Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Next in Line

With the fall of Tripoli imminent and another Arab state pressing forth into the anxious experiment of self-rule, it is important to turn our focus again to one of the states that represents the fulcrum upon which events in the region turn. As has been discussed and developed on this site, much of our understanding of the dynamics of the Middle East emerge from a structural paradigm which posits Saudi Arabia and Iran as bipolar powers in conflict for regional hegemony – what I have called in the past the “Arab Cold War” (The Iranians aren’t Arabs, but this is being played out in the Arab world, and to an extent, South Asia).

The House Al Saud built

The Saudi royal family, styled the “House of Al-Saud,” uses what is called agnatic seniority to determine ascendancy to the thrown of the kingdom. This means that the throne is passed to the oldest brother of the current king. This differs of course from what most in the west are familiar with, the system found in most European monarchies whereby the crown is passed from father to eldest child(typically, though not necessarily, a son), the technical term being agnatic primogeniture. Thus, Abdullah is currently the eldest son of the original king, Abdul-Aziz. Of his other sons, Sultan would be next in line, however, he will likely step aside due to health reasons. This leaves the probably heir to the Saudi throne as Crown Prince Nayef, former Minister of the Interior and current Second Deputy Prime Minister. Nayef is considered to be among the most conservative members of Al-Saud. As Reuters reported in 2010, most diplomats say Nayef is unlikely to pursue meaningful social reform. In fact, the crown prince was once quoted as saying that the Kingdom has “no need for elections or women in government.” Others argue that reform is inevitable and that continued foreign investment depends on Nayef being able to portray some sense of social and political progress in the Kingdom.

The future of the House of Al Saud may depend on it. With a huge majority of Saudis under the age of thirty watching Tunisia/Egypt/Libya/Syria on Al Jazeera with the rest of us, Nayef will have to chart a careful course if Al Saud expects to remain the dominant institution in the country. And if the notion of a monarchy maintaining control of its populace in midst of democratic revolutions sounds a bit medieval, well, that’s because it is. The Saudi Monarchy, as well as those of other Gulf Emirates, is a throwback to some political-evolutionary past, an atavistic transitional form in the flesh. The regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya represent a much more recent form - that of the post-colonial dictatorship – and indeed that has been proven to have outlived its usefulness. The Saudis, the Gulf Emirs and Nayef understand this full well. That’s why they participate in counterrevolution through its primary institutional instrument, the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Council of Kings

The GCC consists of six states, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. All of these states can be described as Absolute Monarchies, excepting the UAE which is a federal monarchy. Jordan requested membership, and Morocco has been invited. The GCC operates on many levels, fostering economic, social and political cooperation through the creation of consensus based objectives for advancing interests of the monarchies in the gulf. One of the critical pieces of the GCC is the Peninsula Shield Force. This is effectively the military wing of the GCC and is intended to respond to military aggression against GCC states. It was deployed in both Gulf Wars, both times against Iraq. However, the most recent deployment of the Peninsula shield is perhaps the most crucial, and disturbing. In March of this year, the Peninsula Shield moved across the causeway that connects Saudi Arabia to Bahrain and, at the request of the Bahraini government, attempted to quell popular demonstrations for reform on the island. This set a precedent of the GCC using its military wing to oppose an internal threat against a GCC regime. This is important, because it shows us that not only is Saudi Arabia not moving towards reform within its own borders, but it is acting with increasing urgency and risk-taking with regards its GCC compatriots. One senses that the Saudi Monarchy views its co-royalists as dominoes in a game of survival against both democratic minded revolutionaries and Iranian-backed Shi’a insurgents. For Nayef and the other leaders of the GCC, history is at the doorstep, and only active counterrevolution can turn back the tide.

Going forward

This all, of course, has major implications for the United States, with our particularly special relationship to the Kingdom. What side of history will our leaders stand on when the yearning for democracy grips the streets of Riyadh? It is difficult to speculate at this point how far America will go to support the Saudi monarchy, but we must assume at the very least that if the US abandons Nayef and his coterie, it will only be on the guarantee that a deal exists between the US and the presumptive future leaders of the Saudi Arabia. There is too much at stake in the earth beneath the sands of the desert.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The State of Iraq

Iraq re-emerged in the news recently, as terror attacks left scores dead in Baghdad, Kut and other areas of the country. Though the sudden spark of violence certainly presents reason for concern, all indications seem to suggest a that the country has turned a corner, and that while the security situation may not return to pre-invasion status for some time, there is reason to be optimistic. It is vital to get a grip on the overall picture in Iraq as we approach the December 2011 deadline for the final wihdrawal of US forces from the country.

Business, and business as usual

Recently, Hassan Hadifh of the Wall Street Journal reported that Royal Dutch Shell reached an agreement with the Iraqi Oil Minitry that would yield 2 billion cubic feet/day of natural gas. Some of this quantity would be used for export in a liquified form, while some would be piped for local and regional use. The Ministry estimates that the project expects to generate 31 billion dollars in government revenues over the 25 year lifespan of the project. This is just one of many large scale foreign investment projects taking hold throughout Iraq at the moment. According to an article on "The National" website, total foreign investment is expected to reach around 90 billion dollars this year, with Turkish interests leading the way, and with investment taking place not only in the energy sector, but also in housing and urban infrastructure development.

Of course, oil and natural gas still dominate. As Josie Esnor reports in the Telegraph, "Look outside the oil sector, however, and high operational risk continues to discourage all but the most daring investor." Moreover, a greater proportion of investment inquiries remain focused on the areas in and around the Kurdish regions, like Arbil, where the security situation differs dramatically from both the Sunni heartland and the Shi'a dominated south.

Investors remain optimistic about Iraq, at least for the moment. With this in mind, it is difficult to dismiss the sense that cries of collusion weren't entirely correct; that one positive outcome in invading a country and laying waste to a great many parts of it, is the opportunity to go back in and rebuild it and thus reap the spoils of destruction. However, let's lay the most cynical readings aside for the moment. Instead, let's try and examine how the current state of things affects the average Iraqi.

Keep the Lights on

Acording the most recent "Iraq Index" produced by the Saban Institute/Brookings Institution, by virtually any measure, life in Iraq is improving. In regards the economic and investment activity discussed above, The Saban report indicates an estimated 2011 GDP growth of above 9%, with an IMF estimate that 2012 may show as much as 12.5%. From about 2008 until now, there has been steady increases in electrical kilowatt hours generated and delivered. Cellphone subscriptions are up, internet access is on the climb, and while the overall unemployment picture remains discouraging, jobs are being created in certain sectors and in certain municipalities.


Furthermore, despite the most recent spate of attacks, Iraqi civilian deaths are at an all time low per annum. through July '11, the total amounted to around 800, less than one-half from 2010, and less than one-third from 2009. In addition, US military fatalities also attain to significantly lower levels than at any time during the invasion and occupation. Despite small spikes in the period from March to June of this year, US fatalities are on track to be equal or less than last years total of 60, which remains to date the lowest per annum of the war. The number of wounded will likely end up at less than half of last years total number of 389.

While the issue of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons remains significant, most of the indicators in the Saban report Index paint the piture of a ountry on the right track.

So why is Seymour Hersh so worried?

During a June 11th interview on Democracy Now, Investigative Journalist Seymour Hersh said the following:

Whatever you are hearing, Iraq is going bad. Sunnis killing Shi'as, it's sectarian war.

Hersh goes on to state that certain Baathist Sunni groups, with potential operators in the UK, are planning on declaring a provisional government, perhaps something like a shadow government, with the aim of casting the Shi'a dominated government of overtly tied to Iran. Hersh doesn't get any further into it, but there are definitely hints of the ongoing structure of support by Saudi Arabia for Sunni groups to be propped up as proxies against "Iranian Influence." Furthermore, Hersh's claim that the situation in Iraq may be used to put more pressure on the Iranians seems to correspond with recent comments made by Adm. Mike Mullen. As quoted in the Telegraph on 7/7/11, Mullen indicates that "Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shi'a groups which are killing our troops." The Admiral goes on to say that any final decision on US troops remaining in country past the December deadline "has to be done with control of Iran in that regard." Mullen doesn't provide any evidence for the claim of Iranian support, and the most recent attacks suggest that the most active groups are in fact Sunni extremists, not Shi'a groups. However, in general, this seems to point to a coming moment that will decide the immediate future stability of the country.

Hersh believes that Iraq will prove a thorn in Obama's side next year. Human Rights Watch, in its most recent report on Iraq details continued human rights abuses, including targeting Women's rights advocates and female politicians, forced female genital mutilation in the Kurdish regions, torture and severe disruptions of due process for prisoners, and severe curbs to freedom of expression. Clearly, things aren't better for everyone.

Time will tell.