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Saudi Arabian

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Qatar Showdown??

The deadline that Saudi Arabia and its allies set for Qatar to submit to their “non-negotiable” demands has just postponed from Monday to Wednesday. Since Qatar has already made it plain that it will not comply – it says the demands are “reminiscent of the extreme and punitive conduct of ‘bully’ states that have historically resulted in war” – the delay is a sure sign that the bullies don’t know what to do next.

They presumably thought that the Qataris would buckle under their threat, and didn’t bother to work out their next move if it didn’t. So what happens now? Does Saudi Arabia invade Qatar? It could easily do so if it wanted to: Qatar has one-tenth of Saudi Arabia’s population, an undefended land border, and tiny armed forces.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has the support of Donald Trump in his blockade of Qatar, and he could probably talk Trump into accepting an invasion too. Moreover, this is the man who committed Saudi Arabian forces to the vicious civil war in Yemen on the mere (and largely unfounded) suspicion that Iran is helping the rebels militarily.

Bin Salman’s terms for ending the blockade of Qatar were so harsh that it looks like he wanted them to be rejected. The thirteen demands included completely shutting down the Qatar-based al-Jazeera media group, whose satellite-based television network is the least censored and most trusted news organisation in the Arab world.

Qatar was to break all contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, a largely non-violent and pro-democratic Islamic movement that was a leading force in the “Arab Spring” of 2010-11. It was to end all support for radical Islamist rebel groups in Syria, and above all for the organisation that was called the Nusra Front until late last year. (It then changed its name in an attempt to hide its ties to al-Qaeda.)

Qatar was to hand over all individuals who have been accused of “terrorism” (a very broad term in the four countries operating the blockade). It would have to expel all the citizens of these countries who currently live in Qatar (presumably to stop them from being contaminated by the relatively liberal political and social environment there).

Finally, Qatar was to end practically all trade and diplomatic contact with Iran, even though its income comes almost entirely from the huge gas field it shares with Iran. Oh, and it must pay compensation for the nuisance it has caused, and accept regular monitoring of its compliance with these terms for the next ten years.

The four countries operating the blockade (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahradi and Egypt – three absolute monarchies and one military dictatorship) are really just trying to suppress democratic ideas in the region. The accusation that Qatar is “supporting terrorism” would be more convincing if Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had not been doing exactly the same thing.

They all helped the Nusra Front with money, and ignored its ties with al-Qaeda because it was fighting the Shia-dominated regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now they have all stopped doing that, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE are condemning Qatar for doing it: the pot is calling the kettle black. But the “supporting terrorism” charge does get the Americans (or at least one ill-informed American called Donald Trump) on board.

Qatar will pay a price for rejecting the Saudi demands. Almost all its food is imported, and in future it will all have to come in by sea or by air. But Qatar is rich enough to pay that price.

In the end Saudi Arabia will almost certainly not invade. The 10,000 American troops based in Qatar give it no political protection (Washington will always put Saudi Arabia first), but the mere hundred-odd Turkish troops who are based there would help to defend the country if Qatar chose to resist.

“We don’t need permission from anyone to establish military bases among partners,” said Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We endorse and appreciate Qatar’s stand towards the 13 demands.” Saudi Arabia won’t risk even a small war with Turkey, so it will restrict itself to using its financial clout to stop other countries from trading with Qatar.

As Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s ambassador to Russia, told the Guardian newspaper last week: “One possibility would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and say that if you want to work with us then you have got to make a commercial choice (to boycott Qatar).”

But that’s not likely to work either. Prince Mohammed bin Salman has started another fight he can’t finish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“Qatar was to hand…there”)

Saudi Arabia Admits Defeat

“God be with the citizens, we are back to the time of poverty,” wrote Saudi Arabian blogger Rayan al-Shamri on Twitter last week. That’s a bit strong, but he and his fellow citizens are certainly no longer living in the time of plenty. Saudi Arabia is cutting back on all fronts.

The wages of government employees accounted for almost half the the Saudi Arabian government’s spending last year: about $120 billion. And the country’s budget deficit, due to the collapse of the oil price, was $98 billion. So you can see why the government would go looking for some economies in the public sector.

About two-thirds of employed Saudi citizens have public sector jobs, many of which require them to do little beyond showing up on a fairly regular basis. It’s the unwritten contract that the absolute monarchy made with its citizens decades ago, when money was not a problem: you keep quiet politically, and we will subsidise your lifestyle handsomely. But the money isn’t there any more.

A royal decree on 23 September announced that government ministers’ salaries would be cut by 20 percent. Lower-ranking civil servants will have their pay frozen and their overtime payments and annual leave capped. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced a plan to cut the public sector to only 40 percent of the working population by 2020. (In the United States it’s 7 percent.)

If this policy sounds a little less than drastic, that’s because the Saudi regime doesn’t dare cut harder for fear of a popular backlash. It cannot afford to let the “time of poverty” come back, and citizens who are used to being coddled and subsidised will define anything short of their current living standard as “poverty”.

So if the regime can’t get its budget spending down much, then it had better start getting the oil price back up before it runs out of money entirely and the roof falls in. This requires an about-turn in the market strategy it has followed for the past two years.

The Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) only accounts for 40 percent of the world’s oil exports, which is marginal for a cartel that seeks to control the world oil price. Moreover, some poorer OPEC members regularly pump more oil than their quotas allow. So Saudi Arabia’s traditional role, as OPEC’s biggest member, was to cut production and get the world price back up when there was a glut of oil on the market.

When the oil price collapsed two years ago, however, Saudi Arabia didn’t do that. The regime was worried that the rapid rise in American oil production, mainly due to fracking, would ultimately destroy OPEC’s ability to set the price of oil. Its response was to pump oil flat out and let the price stay low, hoping that this would drive the high-cost US fracking industry out of business.

That was a foredoomed strategy, because the US government would even subsidise its fracking industry, if it had to, rather than give up on the dream of “energy independence” (self-sufficiency in oil production). In the event, that wasn’t necessary: even with the oil price at rock bottom, American oil production actually grew last year – and by now the OPEC producers are facing budgetary disaster.

At the OPEC summit in Algiers last Wednesday, Saudi Arabia publicly abandoned its strategy. OPEC will cut production by 700,000 barrels a day, starting next month. Saudi Arabia, as usual, will take the biggest share in the cuts – and if this round of cuts doesn’t get the price back up, there will presumably be a further round early in the new year.

The Saudis have even agreed that Iran, their great strategic rival in the Gulf region, can increase its production while everybody else in OPEC is cutting. (Iran, frozen out of the market by the American embargo for so long, has been claiming its old OPEC quota back now that the embargo has been lifted, and until last week Saudi Arabia was resisting its demand.)

A number of things are not yet clear about the new strategy. In particular, how to share the pain of production cuts between the OPEC members has not yet been worked out, so the market is not yet persuaded that these cuts are real.

The world oil price jumped 7 percent on first news of the OPEC decision, but is now back down to about the level it was at before the OPEC announcement. OPEC’s promises about cuts have been broken before. But this time they probably will be kept, because a lot of the producers are truly desperate for a higher price.

So, then, three conclusions. One, Saudi Arabia’s ability to set the price of oil, and OPEC’s power in general, is seriously impaired. Two, the oil price is going back up over the next year or so, though probably not beyond $70 or $80 a barrel. And three, that is really a good thing, because we need a higher oil price to drive the shift out of carbon fuels and into renewables.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“About…more”; and “The Saudis…demand”)

The Islamic Wars of Religion

On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim rulers beheaded their country’s leading Shia Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on charges of seeking “foreign meddling” in the kingdom.

On Saturday, an angry crowd of Iranians – all Shia Muslims, of course – attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put a cartoon on his website comparing Saudi Arabia’s head-chopping orgy on New Year’s Day (46 other executions on the same day) to the mass executions carried out by the Sunni extremist ‘Islamic State’ group.

So on Sunday, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran – and all the pundits started talking about the Sunni-Shia “war of religion” that is about to engulf the Middle East.

This raises two questions. First, what would a Sunni-Shia war of religion actually look like? And second, has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses?

The first question is best answered by looking at the history of the Christian wars of religion, ca. 1520-1660.

The Muslim world now, like “Christendom” in the 16th century, is made up of many independent countries. And the current phase of the Muslim wars of religion is being fought out between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, just as the first phase of the Christian wars of religion was fought out mainly between Catholics and Protestants in individual countries.

From the start of the conflict in Europe, however, each European state tried to help its co-believers in neighbouring countries as well, and alliances were increasingly shaped by religious considerations. In the second phase, these alliances dragged most of Europe into the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the middle of Europe but involving armies from as far apart as Sweden and Spain.

The main battleground, Germany, lost between one-third and one-half of its population. Nobody won, of course, and in the very long run everybody just lost interest in the question. But it was a very great waste of lives, time and money.

The Muslim world is already caught up in the first phase of a comparable process, but it is not condemned to go the whole distance. One big difference is that the Sunni-Shia split is ancient – more than 1,350 years old – whereas the Catholic-Protestant split was new and still full of passion at the time of the Christian wars.

More than 99 percent of today’s Muslims were simply born Sunni or Shia, whereas many 16th-century Christians had made a conscious choice about their religion. The current killings in the Muslim world are mostly driven by state policy, so maybe Muslims will not throw away a couple of generations following the same foolish, bloody road that the Christians took 500 years ago.

Those who live at the geographical extremes of the Muslim world – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh in the East; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa and even Egypt in the West – will certainly not suffer the same fate, for there are only tiny Shia minorities in these countries. But for those who live in the heart of the Muslim world, from Yemen to Turkey and from Lebanon to Iran, the future may be much darker.

And so to the second question: has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses? Not exactly, but many players have lost sight of the bigger picture.

George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed the sectarian demon in the region. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 frightened the region’s dictatorships and absolute monarchies into increased repression and greater reliance on appeals to sectarian loyalty. Then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died a year ago, and the kingdom spun out completely.

Saudi Arabia under its previous monarchs was very cautious and conservative in its foreign policy. It subsidised various extreme Sunni groups in other countries, but it clung tightly to its American alliance and never engaged directly in adventures abroad

The new Saudi king, Salman, is 80 years old and infirm, so in practice most decisions are made by his nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (aged 56), or his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (aged only 30). There is intense competition between the two men for the succession to the throne, and the decisions coming out of Riyadh have been much bolder than ever before.

The past nine months have seen a major Saudi Arabian military intervention against the Shia side in the Yemeni civil war, the creation of a Saudi-led alliance of almost all the Sunni-majority Arab states, and now the execution of a Shia leader in Saudi Arabia that was clearly calculated to cause a diplomatic breach with Iran.

It’s just dynastic politics, in other words, not some inevitable geopolitical juggernaut. But it was similar dynastic politics half a millennium ago that triggered the worst phase of the Christian wars of religion.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Muslim…ago”)

The Middle East: Iran is Back

“This (Arab) nation, in its darkest hour, has never faced a challenge to its existence and a threat to its identity like the one it’s facing now,” said General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now the ruler of Egypt.

And you wanted to say: Not the Crusades? Not the Mongol invasion? Not even the European conquest of the entire Arab world between 1830 and 1920? You really think the gravest threat ever to Arab existence and identity is a bunch of tribal warriors in Yemen?

Sisi was addressing the Arab League summit in Cairo last week that created a new pan-Arab military force to confront this threat, so overheated rhetoric was standard issue, but still…. The air forces of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours are blasting Yemen from the air, and there is talk of Saudi Arabian, Egyptian and even Pakistani troops invading on the ground, but it all smells more of panic than of strategic calculation.

The panic is due to the fact that the status quo that has prevailed in the Middle East since approximately 1980 is at an end. Iran is back, and there is great dismay in the palaces of Riyadh – especially because it was Saudi Arabia’s great friend and ally, the United States, who finally set Iran free.

It was the agreement in Lausanne last Thursday between Iran and the group of 5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) that marked the end of the status quo. It was about ending the various trade embargoes against Iran in return for ten to fifteen years of strict controls on Iran’s nuclear power programme, but it will also let Iran out of the jail it has been confined to since the 1979 revolution.

Initially that revolution was quite scary for Iran’s Arab neighbours, because Iran’s example in overthrowing the local pro-Western ruler and taking a stronger stand against Israel was very popular in the Arab street. The solution was to paint Iran as a crazy terrorist state and isolate it as much as possible from the rest of the region.

The other tactic that the conservative Arab states deployed was to stress the religious gulf between Iran (which is 90 percent Shia) and the Arab countries (whose people are at least 85 percent Sunni). The doctrinal differences are real, but they do not normally make ordinary people see one another as natural enemies unless somebody (like state propaganda) works hard at it.

Those measures worked for twenty years, assisted by some really stupid Iranian actions like holding US embassy personnel hostage for 444 days, but by the end of the 20th century they were losing credibility. What saved the “quarantine” policy in 2002 was the discovery that Tehran had been working on nuclear weapons design.

The work was a revival of research that had been started during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88 (when Saddam Hussein certainly was working on nuclear weapons), and was shut down afterwards. It was restarted in 1998, almost certainly in response to the nuclear weapons tests by Pakistan, Iran’s eastern neighbour. It was Iran being stupid again, but it was probably never about Israel.

The alleged Iranian nuclear threat provided the basis for another decade and more of political quarantine and trade embargoes that have crippled Iran economically and isolated it politically. All that came to a sudden end last week with the agreement in principle in Lausanne (unless the Saudi Arabian and Israeli lobbies in Washington manage to torpedo the deal in the next few months).

Iran has about the same population and GDP as Egypt, the biggest Arab country by far, but it is far closer both to the Arab Gulf states and to the Sunni-Shia battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria (both of whose governments are closely linked to Tehran). That’s what Sisi was really talking about when he spoke of an existential threat to Arab existence and identity. However, he’s still talking through his hat.

Arab existence and identity are nowhere at risk, and Iran has no need to paint the Sunni Arab countries as enemies. The Iranian regime may be losing its support among the young (or maybe not), but it has absolutely no need to inoculate them against the attraction of Arab political systems and foreign policies by promoting an Arab-Iranian confrontation. They hold no attraction whatever for young Iranians.

As for the notion that the Houthi militia that now controls most of Yemen is really an Iranian tool (which is the main justification for the military intervention there), it is nonsense. The Houthis, like the Iranians, are Shias, but they have their own local interests to protect, and Iran has no plausible reason to want some sort of strategic foothold in Yemen. It is a safe bet that there is not now even a single armed Iranian in Yemen.

If the United States could send troops into Iraq in 2003 in the delusionary belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, then Saudi Arabia can believe that it is fighting Iranians in Yemen now. No country has a monopoly on stupidity, and Riyadh will probably have ample opportunity to regret its mistake.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7 and 9. (“And you…Yemen”; “The other…at it; and “The work…Israel”)