World Won’t Let Catalonia or Kurdistan Come Quietly onto the Map

Girona Spain demonstration
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Girona, October 1, 2014 (Ariet/Carles Palacio)

Catalonia and Kurdistan couldn’t seem farther away. One is nestled in the peace and prosperity of Western Europe, the other swims in the chaos of a dissolving Middle East.

Yet the two independence referendums of these would-be nation states are revealing. Both raise questions about the meaning of their regional orders and have provoked pushback from the status-quo world. Read more “World Won’t Let Catalonia or Kurdistan Come Quietly onto the Map”

Iraq’s Kurds Deserve the West’s Support for Their Own State

View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011
View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011 (James Gordon)

Western countries are falling into the familiar habit of discouraging Kurdish self-determination.

American and European officials have urged Iraq’s Kurds to delay their independence referendum, scheduled for next Monday.

The reasons are by now well-known: a Kurdish state would anger the Turks, destabilize Iraq and complicate the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

All of which is true, but there will always be a reason to deny the Kurds self-rule. They have been stateless for generations. If it isn’t Turkish apprehensions today, it will be fears of an Iranian-Turkish condominium tomorrow.

The Kurds, one of the most progressive people in the Middle East, deserve better. Read more “Iraq’s Kurds Deserve the West’s Support for Their Own State”

After Caliphate’s Fall, A Spending Challenge

Since Iraqi troops seized back Mosul last month, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has been reduced to the area around Raqqa in Syria. Predominantly Kurdish forces are attempting to take the city, protected by Western airpower. Authorities estimate the number of Islamist fighters has dwindled from the thousands to the hundreds.

As soon as the caliphate falls, governments will face another challenge: the reconstruction. Read more “After Caliphate’s Fall, A Spending Challenge”

Saudi Arabia Tries the Waters of Retrenchment

Riyadh Saudi Arabia
View of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 17, 2014 (Andrew A. Shenouda)

In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s new minister of defense, Mohammad bin Salman, sent the kingdom’s armies to Yemen. In 2017, shortly before usurping the position of crown prince, Salman organized a blockade on little Qatar, which had dared defy the kingdom’s geopolitical priorities.

Both were bold moves fraught with risk. The Yemen war was meant to roll back Iranian influence on the southern border, deny ever-dangerous Al Qaeda a base and prove Saudi Arabia was a capable, independent military power that could fight without mighty America.

The blockade on Qatar was meant to secure the kingdon’s backyard. Regime-rattling Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood both enjoyed Qatari state support and, in uncertain times of economic restructuring and inevitable cultural change, having those two wildcards in the mix was not a game the Saudis wanted to play. Read more “Saudi Arabia Tries the Waters of Retrenchment”

Donald Trump Wants Conflict with Iran

American president Donald Trump gives a speech in Paris, France, July 12
American president Donald Trump gives a speech in Paris, France, July 12 (DoD/Dominique A. Pineiro)

By all accounts, Iran is complying with the 2015 multilateral agreement that curtailed its nuclear program. The country is giving full access to inspectors, who have found no violations.

The only person upset by this is Donald Trump.

The New York Times revealed earlier this month that the American president had only reluctantly certified Iran’s compliance with the deal.

Now the same newspaper reports that he has instructed his team to find a way to declare Iran noncompliant — whether it is or not.

Congress requires the president to certify every three months that Iran is meeting its obligations under the agreement. If Trump doesn’t, then lawmakers have sixty days to restore sanctions that were rescinded in 2015. Read more “Donald Trump Wants Conflict with Iran”

Five Reasons to Doubt Libyan Truce Will Hold

Paolo Gentiloni and Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime ministers of Italy and Libya, inspect an honor guard in Rome, July 26
Paolo Gentiloni and Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime ministers of Italy and Libya, inspect an honor guard in Rome, July 26 (Palazzo Chigi)

Libya’s two most powerful leaders have agreed to call a ceasefire and hold elections next year after a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

Their deal has the potential to end six years of civil war, but there are at least five reasons to doubt it will hold:

  1. Khalifa Haftar, the generalissimo in charge of eastern Libya, and Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the internationally-recognized unity government in Tripoli, did not agree on a date for elections, so there is no deadline.
  2. The truce exempts counterterrorism, which Haftar and Sarraj could interpret differently. Haftar calls his entire campaign a counterterrorist operation.
  3. Libya’s institutions, including the central bank and National Oil Corporation, have recognized Sarraj’s as the legitimate government, but he has no security force of his own and could struggle to convince the militias that support him to stop fighting.
  4. Haftar, by contrast, has his own army, which occupies two-thirds of Libya, most of its oil ports and the city of Benghazi. But he has to convince a rival parliament in Tobruk to agree to the deal. Given how well the civil war has been going for them lately, they may balk at its terms.
  5. While Western countries and the United Nations back Sarraj, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates support Haftar in his war against Islamists. Read more “Five Reasons to Doubt Libyan Truce Will Hold”

To Save Saudi Arabia, They Needed a Young King

Ray Mabus, then America's secretary of the navy, speaks with Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, November 28, 2016
Ray Mabus, then America’s secretary of the navy, speaks with Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, November 28, 2016 (USN/Armando Gonzales)

By most metrics, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is running out of time. It’s finding it impossible to balance its budget after trying to wage a failed price war on shale oil. It is lurching toward a knowledge economy but hoping that knowledge does not bring a demand for political freedom along the way. Its economic model has hit a dead end. A housing crisis coupled with high, nearly permanent unemployment is dragging down the competitiveness of the kingdom.

Plus there’s the surging power of Iran, the madness of the Sunni supremacists in the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and the quite probable retrenchment of the Americans away from their old alliances in the Middle East.

To be a Saudi leader is to look into the future and despair.

Yet doomsday is not certain. In other places, great kings have overcome the burdens of geopolitics by force of will and shrewd wisdom. Peter the Great of Russia force-marched his empire into modernity, bestowing a powerful polity for his successors. Emperor Constantine cobbled together a Roman Empire from the fragments of a century of civil discord. Fredrick the Great managed to guide Prussia from a minor German state to the spine that would eventually unite the whole country after his death.

They all had one thing in common: decades of absolute power. Peter the Great ruled 39 years; Constantine, 31 years; Frederick the Great, 46 years. They had both time and energy to fix the many problems afflicting their domains.

Now the Saudis are gambling that Mohammad bin Salman, just 31 years old, can do the same for their kingdom. Read more “To Save Saudi Arabia, They Needed a Young King”

The Weapons of Saudi’s Siege on Qatar

Tilt-shift perspective of Doha, Qatar, May 21, 2010
Tilt-shift perspective of Doha, Qatar, May 21, 2010 (Joey Gannon)

Anyone who’s ever worked in the Gulf isn’t shocked that Qatar missed a deadline. Badiin, badiin, “later, later,” in the local parlance, as yet another meeting fails to happen.

In light of that, we shouldn’t be so surprised that the Qatar’s been given something of an extension. Reuters reports:

Four Arab states refrained on Wednesday from slapping further sanctions on Qatar but voiced disappointment at its “negative” response to their demands and said their boycott of the tiny Gulf nation would continue.

Qatar earlier in the day accused Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt of “clear aggression” and said the accusations cited when they severed ties a month ago “were clearly designed to create anti-Qatar sentiment in the West”.

Western media is conflict-driven and narrative-obsessed: the advent of 24/7 cable news in the 1980s transformed news from the highlights-heavy, factually-driven 5 o’clock stories to the ever-in-crisis outrage industrial complex.

That’s the result of a free market, free speech and cultural shifts that value action over substance.

Very little of that translates to the Arabian Gulf, where markets are only free in designated zones and where free speech applies only to those at the very, very top.

Thus the notion that missing the deadline was a disaster for Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi is hype. Anti-Saudi conspiracy theorists are grasping at what straws they can if they add up to a haystack of Saudi humiliation.

Alas, all of that misreads the situation and the Gulf in general. This is a soft-power war: Saudi Arabia and its UAE allies will not risk a military invasion of a country with a United States base inside it. They don’t have to either. For the kingdom and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) lackeys to call it a victory, they need only to wait. Read more “The Weapons of Saudi’s Siege on Qatar”

Egypt’s War on Sunni Supremacism Goes to Libya

American defense secretary James Mattis and Egyptian president Abdul Fatah Sisi stand to attention outside the Pentagon in Washington DC, April 5
American defense secretary James Mattis and Egyptian president Abdul Fatah Sisi stand to attention outside the Pentagon in Washington DC, April 5 (DoD/Amber I. Smith)

From Reuters:

Egyptian airstrikes destroyed twelve vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and explosive material trying to cross the border from Libya, the army spokesman said on Tuesday.

The airforce acted after hearing that “criminal elements” had gathered to try and cross the western boundary, the army statement said, without giving details on exactly where or when the strikes took place.

Despite the paucity of the initial report, it’s clear the Abdul Fatah al-Sisi is trying to look like he’s getting revenge for attacks on Egyptian Christians by Sunni supremacists, who are trying the same old terror tricks of the 1990s to destabilize the regime. Read more “Egypt’s War on Sunni Supremacism Goes to Libya”

Meet Mohammad bin Salman, the Last King of Saudi Arabia

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, arrives at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China September 5, 2016
Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, arrives at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China September 5, 2016 (Bundesregierung)

From Reuters:

Mohammad bin Salman, 31, was appointed crown prince by his father King Salman on Wednesday, replacing his cousin who is 26 years his senior. This made the prince, who already oversaw defense and energy policy, the most powerful figure in the country by some stretch after the octogenarian monarch.

Already more than a few have mentioned Mohammad bin Salman’s hawkish anti-Iran policies and his bold economic vision. But there’s more to the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia than that. He may be dynamic, comparatively worldly and supposedly forward-thinking, but the odds are we just met the last king of Saudi Arabia. Read more “Meet Mohammad bin Salman, the Last King of Saudi Arabia”