One year ago, four countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain – announced that they were severing diplomatic, trade and transport ties with Qatar. Since then, no progress has been made in resolving their differences.
The four have sought to brand Qatar as a supporter of extremism, and have called on it to curb its ties with Iran and Turkey, to close Al Jazeera, and to align itself firmly with their own foreign policies. At the core of the dispute, however, is Qatar’s support for political Islamist movements of various hues, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UAE in particular sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a serious domestic political threat, and has accused Qatar of supporting a group that wanted to carry out a coup inside the UAE in 2013.… Seguir leyendo »
Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has arrested a wide range of critics, independent activists, and even princes seen as potential challengers to the leadership. Nonetheless, the latest arrests bring a new twist – just a few weeks before a law allowing women to drive comes into effect, the authorities have arrested at least 10 activists who campaigned for this reform.
Details are very limited, but the official news agency has stated that those detained are accused of trying to wield influence over people in sensitive government roles on behalf of foreign actors – which sounds likely to mean Western governments.… Seguir leyendo »
Saudi Arabia is about to open its first cinema for 35 years, showing the film Black Panther. And Saudi Arabia’s decision to end its ban on cinemas is part of a wider change across society.
In the 20th century, its ruling Al Saud dynasty could rely on two sources of power: plentiful oil wealth and an informal pact with conservative religious clerics. But now the country has to adapt to a 21st century where oil wealth will not be enough to fund government spending and create jobs, and where the clerics have less influence than they once did with the new leaders of the royal family.… Seguir leyendo »
Former general Sami Anan declared his intention to run against Sisi and then was arrested. What do challenges from within the army tell us about Sisi’s grip on power?
Harassment of rival presidential candidates is all too predictable, but the arrest of Sami Anan is striking because it is unusual for the head of Egypt’s military-dominated regime to face a challenger with a senior military background. Usually the only challengers to incumbent presidents have been leftists and liberals, from Ayman Nour to Hamadeen Sabahi, who have been easier for the military to undermine. But Sisi has faced two.
First, Ahmed Shafiq, former head of the air force, who narrowly lost the 2012 presidential election to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, declared his intention to stand for the election from his self-exile in the UAE.… Seguir leyendo »
A new anti-corruption purge in Saudi Arabia reinforces Mohammed bin Salman’s hallmark of sudden, spectacular action designed to signal radical change.
The rapid arrests of senior princes, former ministers and the country’s richest businessman came as regional tensions intensified; on the same day, Lebanon’s prime minister resigned while visiting Riyadh, and the Houthis in Yemen managed to shoot a ballistic missile further into Saudi territory than ever before. Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, thus faces political risks from multiple directions – but the arrests will probably reduce the risk of anyone in the family challenging him in the foreseeable future.… Seguir leyendo »
A popular geopolitical image of the Middle East and North Africa is a region divided starkly into opposing camps. But as the Saudi king’s unprecedented visit to Moscow this week indicates, these days most players prefer to hedge their bets, balancing different relationships and avoiding over-aligning with any single power.
There are two main reasons for this. One is that there are so many different divisions in the region. From the ‘axis of evil’ to the ‘Shia crescent’, much has been written about binary divides: Sunni and Shia, Arabs and non-Arabs, Islamists and secularists, or pro- and anti-Western camps. And some regional powers play these cards when it suits them.… Seguir leyendo »
The decision to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia is a rare good-news headline from the Middle East. King Salman has said it is to take effect from June 2018; the delay seems intended to get conservatives accustomed to a highly visible social change and deal with the practicalities of training female driving instructors and traffic police.
Why has this change happened now, after so long? It is partly the result of top-down factors, as a new crown prince ushers in a new style of politics. It also reflects changes coming from deep within a society that may be highly religious, but is also very young and faces a new economic future.… Seguir leyendo »
Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, the 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, presents himself as a modernizer. His supporters see him as bringing Saudi Arabia up to date with the needs and aspirations of its population, who are accustomed to being ruled by men in their 80s but are mostly under 30 themselves. His critics see him as inexperienced and reckless.
Whatever view is taken, MBS, as he is nicknamed, is disrupting the traditional model of Saudi government on a number of fronts at once. Foreign policy has changed dramatically, from the war in Yemen—the first war Saudi Arabia has led since the state was formed—to joining forces with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to boycott Qatar.… Seguir leyendo »
Despite Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, talk of banning Muslims from America, and open hostility towards Syrian refugees, he has some supporters in the Middle East. Authoritarian governments see him as a strongman figure who will make deals with other strongmen like themselves.
Some of the Gulf elites hope that, as a tough-talking Republican, he will be harder on Iran than Barack Obama. Trump called the deal struck by Obama on Iran’s nuclear programme a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated”.
Conversely, the revolutionary establishment in Tehran welcomes Trump’s election because it thinks this will accelerate what it sees as inevitable US decline.… Seguir leyendo »
It is 15 years since the US declared the ‘war on terror’ and, while the rise of ISIS has ensured Western governments remain preoccupied with non-state armed groups, the international policy agenda has shifted towards a broader focus on countering ‘extremism’. But one problem with this is that there is no agreement on what ‘extremism’ is, let alone its causes or solutions.
The question of what constitutes a terrorist has always been contentious; the definition of ‘extremism’ is even more so. Just as countries around the world leapt to label their dissidents terrorists after 9/11, the UK’s growing emphasis on ‘nonviolent extremism’ is ripe for exploitation by authoritarian governments.… Seguir leyendo »
The invasion of Iraq has had a huge impact on the debate about democracy in the Middle East—and almost entirely a detrimental one. Analysts in both the Middle East and the West routinely suggest that the war was an ill-conceived attempt to impose democracy on the region overnight with the barrel of a gun. The assumption is that democracy promotion was a key driver of the decision to go to war. Many go on to argue that the West should be less focused on promoting democracy.
This argument is confused. Democracy in the Middle East has never been a primary interest of Western states.… Seguir leyendo »
Leaving the EU would not in itself be a game-changer for the UK’s role in the Middle East—but this is partly because Britain already misses many opportunities to work with the EU there. The UK’s relative military strength, colonial history, expertise and elite relationships all shape a MENA policy that is more bilateral than multilateral.
But British influence is patchy, and Brexit would make it more so. A post-Brexit Britain would likely double down on its existing geographic areas of strength, and would put particular priority on trade and defence with the Gulf; relations with North Africa could end up being neglected, and the Middle East Peace Process would probably remain on the back burner.… Seguir leyendo »
Saudi Arabia’s new Vision 2030, launched by Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son and defence minister, this week, is a newly ambitious repackaging of the diversification policies that all the Gulf countries have been developing for years now. Most of the policies are not radically new, but reflect a longer term drive for economic reform that has gained fresh urgency from low oil prices and new-generation leadership.
The elements that really stand out as new include the privatization through a local IPO of a small (up to 5 per cent) stake in Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. The remaining shares in Aramco would be transferred to the country’s public investment fund, creating a substantial Saudi sovereign wealth fund for the first time: while sovereign wealth funds were pioneered in the Gulf by Kuwait in the 1950s, Saudi Arabia’s government has traditionally held most of its savings as US treasury bills at its central bank − a risk-averse approach that has earned tiny rates of return in the past few years.… Seguir leyendo »
The accession of King Salman a year ago and the decision to lead a military intervention in Yemen mark a new phase for Saudi foreign policy. That does not mean that there is a new foreign policy doctrine or strategy. Rather, the new generation that is taking the lead in foreign policy is seeking new ways to respond to a highly uncertain environment. It is demonstrating a newfound willingness to use military force, but is also witnessing its limits. With the outcome of the Yemen war still far from clear, the direction and the tools of Saudi foreign policy under King Salman are still being tested.… Seguir leyendo »
The international political fallout from the execution of a dissident Saudi cleric, Nimr Al Nimr, reflects several years of rising sectarian tensions, driven by geopolitical competition in the Middle East. Beyond today’s war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a deeper, long term worry is that a whole generation of people in the Middle East, where the majority of the population is under 30 years old, is growing up with the assumption that the sectarian divide is the main issue in politics. Five years on from the Arab uprisings, when mass protest movements called for a more democratic, peaceful and just form of politics, democracy remains elusive.… Seguir leyendo »
Moussa Koussa, the former Libyan foreign minister, has said that the country risks turning into another Somalia in the wake of the collapse of an African Union mediation effort. The AU’s proposal for a ceasefire was, predictably, rejected by the opposition as it would have kept Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in power.
The future of Libya is highly uncertain, and it is not at all clear what a post-Gaddafi state would look like after four decades under a dictator who has deliberately weakened or banned all political alternatives or independent civil society.
However, Koussa’s remarks should be treated with some scepticism. They are remarkably similar to comments previously made by Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who said in a televised speech in February that the continuation of the uprising would lead to a bloody civil war – and eventually the country’s disintegration.… Seguir leyendo »