Sudan and South Sudan reached a deal in the early hours of March 12, after a week of negotiations in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, which should spark the beginning of exports of South Sudanese oil from Sudan's Port Sudan, on the Red Sea coast, for the first time in more than 15 months. Companies are already gearing up for production from the oil-rich states of Unity and Upper Nile in the north of South Sudan, and the first shipments of oil are due to be made by the end of May. Yet although the resumption of oil will bring the first meaningful income to South Sudan since early 2012, as well as help ease a severe economic crisis north of the border, there is still a feeling that what has been left undone by the deal is just as significant as what has been achieved.
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Only a few years back, the idea of an independent Kurdistan bordering Turkey would have had Ankara up in arms. Not anymore. Past tensions have been supplanted by a new energy partnership and Turkey seems far less worried about the prospect of an independent Kurdistan. In May 2012, Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cut a deal to build one gas and two oil pipelines directly from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to Turkey without the approval of Baghdad, taking the rapprochement started between the two in 2009 one step further. If realized, the Kurdish pipelines will for the first time provide the Kurds direct access to world markets, bypassing the Baghdad controlled Kirkuk-Ceyhan (Turkey) pipeline bringing the KRG one step closer to the long-held dream of Kurdish independence.
Some pundits have argued that for this very reason Turkish approval of a Kurdish pipeline is a long shot. But the construction seems to be underway. According to Turkish press, the KRG has already begun construction on the oil and gas pipelines which are due to be operational by early 2014.
Why does monarchy march on while republican dictatorships precariously wobble in the Arab world? The undertow of the Arab Spring reveals how unevenly revolutionary unrest spread throughout the region. While popular uprisings rocked the autocratic republics, not a single ruling monarchy fell. Opposition stood quiet in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Oman and Saudi Arabia saw only isolated agitation. Popular reform movements mobilized in Jordan and Morocco, but they fizzled out. Ongoing protests in Kuwait reflect a longstanding tradition of civic activism and political contestation that far predates the Arab Spring. Only Bahrain experienced new large-scale unrest, but military intervention by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ended the troubles.
The May 23 Baghdad talks between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, plus Germany) may prove to be a crucial juncture in the Iranian nuclear crisis. The talks could lead to a compromise with Iran while a lack of compromise could lead to an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, and possibly a costly regional war involving the United States.
There is reason to be pessimistic. The Iranian regime, an opponent of U.S. interests in the Middle East, a supporter of terrorism, and a gross violator of human rights, is hardly trustworthy. Iranian officials, who have appeared to be more compromising and flexible recently, may well be buying Iran more time to make advances on the nuclear program.
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The leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait) will meet in May to discuss creating a closer federal unit among the states. The idea of closer integration was first put forward in December 2011 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and recently fleshed out in a speech in the name of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. The potential benefits of creating a $1.4 trillion economic area of 42 million people were championed, as were the potential benefits of close cooperation and coordination in defense and security policy. While all this makes sense superficially, it is all but impossible to see how a meaningful GCC Union could take place.
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In late 2011, the British government sent one of its top humanitarian advisors to Yemen after a year of protests, bloody crackdowns, and inter-elite fighting. Drawing on his experience from a career spanning three decades, the advisor reported back that Yemen faced the most complex set of circumstances he had ever seen.
Some of the key issues at the time, such as fighting between elite military and tribal factions in the capital of Sanaa and north Yemen's second largest city, Taiz, have since eased off. But others, including rising violence between Shiite Houthi tribesmen, government forces, and Sunni Salafists in the northern Saada province and the rise of Ansar al-Sharia -- the local al Qaeda affiliate -- in the south, are still causing mass displacement on a daily basis.
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At least seven young Shiite Muslims have been shot dead and several dozen wounded by security forces in Eastern Saudi Arabia in recent months. While details of the shootings remain unclear, and the ministry of interior claims those shot were attacking the security forces, mass protests have followed the funerals of the deceased. These events are only the latest developments in the decades-long struggle of the Saudi Shiites, which has taken on a new urgency in the context of 2011's regional uprisings -- but have been largely ignored by mainstream media.
The events of the Arab Spring have heightened long-standing tensions in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Just three days after large-scale protests started in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, protests began in the Eastern Province, which is a 30-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Saudi interior ministry vowed to crush the protests with an "Iron Fist" and has unleashed a media-smear campaign against protests and the Shiites in general. While protests subsided over the summer, they started again in October and have become larger ever since, leading to an ever more heavy-handed response from the security forces.
This repressive response, with distinct rhetorical echoes of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, poses an awkward challenge to recent Saudi foreign policy. The protests of the people in the Eastern Province are as legitimate as the protests in Syria. If Saudi Arabia does not respond to these calls for reform at home how can it seriously claim to rise to the defense of democracy in Syria? The crackdown in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has given the Iranian and Syrian regime, as well as Shiite political movements in Lebanon and Iraq, a useful rhetorical gambit to push back against their regional rivals.
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Episode 4 of Abu Aardvark's Middle East Channel Video Blog, guest starring
Timothy Mitchell of Columbia University. In this week's installment, I talk
about why arming
the Free Syrian Army is a dangerous option and weigh in on the standoff
between the Egyptian government and the United States over democracy NGOs. The
heart of the episode, though, is a ten-minute conversation between Mitchell and
me about his new book, Carbon
It's a special treat to be able to present the conversation with Mitchell, who is one of the most innovative and original minds in academic Middle East Studies. His earlier books, Colonizing Egypt and Rule of Experts, were path breaking intellectual works that reshaped entire disciplines. Carbon Democracy, selected as one of The Middle East Channel's Top Five Books on the Middle East for 2011, offers a radical new reading of how coal and oil have shaped not only the Middle East but also Western democracy, the international system, and the discipline of economics. You can watch Mitchell and me talk about his book, about the meaning of an "oil crisis," and about how Middle East Studies has responded to the Arab uprisings. If you enjoy the discussion, let us know -- we'd like to do more of this kind of extended conversation on the Video Blog.
I hope you enjoy the show!
The European Union's recent agreement in principle to gradually ban Iranian crude oil imports has brought to a head a long-running dispute between Europe's economic and foreign ministries. Economic ministries feared politicizing oil because any disruption could hurt fragile economies and send prices soaring. Foreign ministries, for their part, were eager to turn the screws on Tehran with an oil embargo that would raise the costs of the country's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. This gap is narrowing fast -- but not only because of the urgency of increased diplomatic pressure.
EU ministers will discuss the embargo on January 23 after two weeks of saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf. Iran's leaders have directly linked restrictions on crude exports to the regime's willingness to shut the Strait of Hormuz. Last month, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, Iran's first vice president, warned that "If they impose sanctions on Iran's oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz." His comments came days before President Barack Obama approved new U.S. sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, which manages the country's oil transactions.
The stakes are high for Tehran. The regime depends on oil revenue for 50 percent of its budget. Last year that sum amounted to $73 billion. Iran exports 450,000 barrels per day (b/d) to Europe, which amounts to 20 percent of the country's total crude exports. Some observers worry that an EU embargo could backfire and send oil prices sky-high. But these fears may be exaggerated.
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Two-thousand Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, most of them from Saudi Arabia, entered Bahrain on Monday -- ostensibly to provide security to government installations "threatened" by protestors. In fact, such a show of force, with more troops on the way, is an attempt by the Saudi-led GCC to stiffen the resolve of the ruling house in Bahrain to put down the democracy protests if need be with force. The violence unleashed by the Bahraini army and police against peaceful protestors on Tuesday was the direct outcome of the Saudi/GCC military intervention.
Various interpretations have been put forward as to the reasons behind the Saudi-led military intervention. These include pre-empting the emergence of a pro-Iranian, Shia-dominated government in Bahrain and tilting the balance in favor of the hard-line faction among the al-Khalifa and against the more moderate faction allegedly led by the crown prince.
When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia on Dec. 17 after a municipal worker confiscated his wares, it appeared to be simply another sad story in a region plagued by corruption, brutal state security services, and lack of accountability. But against all odds, his act of desperation has spurred a wave of reform that has engulfed the entire region, toppling the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening to engulf other countries across the Middle East.
But the uprising has not followed the same course in every country. In Jordan, protests have forced the government to abandon liberal reforms in favor of an unsustainable economic status quo. In Algeria, they have highlighted the public's disaffection with the political process. In other countries, the reverberations from the popular upheaval are still unclear. In the West Bank, for example, opinions remain divided about whether the events represent an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority, or its death knell.
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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, the energetic octogenarian who is in his fifth year as head of the oil-rich kingdom, will visit Washington on June 29. Abdullah has overcome divisions within the royal family and proceeded to restore stability to the kingdom, which just a few years ago was under siege by local radicals and wracked with fears about the possible regionalization of the Iraq war. For all his considerable political acumen, however, Abdullah has turned to an old playbook to consolidate the House of Saud's authority -- leaving important questions about what comes next for the kingdom unanswered.
Amid political uncertainty, Abdullah has taken measured steps to transform his country. Abdullah's Saudi Arabia is a remarkably different place than that of his immediate predecessor. With his blessing, the Saudi press, while hardly free, is occasionally vibrant and sometimes even critically introspective. Some of the kingdom's most sacred institutions and practices, including the reactionary religious establishment and the draconian restrictions imposed on women, have come under fire in the media by a growing number of Saudi journalists, intellectuals, and activists. Saudi citizens have been taking their cues directly from the king, who has worked to rein in the clergy, which has enjoyed tremendous power since the kingdom took a conservative turn in the late 1970s.
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Why was Algeria's chief of police killed? The assassination of Ali Tounsi is sending political shockwaves through Algeria. Tounsi had been having a public tiff with the minister of interior, Yazid Zerhouni. The killer, Chouaib Oultache - a close friend and colleague of Tounsi's, and former Air Force colonel who headed the police airborne unit - is reported to have been alone with Tounsi. Eyewitnesses to the murder have disappeared. Oultache is said to have shot himself, or been shot by others, or to have fallen down stairs as he made his escape. He was hospitalized at a military facility and is recovering from his wounds, or he fell into a coma, or he may have woken up and confessed, or he may be dead. His immediate family has disappeared, and his house is now encircled by police whose main job is dissuading journalists from asking too many questions.
Was the murder purely a personal affair, or is Oultache being set up as part of a shadow war carried out through corruption investigations - not only against Oultache, but also the national oil company Sonatrach and the ministry of public works? Do these investigations mean much when they steer clear of the really high-level stuff, such as the long-term oil and gas deals with Spain, France or the United States? Or are they simply warning shots to Bouteflika after he threatened to re-open investigations into the assassination of high-ranking security officials in the 1990s as a way to go after the last remaining generals in positions of influence? Some see it as a harbinger of more trouble to come, particularly as they came as rumors that Bouteflika - who is said to have stomach cancer - is dying. You can take your pick of what actually happened.
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