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The Saudi Arabian issue

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The 32-year old Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who  is the heir to Saudi Arabia’s throne, wants at first “to eradicate the roots of Islamic extremism” as soon as possible. This means that from now on the confrontation between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia will be downplayed from infra-Islamic clash of civilization to a normal and natural standard of regional warfare.

 The openings made by Muhammad bin Salman – designated as Crown Prince by his father after many years – such as allowing women to drive are very clear signs that the al-Saud Kingdom does no longer want to be a fundamentalist island in the Middle East nor a silent partner of the United States or of other countries.

 This implies the end of Sunni-Shiite clash of civilizations and the fact that Saudi Arabia agrees to set aside its traditional role as leader of an all-out struggle with the “Ali Sect” led by Iran.

 Let us not be misled by the first reactions to the Saudi official statements.

 The war against Qatar is primarily a fight against the “Muslim Brotherhoods” and the clash with a natural gas power, namely Qatar, against a necessarily oil power, namely Saudi Arabia.

 Other economic cycles, other buyers, other geostrategic and military development lines between Al Thani’s Qatari Emirate and the al-Saud Kingdom.

  Hence, from now on, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid a radical and global war throughout the Middle East to destabilize it and thus conquer the old and modern hegemony of Islam within the Greater Middle East.

 No longer pan-Islamic dreams of glory, but the protection of the Saudi Kingdom’s national interest.

 Hence there are two winners in the current fight: the first is Israel and hence the countries, excluding the United States, which want to reformulate their friendly presence throughout the old Fertile Crescent.

 It is also worth noting that Prince al-Walid, arrested by Muhammad bin Salman, was a fierce enemy of the current US President.

 It should be recalled that the United States led by President Donald  J. Trump yielded to the “Sunni NATO” project, namely the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, led by the Pakistani General Raheel Sharif.

 The “Sunni NATO”  headquarters are located in Riyadh, which still implies a hard line obviously against Iran and  India, as well as support to the fight against the Afghan Taliban.

 And if the “Sunni NATO” were the project of a strategic and economic internationalization of petromonarchies, thus isolating Iran in a future ever less profitable oil market?

 After the six Saudi Kings, from 1932 onward, Muhammad Bin Salman has inherited de facto power in the Kingdom by his father, Prince Nayef, thus replacing his half-brother who, however, is still a member of the clan holding true power in the Saudi family, the “Sudairy Seven”.

 The current strong man of the Saudi regime, namely the Crown Prince, was raised to the rank of second in the line of succession, in the first half of 2015. In fact, he has become an important personality on the world scene when ten years ago he destabilized – probably permanently – the al-Qaeda network in the Saudi Kingdom and last year decided  – together with his 55-year old cousin, Mohammed Bin Nayef – to exert the utmost pressure on the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a network of Shiites linked to Iran.

 For the al-Saud Kingdom, closing the doors to Iran in its area of ​​influence means to ensure a peaceful internationalization outside the regional Islamic universe, as well as to ensure the Kingdom’s permanent social and religious stability.

 Hence the war between the Shi’a Iranian Republic and the Wahhabi and Sunni Kingdom is bound to keep the Greater Middle East a hot spot and try to control the routes in the Persian Gulf, while the perimeters of the new Middle East global security are redefined outside Syria and the Lebanon.

 A system that the emerging power, namely the Russian Federation, will keep out of the US control lines, while Russia will further expand to Libya, the Lebanon and obviously to the rest of the Maghreb region, not to mention the Horn of Africa and Egypt.

 This is a new redesign of the Western balance of powers towards the Russian and Chinese ones – a new system emerging in the new external, but now essential peripheral areas of the Greater Middle East.

 Nevertheless there is an essential symbolic and political factor which should not be forgotten in the Shakespearean Royal Palace of Riyadh.

In fact, it is today that, after many years, Prince Muhammad bin Salman directly inherits the throne from his Father –  also thanks to a legal-political institution established by King Salman in 2017, namely the “Allegiance Council”, designed to make the process of succession in the Saudi Kingdom smoother and more orderly.

 Born on August 31, 1985, the heir to the throne Prince Mohammed is now 37 and has already been the youngest Defence Minister in the world.

 Even today, however – considering the strong autonomy of Mohammed Bin Salman –  the dynastic institution founded in 2007 seems to be not yet fully operational.

 Mohammed Bin Salman replaced his cousin in June 2017, as part of a major transformation of the political and strategic system inside the Saudi Royal Family.

 The whole network of high-profile “corrupt people” or “traitors” arrested in an anti-corruption sweep by the future Saudi King, is made up of 49 senior officers, Princes and Ministers – a police operation devastating the entire old system of political, financial and strategic equilibria that characterized the old pact of “petrodollar laundering”, which marked the union between the United States and Saudi Arabia when Henry Kissinger negotiated the whole operation, in perfect secrecy, at the end of the “Yom Kippur War” .

  The choice of Muhammad as heir to the throne, upon King Salman’s proposal, was accepted by 31 out of the 34 members of the Allegiance Council.

 Hence the policy line is now clear: the Kingdom wants to govern two parallel evolutionary lines: the exit from the oil-dependent economy, which Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has envisaged in his Vision 2030 program, and the creation of regional hegemony outside oil dependence from the United States, which is now autonomous from the Middle East oil thanks to its shale oil.

 In its already known project, the basis for Saudi Arabia’s  future hegemony regards the acceptance of two new factors: the US future energy autonomy with its “oil and shale gas” and hence Saudi Arabia’s exit from a guaranteed military and economic balance with the United States, as well as the historic collapse of oil barrel prices – oil which, according to the Saudi leaders, must be entirely left to  Shiite poverty and hence to Iran.

 Hence the “Vision 2030” program wants to reduce the Saudi dependence on oil and obviously the dependence of the national economy on the public sector.

 Moreover, the issue lies in making the Royal Family preserve its ability to distribute selective, but important resources to the most politically important walks of Saudi population – on a case-by case basis – to support the regime.

There is no more money for luxuries. The Saudi government’s money must be spent to preserve people’s support that is currently no longer guaranteed.

 In fact, without panem et circenses, it is hard to imagine – in the future – a reasonable stability of the Saudi Royal Family. And panem et circenses will be ever less a burden on US accounts.

  The future dollar equilibria and the end of the Euro as a global currency, as well as the end of the use of  petrodollars by Russia and China, make us think that the new ruling class in Saudi Arabia will be ever less pro-USA and ever more multilateral.

 And it is the Royal Family as such – not in the variety of its many groups – who shall bear responsibility for funds to  masses and for public charity that shall increasingly bear the costs of “liberalization”, of low wages and of the deprivation of union, political and clan protections.

 In fact, if Saudi Arabia does not plan its future “public charity” it will end up like the largely liberalized Lebanon or like the States that, after the crisis in the grain and food commodity market of 2008-2010, had to face the riots that –  manipulated by others – later turned into the “Arab Springs”.

 In this case the probable solution of the future King Mohammed will be greater democratization of choices to replace a reduction in income.

 A “European” solution.

 The Saudi “Vision 2030” project also implies liberalization specifically aimed at creating jobs and opportunities for companies in the service sector and in the tourist and entertainment business, in particular.

 But who are the “purged” of the new Saudi regime?

  They are 49 people, eleven Princes, four Ministers of the new regime that Muhammad Bin Salman – the first heir designated by his father, King Salman, to rule Saudi Arabia –  has agreed to put aside forever.

 There are clear signs of what will happen shortly.

 In this context, it is worth recalling the very important role played by the marginalization of Al Waleed bin Talal in the new Saudi financial and political context.

 Forbes reported he has a personal fortune of over 17 billion US dollars.

The investment of Prince Al Walid, the elder son of King Abdullah Abdulaziz and of Riad El Sohl, the Lebanese Prime Minister in the 1950s, are spread in the main Western areas: Twitter, Lyft, Eurodisney, Twentieth Century Fox, a tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is the highest in the world and was supposed to open in 2019.

 He sold a yacht to Donald Trump, whom he hates, but has still significant investment in Apple, News Corp., as well as the ownership of the Savoy Hotel in London and the MBC satellite TV network. Other purged officials are the Head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, Amr al Dabbagh, as well as Ibrahim Assaf, the former Minister of Finance, and finally Bakr Bin Laden, the Head of the Binladen Group, a well-known real estate and investment group.

 Other purged officials include another former Saudi  Minister of Finance, Adel Fakieh, a reformer from day one, as well as Khaled al Tuwajiri, a manager of the Saudi traditional economic sector.

 They are all accused of having embezzled public funds to transfer them to their private accounts.

 A source of enrichment and “visible consumption” of the al-Saud extended family, as Veblen would have said.

 Now the family is no longer a single one and the Saudi  government will have a less corporatist and, above all, less personalist logic.

This Saudi “cleansing” operation marks the end of the old link between Arab internationalization and Sunni jihadist terrorism. Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms also marks the Saudi Kingdom’s closure to the flows of the market-world, while there is the re-emergence of the clash between Shiites and Sunnis in a new Middle East, where Saudi Arabia has already established a new relationship with Russia and Israel and decided to effectively follow Xi Jinping’s model, which involves a change of the regime through a fight  against “corruption”.

 It was one of the world’s economic leaders, namely al-Walid Bin Talal, to agree to support Gaddafi before his end in 2011, while the shadows were already casting over the Libyan leader.

 In fact, al-Walid ibn Talal attempted to sell one of its A340 Airbus for 120 million US dollars through a Jordanian broker, Daad Sharaf, who was very close to Gaddafi.

 Daad Sharaf also had to receive a 6.5 million Us dollar “brokerage” fee, but Prince Al Waleed sold to others the airplane probably already used to carry the Lockerbie attacker back to Libya.

 A network in which business mixed dangerously with the Saudi geopolitical operations – at a time when, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia supported the vague “fight against terrorism” and, on the other, fomented it.

 There is no need to recall here the long and very significant story of the relationship between the old Chief of the intelligence services, Turki al-Faisal, a very strong representative of the “Sudairy Seven” and of the network that led part of the Saudi establishment to play the crazy, but not senseless card of al-Qaeda.

 Furthermore, for al-Walid there are also charges – already known in the global financial circles – of corruption, bribery, embezzlement and insider trading.

 The strong reaction of the Royal Family currently in power against the part of al-Saud members who participated in the crazy rush of the “high” oil price phase – when everything was possible, both gains and illegality, as well as economic growth and frauds – is a very effective way to win support from the Saudi people, fed up with the idle rentier or “opulent ruling class” attitudes of some members of the Royal Family.

  Probably the end of the cycle between Sunni jihad and growth of the Kingdom will be the point in which the Greater Middle East will be redesigned: a de facto alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, both united by the Shiite danger, between the Golan Heights for Israel and South Yemen for Saudi Arabia; a new alliance between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Russia; China’s entry in the region; the new US positioning and obviously the often ridiculous irrelevance of the European Union.

 The system of the future King Muhammad – after the strange death of Prince Mansur Bin Muqrin in the region of Asir, Saudi Arabia, the husband of a daughter of old King Fahd and later Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, as well as son of Muqrin al-Abdulaziz, who had been Crown Prince from January to April 2015 – will be a political balance in which keeping the country united and preserving the link between the Royal House and the Saudi people will be the beacon of the monarchy.

 No longer a predatory ruling class, also in relation to the West, but an elite who wants the Kingdom’s political expansion, as well as its economic transformation and hence the end of the oil-dependent economy – a regime that wants to play all its strategic cards, well aware that a King (the United States) is leaving and another King (the Russian Federation) is entering the scene in the region.

 And also aware that Israel is now a well-acquired fact in the Middle East.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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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

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Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons

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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 Defectors

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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Middle East

Surrendering a Brussels mosque: A Saudi break with ultra-conservatism?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia, in an indication that it is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, has agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The decision follows mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators as well as social reforms in the kingdom introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a lifting of the ban on women’s driving, the granting of women’s access to male sporting events and introduction of modern forms of entertainment.

Relinquishing control of the mosque reportedly strokes with a Saudi plan to curtail support for foreign mosques and religious and cultural institutions that have been blamed for sprouting radicalism. With few details of the plan known, it remains unclear what the curtailing entails.

It also remains unclear what effect it would have. A report published last month by the Royal Danish Defence College and three Pakistani think tanks concluded that madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan, a hotbed of militant religious education, were no longer dependent on foreign funding. It said that foreign funding accounted for a mere seven percent of the income of madrassas in the country.

Like with Prince Mohammed’s vow last November to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined “moderate” form of Islam, its too early to tell what the Brussels decision and the social reforms mean beyond trying to improve the kingdom’s tarnished image and preparing it for a beyond-oil, 21st century economic and social existence.

The decision would at first glance seem to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the European Union given that the Brussels mosque is the exception that confirms the rule. It is one of a relatively small number of Saudi-funded religious, educational and cultural institutions that was managed by the kingdom.

The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s four decades-long, $100 billion public diplomacy campaign, the single largest in history, aimed at countering post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal, operated independently.

By doing so, Saudi Arabia has let a genie out of the bottle that it not only cannot control, but that also leads an independent life of its own. The Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative environment has also produced groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have turned on the kingdom.

Relinquishing control of the Brussels mosque allows Saudi Arabia to project itself as distancing itself from its roots in ultra-conservatism that date back to an 18th century power sharing arrangement between the Al Saud family and Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, a preacher whose descendants are at the core of the kingdom’s religious establishment.

The decision, Prince Mohammed’s initial social reforms, and plans to cut funding notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia appears to be making less of clean break on the frontlines of its confrontation with Iran where support for ultra-conservative and/or militant groups is still the name of the game.

Saudi Arabia said last month that it would open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen was sparked by its conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, that dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s and early this century.

Saudi militants reported in the last year that Saudi nationals of Baloch origin were funnelling large amounts of money into militant madrassas in the Pakistani province of Balochistan on the border with Iran. Saudi-funded ultraconservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate the region’s educational landscape.

The money flowed, although it was not clear whether the Saudi donors had tacit government approval, at a time that Saudi Arabia is toying with the idea of seeking to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its multiple minorities, including the Baloch.

A militant Islamic scholar, who operates militant madrassas in the triangle where the borders of Balochistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet, was last year named a globally designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was fundraising in the kingdom.

Algerian media reports last month detailed Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as the representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

The decision to relinquish control of the Brussels mosque that in 1969 had been leased rent-free to the kingdom for a period of 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin followed a Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed. The inquiry advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism, estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported that “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith.”

Saudi Arabia has worked hard in the last year to alter perceptions of its Islamic-inspired beliefs.

Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister and secretary general of the World Muslim League, the group that operates the Brussels mosque and has served for half a century as a key funding vehicle for ultra-conservatism insisted on a visited last year to the Belgian capital that Islam “cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Mr. Al-Issa, in a first in a country that long distributed copies of the Protocols of Zion, an early 20th century anti-Semitic tract, last month, expressed last month on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates Nazi persecution of the Jews “great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Mr. Al-Issa’s comments no doubt also signalled ever closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both bitterly oppose Iran’s regional influence. Nonetheless, they constituted a radical rupture in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic scholars, often described Jews  as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”

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