The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia maintained a pointed silence Sunday on the new nuclear pact between world powers and Saudi Arabia’s top rival, Iran, while other Gulf and Arab states gave a cautious welcome to a deal hoped to ease tensions in a region bloodied by proxy battles between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states.
Saudi political commentators voiced persistent fears that Iran would now see itself as freed to advance on other, non-nuclear fronts against its Middle East rivals.
By early Monday in the Middle East, most of the region’s Muslim powers — Turkey, Egypt, and at least four of the six wealthy Arab Gulf countries — had issued statements expressing support for the deal. The United Arab Emirates., a commerce-minded nation that traditionally has thrived on doing business with both Iran and Arab states, welcomed the deal as one it hoped would protect the region “from the tension and danger of nuclear proliferation,” the emirates’ council of ministers said.
Saudi Arabia, the most powerful of the Arab states and the most intensely suspicious rival of Shiite Iran, made no public comment on the pact Sunday, and its foreign ministry didn’t return requests for comment. [Continue reading...]
BBC News reports: Qatar’s construction sector is rife with abuse, Amnesty International (AI) has said in a report published as work begins on Fifa World Cup 2022 stadiums.
Amnesty says migrant workers are often subjected to non-payment of wages, dangerous working conditions and squalid accommodation.
The rights group said one manager had referred to workers as “animals”.
Qatari officials have said conditions will be suitable for those involved in construction of World Cup facilities.
It has not yet commented on the latest report.
Amnesty said it conducted interviews with 210 workers, employers and government officials for its report, The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup. [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports: Very few of the leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood escaped the recent military-led crackdown on their movement. Some of those who did flew out of Cairo after paying thousands of dollars in bribes to airport security officials, while others took more convoluted routes, boarding planes in distant airports en route to friendlier nations.
One of those friendly nations is Qatar, the tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf state that helped bankroll rebels and Islamist democracy advocates throughout the Arab Spring and is now quietly absorbing the exiles that one country’s stumbling experiment in democracy has generated.
Cast out by — or, perhaps, saved from — the harshest political crackdown in recent Egyptian history, a handful of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist leaders found refuge here in the Qatari capital, while others traveled to Istanbul, London and Geneva.
The exiles’ community is small, disorganized and ideologically diverse, ranging from fairly liberal Islamist politicians to hard-line Salafists — groups that less than two years ago competed against each other in Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections.
Now, as they push back against the July coup that toppled their country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, they are on the same team.
At the same time, an exile leadership is starting to take shape here among the shimmering high-rises of Doha. Several of the exiles are living temporarily in hotel suites paid for by Qatar’s state-run Arabic satellite network Al Jazeera — and it is in those suites and hotel lobbies that the future of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and, more broadly, the strategy and ideology of political Islam in the country may well be charted.
“We are not the kind to escape. We do not prefer exile. We have a task: to communicate the crisis and deliver the message to the world,” said Ehab Shiha, the chairman of the Egyptian Salafist al-Asala party, as he sat in a hotel lobby in Doha. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Dozens of Nepalese migrant labourers have died in Qatar in recent weeks and thousands more are enduring appalling labour abuses, a Guardian investigation has found, raising serious questions about Qatar’s preparations to host the 2022 World Cup.
This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022.
According to documents obtained from the Nepalese embassy in Doha, at least 44 workers died between 4 June and 8 August. More than half died of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents.
The investigation also reveals:
• Evidence of forced labour on a huge World Cup infrastructure project.
• Some Nepalese men have alleged that they have not been paid for months and have had their salaries retained to stop them running away.
• Some workers on other sites say employers routinely confiscate passports and refuse to issue ID cards, in effect reducing them to the status of illegal aliens.
• Some labourers say they have been denied access to free drinking water in the desert heat.
• About 30 Nepalese sought refuge at their embassy in Doha to escape the brutal conditions of their employment.
The allegations suggest a chain of exploitation leading from poor Nepalese villages to Qatari leaders. The overall picture is of one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest to get ready for the world’s most popular sporting tournament. [Continue reading...]
Shibley Telhami writes: Nothing was trivial about the moment: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani gave up his post as emir of Qatar to his son at the pinnacle of his influence, in an act as rare and surprising as his ascending to power through a bloodless coup against his own father in 1995.
The very brevity of the emir’s abdication speech and the remarkable absence of boasting about his transformation of Qatar was itself a rarity in an Arab world accustomed to long, windy addresses on even trivial matters.
What drove the policies of the outgoing emir? What will come next?
The fact that the world is paying attention is a testament to the central role that this small, previously sleepy nation now plays on the world stage. The story of what drove the outgoing emir — and his key partner, Foreign and Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (HBJ) — tells much about the driving forces in the Arab world. One hint appeared in the announcement’s sparse wording: “We believe that the Arab world is one human body, one coherent structure, that draws its strength from all its constituent parts.”
The outgoing emir, who grew up in the Pan-Arab era of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, once described himself to me as a “Nasserist.” He described his Prime Minister HBJ as a “Sadatist” — or admirer of the pragmatic, pro-Western Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser and made peace with Israel.
From this perspective, one of the emir’s most important contributions to Arab politics, the pan-Arab Al Jazeera TV, was the modern — and more credible –version of Nasser’s Sawt Al Arab radio, which itself had revolutionary impact on the Arab world in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Indeed, Al Jazeera has played a key role in the Arab world, hosting Arab nationalists as regular commentators, including Mohammad Hassanein Heikal, Nasser’s confidant. But Qatar, and Al Jazeera, also host Islamists, especially Sheikh Yousuf Al Qaradawi, one of the most influential Sunni religious authorities.
Beyond any pan-Arab aspiration, the outgoing emir’s strategy was in the long-term interest of Qatar. Yet at the core of his — and Al Jazeera’s — success is understanding the Arab and Islamic aspirations of the millions of people they tried to reach. Which is why they paid so much attention to Palestine, as the prism of pain through which Arabs viewed the outside world.
Even at the moment of abdication, Al Jazeera went immediately from Qatari commentators to Palestinian commentators in the West Bank and Gaza. Consider, in the new emir’s inaugural speech, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani followed by singling out his commitment to the Palestinian issue — of all the international issues facing Qatar and the Arab world.[Continue reading...]
Doha News reports: Qatari poet Mohammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami has reportedly been sentenced to life in prison in a local court this morning.
It remains unclear what Al-Ajami was convicted of, but he was arrested in Doha last November and eventually charged with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir.”
Amnesty International, which confirmed this morning’s ruling to Doha News, said Al-Ajami has one week to submit his appeal.
“This is sending shockwaves across the Gulf region,” Amnesty researcher Dina El-Mamoun said. “Not just Qatar but beyond Qatar, among activists who feel there is sort of less and less space for them.”
On Twitter, hundreds have denounced the verdict under the hashtag #الحرية_لشاعر_محمد_بن_الذيب (freedom for poet Mohammed Ibn Al-Dheeb), questioning Qatar’s commitment to free speech after its support of so many Arab Spring revolutions.
Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth attributed the life sentence to Al-Ajami’s widely distributed Jasmine Poem, which criticized governments across the Gulf, asserting that “we are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.” [Continue reading...]
Last month the BBC provided more background on the case.
Tony Karon writes: Mindful of its declining appetite for projecting power in the Middle East, the U.S. is relying on more activist partners in the region such Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to arm the Syrian rebellion. But Tuesday’s visit to Gaza by Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani — to the delight of the territory’s Hamas rulers and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, while Israel and Fatah fumed — was a reminder that U.S. allies in the region often pursue goals quite different from those of Washington, despite many shared objectives and common enemies. And the relative decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East has seen some of those independently-minded allies grow more assertive in pressing their agendas.
In Monday’s presidential campaign foreign policy debate, Gov. Mitt Romney rejected U.S. military intervention in Syria, noting instead that “The Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks are … willing to work with us. We need to have a very effective leadership effort in Syria, making sure that the insurgents there are armed, and that the insurgents that become armed are people who will be the responsible parties.” President Obama also talked up cooperation with regional allies, but warned that “we have to [make] absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region.”
But the Emir’s visit to Gaza makes clear that Qatar, the tiny Emirate whose massive natural gas reserves give it the world’s highest per capita income as well as geopolitical punching power way above its weight, has sharply different ideas from Washington’s about just who the ”responsible parties” will be in a changing Middle East. Hamas, after all, is formally shunned by the U.S. and European powers as a terrorist organization, and Washington has shown little enthusiasm for efforts by Arab governments, including Qatar, to promote reconciliation between the Islamists and the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas was reportedly furious at the Qatari leader’s decision to become the first foreign head of state to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza, effectively blessing the Islamist’ rule there. The Emir’s purpose was to inaugurate Qatar’s $400 billion investment in rebuilding infrastructure smashed in repeated confrontations with Israel — a massive stimulus to an economy choked off by a five-year siege imposed by Israel with Egyptian compliance. [Continue reading...]
Rami al-Jarrah, who was blogging and tweeting from Syria under the pseudonym “Alexander Page,” just fled the country after his real identity became known to the intelligence services. Upon his arrival in Qatar he almost got sent back to Syria but thanks to a swift outpouring of support on Twitter, he was allowed in.
Zvi Bar’el reports: Jordan’s King Abdullah is not an innovative leader. But last week he surprised Arab leaders and the whole world by becoming the first Arab ruler to call on Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign. “If I were in his shoes, I’d step down,” he told the BBC.
This declaration set off a storm. The king’s advisers warned him that the statement was likely to damage Jordan’s interests – and the kingdom’s relations with Syria even more. Right after the interview, representatives of the Jordanian royal court called Fahad Khitan, the editor of the Jordanian newspaper Al-Arab Al-Yawm, to ask him to delay the next edition so they could insert a few corrections.
So when the paper came out, the king said “Jordan holds that removing Assad would not change the situation and would not solve the problem.” According to an editorial, “the king has not officially adopted the position that Assad should step down; his answer in the BBC interview was made to a hypothetical question, and Jordan does not have an official stance on the question of Assad’s removal.”
But the correction arrived too late. In Damascus enraged supporters of the regime attacked the Jordanian Embassy, though Syria apologized the next day. Within a few days British newspaper The Guardian published a report saying the Jordanian king had offered his services as a mediator between the West’s position on Syria and the Arab League’s, because Abdullah believed that Europe could help reach a solution faster than the Americans.
It’s doubtful whether the Jordanian initiative could change the stance of the Arab League, which is dominated by the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They threatened that if a Syrian was invited to the foreign ministers conference in Rabat, Morocco, they wouldn’t attend.
A political and legal error
Despite his change of nuance, King Abdullah has not been able to escape his troubles at home. Two weeks after new Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh was appointed to calm Jordan’s streets, which had begun to show signs of rebellion, Khasawneh made a startling announcement: “The expulsion of Hamas from Jordan in 1999 was a political and legal error. I will tell you openly, when the expulsion took place, I opposed it.”
The statement was made – not by accident – after a phone call to Khasawneh from Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, congratulating him on his appointment as prime minister. According to reports from Jordan, Meshal is expected to make an official visit to Jordan after meeting in Cairo with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to conclude a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas to establish a unity government.
Khasawneh, a 61-year-old judge who has served on the International Court of Justice, has been absent from the Jordanian political scene for 12 years and did not forge the new approach to Hamas on his own. There have been whispers in Jordan for several weeks now about the forthcoming reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
A no less important question is the thinking of Khasawneh, who was once part of a team negotiating with Israel and took part in the reconciliation with Jordan’s Islamic bloc, to which the Muslim Brotherhood belongs. This is part of the change in atmosphere required for the regime to prove its intention to “bridge between the public and the government.”
The thinking in Jordan is that when Assad’s regime falls, Hamas will need a new home – this is likely to be an excellent chance for Jordan to return to the center of Palestinian politics, from which it has been excluded for a decade. In recent years Egypt held a virtual monopoly; only Syria managed to place obstacles in its path and manipulate Hamas.
Wild card Qatar
The factor apparently stirring the cauldron between Jordan and Hamas is Qatar, which recently held intensive talks with Abdullah in a bid to advance Hamas’ return to Jordan. Jordanian sources say Meshal was to visit Jordan last week, accompanied by Qatar’s crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, but the visit was postponed without explanation.
It appears that Hamas, which has been silent about the brutal repression in Syria, has still not decided which way to go. If Assad falls, and even if Hamas is not asked to leave Syria, the new regime is likely to stop giving it the generous services supplied by Assad.
Qatar could be a comfortable base, but it’s far from the territories, while Jordan is conveniently near the West Bank and Gaza, even if it isn’t offering patronage on the order of Syria or Qatar. On the other hand, Hamas has had no guarantee that Jordan will agree to the opening of Hamas offices, including a communications network and perhaps logistics bases. Hamas also has a problem with Jordanian public opinion; the Jordanian elite, for example, doesn’t understand why Jordan has to reconcile with Hamas after its leadership joined the Syrian-Iranian axis.
A return of the Hamas leadership to Jordan would mark a significant political change in the organization’s position. The establishment of a base in a country that has signed a peace agreement with Israel and is committed to Israel’s security is not something even Israel can object to.
Al Jazeera reports: Syria’s foreign minister has condemned the Arab League’s threat to suspend the country over its crackdown on protests, saying the move would be “illegal” and a “dangerous step”.
“The suspension of the Arab League membership is illegal,” Walid al-Muallem told a press conference in Damascus on Monday.
Al-Muallem also criticised the Cairo-based regional bloc’s relations with the United States, calling the US an “unofficial member” of the league.
“The Arab League said it worked for stopping the violence in Syria and said the US is not a member of the Arab League… but they are an unofficial member,” he said.
Al-Muallem added that he was confident Russia and China, who have rejected calls for tougher international action against Damascus, would not change their stance on Syria at the UN Security Council.
The foreign minister also apologised for attacks on foreign diplomatic missions over the weekend. Government supporters raided the Qatari and Saudi embassies in Damascus on Saturday night. On Sunday, the Turkish embassy and consulates were attacked.
The New York Times reports: Turkey sent planes to evacuate its diplomats’ families from Syria on Sunday after a night of attacks on foreign embassies in Damascus, the capital. The events seemed sure to deepen Syria’s most pronounced isolation of the four decades of Assad family rule.
Several thousand Syrians attacked the embassies and consulates of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and France on Saturday evening, shortly after the Arab League announced its surprising decision to suspend Syria’s membership for failing to end the bloody crackdown on antigovernment protesters.
Turkey’s evacuation, and denunciations of the attacks by other countries, set the stage for a tumultuous week in the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which began in March.
The Arab League has invited Syrian opposition figures to Cairo on Tuesday in what seems to be a bid to close the ranks of an unwieldy group. If Syria does not relent in its crackdown, which the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people, the suspension will take effect on Wednesday.
The Los Angeles Times notes the growing influence of Qatar which currently chairs the Arab League.
Little Qatar, far away in the Persian Gulf, doesn’t have the physical or military presence of Turkey. But it does have outsized ambitions, diplomatic dexterity, extreme wealth — and the populist force of its Al Jazeera network. Qatar stoked the early days of the Arab Spring and became a leading and sometimes controversial voice for government change in Libya, a role it has now assumed in Syria.
The emirate’s leaders have keenly understood — and certainly benefited from — the changing dynamics reshaping an Arab world unbound from autocrats and suppression.
Qatar is capitalizing on, and Assad is in danger of succumbing to, the most transformative moment in the region since the doomed specter of pan-Arabism of the 1960s. The powers that made up the core of that world have steadily diminished over the years while the oil nations of the Persian Gulf have assumed larger roles in diplomacy, finance and media.
In some respects, Qatar’s influence is eclipsing even that of traditional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Riyadh has been accused of hypocrisy in its vociferous support for dissidents in Syria while simultaneously helping to crush protests in neighboring Bahrain. Egypt, meanwhile, is consumed with its own political turmoil in the wake of President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
Qatar’s ambitions are often larger than regional conflicts and dalliances. To the envy of its neighbors, Doha won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup soccer championship, based partly on an audacious promise to install high-tech air conditioning to cool stadiums during the sweltering gulf summer.
The emirate is adroit at playing all sides: It is home to a U.S. military base, yet it keeps close to the passions of the Arab street through Al Jazeera and maintains cordial relations with Iran, the regional giant just across the gulf.
After numerous statements from officials and military experts on how difficult and time consuming it would be to put a no-fly zone in state, the Pentagon now says that it’s already effectively been put in place.
Marc Lynch writes:
While the American and international debate over Libya continues, the situation in Bahrain has just taken a sharp turn for the worse. A brutal crackdown on the protestors followed the controversial entry of security forces from Saudi Arabia and three other GCC states. Media access has been curtailed, with journalists finding it difficult to gain entry to the Kingdom (I was supposed to be in Bahrain right now myself, but elected not to try after several journalists let me know that they were being denied entry and several Embassies in Doha warned me off). The road to political compromise and meaningful reform now appears to be blocked, which places the long-term viability of the Bahraini regime in serious question.
The response of the Bahraini regime has implications far beyond the borders of the tiny island Kingdom — not only because along with Libya it has turned the hopeful Arab uprisings into something uglier, but because it is unleashing a regionwide resurgence of sectarian Sunni-Shi’a animosity. Regional actors have enthusiastically bought in to the sectarian framing, with Saudi Arabia fanning the flames of sectarian hostility in defense of the Bahraini regime and leading Shia figures rising to the defense of the protestors. The tenor of Sunni-Shi’a relations across the region is suddenly worse than at any time since the frightening days following the spread of the viral video of Sadrists celebrating the execution of Saddam Hussein.
The sectarian framing in Bahrain is a deliberate regime strategy, not an obvious “reality.” The Bahraini protest movement, which emerged out of years of online and offline activism and campaigns, explicitly rejected sectarianism and sought to emphasize instead calls for democratic reform and national unity. While a majority of the protestors were Shi’a, like the population of the Kingdom itself, they insisted firmly that they represented the discontent of both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and framed the events as part of the Arab uprisings seen from Tunisia to Libya. Their slogans were about democracy and human rights, not Shi’a particularism, and there is virtually no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that their efforts were inspired or led by Iran.
Mohammed Ayoob writes:
The real reason for the establishment of the GCC in 1981 was not defense against external enemies threatening the security of GCC states but cooperation against domestic challenges to authoritarian regimes. Its main task was and continues to be coordination of internal security measures, including sharing of intelligence, aimed at controlling and suppressing the populations of member states in order to provide security to the autocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The establishment of the GCC was in large measure a reaction on the part of the Gulf monarchies to the Iranian revolution of 1979 in which people’s power toppled the strongest autocracy in the neighborhood. The Arab autocracies of the Gulf did not want to share the Shah’s fate.
That ensuring the security of autocratic regimes was the principal reason for the existence of GCC has become crystal clear with the military intervention by Saudi-led forces in Bahrain to put down the democracy movement and prevent the freedom contagion from spreading to other parts of the Gulf. It is true that the Saudis are apprehensive of the Shia majority coming to power in Bahrain because of the impact it could have on its own restive Shia minority in the oil-rich east of the country. Riyadh is also worried about the impact of a change in regime in Bahrain on the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region. (One can, however, argue that Saudi military intervention in Bahrain’s affairs will in fact redound to Iran’s benefit in the long run by further de-legitimizing the al-Khalifa rule in Bahrain).
But these are secondary explanations. The primary concern of the Arab autocracies in the Gulf is the suppression of democratic movements regardless of the sectarian character of the populations engaging in democratic struggles. They are worried that if any of the autocracies fall or even reach a substantial compromise with democratic movements it will have a domino effect in the entire Gulf region consigning all of them to the dustbin of history. The GCC was established as an instrument to protect and prolong autocratic rule on the Arabian littoral of the Gulf. Its military operation in Bahrain has clearly shown this true colors.
In The Washington Quarterly, Alastair Crooke writes:
In his commendably candid interview with Time in January 2010, President Barack Obama noted that managing politics in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict “is just really hard.” The president, however, might well have been speaking about the Middle East as a whole. It is not just the Israeli-Palestinian track that has been difficult, so too have the Iranian and Syrian tracks, where engagement has not taken traction. Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria—nothing has been exactly easy for US policymakers this past year. To be fair to the president, he has taken office at a time when the whole region is journeying into a new era. In a sense, the president is facing the consequences of three key events that took place in the region more than 20 years ago.
That the dynamics for change arising from this triumvirate of events should have culminated at the outset of Obama’s term is unfortunate. But the reality is that the strategic balance within the Middle East was already tipping. Change on several planes—at conventional state politics, economics, and within Islam—were already underway. The consequence of this is that the United States’ old allies in the ‘‘southern tier’’—namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia—are likely to wield less influence in the future. The ‘‘northern tier’’—which includes Turkey along with Iran, Qatar, Syria, and possibly Iraq and Lebanon—represents the nascent “axis of influence” for the coming regional era, barring war.
The prospective bitter struggle—already begun—over the future of the region, and over the shaping of Islam closely interconnected to the balance of power, will not see a region that becomes any “easier” for the United States to deal with. The question is whether or not the United States can accommodate some of the unfolding changes. As it remains obsessed with dissections of Israeli politics and bilateral relations, can it even recognize the broader regional changes? Will it adjust to them, or will the United States seek to inoculate itself by clinging to nation-state structures from the 1920s?
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