Occasional Papers

The Center for International and Regional Studies publishes original research on a broad range of issues, including international relations, political science, economics, and Islamic studies, among others. Papers dealing with issues of relevance to the Persian Gulf and the Middle East region are preferred. We invite manuscript submissions for the CIRS Occasional Paper series throughout the year. CIRS Occasional Papers are registered under ISSN 2072-5957.


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CIRS Occasional Papers

Jonathan Benthall

CIRS Occasional Paper no. 20
Jonathan Benthall, University College London, UK

This paper records and interprets the rise and decline of Saudi overseas humanitarian charities, with special reference to the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO or IIROSA). Founded in 1975, IIROSA grew as a vehicle for a distinctively Saudi version of Islamic humanitarianism. By the mid-1990s, IIROSA was the world’s largest Islamic charity. Following the dismissal of its secretary general in 1996, and the crises of 9/11 and the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which cast a cloud to varying degrees over nearly all Islamic charities, IIROSA’s activities were reduced but efforts were made to revive them. In 2017, however, the kingdom’s new policy of centralization, and its disengagement from the “comprehensive call to Islam,” resulted in a remodeling of IIROSA’s role in support of the kingdom’s diplomatic interests but marginalized and stripped of religious content.

A Holistic Assessment of the Water-for-Agriculture Dilemma in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

CIRS Occasional Paper no. 19
Ameen Kim, Handong International Law School
Hans van der Beek, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Riyadh, KSA

Prior to the emergence of the oil industry and the subsequent rapid agricultural expansion of the 1970s, there has been little to no concern about water for agriculture in Saudi Arabia since prehistoric times. However, a rapid expansion—a so-called “agricultural revolution”—introduced rampant use of highly water-consuming irrigation systems, mainly by center pivots, without any limitation. This has greatly compromised the future of nonrenewable water availability for agriculture. Current measures to alleviate the dilemma of water scarcity and sustainable agricultural development for the country have been challenging not only due to technical difficulties, but also because of overarching ideological and political factors. Based on the concluding findings in this article, a holistic approach combining both technical and sociopolitical recommendations is proposed, and is presented for alleviating the predicament.

Society in the Persian Gulf: Before and After Oil

CIRS Occasional Paper no. 18
Lawrence G. Potter, Columbia University

This essay takes as its focus society in the Persian Gulf over the long term, both before and after oil. In order to understand the transitions society has gone through, it is necessary to review the region’s historical evolution and how society in the Gulf today differs from that of the pre-oil era. The Gulf is presented as a distinct historical region, where a tradition of free movement helped account for the success of its port cities, themselves linked more to the Indian Ocean basin than the Middle East. In the twentieth century, the historic ties that connected the people of the Gulf littoral were curtailed as nationalism became the dominant ideology, and borders and passports were imposed. After oil was discovered and exports began following World War II, the small Gulf shaikhdoms, most of which were under British protection until 1971, experienced a surge in revenues that ushered in the modern era. Newly independent states sought to impose a new identity, manipulate history, and exploit sectarian cleavages to solidify the power of ruling dynasties. The historic cosmopolitanism of the Gulf was ignored by states that privileged the tribal, Bedouin heritage of their leaders. Arabs and Persians, both Sunni and Shi‘a, as well as many other groups have lived with each other in the region for many centuries, during which mutual differences occasionally led to conflict. But the current mistrust, tension, and sense of vulnerability felt by all sides is a product of the modern age.

Water Management in the Nile Basin: A Fragmented but Effective Cooperative Regime

CIRS Occasional Paper no. 17
Bart Hilhorst, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Ongoing expansions of hydro-infrastructure in the Nile basin, combined with infrastructure completed in the past decade, are increasing the capacity to regulate the Nile as well as the benefits accrued to the Nile waters. No longer reliant on funding from the World Bank and Western donors alone, Nile water development is accelerating in a number of upstream riparian states. Hence, the river Nile upstream of the Aswan High Dam is gradually being transformed from a natural to a regulated river. Hydro-infrastructure projects represent a strong driver for issue-based cooperation among the most affected riparians, but it is noted that the basin-wide perspective is not considered in these ad hoc arrangements. This paper describes the emerging cooperative regime in the Nile basin and analyzes its effectiveness. It presents an inventory of where cooperation among Nile riparians is needed, and discusses the required level of cooperation. It looks at the benefits of cooperation that are not related to a specific geographic area. The paper then identifies four distinct sub-basins that have substantial autonomy in managing their water resources. It concludes that the emerging cooperative setup is logical and for now quite effective, and does not lock in arrangements that may prove inconsistent—at a later point in time—with the overall objective of reasonable and equitable use of the Nile waters by each riparian state. Hence, the emerging cooperative regime arguably represents a positive step in the evolution from a basin without cooperation to a basin managed to optimize the use of the Nile waters for the benefit of its people.

Studying Disadvantaged Youths in the Middle East: A Theoretical Framework

CIRS Occasional Paper no. 16
Manata Hashemi, University of Oklahoma

Disproportionate levels of youth unemployment and economic marginalization in the Middle East have prompted many regional observers to conclude that socioeconomically disadvantaged Middle Eastern youth are more prone to radicalization and thereby constitute a threat to national and international security. The general consensus in these accounts is that low levels of occupational opportunities leave poor youth more disposed to frustration and fatalism, which in turn are strongly linked to radical politics. Alternatively, scholars in the language of rational choice argue that these young people engage in a deliberate calculation of means and ends in order to attain the power and wealth necessary for upward mobility. These scholars posit poor youth as rational, autonomous agents whose goals are defined by individual interests and preferences. However, these respective theories are unable to account for 1) the absence of political radicalism among poor youth in many countries of the Middle East, and 2) the presence of seemingly irrational acts among these youth that neither maximize self-interest, nor necessarily reflect individual preferences. Given the shortcomings of each of these prevailing theories, this paper, instead, synthesizes these two approaches and assesses the social conduct of poor youth in the Middle East from the perspective of aspirations-bounded rationality. From this vantage point, the behaviors of poor youth are not determined by individual economic interests or by pure emotion, but by aspirations. This paper proposes that these youth struggle and create strategies to improve their lives that are conditioned by experience and observation of those who inform their social worlds.

Water, State Power, and Tribal Politics in the GCC: The Case of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi

CIRS Occasional Paper no. 15
Laurent A. Lambert, Europaeum, Oxford University

This paper shows that the GCC cities’ remarkable capacity to provide water to all their inhabitants despite the regional aridity should not be explained solely by apolitical factors such as the availability of desalination technologies and massive energy resources. Although acknowledging their importance, this paper demonstrates that the historical evolutions and achievements of the water sectors in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait city over the twentieth century are first and foremost the product of local and regional politics, and of reformist leaders’ agency at various times. Major changes in water governance can also be seen as a tool for, and as a signifier of, broader state reforms and changing politics. After independence, the manufacturing, subsidizing, and massive allocation of desalinated water were part of a political strategy aimed at redistributing oil rent to facilitate the tribes’ allegiance to the regimes, and to legitimize the increasing power of the new states. By contrast, the region’s recent trend of water privatizations, as in Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Riyadh, for instance, represents a strategy of gradually streamlining the rentier states and liberalizing their economies with a post-rentier perspective. 

Implications of the 2011-13 Syrian  Uprising for the Middle Eastern  Regional Security Complex

CIRS Occasional Paper no. 14
Fred H. Lawson, Mills College 

By the autumn of 2013, the Middle Eastern regional security complex (RSC) had taken on a new configuration, which was substantially different from—and much more explosive than—the one that existed prior to the large-scale popular uprisings that broke out across the Arab world in the winter of 2010-11. Foreign policies adopted between 2000 and 2010 by the Ba‘thi regime in Damascus, the leaderships of Hizbullah and HAMAS, and the Israeli government to parry overlapping internal and external threats created an unprecedented patchwork of strategic rivalries and alignments. Large-scale popular unrest in Iraq and Egypt in early 2011, along with the outbreak of full-scale civil war in Syria later that same year, generated an even more intricate web of interstate security dynamics. The reconfigured RSC that emerged out of the “Winter of Arab Discontent” is only beginning to be explicated, and can best be addressed by tracing the connection between domestic political conflicts and shifts in external belligerence and alignment across the region.

Iran's Northern Exposure: Foreign Policy Challenges in Eurasia

CIRS Occasional Paper no. 13
Manochehr Dorraj, Texas Christian University, and Nader Entessar, University of South Alabama 

This paper analyzes Iran’s evolving interest and geopolitical challenges to its foreign policy in Central Eurasia. Historically, Iran, Turkey, and Russia have wielded the greatest influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. Therefore, it is not surprising that these three countries reemerged as principal actors in the region during the first decade of the post-Soviet era. Since the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, Iran performed a balancing act. That is, it aspired to develop closer relations with a region with which it shared significant historical and cultural ties. At the same time, Russia regards Central Eurasia as its sphere of influence and would like to keep the “intruders” at bay. Hence, the United States’ expanding presence in the region has added a new twist to Iran’s geopolitical calculations in how to define its policy toward the region. Turkish-Iranian cooperation and competition in the region is yet another piece in the strategic triangle that molds Iranian regional political posture. The looming impact of these three countries aside, as an emerging regional power with its own political agenda, perception, and calculus of its interests, Iran uses identity politics and shared cultural and religious values, where appropriate, to forge closer relations with Central Eurasian countries. Beyond this motif in Iran’s foreign policy, this paper concentrates on political, economic, and strategic variables affecting Iran’s foreign policy decisions in Central Eurasia. Islamic factors are treated as variables within the broader context of sociocultural factors that have played a role in shaping Iran’s foreign policy in the region.

Religious Democracy and Civilizational Politics: Comparing Political Islam and Political Catholicism

CIRS Occasional Paper No. 12
Michael Driessen, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University; 2011-2012 CIRS Post-Doctoral Fellow 

Much of the recent literature on the evolution of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa has debated the extent to which Islamist political parties have become “secularized” in their political goals and rhetoric. In these studies, a comparison between the political secularization of Islamism and Christian Democracy is often alluded to, but rarely explored in depth. The two political religious movements share much in common with regards to their historical encounter with political liberalism and their intuitions about an ideal religious society. An uncritical comparison, however, obscures significant differences in the relationship of either movement to democratic institutions, traditional sources of religious authority, and the religious citizens of their nations. This paper qualifies the historical, institutional, and theological similarities of political Islam and political Catholicism. In doing so, it emphasizes the importance of the legacies of Catholic Christendom and Muslim Dar al-Islam as transnational, pre-Westphalian religious political orders and the idea of religious authority found in either. After articulating these bases of comparison, the paper considers how these religious legacies remain present in the transition to Christian or Muslim Democracies by exploring the rhetoric of Catholic civilization or Muslim civilization found in Pope Pius XII and Rachid Ghannouchi’s discourses on democracy.

Qatar’s Natural Sustainability: Plans, Perceptions, and Pitfalls

CIRS Occasional Paper No. 11
Mari Luomi, Research Associate at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar; 2011-2012 CIRS Post-Doctoral Fellow

This paper analyzes Qatar’s present and future challenges relating to natural resources and environmental sustainability through the concept of “natural sustainability,” which is defined as the use of natural resources in a way that ensures prosperity for humans and the environment, presently and in the future. By doing so, it proposes an alternative standpoint on sustainable development. The paper asks three broad questions: How is the relationship between development, economy, and the environment understood by different actors in Qatar? What implications do these different views have for planning and definition of desired outcomes in the areas of natural resource use and environmental sustainability? What can a more environment-centered focus contribute toward solving the existing unsustainabilities of development in Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)? By refocusing attention from the economy and growth to the environment and its limits; and from technology and efficiency to institutions, people, and resourcefulness, Qatar and the GCC states might be able to avoid an impending collapse stemming from their fast exacerbating natural unsustainability.