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United Arab Emirates

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Another Gulf War – The First Shots?

The men who carried out Saturday’s attack on the parade in Ahvaz, in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan, were well trained: four of them killed 25 people and wounded 70 others before they were shot dead. The question is whether they were trained by ‘Islamic State’, or by the backers of the low-profile Ahvaz National Resistance, which also claimed credit for the attack.

‘Islamic State’ is an independent ultra-extremist Sunni Muslim movement that kills Shias (most Iranians are Shia) on principle, so there are no big political implications if it was IS that planned the attack.

If it was the Ahvaz National Resistance, however, then these were the opening shots in the Fourth Gulf War, because the ANR is backed by Saudi Arabia and its smaller Arab allies like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein.

Iran is convinced that it was the latter. “It is absolutely clear to us who committed this crime… and whom they are linked to,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “The small [Arab] puppet countries in the region are backed by America, and the US is provoking them and giving them the necessary capabilities.”

There is reason to suspect that this is true. The Arab countries of the Gulf are smaller and weaker than Iran, and have talked themselves into the paranoid conviction that Iran intends to destroy them, perhaps even to replace Sunni with Shia Islam. They talk of war with Iran as inevitable, and dream of drawing America into such a war to even up the odds.

President Donald Trump is also paranoid about Iran, and openly talks about overthrowing the Iranian regime. Indeed his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, boasted on Saturday that US sanctions are really hurting Iran: “I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen.”

So this could be a marriage made in heaven (or somewhere else in the supernatural world, perhaps). But first there has to be a spark, some Iranian action that gives both Trump and the Arab Gulf states a pretext for attacking Iran – for they both think in terms of attacking Iran first, not of defending against a (highly improbable) Iranian attack.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said last year that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.” If they get their war, both leaders expect that most of the heavy lifting will be done by the US Air Force, but something bad has to happen on the ground first. Iran has to do something stupid.

How do you get it to do something stupid? Well, you could try supporting separatist movements in the various ethnic minority areas that ring the country: Arabs in the southwest, Kurds in the northwest, Turkmen in the northeast and Baloch in the southeast. With luck, the Iranian regime will over-react and massacre enough of the separatists (and innocent bystanders) to provide the pretext for an Arab-US attack.

After Saturday’s attack in Ahvaz, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent United Arab Emirates scholar who tends to say what other people don’t dare, tweeted that the attack wasn’t really a terrorist incident at all. He pointed out that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option”, and predicted that the number of such attacks “will increase during the next phase.”

If that’s the Saudi/American strategy, then sooner or later they will manage to goad the Iranian regime into committing some atrocity in return, and then we’re away to the races.

It would the fourth Gulf war in less than forty years. The first was the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, in which the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked the new revolutionary regime in Iran with the warm support of the United States. Up to a million people were killed, most of them Iranian, but the only direct US support was to give Saddam’s forces intelligence and targeting information for their attacks.

The second was the 1990-91 war between Iraq and most of its Arab neighbours, plus large numbers of American and other Western troops, after Saddam invaded Kuwait.

The third was in 2003, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq in the mistaken belief that Saddam had links with the al-Qaeda terrorists who made the 9/11 attacks and/or was working on weapons of mass destruction.

And the fourth, coming soon to a theatre quite a long distance from you, will be the US/Gulf Arab attack on Iran.

Of course, the attack in Ahvaz on Saturday could just have been another meaningless spasm of hatred by Islamic State, and not a Saudi/American initiative at all. But if not now, then soon.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 12-15. (“It would…Iran”)

Saudi Arabia: A Populist Dictatorship

Joy and pride among Saudi women who are at last allowed to drive. Delight in the car dealerships that anticipate a lot of new business. And dismay in the families of the 1.4 million chauffeurs, almost all from South Asia, who have been earning around $1,000 a month driving Saudi women around. But it will take a lot more than this to change Saudi Arabia.

Just before driving became legal for women, seventeen women activists who have been campaigning for years against the driving ban were arrested. Eight have now been released, but the others are facing possible trial in a counter-terrorism court and long prison sentences for their activism. Does the right hand know what the left is doing?

Yes, it does. Letting women drive is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s project to win popular support by modernising some aspects of daily life. Looking like he is giving in to popular pressure is definitely not part of his programme. The change must look like a free gift from his hand, not a retreat in the face of public protest.

It’s a less dramatic initiative than last winter’s three-month anti-corruption campaign, which detained 56 high-profile royal family members and prominent businessman (in the capital’s best hotel) until they had ‘paid back’ some of their ill-gotten gains.

The exercise allegedly yielded $100 billion to the government, although none of the thieves saw the inside of a courtroom, let alone went to jail. But the message was the same: I’m on the side of ordinary people and I’m doing the right things, but I make the decisions when and as I choose.

The notion that Mohammed bin Salman is liberalising the Saudi system is a fantasy. Having ruthlessly sidelined all rival claimants to the throne – his father, King Salman, is 82 and ailing – he has now centralised power to an unprecedented extent. Saudi Arabia was a traditional, deeply conservative monarchy that always ensured there was a fair degree of consensus among the elite. It is now a dictatorship.

MbS, as he is known, is an impulsive man, and one of his bigger mistakes was to invite the UN’s special rapporteur on anti-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, to visit the country to report on how it was reconciling the need to prevent terrorism with respect for human rights. Emmerson came back in early May. His report was unusually frank for a diplomatic document, and in a subsequent media interview he went well beyond that.

The Saudi anti-terrorism law is written in a way that criminalises all dissent, he told The Guardian. Torture in Saudi jails is commonplace, the guilty officials go unpunished, and Saudi Arabia “is undergoing the most ruthless crackdown on political dissent that the country has experienced in decades.”

“Reports that Saudi Arabia is liberalising are completely wide of the mark,” Emmerson said. “The judiciary has now been brought entirely under the control of the King, and lacks any semblance of independence from the executive. Put simply, there is no separation of power in Saudi Arabia, no freedom of expression, no free press, no effective trade unions, and no functioning civil society.”

Moreover, MbS’s successes in crushing dissent within the country have made him over-confident about his skill in foreign policy. He summoned Lebanese Prime Minister to Riyadh and forced him to resign, only to see Hariri get his job back in alliance with Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist group that MbS utterly detests.

He declared a blockade of Saudi Arabia’s small but wealthy neighbour, Qatar, to force it to close down the Al-Jazeera network, the most influential Arabic-language news service, and to break its ties with Iran, the country that MbS fears most. One year later Al-Jazeera is still alive and kicking, and Qatar has moved closer to Iran.

And in his biggest blunder, he launched a military intervention in the Yemeni civil war to defeat the Houthis, a Shia tribe that has captured most of Yemen and that he believes (wrongly) is controlled and armed by Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s air strikes have killed thousands, its ally the United Arab Emirates has thousands of troops on the ground – and three years later the Houthis still control most of the heavily populated parts of Yemen, including the capital.

It’s not exactly Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam – the Saudis have no troops on the ground, and the Emiratis are mostly using foreign mercenaries – but the Yemeni intervention is very expensive, deeply embarrassing, and probably unwinnable. In the long run, it may be MbS’s undoing.

The wealth has been more widely shared in Saudi Arabia than in most oil-rich countries, and for the non-political majority life is still pretty good. Even for women, things are very gradually getting better: 60 percent of Saudi university graduates are female, and now they can drive too. But the country is now being run by an erratic and over-confident dictator.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“it’s…choose)