Foreign Relations & International Law

Kurdish Independence Referendum Draws Criticism and Threats, Saudi Arabia’s “Authoritarian Upgrading” Strategy, and the Gulf’s New Outreach to Israel

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, September 19, 2017, 10:11 AM

Iraq Braces for Kurdish Independence Referendum

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Iraq Braces for Kurdish Independence Referendum

As world leaders gather in New York this week, Iraqi President Fuad Masum, who had been scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly, will be conspicuously absent. He decided at the last minute to cancel his trip as Iraq prepares for a Kurdish referendum on independence. The vote is scheduled for September 25 and is approaching fast, despite months of efforts by Iraqi and international diplomats to convince Kurdish President Masoud Barzani to delay the referendum.

Attempts to reach a compromise have failed so far, and Baghdad has started taking legal and political action. The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution last week rejecting the referendum and authorizing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “take all measures” to preserve the unity of the country. The parliament also voted to remove Najmaddin Kareem, the governor of Kirkuk, a contested oil-rich province, from office in response to his support for the referendum; Kareem told Reuters he will not abide by the parliamentary order. The Iraqi Supreme Court intervened as well, ordering the vote be postponed while its constitutionality is reviewed. If it proceeds, Arab officials in Kirkuk say they will request federal protection—which could mean a military occupation of the contested city.

Barzani and the Kurdish leadership are taking on a large risk for a mostly symbolic gesture, but they may be in too deep to back out now.

The United States has repeatedly warned Kurdish officials not to go through with the planned referendum and tried to broker some face-saving measures to facilitate a delay. “The United States does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intention to hold a referendum later this month,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters last week. “The United States has repeatedly emphasized to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat [the Islamic State] and stabilize the liberated areas.” The U.S. Congress, which includes many outspoken supporters of Kurdish interests, has been quiet on the issue; a Kurdish diplomat told Politico that State and Defense Department officials have been advising members of Congress not to weigh in. Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors in Turkey and Iran have also been urging Barzani to call the referendum off, and factions within Iraq, including Iranian-backed militias, are issuing saber-rattling threats of reprisals if the vote is held. A spokesman for one Shia militia left Al-Monitor with the impression that Tehran has “given the unit the green light to attack Kirkuk if it decides to secede from Iraq.” The violence may have already started—on Monday, two men were killed in a shootout outside a Turkmen party office in Kirkuk, which the Washington Post reports may have been tied to the referendum.

As the vote has drawn near, Kurdish officials have increasingly tried to downplay its significance. “We are pledging dialogue and a peaceful solution,” one told the Post. As noted in a previous Ticker, the vote is subject to some ambiguities under Kurdish law and is designed to be a signal of intent, rather than a decisive rupture. Barzani and the Kurdish leadership are taking on a large risk for a mostly symbolic gesture, but they may be in too deep to back out now.

This Is What Authoritarian Upgrading Looks Like

Saudi Arabia’s economic reform project, Saudi Vision 2030, is reaching a critical juncture. Previous Saudi attempts to buck the country’s dependency on oil have faltered at early signs of economic trouble or the first hint of rebounding petrol prices. Now foreign lenders are feeling increasingly anxious about the Kingdom and two major European banks are looking to sell off their branches there, Bloomberg reports. That’s not a vote of confidence in the long-term promise of the reform plan.

Saudi Vision 2030 is hitting delays—the much-touted IPO for state oil giant Saudi Aramco will now likely be pushed until 2019, a separate Bloomberg article reported last week. That’s “a reflection of the deep discomfort with the need to expose the state to the scrutiny of open markets,” Karen Young, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, wrote recently for the Institute’s Market Watch blog. She also notes spending that has dried up a third of Saudi Arabia’s total reserve assets since 2014. This could force spending cuts in the next three years. “[T]here will be moments of reckoning, especially in debt management,” she warns.

With the economic challenges will come political challenges as well. Economic reforms also invite political turmoil. Saudi Arabia has tried to preempt and manage some shocks with a few reforms—municipal elections and women’s suffrage, for instance—but it is also cracking down hard. While the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been a worldwide charm offensive promoting a more cosmopolitan vision for the future of the Kingdom, authorities have been arresting dozens of political dissenters for such mild offenses as being reluctant to support Riyadh’s flailing feud with Qatar. More than 30 people have been arrested so far, including several prominent clerics. “In the starkest terms, Saudi Arabia is trying to moderate the extreme viewpoints of both liberal reformers and conservative clerics. And the arrests span that spectrum,” Saudi political analyst Jamal Kashoggi writes; his column in Al-Hayat was recently canceled due to government pressure, so his assessment appeared in the Washington Post.

The Saudi government’s reform plans may be dramatic, but even if they go through—a big if—the goal is to reinforce the central authority of the monarchy.

A decade ago, Steven Heydemann identified this mix of economic reform, palliative political changes, and ruthless crackdowns as a strategy for regime maintenance. “Authoritarian upgrading consists ... not in shutting down and closing off Arab societies from globalization and other forces of political, economic, and social change. Nor is it based simply on the willingness of Arab governments to repress their opponents,” he wrote in a 2007 Brookings report. “Instead, authoritarian upgrading involves reconfiguring authoritarian governance to accommodate and manage changing political, economic, and social conditions.” The Saudi government’s reform plans may be dramatic, but even if they go through—a big if—the goal is to reinforce the central authority of the monarchy. The recent arrests and suppression of dissent underscore that subtext of Saudi Vision 2030.

Are the Gulf States Sending Up a Trial Balloon with Israel?

The Gulf states have been quietly shifting their position on Israel for years now. They’ve found common cause in their opposition to Iran’s regional policy and, more recently, Qatar’s media empire. That quiet relationship may be coming into open view. It was made public last week that King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa of Bahrain will allow Bahraini citizens to visit Israel and that he opposes boycotts of the Israeli state; his comments were released at an event hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, at which the king was represented by his son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa. The announcement follows recent rumors that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman paid a secret visit to Tel Aviv to discuss “regional peace.” There’s no clear indication that this prefigures an public diplomatic opening, but experts like Dennis Ross have speculated that the Trump administration may be trying to nudge the Arab states into the peace process to try to break the diplomatic deadlock.

Palestinian politics are currently subsumed in their own internal conflicts.

President Donald Trump is expected to discuss the peace process in separate meetings with President Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, but there’s no sign of a shakeup. Palestinian politics are currently subsumed in their own internal conflicts. This past weekend, Hamas announced that it would dissolve its administrative committee in Gaza in an effort to convince Abbas to ease sanctions against the Strip. As Grant Rumley, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and coauthor of a new biography of Abbas, wrote for The Atlantic, this is likely to fare as well as other reconciliation attempts between the Palestinian factions. “The reality is that Hamas is unlikely to ever truly give up its military control over Gaza,” he writes. “The faction wants Abbas to pay for the costs of governing. Abbas wants total acquiescence and disarmament. Ultimately, there’s no middle ground here.”

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and an instructor at the Naval War College. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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