I just spent three days at the Rome Mediterranean Dialogues event, where I took part in a panel on media and cultural issues in relation to ISIS. Listening to the discussions from European and Arab politicians and policy-makers, a number of points of interest or concern jumped out, which I just wanted to summarise here. Continue reading Issues regarding Arab-European dialogue
Debate over the Charlie Hebdo attacks has centred on different problems that the tragedy speaks to – freedom of expression, integration of immigrants into French society, anti-foreigner sentiment, Western political and military involvement in the Middle East, the rise of the anti-Western phenomenon of jihadism. While it’s not entirely clear yet how the attacks came about and the motivations involved, it’s worth dwelling a little perhaps on the last. While it’s true that Western wars in the Middle East have provoked a desire for revenge, the modern jihadist is also a product of the politicking of Arab regimes. The political price for these involvements is largely paid by the West, however. Continue reading Games Without Frontiers, War Without Tears
The Syrian civil war has been the third major jihad of modern times for Gulf Arab states. The first, Afghanistan, was a new experience, the inaugural transnational jihad of the modern era in which Saudi Arabia and the United States jumped into the fray against the Soviet invasion. Each with different motivations, they poured some $20 billion in the fight and Saudi interior ministry may have facilitated travel for anything between 35,000 and 40,000 young men to join in. Sensing Russian weakness, Washington wanted to take the fight to the Soviets, while Al Saud were willing to provide the manpower because of a new turn that Saudi Arabia took in the 1980s: scared by the 1979 Wahhabi revolt at the Grand Mosque in Mecca the regime moved to boost its Islamic credentials. The class of ulama (religious scholars) were given wider powers over society, the kingdom embarked on a programme of global proselytization (printing Qurans and funding mosques), and Saudis were publicly encouraged to join the Afghan jihad. The Mujahideen were public heroes. Continue reading Gulf states and Jihadist wars of no political consequence
Published in Spanish in Vanguardia Dossier, July/Sept 2014
Islamic society and politics in the Middle East are riven by two schisms today that have produced violent instability that is set to continue until a critical moment, such as the fall of a regime such as that in Iran or Saudi Arabia, or a historical compromise between the two. It would be hard to choose one as more unlikely than the other in the current situation. Both conflicts are products of the past generation and though they have developed separately it is possible to see a link between them if we consider the Islamic Republic in Iran as a Shi’ite mirror image of the political Islam that the Brotherhood and movements such as Ennahda, Hamas, Islah are representative of within a Sunni framework. Continue reading EL PUZLE ISLÁMICO: Batallas internas en el islam político
An article of interest from Issue 944 of Gulf States Newsletter, April 2013 (note: Cowper-Coles is now with HSBC) regarding the debate over the appointment of the British ambassador in Riyadh to head the British government’s controversial inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood (author unknown, according to GSN format):
At a 1 March evidence session for the UK Foreign Affairs Committee’s hearing into London’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (GSN 939/1, 934/16), MP for Penrith and the Border Rory Stewart asked former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir Tom Phillips whether “it is a problem… that such a very large number of our senior diplomats and soldiers go on to take jobs where they are employed by members of the Gulf royal families, or work with businesses with significant interests in the Middle East? Does that get in the way of our being able to achieve objective criticism of these governments?” Continue reading Former UK diplomats turn business advisers
(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
|(From the latest issue of Turkish Review, Volume 3 Issue 5: http://www.turkishreview.org/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=223386)
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
My first day in Oxford, I arrived at 2 in the afternoon into Heathrow from Dubai, and got straight onto the express train to Paddington then in 20 minutes on the train to Oxford via a neighbouring platform. Pretty straightforward. But when I arrived, little culture shocks began. I search out a Sainsbury’s inside a shopping centre. The shopping centre is dead though the doors are open. Lights are on in Sainsbury’s as a few people push trolleys around. As I get closer I realize they are staff, and they are smirking at the funny guy reading the sign on the door saying it closed at 6.15 pm. That was me. I walk on down the streets and see a red crosses daubed on walls by decorators inside a shop. It makes me think of the two swords of the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi logos. A man stops on a staircase before completing his way down to a basement. I catch him in the corner of my eye and for a second thought for some reason that he was holding the palms of his hands out in a moment of prayer. With no supermarkets to shop in, I check out the prices in a few Pret-A-Manger type shops before moving on in disgust at the extortionate rates, hiked up even more if you want to sit in. Finally I settle on Burger King. How Gulf is that. And when I’m done, I get up without thinking and head for the door. But I catch myself, embarrassed, as a young bloke on the left notes my confusion, then pick up the tray and shove the paper and plastic remains into the designated bin. Life Further North.
It has become rather fashionable in some circles to predict the imminent demise of Qatar’s alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood calques around the Arab world. I don’t see it happening, and here’s why: Continue reading Why Doha isn’t about to give up the Brotherhood
With the fall of Hosni Mubarak, victory in legislative elections and the presidential vote, and now the approval via referendum of a new constitution, Islamists have begun the work of putting their renaissance project into practice.
Unlike Salafism, which dreams of a recreation of the pre-colonial moment, political Islam has aimed more to repatch together the Islamic state but in an unambiguously modern, post-colonial context. The Brotherhood does not aim to return clerics to man a reestablished classical Sharia court system, rather it seeks to distribute the dominion of Sharia via parliament, legislation and an advisory role for clerics via Al-Azhar. Laymen play a key role in the process of Islamicization that they would not have had before the irruption of Western hegemony and modernity – something alien, for example, to Wahhabi Salafism which simply recognizes the sovereign powers of the temporal ruler in return for the clerics’ advisory role in policy and control of courts, mosques, education and their own coercive force (‘the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice’). Continue reading Islamists Empowered: Back to the Future