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It may finally be crunch time in Iraq for ExxonMobil, which in late 2011 led the charge north when it became the first major to sign a contract for exploration blocks in Iraqi Kurdistan. After months of back and forth, and meetings between chairman Rex Tillerson and (separately) Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Kurdish Prime Minister Massoud Barzani on 21 and 22 January, Exxon has apparently been told to decide once and for all between its 60% stake in the $50bn West Qurna 1 project in the south and its production-sharing agreements in blocks still being explored in Iraqi Kurdistan (Al Qush, Arbat East, Baeshiqa, Betwata, Pirmam and Qara Hanjeer).

Iraq
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Many Iraqis looked on with trepidation as an upsurge in terrorist attacks, apparently intended to create a new Sunni-Shia conflict, coupled with rising sectarian political tensions to mark the US’ formal withdrawal of troops, which took place a fortnight before the planned 31 December departure.

Iraq
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Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s reputation may still suffer on (parts of) the international stage as a result of the destructive Yemen war, a fruitless boycott of Qatar and the lingering horror of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, but the Saudi heir apparent’s position appears secure at home, despite occasional murmurings of disquiet within the family over his absolutist rule. An important element of his sustained appeal among some sections of the Saudi population – particularly the kingdom’s numerous youth – is his anti-corruption campaign.

Saudi Arabia
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When Saudi-watchers get together, conversation will soon turn to questions that can become an obsession: who will be the next Saudi monarch, who will succeed him and when will this happen? The onset of illness associated with old age cannot help the

Saudi Arabia
Free

Freedom of expression is a proud Kuwaiti boast in a region where most countries restrict public debate and media comment. The existence of a powerful and democratically elected parliament is only one facet of a society that can justifiably claim to stand out from its neighbours for the pluralism and vigour of its political culture.

Kuwait
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The 3 January presentation of diplomatic credentials by the new Saudi and Lebanese ambassadors, Walid Al-Yaacoub and Fawzi Kabbara, restores a sheen of respectability to a long-standing relationship that was undermined by prime minister Saad Hariri’s allegedly forced resignation, made in Riyadh at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s behest. Some of the heat has been taken out of that situation, but Riyadh appears determined to continue with a more activist policy across the Levant, even at the risk of creating more instability.

Saudi Arabia
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The Saudi bombing of targets in Yemen has underlined the potential for the crisis in the poor and populous southern Arabian state to flare into wider conflict (see Risk management report – Saudi Arabia). Escalation of the crisis also poses major problems for opposition forces within the country, who are well aware of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ability to turn a political and humanitarian drama to his advantage.

Saudi Arabia | Yemen
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While the post-election narrative in Iraq has focused on Moqtada Al-Sadr’s enhanced position as political kingmaker, the former firebrand’s relative success in the 12 May poll reveals more about the growing gap between political elites and the people they are meant to represent than any putative radicalisation of the electorate under Shia clerical leadership. Sadr’s Sairoon (On the Move) electoral bloc secured more votes than any other faction in the election, taking 54 out of 329 seats – albeit on a record low turnout of just 44.5% of registered voters.

Iraq
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While the secession of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area has occupied most attention, a failure of state-building in post-Baathist Iraq might also see other regions looking for at least Kurdish levels of autonomy, if not outright independence. Of most concern to Baghdad would be the hydrocarbons-rich south. GSN spoke to a range of decision-makers in Basra to test the support for different kinds of decentralisation in the province, which has been called ‘the failed Gulf state’ by historians of the area

Iraq
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The results released so far of elections on 26 February to the Majles-e Showra-ye Eslami (Islamic Consultative Assembly or parliament) and Majles-e Khobregan (Assembly of Experts) seemed to confirm that President Hassan Rouhani had emerged stronger from his nuclear deal with the P5+1 grouping of global powers. It suggested the clerical establishment – with Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (pictured smiling, almost winsomely, as he placed his vote) at its peak – was sanctioning a political shift towards more open, tolerant government. This would be despite the opposition of arch conservatives and revolutionary institutions such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Iran
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They may not see eye to eye on many issues but, in their different ways, all Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) members have made themselves useful to Donald Trump, as the US president seeks to tick off his regional policy points ahead of a bid for re-election in November. Trump’s “Deal of the Century” to wrap up to the Israel-Palestine conflict requires key Arab allies, led by Saudi Arabia, to play an expensive leading role; they have paid lip service to the plan despite public reluctance to support arrangements that cannot play well on the street.

Qatar
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It’s been a busy summer for Emirati foreign minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (ABZ). As Egypt unravels, the UAE has found itself (willingly) thrust into the role of regional go-to guy, at times explaining the shape of the crisis to a much-confused West. Within days of the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi (GSN 951/1), ABZ was in Cairo. On 9 July, he accompanied his brother, national security adviser Hazza Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, to see General Abdelfattah El Sisi and interim president Adly Mansour; there followed the announcement of $3bn in aid.

United Arab Emirates (UAE)
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The diplomatic community in the UAE is still weighing the significance of a series of early August tweets by federal Vice President and prime minister and Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, in which ‘MBR’ criticised politicians who failed to focus on facilitating and managing change “in their own backyards”. In a trio of messages on 4 August, MBR tweeted that “great achievements speak for themselves, not empty speeches with meaningless words” and that the Arab world had a “surplus of politicians” but “a shortage of administrators” who were focused on the plight of the people and on delivering concrete improvements.

United Arab Emirates (UAE)
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The sudden fuel price rises imposed overnight on 14/15 November which sparked a wave of protests that swept across Iran, and the brutal repression of those demonstrations, speak volumes about the character of a political system forged from the ruins of the Pahlavi regime in 1979 which soon evolved into the current velayat-e faqih (Rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent). The Islamic Revolution, and the subsequent eight-year war with Iraq, provided a crucible for institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and bonyads (religious foundations) to develop networks and businesses that go far beyond their military or charitable core.

Iran
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Rarely short of a timely quote, President Barham Salih told a recent interviewer that “Iraq is coming back to the neighbourhood”. In promoting re-engagement with the Gulf and wider region, Salih was sharing a policy promoted by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, to force Iraq out of its political and economic isolation to re-emerge as a studiedly neutral player (this time round) in regional diplomacy and commerce. While key elements of his administration remain blocked by domestic politicking (see Politics), Abdul-Mahdi has worked to reposition Iraq in the region.

Iraq