Here are more facts concerning the true situation of Jerusalem in science and history.
Jerusalem was never capital all along its Islamic history
If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount called al-Aqṣā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third Ḥaram and the first Qiblah; then
Why didn’t it ever serve as a capital city or even an important religious and political city at any time in Islamic history? When the Arab empire expanded by a deep process of imperialism and colonialism, and the Umayyad dynasty was established (661-750) and later on Abbasid dynasty (850-1250), Damascus and Baghdad respectively were established as the capitals, but not Jerusalem. When the Ottoman Empire established (1299-1922) and controlled the Arab lands including the land of Israel (1517-1919), it marked Istanbul (Constantinople) as its capital and not Jerusalem.
The Ottomans, like the Umayyads and the Abbasids were good Muslims, and they followed the Islamic Scripture properly. Does it sound logical that they did not know about the Mosque Muhammad had ostensibly built in Jerusalem? Why Istanbul, Damascus, and Baghdad and not Jerusalem? The fact is that there was nothing important in Jerusalem.
In between there were the Fatimid Caliphate (al-Fāṭimīyūn), an Isma’ili Shi’ite dynasty (909-1171) with its capital in Cairo; the Ayyubid dynasty (al-Ayyūbīyūn) of Kurdish origin (1174-1250), that ruled much of the Middle East during the 12th and 13th centuries, with its capital in Cairo (1174–1250) and Allepo (1250–1260); and Mamlūk Sultanate (Sulṭanat al-Mamālīk) (1250-1517) that ruled over Egypt, the Levant and Hijaz, with its capital in Cairo.
What is important that all these could have established their capital in Jerusalem, following Muhammad’s teaching and commandment, but they did not, as there was no legacy at all of Muhammad concerning Jerusalem. Moreover, Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, cleaned it up from their institutions, and still left the city after calling the Jews to return to it.
From the onset of Islamic rule in 638 to its end 1917, including for the Crusader rule from 1099 to 1187, Jerusalem was never the capital of any Muslim state, nor even a provincial capital, until late Ottoman times, when it only became a special provincial religious site (Vilayet) separate from its larger provincial area [Sanjak].
Even during the 20th century Amin al-Husseini, who for the first time raised the importance of Jerusalem as a political weapon using religious symbols, did not call to mark it the capital of the Arab-Islamic inhabitants. He concentrated his ideas on its religious sanctity and the duty to remove the infidels from it. Moreover, even king ‘Abdallah, whose main interest 1948 war against Israel was to occupy Jerusalem, did not establish it as the Hashemite capital, and Amman remained the capital of Jordan.
How that is over the 1400 years of Islamic rule, Jerusalem did not enjoy the political prestige and religious importance that Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Istanbul did? How that is Jerusalem managed to retain its Judeo-Christian character throughout most of the historical period to the middle of the 20th century? Indeed, only under Jewish rule Jerusalem kept its importance as the only capital.
Jerusalem does not have an Islamic name
If Jerusalem was so important to Islam and if Muhammed visited the city and built a mosque there on the Temple Mount called al-Aqşa, and if Jerusalem is the third Ḥaram and the first Qiblah then
How that is Jerusalem do not have even a Muslim name? The first name in all of Islam was given by ‘Umar in 638 after the conquest of Jerusalem. That name was: Iīlya, Madīnat Bayt al-Maqdis. Iīlya was the Roman name for Jerusalem: Aelia Capitolina, a name chosen by Emperor Hadrian whose first name was Ilius, and at the center the “Forum” with Aphrodite, the Goddess of Beauty and Love. The Ḥadīth mentions the name Iīlya in connection Muhammad’s letter to Heraclius, the Roman emperor to surrender to Islam and to accept its religion.
Bayt al-Maqdis in Arabic is from the Hebrew Beit ha-Miqdāsh which means the Holy Temple (literally, the House of the Sanctuary) of the Jews.
Somewhat later on the Muslims used a shortened version of that title to Bayt al-Maqdis alone, emphasizing the Jewish sources of Jerusalem. The name al-Quds (the Holy City) referring to Jerusalem, became popular among Arabic speakers, is derived from the Aramaic root Q-D-S, still maintaining the Jewish word Kudsha (holy). It was introduced in the 10th century, it was unknown to the famous Muslim clerics and exegetes of the 9th century.
It is well-known that according to Islamic tradition the region of Mecca and Medina is called Arḍ al-Quds. Jerusalem was never called by that name, and the name simply called al-Quds was given to it only in the 10th century with heavy Jewish influence. It is believed that the historian and theologian al-Muqaddasi, was probably the first one to use that term from 985 on.
The name al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf, commonly used today by Muslims to refer specifically to the Temple Mount as a means of distinguishing it from the Jewish Holy Temple, came into use only during the 19th century Ottoman Empire. This name had always been the name of the Ka’aba in Mecca. The name “Het al-Buraq”, which ostensibly refers to the Jewish Western Wall is a recent invention of the Palestinians from 1929, following the riots in Jerusalem and Hebron but was used extensively during the time of Yasser Arafat.
One important phenomenon that took place in Muslim history is that any time the Muslims captured a town they Arabized, Islamized and changed the names. Therefore, Damascus (Dimashq in Arabic), a pre-Semitic name known from the 15th century BC, Dammeśeq in Biblical Hebrew, was given the Arabic name “Ash-shām.” In Egypt, al-Qāhirah (Coptic: Kahire, the place of the sun, the ancient name of Heliopolis), means “the Conqueror”, established by the Fatimid dynasty in 968. It has replaced the city name al-Fustāt, the first capital of Egypt under Islamic rule, established by ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas in 641. Both Islamic names came after the old historical capital of Egypt, Memphis. Indeed, if Jerusalem was indeed so important to Islam, why wasn’t it ever given an Islamic name?
Jerusalem was neglected as long as it was under Muslim rule
If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount called al-Aqṣā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third Ḥaram and the first Qiblah; then
Why was it abandoned by ‘Umar bin al-Khattāb immediately after being captured? He signed a treaty of protection with the Christian leaders of Jerusalem, Dhimma, left to the town to the Christians and Jews, and established the regional capital in Caesarea. After almost 60 years it thrived and became prosperous under the Umayyad dynasty, Jerusalem descended into the depths of oblivion and misery. When the Dome of the Rock collapsed on the 5th of December, 1033, along with the walls of the city, nothing was done by the Muslims to restore these structures for many years.
Again, after a short period of time of fighting the Crusaders, Jerusalem came back under Islamic rule, immediately to relinquish it and calling the Jews to reenter the city. Indeed, during the four hundred years of the Abbasid Dynasty, including the Fatimid, the Ayyubid and Mamluk rule, and during the four-hundred year of the Ottoman occupation, Jerusalem was a neglected city, devoid of any political importance, with destitute social and economic state. Though Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and reinforced its public structures, he only did so because Jerusalem was a transit city for pilgrims to Mecca, not because of its importance. The city still suffered a state of disrepair and negligence.
Under the Ottomans rule it was placed under the administration of the Damascus Vilayet (province) or Sidon region. Only in the 19th century, it became a (Vilayet), but still much less important than Gaza, Jaffa, Beirut, and other cities around. This is a clear indication how unimportant Jerusalem was to Islam during its history.
Jerusalem was never an Arab or Muslim City from the inhabitants’ perspective. In the mid-19th century, Jerusalem was neglected and impoverished, with a population that did not exceed 8,000. In 1842, the Prussian Consulate in Jerusalem estimated that Jerusalem’s total population of 15,150, of which 7120 were Jews. In April 1854 by Karl Marx stated that “the sedentary population of Jerusalem numbers about 15,500 souls, of whom 4,000 are Muslims and 8,000 Jews.” In 1864, the British Consulate reported that while the total population of Jerusalem were 15,000, there were 8000 Jews, 4500 Muslims and 2500 Christians. In 1898, “In this City of the Jews, where the Jewish population outnumbers all others three to one…” In 1914 there were 45,000 Jews in Jerusalem out of 65,000. This is another perspective how Jerusalem was unimportant religiously in Islam. And at the time of Israeli statehood in 1948, 100,000 Jews lived in the city, compared to only 65,000 Arabs.
When and why Jerusalem has become Important to Muslims?
From all this evidence, comes the big question: when and why Jerusalem has become Important to Muslims? It was not important and even was not mentioned during Muhammad’s life. It was not important to ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattāb, the conqueror of Jerusalem, who left it to the Christians immediate after its occupation. It became important to the Umayyads only after the revolt of Ibn al-Zubayr, for 60 years. It was again totally neglected during the Abbasid’s rule, and came back to Islamic consciousness only when it was captured by the crusaders in 1099.
The Christians destroyed mosques and synagogues, and replaced them with churches. Most of all, they made Jerusalem the apex of their religious quest. The change occurred only after Salah ad-Din al-Ayyūbi (Saladin) was appointed in 1187. Fadā’īl al-Quds literature, created by the Umayyad dynasty was distributed and this was the first time the importance of Jerusalem was stated religiously. Still, Salah ad-Din al-Ayyūbi did not take any steps to change the capital of the Islamic world, or to establish Jerusalem’s religious significance.
Jerusalem was even more neglected under the entire rule of the Ottoman Empire, for 400 years. It was forgotten, neglected, and came into oblivion compare to other cities. The change came only after the immigration of the Jews, and the Jewish-Zionist plans to establish a Jewish state with its capital in Jerusalem.
Only then Amin al-Ḥusseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an anti-Semite and member of the Nazi Party, with his political-religious ambitions, identified the potential of Jerusalem to attract the support of the Arab states and the Muslim world to his struggle against the Jews. Nobody had a greater influence on the Jerusalem Issue than al-Ḥusseini, who as president of the Supreme Muslim Council, was not only the supreme religious authority but also the central figure in Palestinian nationalism.
Husseini saw Jerusalem as the crystallization point for the “rebirth of Islam” and Palestine in its center. Under his encouragement, ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassām group, the terrorist “Black Hand,” whose name is borne by Ḥamās’s homicide bombers, was the first to unite the ideology of a devout return to the original 7th century Islam. The “Arab revolt” of 1936-1939 was sparked and led by Ḥusseini. The “Jewish threat” and “saving Jerusalem” was a central theme in the Islamic propaganda. The call was to embark on a Jihad to defend the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
One cannot be surprised that Yasser Arafat, who was a nephew of uncle Amin al-Ḥusseini, took the same road of anti-Semitism and Jerusalem at the center of the struggle against Israel. Yasser Arafat, Rahman Abd al-Raūf al-Qidwa al-Ḥusseini, was born in Cairo. He was not a refugee of 1948 war, and only since 1967, after the Israeli liberation of Jerusalem, he “discovered” Jerusalem as a political issue. The crowds of praying Muslims were not there until the leaders began claiming that Jerusalem is their first Qiblah and Third Ḥaram, from 1994 on. This “discovery” was not displayed before, as long as east Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation.
Before Arafat, it was Abdullah, King of Jordan, who realized the importance of Jerusalem for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and decided to conquer Jerusalem at all costs in 1948. His intention was to make Jerusalem the capital of Jordan. He thought that by doing so he would be able to achieve some religious importance for his kingdom following the loss by the Hashemite family of Mecca and Medina to the dynasty of Ibn Saud. He also sought to enhance his political significance, his prestige and status, and his legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab nations. But he was deterred by the strong resistance of the Arab and Muslim leaders. Amman remained the capital.
However, Arafat systematically pursued his goal of having the Arabs support the notion of Jerusalem’s critical importance for them as the Palestinian’s capital and its ties to Islam. In that capacity Jerusalem could serve as a point of Identification and national pride in order to create a Palestinian people and nation, which never existed at any time in the past. Arafat strove to have the West recognize Jerusalem as the Muslim capital of the world and to recognize him as the Muslim’s political leader.
As we have seen, over the 1,300 years of Muslim rule the following facts are observed: Jerusalem was not mentioned in Islamic Scriptures, and was given the status of Ḥaram only when it came under Infidels’ rule. Jerusalem was never the capital of any Islamic political entity or even an important provincial capital during all its Islamic occupation. The name of Jerusalem in Islamic sources indicates that the city did not belong to the nation of Islam. Religious and other learning institutions were not established. And no less important indication, Jerusalem was always neglected and in oblivion under Islamic rule.
Jerusalem became important politically when it was occupied by others. Religion was used as a veil to confer legitimacy on the Muslims while waging an external campaign against the infidels the Christians and the Jews. Three major periods are distinguished in the Islamic relationship to Jerusalem: the Umayyad; the Ayyūbi and the Jewish-Zionist periods. However, the first who really understood Jerusalem case as an Islamic political symbol was Amin al-Ḥusseini. Yet, the one leader who best understood the importance of Jerusalem as a political epicenter was Arafat.
It is of noteworthy, the Land of Israel and Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple Mount are not called “al-Aqṣā” which means the far-away Land, but rather the “nearby land.” The reason is simple, because geographically it is the land closest to Mecca and Medina. It is clear that Muhammad and the Sahābah did not attribute any importance to Jerusalem, and consequently no conclusion from this evidence is possible except that Jerusalem had no religious or any other kind of significance for Islam.
Jerusalem has become important only for political reasons: it was raised up as an alternative to Mecca against Ibn al-Zubayr’s revolt; it was raised up to fight the crusaders; and it is raised up against Israel. Indeed, Jerusalem’s importance in the Islamic world only appears evident when non-Muslims control or capture the city. Only at those points in history did Islamic leaders claim Jerusalem to be their first turn of prayer and their third holy city.
Had it not been for the struggle between the Umayyad and Abdallah Ibn al-Zubayr, no mosque would have been built in Jerusalem with the name of al-Aqṣā, and no claims would have been made by Muslims about the sanctity for them of Jerusalem. Had it not been for the Christian Crusaders and their aspiration to establish the “Kingdom of Jerusalem,” and had it not been for Zionism’s activity and establishment of the Jewish State of Israel, Jerusalem would have remained on the margin of the Islamic world. No national-political struggle over the city would have ever arisen, and certainly not a struggle accompanied by the invention of an entire set of myths lacking any historical –religious-political foundation. Indeed, the struggle for Jerusalem is the mere political use of religion for political ends.
At the same time this decision marks the Israeli political defeat. Israeli leaders should have comprehended the Palestinians’ strategy, but their treatment of the subject of Jerusalem testifies to their consummate failure in this matter. Israel should have repeated incessantly that Jerusalem was never the capital of any People or nation at any time in history except for the Jewish People. Unfortunately, Israel bases its policy on defensive-retaliatory measures, under the slogan of “the full cup of blood,” and not on pro-active strategy based on “think first before you act.”
Still, why should the Palestinian leaders make such an incredible lies and ludicrous fabrications? On the face of it, lying, knowingly distorting the truth, in Arab-Islamic culture is simple and easy. However, it is in fact a highly sophisticated strategy. Domestically, this fictional nonsense helps shape Palestinian culture, beliefs, and political behavior of building a national identity. Yet, the important side is the international. The Palestinian leaders know that the world is mired with anti-Israel approach. Unfortunately these rhetorical fabrications resonates deeply anti-Zionism, which has become the new anti-Semitism.
Therefore, the strategy is to deceive and mislead the world by de-legitimizing Israel’s existence and de-humanizing its reality. Western media is the best example of how this strategy succeeds. It has been silent about the fantastic historical fabrications of the Palestinians. It just does not bother itself to engage with the moralistic narratives and the out of the blue stories that stem from outer galaxy about Palestinians having existed 9,000 years ago and Jerusalem being its capital since.
For Western politicians, the media, and human rights organizations the Palestinians’ lies, hatred, anti-Semitism and inhuman incitement are overwhelming the basic common sense. The new “multiculturalism religion” dictates that the sincerity of the Palestinians cannot be challenged since to do so would require making subjective judgments. The post modernism situation means downgrading objectivity as much as elevating multiple narratives as being equally valid, and at the same time there is valuation of feelings over scientific facts.
For example, the PLO representative to the United Nations, stated that Palestinians had “lived under the rule of a plethora of empires: the Canaanites, Egyptians, Philistines, Israelites, Persians, Greeks, Crusaders, Mongols, Ottomans, and finally, the British…. Palestinian Christians are the descendants of Jesus and guardians of the cradle of Christianity.” No comment from The Washington Post editorial.
Most instructive is the case of Reuters. It engages in systematically biased storytelling in favor of the Palestinians that “is able to influence audience affective behavior and motivate direct action along the same trajectory.”
Western critical scientific filters are closed and has become one-way street. Science is no longer free and in fact in our contemporary “multiculturalism religion,” science, history, and common sense no longer matters. Anti-reality continues to spread.
Appendix: Jerusalem and Judaism
Jerusalem, wrote Martin Gilbert, is not a ‘mere’ city. “It holds the central spiritual and physical place in the history of the Jews as a people.” For more than 3,000 years, the Jewish people have looked to Jerusalem as their spiritual, political, and historical capital, even when they did not physically rule over the city.
Eli E. Hertz puts it: throughout its long history, Jerusalem has served, and still serves, as the political capital of only one nation, the Jews. Unfortunately, history would not be kind to the Jewish people. Four hundred and ten years after King Solomon completed construction of Jerusalem, the Babylonians seized and destroyed the city, forcing the Jews into exile. Fifty years later, the Jews were permitted to return after Persia conquered Babylon. The Jews’ first order of business was to reclaim Jerusalem as their capital and rebuild the Holy Second Temple.
Jerusalem was more than the Jewish kingdom’s political capital – it holds the central spiritual and physical place in the history of the Jews as a people. Their thoughts and prayers were directed toward Jerusalem. Jewish ritual practice, holiday celebration, and lifecycle events include recognition of Jerusalem as a core element of the Jewish spiritual existence. Jerusalem was a spiritual beacon, and Jews never relinquished their bond to Jerusalem and to the Land of Israel. No matter where Jews lived throughout the world for those two millennia, their thoughts and prayers were directed toward Jerusalem as a core element of the Jewish experience.
It is fair enough to declare that Jewish life without Jerusalem is defective, and Jews without Jerusalem are crippled. It is indeed
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its purpose, may my tongue cling to my palate, if I do not mention you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”
The Bible mentions ‘Jerusalem’ directly 349 times, or with its many other names that glorify it, 669 times. “Zion,” another name for ‘Jerusalem,’ is mentioned 154 times, a total of 823 references. In the Jewish Scripture Jerusalem has 72 names, all of them glorify in admiration its eternal beauty. In the New Testament Jerusalem is mentioned 142 times, and the context always concerns incidents involving Israel in Jerusalem. The Gospels and the General Epistles deal at length with the story of Jesus, who lived in Jerusalem when the Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount.
Indeed, two crucial historical facts demonstrate the unshakeable bond between the Jewish People, the Land of Israel and the Jewish religion – and Jerusalem figures at the center of this bond. Any meticulous historical study would demonstrate that:
First, throughout history many nations ruled over the Land of Israel but only the Jewish people established their country there, three times – during the time of the First and Second Temples, and at the establishment of the State of Israel. The Jews did not establish a state anywhere else and always insisted on returning to their Land and establishing their sovereignty there exclusively. This is a permanent bond. In contrast, and astonishingly enough to prove the Hand of God, never had any of the empires and religions that ruled here established their country in this territory as a unique and separate sovereign state.
Secondly, During the Jewish diaspora many foreign rulers ruled over Jerusalem (Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamelukes, Ottomans, British, and more), but no political entity made Jerusalem its capital and none attached any importance to Jerusalem. This something to note and consider: Jerusalem was never the capital city of any other nation, empire or religion that ruled the area with the exception of the brief period of the crusader “Kingdom of Jerusalem”.
This entity, Crusaders, was not established in the aim of creating a separate political entity, but rather to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim occupation. Conversely, Jerusalem was the capital city of the Jewish nation (and only the Jewish nation) in three separate periods: during the reign of the houses of David and Solomon that began at the end of the 10th century B.C.E.; during the time of the Second Temple and until its destruction in the year 70 C.E.; and since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
The outcome result of these two facts is that Jerusalem only flourished and blossomed when under Jewish rule. Throughout most of history while Jerusalem was ruled by others, it remained in a neglected and miserable state. Only under Jewish rule did it become an important city, the capital of a nation.
After nearly 1900 years the Jews have returned en masse to the Land of Israel, established their state and immediately made Jerusalem their capital. They returned in significant numbers to the city in the 20th century, though throughout all it history Jewish presence has existed.
Archaeological Finds. During the past several decades Jerusalem has been extensively excavated. Findings have been unearthed, and those findings substantiate the existence of ancient Jewish life in the Land of Israel. Herewith is only a small list.
A Hebrew University archaeologist discovered a Jerusalem city wall from the time of King Solomon (10th century BCE). The finding “is the first time that a structure from that time has been found that may correlate with written descriptions of Solomon’s building in Jerusalem.” Artifacts found inside excavations around the City of David and within the Old City, date the Jewish presence in Jerusalem as far back as 1000 BCE, during the time of King David.
Many symbols of a menorah were found on coins. Hebraic inscriptions from the time of the First Temple were found. Seals with Hebrew writing dating to the time of the Bible were discovered. About a year ago 33 seals with ancient Hebrew writing were discovered. These date back to the time of the First Temple. The writing on one of the seals reads: “To Hizkiyahu [ben] Ahaz, King of Judah”, and researchers date this finding to the time of King Hezekiah who ruled Jerusalem in 600 B.C.E.
First Temple period findings, an ancient Hebrew seal dated to the First Temple period (approximately 2,800 years ago) was found in excavations near the northern section of the Western Wall. The following words are imprinted into the coin: “To Netanyahu Ben Yaash”. This was apparently a private seal used by a Jew in Jerusalem.
Many ancient Jewish specimens were found at the City of David with Bullae used by private individuals, including Gemaryahu Ben Shafan, who is mentioned in the book of Zekariah and lived during the reign of Yehoyakim King of Judah (2,600 years ago).
The Siloam shaft was also discovered. It was the ancient city of Jerusalem’s source of water. This shaft was dug as an underground tunnel through which water brought to Jerusalem at the time of King Hezekiah (700 B.C.E. found in the Book of Kings II, 20: 20. A Hebrew inscription describing the digging process was unsurfaced where the two groups of excavators met.
Archaeological findings on the Temple Mount: Under the façade of the mosque a ritual bath associated with the Second Temple Period was discovered. Seals of private individuals were found as well as a seal with the words “Yehochal Ben Shilmiyahu Ben Shevi”, a senior minister in King Zedekiah’s government (Jeremiah, 37:3).
Also many coins dating back to the First and Second Temple periods, ritual baths, and a synagogue from the time of the Second Temple were found. At the entrance to one synagogue is a Greek inscription:
“Theodosius, the son of Vatanos, priest and president of the synagogue, son of the president of the synagogue, grandson of the president of the synagogue, built the synagogue in order to read from the Torah and study the commandments, and built the inn, the rooms, and the water facilities to host the needy who come from abroad, which his forefathers, sages, and Samonidas instituted.”
Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort
Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.
To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’
Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.
The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.
Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.
One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.
Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.
“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.
While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.
The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’
The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’
This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.
Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.
While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.
In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.
Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.
The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.
The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.
Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.
Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.
The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.
A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.
Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.
As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.
Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran
Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.
Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.
“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.
According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.
Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.
Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.
Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.
Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal. What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.
A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.
It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons
Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.
The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.
The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.
The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.
Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.
One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.
There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.
The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.
The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor
Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.
Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.
Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid
The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.
Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.
Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.
Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.
One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.
Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.
Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.
Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.
The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.
Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.
The Al-Bustan Association
An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.
Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.
The Father of the Desert Hawks
One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.
An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.
Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.
The Old Guard and the Special Services
Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.
Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.
Elements of Matriarchy
Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.
Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.
Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?
All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.
On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.
On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.
The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.
First published in our partner RIAC
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