Middle East

Qatar marches to a different drummer…(again?!) (Jun 6, 2017)

It appears that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have just entered another period of confrontation. The governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt as well as Saudi close allies like Yemen, Libya and the Maldives announced on Monday to take action against Qatar’s considering it as a “threat to stability and security in the Persian Gulf”. In fact, many see it as a Saudi orchestrated campaign to isolate Qatar.

The reason of the revitalized tension was an alleged statement by the Emir Emir Tamim at a military graduation ceremony May 23, where he spoke about the relationship to the Trump administration as well as the positive role of Hamas and Iran in the Middle East that disliked many other Arab states. While it was soon revealed that this was a false statement because the website of the Qatar News Agency had been hacked, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain reacted severely with blocking the news channel Al-Jazeera, initiating economic sanctions, exerting diplomatic pressure and banning Qatari citizens. Furthermore, the Saudi government declared the expulsion of Qatar’s engagement in its coalition leading the war on Yemen.

It is true that this recent conflict has been built for decades but considering these various actions, this crisis goes well beyond the latest dispute in 2014, where Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrawal their ambassadors from Doha. It seems that there is a fundamental shift of power games within the Arab Peninsula but it remains unclear for observers how this will end up. The fact that Kuwait engages now in solving the crisis shows that even the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) fear a “potential breakup of the GCC”.

Saudi Arabia’s hope on Trump (Apr 17, 2017)

After the U.S.-led airstrike against the Assad regime in Syria, the Saudi rulers in Riyadh have increasing hope on Trump to shape the Near and Middle East in their interests. While “they blame Presidents George W. Bush and Obama for not understanding the region and naively giving Iran too much influence”, they count on Trump to reassert stronger influence in the region and contain Iranian power simultaneously. Due to the fact that the kingdom’s Royal Army is meddling in Yemen, Saudi Arabia can only use its financial power to enforce its regional interests. In other words, they (still) highly rely on American military strength if they aspire an end to Iranian-backed Assad’s rule in Syria.

Oman comes back in?! (Jan 12, 2017)

For a long time it was the general perception that Oman’s foreign policy discerned with the other GCC members dramatically: Its friendly approach to Iran created mistrust and suspicion among the others and especially in Saudi Arabia as key enemy of the regime in Teheran. Particularly, Oman’s hidden diplomacy with the Americans and Iranians in 2015 that resulted in the final agreement of the nuclear deal caused anger on the Arab Peninsula. Along these lines, the latest move of Oman to join the Saudi-led coalition of Muslim countries fighting terrorism (Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT)) has been seen as a great transformation away from Sultan Qaboos long tradition of balancer and interlocutor between the two regional powers.

However, this move should not be overemphasized. Still, Oman is not backing Saudi’s war in Yemen and has “have kept open channels to the Houthi rebels and the supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who are fighting the Saudi coalition“. While Oman’s intentions of “entering IMAFt remain unclear” it will be seen if this has any further implications in the form of another step towards a unified Arab Gulf that is still Saudi’s top priority, a deterioration between Teheran and Muscat or no impact at all.

Is Saudi Arabia losing influence in the region? (Nov. 15, 2016)

Currently, numerous events have been seen as drawbacks for the Saudi influence in the region. Among these, is the newly elected president, Michel Aoun, in Libanon, who has been called “a bete noire of the Assads” and is strongly supported by the Hezbollah. It is argued that, in particular the growing influence of the Hezbollah, which, in turn, is supported by Saudi’s arch enemy Iran, in Syria and Lebanon and probably also in Yemen by offering support and advice to the Houthis, represent a great threat for Saudi’s role in the region. Furthermore, the election of Trump instead of Clinton is also a setback for the Kingdom since the business man has regularly emphasized his anti-Gulf sentiments. Lastly, shrinking oil prices results also in a loss of revenues and financial capacity, which had been the backbone of Saudi control. Indeed, for decades the Kingdom has gained influence mostly by giving financial support to different allies – probably the best known case is the support for the military regimes in Egypt since 2011 -, which is now at stake.

Yet, is is argued here that the various developments that counter a Saudi influence may also be a chance for the Kingdom to undertake a strategic foreign realignment; a process, which has already started. In this sense and in order to sustain its gravitational force, first and foremost, Saudi Arabia should take more efforts in overcoming the different and sometimes even conflicting interests among the GCC members. According to Joseph Kechichian, a unification of the GCC is inevitable if the countries intend to sustain their power and wealth. Furthermore, other bilateral engagements are already disclosed and maybe developed and expanded in future. For instance, there is a strong rapprochement with Turkey and Asian countries but particularly with India. Moreover, even Israel appears to be an interesting partner for the ruling elite although it seems highly unlikely to obtain support for such an alliance within its society and the whole Muslim world due to the well-known issues and tensions.

In the end, it needs to be seen if the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may take advantage of the unforeseeable future – especially with regards to a president Trump – or whether its influence will further decrease.

Saudi’s soft ideational power (Aug. 30, 2016)

As Protector of the Two Holy Cities, Mecca and Medina, the Saudi king holds an undisputed position within the Muslim world. The responsibility of guarding and maintaining the two holiest mosques in Islam has been often associated with a specific claim on behalf of the Saudi kingdom that is closely linked to receive international recognition and foster its political power externally. Along these lines, the latest royal decree to pay for 1,000 relatives of Palestinian martyrs to perform the Hajj this year appears to be just another part of this greater strategy.

Does the Egyptian Judiciary impede Saudi gravitation forces? (Jun. 27, 2016)

Lately, mass protests erupted in Egypt when President al-Sisi announced that Egypt will hand over its two strategic islands in the Red Sea, Sanafir and Tiran, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Both desert islands had been under Egyptian administration since 1950. The Egyptian government under al-Sisi justified the transfer by emphasizing that the islands originally belong to the neighboring kingdom. Follow-up protests and demonstrations had been stopped by the government as well as any further clarification on the topic or the underlying reasons for this agreement between both countries that enjoy a close relationship since al-Sisi seized power in 2013. While it seemed as a further evidence for a growing Saudi gravitation force that disseminates also to countries outside the Arab Peninsula, the judiciary in Egypt may now impede this initial plans of Saudi Arabia. The Council of State, the highest administrative jurisdiction in Egypt, has decided essentially in favor for several complainants, who have filed a lawsuit against this transfer.

Gradual deterioration in the Saudi Arabia-Lebanon relationship (Mar. 24, 2016)

After both the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League have declared Hizbollah a terrorist organization at the beginning of March 2016, Saudi Arabia takes one step further and cuts military aid to the Lebanese military as well as cancels the residency permits of Lebanese residing in the Gulf. It seems that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wants to exert pressure on the various political parties in Lebanon to end their association with Hezbollah. However, there are speculations that see the latest Saudi move as just another piece of the all-embracing Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the Gulf region. Seeing in this vein, the gradual deterioration in the Saudi Arabia-Lebanon relationship is a rational consequence of Saudi foreign policy, which understands countering any Iranian influence and ambitions in e.g.  Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Bahrain as a key pillar of its security and stability calculations.

Recent meeting of Saudi Council of Ministers emphasize security a key aspect (Mar. 8, 2016)

In a recent meeting of the Council of Ministers in Saudi Arabia, the cabinet welcomed the decisions in the so-called Tunis Declaration that had been made by the Council of Arab Interior Ministers in the Tunisian capital for more security in the region and to combat all forms of terrorism. It condemned the Israeli exertion of influence in the occupied Palestinian territories and explicitly accused Iran to destabilize the Arab region by its activities in Bahrain and other Arab countries. In the same vein, the Saudi cabinet appreciated the condemnation of the major involvement of terrorist group Hizbollah in the region. Once again this meeting reveals the unity and solidarity among many Arab states on the issue of security and stability in the region as well as the denunciation of Shia influence.

Saudi-Iranian geopolitical rivalry shapes the region (Febr. 17, 2016)

The new-fashioned geopolitical struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran which emerged after the Saudi execution of popular Shiite cleric Al-Nimr affects also other countries in the region. Although the Gulf leaders have highly emphasized the solidarity among all members of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it is in particular Qatar and Oman, which struggle with their traditional role as mediator between both regional powers. The reasons why these two countries have not cut off any ties to Teheran like the other states on the Arabian Peninsula are multilayered and include economic relations, sectarian aspects as well as political visions of viewing Iran as part of the solution to the Gulf security dilemma. Thus, especially Qatar has to play its cards very carefully to avoid renewed political strains with other GCC-members as in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha over different foreign policy goals. Such a case never happened before and only recently the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has eased because of a common line towards Syria and Yemen.

For Oman and Sultan Qaboos, the case is a little different. The rather resource-poor country has a vested interest in a good relationship with Iran because of energy supplies and coordination and collaboration over the strategically important Strait of Hormuz for shipping. Therefore, it has always sought political neutrality between its GCC allies on the one hand and the Islamic Republic on the other hand. Because the sultanate has stronger than other states – for example like the aforementioned case of Qatar – followed such a ‘zero problems’ policy, it has established trustworthy relationships with all sides. Still, considering the new escalation, Muscat has to be very cautiously not to become an outsider in the GCC club as well as jeopardize the good relationship with Teheran that is inevitably linked to Oman’s national interests as already mentioned.

In the meantime, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is seeking closer networking with states outside the Arab Peninsula, in particular Turkey and Egypt, in order to underpin its self-image as a regional power and authoritarian gravity centre. All in all, it shows once again the heterogeneity among the Gulf monarchies and how fragile the current situation appears.

Arab League Supports Saudi Position (Jan. 12, 2016)

At an emergency meeting summoned by Saudi Arabia on Sunday following the attacks on two Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran after the Saudi execution of popular Shiite cleric Al-Nimr, the Arab League has backed Saudi Arabia and accused Iran to foster tensions and aggressions in the Middle East. All member states except of Lebanon (due to political influence of Iranian-backed Hezbollah) and Syria (currently suspended) agreed on this in a joint statement in Cairo on 9th of January 2016. One day before, all members of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had already expressed “total support” for the Saudi Kingdom. Having this backup, Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubair, declared that the Saudi kingdom in accordance with Egypt, Bahrain and the U.E. Emirates may consider taking further steps against Iran without explicitly saying what this means.

Execution of Al-Nimr Fosters Saudi-Iranian Tensions (Jan. 4, 2016)

It is certainly quite some time ago that a single event has revealed the apparent conflict between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran in a more dramatic fashion than the Saudi-ordered execution of popular Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday (02-01-2016) as well as the subsequent attack on the Saudi embassy in Teheran. While the motives and the agenda of the Saudi decision-makers for this action are still unknown and has been interpreted so far in many ways circling somewhere between political calculus and stupidity, it puts the Saudi-Iranian rivalry to a new level. Not only because of a growing harsh rhetoric between both countries, but also about the rising bloc formation and the underlying sectarian tensions. In this vein, Sudan and Bahrain have cut off ties with Teheran on Monday (04-02-2016) and Kuwait as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) downgraded diplomatic ties with Teheran the following day. Particularly, Bahrain as a country characterized by a Shiite majority ruled by a Sunni minority, may reiterate new societal claims and foster the sectarian cleavages at home and abroad. Even more interesting, however, seems the role of Oman and Qatar with good working relations oboth major powers and the underlying question whether they will actively take sides, remain silent, or try to mediate.

Notwithstanding, it is doubtful that this last event will result in a military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran as the two major powers in the Persian Gulf, but it will have external implications for the many other proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and probably Yemen (the latter is only alleged because an Iranian-Houthis cooperation should be regarded with caution) as well as further aspects like oil business and relations to the West. Moreover, it will also have grave ramifications on a domestic level with regards to the role and the dealing of certain sectarian or confessional groups like, for instance, the Shiites living in the Eastern province in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia Forms ‘Islamic Military Alliance’ (Dec 15, 2015)

On 15th December 2015, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, announced the creation of an ‘Islamic Military Alliance’ for fighting the global threat of terrorism. The coalition consists of 34 Islamic states with Saudi Arabia as its leader while Iran, as well as Syria and Iraq are not part of the alliance. Such an endeavor underlines the perception of a militarily more proactive orientation of the Saudi dynasty and, in particular, in persona of the young Defense Minister, Mohammed bin Salman. However, if Saudi Arabia’s perceived ‘game of thrones’ really destabilizes the Middle East cannot be said at this moment. Certainly, it does not seem to ease the faultine between the Saudi Kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Iran with all its underlying sub-conflicts. Interestingly, Mohammed bin Salman has declared the creation of the military coalition under the banner of Islam and as “a duty to protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organizations“. Using such rhetoric, it can be further assumed that the Saudi rulers intend to dissociate their understanding of Islam from that of terrorist Islamic ideology by any means. Lately, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the focus of criticism as their interpretation of Wahhabism Islamic rules might provide fertile ground for many Islamic terrorist groups and organizations worldwide.

First Female Elections in Saudi Arabia (Dec 15, 2015)

The latest municipal elections have once again demonstrated that the political landscape in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia cannot be described as static. For the first time in Saudi history, women were not only allowed to vote but even to be candidates in the municipal council elections a few days ago. While the introduction of formal participatory political rights for females can be considered as a positive signal, it does not conceal the fact that Saudi women are still constrained in many parts of their daily life. In this sense, it remains to be seen if this is a step towards what a German newspaper has called nano-democracy or rather ‘window dressing’ for an alleged course of more political reforms.