Saudi Arabia’s New Succession Plan Shakes Up the Middle East

Saudi Arabia – along with Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt – abruptly broke off diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar, then followed that up with an ultimatum and a 10-day deadline to respond. The first of 13 unreasonable demands targets Iran, Saudi Arabia’s key rival in the region by urging Qatar to curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions. Author Dilip Hiro reviews a history of antagonism between two monarchies as Saudi Arabia resists Qatar’s incremental steps toward freedom expression with an elected parliament, funding of Al Jazeera renowned for investigative journalism in the Arab world, and efforts to maintain Sunni-Shia ties by maintaining good relations with Iran. The US has a major base in Qatar, and its divided response does not help: The president throws full support behind Saudi Arabia, and diplomats and military leaders urge mediation. The Saudi king has approved a new line of succession, selecting a 31-year-old son as crown prince. Prince Muhammad bin Salman has a track record of endorsing aggressive moves against Iran, Yemen and now Qatar, and the expectation that other Arab nations will fall in line introduces more instability into a region that is already so volatile and violent. – YaleGlobal

Diplomatic Storm in the Gulf in Wake of Trump’s Mideast Visit

Tensions have long simmered between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though both are monarchies and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia and two allies severed diplomatic ties after Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani was reported to have delivered a speech on 22 May, suggesting support for Iran and doubts that US President Donald Trump would last long in office. Qatar claims news reports of the speech are false, a result of hacking. Author Dilip Hiro explains that the roots of animosity go back years as Saudi Arabia struggles to tolerate Qatar’s soft-power approach in the region: supporting the Arab Spring protests in 2011, funding Al Jazeera television’s investigative journalism, supporting the thousands who lost homes and businesses during the Israeli-Hezbollah War in summer 2006, and refusing to demonize Iran as Saudi Arabia’s rival in the region. US leaders often tempered Saudi impulses in the region, but Hiro warns that may no longer be the case. Rather than pursue nuanced and balanced policy, the US president now sides with the Saudis, and this could trigger more instability and conflicts among Muslims in an already troubled region. – YaleGlobal

Yale Excavation in Syria Continues to Reveal Secrets of World’s Earliest Cities

weiss tell lelain

Nearly four decades ago, in the Khabur River basin of northeastern Syria, Yale archaeologist Harvey Weiss uncovered a buried city that over the ensuing years would reveal important new insights into ancient Mesopotamia and the origins of civilization.

Beginning in 1979, Weiss’s excavation of the site known as Tell Leilan yielded ancient monumental temples containing cuneiform clay tablets kept by the rulers of the city, and more recently a 4,200-year-old palace, once a key center for the lost Akkadian empire. Within these mud-brick buildings researchers also retrieved carbonized grains and animal bones, traces of daily life that offered a glimpse of how this ancient civilization fed itself — and, as Weiss has long argued, evidence of the surprising role of climate change in its ultimate collapse.

Should You Invest in Uncertain Environments?

Investors are in the business of navigating risk and reward. Assessing timing, market conditions, competition, and impacts of technological changes is always a challenge. For those investing in the Middle East, you can add war, political turmoil, and swings in the price of oil. Can assessments of a leadership team or projected earnings hold up when uncontrollable external factors have so much power to make or break a business?

For a time, investors were finding more and more reasons to invest in the region. Foreign investment in the Middle East and North Africa grew more than tenfold, from $8 billion to $126 billion, between 2001 and  2007, according to World Bank data. Then the financial crisis devastated cross-border investing around the world. By 2011 other developing regions had recovered, surpassing previous peak investment inflows—but just as the investing environment improved, the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East, bringing a new wave of uncertainty. By 2015, foreign direct investment had fallen to $51 billion.

Hani Al-Qadi, CEO and general manager of the Amman-based Arab Jordan Investment Bank, discussed his approach to investing in challenging environments in a conversation with Yale Insights. A veteran of more than a quarter century of investment banking in the Middle East, he recommends selecting deals that are fundamentally strong and then requiring enough of a risk premium to be able to ignore the external uncertainties. For those willing to invest for the long term, he’s seen “phenomenal” returns.

Saudi Arabia Plays Trump on Iran to Tilt Middle East Balance

Saudi Arabia’s royalty went all out in greeting US President Donald Trump with pomp and circumstance, exaggerating the visit as “historic” and a “landmark event.” The Trump team more aptly describes relations as going through a reset: Trump has backed away from his campaign criticism of the monarchy, and the United States, under Trump, is shying away from urging democracy and human rights for Saudi Arabia as former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush once did, explains author Dilip Hiro. Instead, Trump has capitulated to Saudi leaders, selling arms while offering unquestioning support in their struggle to maintain regional inequalities and a dangerous rivalry with Shia Iran. Trump’s criticism of Iran is a disappointment for Iranian voters who reelected Iran’s reformist President Hassan Rouhani by a large margin. Shias are a minority in the Muslim world, 15 percent compared with Sunnis’ 85 percent, and a target for extremists like the Islamic State. Iran’s steps toward integrating with the world and limiting its nuclear program deserve praise rather than condemnation. Shortsighted policies showing little regard for democracy or human rights are treacherous for the entire Middle East. – YaleGlobal

Writing/Curating the Middle East

The cultural production of the Arab World and Iran is often viewed through the limiting lens of European and American modes of art theory. “Writing/Curating the Middle East”—a two-day symposium (March 30–31) sponsored by the History of Art Department, Yale University Art Gallery, and Council on Middle East Studies at the MacMillan Center—sought to challenge this historiographical limitation. Examining issues of national identity and diversity through historical entanglement and synchronicity, curators and art historians proposed a new discourse on art from the Middle East.

Consisting of an artist talk and three thematic panels, the symposium illustrated the region’s ties to global modern art movements. Speakers included Wael Shawky, University of Pennsylvania; Linda Komaroff, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Sultan Al Qassemi, Barjeel Art Foundation; Alex Seggerman, Smith College; Clare Davies, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Dina Ramadan, Bard College; Saleem Al-Bahloly, Johns Hopkins University; and miriam cooke, Duke University. Kishwar Rizvi, Co-organizer and Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture,Yale University, introduced the symposium, with a roundtable discussion led by Pamela Franks, Co-organizer and Senior Deputy Director, Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Yale University Art Gallery. Individual panels were moderated by Frauke V. Josenhans, Horace W. Goldsmith Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Yale University Art Gallery; Mandy Merzaban, Curator, Barjeel Art Foundation; and Najwa Mayer, Wurtele Gallery Teacher, Yale University Art Gallery.

To Resolve the Syrian Crisis, Partition Is Necessary

During ceasefire talks in early May, Russia proposed creation of de-escalation zones, with itself, Iran and Turkey as guarantors. Partition is necessary, argue Carol E. B. Choksy and Jamsheed K. Choksy of Indiana University. “But having three nations that greatly abet the strife serve as enforcers will not produce peace. An impartial plan must be formulated and implemented.” The writers review Syria’s recent history and point out no acceptable coalition stands ready to govern Syria. Despite six years of war, influence from major powers including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, the United States and Russia have failed to stop the violence. Territorial assignments must be negotiated along with a ceasefire, and the international community could support relocation and prevent attacks during the transition. Partition would entail sacrifice, but would also separate hardened foes, allowing governance and control on a more manageable scale. Partition may offer the only chance for peace for Syria and the Middle East. – YaleGlobal