December 1, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: More Geopolitical Machinations and Manipulations in the Gulf

The always complicated and intrigue-filled power struggles between the Gulf states and their neighbors have lately taken on a form of open pressure and manipulation, as applied to other states' internal politics. 

• Considerable confusion remains regarding the travel status of former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik from his home in exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

• On November 29, Shafik told the Al Jazeera news network that the UAE had blocked him from traveling to Egypt, ostensibly to keep him from running against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2018.

• While the UAE rejects Shafik’s accusation, if he is correct, it would mark the second recent example of blatant interference by a Gulf state in the internal politics of a non-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Arab nation.

• A previous scheme by Saudi Arabia to have Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri resign while in Riyadh has been widely condemned in Lebanon and saw Hariri announce he would rescind his resignation after returning to Beirut.


The always complicated and intrigue-filled power struggles between the Gulf states and their neighbors have lately taken on a form of open pressure and manipulation, as applied to other states' internal politics. 

On November 29, former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik told the Al Jazeera news network that he had been stopped from traveling to Egypt by officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), ostensibly because of his recent declaration to run against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in elections scheduled for 2018. Shafik had fled to the UAE after the military coup that toppled then-President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. While Shafik had faced various corruption charges in Egypt, he was acquitted in some cases and saw the charges dropped in others. 

Shafik narrowly lost the 2012 election to Morsi and has formed and led a political party from exile. Should Shafik succeed in running against President Sisi, he would face the former general who toppled Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader whose removal was strongly backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. By denying Shafik the ability to travel, the UAE would be working transparently to alter the coming campaign, even though few analysts think al-Sisi is in any danger of losing, regardless of who runs against him. 

Meanwhile, the UAE has denied Shafik’s claims of being restrained. In a series of tweets, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said there ‘were no obstacles’ to Shafik leaving the UAE and slammed what he called Shafik’s ‘lack of gratitude’ given his residency in the UAE after fleeing prosecution in Egypt. For now, he remains in the UAE, which insists he can go.

November 29 also saw a new development in the bizarre case of Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri and Saudi Arabia. Hariri had resigned from office in a broadcast statement from Riyadh on November 4, a decision widely believed to have been forced on him by Saudi officials. If so, it was another remarkable power move by one Arab state in the internal affairs of another.  

Saudi Arabia had apparently hoped to use the resignation to pressure Hizbollah and its state sponsor, Iran. But the move appears to have backfired. The reaction in Lebanon over Riyadh’s blatant attempt to decide who would serve as Lebanon’s Prime Minster was broadly negative and cut across sectarian lines. While Saudi Arabia has denied that Hariri was pressured into resigning, Hariri has implied otherwise, while telling an interviewer that he preferred to keep quiet about what transpired in Saudi Arabia. On November 29, Hariri announced plans to withdraw his resignation within a few days.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are among the strongest supporters of the al-Sisi regime, which has assumed many of the authoritative trappings of former long-time President Hosni Mubarak. UAE support for al-Sisi stems in large measure from his regime’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which both the UAE and Saudi Arabia consider to be a terrorist organization. It is a view not shared by many other countries. While the U.S. sees elements of the Muslim Brotherhood as violent, it has not listed it as a foreign terrorist organization, given its inclusion in the governments of Turkey and Morocco, among others. Were the UAE to seek to reduce the number of credible rival candidates to al-Sisi by denying the travel of a possible opponent, it would be a remarkable and open interference in the internal politics of another country.

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