Monday 18 Jan 2021 | 19:06 | SYDNEY
People | experts Rodger Shanahan
Research Fellow, West Asia Program
Lowy Institute
Areas of ExpertiseMiddle East security issues; Political Islam; Shi’a Islam

Obama Middle East policy

Anthony Bubalo's Five Middle East crises facing the Obama Administration gave an excellent overview of some of the problems requiring US attention in this tough neighbourhood. As for its policy responses, Theodore Roosevelt's oft quoted retelling of a West African proverb is an appropriate

The Middle East and the long arm of the law

The rule of law and the Middle East are not always synonomous, and senior political or military leaders have rarely if ever sat before a civilian court in judgement, but over this past week issues of the law have been centre stage in three countries. In Israel the Attorney-General has signaled 

Arabian Gulf: Shi'a shenanigans

Just as one issue involving international Shi'a tensions in the Gulf has been resolved, another internal dispute has arisen. The latest episode of Iranian irredentist claims over Bahrain (discussed in this post) appears to have been resolved with a suitable visit to Bahrain by the

Defence White Paper, Lebanon-style

I have thoroughly enjoyed Jim Molan's and Hugh White's posts about the White paper and defence capability planning. There are numerous challenges in trying to craft a document that can provide strategic guidance in an environment where the nature of conflicts the ADF is called upon to take

Bahrain Shi'a: With Iranian friends like these...

I argued in a Lowy paper last year that the notion of a 'Shi'a Crescent' forming after the rise to power of a democratically-elected Shi'a-dominated government in Iraq doesn't stand up to serious scrutiny. But if there is to be a political problem with Gulf Shi'a, it is

Israel: Elections, horse trading and peace negotiations

The Israeli elections failed to produce a clear winner, even though Tzipi Livni's Kadima party unexpectedly pipped Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud at the post to become the largest party. Given Israel's electoral system though, the election itself is largely the beginning of the process of

Israel declining deterrence

In the aftermath of Israel's recent offensive in Gaza, Israeli politicians have been quick to claim that the success of the operation had restored Israeli deterrence. PM Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak all claimed this was a cathartic event for the

When the Gulf sneezes, Lebanon catches a cold

What keeps the Lebanese economy afloat has often been a point of contention. But with the Lebanese penchant for hard work, business acumen and a number of highly regarded universities, its export of business and professional labour has long been a key source of income. Indeed, Lebanon received an

Summiting while Gaza burns

While Egypt has been at the head of efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the rest of the Arab world has been busy doing what it does best during times of conflict — organising summits. Indeed, organisers are falling over each other, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar competing for

Reader riposte: Stopping the rockets

Chris Skinner writes in response to Sam's post of yesterday: The difficulty in intercepting the short-range, unguided Katyusha missiles as described by Victoria Samson is appreciated. However this problem might be more amenable to the approach used for mortar attacks. Mortar

Middle East food security: Buying the farm

Mark Thirlwell highlighted the move by Gulf nations to ensure food security by using their massive oil revenues to buy or lease arable land from developing countries. Despite the massive drop in the oil price, GCC countries are still engaged in the same quest for land, with the UAE doing a

Washington buzz-word bingo

International relations, like all fields of endeavour, has its own jargon, some of which neatly encapsulates complex policy ideas while others are simply jibberish. The eminent IR theorist Joseph Nye Jr was largely responsible for an example of the former, with his neat delineation of 'soft&#

The Jews of Yemen

The Jewish population of Yemen is one of the longest-standing in the Arab world, having plied its trade of silversmithing for hundreds of years. Although nearly all of Yemen's 50,000-strong Jewish population was airlifted to Israel between 1949-50 as part of Operation 'Magic Carpet',

Middle East: Year of the election

Changing political landscapes in the Middle East have regularly, if not traditionally, come about as a result of conflict, coups d’etat or deaths of reigning monarchs. While the new US administration has more than enough on its plate in addressing Middle East issues even before it takes office,

Saudi Arabia cinematic desert

For those of you annoyed at the long queues to see a movie during the summer holidays, spare a thought for cinema-starved Saudis, who have waited 30 years between screening times. Even then,the movie only opened in Jeddah (where there is already plenty to occupy the time of a single Saudi male)

Canada and Italy set a bad example for Kuwait

A government under pressure; desperate political manoeuvring involving the highest constitutional authority being invoked by the Prime Minister to stave off political embarrassment, if not humiliation; and a parliament effectively suspended until late January. While most political observers would

Middle East: It all academic, really

Attending the annual Middle Eastern Studies Association meeting in Washington last week, it was hard not to be struck by the lively debate about any number of topics concerning a region which continues to be a central focus for US policy planners.  The depth of academic expertise on show

Gulf funds in the Pacific: Less than meets the eye

After the revelation last week about Iran's diplomatic intervention in the Pacific, I was interested to find out a little more Middle Eastern financial links to the South Pacific and environs. East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s recent visit to Kuwait, for example, has highlighted

Iran Honiara gambit

Tehran and Honiara have little in common, but as Taiwan found out a long time ago, the Solomon Islands’ vote in the UN General Assembly is worth as much as that of the US. Hence the interest Iran has started to show in the welfare of Solomon Islanders. The two countries recently signed a

Obama Middle East challenges

While domestic issues will take much of his attention, Barack Obama has, many Middle Eastern challenges requiring his attention. Obama has an experienced team of formal and informal advisers that is sure to grow in the near future. Most of the issues facing him are well known, and at first glance

Hizbullah strange bedfellows

Politics makes for strange bedfellows at the best of times, but in the Lebanese political system the manoeuvrings of Hizbullah in pursuit of its political aims make for weird viewing. Beginning in early 2006 they broadened their sectarian political base through the memorandum of understanding 

Breaking glass ceilings and security barriers

Middle Eastern diplomatic appointments do not normally elicit a great deal of interest, but some developments on this front are worthy of closer scrutiny. The UAE recently appointed its first two female ambassadors (to Sweden and Spain), an act that followed closely on the heels of Bahrain’s

Olmert deathbed conversion

Politics is a difficult game. The players must reconcile their good intentions with  soaring egos, political imperatives and, in the case of those leaving office,the desire to leave a favourable legacy. It is sometimes comforting to know that, in Australia, our politicians occupy themselves with

Defence White Paper debate: Round 9

I felt moved to make a few observations on Lachlan McGoldrick’s post; in particular on the balance between theoretical policy development and practical realities. While our Army is relatively small, Lachlan’s absolutist view that the Australian Army is too small to make significant

Not-so-dire Straits of Hormuz

A worst case scenario often invoked in the event of an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities is the Islamic Republic’s closure of the economically vital Straits of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. Regardless of whether Iran is capable of carrying out such an action,

Bad moon not rising: the myth of the Shi'a crescent

Accusations that a Shi'a crescent is emerging in the Arab world following the rise of a Shi'a government in Iraq and the actions of Hizbullah in Lebanon, have provoked much discussion and highlighted fears of Iran's co-religionists gaining political power at the expense of the traditional Sunni

The Middle East: Feminism new front line

For those who thought the feminist movement had largely achieved its aims in the West, the sisters still fighting the good fight in the Near East face different challenges, achieving varying degrees of success. In Kuwait, for instance, women were granted the right to vote in 2005, while those in

Habibi, can you spare a dime?

While the conspicuous oil wealth of the Gulf states should no longer amaze us, it is sometimes worth examining how Gulf rentier states devise budgets for annual income based on such a fluctuating resource. In the case of Kuwait (which sits on an estimated 10% of the world’s oil reserves), the

All quiet on the Lebanese front?

While there has been little reporting on the security situation in Lebanon since the signing of the Doha Accord, recent events highlight the continued tensions that run below the surface and the complexity of the security challenges facing the Lebanese Government. In the north, ongoing

Saudi Arabia: It raining cats, dogs and wives

The guardians of Saudi Arabia’s conservative moral code are employees of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, but are better known as the mutawwa. Most expatriates come across the mutawwa as they prevent the entry of unaccompanied youth into shopping malls or call

Oman: Do pay the ferryman

Australians may be aware of our success in exporting our expertise in services and large-scale engineering projects, but rather less is known about the fact that the Gulf states have also been a good market for Australian manufactured goods. As Anthony Bubalo’s recent Policy Brief points out,

Syria: Levantine Cluedo

Political assassinations by their nature are usually shadowy affairs, but ones perpetrated in the Middle East are more complex than average, given the longer than normal list of suspects. This would certainly appear to be the case in the reported assassination of the Syrian Brigadier Muhammad

The Gulf: Of rice and men

The oil boom and reliance on expatriate workers for all manner of menial, middle management and construction tasks has created a property boom in all Gulf states over the past five years. Spiraling rent prices and lack of stock have impacted most heavily on the expatriate workers, who find

Soft power: A matter of faith

Religion has not often featured heavily in Australia’s foreign policy calculus, but there are signs that this may be changing. Not necessarily for ideological reasons (although there could be an element of this), but rather due to the view of religion as a potential source of access and

Lebanon: The hidden threat

While the May takeover of West Beirut and return of prisoners held in Israeli jails has highlighted the power of the Shi‘a Hizbullah militia, little has been heard of armed Sunni groups since the fighting against Fatah al-Islam at Nahr al Barid  refugee camp last year. The success of the army

World Youth Day payoff

One of the purported benefits of Australia hosting large international events is the positive impression that visitors are supposed to leave with after visiting this country. If his public comments are anything to go by, then the Lebanese Maronite  Patriarch, Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, could well

Israel-Hizbullah: The swap

This week’s exchange of Hizbullah prisoners (including that of the notorious Samir Quntar) for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed by Hizbullah in 2006 indicates the varied forces at play in both Lebanese and Israeli society. The solemnity of the handover and acceptance of the bodies, as

Abu Dhabi: Leaving on a jet plane

For an insight into the massive oil wealth flowing into the coffers of the Gulf states and the ability this gives them to diversify their economies, the 46th Farnborough Airshow is a good start. This week both the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi have announced eye-watering aircraft deals. Abu

Hizbullah: walking the Lebanese tightrope

Hizbullah’s month-long war with Israel in 2006, its withdrawal from and effective blocking of the Lebanese government later that year, and its May 2008 armed takeover of West Beirut has shown how politically and militarily powerful this group is. As a consequence it is often held up as the

Lebanon: They said we'd never make it

Nothing is ever easy in Lebanese politics. The formation of a new cabinet has been five weeks in the making, as various factions firstly try to gain their own piece of the thirty-person pie, and then squabble over who gets what piece. The new cabinet features 16 members appointed by the

The Syrian who came in from the cold

President Bashar Assad’s visit to Paris represents much more than just a desire on the part of President Sarkozy to beef up his foreign policy credentials as part of his drive for a Mediterranean Union. Rather, it is recognition of the pivotal role Syria can play in the resolution of several

Saudi Arabia women drivers

Women drivers is normally a banal enough topic, except when you are talking about Saudi Arabia, where such a thing does not theoretically exist. This week, however, the death of a woman driver in Riyadh brought the issue of women driving in the Kingdom into the public arena again. The issue has

Dealing with Al-Shaytan

Today’s announcement by Hizbullah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that his organisation has agreed to a UN-mediated prisoner exchange with Israel highlights the difficult choices faced by the Israeli government over the decision, and also provides an insight into Hizbullah thinking. The

Middle East: Get thee to a bakery

An announcement last week by the Lebanese economy ministry that it would increase state subsidies on flour to maintain the price of Arabic bread highlights what is a real problem in the Arab world – the increasing cost of government food subsidies. While flour subsidies cost the Lebanese

Waiting for Godot and Middle East peace

While any moves towards peace in the troubled Middle East are to be applauded, President Bashar Assad inserted a reality check into proceedings in an interview during his recent state visit to India. While all parties understand that the US is essential to any settlement, and there is support for

Reader riposte: Freedom of the Arab press

My recent post, which referenced a couple of articles in Arab newspapers, brought this response from a reader: Does the contributor know of the biases, if any of the originating newspaper — who funds it, etc.? The short answer is that Ash-sharq al-Awsat is a Saudi owned,

The Iran-Syria nexus

For a fascinating insight into the development of the current close relationship between Iran and Syria, and in particular a background into the development of Hizbullah, it is worth reading this article from the London-based Ash-Sharq al-Awsat. As with all exposes, the background of the

Beirut: The clubbing index

Beirut, known as the ‘Paris of the east’ in its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, has fallen on leaner times since the start of the civil war in 1975. Internal conflict, occupation by external powers and more recently political stasis have all threatened to drain the city of attraction to any

The road from Damascus

As leader of one of the Axis of Not Quite so Evil countries, Bashar Assad has largely had to satisfy his presidential travel ambitions in regional countries. Support for Hizbullah and militant Palestinian groups, a close relationship with Iran, suspicions over its role in the assassination of

Iraq: Basing instinct

Having recently returned from talking to several leading Shi‘a figures in the Gulf and Lebanon, one issue that kept cropping up without prompting was disquiet over the development of a long-term legal basis for the presence of US troops in Iraq. The proposed security agreement is necessary in