Thursday, April 17, 2014

Kuwait's Opposition

Pomegranate reports on the sudden, organized re-emergence of Kuwait's opposition:
On April 12th Kuwait’s opposition re-emerged with a new website, politburo, media operation, and most importantly, demand—for full parliamentary democracy...
After losing momentum in early 2013, the most prominent figures in the opposition began to meet to write down their demands. The talks took place “behind the scenes," says a well-connected activist who was kept in the dark. All the big personalities were at the table: Musallam al-Barrak, a former MP who became a symbol of dissent when he was charged with “insulting the emir”; Jamaan Herbash, a respected, soft-spoken member of the Muslim Brotherhood; Tariq al-Mutairi, head of the Civil Democratic Movement, a youth coalition. Salafists, leftists, trade unions, the student union and some civil society groups also signed on.
Few expected such a broad coalition to agree on anything substantive, let alone the 23-page document that aims to pull Kuwait out of what the introduction terms its “worst phase ever”. It laments that society is divided, Kuwait’s oil wealth has been pillaged thanks to corruption, the justice system is unfair, and human rights are neglected. As a solution it proposes a full parliamentary system, with a stronger legislature, independent judiciary and revised criminal code. The demands, spelled out with specific changes to the constitution, would vastly diminish the power of the ruling family.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Flawed American Peace Process

The Economist has a lengthy rundown of the faltering Middle East peace process being managed from the American side by John Kerry.  After discussing how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government doesn't want a reasonable deal even if he does and that Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas is a weak leader, it mentions this:
The Israelis, for their part, have nervously construed comments by Mr Kerry and Mr Obama as veiled threats to withhold hitherto almost unconditional backing for Israel in the UN and other forums, unless it shows more flexibility on such issues as borders, settlement-building and Jerusalem. Remarks by Mr Kerry this week in Washington were widely interpreted as holding Israel mainly to blame for the impasse. And earlier this year Mr Obama referred bleakly—in Israeli eyes menacingly—to “continued aggressive settlement construction”, warning Israelis that if “Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
That was taken by many Israelis as a veiled threat from Mr Obama that if the Palestinians, abandoning the currently stalemated round of talks, were to go back to the UN and get wider recognition of Palestine as a state, the diplomatic tide would gradually turn against Israel, casting it as an international pariah.
Some Israelis may think that, but as it happens, another way to examine the course of events is provided by Rashid Khalidi's recently published book Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.  That title pulls no punches, and Khalidi's argument the U.S. has actually hindered peace between Israelis and Palestinians by posing as a fair broker while heavily favoring the former.  By his reading, if the diplomatic tide does turn against Israel, it will almost certainly not be an American government that turns it, and any criticisms of Israel will be quickly contextualized or backed down on.

In the book, Khalidi looks in detail at three key episodes in the history of American-sponsored peace negotiations using hitherto unused documents.  One is Ronald Reagan's abortive 1982 attempted to hold Israel to the portion of the Camp David Accords which called for a settlement of the Palestinian question, examined on the basis of documents newly declassified under the 30-year rule.  The second is the Madrid-Washington process of the early 1990's, based on Khalidi's own experiences as an advisor to the Palestinian team at that time and related documents in his possession.  The third is the early Obama administration peace efforts, based both on media accounts and the Palestine Papers, which some may remember as al-Jazeera's big scoop on the eve of Egypt's revolution against Husni Mubarak.

In these three episodes, Khalidi discerns a pattern which he offers as an overall paradigm for understanding the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  The key element is that American presidents, despite some attempts to try something different at the start of administrations, perceive American political forces as heavily pro-Israeli, and so wind up following Israeli lines, lines which are designed to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.  There is never significant concern for Palestinian interests, nor even much attempt to use the bully pulpit to highlight Palestinian narratives, which would, of course, interfere with the endless assertions of devotion to Israel.  The United States, therefore, rarely pressures Israel to keep its commitments or make new ones, while simultaneously working to prevent the Palestinians from attempting tactics outside the American-brokered process, such as the UN statehood bid.

Khalidi's book reads like an early draft of a post mortem on negotiations for a two-state solution, though near the end he suggests that a new Palestinian leadership could emerge and demand negotiations under a different framework, which seems fanciful.  Although future research will doubtless turn up scattered exceptions, his paradigm has a lot to recommend it if one considers alternative paths open to the Americans, as he does in his conclusion.  This is clearest in the American failure to take a hard line against Israeli settlement construction.  However, asserting that the U.S. has actually prevented a deal is almost certainly too harsh for most of the period in question, since as he admits, the Palestinian leadership was perfectly willing to go along with the American-brokered process for most of the 30+ years in question.  It also depends critically on what one makes of agreements the Palestinians declined, which is the book's single greatest omission to be rectified by future research.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Barakat

The National has a profile of Barakat, the movement opposing Bouteflika's re-election in Algeria:
Activists of the Barakat (Enough) movement have made their mark by daring to argue publicly that the 77-year-old Mr Bouteflika, who is too sick to take to the campaign trail himself, is unfit to govern..
Barakat has branches in 20 of Algeria’s 48 provinces and has organised eight demonstrations since March 1, Ms Bouraoui says.
The movement is campaigning for a boycott of the April 17 election, which it describes as a "masquerade" and "another affront to the Algerian people."
Made up mostly of activists in their 20s and 30s, the movement has so far failed to draw large crowds to its rallies, and is unlikely to prevent the expected re-election of the incumbent.
But it remains a surprise factor and an irritant for the president’s campaign team, who have responded with allegations that the new group is a tool of foreign powers.
You can read interviews with the founders here and here.  The movement bears a striking resemblance to the Kefaya movement which began a decade ago in Egypt.  Both are small organizations with a name translatable into "enough" in English which struggle to attract people, but open space for political criticism and discussion through their activities.  In addition, both seek to reform the regime motivated by the spark of an unacceptable development in regime longevity rather than immediate revolution.  Kefaya was focused on presenting a succession between Husni Mubarak and his son Gamal, whereas Barakat focuses on Bouteflika's quest for a fourth term despite being too ill to campaign.

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Arab Heritage Preservation

The April 2014 issue of Perspectives on History includes a report of a Smithsonian conference on Arab heritage preservation.  Some interesting sections:
Heghnar Watenpaugh, an associate professor of art history at the University of California, Davis, talked about the history of Palmyra, an ancient city now used for military purposes in Syria. It had been continuously inhabited since the antique period, but when the French colonized Syria, they forcibly removed the people who lived in and around the ruins of the ancient city, and demolished their centuries-old mud-and-brick houses. Palmyra was transformed from a living city into an ancient ruin and a popular filming location for French directors. Watenpaugh addressed questions that many other speakers raised: For whom is heritage, and to whom does it belong?
Kareem Ibrahim, an Egyptian architect and urban planner who works to revitalize historic neighborhoods in Cairo, stressed that historic sites were often seen by governments as being for tourists and tourism, which resulted in attempts to evict Egyptians living near historic sites. Some parts of thriving cities were demolished in order to “sanitize” the area and provide unobstructed views of monuments. Ibrahim also pointed out that governments tend to define heritage differently from individuals. Following the fall of Mubarak’s ­government, protester graffiti was painted over by the new government. Ibrahim pointed to the irony of the new government erecting a new monument commemorating the protesters of Tahrir Square, while erasing the memory already there on the walls. Heritage and cultural memory became the center of a constant fight in Tahrir Square, with one side creating its own symbols and the other erasing them. The government’s monument, with names of members of the new government on it, did not last long. 
The removal of living populations from historic sites was also attempted by Jordan with the Bdoul Bedouin of Petra, though they kept moving back in.  On the other theme, contested historical memories of revolutions have also come up a lot in a course I am teaching this semester on Revolution in Middle Eastern History.  The same thing happens in American politics, from an unpopular John Adams's attempts to claim the mantle of George Washington through promotion of the song "Hail, Columbia!" to today's Tea Party and its opponents.  The reason is that successful revolutions become legitimizing events, and so claiming to act in its spirit is an important, sometimes even necessary way to build support for a regime or agenda.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Abu Samra Crossing

Interesting article about Qatar's reliance on a single border crossing with Saudi Arabia:
About 800 lorries pass through the crossing each day, according to Qatar’s customs department. Although lacking precise import figures, the department says the goods coming in include food and construction materials that arrive from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.
The materials include everything from concrete to rebar and other materials needed for building in the country. In particular, 38 per cent of Qatar’s food was transported across its Saudi land border in 2013, according to figures quoted in the Qatar-based bq Magazine.
That dependence on Saudi Arabia became apparent over a year ago when Qatar ran out of chicken for several months because Saudi Arabia banned exports to stabilise prices at home. That caused prices to increase dramatically, by as much as 40 per cent, according to Qatari news reports at the time. Disruptions in these areas could also effect progress on building the ambitious residential and commercial developments that Doha has launched as it prepares to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup, said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East security and energy expert at Georgetown University.
Saudi Arabia has threatened a blockade over its smaller neighbor's support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but experts see that as only a remote possibility.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Bekaa Deployment

Lebanon's army has deployed in the Bekaa Valley to try and contain the spillover from Syria:
The Lebanese army deployed into lawless areas of the northern Bekaa Valley over the weekend, shutting down unofficial checkpoints and pursuing car thieves and kidnappers as part of a broader national security plan to mitigate the damage being done by spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The security plan was devised by the newly-formed Lebanese government in response to the latest outbreak of fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, between the impoverished neighborhoods of Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen whose Sunni and Alawite residents respectively support opposing sides in Syria. Two weeks of fighting in March killed at least 30 people...
On Sunday, Lebanese troops fanned out across the northern Bekaa Valley removing checkpoints manned by members of the militant Shiite Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s checkpoints were a security measure against Sunni suicide car bombers who have repeatedly struck Shiites areas of the northern Bekaa and the southern suburbs of Beirut since November.
OK, but here is part of the problem.  Lebanese don't have offer moral support to their favored Syrian sides, a number of them are actively taking part in the war, including most prominently Hezbollah itself.  As long as that is happening, nothing can guarantee Lebanon's own security.

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Sunday, April 06, 2014

Sisi the Donkey

As part of the return to Mubarakism currently underway in Egypt, the regime has been cracking down on all criticism of the military and its leaders, including the technically ex-leader Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.  One rural example of this is a man imprisoned for naming his donkey "Sisi":
Omar Abul Maged, a 31-year-old farmer, never imagined he would one day be in prison for naming his donkey after the defense minister.
However, the Qena Misdemeanor Court has now sentenced him to a year over charges of “humiliating the military” for naming his donkey “Sisi,” after the recently resigned military chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi who is due to run for presidential elections after overthrowing Egypt's first democratically elected president Morsy on 3 July.
Abdul Maged's satirical way of protesting against the military-led government began in 20 September 2013 when the pro-Morsy Abul Maged was riding his donkey through his village, called Ashraf in Qena province, covering the donkey’s body with a poster of al-Sisi and putting a military-style cap over the donkey’s head. 
The police, when notified of this act from anti-Morsy villagers, arrested Abul Maged along with his donkey and after six months in custody, the court issued its verdict on Sunday.
Note that according to the article, police arrested the donkey, as well, though its fate is not mentioned.

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Bouteflika Rally Attacked

The ailing Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika is seeking a fourth term as president, and will probably get it, fairly or otherwise.  However, in a striking direct assault on his campaign, protestors have forced the cancellation of a rally in Kabylie:
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's camp said it called off an election rally in the Kabylie region of eastern Algeria on Saturday after a television crew and journalists were assaulted.
Anis Rahmani, head of private pro-Bouteflika channel En-Nahar, told AFP that a five-man crew from the station was attacked and four of its journalists were injured, one seriously...
Around 250 people chanting slogans opposed to another Bouteflika term had gathered outside a venue in the Kabylie town of Bejaia where Sellal was to lead a rally, witnesses said.
Some people forced their way into the meeting and attacked the En-Nahar crew who were covering the event with other journalists, they said.
Algiers also recently saw a very small anti-Bouteflika protest of about 40 people.  As it stands, these are probably the sorts of protest brush fires which Algeria sees from time to time over economic concerns, a protest culture which may have inspired the labor activism in southern Tunisia that led directly into the Arab Spring.  Algeria saw little anti-government action in 2010-2011, with the most common explanation being that memories of the brutal civil war which followed the political opening arising from protests at the end of the 1980's have led to concerns of state breakdown trumping those over the corruption of the existing system.

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Friday, April 04, 2014

Syrians in Lebanon

Once upon a time, the title of this post would have referred to Syria's economic, political, and military domination of its smaller neighbor.  Amidst today's civil war, however, it refers to the fact that Syrian refugees now make up 25% of the residents of Lebanon:
More than a million people fleeing Syria’s war have registered as refugees in Lebanon, the UN said on Thursday.
The number is swelling by the day, with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) saying it registers 2,500 new refugees in Lebanon every day — more than one a minute...
The UNHCR says that Syrian refugees, half of them children, now equal a quarter of Lebanon’s resident population, warning that most of them live in poverty and depend on aid for survival...
The humanitarian appeal for Lebanon “is only 14 per cent funded”, even as the needs of a rapidly growing refugee population become ever more pressing, Ms Kelly said.
10% or more of Syria's population is currently a refugee outside the country, while millions more are displaced internally.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Saudi Arabia's Decentralization

Madawi al-Rasheed describes transformation in the nature of Saudi Arabia's polity, with entrenched princes around a figurehead king:
Given the proliferation of royal positions and power holders, it is time to think of Saudi Arabia as a kingdom with multiple heads or several fiefdoms. In this context, the kingdom is no longer a centralized absolute monarchy as it used to be under King Faisal (1964-1975), but a cluster of clans under an honorary king, and over which Prince Muqrin will preside in due course. He will have to acknowledge the interest of each one of these clans and keep balancing the various factions in ways that do not undermine their privileges, positions and wealth. He can only do that by creating more positions that will absorb the growing number of princes within each clan. He will also have to be seen as a neutral arbiter between the various competing factions while not undermining their inherited control over key ministries and government arms.
The pluralism that is currently unfolding among those in power is a mixed blessing. Internally, Saudis are trying to navigate this change and hope to place themselves in a patron-client relationship with at least one clan. They have been denied any say in the way their government is run, and the only available option is to become part of a princely circle of power. If one prince proves to be remote and uninterested, they may seek another, one more in need of developing his own clients to boost his popularity. The multiple princely actors within the state offer opportunities for a population denied any political representation or pressure groups...
The multiple Saudi clans that are in control of the government and Saudi resources offer real opportunities for their members, but undermine the evolution of the kingdom into a state with institutions that are durable beyond the life of the prince. The king was expected to regulate the transfer of power to the second generation, but he can only deliver an honorary future king to rule over flourishing multiple centers of power, each of which thinks it has a divine right to monopolize the top position. For the moment, the multiple clans will continue to coexist because no one wants to rock the boat, given that the stakes are so high. The alternative to coexistence is internal strife that will no doubt undermine the future of the kingdom.
This transformation strikes me as already well underway.  In fact, I'd say that the fact this decentralized system is already entrenched is why the family is keeping the throne in the same family for as long as possible.  Also, although Saudi Arabia far away from this, I'd argue that it makes a peaceful democratization path impossible to envision for the simple reason that so many princes who have fiefdoms would have to be on board with it.

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

MLB 2014 Predictions

NL East

Washington
Atlanta
Miami
New York
Philadelphia

Washington may be healthier this year, but beyond that they also have more depth to make up for injuries which do arise.  I had them ahead of Atlanta even before the Braves lost two of their key starters for the year.  Miami will surprise some people with respectability, while New York sorts out the offense while waiting for pitching to arrive.  The Phillies will be the league's shopping center before the trade deadline.

NL Central

St. Louis
Cincinnati (Wild Card)
Pittsburgh
Milwaukee
Chicago

This Cardinals team has no weaknesses.  Cincinnati's pitching staff should be among the best in baseball, though Billy Hamilton will have to get on base before he can run.  Pittsburgh is taking a step back, though not a large or permanent one.  Milwaukee is interesting, and their number of quality starters should keep them in plenty of games, and perhaps even as trade deadline buyers.    Only the Cubs are sure to have a losing record in this division.

NL West

Los Angeles
San Diego (Wild Card)
San Francisco
Arizona
Colorado

Los Angeles has the best team money can buy, though they remind me a bit of the Cubs of a few years ago in perhaps not having the right make-up to win in October.  Lots of people are picking San Francisco to rebound, but I'm going to be daring and pick the Padres to keep climbing the standings.  Arizona's desperation to win now will bite them, while Colorado is still developing and may contend in 2015.

AL East

Tampa Bay
New York (Wild Card)
Boston
Baltimore
Toronto

This is the best Rays team ever, and doesn't really have any weaknesses.  Pineda will be an underrated cog in the Yankees rotation, but their infield and bullpen depth will keep them in second in what I expect to be a great race.  Boston will have trouble repeating from the starters and outfield, while Baltimore needs all their starters to be atypically in form to compete for the wild card.  Toronto needs an ace or two.

AL Central

Kansas City
Detroit (Wild Card)
Cleveland
Chicago
Minnesota

Detroit is the best team on paper, but as they always underachieve, I'm going to go ahead and pick Kansas City to win the division with steady starting pitching, a breakout offense, and lights-out bullpen.  Cleveland will miss Jimenez and Kazmir, while Chicago and Minnesota are still in rebuilding mode.

AL West

Oakland
Texas
Los Angeles
Seattle
Houston

This was the toughest division for me to conjure, but I'm saying Oakland has the depth to sort out their rotation before Texas does.  Texas can finish second, though for the start of the season it may be like the bashing Texas teams of my early graduate school years.  Los Angeles's rotation could be much better than everyone expects, and Pujols at least will be back in star form, though I still have questions about the offense.  Seattle needs another bat or two in the line-up, and Houston is Houston.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Dahlan and Abbas

Mahmood Abbas has been an ineffective Palestinian leader whose rule has seen nothing but continuing Israeli settlement and the fracturing of the national movement and its territory between the Fatah-ruled West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.  His age has also crept up to 78, and Muhammad Dahlan, who was floated as his possible successor before he even took office, is posing a challenge:
(Abbas's) erstwhile security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, has turned on his former master, accusing him of complicity in poisoning his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, of promoting his two sons to the pinnacle of a kleptocracy and of throwing Palestine’s future away by engaging in futile negotiations with Israel. Senior Palestinian intelligence men have joined Mr Dahlan’s side. So, too, have powerful sponsors in the United Arab Emirates’ royal court and among Egypt’s generals, who see Mr Dahlan as the leader of the Palestinian flank in their regional war on the Muslim Brotherhood...
To ward off the risk of a coup, Mr Abbas recently cut the pay of around 100 pro-Dahlan men in his security forces, and set up a star-chamber to purge the ranks of his own Fatah movement.
Mr Abbas had already chased Mr Dahlan out of Palestine and expelled him from Fatah in June 2011, but from his seat in Abu Dhabi his rival refuses to fade. On March 16th, the night before Mr Abbas’s White House meeting, Mr Dahlan appeared on Egyptian satellite television, promising to challenge Mr Abbas on his return. In recent days gunmen have opened fire on the homes of Mr Abbas’s security advisers and ministers in the Palestinians’ administrative capital, Ramallah; they have also challenged Mr Abbas’s representatives in Jordan’s Palestinian refugee camps and killed a senior Abbas man in Lebanon.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sistani and Iraq's Politicians

Ali Mamouri reports on Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's positioning in advance of Iraq's parliamentary elections next month:
Al-Monitor has learned from sources close to Sistani’s office that the office has ordered Sistani’s agents to maintain equal distance from all parliamentary blocs, while calling on the people to not vote for anyone involved in corruption or anyone who has failed in the previous stage, without mentioning any names. Sistani also indirectly advised the leaders of electoral blocs to nominate new and competent figures to regain the people’s trust...
It seems that the religious parties are trying to withdraw their support of Sistani after they used him to attain power. Also, it seems that there are new political alliances, whereby the Islamic Dawa Party, the main member in the ruling State of Law Coalition, has learned that it would be very difficult to get the support of the major Shiite forces like it did before. So there is a trend toward small blocs and blocs that broke away from larger blocs that adhere to Shiite "chauvinist" ideologies such as the Virtue Party, the party behind the Jaafari personal status law; Ahlul Haq, the radical group that broke away from the Sadrists; and the Badr Organization, which is directly backed by Iran.
It thus appears that Sistani feels that he made ​​a mistake by supporting Islamist parties and is now trying to preserve the independence of the religious establishment by staying clear of "dirty politics," and by correcting the political course in the country without getting involved in supporting a specific group that may repeat its predecessors’ mistakes.
The statement against voting for people who have failed previously is an unsubtle protest against the government of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and continues the trend of Sistani hinting that he is disappointed in Maliki for not doing enough to promote national unity and improve the quality of governance in terms of economic and infrastructure development.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tunisia's Self-Immolations

The conventional date for the start of the Arab Spring is December 17, 2010, when Muhammad Bouazizi set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid.  As I drill more deeply into these matters, I suspect the start needs to be moved back, as Bouazizi's act was publicized by union and student activists who had been associated with labor unrest in that area for several weeks prior.  Nonetheless, Bouazizi is the symbol, and unfortunately continues to have copycats:
Adel Khadri, a 27-year-old cigarette street vendor set himself on fire on Tunis’ main street Habib Bourguiba Avenue on March 12, 2013. According to eye witnesses, Khadri shouted: “This is a young man who sells cigarettes because of unemployment,” before flames consumed his body. Khadri passed away early this morning at Ben Arous’ Burns Hospital.
Later at the link there are some statistics, with 10 self-immolations in Tunisia in 2010 jumping to 91 in 2011, before slipping to 63 in 2012 and just 11 in 2013.  Habib Bourguiba is the most important public street in Tunis.  I will be walking along it next week.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Hormuz Causeway Plans

Oman has come to play a crucial role as diplomatic mediator between Iran and the rest of the world, as it has had a strongly pro-Western orientation since Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970 and yet maintains close economic ties to Iran.  These ties have strengthened dramatically lately, as symbolized by plans for a motor causeway across the Strait of Hormuz connecting the two countries:
Oman and Iran are planning to build a causeway linking the two countries over the strait of Hormuz, the Iranian ambassador in Muscat was cited by local media as saying...
Sibeveih said that the project would be a bridge of “peace and friendship between Iran and Oman, other GCC countries and Yemen,” according to Al Watan daily newspaper. He said that the bridge would further help in strengthening relations between Iran and Oman.
He pointed out that the project would connect Iran economically with the GCC countries and Yemen, through Oman...
This development comes shortly after the agreement between the two countries to increase the number of flights between the two countries from 14 to 30 per week.
The two countries also agreed to open the air for cargo flights to further cement economic cooperation. They also agreed to strengthen cooperation in the field of training of personnel, and mutual support in international forums for the benefit of the two countries.
We'll see if this actually gets built.  The King Fahd Causeway connecting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia was almost two decades in the making, while the proposed Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge can't get past the planning stages, and is perennially delayed by conflict.  This Hormuz bridge would be about the same length as the latter (and longer than the former), and have to allow for all the oil tankers passing through those waters.    For the foreseeable future, expect this to be a rhetorical symbol of friendship rather than a physical one.

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