The Political Economy of Sectarianism

Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

The recent execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, among others, and the ‘predictable’ regional reaction risks enforcing ideas of primordial battle between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shi’i dominated Iran. While the executions cannot be excused, condemnation without understanding the rationale behind the executions is ‘futile’. If we restrict our understanding of the executions to sectarian narratives we risk stereotyping a more complex political reality.

In order to understand why Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was executed in early January – a move which Saudi policy-makers must have known would aggravate regional tensions – analysts should try to understand Saudi Arabia’s behaviour in its wider and deeper context. Others have written of the wider context; of Saudi anxiety regarding terrorism, US withdrawal and Iranian re-integration into the international system. The deeper context, which seeks to understand the domestic policy pressures on foreign policy, has been less explored.

The Political Economy of Sectarianism

Over the past two weeks, the UK press has been increasingly interested with Saudi Arabia’s so-called National Transformation Plan. Driven by the Deputy Crown Prince, this is designed to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from over-reliance on the oil sector. Indeed, the Deputy Crown Prince was reported to have said that the recent IPO of ARAMCO (the Kingdom’s formerly nationally-owned oil company) was undertaken in order to encourage foreign investment and private sector development. This is needed; Saudi Arabia, like many other countries in the region, is struggling with a bloated public sector, mass youth unemployment and limited foreign investment. The centre-piece of the reforms is the reduction of subsidies on fuel and water, which have both been heavily subsidised in the past. As the government seeks to balance the budget and develop a sustainable economy, it has to increase its citizens’ expenses.

Without analysing (problematic) theories “rentier state mentalities”, it should be clear that removing subsidies and enacting sweeping economic reforms is difficult in the best of times. Given the recent memory of the 2011 protests in the Kingdom and further afield, the transition begins to look even more worrisome. Added to this, the pace of the reforms already undertaken is staggering. Some of the Prince’s critics (of which there are many) have labelled him ‘reckless’.

This ‘reckless’ Prince – a man the German foreign intelligence agency BND labelled as impulsive and overly-ambitious – is similarly linked to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Intriguingly, the link between his position as a driver of economic reform and as a defender against “Iranian meddling” has often been overlooked.

Analysts overlook this connection at our peril. It is possible that the Deputy Crown Prince has stoked sectarian tensions to ease the passage of his own reforms. Saudi elites have built on a narrative of “security” in recent years. They have tried to provide security in a tumultuous region. Saudi citizens, in turn, are supposed to be grateful for this security, which, the logic goes, limits calls for popular protest against the ruling family. By executing a Shi’i cleric (who was relatively obscure before his execution), Saudi policy-makers sought to revive the Saudi-Iran rivalry as a way to enact economic reforms somewhat “under the radar”. Of course, the executions also served to send a message to any “would-be” dissidents that rebellion, in whatever guise, will not be tolerated. It is certainly a dangerous game to play.

The Danger of Sectarian Narratives

However, if we accept that the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr – alongside Sunni dissidents, it should be remembered – was not driven by sectarian hatred, then perhaps we can move past overbearing religious narratives. The danger of these narratives is that they suggest that tensions in the Middle East are “primordial” and that there is no role for the international community in mediating humanitarian disasters and war.

This narrative should be challenged. Indeed, the current Saudi-Iran situation presents an opportunity for international – and perhaps EU – mediation between these two regional hegemons, both of which will be required at any diplomatic meeting over Syria or Yemen. By understanding Sheikh Nimr’s execution as part of a wider and deeper political context, policy-makers can create a non-sectarian space in which the UK can engage critically – but constructively – with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

What price for David Cameron’s plans to bomb Syria?

Operation Inherent Resolve
Royal Air Force Voyager KC2 refuels two RAF Tornado GR4, March 4, 2015, over Iraq. The RAF aircraft provide combat air support for the coalition against Da’esh. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/RELEASED)

On Thursday 26th November, David Cameron set out his arguments in favour of extending RAF air strikes to Syria. The primary reasons for this extension were the defence of British citizens and the need to stand with our allies in the wake of the Paris attacks.

However, bombing already-bombed cities and supply routes will not defeat Islamic State or make British citizens safer. Similarly, killing more Syrians is not meaningful support for France. Rather Britain should invest its energies in working towards a new strategy in the so-called War on Terror. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are surely testament to the fact that the current strategy of military intervention has not worked.

A decision to “not bomb” Syria does not mean we are ‘sub-contracting our defence to our allies’. It should symbolise that we are actively seeking new paradigms with which to protect ourselves, our allies, and the innocent people all-too-often caught up in terrorist attacks.

Islamic State is suffering from military setbacks. However, without a new paradigm, military intervention will not bring lasting peace and has little value besides symbolic support for Britain’s (Western) allies.

A Bombing Campaign Won’t Work

In the first instance, extending air strikes into Syria will not ‘work’. Mr Cameron made clear that his objective to is to ‘degrade ISIL and to disrupt the threat it poses to UK’. These are two distinct aims, and military intervention in Syria would achieve neither.

Islamic State militants in Iraq have withstood British and Coalition bombing for over a year. They have been curiously resilient. Part of the reason for this seems to be that Islamic State fighters have dug a network of tunnels underneath their strongholds. These tunnels protect fighters from bombing raids, and yet are not open to civilians. There is a real risk of collateral damage for limited military gain.

Of course, Mr Cameron accepts that airstrikes alone are not enough to defeat Islamic State, and his plan rests on the presence of so-called ‘moderate’ ground forces. In Mr Cameron’s view, there are 70,000 Free Syrian Army fighters still ready to pounce on any weakness shown by IS. Let us be clear. There is no independent Free Syrian Army; the former UK Ambassador to Syria has labelled the plan ‘laughable’. There is no ‘moderate’ force on the ground, so we must ask, where will the ground troops required come from? The Kurds, remarkably successful in defending their own land, have shown no signs that they are prepared to go on the offensive outside of their own lands and are themselves divided by political rivalries. Assad’s forces remain a significant military adversary to Islamic State, yet Britain should resist covert alliances with the embattled premier. Such hypocrisy would undermine Britain’s place in the world far more than taking the time to consider the effect of bombing Syria.

There is No Plan for the Future of Syria in the Current Proposals

On a related note, Mr Cameron has not advanced a suitable plan for the future of Syria. Rather, he vaguely asserted that he would work with the ‘international community’ – a community with significantly different objectives for the outcome of the Syrian war – to rebuild the country.

Cameron has hinted that the Kurds have an important role to play in the future of Syria. Alarmingly, this suggests that Britain understands this conflict in ethnic and sectarian terms – much as we did in Iraq in 2003. In the absence of a detailed outline of his idea of a post-conflict Syria, we might therefore assume that Cameron would work towards giving the Kurds significant autonomy (a move sure to impact Turkey). Syria under this model could see a similar ‘federal’ model to that already in place (and failing) in Iraq.

If Britain engage in bombing runs against Islamic State Mr Cameron must then fully accept a key role in the future of Syria. Our allies in Iraq (much of the Shi’i dominated government) and tribal leaders from Afghanistan have complained that Britain left these countries when it was no longer politically convenient for Britain to stay. In a recent talk at Chatham House, the former Qatari Prime Minister raised similar concerns regarding a US withdrawal. The reconstruction of Syria is the challenge of this generation, and it needs a generation’s commitment.

Of course, Britain has a role to play in this reconstruction. As it stands though, there is no coherent plan for what this role would be, what the level of our long-term involvement would be, and what a post-Assad Syria would look like. The tactic of ‘bomb first, ask questions later’ has led to disaster to Afghanistan, Iraq and, most pertinently, Libya. Let us consider these examples before we rush to bomb more Middle Eastern countries.

Protecting British Citizens

It should be clear then, that on a practical note the ‘plan’ for going to war in Syria is worryingly incomplete. More to the point, the inevitable link between the Paris attacks and the renewed vigour for war (let us not forget that MPs voted against intervention in Syria in 2013) is dangerous. The mistake in linking them together too closely primarily lies in a misunderstanding of transnational terror.

Islamic State should be conceptualised as a network. Recent research has shown that 75% of its members were recruited by friends. As a transnational network with constantly evolving power structures, it is far too flexible to be ‘degraded’ by simply bombing Syrian cities.  Islamic State members are independent actors who have varying levels of connection to a central power structure. With the little we know about the hierarchy of power in Islamic State, we can accurately conclude that bombing high value targets in Syria would not stop a home-made bomb being smuggled onto a Russian airliner, or a group of brothers targeting a European capital.

Indeed, it is worth remembering that Europeans carried out the attacks in Paris. In making ‘Britain safer’ we have to be alert to the fact that it would be a British terrorist who would attack London.

What this means, then, is that we need to look closer to home to ‘make Britain safer’. There are two avenues here. The first is simple; the as-yet-undisclosed amount of money being spent to bomb people safe underground could be better spent on improving cyber-security (the fact that the British Security Minister thanked Anonymous for taking down Islamic State Twitter accounts, despite this action being labelled as counter-productive by intelligence analysts is worrying) and protecting police forces from budget cuts. Indeed, the fact that the Foreign Office has seen significant cuts in the past few years and has frozen hiring except through the Fast Stream suggests that the government is not concerned with improving our relationships with the Arab world. Rather, the primary aim is bomb hostile forces. Such a limited conception of Britain’s relationship with the Middle East not only risks accusations of Orientalism (in which we see only a threatening ‘other’ in the Middle East to be subjugated) but also reveals our inability to develop longer-term plans for the future.

The second point is that Cameron’s narrative that ‘ISIL targets our young people’ completely absolves Britain, and the others, of any role in the evolution of Islamist terrorism. While it is not helpful to simply assert that “Britain brought this upon herself”, in responding to Paris the Prime Minister would do well to examine Britain’s violent relationship with the Middle East in the last century. Indeed, to borrow some lessons from conflict resolution, a key first step in developing new paradigms for negotiation and understanding is self-examination. To develop new ways of combatting terrorist narratives, we need to properly examine our own role in the evolution of the narrative. Acknowledging the mistakes our past is the crucial first step in re-building and improving our relationships not only with Arab leaders but also with the Arab street, and engaging the Arab street is the key to sustainable peace. Importantly, this self-evaluation undermines, rather than feeds into, IS’s narrative of a ‘war on Islam’.

Britain certainly needs to stand by our allies, both in the West and the Middle East. However, Mr Cameron has not made a convincing case that bombing is a successful way to secure peace and keep Britain safe, in either the short or the long-term. The self-examination proposed here is of course not a fully-fledged plan of action. What it could represent is the acceptance that what we have tried since 2001 has not worked and has been counter-productive. Discovering and implementing that alternative is how we help France, secure Britain, and develop sustainable peace. Ultimately, Mr Cameron’s war-cry that not bombing Syria is equivalent to “doing nothing” should be inverted. Bombing Syria will do nothing to support Britain’s own goals, our allies, or the Middle East.

Not bombing does not constitute inaction. It is a demand for something better from the Prime Minister.

Beyond the Anthem: What Corbyn means for Labour’s Foreign Policy

Corbyn speaking at a pro-Palestine rally in 2009.
Corbyn speaking at a pro-Palestine rally in 2009.

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the position of UK Labour leader, countless pundits have given their view – almost invariably pessimistic – on his leadership. In terms of Middle East foreign policy, Corbyn’s ideas are refreshing (if not strictly as radical as some have claimed), and, if he is able to stick to his principles in the face of less-than-pliant committees of Labour MPs, they represent an opportunity to reconsider British foreign policy.

Jeremy Corbyn and ‘radically different’ foreign policy

Corbyn seeks to prioritise principles over pragmatism. These principles could best be described as international humanitarianism.

There are three easily identifiable areas where he holds strong convictions: intervention in Syria, the arms trade, and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Corbyn is staunchly against any armed intervention in Syria. Citing the examples of Iraq (2003), Afghanistan (2001) and Libya (2011) he has argued that Western intervention has repeatedly been ill-thought through and has not benefited either the target country or Britain. In particular, he cites Libya’s decline from the Arab Spring to ‘civil war’ and ‘overflowing arms’ in the wider region following Western arms dealing with rebels. Corbyn believes that bombing in Syria would ‘create more mayhem’ and the West would necessarily be dealing with ‘unclear alliances’. Corbyn’s policy for defeating ISIS, by contrast, is to try to isolate the group economically by putting pressure on their international sponsors. As he succinctly put it, ‘you can’t bomb your way to peace’.

By a similar token, Corbyn has repeatedly called for Britain to restrict its arms trade. For over a decade, he has called for a boycott on arms trading to Israel, and he cites the use of imported weapons against Palestinians both in the Intifada (2000) and the most recent conflict (2014). He has similarly questioned the morality of lucrative arms contracts being made with Saudi Arabia – a staunch ally of the West – whose human rights record is problematic. It seems clear that Corbyn would seek to curb this arms trade – reported to be worth approximately $12 billion in 2013 – or at the very least restrict sales to more repressive governments.

Corbyn has been most loudly criticised for his views on the Israel-Palestine issue. Having shared a stage with members of Hamas and Hezbollah (both considered terrorist organisations by the UK Government), he has been accused of anti-Semitism and of being too sympathetic to terrorists. He has been much more radical than previous Labour and Conservative leaders (Gordon Brown in particular stressed an emotional tie to Israel on his historic visit) in his recognition of the Palestinian right to statehood. If Corbyn were able to unify his party, Labour might put far more pressure on Israel than any government in recent memory.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary and an Alternative Approach

This is, however, a big ‘if’. Quite aside from pro-Israel Labour supporters, Corbyn faces a divided party consisting of the more traditional ‘left’ and more recent ‘Blairites’. Foreign policy is not made by the leader alone; Corbyn will need the MPs on his side to create a foreign policy which the whole party can support. Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, should be seen as an appointment meant to unify MPs and the party faithful. Combining old-Left credentials from his family name with New Labour foreign policy tendencies, Benn was previously tipped as a Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and performed well at Prime Ministers Questions earlier this year. He represents the pragmatist curb to Corbyn’s idealism.

Benn’s views differ from Corbyn on some key issues – he is more unequivocally pro-Europe than Corbyn – and is in favour of keeping a nuclear deterrent. With reference to the Middle East, though, Benn and Corbyn seem able to present a somewhat united front.

On the question of intervention, Benn  is less certain in his opposition than Corbyn. Nevertheless, he argues that lessons must be learned from Iraq, and that any intervention in Syria must be based on a solid legal base. This emphasis on a legal base also suggests that, like Corbyn, Benn would support action mandated by the UN but would be reluctant to act independently from it. Indeed, he stresses that Britain should develop a ‘broad approach’ in dealing with ISIS. This stress on a more holistic foreign policy is entirely in line with Corbyn’s own strategy of ‘incremental’ steps to deal with the challenges facing the UK and the region.

Benn has been asking difficult questions about the arms trade for almost as long as Corbyn. While there will of course be opposition from arms groups,  both men seem determined to make the processes determining who contracts are sold to more transparent.

On the issue of Israel-Palestine, Benn has been more silent. In the interests of keeping the party together, it seems that Labour’s foreign policy team will choose to focus on armed intervention in Syria, the arms trade, and the related refugee crisis, rather than take on the difficult Israel-Palestine question.

Principled and Pragmatic Foreign Policy

Labour is engaged in a time of discussion and debate. Fine-tuned foreign policy will not come quickly, and besides, the party is more concerned with the twin issues of Europe and migration at present. Regardless, it seems that the shadow foreign office team – including vocal shadow minister for the Middle East Gareth Thomas – will seek to create a more ideologically charged foreign policy. If they are able to work together effectively, Corbyn and Benn could put forward an intriguing foreign policy alternative to the Conservatives which would move decisively away from the Atlanticism and neo-liberalism of the New Labour and Conservative years.

Corbyn has called for a principled foreign policy – a foreign policy based on recognisable ideals (in this case, human rights). The challenge is going to be convincing MPs, lobby groups and the rest of the UK that these principles are worth fighting for, and that Corbyn’s approach is the best way to fight for them while also keeping Britain safe.

Britain has a Minister for Refugees and Not Much Else

Aerial view of Zaatari refugee camp, where David Cameron visited this week.
Aerial view of Zaatari refugee camp, where David Cameron visited this week.

On the 14th September, while on his first official visit to Lebanon, David Cameron appointed MP for Watford Richard Harrington as a new Minister for Refugees. Harrington’s remit is to ensure the 20,000 Syrian refugees which Britain has committed to accepting over the next five years are  given a ‘warm welcome’. Harrington will Chair the ministerial group on Syrian refugees and report to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. While the announcement has been greeted favourably, if a little warily, on social media, much remains to be seen regarding whether Harrington will be able to deliver the cornerstone of Cameron’s policy.

Harrington’s appointment from the backbenches is not due to any expertise on refugees or the Middle East. Despite an apparent interest in the region, he does not seem to have written or spoken publicly on the subject of the refugee crisis at all. Indeed, until a week ago his sole interaction with foreign policy regarding the Middle East in the past year was to vote for airstrikes against ISIL. More worryingly, last week he voted against taking in any more refugees than already mandated. In so doing, he towed the party line, which he has done for every vote of the current parliament. More than 24 hours after the appointment, he has made no official recognition of his new role.

He will not, then, bring specialist knowledge to the refugee crisis. Nor, it seems, will he challenge the UK to develop a more developed, multi-faceted and robust policy.

The appointment is a step in the right direction, but Britain’s current policy is inadequate and incomplete. Cameron’s pledge to accommodate 20,000 over the course of the current parliament – just 4,000 a year – pales in comparison to Lebanon’s refugee crisis, where approximately a quarter of the population is now a refugee. David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, has called for ‘far greater political and diplomatic muscle’ in order to alleviate the suffering of thousands of individuals and aid organisations have called on Cameron to accommodate more refugees. Similarly, a more robust policy must be developed that would take into account Caroline Lucas’ prescient argument that the profitable British arms trade facilitates conflict in the first place. The refugee crisis and the Syrian war are interlinked, and Britain desperately needs a policy for them both.

The failure of European leaders to reach a unanimous commitment to resettlement on the 14th September reveals the the complexities of resettling refugees. Britain, however, had already ‘opted out’ of any agreement. Opting out of working together to find a solution does not constitute a policy. Cameron’s call for other European countries to donate more money to refugee camps in Jordan will fall on deaf ears as long as Britain continues to isolate itself from both Europe and the Middle East.