain is a good example of why the GCC states are not all interchangeable.  It is a small country and its oil reserves, small to begin with, have just about run out.  Thus the post-oil future that hangs over all six members has struck already in Bahrain.  While Bahrain’s ruling family has been in charge for more than two centuries, it has been more autocratic than its neighbors and consequently the archipelago has witnessed regular periodic protests and periods of dissidence for more than a century.

Bahrain’s troubles are often ascribed to sectarian tensions between a Sunni minority (including the Al Khalifah ruling family) and a Shi˓ah majority.  But the country’s political problems are better seen as a perpetual contest between the Al Khalifah (who trace their background from a tribe of central Arabia) and their tribal allies who also came to Bahrain from the mainland on the one hand, and the great majority of the both Sunni and Shi˓ah population on the other.  Among the Sunnis are the hawwalah families, of Arab origin but who arrived in Bahrain from the Persian coast of the Gulf; they dominate in business.  The Shi˓ah are principally the Arab Baharnah, generally regarded as the original inhabitants, but there are also many Persians who have immigrated over the last century.  The opposition also charges the regime with having naturalized thousands of Sunnis, especially Jordanians, Syrians, Yemenis, and Pakistanis, in an attempt to redress the sectarian imbalance.

Sunni and Shi˓ah dissidents have banded together in their opposition to the Al Khalifah regime in 1938, 1953-1956, 1965, and the early 1970s.  But the Shi˓ah have taken the lead in organized and persistent opposition because they are the disadvantaged in Bahrain.  Shi˓ah villages are visibly poorer and lack many of the amenities found in Sunni villages.  The Shi˓ah are systematically excluded from the military and the security forces and are under-represented in government employment in general and in senior positions in particular.  Thus most of the large numbers of young and unemployed are Shi˓ah who have become increasingly disaffected.  The serious unrest of the late 1990s was a Shi˓ah-driven phenomenon although it had the quiet support of many Sunnis as well.

When long-time ruler Shaykh ˓Isa died in 1999, many Bahrainis saw the succession of his son Hamad as a positive development.  ˓Isa had never been very interested in the affairs of government and he reigned while his brother Khalifah ruled as prime minister.  Khalifah not only made himself one of the wealthiest men in the Gulf, he also easily became the most hated man in Bahrain for many Bahrainis.  Through his control of internal security, Khalifah spearheaded the wave of repression that saw Bahrainis jailed for political offenses, some of them tortured, and others victims of the peculairly Bahraini practice of exiling.  For expatriates, Bahrain was a welcoming place to live and work, but deep-seated tensions underlay the friendly, prosperous air of the capital al-Manamah.

In his first two years as ruler, Hamad enacted a number of long overdue reforms.  Prisoners were freed, exiles were welcomed home, real steps were made toward freedom of speech and press, and the ruler engaged in serious dialogue with opposition leaders.  In 2001, however, he declared himself king and the process of change stagnated.  True, he held elections for a national assembly but the elected assembly was matched with an appointed assembly whose speaker who could cast the final vote breaking any tie.  Furthermore, electoral constituencies were gerrymandered so that Shi˓ah representatives won a maximum of 18 of the 40 available seats, even though they constitute the majority of voters.  Most of the other seats have been won by Sunni Islamist supporters of the government.

The political situation remained unresolved until the “Arab spring” of 2011 burst forth in Tunisia and Egypt.  In imitation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Bahrainis occupied Pearl Roundabout as the center of their vocal opposition to the government.  The goal of most of the protesters was not the toppling of the regime as in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, but genuine reform beginning with the dismissal of the prime minister (and the king’s uncle) Khalifah.  He was seen by many as the leader of the hardline faction of the ruling family while the heir apparent and son of the king, Salman, was regarded as the liberal leader, urging dialogue and accommodation.  King Hamad was said to be in the middle.

In the end, the hardliners won out and the regime reacted with repression, eventually clearing the roundabout.  More protesters began to call for the overthrow of the regime and the government acted with force, arresting many and instituting martial law.  Not all Bahrainis have protested and there have been mass demonstrations in support of the government.  But the government has been stubborn in its rejection of opposition demands.  It apparently has sought to stoke a sectarian dimension of conflict, it has declared that Iran was behind opposition movements, and it has re-arrested some opposition leaders and closed the principal opposition newspaper.

Disturbingly, the Al Khalifah have received the support of fellow GCC monarchs and they invited Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates (UAE) troops to enter Bahrain in support of Bahraini security forces – although it is debatable how much of an “invitation” Saudi Arabia needed.  The situation has quieted and many of the foreign media have departed.  But underneath, nothing has changed.  All the Al Khalifah remain in their usual positions, the old allegations of unjustified arrest and torture have resurfaced, hundreds of Bahrainis are being held by security forces, and thousands of young Bahrainis remain unemployed and disaffected.  The economic damage of the last several months is enormous while the tenuous “social contract” between ruler and ruled is fraying badly.


Many observers were surprised when calm, quiet Oman produced its own explosion of demonstrations and protests, most visibly the takeover of the Globe Roundabout in the town of Suhar.  They should not have been, however.  While Oman has been a reasonably well-run country with an easy-going and practical people, it faces many of the same economic problems as Bahrain.  Oil production is relatively small and has been declining over the last decade.  The population is burgeoning but jobs are scarce and standards of living for the majority of Omanis pale beside the prosperity of the small elite.

Older Omanis regard their ruler, Sultan Qabus, with considerable respect, noting that before he took control in 1970, life was hard; after his accession, development began in earnest and life changed for the better.  But some 80-90% of all Omanis were not alive in 1970 and they do not know the travails of the previous period.  Their attitude to the sultan is based more on their poor job prospects and the ostentatious lifestyles displayed by the sultan and many of his ministers who have grown rich while in public service.  They do not wish to replace the sultan or the system, they just want promises to be fulfilled and justice served upon those they regard as corrupt.

Sultan Qabus has made a number of concessions, dismissing twelve ministers, promising to create 50,000 jobs and a range of economic benefits, and initiating steps to broaden the remit of the elected yet largely ineffectual consultative body.  None of these changes has diminished his own authority and none of the dismissals involved his own immediate family.  Nevertheless, several key figures found themselves without jobs, including the minister of national economy, the minister of the royal office (roughly equivalent to the White House chief of staff), the head of the Royal Court, and the head of the important Royal Oman Police.

Despite this, the youthful protesters have refused to give up and they continue to demand more changes, including the prosecution for corruption of leading officials.  The government has been taking an increasingly hard line, detaining some protesters for criminal behavior but pointedly refraining from the type of repression prevailing in Bahrain.


A number of petitions calling for social justice and political reform have been circulated by so-called liberals and even Islamist reformists for the attention of King ˓Abdullah, first when he was heir apparent during King Fahd’s long illness and then as king.  Much hope was placed on the king to institute long-overdue political reforms.  And ˓Abdullah responded by such promising steps as establishing a national dialogue, welcoming back Shi˓ah religious leaders from exile, and removing girls’ education from the grasp of the conservative religious establishment.  But reform seems to have stalled in the several years.  A ballyhooed national “day of rage,” inspired by demonstrations elsewhere in the Arab world, was a bust – only partly because of a heavy security presence.

There has been persistent low-level dissidence, however, among the country’s restive and repressed Shi˓ah community.  From practical point of view – that is to say, regime survival – Saudi Arabia’s Shi˓ah do not pose a formidable threat.  Their numbers are limited, even though they constitute a sizeable minority of perhaps a million or more.  With a few exceptions, they are concentrated in one region of the country.  Admittedly, that region is the important Eastern Province where Saudi Arabia’s oil is located, but they are probably a minority even in that region and their dominance in their two traditional centers of al-Hasa and al-Qatif oases has been diluted by the inmigration of Sunnis.

So in large part the “Arab spring” has passed Saudi Arabia by and the country is girding for a return to another blazing hot summer.  Grievances of one sort or another undoubtedly are nursed by much, indeed a large majority, of the citizenry.  But it should be remembered that the kingdom has weathered a violent storm by its own Islamist extremists and most Saudis seem to have little stomach for activist stances that could rock an essentially calm boat.


The other three members of the GCC – Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE – have been almost untouched by the contagion of protest.  It is not coincidental that these are the “rich” three members, with small populations and high oil (and in Qatar, gas) production.  The UAE, however, seems to be taking no chances, and has detained three bloggers in a continuation of a policy of quietly muzzling potential dissent.

The immediate crisis seems to have passed in the affected GCC states while Yemen remains in turmoil.  Most GCC citizens seem to wish their governments would be more responsive and less oriented to the benefit of the elites.  They do not, however, want drastic changes, let alone regime change.  The exception is Bahrain where a compliant attitude is increasingly under threat by growing numbers who see no change in the dismissive attitude of the ruling family and its return to reliance on repression instead of resolution of political disputes.  It is doubtful that any of the rulers and their families have grasped the fact that change can not be avoided and it is best to introduce substantive reforms now rather than be forced into them later.

Yemen provides an all-too-uncomfortable close reminder of the chaos that could emerge in the GCC’s future.  At the time of writing, ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih still clings to power in Sanaa despite all odds.  But the country remains in the grip of massive dissatisfaction, incipient rebellion, violent threats from al-Qa˓idah, desertions among the president’s allies, and severe economic liabilities.  There is no easy answer to most of these problems and limited viable actions that a more responsive and popular government can take to solve them.  What is certain is that whether Salih leaves or hangs on, the country’s political and economic problems will persist.


Japan's Catastrophe, Bahrain's Threatening Disaster

[Original publication on this website, 14 March 2011. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

The tragedy in Japan has all but driven news of continued unrest in the Arab world into the background.  But unrest continues to simmer and take root, especially in Bahrain.  An odd parallel between the two countries can be discerned in the last few days.  Bahrain’s impending catastrophe is entirely man-made but it threatens even longer-term implications.  The recent disruptions in the island kingdom are like an earthquake that has rattled the country to its core.  The tsunami has not hit the islands yet but the specter of emerging sectarian violence may make it imminent.

The reluctance of the ruling Al Khalifah family to carry out real reforms and answer the grievances of much of the Bahraini population has weakened the social contract much like the nuclear reactors in Japan have imperilled.  The announcement that Saudi Arabian troops were crossing the causeway into Bahrain and UAE policemen were on their way may set off Bahrain’s meltdown.  There are disturbing parallels with the past, particularly the events of the 1950s when the regime, with British concurrence (first reluctantly and then wholeheartedly), answered the opposition movement with repression and jailed or exiled its leaders.  One essential difference between then and now is that growing numbers of protesters are calling for the removal of the regime, not just for long-overdue reforms.  Adherence to the old tactic of repression looks increasingly unlikely to carry the day in 2011 as it did in 1938, 1956, and 1965.

Altering the Scene in Oman

[Original publication on this website, 14 March 2011. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

The dissident events in Oman over the past few weeks clearly have rattled both the country and its ruler.  In response, Sultan Qabus has thoroughly revamped his cabinet, promised financial benefits for most of the population, and announced that the Majlis al-Dawlah will assume greater legislative powers.  There are two intertwined questions here.

First, are these steps going to be enough to quiet the situation and answer popular demands?  Undoubtedly, the removal of some of the old guard will help defuse the situation but the resolution of demands for greater economic opportunity and the promise of more formal political participation will take time to play out and are unlikely to be completely satisfactory.

Second, do these steps represent real reforms forced on the authoritarian sultan or are they essentially window-dressing, in fact, an opportunity for him to make changes that he had been contemplating already?  Many of the cabinet changes have been in the service ministries and appear to be doing little more than shuffling the cards in the deck in order to send some long-serving ministers out to pasture and bring in new faces.  The sultan has taken similar action on several occasions in the last decade or two, so this by itself is nothing new.  Indeed, perhaps the unrest has provided him with a convenient excuse to do what he intended to do anyway.  Nevertheless, there are at least five changes that bear keeping in mind.

➀ The head of the Royal Court was replaced.  This may well be little more than a sign that the sultan was dissatisfied with the performance of Sayyid ˓Ali b. Hamud, who replaced the long-serving and highly regarded Sayyid Sayf b. Hamad on the latter’s death in 2001, but it equally may signify that the Royal Court had not handled relations with the tribes, individual petitioners, and other constituencies as it should have.

➁ More importantly, the sultan also replaced ˓Ali Majid al-Ma˓mari as minister for the Royal Office (al-maktab al-sultani, previously known as the Palace Office).  This agency constitutes the inner core of policy-making in Oman, similar in some ways to the White House staff, and many foreign observers have opined that ˓Ali Majid was the second most important person in the country.  Rumors about his ill health have persisted for years.  His replacement, Sultan b. Muhammad al-Nu˓mani, had been in charge of the Diwan, i.e. the Royal Household, or the equivalent of a lord chamberlain.

➂ The Ministry of National Economy was abolished and its minister dismissed.  Ahmad ˓Abd al-Nabi Makki was one of the longest serving ministers in the Qabus era, having established a reputation as a competent civil servant.  His dismissal may signify an answer to protesters’ demands, since the ministry is held to be directly responsible for the widespread unemployment and low income of many Omanis.  But equally, it may mean the sultan’s displeasure with Ahmad personally or simply that it was time for him to be retired, much as the sultan did for his ministers of information, oil, and others in the last decade.

➃ Maqbul ˓Ali Sultan, minister of commerce and industry since 1991 and head of one of the most important merchant families of Oman, was briefly transferred to the ministry of transport (as his predecessor had been) and then dropped.  This change can be seen equally as a response to popular demands or as superannuation.  Notably, Hamad b. Muhammad al-Rashdi, minister of information, and his former boss and present sultan’s adviser for cultural affairs, ˓Abd al-˓Aziz b. Muhammad al-Rawwas, retained their positions despite demands for their removal.

➄ News organs duly reported the promise to give a greater role to the Majlis al-Dawlah in decision-making but they tended to miss an equally important royal decree issued on the same day.  Malik Sulayman al-Ma˓mari, a career public servant and policeman who had excelled in other positions under the sultan, was replaced as inspector-general of the Royal Oman Police and Customs.  In most other Arab countries, this would not be a noteworthy item but the ROP embrace many of the functions that formidable ministries of the interior do in other states and its inspector-general reports directly to the sultan.  Ma˓mari’s dismissal may have been a quiet acknowledgment that the force used against the initial Suhar protesters, resulting in one or two deaths, was excessive.

A number of ministers were retained in the cabinet shuffle, either because they were ruling family members (such as Sayyid Fahd b. Mahmud, deputy prime minister for the council of ministers, and Sayyid Haytham b. Tariq, heritage and culture) or because they are simply competent in their jobs (Yusuf b. ˓Alawi, foreign affairs, Dr. Muhammad b. Hamad al-Rumhi, oil and gas, Dr. Rawiyah bint Sa˓ud Al Bu Sa˓idi, higher education).  The new-look cabinet included a number of new faces but, as usual, it remained finely balanced according to regions and prominent tribes.  Interestingly, the old cabinet’s two prominent Shi˓ah members were both dismissed and one new Shi˓i addition to the cabinet lasted only a few days.  Furthermore, the remote region of Musandam, poking up into the vital Strait of Hormuz, received its first ministerial appointment ever.

Can Washington Ever Learn?

[Original publication on this website, 17 February 2011. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]
It is now obvious that the fall of out-of-touch rulers in Tunisia and Egypt has gained the attention of policy-makers in Washington but has failed to open their eyes to the necessity of constructive action.  A few days ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Iran’s actions against its protesters but effectively endorsed Bahrain’s rejectionist policy towards its protesters.  The attitude in Washington seemed to be “don’t upset the applecart”:  that is, continue to attack perceived enemies such as the Tehran regime but back allied regimes such as Bahrain, a pro-Western state that hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet amongst other things.
The only possible excuse for unqualified American public support for the Al Khalifah in Bahrain would be Washington’s exertion of behind-the-scenes admonitions to deal responsibly with the real grievances of a majority of Bahrain’s citizens.  Now, however, the Bahraini authorities’ brutal clampdown on protesters camped in Pearl Square, resulting in upwards of five deaths and multiple injuries, has given the lie to any idea that Washington has been exercising a responsible role in al-Manamah.

Serious damage has been done, not only to the Bahraini regime’s standing in the world, but to American relations with the people of Bahrain.  Heretofore, Bahraini opposition has not attacked the American presence in a country traditionally open and hospitable to outsiders.  Washington’s inaction in the face of Al Khalifah actions in recent days will undoubtedly jeopardize that friendly relationship.

There can be only one effective policy at this point:  Washington must press King Hamad to dismiss his long-time prime minister and uncle, Shaykh Khalifah b. Salman.  Resentment of the prime minister, who has used his position to amass enormous wealth and who has controlled the despised and often non-Bahraini Ministry of Interior security forces, is a key focus of Bahrain’s protesters.  His removal, into gentle retirement if nothing else, would go a long way to engage legitimate opposition.

To those who answer that such a step would be tantamount to capitulation, two points can be made.  First, similar situations have occurred previously in modern Bahraini history.  The opposition movement of the 1950s demanded the ouster of Charles Belgrave, the long-serving right-hand administrator for the ruler.  Britain quietly pressed Shaykh Salman to dismiss Belgrave and he did so reluctantly, albeit stubbornly waiting a suitable interval to make it look as though his hand had not been forced.  Similarly, the opposition in the 1990s demanded the removal of Bahraini security chief Ian Henderson and his Bahraini lieutenant ˓Adil al-Fulayfil.  Shaykh Hamad, shortly after his accession in 1989, took steps to retire both from their positions.

Second, King Hamad managed to diffuse opposition anger after taking power by making necessary concessions and promoting conciliation.  That stopped suddenly three years later and since then there has been only an uneasy lull in the underlying tension between government and opposition.  Shaykh Khalifah has been Bahrain’s only prime minister since independence in 1971 and the effective power in the land for long before that.  It is past time for him to go.  The political advantages in appointing a new prime minister are enormous for King Hamad and the costs bearable.  For Washington, sustained and determined pressure on the king to take this step would pay major dividends.  Standing by and doing nothing invites an all-too-possible situation a few years hence in which Bahrainis emulate Egyptians in demanding the removal of the regime, not just the removal of one individual.

A Forward American Foreign Policy and Yemen

[Original publication on this website, 2 November 2010. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]
Events in Yemen over the past year have rocketed the country into the center of Washington’s attention.  This is neither surprising nor unwelcome, particularly after so many years of neglect or inattention.  But what can be done about al-Qa`idah in the Arabian Peninsula (soi-disant AQAP)?  What should be done about Yemen and its hosting of AQAP?

For some months rumors have been circulating that the United States government is thinking of providing considerably more security and financial assistance to the Republic of Yemen government, and of playing a greater role in Yemeni security affairs.  Drones have been used already on more than one occasion to attack terrorist targets, and several dozen villagers and a deputy governor were inadvertently killed during one strike.  Such a step requires long and hard thinking about desired results and likely consequences.

It may prove useful to compare a future experience in Yemen with the American role in the Gulf over the past two decades.  At first glance, this may seem like comparing apples and oranges, but with more contemplation it can be seen that a very useful parallel emerges.

From Britain’s official withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971 until the reflagging of the Kuwaiti tankers in 1987, the US kept a hands-off attitude towards the Gulf.  The “twin-pillars” policy in the 1970s, forged in the context of the Vietnam War, left Gulf security to the American allies of Saudi Arabia and the Shah’s Iran.  This obviously changed with the Iranian Revolution and then the Iran-Iraq War (known at the time in the West as the Gulf War) but direct American action, beyond providing arms and advisory missions to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, was to balance Iran’s apparent superiority in the later stages of the war by providing limited support to Saddam Husayn’s Iraq.  The tanker war in 1987 changed everything.

The year 1987 marked the beginning of the US transformation from an external actor with a role, as well as national interests, in Gulf security to a Gulf power.  That is, as many colleagues in the Gulf have remarked, the United States has a military, security, and political presence in the Gulf that is at least equal to any of the eight littoral states.  (The discussion here focuses solely on the US and the Gulf littoral states.)  None of the littoral states can take any action without carefully considering the impact on its interaction with the US.

That does not mean, of course, that the US controls all events in the Gulf.  Rather, it must measure the relative risks of action and inaction against the strength and perceived reaction of each of the littoral states.  That translates into eight policies in the Gulf.  While the US has excellent relations with the governments of all six GCC states, it does not have a strong relationship with the GCC as a corporate unit.  The nature of its relationship with each of the GCC members is different – for example, no American units are stationed in Saudi Arabia for political reasons while Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Qatar hosts the forward headquarters of the US Central Command.  It should also be kept in mind that public opinion in the GCC states is not universally in favor of the strengthening of ties with the US.

Beyond the GCC, American policy in the Gulf is more complicated.  The invasion of Iraq, the subsequent occupation, and the remaining presence of over 100,000 American troops has not produced a security environment that complies with US interests – and the perception of Iraq as a “problem” in US foreign policy is likely to persist far into the future.  Next door, Iran remains implacably opposed to the US presence and US policy.  This is reciprocated by American saber-rattling about possible drastic measures that might be taken if the Islamic Republic fails to accept American and international demands regarding Iran’s nuclearization.

What does this have to do with Yemen?  Any decision by Washington policy-makers to assume a greater or more direct presence in Yemen is far more complex than the existing policy debate over the advisability of adopting more intense involvement in Yemen.  On the one hand, it is argued that strengthening the ROY government, and even taking on a direct role, is necessary in order to root out AQAP, which constitutes a real and dangerous threat to the US.  On the other, it is argued that strengthening ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih’s regime will enable him to repress his people more effectively and will deepen Yemeni resentment of the US, thus threatening to make a forward US policy counter-productive.

It is misleading and potentially dangerous to regard any decision on this matter as a simple one of bilateral relations between the US and the ROY.  Instead, the outcome of any decision is similar to what has happened in the Gulf.  The United States would not be dealing with one actor in Yemen but with a multiple set of actors, in much the same way as it does in the Gulf.  The ROY government is recognized internationally as the representative of the Yemeni nation but that does not mean that it is a unitary actor with full or demonstrable legitimacy and capability within Yemen.

An insertion of a US presence in Yemen would produce different and often opposing reactions by pertinent Yemeni actors.  What would American policy be regarding the Huthi affair in the north?  The Huthis are antagonistic to the US already but the ROY government has not been able to put an end to the conflict militarily in six years of on-and-off fighting or politically or economically resolve it by addressing Huthi and northern Yemeni grievances.  Would a direct American role in Yemen result in the creation of wider Huthi alliances against the American presence?  Or, even more disturbing, would the US be dragged into supporting the ROY government against the Huthis, much like Saudi Arabia was drawn into the conflict last year?

What would American policy be regarding the Southern Movement?  Southern Yemenis have legitimate grievances against a Sanaa regime that in large part acts like an occupying power.  It is difficult to see how greater cooperation between Washington and Sanaa would not result in a strengthening of American support, either tacit or explicit, for the government against southern demands for autonomy if not independence.  Southerners have no reason to oppose the United States at present, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that they entertain hopes of American sympathy; but antagonism would grow quickly in such a scenario.

The tribes of Yemen are notoriously suspicious of central government, often with good reason.  Many tribes lie outside the orbit of effective government control and many of those that fall under the government’s sway reserve both the right and the capability of opposing specific government actions.  A direct American role in striking at AQAP will necessarily also involve strikes against the tribes, such as the ‘Abidah, that provide sanctuary for AQAP.  Rather than strengthening the hold of center on periphery, it is like to have the opposite effect.

Furthermore, the ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih regime depends on tribal support to function.  Most crucially, this means his own tribe and a closely allied one.  Neither of these will desert the president.  But the regime also depends on the grudging support of the Hashid confederation and, to a lesser extent, the Bakil.  An attack on tribal rights and autonomy opens a huge can of worms throughout most of the country, one that Washington would be well-advised to stay completely clear of.  Key Hashid figures, including the sons of the late Shaykh ‘Abdullah Husayn al-Ahmar, are poised on edge of opposition already.

The last point raises the question of leadership.  Against all odds, ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih has created and maintained a working regime for more than 30 years.  But his succession is far from being settled.  He apparently wishes his son Ahmad to take over but some observers believe that his half-brother ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (often thought to be directly responsible inciting the war with the Huthis) expects to succeed himself.  In addition, undoubtedly there will be other contenders within ‘Ali ‘Abdullah’s broader family, the two core tribes of the regime, other key figures in the military, and so on.  Does Washington really wish to become embroiled in presidential palace politics?

Another “actor” in the equation is Yemen’s citizenry in general.  Yemenis accept the present government, largely because they have no choice:  ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih may have won several president elections but, make no mistake, he is an authoritarian ruler and the elections were little more than window-dressing.  The pie that is Yemen’s economy is sliced to benefit the regime elites the most while nearly half of all Yemenis live in poverty – and the pie is shrinking.  How would public opinion in Yemen, already not friendly to the US, fare if Washington more actively and more publicly supports ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih and his repression?

Thus any American decision on a more forward policy in Yemen must be calculated on the basis of how it will affect relations with many different actors and not just on (1) how it will achieve results vis-à-vis AQAP or (2) the impact on bilateral US-ROY relations.  Any decision is likely to improve relations with some actors and worsen relations with other actors; there is no way around this dilemma.

Yemen is a smaller battlefield than the Gulf and the stakes for the US probably are not as high as in the Gulf.  But the consequences of a badly chosen policy may have implications just as devastating as the experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Think carefully before acting.

Oman's Policy Options Towards Yemen

[Original publication on this website, 3 June 2010. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]
Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states share the same Arabian Peninsula but there is a wide chasm between the two areas.  Most people in the Gulf do not know Yemen very well and they may regard Yemenis with some suspicion, given the political problems of the country and the lawless reputation that Yemen seems to generate.  Similarly, most Yemenis are not familiar with the Gulf states and tend to be resentful of the prosperity that obtains in the Gulf.  Nevertheless, there are two partial exceptions to this state of affairs in the GCC, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Significant historical/cultural ties do exist between Oman’s southern province of Dhufar and the regions of eastern Yemen that border it.  In part these can be traced to the Mahrah nation.  Al-Mahrah forms the easternmost province of Yemen and some Mahris traditionally resided in Dhufar.  However, the connections and particularly their importance should not be overstated.  The Mahrah of Dhufar are Eastern Mahrah and have been divorced from the Southern Mahrah of Yemen for innumerable generations.   Furthermore, these Mahri tribes traditionally were camel-rearing nomads in the Najd behind the Dhufari mountains.  During the Dhufar War of the 1960s and 1970s, some Mahri tribal elements moved into western Dhufar from Yemen, presumably because life was easier in Oman and they could enjoy greater benefits from the Omani government.  Still, the Mahrah form only one small part of the social mosaic of Dhufar and they have very little influence in Omani policy-making.

The ties between Dhufar and the Hadramawt are at least as important and probably more so.  There were significant connections between the two areas in pre-Islamic and later Islamic periods.  Beginning several centuries ago, a few Hashimi families (i.e. descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) migrated into Dhufar from the Hadramawt where they performed functions as religious leaders and tribal mediators.  There are about a dozen of these families still in Dhufar and some branches have traveled farther north to the traditional port of Sur at Oman’s eastern extremity.

It should be stressed that these Yemeni-Omani ties are strictly limited in Oman to Dhufar.  Most Omanis, i.e. the northern population excluding Dhufar, do not exhibit any special connection and, indeed, in the past they may have regarded Dhufaris as more Yemeni than Omani.  Nevertheless, it is also important to note that the two most pre-eminent foreign-policy makers in Oman do feel this connection.  Sultan Qabus b. Sa`id was born in Dhufar’s capital of Salalah and spent most of his life before 1970 in Dhufar.  Indeed, he had never visited northern Oman until after becoming Sultan in that year.  Furthermore, his mother came from the shaykhly clan of the Bayt al-Ma˓shani tribe of Dhufar.  In addition, his first few years as Sultan were preoccupied with supervising the government’s prosecution of the Dhufar War.  The Sultan’s point man on foreign policy is his Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf b. ˓Alawi b. ˓Abdullah, who comes from one of the Hashimi families mentioned above and had at least some contact with Yemen during his years as roving spokesman of the old Dhufar Liberation Front.

In the contemporary period, Oman’s relations with the former South Yemen state were both complex and antagonistic.  Only months after the Marxist state of South Yemen (the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or PDRY) received its formal independence from Britain, the leadership of the Dhufar Liberation Front was, not coincidentally, captured by Marxist elements, who renamed it the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO, also known by several variants).  The PDRY offered sanctuary to the Front throughout the Dhufar War, provided diplomatic support, and facilitated access by the Front’s international backers – the Soviet Union, China, East Germany, and Cuba.  When Oman under Sultan Qabus sought initial membership in the Arab League and the United Nations, South Yemen tried to block it.  The PDRY army launched an unprovoked attack on the Omani border fort at Habrut in 1972 and in the last stages of the war, when the Front was obviously losing, inserted both militia and regular troops in Dhufar in support of PFLO fighters.  The two countries nearly came to war on several occasions until a ceasefire between them was arranged in March 1976.

Relations gradually improved in the following years, to the point that diplomatic relations were established in 1982, when the PDRY agreed to cease support for the mostly moribund PFLO, and border demarcation followed.  As time went on, Oman realized that they could work with the leftist leadership in Aden.  This was particularly true after the events in Aden in January 1986, when President ˓Ali Nasir Muhammad sought to preempt a challenge to his leadership by assassinating his more radical rivals.  It did not work and ˓Ali Nasir Muhammad had to flee to North Yemen.  He was succeeded by a more moderate triumvirate, consisting of ˓Ali Salim al-Bayd as Secretary-General of the party, Haydar al-˓Attas as president, and Yasin Nu˓man as prime minister.  Al Bayd was one of the last of the old National Liberation Front leaders to survive in Aden, probably because he had been among the weakest and thus too small a threat for the others to be concerned with.  The other two were pure technocrats and the three, realizing the state’s vulnerability and extreme poverty, took pains to improve relations with the Gulf states, including Oman.  Two of the three were also Hadramis, although that may have little significance in relations with Oman.

The Omani leadership undoubtedly felt a certain disquiet with Yemeni unity in 1990.  Although the southern leadership was assured equal standing with the north in the initial arrangements, it soon became clear that they had been marginalized and power was concentrated in the hands of President ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih and his supporters.  One can imagine the Omanis asking themselves who was ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih, what kind of regime did he command, and how did he view Yemen-Oman border issues.  It was almost as if an entirely different country had suddenly established itself on Oman’s borders.

Omani concerns seemed justified with the outbreak of the Yemeni civil war in 1994.  Although Muscat, like the other five GCC states, officially maintained neutrality and supported Yemeni unity, behind the scenes they provided quiet logistical and other support to the erstwhile breakaway Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY).  Undoubtedly, they felt that they knew the southern leadership better and could work better with the southerners.  And a weak south would be susceptible to Omani and GCC influence and perhaps even domination.  Another factor was the role played by Ahmad Farid al-˓Awlaqi.  A member of the old ruling family of the ˓Awaliq in the old British Protectorate of Aden, Ahmad had relocated to Saudi Arabia after Aden’s independence and tried to enlist Saudi aid in attacks on the PDRY.  The Saudis passed him on to the Omanis, who were not very interested in his proposals.  The Sultan, however, invited him to settle in Oman where he became a prosperous businessman.  He used his Omani and Saudi connections to raise support for the DRY and even accepted a position as its Governor of Shabwah Province (where much of Yemen’s oil is located).  The war was a complete mismatch and the north quickly and brutally reasserted its control over the south.  Oman’s role was reduced to offering refuge to the DRY’s putative president, ˓Ali Salim al-Bayd.

Oman was again faced with the same questions it had had in 1990 with regard to ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih and the Republic of Yemen (ROY) regime.  More so in fact because of aftershocks of the war and the divisions that remained and intensified.  The Sultanate’s concerns continued to grow into recent years as Sanaa seems increasingly unable to contain the political crises of the Huthi conflict in the north, the specter of al-Qa˓idah and jihadists operating in Yemen, and the emergence of the Southern Movement with its grievances against the Sanaa regime.  Disquiet and consternation over ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih’s policies and his seeming inability to control the country have grown in Oman, as in the GCC and in the West.

Oman’s concern with the Huthis has to be very muted, principally because it is far away and has no direct relevance.  Any sympathy, perhaps based on its anti-Salafi orientation and perceptions of Zaydi minority persecution similar to Oman and Ibadism, is outweighed because Oman has also experienced violent dissidence.  Oman has no wish for the spread of Salafi, Wahhabi, and certainly jihadi influences, but there is undoubtedly at least some feeling that ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih, his family, and supporters are suspect because of persistent rumors of their leaning toward Salafis or at least tolerating them.  But perhaps the present regime in Sanaa is the best, if not the only, bulwark against Salafi expansion in Yemen and it is a case of better the devil you know than one you don’t know.  Support for the Sanaa regime also presents a dilemma for the GCC states.  On the one hand, while the situation in Yemen is critical and requires considerable assistance, there is full realization that the regime is corrupt and no amount of financial or other aid is going change the situation without meaningful political and economic reform.  On the other hand, such reform would undoubtedly introduce more democratic elements into the Yemeni political process, a development that the monarchical regimes of the Gulf probably do not welcome.

There remains the question of potential Omani support for the Southern Movement in Yemen.  A number of factors suggesting the possibility of support can be discerned, as well as another set of factors militating against it.  First of all, it is probably true that all the GCC (with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia) believes that a divided Yemen poses less of a threat than a united Yemen.  Furthermore, Oman probably still believes that it can deal with southerners better than it can with northerners, as evidenced in the historical/cultural connections between eastern Yemen and Dhufar and Oman’s foreign-policy leadership (although it is questionable whether Ahmad Farid exercises the same influence he did in 1994).  In addition, encouragement of the Sufi Islam found in the Hadramawt helps strengthen the barrier against the spread of Salafism (which is spreading in southern Yemen).  An autonomous if not independent Southern Yemen may be more amenable to coordination on cross-border issues.  Not only does the Sultanate fear the infiltration of al-Qa˓idah and Islamist extremism but it also has real concerns with piracy, illegal immigration, and narcotics, as well as worries that the passage of Somali refugees from Yemen into Oman (a small Somali community has existed in Dhufar since the 1930s and 1940s) may include Islamist ideologues.  Oman has tried to secure its remote and porous borders and to improve its intelligence but there are limits without significant action on the other side of the border.  Would a Southern Yemen be more attentive to these issues than remote and indifferent Sanaa?

While these factors have some merit, there are probably even more important factors that militate against supporting southern secessionists.  Oman’s public position, in harmony with the GCC, is a call for a united, stable, and prosperous Yemen.  Behind this lies the unavoidable political necessity to support any step towards Arab unity and disavow any secessionist tendencies.  In this respect, Sultan Qabus has told President ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih that Oman supports the ROY and in this spirit has deprived ˓Ali Salim al-Bayd of his Omani passport (he had already relocated to Austria) for engaging in political activities, even though the extent of his support in today’s southern Yemen is questionable.

Therein lies the key question regarding the Southern Movement.  Its division into multiple rival factions makes figuring out just who should be supported a major task in and of itself.  Furthermore, the possibility of actively intervening and forging agreement on goals and leadership undoubtedly would require far more involvement than anyone in the GCC, and in particular Oman, would want to even consider.  Additionally, there remains the question of what role the mercurial Tariq al-Fadli might play in the movement (can Oman trust him?) or even al-Qa˓idah in the Arabian Peninsula, which has expressed some support for Southern Movement goals (although this may be purely opportunistic).

Oman and the GCC were burned in 1994 by their quiet support for the stillborn DRY and their unwillingness to go public with that support.  Would a second civil war in Yemen be any more successful for the south?  Probably not.  So the probable conclusion for the GCC would be to stay out of the fray.

Oman’s fallback position thus must be to seek to address Yemeni problems of poverty and lack of infrastructure by building roads and medical clinics in southern Yemen, as well as promoting reciprocal trade, investments, and cultural exchanges – but its capabilities to accomplish much in this manner is greatly limited.  Thus the depressing conclusions seemingly must be that Oman, like the GCC, like the West, can only hope that ˓Ali ˓Abdullah Salih and the ROY state can somehow muddle through.

Strategic Implications for the Saudi Arabian Navy

[Original publication on this website, 3 June 2010. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

The question of a strategic role for the Saudi navy is perhaps best approached within the context of over-arching Saudi security conceptions.  It seems clear that Saudi national leadership views its regional environment in terms of the “encirclement syndrome.”  That is, the kingdom perceives itself as surrounded by real or potential enemies – Iraq to the north, Israel to the northwest, Iran to the northeast, Yemen to the south, and the Horn of Africa across the Red Sea.  The response to these threats has not only been a policy of modulated militarization but also an attempt to reshape the country as an “island redoubt” – cut off and protected from the dangerous outside world.  This can be seen most obviously in the attempts to seal off the northern border with Iraq and in the controversial construction of the border wall with Yemen.  In the post-9/11 period, the fear of encirclement apparently has accelerated, as it has for the other GCC states (as shown by the Kuwaiti system of barriers against Iraq and the UAE’s literal fencing off of its border with Oman and the technological defenses employed at its airports).

The trouble with this approach is that while the Arabian Peninsula or, more specifically, Saudi Arabia is mostly insulated (literally) by seas of water on three sides and of sand on the fourth, it also means that it has long, porous shorelines opening onto strategic bodies of water and chokepoints.  Just as there are valid and understandable reasons for emphasis on the development of the RSAF (limited armed forces recruiting pool resulting from a small population base, the notion of an air force as “sexy,” “more bang for the buck,” the ability to exploit strategic depth, etc.), there are defensible reasons for creating a greater strategic role for the RSN.

The navy of course is best suited to asserting national authority on the seas, not just in coastal patrolling to protect territorial waters but also in establishing a naval presence on the high seas to assert Saudi Arabia’s broader maritime authority and national interests.  Amongst the panoply of Saudi security concerns necessarily are focus on the facilities and routes for the export of oil, the chokepoints at the Strait of Hormuz, Bab al-Mandab, and the Suez Canal, and potential naval threats from other littoral states.  These concerns of course lead logically to a greater and more extended role for the RSN, provided that political leadership in Riyadh is prepared to support this role financially, logistically, and politically in terms of relative priorities.

As is the case in most Arab – and indeed Third World, states – the navy in Saudi Arabia is the poor cousin of the services.  It is typically the smallest service, the least desirable to serve in, receives the lowest funding priorities, and thus has the most restricted defined mission.  Most countries cannot afford (or need) blue water navies or have the capabilities necessary for effective integration and operational support of other services.  Thus navies tend to be conceived of and carry out the functions of little more than coastal patrolling.

In light of Saudi Arabia’s wide-ranging security concerns, however, enhancement of the navy’s role seems sensible.  First, the navy is able to carry out valid security missions that the other services cannot because of the nature of naval forces.  Second, the navy is able to establish and maintain a presence outside Saudi territory that the other services cannot.  While this may be a useful policy tool for the United States, as an example, it assumes a far greater importance for the kingdom given the practical and political uproar that would accompany a Saudi insertion of force outside its territory.  A naval presence off the coast of Somalia, for example, even if purely symbolic, would be well within Saudi policy constraints.  Third, expansion of naval capabilities would provide evidence both of serious intent to defend Saudi national security interests and serious effort to create a comprehensive and ideally integrated armed forces structure to meet all contingencies.

The utility of an expanded naval role is therefore easily recognizable.  The missing element is the attitude in Riyadh to such an extension of the naval mission.  The necessary foundations to a new policy are dependent on, first of all, the will of the Saudi political leadership.  The expression of will applies to the perceptions of the leadership that such an expansion is desirable and deserving of priority.  But it also depends on the leadership’s acceptances that the funding for such an initiative is financially justified and that necessary funds can be made available at the expense of other requirements.  At another level, enhancement of the navy’s role depends heavily on the interplay and rivalry between the services and within elements of the Saudi Ministry of Defense.  Whether true or not, there are bound to be suspicions that any expansion of the navy’s role will impact negatively on the position, status, and primacy of the other services and their missions – and thus generate opposition.  Opposition or obstacles may also arise from personality clashes between the principals of the various services.  While the organization chart of Saudi Arabia’s armed forces may appear solid and uncontestable on paper, in reality, relationships and efficacy depends most heavily on the role and relationships between individuals.

Saudi-Iranian Involvement in Yemen's Huthi War

{First published on the website of Islam Online ( on 23 November 2009}
The Yemen government has been engaged in episodic war with its Huthis opponents in the far north of the country for more than five years now.  Months after the latest army offensive – codenamed “Operation Scorched Earth” – began in August 2009, there still doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.  Indeed, the scattered reports on the fighting seem to point to a stalemate.
Most of the time, Yemen is far off most observers’ radar.  But with the Huthis’ November cross-border attack on Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis’ strong response – the conflict has drawn widespread international attention and renewed allegations of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran being fought in Yemen’s northern-most Sa‘dah province.

There are more questions raised by recent developments than there seem to be answers. Indeed, the entire Huthi war is wrapped up in confusing and murky shadows. Who are the Huthis, what do they want, and why did the Yemen government choose to initiate hostilities with them in 2004? Why did the Huthis attack the Saudis? Why did Saudi Arabia respond so strongly? Is there any substance to the frequent claims that the fighting in Yemen is really a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Restoring the Imamate?

The government of Yemen has repeatedly claimed that the Huthis seek to restore the Zaydi imamate, overthrown in 1962. This has been denied by the Huthis. Nevertheless, it is clear that the group has sought to organize itself and to recruit young men into its ranks since its beginnings in the early 1990s as “Believing Youth” (al-shabab al-mu’min).

Under the leadership of Husayn b. Badr al-Din al-Huthi, the group became more aggressive in promoting Zaydism and in particular defending it against a perceived salafi onslaught, often more narrowly characterized as Wahhabi.

There is no clear answer as to why the Republic of Yemen (ROY) government attacked the Huthis in 2004. One suggestion is that ROY President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, himself a Zaydi, previously had made an alliance with the Huthis against the salafis who threatened the regime – but by 2004, the Huthis had grown in strength to pose a threat of their own. Alternatively, the central government’s control over the western part of Sa‘dah province, never very strong at any time, was challenged by the movement’s growing dominance and the regime may have felt compelled to act to preserve its wobbly authority. 

A third theory is that General ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a close relative of the president (sometimes described as ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih’s half-brother) and the military commander of northern Yemen, deliberately provoked the war, either because he had become salafi himself or this was part of his strategic plan to challenge ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih and his son Ahmad for eventual leadership.

Whatever the cause, the fighting continued at intervals until the summer of 2008 when President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih declared a unilateral ceasefire. There the matter stood, with both sides preparing their forces for another campaign, until August 2009. The recent fighting has been the heaviest of the war, with the government unable to dislodge the Huthis and the Huthis unable to secure their territory from the ROY armed forces’ combined land and air assault. 

Exchanged Accusations

The Huthis countered Sanaa’s allegations of Iranian support for the dissidents by accusing Saudi Arabia of supporting the ROY forces and by permitting Yemen to use Saudi territory to launch attacks on Huthi positions. Shortly after voicing this claims, the Huthis attacked a Saudi border post on 3 November, killing a security officer and wounding others.

As a result, the immediate situation worsened on a number of counts. First, the Saudis responded robustly, assailing Huthi forces apparently inside Saudi territory and then extending the counter-attack to ROY territory with repeated aerial strikes and artillery barrages. Suddenly, the war between the Huthis and the ROY regime had expanded into a second front and the Saudis seemed intent on creating a buffer zone along the Yemeni side of the border. 

Riyadh also instituted a naval blockade along Yemen’s Red Sea coast to prevent arms and supplies reaching the rebels. The Huthis announced a second attack on a Saudi border post in revenge for continuing Saudi bombardment before the Saudis apparently were able to secure the border after two weeks of fighting.

Second, the Saudis announced that the Huthi attack had resulted in civilian casualties as well as military ones, not to mention a number of displaced Saudi citizens.  The moral high ground that the Huthis had claimed throughout the war – that they were only defending their territory and the people within it against an aggressive regime that relied on the support of salafis and tribal opportunists – seemed in danger of diminishing, if not disappearing.

Third, the regional implications suddenly assumed an importance equal to the actual fighting. The ROY government had charged Iran with assisting the Huthis on numerous occasions but never offered credible evidence and Iran denied each charge. Suddenly the specter of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war – a dimension that heretofore had seemed to have little credibility – began to assume some shape. 

Events and rumors followed in quick succession. In late October, the ROY government announced the capture of an Iranian ship loaded with arms destined for the Huthis.  The subsequent embroilment of Saudi forces in the war provoked accusations and counter-accusations between the kingdom and Iran. 

Riyadh’s charge that Iran was sending money and arms to help the Huthis was followed by the Iranian chief of staff’s contention that Saudi action amounted to “state terrorism.” Tehran backed up its words by dispatching warships to the Gulf of Aden, ostensibly to counter Somali pirates but allegedly to protect supply lines to the rebels.

Even the United States seems to have become involved, with expressions of concern and support for Sanaa and unverified reports of the provision of helpful intelligence.  American concern is driven principally by fear of Yemen becoming a failed state and falling under the influence of al-Qa‘idah or like-minded groups.

Thus, Washington, like Riyadh, favors stability and a continuation of the regime’s status quo. Therefore it apparently is prepared to back ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih to whatever extent is necessary. Huthi expression of anti-American sentiments and its attacks on Yemeni Jews bolstered Washington’s pro-ROY stance.

A Saudi-Iranian Proxy War?

Was widening the scope of the conflict a deliberate Huthi intention? What benefit would the movement expect to gain from pursuing such an aggressive policy? At first glance, provoking the Saudis would seem to weaken the Huthi position by the creation of a second front with a far more powerful opponent.  

Perhaps the Huthis felt that Saudi Arabia’s response would be minimal. Equally plausible, the Huthis may have truly believed that the Saudis were so fully backing the ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih regime that they had no choice.

Despite recent developments, the assertion that a Saudi-Iranian proxy war has been overlaid on the conflict remains farfetched. Ever since the establishment of a Yemeni republic a half century ago, Riyadh’s persistent policy has been to support both the regime in Sanaa and its opponents. The goal is to keep Yemen intact but weak, and in no condition to threaten the kingdom. 

While the Saudis may view the Huthis with distaste and would like to see them under Sanaa’s thumb, their principal concern with Yemen is its position as a refuge and outpost for al-Qa‘idah, which unlike the Huthis does pose a serious threat to Saudi Arabia.  No doubt Riyadh’s preference would be for ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih to devote his energies to counter Islamist extremism instead of ineffectively pursuing what in some ways can be described as a tribal war.

On the other side, does Iran really wish to involve itself in a conflict in far-away and marginal Yemen. There may exist some sympathy in the Islamic Republic for fellow Shi‘ah under fire but it should be remembered that the Zaydis, while genealogically Shi‘ah, are closer in doctrine and practice to Sunnis than they are to Ja‘fari Shi‘ah, who constitute the Shi‘ah community of Iran, Iraq, and most of Saudi Arabia. 

Consequently, historically, there have been few ties between Yemen’s and Iran’s Shi‘ah communities. Paradoxically, the Zaydis are a minority in Sunni-majority Yemen yet the core of the Yemeni regime – President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, his top associates, and the two tribes that provide his inner power base – is Zaydi.

Nevertheless, the president and the ruling apparatus are politically secularist and there is no Zaydi or sectarian agenda to the regime. In fact, the regime has long cultivated an alliance with Islamists, including some individuals accused of having ties to al-Qa‘idah.  For this reason, it would appear that Iran’s interest in Yemen is conflicted. 

On the one hand, Tehran rarely misses an opportunity to bait the Saudis. On the other, however, surely it cannot be in Iran’s interest to weaken the ROY government and thereby strengthen al-Qa‘idah, which is as antithetical to Iran as it is to Saudi Arabia.

Whatever the reason, the persistent strength of the Huthis, despite all the onslaught, is impressive.  Like most of the tribes in northern Yemen, the Huthis operate in an environment where everyone is habitually heavily armed.  Much of the replenishment of their arms and ammunition stocks seems to come from buying them off the many ROY soldiers who either cannot resist a few extra riyals or who feel no loyalty to a suspect authoritarian government, or both. 

At the same time, the government’s heavy-handed approach to the conflict – resulting in increasing multitude of deaths and the displacement of at least 175,000 people – has alienated much, perhaps most, of the population of the Sa‘dah province and gained the movement some sympathy from Yemenis across the country.

The outlook for the Sanaa regime’s ability to put down the Huthis while simultaneously embroiled in a struggle with Islamist extremists and facing growing opposition in the south of Yemen is not encouraging. It is certainly disquieting for Riyadh and the risk for Tehran of raising the stakes in northern Yemen by active involvement is high compared to the meager advantages that success would entail.

Comment on the impact of oil shocks on the Gulf, as part of the Middle East Institute's "1979 Oil Shock" Viewpoints (August 2009) (download here)

US Grievances with Saudi Arabia: Disentangling the Legitimate and the Spurious

[Original publication on this website, 30 July 2007. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

The news that the United States government wishes to sell arms worth $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states over the coming decade comes on the heels of the administration's leaked and overtly voiced complaints that Saudi Arabia has not doing enough to support the Maliki government in Iraq and other US goals in the Middle East. An attention-grabbing article in the New York Times on 26 July 2007 cited allegations of administration sources that Saudi Arabia was supporting Sunni Arab groups in Iraq against the government, as well as not failing to do enough to prevent individual Saudi fighters from entering Iraq.

These charges seemed provoked, at least in part, by King `Abdullah's reference to the US occupation of Iraq as "illegitimate"; and by Riyadh's role in brokering a short-lived peace between Fatah and Hamas. The New York Times story, in turn, followed one on 29 April 2007 that portrayed former Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Bandar b. Sultan in an unfavorable light. On 29 July, the US ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad contended in a television interview that "Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries are not doing all they can to help us in Iraq. At times, some of them are not only not helping, but they are doing things that is undermining the effort to make progress."

Following announcement of the arms sale, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert commented that Israel realizes that the US must support moderate Arab states and the sale would support Israeli interests in strengthening a common front against Iran - even though a right-wing Israeli politician voiced concerns that a change of régime in Saudi Arabia might put the weapons in hostile hands. This seemed to portend a more positive Israeli attitude towards Saudi-American relations. Admittedly, Olmert's attitude may have been tempered by the simultaneous announcement of a 25% increase in US military aid for Israel.

Not surprisingly, the usual coterie of anti-Saudi congressmen objected to the proposed sale. Their objections were based on the presence of 15 Saudis among the 19 hijackers on 11 September 2001, implying that the Saudi government played a role in the attack, and that Riyadh evinces a "tacit approval of terrorism" as well as demands that Saudi Arabia show "responsibility" for US foreign policy interests and should not reconcile Palestinian factions.

Certainly there are reasons for the United States to be disappointed with Saudi Arabia. Some of these are domestic and essentially of a moral nature - such as the treatment of women, the excessive behavior of many members of the royal family, and the situation of expatriate workers in the country. Others reflect differing priorities of national interests. By and large, the US has little reason to complain about Saudi oil policy. The rapid acceleration of oil prices - and US gasoline prices - in recent years had nothing to do with Saudi Arabia and its production levels; instead, the US was responsible in part because of rising consumption, natural catastrophes, and refinery problems.

The contention that Saudi Arabia supports terrorism is simply indefensible. This should be clearly evident after the kingdom found itself seriously threatened by the terrorist campaign of al-Qa`idah in the Arabian Peninsula against targets in 2003 and following years. If Saudi Arabia were not as conscientious in shutting down support for Islamist extremists as it should have been before 2003, it certainly has little reason to support them - or remain indifferent - now. Similarly, the idea that the kingdom is deliberately lax in preventing to Saudi extremists making their way to Iraq is surely irrational. Each Saudi who survives the trip is a potential future terrorist inside the kingdom and each Saudi who blows himself up in Iraq excites the imagination of an extremist hardcore in Saudi Arabia.

The assumption that Saudi Arabia should blindly follow the American lead on Iraq, beginning with the vagaries of the sanctions policy of the Saddam Husayn era, accelerating with the 2003 invasion, and continuing with the disintegration of Iraqi society into civil war, is - to put it mildly - naive.

Saudi Arabia has staked its present and future to an alliance with the United States for the past seven decades. That alliance - based on such factors as the dependable supply of oil to global destinations, an American security umbrella for the kingdom and allies, the American role in Saudi Arabia's development, trade, and education - is simply too crucial to jettison. Nevertheless, the appearance of occasional divergences in views between Riyadh and Washington are to be expected. Foremost among these are Arab politics and the Israel-Palestine dilemma.

To condemn Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism because it has dealt with Hamas on a diplomatic level says more about Washington myopia than it does about Saudi reliability. To expect the kingdom to blindly support an Iraqi political construction whose capability and legitimacy erodes day by day involves a failure to understand Saudi national interests and its understandable concern that the disintegration of Iraq under the present régime may have serious knock-on effects for the kingdom. And to expect the Saudis to bankroll the American-produced mess in Iraq while Washington dictates (or, rather, dithers) policy is disingenuous. Yes, surely Riyadh can do more and approach the situation in Iraq more constructively. But, equally, so can Washington.

Expensive arms deals may provide some small measure of expanded security. They may also play a limited role in enhancing GCC defenses against potential Iranian hostility, at least in terms of deterrence. They will undoubtedly help American manufacturers financially and add to the personal coffers of certain influential Saudis. Most importantly, however, they will help cement the sometimes wobbly but fundamentally unshakeable alliance between Washington and Riyadh. Criticism between allies not only is common but should be expected and embraced. It is, however, a two-way street.

2006 Bahraini Elections Presage Little Fundamental Change

[Original publication on this website, 12 December 2006. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

Bahrain’s elections for the Majlis al-Nawwab (Council of Representatives) concluded with a second round on 2 December 2006. In short order, these were followed by appointments to a new Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council), the upper house in the bicameral parliament, and the formation of a new cabinet.

The elections were notable for the participation for the first time of al-Wifaq (the National Islamic Accord Society) and Wa‘d (the National Democratic Action Society), and several other opposition parties that had also boycotted the first elections in 2002. Al-Wifaq, generally regarded as the most potent Islamist Shi‘ah party in Bahrain although it also has Sunni members, captured 17 of the council’s 40 seats. The society (political parties are technically banned in Bahrain) won in nearly every constituency in which it competed. This was not a surprise, although the overwhelming margins of victory were impressive. The society’s head, Shaykh ‘Ali Salman, won his seat with a commanding some 84% of the vote. Wa‘d, on the other hand, fared poorly. The grouping of mainly Sunni liberals, with many of its leaders drawn from leftist former exiles, failed to win a single seat, even in constituencies where tactical alliances were established with Wa‘d’s al-Wifaq ally. As expected, female candidates also fared poorly. The only woman member of the house, Latifah al-Qa‘ud, ran unopposed in her constituency (which included the uninhabited Hawar Islands). Her victory was widely regarded as a government concession. The closest actual race involving a female candidate saw Dr. Munira Fakhro losing to Sunni Islamist Dr. Salah ‘Ali, the head of the Muslim brotherhood bloc in the outgoing parliament. She appeared to be trailing slightly in a close race that would have been decided in the second round when a burst of more than 1000 votes recorded at “general voting centers” gave outright victory to Dr. Salah. As a result, Dr. Munira announced that she would challenge the results in court.

The establishment of the “general voting centers” was one of a number of opposition complaints about the election. Ten such centers were announced for al-Manamah so that voters would not have to travel to their home districts to vote. The opposition, however, claimed that the centers’ real purpose was to ensure pro-government electoral results, as in the above case. Tampering with the electoral process was alleged from the beginning but received dramatic attention when Dr. Salah al-Bandar, a British citizen of Sudanese origins who had been employed in the Central Informatics Organization (CIO), circulated a lengthy report that provided details on the government’s strategy to manipulate the elections and on the corruption of leading officials, including Shaykh Ahmad b. ‘Atiyatallah, the Minister of Cabinet Affairs, the head of the CIO, and the official in charge of the elections. Dr. Salah was quickly fired and deported while the media was warned against publicizing the matter and several web blogs were shut down after they discussed the matter. Although the government subsequently declared that the Ministry of Justice would oversee the elections, Shaykh Ahmad seemed to continue in that role. The government did not permit outside observers to observe the election.

The opposition long had complained about the gerrymandering of districts that assured a Sunni majority in the parliament. The 2006 elections saw Sunni winners outnumbered Shi‘i winners, 23 to 17, despite a Shi‘ah majority of some 60%-70% of Bahrain’s total citizenry. (It should be noted, however, that the divide between government and opposition in Bahrain does not fall strictly along sectarian lines. The long history of opposition to the government in Bahrain has included many Sunni elements and leaders as well as Shi‘ah and at least a few Shi‘ah have been allied with the Al Khalifah.) A second major issue involved naturalization, with the opposition charging that thousands of Arabs from neighboring countries (including non-resident Saudis who were permitted to vote at a polling center on the Bahrain-Saudi Arabia causeway) and Baluch had been naturalized in order to provide additional pro-government votes. One positive outcome of the elections would appear to be that the new council would be composed of a generally higher quality of members than the previous one.

The prospect of a newly ensconced and activist al-Wifaq bloc in the lower house raising embarrassing and anti-government matters will be tempered by continued government control of parliament, if not the Majlis al-Nawwab as well. Within days of the completion of the second round of elections, the King appointed a new Majlis al-Shura that closely resembled the previous one, i.e. a pro-government body that would counter-act any possibly controversial bill passed by the lower house. (In addition to the two houses having an equal membership, the speaker of the unelected upper house has a vote in case of any tie.) The council’s members include 20 Sunnis, 18 Shi‘ah, one Christian, and one Jew, as well as 10 women among them.

Assured that the elections had resulted in little practical change in the status quo, the cabinet resigned and a new cabinet was appointed on 11 December. It was little changed from the previous one and headed again by Shaykh Khalifah b. Salman, the king’s uncle and Prime Minister since 1971. Dominated by Sunnis and especially members of the ruling Al Khalifah, it appeared to contain two concessions to sectarian differences. A Shi‘i, Jawad Salim al-‘Urayyid, was appointed as one of three deputy prime ministers (the other two are from the Al Khalifah) and an erstwhile al-Wifaq member, Dr. Nazar b. Sadiq al-Baharinah, was named Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Most portfolios remained unchanged.

Contretemps Over the UAE and American Ports

[Original publication on this website, 21 February 2006. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

It is difficult to understand the underlying motivations of politicians opposed to the US government’s acceptance of DP World’s purchase of Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) and therefore taking over P&O’s existing contractual arrangements to run various American ports. When P&O was British-owned, there was no controversy to its management of these ports. The outcry has arisen solely because the new P&O owner is “Arab” and a government-owned enterprise of the government of Dubai, a constituent member of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Five objections to DP World’s assumption of these port management contracts have been aired. However, an objective examination of these complaints shows that none constitute sustainable reasons to object to this change in company ownership. The objections are that:

1. The UAE provided a base of operations for al-Qa‘idah members and agents. This implies that an al-Qa ‘idah base existed in the UAE similar to ones in Sudan and Afghanistan. A further insinuation is that the UAE government not only knew of al-Qa‘idah activity in its territory but colluded with the organization. Certainly al-Qa‘idah members used the country for transit. But so have millions of other travellers. The UAE, and Dubai in particular, have made access to the UAE progressively easier for many nationalities, including those of neighboring countries. American visitors, for example, receive a pro forma visa on arrival at Dubai airport. Freedom of movement is a touted American goal; why should the UAE be different? There is no evidence that al-Qa‘idah ever operated openly or on a permanent basis within the UAE. Permitting it to do so would run completely counter to the orientation and record of the UAE government. The UAE can be faulted for not recognizing the danger that Islamist extremists posed and for not tracking the movements of al-Qa‘idah operatives more carefully. But then the 9/11 hijackers not only travelled to and within the US, they lived in the country, studied in American schools and universities, and obtained flight training in American institutions – all without the US government being aware of their purpose. And the UAE government has reminded the US that it not only has provided its support and the use of its facilities for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq but captured a key figure implicated in the bombing of the USS cole hiding in the UAE in 2002 and handed him over to the US.

2. The UAE provided a financial base for the movement of al-Qa‘idah funds. Yes, al-Qa‘idah wired funds through Dubai, just as thousands of other individuals and groups have. If there is a sin here, it is a sin of omission, not commission. Dubai has prided itself on avoiding red tape and government bureaucracy. This has driven its emergence as a major entrepôt and commercial center. There are hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers in the UAE. Western middle-class expatriates think nothing of wiring funds to home accounts. But for low-paid workers from the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, the fees that both originating and receiving banks charge even on small amounts of money are prohibitive. Thus, they use the hawwalah system, whereby they hand over their money to an agent in the UAE. That agent writes or telephones his corresponding agent in the expatriate’s home country who then turns the money over to the expatriate’s designated recipient, all for a very small fee. Certainly, the simplicity and absence of record-keeping in this system can be and was abused. After 9/11, the UAE responded fully to American requests and put in place tighter controls over the financial sector and measures to prevent money-laundering. Is the UAE the only country to discover that its institutions had been used for illegal transfers of money by extremists? What about the American example of a few years ago when the IRA regularly collected funds in the US for the purchase of weaponry to be used in Northern Ireland?

3. Two of the 9/11 hijackers were from the UAE. Again, factually correct. But how can two people – or even several dozen – be considered representative of a population of over three million. American citizens have been imprisoned for participating in al-Qa‘idah. British citizens carried out the terrorist attacks on London transport in July 2005 and a British citizen attempted to blow up a US-bound aircraft with a shoebomb. Are they representative of their countries? Few UAE citizens engage in illegal activity of any kind, even fewer can be regarded as Islamist extremists, and the UAE government, rather than being sympathetic to al-Qa‘idah, is pointedly pro-Western. Any visitor to Dubai would know in an instant that extremism is not practiced or tolerated there. If anything, Dubai can only be described as open, multicultural, laissez-faire, congenial, and perhaps even hedonistic.

4. The UAE permitted its territory to be used for the transmission of nuclear technology and materials from Pakistan to Iran and other states. Once again, at best a sin of omission rather than commission. The Pakistani nuclear scientist who provided the technology and materials did so secretly without the approval – and apparently the knowledge – of his own government, let alone the knowledge of any other governments apart from the recipients. Why use the UAE? For the same reason that innumerable commercial enterprises utilize the UAE’s many efficient facilities – transportation hub, transshipment center, free-trade zones, developed financial sector.

5. Prior to 9/11, the UAE government recognized the Taliban. Yes, the UAE recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. But deciding whether or not to recognize groups that control major territory in a strife-torn country is not a perfect science. Nor does diplomatic recognition necessarily imply approval of ideologies and/or behavior. If this were so, the United States would have had no formal contact at all with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites throughout the Cold War. Why did the UAE recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan? Apart from the fact that it seemed to control much of the country and carried out at least some functions of government, the UAE probably followed Saudi Arabia’s lead – believing that having diplomatic relations would allow at least the possibility of wielding some influence with the Taliban and thereby possibly moderating some Taliban practices and policies. The canard that recognition of the Taliban somehow indicates that the UAE holds similar values and policies is instantly dismissable by anyone who has any knowledge of the UAE.

If there is a problem with security in American ports, it has not arisen because P&O has suddenly become “Arab”-owned. If foreign ownership is the problem, where were all the politicians when P&O first contracted to manage the ports? Much talk has been expressed inside and outside the Beltway about anti-Americanism around the world. It is hard to escape the conclusion that driving force of this ruckus is little more than anti-Arabism.

The Pertinence of the Uncertain Process of Succession ... Again

[Original publication on this website, 24 January 2006. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

Five years ago, I published two articles on succession in the Gulf, one in the Washington Quarterly and the other in the Middle East Journal. [Copies of both articles may be downloaded from the Publications page on this website.] In these articles, I noted that despite significant social, economic, and even political change in the GCC states, it is “disturbing that the mechanisms for the transferral of power remain disconcertingly vague and ambiguous.” [MEJ, p. 599]

Since publication of the two articles, three aging rulers out of the six GCC monarchs have died. But problems of age and/or health still bedevil the future in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and possibly Abu Dhabi. Even Oman’s Sultan Qabus at age 65 is getting on in years and has no clear successor. The problem of succession in the Gulf has not been solved: the question of who is to follow incumbent rulers remains urgent while no further progress has been recorded in dealing longer-term problems of expanding political participation and transitioning ruling families to a more suitable role for modern states.

The death of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia has put full authority and power in the hands of ‘Abdullah. But his succession and his rapid confirmation of half-brother Sultan as heir apparent simply postpones the pressing issue of succession. In the Washington Quarterly article, I described the succession issue in Saudi Arabia as having four factors. The first, succession to King Fahd, was settled with his death and the accession of King ‘Abdullah. The second, succession to King ‘Abdullah, was seemingly settled in part by the appointment of ‘Abdullah’s half-brother Sultan as heir apparent, although Sultan’s age and health may indicate that the problem will arise again in the near future. There seems to be little likelihood that the fourth factor, the disappearance of the Al Sa‘ud as kings of Saudi Arabia, will be a factor in the foreseeable future, barring sudden and unexpected developments.

But the third and remaining factor, i.e. the issue of generational change, remains problematic and seems just as – if not more – pressing now as it was five years ago. The transition to the next generation could not have been made under either Fahd or ‘Abdullah because none of their sons are deemed suitable. The likely path of succession is thought to run through Nayif and Salman and only turning to the next generation after they have had their turns. Increasing age and a possible weak spell under Nayif, however, may force the issue sooner rather than later. But the mechanics of transition are problematic as well: which grandsons of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz will become the first kings of their generation and how will succession progress from there once the first grandson is crowned?

Now that the Kuwaiti succession issue apparently has been settled with the abdication of Amir Sa‘d al-‘Abdullah, a scant week after his succession, and as the appointment of Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad as the latest amir seems imminent, the question moves back to the serious and uncertain process of choosing the next heir apparent, just as is the case in Dubai following the death of its amir a few weeks ago. The choice of the new Kuwaiti heir apparent is a two-fold problem: first, there is the question of retaining the balancing act between the Al Salim and Al Jabir branches of the Al Sabah ruling family; and, second, Kuwait’s own pressing requirement for a generational transition. The two issues are intricately bound up together.

The Al Salim branch has become unmistakably weaker in recent decades. In part this is due to the long reign of the recently deceased amir, Shaykh Jabir, and the powerful role played by his brother and soon-to-be amir, Shaykh Sabah. The latter’s influence became particularly powerful in the last few years when he emerged as de facto ruler during the illnesses of his brother Jabir and the heir apparent Sa‘d. For the first time ever, the formal position of prime minister was decoupled from that of heir apparent and given to Sabah.

But just as important in the demise of the position of the Al Salim was the disappearance of notable personalities in its line. The strongest member of the branch at the time of Shaykh Jabir’s accession in 1977 was Shaykh Jabir al-‘Ali, but his acerbic and combative personality led to his being passed over as heir apparent by Sa‘d al-‘Abdullah of the same branch. Sa‘d’s apparent incapacitation follows the death of Jabir al-‘Ali some years ago and the next likely candidate from the Al Salim, Salim al-Sabah, son of an amir and long serving deputy prime minister and minister of defense, withdrew from politics in 2001 for health reasons. One of the few logical choices remaining among the Al Salim is Dr. Muhammad al-Sabah, brother of Shaykh Salim and Foreign Minister, but doubts remain whether he is a strong candidate.

By tradition, the appointment of Shaykh Sabah as amir should be accompanied by the appointment of an Al Salim as heir apparent. But this is not enshrined in law and the recent public spat between the branches over the deposition of Shaykh Sa‘d may well point to the Al Jabir attempting to monopolize rule within their branch. But this prospect raises a further question: where would succession fall even within the Al Jabir?

In the Middle East Journal article, I wrote that “For the future of the family, it may well be necessary to select the next Amir – or, more precisely, the next Heir Apparent after Sa‘d – from a new generation. But the present generation took up public positions when in their 20s and 30s and have spent the last 40 to 50 years proving themselves and running the country. The following generation has never had the opportunity to prove themselves even though they are now into their 50s.” [p. 586] There is little change in that assessment.

My earlier observation that more systematic methods of choosing heirs apparent is required in the Gulf should be coupled urgently now – after the Kuwaiti spectacle – of acceptable and face-saving methods of easing aging and infirm rulers into superannuation. The long and sad degeneration in the health of King Fahd, Shaykh Jabir, and Shaykh Rashid of Dubai a few years ago turns the pretense that they continued rule into farce and only harmed the international reputation of their countries. The two problems are inter-connected of course, since in some states the heir apparent is chosen from the same generation as the ruler. This may be an additional argument for settling on the principle of primogeniture, or at least one of the sons of the incumbent ruler.

It is not just a question of transitioning to a chronologically younger generation as the present one dies off. There must be qualitative change as well. As I wrote in 2001, “Their successors – sooner or later – must come from a generation with formative experiences in the ‘retrenchment’ or even ‘post-oil’ periods. They must be ready to install new post-rentier economies and to embrace political participation by educated, sophisticated, and heavily middle-class societies. The essential question is whether this ‘passing of the generational torch’ will come in time to preserve the core of these regimes or whether it will be too late as a consequence of doubtful succession patterns. [Washington Quarterly, p. 174]

A New Ruler in Dubai

[Original publication on this website, 6 January 2006. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

On 4 January 2006, Dubai’s ruler Shaykh Maktum b. Rashid Al Maktum died unexpectedly in Australia. He was immediately succeeded by his younger brother and Heir Apparent, Shaykh Muhammad b. Rashid, who was also automatically confirmed as in his late brother’s federal positions as the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates.

Shaykh Maktum’s death is unlikely to lead to any significant changes in Dubai since he had been little more than titular ruler and Shaykh Muhammad had been guiding policy since before the death of their father, Shaykh Rashid b. Sa‘id, in 1990. It is also unlikely to lead to major change on the federal level as the positions of Vice-President and Prime Minister are automatically allocated to the ruler of Dubai. However, it is possible that Muhammad may exercise more of a hands-on role in these positions, given that Maktum had little interest in exercising his authority and given Muhammad’s much more dynamic and aggressive personality.

The first of two key questions to be answered is who will Shaykh Muhammad select as his Heir Apparent. Will he elevate one of his two brothers – older brother Hamdan, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Finance and Industry, or younger brother Ahmad – or pass succession to one of his own sons. Maktum succeeded his father as ruler, despite younger Muhammad being far more qualified, because of an unwritten principle of primogeniture. It is logical to suppose that Muhammad will carry on the tradition and anoint his eldest son, particularly since neither Hamdan or Ahmad is much more dynamic than Maktum was.

The second is question is whether he will retain the portfolio of UAE Minister of Defense and will there be any significant changes in the new UAE cabinet he is to form, last shuffled just before the death of UAE President Shaykh Zayid in 2004. Dubai has no automatic right to the portfolio and surrendering it now might mean that it would go to the Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi. For this reason, Muhammad may prefer to keep the title.

A logical, though not by any means certain, successor as Minister of Defense might be Abu Dhabi’s Shaykh Muhammad b. Zayid Al Nahyan. An ambitious son of the late Shaykh Zayid, Muhammad b. Zayid was promoted from Deputy to Chief of Staff of the UAE Armed Forces about 1993. Although unable to succeed his father in 2004, he persuaded his half-brother Shaykh Khalifah b. Zayid, the new ruler of Abu Dhabi, to name him Heir Apparent in Abu Dhabi and, a year later, as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Relations between the two Muhammads – Muhammad b. Rashid in Dubai and Muhammad b. Zayid in Abu Dhabi – has improved in recent years and the two may strike an alliance over this position.

An alternative stratagem, even less likely, might be the appointment of Shaykh Sultan b. Zayid Al Nahyan, presently UAE Deputy Prime Minister and long-time Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. As a non-starter for succession in Abu Dhabi, despite being Shaykh Zayid’s second oldest son, Sultan could provide a compromise choice.

Fundamentally, though, Shaykh Maktum’s death is not going to change operations in either Dubai or the UAE, even though it might provoke some intense jockeying for position on both the amirate and federal levels.

Oman: Omanis, Ibadis, and Islamism

[First published on the website of the Tharwa Project (, 28 February 2005.]

A wave of recent arrests has brought Oman briefly into the international spotlight, a rare occurrence for the sultanate. Little information has become available about the arrests. Early reports said that an attempt was going to be made to disrupt the Muscat Festival, an annual cultural and entertainment program. However, the Minister of Information informed the press on 30 January 2005 that the detentions stemmed from an attempt by those involved “to form an organization to endanger the national order.”

Early media reports that over 300 had been arrested seem to have been wildly exaggerated. An activist in Muscat said the total was less than 30 and an unnamed diplomat claimed it was less than a dozen, while a regional newspaper published a list of 15 names. According to this list, those detained included faculty from Sultan Qabus University, the College of Law and Shari‘ah, Nizwa Education College, ministry employees, employees in the mufti’s office, and several imams of mosques. All of the arrested seem to be from northern Oman, specifically the regions of al-Dakhiliyah, al-Sharqiyah, and al-Batinah, and all appear to be Ibadi. (Another six were reported to be arrested later in mid-February.)

Although Oman’s predominant image is that of an Ibadi country – the ruling family is Ibadi, the more traditional form of leadership consisted of an Ibadi imamate, and Oman possesses the only large-scale Ibadi community in the Islamic world – the population is actually mixed. No reliable figures exist regarding the sectarian composition but an informed guess would put it at roughly 50% Sunni, 45% Ibadi, and less than 5% Shi‘ah. While the heartland of Oman is heavily Ibadi, Sunnis are found in large numbers along al-Batinah coast, in al-Dhahirah region adjoining Abu Dhabi, in the eastern town of Sur, and especially in the southern region of Dhufar.

Al-Ibadiyah is a moderate offshoot of al-Khawarij, the first secessionist movement in Islam, but it is very similar today in belief and practice to mainstream Sunnism. Many of the initial followers of the Ibadi subsect in 8th-century Basrah were Omanis and they brought the belief back to Oman, where an independent Ibadi state existed for a thousand years. That state was headed by an elected imam, chosen from the adult male population and acclaimed in his office by the entire society. Although dynasties frequently emerged, the Ibadi political expression is highly egalitarian in principle, a feature that is underlined by the absence of any special role in society played by descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Ibadi imamate disappeared in the 1950s when a highly respected and capable imam was replaced by a weaker figure, heavily dependent on his brother, along with a prominent tribal shaykh and outside support from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. By the end of the decade, the sultanate – based in Muscat and headed by the Al Bu Sa‘id dynasty since the 1740s – was in firm control of the interior of Oman and the imamate seemingly was consigned to the dustbin of history.

As a consequence of this development, northern Oman has basked in political tranquillity for nearly half a century and the country as a whole has been free from domestic dissidence since the end of the Dhufar War in the mid-1970s. By and large, Omanis have adopted the outlook of their neighbors up the Gulf: the country has embarked on ambitious socioeconomic development and the citizenry have enjoyed a more prosperous life than their pre-1970 ancestors. Although the population is largely Arab, the Baluch form a significant minority, as do several ethnic strands of Shi‘ah. Inequities exist in the present state but minorities are not prevented from material and social advancement, either legally or in daily practice.

What then might be the conditions or grievances at the root of the present arrests? There are significant parallels with a similar wave of arrests in 1994. At that time, perhaps as many as a thousand individuals were interrogated and some 300-400 arrested on charges of subversion. A State Security Court was hastily convened in November 1994 and it sentenced about 135 individuals to prison terms; a few given death sentences saw their convictions subsequently commuted by the Sultan to life imprisonment. All prisoners were freed as part of the Sultan’s Silver Jubilee amnesty in November 1995. While the Sultan, in his 1994 National Day speech, accused those arrested of being Islamic extremists, little evidence was offered for this assertion and many in Oman continued to entertain doubts.

Speculation that the Omani arrests this year might be linked to al-Qa‘idah-related violence in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is undoubtedly unfounded. Al-Qa‘idah sees Sunnis as its primary audience and those arrested in Oman are Ibadis. Even Oman’s small Shi‘ah community has been remarkably quiescent since the Iranian Revolution, with only a few incidents of pamphleteering and abortive demonstrations. The high proportion of Sunnis in the 1994 arrests can be attributed largely to numerous detainees from Sur and Dhufar – Sunni areas whose inhabitants traditionally have been more outspoken than other Omanis.

This last detail may indeed point to a principal reason behind the 2005 arrests. Oman under Sultan Qabus has seen enormous change, mostly for the better. But the country is troubled by an unequal distribution of income, falling oil production, rapidly expanding population and unemployment, and the entrenchment of a political and commercial elite who have shown little restraint in taking advantage of opportunities to grow rich, often through abuse of the public purse.

The last decade has seen an understated but definite swelling of disgruntlement with the current state of affairs. Omanis have been bombarded with details of radical Islamists, al-Qa‘idah, the fall of Saddam’s Iraq and the American occupation, and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian strife. Not surprisingly, many young Omanis have become disillusioned with their ruler’s and the elite’s orientation. At the same time, and from another angle, Oman’s headlong rush towards modernization undoubtedly has produced a backlash among Omani conservatives.

The demise of the imamate in the 1950s was due to military action by the Sultan’s forces and his British backers, not because of any internal evolution. The last imam, Ghalib b. ‘Ali al-Hinawi, is still living out his days in al-Dammam, Saudi Arabia. There are no sultans in traditional Ibadi thought and the present régime’s legitimacy is based largely on its ability to maintain order, guarantee opportunities, and encourage material prosperity. That some Omanis remained opposed to the “secular” ways of the new state and society should not be surprising. That they should band together “to form an organization to endanger the national order” is. The suspicion that the authorities in Muscat have overreacted once again cannot be entirely laid to rest yet.

Security and Political Challenges in Saudi Arabia

[First published on the website of the Tharwa Project (, 12 December 2004.]

Much concern has been expressed recently about the stability of the Al Sa‘ud régime, with fears that al-Qa`idah-linked extremism might cause its downfall, much as religious opposition took the leading role in ending the Pahlavi régime in Iran. But it bears repeating today just as much as it was in 1979: Saudi Arabia is not Iran.

To be sure, there is a long history of dissidence and even extremism in Saudi Arabia. The Third Saudi State was created in the early 20th century as a result of a campaign of conquest that involved resistance on occasion. All Sunnis within the Saudi dominion were expected to observe the Wahhabi (or salafi) form of Islam while the Shi‘ah remained apart and objects of discrimination. The efforts of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (ruled 1902-1953) to forge a permanent state out of these conquests was opposed by radical leaders amongst the Ikhwan, the settled bedouin who formed the fanatical armies carrying out the conquests. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was finally forced in the late 1920s to face down the dissident Ikhwan on the battlefield.

Pan-Arab secular nationalism posed a serious threat to Saudi Arabia’s unity during the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to very real threats from “progressive” Arab republics, domestic ideological stirrings prompted the emergence of the “Free Liberals” and the flight from the kingdom of their leader, Al Sa‘ud prince Talal bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, and some of his brothers. The mid-1960s also witnessed several waves of arrests in the Saudi armed forces. While there was much speculation outside the country of coup attempts, in fact nearly all arrests seem to have been of individuals who became exposed to ideologies outside the country and did little more than speak rashly of their political beliefs.

In recent years, dissidence in Saudi Arabia has centered on Islamist opposition, particularly as the appeal and promise of secular political ideologies has faded. But Islamist opposition has long threatened the state. Confrontation on such grounds dates back to the opposition of the hardliners amongst the Ikhwan. Islamist opposition also appeared in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as religious and social conservatives defied the régime and resisted changes. Most prominently, a group of neo-Ikhwan composed largely of members of Najdi bedouin tribes that had provided the forces of the earlier Ikhwan, seized the Great Mosque of Makkah in 1979 and were dislodged only by violent force.

Salafi opposition and extremism emerged after the Kuwait War of 1991. This included domestic borderline opposition, ranging from hardline or conservative religious figures as well as “liberals.” Gradually, exile groups began to appear, such as the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) in London, a breakaway group known as the Movement for Islamic Rights in Arabia (and more latterly as al-Islah), the Committee for Advice and Reform (a now defunct group contemporaneous with the appearance of CDLR and begun by Usamah bin Ladin), and the Saudi Institute in suburban Washington. Finally and more seriously, a number of so-called “dissident clerics” directly or indirectly aided the emergence of an al-Qa‘idah-linked or -influenced underground.

Apart from the extremists, the last decade has seen the emergence of a variety of “reformers.” Like most Saudis, these activists do not wish to overthrow the régime or to replace it. What they want is for the system to work better and more equitably, i.e. to reform it. Who are these “reformers”? Some are “religious” conservatives who believe that the state and society have become too liberalized. Others are “secular” liberals. About a dozen of these were arrested in the spring of 2004. Three are still being held in jail and have been placed on trial for “criticizing the political establishment” and “causing instability” by collecting signatures for petitions and communicating with foreign media. But the appeal of “secular” liberals is tiny and a concerted effort has been made to bridge the chasm between Islamic reformers and liberals.

The agenda of the reformers has accelerated in the past two years with a series of petitions and dialogues. In part, this development can be viewed as a follow-on to the establishment of the appointed Majlis al-Shura (or Consultative Council) in early 1990s. The movement is notable for including some “dissident” clerics and a measure of unprecedented Sunni-Shi‘i cooperation. As for the movement’s nature, the petition titled “In Defense of the Nation” of September 2003 provides a good example. The document was signed by more than 300 academics, medical doctors, writers, business people, and government employees. Signatories were drawn from both Sunni and Shi‘i communities while 51 signatures came from women. The petition called for an increased constitutional nature of society, eventual elections to Majlis al-Shura, the independence of the judicial branch, respect for human rights, allowing civil society institutions to function, the elimination of corruption, a fair redistribution of wealth, better distribution of social welfare benefits (such as education, health care, housing), and enabling women to practice their social and economic duties. The government’s response so far has been little more than the announcement of partial elections in early 2005 for municipal councils.

The attack on the US Consulate in Jiddah on 6 December 2004 that killed nine, in addition to three attackers, and apparently was carried out by elements inspired by al-Qa‘idah if not linked to that network, understandably renewed fears that the Saudi state might not be able to counter the challenge of Islamist extremism, either in terms of deflecting its ideological support within the conservative Muslim community in Saudi Arabia or more directly as a security problem posed by orchestrated acts of violence. It bears reminding, however, that Saudi Arabia is not in the grip of a civil war and that this latest in a wave of violence carried out in the last few years may indeed be the dying gasps of an enemy that the Saudi government has doggedly pursued.

There is no room for doubt that the kingdom faces a severe security threat, much like the United Kingdom has faced in its many years of terrorist activity by the IRA. The régime’s response must be fourfold. First, it must continue to improve and enhance fundamental security measures and responses in order to meet and eventually eliminate these acts of violence. Second, it must separate the extremists from supporters – real or potential – in the kingdom, the so-called “dissident clerics” and their followers, in part by demonstrating that extremist views are as unacceptable and un-Islamic in Saudi Arabia as they are for Muslims elsewhere. Third, it must be more vigilant in remolding a more tolerant and multifaceted society that implicitly and explicitly rejects such extremist views. Fourth, it must create an atmosphere that does not attract young men in particular to extremism, in part by resolving the admittedly difficult dilemma of providing employment for an exploding population but also by psychologically incorporating its youth fully into a changing society, a youth all-too-often alienated by social marginalization and lack of a sense of belonging or contributing as much as by economic discrimination.

An analysis of security incidents in Saudi Arabia since 1979 shows approximately 144 security-related incidents over this period. (A comprehensive chronology and summary of security incidents in the kingdom can be found elsewhere on this website.) Ninety-two of these were relatively minor incidents, consisting of arrests, arms discoveries, demonstrations, and hijackings. Some 53 were more serious, involving fatalities. There were nine major incidents comprising invasions or bombings of mosques, military installations, housing, or office complexes. The first of these was the seizure of the Great Mosque of Makkah by Neo-Ikhwan in 1979. Only two other major incidents took place between 1979 and 2003: in 1995, a car bomb was set off at a National Guard facility in Riyadh and another exploded in 1996 at US military barracks in al-Khubar. But 2003 brought two attacks and 2004 saw another four. The pattern was mirrored in the acceleration of other types of incidents: 71 of the total 92 minor incidents and 44 of 53 fatal incidents have taken place in the past two years.

This recent explosion in security incidents is due almost entirely to a deadly campaign launched by al-Qa‘idah Organization in the Arabian Peninsula, a loose group of several hundred Saudi extremists. These extremists have killed nearly 100 expatriates in the kingdom since May 2003, as well as a number of Saudis. They have struck through large-scale attacks, such as the assault on a housing compound in Riyadh (May 2003), another assault on a Riyadh housing compound (November 2003), yet another attack on a Riyadh housing compound (April 2004), the car bombing of the General Security Building in Riyadh (April 2004), a multi-pronged attack on civilians in the industrial city of Yanbu‘ on the Red Sea (May 2004), a similar attack on businesses and a residential compound in al-Khubar in the Eastern Province (May 2004), and the assault on the US Consulate in Jiddah (December 2004).

As security tightened around likely targets, extremists began to employ a simpler tactic: five expatriates were either killed outright in drive-by shootings (such as a Frenchman at a bank machine in Jiddah) or kidnapped and subsequently killed (as happened to an American engineer who was beheaded). Just as much violence erupted in gunbattles between Saudi security forces and extremists when raids were conducted on hideouts or suspects attempted to flee from checkpoints.

The recent attack on the Jiddah consulate has been interpreted already as either a failure of security or as a confirmation of instability in Saudi Arabia. It is neither. It should be remembered that the attackers, although managing to penetrate the outer perimeter of the consulate compound, failed to get inside the consulate itself. While security around the consulate obviously needs improvement, the swift raising of a barrier prevented the attackers from driving into the compound and they only managed to shoot their way through the gate on foot.

Does the latest attack mean that the Saudi government’s campaign to eradicate domestic terrorism is a failure? Riyadh has contended that it has broken the back of the movement and eliminated three of four al-Qa‘idah cells. A constant series of raids on safe houses, shoot-outs elsewhere, and captures of caches of arms, ammunition, explosives, and cash, seem to point in this direction. On 6 December 2003, the Ministry of the Interior announced a list of the 26 most wanted suspects. A year later, 14 on the list had been killed, three were captured, and another one surrendered. That left eight at large. Two proclaimed leaders of al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula were killed in succession. The Jiddah attack clearly proves that the movement has not been eliminated but the slowing of attacks and increasing confrontations between security forces and small bands of extremists indicates that the organization is finding greater difficulty in operating, is using less experienced operatives in less complex operations, and is losing much of its stocks of weaponry.

It is impossible to know how many active extremists remain in the kingdom. By some estimates, hardcore membership stood at more than a thousand at the beginning of 2003; other estimates put the remaining number at 100 or 200. Attrition has not only thinned the numbers but resulted in the death or capture of many of the most experienced and brightest members. The great danger, however, remains the recruitment of newer members from alienated Saudi youth, spurred at least in part by the anti-American campaign in Iraq. The danger is greatest in the Wahhabi homeland and disaffected and poorer regions of the country. A majority of suspects arrested or killed appear to be from Najd, including many from major tribes, followed by others from the southern provinces, particularly ‘Asir and Jizan. Although hideouts are discovered, arrests are made, and attacks are carried out in al-Hijaz and the Eastern Province, the perpetrators do not tend to be from those regions.

Does the latest attack indicate that the country is becoming increasingly unstable, even perhaps on the brink of civil war? In 1979, the success of the Iranian revolution prompted some outside observers to speculate that the Al Sa‘ud régime would be next to fall, and in short order. A quarter of a century later, the same alarmism all but proclaims the end of the Al Sa‘ud in the near future. This seems at least as unlikely as in 1979. The country is not in turmoil and the numbers of extremists form only a tiny proportion of the Saudi population. What the country faces is a serious security problem, not unlike that posed by the IRA for the British government. Its only threat in a larger political context is if the state proves unable to contain and eliminate the threat. The longer terrorist and dissident acts persist, the greater doubt will be raised about the capability of the government to handle the crisis. But there is little to suggest that the kingdom has reached that point, or that the majority of its population has lost faith in their government.

At the same time, however, there is no doubt that the kingdom faces serious problems. Nearly two decades of budget deficits caused by low oil prices have hampered development and the provision of services; it will take more than two or three years of budget surpluses as a result of the oil price rise of 2004 and 2005 to correct this. The population has exploded in the last several decades. The 1974 census showed a Saudi population of only six million. The 1992 census doubled the Saudi population at a little more than 12 million. The 2004 census put the Saudi population at 16 and a half million. Although a detailed demographic breakdown has yet to be made public, at least half the population undoubtedly is under the age of 16. Millions more have reached school-leaving age and are searching for non-existent jobs. Per capita income dropped by three-quarters between the boom years of the oil price explosion and the beginning of this century. Considerable emphasis has been placed on economic diversification but oil remains the engine of the state and society and will continue to maintain that role for the foreseeable future.

Politically, the country faces at least three major problems. Foremost is the brake on political development posed by the unyielding weight of the Al Sa‘ud family on the country. While it is undeniable that the Al Sa‘ud not only created the state but are the glue that holds it together, it is equally undeniable that the family as an institution has a stultifying and regressive impact on the kingdom. In part, this is due to an inevitable problem in all monarchies of uneven leadership. King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was an exceedingly dynamic leader who forged the Third Saudi State in the 20th century. But he designated his unsuitable eldest son Sa‘ud as his successor and it took 11 years for the far more capable second son Faysal to rescue the country and implement the first major reforms. King Khalid was not the best choice to succeed Faysal but fortunately he reigned more than ruled. His more capable half-brother Fahd ran the state on a day-to-day basis until he succeeded as King himself. The tragedy of Fahd’s kingship has been his physical and mental incapacitation in recent years, preventing the heir apparent ‘Abdullah from taking control and carrying out necessary measures in time. The problem of uneven leadership is replicated throughout the government. Members of the huge family occupy hundreds if not thousands of positions, large and small, in the bureaucracy. Some of them show great merit and competence; others hold their jobs simply on the basis of birth.

But the problem of the royal family extends beyond its role in government. The family forms an extensive caste, membership of which is defined purely by blood. By and large, family members are above the law, they receive regular stipends and are not required to pay for air travel on Saudi Arabian Airlines or to pay their utility bills. Many have entered business, either as hidden partners or openly; no one can compete fairly against an Al Sa‘ud business rival. The old division of responsibility wherein the royal family holds political power while the merchant class monopolizes commerce has been eradicated.

A second major problem lies in social attitudes and religious conservatism. The partnership between the Al Sa‘ud and the Wahhabi religious establishment – dating from the 18th-century arrangement between the political leader Muhammad bin Sa‘ud Al Sa‘ud and the religious reformer Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab that created the First Saudi State – has been the bedrock of the country’s politics. It continues to define the state as the center of Islam, not only because the holiest cities in Islam are found within its borders but also because of the state’s claim to be the spiritual home of Islam as well. This partnership threatens to become a ball-and-chain for those members of the royal family, such as ‘Abdullah, who seek to modernize the country. Even King Faysal found himself hobbled: for every step forward, he was forced to take a step backwards to placate the conservatives. As an example, he managed to gain acceptance of the principle of universal girls’ education but at the cost of placing control of girls’ education under the thumb of the reactionary religious establishment.

The consequence is a population at large that is deeply mistrustful of the outside world and swayed by radical interpretations of Islam. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Middle East where women are not allowed to drive, move about in public by themselves, or carry out any legal transaction without the intervention of a male guardian. It is the only Islamic country that relies upon a system of so-called “religious police” or “morality police” to enforce such matters as the strict segregation of men and women and observance of prayer times. Not surprisingly, the maturation of young Saudis under such a system, reinforced by reactionary lessons in school, has produced a fertile climate for the recruitment of foot soldiers for extremist Islamists.

It also needs to be said that the long-standing alliance with the United States has become a third major problem. For more than half a century, the Al Sa‘ud have placed their eggs in the basket of Saudi-American cooperation. This has been manifested most obviously in the provision of an American security umbrella over the kingdom. In return for Saudi purchases of more than adequate supplies of military arms and supplies at top prices – not to mention cooperation with Washington in such matters as the Contra affair and the Saudi purchase of US treasury bills – the United States guarantees Saudi Arabia’s security from external threats. This arrangement paid off for the Al Sa‘ud in a minor way during the threat from war-torn Yemen in the 1960s, in a potentially more serious way during the Iran-Iraq War, and in a major way after Saddam Husayn’s invasion of Kuwait and the campaign by the American-led alliance to reverse the occupation and protect Gulf oil fields. Saudi dependence on the United States also extended more deeply to the development of the country, beginning with ARAMCO’s activities in the Eastern Province and extending to the provision of US government and private-sector technical assistance in a myriad of endeavors.

But the alliance has become an increasing liability on both sides. The American public and Congress have long demonstrated a hostility to Saudi Arabia, dating back to the oil price revolution of 1973-1974 and beyond. The emergence of Usamah bin Ladin as the world’s most feared terrorist and the presence of 15 Saudis among the 11 September hijackers has only compounded the hostility. Of the more than 600 prisoners that the US government continues to hold in Guantánamo, nearly one-quarter are Saudis.

Naturally, this has increased resentment by Saudis of their treatment in the US. The biggest problem in the relationship from the Saudi view for many years was unquestioning American support of Israel, a support that has become increasingly problematic as the second Palestinian intifadah wears on. The American invasion of Iraq, bolstered only by Britain and a handful of other countries, magnified Saudi indignation. In that perception, the United States has invaded a fellow Arab country and, instead of bringing peace and democracy, it has turned the country into a chaos of violence; it has made Iraq “safe for terrorism.”

The Saudi Arabian government may indeed have broken the back of the extremist campaign. But, as the recent Jiddah incident demonstrated, it has a long way to go to eradicate the remnants and restore order to the country. Even more importantly, the government must face up to the growing challenges in front of it and enact the types of reforms that will bring true social and political progress. The government has surmounted serious challenges in the task and appears to capable of doing so now. But it will not be an easy task and there is no guarantee of success.

Summary of Security Incidents in Saudi Arabia, 1979-2005
(updated through 31 December 2005)

Total Incidents
Minor Incidents
(arrests, discoveries, demonstrations, hijackings)

Fatal Incidents (involving shooting or bombing, and including security raids)

Major Incidents (coordinated operations against major targets resulting in multiple deaths)








































First al-Qa‘idah-related activities begin with arrests






















The Impact of the United States Election on the Gulf and the Middle East

[First published on the website of the Gulf Research Center's Gulf in the Media, Dubai (, 24 November 2004.]

As many commentators around the world have noted, the outcome of the recent American presidential election affects the entire world nearly as much as it does the United States. And the the Middle East and the Gulf are likely to feel its impact the most.

The two most pressing Middle East issues facing the re-elected Bush administration are the situation in Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian strife. It is by no means certain that a Kerry administration would have made much headway in solving either problem. But it is also unlikely that a second-term Bush administration will have much luck in accomplishing its goals in the region either – particularly since it has its hands full with Iraq and appears intent on continuing to keep its distance from active intervention in Israel and Palestine.

Early indicators of the focus and direction of the administration’s second term are for a continued and probably strengthened conservative approach. The resignation of Colin Powell as Secretary of State removes the last moderate – and moderating – senior government official in the foreign-policy equation. His successor, Condoleezza Rice, undoubtedly will take a more hardline posture on most issues and the State Department’s complexion will change considerably more if, as is rumored, John Bolton is promoted from Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security to Deputy Secretary.

Changes at State are mirrored by the apparent politicization of the Central Intelligence Agency where Porter Goss, a Republican congressman recently appointed by Bush to head the agency, has brought in staffers from his congressional office and the House Intelligence Committee. These moves have forced the resignation of the Deputy Director and senior figures in the Clandestine Service. Fears are being voiced that the housecleaning at the agency will produce a more ideological CIA and one that is careful to serve narrow administration interests, instead of clashing over them as before the election.

With Rice’s move to State, the National Security Council, to be headed by her present deputy Stephen Hadley, probably will have a reduced exposure, and policy in the Department of Defense is unlikely change unless the Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, is removed, a move that is beginning to look increasingly unlikely.

Within a few short weeks of Bush’s re-election, the outline of the administration’s second-term policy towards the Middle East already has begun to appear. Only days after the election, the long-intimated and full-scale assault on Fallujah was launched and increasingly strong-arm techniques were employed against other Sunni targets. American strategy seemed to be aimed not only at Islamist “insurgents” but at recalcitrant Sunnis who threatened a boycott of the planned Iraqi elections in January 2005. Washington’s emphasis on these elections, as well as their prompt holding at the planned time, have become a key litmus test for the administration’s perceptions of success in its Iraq policy.

The second aspect of Middle Eastern policy began with British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Washington. The death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat shortly after the election was seen as an unexpected opportunity to get matters rolling on the Middle East peace process front. Bush resisted Blair’s pressure for the appointment of a special American envoy to re-engage Israelis and Palestinians in meaningful negotiations. The White House still seems committed to the absurd notion that the road to Israeli-Palestinian peace lies through Iraq. This suggests that as long as Iraq remains in a quagmire, which seems likely to persist for some time, Bush and company will keep their distance from Israel and Palestine. After Rice actually replaces Powell, American disengagement probably will look even more pronounced.

The most the Bush administration seems ready to countenance is gentle encouragement for almost inevitable moves on both sides. Washington applauded Sharon’s decision to remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and it supports a fair and productive Palestinian election to replace Arafat. Neither development owes anything to American action and neither promises much payoff on its own. It has been months since the most recent buzzwords in the long-running saga, the “road map” and the “quartet,” have been heard and the emergence of new initiatives, with or without accompanying buzzwords, seems rather unlikely for the time being.

The third piece of the puzzle coming into focus now is the increasing assertiveness of the administration on Iran and its allegations that Tehran is seeking to build nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities. On the one hand, this very public stance can be attributed to the “just in time” factor: while it is too late to prevent North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, strong action now could stop Iran. At the same time, however, it should be remembered that American – and Israeli – animosity towards Tehran has existed since the revolution and tough talk and equally tough actions have emanated from Washington for many years prior to the current dispute. Before the election, speculation was rife that Israel might act to take out Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushire. More recent speculation centers on the possibility of Washington doing the job. Such a step may seem unlikely but then so did the idea of an American invasion of Iraq in 2000.

Because the lion’s share of the Bush administration’s attention is, not surprisingly, captured by Iraq, with the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma pushed into the shadows, there is little room left over for initiative elsewhere in the Middle East and particularly in the Gulf. The tattered American-Saudi relationship undoubtedly will limp on with both sides grateful for every day it escapes renewed public attention in either country. The arrest and trial of three reformists in Riyadh, an action that ought to have raised a high-profile American protest, produced only a few muted noises from the State Department.

Similarly, the unbalanced and heavily security-related relationship between the United States and the smaller Gulf states continues without much attention from the higher levels of Washington officialdom. The uncertain course of Bahrain’s reform process, the question of women’s voting rights in Kuwait, and the lack of elections in the United Arab Emirates, are all but ignored in Washington. The death of Shaykh Zayid, a seminal force behind the creation of the UAE and the country’s only president until now, received scant notice in American media.

As far as the Gulf is concerned, the next four years look to be “more of the same.” Oil and security are the driving factors in the relationships, especially so on the American side. And as long as Iraq is in turmoil and the future of Palestine is unsettled, the Bush administration will not roil the waters with its Gulf allies by pushing for internal change or readjusting its relations with the region’s elites.

Bahrain: Political Reforms on the Threshhold of Stagnation

[First published on the website of the Tharwa Project (, 22 November 2004.]

The accession of Shaykh Hamad b. ‘Isa Al Khalifah as Amir of Bahrain in 1999 seemed to usher in a new and welcome era in Bahraini politics. The previous five years had been characterized by increasing violence and a mounting anti-government political campaign waged by various sectors of the repressed Shi‘i majority of the country. Indeed, the dissidence of the 1990s in many ways was simply the latest manifestation of a pattern that took place at various times throughout the 20th century. Agitation for political change received only a frosty response from the ruling Al Khalifah family and eventually repression.

This pattern seemed to be on the verge of being broken in 1999-2002 when Shaykh Hamad instituted a number of reforms, including an amnesty, the return from exile of the regime’s opponents, greater freedom of speech and of the press, an amended constitution, and a partially elected parliament. But his assumption of the title of King in 2002 seemed to mark an end to the progress of reform and liberalization. There is no question that the country was better off than it had been before Shaykh Hamad’s accession, but, at the same time, many issues and grievances were left unresolved and the prospect of further substantial change seemed to disappear.

As a consequence, these issues and grievances have periodically bubbled over into confrontation since 2002.1 The country has experienced more than a dozen demonstrations in the last two years, protesting the absence of prosecution of security force officials, the American-led war on Iraq, unemployment, concerts by Arab singers, Israeli actions against Palestinians, human rights abuses, and expatriate workers in Bahrain. More serious incidents included the hurling of a Molotov cocktail against a police bus and a knife attack on diners and the staff of a French restaurant because of the presence of alcohol.

The political situation began turning more tense after events in early 2004. The political societies (which are putative political parties) were warned in February and March that they faced dissolution if they failed to stop organizing a petition calling for the elected parliament to hold sole power on enacting constitutional amendments, and the government backed up its threats in late April and early May by arresting more than a dozen activists belonging to the two largest societies, al-Wifaq and the National Democratic Action Society. This action was followed by the arrest of others protesting the original arrests. The detainees were only released after the societies promised to shelve the petitions.

A few weeks later in mid-May, a demonstration in front of the US Embassy to protest American military action in the holy Shi‘ah cities of Iraq turned violent and a number of people were injured when security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas. As a concession, the King fired his aging Minister of the Interior, a member of the Al Khalifah.2

However, matters seemed to reach a head in September 2004 when ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, the executive director of the fledgling Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested for calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Shaykh Khalifah b. Salman Al Khalifah because of his mishandling of the Bahraini economy and ignoring human rights abuses. Four days later, the government closed down the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.3

King Hamad stood by his Prime Minister and uncle and stated that he would not tolerate criticism of senior government officials. As a consequence, proceedings began against al-Khawajah on charges of inciting hatred against the government and circulating false information about government officials. His trial was hampered for a time by the outpouring of public support through at least four demonstrations of several thousand people each, as well as his own hunger strike in jail.4 In the midst of supporters chanting for his release and condemning Shaykh Khalifah, al-Khawajah was sentenced on 21 November to a year in prison. A few hours later, the king blinked and suspended his sentence to time already served.

King Hamad’s attitude is but one of several key indicators of Bahrain’s political health that bear watching – but perhaps the most important one. Shaykh Khalifah is generally regarded as the most hated man in Bahrain and it is widely believed that he has run the country to his own benefit for decades, growing enormously rich in the process, and has been personally responsible for supervising the repression of human rights and thwarting equality for Bahrain’s majority Shi‘ah population. Upon Hamad’s accession in 1999, it could be argued that the new ruler needed to be cautious in his actions vis-B-vis his uncle, the all-powerful Prime Minister. But the King’s decision, five years later, to back his uncle against his people’s opposition, does not bode well for the future of liberalization and reform in Bahrain.

1. A summary of the dissidence of the late 1990s is to be found in J.E. Peterson, “Bahrain: The 1994-1999 Uprising,” Arabian Peninsula Background Note No. APBN-002 (January 2004), posted elsewhere on this website, and on Background to, and an evaluation of, the process of political change from Shaykh Hamad’s accession through mid-2004 is in J.E. Peterson, “The Promise and Reality of Bahraini Reforms,” in Joshua Teitelbaum, ed., Political Liberalization in the Gulf (forthcoming).

2. In addition to these activities, Bahraini authorities arrested six Sunni Salafi Islamists with alleged connections to al-Qa‘idah in June 2004 but released them on the following day. Five had been arrested, and released, on similar charges in February 2003. But when the US State Department issued a warning that extremist groups in Bahrain were planning attacks, the same men were arrested yet again and four were kept in jail pending trial to begin in December 2004.

3. Ironically, the center’s 2003 annual report, released a few months earlier, had praised the government’s commitment to human rights, its renunciation of arbitrary arrests, its tolerance of peaceful rallies and demonstrations, and an increased freedom of speech.

4. The arrest of al-Khawajah came on the heels of the March 2004 arrest of ‘Abd al-Ra‘uf ‘Abdullah Ahmad al-Shayib, a spokesman for the National Committee for Martyrs and Torture Victims, on charges of committing “immoral indecency” with an Indonesian housemaid. Many observers claimed that the charge was trumped up to stop the committee’s planned protest at Bahrain’s first Formula One car race.

A Human Rights Fiasco in Bahrain

[Original publication on this website, 29 October 2004. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

The stagnant nature of reform in Bahrain took an ominous turn when ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, the executive director of the fledgling Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested on 25 September 2004 for calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Shaykh Khalifah b. Salman Al Khalifah because of his mishandling of the Bahraini economy and ignoring human rights abuses. Four days later, the government closed down the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. (Ironically, the center’s 2003 annual report, released a few months earlier, had praised the government’s commitment to human rights, its renunciation of arbitrary arrests, its tolerance of peaceful rallies and demonstrations, and an increased freedom of speech.) Attempts to try al-Khawajah on charges of inciting hatred against the government and circulating false information about government officials have been hampered, at least temporarily, by the outpouring of public support through at least four demonstrations of several thousand people each.

Shaykh Khalifah is notorious for having run the country to his own benefit for decades, growing enormously rich in the process, and having supervised the repression of human rights and thwarting equality for Bahrain’s majority Shi‘ah population. Upon the accession in 1999 of Shaykh Hamad b. ‘Isa as Amir (later restyled King), it could be argued that the new ruler needed to be cautious in his actions vis-B-vis his uncle, the all-powerful Prime Minister. But the King’s decision, five years later, to back his uncle against his people’s opposition, does not bode well for the future of liberalization and reform in Bahrain.

Women in Gulf Politics: An Update

[Original publication on this website, 29 October 2004. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

Oman recently appointed its third female minister, to head a new Ministry of Social Work; women also head the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Tourism. The Sultanate thus forges farther ahead of its fellow GCC members in this regard. The timing is fortuitous as the Kuwaiti National Assembly prepares to debate extending the rights to vote and to run for the membership National Assembly to women. While women already enjoy such rights in Bahrain and Qatar, developments in Kuwait are significant because its National Assembly exercises far more power and assertiveness than similar institutions in its GCC neighbors. Oman may have three women in its Council of Ministers but neither men nor women in its elected Majlis al-Shura possess the right to review policy in the key areas of financial policy, defense, and foreign affairs, or to challenge political appointments – features for which the Kuwait National Assembly is noted.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia continue to lag behind in the GCC. Neither country exhibits any elected consultative assembly or legislative body. While a few women hold significant positions in the UAE, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia remain inexcusably ignored. A recent complaint in the Arab News (Jiddah) noted that while women in Saudi Arabia have the right to obtain their own identification cards, male guardians must make out the application for the cards and collect them; thus, many women are still effectively denied even this right.

Footnote: Three days after this comment was posted, the UAE reshuffled its cabinet. Among the new appointees was Shaykhah Lubnah al-Qasimi, a niece of the Ruler of Sharjah. She becomes the Minister of Economy and Planning, a key portfolio.

Civilian Casualties in Iraq

[Original publication on this website, 16 September 2004; revised 29 October 2004. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

Not long ago the United States government announced the death toll of American service personnel since the beginning of the war against Iraq had crossed the 1000 mark. But the administration in Washington pointedly does not release information on the number of Iraq civilian casualties during this same period. Most American media outlets are just as negligent in ignoring these casualties. While the total cost to the Iraqi people can only be estimated and never determined accurately, keeps one of the most informed tallies. As of the date of writing, between 14,200 and 16,300 Iraqi civilians had died in the present conflict. And, worst of all, there is no end in sight.

But the count maintained by IraqBodyCount is restricted to casualties reported by journalists. On 29 October 2004, The Lancet ( published the results of an extensive research study conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Center for International Emergency, Disaster, and Refugee Studies, aided by doctors from al-Mustansiriyah University Medical School in Baghdad. This study, based on interviews carried out with nearly 1000 families in 33 communities in Iraq (and excluding results from Fallujah), concluded that the war has caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqis, many of them from air strikes by the occupying forces and more than half of these being women and children. Violent death has become by far the most common cause of death in post-invasion Iraq.

Bahrain and the Gulf: Wider Implications of Bahrain's Quest for Political Reform

[Original publication on this website, 15 July 2004. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

A half-decade of prolonged and often violent dissidence in Bahrain ended in 1999 with the accession to the throne of Shaykh Hamad b. ‘Isa as Amir. In short order, Shaykh Hamad instituted a number of reforms, including an amnesty, the return from exile of the regime’s opponents, greater freedom of speech and of the press, an amended constitution, and a partially elected parliament. But Shaykh Hamad’s assumption of the title of King in 2002 seemed to mark an end to the progress of reform and liberalization. Yes, the country was better off than it had been before Shaykh Hamad’s accession, but, at the same time, many issues and grievances were left unresolved and the prospect of further substantial change seemed to disappear.

Can and should Bahrain be considered a model for political change in the Gulf? On the one hand, it can be argued that yes, it should because Bahrain shares common fundamentals with its neighbors: all the GCC states face the common question of how to achieve true constitutionalism; they all exhibit similar roles played by hereditary rulers and privileged ruling families; they all face the problems of economic diversification and corruption; and they all are divided over the extent of political participation that should be allowed.

On the other hand, Bahrain may not serve as the right model because of unique factors to the kingdom: it is the only one of the GCC states to experience a post-oil economy and it is a poor country in relation to the others; it is the only GCC state in which the Shi‘ah predominate, and their second-class status and history of repression is not such a factor elsewhere apart from Saudi Arabia (where the Shi‘ah form a minority largely confined to the Eastern Province); there is a long history in Bahrain of antagonism between government and opposition; and, in fact, just the history of a highly organized, mobilized, and assertive opposition of various ideological hues sets Bahrain apart from the other five.

The principal lesson of Bahrain in this context for the rest of the GCC (insofar as there may be said to be a lesson) is that all the accomplishments of the brief window of reform have been “gifts” of the ruler. And these “gifts” appear to have been “offered” essentially to defuse a volatile situation and not to advance the cause of constitutionalism. Despite years of opposition and agitation, the people have been unable to claim real rights or achieve an actual constitutional basis of equality, or true citizenship, or even ownership of their own country. As many in Bahrain (and throughout the Gulf) complain, the ruling family treats the country as their property and only tolerates the residence of the people therein.

The changes or accomplishments achieved in Bahrain have been the result of internal pressure (“bottom-up”), including confrontation, violence, and even deaths. The country has not even returned to the political status of the early 1970s with its elected National Assembly and heady expectations of progress in the early days of independence.

But Bahrain has seen the apparent limits of this approach. The “bottom-up” approach has produced only a loosening of the pressure valve. King Hamad has “given” his concessions and thus has restored the supremacy of the “top-down” approach. Not surprisingly, this approach will be much slower, much more incremental, and far more peripheral, rather than engendering fundamental change.

Saudi-American Security Relations

[An adaptation of remarks presented at the Saudi-US Relations Symposium, Portland State University, 26 January 2004. Original publication on this website, 30 January 2004. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

American-Saudi security relations have a long and successful history, beginning with the fateful 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Lend-Lease program, its declaration of war on Germany, and its role as a founding member of the United Nations.

Just a few of the more notable examples of milestones in this history include:
• the signing of a military cooperation agreement in 1945, which led to the establishment of Dhahran Air Base in 1946 (closed in 1962);
• the establishment of the United States Military Training mission (USMTM) for training Saudi forces in 1951 (following upon a similar British military mission that operated from 1947 to 1951);
• the transfer of a dozen F-86 fighter aircraft to the kingdom in 1957;
• the stationing of a US air force squadron in SA during 1963-1964 to demonstrate support for Saudi Arabia during a time of threat from Egypt during the Yemen civil war;
• American perception of Saudi Arabia as one of the “twin pillars” following British withdrawal from the Gulf (1971);
• the loan and then sale of AWACS airborne radar aircraft and F-15 combat aircraft following the demise of Iran in 1979 as the other “pillar,” complemented by a major modernization program for the Saudi Arabian National Guard;
• growing cooperation on various fronts during the Iran-Iraq War;
• Saudi Arabia’s role as the principal base for Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the deployment of Saudi armed forces in combat in support of American and other coalition forces; and
• the use of Saudi facilities and air space as part of the international sanctions regime against Iraq from 1991 to 2003.

Then came the cataclysmic events of 11 September 2001 which produced a new set of serious strains in the US-Saudi “special relationship.” It should not be forgotten that significant strains in the relationship had appeared long before then: the Arab-Israeli conflict; differences over oil; opposition within the US to the arch-conservative nature of Saudi society (involving such concerns as restrictions on freedom of religion and the role of women), US charges of a Saudi lack of – or at least lukewarm – cooperation in investigation of the June 1996 bombing of the US military barracks at al-Khubar, and differences over appropriate policy toward Saddam Husayn’s Iraq.

Suddenly, these differences were surmounted by tensions over:
• the presence of 15 Saudis among the 19 hijackers of 11 September, and indeed the Saudi origins of Usamah b. Ladin;
• US allegations of a Saudi reluctance to confront Saudi extremists within the kingdom;
• US allegations of Saudi slowness to act to curb financial flows to terrorists;
• US allegations that Saudi Arabia and particularly the predominant expression of Islam there, Wahhabism, fosters hatred of other religions and cultures;
• US allegations that prominent Saudi businessmen and even members of royal family supported al-Qa‘idah and/or other extremists; and
• a Saudi reluctance to provide support for US attack on Iraq in spring 2003.

Given this negative atmosphere, where do US-Saudi security relations go from here? In the medium- to long-term, it seems clear that the present atmosphere of allegations and suspicions will ameliorate, at least in part. No doubt, public opinion will remain wary and Congress (never known for its friendliness to the Arab world) will continue to snarl. But no US administration is likely to deliberately and foolhardily jeopardize a productive and mutually beneficial relationship.

Why? Simply put, the reasons why Saudi Arabia is important to the US remain as true now as they did before 11 September. First and foremost is the oil factor. Saudi Arabia is world’s largest exporter, presently exporting approximately 8.5 million barrels a day, roughly one-third of total OPEC production; at times it has been the largest single supplier of crude oil to the US; and it possesses one-quarter of total world reserves.

A second and vitally important reason is Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical setting. It lies at the crossroads of Middle Eastern security. It is a key Gulf player because of its presence in the Gulf, its ties to the smaller Gulf monarchies, and the location of its oilfields in the Gulf. But the kingdom’s western boundary is the Red Sea and it also possesses a long, porous land border with Yemen. This forces the kingdom to be involved in Yemeni, Red Sea, and even Horn of Africa affairs. To the north, it borders the Fertile Crescent, which gives rise to complicated entanglement in northern Arab politics.

Another reason for Saudi Arabia’s importance is its influence on the region and the wider Islamic world. In the Middle East, the kingdom dominates the Arabian Peninsula, has long been a principal backer of Jordan, and brokered the accord that essentially brought an end to the Lebanese civil war. It is home to Islam’s holiest sites at Makkah and al-Madinah and it feels it exercises a special responsibility for the welfare of Muslims everywhere. And since 11 September 2001, and especially in recent months, it has become the principal battleground between the forces of moderation and extremism in Islam.

Another reason for its importance lies in its role as the linchpin of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As the largest and most powerful of the GCC’s six members, it is obvious that as Saudi Arabia goes, so goes the GCC. Finally, the kingdom is important for its influence on Arab-Israeli matters. While it has always shunned direct contacts with Israel and is a staunch supporter of Arab positions and Palestinian rights, it has also sought to play a moderating role in Arab politics, to promote the prospects of peace, and to persuade its Arab allies to keep open channels for negotiation – and thus has served as an important, if reticent actor in this arena.

The key concern for US policymakers is not whether Saudi Arabia should remain a key partner in Gulf security matters, but instead whether the Al Sa‘ud royal family can continue to exercise effective leadership and remain dependable partners – and thereby ensure that Saudi Arabia remains a dependable partner.

Simply put, Saudi Arabia is still the best fit for a regional partner or platform for US security goals in the Gulf. Alternative partners are either not realistic or nearly as valuable. Iraq is in a mess and will remain so for years to come. Even more, the rosy views of some American commentators that an American-liberated, American-constructed Iraqi state will provide permanent facilities for US military use should take note of the British experience in post-colonial independent Iraq.

Israel is useful to the United States in certain respects but in terms of Gulf security, it is as much – if not more of – a liability than an asset. Pakistan, while an invaluable and necessary ally in the so-called “war on terror,” has an unsteady military government, sectarian strife, and regional-ethnic divisions that clearly make any alliance uncertain.

Afghanistan remains in as much of a mess as Iraq and, in any case, is too remote and inaccessible to be of much value for the Gulf. Central Asia is even more of the same. The other GCC countries, while already proving their usefulness, are not equal substitutes for Saudi Arabia.

What are Saudi Arabia’s security goals and objectives? First and most important at present, it is clearly in Saudi Arabia’s interests (both in terms of the Al Sa‘ud and Saudi society as a whole) to confront and defeat Islamist extremism, both domestically and worldwide. Cooperation with the United States and assistance to and from Washington is in Saudi Arabia’s interest, as well as America’s.

Saudi Arabia’s international security and defense policy has been built painstakingly and almost exclusively on close ties to the US. Most of same security concerns and/or threat potentials that existed before 11 September continue to concern the kingdom, as pointed out above. Riyadh continues to require extensive help in improving and professionalizing its armed forces – help of the sort that the United States and, to a lesser extent, its European allies, provide at present.

Similarly to Saudi Arabia’s role for the US, the kingdom has no real alternatives to depending on the US for security needs. Could Saudi Arabia, in an extreme situation, transfer its security partnership from the US to Western Europe? It is possible, since Europe has had and continues to maintain a military presence in the Gulf. Furthermore, Europe already provides significant amounts of arms and materiel to Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and it also offers multiple investment opportunities (GCC-Europe trade already outstrips that of GCC-US trade). Britain in particular enjoys long-standing excellent relations with all the GCC states;

But Europe is difficult to deal with a single unit, unlike the administration in Washington. Europe’s military power – and especially its force projection capabilities – is inferior to that of the US. Most tellingly, Europe could hardly be expected to side with Saudi Arabia should a serious dispute arise with the United States.

What about Russia? It has long been a player in the Gulf, although its history of involvement has more often than not been in support of regimes opposed to Riyadh. But bridges of cooperation and understanding would have to be built virtually from scratch and the effort might not be worthwhile. For the Saudis, much of a half-century of military development, training, and doctrine would have to be replaced and the Saudi model of economic development inevitably would be altered.

Russia’s force projection capabilities are nearly non-existent and Moscow cannot provide the sort of investment and export-import climate on which Saudi businesses depend. Furthermore, the two countries are cut-throat competitors in the international oil-export arena and Russia is not in a position to go head to head with the United States over what for it must be a marginal interest.

China is even less attractive. Yes, it has military hardware for sale but its economy is still developing. It has no force projection capabilities and has evinced little interest in developing them, or any serious involvement in the Gulf

A fully integrated GCC is still far too small in mass and too weak to assure its own security against external attack, while a broader Gulf security pact with Iran and Iraq is simply unthinkable for the foreseeable future and greater Arab cooperation was entertained and discarded in the Damascus Declaration experiment after the Kuwait War

Saudi Arabia has long relied on Pakistan in many respects, including the stationing of Pakistani troops in the kingdom and the provision of Pakistani pilots for the Saudi air force in the past. But, as mentioned above, Pakistan faces its security problems and is probably, fundamentally, as much a liability for Riyadh as it may be for the US.

There has been a minor flurry of recent speculation that Saudi Arabia might seek to develop a nuclear capability, perhaps to counter Israel’s present and Iran’s potential capabilities and as a sort of high-tech shortcut to overcome the kingdom’s structural military weaknesses. There has been speculation that Riyadh has assisted in Pakistan’s nuclear program and stands to benefit from the resultant “Islamic bomb.”

After all, the argument goes on to note, Saudi Arabia bought a number of CSS-2 Silkworm ballistic missiles from China in the mid-1980s without notifying the US – and in fact, kept their purchase completely secret from Washington. Most or all of these missiles appear still to remain operational, although increasingly obsolete and only equipped with conventional warheads.

It should be remembered though that the Silkworms were purchased in the context of the acquisition of missiles by Iraq and Iran and their deployment during these countries’ “war of the cities.” There has never been any evidence offered in support of such speculation and it is seriously doubtful that Saudi Arabia would risk a major confrontation with the United States over nuclear capabilities, particularly in the present atmosphere.

It should be recalled that US anger over the Silkworms resulted in a strong diplomatic demarche to Riyadh and the subsequent expulsion of the US ambassador as persona non grata. Can Riyadh really afford to jeopardize its already shaky relations with Washington over a nuclear program that can, at best, offer it only marginal and limited benefit? The chances of an Israeli attack on Saudi Arabia are virtually nil. Iran is unlikely to provoke hostilities and Saudi interests would seem to be better served by maintaining and strengthening the current rapprochement. And what use are nuclear weapons against Islamic extremists?

Despite the lack of alternatives on both sides, there will continue to be friction in the US-Saudi security relationship, regardless of how well or poorly overall bilateral relations fare. Saudi Arabia’s fundamental national interests lie in a policy of inclusion and not exclusion, as the US promotes in the region. That is, it must maintain correct and productive relations with Iran, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, and other regional actors that bear directly on Saudi security but with whom the US is not in favor.

Iraq will remain a problem for Saudi Arabia for years to come. Saudi Arabia’s close relationship with the US and thus the inevitable linkage with American policy in Iraq, has gained it considerable enmity throughout the Arab world. Iraq is politically unstable today and will remain so for years to come. Even if the United States is able to install a functioning, independent government in Baghdad, the future of the country cannot be assured and threats to Saudi Arabia (and/or its GCC allies) remain real and possible for the foreseeable future.

The continuation of strife between Israelis and Palestinians seems, unfortunately, equally likely to persist – and may well remain the most problematic and damaging factor in US-Saudi relations.

The key element of US-Saudi security relations remain US military support for the kingdom through, first, provision of arms, equipment, and training, and, second, maintenance of an American security umbrella over the kingdom and its GCC neighbors. The first point does not arouse debate – it is a mostly win-win situation for the United States: not only does the US maintain a presence (and ears) in the kingdom, it also provides financial advantages for both the US government and private-sector suppliers.

But there is considerable concern voiced in Saudi Arabia about the excessive financial burden of arms purchases and logistical agreements. Saudi Arabia can no longer afford to buy whatever it wishes at top-of-the-rack prices and it behooves the United States to recognize this and adjust its policies accordingly.

The second point is more problematic at first glance, since the strains over Saudi reluctance to publicly support the US in the recent Iraq War – and the well-known opposition of Islamic extremists for the presence of foreign troops in the Holy Land – have prompted the removal of US units from the kingdom.

But remember that Saudi Arabia and other GCC states had been highly reticent to permit US basing on their territory long before the Kuwait War, and that the US forces removed last summer were there only “temporarily” to enforce the Iraqi “no-fly” zones. In part, it still remains possible to provide an “over-the-horizon” protection, even if that horizon now includes “over-the-border” aspects in Qatar and other GCC states. Still, at some point, greater and more systematic access to Saudi facilities will prove necessary under a format that satisfies the needs and sensitivities of both parties.

But, in addition to direct security relations, the United States will continue to encourage and benefit from Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the GCC. While there are tensions in this relationship as well (largely due to Saudi Arabia’s predominant size and a lack of finesse on occasion in dealing with its GCC allies), any weakening or divisions in the GCC will harm both Saudi and American interests. Furthermore, US will benefit from Saudi moderation in pan-Arab circles, whether on Arab-Israeli matters or in engaging radical Arab states (for example, the Saudi role in encouraging Libya’s recent spirit of accommodation), and from Saudi Arabia’s leading role in broader Islamic circles.

In a perfect world, there would be no disagreements between friends who have far more in common than they have disagreements. But this is not a perfect world. And disagreements can arise even with America’s oldest allies, as recent Franco-American relations demonstrate. From an international security point-of-view, it is undeniable that both the United States and Saudi Arabia would suffer considerable damage from any a breakdown in their long-standing security relationship.

Another Bombing in Riyadh

[Original publication on this website, 13 November 2003. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh suffered another terrorist bombing on 9 November 2003, killing as many as 18 people and wounding more than 120 more. Since the attack displayed a similar modus operandi as the 12 May 2003 bombing of other residential compounds, most observers – including the Saudi and American governments – placed the blame on al-Qa‘idah. This seems a reasonable assumption, given that network’s declaration of its intentions to strike at expatriates in the kingdom and the crescendoing series of confrontations between the Saudi security forces and pockets of Islamist extremists throughout much of the kingdom since the 12 May bombings.

One prominent American newspaper editorialized that since Usamah b. Ladin had called for the expulsion of American forces from Saudi Arabia and since American forces have now departed, this proves that al-Qa‘idah’s target must therefore be the Al Sa‘ud ruling family. This assumption may prove to be far too hasty. First, it is flawed in its reasoning that, since the United States removed its regional operations center and the US military units stationed in the kingdom to bases in nearby countries, there is no longer any basis for Usamah b. Ladin’s objection.

In fact, US military personnel and civilian contractors on military-related projects remain at their jobs in Saudi Arabia. Some 30,000 Americans continue to live and work there, as do thousands of Britons, Irish, and other Europeans. Even where Westerners are not directly involved, it is obvious that the country’s development strategy, oil policy, security arrangements, and commercial interests are driven by Western-educated and Western-influenced Saudis and the kingdom continues to place enormous reliance on its relationship with the United States and the West.

This more fundamental connection is undoubtedly as abhorrent – if not more so – to Usamah b. Ladin and his allies than the mere presence of foreign troops on Saudi soil. For an ideology that places so much stress on outward appearances, such as observing the ban on alcohol and the cloaking of women’s public appearance, the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia most likely forms a symbolic object of remonstrance for opposition to the broader orientation of the kingdom around a perceived Westernization.

At the very least, this episode, coming on top of the 12 May bombings and the continuing saga of arrests and shoot-outs with radical Islamists, should put an end to those ill-informed critics of the kingdom who have rashly claimed that the régime and the Al Sa‘ud are either in secret alliance with al-Qa‘idah or have paid off the organization in some sort of bizarre blackmail to leave Saudi Arabia alone. It should, but I doubt it will since many of these critics and instant experts seem to be motivated by an innate hostility to Saudi Arabia far more than by concern with the issues or understanding of the kingdom or Islam.

Their opposite numbers are the terrorists who have carried out these suicide bombings and whose members have been apprehended by Saudi security forces, as well as, of course, those individuals who are still at large. It has been noted that most of the victims in the Muhayya compound struck on 9 November were Arabs or from Asian countries, rather than Americans or other Westerners. There has been some speculation that this was due to faulty intelligence on the part of the perpetrators – i.e. they were unaware that the compound was not inhabited by large numbers of Westerners. This explanation seems unlikely, as does the idea that the goal of the perpetrators is to destabilize the régime and thus bring down the ruling family.

The Muhayya compound may have been chosen precisely because of its Arab and Muslim residents. The disclosure that the recent capture of militants and arms caches in Makkah included the discovery of booby-trapped Qur’ans and water bottles – items destined for use by Muslim pilgrims – reinforces the suspicion that the primary goal is chaos, a total renunciation of the existing order, perhaps – and only perhaps – to produce a “clean slate” on which to create the extremists’ view of a proper order.

Are the theorists executing this strategy loyal members or allies of al-Qa‘idah, thus indicating an even more sinister and less objectively rational downward spiral in al-Qa‘idah’s beliefs? Such a nihilistic strategy may prove to be the link – if any exists – to the wave of terror sweeping Iraq. Or has a decimation in the ranks of al-Qa‘idah’s leadership brought inferior and less stable leaders to the fore? Or are these acts and intentions evidence of a lack of leadership, of the emergence of deranged individuals in a vacuum who seek to kill simply for the objective of killing? Is it really al-Qa‘idah at work, or only imitators, in the same way that serial killers provoke copycats?

There is no doubt that the recent wave of shocking incidents has worried all Saudis and presents grave challenges to the régime and the ruling family. And, yes, it may be true, as some critics allege, that the Saudi government did not act after 11 September 2001 as strongly as it has begun to act after 12 May 2003. But this is not unusual: after all, airport security in the United States up to 10 September 2001 was a farce, as lax if not worse than standards in many Third World countries. As for those critics who shout that the kingdom is in free fall and collapsing, get real.

Saudi Arabia and the United States, Again

[Original publication on this website, 14 May 2003. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

Al-Qa`idah apparently has struck again with the simultaneous bombings of residential compounds in Riyadh. And once again the finger-pointing is crescendoing in the United States. The initial accusation is that in its haste to attack Iraq the US administration has ignored or forgotten about al-Qa`idah. Not far behind is a recrudescence of accusations against Saudi Arabia: it supports terrorism, its ruling elite flirts with al-Qa`idah, the kingdom is not doing its part in the "war against terror," the Saudis are anti-American, etc., etc.

Make no mistake, the war on Iraq was ill-advised and is and, will continue to be, a festering wound in American foreign policy. Did the administration's obsession with Saddam lead it to ignore al-Qa`idah? No doubt this charge can be levelled against some individual officials but it is ridiculous to think that the entire US government, including the politicians in charge, have complacently dropped al-Qa`idah to a back-burner. At most, the administration can be declared guilty of under-estimating al-Qa`idah – but who hasn't been guilty of this? At best, the tragic bombing in Riiyadh provides further proof that the blows struck against al-Qa`idah and its organization (as much as that concept actually applies) have been damaging but certainly not fatal.

It is clear, contrary to the pronouncements of some of the self-proclaimed "experts" on Saudi Arabia and terrorism beloved by the media, that the planning for the Riyadh bombings began months ago, most likely before the Iraq War began and long before Washington's announcement that it was removing American troops from Saudi Arabia. And it should be equally obvious to anyone rational that supporting al-Qa`idah or terrorism is definitely not in Saudi Arabia's interests.

Is Saudi Arabia to blame for the latest bombings? Not directly of course. Extremists exist in all societies, including America and Europe, and the charge that the Al Sa`ud turn a blind eye to extremism can be easily rebutted. But it is also true that the state is notorious for its unwillingness to keep the public informed and accept responsibility for unwelcome or inconvenient consequences. Clearly the government, whether through neglect or simply slowness in shaking up cumbersome and ineffective bureaucracies, has been slow to come to grips with the internal threat posed by extremists. There is a long litany of explosions and attacks in the kingdom, against Saudis as well as against expatriates. A few days before the last bombings, Saudi security forces raided what appears to have been an al-Qa`idah safe house in Riyadh and confiscated large numbers of arms and explosives. To the government's credit, it publicly announced the existence of the cell and the only partial success of its operation. But all 19 targeted extremists managed to escape and may have been responsible for the subsequent attacks.

It was recently my misfortune recently to hear a talk by a British university lecturer, claiming to be a Middle East expert apparently without ever visiting the region or studying it seriously, in which he dropped a casual remark that Saudi Arabia is "dysfunctional." To anyone who has lived in Saudi Arabia, has visited there, or knows anything about the kingdom, this is plainly ridiculous. Yes, Saudi Arabia has problems. It has serious problems. But it is not the only country in the world with problems and it seems better equipped to handle its problems than many other states. The essential question is how quickly and effectively is the kingdom moving beyond recognition of its problems to executing the steps necessary to solve them. Correct timing is essential. Move too quickly and risk alienating much of society while weakening the strength and legitimacy of the state. Move too slowly and risk alienating the same and other elements of society while not eradicating an environment in which extremists flourish.

In a recent Adelphi Paper (accessible elsewhere on this website), I argued that, despite the difficulties and disagreements – both old and new – in its relationship with the United States, Saudi Arabia has no practical choice but cling to the relationship, just as it is in the United States' fundamental interest to perpetuate it as well. A loosening of the ties in some areas – such as regional security arrangements – is best accompanied by a strengthening of ties in other areas. Saudi Arabia clearly has gone some distance to address American concerns about its policies and internal problems. Equally clearly, it has some distance yet to go.

A Note on Terminology: "Gulf War"

[Original publication on this website, 14 May 2003. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved]

Much of the media and a number of commentators have started a bad habit of referring to the American war on Iraq as the "Second Gulf War," thus redefining the 1991 liberation of Kuwait as the "First Gulf War." This is plain wrong and should be avoided.

In the first place, the use of the term "Gulf War" is ethnocentric and inaccurate. It implies that the entire Gulf, or at least most of it was in flames in 1990-1991. While all littoral states of the Gulf obviously were concerned about events, the war took place in only two out of the eight. Saudi Arabia obviously felt threatened and was the base for much of the coalition's response to Iraq. The other four smaller Gulf states contributed a few troops and use of their facilities but were essentially onlookers while Iran remained fully on the periphery. By the same standards, the recent upheavals in the Balkans should be termed the "European War" and the American excursions into Grenada and Panama the "Caribbean Wars."

The second objection to calling the Iraq War the "Second Gulf War" and the Kuwait War the "First Gulf War" is one of an Alzheimer's moment on the part of the self-same media and enthusiasts. The same people and institutions earlier blithely referred to the Iran-Iraq War as the "Gulf War" and then, when American and Western forces became involved in fighting, simply forgot about the old "Gulf War" and christened the new conflict as the "Gulf War." Apart from the confusion and inaccuracy that this causes, it devalues the losses of hundred of thousands of lives in the eight years of fighting between Iran and Iraq by erasing them from the historical memory simply because they were not American or British lives. This is not right. It is not honorable.

Can We Really Call It Victory?

[Original publication on this website, 2 May 2003. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

Yesterday, US President George W. Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over, although he pointedly said there could be no legal end to the war. This announcement followed by a few days a statement by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld – made at an American military camp in Doha during his post-war Gulf tour – disparaging those who had opposed the administration’s attack on Iraq.

Clearly, the administration has declared success for its self-initiated war and vindication for its misnamed “pre-emptive” strategy. But in reality what has been achieved? Iraq lies in tatters, Saddam Husayn and his closest lieutenants (like al-Qa‘idah’s leaders) remain at large, and there still is no evidence of Iraqi WMD. And President Bush inexplicably continues to claim that Iraq has been an ally of al-Qa‘idah and provided funding for it when there is no credible evidence to support this.

While it appears that American forces are beginning to exercise some civil administration, no realistic prospect for a representative Iraqi government is on the horizon. It may be argued that it is premature to expect effective political reconstruction in only a few weeks. But the prospects for a viable, independent, and truly representative national replacement government appear even less imminent than they did before the war.

The Kurds in the north long ago organized a working system for their region although Kurdish authority is undermined by reports of the expulsion of Arab residents of Kurdistan. Well-organized Islamist groups struggle for control of the Shi‘i heartland in the south and center and US policy seems to be little more than declaring it will not accept an Islamic republic and keeping well away. And what happens should an electoral majority of Shi‘ah declare that an Islamic republic is in fact what they want? American control of the country’s center is insecure and relations with the area’s Sunni population uneasy. One need not have much sympathy for the removal of Baghdad’s self-declared mayor but the peremptory nature of the American action is little cause for comfort. Rather than succeeding in the difficult task of gaining trust, the American presence has been marred by the deaths caused by shooting into civilian crowds, twice recently in Fallujah and earlier in Mosul.

Perhaps American pressure facilitated the appointment of Mahmud ‘Abbas as the Palestinian Prime Minister and the acceptance of his cabinet by Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian parliament. But the dusting off of the “road map” to Middle East peace will not get very far unless the administration begins to exert appropriate pressure on Ariel Sharon as well. A few sympathetic words are not going to resurrect the Oslo process from the ranks of the dead.

The announcement of the removal of American military forces from Saudi Arabia is a welcomed step but in itself does not address the problem of deterioration in US-Saudi relations. Transfer of those forces to neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council states is not a long-term solution either. While their presence in Qatar or the UAE is unlikely to arouse the same level of Islamist passions, the low esteem in which the United States is held by public opinion in those countries does not augur well for a permanent welcome. The suspicion remains alive that this administration’s answer lies in establishing permanent bases in Iraq, a move that fairly oozes disaster.

And this does not begin to address the considerable damage that lies farther afield. The White House promises revenge on France for its failure to support its belligerence and Bush’s lieutenant in this enterprise, Prime Minister Tony Blair, is soundly rebuffed by Moscow. Clearly, American unilateralism and belligerence has damaged relations around the world, the American image has plummeted, boycotts of American products are on the rise, and the climate for foreign investment in the United States is beginning to suffer. Where is the victory in this?

Iraq and the Middle East in the Aftermath of This Month's War

[Original publication on this website, 14 April 2003. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

This morning, my radio cheerily announced that since the war in Iraq was all but over, the stock markets were turning their attention to financial concerns and therefore were surging upwards. This echoed the comments of President George W. Bush proclaiming a successful campaign and the release of a new public opinion poll supporting America's war on Iraq and backing similar actions against Syria, North Korea, and others if the administration deemed it necessary. All is well in America it seems.

My mind must be in another dimension for I am fundamentally unable to comprehend the reasoning behind this attitude. The Bush administration launched this war, by its own rhetoric, to oust Saddam Husayn, to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, to institute regime change in Iraq, and to instill a climate for democracy in the Middle East. What has it accomplished so far?

As of today, the whereabouts of Saddam Husayn and most of his circle are unknown. The regime change accomplished so far has been a shift to anarchy, hardship, death, and destruction. Despite all its claims of possessing intelligence regarding Iraq's possession of WMD, the US has yet to confirm a single WMD find. It appears that all 1000 of Iraq's oil wells were quickly secured, along with all military installations and presidential palaces. But American troops stood by as the National Museum was completely looted and the Bush administration refused to take responsibility. The incalculable damage to Iraq's heritage and identity was compounded by the news today that the National Library was burned to the ground, days after the museum outrage and well after the US government knew that such a tragic crime could well happen. (The impression that Iraq and the war are already passing from American's attention was underpinned by the absence of any mention of the National Library in the local newspaper.) The protection of American soldiers' lives and intentions to minimize casualties to Iraqi civilians, perhaps "only" a few thousand deaths, are necessary and obligatory goals. But the invasion and military occupation of a country entails many other practical, moral, and legal responsibilities as well. Here the Bush administration undeniably has shirked responsibilities.

Iraq is in chaos and it is unclear to what extent the US government is prepared to deal with it adequately and appropriately. One certainly hopes that steps will be taken quickly to assure the continuation (or restoration) of food supplies, electricity, water, sewage, and simple law and order functions, including the use of American and British forces in a policing role. The deeper and more difficult question concerns the future administration and leadership of post-Saddam Iraq. The steps taken so far by the Bush administration do not inspire confidence. Washington continues to push for prominent roles for totally unsuitable exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi and Nizar al-Khazraji. The claim that Ayatallah Sistani had issued a favorable fatwa in al-Najaf appears to be false, whether due to ignorance or straightforward deception is not clear. Britain has chosen a questionable "sheik" to exercise authority in Basra. It would be nearly impossible to create a cohesive, viable, and truly representative government in Iraq under the best of conditions. It is virtually unthinkable for this to occur under the control of an ideologically motivated clique within the Bush administration whose priorities seem to have little to do with the welfare of the Iraqi people.

Will the war on Iraq facilitate the emergence of democracy in the Middle East? Even if this was a real intention of the Bush administration and not simply propaganda, the war's impact is far more likely to be negative than positive. Sadly, the image of the United States that this war has reinforced in Iraqis, Arabs, and other peoples around the world is not one of America as a beacon of democracy and justice but of a heavy-handed oppressor, enamored of its own technology and disdainful of world opinion.

Many people in the region firmly believe that the United States launched this war to gain control of Iraq's oil. The pattern of post-war "reconstruction" contracts to American firms is not likely to assuage their fears. Given the deep ideological nature of the administration and its bellicose attitude, any future Iraqi government will have to toe the line. In the short term, a military occupation is unavoidable. In the longer term, it must be assumed that this administration expects a compliant Baghdad government to provide it with military bases and rights of movement, as well as access to oil on favorable terms and political and diplomatic support. This is likely to be irreconciliable with the wishes of many Iraqis and undoubtedly will be seen by most Arabs as evidence that the US has imposed a second mandate on Iraq.

With the destruction of Saddam's regime, Washington -- and particularly the hawks -- are belligerently demanding that Syria fall into line and of course Iran continues to be viewed as a target. It beggars the imagination that the Bush administration is actually contemplating a strategy of invading Syria while the smoke still rises over Iraq. But scarcely 18 months ago the idea that the United States government would defy the United Nations and most of its allies to attack and lay waste to Iraq was similarly unfathomable.

Since 11 September 2001, the Bush administration has invaded Afghanistan, admittedly destroying the abominable Taliban but leaving the country in ruins. It has seriously hampered the operations of al-Qa`idah but has failed to destroy its top leaders or the organization, at the expense of creating grievous harm to civil liberties and of raising public apprehensions by false allegations of connections without credible evidence. It has got rid of Saddam Husayn but has left a trail of destruction in its wake that some have compared to the medieval sack of Baghdad by Hulagu. And now it threatens similar devastation elsewhere. War and deathly retribution are not the only methods of dealing with authoritarian regimes. Nor can it be said they are the best or even most efficient. It is simply madness to subordinate the loudly proclaimed American ideals of democracy and justice to such mindless mayhem.

The War of American Hubris

[Original publication on this website, 20 March 2003. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

War began this morning with an attempted assassination of Saddam Husayn and retaliatory missile strikes on Kuwait. Years ago, in a production of “The Dutchess of Amalfi” at the National Theatre in London, the hooded figure of Death lounged around the periphery of the stage throughout the performance, always present. Death is hovering now around Iraq.

This is not simply a war to oust a dictator, a war to disarm a régime of its weapons of mass destruction. It is a war of American hubris. In fact, it has little to do with Iraq or with Saddam Husayn. Despite the declarations of President Bush and his advisers, Iraq is not a threat to global peace. Iraq is not a direct threat to the United States. Deterrence and containment have emasculated the threat to even his neighbors.

No, this war is more about a belligerent vision of America’s place in the world. It is a war devised and planned since the beginning of this Bush administration. Its proponents have pushed their plans into reality by utilizing the trauma of the 11 September attacks to create support among a fearful and paranoid American populace.

Americans have long been infamous for their ignorance and dismissal of the rest of the world. But this administration has worked overtime to antagonize long-standing allies and to dismiss countries and institutions that disagreed with its goals. It is notable that, despite the Bush administration’s declarations of a coalition of supporting states in this war, the United States is perhaps the only country in the world in which more people support the war than oppose it. It is notable that none of the six American allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the countries most at risk from Saddam Husayn, has endorsed the war. It is equally notable that these states, ignoring the dismay and opposition of their own people, have been pressured into quietly providing logistical support for American forces. There can be little doubt that if these countries had elected legislatures, they would have vetoed this support as did the Turkish parliament.

It is not the first time that the United States has pursued an international agenda without regard to the consequences and it probably will not be the last. Indeed, there are far too many shadows of past American actions that cloud this war. The Bush administration has decided that it wants this war and, even more, that nothing or no one will dissuade it – global opposition, breaches with key European allies, the refusal of the United Nations to sanction the war, all were dismissed as irrelevant.

It is a one-sided contest and undoubtedly the fighting will not be prolonged. But the consequences will reverberate for years and probably decades. An American victory and occupation of Iraq may eventually result in a better government and standard of living there – but perhaps not. It will not help solve the Palestinian-Israeli impasse, a problem that this administration has blithely and consistently ignored. It is debatable that a democratic government in Iraq, if that is even achieved, will have truly significant repercussions throughout the Middle East. It can be argued with equal plausibility that the anti-Americanism that this war will intensify will threaten friendly governments in the region and that, should any succumb, successor régimes will be far less friendly to the United States.

More globally, the drive to war already has destroyed much of the sympathy and good-will engendered by the 11 September tragedy. The long-term effect is likely to be a recrudescence of antipathy and suspicion about American motives and methods in even the closest countries and peoples. It is not a price worth paying.

What's in a Name?

[Original publication on this website, 14 March 2003. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

At one time the BBC operated a unit that advised announcers on the proper pronunciation of non-English names and words. One assumes that this unit has been closed down, judging from the persistence of BBC announcers in giving al-Qa‘idah a hillbilly twist as “kaa-eeda” (one almost imagines the following words to be, “where y’all from, boy?”) The BBC is not alone in this, of course, and perhaps one should not expect the media to be able to correctly pronounce every foreign word in the news.

On the other hand, given that millions of people who had never heard of al-Qa‘idah before 11 September have been bombarded subsequently with the name every day for a year and a half, common sense would seem to dictate that politicians and media should be able to absorb a reasonably correct pronunciation. Is there any reason that the name of the infamous bin Ladin should be pronounced in a way that makes it sound like an overburdened container ship?

For that matter, why does George W. Bush persist in referring to “ee-rack,” rather than “ih-rock”? Could it be that there is no one among his advisers who are actually familiar with Iraq, anyone with any knowledge of Arabic, for example? Imagine the fuss that would be made if he kept referring to “eye-talians.” For that matter, how many talking heads out there still call Iraq’s neighbor “eye-ran” instead of “ee-ron” (Iraq and Iran may look nearly the same in English but they are two entirely different words). Please, let's retire the pointless pronunciation of "catarrh" for the small but important country of Qatar ("cutter" is close enough). And could it be that the media’s corruption of Shi‘ah and Shi‘i into “Shiite” is at least in part due to the vulgar word it resembles?

Understandably, those referring to terrorist suspect José Padilla as “josey paddlela” were swiftly corrected. But why did no one notice when recently arrested al-Qa‘idah leader Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was persistently referred to as “ca-leed”?

All this – and more – could be dismissed as mere pedantry if it did not seem to signify a more troubling complacency and superficiality. A number of media sources, including wire services, have referred to Khalid Shaykh Muhammad as a Kuwaiti when in fact he is a Pakistani Baluch born in Kuwait – this makes him no more a Kuwaiti than the son or daughter of Turkish migrant workers born in Germany until recently would be entitled to German citizenship. Is this important? Yes, surprisingly, it is. Khalid Shaykh Muhammad’s experience as a poor boy born and growing up in a well-to-do country, a country which would never accept him as a fellow citizen, may help to explain his attraction to extremism, his apparent anomie a contributing factor in his joining the forces of al-Qa‘idah.

Perhaps I have missed it but I have not seen any media comment on the name of captured terrorist suspect Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. This would appear to be less a name than a description, since it translates as “the son of a Libyan shaykh.” And what about the suspects whose names are given as al-Kuwayti, al-Jaziri, al-Yamani, al-Qatari, al-Masri – meaning the Kuwaiti, the Algerian, the Yemeni, the Qatari, the Egyptian. Perhaps this is simply meant as shorthand for “John Doe” but how many people realize that? Or Ramzi binalshibh? Apart from the tongue-twisting pronunciations that this garbled spelling produces, has no one noticed that “ibn al-shaybah” simply means “the son of an old man”?

At best, this is sloppy journalism. When fed to the media by US government spokespersons, it is at best negligence. A small point, I know, and perhaps it really is pedantic. But it seems to me that we are already overburdened with too many superficialities and stereotypes. Stereotypes reduce complex situations and societies to black-and-white perceptions of right and wrong. And such stark views lead to intolerance, inflexibility, and mischaracterization of people and situations. After all, how many Americans would like to see their president routinely referred to as that guntoting cowboy Jahj Dubya Botch.

Hellfire in Yemen

[Original publication on this website, 9 November 2002. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

On Sunday, 4 November 2002, six suspected al-Qa‘idah operatives, one of them a US citizen, were killed in Yemen when their vehicle was destroyed by a Hellfire missile launched from an unmanned Predator reconnaissance aircraft controlled by the CIA from Djibouti.

This development is disturbing for a number of reasons. Despite what the United States government calls it, this was an act of assassination of individuals who were presumed but not proven guilty of any crime. Asserting that the action was justified because the United States is waging war, that this was a legitimate wartime act, and that the individuals were committing an act of terrorism, is no legitimate defense. This seems particularly true since the American action was carried out in a state with a functioning government and with which the United States is not at war, and it is not even clear that the Yemen government was informed of the impending strike, gave its approval, or even notified that the US intended to act unilaterally when the opportunity presented itself.

Assassination is assassination, no matter what euphemism is employed for it. Israeli policy during the second intifadah has been to employ assassination under the rubric “targeted killings” to eliminate Palestinians that Israel claims are involved in terrorist activities. In both cases, governments declare their victims guilty and ignore their own judicial systems and bases of law.

But employment of this type of aggressive policy has wider ramifications. Using such acts of assassination as a precedent, any country can claim similar justification to attack its enemies whenever and however it wishes, since the definition of “war” and “pre-emption” are self-defined by politicians to fit their current circumstances.

Both Israel and the United States have claimed that such acts are pre-emptive, that action outside the boundaries of normal law is justified in order to pre-empt terrorist acts that will otherwise cause loss of life. A “pre-emptive action” assumes that the targets are, at the time they are killed, in the actual process of committing a terrorist act. But there is rarely sufficient evidence to support this contention. In the Yemen case, the United States government not only has failed to produce any evidence to this effect but, furthermore, has not even made a claim that this was the case – rather, the act was justified because the targets were members of al-Qa‘idah who appeared to have been involved in the attacks in Yemen on the USS Cole and the French tanker Limburg, and who may well have been planning other future attacks.

The logical and civilized course would have been to apprehend the suspects and give them a proper and fair trial, presenting irrefutable evidence of their guilt in the courtroom and subjecting them to appropriate punishment. Obviously such a course presented difficulties. Determining the whereabouts of the suspects was problematic. But this did not prevent them from being targeted on 4 November. A Yemeni army operation to capture them had been tried before and ended unsuccessfully in bloodshed. But a foreign military strike in a tribal area only weakens the hand of the Yemeni government and convinces tribes that the only response to state (and external) authority must be to retain autonomy and remain heavily armed.

Furthermore, the record of human rights in Yemen is bad enough without the United States providing the Yemen government with an example and precedent about how to deal simply and quickly with its opponents.

There can be no doubt that al-Qa‘idah, in whatever form and under whatever leadership, poses a deadly threat to the United States and many other states and peoples around the world. But cowboy vengeance is not the proper way of dealing with the problem. If you play by al-Qa‘idah’s rules, then you risk sinking to the level of al-Qa‘idah.

Why the American Response to 11 September Has Gone Seriously Wrong

[Original publication on this website, 10 November 2001. No republication or further distribution without author's permission. All rights reserved.]

In the last two months, a spectacularly hideous terrorist success has metamorphosed into a no-holds-barred war, pitting the world’s only superpower against one of the world’s poorest and weakest countries. The prolonged bombardment of Afghanistan is accompanied by an often jingoistic attitude that revenge must be achieved no matter the cost, that Islam is violent and Muslims are not to be trusted, that Saudis in particular are untrustworthy and anti-American, and that anyone who disagrees with this is unpatriotic. Has everyone gone completely mad? My field is Middle East politics, not military affairs, so I have no way of knowing whether the Bush administration’s objectives in the field will be successful or the United States will end up trapped in another quagmire. What I do know, however, is this so-called “war against terror” is a huge mistake and will have appalling consequences throughout the world for years to come. What has gone wrong here? A few hints.

1. “War Against Terror.” The tragic events of 11 September were not an attack by another power and thus an act of war. Rather the attacks were an international criminal act. Instead of cries of revenge and retaliation, President George W. Bush should be calling for justice – and where justice is imperfect in the present international arena, the United States Government should be working to improve international law and order instead of opposing emergent institutions such as the International Criminal Court.

2. “The Evidence Against Usamah bin Ladin.” The Bush administration has claimed to have conclusive evidence that Usamah bin Ladin and his al-Qa’idah group are responsible for the 11 September attacks. But it has refused to make this evidence public on grounds of national security. The consequence has been that much of the Islamic world and well beyond remains convinced that the Bush administration is simply using its superior military weight to attack whomever it wishes in a misguided war of rage.

3. “Get rid of the Taliban and establish a New Afghani Government.” Haven’t we heard this before? Let us remember than many of the leading figures in this administration – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Wolfowitz, Armitage et al. – held senior positions under George Bush 41. They prosecuted the 1991 war against Iraq but left office with America’s Iraqi policy in a mess. After ten months back in office, this team still has yet to do anything about Iraq. Indeed, some of these figures are pushing for the United States to occupy southern Iraq, install a puppet government derived from the ineffective, unrepresentative, and corrupt Iraqi opposition, and wait for Saddam to fall. Not politically acceptable? No problem, just apply the policy to Afghanistan instead, where the fragmented opposition to the Taliban has about the same following and competence as its Iraqi counterpart.

4. “Threat from Islam or Threat to Islam.” The fatally flawed book on “The Clash of Civilizations” has received considerable attention in the last month and has been the basis of many an instant expert’s view that Islam is indeed a violent religion hostile to the West. This is absolute nonsense. Islam is no more, and probably far less, violent than Christianity and fanatic Muslims are no more representative of the worldwide Muslim community than fanatic Christians, Jews, and Hindus are of their societies. No matter what their rhetoric, Islamist extremists such as Usamah bin Ladin pursue a political agenda, not a religious one. They are no different in this respect from extremists in Northern Ireland, for example, who loudly proclaim their Catholicism or their Protestantism in order to remake Ulster’s political map. Meanwhile, a publicized visit to a mosque or the muttered homily that Muslims are not our enemies does not begin to undo the enormous damage of an increase in bigotry and hatred. And Muslims are not the only victims – as shown by the killing of a Sikh man in Arizona simply because he wore a turban.

5. “Middle Eastern-looking suspects.” For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone – especially notoriously parochial Americans – can identify “Middle Easterners” at a glance. Having spent more than 30 years studying, visiting, working in, and writing about the Middle East, I would never be able to make such a visual identification with any certainty. I’ve known red-haired, freckled Lebanese, Palestinians with lighter complexions than most Europeans, a North African who was the spitting image of Archie Bunker, and a businessman from the United Arab Emirates who looked like the fraternal twin of a Swedish acquaintance. I would not be surprised if most people accused of being “Middle Eastern-looking” were of Hispanic origin (nearly all Saudis who have studied in the US have had the experience of being addressed in Spanish). All this leads me to wonder whether “Middle Eastern-looking” is simply another codeword for mindless prejudice?

6. “Saudi Muslim millionaire terrorist.” Ubiquitous media references to Usamah bin Ladin prefaced in this way are no more constructive or representative of Saudi Arabia or Muslims than similar, and equally justifiable, references to the “American Christian terrorist” Timothy McVeigh would be. The consequence? Reinforcement of the slanderous stereotype that all Saudis are hostile, anti-American, narrow-minded, and driving around expensive cars while their mindsets are stuck back in the seventh century. This is simply ridiculous.

7. “Saudi Bashing.” It has suddenly become fashionable to attack Saudi Arabia. If they are not with us (i.e., meekly accept whatever an arrogant United States government tells them to do), they must be against us. The New York Times publishes a vicious and error-filled editorial attacking “Saudi Arabia’s tolerance for terrorism” and its “malignant behavior.” One of its columnists blindly and naively claims that “The Saudis never have been on America's side in the war on terror.” The mayor of New York rejects a prominent Saudi’s humanitarian gesture of a $10 million check for relief because he doesn’t like his politics. Based only on “anonymous sources” within the US government, a journalist writing in the New Yorker claims that “the growing instability of the Saudi régime ... [is] the most immediate threat to American economic and political interests in the Middle East.” An American senator accuses the Saudis of playing a “double game” of giving extremists free rein at home and financing their groups.

Yes, corruption exists in the kingdom and women are restricted in their physical movements. Yet the extent to which the Saudi government has developed the country (including a comprehensive and free health system that puts the United States to shame), the ability of the ruling family to protect the country from a long series of external threats and prod a highly conservative population towards change, and the enviable emphasis on education for both men and women (it has long been said that there are more American-trained Ph.D.s in the Saudi cabinet than there are in the US cabinet and Congress combined) puts these instant experts to shame.

Is Saudi Arabia about to collapse? The same sorts of instant experts have been saying the same things since the 1940s: it cannot outlast the death of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (who restored the Saudi state in the early 20th century and presided over the early years of oil-fuelled change); it cannot withstand the challenge of Arab nationalism in the 1960s; it will suffer the same fate as the Shah of Iran did in 1979; it is being destroyed from within by Islamic extremists today. No doubt the kingdom has its fair share of problems but at least it has learned how to survive.

Wahhabism is not an extremist sect. Pay attention now: it is not even a sect but a reform movement clearly within mainstream Islam emphasizing austerity and piety. All of those charging Saudi Arabia with creating the menace of Usamah bin Ladin and the Arab Afghans conveniently seem to suffer from collective amnesia about the same American role at the same time. The fact is that Saudi Arabia and the United States have created a strong, multi-faceted relationship over more than half-a-century, despite significant underlying differences. It is a fantasy to think that a sudden stream of vitriol or the involvement of a few Saudis in extremist activities will destroy that relationship. Now, is anybody listening?

Political Reform in the Gulf: Stirrings in Qatar and Bahrain

[Strategic Comment originally posted on the International Institute for Strategic Studies website in January 2001]

In a region of autocratic rule and minimal public participation in politics, expectations of moves towards liberalisation and democratisation are growing in Qatar and Bahrain. Although change is likely to be incremental, the two countries' rulers represent the first wave of a younger, more progressive generation of Gulf leaders. Both Qatar and Bahrain are showing interest in constitutional reform that could dilute the power wielded by their ruling families.

Only two years ago, it would have seemed unlikely that Bahrain could inspire political liberalisation in Qatar. But the changes that Bahrain's Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifah is contemplating, if carried through, could spur Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani to keep his promise of a new constitution and general elections.
At the end of 2000, Bahrain expanded the Majlis al-Shura, or Advisory Council, to represent more religious and ethnic minorities. The council appointed a committee to write a new national charter. The committee promptly recommended forming a constitutional monarchy with an independent judiciary, creating a second, but elected, body alongside the appointed Majlis al-Shura and holding municipal elections. A public referendum is to approve the document before its acceptance by the emir, Sheikh Hamad, who apparently would then become king.

In Qatar, the drafting of a new constitution has been underway since July 1999. This work should be completed by mid-2002 and could lead to an elected parliament replacing its Majlis al-Shura.
Qatar's path to reform

Qatar's Sheikh Hamad gained control of his country by anything but democratic means, seizing power on 27 June 1995 during his father's absence abroad. It was reminiscent of the manner in which his father, Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad, had come to power in 1972 by declaring himself ruler while his cousin, the incumbent emir, was out of the country.

But both Sheikh Khalifah in 1972 and Sheikh Hamad in 1995 were to make their marks as reformers on the systems they inherited. Sheikh Khalifah was prime minister for some years before becoming emir. He continued to consolidate decision-making in his own hands - Qatar could be likened to a family business, run by a single individual. But he created the Majlis al-Shura and later expanded it to include emerging educated and younger sectors of the population. He reorganised the Council of Ministers to remove the automatic right to certain portfolios claimed by important branches of the large and often fractious ruling al-Thani family. Finally, Sheikh Khalifah laid the groundwork for exploiting Qatar's enormous natural gas reserves in the North Field.

As he grew older, Sheikh Khalifah began to withdraw from his duties and to hand over increasing responsibilities to his eldest son, Sheikh Hamad. Trained at Sandhurst in the UK, Sheikh Hamad had served as Qatar's Minister of Defence since the position was created in 1977. He had been named heir apparent at the same time. Similar to his father in his work habits and attention to detail, Sheikh Hamad began to exercise control over most government functions from 1992, when his father permitted him to form his own cabinet. Sheikh Khalifah's efforts to regain some of his powers appeared to lie behind the son's palace putsch.

Sheikh Hamad consolidated his position by appointing a new cabinet, which retained many of the ministers he had chosen in 1992. He also rewarded his brother Abdullah for his support by giving him the post of deputy prime minister in addition to the interior ministry, which he held already. A year later, the emir separated the Emiri Diwan (the Ruler's Office) from the formal executive structure of government by creating a separate Prime Minister's Office. He appointed Abdullah as premier – the first time that an emir had not held this position concurrently. The al-Thani family continued to dominate, holding 13 of the 20 cabinet portfolios, including defence, prime minister and interior, finance, economy and trade, and foreign affairs. But the new cabinet included more young, Western-educated ministers.

On 20 February 1996, the government announced that a counter-coup attempt by Sheikh Khalifah's supporters had failed. At the same time, it made thinly veiled accusations that neighbouring states Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates were implicated in the attempt. The United States was drawn into the dispute through efforts to mediate between Qatar and its aggrieved Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies.

Foreign policy shifts …

Sheikh Hamad apparently sought to offset his disputes within the GCC by relying more on his relationship with the US. He granted Washington access to military facilities. In 1996, Qatar became the second GCC state after Oman to permit Israel to open a trade office in its capital. The emirate also forged closer ties with Iran, partly to forestall Iranian poaching on the two countries' shared offshore gas field. It restored full diplomatic ties with its Gulf War foe, Iraq.

In the last several years, Sheikh Hamad's foreign policy has assumed a steadier course. He has continued to rely on good relations with the United States. The US has positioned equipment for an armoured brigade in Qatar. Qatar has offered to mediate between Washington and Tehran. The emir met President Bill Clinton in Washington in 1997 and sent his young son and heir apparent, Sheikh Jasim bin Hamad, on a similar trip in 2000. Unlike during his first year, such ties have not strained relations with GCC allies, apart from the usual exception of Bahrain.

In part, Sheikh Hamad's manoeuvres appeared aimed at attracting world attention to his small country. In November 2000, Qatar hosted the Organisation of the Islamic Conference summit – although the government's reluctance to close the Israeli trade office in Doha nearly caused a boycott by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iran. Immediately afterwards, Qatar opened a bid to host the next ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation.
… and domestic changes

But the emir's dramatic shifts in domestic policy undoubtedly will have a longer-lasting impact. His speech to the Majlis al-Shura in November 1996 set the scene for fundamental changes. The emir announced that the council would expand from 30 to 35 members and that he would head a new consultative Defence Council. He also declared that municipal elections would be held – the first elections in more than 35 years.

This set off a spirited round of campaigning, even though the municipal council would only have an advisory role and deliberate on relatively mundane issues. The 29 victors in the March 1999 polls were all men, but women were allowed both to vote and stand as candidates. This made Qatar the second Gulf state, after Oman, to grant women a political role. Also for the first time, elections were conducted for the board of the Qatari Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is one of Qatar's few professional bodies and includes many of the country's most influential figures.

Soon after his accession, Hamad said it was time to draw up a 'permanent constitution' that would extend Qatar's 'pioneering experience in popular participation'. A 32-member committee was formed in July 1999 with a three-year mandate to draft a new document. This is likely to include provision for an elected parliament to replace the Majlis al-Shura.

The new emir also began relaxing control over information and media. The Gulf states have long been known for their ubiquitous ministries of information and strict censorship on political and moral grounds. But in 1995, Qatar removed most censorship and in 1998 even abolished its Ministry of Information. In 1996, key people behind the BBC's Arabic television service – closed after it was dropped from a Saudi-owned satellite television network – were snapped up by a new Qatari satellite station, al-Jazeera. The station soon built a huge audience throughout the Arab world for its willingness to tackle sensitive issues. Broadcasts provoked diplomatic rows with Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and Libya as well as complaints from nearly every other Arab government. The station appears to be another public statement by the emir that he is determined to go his own way.

Stirrings in Bahrain

Developments in Qatar in some ways mirror those in neighbouring Bahrain. In Bahrain, however, persistent political opposition throughout most of the twentieth century has put greater pressure on the ruling family. The Baharnah – an Arab, Shi'a and originally rural community – were behind the unrest of 1994-98. They are among the poorest Bahrainis even though they form a majority. One of their key demands was restoration of the elected National Assembly, created in 1973 but suspended two years later, an objective shared by most Bahrainis. The Majlis al-Shura created in 1993 provided little satisfaction.

After taking power following the death of his father in March 1999, the new emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, sought to ease tensions left over from the earlier unrest. The government had earlier sought to contain dissent by exerting tight control rather than meeting any of its critics' demands or instituting significant reforms. But Hamad's early steps – releasing prisoners, including the most prominent dissident, Sheikh Abd al-Amir al-Jamri; permitting Amnesty International to investigate charges of police brutality in 1999; and broadening representation on the Majlis al-Shura in September 2000 – seemed to be tentative moves towards liberalisation and gaining public confidence.

The emir's announcement in October 2000 of impending constitutional changes indicate that he is serious about reforming his island state and winning over the opposition. Certainly expectations have been raised, even if the hard-core opposition remains unconvinced. More than a thousand people attended a public meeting in January 2001 to discuss these changes – an event that Hamad's father Sheikh Isa would never have permitted. It is likely that the promised referendum on the new constitution will be held in February.

Such reforms would be considered minor in many other parts of the world. It remains unlikely that any Gulf ruler would voluntarily give up the essential reins of power. But, aided by the distribution of oil revenues, the Gulf monarchies have long resisted significant structural changes and power-sharing. Thus, even small steps in one monarchy are watched carefully by rulers and people in all the other states. The first of the GCC states to embark on oil-funded development, Bahrain, has also confronted the strongest and most persistent opposition. If Sheikh Hamad of Bahrain succeeds in reconciling with his opponents, he could set a standard for developments up and down the Gulf.

Investigating the USS Cole Bombing

[Comment originally posted on the International Institute for Strategic Studies website on 24 November 2000]

Six weeks after the bombing in Aden harbour of the American destroyer, the USS Cole, investigators appear to be assembling key pieces of the puzzle over who was responsible for the attack. The Yemeni authorities say they have identified some of those involved. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence of links between the Yemeni agents and outside groups may never be forthcoming.

A variety of suspects were named in the immediate aftermath of the attack – Lebanon's Hizbullah, Iran, a Palestinian group and even Iraq. Some blamed America's most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, who is headquartered in Afghanistan. American officials are growing increasingly confident of links between Bin Laden and the Cole bombing. The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, is refusing to rule out the possibility of retaliation.

The Yemeni government recently asserted that those who carried out the bombing belonged to al-Jihad, a small, loose grouping of Islamist Yemenis and other Arabs who embraced radical ideologies as a result of their experience fighting the Russians in Afghanistan before returning to remote areas of southern and northern Yemen. Al-Jihad enjoys links with like-minded groups outside Yemen – notably Egypt's al-Gama'ah al-Islamiyah – and has probably received assistance from them.

The scores of people initially arrested by the Yemeni security forces presumably included known Islamists. At least one of those arrested appears to have provided detailed information about the planning for the attack. According to his account, three plots to attack Western targets in Yemen were aborted prior to the Cole incident. But even though the target was an American destroyer, the Islamists are equally opposed to the Yemeni and other Arab governments and the bombing may well have been intended to cause problems for Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Salih.

Bin Laden has denied involvement and no hard evidence has yet emerged to implicate him. Engineering an attack such as that on the USS Cole would not have required Bin Laden's direction and the sophisticated explosives and expert advice could have come from anywhere in the loose underground network that links like-minded Islamist activists throughout the Middle East. Kuwait broke up an Islamist ring in October and November for allegedly plotting sabotage against US military installations in the Gulf and car bombs were directed at British expatriates (one of whom was killed) in Riyadh on 17 and 22 November. Bin Laden may not have been involved but he remains a source of inspiration for many of these Islamists.

The presence of Islamist militants in Yemen has prompted some to accuse General Anthony Zinni, Commander-in-Chief of the US Central Command until earlier this year, of letting political motivations outweigh security concerns in choosing to refuel passing US Navy ships in Aden. Such critics believe that he wanted to create additional logistical options outside the Gulf and draw Yemen closer to the US.

There were practical reasons, however, for switching from Djibouti to Aden. Aden's larger harbour permitted greater manoeuvrability, putting into Aden required little deviation from normal sea-lanes and fuel was cheaper. Zinni's critics overstated Yemen's sometimes lax security environment and overlooked the fact that well-planned terrorist attacks can occur virtually anywhere, including 'safe' Saudi Arabia as well as New York and Oklahoma.

Update - 17 December 2000. Since the comment above was written, Yemeni officials have released more details about the principal suspects in the case. Six suspects have been named, all of Yemeni background and all veterans of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The government has indicated that they will be put on trial following the ‘Id al-Fitr holiday which follows the end of Ramadan (i.e. early January 2001). However, the alleged mastermind of the operation, who is said to have funded the operation and directed the two individuals who actually carried out the bombing, is still at large. He has been identified as Muhammad ‘Umar al-Harazi, son of a Saudi mother and a Yemeni father from al-Haraz region west of the capital Sanaa. While the suspects apparently were well acquainted with Usamah bin Ladin and most likely fought alongside him in Afghanistan, hard evidence directly linking Usamah to the Cole bombing still seems to be elusive.

It is not entirely clear that complaints by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that it was not receiving full Yemeni cooperation have been resolved. While the FBI understandably has been concerned with acquiring evidence that could be used in US courts, the sheer numbers of FBI agents swarming over Aden in October and the initial use of helicopters to ferry personnel to sites from offshore without informing Yemeni air traffic control indicates a lack of sensitivity to Yemeni sovereignty.

Furthermore, some American insinuations that Yemeni government officials were involved in the plot have never been substantiated – the only implication of government employees appears to have been the connivance of a few local officials in Lahj province (near Aden) in issuing false identity cards to the bombers. Quite naturally many Yemenis have been upset by wild allegations that Yemen was somehow responsible for the bombing – claims were bandied about that Yemen was a hotbed of ‘Islamic terrorism’ and even that terrorists occupied important government positions. Yemen’s foreign minister was provoked to remark that the US must bear some responsibility for the climate of Islamic terrorism since it originally armed the Afghan Arabs, including Usamah bin Ladin. President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih echoed the feeling of many Yemenis that the bombing hurt Yemeni interests by damaging emerging relations with the United States and by dealing a further blow to Yemen’s reeling tourist industry.

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