Archive for the ‘Monarchy’ Category

Vajiralongkorn becomes king

12/12/2016

Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, has become the country’s new king, succeeding his much-revered late father King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He accepted the throne in a televised broadcast following an invitation from parliament, formalising his accession. King Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died on 13 October. The late king was widely seen as a pillar of stability during seven decades of political turmoil in Thailand. The crown prince had been expected to become the next king the day after his father’s death, but Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at the time said that he had asked to delay the official proclamation so he could mourn.

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End of the Thai monarchy?

24/10/2016

An important article questions the future of the Thai monarchy, “After two days of rumours about the health of Thailand’s king, confirmation finally arrived in the form of a solemn statement issued by the royal palace Thursday evening. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a unifying figure through seven politically tumultuous decades, died peacefully in the capital of Bangkok at the age of 88. According to the palace, the world’s longest-reigning monarch died at 3:52 p.m. after years of declining health. The immediate cause of death was not clear. Despite reports that the king’s health had worsened in recent days, the news has plunged Thailand into a period of deep mourning and uncertainty. For most Thais, King Bhumibol is the only monarch they have ever known, the one constant in a modern history marked by mass protests, military coups, and widening political fault lines. In some quarters, the king is revered with almost religious fervor; his beatific portrait is ubiquitous, staring down from the walls of homes, businesses, and government buildings across the country”.

The report adds that “By the time the king’s death was announced, crowds of mourners had gathered outside Siriraj Hospital, clad in yellow and pink, colours associated with the throne. Some wept openly, clutching portraits of the monarch. Others sang royalist songs in a plaintive key. On social media networks, the #longlivetheking hashtag was trending as Thai web users posted hundreds of messages and photos in memory of King Bhumibol. In a televised address, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a general who took power in a May 2014 coup, declared a year of mourning and a 30-day moratorium on entertainment events. He also announced that King Bhumibol will be succeeded as expected by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has said he “needs time to mourn his father” before taking his place as the 10th king of the Chakri Dynasty. Unlike King Bhumibol, Prince Vajiralongkorn is a controversial figure, a jet-setting womanizer whose eventual ascension to the throne will likely herald a period of rocky transition for one of the world’s most revered monarchies. During a reign lasting a touch more than 70 years, King Bhumibol presided over Thailand’s transformation from a rural kingdom once known as Siam into a regional economic powerhouse. A quiet, introverted man with horn-rimmed glasses, Bhumibol was born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his father was a student at Harvard Medical School. The young prince spent much of his early life abroad, until the mysterious shooting death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, unexpectedly catapulted Bhumibol to the throne in 1946″.

The piece goes on to mention “In his early years as ruler, King Bhumibol split his time between his official royal duties and hobbies like photography and jazz and as the years went by came to be seen as a stabilizing force that stood firm amid cycles of political upheaval. (Since 1932, this country of 67 million has experienced 19 coups and coup attempts.) The king’s stature was heightened by the political tumult of October 1973, when the arrest of 13 student activists triggered massive public protests against Thailand’s military dictator du jour, Thanom Kittikachorn. After security forces fired on student protesters, killing around 70, King Bhumibol and other royals intervened and expressed support for the protesters. The junta was eventually forced out of power, and Thanom fled the country. If these events revealed a new zenith of popularity for the 45-year-old king, it also demonstrated the ambiguity of his position in Thailand’s fractious politics: not directly involved but never wholly aloof. In an article on the October uprising, the New York Times described King Bhumibol’s role as “less than ruling but certainly more than just reigning.” Although royalists argue that the king was a father figure who ruled for the good of his people, most of Thailand’s military coups have enjoyed tacit royal approval”.

Importantly the piece adds “The ramifications of King Bhumibol’s death are uncertain but likely to be far-reaching. Despite standing as a bastion of unity for the Thai people, the king’s image papered over wide social and political divides. For the last 15 years, a bitter political struggle has pitted the allies of former prime minister and billionaire telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, who won massive support from the rural poor for his populist social and economic policies, against the traditional royalist elite — a tight-knit coterie of soldiers, bureaucrats, and rich businessmen surrounding the palace. This conflict reflects a deeper social rift between the conservative middle class in the cities and rural and working-class Thais — the so-called “Red Shirts” — who found their political voice in support of Thaksin. Some observers have suggested that the succession could have complex effects on the outcome of this struggle. The most immediate question surrounds King Bhumibol’s nominated successor. Though Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s claim to the throne is clear, the 64-year-old lacks his father’s royal aura and is believed to be deeply unpopular among the royalist elite. Over the years, he has shown little interest in the public duties associated with the royal family, instead earning a reputation as a fast-living playboy who spends most of his time outside the country, largely in Germany, where he reportedly owns an $11 million villa on a lake south of Munich. In 2007, leaked video footage showed Prince Vajiralongkorn holding a lavish private party with his then-wife, Srirasmi Suwadee — clad in nothing but heels and a G-string — and his pampered pet poodle, Foo Foo, which by the time of its death last year held the rank of chief marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force. (The mutt’s death was marked by four days of Buddhist funeral rites.) In July, the German tabloid Bild published photos of Prince Vajiralongkorn boarding a plane in Munich wearing low-rise jeans and an unflattering tank top that revealed a palette of fresh yakuza-style tattoos”.

Crucially the author notes that “Scottish journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of the 2014 book A Kingdom in Crisis, which was banned in Thailand for its discussion of the royal succession, says much of the Thai elite is implacably opposed to the prospect of Prince Vajiralongkorn succeeding his father. “From quite a young age, he acted like a medieval monarch,” Marshall said of the crown prince. “For the elites who benefit from the continued perception of a benevolent monarchy, this is a disaster.” To make matters worse, many fear that Prince Vajiralongkorn might make common cause with Thaksin, who is currently in exile abroad, joining hands with the popular politician to clean house in the palace. This, in turn, could undermine royalist control of the Privy Council, a small but influential royal advisory body, and threaten the sprawling networks of business and patronage that converge on the opaque Crown Property Bureau, which administers the palace’s estimated $53 billion in property and business investments. “What the elite has always been terrified of is that the crown prince and Thaksin will get together and that Thaksin would get his hands on the Crown Property Bureau. That thought absolutely terrifies them,” Marshall said”.

The piece concludes “For now, with the population in deep mourning, things are likely to be muted. Undoubtedly, this is by design. Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister, told me last year that one of the army’s main motivations for launching the 2014 coup was to ensure there was political stability during the sensitive period of succession. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan, said despite the elite’s distaste for the crown prince, most senior officials would probably wait to see how things pan out. “At the end of the day, the well-being of the monarchy is the well-being of the royalists. Even if they don’t like it, they’ll have to swallow it for their own good,” he said. Where the succession leads in the longer term is harder to predict. One question is whether the popular reverence for the monarchy will fade now that King Bhumibol is gone. Another question is what sort of monarch Prince Vajiralongkorn will turn out to be if and when he is crowned king. Will he choose to settle into a comfortable life of palace-bound ritual? Or will he decide to pursue an activist reign, shaking up an entrenched political establishment in pursuit of his own vision for Thailand? There is also the question of whether elections, which the junta has promised for next year, will go ahead in the current situation. What is certain is that as one historical era opens, and another closes, the future of the monarchy will now hang ever more ominously over the country’s political life — whether or not anyone can acknowledge it publicly”.

 

“The ban is expected to include dozens of opposition leaders and activists”

05/07/2016

A controversial amendments to the election law that bar those convicted of insulting religion and the Amir of contesting parliamentary elections have become effective after their publication yesterday in the official gazette Al-Kuwait Al-Youm. The publication came after the Cabinet endorsed the amendments following its approval by the National Assembly with a massive majority last week and after the Amir signed the law. The amendments state that “people convicted in a final court order of insulting the Almighty Allah, the prophets and the Amir are barred from contesting parliamentary polls”. The ban is expected to include dozens of opposition leaders and activists who have been handed jail terms for insulting the Amir and undermining his authority. These include prominent opposition leader and former MP Mussallam Al-Barrak who is serving his second year of a two-year term for insulting the Amir at a public rally. Three former opposition MPs, Khaled Al-Tahous, Falah Al-Sawwagh and Bader Al-Dahum will likely be affected by the ban. They were handed a suspended jail term for insulting the Amir. Activists and groups strongly criticized the law as “political death” and “political exclusion” and appealed to the Amir to reject it”.

“Abdullah II is set to consolidate his powers”

10/05/2016

Jordan’s King Abdullah II is set to consolidate his powers through constitutional amendments that would give him sole constitutional control in areas of security, defence, foreign policy and the judiciary. The move, which triggered controversy in the past few days, began earlier this week with the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour submitting a bill to Parliament, requesting approval of several constitutional amendments. The proposed changes will grant the king absolute powers to appoint his crown prince, deputy king, the chief and members of the constitutional court and the head of the paramilitary police force. They also include lifting the ban on Jordanian citizens with duel nationalities from holding public office. Although Jordan is officially a constitutional monarchy, where the king enjoys wide powers granted to him by the constitution, all of the current major appointments and decisions require the recommendations and the signatures of the prime minister and certain ministers. With the constitutional amendments, the king would no longer need the government to recommend nominees, or the signature of ministers or the prime minister.

“Qaboos bin Said returned home on Tuesday from Germany”

27/04/2016

Sultan Qaboos bin Said returned home on Tuesday from Germany after undergoing “successful” medical checks, the royal court said in a statement carried by state media. Qaboos previously spent eight months in Germany for medical reasons before returning home in March last year, fuelling concern over succession in the Western-allied Arabian Peninsula state which the 75-year-old Qaboos had ruled since 1970. The sultan arrived home late on Tuesday after “routine medical checkups in the Federal Republic of Germany which … have been crowned with the desired good results”, the statement read out on state television and carried by state news agency ONA said. At the time of his previous trip to Germany between July 2014 and Macrh 2015, some Omanis had expressed concern about reports that the sultan was suffering from colon cancer. The authorities have not commented on those reports”.

Conservative, youthful Gulf monarchs

30/03/2016

An article in Foreign Affairs discusses the next generation of Gulf monarchs, “After years of leadership by octogenarians, the Gulf Arab states are getting younger rulers. On February 10, the ruler of Dubai announced a new Emirati cabinet that includes eight new ministers with an average age of 38. The youngest appointee, appropriately heading the Ministry of Youth Affairs, is just 22. A few weeks earlier, the 35-year-old emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, named a fellow member of Generation Y to lead the nation’s foreign ministry—Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who is also just 35. The face of Gulf leadership is changing, and it is getting decidedly younger”.

The piece goes on to note “Although most regional heads of state are long in the tooth, gone are the days where Gulf leadership is entirely the domain of the aged. Now, it is not uncommon for the Gulf states to name crown princes and key ministers who are in their 40s and 50s And since the age gap between rulers and crown princes is growing—in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the crown princes are a full twenty years younger than the heads of state—the generational logjam is beginning to clear. This means when the Gulf’s remaining senior incumbents pass from the scene, the region could emerge on the other end of the age continuum altogether—exceptional for the youth of its leadership rather than for its advanced age”.

The writer goes on to make the excellent point that “These new ministers include many technocrats that embrace an analytical approach to public policy. The crown princes, all but one of whom is 55 or younger, bring different outlooks to regional and international politics than their predecessors. All lived through the invasion of Kuwait and the 1990–91 Gulf War that followed. Some, including Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, spent more time living within the region than their older counterparts, who spent formative years studying abroad. And of the new leaders who sought outside educations, many attended university in the United States, rather than the former rite of passage of studying in Cairo, London, or Paris. But as Western observers try to read the tea leaves of what this trend could mean for Gulf politics, they should be careful not to conflate youth and experience with political reform”.

The piece adds “there are the pressures of a hereditary regime. In family power dynamics, young leaders worry just as much about rival successors as they do a restive public. Dynasties create hostile environments for political reform; leaders cannot make structural changes to the political system that would disempower the ruling family without the threat of being expelled from leadership. Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the crown prince of Bahrain, discovered this when his attempts to implement reforms after the political unrest in 2011 were met with backlash from hard-line factions within the ruling family. In this region more than others, blood is thicker than water. It is reasonable to expect young leaders to appoint their contemporaries to key positions, but only after consolidating their power. It took two and a half years at the helm for Tamim to undertake a major overhaul of his cabinet. But when he did, three of his appointees were under the age of 45. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies have similar political talent waiting in the wings, and many of the region’s brightest stars have already gained experience through diplomatic posts in Washington and elsewhere. For example, the new 53-year-old Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, spent a decade as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States before taking on the role of Riyadh’s chief diplomat, a role he has used to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The current United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, 42-year-old Yousef al-Otaiba, works on behalf of the nation’s 43-year-old foreign minister, and both seem poised to remain leading figures in the UAE’s foreign policy apparatus for years to come given their success in positioning the Emirates as a rising regional power”.

He makes the point that “There are other reasons not to assume that young leaders will gravitate to democratization. Today’s 30-somethings in the Gulf are likely to associate democracy with the bloody 2003 Iraq War or the messy aftermath of the Arab Spring. They have seen fewer examples of democratization going right, unlike preceding generations that watched the fall of the Berlin Wall. A poll conducted in Saudi Arabia during the Arab Spring found that the oldest respondents were most likely to support democracy; the 26–35 group was the least likely. Young royals have come of age at the nadir of regional democratisation”.

Pointedly he writes that “The next generation of Gulf leaders will likely embrace an alternative model: good governance. Specifically, they will concentrate on delivering public services effectively, improving their management of public administration, and pursuing economic reforms that ensure the long-term prosperity of the GCC. Both Tamim and the 54-year-old Emirati crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, have sought to streamline government bureaucracy by promoting information technology, adopting e-government initiatives, emphasizing innovation, and strengthening their countries’ indigenous workforce. The Emirates recently enacted a series of subsidy reforms aimed at strengthening economic stability, a project championed by the crown prince, to relative success. Mohammed bin Salman, the 30-year-old deputy crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, has promoted similar concepts, as well as adding ambitious plans for greater self-reliance in national security. The Gulf’s youthful leaders are making their mark in the realm of defence, ushering in what appears to be an era of military activism in the region. For example, bin Salman is widely acknowledged as the architect of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. But it is Little Sparta, the nickname that the U.S. military gave the UAE, that best exemplifies this trend. The sons of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum both serve in the UAE military and have participated in the country’s military campaign in Yemen”.

He concludes “the rise of a new generation of leaders provides an opportunity for a much-needed update to U.S. strategy in the Gulf. For too long, Washington has defaulted to a predictable formula of exchanging arms and military equipment for counterterrorism support. Arms sales provide the backbone of the United States’ interaction with the region, but also can give the cynical impression that U.S.–Saudi relations can be measured in guided munitions, or that U.S.–UAE relations can be boiled down to F-16 deliveries. As the Gulf’s young new leaders invest in e-governance, private sector development, and innovation initiatives, Washington will have greater options to collaborate with regional powers. That, in turn, will help Gulf nations build capacity, develop trust, and broaden their relationship with the United States. The West should talk straight with the region’s emerging power brokers. Bin Salman has asked for directness: “What I request is that the thing you actually believe, to say it.” We should grant that request. The solution to Gulf problems is not always more armaments, and it is certainly not a war driven by Saudi-Iranian rivalry. A generational shift in power does not happen often. But when it does, it provides a chance to build more meaningful and beneficial relationships”.

 

Saudi fears of Iran, overproduction and Obama

15/01/2016

A report in Foreign Policy discusses the fear felt by many in the House of Saud, “The true surprise about the Saudi-Iranian contretemps over the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is that it caught so many people off guard in the first place. Anyone paying attention to Saudi Arabia knew that something like this was a long time coming. Unfortunately, not enough people were paying attention until it was too late. It’s impossible to understand the current situation without delving into Saudi politics and foreign policy. But it’s equally important to be honest about the limits of our knowledge. Very much like the Islamic Republic of Iran, it’s very difficult for anyone outside the highest reaches of government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to really understand its fears and strategies”.

The writer argues that “it’s clear that Saudi policy has to be understood as an interweaving of Saudi internal and external interests, and right now those interests are overwhelmingly about fear. The external threats it seems to see are easier for Americans to recognise than the internal ones. But what we often miss is how the Saudis see external issues affecting their internal circumstances and creating domestic threats they find far more frightening than the external threat on its own. At the broadest level, when the Saudis in Riyadh look at the Middle East around them, they see a region spiraling out of control. Since 2011, they have witnessed a massive increase in general instability across the region”.

The writer notes that civil wars, terrorism and refugees have turned a placid region into one wrecked by chaos, “Indeed, both the civil wars and the spillover they generate have also produced a general mobilization of the Middle East’s Shiites, instigated and led by Iran. And that includes the Shiites in the Saudi kingdom. Officials in private and press reports occasionally note that hundreds of Saudi security service personnel have been killed and wounded in operations in the Eastern Province, the home to the vast majority of the kingdom’s Shiites. Americans tend not to pay attention to these operations because we see them as proof that the Saudis have things well in hand; but another way to look at it is that the Saudis are fighting pitched battles with someone in the cities of the Eastern Province. In other words, there seems to be a much higher degree of mobilization and violent confrontation among the Saudi Shiites than most realize”.

Implausibly he argues “Then there are Saudi fears about the oil market. Everyone seems to believe that the Saudis are purposely not cutting back production to kill off North American shale producers. But that is absolutely not what the Saudis are saying, either in private or public. Instead, they are saying that they can no longer control the oil market because there are too many other sources and all of the OPEC countries cheat like crazy whenever Riyadh tries to orchestrate a production cut. This has happened to them repeatedly over the past 20 to 30 years. They try to cut production to prevent oil prices from dropping, and the rest of OPEC takes advantage of it to pump as much as they can, contrary to what they promised and agreed to. The result is that there is no overall supply curtailment and the Saudis lose market share. This time around, they have stated that they cannot realistically control the OPEC oil supply, so they are not going to try to do so. Instead, they are going to fight for market share. But doing so means having to win a race to the bottom, with the result that their oil revenues are plummeting”.

Correctly he writes “the region’s civil wars have the Saudis so frightened that they have intervened in unprecedented ways. They have poured tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars into Syria and Yemen and to a lesser extent Iraq and Libya. They are pouring tens of billions more into Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Bahrain to shore up their governments, prevent state collapse under the strain of the spillover from neighbouring civil wars, and thus prevent more civil wars on their own borders. But these increased foreign-policy costs coupled with reduced oil revenues have forced the Saudis to draw from their sovereign wealth fund at a rate of $12 to 14 billion per month — a pace that will wipe out those reserves in less than three years, but is likely to cause severe domestic political problems (including dissension within the royal family) long before”.

He ends noting “the Saudis feel frustrated and abandoned by the United States. Many Saudis and other Gulf Arabs consider President Barack Obama deeply ignorant, if not outright foolish, about the world and the Middle East. They evince out-and-out contempt for him and his policies. From their perspective, the United States has turned its back on its traditional allies in the Middle East. Washington is doing the least it can in Iraq, and effectively nothing in Libya and Syria, with the result that none of those conflicts is getting better. If anything, they are actually getting worse. Moreover, Saudi Arabia seems to differ over whether Obama is using the new nuclear deal with Tehran to deliberately try to shift the United States from the Saudi side to the Iranian side in the grand, regional struggle or if he is allowing it to happen unintentionally. The more charitable Saudi position is the former, because that suggests that Obama at least understands what he is doing, even if they think it a mistake and a betrayal. The latter view, for Saudis, sees him as a virtual imbecile who is destroying the Middle East without any understanding or recognition”.

For those who have argued that the Saudi’s have no where else to go during Obama’s term he argues “The depth of Saudi anger and contempt for the current American leadership is important to understand because it is another critical element of their worldview and policies, as best we can understand them. With the Middle East coming apart at the seams (in Saudi Arabia’s view), the United States — the traditional regional hegemon — is doing nothing to stop it and even encouraging Iran to widen the fissures. Since the United States can’t or won’t do anything, someone else has to, and that someone can only be Saudi Arabia. The dramatic increase in Riyadh’s willingness to intervene abroad, with both financial and military power, has been driven by its sense that dramatic action is required to prevent the region from melting down altogether and taking the kingdom down with it”.

He ends “the Saudis are scared of the rising tide of popular mobilization and Shiite mobilization; they are scared by their loss of control over the oil market and what that is forcing them to do domestically; they are scared by the spillover from the region’s civil wars and the costs that they are being forced to bear to try to prevent that spillover from affecting them; and they are scared that we are abandoning them for Iran”.

“In many Arab economies, good economic policies rarely constitute good politics”

06/12/2015

An interesting article details the problems of the Gulf economies in the future.

It opens, “Five years ago, the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates shared a fiscal surplus of some $600 billion; by 2020, the International Monetary Fund predicts that they will have accumulated a combined deficit of $700 billion. Sustained low oil prices could make things even worse. This bad news is yet one more reminder of resource-rich Arab states’ need to build vibrant, diversified economies that can withstand the effects of oil price shocks. Although Arab governments have long recognised the need to shift away from an excessive dependence on hydrocarbons, they have had little success in doing so. Iraq, for example, set economic diversification as a core policy objective in one of its first five-year development plans in 1965—yet the country has only become more dependent on oil over time. In Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, too, diversification has been a central, yet largely unrealised, development goal since the 1970s. Even the United Arab Emirates’ economy, one of the most diversified in the Gulf, is highly dependent on oil exports”.

The piece mentions “Why have Arab governments consistently failed to diversify their economies despite tall promises and grand plans? The answer has more to do with politics than economics. Indeed, if diversification were as simple as importing technical blueprints from states that have already diversified their economies, such as Botswana, Malaysia, and Norway, it would already have been accomplished. The trouble is that in many Arab economies, good economic policies rarely constitute good politics, especially for ruling elites.  This is because the structural changes demanded by economic diversification—specifically, the production of a greater number and variety of high-value goods—promise to empower business constituencies that, flush with new income, could potentially challenge the ruler”.

The piece goes on to argue “In Kuwait, for example, the rise of an independent merchant class could undercut the power of the monarchy. If rulers in the United Arab Emirates have accepted diversification, meanwhile, it is partly because the Emirati private sector poses little political threat, since it is overwhelmingly reliant on foreign labour. For diversification to succeed, its political costs for elites must be offset: they need to know that they will gain more than they will lose from the reforms. Any serious discussion of economic diversification must therefore begin by recognizing that resource-dependent elites will have to be compensated for the losses they will risk”.

The report gives the example that “Countries that have successfully diversified have generally had political frameworks that could tolerate it and regional environments that encouraged it. Consider the example of Botswana, which at independence in 1966 was highly reliant on mineral extraction, particularly diamond mining, and since then has developed strong agriculture and tourism sectors. Botswana’s success can be attributed to a number of factors: the country inherited constituencies with diverse economic interests, among them farmers and herders; it also benefited from political competition and stable coalitions”.

The article goes on to mention “Arab states lack all three ingredients that facilitated economic diversification in these success stories: varied economic constituencies, strong political coalitions, and beneficial neighbourhood effects. Indeed, at the time of independence, many Arab economies did not inherit economic constituencies that could have gained strong political roles; instead, economic activity remained confined to royal circles. The discovery of oil compounded the problem, since it enabled rulers to tie down the merchant class in state contracts and other forms of patronage. Pervasive conflict in the region further undermined the prospects of private production by disrupting market linkages among states”.

Pointedly he writes that “To move away from their dependence on oil, then, Arab societies need to develop a new political settlement that forces elites to cede ground to the private sector. That, however, raises a difficult question: if a closed, resource-dependent economy benefits elites, what could possibly persuade those elites to allow for diversification? The answer likely lies in policies that compensate elites for the losses they suffer from a leveling of the economic field. China provides an illustrative example of this process: by incorporating business leaders into the Communist Party structure, Beijing managed to align economic reform with the interests of political elites. Or consider the case of Ethiopia, now among the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, which has set up party-owned enterprises supported by specialized endowments to promote investment in underdeveloped regions. Such models of party capitalism raise tough questions about market competition. But they nonetheless demonstrate that elites tend to favor an expansion of the economic pie when they stand as its lead beneficiaries”.

He concludes “Economic diversification in the Middle East is thus far from a technocratic affair. It carries deep power implications for ruling elites and for broader regional dynamics. If the Gulf states hope to reap the benefits promised by diversification, they should ameliorate the costs it might impose on ruling elites and exploit the benefits it offers the region at large”.

 

 

The disintegration of Saudi Arabia?

14/10/2015

An interesting article notes the internal problems of Saudi Arabia and questions if it will “fall apart”.

It opens “As if there weren’t already enough problems to worry about in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia might be headed for trouble. From plummeting oil prices to foreign-policy missteps to growing tensions with Iran, a confluence of recent events is mounting to pose some serious challenges for the Saudi regime. If not properly managed, these events could eventually coalesce into a perfect storm that significantly increases the risk of instability within the kingdom, with untold consequences for global oil markets and security in the Middle East”.

The first problem the author correctly identifies the cracks in the House of Saud, “Last week, the Guardian published two letters that an anonymous Saudi prince recently circulated among senior members of the royal family, calling on them to stage a palace coup against King Salman. The letters allege that Salman, who ascended to the throne in January, and his powerful 30-something son Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have pursued dangerous policies that are leading the country to political, economic, and military ruin. In an interview with the Guardian, the prince insisted that his demand for a change in leadership not only had growing support within the royal family but across broader Saudi society as well”.

Yet to then say that the Saudi leadership is fundamentally divided and incapable of taking decisions is gross exaggeration. The author does not mention that powerful role of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his stabilising role as Crown Prince. Also there is the point to note that the princes have no interest in seeing the whole system collapse but are invested in maintaining it.

The second point which is more valid is the ongoing war in Yemen, “The longer it drags on, the greater the risk that the Saudi intervention against Houthi rebels could become a serious source of internal dissension. In its story on the prince’s letters, the Guardian reported that “many Saudis are sickened by the sight of the Arab world’s richest country pummelling its poorest.” Particular blame is attached to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who also serves as the kingdom’s defense minister and by all accounts has been the driving force behind the war effort. Tagged with the unofficial nickname “Reckless,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been accused of rushing into Yemen without a clear strategy or exit plan, resulting in mounting costs in blood and treasure, an ever-expanding humanitarian crisis, and growing international criticism”.

The war in Yemen is not going well and it has become invested with more than it should be. However, just because the war is not going well does not mean that it will lead to the disintegration of the kingdom as the writer argues. A badly prosecuted war will make people ask questions but will not lead to the downfall of the entire system.

The third point is as he writes is “largely to Saudi policy, oil prices plummeted by more than 50 percent in the past year. Facing a market glut due to the U.S. oil boom, Saudi strategy has been to maintain high production, fight for market share, allow prices to collapse, and wait for higher cost producers, particularly in America, to be driven out of business. With cheaper oil spurring increased demand and squeezing out excess supply, the theory was that higher prices would return before the kingdom ever felt any real economic pinch. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way — at least not as quickly as the Saudis anticipated. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s 2015 budget was based on the assumption that oil would be selling at about $90 per barrel. Today, it’s closer to half that. At the same time, the Saudis have incurred a rash of expenses that weren’t planned for, including those associated with King Salman’s ascendance to the throne (securing loyalty for a new king can be expensive business) and the war in Yemen. The result is a budget deficit approaching 20 percent, well over $100 billion, requiring the Saudis to deplete their huge foreign exchange reserves at a record rate (about $12 billion per month) while also accelerating bond sales. The Saudis have reportedly liquidated more than $70 billion of their holdings with global asset managers in just the past 6 months”.

Correctly he writes that “there’s no danger that the kingdom will run out of money anytime soon, the longer this trend of large budget deficits, lower oil prices, and declining foreign exchange reserves continues, the more nervous international markets will become — with potential implications for key indicators like credit rating and capital flight. Adding to long-term concernsis the fact that Saudi net oil exports have been in slow decline for years as internal energy consumption rises dramatically. Indeed, analysts nowsuggest that rapidly expanding domestic demand could render the kingdom a net importer of oil by the 2030s. It goes without saying that such a development poses a mortal threat to the kingdom, where oil sales still account for 80 to 90 percent of state revenues”.

The author is both correct and somewhat out of date. Reports said that the country would have to begin importing by 2038 but that since then consumption has slowed and greater efficiency measures have been taken. This is not to say that there are not problems but the short term problem of price can be “fixed” by slowing production.

Related to the section on Yemen he makes the valid point about the conflict with Iran but overstates the effects of it, “Iran in particular has seized on the hajj tragedy to intensify tensions with the Saudis — which, of course, were already at fever pitch over the nuclear issue and Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region. More Iranians seemed to have died in the stampede than any other nationality; the latest count is 464, and it could still go higher. When the kingdom was slow in repatriating bodies, Iranian officials went on the attack. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,warned the Saudis that they could face a “brutal and violent reaction” if they “show the slightest disrespect to Iranian pilgrims.” Khamenei said that Iran had so far shown great restraint in the face of Saudi offenses, “but they should know that Iran’s hand is superior to many others and has more capabilities.” He concluded that, “If [Iran] wants to react to disturbing and sinister elements, [Saudi Arabia’s] situation will not be good.” Iran’s former defense minister, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, followed up by telling the Saudis to take Khamenei’s warning “seriously” because Iran was capable of giving a “strong and crushing” response to Saudi wrongdoings”.

Pointedly he argues that “Russia’s dramatic intervention in Syria has underscored a much broader threat now rocking the kingdom: the growing reality that America is abandoning its traditional role as guarantor of Middle East stability. That’s of course very bad news for the Saudis, who have hitched their survival for 70 years to Pax Americana. Now, that U.S.-defended order appears to be unraveling before their eyes. Instead, the new normal is Washington cutting diplomatic deals that promise to embolden the kingdom’s worst enemy in Iran, while protesting meekly as its main geopolitical rival, Russia, seeks to overturn the region’s balance of power. As surely as night follows day, the rapid decline of American power and reliability inevitably leaves Saudi Arabia increasingly exposed and vulnerable. No one has gotten rich betting on the House of Saud’s early demise. Over the decades, they’ve shown remarkable staying power in the face of political, ideological, and military currents that have swept away lesser regimes. So predicting that the royal family could now be on the cusp of real trouble is a bit of a fool’s errand”.

He makes the valid point that “What does seem safe to say is that most of the key indicators now appear to be headed in the wrong direction simultaneously — perhaps for the first time ever. In that sense, there could be a greater risk than in the past that, left unattended, these negative trends might eventually converge or cascade in ways that could overwhelm the system. Yes, the risks that the worst will happen may be low. But the consequences of widespread instability in the kingdom are potentially so deleterious to U.S. interests that the risks should nevertheless be heeded. As bad as things are now in the region, a meltdown in Saudi Arabia would make the current crisis pale in comparison”.

He ends “The question now is whether the Obama administration is even capable of recovering from the geopolitical mess it has triggered. Does it even have a clue about the disastrously destabilizing chain of events that have been unleashed by its very purposeful decision to put a “closed for business” sign on Pax Americana in the Middle East? Does it at last understand that what replaces the abandonment of U.S. leadership in the region is not some virtuous equilibrium or balance of power among local competitors, but accelerating levels of violence, extremism, and chaos? Does it have any idea of how it would go about the arduous task of rebuilding the strategic partnerships that its policies have so badly undermined, and stemming the rising tsunami of disorder that now threatens to swamp the region and U.S. interests? Alas, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that the answer to any of these questions is yes. In which case, the risks will continue to grow that on top of all the other disasters that President Obama will bequeath to his successor, he may yet add one more: an increasingly unstable and perilous situation in Saudi Arabia — the world’s largest exporter of oil, the site of Islam’s holiest sites, and a country awash, in almost equal measure, in advanced American weapons and angry Wahhabis”.

“Britain’s longest reigning monarch”

09/09/2015

Cheering crowds have greeted the Queen in Edinburgh on the day she becomes Britain’s longest reigning monarch. Bad weather delayed her arrival at Waverley Station, but the 89-year-old monarch and the Duke of Edinburgh later set off on the new Borders Railway. The Queen will have reigned for 63 years and seven months – calculated at 23,226 days, 16 hours and approximately 30 minutes at about 17:30 BST. David Cameron said the service she had given was “truly humbling”. Dressed in turquoise with her trusty black handbag at her side, the Queen smiled and waved to those gathered at the station on the day she passes the record set by her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria”.

Mohammed bin Nayef vs Mohammed bin Salman?

16/08/2015

Simon Henderson writes about the leadership of the House of Saud, “Saudi Arabia’s local chapters of the Islamic State have turned out to be less than discriminating in their target selection. In May, two Shiite mosques in the Eastern province were hit, killing 26 people. On August 6, the jihadi group blasted a Sunni mosque in the kingdom’s southwest, close to the Yemen border; 15 people died, mostly Saudi security personnel. It was a reminder to Saudi royals that the Islamic State, while sharing their anti-Shiite instincts, also loathes the House of Saud and everything it stands for. It’s also a reminder that Saudi Arabia’s ongoing clampdown on the Islamic State will continue. Last month, Saudi authorities announced the arrests of 431 suspected members of the group. Although the vast majority of the kingdom’s roughly 27 million citizens probably prefer the leadership of King Salman to the chaos which has swept the Arab world since 2011, a not insignificant portion of Saudi youth appear inspired by visions of jihad constantly fed to them by social media and find that their youthful fervour is often not condemned by Saudi society”.

Henderson goes on to make the point that “The Saudi mosque bombings are just one sign of the mounting domestic and foreign crises facing the kingdom, many of which have a real or imagined link with Iran. Riyadh’s most visible response has been to gather messages of support and condolence from allies — while probably wondering which usual suspects to round up this time. Whatever the action is, it has to be seen as uniting rather than dividing the country. Achieving this balance will be particularly challenging if there are further incidents attributable to the Islamic State or any sign of retaliation from Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population. But it’s not clear that the kingdom’s leadership is up to the task — regarding the spate of terrorist attacks on its soil or the other myriad problems it faces. The country’s monarch can’t even plan a vacation properly: Last week, King Salman apparently decided he disliked southern France, even though the public beach in view from his vacation villa had been cleared of French sunbathers; he relocated with his more than 600-person entourage to his palace in Morocco. On the home front, meanwhile, the government is in the hands of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s favuorite son and conduit for the monarch’s policy preferences”.

Interestingly Henderson posits that “The relationship between Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman has prompted much debate in foreign-policy circles across the world. There is little doubt that the Saudi monarch wants Mohammed bin Salman to become king someday; the only question is whether Nayef will be allowed to squeeze in a reign between the two men. Many Saudi watchers currently believe King Salman will announce his retirement and declare that Mohammed bin Salman has replaced him — the system of succession is in flux, and the only ironclad rule seems to be that the king’s desires are paramount”.

If such a move were to occur it would upset the delicate balance within the House of Saud. Some have warned that if the correct attributes and factions are not appeased there could, in extreme cases, be civil war. This senario is unlikely however as the princes all have an interest in maintaining the system as it exists today.

Henderson adds “there is conflicting information on whether a rivalry exists between the two princes. Some say that Mohammed bin Nayef — or at least those courtiers who would lose out in this maneuver — is plotting his own accession, which will sideline his younger cousin. Other reports from foreigners who have dealt with them, however, say that the two rivals can actually function well as a team. The partnership will be increasingly tested in the coming months. The two men are charged with pushing Saudi Arabia’s often fractious defence establishment to work toward a common goal: Mohammed bin Nayef is also minister of interior, responsible for domestic security, and Mohammed bin Salman is defense minister and therefore de facto commander of the Saudi army, air force, and navy. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry and military do not function well together. A third force is the Saudi Arabian National Guard, commanded by Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, whose ambitions to be king diminished when his father died six months ago and vanished completely when the king elevated Mohammed bin Salman to the deputy crown prince slot in April. Mitab, seen as an ally of Mohammed bin Nayef, is clinging onto his national guard role despite reports that Mohammed bin Salman wants to absorb the essentially tribal force into the Saudi land forces, making Mitab redundant”.

The piece goes on to mention that “The Yemen campaign is the most immediate problem facing the kingdom’s new national security team. The Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes, which started in March, have failed to defeat the Houthi rebels and have turned the situation into a whack-a-mole game against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces, wreaking massive collateral damage on innocent civilians. The government of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has recently reestablished a toehold in the southern port city of Aden, from which a United Arab Emirates tank column advanced northwards earlier this week. But the Saleh-Houthi alliance remains intact, and the former leader gave a pugnacious interview to the new Huffington Post Arabic website this week, calling for Hadi to be put on trial in The Hague”.

He ends the article, “Syria also remains a top Saudi concern, because of Riyadh’s antipathy toward President Bashar al-Assad and the desire to deal his Iranian backers a strategic defeat. There has been a great deal of diplomatic activity on this front in recent days: Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met in Doha this week; the Syrian foreign minister traveled to Oman; and there are rumours of a visit to Riyadh by a Syrian intelligence chief. In addition to its battles against foreign and domestic enemies, Saudi Arabia’s rulers must contend with a financial crunch. The price of oil has dipped south of $50 per barrel again, and Saudi Arabia has announced plans to borrow a whopping $27 billion. Heavy expenditures in Yemen and handouts of an estimated $32 billion to keep the population sweet when King Salman came to power have been a clear drain on the Saudi treasury”.

He concludes “Who is the key Saudi decision-maker on economic issues? That would be the 29-year old Mohammed bin Salman, in his role as chairman of the economic and development council. And once again, it points to the trouble facing the kingdom: The ledger of what needs to be done against what resources are available does not balance”.

House of Saud after Salman

04/08/2015

An article argues that the Saudi succession crisis is over, “Early reactions to recent changes in Saudi succession have made much of Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as deputy crown prince and the fact that both he and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef share a Sudairi grandmother. Neither of these really matters”.

The writer goes on to argue that “First, the notion of a Sudairi takeover is an oversimplification that obfuscates more than it clarifies. Instead, analysts should pay closer attention to macro-level changes at the federal and local levels of Saudi government to determine whether these changes represent decentralization or a concentration of power. Second, Mohammed bin Salman’s power, while quite visible amid the Saudi intervention in Yemen, is highly dependent on his father and may not be durable. Very little is known about internal support for Mohammed bin Salman, either within the Sudairi branch or among Al Saud more broadly. Older members of the royal family have reportedly expressed doubts about him, and six of the 34 members of the Allegiance Council withheld support for his promotion”.

Interestingly he claims that “Claims of a Sudairi coup are based on very little information and some sweeping assumptions. Neither Mohammed bin Nayef’s nor Mohammed bin Salman’s mother is a Sudairi. The former is from the Jiluwi branch of the royal family while the latter is a non-royal descendant of the leadership of the Ajman tribe. In fact, Mohammed bin Salman’s three half-brothers—Sultan, Abdulaziz, and Faisal—have a greater claim to the Sudairi mantle, as both their mother and paternal grandmother were Sudairis. Moreover, if this truly were a Sudairi power play, what explains the sidelining of Salman’s full-brother Ahmad, the most senior Sudairi not to have been removed from potential succession? After serving as deputy minister of interior for decades, Ahmad briefly occupied the ministerial position in 2012 before being replaced by his nephew”.

He goes on to add “The real story is not that the top three positions in government are held by sons or grandsons of Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi, but that only three members of the royal family are now running ministries (Defense, Interior, and the National Guard). Three additional members of Al Saud—Saud bin Faisal, Mansour bin Mutaib, and Mansour bin Muqrin—are ministers of state and senior advisers, while many other members of the royal family serve as provincial or regional governors. To be sure, power is concentrated in the hands of the king and his closest advisers, including his son. However, outside the security apparatus, commoners and technocrats are now running day-to-day affairs in the kingdom”.

He continues noting importantly that “Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as deputy crown prince is indeed a major change—and he has taken on a wide variety of important official roles within the government—but this does not mean his appointment cannot or will not be swiftly undone, as Michael Stephens and David Roberts have pointed out. Mohammed bin Salman owes his swift rise to his father, and few are willing challenge him as long as the king is alive. But whether he becomes the next crown prince, and for how long he holds on to that position, will depend less on his current title and more on his standing and that of his supporters within the ruling family. King Salman can do nothing about his son’s position after he is gone, just as King Abdullah could not ensure Prince Muqrin’s claim. Even though then Crown Prince Salman assured that Muqrin’s position—which had the explicit, if divided, support of the Allegiance Council—was secure, few Saudis were surprised that Muqrin stepped down2.

Crucially he mentions that “In that sense, the title of deputy crown prince is relatively meaningless. It was instituted by King Abdullah to reassure the Saudi public and Saudi Arabia’s allies that the kingdom would not be left rudderless in the event both the king and the crown prince died or were incapacitated. Muqrin’s appointment was either a placeholder or a feeble attempt to install a political and ideological ally over the objections of many within the royal family. Decrees of former kings can easily be undone by decrees of the current king. The amount of turnover in senior positions and the institutional restructuring under King Abdullah (and now under King Salman) should make clear that no individual or faction can stake a perpetual claim”.

Pointedly he argues “Mohammed bin Salman might surge in popularity because of his generous handouts and his role in the war in Yemen, but he could just as well fall from grace if the situation there continues to deteriorate. Madawi Al-Rasheed argues that the king and his son “cannot afford to achieve anything less than total victory” in Yemen”.

In an insightful piece, Elizabeth Dickinson gets a lot right, but she also jumps to a few suspect conclusions. She writes that since Mohammed bin Nayef has no sons, “He is therefore unlikely to shake up the order of succession when he becomes king in the same way that King Salman just did.” However, a new king has many reasons to make appointments that have nothing to do with assuring the status of his descendants. Unless Mohammed bin Salman can make himself crown prince, his power will likely be greatly diminished after the death of his father”.

He concludes “Regardless of what happens to Mohammed bin Salman, the transition to the next generation will come much more quickly than it would have had Muqrin stayed in office. After this transition, managing the royal family internally will get more difficult. With so many cousins to appease, whoever inherits the throne will have to make many more compromises and hard decisions than his predecessor”.

House of Salman

01/05/2015

A piece reports on another shuffle by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, “Salman reshuffled his cabinet Wednesday, appointing a new heir to the throne, empowering a coterie of younger Saudi officials — and signaling that he’s ready to step up Riyadh’s push to counter Iran’s rising influence across the Middle East. The reorganization comes amid heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Tehran, with Riyadh conducting an ongoing military offensive against the Houthi rebels in Yemen whom it views as an Iranian proxy. Since succeeding the late King Abdullah in January, Salman has signaled that he plans to pursue a more assertive foreign policy designed, in large part, to ensure that Iran is unable to undermine Saudi influence across the Arabian Peninsula. Wednesday’s appointments appear to strengthen the officials that have helped to promulgate that policy. Salman tapped his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, left, the country’s powerful interior minister, as Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, replacing the current ruler’s half-brother, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, right, an ally of the former monarch. Nayef, 55, will continue to serve as interior minister after the reshuffle”.

It adds crucially that “Nayef’s appointment means that for the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history, a grandson of the kingdom’s founder — and not one of his sons — stands next in line for the throne. Salman’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, above, was named to the role of deputy crown prince. Bin Salman, who took over the role of defense minister in January, is thought to be in his early 30s. He will continue to serve as the top defense official, a post from which he has directed the month-long Saudi campaign in Yemen. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, 75, right, was also replaced Wednesday, when Salman named the the first non-royal, Washington Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, left, to the post. Faisal is said to have been in poor health, and reportedly asked to retire. He has led the Saudi Foreign Ministry since 1975”.

A related piece notes that “As part of the royal decrees, King Salman relieved Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz — the youngest surviving son of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz — of his post. King Salman replaced him with Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, his nephew and the architect of the kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy, who now becomes the first grandson of King Abdulaziz to be next in line for the throne. King Salman appointed his favourite son, Mohammed bin Salman, who by most accounts is in his early to mid-30s, as deputy crown prince”.

The author adds that “In a kingdom used to slow, evolutionary change, this pre-dawn reshuffling of Saudi Arabia’s top leadership is tectonic. The changes were not entirely unexpected, however, though few expected it would be so soon. Since King Salman ascended to the throne in January, his son Mohammed has risen sharply through the ranks. He was appointed defense minister and head of the royal court, a position that has been compared to a Saudi version of prime minister. It had become clear to everyone in the kingdom that the young prince was going places”.

The piece continues “Analysts here say that the new succession plan is indicative of the new monarch’s control over the levers of power in the kingdom. King Salman — in contrast to his predecessor, King Abdullah — is close to the religious leadership and is known to be a more conservative man personally. Unlike King Abdullah, he is also one of seven full brothers from the same wife of King Abdulaziz who together are known as the Sudairi Seven, the largest and most cohesive bloc within the family”.

Interestingly it mentions that “The new appointments also appear geared toward improving the state of Saudi Arabia’s lethargic bureaucracy, which is bogged down in process and paperwork. Shamal Investment’s Faisal bin Farhan pointed to the fact that the royal decrees also sacked the health minister and two of his deputies, moving the head of oil giant Aramco, Khalid al-Falih, to the helm. “You usually see someone with a medical background in this position, but now we have a CEO type,” he said approvingly. “We needed a manager.” Indeed, the appointments are part of a broader governmental shift that began in January with the king’s coronation. At that time, King Salman abolished the 17 councils that had managed government affairs. In their place, he streamlined the bureaucracy into just two national committees. Mohammed bin Nayef now oversees all ministers in the political and security realms, while Mohammed bin Salman watches the economic and social spheres”.

It ends “Internationally, the appointments signaled that King Salman is keen to end several years of stormy ties with Washington. In addition to the changes to succession, the announcement included several others ministerial swaps, most notably removing Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who had been in his post for four decades, and replacing him with Adel al-Jubeir, the outgoing ambassador to Washington. Prince Saud had overseen testy relations between Riyadh and Washington, which disagreed with a host of regional policies in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Jubeir, who is known and trusted in Washington, is a less divisive face. He has been the primary media spokesman of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, even announcing the beginning of the military operation from the Saudi Embassy in Washington. He is not a member of the Al Saud family — a rarity for such a senior position — and insiders expect that his role will be to implement the decisions made by the royal court in Riyadh”.

It concludes “King Salman finalized these changes on the evening of April 28, hosting an allegiance ceremony after the evening prayer. But the monarch may yet have a few surprises in the works: Analysts here say there are likely even more shake-ups to come, perhaps including key portfolios like the Petroleum Ministry and the National Guard”.

A related piece by Bruce Reidel argues “Not only does he lack experience, but unlike most Saudi princes, Mohammed bin Salman was not educated in the West. Instead, he studied law at King Saud University. There is controversy over his age, reputed to be anywhere from 29 to 34; officially his birthday is July 24, 1980. He chairs a number of young people’s organizations and seeks to portray himself as the leader of the next generation of Saudis. Two-thirds of Saudis are under 30. He also chairs the powerful development and economics committee, which coordinates economic policies, including oil pricing and supply. These changes are profound shifts in power between generations in a society that honors age and experience. In promoting his nephew and son, King Salman is passing the torch to the next two generations of royals. Since 1902, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the founder of the modern kingdom, Ibn Saud Abdul-Aziz, or his sons. Salman will be the last son to reign. The royal court says all the changes have been endorsed by a majority in the Allegiance Council, the committee of Ibn Saud’s sons and grandsons, but the legitimacy of who selects the next generation and on what criteria has been a question mark over the succession process for years. The king hopes this is now all settled, but has he in his own mind set the future lineup? How much is he building consensus among the family for his rapid changes? Many wonder about the king’s health and how that might affect his decision making. Meanwhile, the kingdom has arrested scores of people allegedly linked to the Islamic State, including some planning to attack the US Embassy. The Saudis are unconvinced that the United States has a viable strategy in Iraq that will not leave Tehran the dominant power there, but they do not think Washington has a strategy in Syria. Most of all, they worry about their own war in Yemen. Never has the kingdom been so aggressive with its own military in trying to force a regime change. The Yemeni war is part Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry, part unfinished Arab Spring business and part Sunni-Shiite sectarian animosity. It is now, above all, Salman’s war, as well as his son’s. The surprise elevation of Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman underscores how the stakes in this war are crucial not only to Yemen’s future, but also increasingly to the future of the House of Saud. The hawks need to produce tangible results or face losing credibility”.

Not mentioned is how the House of Saud will react to this. For now the princes have kept quiet but if King Salman continues to turn the House of Saud into the House of Salman there could be open disagreements, or worse.

 

Qaboos returns to Oman

27/03/2015

Sultan Qaboos of Oman flew home on Monday after spending more than eight months in Germany for medical treatment that was completely successful, state television reported. Qaboos returned after “having completed medical treatment in Germany whose results were crowned as a total success,” the television announced. Footage showed the visibly frail 74-year-old walking unaided from a royal aircraft and then along a red carpet before being driven away. In his last public address, Qaboos appeared on television in November to tell his nation that he would miss the 44th anniversary of his inauguration and national day, saying his treatment was giving “good results”. A diplomatic source in Muscat had said the sultan, who has ruled Oman since overthrowing his father in a bloodless 1970 coup, was suffering from colon cancer”.

King Salman’s people

11/03/2015

A report in Foreign Policy discusses the reshuffle made by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

It opens “King Salman bin Abdulaziz, since ascending to the throne one month ago, has moved with uncustomary swiftness to demonstrate that his rule will be different from that of his predecessor. In doing so, he has raised concerns among some Saudis about the new kingdom’s new direction, particularly in his overtures to the Wahhabi religious establishment and the extensive powers invested in his young son.

The writer posits the theory that Salman could end the consensus style of King Abdullah. He argues “In interviews with roughly two dozen Saudis holding a variety of political and social perspectives, many of whom declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of discussing royal politics, a recurring theme was the belief that King Salman may revive the governing style of his elder brother and mentor, King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, who reigned from 1982 to 2005. King Fahd was known for an autocratic style that relied on close ties to the United States and that also exerted pervasive social control of the population through religion and the religious police.”

Naturally there are differing views on this “Some Saudis welcome the King Fahd model because they say it maintains a better balance between religion and modernization than that during King Abdullah’s rule. “We know we are living in a global village, but we are not into rapid change,” said a professor at Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University. “Now, I feel we are back to normal, which is change in a very slow pace.” But other Saudis lament King Fahd’s era as one during which social and intellectual modernization lagged far behind economic development. These Saudis were more satisfied with King Abdullah’s reign, during which he which launched educational reforms, gave local media more freedom, and pushed women’s advancement in education and the workplace”.

The speed of the changes have taken many by surprise, “Before the late king was even lowered into the ground of Riyadh’s al-Oud cemetery, King Salman had replaced top royal court staff, had invested one of his youngest sons with enormous powers, and, in a historic first for the kingdom, had named an heir apparent from the ranks of the younger princes: interior minister and counterterrorism czar Mohammed bin Nayef. Even seemingly trivial aspects of the succession were completed in a blink of the eye. Road signs that used to say “Prince Salman Road” were replaced within 24 hours of King Abdullah’s death to “King Salman Road,” according to locals. In the week that followed, King Salman invited conservative religious scholars who’d been sidelined by King Abdullah to visit him at court, created two supercommittees with broad authority over economic and security policies, and reshuffled his cabinet to bring in younger, business-minded technocrats”.

However the weaker religious establishment under King Abdullah is coming back,”Since his first days on the throne, King Salman has given credence to the perception that he will be more sympathetic to Saudi Arabia’s hard-line religious establishment, which espouses an anti-intellectual, rigid version of Islam known as Wahhabism. The new king was photographed with Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, whom King Abdullah had sacked from his job in 2009 as head of the Supreme Judicial Council for obstructing reforms in the court system, and took as an advisor Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shithri, whom King Abdullah had demoted after he publicly opposed co-ed instruction at a graduate research university. King Salman also brought into his cabinet three members of the Al Sheikh clan, the country’s leading religious family, whose members descend from the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. While individual members of the Al Sheikh family differ in their religious views, the family as a whole is seen as upholding the Wahhabi version of Islam and providing religious legitimacy to the House of Saud”.

The other way to view the moves has been mentioned, “Other Saudi analysts, however, saw King Salman’s moves as a clever tactic to co-opt the powerful religious establishment. Bringing the clerics into the fold, they believed, could soften opposition to needed reforms and counter propaganda from radical jihadi groups like the Islamic State, which argue that Saudi Arabia is not Islamic enough. Extending an olive branch to clerics such as Shithri and Luhaidan, for example, was a “smart move,” said Hamza al-Salem, an expert on Islamic finance and Wahhabi thinking. Those religious leaders, Salem argued, were genuinely popular among the Saudi population. “Returning these people back to him, King Salman will have more support if he wants to change something,” he said”.

The writer turns to the appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman as minister of defence, “Another topic that has elicited unease is the apparently immense power now held by the king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, who is in his late 20s or early 30s and is a virtual political unknown. Many have raised concerns about his youth, lack of experience, and supposedly mercurial temperament”.

The author notes that as well as being defence minister “Mohammed bin Salman is chief of the royal court, making him the powerful gatekeeper to his 79-year-old father. He also was named chair of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, one of the two new supercommittees tasked with setting broad national policies. The other supercommittee is the Council of Political and Security Affairs, headed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The intent is that the supercommittees will streamline policymaking and pressure an often recalcitrant bureaucracy into action — but some Saudis worry that they could also become independent power centers for their chairmen”.

There is some debate as to the age, and therefore the (in)experience of the new defence minister at such a sensitive time, “Mohammed bin Salman’s exact age is uncertain. His official biography does not state his birthday. While some news reports claim that he was born in 1980, others claim he was born in 1985 — a year supported by his high school alumni association records. Other sources contend that he is even younger: On Jan. 28, the popular Twitter user @mujtahidd, who has previously tweeted accurate information about the inner workings of the royal family, wrote that the prince was born in 1988 and is only 27 years old. What we do know about Mohammed bin Salman is that he graduated from King Saud University in Riyadh, where he received a bachelor’s degree in law. Unlike many other prominent Saudi royals, he seemingly has never studied outside the kingdom. While he has been working with his father for several years, he is seen as untested by many Saudis”.

The author then turns to the Deputy Crown Prince, “Mohammed bin Nayef, is seen as a steadying hand. Upon King Salman’s ascension to the throne, the monarch tapped Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince, making him second in line for the throne. The 55-year-old prince is widely credited for restoring security to Saudi streets after the violent al Qaeda insurgency from 2003 to 2006. He also is responsible for a crackdown on political dissidents and human rights activists during the past few years — a crackdown that has drawn international criticism for using harsh methods such as solitary confinement and allegedly torture. Mohammed bin Nayef’s selection as deputy crown prince is a major development because he is the first of the grandsons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, to be named as a potential future king”.

Interestingly he adds that “While his elevation certainly left some in his generation miffed at being passed over, there is no indication of a serious challenge to the interior minister’s new status from within the royal family. Besides being known for his long working hours and intelligence, Prince Mohammed is highly praised by U.S. officials for his cooperation with Washington on counterterrorism. The only blemish on his recent rise was the discovery that the prince, or someone in his inner circle, had committed the peccadillo of résumé enhancement. Prince Mohammed’s official biography stated that he had acquired a degree in political science in 1981 from a U.S. university. The Saudi Embassy in Washington later said the university was Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. However, the college said in a Jan. 30 statement that Prince Mohammed took some classes there but did not obtain a degree”.

The piece ends by discussing the speed with which dissent has been stamped out, “King Salman has moved quickly to secure the loyalty of his subjects — most notably, giving away an estimated $32 billion in grants, investments, and bonuses to Saudis. He has also adopted a conciliatory approach on some of the cases that have been lightning rods for criticism of the kingdom: Following his ascension to the throne, two Saudi women detained since December for demonstrating against the ban on female drivers were released. And after an international outcry at the Jan. 9 court-ordered public flogging of Raif Badawi, a young writer who had questioned the authority of Saudi religious figures, the government halted plans to administer further weekly lashings”

The piece ends “Salman is very different man from his predecessor, but his domestic challenge is the same: easing his country into modernity while not abandoning its strict Wahhabi faith. Managing that delicate balance amid the historic chaos now surrounding his kingdom won’t be an easy task”.

 

“Saudi Arabia’s past, not its future”

24/02/2015

A piece argues that King Salman is the past and not the future for Saudi Arabia.

It opens, “King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz will be remembered for his relatively reformist mindset and bold foreign policy initiatives. But the Saudi leader’s passing will have little to no impact on the Kingdom’s future, especially given the set of increasingly difficult challenges the country will have to face at home and abroad. Leadership matters, especially in the Middle East, where institutions are weak and often nonexistent. But charisma and talent, on their own, won’t be enough to dig Saudi Arabia out of the profound generational problems that go beyond Abdullah, his successor Salman, or any leader who will preside over the Kingdom. Diversifying the economy, reducing unemployment, practicing good governance, further empowering women, combating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), checking Iran’s advances, improving relations with Washington, stabilising Yemen, and leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—to name just a few—will require team work”.

He makes the point that if real results are desired on these complex issues “Prince Muqrin, whom Salman immediately appointed as the new crown prince, will have to create and manage a team of younger and more effective professionals who are in tune with the latest regional and global trends and know something or two about the demands of the twenty-first century. That, ultimately, is Salman’s biggest responsibility. He is already 79 and not in the best condition (rumours of dementia are unproven but he does have other health issues), so he should use what could be a relatively short stint in office to lay the groundwork for the next generation of Saudi leadership. Even though Salman has barely spent 48 hours in his new position, he is indeed Saudi Arabia’s past, not its future”.

The writer notes that Salman “has to refrain from upsetting or alienating the ultra-conservative clergy who have tremendous influence over politics; and he has to guard against the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups that constantly challenge the legitimacy of the House of Saud. There are few ways to balance all these demands, and Salman is likely to settle on the same ones as Abdullah. It is in foreign affairs and national security where Salman will arguably face the toughest challenges. Here, Abdullah’s rule left a lot to be desired, although it isn’t clear that anyone else would have handled the real external challenges he faced much better”.

He goes on to make the point that “It is reasonable to posit that Saudi Arabia is losing the regional competition with its archrival, Iran. In Syria, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his opponents—various jihadists including ISIS fighters and secular Syrian rebels—continue to battle, Iran seems to have the upper hand (Assad’s regime has survived) and Saudi Arabia’s interests are increasingly at risk. In fact, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Saudi Arabia’s fortunes in that war could improve anytime soon, because its allies—a collection of secular and Islamist rebels who presumably are not part of ISIS—are the weakest on the battlefield. Things could change should Western powers adopt a more aggressive stance toward Assad, but there are no signs that the United States, the leader of the anti-ISIS international coalition, is ready to do so”.

He concludes “Abdullah’s shortcomings notwithstanding, and knowing the nature of the Kingdom’s traditional society, Wahhabi ideology, and mysterious politics, he was a better leader for Saudi Arabia and the region than some of his predecessors. He did the best he could to open up and modernise his country, and he boldly and historically proposed peace with Israel in return for the latter returning territory it occupied in the 1967 war. Some say that he was a true reformer trapped in a conservative system, but that would be a stretch. Salman will have to not only preserve Abdullah’s relative successes but also reverse the failures, and those are not few. It is only with a new cadre in Riyadh and a fresh look to the future that the new king will be able to triumph”.

 

End of the House of Borbon?

12/02/2015

A misguided article posits the theory that the end of the Spanish monarchy is in sight.

It begins, “It seems highly plausible that the reign of Spain’s Felipe VI, who came to the throne last June, will be a blameless one. What also seems increasingly likely, however, is that it will be brief. Long before his father, Juan Carlos I, announced on June 2, 2014, his decision to abdicate, the royal family had fallen from grace in the eyes of most Spaniards. Once a source of unity in post-fascism Spain, the monarchy has now joined the mire of discredit in which the rest of the country’s political institutions find themselves. Today, the throne is in a crisis from which it may not be able to recover — and young King Felipe may be the one to pay the price”.

There are historical similarities to this case. Victor Emmanuel III of Italy did the same in a time of crisis and abdicated in favour of his son, Umberto II at the end of the war. However, it was too late and the monarchy was abolished just weeks later. Yet this anology is not accurate. Victor Emmanuel left it too late and thus doomed his son, and his House to abolition. Juan Carlos took a regrettable action but it may well have saved the House of Borbon. King Philip has cut spending and cut his own salary. He has taken action to reconnect with the Spanish people.

The writer adds “The throne’s fate hinges on the outcome of Spanish elections, scheduled to be held before the end of the year, either in November or December. Just as in Greece, where voters racked by years of stagnation and austerity policies placed a far-left party in power in recent elections, Spain, too, is poised for a dramatic leftward shift. The country’s economic crisis is entering a seventh year. The two major parties — the center-left Socialists (PSOE) and the center-right Popular Party (PP) — which have alternated in power since the end of the fascist era are, for the first time, facing a genuine challenge. A ragtag party started by leftist university lecturers only a year ago, called Podemos (“We Can”), is riding the surge of indignation to the top of the polls. A Podemos victory would be more than a challenge to austerity policies: If elected, Podemos is promising to stage a referendum on whether Spain — a monarchy since the country was unified in 1492, with the exception of two brief republics and a few decades under fascism — should have a king no more”.

Yet, Podemos has the support of people not because of its republicanism but because of its economic policies. The danger for Podemos is that they overplay their hand and focus on extraneous matters rather than important issues like the Spanish unemployment levels or dealing with Germany. The party, still young and full of anti-establishment vigour could be turned around and made to see sense. The monarchy is the only thing that is keeping modern Spain together.

He continues praising the new king, “Felipe, 47, is an earnest and well-prepared sovereign who speaks English, French, and Catalan and has a master’s degree in international relations from Georgetown. In his coronation speech, Felipe pledged a “new era for the monarchy” and, alongside his media-savvy wife, Queen Letizia, he has attempted to reshape the crown for a 21st-century Spain. One of his early official engagements as king, for instance, was holding a first-ever royal meeting in heavily Catholic Spain with representatives of the country’s gay and lesbian community. Felipe has also shown a particular sensitivity for the distinct nature of Catalonia as the region’s leaders continue their struggle to hold a binding referendum on independence, and he has drawn up an in-house code of transparency that will see the palace accounts fully opened to external scrutiny for the first time, through a government-led audit”.

The writer attempts to smear King Philip by association with his sister, “Even prior to the sudden rise of Podemos, the monarchy seemed headed for a breaking point. Central to the monarchy’s crisis are the troubles of Felipe’s elder sister, Cristina de Borbón, who has been embroiled in a major corruption scandal for the past three years and in December was ordered to stand trial for tax fraud. The king has kept his sibling at arm’s length, not once offering a word of public support. He even went so far as to banish her from his coronation day. But Cristina, who is currently sixth in line to the throne, is stubbornly refusing to fade quietly from the limelight. Her lawyers pestered the courts with spurious attempts to prevent her from being tried alongside her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, the duke of Palma de Mallorca. Even now that all appeal options have run out, she is steadfastly ignoring a consensus among politicians and commentators of all stripes that she should at least renounce her right of succession. At this point, however, the final verdict and possible sentencing in Cristina’s trial will matter little. The damage has been done, and an institution which, since the end of fascism in Spain, has stood out as a rare source of solidarity and gravitas in Spain’s rambunctious political scene, is showing signs of rot”.

This is a short term view. The trail of Infanta Cristina should not blind Spaniards to the both the usefulness and need for the monarchy. The scandals of King Juan Carlos will soon be forgotten in light of the work he did to save Spanish democracy during the 1981 attempted coup.

He continues “Felipe is well aware of the problems his less principled family members present to his reign. In his second keynote speech as king, on Christmas Eve, he looked straight into the camera and intoned grimly, “We must not hesitate to cut corruption at its roots.” But it may be too late. At the same time that the embattled king found himself facing historically low approval ratings, the leaders of both of Spain’s traditionally dominant parties, the PP and the PSOE, were embroiled in their own respective corruption scandals. The PP was exposed when its former treasurer, now in jail, leaked ledgers in February 2013 showing an established regime of kickbacks and illegal financing implicating many of the party’s top brass, while the Socialists were mortified by the emergence in August that same year of a decades-old system of subsidy syphoning in the party’s fiefdom of Andalusia”.

The writer again places emphasis on Podemos and its popularity. Yet, the election is months away and much can happen between now and then, including Merkel seeing sense and attempting to defuse the crisis by assisting Spain before the election.

He charts the rise of Podemos “In the May 2014 European elections, a five-month-old Podemos took a startling 8 percent of the vote, while the PP and PSOE failed to garner 50 percent between them. (For the past 25 years, Spain’s dominant political parties had always accounted for over 70 percent of the vote in all national elections.) Under public pressure, a frail and exhausted Juan Carlos announced his decision to abdicate a week later. Even retirement has not spared the old king from scrutiny: Since he stepped down — and thus lost his full immunity from lawsuits and prosecutions — Spain’s Supreme Court has agreed to hear a paternity suit filed against the king by a Belgian woman born in 1966 who claims to be his daughter”.  

Interestingly he writes “A poll last June showed most Spaniards support the idea of a referendum on the crown, though the poll also suggested that Felipe might just survive the eventual decision. Asked late last year whether a Podemos government would call a referendum on the future of the Spanish monarchy, party leader Pablo Iglesias measured his reply with characteristic guile: ‘I wouldn’t ask a question about monarchy or republic, but rather whether in a normal democracy the head of state should be chosen on the basis of his blood or at the ballot box.’ Since its impressive showing in last year’s European elections, Podemos has continued its steady rise”.

He ends “Felipe VI’s best-case scenario may be a Socialist-led leftist government that shields the monarchy from the indignant masses while taking steps to root out corruption and ease the pain of social inequality. The king has shown his willingness to take action, even if this means freezing out members of his own family. But by this point, even the most dramatic royal gesture may not be enough to hold off the day of reckoning. The state may simply be too rotten to bear the stamp of a fine young king”.

A Saudi palace coup

08/02/2015

In an unusual article David Hearst writes that what took place in Saudi Arabia was in effect a palace coup. He starts, “King Abdullah’s writ lasted all of 12 hours. Within that period the Sudairis, a rich and politically powerful clan within the House of Saud, which had been weakened by the late king, burst back into prominence. They produced a palace coup in all but name. Salman moved swiftly to undo the work of his half-brother. He decided not to change his crown prince Muqren, who was picked by King Abdullah for him, but he may choose to deal with him later. However, he swiftly appointed another leading figure from the Sudairi clan. Mohammed Bin Nayef, the interior minister is to be his deputy crown prince. It is no secret that Abdullah wanted his son Meteb for that position, but now he is out”.

Hearst adds that “Salman, himself a Sudairi, attempted to secure the second generation by giving his 35- year old son Mohammed the powerful fiefdom of the defense ministry. The second post Mohammed got was arguably more important. He is now general secretary of the Royal Court. All these changes were announced before Abdullah was even buried. The general secretaryship was the position held by the Cardinal Richelieu of Abdullah’s royal court, Khalid al-Tuwaijri. It was a lucrative business handed down from father to son and started by Abdul Aziz al Tuwaijri. The Tuwaijris became the king’s gatekeepers and no royal audience could be held without their permission, involvement, or knowledge. Tuwaijri was the key player in foreign intrigues — to subvert the Egyptian revolution, to send in the troops to crush the uprising in Bahrain, to finance ISIL in Syria in the early stages of the civil war along his previous ally Prince Bandar bin Sultan”.

Hearst goes on to make the point that “Salman’s state of health is cause for concern, which is why the power he has given his son is more significant than other appointments announced. Aged 79, Salman is known to have Alzheimers, but the exact state of his dementia is a source of speculation. He is known to have held cogent conversations as recently as last October. But he can also forget what he said minutes ago, or faces he has known all his life, according to other witnesses. This is typical of the disease. I understand the number of hospital visits in the last few months has increased, and that he did not walk around, as he did before”.

He goes on to note a potential thaw in relations between the kingdom and the Muslim Brotherhood, “senior advisers to Salman approached an Egyptian liberal opposition politician and had a separate meeting with a lawyer. Neither of them are members of the Muslim Brotherhood but have working contacts with it. Talks were held in Saudi Arabia in the last two months about how reconciliation could be managed. No initiative was agreed, but the talks themselves were an indication of a more pragmatic, or less belligerent, approach by Salman and his advisers. It was understood that these meetings were preparatory to a possible initiative Salman may announce once he was in power. The policy of the late King was to declare the Brotherhood terrorist organisation on a par with the Islamic State and al Qaeda”.

He goes on to describe the state of relations with the royal family, “Even before the Sudairis made their move, a power struggle within the House of Saud was apparent. Early on Thursday evening, rumours on Twitter that the king was dead flooded the Internet, which is the primary source of political information in the kingdom. There were official denials, when a Saudi journalist on al Watan newspaper tweeted the information. The palace’s hand was forced when two emirs tweeted that the king was dead. MBC TV network cut broadcasting and put the Koran on screen, a sign of mourning, while national television kept on with normal programming. This was a sign that one clan in the royal family wanted the news out quickly and the other clan was stalling for more negotiations”.

The need for a change of course is all too apparent. On the very night in which the royal drama was taking place, a political earthquake was underway in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, Yemen. President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, his prime minister and government resigned after days of virtual house arrest by Houthi militia. Hadi’s resignation leaves two forces in control of the country both of them armed to the teeth: an Iranian backed militia which gets its training from Hezbollah, and al Qaeda, posing as the defender of Sunni muslims.

He notes that the recent events in Yemen are not welcomed in Riyadh, “The meteoric rise of the Houthis in Yemen was not the result of spontaneous combustion. It was planned and plotted months ago by Saleh and the United Arab Emirates. Saleh’s son, the Yemeni ambassador to the UAE, was a key figure in this foreign intrigue, and as I reported before, he met an Iranian delegation in Rome. This was picked by US intelligence and communicated to Hadi. The year before, the then Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar flew a leading member of the Houthi delegation via London for a meeting. Incredible as it seemed, the Saudis were re-opening contact with an Iranian backed Zaydi or Shia sect with whom they had once fought bitter wars”.

Hearst adds that “It is too early to tell whether King Salman is capable of, or even is aware of the need for changing course. All one can say with any confidence is that some of the key figures who stage-managed the Kingdom’s disastrous foreign intrigues are now out. Meteb’s influence is limited, while Tuwaijiri is out. It is in no-one’s interests for chaos to spread into the Kingdom itself. Maybe it is just coincidence that Abdullah died almost on the eve of the anniversary of the January 25 revolution in Egypt. But the timing of his death is a symbol. The royal family should learn that the mood of change, that started on January 25 is unstoppable. The best defense against revolution is to lead genuine tangible political reform within the Kingdom. Allow it to modernize, to build national politics, political parties, real competitive elections, to let Saudis take a greater share of power, to free political prisoners”.

He ends arguing that King Abdullah “left Saudi Arabia weaker internally and surrounded by enemies as never before. Can Salman make a difference ? It’s a big task, but there may be people around him who see the need for a fundamental change in course. It will be the only way a Saudi King will get the backing of his people. He may in the process turn himself into a figurehead, a constitutional monarch, but he will generate stability in the kingdom and the region”.

Salman the reformer?

06/02/2015

An article discusses the possibility of King Salman undoing the reforms advanced by King Abdullah.

The article opens “Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, whose death was announced in Riyadh early on Jan. 23, led Saudi Arabia through a decade of moderate reforms that gave women greater opportunities, allowed thousands of Saudis to study abroad, and made his oil-rich kingdom a powerful player in the international community. When it came to foreign policy he cast a big shadow, extending Saudi relations with China and Russia and becoming the preeminent Arab leader in regional affairs, as well as in international forums such as the World Trade Organization. But on domestic matters he walked a fine line. During his decade-long reign, the king angered ultraconservative clerics who saw their religious influence slipping, particularly on young Saudis. He also frustrated progressive Saudis who want to see deeper, faster reforms, especially in the political arena”.

The author notes cautiously that Salman “is likely to follow a similar reform path as his half brother, but this is far from a certainty. While Salman, 79, is described as a curious, intelligent man, he also is said by many Saudis to be very close to the kingdom’s religious establishment, which promotes a puritanical version of Islam known as Wahhabism and has not been happy with the changes introduced under Abdullah. The recent public flogging of a young Saudi who was convicted of insulting Islam simply because he questioned the clerical controls on Saudi society was seen by some citizens as a sign that the religious right was flexing its muscles in anticipation of Salman’s coming to the throne. The clerics are likely to pressure Salman to slow the pace of reform or even reverse some recent advances, especially when it comes to public roles of Saudi women. Although Abdullah refused to lift the ban on female drivers, he pushed women to join the workforce and enter Saudi universities. Women make up more than 50 percent of the students at Saudi universities; about one-third of Saudi students studying abroad on King Abdullah scholarships are women”.

The writer continues “Abdullah, with an eye to the future, established the Allegiance Council in 2006 to decide succession matters. The council is made up of 34 sons and grandsons of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. According to its regulations, it is supposed to approve of whomever the present king selects to be his crown prince. But the Allegiance Council has never been officially called into session. When Abdullah appointed Muqrin his deputy crown prince last March, the official decree stated that he had made his decision in cooperation with Salman. It appears, however, that the council was not called into session to participate in Muqrin’s selection. Instead, its members were polled individually, according to an April 1 tweet by Khalid bin Talal, son of Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, an independent-minded maverick within the royal family”.

He makes the important point that “announcement that Mohammed bin Nayef has been appointed deputy crown prince appears to have settled the matter and effectively put a brake, if only temporarily, on internal struggles among the grandsons. Salman takes over at a precarious time for Saudi Arabia. Its neighbours are consumed by civil war, sectarian mayhem, and economic disarray”.

He goes on to mention that “domestic concerns will also occupy Salman’s first days as king. While some of Abdullah’s reforms continued during his reign, other initiatives stalled because of internal opposition or external pressures. For example, Abdullah is widely credited with bringing more rationality to the Saudi national budget and with instituting some measures to deal with official corruption — even though ordinary Saudis still perceive unfettered royal prerogatives as problems. And while Abdullah’s early years as king saw new freedoms for the Saudi media and a degree of official tolerance for dissent on the Internet, these liberties dried up after Arab revolutions began in December 2010. With the fall of Egypt’s Mubarak, and the widening chaos in Syria, Saudi Arabia became increasingly concerned that the Arab uprisings would spill over into the kingdom. As a result, the last two years have seen a determined crackdown on critics and dissenters, many of whom were given long prison sentences”.

He closes the article, “Another early and progressive initiative of King Abdullah was to improve relations with the kingdom’s Shiite minority, which is largely based in the eastern part of the country. But these efforts were also a casualty of events abroad, specifically a Shiite-led revolution in Bahrain that threatened the Sunni royal family there. In 2011, Riyadh sent troops to Bahrain to shut down the uprising. As a result, dialogue between the Saudi Shiites and the Sunni monarchy in Riyadh broke down; violent protests in Shiite communities followed”.

The piece finishes, “The obituaries may laud Abdullah as a reformer, and perhaps for this part of the world he was one. But despite his educational and social reforms, the king refused to budge on — or even countenance — political reform. Like the rest of the royal family, he believed that his desert kingdom should be ruled by an absolute monarchy. Sharing power with its subjects was not in the king’s vision. The new King Salman no doubt holds similar views. His challenge, like that of his predecessor, will be to continue modernizing Saudi Arabia despite opposition from the religious right and demands for a faster transformation from an increasingly youthful population”.

 

Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Nayef

06/02/2015

Following on from the recent article about the future role of Saudi Arabia under King Salman, an article from the New York Times notes that there is a shifting role for the country, “Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister of Saudi Arabia, arrived at a meeting of security chiefs from across the Arab world in Marrakesh, Morocco, last March to deliver a call to arms: It was time, he declared, for a concerted effort to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, according to two Arab officials briefed on the meeting. Several were stunned at his audacity. Brotherhood-style Islamists are an accepted part of politics in much of the Arab world, including Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco itself, to say nothing of their warm welcome in Qatar, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger the powerful Saudi prince”.

The report adds “Analysts and diplomats who know him say Mr. Bin Nayef embodies Saudi Arabia’s shift to a more assertive foreign policy propping up allies and dismantling perceived foes. Inside the kingdom, he has been a driving force in defeating extremist networks, and in stifling and punishing political dissent. As world dignitaries including President Obama fly here this week to congratulate the new monarch, King Salman, it is Mr. Bin Nayef’s appointment to deputy crown prince that has captured attention across the Middle East. Analysts and diplomats say his elevation is a harbinger of the Saudi leadership’s longer-term vision for their state and the region, but also raises thorny questions about royal politics among the hundreds of princes who may feel passed over”.

The piece goes on to mention “Bin Nayef’s rise in prominence comes amid newly tense relations between Riyadh and Washington, and while his focus on counterterrorism is in line with the White House’s, it is uncertain that he would be any less hostile to the continuing negotiations between Washington and Iran over its nuclear program, or to signals that the White House is no longer pushing for the ouster of Syria’s president, Bashar al Assad”.

It adds later that his harsh approach to security has angered many in the West, “Bin Nayef works closely with American intelligence and has such close ties to the White House that he has met twice, in Washington and Riyadh, with Mr. Obama”.

It goes on to mention importantly that “Bin Nayef, 55, is the first of the founder’s grandsons to be named as an heir to the throne, and his coronation would make him the first of his generation to lead the kingdom. Many took his appointment as an attempt to underscore the dynasty’s stability, laying out its rulers for decades to come”.

Interestingly the report continues, “Bin Nayef, moreover, has only daughters, so he is not perceived to have a personal interest in positioning specific heirs to succeed him. ‘It means he is a player for the system, who cares about the family as a whole more than he does about himself,’ Professor Haykel said”.

However, despite this positive the article adds, “unlike the older generation, made up of a few dozen men, Mr. Nayef’s cohort has an estimated 600 princes, and some analysts suggest that his selection could anger cousins or even uncles who were not chosen”.

The writer adds that “While either of the next two kings could technically name someone else as a successor, many who know Mr. Bin Nayef say he has stood out for his hard work and integrity. Whenever a security officer is killed in the kingdom, he is known to pay his respects to the family in person, said Mustafa Alani, a scholar at the Gulf Research Center. And when King Abdullah’s death was announced, Mr. Bin Nayef was not in Riyadh jockeying for position; he was at a counterterrorism conference in London”.

The piece adds “Because of his Western education, Mr. Bin Nayef is believed to favour reform on matters like education and opportunities for women. But he has made few public statements on social issues, and experts say his security mind-set makes him unlikely to push for changes that might endanger his family’s legitimacy as the guardians of the kingdom’s ultraconservative version of Islam”.

However, this argument can be taken too far. Another Western educated Middle Eastern leader that had great promise of reform was Bashaar al Assad.

It ends,”Mr. Bin Nayef is a second-generation security chief, the son of the former interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz. As deputy minister under his father, Mr. Bin Nayef was credited with a leading role helping Saudi Arabia fend off Al Qaeda and other Islamist militants over the last decade. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks portray Mr. Bin Nayef as personally motivated to fight militant Islam and in tight cooperation with the United States”.

It concludes “State Department officials credit Mr. Bin Nayef with developing a distinctive approach to combating terrorist recruiting in the kingdom, working directly with the families of dead militants. By providing support to the families “and telling them their sons had been ‘victims’ and not ‘criminals,’ ” the program gave the families “a way out” and provided a public relations advantage to the government”.

He writer concludes “Bin Nayef was also eager to cooperate with the United States. In 2009, he called their law enforcement and intelligence agencies “one team” and said he had asked the king for permission to maintain a special “security channel” to exchange information with Washington regardless of the ups and downs of bilateral relations. But that focus on security has included a broader crackdown on dissent”.

Pointedly it ends “Still, after a recent attack on members of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority in its eastern province, Mr. Bin Nayef flew to the funeral to pay his respects — an important gesture for a Saudi royal. In 2009, Mr. Bin Nayef was lightly wounded when a militant who came to his palace saying he wanted reform blew up a bomb hidden in a body cavity. Though some criticized Mr. Bin Nayef for letting his guard down, Mr. Alani, of the Gulf Research Center, said that Mr. Bin Nayef had told his guard not to search the man so as not to humiliate him”.

“The mantle of regional leadership won’t be passed as easily”

02/02/2015

After the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the new king, Salman coming to the throne a piece asks if King Salman can manage an increasingly unstable Middle East.

It opens “‘We are passing startling days,’ Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah declared in February 2012, candidly revealing his astonishment at events across the Middle East. In the year prior to the king’s statement, the monarch had lost close allies in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi — never trusted by the kingdom — was also gone. Riyadh was pushing for the downfall of another foe, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who was in the midst of an increasingly bloody crackdown on his own citizens. When Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution calling for Assad to leave power, the Saudi king could hold his tongue no more”.

The writer makes the point that “King Abdullah played an outsized role in trying to shape the Middle East’s many crises, and the question now for the entire region is who will fill his shoes. Just hours before the king’s death, Yemen’s president resigned from office, leaving that country in the de facto control of Shiite Houthi rebels. Islamic State militants may be taking a hit from airstrikes in Iraq, but in Syria they are regrouping and even gaining territory. Tiny Bahrain, dependent on Saudi largesse, is facing a severe budget crisis amid falling oil prices, and local opposition protests are ongoing. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s generous aid is economically vital to keeping discontent at bay”.

The author writes that after King Abdullah “the mantle of regional leadership won’t be passed as easily”.

He continues “King Abdullah’s reticence for change was based on a long-held view that stability was the guarantor of peace for the kingdom. ‘His Majesty the king has always made it a clear priority for Saudi to focus on the stability, safety, and security of its people,’ Saudi Shura Council member Wafa Taiba told me in 2013. On Syria, King Abdullah initially sought to achieve the same. After years of on-and-off friendship with the Assads, the two countries normalized relations by the time the first signs of unrest appeared in Syria. King Abdullah tried to reason with Damascus: ‘In the beginning, he sent countless letters to the Syrian president and sent many officials to meet him and made continuous phone calls to warn him about the gravity and danger of the situation,’ King Abdullah’s son Prince Miteb told the Saudi Gazette in a rare media interview in 2013″.

The writer mentions that “Washington’s surprise decision in 2013 to open talks with Iran was viewed as a menace to Saudi Arabia’s regional influence, threatening to legitimize Tehran’s ambitions in the region. ‘I am afraid Iran will give up something on [its nuclear program] to get something else from the big powers in terms of regional politics,’ Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Saudi Arabia’s appointed Shura Council, told Reuters in November 2013. ‘And I’m worrying about giving Iran more space or a freer hand in the region.'”

However as has been stated here before, America has no other option than to talk to Iran. To do anything else, even before the talks have finished is idiotic. Abdullah should see this but is blinded by his hatred, sometimes rational, sometimes not, of Iran. To expect America to just tow the Saudi line when a real rapprochement could be in the offing would make no sense.

He goes on to discuss King Salman, “The question now is who will handle all these escalating disasters. New King Salman is thought to be ailing, so new Crown Prince Muqrin will likely take over many of the responsibilities that hadn’t transferred to him already. The newly appointed deputy crown prince, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, promises to play an equally influential role. But whichever Saudi leader takes the reins, he will be challenged by the sheer range of foreign-policy challenges and the kingdom’s lack of manpower in tackling them. There has been bitter competition within the Saudi government for control over the most pressing files: The Syria portfolio, for example, was tossed back and forth for two years between the gregarious deal-maker Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef”.

He continues “The men had nearly polar opposite strategies. While Prince Bandar was pulled out of retirement to ferry weapons and supplies to the rebels, Prince Mohammed cautiously warned about the risk that Saudi jihadis would personally get involved. He tightened the reins on fundraising and, with his counterterrorism approach, became Washington’s favoured man in Riyadh”.

He ends “The Gulf’s rising regional powers are also likely to fill some of the policy gaps. Qatar took a shot at managing the Arab Spring fallout for three years after 2011, backing rebels in Libya and Syria and an Islamist-led government in Egypt. But Riyadh demonstrably objected what it saw as Doha’s obstinate and foolish behaviour; Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors to Qatar last March and promised not to reinstate them until the country played ball. Absent King Abdullah — who was said to have personally chastised the young Qatari emir — Doha may see a chance to try again. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, is likely to continue its rise as the most important U.S. regional ally. Dubbed ‘little Sparta‘ in Washington, Emirati jets have flown the most sorties in the anti-Islamic State coalition. Its zero-tolerance attitude toward extremism is much closer to U.S. policy than either Saudi or Qatari policy”.

 

 

“Almost 1.5 percent higher”

23/01/2015

Oil prices jumped in early Asian trading on Friday as news of the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah added to uncertainty in energy markets already facing some of the biggest shifts in decades. Abdullah died early on Friday and his brother Salman became king, the royal court in the world’s top oil exporter and birthplace of Islam said in a statement carried by state television. U.S. benchmark WTI crude futures rose more than 2 percent to a high of $47.76 a barrel in early Asian trading. International benchmark Brent futures opened up almost 1.5 percent higher at $49.10 per barrel at 0100 GMT. The Saudi King’s death comes amid some of the biggest shifts in oil markets in decades”.

 

King Salman

23/01/2015

Last night it was announced that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had died. He was succeeded by his half brother, Salman.

NPR reports that “Abdullah was born before Saudi Arabia was even a country. It was the early 1920s, and his father, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, set out to conquer the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. In one famous battle, ibn Saud surrounded the capital of a rival tribe. ‘Famously, instead of executing everybody, he invited them to be his guests,’ says Robert Lacey, author of two books on Saudi Arabia. And ibn Saud married one of those guests; Abdullah was a result of this marriage. His father eventually declared the land he’d conquered a kingdom. It remained of little interest to the West until 1938, when an American company discovered vast reserves of oil. After World War II, oil exports soared and Saudi Arabia boomed. Abdullah’s father died in 1953, and his dozens of sons vied for power and influence, but Abdullah did not stand out from the crowd. ‘I can remember when I lived in Saudi Arabia in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Abdullah was a sort of joke,’ Lacey recalls. ‘He was very butch and powerful-looking with his black beard, and then he would open his mouth and out would come this stutter.’ Abdullah later got a speech coach. Unlike the so-called playboy princes, he was known for austerity and toughness”.

The New York Times reports that Abdullah “who came to the throne in old age and earned a reputation as a cautious reformer even as the Arab Spring revolts toppled heads of state and Islamic State militants threatened the Muslim establishment that he represented, died on Friday, according to a statement on state television. He was 90. The Royal Court said in a statement broadcast across the kingdom that the king had died early Friday. The royal court did not disclose the exact cause of death. An announcement quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency said the king had a lung infection when he was admitted on Dec. 31 to a Riyadh hospital. The king’s death adds yet another element of uncertainty in a region already overwhelmed by crises and as Saudi Arabia is itself in a struggle with Iran for regional dominance. The royal family moved quickly to assure a smooth transition of power in a nation that is a close ally of the United States, the world’s largest exporter of oil and the religious center of the Islamic faith. In a televised statement, Abdullah’s brother, Crown Prince Salman, announced that the king had died and that he had assumed the throne”.

The report goes on to note “Abdullah became, in some ways, a force of moderation. He contested Al Qaeda’s militant interpretations of the faith as justifying, even compelling, terrorist acts. He ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language and sent 900 imams to re-education sessions. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded. But he was also mindful that his family had, since the 18th century, derived its authority from an alliance with the strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. He accordingly made only modest changes to the kingdom’s conservative clerical establishment. When Islamic State forces conquered vast stretches of Syria and Iraq, imposing a creed linked to Saudi Arabia’s own, the kingdom was slow to respond. However, Abdullah chastised senior clerics for not speaking out more forcibly against the jihadists, and he eventually sent Saudi pilots to participate in an American-led campaign against the Islamic State. Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia had hurtled from tribal pastoralism to advanced capitalism in little more than a generation. The fundamentalist clerics who gave the family legitimacy remained a powerful force. Women who appeared in public without the required covering risked arrest or a beating from the religious police. Abdullah did make changes that were seen as important in the Saudi context. He allowed women to work as supermarket cashiers and appointed a woman as a deputy minister. At the $12.5 billion research university he built and named for himself, women study beside men.

It adds “However, he did not fulfill a promise made to Barbara Walters of ABC News in his first televised interview as king in October 2005: that he would allow women to drive, a hugely contentious issue in Saudi Arabia. Although he ordered the kingdom’s first elections for municipal councils in 2005, a promised second election, in October 2009, in which women would vote, was postponed until September 2011. Then in March of that year, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs announced that the question of women voting would be put off indefinitely “because of the kingdom’s social customs.” Abdullah’s greatest legacy, however, may prove to be a scholarship program that sent tens of thousands of young Saudi men and women abroad to study at Western universities and colleges. It has been suggested that the changes long resisted by conservative forces — resistance that even a king could not overcome — would one day come about as those men and women rose in the government, industry and academia. Perhaps Abdullah’s most daunting challenge arrived in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The royal family at first railed at what it called a vicious smear campaign against the kingdom, then ruthlessly suppressed known militants — not least because the monarchy itself was a main target of Al Qaeda. Striking a balance was almost always Abdullah’s preference. He strove to keep oil prices high, but not so high that they prompted consumers to abandon petroleum, then hedged his bets by investing billions in solar energy research. In 2008, he convened a meeting of world religious leaders to promote tolerance, but held it in Madrid rather than Saudi Arabia, where the public practice of religions other than Islam is outlawed. Yet Abdullah could, and did, take strong positions. He denounced the American-led invasion of Iraq as “an illegal occupation”; proposed a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East that included recognition of Israel by Arab nations; and urged in a secret cable that the United States attack Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival. “Cut off the head off the snake,” he said. His kingdom’s interests always came first. Although American companies discovered and developed the Saudi oil fields, he cut deals with Russian, Chinese and European petroleum companies. He made it clear that the world’s energy appetites mattered less than Saudi Arabia’s future”.

In a related article from Foreign Policy it argues incorrectly that there will be disruption. The writer argues “The king’s death comes at a delicate time for the oil-rich kingdom, which is struggling with the impact of plunging oil prices domestically, the rise of the Islamic State, and an Iran’s whose influence is growing across the Mideast as its proxies take on increasingly powerful roles in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Abdullah’s successor will also face an intensifying crisis in Yemen, whose Saudi-backed government has been effectively overthrown by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. A Saudi official said in a recent interview that Riyadh sees the future of Yemen as ‘an existential threat.'”

Yet the reason it is “struggling” with the low price of oil is largely as a result of the choice of the Saudi government. It is either an attempt to weaken Iran or perhaps a decision to try to undermine US shale. Meanwhile, the problems  faced by King Salman will be the same today as tomorrow, so could not be said to be overly disrtuptive. Of course they could become so if they are not dealt with in the correct way.

This message of continuity was underlined in comments by the new King when in a report mentions that “Hours after the death of Saudi Arabia’s ruler, his successor, King Salman, moved quickly on Friday to project a sense of continuity, saying in a televised address that the oil-rich nation, a Western ally that has long played a dominant role in Arab politics, would not change course. “We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” Salman, the former crown prince, declared. Salman was speaking as leaders from the Muslim world converged in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for the funeral of Abdullah, his brother. Abdullah steered his deeply conservative land through the turmoil of the Arab Spring and was caught up in the region’s seething rivalries before his death early Friday at 90. In his address, Salman seemed to acknowledge the tensions that have gripped the region, playing out in Syria’s civil war and the consequent rise of the militant group Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL”.

Interestingly the piece ends “Despite the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Tehran said Friday that its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would attend an official memorial service for Abdullah. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also expressed “condolences to the government and people of Saudi Arabia.” The rivalry between the two countries is one of the region’s principle fault lines. It is in part a geopolitical struggle between nations that see themselves as the regional superpower and the leader of the Islamic world. But it also reflects the broader division between Shiites, who govern in Iran, and Sunnis, such as those who dominate in Saudi Arabia”.

Relatedly, Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin  has become Crown Prince. There was some talk that he would not transfer to the role of full Crown Prince due to his mother’s heritage. Muqrin, 69, should become king himself in the not too distant future as King Salman is not in good health.

However, in what may the end to the Saudi succession crisis, “Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a close friend of the United States and a scourge of Islamist militants, will be the country’s first king from the third generation of its ruling dynasty. King Salman moved swiftly to appoint Mohammed Deputy Crown Prince on Friday, hours after he took the throne following the death of King Abdullah. The decision appeared to settle for many years to come tough decisions over the kingdom’s future succession. By sending an assassin to try to kill Prince Mohammed when he was Saudi security chief in 2009, al Qaeda paid him the compliment of treating him as one of its most dangerous enemies”.

It goes on to mention that “The 55-year-old is now firmly established as the most powerful member of his generation in the ruling al-Saud family, and even before he becomes king will be one of the most important figures in the world’s top oil exporter”.

Interestingly the article adds that “Diplomats and Saudi analysts and academics are uncertain what positions he holds on the big long-term issue facing the kingdom: reconciling social change and a young population with conservative traditions and an oil-dependent economy”.

 

 

 

“Coming transition is unlikely to be smooth”

09/01/2015

The informed Simon Henderson writes about the declining health of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and what this means for the ongoing Saudi succession problems.

He opens “The latest news from Saudi Arabia is that 90-year-old King Abdullah is, in the words of the crown prince, ‘recovering from [his] illness.’ That could be about right: The king went into a hospital in Riyadh on Dec. 31 and it takes about a week for antibiotics — the standard way to treat pneumonia, his declared ailment — to take effect. But this is hardly a time to relax. The kingdom is a key member of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, whose fighters are testing its defenses, as a Jan. 5 attack along the Saudi-Iraqi border, which killed three Saudi border guards, showed. Also, Saudi Arabia should be a key player in the collapsing oil market, but is currently a powerless one, unable to stop the plunging price of oil but consoling itself that U.S. shale producers, as well as Russia and Iran, are probably finding the process even more painful”.

Henderson writes that even if he recovers he will be unable to work for several weeks, “Until now he has been the top decision-maker, playing a personal role in sorting out the diplomatic squabble with neighbouring Qatar, holding a summit with Jordan’s King Abdullah, and replacing six ministers in a cabinet reshuffle last month”.

Worse Henderson questions whether Crown Prince Salman, “is capable. As former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel wrote almost two years ago, the crown prince ‘has been reported to be increasingly ill … and often not up to the job.’ A BBC analysis also noted unconfirmed reports that Salman ‘suffers health problems.’ A key question is the extent to which Abdullah will have a role in the palace politics over his successor, which are gathering pace”.

The drama that was the Saudi succession was thought to have been dealt with before when a Deputy Crown Prince was appointed. Henderson casts doubt over this however when he notes “The prevailing view of commentators writing about the kingdom has been that, this time around, succession to the Saudi throne should be ‘smooth.’ The caveats are about the future — concerns about the time after next that the desert kingdom has to choose a leader, rather than about how it will choose Abdullah’s successor”.

Worryingly he goes on to write that “Saudi Arabia’s coming transition is unlikely to be smooth — although this is certainly the way the House of Saud will want it to appear. The kingdom’s leadership is arguably actually at a crossroads, with two royal factions vying for preeminence. The outcome could produce a whole range of new faces in positions of power in Riyadh. This could emerge as a problem for Washington, as experienced hands could be replaced with merely ambitious ones. In these circumstances, King Abdullah’s likely legacy of a slightly cranky approach to progress — allowing for some marginalization of the more obscurantist clerics but always retaining a foot on the proverbial brake — could become a distant memory”.

Of course it is still to soon to say whether Henderson will be proven correct, the Saud have a need for a king and the House has far more to gain by the apparence of consensus than by open feuding.

He adds “To understand why the coming succession battle will be so thorny, it’s important to understand the succession system that has operated in Saudi Arabia since its founding. All the main characters — King Abdullah himself, as well as Crown Prince Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin — are sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud. When he died in 1953, Ibn Saud left a system in which the throne passed from son to younger son, rather than from father to son. All but a few of the original 35 sons of Ibn Saud who were still alive in 1953 have since died”.

He arugues that “the struggle pits the Sudairis against the rest. He notes that the only one “remaining brothers are former Vice Minister of Defense Prince Abdulrahman, black sheep Prince Turki, and former Vice Minister of Interior Prince Ahmed. The rise to prominence of King Abdullah — who was younger than Fahd, whom he succeeded, but older than Sultan — was achieved despite the best efforts of the Sudairis to thwart him. But since becoming king in 2005, Abdullah has had to accept three Sudairis as his crown prince: Sultan, then Nayef, and now Salman. With no full brothers of his own, he made alliances with other non-Sudairi princes to cement his authority. And crucially, he was also commander of the Saudi Arabia National Guard, the kingdom’s largest fighting force”.

He point out that “From a Western perspective, the way forward is for Abdullah to abdicate, Salman to be sidelined (there is a mechanism to declare the king or crown prince medically unfit), and for Muqrin to become king. From a Saudi point of view, however, this wouldn’t work. Within the royal family, there is tremendous respect for ancestry, history, and the orderly transfer of power. Even though Salman might not be up to the job, it’s politically very hard to for Saudi royals to push him aside: The princes hate any suggestion of dissension, which would then be visible to the wider world. The House of Saud was enormously embarrassed in the 1960s when Ibn Saud’s successor, King Saud, had to be pushed aside for demonstrable incompetence. Mere fecklessness is easier to paper over”.

He ends “given Abdullah’s incapacity, Salman’s continuing ambition (or what instead may be his sons’ lust for power), and Muqrin’s apparent reluctance to raise his own profile to project leadership potential, it is easy to understand that many Saudis seem to think that the accession of Salman is inevitable. This logic would suggest that — again, not wanting to rock the boat too much — Salman would anoint Muqrin as his own crown prince”.

He concludes “But that’s not necessarily how Salman’s accession to the throne would play out. As king, he would be entitled to appoint his own crown prince. Yes, Abdullah created the job description of “deputy crown prince” and put Muqrin in the role — but that doesn’t guarantee Muqrin would be promoted. Abdullah’s attempt to secure Muqrin an advance oath of allegiance from other senior princes was not unanimous. Salman could reverse Abdullah’s plans once he becomes king, perhaps appointing his previously passed-over full brother, Ahmed, as crown prince. However, that concentration of power may be more than the non-Sudairi princes would tolerate. This still leaves open the question of where the throne goes after Muqrin: Once all of Ibn Saud’s sons are dead or incapacitated”.

 

Indispensable Oman

27/11/2014

A piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the role played by Oman in the region and calls the sultanate, the Indispendisable nation in the region.

The writer, Bilal Saab, opens “To many Omanis, it is offensive to openly contemplate life after Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the widely admired albeit absolute monarch who has been receiving medical treatment in Germany since July. But policymakers elsewhere in the world have no choice but to do just that. The 73-year-old Qaboos is said to have colon cancer and rumours suggest he may not be around for too long. The Omani royal court has said he is recovering from successful surgery, and some say that he will return to Oman in time to attend the annual National Day military parade on November 18. But dark clouds of uncertainty nevertheless hover over the country’s future. And given Qaboos’ importance as a strategic partner for the West—and for Washington in particular—it’s only natural to wonder what will transpire after he is no longer in charge in Muscat. Oman tends to feature far less in international discussions about the Middle East than other countries in the region. But that is mostly a reflection of its deliberate preference for avoiding the spotlight. Indeed, Oman has long had tremendous strategic significance for Washington—although, unusually for the region, not because of its oil. Rather, it provides a rare regional example of domestic tranquility, cosmopolitanism, religious tolerance, and skillful diplomacy”.

He goes on to make the point that Oman is something of a well governed autocratic haven,  “Oman is also an island of religious moderation and tolerance in the region. The country is religiously distinctive from its neighbours: It is the only one in the Arab world with a population that predominantly adheres to Ibadism (a sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shia); it is also the only Arab country that has developed truly tolerant religious traditions. It is common practice in Oman, for example, for different Muslim sects to pray in one another’s mosques. Amid the violent hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims elsewhere in the Arab world, Oman offers a model of peaceful coexistence. Further, Oman does relatively well on gender equality. Given the rampant violations of women’s rights elsewhere in the Middle East, Oman has managed to recently pass legislation that supports women’s rights and addresses discrimination against women in education, the work force, and politics. National political institutions have tended to include a significant number of female political representatives”.

He posits the theory that “The country’s distinctive society and geography have also shaped its approach to diplomacy, allowing it to build bridges within the region and between East and West. Decades before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was preaching about a foreign policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours,’ Oman had already mastered it. Oman managed to maintain peaceful ties with both Iran and Iraq during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, and with both Iran and the United States after those countries had a diplomatic falling out in 1979. In recent years, Oman has managed to successfully organise border negotiations with both Saudi Arabia and Yemen, promote a measure of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, facilitate better relations between Yemen and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and, most recently, mediate between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other”.

All this is mainly a result of Sultan Qaboos who “Since overthrowing his father with the help of the British government in 1970, he has personally led an effort to modernise Oman and raise its standard of living and regional profile. He engaged in tireless personal diplomacy to build peaceful relations with all his neighbours and demarcate all his country’s borders. He also instituted policies that opened up Oman and made it more attractive for foreign direct investment. But Qaboos’ determination has also created a problem: having accomplished so much almost singlehandedly, it’s unclear whether anyone could take his place. With no siblings, children, or heir to the throne, and few credible, authoritative political institutions (including political parties) to effectively manage a possible transition, it’s fair to wonder whether Oman can maintain its stability without Qaboos. Oman does not have sectarian and religious divisions, which reduces the likelihood of severe political violence, but, if opportunistic political actors see fit, it’s possible that old divisions between the north and south could re-emerge”.

Positively he writes that “Oman should be able to survive without Qaboos, despite his unique traits and accomplishments. The nation can rely on its geography, culture, and human capital to make a successful transition and stay on the path of development. Qaboos is also believed to have already made detailed plans for his succession. He is said to have drafted a letter that names his preferred successor (most likely one of his four cousins), a copy of which is in Muscat and another in Salalah, the capital of the Dhofar region in the south”.

He ends “The probability of a radical shift in Omani foreign policy may be small, but U.S. officials are understandably concerned that the next Omani leader might be less enthusiastic than Qaboos about the country’s strategic partnership with the United States, and more receptive to deeper ties with Iran. This could jeopardise the significant U.S. military assets (including the Masirah Air Base and the Thumrait Naval Air Base for anti-submarine patrol planes) that are stationed in Oman. The U.S. Air Force could also be denied access to Seeb International Airport. Any of those eventualities would have major consequences for U.S. military strategy in the region. But none of this is inevitable. Indeed, that longtime trusted advisors of Qaboos with whom I had a chance to meet on a recent trip, including Yusuf bin Alawi, the minister responsible for foreign affairs, are likely to remain politically influential in Muscat gives reason for optimism. Of course, it will be impossible to know for sure until there’s some clarity about the sultan’s physical condition. Ultimately, it is Qaboos’ task to continue his decades-long record of responsible leadership by being transparent about what lies in store in the immediate future”.

After Qaboos

17/11/2014

A piece mentions the succession problems in Oman. It starts “Monther al-Futeisi, an engineering student, was taking an exam on electromagnetics last week when Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said suddenly appeared on television. Murmurs spread through his classroom at Sultan Qaboos University. Futeisi, 22, had been studying for the test for a week, but when he heard from his classmates that the sultan was speaking, he put down his exam paper and left the room to watch. This was more important than electromagnetics. Work and school halted all across the sultanate of 4 million people. It was the first time since July, when the 73-year-old sultan traveled to Germany for medical treatment, that Omanis had heard their leader’s voice. Rumours had been festering that Qaboos was terminally ill or perhaps even dead. When he finally appeared on television, the sultan was alive but looked frail. And he had some distressing news: The overwhelmingly popular autocrat with no heir announced that he would not return for the country’s national day on Nov. 18. ‘It pleases me to send greetings to all of you on this happy occasion … which coincides this year with my being outside of the dear nation,’ Qaboos said. Then he added, enigmatically: ‘For reasons that you know.'”

The writer adds “In the following hours, the sultan’s phrase — “for reasons that you know” — echoed around the country. In fact, Omanis know little about his absence, which has stirred sadness and fear. Amid news reports that Qaboos has cancer, the royal court continues to issue statements that the sultan is in good health. His speech on Nov. 5 calmed nerves and dispelled rumours for a while. But many saw it as the sultan’s admission that he is, indeed, unwell”.

He goes on to note “Before the speech, Omanis expected Qaboos to return soon, not only for the holiday but also for talks in Muscat that took place this week between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Iran’s nuclear program. In the past, Qaboos — who enjoys good relations with both the United States and neighboring Iran — has played mediator between the two countries. In a region riven by competition and sectarianism, Oman is reliably neutral and a friend to Iran, the Arab Gulf countries, and the United States”.

The article continues “by necessity, Omanis are pondering their future. When Qaboos ousted his father in 1970 in a British-backed coup, the country was a backwater. In a much-cited statistic, the entirety of Oman had two hospitals and six miles of paved road. Since then, the country has transformed into a modern oil-exporting state with highways, universities, and a per capita GDP of $22,181. Unsurprisingly, most Omanis separate their country’s history into two stages: before and after Qaboos”.

Unsuprisingly “Qaboos has ruled completely since he took power. He is prime minister, defense minister, and finance minister. While an elected parliament can approve and block legislation, ‘the whole system hinges on one person,’ Mukhaini said. But the sultan, who has no children or brothers, never named a successor. Some Omanis fear that after he dies, royal infighting could destabilize the country. Others worry that old ethnic and tribal conflicts could resurface in the southern region of Dhofar or in the mountainous interior. Prior to 1970, the country’s diverse population shared little in the way of common identity. Only under Qaboos’s leadership has the state come together”.

The author continues “Ahmed Marhoon, a 23-year-old Omani blogger who often writes on politics. ‘I liken the future of Oman to throwing dice.’ Such concerns stem from the unusual transition of power laid forth in the Omani constitution, which states that within three days of the throne falling vacant, a council of royal family members should choose the next sultan. If they cannot agree, they are to open a letter naming Qaboos’s recommendation — until now, a secret. ‘Oman is a mysterious place,’ said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science in the United Arab Emirates. ‘The biggest mystery of all is who is going to come after Qaboos. This very simple question — even today with all the problems that the sultan is going through, he is not making himself clear.’ J.E. Peterson, an historian and analyst of the Persian Gulf, thinks the most likely candidates to follow Qaboos are the sons of his uncle Tariq: Assad, Shihab, and Haitham. Peterson could not predict which one, though”.

Of course the danger is that “The possibility that disagreements among branches of the royal family with competing interests could lead to a power struggle is not lost on Omanis”.

The article ends “A more common fear among Omanis is the possibility that Qaboos’s successor could be selfish or corrupt or could simply diverge from the path the sultan has set for the country — opening Oman to trade and tourism but maintaining a more moderate pace of development than neighbors like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. It is unlikely, though, that the next ruler will change Oman’s foreign policy, said James Worrall, a lecturer in international relations and Middle East studies at the University of Leeds. Oman is a bit like an aloof relative in a family prone to bitter feuds: friendly with all, close to none. Even as other Gulf countries railed against Iranian influence, Oman signeda 25-year deal to import Iranian natural gas in March. And though Oman belongs to the Gulf Cooperation Council, it has always been somewhat apart from the group, resisting proposals from Saudi Arabia for a closer union. It is likely to remain a dependable Western ally”.

It concludes “The biggest challenges for the next ruler are likely long-term ones: weaning the economy off oil revenue, which accounts for 75 percent of the government budget; reducing unemployment, which stands at about 15 percent among nationals; and absorbing a youth bulge. Like many countries in the Middle East, Oman struggles to employ its graduates. Fostering political openness will also be crucial, Mukhaini said, suggesting that the next sultan could give more power to the parliament or even institute a prime minister. ‘That might provide a good message for the next generation and the next phase,’ he said. In 2011, when much of the Arab world exploded with pro-democracy protests, hundreds of young Omanis joined demonstrations in their country calling for political reforms and anti-corruption measures, while also expressing their loyalty to the sultan. In a Nov. 9 interview with the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman’s ‘minister responsible for foreign affairs’ (technically, the sultan is the foreign minister), said there was no worry over the future”.

 

Mohammed VI’s choices

09/11/2014

An article in Foreign Affairs notes the consequences of the Arab revolutions in Morocco.

The article opens “Morocco’s king has always had it good. He governs the country in practice but has been able to shield himself from criticism by presenting himself as being above politics. The palace has been able to maintain this balance by retaining the right to appoint a prime minister to ensure that a loyal government carries out the crown’s preferred policies. But the Arab Spring­–driven 2011 constitutional reforms, which mandated that the king would appoint a prime minister from among the members of the largest political party in Parliament—a royal concession that seemed so minimal at the time—may be changing Morocco’s political system more than anticipated. Namely, it has allowed Morocco’s governing Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), to increase the palace’s political accountability. As the first Moroccan prime minister to come to power on the basis of his party’s electoral strength, Abdelilah Benkirane has been unwilling to accept the traditional role of palace scapegoat. In the past, he has admitted his fraught relationship with the palace. He has also been candid with the public about the king’s overriding power and the limits of his own ability to pursue reform. Benkirane has mentioned countless times that he cannot be held responsible for what is happening in the country, since it is the king who governs. And in a 2013 interview with Le Monde, Benkirane declared that “if it doesn’t work with the king, I will simply leave.” Although that may not seem especially provocative, traditionally a minister or employee of the king never threatens to resign, as it is considered pressure on the king”.

He goes on to make the point “As a result, a new narrative is taking hold among the Moroccan public. It still avoids explicitly criticizing the king, but it makes clear where the blame lies for the country’s shortcomings. An example came in the form of a recent televised debate between members of the PJD-led government and opposition leaders. At one point, one of them was criticizing the government when one PJD member chimed in to remind the audience that the government is His Majesty’s government. An opposition leader responded that the opposition, too, is His Majesty’s. The king, in other words, controls the government and the opposition. That is not the sort of thing that is usually said in public, much less on television. In effect, through his new approach, Benkirane has ensured that the king is publicly and explicitly perceived as a political player—and the monarchy, likewise, as a political institution—something the palace is almost certainly not comfortable with”.

Interestingly he argues “Benkirane’s strategy arose as a response to two truths. First, he and the PJD realized early on that although the constitutional changes from 2011 would not necessarily give the government much direct power, it did give him and his allies some space to engage in politics. They were bolstered by several new trends. First, in the wake of the 2011 protests and reforms, average Moroccans were starting to get interested in politics. Second, as a result of greater engagement, there has been more popular demand for accountability from those who rule. And finally, the fact that the prime minister came from the largest party meant that the palace was suddenly more beholden to the public, so it was more willing to tolerate some of Benkirane’s behavior. Benkirane is capitaliaing on these trends but then simultaneously making it clear that he does not rule the country and that any claim to the contrary is a pretense”.

He adds, “For one, Benkirane and the PJD are effective politicians. Further, the PJD’s agenda is broadly popular among Moroccans. For the palace, among the most worrying items on the PJD’s agenda are plans to reform the subsidies fund (Caisse de Compensation). The PJD’s goal is to gradually reduce the current subsidies; although officially aimed at lowering the cost of living for the entire population, they benefit the middle and upper classes most because the poor cannot take advantage of the largest part of the subsidies, which covers hydrocarbons. Several companies owned by palace loyalists have been taking advantage of the generous fund, which, in 2013, had a budget of about $6 billion. The PJD wants to replace these subsidies with direct monetary aid to the poorest families. If successful, the PJD could come to be seen as a champion of the poor, undermining a pillar of the monarchy’s legitimacy”.

Crucially he goes on to mention that “All of this puts the monarchy in a difficult position, and thus far, it has yet to devise an effective response. Through its allies in Parliament and in the government, the palace has tried to stymie the PJD and attempted to marginalize Benkirane by holding up legislation and sowing discord among members of the PJD’s governing coalition. But this approach, which lends credence to Benkirane’s claims that the monarchy is partisan, has arguably worsened the crown’s position”.

He ends “Simultaneously, the palace has gone back to intimidation to solidify its position. Recently, for example, it launched crackdowns on individuals who criticize the monarchy. That includes the journalist Ali Anouzla, who has gone to great lengths to point out that the monarchy’s wealth is increasing at a time when Morocco’s population still faces severe poverty and high unemployment rates. With the public now more aware of politics and more interested in participating, this is a problem for the government. In post-2011 Morocco, the palace’s responses could easily backfire. And that is because the PJD and Benkirane have played their hand well. They took advantage of a small opening to shake the monarchy’s careful balance. Benkirane’s goal, in the end, is not necessarily to win full control. Rather, it is to force accountability on the player that actually runs the state—the king. And it is this political transformation that is shaping up to be the PJD’s most significant contribution to Moroccan politics”.

The king, Mohammed VI, has a choice to make, either become obstructionist which will mean the probable loss of his throne or he could continue the process that has begun and take the historical credit and secure the future of his dynasty by becoming a figurehead, albeit a secure one. The latter course may prove more of a long term given the future short term problems that will be probably be coming to both Morocco and Jordan.

 

100 years ago today

28/06/2014

100 years ago today HI&RH Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered. His death brought destruction to not only Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia but also to their royal houses and led to the disaster of the Russian Revolution, Hitler and the Cold War.

Philip VI of Spain

20/06/2014

King Felipe VI has called for “a new Spain that we will build together” after being proclaimed head of state in a ceremony in parliament. Earlier, King Felipe received the royal sash from his father, Juan Carlos, at the Zarzuela Palace near Madrid. He acceded to the throne at the stroke of midnight after King Juan Carlos formally abdicated on Wednesday. The proceedings have been kept low key, as many Spaniards are suffering economic hardship. The swearing-in ceremony took the form of a proclamation rather than a coronation. It is the first royal transition in Spain since democracy was restored in the 1970s. The new king, 46, swore an oath promising to uphold the constitution. The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Jesus Posada, then proclaimed him king, declaring: “Long live Spain! Long live the king!” In a speech to parliament, Felipe said he had “great hope” for the future of Spain and called for unity”.

The last King of Spain?

04/06/2014

A piece in Foreign Policy notes the recent intended abdication of Juan Carlos I of Spain.  However, the article argues that the Spanish Crown is a poisoned chalice for the future Philip VI.

It begins, “Elizabeth II famously had an annus horribilis, King Juan Carlos’s announcement on Monday, June 2, that he is to abdicate in favour of his son, Prince Felipe, comes after three spine-tingling years in which a series of scandals and mishaps have seen the Spanish royal family’s star fall from a lofty position far above the riff-raff of common politics to the gutter in which virtually all of the country´s institutions now languish. Once the top-ranked institution in periodic polls by the state-run Sociological Research Institute (CIS), 2011 saw the royal familyslump to a failing grade of less than five out of 10, for the first time. Its favourability score in last month’s CIS survey was a miserable 3.72. In a country where many on the left of the political spectrum made an exception in their republican worldview in deference to Juan Carlos’s crucial role in piloting Spain’s democratic transition after the 1975 death of the dictator Francisco Franco, it is hard to imagine a more hostile environment for the incoming monarch”.

None of this can be contested however, had Juan Carlos remained on the throne for a another year or so many of these unfortunate scandals would have been forgotten. Now however, the fear is that whenever Philip VI is mired in some minor controversy, as will inevitably occur, people will call for his abdication. Thus, the monarch will be treated like just another politician which is an entirely dangerous assumption to make.

The author goes on to argue that “The 46-year-old heir not only has to shore up evaporating support for the monarchy, but he has to do so at a time when virtually all of the institutions that brought about the country’s late 20th-century renewal have been discredited”.

He overemphasises the problems faced by the future King Philip VI and the support for the House of Bourbon in general. Both Socialists and the conservative PP support the monarchy. The protests for a republic are temporary with little support generally in Spain, and those who demand such a system would likely have protested irrespective of the circumstances.

He goes on to mention “So how did the royal family fall into this morass of ignominy? In 2011, the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, became the focus of a fraud investigation after he and his former partner at the helm of a supposedly non-profit PR and event management firm were accused of channeling millions of euros in public funds into their own pockets via tax havens after overcharging regional governments for services rendered. The king used his televised Christmas address that year to underline that “no one is above the law,” and both Urdangarin and his wife, Princess Cristina, were frozen out of official royal engagements. But they were not cut off altogether. Prince Felipe is reported to have urged a stronger response against the couple, but the king sought to protect his youngest daughter from the slow-moving judicial dragnet. Ultimately, even the hiring of defence lawyer Miquel Roca, one of the framers of Spain’s 1978 Constitution, was not enough to prevent the couple’s sumptuous Barcelona mansion from being seized and the infanta herself being questioned in a Majorca court as a suspect in the case. By this time, Juan Carlos had also disgraced himself, falling in the middle of the night and breaking his hip, forcing him to reveal in April 2012 that he had been on a secret elephant-hunting trip in Botswana. The king apologized to the whole country for his frivolity but the damage had been done. Five surgical operations later, abdication seems a logical step for the 76-year-old. Crown Prince Felipe is repeatedly described as having been “prepared” extremely thoroughly; with the king frequently out of action, he has taken on plenty of the diplomatic load in recent years. But can the prince connect with the Spanish public? He can hardly expect to enjoy a moment like King Juan Carlos’s dramatic public intervention when defusing the 1981 coup attempt against Congress”.

His contention that the monarchy is mired in a “morass of ignominy” is utterly overstated. The case of the Infanta Cristina, as she is properly known, is taudry and Juan Carlos was right to state what he did in the speech. Indeed, this was shown when she had assests seized and was questioned by police.

The hunting trip of the King is unfortunate. It shows him more to be ill-advised and ill-timed than anything else. To claim, or imply, as he seems to be doing that because Philip VI cannot save democracy like his father did in 1981 he will not be able to “connect” with the Spanish people is absurd.

This absurdity goes on when he adds “King Juan Carlos’s legitimacy came from deeds, pushing forward democracy under the noses of the remnants of Franco’s fascist regime, and ultimately being recognized as head of state by the referendum of Dec. 6, 1978, when Spain’s constitution was overwhelmingly approved by 88 percent of the Spanish electorate. Those great majorities have now vanished from the Spanish political scene. In last month’s European parliamentary elections in Spain, the Popular Party’s and the Socialists’ votes combined did not add up to 50 percent for the first time since the transition. In the same elections in 2009, the big two had racked up 82 percent of the vote. Many on the left, such as the leader of Podemos, a leftist party which came from nowhere to claim 8 percent in the European elections, are now calling for a new referendum on the monarchy”.

He conflates the fact that the two major political parties lost seats in the EU elections and then somehow manages to tie this to the moarchy. The case of Podemos is again different. The party is an anti-austerity party, that came to life as a result of Merkel’s desire for budget cuts across the eurozone, despite the economic evidence to the contrary. To say that its support is as a direct result of its desire to abolish the monarchy is laughable.

He goes on to mention “As a prince, Felipe has studiously avoided controversy. He won’t be able to for long, however. One of the biggest concerns the new king will face is the Catalan government’s plan to hold a referendum on independence from Spain in the fall. The prince has learned to speak Catalan and will no doubt develop the royal household’s recent and tentative experiment in online transparency regarding public funds. The question remains, however, whether in such a fragmented political environment such niceties will suffice to keep the monarchy safe. In a poll published earlier this year by the right-of-center daily El Mundo, barely 50 percent of the respondents said they were pro-monarchy, while a larger majority said Juan Carlos ought to abdicate”.

Again the author confuses, either by accident or design, the events. There will not be a referendum for Catalan independence as the permission of the government in Madrid is needed. Even if a referendum where to take place without official government consent it would not be implemented as the consequecences of this would be the disintegration of Spain itself. His point about the abdication of Juan Carlos again conflates the king and the monarchy.

He ends, “And so he has. But the old king’s gesture was not enough to stop thousands of indignados filling squares in Madrid, Barcelona, and other cities on Monday evening to demand a referendum on the future of the monarchy in Spain. The arduous but ultimately successful Spanish transition with which the reign of King Juan Carlos was once synonymous now seems to have reached the end of its cycle, with so many of the country’s democratic institutions lying exhausted. Is Felipe VI going to provide a breath of fresh air or is he just a fall guy?”

The next years for Philip VI of Spain will be difficult but as the economic tide turns, whenever that occurs, the House of Bourbon will find itself in a much more stable and safe position.

“After nearly 40 years on the throne”

02/06/2014

King Juan Carlos I of Spain has announced his intention to abdicate, after nearly 40 years on the throne. ‘A new generation must be at the forefront… younger people with new energies,’ the 76-year-old king said in a televised address. His son, Crown Prince [Prince of Asturias] Felipe, 45, will take over the throne. For much of his reign, Juan Carlos was seen as one of the world’s most popular monarchs, but recently many Spaniards have lost confidence in him. His reputation has been tarnished by a long-running corruption investigation into the business dealings of his daughter and her husband. King Juan Carlos, 76, has had health problems in recent years. Support for the king fell further when it was discovered he had been on a lavish elephant hunting trip to Botswana in April 2012, in the middle of Spain’s financial crisis. The first announcement about the abdication came from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who told reporters: ‘His Majesty King Juan Carlos has just informed me of his desire to renounce the throne and begin the process of succession.’ Later, the king himself said in a televised address that it was time for a ‘new era’ in which a new generation could take on the transformations and reforms required.

Clipping Qatar’s wings

28/04/2014

After the tensions between the Gulf States and Qatar and the reports of a resolution brokered by Oman. Other reports note that “Gulf foreign ministers have agreed to a deal to end months of unprecedented tension between Qatar and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council over the Muslim Brotherhood. At an extraordinary meeting in Riyadh on Thursday, the ministers agreed that the policies of GCC member states should not undermine the “interests, security and stability” of each other, a statement said. Such policies must also not affect the “sovereignty” of a member state”.

Interestingly a report in the Washington Post goes further, “The Western-allied Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council said Thursday the bloc has agreed on the mechanisms to implement a security pact, marking a possible first step toward bridging deep rifts among its six energy-rich states. Qatar’s official news agency confirmed that Doha’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah took part in the GCC Foreign Ministers meeting held in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh. The GCC statement was released just before midnight after the meeting concluded”.

It has been reported that Saudi Arabia has offered. It opens, “Arab states of the Gulf have launched a new plan to resolve their most serious diplomatic crisis in four decades. Last week, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar agreed on a framework meant to patch up the other Gulf states’ disagreements with Qatar on a range of regional political issues. The deal was designed to reverse the collapse in relations early last month, when Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest of Qatari policies that they deemed threatening to regional security. The public move was a sign of how serious the crisis had become in the Gulf states, where differences are customarily resolved behind closed doors. Qatar agreed to a list of demands made by its three neighbours that, if Doha fully complies, will deal a heavy blow to the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. But Gulf capitals are skeptical whether Doha will make good on its promises: After all, if Doha fulfills the terms of the agreement, it will mean the reversal of a decade’s worth of strenuous and expensive efforts to create a web of influence across the Middle East and North Africa”.

He adds details of the agreement “The public statement that accompanied the agreement only referred vaguely to an understanding that no member state’s foreign policy should undermine the other members’ “interests, security and stability.” Leaks about the agreementsuggested that Doha had agreed to expel Muslim Brotherhood members from the country and stop Al Jazeera from referring to the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi from power in July as a coup. But according to the document itself, the deal’s terms are far more wide-ranging and complex than what has been revealed so far. One of the three countries’ demands is for Qatar to rein in media outlets that criticize and attack the Gulf states. This applies to media outlets “inside and outside Doha” and which are supported by Qatar “directly or indirectly.” The document makes no mention of stopping Al Jazeera from referring to the Morsi ouster as a “coup” — which the station does regularly — although it might have been discussed during officials’ meetings. Qatar is said to have funded a plethora of media outlets run by Islamists throughout the region, including Rabaa TV”.

The reporter goes on to say “The three countries accused Doha of supporting the Houthis, a Shiite insurgent group that is reportedly supported by Iran, to sabotage the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal for a political transition in Yemen, according to one Gulf official. Qatar pulled out of the negotiations to reach the deal, which eventually resulted in longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquishing power in February 2012. The Houthis have long proven to be a thorn in the Saudis’ side: They have endured several military campaigns by Riyadh”.

He goes on to write that Qatar has been told to stop issuing passports to Islamist figures. He goes on to mention interestingly that “Coinciding with the push against Qatar to halt support for Islamists, Saudi Arabia is moving actively against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. According to a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in northern Syria, FSA groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States are being asked to assimilate more factions into their ranks — but to steer clear of those close to the Brotherhood. According to another Syrian source, a Gulf-backed plan also aims to boot the Muslim Brotherhood from the opposition’s political and military councils”.

He concludes, “The demands to which Doha has agreed were the same demands it had rejected before the Gulf ambassadors’ withdrawal last month. Amid Qatar’s refusal to sign the document, the three countries threatened to escalate, reportedly considering trade sanctions and closing their airspace and land borders with the emirate. Influential Gulf writers even suggested that military action was not off the table. After Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya signed the deal on Thursday, the Gulf countries will now give Doha a two-month “probation period” for compliance before sending back their envoys. For Saudi Arabia, many of these sticking points in its relationship with Qatar are not new. But this time, Riyadh is adamant that it will continue to escalate the conflict with its much smaller neighbour if Doha does not come around to its point of view. For Qatar, however, any major compromise will be costly for its regional standing. It remains to be seen how these divergent interests will be reconciled”.

Deputy Crown Prince

06/04/2014

The succession crisis in Saudi Arabia rumbles on. After the death of two Crown Princes before the death of King Abdullah the government named Prince Muqrin, former head of the Secret Intelligence as the second deputy prime minister, effectively Crown Prince in waiting, behind the current incumbent, Crown Prince Salman.  In addition to his role as second deputy prime minister Muqrin has been appointed Deputy Crown Prince.

Now in an attempt to further bolster Muqrin’s position, it has been reported that he has a new role. The Economist reports that “Most monarchies favour primogeniture, a simple way of passing the crown from one generation to the next. Kingship in Muslim dynasties has tended instead to pass between brothers. But whose son should then inherit the throne? Ottoman sultans solved this problem by murdering their brothers. That is not easy if you happen to have 45-odd male siblings, as was the case for the five succeeding sons of Abdel Aziz bin Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, who have ruled since his death in 1953”.

The piece notes that many of these sons, apart from Salman and a few others are all dead. The result has left “Saudis to wonder when the prolonged hold of this gnarled second generation will end. On March 27th the reigning king, Abdullah, thought to be at least 89, provided an answer: not soon. A royal decree appointed his youngest surviving brother, Muqrin, born in 1945, as second in line to the throne after the crown prince, Salman, 78 and ailing. Should the newly anointed heir survive as long as Abdullah, he could still be king in 2034”.

The piece adds that “Muqrin is considered a steady hand, though palace gossips sniff that his mother was a Yemeni concubine. But he is close to the king and well thought of, says Joseph Kechichian, author of ‘Succession in Saudi Arabia’. At a function in Riyadh days after the announcement, the prince showed himself to be ‘dynamic and congenial’, says Mr Kechichian. The appointment of a second heir prompted whispers that Abdullah may soon abdicate. That is unlikely”.

The article makes the point that “Abdullah fears that Salman, believed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s, will be unable to take over. The statement from the royal palace hinted as much, referring to a situation where the positions of both king and crown prince could become ‘vacant'”.

This was the same scenario with Crown Prince Sultan before his death. He has long since ceased to be an active member of the government and was minister of defence in name only. Some described him as mentally unfit to be king from the very beginning of his term as Crown Prince.

The piece goes on to mention “The House of Saud can ill afford for that to happen, since the oil-rich kingdom faces mounting challenges. The ruling coterie fears the Arab spring may yet provoke its youthful, internet-using population of 30m into more forcefully airing grievances, such as the strictness of Islamic laws and the lack of jobs. They fear Saudi jihadists who have gone to fight in Syria could return to make trouble at home. And they dread developments abroad. In particular, the royal Saudis are “hysterical”—in the word of a recent visitor—over America’s outreach to Iran. They have fallen out with Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brothers. And as chief patrons of Syria’s rebels, they have failed to create a force strong enough to turn the tide against Bashar Assad”.

It ends, “Some Saudis quietly criticise Abdullah for ducking once again the challenge of picking an heir from the next generation. That will now most likely be Muqrin’s choice, if he wins the crown and lasts into old age. The third generation—the founder’s grandsons—now numbers hundreds of princes; subsequent generations probably take the male tally past 8,000, of whom at least a score may consider themselves eligible one day for the throne. They may be getting impatient”.

Kuwait tries to mediate

02/04/2014

Warning of “enormous” dangers, Kuwait urged fellow Arab leaders on Tuesday to resolve disputes complicating crises such as Syria’s war and unrest in Egypt, but diplomats said tensions bubbled behind the scenes at an annual heads of state summit. The gathering of the 22-member Arab League also heard an appeal from the U.N. peace mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, for an end to the flow of arms to the combatants in the war, which has killed over 140,000 people and displaced millions. Brahimi did not identify the suppliers, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be the main Arab funders of military assistance to rebels in Syria, while non-Arab Iran is the main regional power backing President Bashar al-Assad. “The whole region is in danger” of being dragged into the conflict, Brahimi said, calling for renewed efforts to find a political settlement to the crisis, now in its fourth year. Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, urged Arab states to overcome rifts he said were blocking Arab initiatives. “The dangers around us are enormous and we will not move towards joint Arab action without our unity and without casting aside our differences,” Sheikh Sabah, the summit host, said. He named no country. But he was alluding to worsening disputes among Arab states over the political role of Islamists in the region, and over what many Gulf states regard as interference in their affairs by Shi’ite Muslim Iran“.

End of the GCC?

25/03/2014

Following on from the increasingly strained relationship Qatar has been having with the other members of the GCC, a piece in Foreign Affairs asks does this mean the effective end of the organisation.

It opens, “The dispute between GCC members had been simmering for a while, and it was only a matter of time before it boiled over. In December, during a GCC Summit in Kuwait, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had been close to singling out Qatar for its alleged financing of terrorism in Syria and elsewhere. But, at the last minute, the Saudis pulled the plug to avoid embarrassing their Kuwaiti hosts. They opted instead to give Doha a stern private warning. A couple of weeks before that, Saudi leaders scolded new Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim during a meeting in Riyadh that was arranged by Kuwaiti leader Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad. The 33-year-old Tamim was asked to make serious adjustments to his country’s foreign policy, including that the country stop allegedly funding al Qaeda­–affiliated groups in Syria. The young Tamim reportedly agreed, but requested some time to make the necessary changes. Tamim eventually managed to reduce Doha’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. But, realizing that it had lost in Syria, Doha doubled down on outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in the region, including Hamas. In addition, it continued efforts to cozy up to Iran and Turkey, support the Al Houthi rebels in Yemen, and test the waters with Hezbollah. In doing so, Doha was touching every nerve and ringing every alarm bell in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, where officials were doing all they could to finish off the Muslim Brotherhood (including labeling it as terrorist group and propping up Egypt’s military chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, by paving the way for his presidency). No wonder, then, that the Bahrainis, Emiratis, and Saudis soon accused Qatar of trying to undermine the GCC and recalled their ambassadors”.

He goes on to write that “Tamim has two options, neither of which is good. He can either fully comply with the wishes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE — which would cost him his relationship with Qatar’s old guard, including his father — or consolidate his role by working with his father’s allies and freeing his country once and for all from the shackles of Saudi influence and an increasingly irrelevant GCC. Tamim might not survive the first scenario, given how difficult it would be to confront not only his family but also the enormously influential ex-prime minister and foreign minister Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani. But the second option wouldn’t be easy, either. In that scenario, Qatar would more forcefully ally itself with Iran, with which it already has strong economic ties. It would also get politically and economically closer to Oman, which already has friendly relations with Tehran. But that wouldn’t come without costs either. The Sultanate is essentially in the GCC doghouse for refusing to adopt the group’s standard line against Iran. Should Qatar join that club, it will be hard for it to ever reverse course with the GCC. Should Qatar become friendlier with Iran and Oman, it would signal the death of the GCC and herald a new power alignment in the Gulf. It would also severely complicate U.S. plans in the Middle East. For some time, the United States has encouraged the Arab Gulf States to think and act more collectively to enhance Gulf security. But with increasing tensions among GCC members, including possible divorces, this goal seems increasingly unrealistic. Washington may come to see that its Gulf allies will not be able to provide regional security anytime soon and, as a result, think twice about plans to reduce the U.S. political and military footprint there”.

He concludes, “Qatar’s spat with its Saudi and Emirati neighbors also creates another policy dilemma for the United States. Washington has strategic relations with all three states, which will become difficult to manage if they aren’t on speaking terms. It is possible that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could even lobby the United States to help shut down money flows out of Doha under the guise of counterterrorism. But Washington might not be receptive. Qatar hosts the Al Udeid Air Base and the Combined Air and Space Operations Center, which coordinated all of the U.S. attack and surveillance missions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, although the U.S. Treasury Department and State Department may show readiness to entertain Saudi and Emirati punitive measures against Doha, the Pentagon will probably put the brakes on any such plans”.

More importantly he closes, “make no mistake about it, this is a new political era in the Arab Gulf, one in which individual states are charting their own courses and where the idea of unity, no matter how hard Saudi Arabia pushes for it, is rapidly fading”.

“Out of the international spotlight”

09/03/2014

An excellent article discusses the future role of Qatar in the Middle East. There has been much talk about the power and influence of the tiny Gulf state over the last number of years but the writer argues that the power of Qatar has reached its zenith.

The piece opens “On March 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain announced in a joint statement that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha — a move that escalates their long-running feud with the tiny, gas-rich emirate to its most fraught point in recent memory. Qatar, the countries said, had failed to live up to its pledges made in a November meeting in Riyadh not to interfere in other Gulf countries’ affairs, not to support groups threatening regional stability, and not to host ‘hostile media’ — a likely reference to programming on the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera network”.

The writer goes on to elobrate “The moves follow three years of growing tensions between Qatar and other Arab Gulf countries about how to cope with the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. Doha championed the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt, supported its influence within the Syrian opposition, and provided hundreds of millions of dollars to its Palestinian affiliate, Hamas. Saudi Arabia and its allies, meanwhile, have long seen the organisation as a competitor for Islamist legitimacy, and supported its rivals throughout the Arab world. The Gulf states’ diplomatic manoeuvre also tops a spectacular fall from grace for Qatar, which not long ago was hailed as an unlikely leading power in the Middle East. Over the last year, Qatar’s allies have steadily lost ground: Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who could frequently be spotted in Doha’s hotel lobbies sipping tea and meeting diplomats, were jailed. In the summer of 2013, Saudi Arabia also took a leadership role in the Syrian uprising, usurping Qatar’s role as the primary financer and political backer of the opposition”.

He adds that “Doha has been trying ‘very actively to repair and maintain relations with Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia,’ says Gerd Nonneman, dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. ‘But they are not going to compromise their view of what’s right and proper, or effective, just to get into the good books of the rest of the Gulf.’ Wednesday’s decision followed a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers late Tuesday, which newspapers described as ‘stormy.’ It’s not clear what the exact trigger for the diplomatic action could have been, though one possible irritant may have been the Qatari foreign minister’s trip to Iran in late February. Speaking from Tehran, the Qatari official suggested that Tehran could play a role in political talks to end the Syrian crisis — a notion sharply rejected in Riyadh”.

Naturally this is only to be expected from Saudi Arabia but it is not just what Qatar is saying it is challenging the major powers in the region for leadership, most obviously Saudi Arabia. This is something that they cannot tolerate, especially when the Qatari funded groups like the Muslim Brotherhood who oppose Saudi power.

He goes on to mention that “Inter-Gulf relations have been particularly difficult since last summer. Setbacks in Qatar’s foreign policy coincided with the June inauguration of a new Qatari emir, the 33-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who came into office vowing to focus on domestic affairs. Doha’s once-busy conference halls may have quieted, but many in the Gulf believe Qatar has continued to quietly support Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Syrian Islamist groups. Most annoying to Gulf states has been Brotherhood-linked Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a longtime exile with Qatari citizenship and a hugely popular weekly show on Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel. Qaradawi has denounced other Gulf countries’ support for the military-backed government in Egypt, going as far as to say in January that the UAE was opposed to Islamic rule. After attempting unsuccessfully to resolve matters quietly, Abu Dhabi summoned the Qatari ambassador on Feb. 2 in protest”.

He provides context when he notes “Qatar’s perceived support of the Muslim Brotherhood has also not gone over well with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which view the organization as a subversive threat that could seek to overthrow the Gulf’s ruling monarchies. Both countries, as well as Kuwait, have rushed to aid the post-Brotherhood Egypt, offering a combined $12 billion in aid to the new military-backed government. At home, the UAE has brought dozens of alleged Brotherhood members to trial, including Emirati, Qatari, and Egyptian citizens”.

Importantly he writes that “Tension between Qatar’s new emir and his fellow Gulf leaders had been rising for months before Wednesday’s announcement. The pledges Qatar is accused of breaking were made during a meeting in Riyadh in November 2013, and relate to the implementation of a 2012 Gulf Security Agreement that stipulates all members must refrain from interference in fellow signatories’ internal affairs. The agreement was seen as a pre-emptive reaction to turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East, following the uprisings of the Arab Spring — but fellow Gulf countries accuse Doha of failing to put the policies into action. Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah sat between the Qatari and Saudi leaders, reviving a role he has often played to mediate disputes among Gulf brethren. Apparently not trusting the discussion alone to alleviate tensions, the Qatari emir was asked to put his promises on paper”.

He writes that there was a further two meetings to convince Qatar to refrain from interfering in other countries affairs, “Meeting in Kuwait, the countries agreed on a mechanism to implement Qatar’s promises. But arguing nothing has changed since, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain now say they will have to ‘start taking whatever they deem appropriate to protect their security and stability by withdrawing their ambassadors.’ Qatar’s cabinet reacted with ‘regret and surprise’ to the ambassadors’ withdrawal, a statement from the official news agency said. Doha also announced that it will not withdraw its own ambassadors”.

The article concludes, “The next move is Qatar’s. Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Doha in anger over Al Jazeera’s coverage; it took half a decade and savvy maneuvering to restore relations. Even if Doha is finally out of the international spotlight, its trickiest diplomacy may lie ahead”.

221 years ago

21/01/2014

On this day, Louis XVI was murdered. Let us not forget the violence that swept France and Europe and the effects that still haunt the world to this day.

Blaming Bhumibol

08/12/2013

After the death of Nelson Mandela many in Thailand are looking to King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) who turned 86 recently.

The author of the famous, The King Never Smiles, writes that it is Bhumibol that is responsible for the state of modern Thai politics. He writes, “Yet the unending fight between pro-and anti-government forces, the so-called Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, reflects his fundamental failing to prepare a future for Thailand as a stable, mature democracy after he passes. Bhumibol is still alive, but there is no doubt that his long reign is dying. He was frail and barely audible as he read a statement calling for unity Thursday morning. He and Queen Sirikit, 81, both suffer a number of debilitating ailments, and now stay out of the public eye. They live not in the capital, but in a seaside palace to the south, infrequently seen or heard from”.

He goes on to metion “Very few of the 67 million Thais have ever known another king. Bhumibol has been the one constant in their lives: the country’s backbone, moral authority, the very symbol of what is Thai. So this looming end portends a frightening shift in their cosmos — especially since his sole heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is disliked, feared and scorned. European constitutional monarchies have the obvious solution to this problem. Brits, for example, may dislike or feel somewhat apathetic to Prince Charles, but in England elected leaders and parliament runs the show, ensuring the country is not vulnerable to the often tragic capriciousness of royal succession. Thailand has not made that step. The fight that has persisted for much of the past decade is about if, how, and when it will. For a country that has always seemed able to keep moving forward since Bhumibol took the throne in 1946, the stakes are high”.

He goes on to write how the modern Thai state developed, “with the country desperately in need of a unifier in the political vacuum after World War II, instead he built a traditional, deified Buddhist kingship, at first guided by die-hard princes of the ancien regime, and later, when he found his own stride, in concert with the military. That evolution was arguably unavoidable. As a key front in the Cold War, Thailand’s military was important to its key supporter — the United States — in the 1960s, and the development of elected government was low priority. The alliance between the throne and the generals suited Washington well. And it remained after the Vietnam War ended. Since then, at every step, and in every political crisis, Bhumibol has fallen back on the Army to help repress the power of elected politicians and restrain the development of parliamentary democracy. The military has wrested power from civilian governments more than 10 times during his reign, most of them, including the latest in 2006, with the throne’s full support. Until the last decade when health concerns caught up with him, Bhumibol had been an active king — a modernising figure in many ways, promoting education, endorsing new technologies, and advocating for the sciences. But as an institution his throne, and its allies in the military, have refused to move from the old model and cede power to elected civilians”.

It is good that Handley gives Bhumibol some credit, “promoting education, endorsing new technologies, and advocating for the sciences” are not trivial matters and can go a long way to improving the living standards of Thais. He goes on to add “Civilian politicians have regularly appeared over the decades with hopes of convincing taking that big step. But each time the military and the throne have convinced the people that their lead is preferable to a raucous parliament and money-tinged political parties. And Bhumibol himself has often made clear his scorn for politicians. Throughout his reign he has regularly, and opportunistically, blasted politicians for their failings, while virtually never criticising the men in green. Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecoms tycoon first elected prime minister in 2001, was only the latest to try to interrupt the palace-military alliance”.

The question is not whether Bhumibol should have a say or not, but the extent to which he should and how he should.

He concludes the article, “The situation would be less worrisome if the next king was expected to be as benign as Prince Charles. But Vajiralongkorn, 61, is distrusted and many worry about him assuming the powers his father has had. He has a long history of trouble, with many incidents domestically and internationally that have been covered up by the palace. That and his family life — three successive wives and reputedly many other girlfriends — raise questions over whether he is suitable for the throne.  He is committed to his family and the throne, but what he thinks about royal power, democratic politics, the role of the constitution, or the rule of law, is unknown. And there is no real alternative to him. What is known, thanks to a Wikileaked U.S. embassy cableis that even the top people around King Bhumibol dislike and distrust the crown prince, and have no solution to the potential danger he poses. Yet what will likely fall into Vajiralongkorn’s hands when Bhumibol dies is the structure they created: a throne closely tied to the military, both with institutional disdain for the parliamentary democracy mapped out in the Thai constitution since 1932. It is possible that the prince is stepping up, trying to set a deal of sorts with Thaksin. There are no concrete details on the contacts between the two, or what kind of accommodation they might be thinking of. But the deep hate of many pro-monarchy Thais for Thaksin as well as the prince makes that hugely risky”.

Weak monarchies?

16/10/2013

Christopher Davidson in an article in Foreign Affairs writes that the monarchies in the Gulf region are coming to an end.

He opens his piece “Since their modern formation in the mid-twentieth century, Saudi Arabia and the five smaller Gulf monarchies — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — have been governed by highly autocratic and seemingly anachronistic regimes. Nevertheless, their rulers have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of bloody conflicts on their doorsteps, fast-growing populations at home, and modernising forces from abroad. One of the monarchies’ most visible survival strategies has been to strengthen security ties with Western powers, in part by allowing the United States, France, and Britain to build massive bases on their soil and by spending lavishly on Western arms”.

Davidson argues that “It would thus be a mistake to think that the Gulf monarchies are somehow invincible. Notwithstanding existing internal threats, these regimes are also facing mounting external ones — from Western governments, from Iran, and each other. And these are only exacerbating their longstanding conflicts and inherent contradictions”.

He writes that Western military bases “is an affront to Islam and to national sovereignty”. Yet having the bases suits these monarchs well. Should their be a coup in any of the coutries Davidson mentions the bases would need to be protected and the country with the bases stationed in the country would have a vested interest in keeping the regime in place.

He writes that “Among the largest Western installations in the Gulf is al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which owes its existence to the country’s former ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. In 1999, al-Thani told the United States that he would like to see 10,000 American servicemen permanently based in the emirate, and over the next few years, the United States duly began shifting personnel there from Saudi Arabia”.

He adds that “Bahrain hosts the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the entire U.S. Fifth Fleet, which includes some 6,000 U.S. personnel. The United States recently downsized its force in Kuwait, but four U.S. infantry bases remain, including Camp Patriot, which is believed to house about 3,000 U.S. soldiers and two air bases”.

These countries did not welcome America because they were good friends but because it was in the interests of these countries to have US bases there for the protection of their dynasty to say nothing of the economic and other benefits that any large military installation would bring.

So far from being a sign of thier imminent collapse it is rather the reverse. America is too heavily invested to see these monarchies collapse and will do everything possible to prop them up.

He then writes that “By most measures, such spending has gotten out of hand. As a proportion of GDP, the Gulf monarchies’ purchases make them the biggest arms buyers in the world. Even the poorer Gulf states, which are grappling with declining resources and serious socioeconomic pressures, spend far beyond their means. Of all of the monarchies’ purchases, Saudi and UAE procurements have attracted the most attention. In 2009 alone, the UAE purchased nearly $8 billion in U.S. military equipment, making it the United States’ biggest arms customer that year. Saudi Arabia, for its part, purchased about $3.3 billion in hardware. In December 2011, the United States announced that it had finalized a $30 billion sale of Boeing-manufactured F-15 fighter jets to the Saudi Royal Air Force”.

Yet this is not a systemic threat to the stability and is overstated by Davidson. The reason much of the money is spent of weapons is as a result of Iran and if a US-Iranian deal is at least partially successful then there will at least be less of an excuse to spend so much of arms.

He argues fairly that “Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Gulf monarchs have gone to great lengths to highlight Shia membership in opposition movements, a tactic that has allowed them to delegitimize critics — falsely — as Iranian agents. Thus far, the strategy has enjoyed some limited success; members of the Gulf’s Sunni populations have been quick to accuse Shia activists of being traitors. Many Western authorities continue to lend support to the monarchies on the grounds that the alternative would be Iran-style theocratic, revolutionary, and anti-Western governments”.

He goes on to argue that previous Gulf monarchs were not so hostile to Iran, the “previous generation sidelined most confrontations with Iran — including even the 1971 seizure of three UAE islands by the Shah — in recognition of shared economic interests and the substantial Iranian expatriate populations that reside in many of the monarchies”.

Yet he overlooks the fact that the Iranian revolution was inherently Shia in nature and was therefore seen as a threat by the Sunni monarchs. Again a  deal with Iran would go a long way to solving their unease and their use of religion to bolster their position.

As he writes “In early 2011, Bahrain’s rulers took full advantage of anti-Iranian sentiments to act against domestic opponents, announcing that they would deport all Shia residents who had ‘links to Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.’ In practice, that meant expelling hundreds of Bahrain’s Lebanese residents, suspending all flights between the capital Manama and Beirut, and warning Bahraini nationals not to travel to Lebanon due to ‘threats and interference by terrorists.'”

Again he adds that “as Abu Dhabi’s forceful Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan and his five full brothers gained control over most of the country’s foreign policy, the emirate’s views have fallen in line with those of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Since 2007, the crown prince’s circle has pushed Western officials to put more troops in the region to counter Iranian hegemony. In 2009, the crown prince forcefully warned the United States of appeasing Iran, reportedly saying that ‘Ahmadinejad is Hitler.'”

He then writes that “Perhaps even riskier than their hawkishness toward Iran is the Gulf monarchies’ dovishness toward Israel. Since independence, the Gulf monarchies have upheld laws requiring government personnel, businesses, and even individual residents to boycott Israel. In the UAE, the federal government has always housed an Israel boycott office. One federal law, passed in 1971, stipulates that ‘any natural or legal person shall be prohibited from directly or indirectly concluding an agreement with organizations or persons either resident in Israel, connected therewith by virtue of their nationality of working on its behalf.'”

He goes on to say that “The monarchies’ new policies toward Israel are particularly dangerous given domestic political realities. The Gulf’s national populations are, for the most part, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. Gulf nationals grew up watching the Palestinian intifada on television, and the liberation of Palestine remains a shared ideal among the region’s youth. There are also substantial communities of Palestinians in every monarchy”.

Yet to say that as a result of this they will collapse is a stretch. If and when it suits the monarchies they will do business with and accept Israel and their populace will more or less accept this if it is presented to them correctly.

 

SUCCESSION STRUGGLES

Davidson goes on to argue that “Following the death of a ruler or a petty internal dispute in one monarchy, it is now commonplace for neighboring monarchs to interfere, either by discreetly backing a preferred candidate, or, in the more extreme cases, by sponsoring a coup d’état. The resulting power vacuums have often allowed foreign powers to interfere as well. The best example of a modern-day coup and subsequent foreign interference took place in the UAE’s northernmost emirate of Ras al-Khaimah. In 2003, after allegedly burning an American flag at an anti-Iraq war demonstration, Prince Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr al-Qasimi, the emirate’s long-serving crown prince, was replaced in the order of succession by a younger half-brother, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi. Their very elderly father, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, later signed a decree in support of this change, but many analysts questioned the ruler’s decision-making abilities, given his advanced age and poor health. The new crown prince had the apparent backing of Abu Dhabi, which sent military tanks to take positions on the streets of Ras al-Khaimah. The ousted crown prince’s supporters still took the streets to show their support; security forces with water cannons disbursed them. The crown prince was then duly exiled, crossing the border to Oman before leaving for the United States”.

This is all certainly true but it does not mean that the collapse of the Gulf monarchies as a whole, especailly in a group that is as diverse as those in the Gulf. What happens in one does not mean that it will happen in all of them.

He goes on to write somehwat implausibly that “The Gulf’s immediate future is likely to be marked by many more such coup and countercoup attempts. Several current monarchs are very old, and powerful factions in growing royal families have coalesced around rival successors. In each of these cases, internecine contests will develop and, given the high stakes involved, the involvement of foreign powers is all but inevitable”.

He concludes “In the end, however, the monarchies may all suffer from such meddling, for these regimes are only as strong as the weakest links in their chain. An especially brittle monarchy succumbing to pressure over Western involvement, Iran, or Israel could easily be the first domino to fall, undoing the illusion of invincibility that the Gulf monarchies have so painstakingly built to distinguish themselves from the floundering Arab republics next door”.

Yet despite their weaknesses nothing unites them like a single threat as the Arab revolutions.

Short term stability

20/08/2013

An article has been published by Gregory Gause noting the stability of the Saudi kingdom.

It opens “Ironically, questions about Saudi stability tend to arise after the Saudi regime has recently demonstrated its resiliency in the face of regional crisis—and the Arab Spring is no exception. There are two central reasons that Riyadh was the major Arab state least affected by the upheavals of the last few years. The first is that it has plenty of money in the bank. Only one major oil exporter, Libya, faced a regime-shaking crisis in 2011, and the regime there fell because of external intervention. Because the Saudis (and other oil exporters) had enjoyed a ten-year period of rising prices, the skids of the patronage state were well greased. To remind everyone of how good they have it, King Abdullah committed to spending $130 billion on such public provisions as education allowances, unemployment benefits, higher wages, and low-income housing—even as demonstrations were gaining momentum around the region. That commitment put a dent in Saudi financial reserves (which total approximately $700 billion), but hardly exhausted them. The second reason explaining Saudi stability is the presence of serious divisions in Saudi society along sectarian, regional, and ideological lines. Disparate groups in Egypt and Tunisia could put their differences aside and come together against their dictators because their common national identity is relatively strong, while postponing the fights for power we see in those countries now. In Saudi Arabia, potential axes of regime opposition do not have the levels of contact and trust to join forces against the regime”.

He writes that “What could change the picture of Saudi stability? Obviously, a dramatic and sustained reduction in the price of oil would eventually lead to a fiscal crisis in the Kingdom, calling into question the patronage base of the regime. A serious split in the ruling family, when power finally passes to the next generation of princes, could also shake the regime. If the two scenarios happened simultaneously, the chances of regime survival would decrease markedly”.

A related article in the series examines the long term stability of the regime, “There can be no revolution without a deep socio-economic crisis. Saudi Arabia hasn’t had such a crisis yet. On the back of its large oil revenues and even larger overseas financial reserves, it can provide enough employment for young male job-seekers—the crucial segment of the population—in the public sector to defuse any large-scale revolutionary anger.  The sustainability of this policy depends on simple arithmetic: oil prices and production levels on one hand, and domestic employment and subsidy costs on the other. The latter have been increasing rapidly and are likely to continue doing so, albeit at a more measured pace, due to continued growth of the working-age population. But even under pessimistic oil price assumptions, the kingdom will not run out of money for at least a dozen years. For the time being, it continues to run significant surpluses, as the oil price at which the government breaks even lies around $80 per barrel, a good deal below current prices”.

However he warns that painful decisions will have to be made if the kingdom is to survive, “In the long run, Saudi Arabia will have to undergo a painful shift away from both public sector over-employment and dependence on migrant labor. Such a shift means short-term pain for both citizens and business. Times are probably too good to impose such pain right now. Once the state reaches its fiscal limits, however, the forced shift away from state dependence would be all the more sudden and violent. This does not guarantee revolution, but it would mean potential for serious instability for the first time in decades”.

“A baby boy”

23/07/2013

“The Duchess of Cambridge has given birth to a baby boy, Kensington Palace has announced. The baby was delivered at 16:24 BST at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, west London, weighing 8lb 6oz. The Duke of Cambridge said in a statement the couple ‘could not be happier’. He and the duchess will remain in the hospital overnight. The news has been displayed on an easel in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace in line with tradition”. This will mean that the prince, who will in all likelihood be king will continue the reign of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg that will begin when his grandfather becomes king.

“Would like to buy a new Mubarakism”

15/07/2013

After the ousting of Morsi in Egypt and the announcement of aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and now Kuwait to the country, some has speculated that the GCC monarchies are attempting to influence Egypt’s course, “Many Egyptians furiously contest whether the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsy should be considered a revolution or a coup. But the fiercely anti-revolutionary monarchs of the Gulf have no such doubts. Within days of Morsy’s fall, three conservative Gulf Cooperation Council states pledged $12 billion in support to the new regime. It’s pretty clear what the counter-revolutionary Gulf monarchs expect for their generosity, and it’s not democracy. The conservative Gulf states would like to buy a new Mubarakism and a final end to all of this Arab uprising unpleasantness. But they are unlikely to succeed”.

The article goes on to note “This massive financial support follows on, and replaces, billions of dollars given by Qatar to the previous Muslim Brotherhood government. It is likely to prove equally ineffectual in delivering the desired payoffs, though. As Doha discovered to its dismay, money will buy only temporary love and symbolic returns. Whatever Gulf paymasters might hope, the new Egyptian government will be forced to respond to its own intensely turbulent, polarised, and dysfunctional domestic political arena. No outside player — not Washington, Riyadh, Doha, or Tehran — can really hope to effectively shape the new Egyptian politics for long”.

Interestingly he argues that “as anti-Muslim Brotherhood rage fades as a unifying force, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may find themselves taking over Qatar’s role as the external force blamed for ongoing economic and political failure”. This however is far from certain. Firstly he assumes the want the Egyptian people want and want they get are the same thing. Secondly, those secularists and liberals who despite vast, and now obvious reservations, backed Morsi over Ahmed Safiq the “SCAF candidate” in the hope that it would usher in the supposedly tolerant, democratic Brotherhood that some supposedly proffered was the real organisation. Secondly he assumes that those secularists and liberals who backed the removal of Morsi will not welcome the army. Instead what is more likely to happen is that the secularists and liberals will simply see the army as the least worst option and give it tacit support.

He mentions the UAE’s hatred of the Brotherhood, something that has been noted here before, but goes on to discuss Saudi opposition, “Saudi hostility to the Brotherhood is driven not by any devotion to secularism, of course, but by the fierce competition between the Brotherhood and its own Salafi Islamist networks. Riyadh seeks leadership over Islamist political networks for both domestic and regional reasons. The Saudi regime worked for years to co-opt the Brotherhood-inclined ‘Sahwa’ Islamist networks that drove political dissent in the early 1990s — and it still fears their remobilisation (for example, the highly publicised open letter by Sahwa leader Salman al-Odeh warning the government against ignoring public discontent). Saudi support for the jihad in Syria is likely driven in part by the same concerns as its anti-Brotherhood campaign. Just as the Afghan jihad of the 1980s redirected Islamist energies away from home following the traumatic seizure of the Great Mosque of Mecca, the Syrian jihad focuses Islamist energies abroad, working with rather than against Riyadh’s leadership. In Egypt, as in Syria, the Saudis don’t oppose Islamism, just competing Islamists”.

He goes on to add that “The rivalry with Qatar also clearly drove the calculations of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The cooperation between these GCC states in the early days of the Arab uprising was always clearly the exception. Their rivalry and mutual disdain runs deep, and Doha’s rivals have moved rapidly and aggressively to take advantage of the departure of the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim. What happened in Doha is clearly not staying in Doha. Morsi’s fall represents a serious setback for Qatar’s regional policy, but not the only one. Qatar’s men in the Syrian opposition have been sidelined, for now. Its leading Islamist figure, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has capitulated to the Saudi anti-Shiite line, and now rumors are flying that he has been expelled from Doha. Meanwhile, the Saudis are moving to re-establish their traditional domination of the Arab media”.

He then discusses the goal of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in their dealings with Egypt, “Most broadly, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw the chance to finally put the nail in the coffin of the detested Arab uprisings by re-establishing the old order in the most important of the transitional states. They were horrified by Mubarak’s fall, by the demonstration effect across the region, and by America’s seeming embrace of the uprisings. From the start, they worked to divert, prevent, or control the Arab uprisings: helping to crush the uprising in Bahrain, sending massive financial assistance to less wealthy fellow monarchs in Oman, Jordan, and Morocco, and seeking to control the transition process in Yemen. Their media, in contrast to Al-Jazeera’s celebratory coverage, tended to emphasise the negative consequences of the Arab uprisings, the perfidy of Islamists, the carnage of Syria and Libya, and Egypt’s political chaos. A successful Egyptian democratic transition, with or without the Muslim Brotherhood, represented the greatest threat to this vision of conservative restoration. Such an Egypt would offer a powerful example of the possibility of democratic change through peaceful uprising”.

The piece concludes, “The Arab uprisings are not over, no matter how much the Gulf monarchies might wish that they were. A neo-Mubarakist restoration will no more bring stability to Egypt than did the pre-revolutionary Mubarak regime. There is no solution to Egypt’s problems without overcoming the country’s polarization and establishing meaningful democracy, neither of which are high on the agenda of Egypt’s new Gulf backers”.

King Philippe?

05/07/2013

First Pope Benedict XVI abdicated, technically resigned, then the Netherlands got a new king by the same process, Qatar followed last month and now Albert II of the Belgians is abdicating for the first time in the nation’s history.

News article mentions that “In an unexpected address to the nation, the king, aged 79, announced that he would formally abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Philippe [technically Prince Philippe, Duke of Brabant] on July 21, Belgium’s national day. ‘I am at an age never attained by my predecessors. I have noticed that my age and health no longer allow me to fulfill my job as I should have wished. I would not meet my duties and not honour my view of the royal function if I stuck to my post at all costs,’ he said. ‘It’s a question of elementary respect for the institutions and of respect towards you. Following a twenty year reign I am of the opinion that the moment has come to hand the torch on to the next generation.’ ‘I want to tell you now that it was an honour and a joy to devote a large part of my life to the service of this country and its people.’ King Albert who has played a critical role in holding Belgium together as a country over the last three years is approaching his 20th anniversary on the throne, after taking over from his brother Baudouin of Belgium who died on 31 July 1993, aged 62″.

As has been argued here before, instead of abdicating Albert II could have left the capital and declared a regency. This would have allowed him to remain technically king until his death but at the same time nearly all of the duties and responsibilities would have gone to his son, Philippe.

The article adds context, “The king is known to be in ill-health and exhausted after a difficult five years for Belgium where deep divisions between Flemish Dutch-speakers and French-speaking Walloons have pushed the country to the brink of break-up. As well as playing the difficult role of national mediator, King Albert has faced a number of royal scandals that have damaged the standing of the monarchy, including a current court case brought by an aristocratic artist alleging that she is his illegitimate daughter”.

It goes on to note that “Albert II will be the first Belgian monarch to voluntarily relinquish his throne. His father Leopold III, was forced to abdicate in favour of Baudouin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, after controversially remaining as Belgian monarch under Nazi occupation. Six years after he succeeded his brother, King Albert became embroiled in a major royal scandal when he was alleged to be the father of an illegimate daughter, Delphine Boel, and suffered a major crisis in his marriage with Queen Paola”.

It adds importantly, “Philippe, 53, is a trained fighter pilot and parachutist with degrees from Trinity College, Oxford and Stanford University. He will take over on the 21 July anniversary of the inauguration of the first Belgian king in 1831. He is married to Belgian-born Princess Mathilde with four children. His daughter Princess Elizabeth, 11, will be the next in line to the throne”.

Sadly, due to the equal “preference” given to children regardless of gender Princess Elizabeth will be the last monarch of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Should she marry a commoner, as is likely, the Belgian monarchy will join others, such as Sweden, eventually Spain, Monaco and others will no offical royal House.

“King Albert is known to be disillusioned and upset over Belgium’s divisions between northern, Dutch-speaking Flanders has been seeking increasing autonomy at the expense of southern, French-speaking Wallonia. Many believe the political strife has worn the king out, especially the world record 541 days that he was royal mediator between squabbling communities when Belgium was without a government following elections in 2010 where Flemish republican separatists became the country’s largest party”.

It concludes “The abdication will give Prince Philippe, who is not popular in Flanders, time to make his mark as king before difficult national elections in 2014. He will take the oath of allegiance to the Belgian Constitution on the same day as his father’s formal abdication before a meeting of both houses of Belgium’s parliament”.

The only uncertainty is the name the new king will take. It will either be King Philipe or Leopold IV.

Another abdication

28/06/2013

Following on from the resignation of Pope Benedict, the abdication of Queen Beatrix, as had been noted previously, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh  Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has abdicated in favour of his designated heir. Some have suggested that the new emir “may signal the governing family’s intention to offer Qataris a taste of expanded personal freedoms, even if democracy is not explicitly on the agenda. There are some hints that already have at least a few Qataris excited. (For most, a beneficent feudal monarchy appears just fine, thanks, and they demonstrated their appreciation by lining up by the thousands, on foot and in their Mercedes and other luxury cars, to visit the two emirs, incoming and outgoing, in their palace on Tuesday and pledge their allegiance.)  Najeeb al-Nauimi, the lawyer for Qatar’s only political prisoner, Mohammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, said he was hopeful. His client was jailed for life last year for writing a poem that, in a fairly tame manner, criticized “sheiks playing on their PlayStations.” Mr. Ajami was arrested under a constitutional provision that forbids criticism of the emir, however indirect. Mr. Nauimi, who said he has known the incoming emir since the sheik was 9 years old, said Tuesday that Sheik Tamim had told him that Mr. Ajami would be released within a few days of the new emir’s accession to power. That does not speak to democracy as much as it does to the absolute power of the monarch, but all the same, Mr. Nauimi hoped it would be a signal of openness to come”.

The article adds, “The outgoing emir already promised parliamentary elections by the end of the year — a constitutional requirement that is long overdue. Mr. Nauimi is among those agitating for amendments to the Constitution that would let that Parliament appoint the prime minister, paving the way for a constitutional monarchy inching closer to the British model and away from the autocratic style of the Persian Gulf states.  It would be the first such example in any of the gulf’s monarchies, and one of the few in the Arab world”.

Separate reports note that “The new emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, on Thursday signaled continuity in international affairs and change on the domestic front with the appointment of a new cabinet, one that will be headed by a longtime secret policeman. While there was no immediate official announcement of the cabinet from the government’s Qatar News Agency when it was appointed on Wednesday, Qatari newspapers on Thursday published a complete list of the members. It will be led by Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani, holding the roles of prime minister and interior minister. His age was not announced, but he is a 1984 graduate of Durham Military College in Britain, according to his official biography, which would make him about 50.  In addition to running internal state security for many years, the new prime minister has been in charge of his country’s antiterrorism efforts”.

It continues, “The new emir suggested that he would continue his father’s foreign policy, and the appointment of the longtime deputy foreign minister, Khalid al-Attiyah, as foreign minister suggested as much. He is close to the previous emir and deeply involved in many of Qatar’s international mediation efforts. But a new prime minister whose second portfolio is the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and internal security affairs, was widely read as a signal that the new emir would be refocusing on domestic affairs. There has been no suggestion of any internal security threat, and dissent in wealthy Qatar, which has only 250,000 citizens, is nearly unknown. Sheik Abdullah, the new prime minister, had been the minister of state for internal affairs since February 2005. In recent years, he was widely viewed as the de facto minister of interior.  The Qatari cabinet also includes one woman, Hessa Sultan al-Jaber. She is one of few to hold such a position anywhere in the region and is the minister of communication and information technology”.

An article ties the abdication in with the Arab revolutions, “Over the last week, Qatar completed a virtually unprecedented and brilliantly stage-managed leadership transition from the 61-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to his 33-year-old son, Tamim. In the process, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani (perhaps better known in the West by his initials, HBJ) was also removed from his longtime perch as one of the region’s most outspoken foreign ministers. The whole thing has been so carefully prepared and easily presented that it’s easy to overlook the genuinely shocking nature of this transfer of power. Vanishingly few modern Arab leaders have ever voluntarily stepped down, even when terminally ill, incapacitated, or deeply unpopular (none of which apply to the outgoing emir). While great pains will be taken to emphasize the difference between the emir’s abdication and the regimes overthrown during by the Arab uprisings, the fact remains that the emir has become the fifth Arab head of state to leave office since January 2011. Certainly, an orderly transition to the emir’s son does not look much like the popular uprisings that claimed the regimes of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi”.

He writes “the story sounded too much like the periodic rumors of a military coup against the Al Thanis circulated by Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi critics of Qatar. And while the outgoing emir has significant health problems, that didn’t stop King Fahd from ruling Saudi Arabia for a decade as a vegetable”. He goes on to argue that the trend set by the emir will not be continued across the Middle East, even though some, notably Bahrain, could benefit from such a move.

He goes on to argue that “the intense crackdowns across the Gulf over the last few years on human rights activists, political protests, Shiite citizens, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even online “insults” to the leadership show just how insecure and paranoid these regimes have become. Some have portrayed Sheikh Hamad’s move as a prophylactic against the coming wave of challenges to the rulers of the Gulf, getting ahead of the curve with a transition before the storm. But few saw tiny, inordinately wealthy Qatar as a remotely likely candidate for such uprisings, even compared with the other Gulf states. Ironically, Sheikh Hamad’s decision to transfer power to an untested young successor — and during such testing times — may be a sign of how relatively secure that regime is relative to its Arab counterparts”.

Perhaps most importantly of all he writes that “What most non-Qataris really want to know is what this change means for Qatari foreign policy. Allow me to summarize in two words the thousand articles already written on the subject: Nobody knows. Qatar’s regime has always enjoyed exceptional autonomy from both domestic and international pressures in its foreign policymaking. Decisions on this front have been highly centralized and personalised, with leaders facing very few domestic political constraints. That means that the young, little-known Emir Tamim has perhaps more freedom than any other leader in the world to take whatever path he prefers. And nobody really knows what he prefers”.

While it is not certain, in all likelhood the new emir will keep to broadly the same lines as his father. This will in all probablilty mean maintaining the policy of arming the rebels in Syria and doing all possible to isolate Iran as much as possible.

“Will determine who leads”

22/06/2013

After the immediate succession in Saudi Arabia had been settled with the appointment of Prince Muqrin as second deputy prime minister, an article has been published that notes that the conflict is far from finished.

It begins noting that “Despite his age and frailty, Abdullah has been busy preparing the House of Saud for his departure from the political scene. He has appointed younger princes to key ministries and as governors to the most important provinces, made one half-brother a contender for the throne, sacked another, and weeded out the weakest aspirants among the younger al-Saud princes. Such a sweeping shakeup of the staid ruling family has even included moves to make his own son a prime contender for the throne”.

In an obvious attempt to bolster the chances of his own son’s chances at the throne, “King Abdullah’s remaining energies have been focused on remaking the House of Saud’s own leadership. The upheaval continued right up to his departure for Morocco: On May 27, Abdullah decreed that the Saudi Royal National Guard, a powerful military force that he commanded for decades, was to become a full-fledged ministry — and that his son, Miteb, 61, would be the new minister. These moves give Miteb more political clout to compete with other rivals for the throne from the younger generation of al-Sauds”.

This comes in addition to the interior ministry and governorships of Riyadh and Eastern Province, changing hands at the start of the year. The article then goes on to add that “the smart money is betting that he’s preparing to hand the throne to one of his half-brothers, delaying the transfer of power to the ‘younger’ generation as long as possible.  If that holds true, it isn’t going to please President Barack Obama’s administration, which has been pressing for younger blood to rule the kingdom and accelerate reforms. It rolled out the red carpet for the newly minted Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 53, for his four-day visit to Washington in January, setting up separate meetings with Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, national security advisor Tom Donilon, and other high-ranking U.S. officials. This was taken among Saudis as a signal that Washington favored Mohammed as the next king. Washington has good reason to look fondly on Mohammed: The prince is not only from the younger generation, but he was the architect of the highly successful Saudi campaign in the mid-2000s to crush al Qaeda inside the kingdom. He also became a family hero after an audacious terrorist attack against him inside his own palace in August 2009, in which a suicide bomber gained a meeting with the prince (after promising to surrender) and then detonated himself. Mohammed escaped miraculously with only slight injuries. But Prince Mohammed isn’t seen as the likeliest candidate to become the next crown prince. Both Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman, 77, seem ambivalent about whether the time is ripe to pass power from their generation to the next. The brotherhood of senior princes has stuck together with impressive cohesion on the right of one brother to follow another to the throne. Over the past 81 years, the crown has passed five times in this fashion. Now, however, only two of the sons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, still appear viable”.

Yet this omits the fact that Prince Muqrin is next after the increasingly aging Crown Prince Salman. He foes on to mention that should this line of thinking hold, “Prince Ahmed, the youngest of the powerful “Sudairi Seven” brothers at 71 years old, will emerge the winner. That would represent a remarkable turnaround for Ahmed: The king fired himas interior minister last November, after appointing him only five months earlier. However, Ahmed still retains much support within the fractious al-Saud family, according to Saudis in both royal and diplomatic circles”.

However, he goes on to mention that King Abdullah sacked Ahmed and the position of him could “come down to who lives longer — King Abdullah, who has outlived two crown princes already, or the current heir, Salman. Rumours that the crown prince suffers from Alzheimer’s are untrue, but there is no doubt that Salman has been slowed down considerably by age — he is ‘certainly no longer the Salman of yesterday,’ in the words of one Saudi who recently saw him, a judgment in which U.,S. officials concur. But if Salman does outlive Abdullah to become king, the thinking is that he will favor Ahmed because they are full brothers from the same tightly-knit Sudairi clan. Should Abdullah miraculously outlive the far younger Salman, he has put his half-brother Muqrin in line to move up the power chain to become the next crown prince. Saudis say Muqrin is clearly campaigning for the job through constant public appearances, designed to keep himself in the limelight. Miteb has also been keeping a high profile, but most Saudi watchers doubt the king is ready to upset the whole al-Saud family by naming him heir apparent — a move that would constitute an unprecedented kingly power play”.

He goes on to write how Prince Khalid bin Sultan at the Ministry of Defence was not given the job that his father, the former Crown Prince, had been grooming him for the top positon only to be dismissed from the ministry in April by King Abdullah. He then mentions that “replaced him with the little-known former head of the Royal Saudi Navy [Prince Fahd bin Abdullah]. This leaves the once powerful Sultan branch of the al-Saud family with just one top post, the General Directorate of Intelligence. Since last July, this has been in the hands of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the long-serving Saudi ambassador to Washington who had been the king’s national security advisor”.  

The piece ends “It is a time of change for the risk-averse royals in Riyadh. In addition to the eventual handover of power to the next generation of Saudi princes and the struggle for Syria, the princes doubt whether Washington is still committed to the longstanding U.S.-Saudi security relationship. King Abdullah’s moves in the next months and years will determine who leads Saudi Arabia — and what sort of Middle East the kingdom must contend with — for decades to come”.

A new emir?

16/06/2013

Noted Middle East expert Simon Henderson has written of the Emirate of Qatar is about to undergo a leadership change.

Henderson writes that “Qatari foreign policy has been based on the whims — or more politely, the vision — of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who is currently serving as prime minister and foreign minister. The two leaders’ personalized control has produced a decisiveness lacking in their larger allies”.

He adds a note of caution however that “the team that has overseen Qatar’s growth into a regional powerhouse is changing. Arab and Western diplomats reported this week that Emir Hamad, 61, is soon going to replace the prime minister with his son, the 33-year-old Crown Prince Tamim, and would then abdicate power himself in favor of Tamim. The news prompted an almost audible “OMG” across major world capitals, and among Qatar’s neighbors — a novice leader at a time of tension and great flux, after all, seems enormously risky. Why now? One thought is that Emir Hamad’s health has taken a turn for the worse. He is said to have only one functioning kidney — though it is not known whether it is his own or a transplant he received in 1997. If one compares a 2009 photograph of him with Obama in New York City with one taken in the Oval Office this April, it is clear he has lost a prodigious amount of weight. A Qatari friend denies there is a health issue, claiming instead that this is a well-planned transition for which Tamim has been groomed for several years. Transitions in Qatar rarely go smoothly. Emir Hamad himself seized power from his father in 1995 while the latter was at a sanatorium in Switzerland. Indeed, it is hard to identify a trouble-free change in power in the last 100 years”.

He writes goes on to profile the feature emir, “Family members are said to bear grudges and have long memories. Tamim will be forced to navigate this snake pit while many veteran political hands closely watch how the young emir performs. Tamim is Emir Hamad’s fourth son and is the second to have the title of crown prince. Of the emir’s two eldest sons, a former ambassador in Doha told me, ‘One partied too much; the other prayed too much.’ When I asked the same ambassador what happened to Tamim’s elder brother Jassim, the third eldest son who lost the title of heir apparent in 2003, he responded, ‘Oh, he listened to his Palestinian advisors too much.’ Tamim, it seems, has managed to avoid all those pitfalls for a Qatari heir apparent. He was trained at Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and has a reputation for diligence. But his crucial advantage may well be that he appears to be a favorite of Sheikha Moza, Emir Hamad’s second and highest-profile wife”.

Henderson ends the article “And what about the prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, known to diplomats as “HBJ”? At a ceremony held by the Brookings Institution this April, he was presented with a huge plaque and eulogized by the great and good representatives of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment as essentially irreplaceable. Perhaps he is — there are no names yet in the frame for who will take over from him as foreign minister. HBJ will remain in charge of the Qatar Investment Authority’s estimated $200 billion portfolio, but may well decide to reside in London, where the Shard, the British capital’s tallest and newest building, is Qatari-owned.Once the handover is complete, Tamim will be in charge of guiding Qatar’s intervention in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as well as maintaining Qatar’s influence across the Arab world”.

The piece closes “will he continue to be the biggest financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Will he still back what are probably the most extreme, albeit effective, jihadi fighters in Syria? And will Iran, which lies 100 miles north and with which Qatar shares the world’s largest natural gas field, seek revenge for losses in Syria by challenging the neophyte? What about Qatar’s Sunni Arab rival, Saudi Arabia, where the now-deceased Crown Prince Sultan used to refer to Emir Hamad contemptuously as a “Persian” for what was perceived to be the less-than-pure Al Thani bloodline?”

Indeed the answers to these questions will influence not only the place of Qatar but also the conflict in Syria and the stability of the emirate itself in an increasingly unstable region.

Starting the succession

11/05/2013

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales attended the State Opening of Parliament for only the second time in his life on 8 May.

King Willem Alexander

30/04/2013

Willem-Alexander has been sworn in as king of the Netherlands following the abdication of Queen Beatrix. He became the country’s first king since 1890 when his 75-year-old mother signed the abdication deed earlier on Tuesday after 33 years on the throne. The day’s celebrations culminated in a water pageant, with the king sailing down Amsterdam’s River IJ, greeting the thousands of people lining the banks. Some 200 boats took part in the royal flotilla, many decorated in orange”.

Negatives of independence

30/04/2013

After the recent milestone of China overtaking America as the world’s largest importer of oil, coupled with a dramatic rise in domestic US production whch outstrips imports, there is an increasingly widespread view that America will be energy independent. Some have critised this as it will, it has been claimed, mean that the dollar will inflate and the US economy will not deal with long term problems. An article in the New York Times discusses the negative effects of independence.

It opens noting that “Just as the world was writing off America as a declining power, the country now finds itself on the cusp of realizing one of its longstanding goals: energy independence. A wave of new technologies has made it possible to extract oil and gas from shale rock formations, and the results have been astonishing. By some estimates, the United States is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer as early as 2017, start exporting more oil and gas than it imports by 2025, and achieve full energy self-sufficiency by 2030. American politicians in both parties have long dreamed of energy independence — not only for its potential economic benefits, but also because it could free the United States from the vicissitudes of the outside world”.

The piece goes on to write “President Obama said that new energy sources and technologies would make America ‘less dependent on what’s going on in the Middle East.’ The Romney campaign, meanwhile, argued that energy independence would mean that ‘the nation’s security is no longer beholden to unstable but oil-rich regions halfway around the world.’ But that is a fantasy. While the latest energy revolution will be a boon to America’s economy, it will in no way allow the United States to turn its back on the rest of the world.  That’s because America’s oil and gas bonanza will drive down global energy prices, undercutting the foundations of petrostates everywhere. According to Francisco Blanch, the head of commodities research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, oil could fall to just $50 a barrel within the next two years, which could unleash unrest in regions crucial to American interests. Far from releasing the United States from the burden of global leadership, this process would force Washington to assume an even greater international role than it currently plays”.

They go on to elobrate on this argument, “lower energy prices will undermine the stability of the Persian Gulf monarchies, whose hefty oil revenues have allowed them to win their populations’ loyalties through patronage and a lack of taxation. These countries do not always share American values or help advance American interests, but anything that destabilizes them would create problems that Washington could not afford to ignore. Consider Bahrain, which earns 70 percent of its revenues through petroleum production and refining. The small island monarchy has undergone deeply destabilizing protests since the start of the Arab Spring. A drop in global energy prices would hurt the already weak government, breathing new life into opposition forces. A populist revolution in Bahrain could empower the country’s long-repressed Shiite majority, who already resent Washington’s support for the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family. A new regime in Bahrain might even seek to expel the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, complicating America’s efforts to protect international shipping lanes, fight piracy and check Iran’s regional ambitions.  Even more alarming is the prospect of instability in Saudi Arabia. In 2011, the Saudi royal family was able to head off an Arab Spring-style revolution because of its enormous oil revenues, doling out $130 billion in benefits to pacify the country’s younger and poorer inhabitants. Should lower oil prices make such patronage impossible in the future, the kingdom could face domestic unrest — making the country a far less reliable partner for America in fighting terrorism and countering Iran. Moreover, if Saudi Arabia has less of its own money to spend on regional security, Washington will have to make up for the shortfall”.

While the point is valid, it is too simplistic to say that because of US energy independece the Middle Eastern monarchies will simply collapse as others have noted here under difference circumstances. There are myarid other factors to take into account, not least of which will be Iran’s severly weakened position after the eventual fall of the Assad regime.

They go on to write plausibly, that a fall in oil prices could affect Russia again as it did last year,, “Even a temporary drop in oil prices would constrain Mr. Putin’s ability to pay off his enemies: experts at the Russian School of Economics predict that the country’s oil wealth fund, a stash of petrodollars reserved for times of need, would be depleted if prices fell to $60 a barrel for just one year.  If he’s unable to buy loyalty through patronage, Mr. Putin could turn to more pernicious methods like bullying neighbors and fanning the flames of nationalism. With outstanding border disputes and age-old rivals circling Russian territory, another conflict along the lines of the 2008 war against Georgia is not out of the question”.

Ultimately however these regimes will be forced to reform anyway if the marchs of the GCC wish to keep their crowns. As for Putin, weakened Russia could tip the balance against him and bring both the urban middle class and poorer people out onto the streets against him. If this were to happen it would be uncertain as to what would follow and whether it would be better or worse than what came before.

End of the Gulf monarchies?

28/04/2013

After a long debate over monarchical exceptionalism since the Arab revolutions some have recently argued that monarchy in the Middle East is effectively doomed.

Christopher Davidson writes that “On April 22, a Kuwaiti judge announced that opposition figure Musallam al-Barrak would be released on bail, prompting cheers from his supporters packing the court. Barrak’s refusal to hand himself over to the authorities last week to serve a five-year sentence for criticizing the emir symbolized the intensifying resistance to autocracy in the oil-rich state”. He adds importantly that “The stage now seems set for a long summer of confrontations between large sections of Kuwait’s emboldened citizenry and an entrenched, traditional monarchy that has abandoned its democratic pretensions and is pressing ahead with police state strategies”.

What he does not say however is just how many people were at the rally to support Barrak and at the same time he fails to answer the question that are these protestors the same people that would protest anyway or are there ranks swelling and thus real popular support behind the demonstrators. If there has been a real shift in the support, or lack thereof, for the monarchies of the Gulf then there stability is unsure but it would be unwise to assume that they are about to fall en masse.

The article continues noting “Using a mixture of carrots and sticks, the poorer Gulf monarchies had managed to contain most of the protests that had spilled onto their streets in the immediate aftermath of the revolutions in North Africa. Meanwhile, the wealthier monarchies seemingly remained in command of largely apolitical, well-heeled societies with little if anything in common with those dwelling in the angry tenements of Tunis, Cairo, or Tripoli. Since then, however, much has changed. By winter 2012, Western media had begun carrying articles foreshadowing either monarchical collapse — or at least some serious impending turbulence. Reports on protests, trials, growing poverty, and cyberspace activism in the Gulf states became commonplace — even leading U.S. think tanks broached the topic of ‘Revolution in Riyadh.'”

His contention that all monarchies, especially that of Saudi Arabia is in danger of falling is perhaps, slightly alarmist. Saudi Arabia seems to be immune to revolution partly due to theological reasons put forth by the ulema and partly as a result of the package of measures proposed by King Abdullah two years ago. In addition to all of this add a young population that seems in some ways more conservative then the previous generation and the House of Saud seems safe.

He goes on to argue that “Most of the Gulf states are now caught between unsustainable wealth distribution mechanisms and increasingly powerful ‘super modernizing forces’ that can no longer be controlled or co-opted by elites. The former dynamic continues to manifest itself in widening wealth gaps and increasing real unemployment, despite ramped up public spending programs and urgent public sector job creation schemes. These counter-revolutionary ‘rentier outlays’ are likely to keep spiraling — the International Monetary Fund has already predicted that even the wealthiest of the monarchies will run budget deficits within a few years”. An example showing the scale of the problem is that by 2038, Saudi Arabia will have to begin importing oil.

He then adds that “And in the poorer states, where this strategy is now increasingly inapplicable, street protests keep growing and regimes have had little option but to openly crack down on dissidents. As for ‘super modernizing forces,’ notably including social media, a veritable battle in cyberspace has now begun. New legislation has been introduced, or is about to be introduced, in all six monarchies, with the aim of tightly policing online dissent and meting out heavy punishments to all would-be critics. But this strategy seems as unsustainable as sky-high public spending: Several of these states now have the highest social media usage rates in the world — massive online political discussions have made Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube the region’s new de facto parliament”.

He then mentions that even the non Shia in Saudi Arabia have been protesting, “The nascent protests in predominantly Sunni provinces of the kingdom are in some ways even more problematic for the House of Saud. These demonstrations are much harder to frame as a sectarian clash, and have mainly been campaigns for the release of political prisoners. In the northern Al-Qassim Province, for instance, large numbers of women and children have taken to the streets. In some cases, demonstrators have burned pictures of key ruling family members and resisted arrest”.

The piece ends “With even larger protests on the horizon, the window of opportunity for the region’s autocratic rulers to agree to some sort of compromise solution — possibly constitutional monarchies with elected legislatures — seems to be closing. With only minor exceptions, these regimes have adopted zero-tolerance policies on dissent — regardless of the cost to their long term legitimacy and prosperity. Even though the Gulf version of the Arab Spring may look a little different to its manifestations in North Africa and Syria — and however inconvenient it may be to international allies and partners — it is now a phenomenon that cannot be avoided”.