The Iran deal: What it means for Saudi Arabia

(This was written for the European Council on Foreign Relations, appearing on its website)

Almost everyone is happy about the deal reached between United States and Iran. Turkey, which has been drawing close to Tehran of late, is sending its foreign minister there on Monday; Oman was the location secret U.S.-Iran talks in recent months, so must be happy; the UAE issued a statement welcoming the deal. The two naysayers were always Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel has made plain its displeasure, while Saudi Arabia has maintained a royal silence. Continue reading The Iran deal: What it means for Saudi Arabia

Labour rights in Qatar – Last thing on their minds

(First published on ECFR website)

Qatar is facing a barrage of criticism now over its treatment of Asian workers hired to build infrastructure for its staging of World Cup 2002. The Guardian revealed in September that dozens of Nepalis had died in recent months, working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week in scorching temperatures and stifling humidity in the heart of a Gulf summer. Francois Crepeau, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said in Doha this month that Qatar should ditch the sponsorship system for hiring foreigners as the source of the abuse they suffer – sponsorship means that employees cannot change jobs or even leave the country without the permission of their sponsors, something that favoured Western nationals in white-collar work usually manage to avoid. And this week Amnesty International released a report, “The dark side of migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup”, that described workers as treated like animals, and even referred to construction of Fifa’s own headquarters in Doha. Continue reading Labour rights in Qatar – Last thing on their minds

Saudi Arabia: cultivating sectarian spaces

(Part of a European Council on Foreign Relations report, ‘The Gulf and Sectarianism’, published November 2013)

Sectarianism has long underpinned Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policy, and it has proved to be a particularly effective tool in the government’s management of the Arab Awakening, the movement of protest and revolt that began in Tunisia in December 2010. Saudi Arabia deployed a sectarian narrative to describe the 2011 uprising in Bahrain, calling it an Iranian-backed movement of Shia empowerment that aimed to disenfranchise Sunnis, the “rightful” Islamic centre of which Riyadh sees itself as champion. Saudi Arabia readily applied this framework to the conflict in Syria as it developed later that same year: the government characterised it as a battle in which a majority Sunni population has had to defend itself from an alignment of deviant Islamic schools and ideologies that aim to subjugate Sunnis – an easy sell considering that Shia powers and actors, specifically Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria’s own Alawi community, have been the most prominent supporters of President Bashar al-Assad. Continue reading Saudi Arabia: cultivating sectarian spaces

On Hazem Kandil’s View of The Brotherhood As Cult

Hazem Kandil, a political sociologist at the University of Cambridge, outlined in a lecture in Oxford last week his view of the movement as a politically naïve cult acting on an innovative understanding (discordant within the Islamic tradition) of religious determinism – the idea that God will confirm them in the rightness of their path and that faith is ultimately all that matters. In this he refocused attention on an important aspect of the Egyptian Brotherhood that is often overlooked by political analysts who are more interested in examining its success, its failures, its alliances and its intentions. The conclusion is generally avoided in media discourse that they don’t have much of an idea about what they want to do at all. Continue reading On Hazem Kandil’s View of The Brotherhood As Cult

Saudi women drivers: the red light that never changes

(also published on European Council on Foreign Relations website)

Saudi liberals have been predicting for years that a decision to allow women to drive is imminent. The predictions started with Abdullah taking over the managing of state affairs as crown prince in the late 1990s and intensified after he became king in 2005. Nothing happened then and nothing has happened now, as women make considerable efforts to promote the issue through social and political activism. Continue reading Saudi women drivers: the red light that never changes

Does Zionism explain the success of Israel?

Does Zionism explain the success of Israel? It might seem an odd question but it was raised by Israel Studies scholar Derek Penslar in a talk in Oxford this week which analysed the fates of several settler colonial movements. In a tour d’horizon he looked at the New England Puritans, the French in Algeria, and South Africa and apartheid. Each one was similar to Israel and yet different in crucial respects, which led to the failure of one and the dismantling of a system of racial supremacy and subjugation in another. Continue reading Does Zionism explain the success of Israel?

A very Gulf coup

(From the latest issue of Turkish Review, Volume 3 Issue 5:

When Hosni Mubarak handed over power to his military peers in Egypt two years ago in the face of over two weeks of determined protests, the shock and fear in the Gulf was profound. As much as the US and Israel, if not more so, Saudi Arabia in particular had long bet on the strong arm of Mubarak’s police state, with the military in the background, to maintain the ‘stability’ that kept dangerous democratic forces in check Continue reading A very Gulf coup