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The Forgotten Secular Turkish Model

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A s the euphoric predictions of a brave new Middle East give way to more tempered expectations, Turkey is increasingly seen as a possible model for the fledgling Arab governments to emulate.

According to a recent YouGov survey, 72 percent of Arabs identified Turkey as a “good model” with this figure higher (75 percent) among North African respondents and lower (65 percent) among Syrians and Lebanese.

The three main reasons for this choice were Turkey’s affinity with the Arab states in terms of culture, religion, and traditions (57 percent); Ankara’s perceived prestige “in the eyes of the world” (56 percent); and the influence of Islam in Turkish politics (49 percent).[1]

Interestingly enough, the only Turkish experience that seems to be worthy of emulation is that of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), ignoring the “original” Turkish model—secular modernism—and the role it played in post-colonial Middle Eastern history. Yet it was precisely this secular-democratic system that eventually—albeit unintentionally—led to the emergence and triumph of the Islamist AKP, which built much of its legitimacy on the critique of the very system from which it emerged. By contrast, the similarly secularist Arab regimes were ruthless dictatorships that held their subjects in an iron grip until a number of them were swept from power by the recent uprisings. An exploration of the original Turkish model, its strengths and weaknesses, might thus help inform and guide the future.

Colonialism and the Appeal of Secular-modernization

The prevailing narrative of the “Great Arab Revolt” of World War I presents it as the culmination of deep-rooted resentment against four centuries of Ottoman control, ending once and for all any political unity between the Turks and the Arabs. What is less acknowledged, however, is that the Hashemite dependence on Britain, both during the war and throughout the attendant peace talks, can be retrospectively seen as a major mistake, creating a long-term dependency on the great powers and laying the foundations for the Middle East’s chronic legitimacy crisis and anti-Western bent.

The ambitious anticolonial independence movements launched after the war were thus suppressed or co-opted by the colonial tutelage system. Even more problematic perhaps is that, with the exception of Algeria (and non-Arab Israel), the Arab states gained their independence not through struggle but by the consent of their post-World War II colonial administrators. It was only after (and because of) the latter’s imperial decline that they offered independence, leaving behind illegitimate, hastily built governments that were expected to protect the interests of their colonizers without colonial troops.

The Turkish republican leadership’s obsession with independence and sovereignty, which rejected all forms of mandate, supervision, and foreign “assistance,” stood in stark contrast to the Hashemites’ acquiescence in joint state-building with the Allied powers as it was the Turkish war of independence (1919-23) that paved the road for modern Turkey to emerge as a fully sovereign and independent state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkish independence is almost intrinsically tied to what can be termed the Kemalist project, after Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), the republic’s founding father, with its combination of republicanism, nationalism, and secular modernization. It was first copied by a non-Arab ruler—Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran (r. 1925-41), who embarked on an ambitious reform program along Turkish lines, which later slowed down because of mounting resistance from the Shiite clergy and finally collapsed altogether after his removal from power by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1941.[2] In the 1940s, Syrian Arab intellectuals Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar, and Zaki al-Arsuzi pioneered the pan-Arab Baath party whose motto, “unity, liberty, socialism,” mirrored that of the late Ottoman-era Committee of Union and Progress (with the addition of socialism).[3] And while Egyptian-based Nasserism and Syrian and Iraqi Baathism initially mirrored early Turkish secular nationalism with its emphases on unity, independence, corporatism, and foreign policy neutrality, these movements coincided with the early phases of the Cold War, prompting Arab leaders to abandon neutrality and embrace the Soviet bloc.

The anti-Israel agenda of Arab socialism soon echoed the familiar discourse of communism versus colonialism, but it was the Arabs’ obsession with Israel that ultimately led to their departure from one of the absolute fundamentals of the initial Turkish model: rejection of all patronage and tutelage relations with outside powers. Just as the Arabs had replaced Ottoman colonialism with British imperialism, they now replaced the latter with Soviet military guardianship for the sake of destroying Israel, which they viewed both as deeply illegitimate and an outgrowth of Western imperialism.

At the same time, the Arab secularists suffered from the same problem that dashed the Iranian attempt to emulate the Kemalist model: no decisive victory against foreign control. Reza Shah had no such success and his son, Mohammed Reza, was first crowned by the Anglo-Soviet invaders, then reinstated (in August 1953) in a coup orchestrated by the U.S. and U.K intelligence agenices, the CIA and MI5. And while Nasser’s position was boosted by Egypt’s resistance to the combined forces of Britain, France, and Israel in the Suez crisis of 1956, this relative success was a direct result of Washington’s intervention. By June 1967, Nasser’s prestige had all but disappeared as Egypt’s crushing defeat in the Six-Day War dealt a mortal blow to his pan-Arab pretensions and deepened his already heavy dependence on Moscow. Nasserism, thus, can be hardly considered a historically sustainable model of sovereignty and independence.[4]

Perhaps most importantly, the 1967 Arab defeat was a milestone in the transformation of the projects of Arab unity and socialism. Nasserists and Baathists attempted to counter their loss of legitimacy following the war by redefining the role of their militaries as domestic tools of repression rather than defense organizations against foreign threats. The clearest manifestation of this process was the rise of the dreaded mukhabarat security-intelligence branch, which dealt with domestic dissent and challenges to state legitimacy as a direct result of the states’ inability to deal with the Israeli military or U.S. involvement in the Middle East.[5] The era of Middle Eastern military dictatorships, effectively marking the Cold War and post-Cold War history of the Middle East, is in many ways the history of this militarization of Arab socialism. From a unity, liberty, and corporatism-based doctrine, it assumed a repressive-militarist character.

The “Original” Turkish Model: Limitations and Lessons

In contrast to the Arabic-speaking countries, Turkey went through its quasi-dictatorial Kemalist period much earlier (1925-47), overlapping with a similar pattern of post-imperial dictatorships in Europe. European, as well as Kemalist, authoritarian periods began with the collapse of empires at the end of World War I and ended after World War II.[6] Turkey switched to a multiparty democracy in 1947, following which the founding Republican People’s Party (CHP) was democratically forced into opposition in the 1950 elections. Despite constant military tutelage over politics (a pattern that could be observed during the Cold War period in a number of Western countries, notably Spain and Portugal) and three military coups, Turkey’s relationship to democracy was much different from that of the Arab states, which lived under the sustained and permanent yoke of dictators and whose behavior mirrored that of their former colonial administrators. While it is sometimes argued that Kemalism is a dictatorial ideology in and of itself, placed in its proper context against the backdrop of contemporary European and Middle Eastern experiences, the system reveals its instrumental versus permanent nature.[7] Notwithstanding brief similarities, Kemalism and Arab nationalism went in two separate ways, manifested in two very different modes of governance.

While publicly subscribing to his predecessor’s legacy, Atatürk’s foremost chieftain and successor, Ismet Inönü, was very much his own man. Struggling to surmount the uncertainty attending the death of Turkey’s founder, Inönü faced a legitimacy crisis domestically as well as the formidable military challenge of keeping Turkey out of World War II by deterring a massive Red Army in the Caucasus and a Nazi army in Thrace; this period is generally regarded as a dictatorial episode.[8] This undemocratic interlude notwithstanding, it was Inönü who in 1947 inaugurated the multiparty era by enabling the establishment of opposition parties—a process culminating in the defeat of his own party in the 1950 elections. And while Inönü might have made this transition out of external necessity (joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] and the U.N.) rather than true conviction, his political behavior as leader of the opposition in 1950-72 indicates the extent to which he had internalized and believed in the principles of multiparty democracy—a behavioral pattern entirely absent in the perpetually authoritarian Muslim Middle East.

The original Turkish model has been criticized because of the four military coups (1960, 1970, 1980, 1997), alongside the generals’ influence on “high politics” though it was probably no more flawed, at least until 1980, than Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, the Greek military junta period, or even the De Gaulle era in France. Actually, the foremost problem of post-Atatürk Kemalism was its inability to articulate a peacetime identity for itself and the country, requiring a constant narrative of domestic and foreign “foes” to be able to sustain its relevance in politics. At the same time, these limitations were challenged by a number of successful political parties such as Adnan Menderes’ Democrat Party or Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party. Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to define a peacetime ideology for Turkey was that of the AKP, which accomplished more than its predecessors in terms of trying to establish a more flexible, accommodating Turkish political identity—at least during the first years of its tenure.

Thus the “old” Turkish model—early secular-modernism—could and still does offer a model for the Arab states by producing governing classes that have upheld the sovereignty and independence of the Turkish state—within an imperfect democratic system, but one that is far more representative than the failed Arab authoritarianism. This is because the model always saw its authoritarianism as a temporary condition that prevailed only in crisis situations and returned willingly to full democracy once the crisis situation had been resolved.[9]

It is important to note that the flagship party of Kemalism, the CHP, has remained in the opposition since the first multiparty elections of 1950 and never assumed a militarist character to take back power. While the prevalent Islamist critique would disagree with this statement, it must be remembered that Inönü’s CHP had a problematic relationship with the military and its coup attempts during the multiparty period and that the party was shut down following the 1980 coup. The Arab states, by contrast, have been marked by a constant inability to establish true sovereignty and independence. When finally attained, governments lacked legitimacy, which in turn created perpetual dictatorships and sustained militarization of the ruling elite.

The “Old” Turkish Model and the Arab Upheavals

These facts have potential implications for the future trajectory of the Arabic-speaking countries. Arab societies have, at long last, successfully launched revolts against their long reigning dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, banishing the ghosts of the Hashemite World War I revolt with its colonial and post-colonial consequences. Soon after the removal of their dictators, many of the Islamist movements that came to prominence, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda movement, officially stated that they were looking at Turkey’s AKP as a role model or inspiration.[10] Morocco’s post-revolutionary government party even named itself the Justice and Development Party.[11]

While the AKP is seen by Arab revolutionaries as a successful Islamist party, party leaders have repeatedly denied this label insisting instead on their definition as “Muslim conservatives; not Islamists.”[12] While leading AKP figures have criticized the shortcomings of Kemalism, they have also not shied away from passing judgment on the “extremes” of the Islamist Welfare Party tradition (1983-98) and its leader, Necmettin Erbakan.[13] During his September 2011 visit to Egypt, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went so far as to call on Egyptians “not to be afraid of secularism,” drawing criticism from the Muslim Brotherhood there.[14] It would seem then that notwithstanding its Islamist nature, much of the AKP’s appeal stems from its pragmatic adaptation to the political rules of the game.

Moreover, two of the most attractive aspects of the “AKP model” in Arab perception—Turkey’s apparent economic success and growing international prestige—owe much of their success to contributions of the secular elite. Turkey’s economic “miracle,” for example, is based upon the 2001-05 stabilization program whose foundations were laid by a secular high-level World Bank technocrat, Kemal Derviş (currently the U.N. Development Program administrator).[15] Many Islamists play down the importance of Derviş’s economic model and argue that his one-year ministership (2001-02) cannot possibly define the AKP’s ten-year success, perhaps forgetting how John Maynard Keynes’ 1936 theory set the tone of global economy for the next forty years. Likewise, the AKP’s soft power activism rests upon a network of deterrence antecedents established by its predecessors in the late-1990s; and while the AKP’s “zero-problems” policy vis-à-vis neighbors such as Greece, Syria, Iran, and Iraq may be seen as a critique of Turkey’s deterrence policies of the 1990s, the policy, nonetheless, was only able to function as a result of the strategic-military achievements of these years.

Two foreign policy successes attributed to the AKP—improvement of relations with Greece and Syria—were in fact initiated during the tenure of another secular technocrat, Ismail Cem, diplomat and minister of foreign affairs in 1997-2002. Turkish-Greek rapprochement was a product of Cem’s hard work with his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou while Syria’s more cooperative attitude toward Turkey was a direct result of Ankara’s threat of invasion in November 1998 in response to Hafez Assad’s harboring Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish nationalist organization, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party—Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan).[16]

Now that this policy has been totally discredited—with the honeymoon with Damascus (and its Iranian ally) souring over the Syrian civil war and relations with Greece in tatters following Ankara’s threats to Cyprus over the gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean—it seems that the AKP’s “zero problems” policy has been based on a flawed grasp of the strategic and political foundations inherited from their secular predecessors. Likewise, given the growing signs of an economic slowdown, if not imminent collapse, the AKP’s economic acumen seems less impressive.[17]

Conclusions

Without properly contextualizing the AKP’s success, one can expect more existential frustrations for the nascent Arab governments. While the AKP has successfully transcended its original Islamist constituency to establish itself as a party of the masses, it is not a model that post-revolutionary governments can emulate precisely because it has not disavowed its Islamist precepts. In the apt words of academic Sebnem Gumuscu: “There is no ‘Turkish model’ of an Islamist democracy.”[18]

The AKP model can primarily be replicated by countries that have already switched to a functioning and legitimate democratic system, its success being paradoxically rooted in a strong, independent, and legitimate secular-democratic system and its simultaneous critique of and outgrowth from it.

The new Arab rulers, on the other hand, have succeeded in eliminating regimes with contested legitimacy through revolution and pushed their countries into a state of uncertainty, soul searching, and identity crisis—all normal and temporary aspects of post-revolutionary societies. They do not, however, enjoy the AKP’s advantage of functioning as a democratically legitimate government within a fully independent and sovereign state system. Quite the opposite, these movements have gone “back to the future” and operate in a state of similar uncertainty as their predecessors faced during and after World War I. Perhaps they do not confront the same kind of spatial and geographic uncertainty, but in terms of regime type, institutions, and reorganization of capital relations, the Arab upheavals have created circumstances identical to the legitimacy and sovereignty questions raised by the “great Arab revolt,” none of which resemble the AKP experience.

At this critical juncture in their history, Arabs can perhaps learn from the original Turkish experience. Rather than the peacetime environment giving rise to the AKP, the Kemalist model of state legitimacy and identity-building in times of crisis and uncertainty suits the immediate needs of post-revolutionary Arab societies. Aptly recognizing the nature of external and domestic challenges confronting Turkey, Atatürk skillfully redefined the nature of Turkish nationhood and laid the foundations of early twentieth-century secular-modernization, something that could serve as a model for the Arabic-speaking countries.

It also bears noting that while Atatürk’s rejection of foreign involvement and his armed struggle against the Allies led to the emergence of modern Turkey as a pro-Western country, the Hashemite decision to outsource the cause of pan-Arabism to outside powers laid the foundations of modern anti-Westernism in the Middle East. This reality has important implications for Western policy toward the post-revolutionary Arab societies.

For one thing, history tells us that the concept of Western-friendly regimes is a mirage and that short-term independence from foreign control produces more sovereign and cooperative administrations over the longer term. For another, those Arab intellectuals emphasizing the indispensability of U.S. financial support for establishing the legitimacy of the post-revolutionary governments[19] are effectively repeating the Hashemite historic blunder of outsourcing the cause of a revolutionary movement to the goodwill of foreign powers, something that is liable to exacerbate local dependence and anti-Western sentiments.

The Arab revolutions can only succeed if they produce unique and case-specific models rather than emulating other historical experiences, let alone outsourcing their state building to external factors. But if they, nevertheless, find the Turkish model so appealing as to merit a serious debate, it should begin with Kemalism—not the AKP.

H. Akın Ünver is a faculty fellow in the Department of International Relations, Kadir Has University, Istanbul, and the winner of the Middle East Studies Association’s 2010 Social Sciences Dissertation Award. This article was written during his Ertegün Lectureship at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department. The author wished to thank Andrew Arsan for his valuable suggestions on this article.

[1]Should Arabs follow the Turkish political model?” YouGov Doha Debates, Feb. 9, 2012.
[2] Touraj Atabaki and Erik Jan Zurcher, Men of Order: Authoritarian Modernization under Ataturk and Reza Shah (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), pp. 44-65.
[3] L. Carl Brown. Imperial Legacy: The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 139-48.
[4] Avraham Sela, “Abd al-Nasser’s Regional Politics: A Reassessment,” in Elie Podeh and Onn Winckler, eds., Rethinking Nasserism: Revolution and Historical Memory in Modern Egypt (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2004), pp. 179-205.
[5] Milton Viorst, Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), pp. 141-9.
[6] Jason Brownlee. Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 18-21.
[7] Taha Parla and Andrew Davison, Corporatist Ideology in Kemalist Turkey: Progress or Order? (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004), pp. 143-209.
[8] John M. VanderLippe, The Politics of Turkish Democracy: Ismet Inonu and the Formation of the Multi-Party System, 1938-50 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), pp. 21-6.
[9] Ergun Özbudun, Perspectives on Democracy in Turkey (Ankara: Turkish Political Science Association, 1988), pp. 11-8.
[10] Southeast European Times Türkiye (U.S. European Command), Nov. 22, 2011.
[11] BBC News Africa, Nov. 27, 2011.
[12] See, for example, State Minister Egemen Bagis’s statement, “İslamcı olmadığımızı kanıtlamak için illa haç mı çıkarmamız lazım?Zaman Online (Istanbul), Jan. 12, 2008.
[13] See for example, State Minister Bülent Arınç’s statements, “Resmi Yenilikçiden Erbakan Eleştirisi,” NTV Online (Istanbul), July 8, 2011.
[14] The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 15, 2011.
[15] Erinc Yeldan and Umit Cizre, “The Turkish encounter with neo-liberalism: Economics and politics in the 2000/2001 crises,” Review of International Political Economy, Aug. 2005, pp. 387-408.
[16] Svante E. Cornell, “What Drives Turkish Foreign Policy?Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2012, pp. 13-24; Damla Aras, “Turkish-Syrian Relations Go Downhill,Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2012, pp. 41-50.
[17] David P. Goldman, “Ankara’s ‘Economic Miracle’ Collapses,Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2012, pp. 25-30.
[18] Sebnem Gumuscu, “Egypt Can’t Replicate the Turkish Model: But It Can Learn from It,” Sada, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jan. 12, 2012.
[19] See, for example, Sabina Dewan “Helping Complete the Arab Spring,” Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., Jan. 3, 2012.

Middle East

The Causes and Effects of the United States “Long Goodbye” to the Middle East

Lawrence Habahbeh

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A glance at a world map reveals one great reason why the Middle East (ME) claims the attention of great power centres of the world.  A roughly rectangular area stretching from the Adriatic Sea, East to the black sea ,and south to the Indus River.   The ME is a joining point of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa and one of the most vital crossroads on the planet.   It is the cradle of world civilization and the birth place of the three monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.    Further, it is rich in oil, gas, and other commodities.   According to British Petroleum 2019 (BP) Statistical review of World Energy, the Middle East holds 836 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which constitutes 48% of world total.   In comparison to other regions of the world, it holds 3X the proven oil reserves of the U.S, Canada and Mexico combined, and 58X the proven oil reserves of Europe.   Likewise, the Middle East has the world’s largest proven reserves of Natural Gas (NG); standing at 38.3% of the world’s total, while the Common wealth of Independent States (CIS) holds the second largest reserves at 31.9%.

Historically, the strategic foundation for the U.S. involvement in the Middle East was shaped by several policy objectives reflecting both regional dynamics and U.S. interests.  These strategic interests centred primarily around protecting the reliable free flow of commodities and commercial activity through well known checkpoints in the Arabian Peninsula, especially the strait of Hormoz and Suez canal; supporting the security, stability, and prosperity of U.S. partners in the region, including the State of Israel; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering Jihadist movements, and terrorism.  Since 2011, geopolitical tensions, trade disputes, and changes in the international security landscape have tested the US-ME relationship, and have caused the strategic pillars of the U.S. Involvement in the region to undergo a state of transition, hastened by three major factors: 

First; In a speech by former Secretary of Defence James Mattes at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, January 19, 2018, he asserted” Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security”.  Further, according to President Obama’s June 2015 National Military Strategy and also President Trump’s January 2018 National Defence Strategy  (NDS), they both acknowledged that the shift in U.S. strategic direction is driven by a return to great power competition with China and Russia, underlined by a rising trend in strategic cooperation between two countries on many issues across many regions of the world, In fact; this strategic cooperation can be seen taking shape in the economic and military spheres.  For example, according to various press reports, in September of 2019, Chinese and Russian troops took part in joint military manoeuvres; dubbed, “Tsentr-2019” to strengthen their military readiness.  Further, direct trade between the two countries is increasing.  According to data from statista, trade between Russia and China reached a record level, exceeding $100 billion compared to previous years.  Likewise, China’s natural gas imports from Russia more than doubled in 2019 subsequent to operating the “Power of Siberia”  gas pipeline with a total initial capacity of 5 Billion Cubic meters (BCM) of gas, and a targeted capacity of 38 BCM by 2025, which constitutes 13% of China’s 2018 demand.  Equally important; China’s expanding major economic development project, the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative.  The BRI initiative is an ambitious plan to build an open and balanced regional economic architecture connecting dozens of countries in Asia, Eurasia, and Europe by constructing six international economic corridors and an extensive rail network linking China to Europe through a “new Eurasian Land Bridge”.  In the same way, the project aims to construct economic corridors linking China, Mongolia, and Russia; also, China to west, central, and South Asia. 

The evolving dynamics of economic corridors connecting all sub-regions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe, and Africa is consistent with the ideas of the Eurasianist Aleksandr  Dugin’s, and the ideas advanced in his book published in 1997 titled “Foundations of Geopolitics”, in which he calls for the realization of a Unified Economic Landscape called Greater Eurasia.  Greater Eurasia refers to countries that are on the territory of the Eurasian continent across Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  It consists of two regions of energy consumption (Europe & Asia Pacific) and three regions of energy production (Russia and Arctic & Caspian & Middle East) in between.  It includes 91 countries, which represents two-thirds of the world population, exports of goods and services and GDP.

These evolving and developing geographic and economic integration projects based on strategic cooperation between Russia and China create a geographic mass of countries across, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East that are increasingly interdependent, and their interests are more closely intertwined than ever before.  Consequently; shifting geopolitics in Greater Eurasia driving the strategic convergence in economic power between Russia and China is posing challenges to U.S. leadership in the region and the world.   These interactions between Russia and China in the military and economic spheres demonstrate a growing trend in strategic cooperation between the two countries and may be driven by an ideological denominator, where both countries view the U.S. as the “Glavny Protivnik”.

Second; according to the U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States became the world’s largest producer of petroleum hydrocarbons and the largest producer of oil with a total production capacity of 12.7 million barrels of oil per day as of March 2020, surpassing the daily production capacity of both Russia and Saudi-Arabia.  In the same manner; according to BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy report, the U.S. is still the world leader when it comes to natural gas production, averaging approximately 920 billion cubic meters of gas in 2019, followed by Russia, Iran, and Qatar.  As a result, the United States is undergoing an oil and natural gas production renaissance that will likely continue to change the global energy landscape, and lead to wide-ranging regional and global geopolitical implications.   The Age of Abundance for the U.S is driving the change in relations with regional allies, which, in part, will be redefined based on relations that are built around competition in the global gas market, and the supply of cleaner energy sources, especially, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

Third; according to the CIA’s Global Threats Report  2019.  The ME region is highly vulnerable to changes in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, and floods, and that combined with Poor Governance – leads to increased food and water insecurity.    As a result, it is very likely that there will be an increased risk of social unrest, migration and tension between regional State, and non-State actors.

It stands to reason that the U.S. views the strategic benefits derived from maintaining the  historical strategic pillars, and policy objectives in the ME vis-à-vis the strategic risks associated with such policy as costly and no longer viable because of the greater strategic threats posed by both Russia’s aggression towards its neighbours in Europe in consequence of Russia’s own economic, political, and social agenda, which opposes the international liberal order promoted, and protected by the U.S. since the second world war., and China’s expanding financial and economic influence, and strategic cooperation with Russia in multiple domains to amass political and strategic advantage through improved economic and energy connectivity projects in Europe, Eurasia, Middle East, and Asia pacific.  Therefore; U.S vital strategic interests lay elsewhere and the U.S. views Russia and China as a greater strategic risk than Iran and Al-Qaeda, and that requires the U.S. to “do less” in the Middle East.  In consequence, from U.S perspective the Middle East region is no longer a priority for the United States.  

The strategic implications of the ongoing U.S. long goodbye to the M.E. region over the past decade have shifted the regional geopolitical environment and caused the formation of a power vacuum where state and non-state actors competing in a multi-level and proxy executed competition to gain diplomatic, economic, and strategic advantage.  As a result, three regional spheres of influence emerged vying for control and power in the region, including the conservative wing, comprising Saudi Arabia (GCC, less Qatar), Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. The anti-American wing includes Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.  Lastly the Islamist wing includes Turkey, and Qatar.  Add to this complex geopolitical landscape, Russian and Chinese inroads through military, economic, and weapons sales to regional actors to increase their regional influence.  In fact; in recent years, Moscow has strengthened its military foothold in Syria and secured access to military bases on the Mediterranean Sea, in order to expand its regional political, military, and economic influence.  Moscow’s regional engagement has solidified since 2015 Russian intervention in Syria.  Moreover, Russia’s expanding military exercises and weapons sales with Egypt selling 2$ billion worth of aircrafts to Cairo.  Further, Moscow support and expanded ties with Khalifa Haftar in Libya,  talks to sell S-400 Missile Defence System to Qatar, cooperation with Saudi Arabia to stabilize global oil markets, and strengthening relations with Israel and Iran are clear indications of Moscow’s increasing influence in the Middle East region.

In the same way, China’s strategic cooperation with Middle Eastern countries is on the rise.  For instance, the region is China’s No.1 source of imported petroleum products.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over 50% of Chinese Oil imports come from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq, and Iran, with Saudi Arabia providing 16% of Oil imports.  Further; Qatar, is the one of largest LNG suppliers to China.  Moreover, In July 2018, China and the UAE announced an upgrade to their 2012 strategic partnership to a “comprehensive Strategic Partnership”- China’s highest level of diplomatic relations, outlining cooperation in wide range of fields such as politics, economics, trade, technology, energy, renewable energy, and security.   Likewise, In Egypt, in September 2018 President Sisi visited Beijing and signed 18$ billion worth of deals with China including projects covering rail, real estate, and energy.  Again, Chinese construction firms are heavily engaged in constructing Egypt’s new administrative capital outside of Cairo and developing the Red Sea port and industrial zone.  Likewise, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt are important to China’s expanding BRI initiative.   The majority of Chinese trade with Europe passes through the Suez Canal, and China is expanding the cooperative zone around the canal by expanding the port and shipping facilities.   Finally, Jordan joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, and Israel high speed rail project with China that will connect Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean to Eilat on the Red Sea.  Clearly, the multitude of Chinese driven infrastructure projects in the region are an indication that countries in the Middle East are welcoming China’s economic investments, and if history is a gauge of future developments, then it is reasonable to conclude that China is likely to increase its political engagement and expand its military presence in the region to protect and secure its economic interest.

In 2017, during a visit by president Trump to Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh declaration was announced.  The declaration is a U.S. proposal for a multilateral regional arrangement between Gulf Cooperation Council nations (GCC), including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Jordan and Egypt, dubbed the Middle East Strategic alliance (MESA).  The proposal centres on the idea of a regional system with shared security, economic, and political architecture.   According to data from the World Bank Development Indicators (WBDI) (2018), the MESA boasts a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion and represents a market of 175 million consumers.  The proposal joins an increasing number of regional alliances that exist across the globe, such as the three seas initiative (3SI), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), among others.  Since its announcement, an ongoing dispute among the competing, regional spheres of influence, due to differences in their respective interests, capabilities, and threat perceptions has caused little progress in the future trajectory of this multilateral arrangement.

Finally, the reality is that the U.S. should not fully extricate itself from the region due to the U.S. great power competition with China and Russia, which the Trump Administration has placed at the centre of its national security strategy.   Instead, the U.S. should invest in its regional network of allies and partners to work together to maximize their strengths and address common challenges that are vital to U.S. national security and geopolitical stability.  The U.S. should push for and hasten the strategic convergence of the MESA member States by promoting deeper coordination and interaction among participants through multilateral cooperation in the economic, political, security, and energy spheres by calling to build the tools and the governing institutions to govern MESA operations and decision making such as a Middle East Strategic Alliance Council with prime ministers as members, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Economic Commission to manage the organizations day to day decision making activity, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Court system, tasked with managing disputes among member States, and a Middle East Strategic Alliance development bank and stabilization fund to support and drive integration efforts through regional lending and investment programs to boost, along an East-West axis, cross-border economic development, energy, water, transportation, and digital infrastructure connectivity projects.

As noted above, the U.S. should reposition itself at the helm of key Middle East dynamics, while simultaneously working with regional partners to balance Russian and Chinese inroads and expanding patterns of influence in the region.  Else, a lack of a clear, unified strategy for the Middle East, will perpetuate the current Hobbesian state of a bellum omnium contra omnes, which renders the whole Middle East system in a quantum state of neither at peace, nor at war, but, entangled in a super position of both states simultaneously; waiting for an observer; to implement the wrong policy option, resulting in the collapse of the state function; into a wilderness of tempestuous combustion; likely, paving the way, to the last age of Pax Americana.

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Middle East

Economic Crisis Does Little to Dampen Mohammed bin Salman’s Pricey Ambitions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan announced austerity measures in May, including an $8 billion USD cut back on spending on Vision 2030 — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plan to restructure the Saudi economy — economists and pundits assumed that was the death knell for trophy projects like NEOM, a $500 billion USD plan for a futuristic mega smart city on the Red Sea.

Economists and pundits may want to think again.

Plagued by questions about the project’s strategic value at a time when the kingdom is struggling with the economic fallout of a pandemic, the impact of an oil price rout, and controversy over the killing of a tribal leader who resisted displacement, NEOM last week sought to counter the criticism by hiring a US public relations and lobbying firm.

NEOM’s $1.7 million USD contract with Ruder Finn – a PR company with offices in the US, Britain, and Asia – was concluded as the kingdom sought to salvage another trophy project, the acquisition of English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United, beset by accusations that the Saudi government had enabled TV broadcasting piracy in its rift with fellow Gulf state Qatar.

The controversy proved to be a lesson in the reputational risk involved in high-profile acquisitions. Piracy was not the only thing complicating the acquisition of Newcastle. So was Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as a result of mass arrests of activists and critics and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

With the publication of a damning report by the World Trade Organization (WTO), Saudi Arabia moved quickly to counter the criticism by removing boxes of BeoutQ, an operation that pirated sports broadcasts legally contracted by BeIN, the sports franchise of state-owned Qatari television network Al Jazeera. BeoutQ broadcasts were carried by Saudi-based Arabsat.

BeoutQ was taking advantage of the banning of BeIN in the kingdom as part of the three-year-old Saudi-UAE diplomatic and economic boycott of fellow Gulf state Qatar. Saudi sports cafes began broadcasting BeIN for the first time immediately after release of the WTO report.

Like the Saudi response to the WTO, NEOM’s contract with Ruder Finn seems to be an effort to repair reputational damage.

Ruder Finn’s mandate appears designed to counter the fallout of the killing in April of Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti, whom the government labelled a terrorist, and to project NEOM as a socially responsible corporation bent on engagement with its local community.

Taking issue with the suggestion that NEOM was in damage limitation mode, Ali Shihabi, a political analyst, former banker, and member of NEOM’s advisory board who often reflects Saudi thinking, argued in a series of tweets that project NEOM was about much more than refuting negative media reporting.

“There is much more substance to NEOM than ‘flashy projects.’ NEOM will be heavily involved in serious projects like advanced desalination, innovative desert agriculture and more use of solar and wind energy, etc. that are very relevant to the country and the region’s urgent needs. These have been very well planned/researched and some are already being executed,” Mr. Shihabi wrote, admitting that the company behind the project had yet to detail its plans.

Mr. Shihabi’s claims were seconded by Ruder Finn in its filing to the US Department of Justice as a foreign agent.

“NEOM is a bold and audacious dream,” Ruder Finn said. “It’s an attempt to do something that’s never been done before and it comes at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions.”

Ruder Finn’s contract was announced after NEOM said that it was taking multiple steps to demonstrate that it was being “socially responsible and [would] deliver . . . impactful, sustainable and committed initiatives.”

In lieu of Mr. Shihabi’s anticipated detailing of NEOM’s grandiose plans, Ruder Finn’s filing to the Department of Justice as a foreign agent, as well as NEOM’s announcements, seemed less geared toward projecting the futuristic city’s economic and environmental contribution and more towards repairing damage caused by the dispute with local tribesmen and the killing of Mr. Al-Huwaiti.

Mr. Al-Huwaiti, a leader of protests against alleged forced evictions and vague promises of compensation, was reportedly killed in a gun fight with security forces.

Mr. Al-Huwaiti predicted that he would be either detained or killed in a video posted on YouTube hours before his death. In the video, he claimed that whatever happened to him would be designed to break the resistance of his Huwaitat tribe to their displacement.

He denounced Prince Mohammed’s leadership as “rule by children” and described the kingdom’s religious establishment that has endorsed the Crown Prince’s policies as “silent cowards.”

An estimated 20,000 people are expected to be moved out of an area that Prince Mohammed once said had “no one there.”

NEOM declared earlier this week that it would be offering English-language lessons at its recently established academy and that some 1,000 students would be trained in tourism, hospitality, and cybersecurity.

At the same time, the government said that eligible Saudis would be compensated for loss of land with plots along the coast as part of a program to improve standards of living.

Online news service Foreign Lobby Report reported that Ruder Finn would produce informational materials, including a monthly video to promote NEOM’s engagement with the local community as well as visual materials highlighting the company’s fulfillment of its social responsibility.

Ruder Finn’s efforts were likely to do little to convince the kingdom’s critics.

Writing in Foreign Policy in April, Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s former Middle East and North Africa Director, and Abdullah AlAoudh, a Saudi legal scholar, dismissed NEOM’s grand ambitions. Mr. AlAoudh’s father Shaykh Salman Al-Odah, a prominent reformist religious scholar, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 2017 for advocating an end to the rift with Qatar.

“Whether the NEOM project is even remotely viable, given the global financial collapse because of the coronavirus and rising Saudi debt amid historically low oil prices, is highly doubtful,” Ms. Whitson and Mr. AlAoudh said. “The only result we’ve seen from this vision for a futuristic city is the promised destruction of a historic community and the death of a Saudi protester, using archaic means with no room for modern notions of rights and justice.”

Author’s note: An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Middle East

Netanyahu’s plan to annex West Bank: Old and new problems

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced plans to establish as of July 1 Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and over some areas of Judaea and Samaria, also known as parts of the West Bank and the River Jordan, which fell under the  control of Israel as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. At present, about half a million Israelis reside in these areas. However, most countries, citing international law, consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal on the grounds that they pose an obstacle to clinching peace with Palestinians.

The announcement of the Israeli leader had nothing sensational about it. Israel’s policy, aimed at de facto annexing Palestinian territories and at legal acts regarding Israeli communities in the West Bank, undergoes no substantial changes. But this time, the issue under consideration is the legitimization, the establishment of the legal status of these territories as Israeli.

Ideas of this kind are constantly circulating within the ranks of the country’s right-wing politicians. Moreover, being a staunch Zionism maximalist and after 15 years in power, in the course of which he frequently enjoyed a parliamentary majority,  Benjamin Netanyahu could have easily secured this status. However, political caution and pragmatism held him back. That’s why the question is why these plans have acquired a clear-cut shape now, with even a date set for the start of the process.

There seem to be many reasons for this. Naturally, some are personal. At the peak of success, in connection with the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and Washington’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty of the Golan Heights, and also, following a triumphant recovery from the long-running government crisis, Benjamin Netanyahu is set on strengthening his positions, on winning the support of a maximum number of Israelis, particularly in the light of recent events, after his case went to court.[1]

But the main reason is overall support of Israel from the Trump administration. Never before were relations between Washington and Jerusalem that close.

Undoubtedly, what triggered the process was the ambitious and difficult-to-implement draft agreement proposed by US President Donald Trump to secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which, in the opinion of the White House, guarantees a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and puts an end to the more than 70 – year conflict in the Middle East.  The 180-page document stipulates that Israel maintains its sovereignty over the territory of the Jordan Valley, Judea and Samaria. In addition, Washington insists that Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands should be recognized as territory of Israel. That is, all Jewish settlements will remain in their places, including 15 remote settlements which are in no way connected to territories that will be handed over to Israel.

It’s no secret that the draft was developed by Trump’s officials within the framework of consultations with Israelis. The document, presented by Trump on January 28, 2020, was dubbed “the deal of the century”. After the presentation, Israeli and American teams got down to work to make maps of West Bank areas which Israel could annex first under the plan. Although, the American and Israeli positions do not always coincide.

Yet, the coming on the scene of the “deal of the century” and the Netanyahu plan are no accident. Times are changing.

Firstly, after a months-long political crisis in Israel a coalition government has been formed which will be run by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for 18 months, and the remaining 18 months after November 17, 2021 (if nothing extraordinary happens) until the next elections – by Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz. Thus, the political instability at home has been neutralized.

The coalition agreement which has been achieved in Israel hinges on a document signed by Netanyahu and Gantz on behalf of their parties Likud and Kahol Lavan. This document regulates division of power, the functioning of the new government, and a detailed procedure of decision-making with the right of veto. One important reservation is that expansion of Israeli sovereignty (or annexation) can be proclaimed by Netanyahu and his party without the consent of Gantz, and accordingly, his party. This is the only political area which has such a reservation which abolishes veto.

What speaks of Netanyahu’s “resoluteness” is a changed role of Israel in regional and global affairs. Having integrated into the global economy, Israel, without any exaggeration, has achieved a lot, both technologically, and in terms of security potential. This was backed by progress in the demographic sphere (which is important for Israel), and in the economy. In 2000 the population of Israel was a little over 6 million, in April 2020 – 9,2 million. (At the time of the declaration of independence in 1948 Israel was home to 872 700). In 2000 per capita GDP totaled $ 21038, by 2020 it increased to $ 42823.

The hefty reserves of natural gas which were discovered on Israel’s Mediterranean coast in 2010 and which are already being developed form a foundation of the country’s energy independence and enable it to become a gas exporting country. All this contributes to Netanyahu’s confidence.

Israel’s position in the Middle East is changing as well. The Arab neighbors have become less adverse to it. Gulf monarchies, along with other Arab nations are getting closer and closer to Israel in their confrontation with Iran. Europe, preoccupied with migrant-related problems, is  less critical of Israel and  less protective of Palestinians. Meanwhile, Palestinian political institutes, just like Palestinian leaders, are split between the West Bank and Gaza, which makes them weaker politically.

On the whole, the Palestinian issue appears to be tiring for many actors in the  Middle East.

Therefore, a combination of positive factors, both subjective and objective, has set the stage for the  appearance of Trump’s “deal of the century” and led to the present announcement of the Israeli prime minister. 

US and Israeli leaders are in a hurry: November 3, 2020 – the day of the presidential elections in America – may become critical for the far-reaching plans of the parties concerned.

It needs to acknowledge, however, that if put into effect, the Netanyahu plan is fraught with severe consequences for Israel proper, and for the rest of the Middle East.

Undoubtedly, the initiative voiced by Prime Minister Netanyahu will prove explosive for the current political situation in the country, which is complicated enough without it. Protests are already rolling through Israel against the expansion of sovereignty to the West Bank. Even Netanyahu’s supporters are fully aware that the risks in the Netanyahu-proposed strategic game are extremely high. A great deal is put on stake: human lives, security, economy, the country’s international image. That is why voices against the plan are heard ever more frequently, demanding that the date of the start of the sovereignty declaration procedure be postponed.

Moreover, on June 9 the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice passed a ruling that could come crucial for the country and for the Israeli-Palestinian settlement process. The Court abolished a law under which Jewish settlements in the West Bank which were built on Palestinian territories illegally, can be legalized.

The Netanyahu plan boosts the risk of a new intifada, new terrorist attacks from radical Islamists. Naturally, Palestinians are highly adverse to the move. Deputy chief of the JAMAS “political bureau” Saleh Aruri has made it clear that a return of “armed confrontation” to the West Bank has become a possibility, “more probable   than some could imagine”.

A political storm at home will have a negative effect on Israeli economy and will undermine its defense potential, its power to confront JAMAS, Hezbollah and their ally – the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Tehran will get a good stimulus for activating anti-Israeli propaganda, for convincing its Arab neighbors of Israel’s wickedness, for expanding financial and military support of Palestinians in their struggle for a Palestinian state, for initiating a new phase of the hybrid war against the Jewish state.

The fledgling Israel-friendly architecture for the Middle East, which envisages a certain normalization of relations with Arab opponents, may crumble in a flicker of an eye.

Without doubt, Arabs will condemn the Netanyahu plan, though it may happen that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states, having joined the anti-Israeli chorus, will not risk jeopardizing cooperation with it.

Europe, which is a major trade partner of Israel, is against the Netanyahu plan. Israel is closely integrated with European cooperation programs, including in education, scientific research and innovations, which yield considerable mutual benefits. All this may now be put under threat. The position of the European Union on annexation is clear and consistent: the EU «does not recognize any changes of the 1967 borders, unless they are acknowledged by Israelis and Palestinians». The EU urges Israel to refrain from annexation.

China and Russia will adhere to their present positions, based on the resolutions of the UN Security Council and international law. Moscow and Beijing, while defending their views, will strive to prevent a deterioration of bilateral relations with Israel.

The Russian position on the Netanyahu plan was spelled out by Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov, who said that implementation of intentions to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank seemed a very dangerous scenario. Annexation of Palestinian territories by Israel will cross out prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement and trigger a new upsurge of violence.

The ambassador reiterated a position in favor of a two-state solution on the basis of a commonly recognized international framework. He pointed out the need to secure an early resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians under the patronage of the United Nations in order to negotiate a final status and achieve a comprehensive peace settlement on the basis of UN resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.

Earlier (on May 20) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on the phone  with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, confirmed Russia’s readiness in tandem with other members of the Middle East Quartet (Russia, the USA, the EU, the UN) to contribute to the reset of a peace process by means of a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.

The Palestinian-Israeli problem is clearly a knotty issue which has been a point of unsuccessful talks for more than 70 years. It penetrates the political, diplomatic and military space of the Middle East, affecting the situation in different parts of the region. The putting into effect of the Netanyahu plan on expanding the Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and parts of Judea and Samaria, coupled with Trump’ “deal of the century”, will surely cause an explosive reaction worldwide, in Israel proper, and throughout the Middle East.

It looks like the only positive thing about Netanyahu’s and Trump’s controversial and dangerous plans is that these projects have yet again attracted the attention of the world community to the Palestinian problem, an acute issue of our day. But July 1 is just round the corner! 

[1] Reference: On May 24 the first session of the Jerusalem District Court got under way to consider three cases which were filed against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is the first time in Israel’s history when an incumbent prime minister is officially accused of criminal wrongdoing. 

The first inquiry against the prime minister was held in 1999-2000. Back then, the police sued him on five charges – bribery, an attempt to embezzle state property, fraud, abuse of office and attempts to impede the inquiry. However, all lawsuits were closed before reaching court for lack of evidence.

The year 2016 saw a new inquiry which was conducted within the framework of three separate cases known in the press as «Case 1000», «Case 2000» and «Case 4000». On the basis of these cases the Israeli Prosecutor-General Avichai Mandelblit issued official charges against Netanyahu on November 21st, 2019. On  «Case 1000» and «Case 2000» the prime minister is charged with fraud and abuse of trust (Article 284 of the Criminal Code provides for a three-year imprisonment), on «Case 4000» he is charged with fraud, abuse of trust and bribery (Article 290 of the Criminal Code, up to 10 years in prison). On January 28, 2020 all cases were transferred to the Jerusalem District Court.

Benjamin Netanyahu denies all charges saying that all the cases against him have been fabricated for the purpose of removing right wingers from power.

From our partner International Affairs

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