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While analysts were puzzling over who would succeed Sultan Qaboos, Sayyid Haitham Bin tariq was quietly drawing up plans for the personnel and policies he would need if – and when – he took over from the ailing ruler. GSN understands that the recent spate of key appointments and policy announcements are the fruit of thinking that evolved while the sultan’s uncle, who died one year ago, was still alive. these moves are refashioning Oman as Haitham would like – with the prospect of a few more eye-catching announcements to come as the sultan completes the initial implementation of his plans.

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Qatar and Saudi Arabia have re-established relations in what a UAE minister called “a return to GCC unity”, but while rapprochement is welcomed, deep divisions remain between the Gulf monarchies – from Abu Dhabi’s suspicions of Qatari politics to Doha’s rising tensions with Bahrain.

Issue 1116 - 10 December 2020

Kuwait heads for post-election paralysis

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The opposition victory in the National Assembly election is likely to lead to more deadlock at a time of economic crisis, presenting a test for recently installed Emir Sheikh Nawaf and reappointed Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah.

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Saudi Arabia is preparing for the transition from President Donald Trump to his successor by laying the groundwork for a withdrawal from Yemen and dealing with outstanding human rights issues, while Netanyahu’s visit suggests Riyadh is keeping its options open on a future deal with Israel.

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After a tumultuous period in power, President Donald Trump’s brand of transactional politics is coming to an end, to be replaced by President-elect Joe Biden’s more conventional approach.The Middle East is not likely to be high up the agenda for the new White House team, which will want to concentrate on rebuilding relations with key allies in Europe and Asia and dealing with the huge domestic challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For some Gulf governments the impact will nonetheless be significant.

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The UAE has been focused on leveraging to the maximum its new public relationship with Israel following the signing on 15 September of the Abraham Accords, which were ratified by the Knesset (Israeli parliament) on 15 October. Deals have been signed in a host of areas ranging from artificial intelligence, to healthcare, agriculture and security, by companies many of which are linked to senior Emiratis and government bodies. Underlining potential strategic plays, the UAE is looking to take advantage of the Europe-Asia oil pipeline that runs from Eilat to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast.

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Succession politics have moved quickly as the ruling family attempts to project unity in the face of Kuwait’s unsteady future following the death of veteran ruler Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. While the late emir’s son Sheikh Nasser Sabah had been seen by many as the natural choice to become the next crown prince – leveraging his popularity with the public and vision for a non- oil future – new Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah instead chose his own half-brother, Kuwait National Guard deputy commander Sheikh Meshaal as heir apparent.

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The death of Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al- Sabah in the early hours of 29 September marked the end of an era for Kuwait and the wider region. Born in 1929, the 91-year-old was Kuwait’s 15th emir and ruled for over 14 years, since January 2006.

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Western governments’ awareness of the extent and character of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s global ambitions, manifested in President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road Initiative (BRI), has grown sharply in the last 12 months. Not that the ‘Silk Road’ project should be any surprise: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been open about its goals, albeit mainly expressed on Chinese language sites.

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The UAE’s commitment to broadcasting its now overt relationship with Israel has seen cabinet ministers holding phone calls with their Israeli counterparts, the formal scrapping of the boycott of Israel on 29 August and an El Al plane landing at Abu Dhabi International Airport on 31 August carrying a delegation including US President Donald Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Israel’s National Security Council leader Meir Ben-Shabbat.

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Questions about the health of the elderly rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have become central issues in recent days, in the wake of both men being hospitalised and undergoing surgery. Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah is expected to spend some time recuperating in the United States, at the very least slowing down his important role as a regional peacemaker

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Speculation persists that Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef (MBN) is being set up to face corruption charges, as his successor as crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), consolidates his personal power – by cracking down on potential rivals – and economic influence, via instruments including the now pervasive Public Investment Fund (PIF).

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Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) appears to be well aware of his pariah status on the world stage in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 (see Diplomatic brief). Wishing to avoid any embarrassment at being cold-shouldered by some senior western leaders, he had severely curbed his global travelling even before the Covid-19 pandemic began and the Bin Salman clan locked down in their island palaces and yachts. MBS is believed to have stayed in the kingdom (and not to have recently visited his French summer home at Louveciennes, near Versailles, acquired in 2015 for an estimated $300m).

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With many Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries now starting to ease restrictions imposed to counter the spread of coronavirus, GSN has carried out an analysis of the number of new Covid-19 cases and deaths attributable to the disease across the region. While some governments appear to be getting the virus under control, at least to some degree, an analysis of data collated by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control suggests other countries remain firmly in the grip of a healthcare crisis.

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The UAE has projected its influence and increasing military muscle in an ever wider arc under Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and UAE Armed Forces deputy supreme commander Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ)’s leadership. Its commitments now run as far west as Libya, where the UAE is a key backer of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF – formerly known as the Libyan National Army), whose march on Tripoli has stalled amid a striking Turkish intervention.