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Saudi engagement in Iraq: The exception that confirms the rule?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Stepped up Saudi efforts to forge close diplomatic, economic and cultural ties to Shia-majority Iraq in a bid to counter significant Iranian influence in the country appear to be paying off. The Saudi initiative demonstrates the kingdom’s ability to engage rather than exclusively pursue a muscular, assertive and confrontational policy towards the Islamic republic and its perceived allies. It raises the question whether it is a one-off or could become a model for Saudi policy elsewhere in the region.

The kingdom’s recent, far more sophisticated approach to Iraq is testimony to the fact that its multi-billion dollar, decades-long support for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that at times involved funding of both violent and non-violent militants had failed in Iraq. It constitutes recognition that Saudi Arabia’s absence effectively gave Iran a free reign.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Iraqi charm offensive amounts to a far more concerted and successful effort than attempts more than a decade ago by then Saudi King Abdullah to reach out to Iraqi Shiite leaders, including firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr and involving the organization of a meeting in Mecca between Sunni and Shia Iraqi religious leaders. King Abdullah’s efforts did not at the time involve a crackdown on funding by Saudi sources of a devastating Sunni Muslim insurgency.

King Abdullah’s initiative notwithstanding, Saudi policy towards Iraq for more than a decade since Iraq’s Shiite majority emerged from the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni Muslim rule as a result of the 2003 US invasion was one of non-engagement, sectarianism, and support of the country’s Sunni minority.

It took the kingdom 11 years to open its first embassy in post-Saddam Iraq, the kingdom’s first diplomatic presence in the country since it broke off diplomatic relations in 1990 because of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Even then, relations got off to a rocky start with Iraq demanding the replacement of the kingdom’s first ambassador, Thamer al-Sabhan, after he publicly criticised Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs and the alleged persecution of Iraqi Sunni Muslims.

The emergence in 2014 of Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who succeeded Nuri al-Maliki, seen by the Saudis as an Iranian pawn, coupled with the rise of Prince Mohammed and the Saudi charm offensive in the wake of the defeat of the Islamic state has produced a remarkable turnaround that holds out the prospect of the kingdom becoming an influential player in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Iraq.

Beyond the opening of the embassy, Saudi Arabia is slated to open a consulate in Basra as well as in Najaf, widely seen as Shia Islam’s third most holy city that rivals Iran’s Qom as a centre of Shiite learning. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Prince Mohammed may visit Najaf after Iraqi elections scheduled for May 12.

The two countries have reopened their Arar Border Crossing that was closed for 27 years and restored commercial air traffic for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. More than 60 Saudi companies participated earlier this year in the Baghdad International Fair.

A Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council, inaugurated last year aims to strengthen security ties as well as economic and cultural relations envisions student and cultural exchanges and Saudi investment in oil and gas, trade, transport, education, light industry, and agriculture. Saudi Arabia pledged $1.5 billion for Iraqi reconstruction at a donors’ conference in Kuwait in February.

Saudi Arabia garnered substantial brownie points in February by playing its first soccer match in Iraq in almost three decades, boosting Iraqi efforts to persuade world soccer body FIFA to lift its ban on Iraqi hosting of international matches. The kingdom subsequently promised to build a 100,000-seat football stadium in Baghdad.

In shifting gears in Iraq, Prince Mohammed appears to have broken with decades of Saudi efforts to primarily confront Iran in proxy and covert wars. It remains, however, unclear to what degree Prince Mohammed’s policy shift in Iraq is an indication of a broader move away from sectarianism and support for ultra-conservative militants and towards engagement.

The record is mixed. Saudi Shiite activists see little positive change and, if anything, assert that repression in their heartland in the kingdom’s Eastern Province has increased since Prince Mohammed’s rise.

“Bin Salman is already acting like he’s the king of Saudi Arabia. He keeps telling the West that he will reform Islam, but he keeps raiding the homes of Shia and stripping us of any political rights,” one activist said.

Nonetheless, a Saudi-funded Bangladeshi plan to build moderate mosques to counter militancy, the kingdom’s relinquishing of control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, and the newly found propagation of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue by the government-controlled World Muslim League that for decades funded ultra-conservatism globally would suggest that Saudi money may be invested in attempting to curb the impact of the kingdom’s decades-long support of ultra-conservatism.

There are, however, also indications that Prince Mohammed is not averse to funding militants when it suits his geopolitical purpose. Saudi funds have flowed since his rise in 2015 to militant religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan at a time that the kingdom was drafting plans to destabilize Iran by exploiting grievances and stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities, including the Baloch. Those plans have not left the drawing board and may never do so, but ultra-conservative militants figure prominently in them.

Nevertheless, the magnitude of the shifting of gears in Saudi policy towards Iraq as well as other steps that Prince Mohammed has taken to curb, redirect, and reduce, if not halt, Saudi support for militant ultra-conservatism is highlighted by the conclusions of a 2002 study of funding of political violence conducted by the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations.

Coming in the wake of the 9/11 attacks when Saudi funding and counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States was put under the magnifying glass, the study suggested that the kingdom’s global support for ultra-conservatism was woven into its fabric.

“It may well be the case that if Saudi Arabia…were to move quickly to share sensitive financial information with the United States, regulate or close down Islamic banks, incarcerate prominent Saudi citizens or surrender them to international authorities, audit Islamic charities, and investigate the hawala system—just a few of the steps that nation would have to take—it would be putting its current system of governance at significant political risk,” the study warned.

In many ways, Saudi support for the Iraqi insurgency was a textbook example of the decades-long, $100 billion Saudi campaign to confront Iran globally by promoting ultra-conservatism and sectarianism and in a minority of countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia Herzegovina, Iraq and Syria – funding violence.

Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi scholar with close ties to the government, said Saudi options at the height of the Sunni Muslim insurgency included supplying the insurgents with the same type of funding, arms and logistical support that Iran was giving to Shiite armed groups. Another option, he said, was to create new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias.

“Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks — it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse,” Mr. Obaid said in 2006.

US and Iraqi officials at the time suspected Saudi Arabia of covertly supporting sectarian Sunni jihadist insurgents opposed to the US military presence in the country and the rise of a Shia-dominated government. While there was no evidence of government assistance, the lines between the actions of private citizens and authorities were and remain often blurred in the kingdom.

An Iraq Study Group report in 2006 at the height of the Sunni Muslim insurgency concluded that “funding for the Sunni insurgency comes from private individuals within Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.”

Without identifying them, Iraqi officials asserted that funds were also flowing from Saudi charities that often operated as governmental non-government organizations. They said some of the funds had been channelled through Saudi clerics who decided who the beneficiary would be.

Truck drivers at the time described transporting boxes of cash from Saudi Arabia that were destined for insurgents. The transports frequently coincided with pilgrimages to Mecca.

“They sent boxes full of dollars and asked me to deliver them to certain addresses in Iraq. I know it is being sent to the resistance, and if I don’t take it with me, they will kill me,” one driver said. He said he was instructed to hide the money from authorities at the Iraqi border.

One official said $25 million was sent by a Saudi religious scholar to a senior Iraqi Sunni cleric who bought Russian Strela shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles on the black market in Romania.

Baath Party loyalists claimed at the time that a US Air Force F-16 jet that crashed while flying in support of American soldiers fighting insurgents in Anbar province had been downed by a Strela. The US military denied the claim.

“We have stockpiles of Strelas and we are going to surprise them (the Americans),” a spokesman for the party, said.

The Iraqi cleric involved in the purchase of the missiles was suspected to be Sheikh Harith Sulaiman al-Dhari, a tribal chieftain dubbed “the Spiritual Leader of the Iraqi Resistance” with a lineage of opposition to foreign rule dating back to the killing in 1920 of a British colonel by his father and grandfather. Iraqi authorities issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Al-Dhari in late 2006, who has since passed away, on charges of inciting sectarian violence after he visited Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s approach to Iraq has come a long way since the days of the insurgency. The question is whether the kingdom will draw a lesson from its success in the way it manages its regional rivalry with Iran. So far, there is little indication that Iraq is more than the exception that confirms the rule.

Said political analyst Hussein Ibish in a just published study of Saudi-Iraqi relations: “Iraq is the only major regional battleground at present in which Saudi Arabia is relying almost entirely on carrots rather than sticks. Yet, arguably, more has been accomplished by Riyadh over the past year in Iraq than, for example, in either Yemen or Lebanon… Saudi Arabia’s outreach in Iraq, particularly in 2017, belies the stereotype of a rash, reckless, and uncontrolled new major regional actor, showing instead that Saudi Arabia can be deft and delicate when it wants to. That’s an important lesson for the rest of the world, but also for Saudi Arabia itself, to ponder.”

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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