The Great Game was the rivalry that played out between the British Empire and the Russian Empire in the 19th and early 20th C. for supremacy in Central Asia. Today, there’s a new “Great Game” being played out in iraq, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The rise of ISIS/ISIL and the declaration of a new “Islamic State” have brought into high relief the problems sectarian violence in the region. The direct causes are many, but the effects are a multiple of that, affecting all states in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

Cordesman’s piece is meant as possible guidance for US policy-makers. It’s an interesting analysis.

The New “Great Game” in the Middle East: Looking Beyond the “Islamic State” and Iraq
Anthony Cordesman

The U.S. has good reason to try to prevent the creation of a violent, extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to reverse the gains of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria)/ ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), and to help move Iraq back towards a more stable and unified form of government. The chances, however, are that the U.S. can at best have only partial success. The U.S. faces years in which Iraq is divided by sectarian and ethnic power struggles, the Syrian civil war continues, facilitating some form of radical Sunni threat crossing the border between Syria and Iraq.

ISIS/ISIL did not suddenly materialize in Iraq in December 2013. For years, the group exploited growing Sunni and Shi’ite sectarian divisions and steady drift towards civil war. For at least the last three years, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s actions of building his own power structure around a Shi’ite dominated state with close ties to Iran alienated Sunnis and exacerbated tensions.

The U.S. cannot simply intervene in Iraq by attacking ISIS/ISIL. It is a major movement in Syria as well as Iraq. The U.S. must also find some way to limit and roll back ISIS/ISIL -– without taking sides in Iraq’s broader civil war. At the same time, creating anything approaching a stable Iraq means creating new and lasting political bridges across Iraq’s increasingly polarized and divided factions as well as helping to create a more effective and truly national government in Iraq, as well as rebuild Iraqi forces that serve the nation, rather than an increasingly authoritarian Shi’ite leader.

It is far from clear that the U.S. can do this, and Syria and Iraq are only the most visible challenges taking place in the strategic game board that shapes the Middle East. The U.S. must also deal with a much broader set of new strategic forces that go far beyond Iraq’s borders. The U.S. must change the structure of its de facto alliances with key Arab states in the region, and it must deal with new forms of competition -– or “Great Game” with Russia — and possibly China, as well.

July:12:2014 - 07:14 | Comments Off | Permalink

Fuad Ajami, scholar and writer on Middle Eastern affairs, has died. I had the pleasure of hosting him at my home in Riyadh several times. While we had some differences on certain aspects of the politics of the Middle East, he was always courteous and informed, a pleasure to know.

June:23:2014 - 09:35 | Comments Off | Permalink

According to this piece in Saudi Gazette, the Internet hacking group Anonymous — or some anonymous group claiming to be Anonymous — is setting its sights on Gulf oil companies. Supposedly, the attacks are motivated by Anonymous’ anger that oil prices are denominated in dollars. That strikes me as just about the lamest excuse I’ve come across, but I guess I’m just not cut out to be a member of Anonymous, or Pretend Anonymous.

Cyber attacks loom over KSA, UAE, Qatar oil firms

DUBAI – A Middle East-based group of hackers has issued a threat warning of cyber attacks against oil, gas and energy companies in the Middle East, security firm Symantec has revealed.

The threat, made by Anonymous, a politically- motivated group of hacktivists, states that they are planning to attack before, during, and after June 20, 2014.

This is due to Anonymous disagreeing with the US dollar being used as the currency to buy and sell oil, Symantec said. According to the security firm, governments that may be attacked include those in Saudi Arabia Kuwait and Qatar.

Some of the possible company targets include Kuwait Oil Company, Petroleum Development Oman, Qatar Petroleum, Saudi Aramco, ADNOC, ENOC and Bahrain Petroleum Company.

While there are limited details regarding the tools that will be used, based on previous observations, Symantec said the attacks will most likely include distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, phishing/spear-phishing emails, intrusion and data-theft attempts, vulnerable software exploration, web application exploits, and website defacement.

June:19:2014 - 05:06 | Comments Off | Permalink

The insurgent/terrorist group, the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham, ISIS, has taken over parts of Iraq and continues to battle in Syria. Various pundits have offered their opinions about how this group is funded. Some — including lazy ones who work from stereotypes — have blamed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States despite the fact that several of those countries — and most certainly Saudi Arabia — have labeled the group as terrorists. Saudi Arabia has not only blocked funding, but has jailed those who support the group or who have gone off to fight with it.

Foreign Policy magazine offers a new take. It reports that even though some funding from GCC states had gone to ISIS in the early days, and it’s likely that some private funding still does, the group is now self-supporting. Through a variety of criminal acts, ISIS is able to find the money to fund operations, pay salaries, pay bribes, buy weapons, and train recruits. Were every riyal, dinar, dirham or dollar from the Gulf to be cut off, the group would be in fine fiscal shape.

Never mind that the group grabbed tens, if not hundreds of million dollars from Iraqi banks through simple robbery. The group is also involved in oil smuggling, extortion, and kidnappings for ransom. According to a report from the Carnegie Institute for Peace Studies, the group may be earning as much as $50 million per month on smuggled oil alone.

ISIS Uses Mafia Tactics to Fund Its Own Operations
Without Help From Persian Gulf Donors
Yochi Dreazen

When fighters from the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham (ISIS) stole tens of millions of dollars from a bank in Mosul earlier this year, it wasn’t simply a startling symbol of the collapse of Baghdad’s control over Iraq’s second-largest city. The brazen theft was instead a stark illustration of one of the most alarming aspects of ISIS’s rise: the group’s growing ability to fund its own operations through bank heists, extortion, kidnappings, and other tactics more commonly associated with the mob than with violent Islamist extremists.

In its early years ISIS — like the Taliban and other Sunni militants — received most of its funding from wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and other Persian Gulf countries. Extremists in those U.S. ally states continue to send money to ISIS, but American counterterrorism officials believe that the group now finances the bulk of its recruitment, weapons purchases, and attacks without outside help. In other words, even if the United States and its allies somehow stopped the flow of money from the Persian Gulf to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, it would be too late to prevent ISIS from banking enough money to fight on for years.

“The overwhelming majority of their money comes from criminal activities like bank heists, extortion, robberies, and smuggling,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official. “They’re getting some money from outside donors, but that pales in comparison to their self-funding.”

June:18:2014 - 07:33 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Asharq Alawsat runs an interesting interview with Greg Gause, an American analyst who focuses on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The interview ranges widely, from Qatar and its ambitions, to the stresses within the GCC brought about by Syria, to the future of relations between the US and Iran, to why Kuwait has become the center for terrorist funding. It’s worth reading in full.

In Conversation with Gregory Gause

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Beyond its terrible human and material cost, the Syrian conflict has exposed and exacerbated some of the Middle East’s deepest political fault lines. Outside of Syria itself, the crisis has been defined by stark differences among regional and international powers—not only between backers and opponents of the Bashar Al-Assad regime, but also within the anti-Assad camp—over how to approach the crisis.

Meanwhile, the United States seems close to an agreement with Iran——Bashar Al-Assad’s chief regional ally—over the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program. This deeply worries many Arab states, especially those in the Gulf, who struggle to understand Washington’s willingness to deal with the two issues separately. This has been a main source of tension between the US and Saudi Arabia, one of the US’s oldest allies in the region.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with one of the leading American experts in the politics and international relations of the Middle East, Professor Gregory Gause, about these and other important developments. Currently a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, he will soon be joining the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Gause is the author of numerous articles on regional matters, as well as three books: The International Relations of the Persian Gulf (2010), Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States (1994); Saudi–Yemeni Relations: Domestic Structures and Foreign Influence (1990).

June:17:2014 - 08:10 | Comments Off | Permalink

War, crises, and sanctions in several of the oil-producing states is leading to a global oil shortage, Bloomberg news reports in this piece carried by Asharq Alawsat. This is driving prices higher and pinching economies as well as consumers. Saudi Arabia, the country with the greatest oil reserves, needs to increase its production to record levels if oil prices are to remain within economic reason, the report says.

This is the direct opposite of what analysts had been suggesting just half a year ago when there were positive expectations that Libya, Iraq, and Iran would work their ways out of their problems and get their oil back on the market.

Increased production from the US takes pressure off prices in the US, but because of laws prohibiting the export of crude oil, it does little for the global market other than to reduce US demand. That’s not a small thing, but it is insufficient to make up the shortfall between international demand and international production.

World needs Saudi Arabia to supply record oil as OPEC meets

London, Bloomberg—OPEC ministers say they will almost certainly leave their oil-production ceiling unchanged when the group meets this week. What really matters for markets is whether Saudi Arabia will respond to global supply shortfalls by pumping a record amount of crude.

Just six months ago, energy analysts predicted output from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries would climb too high and Saudi Arabia needed to cut to make room for other suppliers. They changed their minds after production from Libya, Iran and Iraq failed to rebound as anticipated, and industrialized nations’ stockpiles fell to the lowest for the time of year since 2008. Saudi Arabia may need to pump a record 11 million barrels a day by December to cover the other member nations, says Energy Aspects, a consultant.

“Now it’s not whether the Saudis will make room, but whether they’ll keep it going and maintain enough spare capacity,” said Jamie Webster, a Washington-based analyst at IHS, an industry researcher. “OPEC is increasingly having a hard time just doing its job of bringing all the barrels needed.”

June:10:2014 - 07:29 | Comments Off | Permalink

Could the MERS virus be hiding in other animals? That’s what the American Centers for Disease Control is wondering. According to a BBC report, the CDC wants to look at dogs, cats, and rats as possible vectors of the disease.

Dogs, of course, are not well-favored pets in the Kingdom, but cats are popular. And rats are ubiquitous. If they do indeed turn out to be carriers, that could go some way in explaining the odd pattern of the disease outside of medical establishments.

The political analysis blog, The American Interest, reports

Cats and dogs to be tested for mysterious Mers infection
Matt McGrath

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was first discovered in 2012 and has so far killed about 200 people globally.

While the virus that causes it has been found widely in camels, researchers say it could be lurking in other species.

One expert told BBC News that the hunt was likely to extend soon to animals that had close contact with people.

Mers was originally found in a patient from Bishah in Saudi Arabia but since then almost 600 cases of the infection have been discovered around the world, with about 30% of those who get sick dying from the illness.

Researchers believe the coronavirus that causes the infection crossed over from animals.

As the numbers of people infected by the virus rose, scientists sought to test common animals in the Middle East for exposure.

The CDC also reports that the prevalence of MERS among camels is more widespread than had been reported earlier. They have found antibodies to the virus in camels in Tunisia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. Interestingly, the samples taken from the camels date from 2009, several years before the 2012 outbreak affecting humans in Saudi Arabia.

PowerPoint Presentation

May:28:2014 - 00:01 | Comments Off | Permalink

A third case of the MERS-CoV virus has been identified in the US. This case is of particular interest because the victim had not traveled to Saudi Arabia, but had been in contact with a previously identified victim of the disease. This shows a direct, person-to-person transmission of the virus.

The Chicago Tribune newspaper reports on the issue. The third victim was a resident of Illinois.

CDC: Illinois man is 3rd reported case of MERS in nation
Jonathan Bullington Tribune reporter

A U.S. citizen previously hospitalized in Indiana with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, has passed the potentially fatal virus to an Illinois man, federal health officials said Saturday.

Health officials originally contacted the Illinois resident earlier this month after learning that he had met with the Indiana patient on two occasions prior to the Indiana man’s hospitalization, according to a release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An initial test of the Illinois man on May 5 came back negative for an active MERS-CoV infection, officials said. But further testing revealed that the man had in fact been previously infected with the virus.

The Illinois man did not require medical care, officials said, and is reportedly feeling well. Local health officials are continuing to monitor the man’s health condition, officials said.

The man’s body likely developed antibodies that fought off the MERS virus, health officials said.

Associated Press reports that the second US case of MERS, a medical worker in Florida who had been working in Saudi Arabia, has now been released from the hospital:

Florida MERS patient released from hospital

May:20:2014 - 09:37 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

A Saudi Gazette story focuses on a different aspect of concern about the MERS-CoV flu virus: asymptomatic carriers. The media is generally good about reporting on cases of diagnosed MERS and the death toll. What no one is really sure about, though, are those cases that are sub-critical, instances where one has only mild symptoms or no symptoms, and never sees a doctor. Are these carriers a threat? Can they spread the virus without even knowing they have it?

According to the Reuters report which the paper republishes, this is now being studied by the American Centers for Disease Control.

Milder coronavirus cases worry experts

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Scientists leading the fight against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) say the next critical front will be understanding how the virus behaves in people with milder infections, who may be spreading the illness without being aware they have it.

Establishing that may be critical to stopping the spread of MERS, which emerged in the Middle East in 2012 and has so far infected more than 500 patients in Saudi Arabia alone. It kills about 30 percent of those who are infected.

It is becoming increasingly clear that people can be infected with MERS without developing severe respiratory disease, said Dr David Swerdlow, who heads the MERS response team at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “You don’t have to be in the intensive care unit with pneumonia to have a case of MERS,” Swerdlow told Reuters. “We assume they are less infectious (to others), but we don’t know.”

The CDC has a team in Saudi Arabia studying whether such mild cases are still capable of spreading the virus. Swerdlow is overseeing their work from Atlanta. They plan to test the family members of people with mild MERS, even if these relatives don’t have any symptoms, to help determine whether the virus can spread within a household.

Arab News runs a piece noting that health care professionals seem to be at higher risk of acquiring MERS and that they need to take precautions. The dangers, however, are not sufficient to dissuade foreign health workers from taking up jobs in the Kingdom. Potential incomes are high and the workers are making their own risk assessments.

Health workers risk spreading MERS, warns US expert

May:18:2014 - 08:46 | Comments Off | Permalink

An interesting essay in the “New Statesman” from American writer David Eggers about a car trip between Jeddah and Riyadh…

Dave Eggers: The long ride to Riyadh
David Eggers

We are flying down an empty six-lane highway, on our way from Jeddah to Riyadh, a seven-hour drive, and I’m thinking of possible routes of escape. I’m in the passenger seat of a new Toyota sedan travelling at 140kph through the Saudi Arabian desert and I’m racing through the implications of opening my door and leaping free.

The driver is a stranger to me. He is young, no more than twenty-five, with a smooth face and a tentative moustache. His name is Shadad, but he is not a taxi driver, and this is not a taxi. This car and this driver were arranged hastily by my guide and friend, Majed, who helped me around Jeddah the previous week. Before this drive began, Majed and I considered it a decent, if necessary, idea to employ such a driver for this trip, but now I am pondering how I could leave this car. If I open the door and roll out, would I survive? And if I did survive, where would I go? There’s nothing but rocks and sand for miles in any direction.

But still. Vacating this car might be necessary, because though I want to trust this young driver, he is not really a professional driver, and he has no taxi licence, and most of all, moments ago, while he was talking to a friend on his cellphone, he looked over to me with a mischievous smile and said to his friend, “Yeah, American, boom boom.” Then he laughed. He did everything but point his finger at me and pull the trigger. I’m not sure how many ways there are to interpret this.

May:15:2014 - 10:30 | Comments Off | Permalink

The World Health Organization does not see a need to declare the outbreak of MERS-CoV an international health emergency, at the present time. Asharq Alawsat carries an Associated Press story reporting on the emergency meeting of the WHO yesterday. While there is concern about the disease and while WHO is calling on all medical authorities to heighten their awareness of it, the disease has not yet reached a point where it is readily transmissible between people.

The story also notes that two health care workers in Florida who had been under observation and quarantine due to fears that they had contracted the disease have now been released from the hospital. They were not infected with the virus.

WHO: MERS virus isn’t an emergency—yet

London, AP—The spread of a puzzling respiratory virus in the Middle East and beyond doesn’t yet constitute a global health emergency despite a recent spike in cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday.

The decision was made after a meeting of the WHO’s expert group on the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.

Since 2012, MERS has sickened more than 500 people and killed 145, mostly in the Middle East. The vast majority of cases have been in Saudi Arabia, although the disease has spread within the region and to Asia, North Africa, Europe and the United States.

MERS often starts with flu-like symptoms but can lead to pneumonia, breathing problems and in severe cases, kidney failure and death.

“Calling a global emergency in a world which has a lot of urgent issues going on is a major act,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, an assistant director-general of the WHO, told reporters Wednesday. “You have to have really solid information to say this is a global emergency.”

Fukuda said there wasn’t yet proof of the virus’ sustained transmission among people.

Last week the WHO did declare the world’s widening polio outbreaks, including those in Syria and Iraq, to be an international health emergency.

CNN carries a similar report, hyped just a bit to catch eye-balls:

MERS outbreak becomes more urgent, WHO says

American National Public Radio (NPR) has a program on how hospitals in the US are preparing for a MERS outbreak:

How U.S. Hospitals Are Planning To Stop The Deadly MERS Virus

Saudi Gazette reports on the first case of a Dutch citizen acquiring the disease:

Traveler from KSA first Dutch case of coronavirus

May:15:2014 - 09:00 | Comments Off | Permalink

With the second case of MERS-CoV flu virus being identified in the US and two more Saudi doctors dying of the disease in Jeddah, following an recent eruption of the disease in Saudi Arabia the World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting to see what steps need to be taken next. A WHO report is expected later today.

In a report issued a few days ago, the WHO noted that secondary infections, spread from a patient with MERS to another person, have been limited to health care workers. WHO believes this is due to improper care being taken within hospitals and clinics in dealing with infectious disease in general. It notes, too, that the virus is killed in camel milk by pasteurization, thus the Saudi government’s warning that camel milk should be boiled before being consumed.

WHO is puzzled by patients being diagnosed with the disease that are not among health care workers and who also have had no contact with camels. They are unsure if there is a low-level of person-to-person transmission going on or whether there is another vector, other than camels.

In the US, hospitals and emergency rooms in Florida are being advised that they should ask patients presenting with flu symptoms whether they have traveled recently to Saudi Arabia. If so, they are to be quarantined until diagnoses are made.

Arab News reports that the American Centers for Disease Control has put up warning signs at major US international airports advising travelers that if they should show symptoms of the flu and have traveled to the Gulf region recently, they should contact their doctors.

2 Orlando health workers ill after exposure to MERS patient

Saudi Gazette:

MERS kills two doctors in Jeddah

Arab News:

MERS warning signs at 22 major US airports,
including all 3 in New York City area

CDC website:

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)

World Health Organization MERS Update (May 9, 2014)

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS ? CoV) summary
and literature update–as of 9 May 2014

May:14:2014 - 07:51 | Comments Off | Permalink
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