10  July 2014
Singapore Middle East Reflections

Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar challenges Saudi Arabia

by James M. Dorsey

As Saudi Arabia seeks to inoculate itself against the violence, civil disobedience and potential re-writing of colonial-era borders that characterize the Middle East and North Africa’s convoluted push for greater freedom, transparency and accountability, a major challenge to the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam sits on its doorstep: Qatar, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi and that adheres to the Wahhabi creed.

It is a challenge that is rooted in historical tensions that go back to Qatari efforts in the 19th century to carve out an identity of their own and long-standing endeavors by the dominant Al Thani family, who hail from same Bin Tamim tribal group as Wahhabism’s founder, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab to ensure its grip on power or what a US inter-agency assessment of Qatar described as “an unceasing evaluation by the Al Thanis of the domestic and international risks to their family’s 140-year grip on power.”[1]

The Qatari challenge also stems from long-standing differences with Saudi Arabia in religious interpretations that hark back to Qatar’s geography, patterns of trade and history; and a partially deliberate refusal to groom a class of popular Muslim legal scholars of its own. More recently, Qatar’s pursuit of an activist foreign policy promoting Islamist-led political change in the Middle East and North Africa as part of a soft power strategy designed to reduce its dependence on a Saudi defense umbrella was prompted by a perception that it no longer could rely solely on the kingdom or the US defense umbrella for its protection. The Economist’s question, “Where is Globocop?[2]” against the backdrop of the United States’ perceived weak response to Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, Chinese encroachments in the East and South China Sea, the civil war in Syria, and jihadist advances in Iraq, is prominent in the minds of Qatari strategic planners.

Although long existent, Qatar’s challenge to the kingdom was never as stark as at a time of massive change in the region. It has sparked an increasingly cold war among Gulf states as well as in Syria and Arab nations who have in recent years toppled their autocratic leaders, first and foremost among which Egypt. For all practical purposes, Qatar’s refusal to toe Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary line constitutes a litmus test for the kingdom’s ability to project itself as the region’s foremost Arab power capable of imposing its will. So does Bahrain, a festering wound in the Gulf’s backyard where discontent is boiling at the surface following the Saudi-backed brutal crushing of a popular revolt in 2011. A renewed crisis in Bahrain where frustrated youth are becoming increasingly militant and violent would also severely test Qatar’s policy. If there is one thing Qatar and its Gulf distractors agree on, it is a desire to ring fence their neck of the woods against the messy, volatile and bloody process of change sweeping the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.

A shot across the bow

Given their differences in social, foreign and security policies, Qatar, which hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia supported by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have fought a tacit cold war often involving proxies for much of the of the last 25 years punctured by relatively short periods of good neighborly relations and cooperation albeit with clearly defined but unspoken red lines. Increasingly, those differences could no longer be papered over. A five-year period of relative calm in bilateral relations ended in March 2014 when Saudi Arabia together with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrew its ambassador from Doha, charging that continued Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood amounted to interference in the domestic affairs of fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia fired a month before the withdrawal of Gulf ambassadors from Doha a shot across Qatar’s bow with the publication of a story in a London-based Arab newspaper warning of a possible suspension of diplomatic relations as well as other sanctions, including the closure of Saudi airspace to Qatar and the suspension of trade agreements.[3] The UAE added its bit by rebuking the Qatari ambassador for allowing Doha-based Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, widely seen as a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to attack the Emirates for not supporting Islamic government. A UAE court convicted at the same time a Qatari national, dubbed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, for aiding a banned UAE Islamist group that the authorities claim was linked to the brotherhood.[4]

In refusing to bow or pay at best lip service to Saudi demands that it cut its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has put Saudi credibility on the line and targeted a key weakness of the kingdom – its inability to impose its will on the Arab world on its own steam. If anything, that weakness has prompted Qatar to adopt a more proactive and at times panic-driven foreign policy. Saudi support for the overthrow in July 2013 of President Mohammed Morsi was as much designed to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood as it was to compensate for its weakness by creating an Arab leader strong enough to push the Middle East and North Africa in the direction the kingdom would like to see it go. Analyst Barak Barfi argues that Saudi anger at US policies, including rapprochement of Iran, tacit support for the overthrow in 2011 of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and criticism of the coup against Morsi, a Muslim Brother, reflects Saudi frustration that the United States has been unwilling or unable to advance at least some of the kingdom’s goals in the absence of a strong Arab leader.[5] For much of the period since World War Two, Saudi Arabia, relied on leaders such as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat prior to his peace treaty with Israel as well as Mubarak and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein before his 1990 invasion of Iraq to drive elements of its agenda. The absence of such leaders has undermined Saudi Arabia’s efforts to lead from behind and threatens to highlight limitations to its power that is based primarily on financial muscle and moral authority as the custodian of Islam’s two most holy sites. Saudi Arabia’s weak was evident when interior minister Prince Mohammed Nayef failed shortly after the rupture in diplomatic relations with Qatar to persuade a gathering of Arab security chiefs in March 2014 to join it in banning the Brotherhood.

By defying the kingdom, Qatar, a country former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud denounced as “nothing but 300 people…and a TV channel”[6] is shining the spotlight on the limits of Saudi power. Qatar drove the point home by responding to Saudi pressure with at best nominal concessions. In a conciliatory move, Sheikh Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born naturalized Qatari citizen and fierce critic of Saudi and UAE attitudes towards political Islam, who has long advised Qatari rulers, expressed his love for Qatar’s Gulf detractors.[7] “My personal position does not reflect the position of the Qatari government … I do not take on an official position, but just express my personal opinion. I would like to say I love all the countries of the Gulf, and they all love me: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain. I consider them one country and one house. What I said, and I say, is a matter of sincere advice, which will prove its sincerity after a while,” Qaradawi said.

Saudi concern about Qatari policies went beyond the Gulf state’s support for the Brotherhood and its alignment with brewing discontent across the Middle East and North Africa. The kingdom feared that Qatari actions could undermine Saudi national security and policies. It saw Qatar’s facilitation in March 2014 of the release by Syrian jihadists of 13 kidnapped Greek Orthodox nuns by allegedly paying a $67 million ransom as a move that strengthened the very forces Saudi Arabia was seeking to combat.[8] Similarly, Saudi officials saw Qatari support for Houthi rebels in northern Yemen near the kingdom’s border and Yemen’s Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah party as a national security threat. The Houthis were among several groups listed by Saudi Arabia as terrorists in March 2014.

In defying Saudi Arabia, Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Khalifa benefitted from his father and predecessor’s ability to turn his country’s lack of size and population into strategic assets that made its dispute with Saudi Arabia not quite a struggle between David and Goliath. Tamim unlike Saudi rulers is moreover relatively unencumbered by factional politics, geographical disparities, and sectarian differences. He enjoys relative domestic security and has no institutions like a parliament or an autonomous clergy that inhibit his ability to set policy. That has enabled Qatar to emerge as a rare example of a government that has successfully sought to harness the power of political Islam without losing control and seeing its effort backfire.

Recent decades are littered with failed government attempts at exploiting political Islam without becoming a target. These attempts include Israel’s tacit backing of Hamas in the 1980s in a bid to counter Palestinian nationalism, former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s use of the Brotherhood against the left in his country, and the emergence of Al Qaeda from Western and Saudi backing of Islamist resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In contrast, “the influence of Islamism within Qatari society and politics has been very limited…which highlights the pragmatic and instrumental use of this ideology and movement by the regime in Doha in the pursuit of regime survival,” noted scholar Bernard Heykal.[9] Qatar’s success is all the more remarkable given that the Gulf state and the Brotherhood are strange bedfellows. Qatar adheres to the Hanbal school of Islamic law that mandates obedience to a ruler while the Brotherhood propagates activism against secular regimes and has never favored what it views as feudal monarchies.

Moreover, Qatar’s Shiite Muslim minority estimated at between 10 and 20 percent of the Qatari population has been integrated economically and politically.[10] As a result, Qatari decision-making is concentrated in a small, tightly knit circle of driven associates and advisors of the emir. The regime moreover has forged a relationship of mutual dependency with merchant families that makes it less likely that they would turn against the ruler even in times of stress or economic downturn.

33 year-old Sheikh Tamim took the long view with the bursting into the open of Qatar’s differences with kingdom as he confronted an aging and ailing Saudi leadership. Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who at approximately 90 reportedly needs a walker because of back ailments, uses oxygen tubes to breathe and allegedly lacks the energy to attend meetings that last more than two hours, appeared to recognize the advantage of youth when he issued his binding, unchangeable appointment of his 71-year old half-brother and deputy prime minister, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as deputy crown prince. Prince Muqrin is the youngest of the surviving sons of King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia. His appointment appeared to confirm concerns about the health of 78-year old Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz.[11]

king abdullah

King Abdullah using oxygen tubes during meeting with US President Barak Obama (Source: Carrie Budoff Brown /Twitter)

Sheikh Tamim’s approach has served to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s view of Qatar as potentially subversive. Saudi Arabia’s aging leaders fear that Qatar could serve much more than freewheeling Dubai as an inspiration for a conservative Saudi society that acknowledges its roots but in which various social groups increasingly are voicing a desire for change. The subversive nature of Qatar’s approach is symbolized by its long-standing, deep-seated ties to the Muslim Brotherhood whose predicament serves as a serious litmus test for Sheikh Tamim barely a month after his father abdicated in his favor. In addition to the setback Qatar suffered with the successful Saudi counter-revolutionary campaign that helped topple the Morsi government in Egypt, Sheikh Tamim was confronted with Saudi efforts to curtail Qatari influence in the rebel movement opposed to embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. To some degree, pressure on Tamim has been alleviated by the region’s preoccupation with the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) territorial expansion from Syria into Iraq.

Sheikh Tamim’s refusal to cave into Saudi demands has forced Gulf states to lower the temperature and tone down the rhetoric in the realization that there was with little prospect of any real meeting of the minds. Those demands included not only the silencing if not the expulsion of Sheikh Qaradawi and the toning down if not the shutdown of Al Jazeera, Qatar’s global television network that frequently gives voice to opposition forces in the Middle East and North Africa including the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as of two Doha-based think tanks, the Brookings Institution, whose executives were barred from entry into the UAE because they were allegedly close to the Brothers, and the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS).[12] Dubai’s notoriously anti-Islamist security chief, Dhahi Khalfan has repeatedly denounced ACRPS head Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Palestinian and advisor to the Qatari emir, as an Israeli spy tasked with destabilizing the Gulf.[13] In a further affront to the Qataris, Khalfan also called on the government in Abu Dhabi to assert the claim of the UAE, a federation of seven emirates, to Qatar as its eighth emirate.[14]

Few attributed credibility to the announcement by a GCC foreign ministers’ meeting in late April 2014 that the difference between Qatar and the Saudi-led block had been resolved. The skepticism was reinforced by a refusal by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to return their ambassadors to Doha. “Without precisely the kind of meaningful change that Qatar cannot undertake, relations seem set for an extended cold snap, punctuated by personally-led spurts of anger, potentially peripatetically lurching relations from one mini-crisis to the next,” said Gulf expert David Roberts.[15]

The UAE like Saudi Arabia has long resented the Brotherhood’s use of Doha as a base to expand into Dubai and other emirates. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Zayed warned US diplomats as far back as 2004 that “we are having a (culture) war with the Muslim Brotherhood in this country.“ The US embassy in Abu Dhabi reported that “Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers Hamdan and Hazza rarely miss an opportunity to talk to high-level USG (US Government) interlocutors about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on moderate-thinking Emiratis. In a meeting with Deputy Secretary Armitage on April 20, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed noted that UAE security forces had identified ‘50 to 60’ Emirati Muslim Brothers in the Armed Forces, and that a senior Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer is within one of the ruling families – a reference, we believe, to Sharjah Ruler Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi, whose ties to Saudi Arabia are well known. Sheikh Mohammed has told us that the security services estimate there are up to 700 Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in the UAE. He also said that when the Armed Forces discovered Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers within their ranks, they were arrested and given a form of reverse brainwashing.” [16]

In 2009. Sheikh Mohamed went as far as telling US officials that Qatar is “part of the Muslim Brotherhood.”[17] He suggested that a review of Al Jazeera employees would show that 90 percent were affiliated with the Brotherhood. Sheikh Mohammed charged that Qatar was facilitating Iranian inroads into the Arab world and that “he sees Iranian influence in the Brotherhood very clearly as both a way to agitate the Arab populace and render the traditional leaders of Arab society impotent.”[18] Other UAE officials privately described Qatar as “public enemy number 3”, after Iran and the Brotherhood.[19]

Because of the Brotherhood’s inroads into the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed said he had sent his son with the Red Cross rather than the Red Crescent on a humanitarian mission to Ethiopia to cure him of his interest in Islamist teachings. “His son returned from the mission with his vision of the west intact and in fact corrected. He was astonished that the Christians with the Red Cross were giving food and support to anyone who needed the support, not just to Christians. His son had only heard the stories of the west through the lens of Al Jazeera and others similarly aligned,” the embassy recounted Sheikh Mohammed as saying.[20]

At the heart of differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies is the fact that Qatar has emerged as living proof that Salafism and even more importantly, Wahhabism, the puritan version of Islam developed by the 18th century warrior preacher and scholar Abdul Wahhab who forged an alliance with the Al Sauds that dictates life in contemporary Saudi Arabia since its creation, can be somewhat forward and outward looking rather than exclusively repressive and restrictive. Qatar has also demonstrated that adherence to Abdul Wahhab’s creed need not be threatened by regimes that cloak themselves in Islam and/or assert legitimacy through some modicum of free elections or by groups that adhere to alternative, at times politicized, interpretations of Islam. Writing in Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Ash Sharq al Awsat, Farag Abdel Fattah implicitly defined Saudi Arabia’s differences with Qatar as well as the Brotherhood as one between regimes whose policies are exclusively inspired by allegedly pure religion such as the kingdom and those whose interpretations of Islam were informed by politics. “We must first differentiate between a government that rules through religion, and one that infuses its political outlook with religion,” Abdel Fattah said.[21]

An assessment of Qatar’s approach to religion by the US embassy in Doha concluded that “Qatar’s brand of Islam…is both traditional and progressive. It is traditional in that it is based on scripture and standing interpretations, but progressive in its tolerance for various Islamic schools of thought and moderate social strictures. Even though Amirs of Qatar have referred to themselves and their subjects as ‘Wahabi,’ use of this term is increasingly pejorative in Qatar today. The current Amir (Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani) several years ago made a point of using the Wahabi term as a descriptor in public, but his director of communications at the time believes he did so to make clear to Saudi Arabia that Qatar alone would dictate the terms of its religious practices and the vocabulary used to describe them.”[22] The communications director, Adel al-Malki, according to the embassy, said that Sheikh Hamad made his comment at a time that Saudi Arabia was pressuring Qatar to adhere to Saudi interpretations of Islam, Al Malik said the emir’s use of the term Wahabi was his way of saying, ‘Thank you very much, but we Qataris will do things our way.’[23]

The embassy’s cable to the State Department in Washington concluded that “judging by the extent to which Qataris seek to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia in all spheres, it should come as no surprise that even in religion Qataris define themselves by how they differ from their Saudi neighbors and yield to no one the right to define the terms or vocabulary by which Qataris live.”[24]

Everything but a mirror image

Doha’s newest and biggest mosque, a multi-domed, sand-colored, architectural marvel, symbolizes Qatar’s complex and volatile relationship with Saudi Arabia as well as its bold soft power policy designed to propel it to the cutting edge of the 21st century. It’s not the mosque itself that raised eyebrows among critics of Wahhabism but it’s naming after Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, a warrior, cleric and scholar who founded contemporary Islam’s most puritan sect.

The naming of the mosque that overlooks the Qatar Sports Club in Doha’s Jubailat district was intended to pacify more traditional and Salafi segments of Qatari society as well as Saudi Arabia, which sees the tiny Gulf state as a troublesome and dangerous gadfly on its doorstep challenging its puritan interpretation of Islam as well as its counterrevolutionary strategy in the Middle East and North Africa. Qatar’s social revolution in the past two decades contrasts starkly with Saudi efforts to maintain as much as possible of its status quo while impregnating itself against the push for greater freedom, transparency and accountability sweeping the region. By naming the mosque after Abdul Wahhab, Qatar reaffirmed its adherence to the Wahhabi creed that goes back to 19th century Saudi support and the ultimate rise to dominance of the Al Thani clan, the country’s hereditary monarchs who account for an estimated twenty percent of the population.[25]

Yet, despite being a traditional Gulf state, Qatari conservatism is everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s stark way of life with its powerful, conservative clergy; absolute gender segregation; total ban on alcohol and houses of worship for adherents of other religions, and refusal to accommodate alternative lifestyles or religious practices. Qataris privately distinguish between their ‘Wahhabism of the sea’ as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s ‘Wahhabism of the land,’ a reference to the fact that the Saudi government has less control of an empowered clergy compared to Qatar that has no indigenous clergy with a social base to speak of; a Saudi history of tribal strife over oases as opposed to one of communal life in Qatar; and Qatar’s outward looking maritime trade history. Political scientists Birol Baskan and Steven Wright argue that on a political level, Qatar has a secular character similar to Turkey and in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia, which they attribute to Qatar’s lack of a class of Muslim legal scholars.[26]

The choice against grooming a powerful clergy of its own reflected Qatari ambivalence towards Wahhabism that many viewed as both an opportunity and a threat: it served as a tool to legitimize domestic rule, but also constituted a potential monkey wrench that Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control. Opting to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on Saudi clergymen to develop its own. That would have produced a clergy steeped in the kingdom’s austere theology and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have advocated a Saudi-style, state-defined form of political Islam.

This is not to say that Qatar takes its adherence to Wahhabism lightly. Plotting an alternative course did not prevent tribal religious leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century under then emir Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani from shifting their frame of Islamic legal reference from the more liberal Maliki to the more restrictive Hanbal school of Islamic law.

The Al Thanis greater maneuverability by steering clear of the grooming an indigenous clergy that would demand a say in political and social affairs. Unlike Saudi rulers, the Al Thanis do not derive their legitimacy from a clerical class. Their ability to avoid grooming a local clergy was made easier by the absence of a strong merchant class and urban centers in the 19th and early 20th century. As a result, Qatar lacks the institutions that often hold the kingdom back and was slow and cautious in creating religious infrastructure. Religious authority is not institutionally vested. Qatar has for example no Grand Mufti as do Saudi Arabia and various other Arab nations; it only created a ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments 22 years after achieving independence. Qatar’s College of Sharia (Islamic Law) was established only in 1973 and the majority of its students remain women who become teachers or employees of the endowments ministry rather than clergymen.[27] Qatari religious scholars on a career path to become sharia court judges were sent for further education to Egypt’s al-Azhar University rather than Saudi institutions like the Imam Mohammed Ibn Saud University in Riyadh. Similarly, Qatar does not have a religious force that polices public morality. Nor are any of its families known for producing prominent religious scholars. Qatari religious schools are mostly run by the ministry of education unlike Saudi Arabia where they resort under the religious affairs authority. They are staffed by expatriates rather than Qataris and attended by less than one percent of the total student body of which only ten percent are Qatari nationals.[28] Moreover, the majority of Qatar’s religious scholars are South Asians or Arabs hired as migrant workers who are wholly dependent on their employers and thus unlikely to challenge authority.

The lack of influential native religious scholars enabled Qatar to advance women in society, allow them to drive, and travel independently; permit non-Muslims to consume alcohol and pork, sponsor Western arts like the Tribeca Film Festival, develop world-class art museums, host the Al Jazeera television network that revolutionized the region’s controlled media landscape and has become one of the world’s foremost global broadcasters, and prepare to accommodate Western soccer fans with un-Islamic practices during the 2022 World Cup. While the absence of an indigenous clerical class gave Qatari rulers a freer hand it did not stop Saudi and other foreign scholars from gaining influence, particularly among more conservative segments of Qatari society.

Qatar nevertheless projects to young Saudis and others a vision of a conservative Wahhabi society that is less restrictive and less choking and grants individuals irrespective of gender a greater degree of control over their lives. Women who in the mid-1990s were like in Saudi Arabia banned from driving, voting or holding government jobs today occupy prominent positions in multiple sectors of society in what effectively amounted to a social revolution. It’s a picture that juxtaposes starkly with that in its only Wahhabi brother. The contrast was starkest when young Saudis took to social media to demand that they be recognized as citizens with rights and responsibilities rather than treated as subjects. Couching their criticism and demands in religious terms, they denounced the Al Sauds for stealing their country’s land and wealth and depriving unemployed youth of perks due to them in an oil-rich nation. They also took the clergy to task for failing speak out on behalf of the underdog.[29]

In projecting a more compassionate interpretation of Wahhabism, Qatar threw down a gauntlet for the kingdom’s interpretation of nominally shared religious and cultural beliefs. “I consider myself a good Wahhabi and can still be modern, understanding Islam in an open way. We take into account the changes in the world and do not have the closed-minded mentality as they do in Saudi Arabia,” Abdelhameed Alansari, the dean of Qatar University’s College of Sharia, a leader of the paradigm shift, told The Wall Street Journal in 2002.[30] Twenty years earlier Al Ansari was denounced as an “apostate” by a Qatari Saudi-trained chief religious judge for advocating women’s rights. “All those people who attacked me, most of them have died, and the rest keep quiet,” Al Ansari said.

Qatar’s long-standing projection of an alternative is particularly sensitive at a time that Saudi Arabia is implicitly debating the fundaments of the social and political arrangements the Qataris question. The kingdom’s conservative ulema as well as Salafis worry that key members of the ruling family, including King Abdullah; his son, Prince Mutaib, who heads the National Guard; and Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of intelligence and ambassador to the United States and Britain, are toying with the idea of a separation of state and religion in a state that was founded on a pact between the ruling Al-Sauds and the clergy and sees itself as the model of Islamic rule. The clergy voiced its concern in the spring of 2013 in a meeting with the king two days after Prince Mutaib declared that “religion (should) not enter into politics.” The notion of a separation of state and religion first emerged when Prince Turki a decade earlier cited verse 4:59 of the Quran: “O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.” Prince Turki suggested that the verse referred exclusively to temporal authority rather than both religious and political authority. Responding to Prince Mutaib in a tweet, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Tarifi warned that “whoever says there is no relationship between religion and politics worships two gods, one in the heavens and one on earth.”[31]

To be sure, Qatar’s greater liberalism hardly means freedoms as defined in Western societies. Qatar’s former emir Sheikh Hamad silenced opposition to reforms. Hamad, for example, arrested in 1998 religious scholar Abdulrahman al Nuaimi who criticized his advancement of women rights. Al Nuaimi was released three years later on condition that he no longer would speak out publicly. Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison. Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine.” It celebrated the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Recent media-related legislation reflects the Al Thani’s effort to maintain tight control. A new media law prohibits publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.” Violators face stiff financial penalties of up to one million Qatari riyals (US $275,000).[32] In rare public criticism of the law, Qatari journalists demanded in June 2013 greater freedoms and criticized the absence of a media law and press association.[33] Journalists further expressed concern that a draft cybercrime law would restrict freedom of expression and the press. The draft “stipulates punishment for anyone who exceeds any principles of social values,” according to state-owned Qatar News Agency. It would also ban the publishing of “news or pictures or audio-video recordings related to the sanctity of the private and family life of individuals, even if they are correct, via libel or slander through the Internet or an IT device.”[34]

Ring-fencing the Gulf

Qatar shares with Saudi Arabia a firm will to ring-fence the Gulf against the popular uprisings in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The two countries’ diverging world views have however manifested themselves in different approaches towards the popular revolts, protests and violence sweeping the region. While Saudi Arabia initially adjusted to regional change on a reactive case-by-case basis and has more recently launched a successful counter-revolutionary effort in Egypt and has tried to counter the Brotherhood’s influence among Syria rebels, Qatar has sought to embrace it head on as long as it is not at home or in its Gulf neighborhood. For that reason, Qatar supported the dispatch to Bahrain in 2011 of a Saudi-led force to help quell a popular uprising in its own backyard but backed regime change elsewhere in the region.

Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood nonetheless meant by implication that it supported, the most organized, albeit clandestine, opposition force Saudi Arabia, Al Sahwa (The Awakening), a powerful Islamist network nurtured by members of the Brotherhood. Adding insult to injury, Qatar also funded to the tune of $50,000 a month two prominent London-based Saudi dissidents: Saad al-Faqih, who was blacklisted until 2012 by the United Nations Security Council on suspicion of terrorism, and Mohammed al-Masari.[35]

Al Sahwa’s support for the Brotherhood was not an issue for the Saudis for much of the second half of the 20th century during which the kingdom accommodated the group. Saudi Arabia as far back as the 1950s offered refuge to thousands of Brothers who fled repression in Egypt and Syria. Over time, they integrated into Saudi society, occupied key public sector positions, including in the education sector, and blended their politicized Islam with Wahhabism. The Brothers were nevertheless careful to avoid friction with the kingdom’s rulers. That changed during Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Al Sahwa and the Brotherhood hoped to utilize opposition to Saudi support of the US-led coalition that forced the withdrawal of Iraqi troops as a vehicle for pushing for political reform.

Their position sparked a Saudi crackdown and renewed strains in the kingdom’s relations with Qatar. Prominent Brothers including, Mohammed Qutb, the brother of the group’s onetime militant ideologue, Said Qutb, were expelled. Saudi anger at the Brotherhood because of its ties to Al Sahwa erupted in a rare public condemnation in 2002 as the kingdom came to grips with the fact that the majority of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington were Saudi nationals. Then Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud charged that the group was the “source of all evils in the Kingdom.”[36] A Saudi human rights activist and former member of the Brotherhood described how security services told him during an interrogation that they had been monitoring all members of his cell in an indication of how serious Saudi authorities took the potential threat posed by the group,.[37]

The eruption of popular revolts in early 2011 in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen again sparked tension with Al Sahwa which demanded in petitions and open letters political change in the kingdom[38] and fuelled fears among Saudi rulers that they too could face rebellion at home. Concern about the Brotherhood and Qatari support of the group mounted in August 2013 when Saudi imam Hamad Al-Hoqail denounced the Egyptian military overthrow of Morsi during a Friday prayer sermon in Riyadh’s Al-Ferdous mosque[39] as did prominent Al Sahwa figures using both religious and political terminology.[40] The comparison of Egyptian strongman General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to embattled Syrian president Bashar al Assad echoing from pulpits in mosques in Qatar resonated with many Saudis who echoed Islamist sentiment on Twitter[41] and other social media as clips of sermons went viral. Qatar’s challenge to the kingdom was spotlighted with the death of Mohamed AlHadlaq, a nephew of Abdulrahman AlHadlaq, the director of the kingdom’s terrorist rehabilitation program. Mohamed AlHadlaq died in Syria fighting as part of a Qatar-supported jihadist rebel group.[42]

Saudi rulers initially opted to tread carefully in response to Al Sahwa’s sense of empowerment by the Arab revolts. Islamists like Sheikh Mohammed el-Arefi and Mohsen al-Awaji who signed a petition against Morsi’s removal were warned to back off but not detained. Similarly, Sahwa leader Salman leader Salman Al-Audeh’s popular television show was cancelled but no further steps were taken against him. Al-Audeh’s popular television show was cancelled as were several of his public appearances but no further steps were taken against him. That changed anti-Egyptian coup sentiment at home mounted and Brotherhood protests in Egypt continued. Saudi fears fed on suspicions that the Brotherhood with Qatari backing would stir the pot in the Al Sauds own backyard and even forge an alliance with the kingdom’s arch rival Iran. Throwing away caution, the kingdom went on the offensive. Brotherhood sympathizers in Saudi universities and schools were threatened with losing their jobs. Brotherhood literature was in early 2014 banned for the first time at the Riyadh Book Fair. Ultimately, the kingdom followed Egypt in banning the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

Qatar’s refusal to fall into line with the crackdown in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and its continued endorsement of political Islam constituted a challenge not only to Saudi efforts to cement regional hegemony but also to what political scientist Stephane Lacroix sees as a Saudi move to ensure that a quietist and politically subservient strand of Salafism reemerges to replace political Islam as the kingdom and the Muslim world’s dominant trend. “Seen from Riyadh, the solution is to turn the clock back to the pre-1970s era, when the official religious establishment’s quietist brand of Salafism had a monopoly over Saudi Islam,” Lacroix argued.[43]

Qatar on the other hand appears to be banking on the hope that replacing political Islam with quietist Salafism may be easier said than done. Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of a generational change in leadership with an ailing king in his late 80s and a crown prince in his late 70s who may not be able to stymie the mobilizing power of political Islam in an era in which winds of change are blowing through the region.

Qatar had already kindled the fire in 2013 with its concession to human rights groups not to extradite a dissident Saudi diplomat to the kingdom. Instead, the diplomat, Mishal bin Zaar Hamad al-Mutiry, who accused his government of involvement in terrorism, was allowed to go into exile in Morocco. “The spotlight shone on this case resulted in the Qatari authorities curtailing their plans to deport Mishal al-Mutiry long enough for him and his family to leave of their own accord, and the assistance of the NHRC (Qatar’s National Human Rights Commission) was crucial to ensuring they could travel,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.[44]

Abd al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the general manager of Al Arabiya, the Saudi network established to counter Qatar’s Al Jazeera, further signaled the growing rift with Qatar in a commentary in the summer of 2013. Accusing Qatar, the only Gulf state critical of the Egyptian military’s crackdown. of aggravating tension as the Muslim Brotherhood campaigned against the Egyptian military’s toppling of Morsi, Al-Rashed wrote: “We find it really hard to understand Qatar’s political logic in a country (Egypt) to which it is not linked at the level of regimes or ideologically or economically. Egyptians in Qatar moreover are only a minority. Qatar’s insistence that the moving force of the army and Egyptian political parties accept the Brotherhood’s demands is not only impossible but also has dangerous repercussions. Supporting the Brotherhood at this current phase increases (the Brotherhood’s) stubborn insistence to stick to its guns and creates an extremely dangerous situation. So why is Qatar doing it? We really don’t understand why! Historically and over a period of around 20 years, Qatar has always adopted stances that oppose the positions of its Gulf brothers, and all of Qatar’s opposing policies have ended up unsuccessful.”[45]

In scathing remarks days later criticizing those opposed to the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsi Saudi King Abdullah fired a further shot across Qatar’s bow without naming it. “Let it be known to those who interfered in Egypt’s internal affairs that they themselves are fanning the fire of sedition and are promoting the terrorism which they call for fighting, I hope they will come to their senses before it is too late; for the Egypt of Islam, Arabism, and honorable history will not be altered by what some may say or what positions others may take.” the monarch said.[46]

Al Jazeera journalists have paid a heavy price for Egyptian and Saudi anger at Qatari policy. Egypt charged a score of mostly Al Jazeera journalists or ones whom authorities alleged were associated with the network with spreading false information, endangering national security and being members of a terrorist organization, a reference to the Brotherhood. Three journalists of the network’s English-language service were sentenced to lengthy prison terms even though pro-Brotherhood sympathies were reflected more in the network’s Arabic broadcasts than on its English-language channel.

Egyptian and Saudi chagrin was further fuelled by the fact that Al Jazeera Arabic provided post-Morsi the Brotherhood and Islamist leaders their foremost platform on a major global network. Doha, home to Sheikh Qaradawi, moreover emerged as a potential base for a Brotherhood and Egyptian Islamist leadership in exile that included men who were wanted in Egypt and the kingdom. Among those sited in Doha and featured on Al Jazeera was Essam Abdel Majid, a member of the hardline Gema’a al-Islamiyya. Abdel Majid, who is wanted by Egypt on charges of incitement to murder, spent 25 years in prison for his role in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Other Islamist leaders operating from Doha included Gema’a activist Tarek el-Zomor; arrest, Ehab Shiha, chairman of the Egyptian Salafist al-Asala party; and wanted Brothers Gamal Heshmat, Ashraf Badr el-Din, Amr Darrag, Ashraf Badr el-Deen, Mohammed Mahsub and Hamza Zawba.[47]

In Syria, Qatari backing of the Brotherhood as well as jihadists contradicted Saudi support of secular and Salafist rebel in its bid to defeat what it sees as an Iranian-backed heretic Alawite (read Shia) regime. Saudi Arabia saw defeat of Bashar al Assad by a combination of secularists and Salafis as a way to weaken Iran and Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah and thwart a power grab by the Syrian Brotherhood. The Qatari- Saudi rivalry helped undermine the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces whose organizational structure was dependent on Brotherhood networks and complicated the group’s relationships with rebel groups inside Syria.[48] It exacerbated tensions within the coalition as groups and figures aligned with Qatar fought a rearguard battle against Saudi encroachment and prevented opposition efforts to create a functioning government-in-exile from getting off the ground.

In contrast to the kingdom, Qatar has been more willing to risk engagement with jihadi groups on the grounds that its priority was to see the Assad regime overthrown sooner than later and that their exclusion would only aggravate Syria’s grief. “I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as al‑Qaeda. What we are doing is only creating a sleeping monster, and this is wrong. We should bring them all together, we should treat them all equally, and we should work on them to change their ideology, i.e. put more effort altogether to change their thinking. If we exclude anything from the Syrian elements today, we are only doing worse to Syria. Then we are opening the door again for intervention to chase the monster,” Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah told an international security conference in Manama in late December 2012. The official played down the jihadi character of some of the Syrian rebel groups. “They are only close to God now because what they are seeing from blood – and I am saying this for all of Syria. Muslims, Christians, Jews – whenever they have a crisis, they come close to God. This is the nature of man. If we see that someone is calling Allahu Akbar (God is great), the other soldier from the regime is also calling Allahu Akbar when he faces him. This is not a sign of extremism or terrorism,” Al-Attiyah said.[49]

Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s fundamentally different strategies of self-preservation are rooted in a Qatari perception that the role of the Saudi clergy in policy making has resulted in Saudi Arabia failing in its ambition to provide the region with the vision and effective leadership that would have allowed it to preempt the wave of change and resolve problems on its own. That perception has reinforced Qatar’s raison d’etre: a state that maintains its distinction and tribal independence from the region’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia, with whom it is entangled in a regional shadow boxing match.

While the ruling families of both have sought to buffer themselves against protests by boosting social spending, Saudi Arabia has opted for maintenance of the status quo to the degree possible and has graduated from limited engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood to open confrontation with the group. Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards the Brotherhood is informed by a fear that Islamic government in other nations could threaten its political and religious claim to leadership of the Muslim world based on the fact that it is home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities, its puritan interpretation of Islamic dogma, and its self-image as a nation ruled on the basis of Islamic law with the Quran as its constitution. The threat posed by the Brotherhood and Qatari promotion of political activism is reinforced by the fact that concepts of violent jihad have largely been replaced by Islamist civic action across the Middle East and North Africa in demand of civil, human and political rights that hit too close to home.

By contrast, Qatar’s pragmatic relationship to Wahhabism eased the early forging of a close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s ties to the Brotherhood may be less motivated by ideology than by a determination to distinguish itself from the kingdom and back what at times appeared to be a winning horse and what remains a force to be reckoned with. The marriage of convenience between Qatar and the group was enhanced by the appeal of the Brotherhood’s fusion of Wahhabi Salafism with the thinking of Western educated Egyptian jurist and religious scholar Muhammed Abduh, widely regarded as the father of Islamic modernism, and even more so his disciple Rashid Rida who struck a more nationalist, anti-colonial tone than his teacher. It was Rida’s push for a political movement that favored Islamic empire over nation states, sought to restore purity to Islamic society and wanted to revive the Caliphate that made the Brotherhood attractive to Qatar. It allowed Qatar to create a challenge to Saudi claim to leadership of the Muslim World.

Ironically, Qatar was joined by Bahrain, one of, if not the Gulf state closest to Saudi Arabia, in bucking the region’s trend and maintaining close ties to the Brotherhood even as the kingdom led a charge against the group. The Bahraini Brotherhood’s political arm, the Al-Minbar Islamic Society, has been allowed to operate openly even if Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in withdrawing its ambassador from Doha in protest against Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood… The group, which has largely supported the government, is widely believed to be funded by the island’s minority Sunni Muslim ruling family and Islamic finance institutions in a bid to counter political forces that represent its Shiite Muslim majority.[50]

Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood was facilitated by the fact that key figures from the group like Qaradawi, a major influence in a country with no real clergy of its own, Libyan imam Ali Al Salabi, and Egyptian Sheikh Ahmed Assal and Sheikh Abdel Moez Abdul Sattar have had a base in Doha for decades. Among the first Brotherhood arrivals was Abdul-Badi Saqr, an Egyptian who came in 1954 at the invitation of the Qataris to help set up their education system. Saqr had been recommended by Muhib al-Din al-Khatib, the proprietor of a Salafi bookshop in Cairo.[51] To fill the need for teachers, he invited Brothers who according to scholar Abdullah Juma Kobaisi “stamped the education system with their Islamic ideology since the education department was under their control.”[52]

In his doctoral thesis, Kobaisi noted that “for a period of three years (1953/54 to 1955/56) most of the teachers who were brought in to run the Qatari schools were ideologically in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood Party.”[53] The teachers’ siding with the Brotherhood when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was widely popular among Qataris because of his Arab nationalism, cracked down on the group, put them at odds with both their hosts and their students. As a result, Saqr was fired and replaced by an Arab nationalist.[54] The setback was only temporary. A second wave of teachers associated with the Brotherhood and embedded in Cairo’s Al Azhar University began to arrive in 1960, including al-Assal who formed Brotherhood groups in Qatar using his status as an instructor and preacher in mosques. Al-Sattar who served in the mid-1940s as the personal envoy to Palestine of the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, started as a school inspector in Qatar before he became director of Islamic Sciences at the Qatari ministry of education. Al-Sattar co-authored many of the initial textbooks used in the country’s school system.[55]

The Brothers were joined in 1961 by Qaradawi who freshly out of Egyptian prison became director of the Religious Institute before graduating to founding dean of Qatar University’s Sharia College. Qaradawi, who became a Qatari citizen in 1969, rose to become one of the world’s most prominent and controversial Islamic religious leaders and a particular eye sore to the Saudis. With Qaradawi Qatar had created a global mufti[56] in much the same way that it built a global television network and a global airline and hosts global sporting events. He represented in the words of controversial Islam scholar Yahya Michot the three dimensions of a spiritual leader that many in the global community of faithful were looking for: independence as a Muslim scholar and activist, representation of a transnational movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and association with an international organization such as the Qatar-backed International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) that Qaradawi chairs.[57] Qaradawi constituted a powerful shield for the Al Thanis against religious criticism. The Brotherhood’s pledge to dismantle its Qatari branch provided further assurance that Qatar would be spared the emergence of a home-grown Islamist movement. Diverting the Islamist focus away from Qatar was further facilitated by Qatar’s funding of Brotherhood media outlets, including a show for Qaradawi on Al Jazeera, and Qaradawi’s show, Al Sharia wal Hayat (The Shariah and Life) that reaches a global audience of tens of millions of Arabic speakers, helped give Al Jazeera its Islamist stamp. It is also a fixture on Qatar state television which broadcasts his Friday prayer sermons live. The Qatari media strategy offered the Gulf state influence across the Middle East and North Africa where Brotherhood off-shoots were active including Gaza with Hamas, which Qatar lured away from Syria and Iran, as well as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan.

In the run-up and immediate aftermath of the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt, Qaradawi sought to counter calls by conservative Al Azhar clerics seeking to persuade Egyptians not to protest by pointing to Islam’s quietist legal tradition that commands Muslims to obey their ruler even if he is unjust because it could lead to civil strife. Qaradawi strove to develop a new strand of legal thought that he described as fiqh al-thawra or jurisprudence of the revolution. He argued that protests were legitimate if they sought to achieve a legitimate end such as implementation of Islamic law, the release of wrongly incarcerated prisoners, stopping military trials of civilians or ensuring access to basic goods.[58] Yet, in line with Qatari policy, Qaradawi rejected around the same time a request by a fellow IUMS member to support on those grounds the predominantly Shia uprising in Bahrain.[59]

Describing Qaradawi’s importance to Qatar, former Qatari justice minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi said; “Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi — and all his daughters drive cars and work.”[60] Qaradawi and other Brothers, helped Qatar develop its own fusion of Salafist and Brotherhood thinking that was initially expressed in publications such as Majalat al Umma.[61] They counterbalanced the influence of local Saudi-influenced clergymen and Salafis who controlled the ministries of justice and religious endowments.

With the eruption of the protests in various Arab countries in 2011, Qaradawi was instrumental in persuading Qatar to use its political and financial muscle to support the Brotherhood in Egypt; the revolt in Libya against Col. Moammar Qaddafi; the post-Ben Ali Ennahdha-led government in Tunisia; an assortment of Islamist groups in Libya, Yemen, and Morocco and opponents of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Three days after a triumphant appearance in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011, Qaradawi issued on Al Jazeera a fatwa or religious opinion authorizing the killing of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Qaddafi.[62] He asserted further that historic links between Egypt and Syria put Syria in protesters’ firing line.[63] In response, Syrian officials accused Qaradawi of fostering sectarianism.[64]

Qaradawi took his advocacy of resistance to Assad a significant step further by effectively endorsing the sectarian Sunni-Shia Muslim divide in a speech in late May 2013. Initially, Qaradawi’s remarks a month before the ascension of Tamim, who under his father was Qatar’s main interlocutor with the kingdom, were seen as a hint at a possible aligning of Qatari policy with that of Saudi Arabia. Qaradawi appeared to back Saudi encouragement of the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims. He urged Muslims with military training to join the anti-Assad struggle in Syria. His condemnation of Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah (Party of God) as the “party of Satan” was immediately endorsed by Saudi grand mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh as was his assertion that al-Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, was “more infidel than Christians and Jews.” In a surprisingly overt gesture to Saudi Arabia, Qaradawi went on to say that “I defended the so-called (Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah and his party, the party of tyranny… in front of clerics in Saudi Arabia. It seems that the clerics of Saudi Arabia were more mature than me.”[65]

It however did not take long for Qaradawi to revert to his fiery self and burying suggestions that Tamim would be more accommodating than his father towards the Saudis. In a blistering attack on Egypt’s military-backed government and armed forces, Qaradawi charged in November 2013 that Egypt was being ruled by thugs who kill people and steal their money.” Speaking in Doha’s Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque, he said that “those oppressors have killed worshipers, fasters, pious people and readers of Quran who did not harm anybody. The military, police, thugs, and snipers killed thousands in Rabaa al-Adawiya which was obvious injustice,” a reference to the Cairo Square on which the Brotherhood camped out for weeks to protest against the removal of Morsi.[66] Hundreds of people were killed in August 2013 when security forces brutally broke up the protest. In January 2014, Qaradawi further distanced himself and Qatar from the pro-Saudi camp in the Gulf by condemning the UAE as a country opposed to Islamic rule.[67]

Promoting Islamist activism

Ironically, the setting up of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network which at times handles Gulf states with velvet gloves, parallels the structuring of the Gulf state’s ties to the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, like Al Jazeera, which more often than not is the last to report on controversial domestic Qatari issues, cut a deal in the late 1990s with the Al Thanis which guaranteed it continued Qatari support in exchange for the dismantling of its operations in Qatar and a pledge that it would operate everywhere except for in Qatar itself. For its part, Qatar moved to fund institutions designed to foster a generation of activists in the Middle East and North Africa as well as guide the Brotherhood in its transition from a clandestine to a public group.

One such institution, the Al-Nahda (Awakening) Project[68] to promote Islamist activism within democracies, was established by Jassim Al-Sultan, a former Qatari Brother. A medical doctor, Al-Sultan has since the dissolution of the group in Qatar advised the Brotherhood to reach out to others rather than stick to its strategy of building power bases within existing institutions. He also criticized the Brotherhood for insisting on its slogan, ‘Islam is the Solution.’ Al Nahda cooperates closely with the London and Doha-based Academy of Change (AOC)[69] that focuses on the study of “social, cultural, and political transformations especially in the Arabic and Islamic region.” AOC appears to be modelled on Otoper, the Serbian youth movement that toppled President Slobodan Milosevic and has since transformed itself into a training ground for activists from across the globe in non-violent protest. The Brotherhood campaigned for AOC founder Hisham Morsy’s release after he was detained during the popular revolt in 2011 that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The threat to Saudi Arabia posed by Qatari fostering of popular protest was compounded by the nature of the social contract in the kingdom and other energy-rich rentier Gulf states. The state’s generous cradle-to-grave welfare and social and no taxation policy approach in exchange for the surrender of political rights meant that the Brotherhood challenged ruling families on issues where they were most vulnerable: culture, ideology and civic society. As a result, Qatari government support of Al Nahda and AOC was part of its effort to control the world of national non-governmental organizations by creating and populating its own NGOs.

In doing so, Qatar targeted what according to scholar Hootan Shambayati effectively amounts to the Gulf states’ Achilles Heel. “The rentier nature of the state limited the regime’s ability to legitimize itself through its economic performance… Consequently, culture and moral values became sources of conflict between the state and segments of the civil society,” Shambayati wrote.[70] The government’s support for activists paralleled Qatar’s earlier bypassing of Arab elites by initially appealing to the public across the region with its groundbreaking free-wheeling reporting and debate on Al Jazeera that at its peak captivated an Arabic speaking audience of 60 million.

Sharpening the rivalry

Beyond historic differences in religious experience and practice, two events sharpened the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar: the 1991 US-led expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and the rise to power in a 1995 bloodless coup of Sheikh Hamad. The US-led invasion called into question Qatar’s alignment with Saudi Arabia since its independence in 1971, which involved Saudi guarantees to protect the tiny emirate. To the Qataris, the invasion demonstrated that it could not rely for its defense on a country that was not capable of defending itself. That realization coupled with Kuwait’s ability to rally the international community to its assistance reinforced Sheikh Hamad’s belief that Qatar’s security was best enhanced by embedding and branding itself in the international community as a cutting-edge, moderate, knowledge-based century nation.

To that end Sheikh Hamad adopted not only a soft power strategy but also one of subtle power which scholar Mehran Kamrava defines as “a new form of power and influence, one less obvious and more discreet, rooted in a combination of contextual opportunities and calculated policies meant to augment one’s influence over others.”[71] Kamrava argued that the replacement of Saudi Arabia by the United States as the guarantor of Qatari security enabled Qatar to build its subtle power on the positioning of itself as s good citizen by mediating in regional disputes, revolutionizing the Arab media landscape through Al Jazeera, financial generosity and a doses of marketing, and high profile acquisitions. Qatar could “devote its attention to issues that are not strictly security-related and to instead pursue goals and strategies that enhance its diplomatic stature and strengthen its political economy both at home and abroad,” Kamrava wrote.[72] Qatari soft and subtle power highlighted a shift of regional power in the Middle East and North Africa away from the traditional behemoths Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq to Gulf states in which in the words of scholar Giacomo Luciani oil is more important than weaponry and financial muscle tops population.[73]

Qatar’s emphasis on soft and subtle power did not mean abandoning a semblance of hard power involving 12,000 most foreign men under arms and another 8,000 in the security forces. In what was primarily a symbolic gesture that was also adopted by the UAE, Qatar adopted in November 2013 a law making military service of up to four months compulsory for its mail citizens aged 18 to 35.[74] A Qatari official said the move was intended to create a reserve force and enable Qataris to rely on themselves. Similarly, the Kuwait parliament was debating reintroducing compulsory military service abolished after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Qatar’s first 2,000 recruits were drafted in April 2014.[75]

At the same time Qatar announced it was purchasing $24 billion in military hardware, one of the larger buying sprees in its history.[76] Qatari realization that its defense would have to be built on soft rather than hard powers was nevertheless highlighted in an earlier US embassy cable that described the Gulf state’s requests for advanced weaponry as modest and said that Qatar had a number of times backed out of arms deals.[77] The embassy said it felt that Qatar lacked a national military strategy and seemed reluctant to draw one up.[78] It concluded that “the QAF (Qatar Air Force) could put up little defense against Qatar’s primary perceived threats – Saudi Arabia and Iran – and the U.S. military’s presence here is larger and far more capable than Qatar’s forces.”[79]

The rift with Saudi Arabia deepened in the mid-1990s with Saudi rejection of the notion that a son could revolt against his father as Sheikh Hamad did with the overthrow of his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim bin Muhammed Al Thani. Saudi outrage translated into efforts to undermine if not unseat the new ruler by sabotaging Qatar’s endeavors to export natural gas to other states in the region and build a bridge linking it with the UAE. By all accounts, Hamad’s voluntary abdication in favor of Tamim should have provoked similar ire from the Saudis in a region in which rulers hang on to power until death even if they at times have experienced a deterioration of health that has incapacitated them not only physically but also mentally. One reason it did not is the fact that Saudi officials had hoped that Tamim’s more accommodating interaction with them as crown prince would result in a reversal of the activist and adventurist nature of his father’s foreign policy.

Relations between the two countries however had already almost ruptured before Hamad’s 1995 coup because of border skirmishes in 1992 and 1994 that were rooted in long-standing disputes over Saudi projection of itself as first among the region’s Bedouins. They further deteriorated as a result of several allegedly Saudi-backed coup attempts in the late 1990s designed to restore Sheikh Khalifa to power. The attempts prompted Qatar almost a decade later to strip some 6,000 members of the Al-Ghafran clan, a branch of the Al Murra tribe, of their Qatari nationality because they had allegedly patrolled the border on behalf of the Saudis. The Al Thanis have long had a complex relationship with the Al Murra who populate northern and eastern Arabia and are believed to be Qatar’s largest tribe. Qatari officials asserted at the time that they had lost their nationality because they had refused to renounce their Saudi nationality in line with Qatari law that does not allow dual citizenship. All but 200 of the Al Ghafran regained their Qatari citizenship a year later at the request of Saudi King Abdullah. 21 of those arrested in connection with the failed coup attempts were released in 2010 after 14 years in prison and immediately flown to Saudi Arabia.

The deteriorating relationship with its big brother made it even more imperative for Qatar to strike out on its own – the very thing Saudi Arabia thought to preempt. A struggle for a multi-billion dollar Qatari project to supply gas to Kuwait reflected the Saudi effort. Asked in 2003 why the Kuwait project was stalled then Qatari industry and energy minister Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah said: “We have received no clearance from Saudi Arabia. Hence it is not feasible.”[80] It took a rollercoaster of repeated Saudi denials and approvals for the project to be finally completed in 2008.

If the natural gas deal was emblematic of Qatari-Saudi relations, so was a London libel case in which the wife of former emir Sheikh Hamad and mother of new emir Sheikh Tamim, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, sued Saudi-owned Ash Sharq al Awsat newspaper for falsely reporting that her husband had secretly visited Israel. In her petition to the court, the Sheikha charged that the paper was “controlled by Saudi intelligence paymasters who used the newspaper as a mouthpiece for a propaganda campaign against Qatar and its leadership.”[81]

Saudi and Qatari national interests diverge further when it comes to Iran with whom Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a major rival that is instigating civil unrest in the region. It is also the spiritual home of the Shiites, the sect most despised by Saudi Wahhabis. To navigate this minefield, Qatar has projected itself as the mediator par excellence of the wider region’s conflicts. To do so, it has forged relationships with other Saudi nemeses such as Hamas and Hezbollah and Israel.

The kingdom has since forged its own alliance with Israel in response to a potential rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Qatari relations with Israel initially however provoked Saudi ire. Then Saudi Crown prince Abdullah refused to attend an Arab summit in 2000 because of the presence in Doha of an Israeli trade office. The appearance on Al Jazeera two years later of Saudi dissidents persuaded the kingdom to withdraw its ambassador to Qatar much like it did again in 2014. In 2009, Saudi Arabia and Qatar held rival Arab summits within a day of each other despite an improvement in relations in the two preceding years that included a deal allowing Al Jazeera to open a bureau in Riyadh provided it did not air dissident Saudi voices.

The improvement was nonetheless a reflection of relative Saudi leverage that ironically was enhanced by Qatar’s own success in deploying soft power. The winning of the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup meant that Qatar needed to project stability in its backyard. Its ability to do so independent of Saudi Arabia was enhanced with the eruption of the Arab popular revolts that allowed Qatar to project itself as an island of stability, modernity and progress in a sea of volatility and conservatism. While a majority of Qataris would likely back improved relations with Saudi Arabia, they also appear to be ambiguous about their country’s relationship with the kingdom. Qataris participating in a 2009 broadcast of the BBC’s Doha Debates overwhelming described their country’s relations with the kingdom as a ‘cold war.’[82] Students in universities often glorify past Qatari tribal defense of Qatar’s only land border that separates it from Saudi Arabia. Their distanced attitude to the kingdom reflects a resentment among young Qataris of the fact that Sheikh Hamad’s ousted father, Sheikh Khalifa, had to pay homage to the Saudi king in exchange for security guarantees.[83]

If Saudi Arabia’s goals – maintenance of the status quo to the degree possible, retention of its leadership role, limiting the rise of Islamist forces, preservation of monarchial rule and restrictive political reform – seem straight forward, Qatar’s idiosyncratic policies have at times raised questions about what it is trying to achieve and how it went about it.

Politicians and analysts struggled, for example, to understand how Qatar’s competition with Saudi Arabia for influence was playing out in Yemen, a strategic nation at the southern tip of the peninsular. Qatar maintains close ties to the powerful Islamist Brotherhood-related Al-Islah movement, supports Al Houthi rebels in the north, and emerged at one point as a mediator in Yemen. It succeeded for a brief period of time in superseding Saudi Arabia as the go-to-address in a country in which kidnapping for political and criminal purposes are a fixture of life as was evident with the release of a kidnapped Swiss teacher.[84] Qatar’s influence was both remarkable and sensitive given long-standing Saudi bankrolling of the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh as well as the country’s major tribes, including that of the president, the Hashid tribal confederation.

Qatar built its inroads in a country Saudi Arabia viewed as its preserve on its relationship with the Brotherhood as well as a history of mediation in Yemen that dated back to the 1990s. In competing in Yemen, Qatar initially benefited further from the fact that it was a tiny nation rather than the region’s giant and was not a supplier of jihadists to Yemen-based Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Gulf (AQAP). Qatar’s influence was sufficiently significant to prompt tribal leaders, including prominent businessmen and politician Hamid al-Ahmar, to balance their relations between the two Gulf rivals after they broke with Saleh during the 2011 popular uprising against him and joined the opposition. The divergence of Qatari and Saudi goals in Yemen was also evidenced by Qatar’s ties to Nobel Prize winner and prominent Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karma, who emerged as the face of the popular revolt against Saleh

On the back of its relationship with the Brotherhood, Qatar garnered popularity among Saleh’s opponents by becoming the first Arab country in 2011 to call on the president to step down in response to the demand of protesters camped out on the capital Sana’a’s Change Square. It forged close ties to Nobel Prize winner and prominent Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karma, who emerged as the face of the popular revolt against Saleh. It further capitalized on its relationship with Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a Muslim Brother and powerful advisor to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi who succeeded Saleh in 2012 in a deal with the opposition mediated by Gulf states under Saudi leadership that was designed to preserve the core structure of the outgoing president’s regime.

Al Ahmar’s first armored division which joined the mass anti-Saleh protesters in early 2011, played a key role in the Saleh’s ultimate demise after 30 years in office, when it attacked the presidential palace in 2012, killing several senior officials and severely wounding the embattled Yemeni leader and various of his key aids. Qatar relationship to Al Ahmar dated back to 2008/9 when the general was negotiating on behalf of Saleh an end to armed confrontation with rebel Houthi tribesmen in north Yemen..

Qatar initially participated in the Saudi-led diplomatic effort to resolve the Yemen crisis but later pulled out because of what it described as “indecision and delays in the signature of the proposed agreement” and “the intensity of clashes” in Yemen.[85] More likely is that Saudi Arabia pushed Qatar out. In an interview with Russia Today, Saleh had warned a month earlier that “the state of Qatar is funding chaos in Yemen and in Egypt and Syria and throughout the Arab world. We reserve the right not to sign (the Gulf-negotiated deal) if the representatives of Qatar are present” at the ceremony.[86] Earlier, Saleh had thundered in a speech: “We derive our legitimacy from the strength of our glorious Yemeni people, not from Qatar, whose initiative we reject.”[87]


Qatar’s success in breaking the Saudi political monopoly in Yemen was evident to all in July 2013 when Hadi stopped in Doha on his way to Washington for an official visit. Hadi was accompanied by General Al-Ahmar. Similarly, when Al Islah leader Muhammad al-Yadumi travelled to Doha in 2012 to thank the government for its support he did not include Saudi Arabia on his itinerary. It was a glaring omission given Saudi Arabia’s key role in brokering the agreement that eased Saleh out of office.

Turning the page?

When Tamim took over the reins of power in June 2013, he inherited a state that his father ensured was tightly controlled by his wing of the Al Thanis. Hamad created institutions and government offices that were populated by loyalists as well as his offspring and bore the characteristics of autocracy: centralized and personalized decision-making, reliance on patronage networks and an absence of transparency and accountability.[88]

Few Qataris question the achievements of Hamad. Those accomplishments notwithstanding, conservative segments of Qatari society with whom Sheikh Tamim at times appeared to empathize, have questioned some of the effects of the former emir’s policies, including:

n  Huge expenditure on a bold foreign policy that put Qatar at the forefront of regional demands for greater freedom and change but also earned it significant criticism and embarrassment. A survey conducted in 2013 by the Doha campuses of Northwestern and Georgetown University concluded that 77 percent of Qataris polled believes that more resources should be invested domestically rather than overseas. Only 13 percent wanted increased spending on “international affairs and investments,” while 10 percent said they were content with the current balance;[89]

n  Unfulfilled promises of change at home that would give Qataris a greater say in their country’s affairs;

n  A stark increase in foreign labor to complete ambitious infrastructure projects many of which are World Cup-related and have exposed Qatar for the first time to real external pressure for social change;

n  More liberal catering to Western expatriates by allowing the controlled sale of alcohol and pork;

n  Potential tacit concessions Qatar may have to make to non-Muslim soccer fans during the World Cup, including expanded areas where consumption of alcohol will be allowed, public rowdiness and dress codes largely unseen in the Gulf state, and the presence of gays.

A discussion in Qatar about possibly transferring ownership of soccer clubs from prominent Qataris, including members of the ruling family, to publicly held companies because of lack of Qatari interest in “the sheikh’s club” suggests a degree of sensitivity to popular criticism.

Ali Khalifa al Kuwari, a prominent government critic and author, traces opposition to Qatari policies to a set of 35 demands articulated in a 1963 petition at a time of strikes to which the regime initially responded by imprisoning and expelling its opponents but ultimately promised to enact reform and ratify the majority of the petition’s demands. “Demands for reform did not stop there, however, but continued at a lower intensity, urged on in carrot and stick fashion for the next two decades, before finally emerging into the light in 1992 in the form of two petitions. The most important of these petitions’ demands was the election of a consultative council, appointed and tasked to draw up a permanent constitution. As a consequence of this, the signatories were punished with prison sentences, travel bans, the denial of their rights and the threat to rescind their Qatari citizenship,” Al Kuwari said.[90] Al Kuwari lists five obstacles to reform in Qatar: concealing and preventing the publishing of information related to public affairs; a lack of transparency; the absence of freedom of opinion and expression, the absence of clearly defined boundaries between public and private interests and inadequate public administration. Reform, he argues, has to address the long-term population imbalance in Qatar and other GCC nations; imbalances in the economy, the country’s social contract and the transition from autocracy to democracy in the region.” There are five starting points for reform, as follows: halting and reforming the rising imbalance in the population; reforming and developing the public administration; transitioning to a democratic political system; revising and completing the National Vision and the National Strategy documents; continuing to strengthen the institutions of the judiciary and ensuring the right to a court of law,” Al Kuwari said.[91]

Tamim has nonetheless managed to enhance his popularity through his close relationship to Qatari tribes, his upholding of Islamic morals exemplified by the fact that alcohol is not served in luxury hotels that he owns, and his accessibility similar to that of Saudi King Abdullah. Even before becoming emir, he banned the serving of alcohol in 2011 on Pearl-Qatar, an artificial island popular with expatriates, after Qataris complained about foreigners appearing intoxicated in public. Tamim was also the driving force behind the replacement in 2012 of English by Arabic as the main language of instruction at Qatar University. He is further believed to have been empathetic to unprecedented on-line protest campaign in recent years by Qatari activists against the state-owned telecommunications company and Qatar Airways. Hamad appeared to anticipate a potentially different tone under Tamim by urging Qataris “to preserve our civilized traditional and cultural values.” If Hamad used initial promises of greater liberalization to garner support within his fractured tribe, one of the first to settle in Qatar in the 18th century, Tamim may well employ his conservatism to rally the wagons.

The underlying theme of Tamim’s accession speech was one of Qatari independence and of the Gulf state being distinct from others. Tamim praised his father and predecessor for transforming Qatar from “a country that some people could hardly locate on the map to a principal actor in politics, economics, media, culture, and sports at a global level… We should not become arrogant. The humility that Qataris are known for is a sign of the strong who are sure of themselves, and arrogance leads to committing mistakes… We don’t live on the edge of life, lost without direction, and we are not answerable to anyone or wait on anyone for instructions. Qatar is known for its independent behavior now, and those who deal with us know we have our own vision.”[92]

The Saudi counter-revolutionary campaign in Egypt and Syria barely a month after Tamim’s ascension followed by the near-rupture in diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and a Saudi-led campaign to isolate Qatar in the Middle East and North Africa constituted a serious foreign policy crisis for the new emir. Saudi Arabia supported by Egypt sought to increase the pressure by exploiting the threat to Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup posed by its treatment of foreign workers. Egged on by the kingdom and Egypt, Arab trade unions and non-governmental organizations added their voices to criticism by international trade unions, human rights groups and world soccer body FIFA. The criticism coupled with allegations of corrupt practices in Qatar’s bid could potentially lead to Qatar being deprived of its right to host the 2022 World Cup, one of the world’s largest sporting events.

Arab trade unionists conceded that their criticism was motivated more by political divisions in the Middle East and North Africa than concern for workers’ welfare. In an interview with Al Monitor, Abdul Wahab Khudr, said that the trade union moves were motivated primarily by a Saudi-led effort to isolate Qatar. “Qatar has a bad record with the Egyptians because of its role in the January 2011 and June 2013 revolutions. Qatar played a clear inciting role and sought to create confusion and support terrorist groups in Egypt,” Khudr said. He was careful not to mention in his criticism of Qatar’s labor policy the Gulf state’s kafala or sponsorship system that puts foreign workers at the mercy of their employers and is at the core of international pressure on the Gulf state because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also have similar sponsorship systems and do not allow the formation of independent trade unions.[93] In fact, the outlawing of strikes and banning of independent trade unions in much of the Gulf is part of an almost region-wide policy to maintain political control through segmentation and dominance of various population groups, first and foremost among which the majority of migrant workers.[94].

The labor issues touches the Achilles heel not only of Qatar but also other smaller Gulf states in which the citizenry constitutes a minority of the overall population. In Qatar, the numbers are the most extreme with Qataris accounting for only ten to twelve percent of the Gulf state’s more than two million inhabitants. In other words, Qatar has the highest percentage of migrants in the world. As a result, the labor controversy puts Qatar in a Catch-22. It undermines achievement of a key goal of the Gulf state’s heavy investment in sports, including the World Cup: the development of the kind of soft power that would compensate for the absence of the hard military power to defend itself. That soft power is dependent on its ability to embed itself at multiple levels in the international community.

Yet its public image has been tainted by the labor controversy as well as the corruption allegations. Reversing that involves existential and painful decisions that go to the very nature of society. Granting political rights and greater freedoms to workers and other foreigners would significantly alter the character of a state in which nationals are a small minority. While these are issues which most of the Gulf states have been grappling with for years without coming up with acceptable solutions, Qatar has become the battleground because of its hosting of the World Cup which gave leverage to trade unions with real clout – 175 million members in 15 countries – as opposed to human rights groups that have long criticized the Gulf’s foreign worker region but have only moral authority.

Qatar has responded to the criticism, fuelled by reports of hundreds of deaths annually of predominantly Asian workers allegedly as a result of working conditions, by issuing improved safety, security and welfare standards, pledging to step up enforcement of existing rules and regulations, and developing plans to cut corruption out of the recruitment process that puts foreign workers into debt even before they arrive in the Gulf state. The moves are designed to protect Qatar’s projection of itself as a cutting edge 21st century nation, fight off calls that it be deprived of its right to hold the world’s foremost sports tournament, and fend off demands that it dismantle its controversial sponsorship or kafala system that subjects workers to the whims of their employers, and allow labor to freely organize and engage in collective bargaining.

Qatari critics of the government charge that they are also designed to ensure that Qatari nationals remain a small minority of the total population. Al Kuwari, the government critic and democracy activist, reflects sentiment among a wide swath of Qataris with his repeated call for the halt to the import of foreign labor. If adopted, that would threaten the government’s effort, including the hosting of the World Cup, to turn Qatar at break-neck speed into a 21st century city state.

In a twist of irony, Al Kuwari argues that Qatari rulers as well as other rulers in the Gulf benefit from a growing population imbalance in which foreigners account for an ever larger percentage of the population. “The great influx of immigrant workers, regardless of how necessary they are, is a benefit to the ruler, who is keen to treat people as temporary and readily disposable, rather than as citizens with all their attendant rights,” Al Kuwari said in an interview with Germany’s Heinrich Boell Stiftung. He noted that the number of Qatari nationals as a percentage of the total population had dropped from 40 percent in 1970 to 12 percent in 2010. As a result, Qataris dropped from accounting for 14 percent of the work force in 2001 to a mere six percent in 2014.[95] If population projections of five million inhabitants in 2022 used, according to Mr. Al Kuwari, for Qatar’s multi-billion dollar metro and railway projects are correct, the percentage of Qatari nationals would drop even more dramatically.[96]

Demographic fears as well as concerns that Qatar’s still evolving national identity could be eroded have at times prompted conservative responses to government liberalism. An online boycott campaign against Qatar Airways was sparked in part by its decision to sell pork in a shop it owns in Doha that is already licensed to sell alcohol. The objection to pork had little to do with religious conservatism and everything to do with fear that Qatari culture was on the defensive against the mores of a majority population that is not Qatari. “Ppl don’t get it. It’s not about the pork – it’s about us feeling more and more like a minority in our own county,” said one Qatari on Twitter.[97]

Al Kuwari warned that “if Qataris are unable to apply pressure to halt this growing imbalance and begin gradual reform, their natural position at the head of society will fall away and they will be rendered incapable of reforming the other and newer problems. Indeed, they will be transformed into a deprived and marginalized minority in their own land. The perpetuation of this growing imbalance threatens to uproot Qatari society, to erase its identity and culture, to take its mother tongue, Arabic, out of circulation, and erode the role of its citizens in owning and running their own country.”[98]

Noting that the government is careful not to refer to Qataris as a minority, Al Kuwari charged that government policy “transforms Qataris from citizens, with corresponding rights, to a dwindling class of the population, forced to compete with immigrants for job opportunities, education and social services, all in a language not their own, even as they remain deprived for one reason or another of their political rights.”

Al Kuwari’s assertion could apply just as well to the UAE where Emiratis are about 15 percent of the population. With Dubai hosting the 2020 World Expo, the controversy over foreign labor in Qatar has put the UAE too in the firing line as has criticism of the condition of workers building world class museum on Saadat Island as well as the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University.

Successful Counter-revolution

The Saudi-backed coup in Egypt in July 2013 was Saudi Arabia’s third successful counter-revolutionary strike in a matter of weeks against the wave of change in the Middle East and North Africa and its most important defeat of Qatari support of popular revolts and the Brotherhood. As the anti-Morsi protests erupted in Egypt, Qatari-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) Prime Minister-in-exile Ghassan Hitto resigned under Saudi pressure and Saudi-backed Ahmed Assi Al-Jerba defeated his Qatar-supported rival, Adib Shishakly, in SNC presidential elections. Earlier, Saudi Arabia succeeded in restricting Qatari support for the Brotherhood within the SNC and the Free Syrian Army as well as for more radical Islamists by suggesting that it had allegedly reached agreement with the Obama administration that it would be allowed to supply non-US surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels as long as distribution was handled by the rebel Supreme Military Council to ensure that weapons did not flow to jihadist forces. Qatar had little choice but to follow into line.

As a result, Qatar sought to rejigger its role by exploiting the subsequent Russian-brokered agreement on the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and efforts to achieve an end to the Syria war in peace talks in Geneva by repositioning itself as a mediator between Assad and his opponents much like it had done at the very beginning of the conflict. Sheikh Hamad at the time prior to the emergence of an armed resistance that he had convinced Assad to strike a reconciliatory note by promising reforms. In return, Sheikh Hamad pledged his support, including positive reporting on the Gulf state’s Al Jazeera network. Hours before he was scheduled to publicly confirm the strategy agreed with Hamad, Assad discarded the conciliatory speech that had been drafted for him by Syrian Vice President Farouk Alsharaa and opted instead for a hard line against the demonstrators.[99]

To position itself again as a mediator, Qatar after a two-year lull revived its contacts with Hezbollah. A senior Qatari official met in November 2011 with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. That meeting was followed by consultations between Qatar’s ambassador to Lebanon Ali bin Hamad Al Merri and Naim Kassem, a senior official of the Shiite group.[100] Qatar’s about face was further evident in remarks made by Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah at a conference in Bahrain in which he called for humanitarian intervention in Syria rather than military struggle. Al Attiyah’s comments contrasted starkly with his call a year earlier at the same conference for expanding the Syrian Military Council and ensuring that it includes Islamist and jihadist groups.

Qatari setbacks in Syria were the result of an underestimation of the diversity and complexity of Syrian society, an overestimation of the abilities of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a misreading of Syrian Kurdish aspirations and an over-reliance on tribal links forged through marriage and geography. As a result, Qatari hopes were dashed that the Brotherhood would be able to dominate the SNC and re-establish itself in the country after having been driven into exile with the 1982 crackdown in Hama by Bashar’s father, Hafez al Assad, in which some 20,000 people were killed.

Like in Syria, the stakes for Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Egypt were high. A successful Brotherhood-led democratic transition would have cemented the success of popular uprisings and the role of Islamists in implementing change. It would have also restored Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, to its traditional leadership role in the region in competition with Saudi Arabia. Thwarting the revolt and the Brotherhood would not only eliminate these threats but constitute a substantial body blow to Qatari encouragement of change in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Saudi moves left Qatar with little choice but to congratulate the Egyptian military on its intervention asserting that it accepted the will of the Egyptian people. But unlike Saudi Arabia and the fiercely anti-Islamist UAE, who remained silent about the killings of Brotherhood supporters in the wake of the coup, Qatar in a bid to retain its independent position expressed regret at the incidents and urged self-restraint and dialogue. At about the same time, Qaradawi called on Al Jazeera and in a fatwa issued in Doha for Morsi’s reinstatement.[101] He declared the coup unconstitutional and a violation of Islamic law.[102] Ironically, Qaradawi’s own son, Abdelrahman Al-Qaradawi, took his father to task on his support for Morsi. Abdelrahman noted that Qaradawi had long argued that a ruler is bound by the opinion of a majority of those who swear loyalty to him. He argued further that the sheikh had taught him that freedom superseded Islamic law.[103]

Saudi countering of Qatari policy coincided with a turning of the tide in countries where Doha had helped topple an autocratic leader. Yemeni President Saleh’s rejection of Qatari participation in the Saudi-led Gulf effort to resolve the crisis in his country was but one setback. Qatari funding of multiple armed Islamist groups in Libya sparked outrage after documents were discovered disclosing the extent of its support. The outrage wiped out the initially sympathy for the Gulf state that was evident when rebels hoisted the Qatari flag on ousted Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s palace in Tripoli the day it fell. Then Libyan oil and finance minister Ali Tarhouni made a thinly veiled reference to Qatar when he declared in October 2011 that “it’s time we publicly declare that anyone who wants to come to our house has to knock on our front door first.”[104] A month later relations with Algeria turned sour after Hamad, according to Arab media, warned Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medleci to “stop defending Syria because your time will come, and perhaps you will need us.”[105] Hamad further broke off a visit to Mauritania in January 2012 hours after arriving in the country after President Mohammad Ould Abdel Aziz rejected his demand that he initiate democratic reform and a dialogue with Islamists.[106]

Qatari foreign policy setbacks were paralleled by Al Jazeera’s mounting problems resulting from perceptions that it was promoting the Brotherhood[107] and changes in the pan-Arab television market. The network experienced a boom as the primary news source in the heyday of the Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, but has since seen its viewership numbers decline with Arabs turning increasingly to a plethora of newly established local news broadcasters. Market research company Sigma Conseil reported that Al Jazeera’s market share in Tunisia had dropped from 10.7 in 2011 to 4.8% in 2012 and that the Qatari network was no longer among Egypt’s 10 most watched channels. Tunisia’s 3C Institute of Marketing, Media and Opinion Studies said that Al Jazeera Sports was the only brand of the network that ranked in January among the country’s five most watched channels.

Al Jazeera reporters were increasingly harassed as they sought to do their jobs in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Protesters in Tunisia charged in the wake of the 2013 assassination of prominent opposition leader Shukri Belaid that “Al Jazeera is a slave of Qatar.” They accused it of biased reporting on the murder because of the Gulf state’s support for Ennahada, the country’s dominant Islamist grouping.[108] Egyptian colleagues expelled in July 2013 Al Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Abdel Fattah Fayed from a news conference organized by the military and the police. The prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant for Fayed on charges of threatening national security and public order by airing inflammatory news. Twenty-two journalists resigned from Al Jazeera’s Egyptian affiliate days earlier in protest against its alleged bias towards the Brotherhood. Three Al Jazeera reporters were convicted in June 2014 to lengthy prison terms on charges of collaborating with the Brotherhood and disseminating false information.

In his new role as emir, Sheikh Tamim has so far proven capable of sustaining Qatar’s activist support of popular revolts and endorsement of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. Like his father, Tamim appears determined to insert Qatar into as many regional and international power structures as possible despite growing Saudi opposition. He has not backed away from the Brotherhood or succumbed to Saudi pressure to expel Islamist clerics like Qaradawi. Tamim’s refusal to bow resembles his father’s rejection of demands that he rein in the freewheeling style of Al Jazeera. Financial muscle coupled with the Gulf state’s key role in the projection of American military power in the region and the fact that Qatar’s vast natural gas resources ensure its importance to the energy security of countries across the globe help guarantee that it will remain a key partner for world powers. Support for the Brotherhood and other Islamists moreover positions Qatar as an important interlocutor with a significant segment of Arab public opinion and one of the region’s important albeit embattled political trends.

Tamim, despite significant differences in style, approach and policy, takes inspiration from Sultan Qaboos of Oman, a leader who also came to power at a young age and has carved out a niche of his own within the GCC. Qaboos was three years younger than Tamim when he assumed power in 1970, becoming at the time like the Qatari leader today, the youngest ruler in the region. Qaboos, much like Tamim was regionally isolated and moreover faced a rebellion at home. Over the years, he has succeeded in charting his own course, declining to break with Egypt after it signed a peace treaty with Israel, establishing relations with Israel, opposing sanctions against Iran, refusing to join the Gulf in its support for Iraq during the Ian-Iraq war, and more recently mediating contacts between the United States and Iran and thwarting attempts to militarize the GCC under Saudi leadership, Today, Qaboos is the only founder of the GCC still alive and the Arab world’s longest-reigning ruler.

Tamim could not have been oblivious to Qaboos’ experience when he was dressed down for his country’s policies and confronted with demands that he halt support for the Brotherhood, extradite Qaradawi and other Islamists and close down Doha-based think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, in November 2013 at a meeting in Riyadh by 89-year old Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and 84-year old Kuwaiti emir Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah.

In Riyadh, Tamim had two options: buckle down and effectively subject himself to Saudi Arabia’s diktat or risk isolation and possible Gulf sanctions in anticipation of the inevitable rise of a new generation of Gulf rulers among whom he might emerge as the region’s elder statesmen. Tamim appears to have taken the long view and opted for a course that maintains his ability to conduct his own, independent foreign, defense and security policy. For Tamim, the road may prove to be bumpier than the one Qaboos travelled. Oman was not threatened with sanctions as it charted its own course. It had the advantage of being bigger than Qatar, geographically better situated at the bottom of the peninsula and having a larger Omani national population. Qaboos moreover made his moves at a time that rulers were not on the defensive against a tidal wave of change that threatened their very existence. It is that wave of change that Tamim hopes to ride. In doing so, Tamim, like the UAE challenges as Kristian Coates Ulrichsen noted, traditional academic wisdom on the limits on the ability of small states to project power and the assumption of an automatic link between size and power.[109]


Sports, a double edged sword

Qatar’s soft power strategy puts it at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia and has raises concerns in the kingdom on how far Qatar may go. The hosting of the 2022 World Cup has already made it more vulnerable to criticism of restrictions on alcohol consumption, the banning of homosexuality, and working conditions of foreign labor. Moreover, Qatar’s identification with sports and the role of soccer fans in the popular revolts in North Africa has reverberated in the sports sector in the kingdom particularly with regard to fan power and women’s sports. In doing so, it has reaffirmed the role of sports in the development of the Middle East and North Africa since the late 19th century.[110]

Qatar alongside Jordan was a driving force in the launch of a campaign in 2012 by Middle Eastern soccer associations grouped in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) to put women’s soccer on par with men’s football in a region in which a woman’s right to play and pursue an athletic career remains controversial. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at the launch. The campaign defined “an athletic woman” as “an empowered woman who further empowers her community.” In a rebuttal of opposition to women’s soccer by the kingdom and some Islamists in the region, the campaign stressed that women’s soccer did not demean cultural and traditional values. Contradicting Saudi policy, it endorsed the principle of a woman’s right of to play soccer irrespective of culture, religion and race; a women’s right to opt for soccer as a career rather than only as a sport; and soccer’s ability to promote gender equality and level the playing field on and off the pitch.[111]

To be sure, Qatar has been slow in encouraging women’s sports at home and like Saudi Arabia was pressured in 2012 by the International Olympic Committee to for the first time field women at an international tournament during the London Olympics.

The WAFF campaign came nonetheless on the back of a Human Rights Watch report[112] that accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country’s powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute “steps of the devil” that will encourage immorality and reduce women’s chances of meeting the requirements for marriage. The charges in the report entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ came as Saudi Arabia backtracked on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.[113]

Qatar’s endorsement of women’s sports has made Saudi Arabia the only Arab and virtually the only Muslim state that refuses to embrace the concept. Spanish consultants developing the kingdom’s first ever national sports plan were instructed to develop a program for men only.[114] Opposition to women’s sports is reinforced by the fact that physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girl’s schools. Public sports facilities are exclusively for men and sports associations offer competitions and support for athletes in international competitions only to men.

Saudi opposition to women’s sports and participation in international tournaments was further challenged by a decision by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) backed by Qatar and other Middle Eastern soccer associations to allow women to wear a hijab that met safety and security standards in international matches. It also came as Saudi women encouraged by the winds of change in the region, the advancement of women’s sports in Qatar and elsewhere and the support of liberal members of the royal family were pushing the envelope despite being slammed in Saudi media “for going against their natural role” and being “shameless” because they cause embarrassment to their families.[115]

Similarly, fan pressure forced the resignation in 2012 of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF) in an unprecedented move that echoed the toppling of Arab leaders in which militant soccer fans were front row players. Nawaf was replaced by a commoner, renowned former soccer player Ahmed Eid Alharbi, as the first freely chosen head of the SFF in a country that views free and fair polling as an alien Western concept.[116] The fan pressure erupted after Australia’s defeat of the kingdom in a 2014 World Cup qualifier. Nawaf’s resignation broke a mold in a nation governed as an absolute monarchy and a region that sees control of soccer as a key tool in preventing the pitch from becoming a venue for anti-government protests, distracting attention from widespread grievances and manipulating national emotions. It also marked the first time that a member of the ruling elite saw association with a national team’s failure as a risk to be avoided rather than one best dealt with by firing the coach or in extreme cases like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya brutally punishing players.

The Saudi royal family like autocratic leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa have associated themselves with soccer, the only institution in pre-revolt countries that traditionally evokes the same deep-seated passion as religion. Nawaf’s resignation constituted the first time, an autocratic regime sought to put the beautiful game at arm’s length while maintaining control. The ruling family nonetheless retained its grip on sports with Nawaf staying on as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and as the senior official responsible for youth welfare on which the SFF depends alongside television broadcast rights for funding. Major soccer clubs moreover continue to be the playground of princes who at times micro manage matches by phoning mid-game their team’s coaches with instructions which players to replace.

“Words such as freedom of choice, equality, human rights, rational thinking, democracy and elections, are terms we came to view with high concern and suspicion. We treat them as alien ideas that are trying to sneak within our society from the outside world. But last week an amazing and irregular event took place, in one of our sporting landmarks. The members of the General Assembly of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) have elected through popular voting, their first president,” wrote columnist Mohammed AlSaif in the Arab News.[117]

Alharbi, a former goalkeeper of Al Ahli SC, the soccer team of the Red Sea port of Jeddah, who is widely seen as a reformer and proponent of women’s soccer narrowly won the election widely covered by Saudi media. “Saudis were witnessing for the very first time in their lives a government official being elected through what they used to consider as a western ballot system. People eagerly followed a televised presidential debate between the two candidates the previous day,” AlSaif wrote.

Sports also serves as a tool to mold a Qatari national identity very different from that of the kingdom that started in the late 1970s with the establishment of the Qatar National Olympic Committee.[118] The notion of employing sports in nation-building built on the fact that Doha focused early on the sports becoming in the 1960s the only Gulf city with a stadium that had a grass field.[119] Similarly, the tradition of hosting sports events dates back to the visit of boxer Mohammed Ali to Qatar 1971[120] and the hosting two years later of first international friendly between Santos FC from Brazil with Pele as its star and Qatar’s oldest sports club, Al-Ahli SC[121] as well the Gulf Cup in 1976.


Whether the Saudi-Qatari rivalry that has evolved into a cold war with the virtual breaking of diplomatic relations will contribute to sparking change in the kingdom or reinforce monarchial autocracy in the region is likely to be as much decided in Qatar itself as by the political rivalry between the two elsewhere in the region. Saudi-backed Qatari conservatives have questioned the emir’s right to rule by decree, organized online boycotts of state-run companies and forced Qatar University to replace English with Arabic as the main language of instruction. As crown prince, Tamim was often seen to sympathize with those domestic conservative concerns leaving Qataris guessing whether those were his true political instincts or an attempt to garner favor.

Whatever the case, Tamim has proven to be unwilling to back away from Qatar’s embrace of the Brotherhood and effort to put itself at the cutting edge of change in the region despite setbacks in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Fault lines in Egypt have deepened with the toppling of Morsi, weakened Qatar’s regional influence and made its Brotherhood allies in other Arab nations in the throes of change reluctant to assume sole government responsibility. Jordan’s Brotherhood-related Islamic Action Front (IAF) boycotted parliamentary elections in January 2013 officially because of alleged gerrymandering. Privately, the IAF, with an eye on Egypt was believed to have shied away from getting too big a share of the pie for their taste. Mounting opposition to the Brotherhood’s Tunisian affiliate, Ennahada, and the assassination in 2013 of two prominent opposition politician prompted the Islamists to allow the formation of a government of technocrats.[122]

Similarly, Qatar’s winning of the right to host the World Cup may have opened a Pandora’s Box of demographic change that could reverberate throughout the Gulf, a region populated by states whose nationals often constitute minorities in their own countries. Under increasing pressure from international trade unions who have the clout to make true on a threat to boycott the 2022 World Cup, the status of foreign nationals could become a monkey wrench for social, if not, political change.



James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, a syndicated columnist and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. A veteran, award-winning foreign correspondent whose career focused on ethnic and religious conflict, James focuses at RSIS on political and social change in the Middle East and North Africa, the impact of change in the Middle East and North Africa on Southeast and Central Asia and the nexus of sports, politics and society in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia.


[1]US Embassy Doha (Qatar). 2008. ‘The Next 3 Years–an Interagency Field Assessment Of Key Trends And Strategic Challenges In Qatar,’ September 16,

[2]The Economist. 2014. The Decline of Deterrence, May 3,

[3]Middle East Monitor’. 2014. Saudi threatens to isolate Qatar for its support of Muslim Brotherhood, 20 February,

[4] Simeon Kerr. 2014., ‘Diplomatic Crisis as Gulf States Withdraw Ambassadors from Qatar, Financial Times March 5,

[5]Barak Barfi. 2014. ‘Saudi Arabia’s Obama problem,’ World Politics Journal, March 28,

[6] Adam Entous. 2013. ‘A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works To Build Support to Topple Assad,’ The Wall Street Journal,’ August 25,

[7] Amena Bakr. 2014. Qaradawi’s U-Turn: I love the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Al Arabiya, 20 April,

[8]Robert Fisk. 2014. Qatar pays Syrian rebels £40m ransom to free nuns – or did it? It depends what rumours you believe, The Independent, March 18,–or-did-it-it-depends-what-rumours-you-believe-9200527.html

[9]Bernard Heykal. 2013. Qatar and Islamism, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, February,

[10]Yousef Kamal, a Qatari Shiite, served as finance and economy minister from 1998 until XX. Moreover some of Qatar’s richest merchant families including the Al Fardans, Darwish and Fakhru are Shiites.

[11]Simon Henderson. 2014. ‘Saudi succession change risks royal family squabble,’ Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 27,

[12]The Straits Times. 2014, ‘Saudi Arabia demands Qatar shut down Al-Jazeera broadcaster: Source,’ The Straits Times, March 14,

[13] Gavriel Fiske. 2014, ‘Dubai police: Ex-MK Azmi Bishara is Israeli spy,’ The Times of Israel, March 11,

[14]Arab News. 2014. ‘Qatar is part of UAE: Dubai security official,’ Gulf in the Media, April 2,

[15] David Roberts. 2014. How Personal Politics Drive Conflict in the Gulf, From the Potomac to the Euphrates, May 6,

[16]US Embassy Abu Dhabi. 2004. ‘UAE Minimizing Influence Of Islamic Extremists,’ November 10,

[17]US Embassy Abu Dhabi. 2009. ‘Strong Words in Private from MBZ at IDEX — Bashes Iran, Qatar, Russia.’ February 25,

[18]Ibid. US Embassy Abu Dhabi

[19]Ibid. Hammond

[20]Ibid. US Embassy Abu Dhabi

[21] Farag Abdel Fattah. 2014. Debate: Political Islam has survived in Sudan because it controls the military, Ash Sharq al Awsat, 14 June,

[22]US Embassy Doha (Qatar). 2007. ‘Qatar Forges Its Own “Wahabi” Path,’ November 8,

[23]Ibid. US Embassy Doha (Qatar)

[24]Ibid. US Embassy Doha (Qatar)

[25] Alan J. Fromherz. Qatar, A Modern History, London , 2012, I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, p. 91

[26] Birol Baskan and Steven Wright. 2011. Seeds of Change: Comparing State-Religion Relations in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Arab Studies Quarterly, 33(2), 96-111

[27] Mehran Kamrava, ‘Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar,’ 2009, Middle East Journal, Vol:63:3, p. 401-420

[28] Ibid. Baskan and Wright

[29]Madawi Al-Rasheed. 2014. ‘Marginalized Saudi youth launch virtual protests,’ Al Monitor,

April 9, / Fouad al-Ibrahim. 2014. ‘Saudi rulers face growing rumblings of discontent,’

Al Akhbar, April 5,

[30] Yaroslav Trofimov 2002, ‘Qatar Is Eschewing Saudi Arabia’s Brand Of Wahhabi Islam in Favor of Modernization,’ The Wall Street Journal, October 2,

[31] Ibrahim Hatlani, ‘Saudi Arabia wrestles with its identity,’ July 12, 2013, The Daily Star,

[32] James M. Dorsey, ‘Persian Gulf Futures,’ Global Brief, March 5, 2013,

[33] Journalists call for overhaul of QNA, July 14, 2013, The Peninsula,

[34]Matt J. Duffy. 2014. ‘Journalists concerned over Qatar’s revised cybercrime law,’ Al Monitor, March 17 ,

[35] Interview with private investigator, November 11, 2013

[36]Arab News. 2002. ‘Naif says Muslim Brotherhood cause of most Arab problems, ‘November 28,

[37] Interview with the author February 10, 2002

[38] Sheikh Salman al Audeh et al. 2011. نحو دولة الحقوق والمؤسسات (About state of rights and institutions), February 23, الحوار المتمدن (Civilized Dialogue),; Sheikh Salman al Audeh. 2013. ‘An Open Letter, Twitmail, March 16,


[40]Marc Lynch. 2013. ‘Gulf Islamist Dissent Over Egypt,” Foreign Policy, March 18

[41]Al Jazeera Arabic. 2013. ‘بيان العلماء السعوديين حول أحداث مصر,’August 8,

[42] The Gulf Institute, ‘Close Relative of Senior Saudi Counterterrorism Official Killed Alongside AlQaeda in Syria,’ Washington, 19 August 2013, press release by email

[43]Stephane Lacroix. 2014. ‘Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,’ Project on Middle East Political Science, March 17,

[44] James M. Dorsey, FIFA reviews, Qatar’s World Cup bid, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 26 January 2013,

[45] Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, , انقسامالخليجحولمصر (Why Is The Gulf Divided Over Egypt?), Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, August 18, 2013,

[46] Abdullah bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman bin Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Saud, ‘Saudi King Abdullah declares support for Egypt against terrorism,’, 16 August 2013, Al Arabiya,

[47] Abigail Hauslohner, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood finds havens abroad, 6 November 2013, The Washington Post,

[48]Yezid Sayegh, The Syrian Opposition’s Bleak Outlook, Carnegie Middle East Center, 17 April 2014,

[49] International Institute for Strategic Studies, Priorities for Regional Security: Q&A Session,” 8 December 2012,

[50] Lori Plotkin Boghardt, ‘The Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf: Prospects for Agitation,’ 10 June 2013, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy,

[51] Abdullah Juma Kobaisi. 1979 ‘The Development of Education in Qatar, 1950-1977,’ Durham University, p. 122,

[52]Ibid. Kobaisi, p. 123

[53]Ibid. Kobaisi, p. 123

[54] Ibid. Kobaisi, p. 125

[55]David Roberts. 2014. ‘Qatar, the Ikhwan, and transnational relations in the Gulf,’ Project on Middle East Political Science, March 18,

[56] Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen and Bettina Graf (Editors). 2012. Global Mufti: The Phenomenon of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, New York: Columbia University Press

[57] Yahya Michot, 2011. ‘The fatwa of Shaykh Yûsuf al-Qaradâwî against Gaddafi,’ 15 March,

[58] Yusuf al-Qaradawi. 2011. ‘شرعية المظاهرات السلمية (The legitimacy of peaceful demonstrations),’, March 13,

[59]Mohammed al Tashkiri. 2011. ‘رسالة آية الله التسخيري الی العلامة القرضاوي (Letter from Atatollah Tashkiri to scholar Qaradawi), Rohama, April 5,

[60] Ibid. Trofimov

[61]Andrew Hammond, Qatar’s Leadership Transition: Like Father, Like Son, February 2014, European Council on Foreign Relations,

[62] Ibid. Michot

[63] Qaradawi backs Syrian revolution, The Peninsula, March 26, 2011,

[64] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, ‘Syria and the ‘Resistance’ Bloc: Buddies No More,’ May 22, 2011, American Thinker,

[65] Qaradawi admits Saudi clerics are more mature than him on Hezbollah, June 1, 2011, Middle East Online,

[66] James M. Dorsey, 2013. ‘Qatar launches politically sensitive survey into low soccer match attendance, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, November 24,

[67]Al Jazeera English.2014. UAE summons Qatar envoy over Qaradawi remarks’, February 2,



[70] Hootan Shambayati, ‘The Rentier State, Interest Groups, and the Paradox of Autonomy: State and Business in

Turkey and Iran,’ Comparative Politics, 1994, Vol 6:3, p. 307-331

[71] Mehran Kamrava.2012. Qatar. Small State, Big Politics. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, Kindle edition, Loc 178

[72] Ibid. Kamrava. Loc

[73]Giacomo Luciani. 2009. ‘Oil and political economy in the international relations of the Middle East, in Louis Fawcett (ed), , International relations of the Middle East, Oxford

[74] Gulf News,. 2013. Qatar to make military service compulsory for 4 months, 14 November 2013,

[75]Nada Badawi. 2014. ‘Qatari men report for first day of mandatory national service,’ Doha News, April 1,

[76]Peter Kovessy. 2014. ‘Qatar’s military build-up continues with $24bn in new arms deals,’ Doha News, March 28.

[77]US Embassy Doha. 2010. ‘Scenesetter for U.S. – Qatari Military Consultative Commission, Wikileaks, January 7,

[78] Ibid. US Embassy

[79]US Embassy Doha. 2009. “The Move toward an Interagency Synchronization Plan: The Results of Embassy Doha’s Third Field Assessment, November 19,

[80] Mona Lisa Freiha, 2011. ‘Saudi refuses Qatar gas project,; An Nahar, July 23,

[81] Lawrence Smallman. 2005 ‘Qatar’s first lady wins UK libel case,’ January 5, , Al Jazeera,

[82] The Doha Debates, This House believes that after Gaza, Arab unity is dead and buried, February 15, 2009,

[83] Jill Crystal. 1995. Oil and Politics in the Gulf, Cambridge, p. 164-165

[84] Michael Peel, Rivals make play for power in Yemen, Financial Times, April 15, 2013

[85] Middle East Online, ‘Qatar pulls out of Gulf’s Yemen mediation,’ 13 May 2013,

[86] Ibid. Middle East Online

[87] Al Sharq, ‘ Doha’s influence in Sana’a spring forces taking accounting of new allies (ربيع الدوحة في صنعاء يثمر نفوذاً لحساب حلفائها الجدد), 12 December 2012,

[88] Ibid. Kamrava

[89] Justin Gengler, “Collective Frustration, But No Collective Action, in Qatar”, 7 December 2013, MERIP,

[90] Jenan Amin, Interview with Dr. Ali Khalifa Al Kuwari, author of “The People Want Reform… In Qatar, Too”, October 2012, Heinrich Boell Stiftung,

[91]Ibid. Amin

[92]Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, أول كلمة للأمير قطر الشيخ تميم بن حمد آل ثاني, 26 June 2013,

[93]Walaa Hassan, Egypt fears backlash if it cuts ties with Qatar, 12 March 2014, Al Monitor,

[94]Andrew Michael Gardner. 2005. City of Strangers: The Transnational Indian Community in Manama, Bahrain, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Arizona,

[95] Qatar’s 2010 census figures reported 74,087 economically active Qataris over the age of 15 and 1,201,884 economically active non-Qataris. Census 2010, pp.12-13, 19, Qatar Statistics Authority,

[96]Ali Khalifa al Kuwari, The People Want Reform in Qatar…Too, 4 November 2012, Perspectives, Heinrich Boell Stiftung,

[97]2012. Qatar:Unveiling Tensions, Suspends Sale of Alcohol, January 7,

[98]Ibid. Al Kuwari

[99] Ali Hashem, Qatar resets its Syria policy, Al-Monitor, 14 December 2013,

[100] Ibid. Hashem


[102] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, القرضاوي يفتي بوجوب تأييد الرئيس المصري المنتخب محمد مرسي, July 7, 2013,

[103] Abdelrahman Al-Qaradawi, عبد الرحمن يوسف القرضاوى يكتب: عفوا أبى الحبيب … مرسى لا شرعية ل, Al-Yawm Al-Sabi, July 7, 2013,

[104] Sam Dagher. Charles Levinson and Margaret Coker, ‘Tiny Kingdom’s Huge Role in Libya Draws Concern,’ The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2011,

[105] Hassan Masiky, ‘Qatar Chastises Algeria for defending Assad in Syria,’ Morocco News Board, November 15, 2011,

[106] Al-Mokhtar Ould Mohammad, ‘Dispute Mars Emir of Qatar’s Mauritania Visit,’ Al Akhbar English, January 9, 2012,

[107] Sultan Al Qassemi, ‘Al Jazeera’s Awful Week,’ July 11, 2013, Foreign Policy,; The Economist, ‘Must Do Better,’ January 12, 2013, charges of threatening national security and public order by airing inflammatory news,; Alain Gresh, ‘Gulf cools towards Muslim Brothers,’ November 2102, Le Monde Diplomatique,

[108] James M. Dorsey, ‘Al Jazeera targets Spain amid dropping viewer numbers in its heartland,’ April 4, 2013,

[109] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, ‘Small States with a Big Role: Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the Wake of the Arab Spring, 2012, HH Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah Publication Series, Kuwait, October 2012

[110] Shaun Lopez, On Race, Sports and Identity: Picking Up the Ball in Middle East Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 41, 2009, p. 359-361

[111] James M. Dorsey, January 14,2013, Middle East soccer associations campaign for women’s right to play, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer,

[112] Human Rights Watch. 2012. Steps of the Devil, Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia,

[113] Ibid. Dorsey

[114] Author interviews with the consultants

[115] James M. Dorsey. March 4, 2012. Muslim players win hijab battle in their struggle for women’s rights, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer,

[116] James M. Dorsey, December 26, 2012. Ground-breaking election of Saudi soccer chief masks Arab revolt fears, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer,

[117] Mohammed AlSaif. December 24, 2012. A healthy election, Arab News,

[118]Luis Enrique Rolim Silva. 2014. ‘The Establishment of the Qatar National Olympic Committee: Building the National Sport Identity,’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol.31:3, 306-319

[119]Ibid. Silva


[121]Ibid. Silva

[122] Bouazza Ben Bouazza, ‘Tunisia Compromise May Head off Gov’t Crisis,’ 22 August 2013, AP/ABC News,



18 June 2014
Middle East Insight 113

Iraq in Crisis

By Peter Sluglett

Download Insight 113 Sluglett

Current events in Iraq pose one of the greatest threats that an almost endemically unstable region has experienced for many years. In fact, the apparent suddenness of the capture of Mosul, and of Tikrit should not have come as a great surprise. As the map shows, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al-Sham), [1] many of whose fighters are of Iraqi origin (although some are the sons of immigrants from the Middle East to Europe), has been occupying cities, and creating economic and political fiefdoms, in northern and eastern Syria at least since April 2013. In addition, everyday violence all over Iraq has greatly worsened over the last year or so. For a better understanding of all this, one needs to go back several decades, to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf war in 1990-91, and the thirteen years of UN economic sanctions, all of which set the stage for the additional and even more terrible disasters that would befall Iraq with the US invasion of 2003. Let me begin with the invasion.

In 2003, Saddam Husayn had been President of Iraq since 1979, and its de facto ruler for many years before that. Thirteen years of sanctions (imposed after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990) had impoverished the middle class, devastated the country’s infrastructure and created a generation of semi-literate, unemployed and generally unemployable young people. In addition, the state had virtually ceased to function in large swathes of the Iraqi countryside, leading (with more than tacit government encouragement) to the retribalisation of much of Iraqi rural society–in which the tribal leadership assumed many of the functions of the state. In addition rural to urban migration on an even larger scale than in the past had swollen the population of the outer suburbs of Baghdad.

The Iraqi state of the late 1990s and early 2000s was the classic Middle Eastern authoritarian dictatorship. As Joseph Sassoon’s compelling study Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party–based on captured Party documents–has shown,[2] Iraq was run on a day-to- day basis by a number of highly centralized and extremely brutal internal security services, all reportedly to the president or to a member of his inner circle. Any potential internal opposition had been quelled, and its members exiled, imprisoned, or executed. In ways comparable to contemporary Syria, all significant power lay in the hands of the ruler and his trusted lieutenants, the majority of whom were members of his extended family, or his childhood acquaintances, or fellow members of the Ba‘th Party from its early days of secrecy and clandestinity.

Although the sectarian factor was less significant in the 1970s and 1980s than it is now, both Saddam Husayn and his immediate predecessor Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (President from 1968 to 1979) came from Tikrit, a town on the Tigris some 90 miles north west of Baghdad, located in an area whose population is entirely Sunni. The regimes of al-Bakr and Saddam Husayn thus continued the ‘tradition’ of Sunni dominance to which Iraqis had been accustomed since the foundation of the state. The population of Iraq is about 20 per cent Kurdish and 80 per cent Arab (there are other small minorities, but I’m painting with a broad brush), with some 55 per cent of the non-Kurdish population Arab Shi‘i and the remaining quarter Arab Sunni.

For much of the period between the foundation of the state in 1920 and 2003, the Sunni minority, who inherited its position of dominance from the Ottoman period, behaved as if it were a majority, and generally resisted power-sharing with the Shi‘is, a fact which caused increasing irritation to the ‘real’ majority, especially in the general context of the rise of secular politics after the Second World and of the wider spread of education throughout society. Sunni dominance was also furthered in the ideology of Iraq Ba‘thism, which presented the history of Iraq and the Arab world in entirely Sunni Arab terms with little or no reference to the Shi‘is and Kurds.

Sectarian affiliation began to matter more after Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. The shock waves of the Iranian Revolution, and its ambitious claims to represent or at least to further the interests of Shi‘is everywhere, caused great anxiety to the Iraqi regime, while Shi‘i political organizations in Iraq drew inspiration from it in equal measure, however much they were persecuted by the Ba‘th regime. Almost overnight, Iraq’s very powerful, generally conservative-secular and pro-Western neighbour had completely changed its nature. Some inkling of what Saddam Husayn’s regime in Iraq was ‘really’ like was its very close relationship with the Shah since 1975. Like many newly minted revolutions, the Islamic republic of Iran was eager to export its ideology, and did so to considerable effect, first in Lebanon, and later in Iraq. While Shi‘is form only ten per cent of the world population of Muslims, in the Middle East they form 90 per cent of the population of Iran, 55-60 per cent of the population of Iraq and about 40 per cent of the population of Lebanon (and smaller proportions of the population of Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan).

At this point it should be stressed that in spite of the evident ethnic and sectarian mix of Iraqi society, there had never been any attempt to create the kind of officially sanctioned and recognized sectarianism that has long existed in Lebanon. It was only with the US invasion that sectarian quotas were introduced for the first time, with devastatingly negative effects. That this was done reflects the fact that most of those involved with planning or participating in the invasion had little understanding of Iraqi or indeed Middle Eastern politics, and thought that the US would endear itself to the people of Iraq simply by overthrowing the tyrant and instituting some sort of majority rule, whatever they thought that meant. Of course, neither the Sunnis nor the Shi‘is formed monolithic blocs, and both quickly split into factions, with an important division between those who had sat out the last years of Saddam Husayn’s rule in Damascus, London, Teheran or Washington and those who had had little choice but to endure the dictatorship at first hand. And while many Sunnis occupied positions of privilege, the wrath of the regime had fallen on all its opponents, Sunnis and Shi‘is alike.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, which lasted from April 2003 to April 2004, was generally held to be a disaster; it was also weighed down by notions of sectarian quotas, and was headed by Paul Bremer, a career diplomat with no experience of the Arab world. Bremer is probably best known first for his extraordinary decision to disband the Iraqi Army, and second for his almost equally impulsive implementation of a policy of de-Ba‘thification, which enabled those whom the administration favoured to get rid of their potential rivals. Bremer’s immediate predecessor, General Jay Garner, had advised handing over authority to Iraqis as soon as possible, but this did not find favour with the neo-cons at the Pentagon, who thought they knew exactly how to build democracy in Iraq.

I cannot, obviously, give a blow by blow history of the US occupation, and our former colleague ‘Ali ‘Allawi knows far more about it than I do, having served as Minister of Trade and Minister of Defence in the cabinet appointed by the Interim Iraq Governing Council from September 2003 until 2004, and then as Minister of Finance in the Iraqi Transitional Government between 2005 and 2006. These were terrible years in terms of death and destruction; an insurrection against the occupation began in 2004, peopled largely by former members of the army that Bremer had been so quick to disband. Sectarian elements were there from the beginning, since the officer corps had been almost entirely Sunni, but by 2006-07 the insurrection had developed into a sectarian civil war. Estimates of civilian deaths vary widely, but the findings of the Iraq Body Count are as follows:

2003: 12,104

2004: 11,428

2005: 16,114

2006: 29,009

2007: 25,275

2008:   9,618

2009-11: under 5,000 p.a.[3]

Most of the deaths occurred in 2006-2007. There was something of a lull between 2009 and 2012, but in 2013, 9,517 people were killed, and the figure for the first five months of this year has already reached 4,638–and according to the UN High Commission for refugees, half a million people have fled their homes in Iraq in the last few weeks.

One of the main problems leading up to the most recent outbreaks of violence has been the dictatorial tendencies of Nuri al-Maliki, who occupies the positions of Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and Minister of Interior. Maliki’s government is corrupt, profoundly sectarian and deeply unpopular among Shi‘is as well as Sunnis, although particularly vilified by the latter. As well as mismanaging the economy, Maliki’s overt sectarianism and his assumption of more and more power in his own hands have been disastrous. For many observers, Maliki’s removal from the political scene is regarded as a necessary precondition for any efforts at national reconciliation. Maliki came to power in a deal brokered by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Iraq, and the British and American governments. Of humble birth (b. 1950) from the Shi‘i middle Euphrates, and a staunch member of the Da‘wa Party, Maliki left Iraq in 1980, and did not return until 2003. He spent the intervening years in Damascus and Iran, during which, according to a recent article,[4] he was responsible for all Da‘wa operations in Syria and Lebanon (including, most probably, the suicide bomb attack on the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut in 1981) and was later in charge of a camp of Iraqi fighters in Iran, financed and controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. [5] He is often described as paranoid, although in fairness he has survived several assassination attempts. Maliki is close to Iran and instinctively anti-American; his collaboration with the Americans was a marriage of convenience. He was and is regarded disparagingly by the more cosmopolitan Shi‘i politicians who spent their own years of exile in Britain or the United States. The author of the article that I have just mentioned recalls seeing Maliki on television in Iraq in December 2013: ‘His long face conveyed, as it almost always does, a look of utter joylessness.’

During his first couple of years in power Maliki did little to endear himself to the Iraqi public. He was largely responsible for the arrangements leading to the botched execution of Saddam Husayn, and the sectarian civil war deteriorated steadily on his watch. Things only began to improve with the US-inspired ‘surge’, the deployment of some 20,000 additional troops to Baghdad, announced in the President Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2007. It took until mid-June, when all the additional troops had arrived in Iraq (eventually numbering some 28,000) for major counter-insurgency efforts to begin. In March 2008 Maliki showed a degree of energy by ordering the Iraqi Army to attack Basra, which had just been occupied by his Shi‘i archrival Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Eventually, with massive American support, the Iraqi Army prevailed over the Mahdi Army, which was chased out of Basra. Although this certainly strengthened Maliki’s position and his reputation, the incident also marked the beginning of his efforts to establish his personal authority, with no power sharing either with Kurds, Sunnis, or even with other Shi‘is.

In the parliamentary elections of March 2010 Maliki’s State of Law alliance lost seats to ‘Iraqiya, a multi-sectarian alliance led by Ayad ‘Allawi. However, neither had a majority, and the Americans reluctantly concluded that they had little choice but to back Maliki again. For their part the Iranians obliged Muqtada al-Sadr to support Maliki in exchange for some key ministries and the appointment of the pro-Iranian Kurd Jalal Talabani as President. The Iranians also insisted, via Maliki, that the Americans should leave, and on 18 December 2011, they did, in spite of the fact that most political parties, and most Iraqi commanders, wanted some Americans to remain to continue training Iraqi forces and to help fight the kind of insurgency the Iraqi Army is facing at the moment. As President Obama was almost equally keen for all US forces to leave, there was no real contest. In general US army and diplomatic officials were not pleased at what they saw as their administration’s too ready acquiescence in Maliki’s wishes.

Since the departure of the Americans, some of whom acted as a restraining influence, Maliki has continued his anti-Sunni campaign, purging all Sunnis from the National Intelligence Service, and dismissing anyone of any integrity who ties to stand up to him, including the governor of the Central Bank, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, and the popular (Sunni) Finance Minister Raf‘i al-‘Issawi in 2012. He has also subverted the independence of the judiciary by obtaining a decision from the High Court that gives him the exclusive right to draft legislation. There are many stories of bribery, extortion, and the siphoning off of Iraq’s oil revenues, often involving Maliki’s son Ahmad, to which Maliki apparently turns a blind eye.

Such activities have increasingly caused Sunnis to lose whatever confidence they might once have had in the government. In the most recent elections on 30 April 2014, Maliki’s State of Law coalition got less than 25 per cent of the vote; in spite of this, he cobbled together a parliamentary alliance that ensured him another term. [6] He has been Prime Minister for eight years, and his third term will in theory last until 2008. He has also apparently resurrected a Saddam-era law that makes it an offence to criticize the head of state. As well as alienating the Iraqi Sunnis, he has also managed to alienate most of the Kurdish leadership, and it is likely that the Kurds will not be ready to give up Kirkuk and the Kurdish parts of Arab Iraq, which they have occupied in the last few days.

In November 2013, as Islamic militants strengthened their hold on several towns in Syria and the security situation in Iraq began to deteriorate further, Maliki felt obliged to turn to Washington for help. The White House gave him Hellfire missiles and some 25 Apache attack helicopters. This situation, and the occupation of Falluja by Sunni extremists in January, seems to be the result of a combination of the fall out of the situation in Syria and Maliki’s dogged pursuit of ever more extreme authoritarianism. According to Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq between 2007 and 2009, things have broken down within Iraq because the system the Americans created made them indispensable brokers or middlemen both between Shi‘is and other Shi‘is (although here the Iranians also played an important role) and between the Shi‘i and Sunni leaderships.

In a recent article in the Guardian (13 June) Toby Dodge argues that the present crisis is the result of a combination of the ‘failure to build a sustainable and inclusive political system after regime change in 2003’ and Maliki’s authoritarianism. In all probability the US will simply go on supplying military hardware to Maliki rather than insisting that he either leave power or change his approach, and the 250 US troops sent in mid-June are unlikely to make a significant difference. My own sense is that while the activities of ISIS in themselves cannot pose much of a threat (given that there are only at most 10,000 militants spread out across northern and eastern Syrian and northern Iraq), a far more serious aspect of the situation is that a large proportion of the army and police in northern Iraq have, at least temporarily, handed over themselves and their weapons (including tanks and other heavy artillery supplied by the Americans) to ISIS. In addition, many tribal militias and local commanders in Anbar and other Sunni areas have also thrown in their lot with ISIS, whether out of disgust at the ineptitude, corruption, and sectarianism of the government in Baghdad, or out of fear of what ISIS might do if they do not cooperate (and there have been reports of mass executions by ISIS over the last few days)–or perhaps a combination of both. For its part, ISIS has proclaimed that it wants to set up an Islamic emirate, even an Islamic caliphate, in Syria and Iraq, and has ambitions to march on and capture Baghdad, tearing up the post World War One settlement in the process. Let us hope that those eager volunteers whom Ayatullah Sistani has called up to defend the homeland can stop them in their tracks–but at the same time, a change of direction, and a change of emphasis, is desperately needed from Baghdad.

Peter Sluglett is Visiting Research Professor and DirectorDesignate at MEI. He has taught Middle Eastern History at the University of Durham (1974-1994) and at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City (1994-2011), where he was Director of the University’s Middle East Center. He has published widely on the modern history of Iraq, including Iraq since 1958: from Revolution to Dictatorship, 3rd edn., (2001, with Marion Farouk-Sluglett), and Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country (2007). He has also edited and contributed to The Urban Social History of the Middle East 1750-1950 (2008),  Syria and Bilad al-Sham under Ottoman Rule: Essays in Honour of Abdul-Karim Rafeq, (2010, with Stefan Weber), and Writing the Modern History of Iraq: Historiographical and Political Challenges (2012). He is currently co-authoring a book on the modern history of Syria.



[1] al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi’l-‘Iraq w’al-Sham broke ranks with al-Qa‘ida in 2004.

[2] Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[3] See

[4] Dexter Filkins, New Yorker, 28 April 2014.

[5] Maliki is known to be close to the Iranian Quds Force and its commander General Qasim Sulaimani.

[6], 2014

18 June 2014

Singapore Middle East Paper

Violent communication in Iraq: intended and unintended consequences

by Charles Tripp

SMEP 11-1 Tripp

This paper was part of MEI’s “IRAQ TEN YEARS AFTER: A RECKONING AND A BALANCE SHEET” session in July 2013.

Two days in January 2014 witnessed acts of violence by insurgents across Iraq that cost the lives of over one hundred Iraqis, civilians, military personnel and militia members. On 14 January, a fuel tanker was detonated by a suicide bomber under a major road bridge at Saqlawiya, near Fallujah in northwest Iraq. The main road from Baghdad to the west was cut and two army tanks destroyed, killing a number of army personnel. The police station at Saqlawiyah was then attacked and captured by the insurgents, causing the deaths of some two dozen policemen and soldiers. Attempts by the Iraqi army to retake the police station failed and it was only after the insurgent forces withdrew towards Fallujah that it was reoccupied. The next day, however, saw a dramatic spread and escalation of the violence. In Shatub, a village near Baqubah in northeast Iraq, a bomb was detonated at the funeral of a member of one of the government-sponsored tribal militias drawn from the Sunni Arab population. Nearly twenty people were killed and almost as many were wounded. Across the country, in the northwest at the bridge of Ain al-Jahash, a series of roadside bombs exploded killing numerous soldiers and civilians. Meanwhile at Ma`amil, a largely Shi`i district in the east of Baghdad, gunmen killed seven lorry drivers, kidnapped two and set the lorries on fire. All in all, eight bombs exploded across the capital that day, mainly in Shi`i districts of Baghdad, killing forty people and wounding more than twice that number. Shi`i Iraqis were also targeted by a car bomb in Dujail, a town north of Baghdad, with at least three fatalities.[1]


These events, terrible as they were, are not at all unusual in the violence and counter-violence that have marked the landscape of Iraq. They form part of a recognisable pattern of violence in Iraq since the US-led invasion and military occupation of the country in 2003. The scale of the violence has varied throughout this period, measured by the lives lost and the damage caused to infrastructure. Sometimes this has been due to variations in the capabilities of those organising the violence, both insurgent and government sponsored; sometimes it depends on the political context of opportunity, resentment and revenge exploited by all actors on the stage of Iraqi politics. Nevertheless, the patterns of violence, the rationales, as well as the aims and purposes of those using violence against the citizens, militias and armed forces of Iraq draw upon well-established repertoires. There are features and histories specific to the Iraqi context, as well as rhythms that are particular to the ways in which the passions and ambitions of Iraqi actors play themselves out. However, the use of violence in multiple registers, against a variety of targets and for a range of motives shares much in common with situations elsewhere. This suggests that it is important to reflect upon how violence is commonly perceived, both in Iraq and elsewhere, in order to establish the communicative logic of this seemingly most radical and terminal of human practices.[2]

Violence has often been characterised both by its practitioners and by those who have analysed its uses as a pre-eminently instrumental act. Indeed, one of its attractions as a method is that it is believed to have an immediate and dramatic capacity to redress or to respond effectively to imbalances of power. This has often blinded people to its long-term consequences but as wars, insurgencies and political struggles across the world demonstrate only too well, the instrumental aspect of violence has been to the fore. For established power, it promises to bring order, to instil discipline, to ensure political quiescence and, even if not deployed but only suggested, its threat is seen as a guarantor of stability and guardian of the existing division of labour and resources.[3] For insurgent power, by the same token, it can be seen as the principal means by which the existing order can be undermined, even overthrown, and through which a new balance of power can be created, altering the calculations of advantage within a particular arena. In short, violence takes on a pre-eminently realist image in the practice as well as the understanding of politics.

This has been reinforced for some by the metaphor of the weapon itself. Whether it is the image of Alexander the Great using his sword to cut through the Gordian Knot, or the dictum of Mao Zedong that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’,[4] the idea is that violence not only produces realist solutions to intractable problems, but is central to the construction of power itself. In this respect, Mao and others have given an instrumental gloss to Carl von Clausewitz’s famous statement that ‘war is the continuation of politics [or policy] by other means’, even if von Clausewitz intended this more as a commentary on the complexity of the political and the dangers of taking a reductionist view of violence. [5] Appropriately enough, it was a former prime minister of Iraq, Fadhil al-Jamali, on trial for his life before the ‘People’s Court’ in September 1958 who drew attention to the fascination of violence for those who see themselves as decisive realists on the stage of politics. As part of his ironic commentary on what was in effect a military tribunal, where the Military Public Prosecutor ostentatiously wore his revolver on his hip, al-Jamali cited the lines of the 9th century Iraqi poet at the court of the Abbasid Caliphs, Abu Tammam (Habib bin Aws al-Ta’i): ‘The sword is a more trustworthy form of communication than books; in its cutting edge lies the boundary between seriousness and frivolity’.[6]

Such metaphors, as well as being tokens of a realist approach to power, can also be euphemisms to hide or to overcome the moral scruples that violence inevitably evokes. In doing so, they nevertheless draw attention to the moral economy of violence, underlining the norms surrounding its use and its effects not only on the targets of violence, but also on the perpetrators. This means thinking of the place of violence in the imagination, understanding how it may amplify but also transform the political, how it can conjure up images, intensifying the experience. In particular, it obliges us to think about the ways in which violence may be seen as appropriate or fitting to specific settings, geared to a variety of ends. In the nature of things, some of these will be largely assessed in utilitarian and instrumentalist ways. Others, however, will be symbolic in nature, where the violence is against people or against material structures that represent, or stand in for some larger imagined entity. This is the real target – a collectivity, a system of power, a set of ideas or values – and the violent act is specifically intended to resonate in the mind’s eye of the practitioners, of the potential and actual targets, as well as of the wider publics for whom the act has meaning. In this connection, it is therefore incumbent to think about the larger normative and political setting in which violence ‘makes sense’ when used by and against particular human and material targets.[7]

It is for this reason that it is important to bring out the complicating consequences of the use of the seemingly unanswerable power of violence, to recognise the fact that its use sets in motion processes of enormous complexity and ambiguity. As the recent history of Iraq has made all too plain, violence may be met, or ‘answered’ by even greater violence, ensuring that there is no final outcome, but a chain of consequences of ever increasing brutality but also complexity. Its normative features, as well as its imaginative and cultural resonance, ensure transformative reverberations throughout the country that are unlikely to be stopped by, but may well be responded to by the further use of violence. The violent act is in this sense the beginning of a conversation whose end cannot be predicted. In thinking about violence in this way, it is possible to see it as a form of communicative action. It is born of political thinking, but violence also generates ideas relating to identity, justice, resistance, state and authority that go far beyond any specific political objectives that might be achieved through its use. Retaining the image of the conversation that violence introduces, one can ask whether there is a common grammar of political violence and, further, whether there is a communicative logic of violence that shapes the ways in which its use and its effects are conceived.[8]

It is here that one returns to the case of Iraq to see firstly, whether the notion of violence as a form of communication helps to clarify the forms, the targets but also the pace of violence in the country. Secondly, and related to this, the case of Iraq may provide an opportunity to understand the ways in which the grammar of communicative violence is inflected by specific, local contextual ideas and concerns. This can in turn provide an opportunity to assess whether these are the factors that are likely to shape the moral economy of violence, rather than simply its perceived utility, whilst recognising the inevitable entanglement of the two. These are the themes to be explored here. Based on the premise that violence in Iraq is a communicative process grounded in the contentious politics of that country, it argues that there are three major ‘conversations’ taking place between different sets of interlocutors, pursued by a variety of means and with a series of effects, some intentional and others less so.


About the State: power, control, direction

Many of the main violent exchanges in Iraq have concerned the state, its reach, its authority and the principles as well as the people it represents, or should represent. It is an object of debate and dispute – the endpoint of many of the conversations – and, through its agencies, is both instrument and target of violence. It is also a creation of massive and violent military intervention by US-led forces when they invaded Iraq in 2003. From this process there emerged a reconstructed state under foreign military occupation and the conditions of widespread insurgency. It is not surprising therefore that the coercive aspects of the state have been the focus of considerable attention, expenditure and development. In the circumstances, extending and reinforcing the reach and coercive capacity of the state have been seen as vital precursors to the rebuilding of its infrastructure, the renewal of its oilfields and the establishment of its governmental institutions.

The governments first of Iyad Allawi, then of Ibrahim al-Jaafari and of Nuri al-Maliki presided over this process and were born of foreign military occupation. They came into the world amidst escalating violence between various sections of the Iraqi population and the forces of occupation and their Iraqi allies. Encouraged and assisted by the United States, these were the governments charged with reasserting the power of the state, using coercion in the first instance against all who defied the process of state reconstruction. In this task, all the refurbished forces of the Iraqi state were pressed into service, proliferating among a number of agencies that included the regular armed forces, the Baghdad Brigade attached to the office of the prime minister, the forces of the ministry of the interior, as well as partisan and tribal militias and death squads that owed their existence to their powerful patrons in the executive. These forces were deployed to carry the state – and the violence of the state – into the lives of citizens across Iraq, with the promise of protection for those who subscribed to the new political order and retribution for those who defied it.[9]

Initially, and most ambitiously, once the US forces had suppressed the worst of the insurgency by the end of 2007, the prime minister, al-Maliki, used the more effective units of the Iraqi army to embark on a ‘reconquest of the provinces’. Thus, 2008 witnessed a campaign to impose central government control by force of arms first on Basra, then on Diyala Province, on Mosul and the northwest and finally on Sadr City in east Baghdad. This control was never total and has been continually contested, but it created sufficient impetus to lay the groundwork for the re-emergence of the state in areas from which it had been effectively absent for over five years, paving the way for some stability and predictability in the local environment.

Nevertheless, the violence of state agencies was not confined to these military campaigns. In their wake, the coercive aspects of state power reasserted themselves, with thousands taken into custody without trial, incarcerated in prisons run by the ministry of defence, the ministry of the interior and even by the office of the prime minister, as well as in the institutions formally run by the ministry of justice. Conditions in these places were rarely monitored and indeed some of the prisons were themselves secret, unknown to all save those who ran them and those who had the misfortune to find themselves within their walls, subject to regimes of abuse and violence that were familiar expressions of state power in Iraq.[10] The occasional release of batches of prisoners was meant to signal not only the magnanimity of the state, but also its power, reminding people that they could easily be detained once more with as little explanation or due process.

As an accompaniment, state television channels would air public confessions of those accused of acts of violence, giving expression to the symbolic power of the state. It also reminded Iraqis – in an idiom long familiar to previous regimes in Iraq – that the state’s violence was justified to protect the population from the violence of others. The visible signs of mistreatment, even torture on the bodies of some of those who made these public confessions, and the doubts about the establishment of their guilt, only served to reinforce the message of the state’s capacity for violence.[11] This was certainly something that was driven home by the large numbers of executions carried out by the state authorities – 129 in 2012, 151 in 2013 and 38 in the first three weeks of 2014.[12] The latter spate of executions coincided with the unrest in Anbar province, the capture of Fallujah by insurgent forces and the continued bomb attacks on security forces and civilians throughout Iraq. The resolve and determination of the government were being asserted through the use of state violence, even though it was spectacularly failing to protect the citizens from the violence of the continuing insurgency.

Some might have questioned the government’s methods, but there was no denying the fact that it and the Iraqi people more generally were facing an active and ruthless insurgency during these years. This was the other side to the conversation. The idiom of violence was prominent in the repertoire of those who opposed the government. From the time of the invasion and the defeat of the army of Saddam Hussein’s Ba`thist state, there had been mounting attacks on the forces of occupation. Initially disorganised, fragmentary and coming from a variety of groupings – Ba`thist, nationalist and Islamist – the insurgents had focused on the foreign forces that occupied Iraq. They also increasingly used violence against all those Iraqis who seemed to be collaborating with the US and its allies. As the Iraqi armed forces and state institutions began to take shape under US guidance and supervision, they too became the targets of insurgent attack. They were seen as the instruments of foreign or infidel rule, but they also represented for many in the insurgency the unacceptable supremacy of the Shi`i community, backed by Iran. This became a constant theme of repeated attacks not only against government institutions, but also against members of the Shi`i community more generally.


Just as the state was building up its institutional networks for the organisation and delivery of violence, so too were the various branches of the insurgency, using and extending the social networks of community and local association. These facilitated the delivery of violence in two senses. Firstly, they provided the communities of trust that could be relied upon to carry out widespread attacks across the country, supplying the necessary infrastructure of diverse networks – some tribal, others ideological and others locational – that could exploit the abundance of arms and explosives in circulation in the country in the years after the fall of the old regime. Secondly, they also constituted ‘moral communities’ that could endorse and support the use of violence, overcoming any possible scruples since they shared a common loathing of those now identified as the fitting targets of just retribution.[13]

Such violence took many forms and played itself out as a series of performances in the roads and streets of Iraq’s towns and villages and, by association, in the theatre of Iraqi politics. Violence was used against state infrastructure, government institutions, and the efforts to reconstitute Iraq’s economy, private as well as public. Furthermore, sectors of the economy and apparently mundane professions would be targeted, leading to the murders of dozens of teachers, doctors, bakers, hairdressers, booksellers, café owners and others in an effort to disrupt the return of any kind of normality under the new political order. Those who used such forms of violence appeared determined to prevent the re-emergence of the kind of stable and secure social order that might underpin acceptance of the status quo.[14] Unsettling and defying the government, even when targeting ordinary Iraqi citizens, was a way of undercutting the authority of that government since it seemed to impress on the population of the country the limited reach and capacity of the state itself.

The same could be said of the creation of no-go areas, a common strategy in insurgencies to underline the powerlessness of established power, fostering a sense of solidarity within a community by ensuring its isolation and the antagonism of the state authorities. This was a strategy carried out by diverse Islamist and nationalist insurgents particularly in Ramadi and in Fallujah, both in 2004 and in 2014. It also came out of, spoke to and helped to reinforce a sense of beleaguered community – in this case the Sunni Arabs of northwest Iraq. They felt increasingly alienated from a government that appeared to be in the hands of al-Maliki and his associates, many of whom came from his own political organisation – al-Da`wa – and most of whom were from different Shi`i communities across the country.[15] The violence – reciprocated by the government agencies – thereby graphically illustrated the argument put forward by Salafi Islamists and Iraqi nationalists that Iraq was in the hands of a clique of Shi`i sectarians, backed by Iran.

In all of this, symbolic cruelties were used to reinforce these same messages: the alien nature of a government that embodied ‘the Other’ and the license which this now gave those prepared to use violence to uproot it and humiliate it and its supporters. Since millions of Iraqis have now voted for the parties that constitute the government in two general elections (2005 and 2010), this has vastly extended the numbers of potential targets, labelled as agents of foreign powers, adherents of foreign ideologies or apostate Muslims. The performative aspects of this insurgent violence have been as vivid and as well publicised as that carried out by the state itself. They have ensured that the victims and their deaths are under the public gaze, either in streets, squares or open spaces, or captured and broadcast on the internet. This latter practice has even produced a distinct aesthetic that is meant to draw attention both to the virtue of those practising violence and to the cruelty of the act itself.[16]

Such practices are intended by some to underline the incommensurable nature of the two sides to the ‘conversation’ and the gulf that separates them. However, the insurgency is by no means monolithic. It is comprised of various groupings, some of which may cooperate for ideological or pragmatic reasons, but all of which work to their own agendas. This has led to divergent views on the utility of violence, the purposes it should serve, its appropriate targets and therefore the forms it should take. In some cases, violence has clearly been seen as a means not of eradicating ‘the Other’, but rather of entering into a conversation with established power, forcing it to recognise those prepared to use violence. The immediate results were often catastrophic, given the imbalance of forces, but recognition could and often did follow. It was this which began the process of recruiting and co-opting insurgents in 2005/6 and which resulted in the establishment of the militias grouped under the National Council for the Awakening of Iraq (sometimes known as the ‘Sons of Iraq’, the ‘Sahwah [awakening] Council’ or the ‘Anbar Awakening’).[17] Originally an American initiative, the formations were handed over to Iraqi government control after 2008, in an uneasy relationship of mutual mistrust that had disintegrated in some parts of Iraq by 2012/3. It was then that anti-government violence began to escalate in some of the areas hitherto controlled by these units, re-establishing the pattern of pressure and bargaining that had been so marked before.

The legacies of these violent conversations about state power and the authority of the government have been many. Most obviously, there has been the human cost: the loss of life of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens, caught between the violence of both sides, or used in some fashion to stand in for and thus to die for what one side takes the other to represent.[18] There have also been institutional legacies: the rapid build up of the Iraqi security forces, now standing at well over half a million men, as well as the sometimes less visible organisations of a re-established ‘shadow state’. These are the networks emanating from the various oligarchs at the heart of state power in Iraq that control the lives of millions of Iraqi citizens, implicating them in systems of patronage, and often violence, that stand behind the public institutions of the state. The effect of the violent conversation between the government and its enemies has been, equally, to deepen and extend the networks of trust that underpin the delivery of insurgent violence, equally implicating millions of Iraqis in systems of sedition that have set themselves up against those who command the state.


In addition, there are the less tangible legacies, important in framing the practices and narratives that surround the use and the justification of violence. Underlining the realism of the enterprise, violence becomes both a means of establishing the state in an instrumentalist sense, but is also a way of symbolising and ‘standing for’ the state. Violence therefore becomes the token of state seriousness and the determination of those who govern. By the same token, its often spectacular use is meant to underline the seriousness and the commitment of those who are resisting established power. These complementary features inform general attitudes whereby violence is commonly regarded as both normal and fitting in an increasing variety of contexts and against ever widening categories of people. Violence in this sense comes to represent what power is about, as well as what it means to engage with and to challenge power. In such a context, the norms relating to its deployment will mainly be determined by the unforgiving criteria used to judge the categories of people against whom it is used.

About community and identity: communal violenc

It is not only communication between the Iraqi government and the resistance organisations that has been marked by violence. Entangled with this, but also in some cases reinforcing it and certainly deepening the bitterness and amplifying its destructive power, have been the forms of communal violence in Iraq. Mainly, but not exclusively sectarian in nature, with Shi`i Muslims targeted by certain groups of Sunni Muslims because of their sectarian identity, and vice versa, the violence has also engulfed members of other communities in Iraq, such as the Christians, the Mandaeans, the Yezidis, the Kurds, Turcoman and Assyrians.[19] Violence has fed upon inter-communal prejudice, in the sense that a whole community of Iraqis may be categorised as deserving the violence inflicted on its members. However, it is not merely a product of inter-communal hatred. The enmity has been fuelled in large part by the perception of the relationship of that community to power – state, foreign, insurgent – and this has in turn been reinforced and reproduced by the violence used by both insurgent and government forces.

The placing of bombs in markets in largely Shi`i quarters of Baghdad, or in other towns and villages inhabited by Shi`i Iraqis, especially in mixed areas, the attacks on Shi`i pilgrims and the abductions and assassinations of even nominally Shi`i Iraqis have been constant features of the past ten years, causing tens of thousands of casualties. But equally, violence by the security forces of the Iraqi state against ‘problem communities’, or ‘communities of sedition’ has led to the deaths of many Sunni Iraqis, especially in the northwest and northeast of Iraq, in Anbar and in Diyala. Strongly suspected police involvement in the abduction and murder of Sunni Arab inhabitants of villages in these areas, as well as south of Mosul, has been compounded by incidents such as the shooting of over 50 demonstrators by an Iraqi army unit at a protest camp in Hawijah near Kirkuk in April 2013.[20] Their deaths and the perception that violence of this kind was used against them not only because they were against the government, but also because they were Sunni Arabs protesting about discrimination against people such as themselves by a sectarian administration helped to intensify the communal blood-letting that then escalated throughout 2013.

Inevitably, violence aimed at any members of a given community, inspires thoughts of revenge and breeds counter-violence. It also creates the demand for measures to protect the community and to neutralise the dangers represented by other communities. In an urban landscape, as much as in a rural setting of mixed villages this can lend lethal significance to the geographies of security. Districts, hamlets and villages inhabited by members of another community become strategic liabilities for their neighbours and thus, regardless of how those inhabitants have been traditionally viewed, take on a new aspect as direct or indirect threats to their very existence. In this sense, the logic of violence and its strategic deployment between communities takes over, as it has with lethal effect in other divided societies, such as Bosnia, Lebanon, Syria and Ulster. So in Iraq, the devastation of Diyala, the division of Kirkuk and the ‘clearing’ of areas of Baghdad with the loss of hundreds of lives have been the outcome of this grimly familiar process.[21]

The escalation of inter-communal fighting, and of intra-communal conflict in some circumstances, produced the armed formations that shaped the militia-dominated landscape of Iraq, openly until 2008/9 and in more disguised form thereafter. Simultaneously, it produced communal leaders, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political ambitions were furthered by their apparent willingness to command the means of violence.[22] This was due in part to their need to establish their credibility within a community that felt itself to be physically threatened. But it was also because the environment was such that the ability and willingness to use violence was taken as a token of serious intent, the means by which a leader was recognised as one of the chief players in the game of politics.

The nature of inter-communal violence encourages symbolic acts of various kinds, in which the site, form and nature of the violence itself takes on added meaning, intended as a powerful means of conveying messages of threat, loathing, contempt and humiliation. Thus, attacks on places of worship belonging to another religious community became familiar incidents in the escalating violence of Iraq’s sectarian conflicts. Most spectacularly, in February 2006 the great al-Askari mosque in Samarra – revered by the Shi`a as a key shrine associated with the Shi`i imams – was bombed.   This triggered a wave of retaliatory attacks in which some three dozen Sunni mosques across Iraq were damaged or destroyed, in turn triggering reprisals against Shi`i mosques. In addition, over 1500 people were killed in the week that followed, unleashing inter-communal violence that amounted to civil war and that was to persist at this level of intensity for nearly two years.[23]

The legacies of this violence have been communal mistrust and the fracturing of Iraq spatially, as well as imaginatively. Indeed the continuing violence and its escalation in 2013/4 to levels not witnessed since 2007 is a vivid testimony to the ways in which its practice has entered into the lexicon of political practice in Iraq, normatively and strategically. During the past decade, violence has not simply perpetuated and intensified communal enmity, but has also brought with it structural advantages for some, opportunities for ambitions to be realised and for the entrepreneurs of communal violence to flourish. It has also seen the acknowledged and sometimes unacknowledged deployment of supposedly ethical arguments in favour of the use of violence against certain categories of Iraqi. This has been visible in the rationales used by some of the Sunni Islamist groups to justify the killing of other Muslims, especially members of the Shi`i community, which has been declared infidel and thus meriting death through a selective reading of hadith and fiqh.[24] Similarly, in 2014 the warnings by prime minister al-Maliki to the population of Falluja (seized by a combination of Islamist and tribal insurgents, defying the Iraqi government) to expel the ‘terrorists’ from their city or face military bombardment by the Iraqi army sounded like a threat of collective punishment.[25] These are the ideas about ‘the Other’ in Iraq that have leant new and violent meaning to what had hitherto been unremarkable social difference.

A further disturbing legacy has been the ways in which violence, its reach and its logistics have encouraged regional entanglements. Iraq has thus become a terrain of proxy conflicts where local Iraqi communities and organisations collaborate with outside forces to destroy a perceived ‘common enemy’ within the country itself. It is a pattern of behaviour common to civil wars and reinforces the view held by one community that the other is in the service of an outside power, a powerful distancing device that can license unspeakable violence. It feeds into mutual mistrust and can be used to justify such violence in the name of communal or indeed national defence. In this context violence presents itself as the most effective way of eliminating an immediate threat, suited to the urgency of the task, presenting a ‘realist’ grasp of necessary strategies, but also stigmatising the enemy by placing the community in question firmly in a narrative that designates it as fundamentally ‘un-Iraqi’.[26] The enduring imaginative legacy of this for any future notion of Iraqi citizenship or of a common Iraqi political space is disturbing.

About Wealth: seizing and guarding the spoils

In such an environment, it is not surprising that violence can easily be seen as the best way of handling any number of political issues. One of the most prominent in post-2003 Iraq, and one that is intimately tied up both with questions surrounding the reach and control of the state, as well as with the communal division of political society, is the question of accountability. Beginning with the US-run CPA of 2003/4 and carrying on in a similar fashion in the years that followed, this has taken a number of forms. There has been the systematic evasion of accountability by those in positions of power for the appropriation of funds that nominally belong to the Iraqi people. In addition, ruthless competition has flourished in a setting where hidden forms of violence are embedded in the coercive force that sustains a certain order of property favouring those with political and military clout, as the forcible seizure of real estate and commercial enterprises has shown. Equally, it is evident in a patronage system where communal leaders seize and selectively redistribute to members of the community goods that should be theirs by right as citizens.[27] None of this could be achieved without the threat or the use of violence to maintain such systems in place.

The violence of free enterprise has shown itself in other ways as well. In the period when inter-communal violence had declined prior to 2011 many of the acts of violence were targeted at people who had no clear political role and were not obviously selected because of their sectarian identity. Sticky bombs and silencers became the means whereby individuals were eliminated or warned. Some of this violence may have been a symptom of continuing political conflicts, but some was due more to business rivalries and the determination to eliminate competition. In an environment where guns and explosives were freely available, where those skilled in using them were plentiful and cheap to hire, and where the security forces were preoccupied with insurgency, or could be persuaded through higher connections, or through bribery to look the other way, violence became a kind of currency in the emerging market of Iraqi business. In some cases, there was clearly a suspicion that these acts were indeed closely connected to the networks of political privilege, power and self-enrichment that had come to dominate the hollowed out public services in Iraq.[28]

In many respects, posts in the public service of the state, from that of minister down, had become gifts of those in power, entrenching a renewed patrimonialism that characterised the premierships of all occupants of the post since 2004. In these circumstances, the state provided not only the financial resources, but also the coercive means to ensure that the division of the spoils should not challenged by those outside the magic circle. Preventing proper scrutiny of such processes and appropriations has been a recurring theme of the violence witnessed over these years. The case of the Commission of Public Integrity (since named the Commission of Integrity – hay’at al-nasahah) illustrates well this intertwining of misappropriated public funds and the use or threat of violence to prevent scrutiny. The Commission had been set up in 2004 and was incorporated into the Iraqi Constitution of 2005. It had been headed initially by Judge Hamza al-Radhi, an independent figure who took the commission’s task of impartial scrutiny seriously. However, he came up against an increasingly obstructive government under Nuri al-Maliki, accompanied by unattributable death threats and an attack on his house that he suspected was organised by the state security forces.[29] This led him to resign in 2007, to flee Iraq and to seek asylum in the US, while the Iraqi government, without apparent irony, threatened to sue him for corruption. His successor, Judge Rahim al-Uqaili did not last much longer. Having come up against the same obstructive and menacing forces as those faced by his predecessor, he too resigned in September 2011, citing official obstruction and the fact that his employees felt physically threatened when they tried to enter ministries to carry out investigations. His departure finally allowed the prime minister to appoint his own protégé to ensure that the Commission would henceforth serve rather than scrutinise government.[30]

Similar campaigns of menace and physical violence have taken their toll of investigative journalists in Iraq. The country is one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists, both print and broadcast, with over 150 killed in the decade after 2003.[31] Many of them died as a result of the insurgency and the widespread danger it has represented. But some have been intimidated or killed because of the ruthless determination of those who have appropriated public funds to avoid investigation. Such was the fate of the investigative radio broadcaster Hadi al-Mahdi who was killed in September 2011 almost certainly for his outspoken criticism of the government, his investigation of the widespread corruption by public figures and his denunciation of the betrayal of Iraq’s citizens by authorities who could not even ensure minimum public services.[32] He had also been involved in the protests that had erupted in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and other cities in 2011, inspired by the uprisings across the Arab world, but voicing their own criticisms of the failings of the Iraqi government. These efforts to hold the government to account were no more successful and were met with sustained and brutal force, where the agents of the security services were disguised as ‘concerned citizens’, wielding knives and iron bars to disperse the protestors.

The corruption that has been such a feature of the emerging parliamentary republic in Iraq has placed it near the bottom of the league of virtually any index of global corruption.[33] As the examples above indicate, this scale of corruption is both an outcome of, but also drives the violence with which Iraqis are confronted whilst their country is being plundered. The two are intertwined since one prevents effective investigation of the other, whilst establishing access to the resources that have become the prize. At the same time, ownership of the means of coercion evidently opens up opportunities for self-enrichment whether nominally in the service of the state, or ostensibly dedicated to one of the ideological groupings that make up the varied insurgency. As a report of 2012 of abuses in the prison service made startlingly clear, prison officers had worked out a disturbing tariff for the torture of detainees, with a higher pay off ensuring less pain. Indeed, regardless of the rulings of the judiciary, there was equally a tariff for the release of detainees, with those who failed to pay up being kept incarcerated, regardless of court orders.[34]

The same might be said of the various branches of the insurgency where kidnapping, protection rackets, extortion and theft have been enabled by the powerful weapons in the hands of the insurgents and by their very credible threat to use violence if people do not submit. Economic opportunities have been created in a field of violence and the insurgents have not been slow to seize them.[35] Whether this is to raise funds for the cause or for purposes of self-enrichment is a clouded question and in some senses immaterial – a cycle has been created that links the use of violence to the extortion of funds. This in turn increases the sphere of influence of the group, in part because it allows them to buy more weapons in the thriving Iraqi and regional market, thereby perpetuating the cycle.

This is not a cycle exclusive to the Islamist or nationalist groupings with – ostensibly – larger political agendas. A ruthless determination to use violence in the pursuit of wealth has been a feature of Iraq’s thriving criminal underworld – although given the openness with which some its members operate, that might be a misnomer. They have targeted foreigners as well as wealthy Iraqis, especially those returning from abroad, as lucrative kidnap victims. Sometimes they have been operating with the complicity of the security forces, and at other times and places they have cooperated with insurgent and also tribal groupings. The latter, because of their location along the porous borders of Iraq, have been particularly active in the smuggling trade in drugs, arms and people that have been so much a feature of Iraq, based on networks that go back to the sanction-busting years of the 1990s. In all of these dangerous and enterprising activities, violence is implicit, and sometimes used to terrible effect.[36]

Nevertheless, the persistence, ubiquity and effectiveness of violence in achieving at least short term demonstrable, material gains have reinforced the political economy of violence. Its legacy in this sphere has been to establish its normality as a practice. Like the corruption to which it is closely connected, violence becomes a part of the everyday economy, sustaining a certain kind of order and underpinning the openings for enterprise that are created, however much this might be resented by many. Violence can thus become a way of carving out and protecting business interests. Of course, it is not practised by all members of the emerging entrepreneurial class, but they must take it into account, if only to allow for defensive measures and even a kind of insurance that may be indistinguishable from a protection racket.[37] This in turn can perpetuate the entanglement of those involved with the networks of state power, the ‘shadow state’ standing behind the public institutions and declarations. The behaviour of state agencies, whether threatening or using violence, or indeed failing to investigate its occurrence, entwines the state elites with these practices, driven as much by the prospect of financial gain and extended power as by the declared goal of stability and social peace. It would suggest that those in power see violence as a way of avoiding systematic accountability. By turning a conversation about rights and answerability into one of violence, they ensure that their actions, their handling of public funds, or indeed their use of violence itself remain free from effective scrutiny.


Understanding violence in Iraq as a series of linked conversations with and about power refocuses attention on the processes by which the developing polity in Iraq is coming into being. In some respects, it harks back to the original Clausewitzian dialectical notion of the interplay between the forms of violence and the imaginative and structural political contexts in which they take place. However, in other respects the logic of communicative violence is better understood as a dialogic process, whereby ideational and strategic elements combine to produce outcomes that lead not to closure, but to the possibly temporary salience of one set of structures or ideas. Such an understanding provides a perspective on the enduring violence in Iraq that brings out a number of its key features and may help to clarify the forces that generate it, but also the processes that it has in turn set in motion.

The terms of the conversation reveal not only the intentions of the interlocutors, but also the grammar or idioms through which they believe it appropriate to carry on their exchanges. In this sense, the multiple uses and forms of violence in Iraq, the varied settings and the often terrible methods employed can be read as a language that conveys the political thinking of those who use it. In part this may be derived, like any language, from the subject’s experiences of the latent or explicit violence to which they or their community may have been exposed. Given the history of war, state repression, punitive sanctions and military occupation to which Iraq has been subjected in the past few decades, it is not difficult to understand why violence should have become so readily understandable as a form of communication. In part, the language may also be learned by instruction through texts, both virtual and literal, that are produced to make sense of a bewildering, chaotic and seemingly predatory environment.[38] When reinforced by experience, these can anchor the uses of violence in a political and moral economy that determines, or at least that suggests the targets, the methods and the messages of violence, and in doing so helps to form the subject, defining and giving meaning to agency.

Like speech acts themselves, acts of violence are powerfully performative. The actors engage with an audience, or a number of audiences, depending upon the stage and the setting. The repertoires upon which they draw follow certain conventions, amplifying the meaning of solitary acts of violence, shaping the staging and the nature of those acts to communicate the messages of defiance, determination, cruelty, contempt or rejection that have formed the stock in trade of military occupiers, government forces and insurgents in Iraq since 2003. Nor can there be any denying the dramatic power of these performances, heightened by the deaths inflicted, the deliberately spectacular nature of suicide bombings and military bombardments, the demonstrative cruelty of punishments and tortures inflicted in the public gaze, as well as the wilful destruction of sites, buildings and symbols dear to those intended to be the main audience. In this way narratives are reproduced and strengthened through the conventions of a drama in which actors and audience participate.

The effects of these processes in Iraq have been most marked in the violent exchanges and performances that have revolved around the forms of power – state, communal and economic – that been the subject of this essay. In each of these interconnected spheres, the practice and ‘language’ of violence have caused unprecedented loss of life, human misery and destruction. They have also brought into being, or helped to construct, narratives about state, identity and class that will shape the course of Iraqi politics for some time to come. In this sense, therefore, violent communications, despite their destructive effects, are also socially constructive. This has been evident in the reconstruction of an authoritarian political order the leaders of which justify their hold on power and frequent use of coercion with reference to the terror spread by the insurgency. This is a rationale that resonates well amongst those who feel themselves threatened in their everyday lives by the continuing violence of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq (more recently the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). Despite public criticism of those who presently rule Iraq, the very circumstances of the state’s emergence have tended to reinforce the common sense of granting it a broad licence to use whatever violence is thought necessary to eliminate this ever-present threat, even if its very use may be a contributing factor.

In terms of Iraq’s society and its communal life, violence has brought about significant demographic and attitudinal changes. Forcible displacements in Basra, Baghdad and Baqubah have altered the character of these cities, as well as the relationships between their inhabitants. The Iraqi Christian community that numbered over one million in 2003, has been depleted by violence and the threat of violence, leaving less than half a million still in the country. Equally, the powerful, often murderous prevalence of the sectarian imaginary has transformed social difference, making it the basis of life and death choices, as well as determining the unequal distribution of power and resources in a confessional state. Furthermore, the scale and extent of corruption, the misappropriation of public funds and the emerging class order, bear witness to the continuing effects of violence as empires of privilege are carved out of the domain of public goods and criticism is silenced. As Fadhil al-Jamali suggested, the logic of violent communication does indeed introduce a note of deadly seriousness. As the past decade of Iraq’s modern history demonstrates, these processes can eliminate people and possible alternatives, substituting for them structures and attitudes that have redefined Iraq’s institutions, spatial arrangements, as well as its geographies of the imagination.


Professor Charles R. H. Tripp is a professor of politics, lecturing on government and politics of the Middle East for both undergraduates and postgraduates at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Tripp’s main areas of research include the study of state and society in the Middle East, especially Iraq, and Islamic political thought. Professor Tripp is a world class specialist on Iraq and has contributed as regional expert to media broadcasters including the BBC and NPR, as well as to print media such as Foreign Affairs, The Guardian and the New Statesman. In the run up to the war against Iraq, Professor Tripp was part of a small team that visited 10 Downing Street in order to advise the prime minister, Tony Blair, on the consequences of going to war. His newest book is ‘The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East’ (2013).




[1] ‘Iraq bombs kill dozens as PM warns of “evil statelet” attempts,’ The Guardian, 15 January 2014 [accessed 22 January 2014]

[2]Stathis N. Kalyvas, ‘The ontology of “political violence”: action and identity in civil wars,’ Perspectives on Politics 1:3 (September 2003): 475-494; Laia Balcells, ‘Continuation of politics by two means: direct and indirect violence in civil war’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution 55:3 (June 2011): 397-422; Kai Thaler, ‘Ideology and violence in civil wars: theory and evidence from Mozambique and Angola,’ Civil Wars 14:4 (December 2012): 546-567

[3]Abelmajid Hannoum, Violent modernity – France in Algeria (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 94-136; Dan Neep, Occupying Syria under the French Mandate – insurgency, space and state formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 5-19

[4] Mao, Zedong ‘Problems of war and strategy,’ November 1938, Selected Works, (Arlington, Va: JPRS, 1978), Vol. 2, 224

[5]Mao, Zedong ‘On Protracted War,’ May 1938, Selected Works, Vol. 2, 152-3

[6]Muhakamat al-mahkamah al-`askariyah al-`ulya al-khassah (Proceedings of the Special Supreme Military Court) (Baghdad: matba`at al-hukumah, wizarat al-difa`, 1959-62), Vol. 3, 1085-6

[7] Frantz Fanon, The wretched of the earth (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963), 34-94; C. A. J. Coady, Morality and political violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Lee Ann Fujii Killing neighbors: webs of violence in Rwanda (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), 1-22

[8] Daniel Rothenberg, ‘”What we have seen has been terrible” – public presentational torture and the communicative logic of state terror’, Albany Law Review, 67:2 (2003): 467-472, 481-4

[9] Anthony H. Cordesman with Adam Mausner, Iraqi force development (Washington DC: CSIS, 2007); US Government The Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq (Washington DC: 6 September 2007); James M. Dubik, Building security forces and ministerial capacity: Iraq as a primer – Report 1: Best practices in counter-insurgency (Washington DC: Institute for the Study of War, 2009)

[10] Human Rights Watch, ‘Iraq: secret jail uncovered in Baghdad,’ 1 February 2011 [accessed 12 January 2014]

[11] Jack Healey, ‘Iraq turns justice into a show, and terror confessions a script,’ New York Times, 7 January 2012 [accessed 12 January 2014]

[12] Amnesty International, ‘Iraq: another spike in executions with 38 hanged in last four days’, 22 January 2014 [accessed 28 January 2014]

[13]Nir Rosen, In the belly of the green bird – the triumph of the martyrs in Iraq (New York: Free Press, 2006), 36-69

[14] Ahmed Hashim, Insurgency and counter-insurgency in Iraq (London: Hurst & Co, 2006), 125-213

[15] Toby Dodge, Iraq: from war to a new authoritarianism (London: Routledge for IISS, 2012), 157-163; ICG Alert, ‘Iraq after Hawija: recovery or relapse?’, International Crisis Group, 26 April 2013 [accessed 17 July 2013]

[16] Mohammed M. Hafez, ‘Martyrdom mythology in Iraq: how jihadists frame suicide terrorism in videos and biographies,’ Terrorism and Political Violence, 19 (2007): 95-115; Hanne Miriam Larsen, ‘Hostage videos: tropes of terror as social practice’, P.O.V. – Filmtidskrift, 20 (December 2005) [accessed 15 September 2013]

[17]Nir Rosen, Aftermath (New York: Nation Books, 2010): 221-271, 301-329

[18]The relatively conservative Iraq Body Count that relies on published sources for information estimates that up to 134,000 civilians were killed during the period 2003-2013 [accessed 6 February 2014]. Other estimates have put the number of civilian dead much higher at roughly 500,000 [accessed 6 February 2014]

[19] Minority Rights Group Reports, Assimilation, exodus, eradication: Iraq’s minority communities since 2003 (11 February 2007) and Still targeted: continued persecution of Iraq’s minorities (10 June 2010)

[20] Amnesty International, ‘Iraq: rein in security forces following the killing of dozens at protest in al-Hawija,’ 25 April 2013 [accessed 24 May 2013]; Human Rights Watch, ‘Iraq: protect Anbar residents from abuses,’ 9 January 2014 [accessed 18 January 2014]; BBC News Middle East, ‘Bodies of 14 Sunni men found in Iraq orchard,’ 16 January 2014 [accessed 18 January 2014]

[21] Claudio Guler, ‘Baghdad divided,’ International Relations and Security Network – ETH Zürich 9 November 2009 [accessed 27 January 2014]; Tim Arango, ‘Sectarian violence reignites in an Iraqi town,’ The New York Times 18 September 2013 [accessed 27 January 2014];

[22] Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada al-Sadr and the fall of Iraq (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 159-232

[23] Robert F. Worth, ‘Blast destroys shrine in Iraq, setting off sectarian fury,’ The New York Times, 22 February 2006 [accessed 18 September 2013]; Patrick Cockburn, ‘Destruction of holiest Shi`i shrine brings Iraq to the brink of civil war,’ The Independent 23 February 2006`i-shrine-brings-iraq-to-the-brink-of-civil-war-467454.html [accessed 18 September 2013]

[24]Mohammed M. Hafez, Suicide bombers in Iraq: the strategy and ideology of martyrdom (Washington DC: USIP, 2007), 117-140; Abdullah Salem, ‘Serial killings: Mosul protest leaders targeted by both Sunni and Shiite extremists?’ Niqash, 16 January 2014 [accessed 17 January 2014]

[25] BBC News Middle East, ‘Iraq violence: PM urges Fallujah to oust militants,’ 6 January 2014 [accessed 8 January 2014]; Ali Abel Sadah, ‘Anbar province headed towards isolation,’ Al-Monitor, 3 February 2014 [accessed 6 February 2014]

[26]Fanar Haddad, ‘Identity politics in Iraq: how much of it is about identity?’ Near East Quarterly, Issue IX (11 December 2012) [accessed 4 October 2013]

[27] Johnny West, Iraq’s last window: diffusing the risks of a petro-state, Working Paper 266 (September 2011) Center for Global Development [accessed 18 January 2014]

[28] Phil Williams, ‘Illicit markets, weak states and violence: Iraq and Mexico,’ Crime, Law and Social Change, 52:3 (September 2008): 323-336

[29]See Judge Radhi Hamza al-Radhi’s testimony before the US Senate Committee on Appropriations ‘Corruption in the Iraqi Government and its Costs’, 11 March 2008 Senate Hearing 110-673 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 2008): 77-85

[30] ‘Ex-Iraq official slams leaders over graft’, Iraq Business News, 13 September 2011 [accessed 25 January 2014]; Dana Hedgpeth, ‘$13 billion in Iraq aid wasted or stolen, ex-investigator says,’ The Washington Post, 23 September 2008 [accessed 25 January 2014]

[31] Committee to Protect Journalists, [accessed 7 January 2014]

[32]Human Rights Watch, ‘Iraq: radio personality shot dead,’ 9 September 2011 [accessed 7 January 2014]

[33]Patrick Cockburn, ‘Iraq 10 years on: how Baghdad became a city of corruption,’ The Independent, 4 March 2013; Transparency International’s Global Corruption Index for 2013 placed Iraq 171st out of 177 countries – [accessed 25 January 2014]

[34]Ghaith Abd al-Ahad ‘Corruption in Iraq: “Your son is being tortured. He will die if you don’t pay”’, The Guardian 16 January 2012 [accessed 20 June 2013]

[35]Ahmad Salama, ‘Kidnapping and Construction: al-Qaida turns to big business, mafia-style,’ Niqash, 6 April 2011 [accessed 25 January 2014]

[36] Phil Williams, Criminals, militias and insurgents: organized crime in Iraq (SSI & USAWC Press, 2009) August 2009 [accessed 25 January 2014]

[37] Pete Moore, ‘Making big money on Iraq,’ Middle East Report, No 252 Vol 39 (Fall 2009); Bilal Wahab, ‘How Iraqi oil smuggling greases violence,’ The Middle East Quarterly, 13:4 (Fall 2006): 53-9; Robert Looney, ‘Reconstruction and peacebuilding under extreme adversity: the problem of pervasive corruption in Iraq,’ International Peacekeeping, 15:3 (June 2008): 424-440

[38]Hanna Rogan, ‘Abu Reuter and the e-jihad: virtual battlefronts from Iraq to the Horn of Africa,’ Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 8:2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 89-96. But see also the FBI training documents that suggest that the more ‘devout’ a Muslim, the more likely that person is to be violent – Spencer Ackerman, ‘FBI Islam guide pushed highly controversial views of Muslims,’ The Huffington Post, 27 September 2011 [accessed 25 January 2014]

12 June 2014
Singapore Middle East Paper



by Carool Kersten

SMEP 10-1 Kersten

The term ‘critical Islam’ can mean a host of things and therefore needs to be qualified. Here it will be used to describe a strand of contemporary Muslim thinking arising and developing both in parallel with–and in contrast to–what scholars of Islam from different academic disciplines refer to as the ‘Islamic Resurgence’ beginning in 1970s.[1] The exponents of this other current are called turāthiyyūn, or ‘heritage thinkers’, because they do not take Islam as a narrowly defined and fixed set of doctrines and tenets, nor do they regard it as offering a set and concrete political model that works as a panacea against all the ills affecting Muslims and Muslim societies.[2] Instead, they regard Islam as a civilizational concept with a rich legacy of religious, philosophical, and cultural expressions. This is not to imply that the advocates of political Islam, or Islamists, can’t be critical too. In fact, a case could be made that their views of the role of religion in human life refers to another meaning of ‘critical’; in the sense of considering it crucial or critically important to human felicity. However, rather than projecting Islam as an ideal, the heritage thinkers–depending on their disciplinary backgrounds–take religion as an idea or a social fact.


Critical Islam, heritage thinking, and post-Islamism


This paper is intended as a meditation on the contributions of Islamic heritage thinking to the critical examination of religion as part of the intellectual history of the Muslim world. The interlocutors in this discourse work as academic scholars of Islam and act as public intellectuals–often at the same time. The significance of this stream of Muslim intellectualism is evinced by three important meetings held in the same time frame during which the reactive (and often reactionary) forms of political Islam began to be noticed: The 1971 Cairo Conference on Authenticity and Renewal in Contemporary Arab Culture; the forum which took place three years later in Kuwait on the Crisis of Civilizational Development in the Arab Homeland; and another conference held in Cairo, in 1984, convened under the title ‘Heritage and the Challenges of the Modern Age in the Arab Nation: Authenticity and Modernity’.

In assessing the significance of these meetings, Issa Boullata, a veteran observer of the intellectual history of the Arab world, distinguished three main trends of what he called a ‘painful introspection’ into the state of affairs of Muslim thinking about the role of their religion and wider intellectual legacy.[3] The variety of perspectives is relatively broad. On the one end of the spectrum are the proponents of a radical cultural revolution in which the religious outlook is jettisoned in favour of a secular one. On the other end is a very vocal cabal wishing to eliminate all ‘external’ intellectual and cultural influences from Arab society. In between these opposing camps is a group advocating a renewal and intellectual-cultural adaptation of the Islamic heritage rather than its transformation, because they believe that contemporary Arab-Islamic civilization is capable of dealing with modernity. Although raising more questions than providing answers, Boullata considered the Kuwait forum to be ‘one of the most important cultural events to occur in the Arab world’ during the early 1970s.[4] Over the next decade it gave rise to what Leonard Binder, another long-time student of the modern Muslim world has called a rich, varied, and growing turāth literature.[5]

‘Despite the still wide range of definitions of turāth’, the Italian sociologist of Islam Armando Salvatore considers the conference of 1984 as the high point in ‘the collective Arab intellectual endeavour to invest the conceptual couple “heritage/authenticity” in a conscious project of reconstruction’ based on ‘a broadly accepted, communicatively effective term of political-intellectual discourse’.[6] Adding to Salvatore’s observation, I want to suggest that the 1984 conference also heralded a changing of the guard. While the meetings of 1971 and 1974 were still dominated by thinkers such as Zaki Naguib Mahmud (1905-1993), Mahmud Amin al-ˊAlim (1922-2009), and Anouar Abdel Malek (1924-2012), by 1984 they were being replaced by scholars born in the 1930s. This generation was less timid in terms of pushing renewal in the direction of a transformation of existing Islamic epistemes.

Although I have only mentioned three gatherings of intellectuals from the Arabic-speaking part of the Muslim world, it is important to stress that the development of this form of critical Islam is not restricted to the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, in Indonesia–located on the south-eastern periphery of the historical Dār al-Islām, but at the same time the world’s largest Muslim nation state–there is not only a voracious appetite for the writings of the turāthiyyīn, but also a thriving local Muslim discourse in Indonesian. Its origins go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when student leader Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005) and a number of like-minded budding intellectuals started the ‘Movement for the Renewal of Islamic Thinking’ (Gerakan Pembaruan Pemikiran Islam). With this initiative and their own subsequent appreciation for the ‘intellectual treasures of Islam’, they prepared the ground for the often controversial ideas expounded by the heritage thinkers from the Middle East, ideas that are often met with a more welcoming reception in Indonesia than in their originators’ home countries.[7]

Despite varying academic backgrounds, different points of entry and concentration areas when dealing with the civilizational heritage of Islam, what I also want to note is that the approaches chosen by this type of Muslim intellectual prefigure what is now becoming known as ‘Post-Islamism’. While, in the 1990s, Olivier Roy and Asef Bayat were the first to put the term on the map as a historical and analytical category respectively, I believe that its intellectual beginnings can be traced to the work of the Arab turāthiyyūn and Indonesian renewal thinkers of the early 1970s.[8] To back up this claim, I draw on those parts of my earlier and current research into the intellectual history of the contemporary Muslim world where I focus primarily on a quartet of Arab thinkers who have been particularly influential among young Muslim thinkers in Indonesia. For the framing of this discursive exchange I draw heuristically on recent writings about cosmopolitanism and cultural hybridity, the circulation of ideas in the intellectual histories written by South Asianists, and Edward Said’s notion of ‘travelling theory’, which was originally intended for literary criticism but which has also been fruitfully applied in the study of global Islam in the context of international relations.[9]

Notwithstanding considerable differences in how they engage the Arab-Islamic heritage, Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), Hasan Hanafi (b. 1935), Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri[10] (1936-2010) and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) share an intellectual profile characterized by intimate familiarity with the Islamic tradition and an equally solid acquaintance with the achievements of Western academe in the humanities and social sciences. While intellectuals from the Maghreb countries tend to incline towards historical approaches, Egyptians, such as the literary and Qur’anic studies expert Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and the philosopher Hasan Hanafi, lean towards a more conceptual focus. Although al-Jabiri too was trained as an academic philosopher in both his native Morocco and in Damascus, there is an affinity between his work and that of his fellow Moroccan Abdallah Laroui (b. 1933). Meanwhile, Algerian-born historian of Islam Mohammed Arkoun sees great merit in drawing on the social sciences for the study of the Islamic past, sharing an interest with, for example, his Tunisian colleague Hichem Djaït (b. 1935) in the historical transformations of the notion of ‘basic personality structure’ developed by the American sociologist Avram Kardiner and introduced to a Francophone readership by the philosopher Mikel Dufrenne.[11]

Both Binder and Boullata regard Laroui’s The Crisis of the Arab intellectual: Traditionalism and Historicism (1974) as a key contribution to the turāth literature.[12] According to Laroui, Arab intellectuals are eclectics who must be disciplined into a historically more responsible way of thinking. However, Binder contends that Laroui himself is also eclectic, calling him a ‘superb dialectician, whose rhetoric includes both phenomenal and pragmatic tropes’, which turn him into a ‘cultural and philosophical hybrid, capable of interpreting Europe to the Muslim world and the Muslim world to Europe’.[13] Thus Laroui was able to engage critically with historiographies that are unsympathic towards Islam, such as those written by the Austrian-American Islamicist G.E. von Grünebaum.[14] However, he thought it unlikely that a meaningful dialogue with the texts of the turāth by Arab intellectuals could occur because of the disjunction between existing Arab-Islamic historiography and contemporary Muslim worldviews. These frustrations over the lack of appreciation for historicism among Arab intellectuals remains detectable in Laraoui’s later work as well, including The Concept of Reason (1997) and Sunnah and Reform (2008). However, notwithstanding his disappointment at the progress of Arab critical-historical thinking, Boullata thinks Laroui’s propositions have exercised an influence through which a more comprehensive view of the Arab-Islamic past is becoming ‘an imperative for many Arab intellectuals’.[15]


Phenomenological investigations, text criticism and discourse analysis: Critical Muslim intellectuals in Egypt


Just before the outbreak of the Suez War in 1956, Hasan Hanafi was one of the last Egyptians to reach France for postgraduate studies at the Sorbonne. He went there with the ambition of developing an ‘Islamic method of philosophical investigation’.[16] For this he turned to the traditional field of Islamic learning that dealt with jurisprudence or fiqh. The reason for this was that law holds centre stage in Muslim intellectual activity and the particular domain with the most sophisticated methodological apparatus and greatest potential for providing the necessary academic rigour was a subfield of traditional Islamic legal studies known as uūl al-fiqh or the ‘foundations of Islamic jurisprudence’. In order to extract its most fundamental principles and transpose these into a contemporary idiom, Hanafi decided to subject this particular scholarly specialism to a critical examination along the lines of Husserl’s philosophical phenomenology in order to transform a specialist field within legal studies into a philosophical method that could be universally applied to any domain of Islamic thinking.[17] Although he was a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan Hanafi’s enthusiasm for thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb was tempered by the trauma caused by the Brotherhood’s persecution under Nasser. While retaining the Qutbian perspective of seeing Islam as a comprehensive method or minhaj, the impact of events in the 1950s and 1960s cured Hanafi from following the trajectory of radical Islamism. Instead he abandoned his fellow Egyptian for the spiritual father of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal. Rather than drawing on Milestones, he turned to Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam with its focus on subjectivity and creativity, using this as the template for an anthropocentric reconstruction or liberation of man as ‘the central proposition which regulates the structure of Islam’.[18] Hasan Hanafi considered Iqbal’s writings as the third phase of Islamic reformism after the awakening of the Muslim spirit by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh’s institutional reforms.The first project in which Hanafi developed what he called his minhaj fiqhī or ‘juristic method’ for transforming a legal jargon into a general philosophical idiom was later published under the title Method of Exegesis.[19]

After his return to Egypt in 1966, Hanafi was soon side-tracked by events in the Arab world, especially after the disastrous outcome of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Throughout the 1970s, his writings became increasingly political, even including a brief infatuation with the transformative potential of the Iranian revolution of 1979. He published some of the writings of Ayatollah Khomeini in Arabic translation, while in 1981 he also launched a manifesto for an ‘Islamic Left’ (al-Yasār al-Islamī).[20] Although this initiative did not really take off, the ideas behind it drew the attention of the Indonesian Muslim leader (and future president) Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009), who introduced them to his followers among the country’s young Muslim intelligentsia after he became the head of the largest traditionalist Islamic mass organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in 1984. By then, Hanafi had returned to his philosophical studies, embarking on a very ambitious undertaking that would occupy him for the remainder of his scholarly life. Expanding the scope of his research to other fields of Islamic learning, he named this comprehensive project after the programmatic blueprint he published under the title al-Turāth wa’l-Tajdīd–‘heritage and renewal’.[21] On the back of translations of the ‘Islamic Left’ manifesto and Kazuo Shimogaki’s critical study of that document, Indonesia’s progressive Muslim intellectuals also came to develop an interest in Hasan Hanafi’s philosophical writings.[22] Since the 1990s he has become a regular visitor to the country where his lectures draw large audiences.

The trajectory of Hasan Hanafi’s intellectual journey also provides a good example that Islamism/Post-Islamism must not be thought of in terms of a sequential temporal order. Even though he eventually traded Sayyid Qutb’s writings for the philosophical ideas of Muhammad Iqbal, Hanafi retained part of the vocabulary of the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue. The search for a method of Islamic thinking with general applicability and validity still carries echoes of Sayyid Qutb’s all-encompassing and comprehensive abstraction of Islam as a universal concept, method, and system.[23] Although Hanafi interprets religious traditions from an anthropocentric perspective instead of Sayyid Qutb’s theocentric orientation grounded in the notion of divine sovereignty (ḥākimiyya), the latter’s fiqh al-wāqʽī or ‘new realist science’ continues to resonate in Hanafi’s ‘fiqhi method’ as the best way of analysing Muslims’ attitudes towards their present-day reality.[24] While it may be true that the impact of Islamist ideology devised by Sayyid Qutb did not become really apparent until the late 1970s, my discussion makes clear that his writings of the 1950s and 1960s definitely affected younger contemporary Muslim intellectuals such as Hanafi. In fact, his generation was probably more acutely aware of the multifaceted dimensions of Sayyid Qutb’s legacy than either their reactionary Salafi or progressive-minded intellectual successors. Hanafi’s example shows the porosity of discursive formations: theories travel and ideas circulate not just among like-minded individuals, or from one part of the Muslim world to another, but also between Islamist thinking and the counter-currents that give rise to alternative discourses which attach greater weight to a critical reflection on Islam’s heritage.


As a one-time student of Hasan Hanafi, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd relates in his autobiography, how his philosophy teacher convinced him to move from the study of Arabic to a hermeneutical analysis of Islam’s own ‘Q’ document–the Qur’ān.[25] As a scholar of language, Abu Zayd retained an interest in linguistics and literary criticism, resolving to apply the methods developed in these fields to the study of Islam’s sacred scripture. With this, he continued a scholarly approach that had emerged in Egypt around the Second World War, beginning with Amin al-Khuli (1895-1966) and Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah (1916-1997), but also featuring in the early writings of Sayyid Qutb.[26] In Les nouveaux penseurs de l’islam, Rachid Benzine presents this duo as the ‘two precursors of modern literary analysis of the Qur’an’.[27] Before becoming a professor at Cairo University, al-Khuli had received both a religious and secular education, and spent time in Rome and Berlin (1923-27), learning Italian and German, and studying the works of Western orientalists.[28] In 1948, his career was seriously compromised when the doctoral thesis of his student Khalafallah on narrativism in the Qur’ān was rejected, because offense was taken at the suggestion to treat stories in the Qurān as myths and legends rather than as accurate accounts of historical events.[29] Fifty years later, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd found himself in similar hot water when his application for a full professorship was denied because of the controversial eclectic methodological framework he had adopted in his research, that combined the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger and Ricoeur, the contextual study of the Qur’ān by Fazlur Rahman and Toshihiko Izutsu, with text criticism and discourse analysis drawing on the work of Eastern European semioticians such as Yuri Lotman and Algirdas Greimas.

Eventually, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s case became a cause célèbre, when a group of Islamist activists initiated legal proceedings arguing that since Abu Zayd’s treatment of the Qur’ān amounted to apostasy, and that therefore he could no longer be legally married to his wife, a Muslim. When the court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, Nasr Abu Zayd and his wife did not await the implications of this for their lives and opting instead to go into voluntary exile. Initially moving to Germany and then to the Netherlands, Abu Zayd took up a position at Leiden University, where he worked until his untimely death in 2010, during a very low-key visit to his homeland. Whereas Abu Zayd’s publications on the study of the Qur’ān text remained anathema in Egypt, not unlike the writings of Hasan Hanafi and others, they drew positive attention in Indonesia so that Abu Zayd also became a regular visitor to the country and a key collaborator at the International Institute for Quranic Studies (IIQS) established in Jakarta in 2008 under the patronage of the late Abdurrahman Wahid.


Maghrebi Historicism


In the mid-1950s, Mohammed Arkoun, a Berber from Kabylia educated in French and Arabic institutions in Oran and Algiers, moved to France for postgraduate studies at the University of Strasbourg and later in Paris. Arkoun arrived during a time of political and intellectual turbulence. The beginning and end of his studies coincide not only with two major milestones of the Cold War Era, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the ill-fated Prague Spring: the same time period also saw the eruption of Algeria’s war of independence and the student uprisings of 1968. Prefiguring these latter events was the rise of thinkers and engaged intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, as well as more staid academic developments in the fields of structural linguistics and anthropology, quickly followed by poststructuralist challenges in the form of discourse analysis and deconstructive text criticism.

Although Arkoun’s inquisitive mind took many of these new strands of thinking on board, he fell initially under the influence of Claude Cahen, a medievalist and proponent of a new way of writing history known as the Annales School. By the time Arkoun arrived, the school had already progressed from a minor heresy into the main church of French historiography in the mid-twentieth century.[30] The propositions of its founders, Marc Bloch’s ‘histories of mentalities’ and Lucien Febvre’s notion of ‘unthinkability’, would find their way into Mohammed Arkoun’s writings, often via a detour or under the guise of postmodernist concepts developed by Michel Foucault and especially Jacques Derrida.[31] For his doctorate, Arkoun decided to engage what was largely a text-historical project on the court culture of the tenth-century Buyid viziers of the Abbasid Caliphate. Instead of concentrating on the deeds of great men, he focussed on the intellectual milieu, incorporating the distinctions made by the leading figure of the second generation of the Annales school, Fernand Braudel, between historical events, mid-term conjunctures, and the longue durée of civilizational and environmental influences. The final product, a case study of the philosopher and man of letters Miskawayh, presented as an analysis of Arab humanism, also betrayed the influence of Louis Massignon’s encouragement to invest scholarly writings with a ‘personal intonation’.[32] Tied up with what Arkoun called his own existential experiences on both sides of the Mediterranean, this humanist orientation and a perception of the Middle East and North Africa as an integral part of the Mediterranean as a single geopolitical formation and shared space, have become constant aspect in Arkoun’s academic work.

Disappointed by the lack of response from fellow (Muslim and non-Muslim) historians of the Muslim world and other scholars of Islam, Arkoun resolved that the suggested methodological innovations would need to be articulated even more explicitly. After another ‘detour through a vast field of interdisciplinary investigations’, he came up with an alternative research programme for Islamicists which he presented under the heading ‘Applied Islamology’.[33] Even though he had already coined the term in 1973, it would take him another ten years to compile a comprehensive agenda which was first presented in his most influential essay collection, Critique of Islamic Reason.[34] Arkoun proposed a survey of the Islamic heritage as an ‘exhaustive tradition’, quarrying the intellectual legacy of the Muslim world and excavating what had been ignored, rejected or not critically interrogated.[35] Betraying both the influence of Febvre and Derrida he called this neglected part of turāth ‘the unthought’ and ‘the unthinkable’. Leap-frogging through recognizable ‘cognitive fields and moments’, his fourteen-point agenda of ‘Applied Islamology’ included examinations of the inception of the Qur’an, the ‘Medina experience’ of the embryonic Muslim community, the institutions of the Sunni Caliphate and the Shi’i Imamate, and the emergence of the various disciplines of Islamic learning. It continues with the transformation of this body of scholastic knowledge into the positivist rationalism that dominated during the early Muslim experiences with modernity known as the Nahda, and the new social imaginaires of the postcolonial revolutionary period. Critical of the obsession of contemporary Middle East watchers with short-term events, Arkoun contrasts their ‘pragmatic Islamology’ with the demanding horizon of the plurality of meanings opened up by his own alternative ‘Applied Islamology’, whereby epistemological questioning is pushed to its limits.[36]

The initial inspiration for ‘Applied Islamology’ came from an unlikely direction: Roger Bastide’s Applied Anthropology, which had grown out of the latter’s field work experiences in Brazil, but the book was conceived as a social theory for dealing with the phenomenon of acculturation.[37] Although Bastide had been influence by Emile Durkheim’s view of religion being embedded in social structures, his own interest was far more geared towards transformation and change than the constancy of structures. Bastide’s theory also leaned heavily on the writings of the Brazilian social scientist Giberto de Mello Freyre about Lusotropicology or Lusotropicalism, which privileged experiential knowledge as promoted by the American pragmatist John Dewey and which was also regarded as the indirect outcome of the interactions between Muslims, Christians and Jews of the Iberian Peninsula before the Age of Discoveries.[38] I suggest that this last point, together with the fact that Bastide considered ‘cultural marginal as leaders in the gambit of the acculturative gambit’, resonated strongly with Mohammed Arkoun’s biography as a cultural and intellectual border crosser.[39]

Aside from the influence of Bastide’s Applied Anthropology, Arkoun’s research agenda was also informed by the ethnohistoire or historical anthropology developed by third-generation Annales historians Jacques Le Goff and Georges Duby, and their successors Roger Chartier, Pierre Nora and Jacques Revel. They argue that cultural relations are not simply determined by economic and social factors; in fact, the latter are ‘fields of cultural practice and cultural production themselves’.[40] Finally, as in the cases of Hanafi and Abu Zayd, there is the catholicity of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics which has also shaped Arkoun’s ambition for a comprehensive research agenda encompassing the full range of Islamic turāth. Reading Arkoun’ s observation that ‘accurate description must precede interpretation, but interpretation cannot be attempted today without a rigorous analysis using linguistics, semiotic, historical, and anthropological tools’, is not simply an appropriation of Ricoeur’s slogan that ‘to explain more is to understand better’, it is also an attempt to emulate the latter’s generous or charitable interpretations through which Ricoeur tried to reconcile conflicting philosophical positions on knowledge and understanding.[41] It is this omnivorous quality of Mohammed Arkoun’s scholarship that appeals to innovative-minded Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia who have comparable voracious appetites, absorbing ideas from a wide range of strands of Muslim and non-Muslim thinking, which are then fashioned into a heuristic apparatus for the critical study of Islam.

By the mid-1990s, Hasan Hanafi and Mohammed Arkoun had been overtaken by Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri as the key ‘person of interest’ for Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia. Instrumental in the introduction of al-Jabiri’s ideas were prominent scholars and religious leaders such as M. Amin ‘Abdullah (b. 1953), who went on to serve as the rector of the State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, and the current head of the NU, Said Aqil Siradj (b. 1953). At the turn of the century, al-Jabiri’s ideas began to gain wider circulation when a selection of his essays was translated and published for the first time in Indonesian under the title Islamic Post-Traditionalism.[42] A year later, in 2001, this name was also used to designate an alternative Islamic discourse formulated and introduced by a number of young NU cadres in a special issue of what would become their flagship periodical: Tashwirul Afkar.[43]

Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri’s intellectual trajectory certainly betrays the eclecticism that his fellow Moroccan Abdallah Laroui had identified as a hallmark of contemporary Arab intellectualism. His early interest in Marxism and the sociological approach to world history of Ibn Khaldun have coloured his elaborations of turāth. In his introduction to the Indonesian translation of al-Jabiri’s essays, Ahmad Baso relates how al-Jabiri’s discovery of Yves Lacoste’s comparative study of Ibn Khaldun and Marx made him realize that the Muslim world has its own version of a socially determinist and historical-materialist analysis predating the work of Marx by several centuries.[44] al-Jabiri also used his newly developed awareness of the Muslim world’s former intellectual prowess to challenge the Orientalist tradition in the study of Islam, even criticizing sympathetic scholars such as Louis Massignon and Henry Corbin for their ‘egocentric’ interests in controversial Sufis such as al-Hallaj and Suhrawardi. This foreshadowed a realization al-Jabiri shared with Arkoun, that many classical Orientalists accepted and adopted the same uncritical glorification of the Islamic past propagated by Muslim writers of the classical era, while others fell into the same reductionist trap as nineteenth and early twentieth-century Muslim reformists and revivalists by dismissing the classical Islamic tradition as stultified or decadent. Baso goes on to explain how al-Jabiri insisted that the Islamic heritage must be understood as a broad concept, in which religion is seen ‘not just as truth, facts, words, concepts, language and thought, but also myth, legends, ways of behavior, and methods of thinking’–words reminiscent of Arkoun’s critique of Islamic reason.[45] Also al-Jabiri found the methodological cues for this alternative reading of turāth in the work of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists and philosophers like Ferdinand Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jean Piaget, as well as their poststructuralist successors Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. From them he learned that reason can no longer be conceived in Cartesian terms as a coherent, conscious and transcendent process. Instead, the achievements of structural linguistics and psychoanalysis teach that reason is more accurately described as a collective understanding shaped by culture and by what Piaget called the ‘cognitive unconscious’.[46]

al-Jabiri applied this heuristic apparatus in his magnus opus written during the 1980s and published as a trilogy dedicated to what he calls a ’Critique of Arab Reason’. Dissecting the intellectual history of the Arab world through critical-historical and structural analyses combined with an ideological critique of its dominant political discourse, the oeuvre presents a comprehensive deconstructionist reading of Islam as a historicized and objectified civilizational heritage that needs to be set free from a priori assumptions and the authoritative dominance of a supposedly fixed tradition which shackles the autonomy of Muslims as freethinking human beings.[47] Al-Jabiri’s Indonesian translator appears to disagree with Laroui’s characterization of heritage thinkers as eclectic thinkers, because according to Ahmad Baso, al-Jabiri’s return to the tradition is not a matter of picking and choosing, but a holistic appropriation for the purpose of analyzing Arab-Islamic thought in its theological, linguistic, juridical as well as philosophical and mystical aspects.

In contrast to the textual criticism of Arkoun and Abu Zayd, the Moroccan thinker al-Jabiri has opted for the historical-philosophical approach of the academic philosopher. To articulate the link between modernity and tradition, he rejects the view that this implies a break with tradition. Indicative of al-Jabiri’s awareness of the relativity and historicity of each and every tradition is his insistence that modernity must be developed organically from within Arab-Muslim culture instead of just copying from European modernist methods.

In analyzing defects in the ways in which Muslims have studied their history, al-Jabiri distinguished three different readings of tradition: The fundamentalist reading employed by Islamists presents the past as a means of reconstituting an imaginary that confirms a ‘pure’ Islamic identity. Taking the form of a retreat into a defensive stand, it projects ‘a “radiant” future fabricated by ideology–upon the past’.[48] Then there is a liberal reading of the tradition. This intepretation is clearly derived from European thinking and endeavors to read one tradition through the lens of another. However, with a nod to Pierre Bourdieu, al-Jabiri cautions that adopting such an ‘orientalist habitus’ harbours the risk of a ‘dangerous identity alienation’.[49] The third–Marxist–reading is qualified as a ready-made dialectical method that must be considered as scientifically unsound because it posits an outcome before engaging in the analysis. al-Jabiri points out that all three readings suffer from two major weaknesses: one methodological, as a result of a lack of objectivity flowing forth from a flawed epistemology; the other visionary, evincing a lack of historical awareness and a skewed perspective in which the past is projected as transcendental and sacral, thus rendering it a-historical.

To escape from this deadlock requires an epistemological break along the lines of Louis Althusser and other post-structuralists. al-Jabiri stresses that this does not constitute a break from tradition itself at the level of knowledge, emphasizing that it takes place in the form of a mental act: ‘This break must transform us from beings “taken by tradition” to beings who have embraced their tradition’.[50] The systematics of al-Jabiri’s philosophy continue to draw on post-structuralist thinking, suggesting a ‘disjunctive-“rejunctive” reading’. By this he means the disruption of the subject-object relation in order to get rid of a biased understanding of tradition based on that tradition itself.[51] This type of discourse analysis requires a meticulous three-tiered dissection of texts, consisting of a structuralist approach which searches for the constants in a text tradition; a historical approach linking the author’s thinking to its historical context; and an ideological approach synthesizing the structuralist and historical readings of the text. So far modern students of Islamic philosophy have failed to make such a distinction between the cognitive and ideological perspectives of this reading, rendering Islamic thinking an ‘immobile void of progress and of dynamics’.[52] This three-phased analysis of the discursive formations which together constitute the Arab-Islamic intellectual heritage is elaborated in a trilogy that forms the core of al-Jabiri’s Naqd al-‘Aql al-‘Arabī or ‘Critique of Arab Reason’.[53] The first volume on the ‘formation of Arab Reason offers a historical analysis of the start of the ‘era of recording’ (‛asr tadwīn) in the eighth century, during which the data for constructing both pre-Islamic and early Islamic history were collected. This rich storehouse of orally transmitted knowledge was put into writing and then gradually structured into the discrete disciplines of Islamic learning such as tafsīr (Qur’an exegesis), fiqh (jurisprudence), and kalām (discursive theology). When analyzing this period of data collection and codification, al-Jabiri stresses that it is as important to pay attention to what is said as to what is not said if one wants to understand how knowledge receives its epistemological and ideological validity and authority. In The Structure of Arab Reason, al-Jabiri distinguishes three epistemes: bayānī (discursive); ‛irfānī (intuitive or illuminationist), and burhānī (demonstrative) reason. He argues that from the tadwin period onwards, discursive reason has held centre stage in Arab-Islamic thinking.Texts become authoritative through epistemological protocols and practices that rely predominantly on emulation and reasoning by analogy (qiyās)–an epistemological method developed to its greatest level of sophistication in the field of legal studies. As discussed above, this was the reason for Hasan Hanafi’s concentrating on the transformation of the ‘foundations of jurisprudence’ into a generally applicable method of philosophical thinking.

In order to shake Arab-Islamic thinking free of its atrophy and restore its dynamism, al-Jabiri had his hopes pinned on demonstrative reason. In effect this meant a rejection of much of the intellectual legacy of the eastern parts of the Muslim world. He dismissed figures such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, because, in al-Jabiri’s mind, ʽirfān is not illuminationist, but amounts to obscurantism. Also the discursive theology of al-Ghazali is condemned on grounds of the latter’s instrumentalization of Aristotelian logic. Instead, al-Jabiri proposes a reintegrated epistemology resting on a systemic understanding of the Hellenic heritage. An essay entitled ‘The Andalusian Resurgence’ provides an apt illustration of al-Jabiri’s revisionist view of Islamic philosophy as an intellectually militant discourse.[54] Sketching the specific pluralist setting of medieval Muslim Spain, he shows that the thinkers there were uniquely well positioned and prepared to tackle complicated philosophical questions. Far removed from the ideological and political controversies raging in the central and eastern parts of the Islamic world, the philosophers in Iberia and the Maghreb could almost at their leisure internalize foundational scientific disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, and logic before engaging with metaphysics.

The critiques of Ibn Hazm and al-Shatibi, but especially the rationalism developed by Ibn Rushd (Averroes), form the basis of al-Jabiri’s panacea for both the bayānī tendency to ground authority in texts and for the speculativeirrationalism of the ‘irfānī tradition. Speaking as an academic philosopher, al-Jabiri claims the Islamic tradition reached the height of its sophistication when it was suffused with the ruḥ rushdiya, or ‘spirit of Averroism’, because it advocated a proper use of Aristotelianism in the way it embraced the methods of both induction and deduction, and interpreted the concepts of universal validity and historicity.[55] This leads al-Jabiri to end the brief outline in his Arab-Islamic Philosophy with the provocative conclusion that ‘the future can only be Averroist’.[56]

The Indonesian Islamic post-traditionalist Ahmad Baso notes that al-Jabiri’s approach hinges on the somewhat chauvinist privileging of ‘rationalist’ thinking in the Maghreb over the ‘irrational’ tendencies of the Muslim world East.[57] Whereas Mohammed Arkoun felt the same affinity with the Maghreb as an integral part of the Mediterranean World until its northern and southern shores each went their separate ways , his ‘Critique of Islamic Reason’ retained broader scope than al-Jabiri’s ‘Critique of Arab Reason’ As yet another instance of the circulation of ideas, past and present, the suggested epistemological break between the Eastern and Western Arab world was further explored by al-Jabiri in a two-volume study he co-authored with Hasan Hanafi, aptly entitled ‘East-West Dialogue’ (Hiwār al-Mashriq w’al-Maghrib).[58]


Critical Islam: From historicized heritage thinking to concerns for a post-Islamist future


This discussion has shown that the critical discourses of the heritage thinkers emerged in the same time frame in which proponents of overtly Islamic political agendas came to the fore as well. Even though the proper domains of these new Muslim scholars of Islam are situated in academic fields such as epistemology, intellectual history, and the sociology of knowledge, as public intellectuals their ideas have political implications too. Meanwhile, in many Muslim countries, political and intellectual conditions remain constrictive to the point of suffocating any chance or opportunity for thinking freely. This is why Muslim intellectuals operating outside the historical geography of the Muslim world remain central to the further advancement of critical Islamic thinking initiated by the heritage thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s. These include not only exiled intellectuals (both involuntary and voluntary), but also nomadic expatriate academics based in metropoles in Europe, North America, and Australia, as well as scholars and activists descending from erstwhile migrants from different–formerly colonized–parts of the Muslim world. To my mind, they have an increasingly prominent role to play in the critical reworking of turāth.

I have tried to demonstrate that the alternative readings of the Islamic past by the heritage thinkers and their innovative interpretations of the significance of turāth for Muslims in the resent, first developed in the late 1960s and coming to fuller intellectual fruition from the 1980s onwards, prefigure the understandings of today’s younger critical intellectuals presented under the heading of ‘post-Islamism’. Its development in parallel with Islamist thinking with varying signatures shows that post-Islamism is best understood as an analytical rather than a historical category. Instead of a chronology heralding post-Islamism as a new phase that follows on from the alleged demise of Islamism, as posited by French observers of the contemporary Muslim world such as Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, it seems more accurate to opt for the conceptual understanding of post-Islamism found in the eponymous publication edited by Asef Bayat. Just as postmodern and postcolonial thinking do not signify the end of modernity or the persistence of colonial conditions, so also the concept of post-Islamism allows for the possibility of multiple strands of thought and a diversity of ideas to co-exist and influence Muslim minds at the same time. However, given the temptation to assume a sequential order of Islamism and Post-Islamism, perhaps it is better to forfeit the introduction of another ‘post’ and settle for the alternative term ‘critical Islam’. Reflecting on the actual political and intellectual realities in the Muslim world, the conclusion from such critical analyses should be that what we are dealing with is not an abstract called ‘Islam’, ‘Islamism’, and now supposedly ‘Post-Islamism’, but real people: Muslims capable of critical engagement with their religion.


Carool Kersten is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at King’s College London. He is also a Research Associate of the Centre for South East Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), from where he obtained his PhD in the Study of Religions. Earlier he received an MA (cum laude) in Arabic Language and Culture from Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands), and a Certificate in Southeast Asian Studies from Payap University in Thailand.


[1] There are earlier instances in the twentieth century where the reverse is also true. This belies Armando Salvatore’s suggestion of a temporal asymmetry between the Islamists’ conflation of din wa dawla and its challenge by their opponents, claiming that there had been an effective absence of the former during the latter’s dominance over the political domain in the Muslim world between the 1920s and 1970s, cf. Armando Salvatore, Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity, Reading, Ithaca Press, 1997. Salvatore’s contention can be challenged by pointing at the dissonant emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1920s and the rise of Sayyid Qutb in the 1940s and 1950s. Meanwhile, during the supposed heyday of ‘deconflationist’ (secular) thinking in the 1930s and 1940s, Calvert and Shepard have also noted a shift towards Islamic themes in the writings of intellectual icons such as Taha Husayn and ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad: cf. John Calvert, ‘“The World is an Undutiful Boy!” Sayyid Qutb’s American Experience’, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 11(1), 2000, pp 90; William Shepard, Sayyid Qutb and Islamic Activism: A Translation and Critical Analysis of Social Justice in Islam, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1996, p. xiii.

[2] Conveniently captured in the Islamist slogan ‘al-Islām huwa al-ḥall’ (‘Islam is the solution’).

[3] Issa Boullata, Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought.Albany, State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 3

[4] Boullata, Trends and Issues, p. 25

[5] Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1988: 298.

[6] Armando Salvatore, ‘The Rational Authentication of Turāth in Contemporary Arab Thought: Muhammad ‛Abid al-Jabiri and Hasan Hanafi’, Muslim World 85(3-4), 1995, p.199; cf. also Boullata, Trends and Issues, pp.14-16.

[7] Cf. Nurcholish Madjid, Khazanah Intelektual Islam, Jakarta, Bulan Bintang, 1984.

[8] It also predates Iran’s ‘Alternative Thought Movement’ of Abdolkarim Soroush and other new religious intellectuals, which Asef Bayat identifies as the starting point of his understanding of ‘Post-Islamism’, cf. Asef Bayat, ‘The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society’, Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 9, 1996, pp. 43-52.

[9] Cf. Sugata Bose and Kris Manjapra, Cosmopolitan Thought Zones: South Asia and the Global Circulation of Ideas. London and New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010; Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic. London, Faber & Faber, 1984; Peter Mandaville Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma. London, Routledge, 2001.

[10] Sometimes also spelled as ‘al-Jabri’.

[11] Cf. Carool Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam, London and New York, Hurst and Columbia University Press, 2011, pp. 185, 212-13; Abdou Filaly-Ansari, ‘Hichem Djaït ou la Tyrannie du Paradigme’, in Collectif, Penseurs Maghrébins Contemporains. Casablanca, Editions Eddif, 1993, pp. 104-105. For details of ‘basic personality structure’, see Mikel Dufrenne, La Personnalité de Base: Un Concept Sociologique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953 and Avram Kardiner, ‘The Concept of Basic Personality Structure as an Operational Tool in the Social Sciences’, in Ralph Linton, The Science of Man in the World Crisis, New York: Columbia University Press, 1945, pp. 107-22.

[12] The French original appeared in 1974, and an English translation two years later.

[13] Binder, Islamic Liberalism, p. 317.

[14] ‘Les Arabes et l’Anthropologie Culturelle. Remarques sur la Méthode de Gustave von Grunebaum’, in Abdallah Laroui, La Crise des Intellectuels Arabes: Traditionalism ou Historicisme? Paris, François Maspero., 1974, pp. 59-102. Mohammed Arkoun too has explicitly addressed Grünebaum’s work in his writings: Cf. ‘L’Islam moderne vu par le Professeur G.E. von Grunebaum’ in Mohammed Arkoun, Essais sur la pensée islamique 1e éd. Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose, 1973, pp. 283-96.

[15] Boullata, Trends and Issues, pp. 26-27.

[16] Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics, p.111.

[17] Hasan Hanafi was introduced to Husserl through his teacher Paul Ricoeur.

[18] Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics, p. 127.

[19] Hasan Hanafi, Les Méthodes d’Exégèse: Essai sur la Science des Fondements de la Compréhension “‘Ilm Usul al-Fiqh”, Cairo: Conseil Supérieur des Arts, des Lettres et des Sciences Sociales, 1965. For an assessment of this project, cf. Carool Kersten, ‘Bold Transmutations: Hasan Hanafi’s Early Writings on Fiqh’, Journal of Comparative Islamic Studies 3(1), 2007, pp. 22-38.

[20] Hasan Hanafi, al-Yasār al-Islāmī: Kitābāt fī’l-Nahda al-Islamīyya, Cairo, Self-published, 1981.

[21] Hasan Hanafi, Al-Turāth wa’l-Tajdīd: Mawqifuna min al-Turāth al-Qadīm, Cairo, al-Markaz al-Arabi li’l-Bahth wa’l-Nashr, 1980.

[22] Kazuo Shimogaki, Kiri Islam Antara Modernisme dan Postmodernisme: Telaah Kritis Pemikiran Hasan Hanafi, Yogyakarta, LKiS, 1993. Originally published as Between Modernity and Post-Modernity: The Islamic Left and Dr. Hasan Hanafi’s Thought: A Critical Reading (Tokyo: The Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, International University of Japan, 1988). The Indonesian Translation has gone through seven editions.

[23] Cf. Ahmad S. Mousalli Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb. Beirut, American University of Beirut, 1992, pp. 69-70

[24] For a detailed discussion, cf. Ronald A.T. Judy, ‘Sayyid Qutb’s Fiqh al-Waqi‘ī, or New Realist Science’, Boundary (3)2, 2004, pp. 113-48.

[25] Nasr H. Abu Zayd, Mijn Leven met de Islam. Haarlem, Becht, 2002, p. 100. So far this autobiography has appeared in a number of European languages but not yet in English

[26] Cf. Sayyid Qutb’s Al-Taswīr al-Fannī fī’l-Qur’ān of 1945, discussed in: Rachid Benzine, Les Nouveaux Penseurs de l’Islam, Paris: Albin Michel 2004, pp. 176-177.

[27] Benzine, Les Nouveaux Penseurs, p. 149.

[28] Benzine, Les Nouveaux Penseurs, pp. 155-156.

[29] Eventually the study was published anyway in 1951 as a book under the title al-Fann al-Qasasī fī al-Qur’ān al-Karīm (‘The Art of Narrative in the Holy Qur’ān’). Ten years later al-Khuli published his own literary analysis of the Qur’ān: Manāhij Tajdīd fī al-Nahw wa’l-Balāgha wa’l-Tafsīr wa’l-Adab (‘New Methods in Grammar, Rhetoric, Interpretation and Literature’).

[30] Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School 1929–89. Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 31.

[31] Cf. Burke, The French Historical Revolution, pp. 9-30; Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft. Translated by Peter Putnam and with an introduction by Peter Burke. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004, p. 24; Stuart Clark, ‘The Annales Historians’, in Quentin Skinner (ed.), The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 191; Patricia O’Brien, ‘Michel Foucault’s History of Culture’. In Lynn Hunt (ed.), The New Cultural History, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, p.37.

[32] Mohammed Arkoun, L’humanisme Arabe au 4e/10e siècle: Miskawayh, Philosophe et Historien. 2nd edition, Paris, Vrin, 1982; Mohammed Arkoun, Humanisme et Islam: Combats et Propositions. Paris, Vrin, 2005 p. 7.

[33]In the introduction to the second edition of L’humanisme Arabe, p. 13.

[34] Mohammed Arkoun, Pour Une Critique de la Raison Islamique, Paris, Éditions Maisonneuve et Larose, 1984, pp. 43-64.

[35] Mohammed Arkoun, Essais sur la Pensée Islamique, Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose, 1973, p. 10.

[36] Mohammed Arkoun, ‘The Study of Islam in French Scholarship’, in Azim Nanji (ed.) Mapping Islamic Studies: Genealogy, Continuity and Change. Berlin and New York, Mouton de Gruyter, 1997, p. 40

[37] Arkoun, Essais sur la Pensée Islamique, p. 9 ; Roger Bastide, Applied Anthropology. London, Croom Helm, 1973.

[38] Gilberto Freyre, Portuguese Integration in the Tropics: Notes Concerning a Possible Lusotropicologywhich would Specialize in the Systematic Study of the Ecological-Social Process of the Integration in Tropical Environments of Portuguese, Descendants of Portuguese and Continuators of Portuguese, Lisbon, Realização Grafica da Tipografia Silvas, pp. 37-38.

[39] Bastide, Applied Anthropology, p. 94: For Arkoun as a border crosser, cf. Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics, pp. 177-192

[40] Lynn Hunt, The New Cultural History. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1989, p. 7.

[41] Arkoun, The Study of Islam in French Scholarship’, p. 43; Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative.Volume 1. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984, p. x.

[42] Muhammad Abed Al Jabiri, Post Traditionalism Islam. Translated and edited by Ahmad Baso, Yogyakarta, LKiS, 2000. Only a few of al-Jabiri’s writings have been translated into English: Mohammed ʽAbed al-Jabri [sic], Arab-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique. Translated from the French by Aziz Abbassi, Austin, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the University of Texas at Austin, 1999; Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009; For a review of this last publication cf. Carool Kersten, ‘Reconfiguring Politics, Law and Human Rights in the Contemporary Muslim World’ American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 28:2, 2011, pp. 106-119

[43] Abdul Mun’im DZ a.o., Post Traditionalisme Islam: Ideologi & Metodologi. Tashwirul Afkar: Jurnal Refleksi Pemikiran Keagamaan & Kebudayaan, Jakarta, Lakpesdam NU, 2001. For more extensive discussions of this relatively new strand of Muslim thinking in Indonesia cf. Carool Kersten, ‘Islamic Post-Traditionalism in Indonesia: Revisiting Tradition and the Future of Islam’, Carool Kersten and Susanne Olsson (eds.), Alternative Islamic Discourses and Religious Authority , Farnham and Burlington, Ashgate, 2013, pp.137-158 and Carool Kersten, ‘Islamic Post-Traditionalism: Postcolonial and Postmodern Religious Discourse in Indonesia’ Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics, 2014 [forthcoming].

[44] Ahmad Baso, ‘Posmodernisme sebagai Kritik Islam: Kontribusi Metodologis “Kritik Nalar” Muhammad Abed al-Jabiri’, in al-Jabiri, Post Traditionalisme Islam, pp. xix-xx. This is elaborated in al-Jabiri’s own study of Ibn Khaldun, Fikr Ibn Khaldūn: Al-Aṣabiyya wa’l-Dawla. Maʽālim Naẓariyya Khaldūniyya fī’l-Tarīkh al-Islāmī, Beirut, Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-Arabiyya, 1992.

[45] Baso ‘Posmodernisme sebagai Kritik Islam’, p. xxiii.

[46] Baso, ‘Posmodernisme sebagai Kritik Islam’, pp. xxx-xxxi.

[47] Baso, ‘Posmodernisme sebagai Kritik Islam’, p. xx.

[48] al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 9.

[49] al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 12-13.

[50] al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 24.

[51] al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 22.

[52] Al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 42

[53], Consisting of Takwīn al-‘Aql al-‘Arabī (The Formation of Arab Reason’), Beirut, Dar al-Tali’a, 1984; Bunya al-‘Aql al-‘Arabī (‘The Structure of Arab Reason’), Beirut, Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabiyya, 1986; and al-‘Aql al-Siyāsi al-‘Arabī (‘Arab Political Reason’), Beirut, Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabiyya, 1990.

[54] Al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, pp. 63-119.

[55] This is also the interest al-Jabiri holds for Indonesian intellectuals such as Baso (Pos Traditionalisme sebagai Kritik Islam, p. xxv) and M. Amin Abdullah (see his Islamic Studies di Perguruan Tinggi, Pendekatan Integratif-Interkonektif, Yogyakarta, Pustaka Pelajar, 2010.

[56] Al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 120.

[57] Baso, ‘Pos Islamisme sebagai kritik Islam’, p. li.

[58] Hasan Hanafi and Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, Hiwār al-Mashriq-Maghrib, Casablanca, Dar al-Tuqbal, 1990.

9 June 2014
Middle East Insights

The Meaning of the 30 March 2014

Local Elections in Turkey

By Ergun Özbudun

Download Insight 112 Özbudun

The 30 March 2014 local elections in Turkey were held in one of the most polarized and confrontational atmospheres in Turkish political history. They took place in the footsteps of such traumatic events as the Gezi Park demonstrations (May-June 2013), the revelations of major corruption charges involving four cabinet ministers (December 17 and 25 2013), the start of an internecine fight between the AKP government and the Gülen movement (an influential Muslim community), the government’s strong reactions to these events and its efforts to carry out a large-scale purge of pro-Gülen elements within the judiciary, the security forces and other bureaucratic agencies.[1] Consequently, local elections campaigns focused on national rather than local issues and the elections turned into a vote of confidence or no-confidence for the governing AKP.

Under these circumstances, both the government and the opposition considered the elections results as extremely significant politically. Public opinion was so deeply divided that throughout the election night, the two main/largest news agencies reported highly different figures. Thus, while the semi-official, pro-government Anatolian News Agency showed the AKP’s overall national vote at around 46 percent, the pro-Gülen Cihan News Agency put this figure at around 43 percent. Mutual recriminations of intentionally misrepresenting the election results continued long after the elections.

Finally, with the official announcement of the final election results by the Supreme Council of Elections on 6 May[2], it had become possible to make a more realistic evaluation. In earlier elections, it was easier to compare the results of provincial general assemblies with those of previous parliamentary elections and to calculate the parties’ losses or gains, since the voting public was exactly the same in both. However, certain recent changes in the Turkish administrative system made the job somewhat more complicated. A law dated 12 November 2012 (Law No. 6360) created “metropolitan municipal administrations” in 13 provinces; later on the number of such provinces was raised to 30. In these provinces, provincial general assemblies were abolished, and the scope of metropolitan municipal administrations were extended to the entire province. In the process, village administrations within the same province were abolished and they were made neighborhoods that were part of the metropolitan city. However, within the metropolitan provinces, the county (prefecture, ilçe) municipal administrations were preserved. In the remaining 51 provinces which were not metropolitan municipal administrations, the old system of provincial general assemblies, mayors, and municipal councils was maintained.

Thus, to make a meaningful comparison with the previous parliamentary elections (those of 12 June 2011), one has to add up the results of the 30 metropolitan and 51 non-metropolitan provinces and calculate the party vote shares accordingly: AKP, 45.5 percent; CHP (Republican People’s Party, the main secularist opposition party), 27.8 percent; MHP (ultra-nationalist Movement Party), 15.2 percent; BDP-HDP (Kurdish Nationalist Peace and Democracy Party and the Democratic Party of the Peoples, 6.0 percent).

The Supreme Board of Elections also announced the results of the elections for mayors and municipal councils. The figures are different from the above, since they do not include village voters in settlements with less than 2,000 inhabitants (under the Law, only settlements with more than 2,000 inhabitants have municipal administrations). Thus, while the total number of registered voters for the entire country (the total of metropolitan and non-metropolitan provinces) is 52,637,047, the total number of registered voters for municipal council elections is 48,843,157. This has caused a slightly different distribution of party shares of votes: AKP (43.13 percent for mayors and 42.87 percent for municipal councils); CHP (26.45 and 26.34 respectively); MHP (17.78 and 17.82); BDP plus HDP (slightly over 6 percent). Clearly, meaningful comparisons with the parliamentary elections can only be made with the first set of figures as it includes all Turkish voters.


Parties’ Electoral Performance

Compared with the results of the 12 June 2011 parliamentary elections where the AKP got 49.8 percent of the vote, it registered a loss of 4.3 percent in 2014. This was a source of deep disappointment for the opposition, since they were expecting a much more radical fall after the revelation of corruption charges and the authoritarian drift of the AKP government. Apparently, the AKP and Mr. Erdoğan were able to maintain the support of the great majority of their constituency by carrying out an exceedingly polarizing electoral campaign, depicting their opponents as foreign enemies and their domestic tools trying to oust the elected government by non-democratic means. The AKP won 18 out of 30 metropolitan municipalities and 799 out of 1,351 mayoralties in total.

The second strongest party, the CHP, got 27.8 percent of the vote which is a slight improvement from 26.0 percent in 2011. In a number of municipalities the CHP nominated the former members of the right or center-right parties (in places like Ankara and Hatay) or a candidate that appealed to center-right voters (Istanbul), thus somewhat softening its militant secularist stand. This “opening to the center-right” strategy worked successfully in Hatay, but not so successfully in Istanbul and Ankara, even though its candidates increased the proportion of CHP votes in the two largest metropolitan cities.

The ultra-nationalist MHP also increased its proportion of votes from 13.0 percent in 2011 to 15.2 percent, seemingly having benefitted from the Turkish nationalist reaction to the AKP government’s overtures to the Kurdish political movement. The Kurdish nationalist BDP, which contested the elections under the name HDP in non-Kurdish parts of the country, registered a slight fall from 6.7 percent to 6.0 percent. All other minor parties performed very poorly.


Electoral Geography

A quick glance at the electoral map after the 30 March local elections presents a deeply divided country both in the geographical and the socio-political sense. Out of 13 provinces (six of which are metropolitan provinces) where the CHP won, eight were in the Thrace and the Aegean coast region, three were in the Black Sea, one was in Central Anatolia, and one was in the Mediterranean regions. Of eight provinces (three metropolitan provinces) where the MHP won, three were in the Mediterranean, two were in the Black Sea, two were in inner-Aegean, and one was in the North Eastern regions. The BDP dominated the Kurdish-majority Southeastern region winning all of its ten provinces (in Mardin while presenting an independent candidate) and heavily Kurdish Tunceli in the East Central region. The AKP, on the other hand, emerged as the only truly national party, being the first party in 49 out of 81 provinces including 18 metropolitan provinces. Even in places where it was not the winning party, in almost all provinces it came in second with over 20 percent of the vote. In the south-eastern region, the competition was only between the BDP and the AKP, the other two parties being practically non-existent.[3]

This geographical distribution points to a socio-political and cultural cleavage. The CHP’s strongholds seem to be essentially limited to the Thrace and the Aegean coast, where a secular way of life is predominant and the opposition to the AKP’s religiously- inspired conservatism is most marked. The MHP is strongest in areas where Turkish nationalism is a major force, and the BDP’s domination in the heavily Kurdish- populated Southeast is self-explanatory.

This pattern is confirmed when we look at the distribution of party votes in urban and rural areas. While the distribution of the AKP’s vote in the heavily urban 30 metropolitan provinces and the more rural 51 other provinces are about the same (45.54 and 45.43 percent, respectively), there is a huge gap between the two for the CHP (31.04 and 16.87 percent respectively). In fact, the CHP is behind even the MHP (with 20.71 percent) in the non-metropolitan category. This finding supports the CHP’s image as a party that holds much appeal for urban, better-educated, middle and upper-middle class, secular voters. Conversely, the MHP seems to have a stronger appeal in rural than in urban areas. Its distribution of votes is 20.71 in non-metropolitan provinces and 13.65 in metropolitan ones. Similarly, the BDP/HDP performed better in the former category than in the latter (8.11 and 5.43 percent, respectively).

The same picture emerges when we look at the distribution of party votes in the counties (prefectures, ilçe) of the three largest metropolitan cities; İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir. In the İstanbul province, the AKP and CHP won 25 and 14 country mayoralties respectively. The CHP’s strongholds were the older, more established, coastal neighborhoods of better-educated, middle and high income residents with a distinctly secular way of life. The AKP, in contrast, won in the poorer neighborhoods of largely recent urban migrants, who were more religiously conservative and less well-educated.[4] The same pattern is observed in Ankara, and İzmir. The results show that the basic differences between parties that appeal primarily to the educated, urban, secular central elites and those that appeal to the forces of the conservative periphery is still the major determinant of party choices.[5]



Implications for the Future

The results of the local elections are neither a defeat nor a clear-cut victory for the AKP. It lost more than 4 percent of the total vote which may have implications for the coming presidential (August 2014) and parliamentary (June 2015) elections. The presidential elections will be the first popular election of the President of the Republic in accordance with the constitutional amendment of 2007 that introduced popular election of the President instead of election by Parliament. At the time of writing it seems almost certain that Prime Minister Erdoğan will run for presidency. However, to be elected, a candidate must get more than half of the total valid votes either on the first or the second round. The present showing of the AKP is short of the required majority, which makes the outcome of the race uncertain. The Kurdish vote is critical in this respect. Even though the spokespersons of the Kurdish political movement often express dissatisfaction with the modest gains they obtained from the AKP’s Kurdish opening which involved negotiations with Kurdish insurgents with the aim of finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem (“peace process” as it is often called) they may still consider Erdoğan as their best bet, because the opposition parties are less sympathetic toward Kurdish demands. On the other hand, if Erdoğan goes too far in meeting these demands, he will run into the risk of losing some of his more nationalist supporters. Indeed, Turkish Islamic movements have always had a marked nationalist streak.

A second reason why the presidential elections will have major implications for the future course of Turkish politics is that Erdoğan has publicly declared that, if elected, he will be an active president and will exercise his constitutional powers to the maximum. Given that the current constitution that was enacted in 1982 deviates from the standard parliamentary model by endowing the president with significant constitutional powers, this will mean that the regime will function like a de facto semi-presidential or even a presidential system. Indeed, the AKP has been insistent on such a system, but since they are short of a three-fifths parliamentary majority required for constitutional amendments, they cannot put it into practice. The party spokespersons declared openly that they will attempt to do so if they obtain the necessary majority in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2015. If not, it appears likely that Erdoğan as president will try to realize this aim in a de facto way by appointing a cooperative prime minister and designing a docile parliamentary party group. In the eyes of the opposition, this scenario will lead to a dangerous drift toward autocratic rule and authoritarianism. In short, the local elections have raised more questions than they have answered.

Ergun Özbudun is Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law at İstanbul Şehir University, Turkey. He has also taught at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and Princeton University. His books in English include Party Cohesion in Western Democracies: A Causal Analysis (Sage, 1970); Social Change and Political Participation in Turkey (Princeton University Press, 1976); Contemporary Turkish Politics: Challenges to Democratic Consolidation (Lynne Rienner, 2000); Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey: The Case of the AKP (with William Hale) (Routledge, 2010); and The Constitutional System of Turkey: 1876 to the Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He has also coedited five books and contributed to such international journals as Comparative Politics, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Journal of Democracy, European Constitutional Law Review, European Public Law, South European Society and Politics, Democratization, and Representation.

©, MEI Singapore 2014.

[1] Ergun Özbudun, “ ‘Gezi Park’ Events and the Prospects for Turkish Politics,” Middle East Insights, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, MEI Insight No.101, 16 September 2013.

[2] Resmi Gazete (Official Gazette), 6 May 2014, no. 28992 (mükerrer).

[3] For an electoral map, Gökçer Tahincioğlu, “2014 Yerel Seçiminde Türkiye Oy Haritası,” Milliyet (Daily), 1 April 2014.

[4] “İstanbul’da Çekişmeli Geçen Yerel Seçimin Sonuçları,” Milliyet (Daily), 3 April 2014.

[5] On the importance of the center-periphery cleavage in Turkish politics, Ergun Özbudun, Party Politics and Social Cleavages in Turkey (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 2013).

5 June 2014
Singapore Middle East Papers The Syrian-Iranian Alliance: Whither the Damascus-Tehran Axis?by Jubin M. Goodarzi
“The Islamic Republic of Iran aims to strengthen its relations with Syria and will stand by it in facing all challenges. The deep, strategic and historic relations between the people of Syria and Iran will not be shaken by any force in the world.”Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, 4 August 2013“In a world where global politics is no longer a zero sum game, it is–or should be–counterintuitive to pursue one’s interest without considering the interest of others…we must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, 19 September 2013Undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating and intriguing developments in modern Middle East politics has been the emergence and continuity of the Syrian-Iranian alliance since its formation in 1979. For more than three decades now, the Tehran-Damascus axis has continued to baffle many observers. Pointing to differences in their respective ideologies, as well as their political foundations and structures, many analysts have been perplexed as to how a revolutionary, pan-Islamic theocracy such as Iran could ally itself with a secular, pan-Arab, socialist republic like Syria.[1] Moreover, while Ba’thist Syria claims to be an ardent supporter and the rightful leader of the pan-Arab cause, Iran champions Islamic universalism and rejects secularism.[2]The Syrian-Iranian axis has endured for thirty-five years, in spite of the many challenges that it has faced and periodic strains in the relationship. Overall, the longstanding ties between these two states continue to be of great interest at the beginning of the twenty-first century, particularly in view of major developments in the Middle East in recent years such as the US-led 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the 2006 Lebanon war, and the outbreak of the Syrian revolt in 2011.The purpose of this article is to provide an analytical framework to understand the forces, which have shaped and influenced the evolution of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Furthermore, it will highlight the importance of the axis and the reasons for its longevity. The article will also present a detailed account and analysis of the evolution of Iranian perceptions and involvement in the three-year-old Syrian crisis.The Importance of the Syrian-Iranian NexusGenerally speaking, there are three important reasons to study and understand the Tehran-Damascus axis. Firstly, the alliance has had a significant impact on Middle East politics over the past three-and-a-half decades, as we have seen again in recent years during the 2006 Lebanon war which pitted Israel against the Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, and Iran’s support for the Assad regime since the eruption of the Syrian crisis in March 2011. Secondly, it has proven to be an enduring relationship that has lasted thirty-five years in spite of the many challenges that it has faced and periodic strains in the relationship. This is no mean feat. It is quite extraordinary when one takes into consideration the volatility and shifting political sands in the Middle East. Thirdly, the alliance is of enormous importance since both countries are situated in key locations in the Middle East, thereby contributing immensely to its geopolitical significance. With regard to Syria, in his classic work, The Struggle for Syria, Patrick Seale argued that those who aspire to control the Middle East must first win over Syria. According to him, “whoever controlled Syria or enjoyed her special friendship could isolate [other Arab states] and need bow to no other combination of Arab states.”[3] As far as Iran is concerned, many view it as the strategic prize in Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf, as documented in Graham Fuller’s work on the geopolitics of Iran, entitled The Center of the Universe.[4]Over the past three-and-a-half decades, the two partners have had some noticeable successes in frustrating the designs and policies of Iraq, Israel and the United States in the Middle East. Through their continuous collaboration, they played a critical role in stemming Iraq’s invasion of Iran in September 1980, and ensured that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would not become the predominant power in the Middle East. They were also able to thwart Tel Aviv’s strategy to bring Lebanon into its own orbit, following the June 1982 Israeli invasion of that country and occupation of almost half its territory. Through the use of Lebanese proxiesmost notably HezbollahSyria and Iran were able to expose the limits of Israeli military power and forced Tel Aviv to withdraw from the territory it occupied between 1984 and 2000. Concurrently, in this same arena, they were able to inflict one of the very few foreign policy setbacks that Ronald Reagan suffered during his two terms in office as US president in the 1980s. This was exemplified by the bombings of the US embassy and the US Marine barracks in Beirut, and the eventual withdrawal of American forces from Lebanon during 1983 and 1984. Even in the post-Cold War era, with American predominance on the regional and global stage, the imposition of economic sanctions on both countries, and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Syria and Iran have been able to wield considerable power and influence in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Lebanon anddirectly and indirectlyon world oil markets, as events in recent years have demonstrated.A Conceptual Framework for Understanding the Syrian-Iranian AllianceContrary to prevailing views (due in large part to the authoritarian nature of the Syrian and Iranian regimes and their unpopularity in many quarters), the alliance has been primarily defensive in nature, aimed at neutralizing Iraqi and Israeli offensive capabilities in the region, and preventing American encroachment in the Middle East. While the initial impetus for the alliance came from the overthrow of Iran’s conservative, pro-Western monarchy in February 1979, the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 served as a major catalyst in bringing Syria and Iran closer together, with Syria providing invaluable diplomatic and military assistance to help Iran stave off defeat and expel Iraqi forces from its territory by May 1982. In turn, when Israel launched its second invasion of Lebanon, and challenged Syria in its backyard a month later in June 1982, Iran lent its support to Syria, in part, by mobilizing Lebanon’s Shias to drive out Israeli and Western forces during 1983-1985. From 1988 to 1989, prior to the Kuwait conflict, the two allies cooperated in Lebanon to crush Michel Aoun’s anti-Syrian revolt, which was, interestingly enough, backed by Iraq, Israel, and other states. More recently, following September 11, the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and especially the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, raised concerns in Damascus and Tehran, ushering in a period of heightened cooperation and frequent consultations between the two allies. The two partners have also signed a number of defense agreements in recent years.In general, defensive alliances, which have set and limited objectives are more stable and durable.[5] This, in part, explains the longevity of the 35-year-long partnership. Defensive alliances are less fragile than offensive ones. Offensive alliances quite often fall apart once the opponent has been attacked and vanquished. The rationale for maintaining the alliance consequently ceases to exist for the members, and they frequently fall out and squabble over the fruits of their victory.[6]Furthermore, it should be underscored that another reason that has contributed to the stability and longevity of the alliance is that the two partners’ priorities differ in the two arenas in which they cooperate. For Iran, the Persian Gulf region is the main area of concern, while for Syria, it is the Levant. Over time, by continually consulting one another and modifying their aims, the two allies came to recognize this reality. Consequently, they tried to coordinate their policies and accommodate one another, while at the same time, protecting and furthering their own interests.[7] More specifically, after a number of crises in the relationship which erupted between 1985 and 1988, when Iran in particular was pursuing certain policies in Lebanon against the wishes of Syria (by propping up Hezbollah at the expense of Amal and attempting to Islamicize the country), an understanding was eventually reached on key issues through continuous consultations. Syrian interests would take precedence in the Arab-Israeli arena, while in the Gulf region, Damascus would defer to Tehran. Therefore, the more complementary the interests of alliance members, the more easily intra-alliance compromises and agreements can be reached.[8] Although their interests and policies did not always converge, through regular consultations, the two allies gradually tried to resolve their differences, harmonize their positions and coordinate their actions.

Another key factor which helps shed light on the nature and longevity of the Syrian-Iranian partnership is the role of ideology. Ironically, a crucial element in the relative success and durability of the alliance is that the political elites of these two authoritarian regimes espouse different ideologies; and herein lies the paradox. Often, alliances between states that adhere to the same trans-national ideology are more likely to be short-lived than those in which ideology plays a secondary role. This is particularly true in the Middle East where authoritarian regimes predominate, and frequently use ideology as a tool to boost their political legitimacy and power base domestically and in neighboring countries. Revisionist ideologies such as pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism have quite frequently been divisive, because they are used to project power and influence, and to destabilize rival states.

In the Middle East, the record clearly shows that states sharing a common ideology compete for the mantle of leadership rather than form durable alliances. Each state may claim to be the legitimate leader, and may even demand others to relinquish their rights and sovereignty to form a single political entity. This was quite evident in the rivalries between the pan-Arab regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq between the 1950s and 1990s, including the competition between the rival wings of the Ba’th Party in Syria and Iraq. Another poignant example of rivalries between states with similar ideologies was the animosity between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan until 2001. It should not be forgotten that Tehran almost went to war with the Taliban in August 1998 after the massacre of thousands of Afghan civilians and a dozen Iranian consular officials in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, when more people were killed than in the September 11 attacks. Iran deployed over 100 thousand troops on the Afghan-Iranian border and held ground and air maneuvers. Overall, the historical record in the post-1945 era demonstrates that alliances among Arab states and communist countries that sought to form a single, centralized movement have been unstable and short-lived. In the final analysis, common ideologies have often served as obstacles to unity, prompting states to compete with one another rather than form durable alliances.[9]

When looking at Iran and Syria, it is evident that Iran (a non-Arab country) is not trying to be the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism, unlike Syria, which considers itself “the beating heart of Arabism.” Syria, for its part, is not vying for leadership of the Islamic revivalist movement in the Middle East. Overall, there has been neither ostensible competition on the ideological level (except in Lebanon during 1985 to 1988) nor fear that one partner might upstage the other, precisely because of distinctly different ideological platforms.

At the same time, it should be noted that both Ba’thist Syria and Islamist Iran have been fiercely independent states, whose political elites share certain perceptions and world views, and in fact their secular and fundamentalist ideologies overlap in certain respects. While Iran has tried to use its brand of revolutionary Islam to transcend nationalism, demonstrate its solidarity by actively participating in the Arab-Israeli struggle, and create Muslim unity in the region by surmounting Arab-Iranian political divisions and Shia-Sunni religious differences, Syria, as the self-proclaimed birthplace and heartland of Arabism, has striven to overcome the political fragmentation of the Arab world by acting as a vehicle for Arab unity. Hafez Assad, Ruhollah Khomeini and their successors have viewed the Middle East as a strategic whole and regarded their alliance as a vital tool to assert themselves, to further what they see as in the Arab and Islamic interest, and to increase their room for maneuver by diminishing foreignparticularly Americaninfluence in the region. As a result, to advance their common agenda over the years and decades, both regimes have put longer-term interests before short-term gains. This was clearly manifested in the period between 1985 and 1988 when the temptation to terminate the alliance may have been great, particularly for Syria (at a time when both had conflicting agendas in Lebanon, Iran was not forthcoming with oil deliveries to Syria, and Tehran was enraged by Damascus’ attempts to thaw relations with Amman and Baghdad), but instead the alliance was consolidated due to overarching strategic concerns and long-term interests.

As staunchly independent states, it is important to understand the main foreign policy priorities and key objectives of the ruling elites in Damascus and Tehran. The core priority of course for both the Iranian Islamist and Syrian Ba’thist governments, in view of their authoritarian nature, is regime survival. The second priority is national security, which in general terms means the maintenance of the territorial integrity and independence of their respective countries. With regard to national security, for Iran, its two main policy objectives are: 1) to be the primary regional player in Persian Gulf affairs; and 2) to ensure that a government hostile towards Tehran does not eventually emerge in Baghdad. With respect to Syria, its two major policy aims are: 1) to regain the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since 1967; and 2) to have (at minimum) veto power over Lebanese affairs in order to ensure the government in Beirut does not adopt policies detrimental to Damascus’ interests. Finally, the third priority is the aim to protect and promote, in the case of Tehran, what it perceives as Islamic interests in the region, and in the case of Damascus, what it sees as Arab interests. With regard to the former, this entails backing the Shia Lebanese Hezbollah and Sunni Palestinian Hamas movements, among others.

The Syrian-Iranian Axis and the Impact of the Arab Uprisings

When the Arab Uprisings first began in the winter of 2010-2011, with the initial wave of popular protests in Tunisia, which subsequently spread to neighboring Arab countries, Tehran declared its support for the demonstrators, who largely challenged the authority of conservative, pro-Western regimes. Portraying the opposition movements as Islamist, the Iranian leadership confidently declared that the Arab Uprisings would usher in a new pan-Islamic era in the Middle East and North Africa, in which authoritarian regimes would be supplanted by Islamist governments. From Tehran’s perspective, the tide had finally turned against the West and its regional allies. History seemed to favor Iran and its supporters.[10]

All this changed with the eruption of the protests in Syria, which caught Iran off guard and put it in an extremely awkward position. Tehran faced Hobson’s choice–two unattractive options. If it chose to stand by its most valuable, longstanding Arab ally, it would be viewed as hypocritical and opportunistic by the masses in the Arab-Muslim world. On the other hand, if it stood by idly and refrained from supporting the Assad regime, there was no guarantee that if a new government came to power in Damascus it would cultivate close ties with Tehran. Given the circumstances, Iran chose to throw its weight behind the Syrian regime. One senior Iranian official talking about the Arab Uprisings in the context of the US-Iranian rivalry in the region commented: “Bahrain tripped up the Americans, while Syria tripped us up.”[11] This decision not only tarnished the Islamic Republic’s reputation in the Middle East, but that of its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, which also backed the Syrian government. Moreover, it had far-reaching consequences for Iran’s power and influence in the region as the crisis unfolded in the two years that followed. By 2013, as the conflict in Syria increasingly assumed a sectarian dimension pitting Sunnis against Shias in Syria and the Middle East, the prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called on all Sunnis to join the fight in Syria against Shia Iran and Hezbollah–to which he referred as the “Party of Satan.”[12] Others depicted Shias as a greater threat to the Arab world than Israel.[13] The popularity of Iran and Hezbollah which had peaked in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon conflict reached an unprecedented nadir in the Arab-Muslim world due to their steadfast support for the suppression of the Syrian revolt. Furthermore, relations between Tehran and Hamas became strained by the winter of 2011-2012 when the leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement, Khalid Mashal, left Damascus and declared his support for the Syrian opposition.

Tehran initially hoped that by assisting the Ba’thist regime, Damascus would be able to ride out the crisis within a short time. As a result, Iran staunchly supported Assad’s efforts to crush the protests by providing technical support and expertise to neutralize the opposition. The Iranians provided advice and equipment to the Syrian security forces to help them contain and disperse protests. In addition, they gave guidance and technical assistance on how to monitor and curtail the use of the internet and mobile phone networks by the opposition. Iran’s security forces had plenty of experience and had learned valuable lessons in this regard since the violent crackdown against the opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following the disputed Iranian presidential elections of June 2009. At the same time, according to reports, the Iranians disapproved of the clumsy and heavy-handed approach adopted by the Syrian regime to quell the initial protests. Nonetheless, as the revolt transformed into an armed insurrection, specialist personnel and units from the Iranian security apparatus, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force, police and intelligence were dispatched and deployed in Syria to assist in defeating armed opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army and foreign Sunni Islamist groups.[14] However, their numbers were limited, at most in the hundreds (in the two years that followed), and not as opposition sources claimed in the thousands.[15]

By the summer of 2011, as the confrontation in Syria turned into a protracted affair with no end in sight, the Iranian leadership began to worry that it might be on the wrong side of history and had growing doubts about the wisdom of its policy. In order to hedge its bets, Tehran approached some Syrian opposition groups (which were Islamist or did not advocate the toppling of the Assad regime) to assess their stance on various issues relating to Iran, Israel, Lebanon and the United States. However, nothing substantive seems to have resulted from these and subsequent overtures in 2012.[16]

As the Syrian crisis continued into the autumn and winter of 2011, it increasingly assumed both a regional and international dimension. A proxy war began to emerge involving both regional and international actors. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states began to provide material and financial support to the Syrian opposition. As a result, Iran, Hezbollah, and to some extent Iraq, felt compelled to throw their weight fully behind the Assad regime.[17] Tehran perceived its regional rivals–particularly Riyadh–as using the Syrian crisis as a golden opportunity to deny it of its most valuable ally, and diminish its power and influence in the Middle East. On the international level, the US and European Union closed ranks to exert pressure and isolate Damascus. Moscow, which had traditionally been the main supplier of weapons to Syria, continued to ship arms to Damascus. Concomitantly, in the UN Security Council, Russia and China consistently thwarted Western efforts to punish Syria and blocked any move that could lay the groundwork for foreign military intervention in support of the Syrian opposition. (Both Moscow and Beijing were determined to avoid making the mistake they had made with regard to Libya in 2011 when they did not block the passage of UNSC Resolution 1973 which provided NATO with the legal justification to intervene military to topple Muammar Qaddafi under the pretext of R2P–responsibility to protect civilians.) Iran and its allies increasingly came to view the situation in Syria as a zero-sum game, fearing that the ouster of the Syrian Ba’th could pave the way for the emergence of a new regime in Damascus that would be hostile towards Tehran. Consequently, the Iranian leadership made a strategic decision to fully support Assad by providing arms, oil and financial aid.[18]

In 2012, when the United Nations and Arab League appointed Kofi Annan and later his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, as special envoys to mediate and resolve the Syrian conflict, Iran welcomed these moves. In general, Tehran is keen to be part of any multilateral initiative aimed at ending the current crisis and to have a role in shaping Syria’s political future. Iran’s interest in a political dialogue and possible diplomatic solution increased as the conflict in Syria dragged on into 2013, and it came to the bitter realization that the armed opposition could not be routed. Tehran looked for options to cut its losses and ensure that irrespective of the outcome of events in Syria, an anti-Iranian government would not come to power in Damascus. Concomitantly, Iran continued to provide military assistance to prop up the Assad regime in order to bolster its chances of survival and to strengthen its bargaining position in the event of a substantive political dialogue with its opponents. Tehran calculated that if the opposition failed to topple the Syrian Ba’th, it may eventually be amenable at the very least to some form of transitional government that contains some elements from the ancien regime. In essence, over the past two years, Iran has pursued a two-track policy by trying to engage in diplomacy to resolve the Syrian debacle politically, and in parallel, continuing to provide military support to the Assad regime.


It should be emphasized that with the passage of time, Tehran sees a number of advantages to a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis. First, it realizes that the pre-March 2011 political status quo ante cannot be restored. Therefore, it aims to contain the damage and extricate itself, if necessary, in a face-saving manner. Second, it is genuinely concerned that the prolonged fighting in Syria will have a knock-on effect and destabilize Lebanon and Iraq. This could further undermine the position of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the al-Maliki government in Iraq.[19] Third, in view of its regional and international isolation due to its stance on the Syrian conflict and the imposition of Western sanctions because of its nuclear program, Iran would like to demonstrate its importance as a key regional actor involved in helping attain peace in Syria. Fourth, the Islamic Republic is extremely concerned about the growing sectarian polarization and the possible transformation of the conflict into a regional war pitting Sunnis against Shias. This would be detrimental to its efforts to export its revolutionary ideology and achieve Muslim unity. Fifth, Tehran knows that it cannot indefinitely provide financial and material support to the Assad regime due to its own economic woes and foreign sanctions. The Islamic Republic’s oil revenues have decreased markedly and its economy has begun to contract for the first time since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Sixth, although not considered an ideal solution, Iran may conclude that in the final analysis, it may be more prudent to facilitate the emergence of a national unity government in Damascus that may not be Tehran’s ally, but at minimum will not be its enemy either.


In the event the current war of attrition leads to the overthrow of Assad, Iran has started over the past year to build up a militia force in Syria known as the People’s Army (Jaysh al-Sha’bi) consisting of regime loyalists, Alawites and other groups to ensure that the new regime would not be able to assert control over Syria and would become bogged down. According to reports, the aim is to build up a force which is at least 100-thousand strong.[20] Iran wants to have a viable, armed proxy in a post-Assad Syria. In short, Tehran’s objective is to ensure if it cannot have Syria as an ally in the Middle East, others should be prevented from instrumentalizing Syria against Iran in the regional power struggle.

If the Assad government is toppled, this would represent a major setback for Iran. Overall, it could be argued that if such an event were to occur, it would be the greatest loss for the Islamic Republic on the regional level since its creation in 1979. It would constitute a major blow, particularly in terms of the Islamic Republic’s ideological and foreign policy objectives. Syria has been the only stalwart Arab supporter of Iran. Furthermore, it has served as a major conduit for Iranian arms shipments and material support to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Since the end of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, Damascus and Tehran have restored Hezbollah as a formidable force with an arsenal of some 40,000 rockets and missiles.[21] The overthrow of the Assad regime could transform the regional situation overnight. Not only would Iran lose its most important Arab ally, but its ability to provide support for Hezbollah and to influence the situation in Lebanon and in the Arab-Israeli arena would also be severely curtailed. In addition to its importance in advancing Iranian ideological and foreign policy interests in the Levant, from Tehran’s vantage point, Hezbollah has become a vital actor to safeguard Iranian national security in recent years since the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program emerged. According to Iranian strategic thinking, potential Hezbollah retaliation against Israel serves as a trip wire for US and Israeli military action against Iran.[22]

Although the current strategy of trying to prop up the Assad regime is partially aimed at preserving Iran’s ability to project its power and influence in the Levant, the strategy also has several key defensive components. Over the past year, tensions in Iraq have increased markedly, and the confrontation between the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the Sunni opposition has intensified. Armed Sunni extremist groups have conducted bold attacks against Iraqi civilians and the vestiges of the Iraqi state. The success of the Syrian opposition in seizing control of areas in the east bordering Iraq and their increasing cooperation with Iraqi Sunni insurgents have contributed to the growing instability in Iraq. This has also alarmed policy makers in Tehran. A poignant example in 2013 was the announcement of the alliance between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Nusra Front (Jabha al-Nusra) in Syria. Consequently, there is now a genuine fear in Tehran that if the Assad regime is toppled, it may have a knock-on effect in Iraq. This could lead to greater instability and potentially even to the overthrow of the current government in Baghdad and the rise of a Sunni-dominated regime. Iran sees this possibility as completely unacceptable. In fact, the security situation in Iraq figured prominently in the discussions Nouri al-Maliki had with the Iranian leadership during his first state visit to Tehran after Hassan Rouhani’s election.[23] Moreover, Iran sees Syria as the first line of defense against a concerted effort by its regional and extra-regional foes not only to bring about regime change in Damascus and the end its alliance with Tehran, but as part of a longer term strategy to isolate and overthrow the Islamic Republic. According to Hojatolislam Mehdi Taeb, a close ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader, “if we lose Syria, we won’t be able to hold Tehran.”[24]

At present, Tehran fears the emergence of a crescent of pro-Western (Sunni) regimes stretching from Turkey to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The nightmare scenario for Iran would be for the Syrian Ba’th to be replaced by a Sunni fundamentalist regime that is staunchly anti-Iran and anti-Shia, and closely allied with Tehran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. However, “the mother of all nightmares” for Iran would be if both of the existing regimes in Damascus and Baghdad were toppled and succeeded by governments which are implacably hostile towards Tehran. To date, Iran has done all it can to ensure that Bashar Assad will not be toppled by pouring in men, materiel and money to bolster his position. In spite of its tremendous efforts and spending billions of dollars to prop up the Syrian regime, the outcome is still unclear. In fact, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a number of politicians and members of parliament (majles) have expressed disappointment about the results in the past. According to one estimate, by late 2012, Tehran had spent over US $10 billion to support the Assad regime.[25] More recently, in July 2013, Tehran extended a US $3.6 billion line- of-credit to Damascus for the purchase of oil.[26]



The Rise of Rouhani and Its Ramifications

Since the ascendance of Hassan Rouhani to the office of president in August 2013, it is evident that Syria has remained the main foreign policy challenge in the Middle East for the new Iranian leader. Hassan Rouhani is fully aware of Syria’s importance since he has been a key figure in the Islamic Republic’s political-security establishment, holding important government posts, including serving as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) between 1989 and 2005. The situation in Syria has been a major concern and preoccupation for President Rouhani and his team. Rouhani cannot be described as a hardliner, moderate nor reformist, but as a pragmatist. It is noteworthy that the political rhetoric emanating from Tehran has softened, and there have been shifts in the posture of the new administration. Iran has continued its two-pronged strategy of continuing to prop up the Assad regime, and concomitantly, seeking a political solution to the Syrian crisis. However, Rouhani has been placing greater emphasis on pursuing a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria. Over the past several months, he has repeatedly underscored that the crisis must be resolved by the Syrians themselves and signalled Iran’s readiness to mediate between the Assad regime and the opposition.[27] For instance, Rouhani declared that “the ground should be prepared for holding an absolutely free election with no preconditions.”[28] The Iranian president realizes that there is no military solution, and the political track needs to be pursued more vigorously. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has also voiced concern and warned the West by stating, “if the flames of sectarianism rage in the Middle East, you will see the results in the streets of London, New York, Rome and Madrid…we think people [in Syria] should be making their decisions at the ballot box and the tragedy there should come to an end with the help of neighboring countries.”[29]

In order to set the stage for finding common ground on Syria with Iran’s neighbors and also mending fences with its regional rivals, the Rouhani administration has embarked on a diplomatic offensive in recent months to improve relations and diminish its isolation in the Middle East. Furthermore, its success in reaching an interim agreement with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) on the nuclear issue has contributed to defusing tensions and building some degree of trust. Iran’s diplomatic efforts have been led by foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who has visited Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and a number of Gulf Arab states. These efforts seem to have yielded fruit as Ankara and Tehran have jointly declared the need for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict, and the GCC has praised Iran’s new overtures and agreement to limit its nuclear activities.[30] Iran has engaged in intensive efforts to mend fences with Turkey. As bilateral relations have thawed, Ankara has signalled its support for Iranian participation in peace talks on Syria. The rapprochement can be also partially attributed to the deterioration of Saudi-Turkish relations due to differences over Egypt and Syria. Last July, Riyadh backed the military coup in Cairo which ousted the Muslim Brethren from power, while Ankara vehemently denounced it. Furthermore, Turkey has been alarmed by Saudi attempts to limit its influence over the Syrian opposition, and it does not want to become a hotbed for Sunni Islamic extremists.[31]

It remains to be seen whether Rouhani will have a free hand to pursue a new foreign policy, especially if it entails making some hard choices in order to reach an agreement on Syria. It is evident that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hardliners have empowered Rouhani and Zarif to negotiate on the nuclear issue in order to diminish Iran’s isolation and improve the domestic economy. However, on key security issues, particularly regarding Syria and Lebanon, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its elite Qods Force have been the main drivers of Iranian policy. It is noteworthy that shortly after his inauguration, Rouhani served notice to the IRGC that they must stay out of politics and refrain from interfering in political decision-making. Rouhani asserted that “the IRGC is above and beyond political currents, not beside or within them…the IRGC has a higher status, which is that of the whole nation.”[32] The IRGC in turn, to date has given qualified support to the Rouhani administration’s moves by stating that it supported any steps so long as they were in line with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s strategies and Iranian national interests “based on dignity, expediency and logic.”[33] Hardliners in Tehran may impede and thwart Rouhani’s moves in view of their hostility toward the US and its allies in the Middle East.[34]

In recent months, since the beginning of 2014, a number of developments have undermined the position of the Rouhani administration and strengthened the hand of the more hardline elements led by IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani who advocated unconditional support for the Syrian regime. First, from the Iranian perspective, if Tehran had not been invited to the Geneva II talks in January, it would have been highly disconcerting. However, the fact that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon initially extended an invitation to the Islamic Republic and then withdrew it after coming under immense pressure from the US and the Syrian opposition was considered deeply offensive and humiliating. This weakened the position of the pragmatists who believed that after concluding the interim agreement with the P5+1 on the Iranian nuclear program in November 2013, this landmark accord could build mutual trust and confidence, with cooperation then spilling over into the Syrian peace negotiations. Barring Iranian participation in Geneva II dashed such hopes. Furthermore, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that Iran could be allowed to contribute informally to the negotiations from the sidelines was interpreted as adding insult to injury. In view of Iran’s status as a regional power and a key player in the Syrian conflict, the Iranian foreign ministry’s spokesperson rejected Tehran playing only an informal role, declaring, “the Islamic Republic of Iran will not accept any proposal which does not respect its dignity.”[35] Second, the failure of the Geneva II talks to yield any positive results in finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict reinforced the position of the hawks in Tehran would favored providing greater military support to the Assad regime in order to build on the momentum and successes which had been achieved on the ground against the rebels since 2013. Third, the outbreak of fighting in recent months among the Syrian opposition forces, most notably between the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Nusra Front was seen by Soleimani as propitious opportunity to exploit divisions among the ranks of the rebels and seize the initiative in order to defeat them.[36]

In recent weeks, Tehran has dispatched more military advisors, specialists and elite units (primarily from the IRGC but also other branches) to train Syrian government forces and pro-regime militias. There have been reports that they have established a presence in the vital government-controlled seaports of Tartus and Latakia, and Iranian transport aircraft have been ferrying weapons directly to the airport in Hama.[37] In order to bolster the ranks of pro-government forces on the ground, with Iranian guidance and support, greater numbers of Iraqi militiamen from the Shia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah are being sent to take part in the fighting in Syria. It is estimated that between 8,000 to 15,000 Shia militiamen, primarily from Iraq and Lebanon, are currently in Syria.[38] More recently, there have been reports that Iran is also recruiting Afghans to fight for the Syrian regime.[39] In addition, due to the easing of international sanctions following the nuclear agreement last November, Iran has begun to ship larger amounts of oil to Syria.[40]


Overall, the events of the past few months bode ill for resolving the Syrian conflict through peaceful means. On the international level, the rift between Washington and Moscow since the eruption of the crisis in the Ukraine may diminish the prospects of future joint US-Russian diplomatic initiatives to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian imbroglio. On the regional level, in spite of Iran’s rapprochement with a number of key neighbors, most notably Turkey, and recent positive signals emanating from Saudi Arabia, differences still remain.[41] On the domestic level, in Syria, the failure of the Geneva II talks clearly demonstrated the huge political divide that continues to exist between the Assad regime and its opponents. The recent resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi has been another ominous sign of the dismal state of affairs. With regard to Iran, although senior Iranian officials such as Rouhani and Zarif have continued to reiterate the need to find a political solution and called for elections in Syria, their position has been undermined by recent events. Iranian hardliners who urge support for the Syrian regime at any cost seem to be on the ascendant for the moment. From the perspective of policy makers in Tehran, even if Assad can never reassert control over all of Syria, his ability to hold onto Damascus and the southern and western regions of the country could be considered a limited victory depending on how events unfold on the ground in the future.

In conclusion, at present, Iran will do all it can to ensure that Bashar Assad will not be toppled. There is no doubt that the Syrian-Iranian alliance is at a critical crossroads and its days may be numbered. That being said, its resilience and ability to survive major crises should not be underestimated. Those who dismiss its strength and capabilities, do so at their own peril. The alliance has always been able to thrive and surprise its opponents when it has been on the defensive. This has consistently been the case over the past three-and-a-half decades. In 1980, Saddam Hussein did not think that his invasion of Iran would lead to the formalization of the Tehran-Damascus nexus, thereby enabling it to thwart his efforts to deal a death blow against revolutionary Iran. Two years later, in 1982, Menachem Begin and Ronald Reagan could not foresee that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the deployment of the Multinational Force would fail to bring the country into the US-Israeli orbit due to the decisive response and countermeasures taken by Syria, Iran and their Lebanese allies. In 2006, once again, Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush initially envisaged that a month-long, intensive aerial, naval and ground campaign waged by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) would result in the destruction of Hezbollah and weaken the regional power and stature of Syria and Iran. In fact, the exact opposite happened as Hezbollah was able to weather the storm, and in aftermath of the conflict, the popularity of Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad soared to unprecedented heights in the Arab-Islamic world. Finally, in early 2011, when the unrest in Syria erupted, no one predicted that the Assad regime would still be in power three years later as a direct consequence of stalwart Iranian support. Many believed that it would quickly meet with the same fate as the Ben Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi regimes. Hence, it should be underscored that irrespective of how much longer the Damascus-Tehran nexus endures, its impact on Middle East politics over the past 35 years has been undeniable and significant. It has left its mark on the political landscape of the modern Middle East.



Jubin M. Goodarzi is Deputy Head of the International Relations Department at Webster University Geneva in Switzerland. He was previously a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva. He has also worked with a number of US and UK research institutes and foundations, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, and the Ford Foundation in New York. Dr. Goodarzi is author of Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), and numerous articles and book reviews on the international relations of the Middle East. He holds a B.A. in International Studies from the American University, a M.A. in Arab Studies from Georgetown University, and a doctorate in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).



[1]Yair Hirschfeld, “The Odd Couple: Ba’thist Syria and Khomeini’s Iran,” in Syria Under Assad: Domestic Constraints and Regional Risks, ed. Avner Yaniv and Moshe Ma’oz (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 105 and Shireen T. Hunter, “Syrian-Iranian Relations: An Alliance of Convenience or More?” Middle East Insight, June/July 1985, pp. 30-31. Hirschfeld, p. 105.

[2]Hirschfeld, p. 105.

[3] Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 1-2.

[4] See Graham E. Fuller, The Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press/Rand Corporation, 1991).

[5]Herbert S. Dinerstein, “The Transformation of Alliance Systems,” American Political Science Review, 59, No. 3 (1965), p. 599.

[6]George Liska, Nations in Alliance: The Limits of Interdependence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962), pp. 39-40 and Stephen M. Walt, “Why Alliances Endure or Collapse,” Survival, 39, No. 1 (1997), p. 159.

[7]Liska, p. 62. Liska argues that consultations strengthen alliance cohesion since they reinforce solidarity and equality among the members. Liska, p. 69.

[8]Liska, p. 82.

[9]Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 35-36, 206-212 and “Why Alliances Endure or Collapse,” p. 163.

[10]See Meris Lutz, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Calls Uprising an ‘Islamic Awakening’,” The Los Angeles Times, 4 February 2011.

[11] Confidential conversation with a senior Iranian official, Geneva, Switzerland, March 2012.

[12]See BBC News Middle East, “Syria Conflict: Cleric Qaradawi Urges Sunnis to Join Rebels,” 1 June 2013.

[13]See Sam Dagher, “Arab Media Clash Over Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, 24 March 2012.

[14]For details, see David W. Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 128, Ian Black, “Iran Confirms It Has Forces in Syria and Will Take Military Action If Pushed,” The Guardian, 16 September 2012, and Con Coughlin, “Iran Sends Elite Troops to Aid Bashar al-Assad Regime in Syria,” The Daily Telegraph, 6 September 2012.

[15]For details on the extent of Iranian involvement in the Syrian conflict and the specious nature of Syrian opposition claims in this regard see “In Assad’s Syria, Iranians are Calling the Shots,” United Press International, 6 November 2013, and Will Fulton, Joseph Holliday and Sam Wyer, Iranian Strategy in Syria (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 2013), pp. 10, 13-15.

[16] See Emile Hokayem, Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2013), p. 124 and Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Monavar Khalaj, “Transcript: Interview with Ali Larijani,” The Financial Times, 19 September 2012.

[17]Iraq permitted Iran to establish an air bridge to Syria. Iranian military and civilian transport aircraft ferried weapons and supplies to Syria. In spite of US protests, Baghdad facilitated the flow of arms and looked the other way. See Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Tim Arango, “Flows of Arms to Syria Through Iraq Persists, to US Dismay,” The New York Times, 1 December 2013.

[18]See The Daily Telegraph, 16 May 2012, and Lina Saigol, “Iran Helps Syria Defy Oil Embargo,” The Financial Times, 18 May 2012.

[19] For example, the recent spate of bombings targeting Hezbollah strongholds and the Iranian embassy in Beirut orchestrated by Sunni extremists underscore the growing tensions and displeasure with Hezbollah’s and Iran’s actions in the Syrian theater.

[20]Karen De Young and Joby Warrick, “Iran and Hezbollah Build Militia Networks in Syria in Event That Assad Falls, Officials Say,” The Washington Post, 10 February 2013 and “Israel Sees 50,000 Syrian Fighters Backed by Iran,” Reuters, 14 March 2013. In early 2013, with Iranian assistance, the Assad regime began efforts to unify and consolidate its various paramilitary and militia formations into a new force called the National Defense Forces (Quwat al-Difa’a al-Watani). See “Syria Builds Paramilitary Force Aided by Iran: NGO,” Agence France Presse, 21 January 2013.

[21]For details on Iranian support to Syria, see “Three-Way Bet: Hizbullah’s Strategic Dilemma in Lebanon,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, November 2011, p. 30.

[22]See Jubin M. Goodarzi, “Radicalism or Realpolitik?: The Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Babylon: The Nordic Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 8, Number 2, 2010, p. 88 and Jubin M. Goodarzi, Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), p. xiv.

[23]“Iraq PM in Talks on Syria During Iran Trip,” The Associated Press, 4 December 2013.

[24] See Will Fulton, Joseph Holliday and Sam Wyer, Iranian Strategy in Syria, p. 26.

[25] For example, see Hugh Tomlinson, “Tehran Split Over Billions Spent by Spy Chief to Prop Up Assad Regime,” The Times of London, 1 October 2012.

[26]Suleiman al-Khalidi, “Iran Grants Syria $3.6 Billion Credit Facility to Buy Oil Products,’ Reuters, 31 July 2013.

[27]See Hassan Rouhani, “Why Iran Seeks Constructive Engagement,” The Washington Post, 19 September 2013.

[28]“Geneva 2 Must Aim to Free Polls in Syria: Iran,” The Daily Star, 5 December 2013.

[29]Tim Arango and Sebnem Arsu, “Turkey and Iran Signal a Softening of Differences Over Syria,” The New York Times, 1 November 2013.

[30] See Tim Arango and Sebnem Arsu, “Turkey and Iran Signal a Softening of Differences Over Syria,” The New York Times, 1 November 2013, “Turkey, Iran Agree on ‘Relative Ceasefire’ in Syria,” Turkish Weekly, 28 November 2013, and Amer Sultan, “Gulf Summit Backs Egypt, Praises Iran and Warns Syria,” Al-Ahram, 12 December 2013.

[31]“Turkey Expels Saudi Intelligence Over Diplomatic Rift: Source.” Al-Akhbar, 1 November 2013.

[32] “Iran’s Rouhani Tells Revolutionary Guards to Stay Out of Politics,” Reuters, 16 September 2013.

[33] See Jason Rezaian, “Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Takes Diplomatic Tone at Military Event,” The Washington Post, 22 September 2013.

[34]For more details and analysis on the perspectives of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states on Iran see Ian Black, “Gulf Widens as Iran Returns from the Cold,” The Guardian, 12 December 2013, and Bernard Haykel and Daniel Kurtzer, “Saudi Arabia and Israel Have Very Different Concerns about Iran,” The Daily Star, 17 December 2013.

[35]Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Says Iran Won’t Attend Peace Talks on Syria,” The International New York Times, 10 January 2014.

[36]Ruth Sherlock, “Iran Boosts Support to Syria,” The Daily Telegraph, 21 February 2014.

[37]Jonathan Saul and Parisa Hafezi, “Iran Boosts Military Support in Syria to Bolster Assad,” Reuters, 21 February 2014.

[38]Martin Chulov, “Controlled by Iran, the Deadly Militia Recruiting Iraq’s Men to Die in Syria,” The Guardian, 12 March 2014.

[39]For details, see Farnaz Fassihi, “Iran Pays Afghans to Fight for Assad,” The Wall Street Journal, 16 May 2014.

[40]Alex Lawler and Jonathan Saul, “Iranian Oil Exports Rise in February, More to Ally Syria,” Reuters, 27 February 2014.

[41]See Simeon Kerr, “Saudi Arabia Moves to Ease Regional Tensions with Iran,” The Financial Times, 13 May 2014, and Martin Chulov, “Saudi Arabia Moves to Settle Differences with Iran,” The Guardian, 13 May 2014.

2 June 2014
Volume 9/2:c Singapore Middle East Papers Labor Migration in the GCC Countries: past, present and futureby George Naufal[1],[2] and Ismail Genc[3] SMEP 9-2 Naufal-GencThe Gulf region consists of six countries which make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the State of Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman, the State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the State of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).[4] The Council intends to unify the member countries on a range of political and economic issues of which labor, especially foreign labor forms the most prominent concern.[5] This is because all of these countries rely on the foreign labor force to man their tremendously large economies compared to indigenous populations. Not only are the countries relatively new in the international political landscape, but they lack educated and competent talent to handle the challenges and opportunities that a natural resource economy presents.[6] For example, other than Saudi Arabia, the remaining countries gained their independence in 1971 (Oman in 1964). The large oil wealth, the insufficient local population, relatively high labor compensation, and stable political environment in the GCC have come together to open the door to one of the largest movement of people in recent history. These are some of the most frequently cited reasons for migration in the literature.[7]Although the reliance on expatriates is less severe in Saudi Arabia and Oman with under 30 percent of the foreign labor force, the percentage of expatriates hovers around 90 percent in Qatar and 70 percent in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait. These figures have built up over time thanks to the conditions mentioned above. However, the stock of the expatriate labor force evolved over the course of history with the addition of people from different national backgrounds. The researchers have identified three different waves /strands of migration to the Gulf region, which can be stated in the form of the following hypotheses:[8]

  1. Before 1990s, there were large numbers of Arabs in GCC
  2. Arabs used to come as families
  3. After the fall of communism (1989), females from former communist countries (Eastern Bloc) came to the GCC.

The next section discusses migration trends to the GCC countries in more detail and specifically explores the three hypotheses listed above.


Trends in the Migration History of the GCC

We collect data on migration to the GCC from the World Bank’s World Databank covering Global Bilateral Migration for the period of 1960-2000 decade by decade. We concentrate our attention to three different regions of the world which send laborers to the GCC countries, i.e. the Asian countries (Group 1), Arab countries (Group 2), and Eastern Bloc countries (Group 3). These are the most frequently cited labor sending regions of the world to the Gulf.[9]

The first group (Group 1) includes Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The second group (Group 2) has Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco, and West Bank and Gaza (as Palestine). And the third group (Group 3) includes Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Moldavia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It goes without saying that this is not an exhaustive list of the countries which send labor to the region. For example, there are guest workers at many levels of business and academia from the western countries, as well. Nevertheless, the list for which we gather data is pretty comprehensive.[10]

Immigrant population is firstly, divided into groups of males and females and secondly, totaled by the country groupings indicated above. As we lack a frequently observed dataset we resort to the growth rate, , formula for a variable of interest, say , which allows non-consecutive observations yielding annual growth rates:

naufalgenc formular

where and are two dates (years), which are not necessarily consecutive but where . The next sub-sections examine the empirical validity of the three hypotheses listed above as they are portrayed by literature on migration. .


  1. Before the 1990s, there were large numbers of Arabs in the GCC

To test our first hypothesis, we compute the annual growth rate of various expatriate groups who were in the GCC at different time intervals based on the aforementioned formula. The results are in Table 1. Arabs and Asians were major immigrants in the region due to historical, geographic and cultural reasons. This trend continued well into 1990s supported by the economic windfall of the region thanks to its natural resources, in particular the oil and natural gas. This phenomenon is clearly observed in Table 1 as the growth of Asians and Arabs are almost identical prior to the 1990s. Eastern Bloc countries are latecomers to the labor markets in the Gulf as the table attests. Nevertheless, there is a dramatic shift in the source of labor in the GCC in the 1990-2000 period. Although all immigrant categories suffered heavy losses in the latter period, the decline in the Arab group is much more pronounced than in other groups. Naufal (2011) and Naufal and Genc (2013) also arrive at the same conclusion by studying the change of direction in the remittances in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Given that the GCC constitutes a significant portion of the remittance sending countries in the MENA, the non-GCC countries are the major beneficiaries of the operation. The authors observe that there is a structural break in remittances around the 1990s, where the largest portion of remittances thereof leaves the region, presumably heading to Asia. This finding is anything but the anomaly as shown in the existing literature. For example, Choucri (1986), Birks, Seccombe and Sinclair (1988), and Kapiszewski (2004) have all made similar observations around this time frame.






Table 1: Annual Growth Rates of Various Expatriate Groups at Different Time Intervals (percent)
Female Male All
Period Arabs Asians EB Arabs Asians EB Arabs Asians EB
60-90 13.68 14.18 9.90 14.21 13.53 8.60 14.06 13.73 9.01
90-2K 1.05 2.23 1.28 1.23 2.32 2.52 1.18 2.29 2.09
Notes: Period refers to the beginning and the end of the years for which the growth rate is computed. The 60-90 is the 1990 to 1960 period while 90-2K refers to the 2000 to 1990 period. EB stands for Eastern Bloc. Source: World Bank.


To reiterate our point, we display the immigration data in Figures 1-3. We equate the initial observation in 1960 to 100 to discern the pattern of growth over time. In the female category of workers, Arabs make up the majority until the 1990s after which Asians take over. Asian female labor migrant population growth rate surpasses that of Arabs earlier than the 1990s. We conjecture that the earlier shift in the labor policy of the Gulf as stated in Choucri (1986) must be due to the impact of the change in the female population. Those who find the shift in later times are probably observing the behavior of the male migrant population whose growth rate among Arabs decline after the 1990s as compared to Asians. This claim is further supported by the same behavior discerned for the All migrant graph.

Figure 1: All females

naufal and Genc1

NB: 1960 value is equated to 100.

Figure 2: All Males


NB: 1960 value is equated to 100.


Figure 3: All

naufal and genc3

NB: 1960 value is equated to 100.


The migration literature lists political and economic causes behind the shift in the employment policies of the GCC countries (Russell 1989 and 1992). Those who prefer the political explanation cite the First Gulf War, which divided GCC and non-GCC MENA countries in, broadly defined, opposite camps. After the war, GCC countries retaliated with deporting citizens from countries which did not align with the position of the GCC. Those who advance economic explanations for the change in the labor policies cite the well-known financial portfolio theory which advocates the diversification of financial investment for the purposes of risk aversion (or at least risk minimization). By that logic, it is not wise to rely on a small number of countries to meet the labor needs of the region, which would mitigate the bargaining power of the Gulf in labor negotiations with labor sending countries.[11]

On a side note, we would like to address a likely observation of readers regarding the tremendous decline in the growth rate of immigrants in the 1990-2000 period compared to before. There could be several explanations. One of them is that perhaps it took a long time for foreigners to come back to the GCC in the aftermath of the war in the Gulf in 1991. Or alternatively, we can say that the labor market in the region has attained a somewhat steady state given the more mature economic structure in the post- 1990s period versus the earlier times. Therefore, the region now needs less growth in the labor force, especially foreign labor to satisfy the demand. All in all, one finds that the population growth rate of the region in the 1960-1990 period is 5.1 percent, whereas it is more than halved in the 1990-2000 period with 2.2 percent. Additional support for this observation comes from the UN migration data which finds even negative net migration stock for the 1990-1995 and 1995-2000 periods.

  1. Arabs used to come as families

Our second hypothesis points to a typical family structure in the Middle East. Arab men do not travel abroad without the family, especially if the workplace is in the Middle East. Unfortunately, we do not have historical data on the family composition of the expatriates in the region. To prove the validity of this claim, then, we proxy the family structure by computing the difference between the numbers of male and female migrants in the GCC for the two largest groups, that is, Arabs and Asians. No one would deny the fact that males and females do not necessarily represent families, but given Arab culture, chances are the foreign Arab women in the region are with their families. Hence, as shown in Table 3, the male-female difference among the two largest expatriate groups in the Gulf seems to be always greater / larger on the Asian side. We can guardedly say that there is at least some evidence that Arabs came to the Gulf with their families.

Incidentally, some researchers emphasize a particular characteristic of the Arab labor force, which is their tendency to stay on in the region rather than leave. This, then, counters the notion of the “guest worker” idea that the policy makers in the region have in mind when importing foreign labor. Therefore, Asian workers are more readily willing to come to the Gulf for a transitory period and return home after their visa expires.[12]


Table 3: Difference between Male and Female Expatriate Populations in the GCC
Year M-F Asia M-F Arab
1960 35157 22075
1970 110761 109966
1980 583272 541133
1990 1360446 1289434
2000 1726037 1470383
Source: World Bank.


  1. After the fall of communism (1989), females from former communist countries (Eastern Bloc) came to the GCC

It stands to reason that labor migration from the former communist (Eastern Bloc) countries to the Gulf increased after the fall of communism. In general, this is justified based on the fact that the fall of the economic system in the Eastern Bloc countries removed the government safety network which was taken for granted by the citizens of those countries. The pain was probably more severely felt by women.[13] The fall of communism also opened up the door for its citizens to pursue opportunities in other countries.

All of these are reasonable arguments to explain why migration from the Eastern Bloc has increased in the post-communist era. However, it is hard to see that from Figure 4. As a matter of fact, Figure 4 shows that female migration from the former Eastern Bloc countries to the Gulf has slowed down in the 1990-2000 period more than that of the males. But a closer look at the female migration to the region, via Table 4, reveals that while Eastern Bloc women were the third largest group of female migrants to the region in 1960-1990 period, they rank the second in the 1990-2000 period. More interestingly, as shown in the last column of Table 4, Eastern Block women seem to be the least affected from the declined migration in the latter period compared to the two other migrant groups. In a related work, Shah (2004) finds that women constitute a small share of the expatriates in the GCC and they are largely employed in low- paying domestic work. This claim is not necessarily shared by Genc and Naufal (2013).

Figure 4: The Eastern Block Expatriates


Source: World Bank


Table 4: Growth Rate Comparisons among Females
Groups 1990-1960 r6090 1990-2000 r902K Difference
All Female Asians 0.142 1 0.022 1 0.119
All Female Arabs 0.137 2 0.010 3 0.126
All Female EE 0.099 3 0.013 2 0.086
Notes: r6090 and r902K stand for the rank of the growth rate computed in the respective previous columns. Source: World Bank.

While the previous analysis has provided new data evidence on migration trends in the GCC countries, the next section provides a brief summary of current demographics of foreign workers in the Gulf region.


Current Labor Force Profile

Since we discussed the migration trends in previous sections, we now would like to turn to the current picture in the region. Obviously, we need data on current statistics to conduct this analysis. However, one of the main difficulties in studying migration and labor markets in the Gulf region is the lack of data available. The GCC countries have not systematically collected and disseminated data on foreign workers residing in the region. With the advancement in the World Wide Web, several of the GCC countries have slowly started to share some information using their government institutions’ webpages.[14] Although the data shared does not provide enough in-depth coverage of the foreign and local labor force and is difficult to match across the GCC countries, it is still considered a step in the right direction. Having said that, that step is still far from doing justice to the importance of the region in current international migration flows. To complement official efforts to disseminate existing migrant data, the Gulf Research Center (GRC) and the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) at the European University Institute (EUI) have just launched the Gulf Labour Markets and Migration (GLMM) initiative to collect, organize, clean and disseminate data on Gulf labor markets.[15] The following section uses data from both official and GLMM sources in order to shed light on the demographics of the foreign population in the Gulf.

Figure 5 shows the latest estimates of the share of foreigners from the total population in each GCC country in 2013 for Oman, Kuwait and KSA. In the case of Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, the number reflects 2010 values. Foreigners constitute on average 62 percent of the population in the Gulf region with the highest found in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. If one puts these figures in terms of absolute numbers, then the Gulf region is home to more than 30 million migrants.

Figure 5: Share of Population as Foreigners


Source: GLMM Database – Demographic and Economic Database 2014


An interesting aspect of migration to the Gulf region is its distinct gender bias towards males. Most of the low skilled jobs are manned by South Asian men while female migration from neighboring Arab countries is more difficult due to traditional and cultural reasons. Figure 6 highlights this gender imbalance by showing a ratio of more than four foreign men to one foreign woman in half of the GCC countries (Oman, Qatar and the UAE).[16] The smallest migrant gender disproportion is found in Kuwait but the number of men is still twice that of women. The gender distribution of migrant workers is consistent with the shift in the source of labor from Arab towards South-Asian workers. The skewed distribution of migrant population by gender is also mirrored in the age distribution with more than 80 percent of foreigners being of working age (between 15 and 64) (Figure 7). Interestingly, the share of the population above 65 is very similar across nationality, reflecting a very young local population.

Figure 6: Sex Ratio by Nationality


Blue: Expatriates Red:Local Population

Source: GLMM Database – Demographic and Economic Database 2014


Figure 7: Age Distribution by Nationality


Source: GLMM Database – Demographic and Economic Database 2014


While Figures 5-7 have focused on the demographic side of the total population in the GCC countries, Figure 8 presents the distribution of the employed population. In all GCC countries, working foreigners outweigh the number of working locals, with large differences in all of them (foreigners constitute at least 70 percent of the working population) except in Saudi Arabia. Out of the employed population in Qatar and the UAE, more than 90 percent are foreigners.

Figure 8: Age Distribution of Employed by Nationality


Source: GLMM Database – Demographic and Economic Database 2014

All the previous statistics and figures divide the population into nationals versus non-nationals. Historically, most GCC countries did not publicly provide in-depth breakdowns between nationals, using instead a more generic distribution for national security concerns. We use Kuwait as a case study due to the availability of data that includes the distribution of foreigners by ethnicity. Figure 9 presents the share of Arabs, Asians, Westerners and Africans out of the total foreign population. This means that 55 percent of the foreign population comes from Asian countries (mainly South Asian countries) while 41 percent comes from neighboring Arab countries.

Figure 9: Share out of Total Foreign Population in Kuwait (2012)


Source: GLMM Database – Demographic and Economic Database 2014

In terms of gender, Asian females constitute 17 percent of the foreign population while Arab females make up 14 percent. Males constitute 66 percent of the foreign population. Finally, out of the total foreign population, 48 percent is the share of employed Asians while the figure is 20 percent for Arab workers. This suggests that 29 percent of foreigners in 2012 were not employed. Although not reported in Figure 9, out of the foreign Arab population, 49.7 percent were employed in 2012 while for Asians workers, this number was 86.8 percent. The large discrepancy between the percentages of Arabs versus Asians working is due to fundamental differences in migration patterns, skill levels and cultural distinctions; all documented in the Gulf migration literature.

Figure 10: Unemployment Rate in Kuwait (2012)


Source: GLMM Database – Demographic and Economic Database 2014


Figure 11: Labor Force Participation Rate in Kuwait (2012)

Source: GLMM Database – Demographic and Economic Database 2014

We next look at the unemployment and labor force participation rates in Kuwait for 2012. Figures 10 and 11 show that unemployment rates for both Kuwaitis and foreigners are very similar and vary between 1.2 percent and 3.6 percent. Female unemployment rates are higher. The picture is very different when one considers the labor force participation rates. Male foreigners have the highest participation rates (84 percent) while both male and female Kuwaitis have 36 and 30 percent rates of participation. Even foreign female participation rate is higher than 50 percent. It would be interesting to further examine the foreign female participation rate by Arab and Asian ethnicity, but unfortunately the data is not available.

We then focus on the occupation of the main three components of the population: Kuwaitis, Arabs and Asians. The last two constitute more than 95 percent of the foreign population living in Kuwait in 2012. Table 5 highlights the distribution of workers by occupation. We only show the percentage if it is at least 10 percent to avoid cluttering the table and to allow the reader to clearly distinguish the difference in occupations by nationality and gender. For instance, 32 percent of Kuwaiti males work as clerks. What is clear from Table 5 is the concentration of Kuwaitis in the upper level occupations such as professionals, technicians and clerks while Arab and Asian males are found in the production sectors. Arab females work as professionals, service work or are not stated while Asian females are mainly found in service and sales work.


Table 5: Occupation by Nationality and Gender – Kuwait 2012
Kuwaitis Arabs Asians
Male Female Male Female Male Female
Senior Officials and Managers
Professionals 12% 26% 12% 29%
Technicians 15% 15%
Clerks 32% 52% 11% 22%
Service/Sale Workers 31% 19% 14% 24% 82%
Agriculture Workers
Craft Workers 10%
Production Supervisors 12% 27%
Regular Work Professionals 20% 22%
Not Stated 21%
Notes: Authors’ calculations using data from the GLMM Database – Demographic and Economic Database 2014


While the above brief analysis has presented some data on the current population in the GCC and labor in Kuwait, one has to acknowledge the limitations of the data and therefore analysis.[17] What is available on the foreign (and local) labor force in the Gulf region is scarce at best and mainly descriptive. The data cannot be used to draw comparisons across different GCC countries since they either differ by definition, collection, year or availability (Naufal, 2014). Further, the data is not good enough to examine correlations and causal effects to draw policy implications. Despite the growing efforts in creating, organizing and disseminating data on migration in the Gulf, we are only at the beginning and there is still a lot left to do in order to be able to study the determinants and effects of migration and remittances in the GCC countries. Ultimately, these studies would bring policy recommendations to better deal with the challenges and opportunities that the region is facing. This is the main topic of the next section.

Challenges and Opportunities of the GCC Countries

The GCC countries embarked on ambitious development plans two decades ago, updating their infrastructure and building financial and tourist sectors. These projects have made the region one of the top labor-receiving regions in the world, second only to traditional and historical destinations (North America and Europe). These development projects, while significant and very ambitious, do not even come close to the ones the region is about to embark on in order to host the Dubai Expo 2020 and the World Cup 2022 in Qatar. With such tremendous expected growth, one has to wonder about future challenges and opportunities in its labor markets that the region might be facing.

We first identify the current and future concerns for local governments, i.e., the development of the local human capital. With cheap and abundant foreign workers available, the incentives for local labor to invest in its own human capital are weak. In fact, the GCC countries at this point can afford to be very meticulous and choosy in terms of whom to bring into the region, because they face an almost horizontal supply of labor. The Gulf region can import labor from all non-GCC Arab neighboring countries that are suffering from political instabilities (Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon). In addition, other countries that are not struggling with instability are facing dire economic conditions. Difficult economic situations are being faced not only by neighboring Arab countries but also by South and East Asian countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal) and African countries Even Western countries have struggled with the latest economic and financial crisis (Spain, Greece, Portugal among others) giving the GCC countries a huge potential pool of skilled western workers, not just unskilled workers. In fact, one can estimate the size of the potential pool of foreign workers to exceed two billion people. Even though the GCC countries have an unlimited supply of labor at their disposal, local governments have invested heavily in human capital development through education, training and initiatives to employ local labor in the private sector. So far, these initiatives have not brought the needed results (Naufal, 2014). In certain sectors such as health, the need for increased participation from the local labor market is very high. Due to the nature of migration to the region, most foreigners are temporary workers and therefore turnover is high. This brings additional costs and has long term consequences on areas like business reputation and quality of service, to name a few.

Another concern comes in the form of demographic changes in the local community. The GCC countries are experiencing declining levels of fertility over two decades that Western countries achieved over centuries. Late marriages and increasing levels of female education have contributed to this drop in fertility (Al Awad and Chartouni, 2010). With the exception of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the GCC countries have a total population of fewer than 4 million. The local population is actually less than one million for each of the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain and is less than two million for each Oman and Kuwait.[18] Facing a growing economy with declining fertility levels and an already small local population means that the Gulf region will always be depending on a large population of foreign workers. Given that expectation, better data on migration are crucial to not only study the effects of mobility and remittances on local Gulf economies, but also to contribute to the international debate on the relationship between migration and development. A recent study by Seshan and Yang (2014) is a fine example of desperately needed empirical evidence from the region.

Another consequence of demographic trends in the GCC countries is the changing role of women in the labor market. More local females are entering labor markets in the region. The increasing labor force participation rate of females in the Gulf does not only have implications on the fertility rate, but also on other social aspects such as the marriage market. More local females are not only marrying at a later age, but are also marrying foreigners. This is contributing to a growing trend of local men choosing foreign women as wives. The GCC countries in the near future will face a growing generation of mixed locals, triggering a re-examination of national identity and belonging in the context of a population that is no longer as ethnically and culturally monolithic. In fact, the UAE government has not shied away from discouraging locals from marrying foreigners.[19]

While demographic concerns will bring serious challenges to the local populations in the region, other economic worries are also looming on the horizon. Most of the economic growth and improved standards of living are reflections of the large supply of natural resources that the Gulf region enjoys, specifically hydrocarbon resources. Gulf countries have always relied heavily on the oil sector and while they have spent significant efforts to diversify the local economy, the region is still far from oil independence. What could potentially bring more competition to the GCC countries is the emergence of shale oil in several countries, specifically large economies such as the US (Sultan, 2013). The implications of shale oil and shale gas extractions in the Gulf region are still not clear and may remain that way in the near future. However, the GCC countries have to take into consideration possible long term repercussions on their budgets and the ability to maintain support for the local population.


In a relatively short period of time the Gulf region has positioned itself as the third most important labor importing region in the world. By embarking on ambitious development projects and taking advantage of regional factors the GCC countries were able to provide a safe haven for millions of workers over the last four decades. Large natural reserves endowment, significant and continuous political instability in the region, and weak economic performance of neighboring economies all contributed to the status of the Gulf region as a labor destination hub. The movement of workers to the region was so large that it altered the demographic structure of the GCC countries. Foreigners constitute on average more than half of the population in the region and in some countries, they are more than 80 percent. The average male to female ratio is 3.7 across the Gulf and in some instances reaches as high as 5.6 (Oman).

This article examines three periods of this migration phenomenon. Firstly, we briefly summarize the history of labor migration to the region focusing on what made the Gulf a desirable destination for many. Secondly, we provide an update on the current situation of the labor force in the region focusing on Kuwait due to data availability. Finally, in the third part special attention is given to future opportunities and challenges that labor markets in the Gulf region are most likely to face.

What we find is that the region was an attractive migration destination for non-GCC Arabs for historical and cultural reasons until the early 1990s and they used to come with their families. However, the trend has changed thereafter. South Asians have become the most preferred source of foreign labor in the region, especially in the low-skilled labor market. The fall of communism has brought yet another wave of migration to the region from former communist countries (Eastern Bloc). While the source countries of labor differ over time, the reason for moving and the type of the move to the Gulf has not. People move to the region because of job opportunities and wage differential. The move is almost always temporary. The GCC countries do not offer an opportunity to permanently settle (citizenship).

This historical trend seems to have taken root in the region in terms of changing dynamics of the population and more importantly, in the labor force. Not only is the concentration of non-locals increasing in the region, but it is also changing demographic and life style tastes among the locals. Governments’ efforts to induce local labor force growth and participation have not yielded the desired outcome so far and face tremendous challenges in the future. On one hand, foreign workers are simply cheaper to hire. They are more readily available, more flexible (in terms of geographical location), and are more experienced than their local counterparts. That said, every private business owner would have clear preference towards foreign workers versus local labor. On the other hand, working in the private sector is not appealing to the local labor force. The intensive job requirements (working hours and often work related stress), and lack of job security relative to the public sector, coupled with generous welfare system have directed the interest of the local workforce towards the public sector. The key struggle of the GCC governments is to alter the incentives of both, i.e., private business owners and the local labor force.

The Gulf region offers a fantastic opportunity to study migration. On one hand it hosts large numbers of foreign workers and is growing economically, but on the other hand it is constrained by a small local population. These three factors lead to a potentially increasing demand for workers. In other terms, the opportunity is here to stay. Unfortunately, most of the current research is descriptive and therefore highly speculative and the need for policy oriented academic studies should remain a priority not only for local governments but for international organizations as well.


George Naufal is an Assistant Professor of Economics at The American University of Sharjah, and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA). He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Texas A&M University. His primary research includes migration and its consequences mainly the impact of remittances on the remitting countries. George’s research has focused mostly on the Middle East and North Africa region with an emphasis on the Gulf countries. He is the co-author of “Expats and the Labor Force: The Story of the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). He also has published several journal articles and book chapters. His work has been cited by regional and international media outlets including the National, Gulf News and the New York Times.


Ismail H. Genc is currently professor of economics, and the head of the Economics Department, at the American University of Sharjah, Sharjah, UAE. Prof Genc received his PhD in economics from the Texas A&M University in December 1999. He was in Economics and Statistics departments at the University of Idaho, USA, as associate professor with tenure. He also served as Vice-President of the Southwestern Economics Association (USA), and currently sits in various editorial boards, and provides testimony to policy/decision makers in industry and governmental bodies. His expertise is broadly in applied monetary economics, economic development, and remittances. His work appeared in a number of academic outlets such as journals and books, and has been recognized with grants and contracts as well as several awards/honors. Dr. Genc is fluent in English and Turkish.




Adams, R. “The Determinants of International Remittances in Developing Countries.” World Development 37, no. 1 (2009): 93 – 103.

Al Awad, M., and C. Chartouni. “Explaining the Decline in Fertility among Citizens of the GCC Countries: the Case of the UAE.” Institute for Social and Economic Research, working paper 1 (2010).

Al Sadafy, M. “Emiratis Advised to not Wed Foreign Women.” Emirates 24|7 News (January 20, 2012) accessed on March 3, 2014.

Bartel, A. “The Migration Decision: What Role Does Job Mobility Play?” American Economic Review 69, no. 5 (1979): 775 – 786.

Birks, J. and I. Seccombe. and C. Sinclair. “Labor Migration in the Arab Gulf States.” International Migration 26, no. 3 (1988): 267 – 286.

Choucri, N. “Asians in the Arab World: Labor Migration and Public Policy.” Middle Eastern Studies, 22(2) (1986): 252-273.

Clemens, M. “Seize the Spotlight: A Case for Gulf Cooperation Council Engagement in Research on the Effects of Labor Migration.”   (July 2013). Center for Global Development Essay.

de Haas, H. Remittances, Migration and Social Development: A Conceptual Review of Literature. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, (2007).

Fargues, P. “Arab Migration to Europe: Trends and Policies.” International Migration Review 38, no. 4 (2004): 1348 – 1371.

Genc, I. H., and A. Termos. “Is There a Catch-Up Effect in the Gulf?” The Middle Eastern Finance and Economics no. 15 (2011): 197-207.

Genc, I. H. and G. Naufal Women Migrants, Remittances and Their Impact in the GCC Region: Towards a More Supportive Social and Policy Environment, The White Paper presented to Tamra for Western Union (WU), (February 19, 2013), Sharjah, UAE,

Harris, J. and M. Todaro. “Migration, Unemployment, and Development: A Two-Sector Analysis.” American Economic Review 60, no. 1 (1970): 126 – 142.

Kapiszewski, A. National and Expatriates: Population and Labour Dilemmas of the GCC States Reading: Ithaca Press, (2001).

Kapiszewski, A. “Arab Labour Migration to the GCC States,”Arab Migration in a Globalized World,(2004), Conference organized by International Organization for Migration in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2003.

Khalaf, S. and S. AlKobaisi. “Migrants’ Strategies of Coping and Patterns of Accomodation in the Oil-Rich Gulf Societies: Evidence from the UAE.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 26, no. 2 (1999): 271 – 298.

McMurray, D. “Recent Trends in Middle Eastern Migration.” Middle East Report, No. 211, Trafficking and Transiting: New Perspectives on Labor Migration, (Summer) (1999): 16-19.

Naufal, G. and A. Termos. “The Responsiveness of Remittances to Price of Oil: The Case of the GCC.” OPEC Energy Review 33, no. 3/4 (2009): 184 – 197.

Naufal, G. and C. Vargas-Silva. “Remitters in Dubai.” Swiss Journal of Economics and Statistics 146, no. 4 (2010): 769 – 780.

Naufal, G. “Labor Migration and Remittances in the GCC.” Labor History 52, no. 3 (2011): 307 – 322.

Naufal, G. and I. Genc, Expats and the Labor Force: The Story of the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, (2012), New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Naufal, G. and I. H. Genc (2013) “Structural Change in MENA Remittance Flows,” (July), IZA Discussion Paper Series, IZA DP No. 7485. Also Naufal, G. and I. H. Genc “Structural Change in MENA Remittance Flows,” NEP-ARA Blog: Discussion About the Latest Research in the Economics of the MENA – Middle East and North Africa, posted on August 5, 2013. The blog is hosted by the Editorial Board at NEP-ARA. Paul Makdissi (Editor), University of Ottawa. Available at

Naufal, G.(2014) “The Economics of Migration in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries” forthcoming in Regional Studies: Persian Gulf in the Handbook of the Economics of International Immigration edited by Barry R. Chiswick and Paul W. Miller, Elsevier B.V.

Posel, D. A Review of Current Literature and Recent Research on Migration in Southern Africa. University of Witwatersand, Johannesburg: WISER – Agincourt Programme of Migration Research, (2002).

Richards, A. and J. Waterbury. A Political Economy of the Middle East. Westview Press, 2008.

Russell, S. “International Migration and Political Turmoil in the Middle East.” Population and Development Review 18, no. 4 (1992): 719 – 727.

Russell, S. “Politics and Ideology in Migration: Policy Formulation: The Case of Kuwait.” International Migration Review 23, no. 1 (1989): 24 – 47.

Seshan, G, and D. Yang. “Motivating Migrants: A Field Experiment on Financial Decision-Making in Transnational Households.” Journal of Development Economics 108, (2014): 119 – 127.

Shah, N. “Gender and Labour Migration to the Gulf Countries.” Feminist Review 77 (2004): 183 – 185.

Shah, N. M. “Irregular Migration and Some Negative Consequences for Development: Asia-GCC Context.” Discussion Paper prepared for the Civil Society Days of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, Manila, (October) (2008):

Shaham, D. “Foreign Labor in the Arab Gulf: Challenges to Nationalization.” Al Nakhlah: The Fletcher School Online Journal for Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization, (Fall) (2008).

Sherif, I. “Think Before Marrying a Foreigner: Study” GulfNews (June 29, 2012) accessed on March 3, 2014.

Stark, O. “Migration Decision Making: A Review Article.” Journal of Development Economics 14, no. 1 (1984): 251 – 259.

Sultan, N. “The Challenge of Shale to the Post-Oil Dreams of the Arab Gulf.” Energy Policy 60 (2013): 13-20.

Todaro, M. “A Model of Labor Migration and Urban Unemployment in Less Developed Countries.” American Economic Review 59, no. 1 (1969): 138 – 148.

[1] Department of Economics, School of Business and Management, American University of Sharjah

P.O. Box 26666, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates: Email:

[2] Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA)

[3] Department of Economics, School of Business and Management, American University of Sharjah

P.O. Box 26666, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates: Email:

[4] For a macroeconomic analysis of the GDP of the GCC countries altogether, see Genc and Termos (2011).

[5] For legal reasons, foreign laborers are called expatriates in the GCC as they are not allowed to immigrate to the countries they work. They are there at the status of “guest workers” for which reasons a better term is “expatriates” to convey the transitory nature of the work environment. Nevertheless, we will use all these concepts for academic purposes only as they are understood in the literature.

[6] The GCC crude oil production as a share of the world’s production in 2010 is 21 percent (Naufal and Genc, 2012).

[7] For a review of the literature on migration, including to the Gulf, over several decades refer to Todaro (1969), Harris and Todaro (1970), Bartel (1979), Stark (1984), Birks, Seccombe and Sinclair (1988), Russell (1989), Khalaf and AlKobaisi (1999), Posel (2002), Fargues (2004), de Haas (2007), Richards and Waterbury (2008), Adams (2009), Naufal and Termos (2009) and Naufal and Vargas-Silva (2010).

[8] See Naufal and Genc (2012) and references therein for a detailed discussion on the issue.

[9] Genc and Naufal (2013).

[10] Further, these countries are at the heart of the migration and development research agenda that Clemens (2013) passionately called the GCC countries to consider.

[11] This could be thought as the typical case of a monopoly.

[12] This should not, however, give the wrong impression that everybody duly obeys the law. See, inter alia, Kapiszewski (2001), Shah (2008), and Shaham (2008).

[13] McMurray (1999) believes that the fall of communism and the rise of Chinese entrepreneurship have significantly contributed to the so-called “womanization of the workforce” in the GCC countries. Naufal and Genc (2012) observe that the policies put in place by local governments encouraging female labor force participation in part to reduce dependence on foreign labor is a strong factor in the womanization process.

[14] Some of these initiatives include Open data platform in Bahrain, government online in Kuwait, Omanuna initiative in Oman, Qatar census in Qatar, Saudi in KSA and the National Bureau of Statistics in the UAE.

[15] The GLMM website can be seen at, at this moment it only includes data on Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and some aggregate statistics on the region.

[16] The data for Bahrain and the UAE reflect 2010 statistics, Kuwait and Qatar reflect 2012 and Oman and Saudi Arabia’s numbers are for 2013.

[17] For a more thorough analysis of the latest available data on the Gulf region refer to Naufal (2014).

[18] Authors’ calculations using GLMM database.

[19] See Al Sadafy (2012) and Sherif (2012).

28 May 2014

Policy Update 3/2014

Can the Pope Revive Palestinian-Israeli Diplomacy?

By Joshua Rickard and Michael C. Hudson

 Policy Update May 3-2014

Key points

  • Pope offers symbolic gesture to Palestinians
  • Pope reaffirms his commitment to to peace process
  • Palestinian Christians living inside Israel have faced a dramatic increase in violent attacks by right-wing extremists
  • Within Israel reaction to the Pope’s visit was mostly negative


It would take a miracle, say hardened Middle East observers, if the hundred year conflict over Palestine could finally be solved. Ever since it was carved out of the former Ottoman empire in World War I, the problem has eluded the best efforts of politicians and diplomats and instead spawned seven wars, two intifadas, thousands of casualties, and countless violent incidents. Dozens of diplomatic initiatives, including the ill-named “peace process” have failed.

When it comes to miracles in the Holy Land, can Pope Francis accomplish one? His landmark visit to Jordan, Palestine and Israel this past week certainly has raised hopes that the “soft power” of religion might succeed, if not in solving the issue but at least restarting efforts to bring about a reasonably just two-state solution.

Pope Francis, who has become known for being outspoken on issues of human rights and social justice, has recently concluded a politically heated three-day tour of the Holy Land. The Pope’s recent visit has come at a time not only of faltering peace talks but also during the formation of a long awaited Palestinian unity government, which may address some divisions in the political rift between the Hamas and Fatah factions. In response, Israel has threatened to effectively wage economic war on Palestinian banks and imposing more severe restrictions.

In what may become a defining moment in Pope Francis’s reign, and a powerful symbolic message, he made an unscheduled stop outside of Bethlehem at the separation wall where he placed his forehead in prayer against graffiti reading “Free Palestine” at a location that divides Palestinians from Jerusalem. The wall, which runs through the West Bank is called a security fence by Israel but is called the apartheid wall by many Palestinians and considered an attempt to confiscate land. The decision to enter the West Bank to visit Bethlehem via Jordan as opposed to Israel is also interpreted by Palestinian leaders as a show of his support for a Palestinian state. The Pope also met with Palestinian leaders including Mahmoud Abbas as well as with youth from a Palestinian refugee camp. In response to the Pope’s prayer at the wall, Israel’s PM Netanyahu requested that the Pope makes an unscheduled visit to a memorial for Israeli terror victims located on Mt. Herzl. According to a press release by Netanyahu, he had apparently explained to the pontiff the importance of the wall in diverting terror attacks, in an apparent expression of disappointment at the Pope’s decision to pray at the separation wall.

During a speech at Ben-Gurion Airport addressed to PM Netanyahu the Pope implored that leaders secure a lasting peace in Jerusalem and called the current situation unacceptable. Meeting with Israeli president Peres, he reiterated his support for a two state solution at a time when such an arrangement has not seemed farther away. He also extended an invitation to both Peres and Abbas to join him at the Vatican for a unity prayer session, which both parties agreed to attend next month. In another attempt to build bridges the Pope met with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew for a unity service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as signing a pledge to work together in solidarity. This is significant as Orthodox and Catholics make up the majority Christian populations in the Levant, yet they have been divided since the Great Schism in 1054 separated Rome and Constantinople.

Prior to the Pope’s visit, he has on repeated occasions expressed concern for dwindling Christian communities in the region, particularly those of Nazareth and the Galilee. The population of Christian Palestinians living in both Israel and the West Bank and Gaza is significant but has been steadily declining. This has been a trend across the region for different reasons in various areas. In Syria and Iraq the communities had enjoyed protection under the previous regimes but have in recent years come under threat. In Palestinian communities Christians are well integrated and often successful in local businesses, despite this fact they still face the same restrictions on movement and discriminatory policies of military occupation as their Muslim counterparts. Christian Palestinian families have also tended to be a more affluent segment of the society with more connections in western nations, and therefore had more options to resettle elsewhere.

Since the most recently stalled peace talks began there has been a sharp rise in ‘price tag’ attacks against Palestinians by Israeli nationalist and specifically an increase in attacks against Christian holy sites in Israel. Palestinian Christians living inside Israel have faced a dramatic increase in violent attacks by right-wing extremists in recent months. Israel’s Christian population has also been under threat from politicians who have in some areas restricted access to holy sites and others who have advocated the removal of the population from Israel.Threat of attacks from Jewish extremists prompted the Israeli government to dispatch 8,000 police officers for security during his visit to Jerusalem. During the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem more than 150 right-wing extremist violently protested his presence clashing with police and barricading themselves inside King David’s Tomb complex.

Within Israel reaction to the Pope’s visit was mostly negative. One immediate result was an Israeli decision to build 50 new settler houses in Har Homa settlement adjacent to Bethlehem, where the Pope had stopped at the “separation wall” to acknowledge Palestinian suffering. An article in the Jerusalem Post of May 27 entitled “Pope Francis’s Unfriendly Visit” concluded that “Israelis and Jews around the world need to be aware of what is happening. Francis is leading the Catholic Church in a distressingly anti-Jewish direction.” Palestinians, however, were elated: despite the Pope’s visit to the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, and his other pro-Israel gestures, they saw the Pope’s words and body language as expressing empathy for their cause. Clearly, neither side saw Pope Francis as a neutral figure; for Israelis he would not be a trusted mediator.

One potentially bright spot is that both the Palestinian and Israeli presidents have accepted Pope Francis’s invitation to come to the Vatican, but more than a prayer session will be necessary if a miracle is to occur. On balance, it appears that the Pope made more progress in promoting unity between the Latin and Orthodox Christian communities than between Palestinians and Israelis.


27 May 2014
Singapore Middle East Papers THE YOUNG FILIPINO MIGRANTS WORKING IN SALES IN DUBAI: DOES CULTURAL CAPITAL HELP?by Neslihan Demirtas-MilzSMEP 9-1 Demirtas-MilzSince the 1970s, rapid economic development in the oil-producing countries of the Gulf—due to the utilization of huge export earnings from petroleum products that were transferred into infrastructure and city development—has led to a sudden and great demand for labor—mainly in the construction and service sectors. In the first phase of this neoliberal development, manifested by urbanization (Pacione, 2005), migrant workers from other Arab countries, such as Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Palestine, were employed in these growing economies. Since the beginning, particularly in the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar, migrant workers have comprised more than half of the total population (Halliday, 1984: 6).From the late 1980s onwards, the ratio of Arab to Asian guest workers decreased sharply. As Pearson (2009: 21) argues, referring to Weiner (1982: 12), this can be related to the close cultural ties and assumed kinship obligations between local and foreign Arabs, which began to affect the political stability of the Gulf States. By the 1990s, the total number of workers from Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines accounted for 85 percent of the total immigrant workforce (Zachariah et al, 2004, 2229). Another reason for the change in migratory trends and migration policy was the completion of major infrastructural projects and the economic recession, which reduced demand for unskilled and semi-skilled laborers during this period. The current employment structure is characterized by the large presence of employees in tertiary activities, such as trade, restaurants and hotels, transport, communications, finance, real estate, personal services and government services (Zachariah et al, 2004, 2228). The UAE also reflects this generalmigratory trend, with the increasing importance of the tourism, real estate and service sectors in its economy, leading cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi to be classified as global sites. According to Benton-Short et al. (2005: 952), Dubai ranks first among similar cities in terms of the rate of remittances and percentage of the immigrant population. There has been increasing heterogeneity among guest workers along educational, socio-economic and ethnic lines. However, with their high cultural capital (hereto forth defined as college/university education and competency in English), young, educated immigrants from the Philippines, who constitute the subject matter of this article, seem to be the most needed migrant group in sales and other service-related jobs.[1]There is a growing literature on migrant lives in Dubai, particularly regarding the sharp class distinctions and radical differences in lifestyles of expatriates from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. Considering UAE migration policy, socio-economic inequalities and spatial restrictions, the literature refers to certain broad and essential categories in classifying migrants in Dubai (see Davis, 2006; Malecki and Ewers, 2007; Masad, 2008; Syed Ali, 2012). According to this general classification, the first expatriate group is constituted by professional Western, Arab and Asian migrants, who are highly paid and well integrated into the consumer space of the city. However, like all other expatriates, they are excluded from any possibility of gaining permanent citizen status in the UAE. The second group is composed of skilled or semi-skilled workers, who are mostly represented in technical, service-related and sales jobs. They are young, generally well educated and work in a luxurious consumer environment. Young Filipino migrants in Dubai are most represented in this category, which is also the least studied in the literature. The third group comprises unskilled workers, including construction workers from countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and domestic workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and many other countries. Considering their severe socio-economic suffering and socio-spatial isolation, this third group is often discussed in the literature on the UAE and its migration policies. Members of this migrant category are clearly isolated from the city space, as domestic workers are generally restricted to their domestic space while construction workers reside in labor camps.[2] The literature on the UAE and/or Dubai deal with the conditions of these unskilled workers (see Davis, 2006; Malecki and Ewers, 2007; Masad, 2008; Pearson, 2009; Syed Ali, 2012) from a very general perspective while, due to restrictions imposed on researchers, in-depth studies of construction and domestic workers are almost non-existent.There is also an almost complete lack of in-depth research on the second migrant group, in which Filipino migrants are densely represented. Members of this group are generally well-educated (mostly college graduates), and come into daily contact with the city’s inhabitants who come from various countries and socio-economic backgrounds through the course of their work in the city’s most luxurious spaces, as mentioned above. “Does this physical ‘being there’ and sociability lead to sound integration into the city life for these migrants?” was the main question in my mind that initiated the research process. Preliminary talks with the migrants gave rise to various other questions: How do they perceive living in Dubai? Do they feel integrated socio-spatially? What kind of problems do they experience? How do they relate to their home country? Young Filipino sales workers in Dubai’s up-market shopping malls (Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and Mirdiff City Center) therefore constitute the subject matter of this study. A period of pilot research also showed that Filipino migrants working in sales cannot be taken as a homogenous category, being rather crosscut by differences in cultural and social capital. My research therefore developed along three lines of questioning:*the general socio-economic conditions of these young migrants*the way these young people connect and relate themselves to the city space* to what extent lead intra-communal differences (in terms of family background, socio-economic conditions, marital status, age, as some parameters that cross-cut common aspects of their cultural capital) to divergence in their perceptions of Dubai, and their place and life in the city. [3]Thirty in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with young Filipino migrants between the ages of 20 and 30. The length of the interviews ranged from 45 to 90 minutes. The interviews generally took place in their work places, so less busy working hours were selected for interviewing. In order to protect the identity of project participants, I use pseudonyms in place of their names in this article. To investigate the first research question, I ascertained the informants’ migration history, working conditions, consumption style and socio-economic linkages with their home countries. For the second research question, I asked about their spaces of consumption, their residential space, and their perceptions and knowledge of the city. While I suspected that working and residing in the midst of Dubai’s most affluent areas might cause feelings of alienation in these young people, it might also lead to possibilities of better integration into the city spaces. Through the interviews I also sought to determine intra-communal differences and investigate how these differences affect informants’ responses.Common Challenges Filipinos Working in Sales Face in the WorkplaceFilipino workers in the UAE (aside from domestic workers) share various common aspirations and life styles despite their intra-communal differences. In her analysis of the “kababayan street community”,[4]Hosoda (2013: 26) finds commonalities such as “most Filipinos live in bed spaces, either alone or with several family members, relatives, or close friends, and they try to make the most of their luck in having entered the UAE by learning how best to survive in the new and changing environment, constantly searching for better-paid jobs, taking part-time jobs, and minimizing living costs”. This observation is also reflected in the shared aspirations and lifestyles of my respondents in Dubai. Despite the fact that Filipino migrants working in sales constitute the upper tier of “ordinary workers”[5]in terms of their university/college education accompanied by language and communication skills, they all experience common challenges and use similar strategies to endure hardships in Dubai. One of the most important common challenges facing my respondents is to work in jobs which do not reflect their education level and skills.Accepting a job that is considerably inferior to one’s education level is defined by Kahalaf and Alkobaisi (1999: 291) in their studies on migrants in UAE as a strategy of “downgrading in types of jobs”. As they point out, “such jobs are often not in harmony with [the workers’] professional perception of themselves and their original career plans”, but they need to continue with these jobs in order to find themselves a place in the host country (Khalaf and Alkobaisi, 1999: 291). At first glance this seems likely to be true for young Filipino migrants. However, after listening to their stories of migration, the motivations behind it and the lack of suitable jobs available in the Philippines that are in accordance with their education levels, it becomes evident that downgrading starts not in Dubai, but in the Philippines. That is, the jobs that are on offer in the Philippines are largely either in sales or supervising in sales, which are similar to the type of jobs offered to these workers in the UAE. The following comment by my respondent Ariel is typical in this respect:A: I finished the Management I am not sure if you are familiar with… in the university… But I finished the college, Management College…M: So like call center job what other kinds of job you can find in Philippines with such a degree?A: Mostly office work, I am not quite sure what the other type of work, mostly it would be like under… Most of my bachelors were like managers in fast food chains like KFC… What else, some were, some joined the banking industry. Others… Not quite sure of the others… But a lot of them also entered the call center business, but I am not sure what their levels are now.In that sense, the recognition or the non-recognition of migrants’ cultural capital at home or in the host country is a crucial factor in determining the opportunities of the migrants on a global scale. Erel (2010) discusses the role of “cultural capital” in international migrants’ lives, both in their home and host countries. He criticizes the way the concept “cultural capital” is used in migration studies in their neglect of intra-communal differences within migrant communities and differing abilities of individual migrants to strategically convert and use their capital in diverse ways. It also emerged as an important factor in my research that some migrants, due to certain differences in their family background, marital status, gender and class status, occupy different power-positions, which affects their ability to make use of their cultural capital strategically or in a more flexible way. From the narratives of my respondents, it is possible to claim that their institutional cultural capital (namely, their university education) is validated neither internationally nor nationally.Despite this international and national non-recognition, some migrants who feel fewer obligations to their families are able to exercise more flexibility in changing jobs, either in Dubai, at home in the Philippines or anywhere else in the world. As such, they are more upwardly mobile. A living example of a vulnerable migrant position is Hazel, who suffers from ill-treatment at the hands of her bosses and in her inability to take any days off. She came to Dubai because her options in the Philippines were also restricted, and she earns more here than back home. However, the needy situation of her family leaves her without options in Dubai. Despite being ill treated, she does not have any plans to change jobs or look for other options because she is not in a position to take the risk that may emerge by changing jobs.H: I graduated computer science.

M: If you want to stay in Philippines and you want to find a job there, what kind of job can you find?

H: In computer related also mam because my work before was in outsourcing. In computer related.

M: So you work before?

H: Yeaa I worked before in Philippines. Outsourcing company.

M: Why do you choose to come here?

H: Becauseee, aaaa, my family also wanted me to work abroad. More high salary, nice salary. Because in Philippines right now, not good salary not enough for the everyday expenses, my brothers going also to the college so not enough… Therefore I’d like to come to Dubai also.

There are many reasons for the non-recognition of the institutional cultural capital of my respondents: structural factors, such as the UAE’s migration regime, the Philippine’s emigration policy, ethnic labor divisions in the UAE, stereotyping of Filipino identity, and private factors, such as education, family background, gender and social class.

With particular regards to the issue of a mismatch between their jobs in Dubai and their educational levels, the respondents often point to Dubai’s ethnic division of labor and the injustices that arise as a result. They frequently mentioned that their qualities were not assessed objectively by their bosses due to the ethnic division of labor in Dubai. Simone Christ (2012: 683) made a similar comment when referring to Filipinos working in Dubai. According to him, though Filipinos get higher salaries than other nationalities like Sri Lankans (because Filipinos are associated with certain favorable characteristics like “sociable manners” and fluency in English) they receive a lower salary than their Arab colleagues for the same work, even in cases where an Arab colleague has less formal education. Despite the fact that Filipinos benefit from the ethnic hierarchy within the low-wage sector to some extent, their formal college education is of no benefit to them, which is often a source of frustration when compared with their Arab colleagues (Christ, 2012: 683). Most of my respondents noted how their Arab colleagues were always better paid despite having lower educational qualifications and poorer spoken and written English. The following is a typical expression of this frustration as voiced by Gina:

This is always my problem here. And secondly when you are Filipino, you will be lower. In fact you are doing more job than them. Like in an office, he is receiving higher than yours [referring to the salaries]. Triple than your salary. But they cannot even type English and they will be adding more works on you [referring to Arab colleagues]. Plus you have boss, right? Your boss will already give you task. Thus this one because he cannot handle his job, he will add more works to you. You cannot say no. Because he is acting also like a boss and you cannot do anything. So I don’t know/understand why it is like this here.

Particularly in the UAE, where ethnic identities are a critical factor in state migration policies, the images associated with different ethnicities clearly define hierarchies in the job market (see also Christ, 2012: 683). In this hierarchy, Arab workers in sales are generally treated better and they are generally in supervisory conditions. In cases where Filipinos have Filipino colleagues in the work place, this hierarchy does not constitute an immediate concern.

“Friendly, Easy-going and Caring”: the Stereotypes Associated with Filipinos

The ethnic division of labor in Dubai, or in the global labor market more generally, cannot be considered separate from the immigration policies and strategies of countries whose export of migrants forms a major part of their economic revenue. The stereotypical images associated with Filipino migrants that make them desirable in the service sector mostly relate to and are strengthened by the migration policy of the sending country and the demands of the global labor market. As Erel (2010) and Christ (2012) note, the images of Asian migrants as “friendly”, “easy going”, “caring”, and “helpful” not only create certain opportunities but also restrict these migrants’ options. Referring to the case of Filipinos in Canada, Erel (2010: 649) found that, due to these simultaneously enabling and limiting identifications, Filipinos are mainly employed in health and childcare.[6] In his study on the internet sites of migration agencies, Tyner (2009) detected overtly racist claims, particularly with regards to the “marketing” act of domestic workers (2009: 130 Agencies present migrant workers as commodities, offering “worker-replacement” guarantees if the performance of the work in question is perceived to be unsatisfactory, while some recruitment agencies offer guarantees and replacement deals. Many prospective domestic workers for example, are described as “willing to do all” and “pleasant” (Tyner, 2009: 124). As Christ (2012: 683) notes, workers from Asia are, in general, described as having particular characteristics, such as efficiency, obedience and being easier to control. “In the case of Filipinos, these essentialized perceptions of culture and ethnicity determine the job opportunities of Filipino migrants. In this way, recruitment firms participate not only in the global distribution of material “products” (i.e. migrant workers) but also in the production and circulation of particular “images” or “representations” (Tyner, 2009: 128).

Though these explicitly racist claims are mostly related to the global marketing of domestic workers, as gathered from the narratives of my respondents (positioned on the upper rank of the low-wage sector), these “pleasant” attitudes, which are mostly considered as part of their culture, are not only a befitting description of their relationships with the customers, but also in their relationships with their bosses and colleagues of other ethnicities. In encountering Filipino migrants during my in-depth interviews, most of these young people reflect attitudes very much in accordance with the “pleasant” stereotypical images associated with them. This makes it very difficult as a researcher to determine to what extent these common attitudes reflect actual cultural qualities of Filipino migrants rather than a desired image that they strive to present, particularly in the workplace. Despite this concern, it is possible to argue that there was a general state of “optimism” among most of my Filipino respondents despite the very difficult conditions that some were facing in Dubai, such as crowded housing, long working hours and family obligations. This attitude can be best described as a general acceptance of faith and life as it is. In their narratives, they avoided harbouring a sense of hopelessness. Instead, their remarks were filled with optimism, positive expectations and possibilities about the future.

Tyner (2009:143-44), in his analysis of Filipino online networks, refers to this state of existence by means of a Filipino word: mabuhay, that is often used as a greeting. This word is translated as “May you have life”, and is assumed to be the equivalent to the English word “greetings”. However, within the Philippine culture, mabuhay evokes more than a simple greetingit captures the concept of being alive, and of a collective enjoyment (Tyner, 2009: 143-44). This is not a place-bound enjoyment of life but something more universal, an attitude that I observed in many cases throughout the period of research. Despite the common challenges that they face in Dubai, for most Filipinos. Dubai can be considered as an opportunity in many respects, providing inter-ethnic possibilities for communication and networking, better consumption possibilities, while simultaneously offering a more restricted migrant life that “disciplines” them and helps them to save. They mostly consider Dubai a place to “work only” and “save money”. The following comments by Ariel, who comes from a relatively privileged family background and mentioned that he had grown up quite spoiled, is quite representative in pointing out how some migrants take living in Dubai as a disciplining experience:

That is my main purpose, if I am not going to be saving any money I might as well return to my old job in the Philippines. I am saving. It is a little difficult. I mean, to be quite honest as well, my salary here compared to what I am receiving back in the Philippines is almost the same. Like converted dirhams to peso, Filipino money. But life style, it is different, it is different. I get to save a lot of money here, may be you are thinking the reason of your staying out of the Philippines is to save money. Here you really worked for it, I don’t even have a nanny to cook food for me so I take care of everything by myself. It is really different back in the Philippines. I had time to relax bought a lot of stuff just to satisfy my wants [he is referring to his life in Philippines]. Here it is gonna be all budgeted. So first thing would be house, bed space, I cannot afford a house. It is only a bed space.

It is very important to consider how intra-communal differences regarding cultural capital define the diverse ways this “light” feeling mentioned above is experienced and expressed or how this general “optimism” helps to overcome the frustrations in Dubai mainly with reference to the narratives of the migrants who have relatively less financial and social assets. Depending on the degree of obligations that the workers carry, this “optimistic” approach and how it has been utilized may vary from one case to another. For example, one of my respondents, Edwin, a young man who is 28 and has been working in Dubai for four years, refers to Dubai as being a pleasant experience. His parents work in the Philippines as senior public servants, meaning he does not need to send money back home every month. This puts him in a relatively comfortable position when compared to other migrants. He perceives his life in Dubai as mainly an opportunity to meet new people and develop networks. His optimism about his life in Dubai is expressed as follows:

M: So how do you define to be a Filipino in Dubai?

E: I think happy-go-lucky. For me I am a person who wishes, go with the flow. I am a kind of person that goes with the flow. Something like that, so generally people in Dubai, Filipino in Dubai, I think they are happy. They are happy working here.

Analyn’s optimism, on the other hand, helps her to stay strong against the challenges in her life. She came to Dubai mainly to escape her unhappy marriage and she carries a heavy financial burden and responsibility towards her family and children back in the Philippines. Even for such vulnerable migrant Filipino communities, Dubai is simultaneously considered to be a place to be free, to earn money and to consume more luxurious and varied items more cheaply as compared to the Philippines:

M: What do you think about this city?

A: For me Dubai is like, what you call this one? We have a dessert special sweet in Philippines, we call this Halo-Halo, with a lot of ingredients, Dubai here you can find everything, everything and anything in any way, and you can do that.

M: So this is how you are feeling about Dubai? I mean, like this sweet that you can find everything, as you can do whatever you want?

A: Yaa [with a kind of hesitancy]. Because it is like, because it is always, like it is a lot of choice, if that thing will be sweet for you if you take it sweet; it will be bitter if you take it bitter.

The last sentence of her comment: “that thing will be sweet for you if you take it sweet; it will be bitter if you take it bitter” represents the typical approach of most of my respondents, particularly those with a lot of restrictions and obligations in Dubai. In close connection with their general optimism, they have a quite open vision regarding the global possibilities of life and career. Almost all of my respondents referred to their recent position as a stepping-stone to other opportunities and to a more comfortable life in another country, preferably Canada, the USA or Europe rather than the Philippines. This approach of migrants can be linked to key structural factors like the migration industry and the migrant culture that the Filipino state has been producing and reproducing in years. As Juan Jr. (2000: 229), in his analysis of the peculiarities of the Filipino diaspora vividly points out, Filipino identification is not with a fully-defined nation but with regions, localities and communities of languages and traditions because the homeland was long colonized by Western powers (Spain and the United States) and has remained neo-colonized despite formal or nominal independence. Therefore, rather than a national (state-related) sense of belonging, regional ties (family or kinship webs in villages, towns or provincial regions) and cultural identifications, a shared history of colonial and racial subordination and alienation in the host country based on “Filipino identity” seems to form the basis of Filipino transnationalism (Juan Jr., 2000: 236). This has one important implication for the research that I conducted: though intra-communal socio-economic differences seem to play an important role in Filipino migrants’ diverse experiences with their socio-spatial identification with Dubai, in general they share a transnational identification that does not seem to be specifically place-bound but is instead, more flexible. In other words, despite the hardships in Dubai their decision to live either in a host or their home country is based on an overriding desire to lead a “good” life.

The definition of what it means to live a good life is not only bound to material conditions but is also tied to the ability to be socially and physically mobile in a global context through Filipino networks worldwide. It was possible to sense this unbounded mental and practical attitude in my individual interviews regarding the ability to be “happy” anywhere in the world, as well as frequent references to home, its beauty and social comforts. These references, however, do not necessarily carry nationalistic and place-bound connotations. Instead, they refer to family, natural beauty in the hometown and a freer daily life at home than in Dubai. According to Juan Jr. (2000: 236), once Filipinos feel secure materially they may desire to return home; otherwise, they move their parents and other relatives to their place of employment in countries where family reunification is allowed, like the US, Italy or Canada. The UAE’s migration policy also creates the “transient” nature of the city space and the feeling of being temporary in the nature of the migrants’ relationship to the host country (Elsheshtawy, 2008). Most of the respondents answered the question: “if you are given citizenship in UAE, would you consider to stay permanently or longer?” in the affirmative, despite the UAE government having recently labeled its large expatriate population as ‘temporary workers’ as opposed to immigrant workers, and having made it impossible for expatriates of any kind to obtain citizenship, irrespective of the number of years spent in the country (Elsheshtawy, 2008: 971). So it is clear in most of my respondents’ narratives that if there is a chance to get a permanent status in UAE and therefore to be “upwardly mobile” this seems to fulfill their desire for a “good life”.

Utang na Loob[7]: Remittances

As discussed above, my respondents’ narratives suggested a quite detached, more cosmopolitan migrant position, though at the same time, they often referred to strong kinship bonds and commitments. Without exception, every interviewee reported sending money regularly to their families (particularly to their parents to cover the education costs of their brothers and sisters). They considered this a normal and legitimate duty. However, what makes the Filipino migrants’ remittance system quite unique is that their responsibilities are not only restricted to their immediate family but are also extended to wider kin, with many of my respondents sending money to support the education of their nephews or more distant relatives. These remittances represent quite a high proportion of their income, with the percentage ranging between 40 and 50 percent of their monthly salary. However, if the migrants have their own children and partners back in Philippines, this percentage can go even higher. As gathered from my respondents’ narratives, sending back money to the Philippines is predominantly an emotionally fulfilling experience that expresses gratitude to their families. Aside from the emotional argument,, sending money back home is also a policy-related obligation, especially given its role as one of the major drivers of the local economy. [8]Under the Republic Act no. 8042, known as the “Magna Carta” for migrants, the Filipino state seems to guarantee the rights of Filipinos working overseas, but this limited context of “secured rights” comes with obligations (Rodriguez, 2002: 347-48). The Code of Discipline for Overseas Filipino Workers, which defines a Filipino overseas contract workers’ duties to family, employer, host state and the Philippine government, states that a Filipino contract worker is:

To abide by the terms and conditions of his employment contract, to behave in the best manner and tradition of a Filipino and to observe and respect the laws, customs, mores, traditions and practices of the country where he is working. It shall also be his obligation to abide with the requirements on remittance of earnings as well as to provide material help to his family during the period of his overseas employment.

(POEA, 1996, Overseas Filipino Workers Handbook, Mandaluyong City, Philippines, Philippines Overseas Employment Administration, quoted in Rodriguez, 2002: 348-49).

In this regard, the migrants I interviewed remit a considerable part of their salaries to their families. Familial assistance patterns within Philippines are characteristically described as reciprocal and thus carry a sense of obligation or “utang na loob”, translated as a “debt of prime obligation” (Tyner, 2009: 154). This has a direct impact on their monetary freedom and the nature of these obligations is one of the major determinants that leads to intra-communal differences. In other words, migrants can be categorized according to the degree of their obligations to their families back in the Philippines. First of all, there are married migrants with spouses and children back in the Philippines who generally remit 60 to 70 percent of their incomes because their spouses in the Philippines either earn very low salaries or have no permanent jobs. One remarkable example of this is a young man in his late 20’s who works as a salesman in a shoe store and whose wife and children are living together with his parents in the same house in the Philippines. Alvin reported suffering from very restricted financial conditions in Dubai:

M: So can you save some money?

A: Very little money, because my little brother is studying there and I sent him money and it is little bit expensive [referring to school], so all my money I am spending for education…

M: How much of your money you are sending to Philippines? A: Like I said, all mam…

His female colleague: He is a good father and good husband. Every time he is chatting with his kids.

A: Actually I have only now 50 dirham [taking the money out of his pocket and showing to me], I’ll spend it for how many days? [It was the beginning of the month and he had still 20 days to survive on this money] Two boys mam, 10 years old and 5 years old.

M: You should be missing them a lot.

A: Too much. Every time I am calling them. Because when I left, my five-years-old son, still around two, so they don’t know me, only on Internet. Before, he is calling me, aaa in Philippines you will call your elder brother, Kuya. So he is calling me Kuya not father, papa. So from the time we are chatting, every day I am telling so, he is used to cease elder brother. Now he is saying only Papa.

The second category of migrants under varying degrees of obligations are single migrants from low-income family backgrounds who are obliged to send 40 to 50 percent of their salary to their parents, mostly for the survival needs of the family and educational needs of their siblings. A good example of this condition is a single migrant in her mid-20’s who works in sales seven days a week, nine hours a day. During the interview, Hazel talked about how her boss treated her: sometimes calling her “stupid” or promising off-days but never fulfilling them. Discussing this made her break down in tears. While talking about her hopelessness, she kept saying: “I need to send money to my parents”. Even though she was unhappy with her current job, she explained that she was not in a position to risk her job by trying to change to another one right now.

M: So can I ask you how much you are earning?

H: 2000 only.

M: You are working everyday?

H: Yes mam. Very difficult mam even the salary, if I want something, I can’t buy because I need to send also to my family.

M: How much of your salary you are sending to Philippines?

H: Aaaa, 750. At the end of the month I need to borrow from my friend. For my food.

A third category of migrants with regards to remittance obligations are the single migrants from relatively well-to-do families. Mary-Ann is one of these relatively comfortable migrants. She mentioned her desire to change jobs in the future if she can find a better position. Generally, if such single migrants do not have heavy obligations to family than they think of their recent jobs as stepping-stones and embrace opportunities for physical and social mobility:

M: You are feeling more happy here?

M.A.: I think more, because I am working, I can buy what I want. I can also send money to my mum and I can take for myself and I can afford also. Little by little I can buy not at once.

M: What percentage of your income are you sending to your country?

M.A.: Only 25% and the remaining for me. Cause I don’t have brother going to school Everybody working [referring to her siblings], so only my mother and my dad. Everybody is sending money to my parents not only me.

Thus, my interviews reveal that the migrant workers in all three conditions view sending money back as an obligation, but not a restricting one. Instead, they see it as returning a favor or perpetuating a beloved tradition. Whether they suffer from difficult living conditions or whether their family is relatively well-to-do, they see it as their duty, not one that has been harshly forced upon them, but one that is emotionally fulfilling. Gina’s statement is representative in that sense:

M: Are you sending money?

G: Yaa, of course, because you know this is our life. Many people are dependent on you. You cannot run away from that. Not lesser than 10,000 pesos. Let’s say 1000 dirham. And the balance I will divide for myself for my everything.

M: Do you have brothers, sisters in Philippines? Are you helping them?

G: Actually no, I am the youngest so I am just helping my parents and my niece. Because I have one sister but now she is widow and I am trying to help her. She has six kids. It is very difficult for her. [She is helping her sister]

She is 41 years old and it is very difficult also for her to apply for a job. So for us, our sister, also we need to help. So a bit heavier responsibility for me. Because the one, you know, her daughter which is under my responsibility now is going to college. I always believe in the saying you will reap what you sow. If I will plant something good in their heart. This, what I am going get from them. Even though I am not expecting anything material from them. There are some good things they will give me back.

The weight of remittances or, in other words, familial obligations define the lifestyles and perception of migrants about Dubai, their “home” (Philippines) and future. Although all of my respondents mentioned their aspirations to plan their budgets and cut their spending as much as possible, those with less financial power felt more restricted and spatially imprisoned in work and home spaces.

V-Spatial Restrictions in the City, Isolation at Home

The common challenge that young Filipinos in sales share is their domestic spatial isolation due to socio-economic restrictions and personal preferences. Almost all of my respondents spend their off-days at home without going out or spending time in the malls. If they go out, they generally go to supermarkets close to their home, which sell traditional Filipino cooking ingredients. When asked what they do on off-days, most of them refer to off-days as days for, washing laundry, ironing, cleaning the house, shopping and web-chatting with loved ones in the Philippines. The following explanation by Analyn is typical of most of my respondents:

M: After work what are you doing? How do you spend your time?

A: I am a homebody [laughter]. In fact I directly go home, clean the house, washed my things.

M: For example, on your off-days, where do you shop for your food or other things?

A: Just here in Hypermarket (Hyper Panda), and there are also other stores near my house.

M: Do you go to other malls just to spend time?

A: If I really need to buy something, I will go there but if there is nothing I need to buy, I am not going.

In the course of this conversation, I learned that Analyn manages on very little after sending money back to the Philippines. Therefore, she was reluctant to spend time in shopping malls unless she really needed something to buy. Spending time at home is adopted by almost all of the migrants as a money-saving strategy. However, while some are obliged to rely on this strategy all the time due to their heavier obligations, others have the flexibility to ignore it from time to time. It is not all true to say that staying at home is merely a strategy to save money on the part of the migrants. They often mentioned their preference for staying at home after an exhausting working day. In addition, the home space for them symbolizes a connection with home because apart from their domestic tasks, they spend most of their time chatting with their loved ones back home via the Internet. The following statement is a very typical one in that respect:

Aaaa like when I came home from work. Just in the house. In my off day, chatting with my family. With webcam, they want to see me I want to see them. First hour, I will talk with my mom. Second like this, you know. I want to see them all also. After that I need to change the bed sheet, washing everything, cleaning the house. That is all.

My respondents generally reported that their homes were crowded, with usually 10 to 15 people per apartment and 3-4 people per room. In some cases, even married couples shared their rooms with others. It is interesting to note that, despite the law, local landlords and the authorities in Dubai implicitly tolerate or overlook Filipinos living as single males, females and married couples in the same house. My respondents refer to this informal neglect on the part of the authorities as an exception they make only for Filipinos. Their living together, sometimes even with people whose names they do not know, reflects the practical necessity of sharing DEWA,[9] rent and other costs of the house. Generally, the housework is done on rotation, with cleaning, cooking and the kitchen budget being shared. In order to simply take a shower, my informants reported how they needed to discuss individual timings clearly and wake up early in the morning before going to work. Household responsibilities in such crowded houses also bind people to the home space due to the unwillingness of the migrants to waste money by going out on off-days.

My second question regarding spatial isolation was to learn to how much these young educated migrants knew about places beyond their residential areas and working environment, and if they spent time in these places. In most cases, my respondents’ knowledge of the city was limited to their homes and workplaces. On their off-days, when they wanted to spend time outside of their homes, they went to places close to their workplaces. If they spent time in a mall, they preferred the mall they worked in or small malls close to their residence. The following quote by Grace is representative:

M: Which parts of the city do you know best?

G: Part of Dubai? because I am here in Souk al Bahar in Dubai Mall, sometimes I am in Festival City. Mostly because I am starting in Festival City then they open this shop and open Dubai Marina, I know these places.

M: So you know the areas surrounding Festival City?

G: Yes.

M: Do you have off-days?

G: Yes.

M: In your off-days or after the work what are you doing?

G: In general I am going home and sleep. Sometimes shopping like that…

In general, the city regions like Deira, Karama and Satwa, which are easily accessible by all migrants and in which Filipino migrants from various cultural capital positions live are known by most of my respondents. Most of them prefer to shop in these places, particularly in Deira:

G: My routine is MOE [Mall of Emirates] to Bur Dubai, Bur Dubai to MOE, because you are also, when I come I feel tired also. Even your body is tired. If you are mentally ok, you will feel fresh. But if you are mentally tired your body is also ineffective.

M: So which part of the city do you know best?

G: Hmm. Only Bur Dubai.

M: Which parts do you like best? For example, do you go to other shopping malls?

G: Nooo. I like Souk.

M: Souk? Which souks?

G: In Deira, in Bur Dubai Souk, nice… Cause I don’t know I just feel more comfortable with the people. I feel like being together with realistic people [she meant real people]. Not like here [referring to Mall of Emirates] That is why. Because here I don’t know, because everyday I am here, see all these people, it is like ordinary for me. I don’t like these people who are trying to, you know, thinking that they are somebody else although they are so different. Ok I am not the right person to judge them but I don’t know. Just I am irritated, feel like that. But when you go to this place [souk] you’ll see who really they are. The way they talk, the way they dress. The real one. That is why I like to go to Souk.

In terms of city planning, Dubai can be considered a city that inevitably excludes low-wage groups. This is due to the inadequate public transport system, the dominance of private cars as a means of transport and the neglect of pedestrian circulation by urban planners. As Elsheshtawy (2008: 968) comments, “Dubai is not a city in the conventional sense, but rather a ‘set of cities’, connected by a network of highways, where there is hardly any pedestrian circulation and everything is geared towards consumption”. Elsheshtawy (2008: 973) mainly emphasizes the isolation of construction workers from the city, living in labour camps suffering very difficult living conditions:

For most of these workers the city represents a distant image which can only be seen from buses taking them from their accommodations to the construction sites. On weekends travel to the city is either too expensive or they simply prefer to stay with their compatriots at the camps.

From some of my respondents’ narratives, it is possible to say that it is not only construction workers but also some well-educated, young Filipino migrants working in sales for whom the city and its most popular tourist sites (aside from the mall they work in) represent a distant image. For this reason, some respondents with heavier familial obligations reported a different way of relating themselves to the city than those who were financially better off with lighter obligations to their families. Some of the former group, despite spending more than a year in Dubai, had not seen the most touristy sites in Dubai, such as the Burj al Arab or Jumeirah. The following comments by Alvin, quoted, above also exemplify this migrant position:

M: Are you going out with your friends?

A: Sometimes. If there is extra time, like I have day off, so I can have extra time. Most of the time in the house. I am not the kind of person moving around.

M: So if you go out where do you go?

A: I want to explore Dubai, I have been for two years in Dubai but I don’t know these famous places. So that is why if I have extra money I can do such things. I can go to these places. But for now I am staying at home.

M: So which part of the city do you know best?

A: Deira, it is a very accessible place, everybody there. You may go and that is the first place I know in Dubai.

On the other hand, as defined previously, migrants with lighter obligations towards their families and with stronger cultural capital are also more mobile in the city. They are better integrated into the social space of the city, spending a considerable time out of their houses, and are able to integrate more with people from other ethnicities. Edwin, who was quoted before, explains what he does in his off days as follows:

M: So how do you spend time after work?

E: It differs actually. If I have free time sometimes I am going out with my friends. Watching movies, most of the time we went to the park.

M: Which park?

E: Actually I went to Zabeel Park, Jumeirah Park, we went to Mamzar Park. Sometimes watch movie, sometimes we are staying in the house, watching also. Sometimes dinner outside…

M: Where do you go for dining?

E: Generally we went to TGIF sometimes or Chili’s, it depends on our mood. After the dinner we went, I forget the name of the bar… We are going to game shop, just to relax. Singing…

M: So which malls do you prefer to go?

Actually Mall of Emirates is more accessible for us, because Mall of Emirates is all you have to do is to take a taxi, or you can go by car. It is more accessible to us in the road way [they have a car].

In sum, the single migrants whose families are in relatively better socio-economic condition in the Philippines and who live with their siblings or with very close friends in Dubai seem to be more mobile in the city. They are better integrated into the consumer and social spaces of the city and they have friends from different nationalities and class positions. On the other hand, migrants with heavier obligations seem to be more restricted in the domestic sphere and perceive Dubai as just a “money saving-place”. They also see Dubai as a temporary settlement and seem to place hopes for a better life in another region in the world or for better job prospects in the Philippines. Paradoxically, they are the ones who are unable to take risks to change jobs and/or country. These migrants are also socially quite isolated and they barely have any friends outside of their work place or from other nationalities.

Concluding Points

  • The ethnic hierarchy in Dubai and “pleasant” stereotypes associated with Filipino migrants put this group in a more privileged position when compared to other migrant groups from Asia. However, the ethnic division of labor seems to cause a bigger frustration for these migrants considering their high cultural capital.
  • Contrary to expectations, Filipino young migrants with heavy financial obligations with considerably high cultural capital present quite similar patterns with migrants from lower occupational and financial categories in terms of their perceptions of the city, daily routine, social relations and spatial restrictions.
  • Despite the fact that all of the migrants interviewed have college/university education, other factors that crosscut cultural capital like gender, family background, marital status, and financial obligations lead to considerable differences within the Filipino workers in sales with regards to their opportunities, existence in the city and relations with other groups. It seems that financial restrictions put certain migrants in a “forced diaspora” situation in which they are physically present in Dubai but continue their social and emotional attachment only with the Philippines.


Neslihan Demirtas-Milz has expertise in urban sociology, with a PhD in political science. Neoliberal urban policies, urban transformation projects, informality, politics of space, migration and identity constitute her research interests. She worked as an adjunct faculty at the American University of Sharjah, International Studies Department during the 2012-13 academic year and conducted research on Filipino migrants in Dubai and their socio-spatial restrictions in the city. Hence issues of international migration and transnationalism are her recent research concerns. Demirtas-Milz is an assistant professor at the Sociology Department at Izmir University of Economics, Turkey.



P. G. Barber, (2000) “Agency in Philippine Women’s Labour Migration and Provisional Diaspora”, Women’s Studies International Forum, 23(4), pp.399-411.

Simone Christ (2012) “Agency and Everyday Knowledge of Filipina Migrants in Dubai, United Arab Emirates” in Zvi Bekerman and Thomas Geisen (eds.) International Handbook of Migration, Minorities and Education: Understanding Cultural, Social Differences in Process of Learning, Springer.

M. Davis, (2006) “Fear and Money in Dubai”, New Left Review, 41, pp.47-68.
Y. Elsheshtawy, (2008), “Transitory Sites: Mapping Dubai’s Forgotten Spaces”, International

Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32(4), pp. 968-988. —– (2010), Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle, Routledge.

U. Erel, (2010), “Migrating Cultural Capital: Bourdieu in Migration Studies”, Sociology, 44(4), pp. 642-660.

M. Georgio, (2006), Diaspora, Identity and the Media: Diasporic Transnationalism and Mediated Spatialities, Hampton Press.

G. Gunatilleke, (1986), Migration of Asian Workers to the Arab World, The United Nations University.

F. Guo and R. Iredale, (2003) “Gendered Migration in Asia: Case Studies of the Philippines, Indonesia and China” in R. Iredale et al., (eds.) Migration in the Asia Pacific: Population, Settlement and Citizenship, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.81-97.

F. Halliday, (1984), “Labor Migration in the Arab World”, MERIP Reports, 123, pp.3-10+30. N. Hosoda (2013) “Kababayan Solidarity? Filipino Communities and Class Relations in

United Arab Emirates” Journal of Arabian Studies. 3:1, pp.18-35.

K.H. Karim (2003), The Media of Diaspora, Routledge.

S. Khalaf and S. Alkobaisi (1999), “Migrant’s Strategies of Coping and Patterns of

Accommodation in the Oil-Rich Gulf Societies: Evidence from the UAE”, British Journal of

Middle Eastern Studies, 26(2), pp. 271-298.

E. J. Malecki and M.C. Ewers, (2007), “Labor Migration to World Cities: with a Research Agenda for the Arab Gulf”, Progress in Human Geography, 31(4), pp. 467-484.

Deidra Mc Kay and Carol Body (2005) “Practices of Place Making: Globalization and Locality in Philippines” Asia Pacific Review Viewpoint 46:2, pp. 89-103.

M. Pacione, (2005), “City Profile: Dubai”, Cities, 22, pp. 255-265.
G. P. Parolin, (2009), Citizenship in the Arab World: Kin, Religion and Nation-State,

Amsterdam University Press.

M. Pearson, (2009), “Migrant Worker: Commodity or Human?” University of Malmo, Institution for Global Political Studies Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies 61-90, BA Thesis, supervisor: Tommie Sjoberg.

A. Portes et al. (1999) “The Study of Transnationalism: Pitfalls and Promise of an Emergent Field” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 22:2, pp.217-237.

D. Ralph and L. S. Staeheli (2011) “Home and Migration: Mobilities, Belongings and Identities” Geography Compass. 5:7, pp. 517-530.

R. M. Rodriguez (2002) “Migrant Heroes: Nationalism, Citizenship and the Politics of Filipino Migrant Labor” Citizenship Studies. 6:3, pp.341-356.

E. San Juan Jr. (2000) “Trajectories of the Filipino Diaspora” Ethnic Studies Report. 18:2, pp. 229-238.

G. Sheffer, (2003), Diaspora Politics: at Home Abroad, Cambridge University Press.
L. B. Short et al., (2005) “Globalization from Below: the Ranking of Global Immigrant

Cities”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 29(4), pp. 945-959.
J. A. Tyner (2009) The Philippines: Mobilities, Identities and Globalization. New York and

London: Routledge.

UNESCWA-United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (2007),

International Migration and Development in the Arab Region: Challenges and Opportunities,

Population and Development Report: Third Issue, United Nations.

S. Vertovec (2004) “Migrant Transnationalism and Modes of Transformation” IMR. 38:3, pp.970-1001.

— (2010) Transnationalism. London and New York: Routledge.
N. Vora, (2008), “Producing Diasporas and Globalization: Indian Middle-Class Migrants in

Dubai”, Anthropological Quarterly, 81(2), pp. 377-406.
M. Weiner, (1982), “International Migration and Development: Indians in the Persian Gulf”,

Population and Development Review, 8(1), pp.1-36.
J. E. Wiley (2012) “Exporting People: a Filipino Development Model” Focus on Geography.

55:1, pp. 19-27.

K.C. Zachariah, B.A. Prakash, S. Irudaya Rajan, (2004), “Indian Workers in UAE: Employment, Wages and Working Conditions”, Economic and Political Weekly, 39(22), pp. 2227-2234.




[1] As understood from Philippines-based migration statistics, United Arab Emirates constitutes the second top destination for Filipino migrants in 2012 ranked after Saudi Arabia by the number of deployed migrants: 177,461 (POEA, 2012: 5).

[2] This constitutes, as Elsheshtawy (2008: 973) points out, an implicit rather than explicit ban on the mobility of unskilled workers. Besides their insufficient economic resources and certain restrictions on their mobility, particularly in the case of domestic workers, urban planning in Dubai also isolates them from the city space. Their exclusion from middle- or upper-middle class consumer-spaces depends on a variety of cues and measures that communicate that they are not welcome. For instance, luxurious retail developments, such as the Mall of Emirates or Madinat Jumeirah, are located in places designed to be primarily accessible by car (for similar discussions, see Vora, 2008: 388).

[3] This classification is inspired by Umut Erel (2010: 650), who argued, in his study on the role of cultural capital in migration studies that migrant communities from different nations and class positions cannot be taken as a homogenous category within themselves and how they make use of their cultural capital show variations from one migrant to another due to differences of gender, class, educational status and ethnic affiliation.

[4] Kababayan refers to Filipino compatriots and is a key term in conceptualizing contemporary Philippine international migration (Hosoda, 2013: 19). In her study on “Kababayan street community”, Hosoda (2013) examines the encounters of the Filipino migrants from different class positions and the ways that they get socialized on the streets and public places in UAE.

[5] Hosoda (2003) classifies Filipino expatriates in UAE into three broad categories as: professionals, “ordinary workers” (including semi-skilled and skilled workers) and domestic workers.

[6] Erel mostly emphasizes an emerging need in migration studies to override these identifications that tackle migrant communities as homogenous. Intra-group differentiations (in the analysis of migrant groups) needs to be taken into account so as not to reify national identity as the key organizing category for creating cultural capital (Erel, 2010: 649).

[7] Utang na Loob refers to debt of prime obligation.

[8] “The overseas migrants are considered by the Filipino state as ‘new national heroes’ for two reasons: first, migrants contribute to the economy through their remittances, which amount to several billion dollars every year; second, there is evidence that the deployment of OCW’s may have blunted the Communist insurgency as well, by draining the sea of rural discontent in which the guerillas thrive” (Rodriguez, 2002: 347).

[9] DEWA refers to Dubai Electricity and Water Authority. In daily usage, when they say DEWA, the migrants refer to electricity and water bills.

26 May 2014

Policy Update 2/2014

Egypt’s Presidential Election: Turning a Corner?

By Michael C. Hudson

Policy Update May 2-2014

Key points

  • Pre-election violence and repression
  • Explaining Sisi’s landslide victory
  • Economy in free-fall
  • Muslim Brotherhood: down but not out
  • GCC to the rescue
  • Washington’s reluctant acquiescence
  • A short honeymoon for Sisi

On May 26 and 27 Egyptians go to the polls to elect a new president following the tumultuous events following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in the uprising of 2010-11. The masses had demanded an end to authoritarianism and the beginning of democracy. But in this election they overwhelmingly voted for the general, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who masterminded the coup of July 2013 that overthrew a democratically elected government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi. Does the election signify the return full-circle of the authoritarian “deep state” or is it but another grim milestone on the road to yet another uprising?

While the July coup had broad popular support from Egyptians who were fed up with the heavy-handed incompetence of the Morsi government during its brief one year tenure, it did not usher in a stable new order. On the contrary, Egypt has been plunged into unprecedented violence and brutal repression on the part of the military-led regime. Between July 2013 and early 2014 some 3,000 Egyptians were killed and 17,000 wounded in political violence. In the most egregious incident, upwards of 900 Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers were gunned down by security forces in Cairo’s Raba’a al-Adawiya Square. Approximately 20,000 Egyptians have been imprisoned on political grounds. During the same period over 280 Egyptians, mostly soldiers and policemen, have been killed in a wave of terrorist attacks mainly in the Sinai peninsula but also in major cities. On April 28 an Egyptian court handed down no fewer than 683 death sentences, including the Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Badie.

Having rushed through a constitutional referendum in January 2014, with a 98 percent “yes” vote reminiscent of Egypt’s earlier fixed elections, that granted extraordinary power to the military, the government called for a presidential election even before a new parliament could be elected. With the Egyptian media enlisted in the campaign for General Sisi, the branding of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organization” and the arrest of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition supporters the prospects for a meaningful election that would confer legitimacy on the new President were poor. Opinion polls showed Sisi with just over 70 percent support and his only opponent, the left-wing nationalist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, with only 2 percent there was little doubt as to the outcome. The Muslim Brotherhood, now underground but with its grass-roots organization still intact, called for a boycott. Other groupings were split: some youth and liberals also called for boycott but others supported Sabahi. Among the conservative Muslim Salafis, the Nour party supported Sisi while others remained closer to the Muslim Brothers. While European Union election monitors were critical of the runup, their mere presence may have conferred a certain legitimacy on the proceedings. More critical, the Carter Center (headed by the former American president) declined to send observers at all, and it stated: “Egypt’s political transition has stalled and stands on the precipice of total reversal.”

The leading candidate General Sisi meanwhile sought to present himself as a civilian and a patriot standing above the political fray, not running a traditional campaign. His opponent, Sabahi, did run a traditional campaign claiming to be the candidate of the young, the liberal, and the poor. Walking a fine line, he too supported the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood yet also blamed Sisi for the turmoil since summer 2013. Supporters of both candidates sought to identify their man with the national hero Gamal Abdel Nasser, but Nasser’s daughter Hoda jumped into the Sisi camp, saying in an interview: “Do you know that you achieved in less than two months what politicians cannot achieve in decades? You have overwhelming support. Look at the opposition. It’s disassembled. Its leaders are not on your level in this great moment Egypt is currently witnessing.”

For Egypt’s sake one might hope that she was right in her assessment, because the tasks he faces are immense. The economy is in free-fall. Unemployment is over 13 percent and three quarters of the unemployed are between 15 and 29 years old. The public debt is nearly 100 percent of gross domestic product. The World Bank has estimated that 25.5 percent of Egyptians fall below the poverty line, up from 16.7 percent in 2000. GDP growth in 2012 was only 2 percent, compared with 7 percent in 2000. In his recent speeches Sisi was vague about his economic and social policies, preferring to emphasize the security threats that Egypt faces.

For the moment, however, there is no doubt that Sisi has some very powerful supporters both at home and abroad. The bureaucrats in the civil service, the security organizations, the military, and the feloul, the remnants of the old regime that have benefited from the state’s patronage, have rallied to Sisi (many of them suspending their past liberal –democratic leanings); and many poor, ordinary Egyptians have joined as well, if only because he holds out the promise of stability. The General will also have important foreign supporters, some with deep pockets. The Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged US$ 17 billion to prop up the Egyptian economy since the July coup. How long they are prepared to do this, however, is another question. And as for Egypt’s biggest protector and ally, the Obama administration, despite its verbal reprimand over the repression, shows every indication of willingness to continue its longstanding military and security assistance programs; but members of Congress are threatening to put a hold on such aid. As Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat from Vermont) declared after Egypt announced the 683 death sentences, “It is an appalling abuse of the justice system….it shows a dictatorship run amok.”

In American politics and elsewhere analysts often speak of the “honeymoon period” which newly elected leaders enjoy before encountering serious opposition, especially if they have not been able to grapple successfully with the country’s problems. Clearly, President Sisi will have his honeymoon period—but for how long? The Muslim Brotherhood top leadership has been decapitated but this vast organization with its networks throughout Egypt will not “disappear” as Sisi has declared. More extreme organizations ready to employ terrorism are already making themselves felt. Social media have contributed to a political awakening in Egyptian society. And it is still not clear whether the new President has a program, or even an understanding, of Egypt’s huge social and economic programs.

So how long will Sisi’s honeymoon last? The reckoning may come sooner—perhaps in months—rather than later. While the election results would seem to indicate his widespread popularity there are also signs that the Egyptian public is less enthusiastic. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that Egyptians are now as dissatisfied about the direction of their country as they were just before the Uprising began at the end of 2010. It also shows that only a bare majority (54 percent) were in favor of the ouster of Morsi, and the same percentage indicates a favorable view of Sisi. Putting it another way, nearly half the public (43 percent) oppose the ouster of Morsi, and 45 percent express an unfavorable view of Sisi. Another issue is whether Sisi’s support from the more-or-less liberal, left-wing and nationalist elements will continue to hold; the military’s crackdown has not just been confined to the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the largesse that has been flowing from the Gulf to keep the Egyptian economy afloat may not last indefinitely. Sooner or later Gulf rulers will want to see results.

The Egyptian political scientist Hesham Sallam has put the matter succinctly: “….it is important to remember that even if the youth activists who served as the “face” of the 25 January Revolution are marginalized or in prison, the structural conditions and social imbalances that paved the way for mass revolt in January 2011 are still prevalent. While I am not saying that a resurgence in popular mobilization along the lines of 2011, 2012 and 2013 is imminent, it remains that every electoral contest since 2010 has proven that Egypt is a country where electoral outcomes, whether democratic or authoritarian, are not binding and subject to the possibility of reversal. As we think about how the next president will manage the wide range of Egypt’s socio-economic grievances there is no reason to believe that a Sisi electoral victory is immune to that danger.”[1] If instability continues and if it triggers yet another popular upheaval the repercussions will be felt regionally and globally.


23 May 2014
Repositioning Diaspora Kurdish Dissent in the Midst of

Turkey’s Unhinging Democracy

by Vera Eccarius-Kelly

“We are in turmoil and developments in Turkey are very disappointing for us,” explained Arîn,[i] a Kurdish participant in an activist meeting that brought together representatives from Azeri, Armenian, Circassian, Kurdish, Turkish, Laz, Yezidi, and Alevi diaspora communities.[ii] While the gathering improved trust and advanced the potential for collaboration between the diasporic groups, little concrete progress was made. The delegates had not quite succeeded in terms of meshing their diverse political agendas, but a principled and collaborative spirit emerged. All groups recognized their shared interest in processing complex and overlapping historical grievances.[iii] Many also supported the notion of reciprocal justice based on the acknowledgement of fundamental values of human rights. Despite continued and significant inter-communal barriers, the emerging themes in conversations indicated a growing willingness to improve the flow of communication and to engage in closer interactions.[iv]

In this article, I explore the Kurdish diaspora’s growing cognizance that it will benefit from transforming both its discourses and its mobilization techniques by engaging with diverse communities in home and host countries. Increasingly, European-based Kurdish activists aim to ameliorate rather than perpetuate the decades-long conflict between ethnic Kurdish communities and the Turkish state.[v]To advance this notion that a transformative process is underway within the Kurdish diaspora, two disparate analytical approaches are employed to identify newly emerging patterns of diasporic engagement.

Firstly, I examine recently emerging endogenous and exogenous factors that shape behaviors and specific political choices within Kurdish diaspora communities. Secondly, I rely on a resource mobilization grid to classify the types of resources that are utilized by the diaspora to advance a particular political agenda. This combination of empirical and theoretical approaches to examin Kurdish diaspora mobilization reveals that contemporary dynamics privilege a path of de-escalation rather than an exacerbation of the Kurdish conflict.

It is commonly argued that Diaspora communities[vi] perpetuate ethno-national conflicts through fundraising campaigns, the procurement of weapons, recruiting and harboring militants, or by engaging in unconventional lobbying techniques.[vii] Mobilized ethno-national diaspora communities, therefore, tend to be monitored by security agencies in host countries,[viii] including in states with open or partially open political systems, but particularly in states with entirely closed systems.[ix] Three theoretical questions are raised in relation to the existing literatures on ethnic conflict and diasporas: Can an argument be made that diaspora communities also actively support efforts to diminish ethno-national conflicts? What are the dynamics that influence or shape a transformation within a mobilized diaspora? And, how do specific factors incentivize a diaspora’s acceptance of a process toward de-escalation in a conflict?

The existing literature on ethnic conflict intersects with scholarship on diasporas, transnational social movements, and international migration. Research related to diasporas has also increasingly integrated policy-oriented security discourses in the aftermath of coordinated terrorist attacks in the US and Europe.[x] Tragic events such as the Boston Marathon bombings, which were perpetrated by ethnic Chechen brothers, only heighten the prominence of national security frameworks in the literature by linking mobilized diaspora communities to terror attacks.[xi] What Benedict Anderson identified as potentially reckless “long-distance nationalism” [xii] by émigrés who dodged the consequences of their homeland-oriented actions, has morphed into a category of research that focuses on the growing reality of ‘ethno-national blowback’ stemming from conflict-generated diasporas.

Scholars including Shain, Hoffman, Adamson, and Demmers, among many others, explored specific features shaping both the direction and intensity of diasporic mobilization.[xiii] In essence, three factors assume a particularly significant role in determining types of diasporic activism: (1) the precipitous increase of refugee populations in conflict zones (along with the rise of internally displaced communities), (2) the growing access among diaspora members to mobile and high speed communication technologies including the use of social media tools, and (3) the production and management of nationalist narratives and symbols that produce radicalized and potentially violent elements within diasporas.[xiv] Consequently, a significant portion of the existing literature on diaspora mobilization privileges an emphasis on radical and sometimes marginal elements within transnationally active diaspora communities.

As is true for many diaspora communities, Kurds in Europe continue to articulate very diverse and sometimes counter-intuitive political perspectives.[xv] Kurds make claims to hybrid identities, emphasize their interconnectedness with allied groups, and lobby extensively.[xvi] European-centered Kurdish activisms, including variations on militant manifestations, deserve a more nuanced analysis to allow for questioning of assumptions. Diasporas tend not to represent a unified collective, but rather consist of sub-groupings that frequently compete with each other. At a time of socio-political upheaval in Turkey and the horrific warfare in Syria, it is particularly illuminating to examine the changing nature of the European Kurdish diaspora’s activisms. Through the integration of empirical evidence, it is possible to show that dissimilar actors within the diaspora share a keen focus on increasing Kurdish agency in various European Union (EU) countries.[xvii] As a cautionary note, this article does not advance the notion that the Kurdish diaspora pursues a cohesive agenda or endorses an immediate and unconditional path to resolving the conflict. Instead, I postulate that longstanding and clearly articulated socio-political and cultural demands will be expressed in more conventional ways, and thereby become more widely supported by a network of allies.

Mixing It Up: Theoretical Framing

This article proposes that the Kurdish diaspora in Europe is transforming itself into a collection of informal, mobile, and only loosely interconnected associations. Kurdish diaspora actors use public and transnational discursive spaces to challenge the status quo, and no longer routinely support sharply demarcated agendas or rely on hierarchical and exclusionary processes. Inter-communal dialogues and recognition of historical suffering by others offer a small window of insight into diasporic attempts to contribute to a resolution of the decades-long conflict between ethnic Kurdish communities and the Turkish state. Subtle changes in Kurdish mobilization patterns are hard to capture and invite a qualitative approach to better examine contexts and meanings of the Kurdish diaspora’s experiences over time.

To explore how and why the Kurdish diaspora is undergoing an organic and unstructured transformation today, it is essential to articulate research questions that integrate lived experiences and observations. Particular moments in diasporic activities reveal clues related to the underlying dynamics and show how such dynamics shape behavior patterns. Accounts of diaspora activism should differentiate between observable and circumstantial realities, integrate a range of multi-level perspectives, and likewise embrace particularistic cultural influences. In addition, it is helpful to simultaneously pursue theoretical ideas that could confirm observed changes, but manifest in a more abstracted model. To better frame the transformative process in the Kurdish diaspora, I propose to employ two separate approaches to examine the progression of mobilization and the types of diasporic resources that are mobilized.

First, I review the emergence of recent endogenous and exogenous factors that shape behaviors and political choices among actors in the diaspora. I focus on identifying causal relationships to explore changes in Kurdish mobilization patterns. I define endogenous factors such as those that originate within the confines of European Union (EU) member states and those that emerge through interactions between the Kurdish diaspora and the EU. For example, new political opportunities within the EU or improved diasporic access to high speed communications technologies are classified as endogenous factors in this article. Similarly, I examine causal relationships between exogenous factors that originate outside of European Union countries and modify Kurdish diaspora mobilization patterns. Examples of exogenous factors include the Syrian war, the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s relations with Turkey, graft allegations involving the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government in Turkey, and the status of negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Arguments can almost always be made to suggest that purely endogenous factors do not exist within a political environment. While external influences often play a role, they are not necessarily motivating or directly causing every facet of change. For the purpose of this article I propose that it is reasonable to advance the position that some factors predominantly originate from within ethnic communities (or within EU member states). The increasing rate and frequency of collaboration by Kurdish diaspora groups with former competitor groups is one such example. External causes for change such as policies enacted by the Turkish AKP government will be addressed separately in the section on exogenous factors.

For a second and more theoretical analysis of the progression of diasporic mobilization, I use a resource mobilization model that classifies several types of resources and access mechanisms. I rely on prior work synthesized by Bob Edwards and John D. McCarthy, who advanced a grid to examine a range of resource types and access mechanisms including moral, cultural, organizational, human, and material resources.[xviii] Applying their framework to the Kurdish diaspora, I suggest that access to a wide range of resource types strengthens the diaspora’s ability to endorse a political solution to the Kurdish conflict. Resource mobilization cross-classification grids are likely familiar to social movement researchers but not necessarily widely used by scholars interested in diasporas. As an analytical tool, Edwards and McCarthy’s grid offers a detailed and differentiated approach to determining if groups are inclined to pursue alternatives for achieving their aims by accessing diversified resource types. A systematic classification of specific resources that are exploited by the Kurdish diaspora—as well as the mechanisms used to access these resources—provides another approach to exploring transformational changes within the diaspora.

The resource mobilization model also supports the argument that Kurdish diaspora groups are shifting away from relying on traditional organizational, human, and material resources in favor of cultural and moral resources. I use this result to further advance the argument that preferences within Kurdish diaspora groups are changing in favor of identifying discursive public spaces and the notion of reciprocal justice. I propose that this combination of empirical and theoretical framing of diaspora mobilization reveals that current dynamics favor a de-escalation of the larger conflict.

Endogenous Factors: Reconciling with Xurbetî [xix]

More than 50 years ago, postwar West-Germany (and later Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Switzerland) signed bilateral agreements with Turkey to address acute labor shortages in European countries. In the decade following the agreements of 1961 (with Germany) and 1968 (with other European countries), some 800,000 Turkish citizens pursued employment opportunities abroad to improve their economic and political realities. The vast majority of Turkish migrants, nearly 80 percent, accepted contracts in Germany. Toward the end of 1973, Germany imposed a ban on further labor recruitment as a consequence of a global recession. Immigration policies were discontinued except for family unification policies. By the mid-1990s, Germany’s Turkish migrant population reached 2.1 million; France recorded about 200,000 Turkish citizens, the Netherlands counted 170,000, followed by Austria with 150,000, and Belgium with approximately 80,000.[xx]

European countries had characterized the Turkish migrant workers as mere temporary residents. Public officials showed little interest in permanently integrating the migrants into society and demonstrated even less enthusiasm for acknowledging any ethnic diversity among the migrant communities from Turkey.[xxi] As a result, a hostile public attitude emerged when it became increasingly clear that some migrants preferred to stay in Europe. Kurdish migrants frequently used the term Xurbetî (life after banishment from the homeland) to capture their sense of alienation in Europe. Estimates suggested that up to one third of the Turkish passport holding migrants in Europe would later assert Kurdish ethnicity rather than define themselves as Turkish.[xxii] A mixture of disregard for inner-Turkish affairs and a general indifference toward the political baggage some migrants had carried with them to Europe began to define interactions between host societies and migrant labor groups.

Turkey’s military coup in 1980 created necessary preconditions for the emergence of Kurdish political activism and increased diaspora radicalization. Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens, a significant number of them ethnic Kurds, entered Europe to escape political and cultural persecution. Germany in particular registered a significant increase in its asylum applications from Turkey during the 1980s. While European asylum policies facilitated the formation of clandestine diaspora networks, the most crucial aspect that led to a rapid emergence of a separate Kurdish identity in Europe related to the democratic structures that diaspora groups could access. Within just a few years, homeland oriented diaspora organizations in Europe challenged Turkish policies toward the predominantly Kurdish regions by taking advantage of existing discursive and organizational opportunities.

Militant PKK cadres also entered among other asylum applicants, which provided Kurdish labor migrants in Europe with access to ethno-nationalist ideology and training. In an environment where Kurdish migrants and ethno-nationalists felt disregarded, but democratic structures offered opportunities, it was liberating to articulate demands for human rights, ethnic recognition, and independent statehood. By the early 2000s, the Kurdish diaspora moved away from sharply separatist articulations. In part this was related to the 1999 capture of the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, yet it was also the diaspora’s response to the intensification of security measures across Europe following terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups. Diasporic activities began to embrace more culturally- based grievances such as the right to speak Kurdish and study the Kurdish language in public schools, to give children traditionally Kurdish names, to operate independent Kurdish-language TV and radio programs, and to openly engage in particularistic cultural practices.[xxiii] A close examination of changes within the Kurdish diaspora shows that the once militant and PKK dominated community matured into a diverse, increasingly educated, and politically astute minority by the mid-2000s. The emphasis shifted to lobbying efforts within the EU, increasing the influence of European-born Kurds and immigrant Kurds with EU residency papers. European Kurds participated in public debates as legitimate insiders rather than from a marginal position that warranted a mere minimum of agency. As legitimized voters and participants in local political councils, ethnic Kurds no longer perceived themselves as necessarily living in permanent exile or as alienated by their surroundings (Xurbetî).[xxiv]

“Turkish and Kurdish community members are gaining more respect and acceptance in German society. We run many businesses, are familiar with [German] customs and social expectations, and [we] are no longer seen as a drain on social services. Actually, our children have a brighter future now that Germany is coming to terms with itself as a country of immigration,” suggested an ethnic Kurdish German resident recently.[xxv] According to German media coverage, the least desirable neighbors in Germany today are not ethnic Turkish or Kurdish, but recent arrivals from Eastern Europe. Bulgarians and Romanians are commonly shunned and ostracized, and this is especially the case with ethnic Roma populations who are accused of abusing the country’s generous welfare provisions.[xxvi]

The German word “Sozialtourismus,” (welfare tourism) was chosen as the Unwort (most objectionable term) of 2013 because of its socio-politically manipulative intent.[xxvii] Linguists and social scientists felt offended by the term since it so deeply misrepresented the social realities of targeted ethnic communities such as the Roma. The word tourism clearly referenced a pleasurable activity related to a recreational visit in another region or country, while the compound word advanced a deeply pejorative and discriminatory message of financial fraud, dishonesty, and exploitation of undeserved social benefits. In fact the term proposed that illiterate, poorly educated, and uncouth Bulgarians and Romanians of Roma ethnicity had arrived in wealthier European countries with the sole purpose to take advantage of unearned social benefits.

The notion of welfare tourism had been advanced from within the conservative party structures in Germany and demonstrated a revised understanding of the concept of ‘Fortress Europe.’[xxviii] An increasingly clear differentiation between core and periphery Europe has taken place to designate Eastern Europeans as lesser Europeans—a variant to more familiar targets of ‘Othering.’[xxix] Parvulescu proposed in “Old Europe, New Europe, Eastern Europe: Reflections on a Minor Character in Fassbinder’s Ali, Fear Easts the Soul” that ingrained boundaries never really diminished in the minds of comparatively privileged Western Europeans. She posits that

“The Schengen Agreement walls off an EU Europe from a non-EU Europe, once again separating what is simply called Europe from a reconfigured Eastern Europe. The latter has reemerged in its post-Cold War configuration in the ongoing debates on European migration. Although they, too, are theoretically European, certain Eastern Europeans (typically migrant workers coming from countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Serbia, Moldova, Ukraine) are considered immigrants in Europe.”[xxx]

If ethnic Kurdish-Europeans perceive themselves more like insiders today—perhaps in contrast to recent migrants from Eastern Europe—how might that modify the diaspora’s political behavior and reflect its growing sense of agency and belonging? In Reframing the Nationalist Perspective, I argued that “demands for a territory-bound Kurdish homeland are fading away.”[xxxi] In fact, I contemplated that Kurds might seek less segregationist and nationalist principles in favor of alternative means to mobilizing community members in the coming years. The predominant emphasis has been for Kurds to “pursue ethnic and cultural recognition for Kurdish communities inside Turkey and for themselves in Europe and utilize their increasingly advanced legal training and their technological skills to focus on achieving this goal.”[xxxii] Both the European countries that once recruited guest workers from Turkey, and the former migrants themselves have undergone transformations over the past decades. Østergaard-Nielsen identified significant fluctuations in the accessibility of opportunity structures for ethnic diaspora communities in hosting societies. She distinguished between so-called midwife periods that provided extensive discursive opportunities in contrast to gatekeeper periods that led to the banning of ethnic organizations as they became linked to criminal gangs and terror networks.[xxxiii]

Diaspora Kurdish activists, in particular second-and third-generation Kurds, encountered assimilationist educational models in Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, and German schools. Shaped by their interactions with state representatives such as teachers, and confronted by complex and regulatory bureaucracies, Kurds pursued discursive opportunities during midwife periods and circumvented state controls in times of gatekeeping.[xxxiv] As a result, diaspora activists employed combinations of confrontational and unconventional strategies which were followed by periods of softer and more predictable methods. Exposure to bureaucratic architectures also shaped mobilization patterns and practices. Experiences with incongruity among EU member states forced diaspora communities to adapt, adjust, and transform themselves over time. If activists once seemed comfortable with confrontational tactics in the streets, they now embraced the use of special interest groups and lobbying efforts.[xxxv] Over time, many Kurdish associations also benefited from the increased number of more highly educated European born Kurds.[xxxvi] Advanced levels of education and improved technical skills (in the fields of mass media, engineering, and software design, for example) led activists to rely on innovative discursive spaces such as satellite TV stations and social media outlets across Europe.[xxxvii]

Nonetheless, the question pondered within Kurdish diaspora circles today is how ethnic demands can be articulated in an assertive manner without jeopardizing and compromising emerging political opportunities. Some fear that confrontational tactics could result in a renewed categorization of Kurds as a marginal ethnic group or as a belligerent and criminal force. A majority of Kurdish activists perceive such outcomes not only as counter-productive, but also damning. For the past decade, attempts to increase visibility have frequently reinforced perceptions that the PKK continues to manage a large share of political activities in Europe. Yet, a significant endogenous factor motivating Kurdish diaspora groups is the drive to gain legitimacy, to increase saliency for their cause, and to improve resonance in Europe. It is no longer unusual to hear former PKK loyalists express critical views of Öcalan, the imprisoned but still nominal leader of the PKK. Among Kurds who once actively sympathized with the PKK, some dismiss Öcalan as “a member of the old guard who should move aside,” or as someone, who is increasingly “irrelevant, and desperately trying to control the Kurdish movement.” Others remark that “he is an obstacle to real negotiations because of his 15 years in Turkish prison,” or that “his dreams revolve around being released by the Turks.”[xxxviii]

In essence, the predominant motivation for Kurdish diaspora organizations is their search for legitimacy and justice. By identifying discursive spaces that are safe for even former competitor groups to participate in, it is now more common to observe collaborative efforts and growing levels of interaction between Alevi, Dersim, and Yezidi community members, PKK affiliated Kurds, left-leaning and socialist Turks, Armenian groups, Laz, etc. Achieving legitimacy involves unearthing and recognizing layers of historical truths, which will be a lengthy and painful process, yet may just result in a higher rate of salience in Europe for causes supported by the Kurdish diaspora in general.

Exogenous Factors: The Turkish ‘Model’ returns to Authoritarianism

From the perspective of the EU, Turkey’s commitment to democracy is faltering. Since allegations emerged that pointed to wide-ranging graft and corruption patterns within the highest circles of the AKP government, Turkey’s reputation as a champion of moderation has been tarnished further.[xxxix] The government’s reaction to the 2013 Gezi Park protests increased misgivings about what had been praised as a Turkish model successfully blending moderate Islam with democracy. Yet recent accusations that Prime Minister Erdoğan himself may have been involved in easing zoning laws to benefit construction companies in exchange for personal gain initiated the introduction of additional anti-democratic legislation. The AKP stands accused of repressing critical media outlets, manipulating the rule of law, silencing civil society organizations, and reducing civil liberties. As a matter of fact, Turkey’s Press Freedom Ranking slipped to the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders Index, which ranks Turkey at number 154 out of 179 countries.[xl] Mr. Erdoğan continues to rely on standard authoritarian techniques to dismiss his critics and political opponents. The AKP government created laws to regulate and control the content of the Internet and claimed that civil society groups with foreign ties were fomenting unrest to undermine the government’s accomplishments.[xli] These dynamics have been damaging to Turkish civil society groups and weakened long-standing ties with Western allies.

The question at the heart of this article, however, is how various Kurdish diaspora groups may be reading inner-Turkish developments including the explosive power struggle between the AKP and the Islamic hizmet (service) movement, which is more widely recognized as the Gülen movement (named after its US-based clerical-leader Fethullah Gülen). Leaks about the prime minister’s involvement in corruption appeared on the Internet and seem to have originated from among supporters of the hizmet movement. Recently, new accusations began to swirl in diasporic circles that the assassination of three Kurdish women activists in Paris in 2013 had been ordered by members of the AKP. As has been the case for decades, uncertainty leads to disagreements between various branches of Kurdish diaspora groupings. Some Kurdish activists fear that the AKP government will cozy up to the military and “empower forces that we thought had been tamed” others perceive emerging opportunities to legitimize Kurdish ethnic and cultural demands because of overlapping interests between EU member states, the Kurdish diaspora, and minority parties in Turkey.[xlii] Finally, among PKK supporters and sympathizers there is the recognition that a push for intensified negotiations with the AKP government could result in progress since the prime minister desperately needs allies.[xliii] Not surprisingly, the PKK expresses a higher level of suspicion toward activist cleric Fethullah Gülen than toward Prime Minister Erdoğan. Imprisoned PKK leader Öcalan agreed with the prime minister’s accusation that “foreign governments such as the United States and Israel” are the puppeteers behind the Turkish corruption crisis; however, PKK-close diaspora leaders express caution since they distrust the prime minister’s motives.[xliv]

In sum, exogenous factors have only contributed to a general sense of malaise among Kurdish activists in Europe. Political uncertainty undermines consensus and complicates efforts to reposition diaspora Kurdish dissent. Diaspora groups could benefit from identifying more innovative paths forward, however. To achieve ethnic recognition and legitimacy, Kurdish communities have to disentangle themselves from the impenetrable, opaque, and manipulative patterns that are once again at play in all interactions between an increasingly authoritarian Turkish government keen on protecting its own interests, and an imprisoned Kurdish leader who senses that his prison door is slightly ajar.

Öcalan-loyalists and the AKP government precipitously share a common desire to reframe their complicated journeys by relying on a familiar maneuver, namely to redirect the public’s attention to the notion of foreign meddling. Despite the effectiveness of this technique, certain cruel realities are hard to overlook or erase. Some 40,000 people perished in the Turkish government’s struggle against the PKK. As an ethno-national organization, the PKK has been active in Turkey since the late 1970s and engaged in full-blown insurgent activities since 1984. Turkey’s military pursued counter-insurgency strategies which resulted in blatant and widespread human rights offenses. The country’s armed forces either directly employed or collaborated with secretive paramilitary units to target suspected guerrilla units, their urban networks, and rural systems of support. Some 3,000 villages were destroyed and up to 3 million people internally displaced.[xlv] In addition, the military established a so-called village guard system, which placed between 60,000 and up to 80,000 armed rural men on the state’s payroll to protect and “cleanse” villages of infiltrating PKK units.[xlvi]

Turkey’s top brass invariably blamed its failure to defeat the PKK by pointing to a secret network of domestic traitors or by blaming hostile foreign players. Former Chief of the Turkish General Staff, General Işık Koşaner, laid out a familiar litany of national challenges during his inaugural speech in August 2010.[xlvii] Hecited several European countries for permitting Kurdish diaspora groups to financially back the PKK (usually the list includes Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, among others), accused the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq of not taking adequate measures against the PKK, and announced plans for continued counter-insurgency campaigns to weaken and eventually eradicate the PKK’s guerrilla forces.[xlviii] In public statements GeneralKoşaner affirmed a consistently held position within the Turkish military establishment that the PKK was vulnerable and that continued military pressure would lead to spectacular success.

The PKK, however, demonstrated ideological flexibility and adapted to its environment. As an insurgent group it underwent multiple transformations and with each new phase the PKK introduced revised tactics to reflect the organization’s ability to reinvent itself. During the early 1980s the PKK was inspired by traditional leftist revolutionary ideals, and increased its regional profile and relevance. Throughout the entire decade, the PKK followed traditional insurgency strategies to maintain control over its ideological vision. The leadership relied on Leninist inspirations and enforced a rigid system of internal hierarchy and control. Its command structure, led by Öcalan, endorsed the use of extreme violence. [xlix] To appeal to the Kurdish minority population more effectively, the PKK reshaped its revolutionary ideology in the mid-1980s by integrating a fiercer ethno-national appeal. This significantly improved the PKK’s ability to recruit young people in rural areas of Turkey and expanded its logistical support networks into neighboring Iraq and Syria. Recruiters reached out to marginalized population groups and relied on profoundly impoverished and youthful members to fill the ranks of the PKK.[l]

By the late 1980s, the PKK encouraged regionally based Kurdish riots against Turkish authorities, pursued propaganda activities, and promoted acts of economic sabotage. To gain influence and access to traditional resources including financial gain, the guerrilla organization committed itself to ambushes, the taxing of drug smuggling routes, and periodic kidnappings for ransom, followed by urban terror campaigns. During the early 1990s the PKK initiated a parallel European strategy that was enhanced by Kurdish refugees who settled in Europe.[li] Once ensconced in EU member states, PKK operatives and sympathizers emphasized collective protest action, extortion schemes, and bombings of commercial Turkish interests abroad.

From 1994 until the capture of Öcalan in 1999, the PKK pursued a more conciliatory political phase in Europe using extensive political pressure campaigns spearheaded by radical elements within the Kurdish diaspora. Political activism became an effective long-term strategy for launching a transnational Kurdish agenda. Instead of openly seeking an independent homeland, Kurdish activists pushed for the recognition of minority status for Kurds in Turkey. European government officials, while considering Turkey for membership in the European Union, demonstrated limited support for Kurdish interests by advancing the notion that the minority be recognized as a separate ethnic group in Turkey. EU parliamentary committees began to investigate human rights violations in the Southeastern provinces of Turkey, and sent fact-finding missions to speak with representatives of Kurdish civil society.[lii] European PKK branches clearly shifted toward urging EU governments to demand the recognition of minority status for Kurds as part of the conditions for Turkey’s inclusion in the EU. This decision to network with NGOs and to engage with the political process initiated a slow thaw between the PKK and an array of Kurdish diaspora activists.

In 2009 and 2010, after the AKP lost electoral ground in the southeastern and predominantly Kurdish provinces, Turkey’s government feared a legitimacy crisis because of the emerging assertiveness among Kurdish civil society groups and ethno-national activists. Hoping to reclaim its ability to represent the interests of Kurdish voters, the AKP announced a “Kurdish Opening” (Kürt açılımı), which was “aimed at containing the Kurdish movement and wresting back political control of the region for the party. This was a battle for the right to claim representation of Turkey’s Kurds,” according to Casier, Jongerdon, and Walker.[liii] Allegations of inauthentic and manipulative outreach to the Kurdish minority aside, the AKP government and Öcalan forged ahead and continued to consult through intermediaries.[liv] Today, both the AKP and Öcalan-loyalists emphasize their commitment to an ongoing negotiation process. Kurdish diaspora groups interpret such signals as encouragement and advance their own blueprints for reaching out to and collaborating with former rivals and critics.

Conceptualizing Ethno-National Diasporas within Social Movement Theory

The language of human rights and justice represents a promising dynamic in an otherwise very contentious history of Kurdish mobilization. While the study of contentious politics in Turkey requires the inclusion of the PKK’s influence on society, Kurdish activists who rely on peaceful or less confrontational protest repertoires also deserve attention.Göker’s work on Kurdish women’s silent vigils in Turkey (Cumartesi Anneleri) is such an example, exploring the contributions of a group which utilized broad understandings of human rights to demand information about their disappeared relatives.[lv] Fearing their salience, the Turkish state first focused on repressing the women, and then hoped to co-opt their demands by institutionalizing broader human rights concerns into state agencies. Despite a decade of vibrant social change that reshaped the Turkish state’s relationship with civil society, Kurdish and Turkish social movement organizations remain profoundly understudied in comparison with social movements in Western Europe and North America.

Until recently, social movement theorists prioritized case studies in highly industrialized countries over movements in societies marked by acute inequality and limited political access. In the last decade, Latin American and sub-Saharan African social movements have been integrated into the field, but the Middle East and North Africa continue to be excluded from the literature on social movements.[lvi] However, studies related to the Arab Uprisings may begin to fill this void in the coming years. State efforts to delegitimize and criminalize social movements as is the case in Egypt receive more attention today. As Tarrow proposed, instead of “seeing social movements as expressions of extremism, violence, and deprivation, they are better defined as collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities.”[lvii]

By locating the collective struggle of the Kurdish minority, both in Turkey and by extension in the diaspora, within an extra-institutional and unauthorized setting rather than the confined parameter of a permitted or institutionally acceptable environment, an opportunity emerges to theoretically place Kurdish resistance in all its varied manifestations within the body of social movement literature. The demonstration of persistent and collective challenges to state authorities and rivals produced opportunities for Kurdish groups to define their own communities. In this process, Kurdish groups articulated grievances and expectations and related them to both peaceful and violent actions to demand socio-economic, political, and cultural rights. As a consequence of long-term activism and contention, a communal self-understanding of what Kurdish well-being would feel and look like has emerged.

In fully consolidated and advanced industrial democracies, extra-institutional activities are defined as alternative approaches to political participation through the use of cyber-protest and graffiti, the occupation of abandoned buildings, the appearance of flash mob protests, etc.[lviii] In democracies that are not yet fully consolidated or institutionalized, or at least incomplete in their transition such as in Turkey, extra-institutional activities tend to manifest in more violent ways.[lix] In Turkey, although regular elections are held and both political and economic reforms have taken place, the political system is only partially open to minority communities and has been hostile to Kurdish dissent. This problem of limited access in combination with inadequate accountability of political elites encouraged forceful opposition among embittered Kurdish constituencies. Therefore, the types of resources Kurdish groups relied on to achieve recognition have varied widely. Kurdish resource mobilization has ranged from peaceful vigils by women who demanded information about disappeared relatives (a moral resource) to the formation of ethno-national opposition parties (an organizational resource) and support for PKK guerrilla forces (a human and material resource).

Scholarly work on the availability and sustained access to a variety of resources has been a central concept within the larger body of social movement literature. Tilly, McAdam, Zald, McCarthy, and Edwards argued that the ability to access a variety of resources likely increases collective protest action. [lx] While material, human, and organizational resources are familiar concepts, cultural and moral resources tend to be examined less frequently. Yet, cultural and moral resources, I argue, can offer particularly noteworthy insights into how diasporic groups contribute and shape mobilization efforts. But before returning to the Kurdish diaspora, I illustrate the use of moral and cultural resources in the South African and Baltic contexts to explain their significance.

The anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa provides a useful perspective into how beneficial accessing a moral resource can be.[lxi] The African National Congress (ANC) gained recognition and respect by relying on Nelson Mandela as their moral leader, especially once he was authorized through his international profile. The ANC depended on Mandela as a premier moral resource through highlighting his lengthy and unjust imprisonment by agents of a delegitimized state. The Apartheid regime, in contrast, lacked moral authority and could not withstand the increasingly blistering international critiques.

For an example of a powerful cultural resource, it makes sense to turn toward Baltic protest movements in opposition to Soviet occupation. Starting in 1987 large groups of Estonian citizens held hands and sang patriotic songs and hymns, even though the songs and lyrics had been banned by the regime. Some 300,000 Estonians came together for a song festival to renew their national pride and strengthen their cultural spirit, making it imaginable for the citizenry to resist Soviet repression.[lxii] The sway of cultural resources tends to be underestimated by states that use brute force or rely on framing protesters’ demands as unreasonable, illegitimate, or even criminal. In the Kurdish context diaspora activists produce a combination of moral and cultural resources to challenge justifications used by the Turkish state to deny the legitimacy of ethnic recognition. Groups within the diaspora focus on demanding the implementation of an internationally authorized truth commission to decipher and unravel historical crimes that have yet to be discussed in public settings.

To further examine the role of moral and cultural resources, I rely on a resource mobilization cross-classification grid advanced by Edwards and McCarthy (Figure 1).[lxiii] I apply the grid to the Kurdish diaspora to illustrate which resources Kurdish groups utilize, and which means of access Kurdish activists seek out. This approach allows for a clearer perspective on how diaspora groups resort to particular resources, what their predominant modes of access are, and whether they rely extensively on indigenous or external resources. Based on the findings, I theorize that the Kurdish diaspora is emphasizing moral and cultural resources over other resources to focus on legitimizing Kurdish claims for justice and ethnic recognition.

Edwards and McCarthy also link their typology of resources to four different mechanisms of access to various resources. The scholars observed that social movements tend to access resources in a variety of ways, including through processes of aggregation, production, appropriation, and patronage. Aggregation allows for dispersed resources that are controlled by a variety of groups to be converted into one collective resource. When Armenian, Alevi, Assyrian and Kurdish groups publish a joint statement to demand that the Turkish state recognize historical crimes including the Armenian genocide or the Dersim massacre, etc., these groups aggregate formerly dispersed resources to strengthen their common claim for historical clarification and justice.[lxiv] In Europe diaspora groups pursue the aggregation of such resources to increase their ability to integrate human rights language into public statements.[lxv] By cross-classifying group- specific approaches to accessing resources with several types of resources, it becomes possible to determine which access mechanisms Kurdish diaspora groups prefer to better position themselves in a contentious political environment.

Kurdish diaspora groups rely heavily on the production of resources that add ideological value and emotional meaning to their claims. A well-recognized example is the celebration of Newroz on March 21st of every year. While this holiday is celebrated by multiple ethnic groups, Kurdish communities infused Newroz celebrations with deeper ethno-national significance by linking it to the notion of delivering a colonized people to freedom.[lxvi] As soon as Turkish intelligence experts classified such celebrations as a national security threat, Newroz gained explosive resonance for Kurds.[lxvii] In diasporic circles, Newroz serves to overcome a sense of remoteness among European-born Kurds. Newroz music festivals, for example, encourage young Kurds in the diaspora to express their support for ethnic Kurdish recognition by displaying political banners, wearing selected clothing items, and listening to Kurdish rap music.[lxviii]

An emphasis on the aggregation and production of moral and cultural resources increases both domestic and international resonance for Kurdish cultural and political rights, and transcends barriers between the larger Kurdish minority in Turkey and in Europe. It does so by (1) expanding networks of sympathizers, (2) linking Kurdish activists with elected officials, (3) collaborating with human rights organizations, and (4) sharing information with members of legal and scholarly communities. The aggregated strategy of Kurdish diasporic communities focuses on gaining salience through the pursuit of international legitimacy. By relying on cultural and moral resources the diaspora engages in a transitional process, which shifts the status of Kurds from an unauthorized, oppositional force to one that presents itself as deserving of recognition and international patronage.

Reflections on Kurdish Resource Mobilization

As ethno-national Kurdish activists pursue the recognition of Kurds as an ethnic minority in Turkey and in Europe, they also expect an accelerated implementation of socio-cultural and political group rights. Many aim to establish a self-governed Kurdish region within Turkey. In 2012 a cease-fire negotiation resulted in a partial withdrawal of PKK guerrillas from Turkey to their encampments in Northern Iraq. In Fall 2013, however, this withdrawal process was halted by the PKK out of frustration with the glacial pace of the negotiation process. Focusing on a political solution, members of the BDP (Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party) pressured the Turkish government to address core Kurdish concerns, but the AKP leadership demonstrated little urgency in the matter.

Figure 2 explores the typology of moral and cultural resources the Kurdish diaspora relies on and the range of mechanisms groups use to access specific resources. Kurdish activists have diversified their resources by pursuing transnational connections and simultaneously, increased their outreach to former rival groups. They have benefited from accessing, producing, and appropriating a diversity of resources. Kurds in Europe are better positioned to pursue conventional socio-political opportunities because they no longer need to mobilize support through violent or confrontational means to advance their demands.

An examination of endogenous and exogenous factors in combination with the resource mobilization grid suggests that Kurdish diaspora communities perceive their roles as influential allies to Kurds in Turkey and as their interlocutors. Deeply committed to a transformative process that elevates Kurdish demands to a global agenda of human rights and justice, Kurdish activists are more collaboratively oriented than they have been in the past. The recognition that Kurdish groups can gain from accumulating diverse allies has produced dynamics that privilege an organic transformation. Several factors incentivize the diaspora’s embrace of a de-escalation of the larger conflict at this time. In particular, it is worth noting that a growing number of diaspora Kurds have earned advanced degrees at European universities in the fields of sociology, political science, peace and conflict studies, psychology, geography, etc. The rise of this Euro-Kurdish intelligentsia is elevating Kurdish claims for recognition and historical justice to a global level. Kurdish researchers have successfully integrated themselves into wider intellectual circles and scholarly networks and produce scholarship that directly challenges studies that are informed by Turkish nationalist frames or aim to re-inscribe colonial perspectives on Kurds.[lxix]Aggregating moral resources through their research and publications, Euro-Kurdish academics and intellectuals focus on bestowing legitimacy on the claims of Kurdish activists. A small group of deeply respected Kurdish scholars can be expected to rise to the level of moral patrons by articulating support for ethnic and cultural recognition, and by insisting on historical clarification related to the despicable treatment of the Kurdish minority.

Despite their humble beginnings as members of guest worker communities, Kurdish diaspora activists have risen within a wide range of professions. Part of this yet to be told success story involves the diaspora’s growing ability to document the moral gap between the behavior of the Turkish state toward Kurdish communities and Turkey’s deceptive discourses on human rights that intended to co-opt the minority. Kurdish activists successfully expanded international political contacts to broaden their base of sympathizers, increased their reliance on cultural and moral resources, and improved their collaborative relationships with members of scholarly networks, academic communities, and former rival groups. In the coming years, diaspora Kurdish discourses will be just as theoretically grounded as poignant in their appeals for communal justice and broadly envisioned human rights interpretations.

eccarius figure1

Eccarius Figure2

[i] I’m using a pseudonym to protect the delegate’s identity. Her reference to the notion of ‘developments’ should be understood as a remark related to corruption allegations that have reached the highest circles of the AKP or Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) and the fact that the rather opaque negotiation process between the AKP and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party, commonly referred to by its Kurdishacronym PKK) have ground to a halt. The PKK has been engaged in an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984 to achieve Kurdish self-determination. More recently, the PKK has emphasized the pursuit of cultural and politicalrights for the Kurdish minority in Turkey.

[ii] The meeting took place in late January 2014 under the auspices of the European Peace Council. Delegates from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK took part in the meetings.

[iii] Imprisoned PKK leader Öcalan’s Letter to the Armenian People (available in English at the site below) was a key point of discussion.

[iv] It is important to recognize that progress can only be realized if various communities inside Turkey also endorse such a process. Diaspora communities in this case do not act independently of their allies in homeland regions.

[v]In this article I emphasize perspectives articulated by self-identified ethnic Kurds who are residing in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium, and whose family ties link them to Turkey (and not to Iraq, Iran, or Syria).

[vi] Among the most commonly studied communities are the Jewish, Armenian, Greek, and a range of African diasporas. Increasingly, however, scholars aim to diversify their case studies by integrating details related to Cuban, Mexican, Palestinian, Sikh, Somali, Tamil, Tibetan, Uighur, and Kurdish diasporas today. This article supports a broad understanding of membership in a diasporic community and relies on Shain and Barth’s definition of diaspora as “a people with a common origin who reside, more or less on a permanent basis, outside the borders of their ethnic or religious homeland—whether that homeland is real or symbolic, independent or under foreign control.” For further discussion, see Yossi Shain and Aharon Barth, “Diasporas and International Relations Theory,” International Organization 57, no. 3 (Summer 2003): 449-479.

[vii]Hazel Smith and Paul Stares (eds.), Diasporas in Conflict: Peacemakers or Peace Wreckers (Washington, D.C.: United Nations University Press, 2007). Fiona Adamson, “Crossing Borders: International Migration and National Security,” International Security 31, no. 1 (2006): 165-199. Eva Østergaard-Nielsen, Transnational Politics: Turks and Kurds in Germany (London and New York: Routledge, 2003). Vera Eccarius-Kelly, “Political Movements and Leverage Points: Kurdish Activism in the European Diaspora,” The Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 22, no. 1 (2002): 91-118. Östen Wahlbeck, Kurdish Diasporas: A comparative Study of Kurdish Refugee Communities (London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1999). Gabriel Sheffer, “Ethno-National Diasporas and Security,” Survival 36, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 60-79.

[viii] I use the term ‘host country’ quite loosely here to distinguish a diaspora community’s ‘country of origin’ from the country where migrants or refugees are living or settling after a period of conflict. Sometimes, scholars prefer the term ‘country of settlement’ to indicate permanency. It is increasingly incorrect to insist on a narrower notion of ‘host society’ in countries where second and third generation immigrants and refugees have become naturalized citizens.

[ix] Bahar Baser, “Diasporas and Their Links to Political Violence and Terrorism,” The Journal of Turkish Weekly, November 8, 2009. Available on line at

[x] The events I refer to here are the terror attacks in the US on 9/11/2001, in Spain on 3/11/2004, and in the UK on 7/7/05. For examples of studies that integrate a security perspective, see Vera Eccarius-Kelly, The Militant Kurds: A Dual Strategy for Freedom (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, 2011). Maria Koinova, “Diasporas and Secessionist conflicts: the mobilization of the Armenian, Albanian, and Chechen diasporas, “Ethnic and Racial Studies 32, no. 2 (2010): 333-356. Michael Jonsson and Svante E. Cornell, “Countering Terrorist Financing: Lessons from Europe,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 1 (2007): 69-78. John P. Sullivan, “Policing Networked Diasporas,” Small Wars Journal, July 9, 2007. Martin Sökefeld, “Mobilizing in Transnational Space: A Social Movement Approach to the Formation of Diaspora,” Global Networks 6, no. 3 (2006): 265-284. Lorenzo Vidino, “How Chechnya Became a Breeding Ground for Terror,” Middle East Quarterly (Summer 2005): 57-66.

[xi] A recent article in Mother Jones entitled “How Big Is Sochi’s Terrorism Problem?” serves as an example and is available at Also, see Nika Chitadze, “Main Aspects of Terrorism and Extremism in the North Caucasus Region,” Journal of Social Sciences 2, no. 1 (2013): 5-10. Anne Speckhard, “The Boston Marathon Bombers: The Lethal Cocktail that Turned Troubled Youth to Terrorism,” Perspectives on Terrorism 7, no. 3 (2013). For a critical assessment of US media coverage of terrorism following 9/11, see Brigitte L. Nacos, Yaeli Bloch-Elkon, and Robert Y. Shapiro, Selling Fear: Counterterrorism, the Media, and Public Opinion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[xii] Benedict Anderson, ed.,The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World (London: Verso, 1998), 58–76.

[xiii] Bruce Hoffman, William Rosenau, Andrew J. Curiel and Doron Zimmermann, “The Radicalization of Diasporas and Terrorism: A Joint Conference by the RAND Corporation and the Center for Security Studies,” ETH Zurich and Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007. Also see, Jolle Demmers, “New Wars and Diasporas: Suggestions for Research and Policy,” Journal of Peace, Conflict and Development 11 (2007): 1-26. Yossi Shain, “The Role of Diasporas in Conflict Perpetuation or Resolution,” SAIS Review 22, no. 2 (Summer-Fall 2002): 115-144. Fiona Adamson, “Crossing Borders: International Migration and National Security,” International Security 31, no. 1 (2006): 165-199.

[xiv]Vera Eccarius-Kelly, “Surreptitious Lifelines: A Structural Analysis of the FARC and the PKK, Terrorism and Political Violence 24, no. 2 (2012): 235-258.

[xv] Ipek Demir, “Battling with Memleket in London: The Kurdish Diaspora’s Engagement with Turkey,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 38, no. 5 (2012): 815-831.

[xvi] Bilgin Ayata, “Mapping Euro-Kurdistan,” Middle East Report 247 (Summer 2008): 18-23.

[xvii] These observations are based on a number of conversations with Kurdish activists in Germany in 2013.

[xviii] Bob Edwards and John D. McCarthy, “Resources and Social Movement Mobilization,” in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, ed. David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 116-152.

[xix] This Kurdish (Kurmancî) term can be translated to mean “a sense of alienation experienced by those who live in a foreign land” or “living in exile or banishment of one’s own homeland.”

[xx] Metin Heper and Nur Bilge Criss, Historical Dictionary of Turkey (Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 94.

[xxi] Christian Joppke, Immigration and the Nation-State: The United States, Germany and Great Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). Also, see Martin Baldwin-Edwards and Martin Schain, eds., The Politics of Migration in Western Europe (London: Frank Cass, 1994).

[xxii] Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser, Turkey’s New Geopolitics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press and Rand, 1993), 23. Also, see Stephen Castles and Mark J. Miller, The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press, 1993), 276-277.

[xxiii] Vera Eccarius-Kelly, “The Kurdish Conundrum in Europe: Political Opportunities and Transnational Activism,” in Migration and Activism in Europe, ed. Wendy Pojmann (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008): 64-65.

[xxiv] It is extremely difficult to find scholarly literature that addresses political behaviors and electoral participation patterns among ethnic Kurdish Europeans. But this recent article from the German magazine Der Spiegel addresses the theme of the rise of “ethnic” candidates in general

[xxv] This observation is based on conversations with Kurdish activists in Düsseldorf, Germany, in January 2014.

[xxvi] For a variety of recent commentaries related to European perspectives on Bulgarians and Romanians, or Roma groups, see or consider a blog linked to the Economist or for those who read German, see

[xxvii] Annually, a group of German linguists, writers, and intellectuals gather to determine which newly minted German term advances the most manipulative and misleading idea of the year. For further detail, see

[xxviii]Within the larger migration literature, ‘Fortress Europe’ is a pejorative description of the state of immigration in the European Union by referencing border controls, detention centers, and attitudes toward immigration. Currently, the term also serves to critique the EU’s lack of compassion for the plight of Syrian refugees who are held in despicable conditions in Bulgarian ‘reception centers.’ For more information on that issue, see

[xxix] ‘Othering’ is a concept that emerged in continental philosophy and is linked to Emmanuel Levinas’ work. In the 1970s, Edward Said integrated the notion of ‘Othering’ into his discussions on orientalism.

[xxx] Anca Parvulescu, “Old Europe, New Europe, Eastern Europe: Reflections on a Minor Character in Fassbinder’s Ali, Fear Easts the Soul,” New Literary History (2012), 727–750. The quote is from page 727.

[xxxi] Vera Eccarius-Kelly, “Reframing the Nationalist Perspective: Kurdish Civil Society Activism in Europe,” in Symbiotic Antagonisms: Competing Nationalisms in Turkey, ed. Ayşe Kadioğlu and Fuat Keyman (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011), 289-318. The quote is taken from the conclusion on pg. 315.

[xxxii] Ibid., 316.

[xxxiii] Eva Østergaard-Nielsen, Diasporas and Conflict Resolution; Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution? (Copenhagen: DIIS Brief, 2006): 1-8.

[xxxiv] Marlies Casier, “Neglected Middle Men? Gatekeepers in Homeland Politics,” Social Identities 17, no. 4 (July 2011): 501-512. Eva Østergaard-Nielsen, Transnational Politics: The Case of Turks and Kurds in Germany (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[xxxv] Vera Eccarius-Kelly, “Political Movements and Leverage Points: Kurdish Activism in the European Diaspora,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 22, no 1 (2002): 91-218.

[xxxvi] Without a doubt, immigrants from non-European countries in Europe face racism, prejudice, and educational neglect. My remark is in part based on studies that suggest that “labor migrant groups, especially those of guest worker origin, entered right at the bottom with nowhere to go but up,” and “limited European evidence on the social mobility of ethnic minorities suggests that even second generation members of disadvantaged minorities such as Turks and Pakistanis experience upward mobility compared with their parents.” Anthony F. Heath, Catherine Rothon and Elina Kilpi, “The Second Generation in Western Europe: Education, Unemployment, and Occupational Attainment,” Annual Review of Sociology 34 (2008): 211-235. The quotes are taken from page 229. Also, consider Ira N. Gang and Klaus F. Zimmermann, “Is Child like Parent? Educational Attainment and Ethnic Origin,” The Journal of Human Resources 35, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 550-569.

[xxxvii] Amir Hassanpour, “Satellite Footprints as National Borders: Med-TV and the Extraterritoriality of State Sovereignty,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 18, no. 1 (1998): 53-72.

[xxxviii] I have had numerous conversations with diaspora members on the subject of who represents Kurdish interests most effectively today. Often, the co-leaders of the BDP, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, Selahattin Demirtaş and Gülten Kışanak are mentioned in this context.

[xxxix] For details, see Freedom House’s recent report entitled Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey available at

[xl] For access to the Index, see

[xli] Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Amid Flow of Leaks, Turkey Moves to Crimp Internet,” The New York Times, International Section A4, Friday, February 7, 2014.

[xlii] These comments are based on conversations with a range of activists in Germany in January 2014.

[xliii] For a fascinating interview with Remzi Kartal, President of the Kurdistan Peoples’ Congress (KONGRA-GEL), see Wladimir van Wilgenburg’s article “Turkish Power Struggle Leaves New Questions on Kurdish Issue,” al-Monitor, February 4, 2014.

[xliv] Ibid. The caution relates to fears that the Turkish secret service carried out targeted assassinations of Kurdish activists in Paris last year. Of course, if Gülen supporters are the ones who leaked information about the killings, one wonders how and when they knew about the assassination, and if they also may have been involved. In sum, conspiracies flourish in the current climate.

[xlv] Michael Gunter, “The Continuing Kurdish Problem in Turkey after Öcalan’s Capture,” Third World Quarterly 21, no. 5 (2007): 849-869.

[xlvi] The village guard system was established in 1985 as a temporary measure but remains in use today. Reports on criminal activities involving members of the village guards have been disseminated for a decade now. See for example the U.S. Department of State Human Rights Reports on Turkey, the European Commission Turkey Progress Reports, Human Rights Watch Reports, Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) Reports, and the Turkish Human Rights Association Reports (IHD). For a sample, consider reading a KHRP Briefing Paper, Turkey’s Village Guard System, last updated on March 22, 2011 and available at

[xlvii] General Koşaner abruptly resigned from his post as Chief of the General Staff along with the heads of Turkey’s army, navy, and air force on July 29, 2011. The resignations took place in protest against the AKP government’s ongoing campaign to arrest senior military officers who were accused of having plotted against the government.

[xlviii] For a Turkish newspaper article on the issue, see and for a U.S. think-tank analysis consider

[xlix] Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2007) and David Romano, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunity, Mobilization and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[l] Martin van Bruinessen, “Between Guerrilla War and Political Murder: The Workers’ Party of Kurdistan,” Middle East Report 153, July-August, 1988, 40-42, 44, 46, 50. Van Bruinessen suggested that many young people from small towns with limited education joined the PKK.

[li] For a detailed discussion of the Europeanization strategy of the PKK, see Vera Eccarius-Kelly, The Militant Kurds: A Dual Strategy for Freedom (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, 2011).

[lii] Marlies Casier, “Neglected Middle Men? Gatekeepers in Homeland Politics. Case: Flemish nationalists’ receptivity to the plight of Turkey’s Kurds,” Social Identities 17, 4 (2011): 501-521.

[liii] Marlier Casier, Joost Jongerdon, and Nic Walker, “Turkey’s Kurdish Movement and the AKP’s Kurdish Opening: A Kurdish Spring or Fall?” 135-136 See the chapter online at the following site

[liv] Many Kurdish activists profoundly dislike or even reject the idea that representatives of the state engage in secret talks with an imprisoned Kurdish leader. The power differential, they argue, undermines the validity of the negotiation process, and if the state wants to negotiate with Öcalan, he should be released from prison.

[lv] Zeynep Gülrü Göker, “Presence in Silence,” in Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, eds. Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 107-124.

[lvi] A notable exception is Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel, eds., Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[lvii]Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action and Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 4.

[lviii] For further discussion, see for example Donatella Della Porta, ed., The Global Justice Movement: Transnational and Cross-National Perspectives (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007). Also consider David S. Meyer and Sidney Tarrow, eds., The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).

[lix] While I argue that Turkey has not achieved the status of a consolidated democracy, I do not want to imply scholarly consensus on this subject. Linz and Stepan, for example, argued that South America and Post-Communist Europe achieved consolidation once political struggles were being resolved within established norms and parameters (i.e. elections). See Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). On the other hand, O’Donnell has argued that countries can move away from their authoritarian structures and hold regular elections, yet continue to rely on repressive patterns of clientelism, patronage, and nepotism. See Guillermo O’Donnell, “Illusions about Consolidation,” Journal of Democracy 7, 2 (April 1996): 34-51. I suggest that Turkey falls into the latter category since wide gaps exist between elite politics and civil society. In addition, a continued lack of accountability of the political system to specific constituencies negatively affects the country.

[lx] Contributions by the following movement scholars are particularly relevant: Charles Tilly, Regimes and Repertoires (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004). David Snow and Robert Benford, “Ideology, Frame Resonance, and Participant Mobilization,” International Social Movement Research 1 (1988): 251-269.

[lxi] For a powerful analysis of the South African resistance movement, see Anthony W. Marx, Lessons of Struggle: South African Internal Opposition, 1960-1990 (New York: Oxford Press, 1992).

[lxii] For further details, see Henry Vogt, Between Utopia and Disillusionment: A Narrative of the Political Transformation of Eastern Europe (Oxford: UK, 2005), 18-35.

[lxiii] Bob Edwards and John D. McCarthy, “Resources and Social Movement Mobilization,” in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, ed. David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 116-152.

[lxiv] In May 2005 the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem offered an apology on behalf of the Kurdish people to the Armenians for years of silence and complicity in the Armenian Genocide. This was reported by Armenpress whichcited Marmara, an Armenian-language newspaper that is published in Istanbul, Turkey. The paper described the suffering of the Armenian people and apologized for its reluctance to widely discuss the issue. More recently, the BDP mayor of Sur municipality in Diyarbakir, Demirbaş, inaugurated the Monument to Common Conscience in September 2013 and apologized to Assyrian and Armenian communities for Kurdish crimes against them. For further information, see

[lxv] For example, a self-identified Laz minority member by the name of Nurten Kurnaz posted the following message on the webpage of Minority Rights Group International at on May 28, 2013: “I’m a Laz activist living in Germany. This weekend I’m going to Turkey to inform Laz intellectuals and activists about European NGO’s initiatives for minority rights, which could be of interest to our struggle for cultural and linguistic rights. I came across your portrait of Turkey, and was happy to find the Laz listed in your databank. In the name of the Laz communities, a number of associations and activists, who are eagerly looking for possibilities to participate in activities and projects concerning their issues, I would like to request to inform us, and help us to take part in your campaigns and be informed about what possibilities we have to speak for ourselves, and defend and maintain our rights. Please let us know if you offer any seminars, conferences, trainings, whatsoever.”

[lxvi] See Delal Aydin’s thesis titled Mobilizing the Kurds in Turkey: Newroz as a Myth, which is available at

[lxvii] Consider Cengiz Güneş, “Explaining the PKK’s Mobilization of the Kurds in Turkey: Hegemony, Myth, and Violence,” Ethnopolitics 12, no. 3 (2013): 247-267.

[lxviii] Vera Eccarius-Kelly, “Nationalism, Ethnic Rap, and the Kurdish Diaspora,” Peace Review 22, no. 4 (2010): 423-431.

[lxix] Mesut Yeğen,“‘Prospective-Turks’ or ‘Pseudo-Citizens’: Kurds in Turkey,” The Middle East Journal 63, 4 (Autumn 2009): 597-615.

22 May 2014

Policy Update 1/2014

Policy Update May 2014

Update on the current situation in Iraq

By Fanar Haddad

Key points

  • Iraqi forces struggling to contain rise in violence
  • Election results expected in coming ten days but government formation may take months
  • Maliki’s State of Law expected to capture the largest share of the vote but will still fall short of a majority
  • Unclear whether Maliki will be able to secure a third term



Security continues to deteriorate in Iraq. Iraqi security forces (ISF) have had mixed results in their ongoing operations in western Iraq and around the Baghdad belt. Violence against civilian targets has also increased with 15 car bombs in one day striking Baghdad alone last week. Worryingly, there is no doubt that some Shi’a militias, notably Asaib Ahl al Haq have been fighting alongside ISF around the Baghdad belt and in Diyala. This further accentuates the sectarian aspect of the ongoing violence and does not bode well for reconciliation in the near future. It can also be taken as an indication that ISF are stretched. Violence looks set to continue on its current course through 2014.

The most immediate issue is the pending announcement of Iraq’s legislative elections (held on the 30th of April). The results have yet to be announced but it is expected that Nuri al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SoL) will secure the largest share of the vote but will nevertheless fall well short of securing a majority (various forecasts place SoL and their allies at over 100 seats). Negotiations have already begun to determine what kind of a governing coalition emerges over the coming months. In the previous legislative elections it took upwards of 35 weeks to form a government and there is no reason to expect anything less lengthy this time around.

All the major ethno-sectarian constituencies are divided. Ultimately it is the Shi’a vote and the parties campaigning for the Shi’a vote who will decide the shape of the future government. Shi’a parties are bitterly divided not least over the issue of a third term for Prime Minister Maliki. The Sunni and Kurdish votes have been equally divided; in theory this division may help Maliki secure support from some Kurdish and Sunni parties eager for a place in the forthcoming government; however he will need the support of one of the two remaining Shi’a parties to be able to form a government.

It is highly likely that SoL will form the next government; however, this does not necessarily mean a third Maliki term as SoL may be forced to nominate a different candidate, if resistance to a Maliki’s third term proves to be more than just electoral rhetoric. Some names that have been mentioned in that regard are Tariq Najm (Maliki’s former office director), Falah al Fayyad who is also a Maliki ally and Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Hussein al Shahristani. The next government will certainly include SoL and may well be led by SoL. It is highly unlikely that Maliki, or anyone else, will be able to form a majority government and we could see a repeat of 2010 when a ‘national-unity’ government was formed (meaning one that includes every major political entity and no meaningful opposition). It will be some time before we know for certain.

Update on the current situation in the Westbank and Gaza

By Joshua Rickard

Key points

  • Reconcilliation between Hamas and Fatah
  • Netanyahu warns of the end of peace negotiations
  • Rapidly increasing expansion od Israeli settlements


The Hamas government of Gaza and Fatah controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) announced on the 23rd of April a reconciliation agreement that would see the formation of a new unity government within five weeks. Despite Israeli scepticism and harsh warnings from Israeli PM Netanyahu that such steps would signify the end of peace negotiations with the PA, Palestinians have little to lose after two decades of peace negotiations which have yet to produce anything remotely resembling a sovereign state. That being said, after seven years division, complete devastation in Gaza and deteriorating conditions in the West Bank, the damage that the Palestinian political divide has already caused Palestinian society is unlikely to be reversed easily.

As supporters of Hamas are frequently jailed and brutalised by PA security forces in the West Bank, and equivalent treatment of Fatah affiliates exists under the Hamas government in Gaza, uncertainty is widespread among Palestinians. Having dealt with near-total siege since 2007, Palestinians living in Gaza are weary and in little position to negotiate anything while Abbas’s Fatah movement is desperate to regain legitimacy among the West Bank population where it is widely viewed as collaborating with Israeli occupation through security arrangements. Each political movement has a base of support in both of the Palestinian enclaves however there is much division among the general population and many Palestinians have become all together disillusioned with the political process viewing both governments as being corrupt and unable to represent their interests.

Peace negotiations which have been marked by repeated attempts by the US to encourage peace through conditioned aid to the PA government offering limited development in only specific areas of the West Bank has only succeeded in creating a Palestinian elite which rules over an increasingly impoverished society dwelling in increasingly isolated conditions. As the most recent round of US sponsored negotiations have advanced, the West Bank population has experience rapidly increasing expansion of Israeli settlements and demolition of Palestinian property as well as an increase in violent incidents at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers.

In conclusion while the long awaited reconciliation is a welcome change for Palestinians, significant improvement in the conditions of life for the populations living in Gaza or the West Bank are unlikely in the near future. What may however amount to a progressive change is an end to a charade of negotiations which have led nowhere and Palestinians taking their situation, limited as their options may be, into their own hands. Consensus among Palestinian leaders is vital to potential progress in any form, given the recent status quo almost any change in policy, particularly one that would seek to mend divisions that have been mutually destructive, would constitute as a positive development.



15 May 2014

Singapore Middle East Paper   Volume 7/1:

China the ‘Next U.S.” in the Middle East?[1]

By Stig Stenslie and Wang Luyao

SMEP 7-1 Stenslie and Luyao

China will be considerably more dependent on oil imports in the coming years because growth in consumption far exceeds the production. The number of cars and commercial ground transportation is exploding, reflecting the shift to a consumer driven economy and rapid urbanization. According to Harold York, principal oil markets analyst of Woods Mackenzie: “By 2020, China will be second only to the U.S. for the total fleet of personal auto vehicles in use. From 2005–2020, China will see the number of vehicles rise from 20 million to 160 million.”[2]Stable energy supply is essential to sustain China’s unprecedented economic growth, and, hence, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. As result of the growing energy demand, the country will inevitably be more reliant on the Middle East, the world’s largest net exporter of oil and the possessor of the world’s biggest proven oil reserves.

Meanwhile, the United States move in the opposite direction. The country is becoming less dependent on oil imports. Increasing domestic production means that the U.S. might go from being the world’s main oil importer to being self-sufficient in energy by 2030. Furthermore, Washington is signalling that it seeks to reduce dependence on the Middle East and adopt a lower profile in the troubled region. In his Acceptance Speech in August 2008, newly elected Barack Obama stated: “[F]or the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.”[3] Later, in March 2012, during the race to become reelected president, Obama said that new energy sources and technologies would make America “less dependent on what’s going on in the Middle East”.[4] This view is shared across political camps: The Romney campaign, the same year, argued that energy independence would mean that “the nation’s security is no longer beholden to unstable but oil-rich regions halfway around the world.”[5]The U.S. has for decades played the role of hegemon in the Middle East, besides securing sea lines of communication crucial for international oil trade.

The fact that the U.S. moves toward energy independence while China is becoming increasingly dependent on imports, could have significant geo-strategic consequences. On this backdrop, we ask whether China might be the “next U.S.” in the Middle East.

Increasing Dependence on Middle Eastern Oil

According to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), China leap-frogged the U.S. to becomethe world’slargest net oilimporter inSeptember2013. That month, the Chinese used 10.9 million barrels per day, while the Americans used 18.6 million. China’s production was 4.6 million barrels per day, while the U.S.’ was 12.5 million. Consequently, China imported 6.3 million barrels per day compared to the U.S.’ 6.24 million.[6]Already in 2009, China exceeded the U.S. to become Saudi Arabia’s top oil customer. By the end of that year, the volume of crude oil that China imported from Saudi Arabia exceeded 1 million barrels per day, while the U.S. imported less than 1 million barrels per day for the first time in more than 20 years.[7]

In 2009, China produced 189 million tons of crude oil, while its net imports of crude oil was 199 million tons. This made China’s crude oil imports dependency reach 51.29 percent, exceeding the generally recognized warning line of 50 percent for the first time.[8] Moreover, the import dependency is growing rapidly. Three years later, in 2012, China produced 207 million tons of crude oil, while its net oil imports was 284 million tons, which meant the country was 58 percent reliant on foreign supplies.[9]The countryis expected to beeven moredependent on oil importsin the coming years. The International Energy Agency predicts that China’s dependence on foreign oil will increase to 60–70 percent of its total consumption in 2015, and, further, to as much as 75 percent in 2035.[10]On the other hand, the U.S.’ oil importis expectedto decline, basically due to the development of technology for extracting of oil from shale rock. The U.S. could overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer in 2020, and even become self-sufficient in oil by 2030.[11] As such, North America, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA), might become a net exporterofoilby 2030.[12]

While the U.S. is easing its reliance on oil imports, Beijing is facing the risks associated with growing import dependency.[13] China is seeking to diversify its oil imports between different regions, with Russia, Africa, and Latin America becoming key oil suppliers to China in the decades to come. Nonetheless, China will have to rely on the Middle East because of the simple fact that the region is the world’s largest net exporter of oil in addition to having the world’s largest oil reserves. China is already the Middle East’s largest oil customer and the country imports more oil from the Middle East than any other region in the world. In 2011, 51 percent of China’s total oil imports came from this region.[14] IEA has estimated that China’s oil imports from the Middle East will continue to rise, from 2.9 million barrels per day in 2011 to 6.7 million barrels in 2035.[15]

pic 1 stenslie

Figure 1: China’s oil import from various regions in 2011 (as % of total import)

Saudi Arabia has been the number one exporter of oil to China over the past decade. The country accounted for 20 percent of China’s total oil imports in 2011, amounting to nearly 1.1 million barrels per day.[16] The kingdom has established itself as a reliable supplier to the Chinese market, through actual deliveries as well as promises that Saudi Arabia can provide sufficient oil in the years to come.

At the same time,Chinaimportsless and lessoil fromIran.Having beenChina’s thirdlargest oilsupplierover the past decade, Iran was only the fourth largest in2012. Chinese importsofIranian oilfell from555 000barrelsperday in2011 to439 000in 2012,to402 000inthe period January–April 2013.[17] The drop is mainly due tosanctionsimplementedby the U.S.and the European Unionagainst the Iranianregimein 2011 and2012. The sanctionsamong others preventimportand export ofIranian oil, as well as investments in the Iranian oil industry.

Iraqalso providesa significantsourceof oilforChina, andhasa potential to becomeeven more importantin the yearsto come.Iraq’s oil production has boomed in recent years, and in 2012, production reached its highest level since the 1980s–despite the deteriorating security situation and uncertainty over a new oil law and the legal conditions of doing business in Iraq in general. That year,Iraqexported2.4 millionbarrelsperday, of which 13 percent–312 000barrelsperday–were shipped to China.[18] According to forecasts by the IEA, Iraq’s oil production has the potential to rise from the current level of approximately 3 million barrels per day to more than 8 million barrels per day by 2035.[19] Hence, Iraq alone will be able to cover almost half of the projected global oil demand in the coming decades. It is therefore highly likely that China will look to Iraq to meet its rapidly growing oil demands.

pic2 stenslie

Figure 2: China’s oil imports from the Middle East in 2011 (as % of total imports)

Growing Investments in the Middle East

According to the “2012 Statistical Bulletin of China’s Outward Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)”, the Middle East as a whole has witnessed a significant rise in inward FDI from China in the past decade, especially in the post-financial crisis era.[20]

Country 2004 2006 2008 2010 2012
Iran 46.68 110.59 94.27 715.16 2070.46
Algeria 34.49 247.37 508.82 937.26 1305.33
Saudi Arabia 2.09 272.84 620.68 760.56 1205.86
UAE 46.56 144.63 375.99 764.29 1336.78
Iraq 434.87 436.18 20.79 483.45 754.32
Egypt 14.28 100.43 131.35 336.72 459.19
Turkey 2.89 10.38 22.36 403.63 502.51
Yemen 31.02 63.76 140.54 184.66 221.3
Qatar 2.7 8.48 49.79 77.05 220.66
Morocco 9.06 27.01 28.06 55.85 95.22
Libya 0.87 28.57 81.58 32.19 65.19
Kuwait 2.53 6.31 2.96 50.87 82.84
Oman 0.01 33.87 14.22 21.11 33.35
Israel 0.32 8.65 9.87 21.87 38.46
Jordan 5.92 11.06 10.32 12.63 22.54
Syria 0.33 16.81 4.38 16.61 14.46
Tunisia 1.28 3.91 3.57 2.53 5.69
Bahrain 0.15 0.27 0.87 0.67 6.8
Lebanon 0.02 0.44 0.44 2.01 3.01
Total 636.07 1531.56 2120.86 4879.12 8443.97

Table 1: China’s Outward FDI Stock in Middle East (as millions of dollars)

China’s outward FDI in the Middle East has surged from $636.07 million in 2004 to $8443.97 million in 2012. Iran, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iraq are the top five destinations for Chinese investments.

Most of the Chinese investments in the Middle East are driven by large State-owned enterprises (SOEs). Under China’s “Going Out” policy – which is a slogan adapted by Beijing for encouraging investment and acquisitions abroad, particularly by big state-owned industrial groups – Chinese SOEs have two major missions: one aim is to grow to be internationally competitive enterprises, the other is to secure China’s domestic demand of resources. The large SOEs invest in projects in resource-rich countries, and then transport oil and gas back to China. As an example, PetroChina declared in May 2010 that 400 billion RMB (about 66 billion in USD) would be used for oversea investments in order to achieve an annual output of 200 million tons of oil and gas in the future.[21] During its working conference of 2013, PetroChina proposed a new target: to be a truly international energy company in 2015, with an oversea oil and gas production that contribute to as much as 60 percent of China’s total production.[22]

According to data released by the Heritage Foundation, Chinese companieshave in recent years made several mega-investments worth more than $10 billion in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Iraq, and Qatar.[23] Most of the investments are in the metal and energy sectors, targeting aluminium, oil, and gas. Therefore, the region’s major oil and gas producing countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, and Yemen, are main destinations for China’s outward FDI in the Middle East. Additionally, Egypt is China’s third largest export market in Africa, and China aims to develop Egypt as an export base in the Middle East. Therefore, despite the complex domestic situation, Chinese enterprises have sufficient motivation to facilitate trade through diverse investments. The growth rate of China’s FDI to Egypt has surpassed that of export in recent years, according to Chen Lin, Commercial Counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Egypt.[24] Moreover, the Suez Canal and available low-cost labour are obvious advantages for investors. In addition to the Arab states, Israel has developed its agricultural, medical, and high-tech industries rapidly, and with leading technology and expertise, it has become an attractive destination for Chinese enterprises.

Year Investor Value(million $) Partner/Target Sector Subsector Country
2006 CITIC and Chinalco $940 Metals Aluminum Egypt
2007 China Ocean Shipping $150 Transport Shipping Egypt
2007 Chinalco $1,200 Binladin, MMC Metals Aluminum Saudi Arabia
2007 Sinopec $2,010 National Iranian Oil Energy Oil Iran
2008 Sinochem $470 Soco Energy Oil Yemen
2008 CNPC $3,020 Energy Oil Iraq
2009 CNPC $1,760 National Iranian Oil Energy Oil Iran
2009 Tianjin Development $280 Real estate Property Egypt
2009 CNOOC $100 Qatar Petroleum Energy Gas Qatar
2009 CNPC $2,250 National Iranian Oil Energy Oil Iran
2009 CNPC $240 State Oil Marketing Organization and South Oil Company Energy Oil Iraq
2010 Sinochem $1,440 Makhteshim-Agan Agriculture Israel
2011 Sinopec $3,300 SABC Energy Oil Saudi Arabia
2012 Jushi Group $230 Other Egypt
2013 FosunPharma $240 Alma Lasers Technology Medical Israel

Table 2: Chinese investments in the Middle East (above $10 billion)

China considers Saudi Arabia as being its main energy partner in the Middle East. The relationship between the two countries is largely limited to oil exports to China and other trading, as Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, pursues a restrictive policy on foreign investments in upstream activities. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco, enjoys both expertise and good finances–which limits the kingdom’s interest in cooperating with Chinese oil companies in the upstream sector.

In Iraq and Iran upstream projects initiated by Chinese oil companies constitute the largest investments in the Middle East. These activities include several contracts to develop major oil fields in both countries.

It is said that “trade follows the flag”. This is also the case with Chinese trade, which follows the “Stars and Stripes”. Chinese oil companiesare among the largestbeneficiaries in post-Saddam Iraqi oil industry.[25]As Robert D. Kaplan sarcastically noted in The Wall Street Journal: “We have liberated Iraq so that Chinese firms can extract its oil.”[26] Iraq opened its oil fields to foreign companies in 2008, providing service contracts to foreign companies where the companies must pay a fee for the oil they extract. Chinese oil companies have won several contracts in collaboration with other international oil companies. These contracts are among China’s biggest upstream projects in the Middle East. The state-owned oil companies China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), and Sinopec are among the largest foreign players in Iraqi oil production.

While Western companies have stopped their projects in Iran, Chinese companies still operate in the country. Companies that transfer money to the Central Bank of Iran run the risk of being cut off from the U.S. banking system, and as a result, it is increasingly difficult for the Iranians to get cash for their energy exports. China is in a position to overcome this problem. Instead of cash, China is trading Iranian oil with cheap consumer goods. This is the only way Iran can claim payment, providing China with substantial bargaining power. China has premium access to both the Islamic Republic’s energy sector and investment opportunities in its non-oil sectors, making China Iran’s top trading partner.[27] With Iran cut off from global markets due to sanctions, Beijing has been in a prime position to profit. Nonetheless, Chineseupstream activities in Iran suffer through lack of progress, and several projects have resulted in delays and contract terminations. This is due to the sanctions against the Iranian regime and Chinese unhappiness with business hardship in Iran.

China is also engaged in the oil sector in Libya through the presence of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Sinopec. Libya has long been a major exporter of oil to China, exporting 11 percent of its oil to China in 2011.[28] There is still uncertainty associated with the oil sector because of the instability that characterizes post-Qadhafi Libya. Early in September 2013, production fell to 150,000 barrels per day and exports to 80,000 barrels per day; by comparison, this was only one-tenth of the production before the Arab uprising in 2011, when total production was 1.6 million barrels per day.[29] There are so far few Chinese direct investments in Libya’s energy sector, but it is very likely that investments in Libya will eventually pick up, and that Chinese companies will be offensive during the next Libyan oil and gas licensing round that is scheduled for the first half of 2014.

The involvement of Chinese companies’ in war-torn countries such as Iraq and Libya shows their willingness to take significant risks and to consider potential long-term benefits of economic investment. This is in line with Beijing’s goal of securing energy supplies where diversification of oil imports is central. Further, Chinese companies are willing to accept contracts with lower earnings because they have lower operating costs than other international oil companies, and because investments are based on national interests–to meet China’s growing oil needs–rather than profit.

Yet, No “Grand Scheme” for the Middle East

Despite rising energy dependence on the Middle East, Beijing still lacks an overall strategy for this part of the world. While the Chinese government has published so-called “white papers” that describe the country’s interests and priorities in most regions of the world, most observers agree that China lacks a 10–15 year perspective in its Middle East politics. Beijing handles Mideast issues on an ad-hoc manner, and has no “grand scheme” for the region. In the words of Robert Richard Bianchi, visiting research professor at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore: “There is still no consensus in Beijing on overall Middle East policy.”[30] Only when it comes to energy policy there are indications that the Chinese have a long-term perspective.

Nevertheless, it is possible to identify three tendencies in China’s approach to the Middle East: firstly, Beijing seeks to cultivate good relations with all countries in the Middle East, where Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are prioritized partners.According to Huang Jing, professor and director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation in Singapore, China’s Mideast-policy is driven by “pragmatism”. Beijing has no formal alliances and can easily switch sides[31], which gives the Chinese a degree of flexibility in the Middle East, in contrast to the far more cemented politics of the U.S. in the region. Beijing has a particular stance towards the Israel/Palestine issue, consisting of giving principled support to the Palestinians while at the same time developing a relationship of mutual interest with Israel. Policy in the troubled Gulf represents a delicate balance, doing business with arch-rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Bo Zhiyue, senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, notes that Chinese leaders generally keep a low profile. He draws attention to the fact that party leaders, who have no formal role in foreign affairs, are more visible in the Middle East than their decision-making state counterparts, and, moreover, that Chinese leaders as a whole stay away from “sensitive” countries such as Iran, Israel, and Syria in their diplomatic visits.[32] The Chinese government adheres to the principle of non-intervention in other states’ affairs, but take care to hide behind Russia when it comes to vetoingU.N. sanctions against countries like Iran and Syria.

Secondly, economic interests drive China’s policy in the Middle East, where the key is to ensure long-term stable supplies of energy raw materials. Chinese authorities are aware that dependency on sea lines of communication makes their energy supplies vulnerable, and are investing in land-based pipelines.The Chinese seek to cover most of their needs for raw materials through supplies from their own country and neighbouring countries. This does not necessarily include energy, but if a pipeline between Iran and China becomes a reality, China could export oil from Iran over land. In terms of raw materials and energy, China has, in other words a long-term policy. The Chinese leadership considers this as essential to safeguard the country’s economic development and political system, both of which belong to the country’s “core interests”.[33]

Thirdly, China is about to establish a modest military presence in the Middle East. This is in accordance with signals from Beijing on greater willingness to use military resources to protect the country’s interests abroad. Since 2009, Chinese warships have participated in the international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, and Chinese warships have been on fleet visit to the Mediterranean. In autumn 2010, the Chinese and the Turkish air forces conducted a jointexercise, a bold move from China at a time when Turkey had a strained relationship with both Israel and the U.S.[34] In 2011, China evacuated 35 860 Chinese citizens by air and sea from war-torn Libya, a clear demonstration of the ability of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) to secure Chinese citizens abroad.[35] In July 2013, President Xi Jinping statedthat to strengthen the country’s navy was a priority due tothe increased strategic importance of sea lines of communication.[36]

Despite the absence of a long-term strategy, there is no shortage of debate about China’s role in the Middle East. There are reasons to believe that the debates within the party leadership in Beijing reflects the public debates that take place among Chinese think tanks and foreign policy observers. Here, the Middle East is a hot topic. This must be seen in light of the Middle East’s importance to China, and how Chinese interests are challenged by the continuing instability that characterizes the region.

It is increasingly noticeable that the ongoing Middle East debate in China is more about the relationship with the U.S. than anything else. Two opposite views appear: on the one hand, it is claimed that the U.S.’ position in the Middle East is weakened and that Beijing should adopt a more assertive approach to strengthen Chinese influence in the region. On the other hand, it is argued–in line with Deng Xiaoping’s renowned advice to “keep a low profile”–that the Chinese government should uphold its current cautious approach, avoid to contest the U.S. hegemony, and let the U.S. war-machine bleed to death in the troubled region.

Voices Advocating a More Assertive Approach

Wang Jisi, professor at Peking University and one of China’s leading experts on international relations most forcefullyadvocated a more assertive Chinese involvement in the Middle East after the Arab uprisings. In October 2012, he presented his geopolitical strategy, “March West” in the Global Times.[37]

Although the wording “March West” is new, the strategy itself is not new. In fact, it has the same connotations as previous concepts that China has promoted, under names such as “Development of the West”, “Opening to the West”, “Building a New Silk Road”, and the “Greater Periphery”. The core of Wang’s idea is close to Mao Zedong’s legendary military strategy: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”[38] The U.S. signals a greater focus on the Asia Pacific region, the so-called “Pivot”,apparently at the expense of the Middle East, and Chinese authorities have interpreted this to mean that the U.S. seeks to limit China’s influence in its own neighbourhood. The Americans seek to achieve this by strengthening military alliances with China’s neighbouring countries, hampering China’s relationship with ASEAN, and undermining Chinese attempts to lead Pacific-Asia’s economic integration.[39]

Instead of seeking to challenge U.S. influence in the Asia Pacific, Wang believes that China should assume a greater role in the area west of China. As a result of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as signals of foreign policy reorientation away from this region, China has now the opportunity to fill a void in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Wang claims this will give Beijing greater strategic leverage towards Washington as the Americans will need the help they can get in trying to stabilize the Middle East. According to the “March West” strategy, Chinese authorities must more aggressively promote their interests in the region through increased diplomatic and economic presence.

Voices Advocating a Cautious Approach

Some Chinese strategic thinkers indicate that there might be some advantages in the U.S. being “strategically trapped” in the Middle East, because this might weaken the “Pivot” to Asia. Qu Xing, president of the China Institute of International Studies, emphasizes the Middle East’s strategic importance for China because the region sustains Western countries from engaging strongly in Asia Pacific. According to him, the unstable situation in the Middle East hampers the U.S. declared intention of a reorientation to the Asia Pacific region–which serves Chinese interests. Qu therefore argues that China is best served by maintaining the non-interference line towards the Middle East, and avoid challenging the Americans’ position in the region. Meanwhile, it is also important for China to work to prevent the West in provoking regime changes that could harm Chinese interests in the Middle East. He stresses in particular that China must avoid Western countries in using the U.N. Security Council as a tool for regime change.[40]

Tang Zhichao, Middle East researcher at the think tank China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) which is under the Ministry of State Security, expresses scepticism about the U.S. role in the unrest that has characterized the Middle East since 2011. He believes that the U.S. government uses this turbulence to resume its geopolitical status in the region, to maintain its hegemony and undermine its rivals. This is done by pushing oil prices up, which in turn prolong the economic crisis in the EU and delay the internationalization of the Chinese currency. Nonetheless, Zhichao argues–as Qu Xing–that China should not challenge U.S. dominance in the Middle East. This is because Chinese interests benefit by American political, military, and economic resources that are strategically tied up in the Middle East,resources that otherwise could have been used to contain China in East Asia. In the words of Tang: “[T]he strategy of Pivot to Asia would be greatly challenged by the increasing austere Middle East situation such as the Syria crisis and the Iranian nuclear issue, and President Obama would likely have to pay more concerns to this region.”[41]


There are few reasons to believe that China will be a “new U.S.” in the Middle East,as the costs of deeper involvement in this region by far exceed the benefits. So far, China has benefitted from its low-key approach to the region. Simply explained: The U.S. has taken the political, economic, and military costs of stabilizing the Middle East, while China has got the benefits in terms of stable energy supplies and secure sea routes of communication.

It is unlikely that China’s approach to the Middle East will change radically in the near future. Today’s “free-rider policy” will continue to serve Beijing well–as long as the U.S. arguably has too many interests beyond oil to protect in the Middle East to scale down its presence in the region substantially.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to expect a more visible China in the Middle East: economic interests, primarily oil imports and investments, will drive its growing involvement in the region. Beijing will continue to try to stay away from political conflicts in the Middle East, which, however, might turn out to be increasingly difficult to avoid in future as its economic involvement becomes more complex. Actors both within and outside the region will expect that China–as a responsible great power–takes a stand and chooses a side. Assuming that there is no unforeseen major crisis that threatens China’s core interests,Chinese military presence in the Middle Eastwill remain modest,being limited to fleet visits and joint exercises.

©, MEI Singapore 2014.

[1] Thanks to Ida Nicolaisen Almestad, Robert Richard Bianchi, Huang Jing, Amber Khan, Otto Malmgren, Andrew J. Nathan, Tim Niblock, Øystein Noreng, David Shambaugh, Christina M. Smikop, Bo Zhiyue, and Zheng Yongnian for thoughtful comments and suggestions. They can, however, not be blamed for remaining errors and shortcomings.

[2] Cited in Kenneth Rapoza, “Within Four Years, China To Consume More Oil Than U.S”, Forbes, 25 Aug., 2013, at <; [3 Aug., 2013].

[3] “Barack Obama Acceptance Speech”, 28 Aug., 2008, at <; [9 May 2013].

[4] Quoted in Benjamin Alter and Edward Fishman, “The Dark Side of Energy Independence”, New York Times, 27 Apr., 2013, at <; [9 May 2013].

[5] Alter & Fishman (2013).

[6] Strait Times, 10 Oct., 2013, at < > [3 Nov. 2013].

[7] Global Times, 23 Feb. 2010, at < > [11 Mar. 2013].

[8] Cited in “中国原油进口依存度首超警戒线” (“China’s Crude Oil Imports Dependency Exceeding the Warning Line for the First Time”), Jingji Cankao Bao (Economic Information Daily), 29 Mar., 2010, at <> [ 2 Oct. 2013].

[9]“China’s Reliance on Oil-Gas Imports Growing”, Peoples’ Daily Online, 31 Jan. 2013, at <; [2 Oct. 2013].

[10] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Country Analysis Briefs–China”, at <; [2 Oct. 2013].

[11] International Energy Agency, “World Energy Outlook 2012”, at <; [29 Sep. 2013].

[12] Ibid.

[13] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Country Analysis Briefs–China”, at <; [2 Oct. 2013].

[14]U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Country Analysis Briefs–China”, at < > [29 Sep. 2013].

[15] International Energy Agency, “World Energy Outlook 2012”.

[16] U.S. Energy Information Agency, at <; [29 Sep. 2013].

[17] Nidhi Verma and Meeyoung Cho, “India Leads Asian Cuts in Iran Oil Imports Ahead of Waiver Review”, Reuters, 21 May, 2013, at <; [2 Oct. 2013].

[18]U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Country Analysis Briefs–Iraq”, at <; [2 Oct. 2013].

[19] International Energy Agency, “Iraq Energy Outlook”, at <; [29 Sep. 2013].

[20] China’s Ministry of Commerce, National Bureau of Statistics, and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, “2012 Statistical Bulletin of China’s Outward Foreign Direct Investment” (Beijing:China Statistics Press, 2013).

[21] “中石油拟投4000亿海外扩产” (“PetroChina Intends to Spend 400 Billion Overseas Expansion”), People’s Network, 21 May, 2010, at <> [2 Oct. 2013].

[22] ”中石油拟500亿美元购伊拉克油田收购仍存风险” (“PetroChina Intends to Purchase $50 Billion Acquisition of Iraqi Oilfields and the Risks Still Exist”), Sina, 26 Jan., 2013, at <; [2 Oct. 2013].

[23] China Global Investment Tracker Interactive Map, at <; [12 Sep. 2013].

[24]”中国逆势投资埃及欲建对中东出口基地” (”China Investing in Egypt, Intending to Build It an Export Base in the Middle East”), Huanqiu, 4 Sep., 2012, at <; [ 2 Oct. 2013].

[25] By Tim Arango and Clifford Krauss, “China Is Reaping Biggest Benefits of Iraq Oil Boom”, New York Times, 2 Jun., 2013, at <; [30 Sep. 2013].

[26] Robert D. Kaplan, “The Middle East Crisis Has Just Begun”, The Wall Street Journal, 26 Mar., 2011, at <; [30 Sep. 2013].

[27] Payvand Iran News, 12 Apr., 2012, at <;.

[28] “U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Country Analysis Briefs–Libya”, at <; [30 Sep. 2013].

[29]Alarabiya, 4 Sep., 2013, at <; [3 Nov. 2013].

[30]Robert Richard Bianchi, Islamic Globalization: Pilgrimage, Capitalism, Democracy, and Diplomacy (Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2013): p. 233.

[31] Interview in Singapore, 18 Mar. 2013 and 2 Jul. 2013.

[32] Bo Zhiyue, “China’s Middle East Policy: Strategic Concerns and Economic Interests”, InSights (Spring 2012): pp. 18-20.

[33] Global Times, 7 Sep., 2011, at <; [30 Sep. 2013].

[34] “中国苏-27与土耳其美制战机对抗演习”, (”Turkey, China Conduct Joint Air Maneuvers”), Huaxi Dushi Bao (West China City Newspaper), 10 Oct., 2010, at <> [2 Oct . 2013].

[35] Xinhua, 3 Mar. 2011, at <; [30 Sep. 2013].

[36]“习近平宣示走以海强国之路” (“Xi Jinping Declears that Strengthening Naval Forces is a Way to Make China Powerful”), Xinhua, 2Aug., 2013, at <; [1 Oct.2013].

[37] Wang Jisi, “’西进’,中国地缘战略的再平衡” (”’Marching Westwards’, the Rebalancing of China’s Geo-Strategy”), Global Times, 17 Oct., 2012, at <> [1 Oct. 2013].

[38] Cited in Tony Saich (ed.), with a contribution from Benjamin Yang, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party: Documents and Analysis (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996): p 476.

[39] Zhou Fangyin, “美国的亚太战略调整与中国的应对” (“U.S. Asia-Pacific Strategy Adjustment and China’s Countermeasures”), International Department, Central Committee of the China’s Communist Party, Dec., 2011, at <> [1 Oct. 2013].

[40] Qu Xing, “中东变局与中国战略” (”Middle East Changing Situation and China’s Strategy”), Xinhua, 6 Apr., 2012, at <; [2 Oct. 2013].

[41] Tang Zhichao, “试析奥巴马第二任期中东政策走向” (“Evaluating Obama’s Middle East Policy and Its Future”), Institute of Middle East and African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), 14 Apr., 2013, at <; [30 Sep. 2013].

Singapore Middle East Paper   Volume 6/1:

The Syrian Civil War: Regional Ramifications, Global Disharmony and Hegemonic Decline

By Moritz Pieper

SMEP 6-1 Pieper


The raging war in Syria is replete with examples of staggering atrocities, appalling indecision and ambiguous policy turns. The incoherent Syria policy planning of many governments is symptomatic of the perplexity with which the world watches a human tragedy unfold inexorably in Syria with its shocking long-term consequences for the Syrian people. What started as a civil uprising against an authoritarian regime in Syria in March 2011 has gradually evolved into a full-blown civil war that has spilled over into neighboring countries and has affected the stability of the entire region. The statistics of the humanitarian catastrophe are as alarming as they are numbing. Gross human rights violations and violence against the civilian population take place on a daily basis: the death toll was estimated to be around 150.000 in April 2014, tens of thousands of people are severely injured, arrested and missing, the number of refugees stands at already more than 2.7 million people, and there are an additional 6.5 million internally displaced persons. 9.5 million Syrians are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. At least 3 million children have dropped out of school as a consequence of the conflict, many are traumatized, and orphans are growing up in refugee camps in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.[1] The country is in a shambles, the war damage is immense, generations lost. Amidst all this, reports of ‘industrial-scale’ torture of Syrian detainees and of ‘barrel bomb’ raids on civilian areas hit the news in mid-January 2014.[2] The so-called Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012 is the only basis for talks about a solution to the Syrian conflict, but peace talks so far have come to nothing because of the mutually exclusive conceptions of what a transitional government should look like. While the Syrian opposition categorically rejects the idea of Assad staying in power, the latter refuses any future participation of what he calls ‘terrorists’, by which he means all armed oppositional forces. Tellingly, the Geneva II talks saw an irreconcilable clash of interests, with one side focussing on the discussion of a ‘transitional governing body’ (TGB) and the other on the definition of ‘terrorists’ and the recognition of elections as the sole legitimate means to change the government composition. And at a time when Assad announced that he will run again as presidential candidate in elections to be held in June 2014, his forces are gradually gaining the upper hand militarily. As rebel forces have agreed to withdraw from Homs at the time of writing, it seems that Assad’s forces are regaining the symbolic ‘capital of the revolution’ where the uprising started in 2011, one month before Assad’s possible re-election as president.[3]Such an outcome would be the result of both decisive action on the part of actors wanting his regime to stay, and of irresolute policy planning on the part of anti-Assad coalitions. The latter have allowed the de facto fragmentation of the Syrian state and an ensuing implosion of governance structures, all with detrimental consequences for regional stability. The country is already becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism, intensifying confessional tensions in the Middle East and destabilizing the entire region. Against this background, the following analysis sheds light on the geostrategic and politico-ideological motivations and policy implications of actors in the conflict, and shows how the civil war has evolved into a contagious proxy war. The second part examines the sectarian dimensions of the conflict and shows how confessional mobilization has gone hand in hand with an increasing radicalization. On an international level, the inability of ‘the international community’ to respond to the Syrian imbroglio is illustrative of a process of hegemonic decline. In this context, a third part focuses on the Syria diplomacy of the principal ‘Great Powers’, the U.S. and Russia, in which it is argued that the inability to find common approaches is indicative of a long-term process of restructuring the workings of international politics. A final part argues how the perception of Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict is at the interstices of identity politics in foreign policy and paradigm changes in Middle Eastern politics.

Geostrategy, Ideology, and Regional Faultlines

Syria’s civil war has quickly turned into a regional and international proxy war in which external actors are supporting various factions on the ground through different channels. This has created a dynamic in which Syria has become the epitome of politico-ideological faultlines for the Middle Eastern order.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are financing and arming parts of the Syrian opposition, in compliance with their own regional power agenda. Already facing sectarian security challenges in Yemen, Bahrain, and Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s material support for fighting groups in Syria is motivated by a desire to change the future demographics in the region to its favor.[4] Against the background of the internecine conflict between the different opposition groups and in an attempt to achieve greater cohesion among the rebels, Riyadh has therefore significantly stepped up its funding since August 2013.[5] Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia back and support factions in the civil war that are inspired by Salafist and Saudi Wahhabi branches, which arguably constitute one of the bigger threats to Western security interests. This is not to suggest that Saudi Arabia and Qatar back the same forces in Syria, however. While Qatar backs, i.a., the Free Syrian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia has backed other elements of the Syrian opposition like the Jaish al-Islam. It has been pointed out that this rivalry of external support has in part contributed to and exacerbated the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition.[6] The Qatari and Saudi Arabian divergence of interests will undoubtedly be complicated by Saudi Arabia’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization on 8 March 2014. This is a move that is also likely to impose operational constraints on the National Coalition (“of Syrian revolutionary and oppositional forces”), founded in Doha in November 2012 as the formal umbrella organization of Syrian opposition groups. Ironically, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed the backing and approval of the U.S. administration in funding their proxies on the ground in Syria. American intelligence agents in Southern Turkey reportedly see to it that Saudi and Qatari weapons reach the intended, vetted parts of the opposition.[7] And within Europe, France and Great Britain were the strongest advocates for the lifting of an arms embargo on Syria. With a fragmented opposition and uncontrollable supply lines on the ground in Syria, let alone the diverging funding interests between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, however, this can only be an illusory policy that produces unintended outcomes.[8] Western weapon deliveries to the Syrian opposition also took place via the Jordanian-Syrian border, and parts of the moderate Syrian opposition have received military training run by the C.I.A. in Jordan.

Turkey, another direct neighbor of war-torn Syria, initially sided with Bashar al-Assad as the uprising started in March 2011. Prime Minister Erdoğan, however, soon started to shift course as it became clear that the conflict was not going to be easily contained or terminated any time soon. Ankara’s foreign policy discourse increasingly became more outspoken in favor of an end to the bloodshed, until Erdoğan even questioned Assad’s legitimacy as the country’s ruler and publicly called on him to resign.[9] “Assad today is not the Assad from three years ago,” Erdoğan justified his stance in an interview with al-Jazeera in February 2014.[10] Turkey began to articulate the fear of a spill-over of the conflict onto Turkish territory and began channeling so-called ‘non-lethal’ (i.e. financial and limited military) support to the Syrian opposition and publicly applauded the stances Qatar and Saudi-Arabia take.[11] In the context of the mounting Syrian refugee crisis, neighbouring Turkey soon became a host country for a large number of war refugees. Turkey, to date, has about 800,000 registered Syrian refugees,[12] and is sure to reach a million by the end of the year. The refugee camps are overcrowded, and aid and resources are scarce. Being drawn into the Syrian tragedy through this immediate humanitarian dimension, Turkey became alarmed when the Syrian-Turkish border became the target of rocket assaults. Turkey retaliated by striking targets in Syria,[13] and officially invoked Article 4 of the NATO Charter that provides for consultations among NATO member states if the security of one member is deemed to be at risk. As a reaction to the tension at the Turkish-Syrian border and Turkey’s increasingly assertive foreign policy rhetoric directed against Damascus, NATO then deployed Patriot Missiles in the border region and let it be known that any aggression against Turkey will be met with alliance solidarity.[14] The conflict will not be allowed to spill over into Turkey, is the message. At the same time, such a decision could arguably be understood as a soothing signal to Ankara not to undertake unilateral military operations. The latter was important against the backdrop of Turkey’s increasingly vocal anti-Assad rhetoric. In this, Turkey is on the same page as Israel, which has even flown air attacks against targets on Syrian territory since January 2013.[15]

Turkey may also indirectly fear the strengthening of Kurdish independence movements. As Kurds in Northern Syria already proclaim a quasi-independent ‘Western Kurdistan’ in the wake of the fragmentation of governance structures there, Turkish Kurds may find renewed inspiration for irredentist claims. Tellingly, Syria’s ‘Party of Democratic Unity’ that controls large parts in the Syrian Northeast with a large Kurdish population, has its roots in the PKK.[16] Turkey’s tacit allowance of jihadists to enter Syria from Eastern Anatolia–a recurring criticism brought up against Ankara – may therefore unofficially be motivated by a desire to contain Syrian Kurds.

At the same time, while Turkey and Iran were united in their public support for Bashar al-Assad at the outset of the Syrian uprising in early 2011, Turkey’s shifting course in the wake of the conflict has naturally also impacted and poisoned Turkish-Iranian relations. It soon became clear that Tehran and Ankara held mutually opposite ideas of the political future of Assad and Syria’s future. The election of Hassan Rouhani has somewhat eased these tensions to an extent where both states were proposing a joint humanitarian aid mission in the context of the mounting Syrian refugee crisis in January 2014. Changing the fundamentals of their opposed regional agendas, however, will require much more political capital investment.         Iran has maintained a strategic alliance with Syria for 30 years, and joint geostrategic considerations led to both countries joining forces in the Lebanese civil war. The founding of Hezbollah in 1982 as an Iranian-inspired militia to further Iranian interests in the Levant directly strengthened ties between Iran and Syria, as Syria was deemed a crucial corridor for the sending of weapons and other supplies from Iran to Southern Lebanon. Far from being an ideological alliance based on joint religious convictions or national interests, the Syrian-Iranian bond is of a purely tactical nature. Joint enemy images and similar geopolitical conceptions (resistance to Israel and the American presence in the region) have ensured that this rather paradoxical partnership has survived for so long. Syria has been called the ‘golden ring of resistance against Israel’ by Iranian officials like the former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati.[17] Such a tactical partnership, however, was premised on the political stability that was ensured by the Assad regime under Hafez al-Assad and, after his death in 2000, under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad. While large parts of the Arab world supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Hafez al-Assad allied with Iran.

From the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, Iran thus became a natural ally of Assad’s regime. “Iran will not allow the destruction of the ‘Axis of resistance’, whose most important column is Syria”, Said Jalili, then head of the Iranian National Security Council, announced in August 2012.[18] Iran is supporting the Syrian army financially and is supplying military equipment as well as intelligence. There are also reports that Iran has helped in the training and funding of a paramilitary grouping called ‘al-Jaysh al-Sha‘bi’ (people’s army), with the aim of helping the Syrian army to fight ‘the rebels’.[19] As well as these training activities, it is probable that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has a physical presence on the ground.

More than the often-mentioned tactical necessity to uphold Syria’s stability to ensure a corridor to the Lebanese Hezbollah, however, Iran is motivated by its fear of the spread of Sunni extremism in the region. An implosion of the governance structures in Syria, so the reasoning goes, would result in an uncontrollable power vacuum in the country that would soon be filled by al Qaida-affiliated extremist groups that represent a direct ideological and power political threat to Shia Iran. This fear explains the official Iranian narrative of ‘terrorists’ infiltrating Syrian territory and seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, instigated and financed by Israel, the US and hostile Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This narrative fully coincides with the interpretation of adherents of the Arab-socialist Baath ideology and the somewhat fanciful ‘Axis of resistance’ that sees an ‘American-Zionist’ conspiracy at work with the aim of splitting Syrian society and causing regional havoc. Even in the hypothetical case that Supreme Leader Khamenei decided to let up on Assad, Mohsen Milani therefore argues, Iran would still support what he calls ‘Assadism’–a basic preservation of systemic structures with a notable Alawite presence in the security, intelligence and armed forces, possibly in a power-sharing model with non-Jihadist elements of the opposition.[20]

The sectarian dimension and regional complications

The entrance of Hezbollah into the Syrian civil war in August 2013 has introduced another variable for regional complication and underlined once more the proxy dimension of this war. Hasan Nasrallah has let it be known that Hezbollah is fighting for the survival of the Assad regime, and emphasized that his organization is ready for an ‘entirely new phase’ in this conflict, in which the militia will ‘fight until the end’.[21] Founded as an anti-Israeli militia in 1982 in the wake of the Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah regards Syria as the strategic backbone of the ‘resistance’ against Israel and the American presence in the region. Nasrallah has stressed that Hezbollah stands ready to defend Shia and Iranian interests even beyond Lebanon–an utterance that exemplifies the transnational dimension of Syria’s civil war. Add to the cross-border dimension the sectarian implications of such statements, and it becomes clear how the Syrian conflict has triggered a dangerous dynamic of confessional dividing lines that lie at the interstices of, and overlap with national and strategic power political considerations. With Hezbollah’s official entrance into this conflict, Sunni fighters and al-Qaida-affiliated extremists like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Jihadists of ‘Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham’ (ISIL)[22] face Shia Hezbollah combat groups that enter Syrian territory from Lebanon. The confessional divide that stirred up a spiral of violence in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and continues to trouble Iraqi domestic politics until today, now officially came to coincide with combat lines between forces supporting the Assad regime and their opponents and called to mind notions of the existence of a ‘Shia crescent’ stretching from Tehran over Syria and parts of Iraq into the Hezbollah strongholds in Southern Lebanon. The confessional mobilization of the conflict has exacerbated confessional tensions in Iraq between the government headed by Shia Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Sunni parts of the population.

And after Hezbollah fighters took back the town of al-Qusayr in the summer of 2013, Salim Idriss, then general chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army,[23] threatened with retaliation and even warned to take the battle into Lebanon.[24] Next to the refugee crisis in Lebanon (one out of four people in Lebanon already is a Syrian refugee), such warnings spell out the very real danger that neighbouring Lebanon is being sucked into this black hole of violence. The Bekaa valley in Lebanon has already been the target of attacks by the Syrian air force–an area that is strategically relevant for the delivery of supplies and ordnance for the Syrian opposition.

The confessional dimension of the Syrian conflict, in this regard, is thus reminiscent of the sectarian battle lines during the Lebanese civil war that raged from 1975 to 1989 and in which the sectarian violence was, just as in Syria today, additionally fuelled by external actors that were backing opposing groups and even physically intervening themselves.[25] The presence of especially Syrian and Israeli forces on the ground in Lebanon and their respective backing of Palestinians and Lebanese Christians fighting each other transformed what had started as a civil war into a full-blown regional proxy war. There is a danger that the ethnic-confessional tensions that have characterised the Syrian context may spill-over into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.[26]

This sectarian regional power dynamic, together with the hesitance and inability of powerful international actors to respond effectively to the violence unfolding in Syria is also reminiscent of the run-up to the Bosnian war in 1995 in the wake of the implosion of former Yugoslavia, as Wolfgang Ischinger points out. Lukewarm support of the international community for parts of the opposition, attempts to mediate that come to nothing, and the inability to get the warring parties to the table and talk to each other–as much as this sounds like a description of conditions surrounding the Syrian conflict in 2013, it also perfectly applies to attempts to stop the bloodshed in the Balkans in the early 1990s.[27] The Chinese and Russian vetoes in the UN Security Council give Assad a green light to continue fighting the ‘rebels’ and indirectly guarantee him impunity in the face of large-scale atrocities happening in Syria. Much like Slobodan Milosevic in the Bosnian context, Assad knows that he is safe as long as the international community is quarrelling over how to respond, and as long as anti-Assad forces on the international level convey indecision and an unwillingness to meddle in the explosive mixture of sectarianism, regional power constellations and, as the war drags on, of radicalisation and fanaticism. As long as Assad does not have to fear a decisive international coalition ready to let action follow threats, he can rely on his military superiority and might be calculating on the military and moral exhaustion of the forces opposing his regime. This plan seems to work out perfectly, as the agreement of opposition fighters in early May 2014 to withdraw from Homs, the symbolic ‘capital of the revolution’, goes to show. The idea that Assad could be toppled by an armed and desperately fragmented opposition is becoming more and more illusory, as Assad’s forces have made substantial gains and advances since the fall of 2013.[28] The gradual disintegration of the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition, in this reasoning, is the real moral fault weighing on the conscience of those external actors calling for Assad’s resignation and the struggle for a new Syria initiated by societal groups inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’ in the region that had started with the toppling of authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

The gradual confessionalisation and sectarian radicalization of the Syrian conflict has had the effect of diminishing any chances for meaningful external support for the ‘moderate’ forces in the Syrian opposition by now. The fear of religious radicalization as a consequence of external intervention was an argument for non-interference in Syrian domestic affairs at the outset of the civil war. Paradoxically and tragically, this argument has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it was partially because of the lack of support or perceptible interest at the international level in finding solutions to Syria’s bloodshed that has led to the increasing fragmentation of the opposition and the spread of religious extremism. Today, the argumentation for non-intervention is the same, with the difference that confessionalisation and radicalization have already taken place, ruling out military interventions for fear of causing a regional conflagration.

The Syrian civil war and the international community–Global Disharmony and hegemonic decline

The inability of the international community–however contested that term may be–to find common approaches to the war in Syria, is particularly tragic because of its immediate ramifications for the Syrian people. As a result of lukewarm declarations, empty threats and incoherent policies on the part of the international community, the war has produced a humanitarian catastrophe affecting the entire region. More than 2 million have fled Syria to seek refuge in neighboring Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon. With scarce financial resources at home, neither Lebanon nor Jordan is able to absorb the high number of Syrian refugees, let alone provide them with sufficient humanitarian aid and much-needed supplies.[29] In Lebanon especially, the history and memory of large numbers of Palestinian refugees as a triggering factor for the Lebanese civil war[30] makes the government wary of receiving such a high influx of refugees that complicates the already intricate social fabric of the country. International donor pledges, meanwhile, fall short of garnering the financial assistance needed to address the humanitarian crisis: Only 23 percent of the funding has been received that the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) and the Syria Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRP) schemes had pledged.[31] Donor fatigue has set in, as Yezid Sayigh puts it.[32]

But the inability to formulate an international response to Syria’s catastrophe bears witness to another development that has ramifications far beyond the region: The global disharmony is indicative of a broader phenomenon of hegemonic decline and of a re-structuring of the workings of international politics. Nothing illustrated this more clearly than the U.S.-Russian diplomatic friction over mutually opposing conceptions of Syria’s future, the public trial of strength over reactions to the use of chemical weapons in August 2013 and the eventual Russian initiative to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.

When 1400 people died as a direct consequence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013, the U.S. was confronted with a dilemma it had sedulously sought to avoid. Obama’s previously drawn red line had clearly been crossed. The use of chemical weapons, according to Obama’s own statement exactly one year earlier, “would change my calculus. That would change my equation”.[33] The U.S. government, so the message went, would not rule out the use of force to respond in such an event. Israeli, Turkish, British, and French government officials had already accused Damascus of the use of chemical warfare agents earlier in 2013. With the obvious and appalling use of such weapons in Syria in August 2013, then, U.S. foreign policy had to react against the background of this red line. At risk was no less than the credibility of president Obama. The hesitant decision to consider a military option, and Obama’s decision to make the latter dependent on the approval of Congress, bore witness to the U.S. administration’s recalcitrance and unwillingness to enter yet another military adventure in the Middle East. The U.S. invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq had cast long shadows. With Britain soon out of the game following Prime Minister Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons, only France and Turkey were uncompromisingly backing a military attack on Syria as an appropriate response.[34] International approval for a U.S. attack on Syria had reached an historic low point. The destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, proposed as a solution by the Russians to dispel war speculations and made credible with Syria’s ensuing ratification of the chemical weapons convention in October 2013, was thus as much a face-saving solution for the Obama administration.[35] Russia had criticized what it perceived as the hastily reached conclusion that Assad was to be made responsible for the chemical weapons attack, in the absence of a ‘smoking gun.’ As Putin remarked, such an order from Assad was highly unlikely at a time when his forces were gaining the upper hand militarily.[36] Moscow’s initiative was therefore aimed at averting what was perceived as premature and dangerous playing with fire.

In explanations of Russia’s stakes in the Syrian civil war, the revenues from Russian arms supplies and the naval facilities in the Syrian port of Tartus are often mentioned. Yet, leaving aside the relatively low importance of the shipyard in Tartus,[37] Russia’s foreign policy towards the Syrian civil war is a case in point for the implications of Russian resistance to U.S.-inspired power structures. While Western governments have become increasingly opposed to the notion of Assad staying in power, Moscow has been adamant in its support for the Assad regime for geostrategic reasons. This was illustrated not only by repeated Russian (and Chinese) vetoes in the UNSC against resolutions that could have legitimated foreign military intervention in Syria, but also by Russian deliveries of arms and military equipment. In its support for Assad, Russian and Iranian regional interests are converging, while the West and Russia have been further drifting apart.[38] Like the Iranian narrative of ‘terrorists’ threatening to destabilize not only Syria but the entire region, Russian foreign ministry officials re-iterate that jihadists and mercenaries from the North Caucasus are moving to Syria to join forces with other Sunni extremists, threatening to destabilize not only the Middle East but also Russia’s Southern borderland.[39] The training and radicalization of these fighters turns them into dangerous ‘boomerang’ threats for stability and societal cohesion on their return to their homes in the Caucasus and Russia. Russia characterizes the Free Syrian Army as a group of Islamists and extremists and refuses to recognize the National Coalition (“of Syrian revolutionary and oppositional forces”).

“For Iran, it is an issue of regional balance of power and its own security, and for Russia it is an issue of upholding certain principles of international order and rejection of U.S. pressure”, Fjodor Lukyanov reflects on this geopolitical convergence of interests between Russia and Iran over Syria.[40]In both Beijing and Moscow, the memory of a Western coalition overstepping a UN mandate (UN Security Council resolution 1973) to topple Libya’s Qaddafi in 2011 is still fresh. In hindsight, this resolution 1973 constituted a watershed decision for Russian policy planning: henceforth, Russian officials argue behind closed doors, Russia would no longer be deceived by a Western instrumentalization of the UN system for regime change. [41]

Russia’s foreign policy towards the Syrian civil war is revealing a security culture that advocates resistance to power structures that have not only defined and shaped the geopolitical mapping of the Middle East, but international relations in a broader sense, as may be discerned from recent events in Crimea. In a Western reading, Russia’s foreign policy is thus perceived at times as rebellious, obstinate, and disruptive at worst. The Russian vetoes against all UN Security Council resolutions on Syria have been received with frustration and bewilderment in the West.

As Dmitri Trenin argues, Putin’s attempt to disperse war speculations over Syria by introducing the idea of a destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal in August 2013 was meant to restore a degree of equality in U.S.-Russian relations and reassert the understanding that Russia’s voice cannot be overlooked in world politics.[42] A glance at a map of the Middle East, in addition, makes clear the historic significance of the Syrian war: Syria constitutes the last Russian sphere of influence in a context where the geopolitical mapping of the region is being shaken by the ramifications of the ‘Arab Spring’. After regime changes in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, so goes the Russian rationale, Syria will not become another domino in a chain of U.S. foreign policy experiments–at the expense, if must be, of the suffering of the Syrian population.

The U.S.-Russian showdown over the appropriate response to developments in Syria stands exemplary for a phase of shifting centers of gravity and a process of U.S. hegemonic decline. Putin’s assertive Syria policy, the Kremlin argues, made international relations more ‘democratic’ again.[43] The understanding that the foreign policy principles of ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘sovereignty’ should govern international politics also has to be understood in this context of the idea that states should treat each other on equal terms. Tellingly, the official Russian Foreign Policy Concept breathes this ambition to ‘democratise’ international relations.[44] ‘Democratisation’ of international relations would thus accurately characterize Russia’s understanding of a desirable security culture to govern international politics. In the reading that ‘democratisation’ entails the deconstruction of power hierarchies, this is an explicitly counter-hegemonic endeavor.

The Iran issue and regional power shifts

Next to the U.S.-Russian divergence of interests over Syria and president Obama’s foreign policy fiasco in the late summer of 2013, another permanent ‘sticky issue’ is the inclusion of Iran in the talks on Syria. Assad’s last steadfast ally, as is slowly becoming apparent in Western capitals, needs to be at the table when options how to solve this seemingly intractable conflict are discussed. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s political faux pas and rather clumsy communication of initially inviting Iran to the Geneva-II talks and then disinviting it,[45] was illustrative of the political obstacles that still prevent practical solutions that could serve as short-term confidence-building steps to bring the warring parties together–notwithstanding the major contention about transfers of power to any hypothetical transitional government.[46]

After a largely unsuccessful first encounter in Montreux in January 2014 in the framework of the ‘Geneva-II’ talks, the Syrian government met with parts of the opposition in Geneva under the mediation of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who succeeded Kofi Annan as peace envoy in the summer of 2012. Yet, the crafting of any scenario for Syria is impossible without the inclusion of Iran. While the diplomatic crisis surrounding Iran’s controversial nuclear program was preventing any meaningful discussions with Tehran on matters of regional stability, the Iranian diplomatic outreach following Hassan Rouhani’s election in June 2013 and a first nuclear interim deal struck in Geneva on 24 November 2013 allowed for some guarded optimism. U.S. officials seemed to have realized that an at least partial normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations is a precondition for further, much-needed talks of mutual concern in the region, especially in a process where the U.S. can no longer function as the only order-defining power in the Middle East. In a process of hegemonic decline, it is time for paradigm shifts on geopolitical thinking that will also entail a re-thinking of stigmatized enemy perceptions. These will be no less revolutionary than the historic traumas in U.S.-Iranian relations that culminated in events in the wake of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, resulting in the break-off of diplomatic relations and decades of ‘institutionalized enmity’.[47] The possibility of a shift in regional working relationships is what troubles ‘traditional’ U.S. allies in the region like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Riyadh fears an implicit recognition of Iran’s regional power standing that will tilt the balancing act between Riyadh and Tehran over predominance in the Gulf region in Tehran’s favor.

A solution of Iran’s nuclear crisis and the efforts to repair U.S.-Iranian relations, however, is a condition for consultations with Tehran on the future of Syria, as the Syrian-Iranian alliance and Iran’s support for Assad as described above has shown. Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war are interlinked in their significance for a re-drafting of the geopolitical map of the Middle East. Mark Perry therefore speaks of Tehran as a ‘center of gravity’ in the Syrian conflict that US policy planning must start to recognize as such.[48] It remains yet to be seen how Tehran will address and embrace the idea of a long-term power transition in Syria away from Assad,[49] but Iranian initiatives like the four-point plan for Syria indicate a widening base for joint talking points with Iran.[50] Washington and Tehran share more enemies than both are willing to accept. Iran’s fear of the spread of Sunni extremism in the region was almost certainly a major motivation for Rouhani’s administration to seek dialogue and engage in conciliatory diplomacy.[51] Muriel Asseburg and Heiko Wimmen interestingly remark in this context that some sort of rapprochement with Iran might lessen Western insistence on bringing about regime change in Syria if collaboration with Tehran can be achieved, or has the effect of containing the conflict.[52] Yet, it remains to be seen to what extent Rouhani wants or is able to change Iran’s Syria policy. The basic strategic guidelines are formulated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and tellingly, it is to the latter that the commander of the al-Quds brigades, Qasim Sulaymani, is accountable. Sulaymani and the IRGC are said to be largely responsible for formulating and implementing Iran’s Syria policy.[53]

An inclusionary geopolitical thinking, however, takes time to actualize and replace mental templates of routinized conflict patterns. The unprofessional dilatoriness regarding the withdrawal of an already extended invitation to Iran for Geneva-II was but one example, although there seems to have been a degree of confusion about whether Iran would or would not endorse the Geneva I communiqué , set out as a condition for participation.[54] While the Syrian opposition threatened to withdraw their participation confirmation, should the UN Secretary General not disinvite Iran again, Moscow called Ban Ki-Moon’s eventual disinvitation of Iran a ‘mistake’.[55] While Russia publicly called for the inclusion of Iran in the talks, Moscow essentially walks a tightrope between appearing as an averter of war in the chemical weapons episode and as an obstructive veto player in the Security Council, as well as the steadfast ally of a dictatorial regime exerting state terror. While the Syrian war illustrates the power shifts affecting U.S. hegemony, as argued above, Russia’s Syria policy cannot but impact on Russia’s standing as well: In particular, the apparent convergence of interests between Russia, Iran and Hezbollah is being followed with a watchful eye in Tel Aviv and undoubtedly has an adverse effect on what are traditionally good relations between Russia and Israel. Of course Russia’s high poker bets on Assad’s political survival will negatively affect Russian relations with a Syria post-Assad, and are sure to be viewed with suspicion not only by the other Arab states in the region.


Syria’s civil war has seen an increasing confessionalisation and regionalization of what had started as a civil uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule. Different oppositional groups and warlords with markedly diverging agendas now control their own territories, creating para-statist systems of order and ‘ungoverned spaces’. At the same time, arguably, the mushrooming of allegedly new rebel formations is accompanied (and expedited) by foreign media hypes, while some re-labeling may actually be a ‘repacking and remarketing’ strategy of forces on the ground.[56] Yet, the de-facto fragmentation of Syria as a state is a very real risk, and this will not only have fatal consequences for Syrian society, but may create a power vacuum in the entire region. In the fourth year since the Syrian uprising, religious extremists have infiltrated and taken over parts of the Syrian opposition, providing a breeding ground for increasing sectarian radicalization. ‘Moderate’ parts of the opposition have lost fighters to al-Qaida affiliated armed branches like the al-Nusra front, which are more effectively organized and represent a more radical, yet easily discernible ideology. These dynamics render the idea of any ‘transitional process’ to a pluralistic and multi-party system, let alone of stable local ceasefires,[57] a mere policy illusion, even though UN peace envoy Brahimi expressed guarded optimism following the Geneva-II peace talks in Montreux. The fact that the Syrian foreign minister and representatives of the Syrian opposition, led by SNC chairman Ahmad Asi Al-Jabra, sat at the same table could have been a first step towards confidence-building, but following the hostile and mutually opposing positioning of both parties, it soon became clear that Geneva II would fail. While ‘state continuity’ and the prevention of the country’s disintegration can be said to be shared objectives of Assad and the opposition represented in Geneva, the interpretations of how to achieve this are mutually opposing (creation of a transitional governing body versus an electoral cycle). Assad’s announcement to hold presidential elections as scheduled in June 2014 may fly in the face of those seeking a genuine national reconciliation. But as much as this is a biting irony after three years of an entire country bleeding out, it equally is a strikingly logical consequence of the inaction of some of his international opponents.

On a regional level, a proxy war is under way over very different perceptions and conceptions not only of Syria’s future but, along with it, the construction of regional order between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Hezbollah’s public siding with the Assad regime has exacerbated the confessional dimension of the conflict between Shia and Sunni fighters. Hezbollah is fighting an amalgam of different ‘rebel’ parts of the Syrian opposition, including al-Qaida-affiliated Sunni extremists. But even within the Sunni camp, differences persist between, inter alia, more moderate variants inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, fundamentalist Salafism and al-Qaida -inspired militant jihadism.

While a covert proxy war between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar arguably is in progress over the regional ‘leadership role’ of the Sunni camp, the involvement of Iran and the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah connection calls to mind the evocation of an ‘Axis of resistance’ against Israel and America. The latter, it has been argued, must not be stylized as the sole guiding ideological framework that explains Iran’s motives. Beyond revolutionary rhetoric, Tehran is motivated by the very practical fear of the spread of Sunni extremism in the wider region, which is not in America’s interest either.

It is this nexus, coincidentally, that accounts for the potential for pragmatic consultations between Washington and Tehran on the basis of joint regional interests–provided traumatized bilateral relations are partially repaired. An at least mid-term solution for Iran’s nuclear status and a closure of the controversial nuclear file is a precondition for a new inclusionary thinking in Middle Eastern politics. Such a paradigm shift is not only dictated by the geostrategic necessity of including Iran in talks about regional security, but also by a changing zeitgeist in international relations in the second decade of the 21st century: During a process of U.S. hegemonic decline, America will no doubt come to the realization that its ordering role in the Middle East has to be rethought. The U.S.-Russian diplomatic showdown in the late summer of 2013 was illustrative of a gradual re-balancing of international politics and, possibly, of the end of Great Power politics in the Middle East. This is not to be confused with the ‘rise of Russia’ in the wake of a declining U.S. role. As Russia’s persistent support for pro-Assad forces has raised eyebrows not only in Arab states in the region, Syria may become the watershed moment for a re-balancing of the international security architecture. As has been shown in this article, the historic dimension of regional conflict and alliance dynamics that interlink the intricate Iranian nuclear issue and the Syrian civil war will leave its mark on relations between state and non-state actors in the Levant, the Gulf and the wider Middle East, and might usher in a new understanding of ‘Great Power’ diplomacy. And it buries no less than the concept of an ill-defined ‘international community’.

[1]These are official UN numbers. Estimates vary among the reporting agencies and are inherently difficult to verify on the ground.

[2] Ian Black, “Syrian regime document trove shows evidence of ‘industrial scale’ killing of detainees,” The Guardian, 21 January 2014. Available at:; “US condemns Syria regime barrel bomb raids,” Al Jazeera, 5 February 2014. Available at:

[3] Dominic Evans, “Ceasefire in Syria’s Homs to allow rebel withdrawal,” Reuters, 2 May 2014. Available at:

[4] Augustus Richard Norton, “Courting Fitnah: Saudi responses to the Arab Uprisings,” Visions of Gulf Security, 25 March 2014. POMEPS Studies, 41.

[5] Yezid Sayigh, “Is the Armed Rebellion in Syria on the Wane?, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 24 April 2014. Available at:

[6] See Lina Khatib, “A Comprehensive Strategy for Syria: Next Steps for the West,” Carnegie Policy Outlook, 4 March 2014. Available at:

[7] Markus Bickel, “Zögerliche Interventionisten. Das Eingreifen der Hisbollah in Syrien erhöht den Handlungsdruck des Westens,” Internationale Politik, July/August 2013, 85.

[8] See Moritz Pieper and Octavius Pinkard, “West can ill afford to get it wrong on Syria,” The Moscow Times, 13 May 2013.

[9]Ömer Taşpınar, “Turkey’s Strategic Vision and Syria,” The Washington Quarterly vol. 35: 127-140, 137.


“Erdogan: Turkey’s role in the Middle East,” Talk to Al Jazeera, 12 February 2014. Available at:


[12] Syria Regional Refugee Response, Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal. Available at:

[13] “Turkey strikes targets in Syria in retaliation for shelling deaths”, CNN, 4 October 2012. Available at:

[14]Piotr Zalewski, “Patriot Missiles Arrive in Turkey: How They Affect the Syria Equation,” Time World, 1 February 2013. Available at:

[15] BBC, “Syria conflict: Israel ‘carries out Latakia air strike’,” BBC, 1 November 2013. Available at:

[16] Muriel Asseburg and Heiko Wimmen, “Genf II–Chance zur Einhegung des syrischen Bürgerkriegs,” SWP-Aktuell 3, January 2014.

[17] In: Karim Sadjadpour, “Verlässlicher Verbündeter. Warum Teheran das Assad-Regime auch künftig nicht fallen lassen wird,“ Internationale Politik, November/December 2013, 42.

[18] Ibid., 43.

[19]Karen DeYoungand Joby Warrick, “Iran and Hezbollah build militia networks in Syria, officials say,” The Guardian, 12 February 2013. Available at: In this, the regime forces are also supported by the infamous Shabiha militia.

[20] Mohsen Milani, “Why Tehran Won’t Abandon Assad(ism), “ The Washington Quarterly 36, 4 (2013): 79-93, 85.

[21] Anne Barnard, “Hezbollah Commits to an All-Out Fight to Save Assad,” The New York Times, 25 May 2013. Available at:

[22] Suffice to note at this point that there are significant inter-factional disagreements within this ‘jihadist’ camp between the more aggressive ISIS and the more strategically operating al-Nusra. Notably, al-Qaida’s central leadership under Ayman al-Zawahiri officially disavowed any ties with ISIS and affiliated rebel groups in Syria. See Charles Lister, “The anti-jihadist Revolt in Syria,” Brookings, 19 January 2014. Available at:; Ben Hubbard, “Al Qaeda Breaks With Jihadist Group in Syria Involved in Rebel Infighting,” International New York Times, 3 February 2014. Available at:

[23] On 16 February 2014, the Free Syrian Army announced the sacking of Salam Idriss as its military chief, while several unit commanders had denounced the decision. See “Syrian opposition ends dispute over rebel chief’s dismissal,” Al Arabiya News, 6 March 2014. Available at:

[24] Shaun Waterman, “Assad forces, Hezbollah retake Qusair, head for Aleppo in Syria,” The Washington Times, 5 June 2013. Available at:

[25]Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations. Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 118; Michael Jansen, The Battle of Beirut. Why Israel Invaded Lebanon (London: Zed Press, 1982); Yair Evron, War and intervention in Lebanon: The Israeli-Syrian deterrence dialogue (Beckenham: Croom Helm Ltd, 1987).

[26] International Crisis Group, “Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts,” Middle East Report 143/2013. Available at:

[27] See Wolfgang Ischinger, “Die syrische Hölle. Warum wir die Lehren aus Bosnien nicht vergessen dürfen,“ Internationale Politik September/October 2013.

[28] Yezid Sayigh, “The Assad Regime: Winning on Points, “ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 10 April 2014. Available at:; Yezid Sayigh, “A Melancholy Perspective on Syria,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 8 April 2014. Available at:

[29] Moritz Pieper and Octavius Pinkard, “Help those helping Syria’s refugees”, The Daily Star (Lebanon), 21 May 2013.

[30]Michael Hudson, “The Palestinian Factor in the Lebanese Civil War,” TheMiddle East Journal 32, 3 (1978) : 261-278.

[31] Financial Tracking Service, “Total Funding to the Syrian Crisis 2014,” Available at:

[32] Yezid Sayigh, “A Melancholy Perspective on Syria,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 8 April 2014. Available at:

[33] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President to the White House Press Corps”, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 20 August 2012. Available at:

[34] BBC, “Syria crisis: Cameron loses Commons vote on Syria action,” BBC, 30 August 2013. Available at:

[35] UNSCR 2118 stipulates the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal until mid-2014. At the time of writing, the sending of Syria’s chemical weapons out of the country for eventual destruction is taking slower than expected, with only 5 percent of the arsenal sent out of the country. See Council on Foreign Relations, “Syria to Miss Chemical Weapons Deadline,” Daily News Brief, 30 January 2014. Available at:

[36] Reuters, “Putin says would be ‘utter nonsense’ for Assad to use chemical arms,” Reuters, 31 August 2013. Available at:

[37]Roy Allison, “Russia and Syria: explaining alignment with a regime in crisis,” International Affairs, 89, 4 (2013): 795-823, 807.

[38] Dmitri Trenin, “Russia and the West need to rediscover each other in 2013,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 24 December 2012. Available at

[39] Stephan Rosiny, “Ausweg aus dem Bürgerkrieg in Syrien. Machtteilung in Syrien,“ Osteuropea, September 2013, 8.

[40]Fjodor Lukyanov, “Russia plays the Iran card,” Al-monitor, 17 January 2014. Available at:

[41]See Roy Allison, “Russia and Syria: explaining alignment with a regime in crisis,” International Affairs, 89, 4 (2013): 795-823, 797f.

[42]Dmitri Trenin, “Putin’s Syrian Game Plan,” World Today vol. 69, no. 8/9, 7 October 2013. Available at:

[43]See Roy Allison, “Russia and Syria: explaining alignment with a regime in crisis,” International Affairs, 89, 4 (2013): 795-823; Hannes Adomeit, “Fehler im Betriebssystem. Die russisch-amerikanischen Beziehungen,“ Osteuropa, September 2013.

[44] Russian Foreign Ministry, Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, 2013. Available at!OpenDocument.

[45] Reuters, “Ban Ki-moon withdraws Iran’s invite to Syria talks,” Reuters, 20 January 2014. Available at: The official justification was that Iran had not endorsed the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2013 as a basis for Geneva-II talks.

[46] Yezid Sayigh, “Geneva II: Avoiding a Death Foretold, Part I,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Syria in Crisis, 21 January 2014. Available at:

[47] Trita Parsi, A Single Roll of the Dice. Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012): 240.

[48] Intervention at the conference ‘The Syrian Crisis: Can Diplomacy Succeed?’, organized by the SETA Foundation, Washington D.C., 14 February 2014.

[49] See Mohsen Milani, “Why Tehran Won’t Abandon Assad(ism), “ The Washington Quarterly 36, 4 (2013): 79-93.

[50] Press TV, “Iran to discuss 4-point Syria plan with Brahimi: Official, “ 17 March 2014. Available at:

[51] Walter Posch, “Iran’s Interests in the Nuclear Negotiations,” SWP Point of View, 6 December 2013. Available at:

[52] Muriel Asseburg and Heiko Wimmen, “Genf II–Chance zur Einhegung des syrischen Bürgerkriegs,” SWP-Aktuell 3, January 2014, 5.

[53] Karim Sadjadpour, “Verlässlicher Verbündeter. Warum Teheran das Assad-Regime auch künftig nicht fallen lassen wird,“ Internationale Politik, November/December 2013, 47.

[54] While foreign minister Zarif reportedly initially expressed agreement with the communiqué, other power centers of the central government in Tehran did not.

[55] Reuters, “Russia says Iran’s absence from Syria talks is a mistake, not a catastrophe,” Reuters, 21 January 2014. Available at:

[56] Yezid Sayigh, “Is the Armed Rebellion in Syria on the Wane?, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 24 April 2014. Available at:

[57] An example of such a local ceasefire was the humanitarian truce agreed on in mid-February to allow for the evacuation of civilians from besieged Homs.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s