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Qatari Wahhabism vs. Saudi Wahhabism and the perils of top-down change

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A multi-domed, sand-coloured, architectural marvel, Doha’s biggest and national mosque, symbolizes Qatar’s complex and troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia. Its naming six years ago after an eighteenth century Islamic scholar, Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of one of Islam’s most puritan strands, raised eyebrows, sparked controversy, and has since become an episode in the latest Gulf crisis.

The naming of the mosque that overlooks the Qatar Sports Club in Doha’s Jubailat district was intended to pacify more traditional segments of Qatari society as well as Saudi Arabia, which sees the tiny Gulf state, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi, as a troublesome and dangerous gadfly on its doorstep. Qatar long challenged the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam, but now together with its other nemesis, the United Arab Emirates, offers an unacknowledged model for Saudi reforms envisioned by the kingdom’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

That doesn’t mean that Qatar no longer poses a challenge. If anything, it poses a greater challenge with its opposition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s counterrevolutionary strategy in the Middle East and North Africa even if its vision of a Gulf ruled by more forward-looking, socially less conservative autocrats is one it shares with Prince Mohammed and the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The challenge prompted the two princes to impose a six-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott on Qatar. The crisis is likely to figure prominently in the first meeting of Gulf leaders since the imposition of the boycott at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Kuwait on Tuesday.

By naming the mosque after Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Qatar reaffirmed its adherence to the Wahhabi creed that goes back to nineteenth century Saudi support for the rise to dominance of the Al Thani clan, the country’s hereditary ruling family, even if its social norms and foreign policy differed sharply from practices in the kingdom.

In fact, social change in Qatar in the last two decades contrasted starkly with efforts by King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah to maintain as much as possible of the status quo prior to the popular revolts that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 in demand of greater freedom, transparency and accountability. They also diverged radically from King Khalid and King Fahd’s earlier empowerment of the ultra-conservatives in response to the 1979 Iranian revolution and attack by Saudi militants on the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

A traditional Gulf state and a Wahhabi state to boot, Qatari conservatism was everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s long-standing puritan way of life. Qatar did not have a powerful religious establishment that could enforce ultra-conservative social norms, nor did it implement absolute gender segregation. Non-Muslims could practice their faith in their own houses of worship and were exempted from bans on alcohol and port. Qatar became a sponsor of the arts including a Doha version of the Tribeca Film Festival and host the state-owned Al Jazeera television network that revolutionized the region’s controlled media landscape and became one of the world’s foremost global broadcasters. The UAE boasts many of the same traits minus the history of an ultra-conservative strand of Islam having dominated its history.

Qatar’s projection of a different approach to Wahhabism is rooted in the DNA of the Qatari state that from its founding was a determined not to emulate the kingdom and reforms that were initiated two decades before Prince Mohammed appeared on the scene. Privately, Qataris distinguish between their “Wahhabism of the sea” as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabism of the land.”

Political scientists Birol Baskan and Steven Wright argue that on a political level, Qatar has a secular character similar to Turkey and in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia, which they attribute to Qatar’s lack of a class of Muslim legal scholars. The absence of scholars was in part a reflection of Qatari ambivalence towards Wahhabism that it viewed as both an opportunity and a threat: on the one hand it served as a tool to legitimise domestic rule, on the other it was a potential monkey wrench Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control. Opting to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on Saudi scholars to develop its own. That would have produced a religious establishment steeped in the kingdom’s austere theology and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have demanded a similar arrangement.

As a result, Qatar lacks the institutions that often held the kingdom back. Similarly, Qatar does not have families known for producing religious scholars. Qatari religious schools are run by the ministry of education not as in the Saudi kingdom by the religious affairs authority. They are staffed by expatriates rather than Qataris and attended by less than one per cent of the total student body and only ten per cent of those are Qatari nationals. By the same token, Qatari religious authority is not institutionally vested. Qatar has for example no Grand Mufti as does Saudi Arabia and various other Arab nations; it only created a ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments 22 years after achieving independence.

All of this should make Prince Mohammed and Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, both men in their thirties, natural allies were it not for their fundamentally different views of geopolitics and place in the world. Underlying the UAE-Saudi-led boycott was a shift in Saudi perceptions of the challenge posed by Qatar since 2011 revolts from one that was to a significant degree religious and social in nature to one that was exclusively political and geopolitical. That was  evident in the conditions Saudi Arabia and the UAE set for ending the crisis. The two Gulf states’ demands amounted to Qatar putting itself under Saudi and UAE tutelage.

Nonetheless, Prince Mohammed’s efforts to reform Saudi Arabia with his so far limited roll-back of puritan restrictions amounted in fact to a first step in adopting a more Qatari version of Wahhabism even if that is something he is unlikely to acknowledge. His initial measures – lifting the ban on women’s driving and attending male sporting events; rolling back the powers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or Mutaween, the religious police; and his introduction of long forbidden forms of modern entertainment – are as much in line with Qatar’s as well as the UAE’s social norms that are more liberal than those of the kingdom but not liberal by any stretch of the imagination as they were inspired by his Western-educated Saudi associates and army of Western consultants.

Qatar in particular, but in many ways the UAE as well, is what Mohammed would like Saudi Arabia to be. Qatar had the advantage that it projected to young Saudis and others the ability to change without completely dumping ultra-conservative religious precepts that have shaped culture and belief systems. It projected a vision of a less restrictive and less choking conservative Wahhabi society that grants individuals irrespective of gender greater opportunities.

Qatar today is a long way from the mid-1990s when Qatari women, like in Saudi Arabia until recently, were banned from driving, voting or holding government jobs. Qatari women occupy prominent positions in multiple sectors of society. With women accounting for 53 percent of the work force, Qatar outranks Middle Eastern and North African states by a large margin. Only Kuwait with 48 and the UAE with 42 percent come close. It’s a picture that long juxtaposed starkly with that of its Wahhabi big brother. In doing so, Qatar threw down a gauntlet for the kingdom’s interpretation of nominally shared religious and cultural beliefs – a challenge Prince Mohammed appears to have embraced.

“I consider myself a good Wahhabi and can still be modern, understanding Islam in an open way. We take into account the changes in the world and do not have the closed-minded mentality as they do in Saudi Arabia,” Abdelhameed Al Ansari, the dean of Qatar University’s College of Sharia, a leader of the paradigm shift, told The Wall Street Journal in 2002. Twenty years earlier, Mr. Al Ansari was denounced as an “apostate” by Qatar’s Saudi-trained chief religious judge for advocating women’s rights. “All those people who attacked me, most of them have died, and the rest keep quiet,” Mr. Al Ansari said.

Qatar’s long-standing projection of an alternative was particularly sensitive as long as Saudi Arabia refused to openly embrace notions of social change even if things like allowing women to drive were long debated quietly. It was also potentially dangerous with the kingdom’s religious establishment worried that key members of the ruling family were toying with radical ideas like a separation of state and religion.

The religious establishment voiced its concern in the spring of 2013 in a meeting with King Abdullah two days after his son Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, declared that “religion (should) not enter into politics.” Responding to Prince Mutaib in a tweet, Grand Mufti ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh warned that “whoever says there is no relationship between religion and politics worships two gods, one in the heavens and one on earth.”

Prince Mutaib, the commander of the National Guard, the only military unit that was not controlled by Prince Mohammed, was among those swept up in the crown prince’s recent purge. He was reportedly last week allowed to leave his gilded cage in Riyadh’s posh Ritz Carlton Hotel after paying $1 billion to the government to settle allegations of corruption.

In a similar vein, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of intelligence and ambassador to the United States and Britain first hinted at a possible separation 11 years ago when he cited verse 4:59 of the Qur’an: “O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.” Turki suggested that the verse referred exclusively to temporal authority rather than both religious and political authority.

Prince Mohammed has brought the debate about whither Saudi Arabia into the open and signalled his intent to take the kingdom into the 21st century much along the lines of what Qatar and the UAE have done. He has left the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment no choice but to endorse his moves even if they likely reinforce the fears of an older generation of scholars resistant to change and over time may spark opposition from younger generations critical of his autocratic style of government, the bending over backwards of their elders to accommodate the prince, and the possibility that he will deprive religious figures of whatever political influence they have left.

Qatar’s model, like that of the UAE, strokes with Prince Mohammed’s vision in more than just the promotion of wider social margins. The Saudi crown prince. like Sheikh Tamim and the UAE’s Prince Mohammed, are engaged in an effort to upgrade autocracy and allow it to respond to 21st century social and economic demands while maintaining absolute political control and repressing all forms of dissent. With his arrests in September 2017 of Islamic scholars, judges, and activists and his purge of the ruling family, senior officials, and prominent businessmen in November of that year, Mohammed was following on a far grander scale in the footsteps of Qatar’s former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who silenced opposition to reforms.

In one instance, Sheikh Hamad arrested in 1998 Abdulrahman al Nuaimi, a religious scholar who criticized his advancement of women rights. Mr. Al Nuaimi was released three years later on condition that he no longer would speak out publicly. He has since been designated by the US Treasury as “a Qatar-based terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al-Qa’ida and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE included Mr. Al-Nuaimi on a list of 59 individuals Qatar would have to act against if it wanted to get the boycott lifted.

Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison and he was finally pardoned in 2016.

Mr. Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine”. It celebrated the overthrow in 2011 by a popular revolt of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that was dubbed the Jasmine Revolution.

More recently, Qatari authorities reportedly raided the home of Sheikh Sultan Bin Suhaim Al-Thani, a 33-year old nephew of former emir Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad Al-Thani, who was deposed by Sheikh Hamad in 1995. Sheikh Sultan had aligned himself with the Saudi and UAE demands and positioned himself in opposition to Sheikh Tamim.

Prince Mohammed’s unacknowledged embrace of the Qatari model did not stop him from employing Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment to fire a shot in the prelude to the Gulf crisis by demanding in May 2017 that the Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab Mosque in Doha be renamed. The demand, put forward in a statement by 200 descendants of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, came days after what US intelligence officials described as a UAE-engineered hack of Qatari state media involving fake news reports that put inflammatory foreign policy statements in the mouth of Sheikh Tamim, which in turn prompted the Saudi-UAE-led boycott. “We…demand that the name of the mosque be changed for it does not carry its true Salafi path,” the statement said.

Simmering religious anger at being manipulated and opposition from within the Saudi ruling family may however not be Prince Mohammed’s foremost problem. Alongside his autocratic style, Prince Mohammed is likely to discover, according to political scientist Calvert W. Jones, that a fundamental flaw in the Qatari and UAE development model is the fact that social engineering is easier said than done and that flashy projects like the creation of new, cutting edge 21st century cities, luring or building world-class universities and museums, and the promotion of tolerance won’t do it.

“The problem is that authoritarian modernizers cannot simply command a new attitude among their citizens. Opening cinemas and relaxing gender segregation may impress Saudi youth, but a new economy requires far more. Reformers in the UAE eventually realized — as Saudi rulers will discover, too — that they needed to adapt both the mind-sets and the skill sets of the rising generation. In countries where people see a government job as a right, that means reshaping the very nature of citizenship,” Ms. Jones wrote in The Washington Post.

Qatari and Emirati promotion of knowledge, culture and innovation in a bid to create globalized citizens have succeeded in developing civic attitudes including notions of tolerance and volunteerism but failed to alter economic perceptions of the rentier state rather than the private sector as the creator of jobs. Based on a survey of 2,000 Emirati students, Jones concluded that the government’s effort had made them even more convinced of a citizen’s right to a government job and less interested in entrepreneurship. The saw a high-level government job as a deserved reward for the improved education they had received. “Social liberalization does not necessarily mean increased economic productivity,” Ms Jones concluded.

Perhaps, Ms. Jones’ most fundamental finding is a flaw common to the Qatari and UAE as well as the Saudi formula for reform and that is top-down, government engineered change and unilateral rewriting of social contracts produces results that fall short of what is required. The missing element in that formula is exactly what Qatari, Emirati and Saudi leaders eschew: political change.

“Social engineers may need to allow wider political participation if they want pro-globalization social engineering to succeed in the long term. The Emirati kids I studied had grown significantly more interested in contributing to public decision-making compared with their anachronistically educated peers. In other words, top-down social engineering can take authoritarian modernizers only so far,” Ms. Jones said.

“To build truly development-friendly mind-sets prepared to compete under conditions of globalization, Saudi rulers are likely to find that they must renegotiate the social contract in more transparent and inclusive ways, going well beyond what government planning alone can accomplish,” she added.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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War in Libya: A rare instance of US-Russian cooperation

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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There is little that Russia and the United States agree on these days. Renegade Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar may be a rare exception.

As Mr. Haftar’s mortars rained on the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli and fighting between his Libyan National Army (LNA) and the United Nations-recognized government expanded to the south of the country, both Russia and the United States stopped a call for a ceasefire from being formally tabled in the UN Security Council.

Russia, which has joined US allies that include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France, in supporting Mr. Haftar because of his grip on Libya’s oil resources and assertions that Islamists dominate the Tripoli government, objected to the British draft resolution because it blamed the rebel officer for the fighting.

The United States gave no reason for its objection. Yet, it shares Russia’s aversion to Islamists and clearly did not want to break ranks with some of its closest Middle Eastern allies, certainly not at a time that the UN was investigating allegations that the UAE had shipped weapons to Mr. Haftar in violation of an international arms embargo.

The significance of US-Russian agreement on Mr. Haftar’s geopolitical value goes far beyond Libya. It reveals much of how presidents Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin see the crafting of a new world order. It also says a great deal about Russian objectives in the Middle East and North Africa.

Messrs. Trump and Putin’s preference for a man with a questionable human rights record who, if successful, would likely rule Libya as an autocrat, reflects the two leaders’ belief that stability in the Middle East and North Africa is best guaranteed by autocratic rule or some democratic façade behind which men with military backgrounds control the levers of power.

It is a vision of the region promoted by representatives of UAE crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed who sees authoritarian stability as the best anti-dote to popular Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011 and more recently in Algeria and Sudan are proving to have a second lease on life.

Underlying the Trump-Putin understanding is a tacit agreement among the world’s illiberal, authoritarian and autocratic leaders on the values that would underwrite a new world order. It is an agreement that in cases like Libya reduces rivalry among world powers to a fight about the divvying up of the pie rather than the concepts such as human and minority rights that should undergird the new order.

Moscow’s support for Mr. Haftar serves Russia’s broader vision of the Middle East and North Africa as an arena in which Russia can successfully challenge the United States even if Messrs. Trump and Putin agree on what side to support in a Libyan civil war that is aggravated by the interference of foreign powers.

Russia national security scholar Stephen Blank argues that Mr. Putin’s strategy is rooted in the thinking of Yevgeny Primakov, a Russian Middle East expert, linguist and former spymaster, foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

Mr. Primakov saw the Middle East as a key arena for countering the United States that would enable Russia, weakened by the demise of the Soviet Union and economic problems, to regain its status as a global and regional power and ensure that it would be one pole in a multi-polar world.

“In order to reassert Russia’s greatness, Primakov and Putin aimed ultimately at strategic denial, denying Washington sole possession of a dominant role in the Middle East from where US influence could expand to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)” established in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union to group post-Soviet states, Mr. Blank said.

Messrs. Primakov and Putin believed that if Russia succeeded it would force the United States to concede multi-polarity and grant Russia the recognition it deserves. That, in turn, would allow Mr. Putin to demonstrate to the Russian elite his ability to restore great power status.

Syria offered Russia the opportunity to display its military prowess without the United States challenging the move. At the same time, Russia leveraged its political and economic clout to forge an alliance with Turkey and partner with Iran. The approach served to defang Turkish and Iranian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Mr. Blank argued.

Similarly, Russia after brutally repressing religiously inspired Chechen rebels in the 1990s and despite the lingering memory of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has in line with UAE precepts, proven to be far defter than either China or the United States at promoting politically pacifist or apolitical loyalist Islam in a complex game of playing both sides against the middle.

Russian engagement runs the gamut from engaging with militants to cooperating with Muslim autocrats to encouraging condemnation of activist strands of ultra-conservative Islam to hedging its bets by keeping its lines open to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

Even if Russia may be walking a tightrope in balancing its relationships with Mr. Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, like in Syria, it is positioning itself with the backing of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the potential mediator that maintains ties to both sides of the divide.

Said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: “We believe that Libya’s future must be determined by the Libyans themselves. We are convinced that there is no alternative to an inclusive intra-Libyan dialogue… Our work on this track proceeds in this spirit and the belief that there is no alternative to preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya.”

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Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Credit: Institute of Security Studies

Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.

So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.

What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.

The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.

If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.

Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.

The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.

With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.

Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.

In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.

Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.

The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.

Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.

Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.

Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.

The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”

Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”

Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.

The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.

Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.

Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.

The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.

As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.

What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.

All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.

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As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait

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IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.

For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.

Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.

Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’

Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.

But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’. 

These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.

But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’

What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.

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