x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Iran's bluster is about oil prices

Iran's sabre-rattling in the Strait of Hormuz is intended to boost the price of oil, an Arabic commentator argues. Other topics: the reform route in Syria and progress for Saudi women.

Iran's threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz is really just an attempt to raise world oil prices

Instead of directing its threats at the Americans or the Europeans who are effectively putting a stranglehold on Iran's interests abroad, Tehran chose to target its neighbours, wrote columnist Abdul Rahman Al Rashed in yesterday's edition of the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

Iran warned the Gulf states this month against increasing oil production, saying it would shut down the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf, a strategic waterway through which much of global oil demand is met.

This comes as the West is turning the screws ever tighter on Iran's foreign trade, affecting its hard currency inflows and access to international markets.

Iran's recent "bully threats" are reminiscent of the late Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, who once threatened Kuwait and the UAE because they were both increasing their production at a time when Saddam was after higher oil prices, the columnist said.

"I don't think Iran would dare shut down the Strait of Hormuz, or launch an assault on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf nations."

The Saudi oil minister had earlier promised that his country would increase oil production should the market suffer any shortages, implicitly referring to the potential decrease in Iranian oil production due to US sanctions and the EU's intention to refrain from buying Iranian oil.

"In this war of words, all Iran is looking to achieve is market panic that would drive the prices up," the columnist argued. "The Saudi minister's statement angered Iran but comforted international markets."

Iran's anger will not materialise in concrete action, though. However serious the Iranian threats are, Tehran's record of decision-making in the region shows that it is not actually trigger-happy, the writer added - at least not in broad daylight.

"Tehran does not really make lethal mistakes, such as entering a head-on war with the West or the Gulf states. It has simply never done it before. It usually uses proxies such as Hizbollah for that," he noted.

Hizbollah is a Shiite armed and political group based in southern Lebanon. It pledges allegiance to the Iranian regime.

"Iran knows it will lose big-time if it really pushes for war," the writer went on. "Syria, its major ally, is under siege from within; Turkey, which is usually non-aligned, will not just sit and watch. And remember that Iran's domestic situation shows signs of high volatility."

Indeed, with its recent threats, Iran let its people in on a key contradiction it had been trying to camouflage so far, the columnist added. Tehran has told its people time and again that financial and trade sanctions were not affecting the local economy and the livelihoods of Iranians. Now it is acting too nervously for that statement to be seen as true.

Saudi women: four years of changes

Everyone in the Gulf is watching the major changes in the status of Saudi women over the past four years, Kuwaiti writer Khalil Ali Haidar commented in the Emirati newspaper Al Ittihad.

"Those in favour of women's political and social rights, reformists and liberals, are not hiding their joy and support. Hard-line clerics can barely hide their frustration," he wrote.

For their part, state officials are looking to implement laws to guarantee opportunities for thousands of Saudi female graduates who are ready for the job market.

This movement started small, with a 2008 labour ministry injunction banning men from working in lingerie shops. A debate followed about whether Saudi women were allowed to work as cashiers in those shops, until a 2010 decision officially granted them that right.

In 2009, Saudi women were allowed to obtain lawyers' licences, albeit to defend women clients only, the writer said.

The same year, the ministry of trade and industry cancelled the "legal agent" requirement for Saudi businesswomen, allowing them to run businesses by themselves.

In 2011, women's membership in literary clubs was approved and, later, a royal decision granted women the right to run for municipal office and become members of the Shura Council.


Syria: reform is better than regime change

"Amid the dust and mayhem in Syria, two things are evident: there is indeed a conspiracy to bring down the regime, and a drive to hijack a revolution that has entered a state of delirium," columnist Driss Hani wrote in an article for the Moroccan news website Hespress.

True, blood is being spilt due to "errors of judgment, miscalculation and sedition", and also due to "political idiocy". But that does not justify a blanket rejection of the prospect of reform. Why is there so much appetite for regime change in Syria, he asked.

Many Syrians have been "led astray" by "the foreign media narrative" of what is going on in the country, the writer said.

After all, Syria is mainly targeted because it remained in the "rejectionist" camp, he claimed; that is, Syria has not normalised relations with Israel. More than that, it has never given up on the Palestinian cause and has been the only Arab country to always leave the war option on the table in its standoff with Israel.

Those who are calling for foreign intervention in Syria to put an end to the bloodshed forget that thousands of Syrians will pay with their lives before the Syrian regime is brought down, he added.

The reform route would be less costly, but that option doesn't get much airtime.

* Digest compiled by Achraf El Bahi