Monthly Archives: June 2015

Qatar Changes Course

DOHA, Qatar — The old joke among foreign policy wonks began thus: After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the world was surprised to discover that it still had two superpowers: the United States and … Kuwait. And, it went on, after Kuwait was chastened by the Iraqi invasion and the Persian Gulf war, by the mid-1990s the world again found itself with two superpowers: the United States and … Qatar.

This wisecrack lampoons the attempts of tiny but ultrarich Gulf states to punch above their weight in international relations. Kuwait may have once set the pace, but for the past 20 years Qatar has tried to leverage its vast energy wealth to build and project its influence throughout the Middle East.

Now, however, Qatar’s rulers seem to be adjusting their once-adventurous foreign policy. In particular, the rapprochement between Qatar and its neighbor and former rival, Saudi Arabia, marks a generational shift in strategic thinking.

Qatar’s astonishing wealth underwrote the policies under the previous emir — who ruled from 1995 until his abdication in 2013 — of spending lavishly on making friends and influencing people, Saudi Arabia excepted. For most of the past two decades, Qatar seemed driven by a determination to challenge and outflank its big brother to the West.

Among the most fundamental of Qatar’s numerous investments are the American military installations at Al Udeid Air Base and Camp As Sayliyah. Reportedly, these have been heavily funded by Doha, including more than $1 billion in initial construction costs. Qatar sees these bases as vital guarantors of its national defense.

Qatar’s regional strategy, meanwhile, focused on promoting Muslim Brotherhoodparties throughout the Arab world. But this approach provoked tensions with Saudi Arabia and another Gulf Cooperation Council state, the United Arab Emirates. Both have declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Qatar’s pro-Brotherhood policies were reflected in the activities of the influential state-owned Al Jazeera television news network, as well as in Doha’s financial support for Brotherhood groups, including Hamas in Gaza. Support like this strained relations with other Gulf Cooperation Council states over the upheavals in Egypt, Libya and other Arab Spring countries.

Tensions finally boiled over at a council summit in March 2014, which led Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha. The crisis continued until November, when it was finally resolved with the signing of the Riyadh “supplementary agreement.”

The full contents of the agreement have not been disclosed, but the widespread assumption that Qatar agreed to reduce its backing for Muslim Brotherhood movements has been borne out by a de facto shift of policy. Qatar has notablyreduced its support for Hamas, and there has been an exodus of Brotherhoodleaders from Doha.

In country after country, the Brotherhood’s fortunes were already in free fall. Doha clearly concluded that it was making too many enemies while backing a losing side.

The accession of new monarchs has also changed the dynamic between the once-rival states. In 2013, Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad abdicated in favor of his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and in January, King Salman took power in Saudi Arabia. Salman moved quickly to secure greater unity among the Gulf states, in particular ending the rift with Qatar. That was the prelude for a more assertive regional stance, best exemplified by the intervention in Yemen.

Doha has welcomed Riyadh’s new strategic direction. Qataris involved in the foreign policy debate in Doha now offer a robust defense of Gulf Cooperation Council actions that are harshly criticized outside of the Gulf. Public sympathy here for Saudi policies in Yemen, Iraq and Syria — and resentment of Iran’s role — reflects a level of cooperation between Riyadh and Doha unknown for two decades.

Along with this, there is a palpable sense of relief among Qataris that their leaders now define the national interest in a less arcane manner. These days, almost everyone in Qatar can explain what their country is trying to do and why. That wasn’t always the case, to put it mildly.

Qatar is also by far the most generous donor country investing in Gaza’s reconstruction. Counterintuitively, this has contributed to a thaw in relations with Israel, which cautiously welcomes Qatar’s investments in Gaza and its efforts to broker a long-term cease-fire, especially since they are coupled with reduced political support for Hamas. In March, Qatar’s representative in Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, praised Israel for facilitating Gaza reconstruction, the first public recognition of a new Israeli attitude that welcomes Doha’s efforts in the impoverished territory.

None of this is to say that the days of Qatari-Saudi rivalry are completely gone. Some level of competition is bound to continue. The more localized the issue, like an unresolved border dispute, the more likely the two countries are to fall out. And despite moving closer together, Qatar and Saudi Arabia still do not share a common view on several key regional issues.

Doha is less invested in the Muslim Brotherhood than it used to be, and Riyadh less hostile, but it would be an exaggeration to say the two leaderships view the Islamists in the same light. But there are good reasons Qatar seems to have concluded that rivalry with Saudi Arabia is at best pointless and potentially catastrophic.

One is the region’s grave security problems: Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen are imploding, and terrorist groups like the Islamic State are on the rise. Another is that with Tehran and Washington moving toward a nuclear agreement, if not a broader rapprochement, Qatar’s interest lies in closer ties with Gulf Cooperation Council allies, rather than going it alone.

This more circumspect foreign policy is a sign that Qatar has decided that coordinating with its Gulf neighbors should yield better results than trying to act like a miniature superpower.


Petty politics bode ill for the future of Palestine

Petty politics bode ill for the future of Palestine
Salam Fayyad the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority at his office in Ramallah on February 27th 2011. Photo for The National by Ilan Mizrahi


Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is 80 years old, an enthusiastic smoker and with a history of health problems. Yet not only has he refused to appoint an heir, one of his most energetic campaigns in recent years has been to systematically foreclose any prospect of the emergence of a successor, let alone a rival. This is the last thing Palestinians need, but it’s the one really successful government policy of late.

In the process, the Palestinian Authority and Fatah have, in one way or another, gone after, exiled, discredited or marginalised dozens of prominent individuals, including many who have no prospect or ambition to succeed Mr Abbas in any of his capacities, and cracked down on a large number of important non-governmental organisations. The main result has been an alarming constriction in the once robust Palestinian civil society and a severe narrowing of inputs into national decision-making.

The latest target of this campaign is former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and his Future for Palestine development institute. Initially accused of “money laundering”, now toned-down to “using money for political purposes”, the even more preposterous informal accusation against Mr Fayyad is that he has been plotting a “bloodless coup” against Mr Abbas with the ousted Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. However, Future for Palestine’s projects focus on developing wells and erecting solar panels for unserved villages – hardly the stuff of subversive intrigue.

On May 18, the anti-money laundering unit at the Palestine Monetary Authority ordered the freezing of two incoming transfers totalling $749,000 to the NGO from the Emirates Red Crescent. These funds were earmarked for two projects that would significantly benefit both the Palestinians directly helped and Palestinian society more broadly.

The first would benefit impoverished Bedouins in Area C, that 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank where the PA generally is prohibited from operating. The second project is dedicated to rehabilitating irrigation wells, some on the “Israeli side” of the “separation barrier,” which is often thought of as constituting an attempted unilateral Israeli de facto border. Palestinian projects “beyond” the wall are therefore even more consequential than those in other parts of Area C.

The two money transfers had already been vetted and approved by the anti-money laundering unit, and credited to the NGO’s bank account a week before the freeze was issued. However, the Authority used various legal provisions to freeze the assets for three, seven and 15 days in succession.

All of the legal powers available to attorney general Abdel Ghani Al Awewy to interfere with the transfer of the funds were exhausted, especially given the lack of any probable cause. The authorities then dropped all pretence, with Mr Al Awewy issuing a further freeze on June 15 affecting all the funds of the organisation and effective until he decides he is finished with his own investigation.

The practical effect of this open-ended freeze is to shut down the operations of Future for Palestine, which would appear to be the whole point of the exercise. Fatah and Mr Abbas do indeed face a mounting political crisis, part of which may involve Mr Dahlan. But it does not involve Mr Fayyad, who has never been a Fatah member and is being driven into the wilderness as the scapegoat du jour.

Mr Fayyad’s real “crime” is being an effective civil society leader independent of Mr Abbas and Fatah. Such figures used to be common and respected in Palestinian society, but increasingly they can expect a concerted effort by the government to shut their operations down. Civil society in Gaza was effectively done away with by Hamas years ago, and in the West Bank the PA is increasingly acting as if it wants to catch up to its Islamist rivals.

This isn’t the first time the PA has targeted Future for Palestine. Last August security forces raided its offices and questioned two employees, in a move widely seen as an intimidation tactic. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted a western diplomat observing: “There’s no doubt that this process was initiated by orders from above. Such things don’t happen just like that.” Neither does the extralegal asset freeze.

The saddest thing is that it wasn’t ever thus. When he first came into office, initially as prime minister under the late Yasser Arafat, and then as president, Mr Abbas did not evince the characteristics of a would-be dictator. Yet if he can’t really be called a dictator these days, it is less that he has failed to develop such instincts and more that between the occupation and his own generally non-confrontational style he simply hasn’t accumulated enough practical authority.

A Palestinian president who thinks and acts like mayor of Ramallah, rather than a true national leader, leaves himself with limited scope for despotism, along with everything else. But as the scandal over Mr Fayyad’s NGO demonstrates, it can certainly be enough to do serious damage to the interests of Palestine, both in its present condition and its future prospects.

It’s not too late for Mr Abbas, who ought to consider his legacy, to recapture the spirit of his initial period in national leadership. Reversing the travesty over Mr Fayyad’s organisation would be an important step in the right direction.

Racial hysteria blights modern American culture

Racial hysteria blights modern American culture
Much of not most of American culture continues to view issues of “race” as centred on a black-white binary. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

Of all the false, misleading and philosophically invalid identity categories that are seemingly inherent to modernity, concepts of “race” are probably the most persistent and damaging, particularly in the United States. Virtually everyone now knows enough to understand, if they stop and think about it, that “race” is an arbitrary and almost meaningless social construct. Yet it continues to dominate notions of identity, self and the other. As with any insidious neurotic symptom, understanding how racialised thinking functions does nothing to reduce its power.

An additional irony is that, uncritically accepting for a moment the received racial and ethnic categories, the relative percentages of both black and white Americans are in mutual decline. For most of the past few centuries, “white” and “black” people made up the two main “racial” categories of the American population, and hovered at about 80 and 20 per cent, respectively.

Depending on how one does the maths, it is either a short or moderate period of time before “white” Americans become a minority for the first time, with the aggregate of all “non-white” categories collectively making the majority. And it’s already possible to calculate, again depending on all kinds of variables, that African-Americans have already been superseded by Latinos as the largest minority in the country.

Nonetheless, much if not most of American culture continues to view issues of “race” as centred on a black-white binary. And all too often the beliefs at play are negative, hostile or angry.

The brutal murder of nine churchgoers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week is only the most dramatic and tragic in a recent string of reminders about the enduring power of racism and racial violence against African-Americans.

When Barack Obama was elected president many rushed to the conclusion that racism had been dealt a fatal blow. Others, including several outspoken Arab-American academics, went to the opposite extreme by preposterously declaring that Mr Obama himself, by serving as the chief executive officer of an “inherently racist system”, became himself a de facto anti-black racist.

Neither of these positions is remotely sustainable. Mr Obama’s election certainly marks a turning point for African-Americans, but hardly the elimination of both structural, built-in patterns of racism that continue to pervade American society.

Over the past year or so, American society has been exposed to so many examples of the extent to which black people in the United States, especially young black men, are especially vulnerable to violence, both at the hands of the authorities, especially police officers (themselves often black), and marauding violent racists. The most notorious incidents were in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. But everyone who pays attention understands that those causes célèbres are merely the tip of a very ugly and huge iceberg.

And there is a particularly disturbing and persistent tendency for the media to try to blame the victims in these cases, often for the most mundane of reasons.

These incidents have become so disturbing that a major trope in American discourse now is the new slogan “black lives matter”.

It’s exceptionally disturbing that such a phrase would have so much resonance in 2015, but it does because the evidence that this value needs to be affirmed and respected, because it is so often violated, is simply overwhelming.

Last week’s church massacre is particularly evocative because of the history of violence against Southern black churches, both the infamous, such as the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four little girls, and the long-forgotten. In the 1990s there was a rash of still controversial church fires throughout the South that, in many cases at least, were almost certainly the result of racist arson. This particular church was the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the American South, cofounded in 1818 by the leader of a failed slave revolt. It was burnt to the ground in 1822.

Needless to say, sadly, the culprit in this case (there is really no need to use the term suspect, because there is no doubt of his responsibility) is not being described as a “terrorist,” or the crime as an act of “terrorism”, by either the state and local police or federal government officials.

The reticence to use this term, when the available evidence strongly suggests that the motivation was to try to provoke a generalised “race war”, would be mystifying if it were not consistent with a broad pattern.

Both the identities of the killer (an angry young white man) and the victims (random, innocent African-Americans) make such a designation unfortunately unlikely.

American culture has entered a phase in which the designation of crimes as “terrorism” and culprits as “terrorists” depends, more than anything else, on the question of identity with white American culprits least likely to be so designated, particularly when their victims are not white.

It’s a cliché to note that, from even long before its founding, “race” has been the savage underbelly of American culture.

For all the undoubted progress that has been made in the half-century since the civil rights movement, and even with an African-American president in the White House, the ugliest side of American culture is still defined by delusional racial thinking and, indeed, hysteria.