An Arab NATO: The Birth of Another Black Swan in the Middle East?

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A US fighter jet during practice maneuvers over the desert (Image credit: Master Sgt. Benjamin Bloker/US Air Force)

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

An introduction to contingency

It was in the mid-1970’s. A professor who taught us the history of Communist Party (a party veteran who seemed to spend all his life being the Bolshevik, starting from his participation in the civil war of 1918-20) giving up to demands of the University leadership to introduce new methods of teaching (even in such a dogmatic subject for the Soviet Union as he taught) decided to have a role play in one of tutorials. He carefully selected the safest (in his view) topic—the intra-party discussion on the role of trade unions. In history, the proponents were two prominent figures of the time—Lenin and Trotsky, and the former’s position dominated, albeit after a dramatic stand-off.

This did not work out like that at our tutorial. The guy who performed as Trotsky was a way better prepared and perhaps was a more talented polemist than his opponent. By the time the poor professor realized what was happening, it was too late—Trotsky defeated Lenin convincingly, to the greatest delight of the audience (not because of personal sympathies—these were times of growing cynicism among the young generation about communist theory and practice and leadership—but rather because of rare opportunity of having fun with a subject considered taboo; even then, more than twenty years after Stalin’s death, you could make jokes about anything but communist party). And when he tried to intervene and smooth the effect of this disaster by some crafted concluding statement, the bell rang announcing the end of the lesson so everyone rushed away to spread this hilarious news around.

This was my first “practical” encounter with a notion known in political science as contingency. What if this happened in real life? Back in 1921, by winning the debate Trotsky would have secured the position of Lenin’s successor. Him, and not Stalin, being the party leader means the entire different history of the twentieth century. It takes the outcome of one (rather insignificant in the universal order of things) event that happens at right moment (also called a critical juncture) to have so profound consequences that they can change the course of history…

History: predestined or unpredictable?

There are different ways one may look at political processes and how decisions by various actors taken in pursuit of their own goals coincide at certain moments, to produce the higher-level outcomes. This coincidence of (supposedly) free choices made by individual actors as a creator of history has been well observed by Tolstoy: “There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him. Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance.”  However, in line with his views on philosophy of history he then goes on to conclude that consequences of all human actions are predestined and inevitable. (Actually, this is the core idea of a five-hundred-character strong work which some argue is a philosophical treatise more than a novel.)

To the contrary, contemporary political science uses the notion of contingency to explain uncertainty and unpredictability of historical processes. As a situation where outcomes are uncertain, contingency is a consequence of choice (and struggle) and an historical accident (or coincidence of choices) at a given point in time. Both are simultaneously constrained and induced by multiple contexts. And that is why it is impossible to accurately predict (let alone estimate along predefined parameters) the outcome of any process. What we frequently read are the explanations to things that already occurred, offered with the power of hindsight. That’s not as difficult. When it comes to the future (even in immediate term) the best we can do is to anticipate and (as risk managers would advise) to get ready.

Things could have been different: South Africa

Let’s take an example—the end of apartheid in South Africa. On the one hand, it was a non-contingent (predictable and inevitable) process—that is, it absolutely makes sense to assume that it was an issue of time, given the global, Africa continental processes, and the dynamics of locally-driven power struggle. But here the non-contingent view which relies solely on underlying structures and institutions ends. And it appears that whatever important, it is not enough to explain what has happened. Because for it to happen at this particular point in time (and time matters) and in the manner it occurred (also matters, greatly) there was a window of opportunity opened.

There were two sources of it. First was the agency—represented by the image and cause of Nelson Mandela and those collective actors like the African National Congress which persistently maintained the struggle and negotiations with the National Party; and equally, if not more importantly, by the unilateral decision of F.W. de Klerk to launch a fundamental reform and later on, to overcome the Afrikaner right-wing opposition and call an all-white referendum in 1992, on whether to continue negotiating an agreement with the ANC). And second, there was pure luck of this two (starting from the story of de Klerk becoming the party leader and president in 1989) coinciding at certain moment and for a period long enough to enable an effective chemistry (it has been argued in literature that history would have been different if, for example, de Klerk was assassinated early in the process).

Embracing contingency therefore calls for accepting the possibility of (numerous, at times) alternatives. It means that (to borrow from political theorist Andreas Schedler), “Things could be different. Things could be otherwise in the present. They could have been different in the past. They could change in the future.”

The origins of modern jihadism

As it is clear, those critical junctures and windows of opportunity do not seat and wait for us to grab them. These are our persistent actions that, with the help of luck, converge to create certain ciphers that enable them. How it works? In pursuit of power (that is the essence of any political game) the individual and collective actors have to position (and re-position) themselves strategically, vis-à-vis their real and perceived rivals. For that they continuously assess (better even, interpret) the environment, in order to find (or create) the room for maneuvering and then act upon it. Given that all the actors are in this kind of activity simultaneously, there is a chance of congregation that goes much beyond the cumulative effect.

There is one interesting feature which deserves good consideration. This congregation works in many ways as a chemical reaction and can produce an unintended direct results or side products. Sometimes, this will be known almost immediately and in other cases we would learn about it years later. In any case, it is irreversible. Let’s follow this on one of my favorite examples—how jihad became a transnational movement.

It somehow happened that by pure coincidence three otherwise not directly related events occurred in a span of one year, 1979. The events were: the Islamic revolution in Iran, the seizure of Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman al-Otaybi, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The first event directly challenged the Saudi rulers’ authority in the Muslim world (as contrary to the Kingdom where the ruling House had to rely on sheikhs for various religious matters, here the clerics themselves were running the country; moreover these were Shi’a clerics). Second event, driven by religious zeal of the Kingdom’s Salafist youth (some, as al-Otaybi himself, from well-known families) cast doubt on the House of Saud’s legitimacy due to allegations in corruption and perceived openness towards the West. These two events combined were too big a test of the Saudi regime’s ambition and resilience; they needed a room for maneuvering, in order to win time to restore the image and to regroup the capabilities.

And this is at the time when the Soviet Union, by invading Afghanistan, offered them (inadvertently) something that Saudi rulers interpreted as a window of opportunity. Directing the religious enthusiasm of radically-minded young Saudis towards fighting a holy war against the invaders of Muslim lands would serve, they thought, a two-fold objective of showing the global leadership and getting rid of extremists at home. Moreover, this move was much welcomed by the United States who was seeking an ally (in addition to Pakistan already in game) on the ground in Afghanistan, to counter the Soviets. The rest (including tens of billions of government and private funds, training, weapons, propaganda campaigns and global recruitment of mujahedeen) was technical detail.

What is not technicality is that by transferring the traditionally localized discourse of jihad into transnational enterprise the Saudi Kingdom and its allies set in motion an irreversible process (that also went out of their control once the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan ended) which brought personalities like Osama bin Laden to prominence and resulted in the creation of al-Qaeda and the modern religion-inspired global terrorism and militancy as we know them. The present and future history might have been much different if these three events did not coincide by accident, interpreted in way they were by key agents, and played as catalysts to the process in making.

One important note here. Did you notice the emphasis on the agents’ interpretation of realities and windows of opportunity? It is critical. Our assessment as external analysts does not matter in this situations (unless we are in position to advise the decision makers, and even then it is not necessarily the dominant, even if informed professional, opinion—just look how political leadership ignores the advice coming from their own intelligence community); what matters is how the agents themselves interpret the reality and how do they see the threats posed and the opportunities these realities offer to them. Only then we can understand why they act in certain situations as they do.

The idea of Arab NATO

In the weeks leading to Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh and its aftermath, there has been an idea of establishing an Arab NATO floating around. It was not aired in formal speeches during the summit and bilateral meetings, though. But, as frequently the case, it might have been discussed behind the closed doors elsewhere and just thrown into the social media space as a trial balloon, to gauge the reactions (especially those in Iran).

That is an interesting development. The Middle East is in turmoil; perhaps in the worst stretch of instability, in decades. Collapsed states, civil violence, proxy wars, terrorist groups and religious militancy married with poor economic performance, demographic pressures and deep societal and political, ideological divisions (frequently along ethnic and religious/sectarian lines)—all mixed up with political interests of local, regional and global state and non-state actors. The region urgently needs some effective security mechanism. Now, the question is whether the idea of an Arab military alliance offers an opportunity to establish lasting peace and order in the region or it will be counterproductive, and instead of leading to stability will result in an interstate war?

This will depend on a host of factors but primarily on how the key actors will interpret the concept in terms of threats and opportunities to their national interests. For now, the prime proponent of the military alliance is Saudi Arabia (with the backing from the US and most probably, the consent of Israel). The Saudis seem to interpret the developments as posing yet another existential threat and see the militarization as an opportunity to address a number of problems in one move. At the same time they see a window of opportunity in the new US administration’s Mideast policy (such as focusing only on terrorism and encouraging the region’s actors take care of their own security without the American deep involvement, and hostility towards Iran).

What they would like to achieve is to face down their arch-rival Iran, to regain a leadership role among the Arab states and broader in the Muslim world, to eliminate the extremist and militant movements threatening the Kingdom’s security, and to win the time and support necessary to translate the ambitious economic reform plans (Vision 2030) into reality. Almost everything sounds familiar, does it not? There are differences though, between the present day and the situation four decades ago.

Back then in the end of 1970’s-80’s it took only Saudis and the Americans (and Pakistan, by extension) to decide on a joint endeavor; the playground was somewhere else; Iran was locked in the war with Saddam’s Iraq; there was plenty of money available, from both government coffers and private sources.

This time around the cause is not as straightforward. The theater is not far away but in your backyard. The threat of home-grown extremists is much higher and it is direct. Iran is much stronger militarily and on ascending line in terms of economy and international support (thanks to the nuclear deal). Also, this time there are more interests involved from external actors—it is not only usual suspects the US and Russia, but also Turkey, China, the EU, and Pakistan (involved indirectly but very much interested).

At the top of it, there is a need for an Arab (even limited, not an idealistic pan-Arab) consensus at least among key players, like the Emiratis, Egyptians, Qataris, Jordanians who don’t seem to be on the same page about security priorities. Moreover, the row in the wake of Donald Trump’s Middle East trip between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf States (mostly, Saudi Arabia) accusing each other in the state support to terrorism (involving old and new grievances and allegations, from Qatar’s relations with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian “rebel” groups to Al Jazeera’s alleged links to al-Qaeda, to name a few) shows that they are far from being united even on basic issues.

The major opponent (and if to follow the rhetoric of the summit in Riyadh, the main target) of the move, Iran, watches the developments closely. How they interpret the concept and the enabling reality is equally important. We do not know much about it. What we see and hear (public statements, newspaper articles, addresses, etc.) are the tip of the iceberg. From these, the Iranians do not seem to be very concerned. Beyond the surface there is for sure an intensive work in multiple directions. I won’t speculate on that, but one window of opportunity for them is offered by the same actor who supports their rival—the United States. By implementing an isolationist foreign policy and even alienating its traditional allies and partners, the US gives a chance to Iran to explore those divides and to build reinforcing relations with the European Union and NATO members that may prove very important in its strategic game. But it is equally possible that the conservative factions in Tehran would prevail and drive the country in an opposite direction, towards military confrontation…

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The Middle East is a complex system. As such, it is more than a mere collection of states and territories. How those units interact as a whole matters more than anything else, including the individual properties of those units or their bilateral relations and interfaces. This implies that in order to understand the Middle East one has to understand it in its entirety. And it is my humble opinion that if there is a solution to security problems of this region, it should be the one that takes the Middle East as one whole, without dividing it in parts or viewing it through the prism of some individual relationship or self-interest. As we have seen in this piece, the past and present of the region could have been different. We say it with regret, as we see the missed opportunities while the products of past mistakes have produced Black Swans terrifying the region and the entire world.

Farewell to Arms? Seen Nowhere on the Horizon

Saudi special security forces show their

Saudi special security forces show their skills during a military parade at a base near Mount Arafat, southeast of the holy city of Mecca, on November 22, 2009  (Image credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

We are all defence and military this week. An arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth up to US$110 billion, followed by the Pentagon’s US$639 billion budget proposal for FY2018 (“dead on arrival” because apparently it was not big enough). And to complete it all, the NATO summit in Brussels.

All three security levels (country, regional, and global) are covered. An array of topics claimed to be targeted (from national defence interests to global threats like terrorism, to job creation) or flagged by independent observers as issues of concern (like civilian casualties and human rights). And this way or another, it is all about military spending; or, to be precise, about military spending (militarization) under the pretext of ensuring state and human security (eventually at the expense of other government expenditure). This is not a topic to be taken lightly—in the world of “limited resources and unlimited needs” we have to make (supposedly, rational) choices. Do we?

How much justified is, for example, US$1.69 trillion (which happens to constitute no less than 2.2 percent of global GDP) in military spending in 2016 alone? And this is at the time when according to Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), the same year the total number of deaths from violent conflicts across the world equalled to 103,330; of them 87,018 lives were lost in state-based violence; 9,034 in non-state violence, and 6,278 in one-sided violence. Add to this tens of millions of forcibly displaced people (both internally and refugees), those who are exposed to starvation and infectious deceases due to violence—and you quite get an idea of the scale of the problem. But to make sense of it, we first have to reflect on some basic questions.

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How should we think about relationship between militarization and security, stability? How important is it to maintain high military spending (which includes items from procurement of arms and equipment to wages, training and social benefits to research and development)? How justified is it to cut public funding from non-defence areas in order to build up further militarization? And finally, does organized violence (whether state-based and non-state-based armed conflicts or one-sided violence) persist because governments don’t spend enough on security or the use of armed force is driven by other (social, economic, political, ideological, psychological) factors and cannot be contained by ever increasing military budgets? Or is it the arms production and trade (both formal and trafficking) that itself contributes to fuelling many conflicts?

There is no single or simple way to answer those questions. Especially considering that universal rules (like the one by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature that there has been an extraordinary but little-recognized, millennia-long, worldwide reduction in all forms of violence) are difficult to establish, and they may not necessarily work in all regions and at all times (especially nowadays, when the pace of developments and changes, and thus volatility are uber-high).

There are also different forms of conflict and therefore the relation between each form and external factors (like military spending) may vary greatly. Moreover, the forms are also changing. Take for example state-based armed conflicts—that is, armed contests over power and/or territory where one of sides is the government. The established classification recognizes four forms of state-based conflict (called wars if they cause more than one thousand battle-deaths a year): inter-state conflicts (between states); extra-state conflicts (between a state and an armed group outside the state’s own territory); intra-state conflicts (between a government and a non-state group); and internationalized intra-state conflicts (when the government, or an armed group opposing it, receives military support from one or more foreign states). Well, how are we going to categorize the wars in Iraq and Syria? For the majority of states involved, both wars fall under more than one sub-category, and each sub-category in turn is subject to a different set of driving forces, contexts and circumstances.

Another challenge (as ever) is causality. We first look at the correspondence, and if there is any, then at the casual direction in relations between (extensive) military spending and security. What I am interested in here is, whether it is true that more military spending by governments leads to sustained improvements in both state and human security (where human security is not only saving lives from war, genocide, displacement, epidemics and famine, but means freedom from violence and from the fear of violence, with direct and indirect implications on fundamental freedoms and basic human rights). To answer this question one has to undertake a full-blown research based on empirical evidence, and perhaps employing a sophisticated computation and modelling (to cover a broad range of variables over extended periods of time). However, it is possible to make sense of developments without this heavy armoury, simply viewing them in right context.

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Take for example, the controversial arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia signed this week. Let’s look first at the trend. In the last decade, the region’s governments have significantly increased their military spending, and weapons purchase in particular. In 2012-2016 their share among global importers of major weapons equalled to 29 percent, compared to (no small otherwise) 17 percent in 2007-2011. Out of top five arms importers in 2012-2016, three were from the Middle East and North Africa: Saudi Arabia with 8.2 percent, United Arab Emirates with 4.6 percent, and Algeria with 3.7 percent of global imports, respectively.

Note that this happens at the time when oil prices have dropped drastically and the global trend is leaning towards reliance on renewables and clean energy. The Gulf states being heavily dependent on commodity exports, find themselves in a dare financial situation. Never mind, they say. But the facts tell a different story: “Saudi Arabia faces an imminent economic crisis. … Riyadh cannot sustainably rely on oil as its principle source of national income. Over the last 18 months, the Kingdom has used 17% of its Public Investment Fund (PIF) to cover the government’s operating costs. If this trend persists, Riyadh will completely deplete the PIF by 2024.”

The true burden of military spending on the economy becomes apparent when we see it as a share of a country’s GDP: in 2016, in the Middle East it was at staggering 6.0 percent (compared to 2.0 percent in Africa, 1.6 percent in Europe, 1.3 percent in Americas, 1.8 percent in Asia). As mentioned above, this money is not spent out of some surplus magically appearing in the government coffers; it is spent at the expense/instead of something else. And this “something else” happens to be human, social and economic development. As pointed out by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in its 2016 yearbook, a comparison of trends in spending on the military, health and education since 1995 shows that whereas the majority of countries have increased health and education spending while reducing military spending, the trend in the Middle East has gone in the opposite direction. There is no better indication of where the governments’ priorities are.

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Of course, there is also a game in play. Bluff is always present in politics, whether at local or global level. Saudi Arabia is in acute need of cash. The regime knows that they cannot afford large military spending. Actually, they have decreased the military expenditure last year, and as a result are not in the top third position of spenders, giving up this “honourable place” in the rankings to Russians. But they are also aware that others know that too, and are watching them closely. So the deal so ambitious is (at least in part) to throw dust in someone’s (say, arch-rival Iran—which happens to be on ascending line thanks to Nuclear Deal-incited release of sanctions—or would-be partners in emerging Muslim countries of East Asia) eyes. The deal is not binding and can stay stalled for years (until each letter of offer and acceptance (LOA) it is comprised of is signed and paid for thus making it to the contract), but will send a signal to anyone around that Saudis are in no short supply of money, resolve, ambition and support to this matter.

Whether the others buy this bluff is another story, but the point is made—and with such a skillful showman as Mr Trump in game, it is performed quite theatrically to impress everyone, at home and abroad. (As a side note, such a show with inflated package price serves the US administration’s goals too—to demonstrate to the voters at home their power and influence, to claim more jobs and benefits to economy etc; Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, director of the DSCA was quick to announce: “When completed, it will be the largest single arms deal in American history.”  What an accomplishment!)

Still, this does not change the overall intent of the affair. And just to be clear on that point: the rulers of Saudi Arabia will make sure to purchase big part of the arms package, especially considering that first, it is a political commitment before the strategic partner (who is so kind to take sides in the ages-long Sunni-Shi’a power contest); second, the delivery under contracts may take long years thus allowing some flexibility with regards to payments; and also, Saudi rulers want to build the military production capabilities at home by 2030, so part of contracts would work to this end.

That is all good, but the question is who will pay for this. Well, I have an answer: I assume this would be the young generation of Saudi Arabia (who are already frustrated by worsening life standards, unemployment and various barriers in social life) and of other countries in the region (who are either equally robbed by their governments of public investment in their future or are unlucky to be born in the neighbouring countries which serve as playground to use those weapons purchased). Whether they like it or not.

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Where is it all heading? Marc Lynch has nailed it in his recent article that, emboldened by such deals (and the Washington’s backing) the region’s regimes will find it easier “to sustain their crackdown on civil society and political dissent” when faced with difficulties and popular resistance to meet the militarization commitments, “but such repression will exacerbate the governance failures and political grievances which lay the ground for another round of instability. By almost every indicator—economic, political, security or social—the Arab regimes upon which Trump is doubling down are more unstable now than they appeared to be in the years leading up to the 2011 uprisings.”

So in response to the question posed in the opening part of this piece, it would be fair to say that militarization (through extensive military spending, among others) makes the Middle East governments more vulnerable and the entire region increasingly unstable—it encourages violent conflicts and contributes to their escalation instead of containing them. It is counterproductive, whether in immediate or long term. And I am sure we will arrive at similar conclusion when analyzing other regions. Think of Africa (military spending across the continent has increased by almost half in the past ten years). Think of South Asia (with the top importer of major weapons, India and no less ambitious Pakistan). Think… how much good could have been done instead.

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Doubling Down on America’s Misadventure in Yemen

by Perry Cammack and Richard Sokolsky | War on the Rocks

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                                                 Rally of the Houthi supporters in Sanaa, Yemen                                                    Image credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

“U.S. policy toward Yemen has failed catastrophically. …  Allured by the prospect of scoring a huge win against Iran and global jihadists and showing there was a new sheriff in town, the Trump administration … is driving U.S. policy into a deeper ditch. By catering to the Saudis in Yemen, the United States has empowered AQAP, strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security, brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse, and visited more death, destruction, and displacement on the Yemeni population.”

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