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Saudi Arabia

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The Middle East: New Strategic Realities

After half a century of stasis, there are big new strategic realities in the Middle East, but people are having trouble getting their heads around them. Take the United States, for example. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State in President Obama’s first administration, is still lamenting her former boss’s failure to send more military help to the “moderate” rebels in Syria.

“The failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton told Atlantic magazine recently. She’s actually claiming that early and lavish military aid to the right people would have overthrown Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, while freezing the al-Qaeda/ISIS jihadis out. If only.

Clinton travels a lot, but she never really leaves the Washington bubble. There are intelligence officials there who would gladly explain to her that almost all the desirable weaponry sent to the “moderates” in Syria ends up in the hands of the jihadis, who either buy it or just take it, but she wouldn’t listen. It falls outside the “consensus”.

Yet that really is how ISIS acquires most of its heavy weapons. The most striking case of that was in early June, when the Iraqi army, having spent $41.6 billion in the past three years on training its troops and equipping them with American heavy weapons, ran away from Mosul and northern Iraq and handed a good quarter of them over to ISIS.

In fact, that’s the weaponry that is now enabling ISIS to conquer further territory in eastern Syria and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Which, in turn, is why Barack Obama has now authorised air strikes in Iraq to stop ISIS troops from overrunning Irbil, the Kurdish capital.

By now, he has also presumably abandoned his proposal of last June to spend $500 million to train and equip “appropriately vetted” Syrian opposition fighters. (They were then supposedly going to overthrow Assad with one hand while crushing the jihadis with the other.)

But Obama has not yet dropped the other shoe. A LOT of people have not dropped their other shoes yet. They all know that the whole strategic environment has changed. They realise that may require new policies and even new allies. Changing horses in midstream is always a tricky business, so the realignments are only slowly getting underway, but you can see where they are going to go.

The proclamation of the “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and northernwestern Iraq has huge implications for every country in the Middle East, but for most of the great powers – Russia, the United States, China, India, Britain, France and Germany – it is almost the ONLY thing they still care about in the region. They all have Muslim minorities of their own, and they all want the Islamic State stopped, or at the very least isolated, contained and quarantined.

That means that both the Syrian and Iraqi governments must survive, and they will probably get enough outside help to do so (although it will take time for the US and the major European powers to switch sides and openly back Assad). The army of the Iraqi Kurds might hold its own against the Islamic State if it had better weapons, so it will get them (although Baghdad will not welcome a more powerful Kurdish army).

Containing the Islamic State to the north will be a simpler task, because Iran and Turkey are very big, well organised states whose populations are relatively invulnerable to the ISIS brand of Sunni fundamentalism. But to the south of the Islamic State is Saudi Arabia, and that is a country that faces some tough decisions.

The Wahhabi strand of Sunni Islam which is Saudi Arabia’s official religion is very close to the beliefs of the jihadis who now rule the Islamic State to their north. Much of their financial support and even their weapons have come from Saudi Arabia. But the rulers of that kingdom would be extremely unwise to assume that the jihadis regard Saudi Arabia’s current political arrangements as legitimate, or that gratitude would restrain them.

Nor will the long-standing US alliance with Saudi Arabia endure if Saudi ties to the jihadis are not broken. Riyadh will have to decide, and it will be aware that its oil is no longer so vital to the United States that it can have it both ways.

The Iranian-US rapprochement will continue, and the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions will be settled amicably despite Israel’s  protests. Indeed, Israel may come under irresistible US pressure to stop whacking the Palestinians or the Lebanese Shias every couple of years, stop the settlement programme, and get on with the two-state deal. Washington would very much like Israel to stop alienating the people it needs as allies.

Further afield, General Sisi’s new regime in Egypt can count on strong American support, and may even be encouraged by Washington to intervene militarily in Libya and shut down the Islamist militias there. Tunisia will be the only remaining flower of the “Arab Spring”, although there has also been a certain amount of progress in Morocco. But in the heartland of the Arab world, war will flourish and democracy will not.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 13. (“By now…other”; and “Nor…allies”)

Bahrain Again

24 February 2013

Bahrain Again

By Gwynne Dyer

“Floggings will continue until morale improves.” As a way of dealing with a discontented crew it was much favoured by 18th-century sea-captains, but the Bahrain government has been an apt pupil. Alas, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa doesn’t quite grasp that this sort of policy statement must be clear and concise.

Announcing that the Bahraini authorities would intensify the repression that has prevailed since the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations two years ago, the sheikh declared last October: “It has been decided to stop all gatherings and marches and not to allow any activity before being reassured about security and achieving the required stability in order to preserve national unity.”

He’s got the spirit of the thing right, but he falls short in the clarity and brevity departments. (He’s obviously been listening to spin doctors, and they always hate clarity.) At any rate, the demonstrations, gatherings and marches have not stopped, although they have got even more dangerous for the participants.

Bahrain’s brief role in the “Arab Spring” began on 14 February, 2011, when demonstrators demanding a constitutional monarchy, a freely elected government and equality for all citizens took over Pearl Square in Manama, the capital of the tiny Gulf state. But one month later the protesters were driven from the square by force, and after that the repression became general.

By no coincidence, that was also when Saudi Arabian troops arrived “to help the government of Bahrain restore order.” (Bahrain is an island connected to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by a long causeway.) Officially the Saudi soldiers were invited in by Bahrain’s ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Unofficially, he probably had no choice in the matter.

Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni Muslim, like Saudi Arabia’s and those of all the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman). However, 70 percent of Bahrain’s population is Shia, whereas the rest of the GCC countries are overwhelmingly Sunni. And the relationship between Sunnis and Shias throughout the region is coming to resemble that between Catholics and Protestants in 16th-century Europe.

The ensuing century of religious wars in Europe was not really about doctrinal differences. The wars were driven by the rulers’ conviction that people who did not share their particular brand of Christianity could not be loyal to them politically.

It was nonsense, but millions of Europeans were killed in the 1500s and 1600s in wars triggered by this belief. The same disease now seems to be taking root in the Arab Gulf states. Shias, it is argued, cannot be loyal to a Sunni ruling family. And if they object to being oppressed, it can only be because Shia-majority Iran has deliberately stirred them up.

There is a real political and military rivalry between Iran, the major power on the north side of the Gulf, and the smaller Arab states to the south-west. It has got even worse since the US invasion of Iraq ended centuries of Sunni rule and put a Shia regime in power there. The competition is actually geopolitical and strategic, not sectarian, but people get confused.

So Saudi Arabia worries a lot about the loyalty of the large Shia population (maybe even a majority) in its Eastern Province, where all the oil is. It was certainly not going to tolerate a democracy – which it thinks would be a “Shia” democracy, and therefore a hostile regime – in Bahrain, right next door.

And, of course, it believed that the downtrodden Shia majority in Bahrain (who cannot even serve in their own country’s army and police) had been stirred up by Shia-majority Iran across the Gulf. So when Bahrain’s king had still not got the pro-democracy protesters under control after an entire month, it sent its troops in.

This may not be what the king had in mind. It certainly wasn’t what Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa intended: he was trying to negotiate with opposition parties about giving Shias a bigger role in the kingdom’s affairs. But Saudi Arabia didn’t want that kind of example right next-door, and it found hardline allies in the Bahraini royal family.

It may have played out somewhat like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Moscow, determined to crush the reform movement there, got some second-rank Czech Communists to request military intervention. At any rate, hard-liners in the royal family have called the tune since then, while the king and the crown prince have effectively been sidelined.

The triumvirate who are now running Bahrain are Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, prime minister for the past forty years, and the brothers Khalid bin Ahmed bin Salman al-Khalifa, the royal Court Minister, and Khalifa bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, who commands the Bahrain Defence Forces. (Do pay attention at the back; there will be a test on these names later.)

The brothers belong to the Khawalid branch of the royal family, descended from another royal who led a brutal crackdown against a Shia uprising in the 1920s. With them in charge, there will be no compromise, even though more than 80 Shia protesters have already been killed.

And even if it gets a great deal worse in Bahrain, no Western government is going to condemn the country’s rulers. That would seriously annoy Saudi Arabia, and they will never do that.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 14 and 15. (“There is…confused”; and “The triumvirate…killed”)

Balancing Act in Saudi Arabia

28 September 2011

Balancing Act in Saudi Arabia

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s amazing how much sub-text you can pack into a single word. Consider this recent announcement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: “Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal elections and will EVEN have the right to vote.” Well, hurray.

On the other hand, you could easily accuse the 87-year-old monarch of dragging his feet on reform, because he waited until this year’s municipal elections were almost upon the country (they were held on Thursday) before announcing that women could vote the next time, in 2015. Boo.

But that’s not fair to King Abdullah. He’s actually moving fast on women’s rights, because 2015 will be only eight years after Saudi Arabian men were allowed to vote for the first time, in the 2007 municipal elections. AND women will henceforward also be eligible for appointment to the Shura Council, the 150-member unelected congress that the king consults with on matters of public concern. Hurray.

Hang on a minute. Two days after Abdullah made that announcement, a Saudi court sentenced a woman to receive ten lashes for the crime of driving while female. Boo. And then on Thursday the king overturned the court ruling and spared the woman. Hurray. And on and on, in a endless counterpoint of progressive measures and conservative crack-downs.

So what is actually going on here? What we are seeing is a few surface manifestations of the struggle that is going on among the Saudi elite about how to respond to the “Arab spring”. The pro-democracy movements are operating right along Saudi Arabia’s frontiers, in Jordan, in Yemen, and most frighteningly in Bahrain. Everyone agrees that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE – but what?

In the case of Bahrain, where a largely Shia protest movement threatened to infect the Saudi Arabia’s own Shias (who live mostly in the eastern province, where the oil is), the answer was clear. Bahrain’s democratic movement was crushed by force, with much of the force being supplied by Saudi troops that Riyadh lent to Bahrain’s ruling family. Indeed, it was probably Saudi pressure that swung the balance in Bahrain in favour of an armed crack-down.

Elsewhere, what happens beyond the borders is of less importance, for Saudi citizens know that they are vastly richer than Yemenis or even Jordanians. But they are probably not entirely immune to dreams of democracy, so what should be done to strengthen their immune systems?

When King Abdullah returned from three months’ medical treatment abroad in February, he announced a vast new package of welfare measures, including education and housing subsidies and 15 percent pay raises for government employees. Total cost: about $36 billion. That’s about $1,300 for every man, woman and child in the country.

Thus began the latest round in the perpetual tug-of-war between those (including the king) who feel that some economic and political concessions are necessary to head off worse trouble, and others (including much of the royal family and most of the religious establishment) who believe that even one step back from the status quo would put the regime on a slippery slope.

This is an argument that breaks out inside any autocratic regime whenever change threatens, and it’s clear which side Abdullah is on, but he has very limited space for manoeuvre.

His first priority is to keep his immediate family – around 22,000, at last count – in the style to which they have become accustomed, and their expectations are very high. If they collectively decide that his decisions are endangering their privileges, they will remove him. In a system of succession that does not have a strict rule of primogeniture, that is easily done.

Then he must contend with the ulema, the senior religious authorities of the Wahhabi sect of Islam that the Saudi ruling family has been allied to for more than a century. Their support is vital to the regime’s legitimacy, and it would certainly weaken if Abdullah carried out reforms that conflicted with their austere and deeply conservative vision of Islam.

If, despite all that, he chooses to make major reforms to the political system, he cannot even be sure that they will stop the slow decline in the ruling family’s authority. When forty percent of those in the 20-24 age group have no work, and fully half the country’s population is under-19’s who will be looking for work in the next two decades, you cannot call the system stable no matter how good the welfare system is.

There is a striking difference in what the pro-democracy movements have led to in the one-party dictatorships of the Arab world and in the traditional monarchies. In the dictatorships, mostly military, the outcome has been revolution and regime change: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, perhaps soon Syria. In Jordan and Morocco, by contrast, there is a good chance that the outcome will be much democratisation backed by a stable constitutional monarchy.

Such an outcome is unlikely in Saudi Arabia, which has a great deal further to travel. On the other hand, there is not much visible demand for full democracy in the kingdom; maybe some cosmetic measures will suffice. King Abdullah is old and ill, and he is hoping that will be enough.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“In the case…systems”)

The Food Bubble

7 August 2011

The Food Bubble

By Gwynne Dyer

There are all kinds of bubbles. We had the financial bubble that burst in 2008, causing economic devastation that we are still paying for. There is the Chinese real estate bubble, the biggest in history, which may take the whole world economy down with it when it bursts. But nothing compares with the food bubble.

Back in 2008, the OECD published a report on world food supply predicting that the price surge of that year would quickly revert to normal: “Barring any underlying climate change or water constraints that could lead to permanent reductions in yield, normal higher output can be expected in the very short term.” And barring age, disease and accidents, we will all live forever.

Between April, 2010 and April, 2011 the average world price of grain soared by 71 percent: not a very big deal for people in rich countries who spend less than 10 percent of their incomes on food, but a catastrophe for poor people who already spend more than half their money just to keep their families fed. And that is before “climate change and water constraints” get really serious. But they will.

Let’s ignore the effects of climate change, because it’s too early in the game to be certain that any given drought, flood or heat-wave has been caused by rising temperatures. Besides, there are a few countries (notably the United States) where climate change is still seen as controversial by a significant number of people. So let’s just talk about what happens to the world food supply when the irrigation water runs out.

The first great food price crisis was in the early 1970s, when consumption was outrunning production due to rapid population growth: the world’s population almost doubled between 1945 and 1975. Grain prices were even higher in real terms than they are now, and there was near-starvation in some areas. But the problem was quickly solved by the famous “Green Revolution”, which hugely increased yields of rice, wheat and maize (corn).

The only drawback was that the Green Revolution wasn’t really all that green. Higher-yielding strains of familiar crops played a part in the solution, certainly, but so did a vastly increased use of fertilizer: global fertilizer use tripled between 1960 and 1975. And above all, there was an enormous expansion of the world’s irrigated area. It has more than tripled since 1950.

Only 10 percent of the world’s cropland is irrigated even now, but that irrigated land provides about 40 percent of the world’s food, so it is absolutely vital. Yet they didn’t discover any new rivers after 1950. Almost all of the new irrigated land – two-thirds of the total – uses water that is pumped up from deep underground aquifers.

A lot of those aquifers are “fossil”, meaning that they filled with water long ago and are now cut off from the surface. They will eventually be pumped dry. Others still recharge from surface water that filters down, but they are almost all being pumped at many times their recharge rate, so they will effectively go dry, too. Then the world will have to make do with the one-third of irrigated land that gets its water from the weather. It won’t be enough.

Obviously, the aquifers won’t all go dry at once. Some are bigger than others, and some have been pumped much longer or more heavily than others. But most of them are going to go dry at some point or other in the next thirty years.

The irrigated area in the United States has probably passed its peak already. In key agricultural states, it is already long past: 1978 in Texas, 1997 in California. In China and India irrigation may be at its peak right now. A World Bank study reported in 2005 that the grain supply for 175 million Indians is produced by over-pumping water, and some 130 million Chinese similarly depend in a dwindling supply of underground water for their grain.

It gets worse. In the Middle East, Israel banned all irrigation of wheat in 2000 in order to conserve the remaining underground water for people. It now imports 98 percent of its grain. More recently Saudi Arabia, which was self-sufficient in wheat production only five years ago, decided to shut grain-growing down completely before the major aquifer under the country runs dry. Next year, it will import 100 percent of its grain.

Saudi Arabia will be able to go on importing grain even when the price is twice what it is now, and so will Israel. But there are a great many countries that will lose their ability to feed their own people once the irrigation bubble bursts – and will not be able to afford to import food at the vastly inflated prices that ensue.

Never mind what climate change will eventually do to the world food supply (although we will mind very much when it finally hits). The crisis is coming sooner than that, and it is quite unavoidable. We are living way beyond our means.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“A lot…enough”)