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

The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project has taken a recent look at how the Islamic world view religious extremism. They see it increasingly dimly and are increasingly worried about it.

Attitudes in the countries surveyed have shown a decline in support for extremism on the whole, though the report points out that support for suicide bombings still holds strong minority support in several countries.

The polling was done before ISIS declared itself a caliphate. I suspect that the negative numbers would decline even more sharply were to polls to be held today.

Concerns about Islamic Extremism on the Rise in Middle East
Negative Opinions of al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah Widespread

As well-publicized bouts of violence, from civil war to suicide bombings, plague the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. And in the Middle East, concern is growing. Lebanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks are all more worried about the extremist threat than they were a year ago.

Meanwhile, publics hold very negative opinions of well-known extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.

In Nigeria, the vast majority of respondents, both Muslims and Christians alike, have an unfavorable view of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that recently kidnapped hundreds of girls in the restive north of the country. And a majority of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the Taliban.

Few Muslims in most of the countries surveyed say that suicide bombing can often or sometimes be justified against civilian targets in order to defend Islam from its enemies. And support for the tactic has fallen in many countries over the last decade. Still, in some countries a substantial minority say that suicide bombing can be justified.

These are the main findings of a new Pew Research Center survey conducted among 14,244 respondents in 14 countries with significant Muslim populations from April 10 to May 25, 2014. The survey was conducted prior to the recent takeover of Mosul and other areas of Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The poll is reported in Arab News among other Saudi media, though Saudi Arabia was not among those countries polled.

July:03:2014 - 07:18 | Comments Off | Permalink

Following his removal as Deputy Minister of Defense, Khaled bin Bandar has been named as Chief of General Intelligence. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, meanwhile, was named as Advisor to King Abdullah.

The palace intrigues continue.

New Gigs for Prince Bandar and Prince Khalid
Patrick W. Ryan | SUSRIS

Two appointments were announced today in Saudi Arabia installing Prince Bandar bin Sultan as Advisor to King Abdullah and Prince Khalid bin Bandar to Chief of General Intelligence.

The naming of Prince Khalid as intelligence chief comes two days after he was relieved as Deputy Defense Minister – where he served for only six weeks — a move that spurred speculation about leadership realignment and future succession intrigue. The announcement noted that the action was taken at the recommendation of Crown Prince Salman, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister.

King names new intelligence chief

JEDDAH: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has tapped the former deputy defense minister to lead the Kingdom’s intelligence services.

The king named Prince Khaled bin Bandar to the post of chief of general intelligence in a decree on Monday, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Prince Khaled was relieved of his post as deputy defense minister on Saturday, barely six weeks after he was appointed.

Prince Khaled was previously the governor of the Riyadh region, an important post he assumed in February 2013 that involves overseeing the capital and provides opportunities for direct contact with top officials and visiting dignitaries.

The king also named the former intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as adviser and special envoy to the king.

Prince Bandar was ambassador to the US for 22 years before becoming director general of Saudi intelligence agency in July 2012.

July:01:2014 - 08:20 | Comments Off | Permalink

Just 45 days after his appointment as Deputy Minister of Defense, Pr. Khaled bin Bandar has been shown the door. A brief statement from the Royal Court announced his departure. Arab News carries the statement:

Deputy minister of defense relieved of position

Prince Khaled bin Bandar, deputy minister of defense, has been relieved of his position upon his request, said a royal decree issued by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah on Saturday.

Prince Khaled, who was appointed deputy defense minister on May 14, 2014, was removed from the post on the recommendation of Crown Prince Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense.

King Abdullah issued another decree relieving Saud bin Saeed Al-Muthami from his position as state minister and Cabinet member for the Shoura Council affairs upon his request. Al-Muthami has been replaced by Mohammad bin Faisal Abusaq as the new state minister for Shoura affairs.

Ahmed Al Omran — known to us also as “Saudi Jeans” — points out in a Wall St. Journal article, that the announcement lacked the normal courtesy language of “upon his request”. This suggests that it was at the request of someone else. No replacement has yet been named.

… The royal decree sacking the deputy defense minister lacked the customary “upon his request” line usually used with departing members of the ruling family. This has stoked speculation about a power struggle at the ministry between him and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of the Crown Prince.

June:29:2014 - 11:38 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | 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

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

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

The linguistics blog Languagehat has an interesting post about the way the Disney Corporation has changed its approach toward localizing the versions of its films intended for non-English-speaking audiences. Commenting on the work done on the latest Disney film “Frozen”, it notes that rather than dubbing the film into Egyptian Arabic, as had been the norm, the film was released to Arab audiences dubbed in Modern Standard Arabic. This has both puzzled and upset many.

The comments to the post offer interesting insights about both language versioning of films and the question of how dialects of Arabic are considered.

Translating Frozen Into Arabic.

Elias Muhanna, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University, has an excellent New Yorker blog post about just what the title says:

One of the forty-one languages in which you can watch “Frozen” is Modern Standard Arabic. This is a departure from precedent. Earlier Disney films (from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “Pocahontas” to “Tangled”) were dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, the dialect with the largest number of speakers in the region, based in a country with a venerable history of film production. Generations of Arabs grew up watching Egyptian movies, and the Disney musicals capitalized on their familiarity with this particular dialect.

Modern Standard Arabic is very similar to Classical Arabic, the centuries-old lingua franca of the medieval Islamic world. Today, it is the language of officialdom, high culture, books, newscasts, and political sermonizing. Most television shows, films, and advertisements are in colloquial Arabic, and the past several years have seen further incursions of the dialects into areas traditionally reserved for the literary language.

June:07:2014 - 06:28 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

The Belfer Center at the Harvard-based John F Kennedy School for Government, has published a report (43-page PDF) on Saudi Arabia’s defense goals, strategies, and resources. The report, by Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid, discusses how Saudi Arabia sees itself in a threatening world and how it seeks to ameliorate risk. The report is not official policy, but what Obaid, a knowledgeable analyst, believes it might or should be. He is likely correct.

The Obaid identifies seven goals:

    – To Defend the Homeland
    – To Maintain Success in Counterterrorism Efforts
    – To Bolster the Defense of Strategic Allies
    – To Succeed in Power Projection
    – To Deter the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)
    – To Establish Two Separate Commands for Cyberspace and Space
    – To Strengthen Inter-agency Partnerships

May:29:2014 - 06:39 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Washington Post reports on a flap that is stirring in Saudi Arabia over the naming of Prince Muqrin as Deputy Crown Prince. Tongues, including those of the sons of older princes who were skipped over, are wagging; fingers are being pointed; conspiracy theories are infesting the social media.

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised. This isn’t the first time princes have been skipped over. Sometimes, it’s been at their own request. At others, it’s been because they were not deemed suitable or capable of being King. Nor is it the first time that a Second Deputy Prime Minister — who was Deputy Crown Prince in all but name — has been selected.

With the aging of King Abdullah, the question of succession does become more urgent, but I believe he has settled matters through his creation of the Allegiance Council, formed to deal with exactly those issues. If it turns out that he was mistaken and that the Council has no authority, then there will be squabbling over who rises to power. And that will lead to a repetition of what happened with the Second Saudi State. If it happens again, though, there will be no chance for a future Abdulaziz to slip out of exile to regain the throne. Instead, the Saudi royal family with be dispersed — along with their bank accounts — to countries far and wide. What happens to the country left behind them will be something for future analysts and historians to discuss.

Appointment of deputy heir to throne stirs controversy in Saudi Arabia
Liz Sly

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — When Saudi Arabia’s elderly king took the unusual step of naming a deputy heir, the move initially was welcomed as a sign of continuity in a country that soon will confront major questions over the future of its leadership.

But in subsequent weeks, the announcement has stirred a rare outburst of dissent, revealing previously unacknowledged strains within the royal family and casting into doubt prospects for a smooth transition from King Abdullah’s rule.

The king’s youngest brother, Muqrin, who was named deputy crown prince on the eve of President Obama’s visit in March, appears to be popular among ordinary people, who say he is not corrupt. He also is well-regarded by foreign diplomats, who describe him as likable and smart.

But behind closed doors, royal tongues have been wagging about the manner in which Muqrin was chosen, the validity of his newly created title and his pedigree as the son of a Yemeni concubine who was never formally married to his father.

May:27:2014 - 08:33 | Comments Off | Permalink

Following discussions with the Saudi government, the International Monetary Fund finds that the country is on sound footing. Both growth and inflation figures are in the sustainable level. It is likely that the government will have to reduce government spending in the coming years,though. The reports notes that the government is making widespread reforms in its economy, including diversification, and that Saudi Arabia remains an important provider of financial assistance to other countries.

IMF Mission Statement at the Conclusion of 2014 Article IV Discussions with Saudi Arabia

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) team led by Mr. Tim Callen, IMF Mission Chief to Saudi Arabia, held discussions during May 4-15 on the 2014 Article IV Consultation with Saudi Arabia. The completion of the Article IV Consultation is subject to the discussion by the IMF Executive Board. At the conclusion of the mission, Mr. Callen made the following statement:

“The economic outlook in Saudi Arabia remains favorable. Growth above 4 percent is expected in 2014 and 2015, led by government spending and robust private sector activity. Risks around this growth outlook are evenly balanced. Inflation is likely to remain subdued.

“Saudi Arabia continues to play a systemic role in stabilizing the global oil market, which contributes positively to the global economy. Regionally, Saudi Arabia is a generous provider of financial assistance to other countries, while remittances sent home by expatriates working in the country are an important source of income for many countries.

“The government is undertaking an ambitious economic reform and investment program to further develop and diversify the economy and create jobs, and important progress is being made. The program is focused on further developing infrastructure, improving the business environment, increasing the quality of education and skills, and employing more Saudi nationals in the private sector.

H/T to Saudi-US Relations Information Service (SUSRIS)

May:22:2014 - 09:03 | 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
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