Saudi Arabia’s way forward: transition smooth—‘for now’


Saudi ArabiaSaudi Arabia’s King Abdullah will be remembered for his relatively reformist mindset and bold foreign policy initiatives, notes Bilal Y. Saab, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. But the Saudi leader’s passing will have little to no impact on the Kingdom’s future, especially given the set of increasingly difficult challenges the country will have to face at home and abroad, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

Leadership matters, especially in the Middle East, where institutions are weak and often nonexistent. But charisma and talent, on their own, won’t be enough to dig Saudi Arabia out of the profound generational problems that go beyond Abdullah, his successor Salman, or any leader who will preside over the Kingdom. Diversifying the economy, reducing unemployment, practicing good governance, further empowering women, combating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), checking Iran’s advances, improving relations with Washington, stabilizing Yemen, and leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—to name just a few—will require team work.

The question is whether the last year or two of drift, as King Abdullah grew ill, he will now be replaced with strong Saudi leadership, says Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Abdullah was widely respected at home and abroad, in part for his intelligence and in part for his piety, he writes for TIME. Whatever complaints were lodged against profligate Saudi royals did not apply to him, for his personal faith was very clear, notes Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

He was in his way also a reformer, for example establishing the Kingdom’s first coed university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. For decades, he and President Mubarak of Egypt were the two most powerful Arab leaders and key western allies. Mubarak fell in 2011, and Abdullah’s health began to fade soon after. The Arab world has lacked responsible leadership recently, although the Emiratis have tried to fill the breach.

raif-badawi-cropped-internalWhat remains to be seen is whether King Salman can now return the kingdom to its accustomed role, or is himself too old, Abrams adds.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, many pointed out that the baseline ideology for al-Qaida and other groups stemmed from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, AP reports.

And the attempts of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to style himself as spiritual leader of Muslims presents a challenge to the Saudi monarchy, which is responsible for Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, CNN reports:

“The Saudis fear it as a potential domestic threat, turning Salafism into a revolutionary political ideology rather than the pro-regime bulwark it has usually been in Saudi Arabia,” says F. Gregory Gause, III, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar.

“If you look at the ideology of ISIS and if you look at the ideology of the ruling religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, there’s not a whole lot of difference,”notes one regional expert.

The Saudis are apoplectic that the U.S. administration is “flirting with the Iranian mullahs,” writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot, who believes outreach to Iran will not succeed:

Iranian revolutionaries who still chant “Death to America” will not make common cause with us. And the price of flirting with them is to drive Sunnis, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, further into the camp of the jihadists.

From a moral standpoint, admittedly, there is little to choose from between Saudi Arabia and Iran: both are despotic theocracies that are anathema to American values. But from a strategic standpoint, Iran is much more of a threat to the U.S. and our allies.

A useful analogy here is World War II where we had to choose an alliance with the lesser evil (Stalin) to defeat the greater evil (Hitler), he writes for Commentary.

Jean-Francois Seznec, who teaches political economy of the Gulf at Georgetown University, said that the transition would probably not affect Saudi oil policy and the kingdom’s strategy of keeping production up despite falling prices in order to hang on to market share, the Times reports:

“I think for the time being that they will be careful not to change very much and to go for stability,” he said.

But dealing with the crisis in Yemen, which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia and harbors Qaeda militants who are hostile to the monarchy, will probably be Salman’s first task.

“I think it scares the hell out of the Saudis,” Mr. Seznec said. “It is a dangerous place for them, and their Yemeni policy has been a huge failure.”

Gulf oil officials say privately that Saudi Arabia and other OPEC producers have not completely ruled out a cut that might help calm the markets, The New York Times reports:

But the Persian Gulf producers insist that a wide range of countries, including Venezuela and non-OPEC producers like Russia, should participate — a long shot at this point.

“Saudi oil policy is set largely on a technocratic basis,” said Anthony Cordesman, a geopolitical expert who follows Persian Gulf affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is no major international reason for Saudi Arabia to change its current approach.”

Simon Henderson, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was most likely that the reins of power, including over oil policy, would be held by a group of advisers now forming around the king.

“Now that he is older, he is likely to take a more hands-off approach, relying on a coterie of advisers, which will probably include several of his sons,” said Mr. Henderson, who has written extensively on Saudi succession issues.

Abdullah’s death marks the passing from the scene of the last leader with real stature in the Arab world, notes Marwan Muasher, the Carnegie Endowment’s Vice President for Studies:

It is difficult to think of any individual today who would be able to bring together peers from across the region to work collectively as he did with, for example, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The appointment of Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince is significant in two ways: it signals a generational shift in the line of succession, and he is not the oldest of the cousins, signaling a new method of choosing Saudi kings.

Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program has argued that “Saudi Arabia is likely to continue to favor preserving its market share even as this means the decline of the price of oil.” Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center has written that Saudi Arabia can be expected to continue on the same foreign policy path it has been on for the past twelve months, but that “it can now do it more boldly because Mohammed bin Nayef has succeeded in formalizing his influence.”

“Their greatest worry is what’s going on in Yemen, which is very much their backyard,” said Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.

The recent controversy over the draconian sentence against liberal blogger Raif Badawi (above, right), or the recent public beheading of a convicted murderer, demonstrate the gulf between official Saudi perceptions and most of the rest of the world, notes Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine.

But while reforms under King Abdullah were limited and cautious, they did have some impact, he writes for Forward:

Among other things, there is an increasing pattern of prominent Saudis becoming far more publicly critical of official conduct. For example, last week the veteran Saudi journalist Khaled Almaeena complained in the New York Times that, “You reach a stage where you can’t defend the country… when someone is being lashed every Friday.” Special Dispatch No. 5943 – From The MEMRI Archives: Saudi Prince Salman: The Term ‘Wahhabi’ Was Coined by Saudi Arabia’s Enemies

Access Carnegie’s latest resources on Saudi Arabia here.

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Tunisia’s new government excludes Islamists

tunis-flagTunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced a new minority government Friday that excludes most of the major players on the political scene, including Islamist and leftist parties, AP reports:

The big winner in last year’s elections was the nationalist Nida Tunis party, but with only 86 of the 217 seats, it had promised to form a broad governing coalition to see the country out of its economic crisis. However, the 24 new ministers presented Friday appeared to come from only two parties that may not have enough seats to survive a no-confidence vote.

The cabinet includes 10 ministers from Nida Tunis, including the foreign minister, and three from the Free Patriotic Union Party, which holds 16 seats. Together the two parties will have less than half of the seats in parliament, which means they may have difficulty implementing the necessary reforms to tackle Tunisia’s titanic economic problems like high inflation and unemployment.

The Islamist party Ennahda, with the second largest number of seats in the assembly, had sought a unity government with Nidaa Tounes to improve stability with the new government set to crack down on Islamist militants and tackle economic reforms, Reuters adds:

Nidaa Tounes leaders had not openly opposed a unity administration. But Nidaa Tounes hardliners were against any alliance with Ennahda, who they blame for turmoil during the first Islamist-led government after the 2011 uprising. Ennahda party leaders were consulting on Friday on whether to accept the new government.

The Ministry of Tourism, a key sector that has struggled since the 2011 revolt that ousted long-time strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was given to a party headed by the owner of one of Tunis’s two major football clubs, AFP adds:

The Free Patriotic Union of wealthy businessman Slim Riahi, who owns Club Africain, was also given the ministry of sports and youth. Riahi’s party came third in the polls

A major external challenge facing Ennhada is its lack of governing experience, says analyst Monica Marks. Senior party members understand the need to reform the nation’s bureaucratic culture but have not yet identified how to implement such a change, she told the Project for Middle East Democracy:

The rise of Salafism within the country presents another challenge. This movement, which has violent elements, encompassed many types of Salafists. Ennhada initially struggled to respond to this challenge before settling upon increasing funding for religious education and socio-economic programs to address this situation.  Marks also pointed out internal challenges that have threatened the cohesiveness of the party, such as whether or not to form a coalition government with Nidaa Tunis officials and personnel from the Ben Ali  regime.

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Kerry calls for more resources to fight ‘global extremism’


Top: Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu), Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb) Bottom: Bernard Maris, Bernard Velhac (Tignous) (Image credit: AFP/Metronews)

Top: Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu), Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb)
Bottom: Bernard Maris, Bernard Velhac (Tignous) (Image credit: AFP/Metronews)

Countries must devote more resources to fight global extremism, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said today, but the battle would falter if it becomes consumed by sectarian division or Islamophobia, Reuters reports:

Speaking against a backdrop of deadly Islamist militant attacks in France, Pakistan, Nigeria and elsewhere, Kerry told leaders at the annual World Economic Forum: “These kinds of actions can never be excused. And they have to be opposed. …..He compared efforts to curb the spread of extremist violence to the fight against fascism in World War Two. “The first step is to make clear the civilized world will not cower in the face of this violence,” he said.

Kerry made no specific new proposals for how to counter the tide of violent militancy. U.S. President Barack Obama has invited allies to a Washington summit on the issue on Feb. 18. Saying world leaders must “keep our heads,” Kerry warned: “The biggest error that we could make would be to blame Muslims collectively for crimes not committed by Muslims alone.

“Unless we direct our energies in the right direction, we may very well fuel the very fires we want to put out,” he said. “There’s no room for sectarian division, there’s no room for anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.”

He added: “We can’t change minds without knowing what’s in them. And we have to do so mindful of the fact that understanding and acceptance are not the same.”

“We have to do more to avoid an endless cycle of violent extremism,” he said.

islamists nytBut New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman endorses columnist Rich Lowry’s  Politico essay in which he suggested that “the administration has lapsed into unselfconscious ridiculousness”  by using the phrase ‘violent extremism’ in order to obscure or deny the ideological motivation of radical Islamists.

Friedman also cites a remarkable piece in The Washington Post  by American Muslim Asra Q. Nomani, which called out the “honor corps” — a loose, well-funded coalition of governments and private individuals “that tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam”:

It “throws the label of ‘Islamophobe’ on pundits, journalists and others who dare to talk about extremist ideology in the religion. … The official and unofficial channels work in tandem, harassing, threatening and battling introspective Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere. … The bullying often works to silence critics of Islamic extremism. … They cause governments, writers and experts to walk on eggshells.”

Indeed, the aftermath of the tragic spate of terrorist attacks in Paris provokes several difficult questions, notes Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, founder of the Wasatia movement of moderate Islam:

How can we reform Islam? How can Islam, and for that matter all religions, be purged of radicals and extremists who preach and practice hate and intolerance in the name of God? Can the state impose religious reform without the support of official religious authorities? Can there be an honest and enlightened interpretation of the Quran without sparking a counterrevolution?

Moderate Muslims cannot remain bystanders, he writes for Fikra Forum:

We have to join forces in recognition that our religion has been hijacked by a small, vocal minority for political ends. We, the silent, moderate majority, must raise our voices no matter the risk and stand up for what we believe. Only our voices can stem the allure of radical Islam. We must draw on our creativity and innovation to promote moderation in religion and politics, and strive to create a world built on egalitarianism, democracy, moderation, and prosperity.

There is a remarkably novel and unlikely ideological alternative emerging to Islamist radicalism, argues David Romano, Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University, and co-editor of Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East (2014, Palgrave Macmillan):

The Kurds of Syria and Turkey, in the most unlikely of circumstances, have reinvented their leading political movements and begun experimenting with a modern variant of egalitarian, local, direct democracy. In a world thirsty for ways to contain the Islamist fever that has taken over many Muslims, one would expect people to pay a bit more attention to such secular efforts, or to at least be a bit more enthusiastic about such alternatives. Yet serious discussions of “democratic autonomy” barely make the mainstream news. 

 A  “new integrationist” discourse is widely shared across European countries and, interestingly, promoted by former left-wing activists, notes Jocelyne Cesari, Senior Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, and Director of Harvard University’s Islam in the West Program:  

Gender equality and rejection of religious authority, which were primary left-wing topics of struggle in the 1960s have become in the present decade the legitimate markers of European identity. In these conditions, all groups and individuals are required to demonstrate conformity to these liberal values in order to become legitimate members of national communities. The “Moderate Muslims” label serves this purpose. It creates a distinction that is supposedly not based on Islam as such but on the adherence of Muslims to liberal values.

Brutal intimidation of actual and potential critics is just one of the aims of revolutionary groups, notes Ian Buruma, Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College:

What revolutionaries hate most of all are not direct attacks by their enemies, but the necessary compromises, the give and take, the negotiations and adaptations that go with living in a liberal democracy. Their most important goal is to gain more recruits for their cause. If they are Islamists, they must try to force peaceful, law-abiding Muslims to stop making compromises with the secular societies they live in. They need more Holy Warriors.

The most effective way to do this is to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash by attacking symbolic targets, such as the Twin Towers in New York, a notorious filmmaker in Amsterdam, or a controversial satirical magazine in Paris. The more Muslims in Europe feel feared, rejected, and under siege by the non-Muslim majority, the more likely they are to support the extremists.

“If we conclude from last weeks’ murders that Islam is at war with the West, the jihadis will have won a major victory,” Buruma contends. “If we embrace the peaceful majority of Muslims as our allies against revolutionary violence, and treat them as fully equal fellow citizens, our democracies will emerge stronger.”

For analyst Ahmed Benchemsi, founder & editor in chief of, promoting democracy in so-called Muslim countries and empowering local liberals would be a good place to start.

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Cuba: civil society’s ‘new wiggle space’ – four conditions for US reset

cuba posibleThe United States and Cuba began historic talks Thursday, aimed at ending more than five decades of official estrangement, The Washington Post reports:

Despite somewhat stony exteriors as the official sessions began, the delegation heads, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, head of the Americas department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, were said to have made initial progress in breaking the ice ……Jacobson plans to hold a breakfast for Cuban civil society representatives, human rights activists and political dissidents Friday before her departure.

Jacobson said re-establishing diplomatic ties and opening embassies in Havana and Washington were “not overly cumbersome,” but that the two sides had profound differences on other issues, such as Cuba’s human rights record, Reuters adds.

The Presidents of the United States and Cuba have laid the groundwork that will allow “Cuba’s situation to improve,” said Yoani Sanchez, a prominent dissident blogger and director of the Internet portal “We now have to use this new wiggle space.”CUBA DEPEISTRE

Raul Castro has warned that he does not consider this new era of detente an opening for significantly altering Cuba’s communist system, one-party rule or economy, which is largely controlled by the state, the LA Times reports.

“Raul Castro will try to gain the most while giving up the least,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, a leading dissident who opposes the regime but welcomes rapprochement, said in an interview.

Cuban officials are hanging tight to their managed economy and will do their best to control any transition, analysts suggest.

“As Roberta Jacobson begins historic talks with Cuban officials, the first of their kind in over 30 years, it is essential to keep progress on democratic reform and respect for human rights at the top of the agenda,” said Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House. Ms. Jacobson and her delegation should “raise concerns over recent crackdowns on universal human rights, including freedom of expression, and engage in meaningful conversation with members of Cuban civil society and dissidents, who will be instrumental in balancing discourse while diplomatic relations are being restored.”

Totalitarian regime

cuba foranothercubalogoindexCuba is home to the longest-standing totalitarian regime in the Western Hemisphere, said the University of Delaware’s Maria P. Aristigueta, who recently presented a talk on “The Role of Civil Society in Leading Change in Cuba.”

Civil society groups in Cuba are cautiously optimistic about the change in U.S. policy, she said, drawing on her research conducted through a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grant in 2007. But they want to ensure that four main conditions are met prior to the U.S. re-establishing diplomatic relations with the country, she said:

  • Political prisoners need to be released immediately. Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation estimates there are still more than 100 people imprisoned.
  • Cuba must ratify the United Nations human rights covenants.
  • All “apparatus of repression” must be dismantled, including assaults on “counterrevolutionaries,” arbitrary arrests, demonization and intimidation of those who think differently, and police surveillance of activists.
  • The Cuban government must accept the existence of civic structures that have the right to express opinions, decide, question, and choose. These voices that have not been represented in the current negotiations between the governments of Cuba and the U.S.

[T]he biggest prize [of the policy shift] should be the advance of democracy and open markets in Latin America, The Economist says:

The Castros are not the only ones who will be discomfited by the loss of the American alibi. Venezuela leads a loose coalition of countries that uses defiance of the United States as an excuse for policies that stunt economic growth and democratic rights. It has long supported Cuba (and other Caribbean countries) with sales of oil at heavily subsidised prices. Even for robustly democratic countries like Brazil, the American bogeyman makes it easier to justify resistance to trade deals and to cosy up to uglier regimes.

Gradualism rather than revolution is what Cuba needs, according to Harvard analyst Noah Feldman:

Of course human rights abuses should be reversed and free expression expanded. That’s why the freeing of political prisoners is a positive step. But when it comes to Cuba’s economic development, slow progress is preferable to radical transformation. The same is true of political evolution; moving too fast might not produce greater freedom, but actually the opposite.

Cuba is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2014, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2014 and Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2014

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How Hungary’s Orban became Europe’s new strongman

Hungaryorban_full_380-300x199Of all countries in the European Union, Hungary, a member since 2004, is the most likely to turn away from democracy, a Western diplomat in Budapest tells analyst Stephan Faris:

Many in Hungary trace Orban’s authoritarian streak to his narrow loss in 2002 to the Hungarian Socialist Party, which eked out a victory by promising to raise pensions. Until then, Orban had maintained the trajectory charted by his predecessors: transitioning Hungary from socialism to a free-market economy. After losing, “he realized that the macroeconomic performance of the country is not as important as the popularity you get by promising something to the people,” says Tamas Mellar, an economist at the University of Pecs who served during Orban’s first administration as the president of the Hungarian statistical office.


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