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The Politics of Muslim Magic

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“Saudi Woman Beheaded for Witchcraft” read media headlines around the world on December 13, 2011. News reports described how a 60-year-old woman was executed after being convicted of practicing witchcraft on the basis of such evidence as books on witchcraft, veils, and glass bottles full of an “unknown liquid used for sorcery.

[1] Yet the majority of news accounts implied that the woman was a victim of persecution by the Saudi government; as one of Amnesty International’s directors declared: “The charge of sorcery has often been used in Saudi Arabia to punish people, generally after unfair trials, for exercising their right to freedom of speech or religion.”[2]

No Western reporters seemed to consider that the victim was actually practicing witchcraft, or why witchcraft is considered by the desert kingdom a crime punishable by death. In the West, there is a societal need to place this seemingly inexplicable incident in an understandable context such as the violation of human rights rather than examining this Islamic tradition that includes the belief, practice, and prohibition of magic.

In fact, the practice of what can be termed Islamic magic is prevalent throughout the Muslim world, manifested in the theological concept of jinn, inhabiting the entire sphere of the Muslim occult. Furthermore, magical beliefs can constitute an existential and political threat to Islamic religious leaders, provoking severe punishments and strict prohibitions of any practice not sanctioned by their authority. Conversely, political leaders, including Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, have employed magical beliefs to advance their political agendas.

Islamic Witch Hunts

Belief in witchcraft, sorcery, magic, ghosts, and demons is widespread and pervasive throughout the Muslim world. Magical beliefs are expressed in the wearing of amulets, consulting spiritual healers and fortunetellers, shrine worship, exorcisms, animal sacrifice, and numerous customs and rituals that provide protection from the evil eye, demons, and jinn. Fears associated with these beliefs range from hauntings and curses to illness, poverty, and everyday misfortunes. Supernatural practices that are intended to bring good fortune, health, increased status, honor, and power also abound. Magical beliefs are not relegated to rural or poverty-stricken areas. On the contrary, they are observable in every segment of society regardless of socioeconomic status.

One of the more popular customs is fortunetelling, which is different from the Western practice, which is usually relegated to the status of a carnival act and specific to predicting the future. Generally, the practice of fortunetelling in the Middle East focuses more on spiritual protection and family counseling than prediction and prophecy. In addition to reading cards, dice, palms, and coffee grounds, activities include selling amulets to ward off evil spirits and providing advice for marital problems. In Afghanistan, fortunetellers operate out of small shops or outside of mosques and shrines across the country but are rarely consulted to portend the future; most often their clients are women or the elderly seeking guidance for problems affecting their families. In Iran, fortunetelling has become increasingly popular, and people of all ages turn to fortunetellers in search of happiness and security.[3] In Pakistan, fortunetelling and belief in astrology is so widespread that practitioners appear on morning television shows.[4]

All magical practices are denounced as un-Islamic by clerics. Although they condemn fortunetelling, the practice is not punished as severely as witchcraft and sorcery. This is likely due to the fact that fortunetelling is viewed as using magic to acquire unseen knowledge while sorcery is viewed as intentionally practicing malevolent or black magic. Recently, in Afghanistan, Gaza, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, stricter laws, arrests, and executions have resulted in efforts to deter magical practices. In January 2008, Afghan religious elders banned dozens of traditional fortunetellers in Mazar-i-Sharif from the area near the Hazrat Ali shrine.[5] In 2010, the Islamist group Hamas, ruling the Gaza Strip, conducted a campaign against witchcraft in the area, arresting 150 women, who were then forced to sign confessions and statements renouncing the practice.[6] According to Hamas “the activities of these women represent a real social danger, also because they risk ‘breaking up families,’ causing divorce and frittering away of money. Sometimes their activities also have criminal repercussions.”[7] In addition to the arrests, Hamas placed large anti-witchcraft posters at mosques, universities, and government offices warning women against magical practices and providing information to Gaza residents wishing to accuse their neighbors of the crime.[8] In August 2010, the campaign escalated to violence when a 62-year-old woman known as a traditional healer was murdered in front of her house by unidentified men after she was accused by her neighbors of practicing witchcraft.[9] In January 2012, Hamas declared the profession of fortunetelling illegal and “forced 142 fortune-tellers to sign written statements averring that they would stop trying to predict the future and sell trinkets that are supposed to offer personal protection.”[10]

In Egypt, Khalil Fadel, a prominent Egyptian psychiatrist, claimed that many Egyptians, including the highly-educated, were spending large amounts of money on sorcery and superstition and warned that growing superstition among Egyptians was threatening the country’s national security, dependent as it was on the mental health of the nation.[11] Under current law, people alleged to be sorcerers can be arrested in Egypt for fraud, but now that the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power and is drafting new legislation, it is conceivable that soon witchcraft could be designated a crime of apostasy, punishable by death.

In April 2009, Bahrain passed strict sorcery laws after x-rays revealed packages containing hair, nails, and blood were being shipped there; witchcraft and sorcery are now criminal offences that can result in fines or prison, followed by deportation.[12]

Neighboring Saudi Arabia enforces the most severe penalties for designated magical crimes. The threat of black magic is taken so seriously there that, in May 2009, an anti-witchcraft unit was created to combat it, along with traditional healing and fortunetelling, and placed under the control of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPV), which employs Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the mutaween. “On the CPV’s website, a hotline encourages citizens across the kingdom to report cases of sorcery to local officials for immediate treatment.”[13] Nine specialized centers were set up in large cities to deal with practitioners of black magic.

A large segment of the “witches” arrested by the CPV were Africans and Indonesians as black magic is often attributed to foreign workers, particularly maids.[14] In September 2011, hundreds of Saudi women complained when the Shura Council (an advisory body) granted permission for Moroccan women, internationally reputed by Muslims as masters of black magic, to work as maids in Saudi households.[15] The wives claimed it was “tantamount to allowing the use of black magic in their homes to steal their husbands … the issue was not lacking trust in their husbands, but their men were powerless to ward off spells.”[16] Foreign domestic workers in the kingdom are accused of sorcery regularly either due to their traditional practices or because Saudi men, facing charges of sexual harassment, want to discredit their accusers.[17]

Nor is prosecution for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia restricted to women. In 2010, Ali Sabat, host of a Lebanese satellite television program that provided psychic advice for callers from around the Arab world, was imprisoned while on the hajj pilgrimage.[18] In a closed court hearing with no representation, he was sentenced to death “because he had practiced ‘sorcery’ publicly for several years before millions of viewers.”[19] As a result of international pressure, he received a last minute reprieve, and his sentence was eventually reduced to fifteen years in prison.

Others had no such luck. There have been several executions for similar crimes: In September 2011, a Sudanese man was beheaded for the crime of witchcraft and sorcery, having been caught in a sting operation set in motion by the religious police and then convicted in a closed trial. In April 2011, thirty officers from the CPV attended a three-day training workshop in the Eastern Province to investigate black magic crimes. The anti-witchcraft unit’s specialized training apparently also involved learning Qur’anic healing rituals to destroy the effects of black magic. There are detailed Islamic treatises on neutralizing black magic that include entire exorcism rites and purification rituals for the destruction of amulets and other magical items. Thus the irony results that neutralizing the effects of spells also constitutes magical practices, albeit legalized ones.

In brief, there are sorcerers, fortunetellers, and traditional healers throughout the Muslim world; many are in violation of interpretations of the Shari’a (Islamic law), and in some countries, that is punishable by death. European witch hunts ended when the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment brought empirical reason to the fore, and rationality eventually replaced the West’s superstitious world-views. The Islamic view of sorcery and witchcraft is significantly different. In contemporary Islamic witch hunts, there is an accepted, long-established, theologically-sanctioned supernatural tradition. Although science was cultivated in Muslim lands during Islam’s Golden Age, witch hunts never ceased because the Enlightenment’s rationalist ideologies did not replace the Islamic magical world-view. Rather, Islamic witch hunts have evolved into a combination of primal ritual and modern technology where videos of exorcisms and beheadings are available on the Internet.[20]

Jinn and the Muslim Occult

To fully comprehend contemporary witch hunts and the prevalence of magical beliefs in the Muslim world, it is necessary to understand the concept of jinn. Jinn provide Islamic explanations for evil, illness, health, wealth, and position in society as well as all mundane and inexplicable phenomena in between. The word jinn (also written as jinnee, djinn, djinni, genii or genie) is derived from the Arabic root j-n-n meaning to hide or be hidden, similar to the Latin origins of the word “occult” (hidden).

In the West, occult practices are marginalized and relegated to pagan traditions or the mystical aspects of religious traditions. In Islam, however, jinn are an integral part of Islamic theology. According to the Qur’an, God created humans from clay, angels from light, and jinn from smokeless fire: “Although belief in jinn is not one of the five pillars of Islam, one can’t be Muslim if he/she doesn’t have faith in their existence. … Indeed, the Qur’anic message itself is addressed to both humans and jinn, considered the only two intelligent species on earth.”[21] While frequently described as angels and demons, jinn are actually a third category—complex, intermediary beings who, similar to humans, have free will and can embrace goodness or evil.[22] Like humans, they are required to worship God and will be judged on the Day of Judgment according to their deeds.[23]

Evil jinn are referred to as shayatin, or devils, and Iblis (Satan) is their chief.[24] They can take the form of humans or animals with many of the fears associated with Islamic purification rites expressed in the symbolic attributes of the jinn. For example, in Islam, dogs, urine, feces, and blood are intrinsically impure, and jinn are known to shape-shift to dogs, accept impure animal sacrifice, and dwell in bathrooms, graveyards, and other unclean places. Muslims believe that evil jinn are spiritual entities that can enter and possess people and exercise supernatural influence over them. Women are considered to be more vulnerable to jinn because they are thought to be weaker in their faith and impure several days of the month.[25]

While jinn have been relegated to fantasy characters in the West, to countless believing Muslims, there is no doubt that they exist. An August 2009 Gallup poll, for example, found that 89 percent of Pakistanis respondents surveyed, believed in jinn.[26] Witches, sorcerers, and fortunetellers are all believed to be under the guidance of jinn and are sometimes referred to as “jinn catchers.”

Jinn are intrinsically intertwined with the practice of both licit Qur’anic magic and illicit black magic (sihir). Black magic is considered to be worked by those who have learned to summon evil jinn to serve them while Qur’anic magic invokes the guidance of God to exorcise the demons. Even spiritual healers with good intentions who do not employ Qur’anic healing methods can be designated as witches and sorcerers: In Saudi Arabia, only qualified individuals, usually natives designated by the religious authorities, are allowed to practice Qur’anic treatment methods; most of those arrested and beheaded for sorcery and witchcraft tend to be foreigners regardless of whether or not they were practicing Qur’anic medicine.

Despite regulations, an entire industry of professional exorcists who perform Qur’anic healing has arisen to meet demand throughout the Middle East and among Western Muslims with exorcists openly advertising on the Internet, using Facebook and Twitter, and posting thousands of videos on YouTube demonstrating healing techniques and publicizing actual exorcisms. Qur’anicHealers.com, a division of Spiritual Superpower Inc., for example, has a Paypal account, contact information for Qur’anic healers in twelve countries and a post office box in Artesia, California.[27]

Clerics, police, and politicians carefully negotiate the political, religious, legal, moral, and ethical issues that arise from dealing with this world of spirits with each country having its own laws to regulate various practices. For example, although exorcists are not prohibited in Gaza, Hamas considers most of them con artists, claiming to have exposed thirty cases of fraud in 2010: “We caught some suspects red-handed … using magic to separate married couples … It was all an act of deception and exploitation. Some people handed over fortunes, and one woman gave all her jewelry to one of these exorcists.”[28]

Abusive, quasi-medical practices have also been committed in the name of Qur’anic magic. Despite the fact that there are hospitals with psychiatric sections in Afghanistan, a common practice there is to chain the mentally ill to shrines for forty days to ritually exorcise the jinn “possessing” them. Patients are fed a strict diet of bread and black pepper, do not have a change of clothing, and sleep on the ground. Those who do not survive the treatments are buried in earthen mounds around the shrine. While doctors in Muslim lands recognize physical and mental illnesses, some are inclined to attribute inexplicable cases to possession. And although there are mullahs and religious scholars reportedly against these practices, the custom continues. There is no doubt that clerics believe in the powers of jinn; they would no more question the existence of jinn than they would the Qur’an.

The Politics of Magic

Jinn can represent an existential and political threat to religious leaders. Religious clerics condemn or actively ban illicit spiritual healing not because of the atrocities that have been committed, or because people are being defrauded, or even out of a conviction to save people’s souls from evil but out of fear that jinn exist and can be induced to subvert their authority.

At the same time, some leaders have used the belief in jinn to further their political agendas. Sheikh Ahmed Namir, a cleric and Hamas leader, perpetuates anti-Semitic tropes, claiming that economic hardship and psychological traumas in the Gaza Strip have encouraged evil Christian and Jewish jinn to possess Palestinians.[29] Palestinian stories of jinn possession are full of classic anti-Semitic propaganda and symbolism; in one case of “possession,” for example, the attempted murder of a child by her mother was blamed on “sixty-seven Jewish jinn,” transforming the ancient blood libel accusation into a new and bizarre form.[30] Not surprisingly, exorcizing Jewish jinn has become a growing business in Gaza:

Sheikh Abu Khaled, a Palestinian exorcist, said the number of possessed Muslims has more than tripled: “I suspect that Jewish magicians send jinns to us here in Gaza. In fact, most of my patients are possessed with Jewish jinns.”[31]

Some leaders allude to possessing supernatural powers in order to self-aggrandize but this can also backfire. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told followers in 2005 that he “was surrounded by a halo of light during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, in which the foreign leaders in the hall were transfixed, unable to blink for a half hour.”[32] But in May 2011, Ahmadinejad’s supernatural “powers” resulted in the arrests of two dozen of his aides, charged by opposing religious clerics with practicing black magic and invoking jinn. While most Western reporters scoffed at the story of imprisoned exorcists, The Wall Street Journal interviewed a renowned Iranian sorcerer, Seyed Sadigh, who claimed that dozens of Iran’s top government officials consult him on matters of national security and that he used jinn to infiltrate Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies: “Mr. Sadigh says he doesn’t waste jinn powers on trivial matters such as love and money. Rather, he contacts jinn who can help out on matters of national security and the regime’s political stability. His regular roll call includes jinn who work for … the Mossad, and for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.”[33]

It would appear that the accusations of sorcery were the result of a power struggle between the president and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, making this both an actual and political witch hunt. The primary target of the arrests was Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei whose “alternative Messianic version of Islam … includes aspects of the occult and a more limited role for clerics.”[34] Not surprisingly, Sadigh reinforced this notion, declaring, “I have information that Ahmadinejad is under a spell, and they are now trying to cast one on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamene’i to obey them blindly.”[35] Sadigh the sorcerer negotiates the politics of magic like a pro, changing allegiances to align himself with whoever seems to be on top and selling his services to him. Perhaps the real power behind the Iranian government resides with the jinn catchers.

Mullah Omar, the Pashtun founder of the Taliban, is widely perceived as magically protected.[36] Laying claim to the Afghan tradition of charismatic mullahs with supernatural powers, Omar adopted the same strategy, removing a cloak, believed by many Afghans to having been worn by the prophet Muhammad, from a shrine in Kandahar and wearing it openly.[37] Since legend decreed that the chest holding the cloak could only be opened when touched by a true leader of the Muslims, wearing it gave him the status of an Afghan hero endowed with extraordinary mystical powers. When Kabul fell to his forces, his supernatural status was confirmed.

Knowing that the Pashtun emphasize dreams as a form of revelation, Omar cultivated the idea that God spoke to him through his dreams and claimed that he based his most crucial policy decisions on them.

Conclusions

Whether to appease a superstitious people or out of sincerely-held belief, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari sacrifices a black goat nearly every day to ward off the evil eye and provide protection from black magic.[38] He, along with Ahmadinejad and Mullah Omar, understands that knowledge of local customs, jinn, and magical practices has significant political value. A superstitious population presents numerous opportunities to communicate fear, apprehension, or awe and to exert influence.

Knowledge of local myths, customs, and magical beliefs can present unique opportunities for diplomacy as well as warfare, but Westerners do not know how to deal with belief in supernatural phenomena, continually applying a rational, scientific approach to cultures that engage in magical thinking and refusing to acknowledge the political significance of these beliefs. Currently, U.S. policymakers cannot even publicly acknowledge that acts of terrorism are based on Islamist religious ideologies, much less give credence to jinn.

U.S. leaders tend to attribute the root causes of violence to secular, social, and economic factors such as poverty, illness, illiteracy, and hunger. This has resulted in a strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people by providing food, shelter, education, and medicine. These operations have consistently failed because Islamic religious and political leaders understand that their people primarily view the root cause of their difficulties as a spiritual problem. Instead of freedom, they foster faith. The Islamic strategy is to win souls by providing supernatural protection, via God or jinn. Hearts and minds will then follow.

Dawn Perlmutter is director and founder of Symbol & Ritual Intelligence and a leading expert on religious terrorism and ritualistic crimes. She trains and advises law enforcement and defense agency personnel.

[1] The New York Times, Dec. 12, 2011; ABC News, Dec. 13, 2011; CNN, Dec. 13, 2011; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Dec. 13, 2011.
[2] Amnesty International, Dec. 12, 2011; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Dec. 13, 2011; The Telegraph (London), Dec. 13, 2011.
[3] Reuters, Nov. 25, 2007.
[4] Chowrangi blog, May 18, 2011.
[5] Reuters, Jan. 27, 2008.
[6] International Mediterranean News Service (ANSAmed), Jan. 15, 2011.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ma’an News Agency (Bethlehem), Aug. 19, 2010.
[10] Arutz Sheva (Beit El and Petah Tikva), Jan. 3, 2012.
[11] The Huffington Post (New York), Sept. 6, 2009.
[12] Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain), Apr. 1, 2009; Muslim Media Network, May 13, 2010.
[13] The Jerusalem Post, July 20, 2011.
[14] Arab News (Riyadh), Apr. 4, 2011.
[15] Morocco Board News (Washington, D.C.), Oct. 1, 2011; The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 22, 2011.
[16] The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 22, 2011.
[17] Ibid., July 20, 2011; Uri Friedman, “How Do You Prove Someone’s a Witch in Saudi Arabia?Foreign Policy, Dec. 13, 2011.
[18] Emirates 24/7 (Dubai), Apr. 23, 2011.
[19] The New York Times, Apr. 2, 2010.
[20] All videos accessed Jan. 4, 2013, YouTube: “Islamic Exorcism,” June 7, 2006, “Exorcism in Islam,” July 29, 2007, “Ruyati Binti Sapubi—An Indonesian Maid in Saudi Arabia Beheaded,” June 18, 2011, “Man beheaded in carpark as per Muslim Shariah law.”
[21] Amira El-Zein, Islam, Arabs and the Intelligent World of the Jinn (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009), p. x.
[22] Ibid., p. xi.
[23] Reinhold Loeffler, Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 46.
[24] Sam Shamoun, “Qur’an Incoherence and Contradiction: Is Satan an Angel or a Jinn?” Answering-islam.org, accessed Dec. 28, 2012; “Jinn According to Quran and Sunnah,” Muttaqun.com, accessed Dec. 28, 2012.
[25] Gerda Sengers, Women and Demons: Cult Healing in Islamic Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 2003), p. 163.
[26]Pakistanis’ Belief in Super Natural Beings,” Gilani Poll-Gallup Pakistan, Islamabad, Aug. 31, 2009.
[27] Qur’anicHealers.com , accessed Dec. 28, 2012.
[28] Reuters, Mar. 11, 2011.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Celia E. Rothenberg, Spirits of Palestine: Gender, Society and Stories of the Jinn (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004), pp. 77-8.
[31] Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 56.
[32] ABC News, May 9, 2011.
[33] The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2011.
[34] ABC News, May 9, 2011; ibid., June 10, 2011.
[35] The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2011.
[36] Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, “Understanding the Taliban and Insurgency in Afghanistan,” Orbis, Winter 2007.
[37] Ibid.
[38] The Guardian (London), Jan. 27, 2010; ABC News, Jan. 29, 2010.

Middle East

Yemen recovery possible if war stops now

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Devastation caused by protracted conflict in Yemen. Photo: UNDP Yemen

War-torn Yemen is among the poorest countries in the world, but recovery is possible if the conflict ends now, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said in a report published on Tuesday. 

Yemen has been mired in seven years of fighting between a pro-Government Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels, generating the world’s worst humanitarian and development crisis and leaving the country teetering on the brink of famine. 

The report sends a hopeful message that all is not lost, arguing that its extreme poverty could be eradicated within a generation, or by 2047, if the fighting ceases.  

A brighter future 

“The study presents a clear picture of what the future could look like with a lasting peace including new, sustainable opportunities for people”, said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner. 

“To help to get there, the entire UN family continues to work with communities throughout the country to shape a peaceful, inclusive and prosperous future for all Yemenis”.  

The brutal war in Yemen has already caused the country to miss out on $126 billion of potential economic growth, according to UNDP. 

Inclusive, holistic recovery 

The UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, has estimated 80 per cent of the population, or 24 million people, rely on aid and protection assistance, including 14.3 million who are in acute need.  

Through statistical modeling analyzing future scenarios, the report reveals how securing peace by January 2022, coupled with an inclusive and holistic recovery process, can help to reverse deep trends of impoverishment and see Yemen reaching middle-income status by 2050. 

Furthermore, malnutrition could be halved by 2025, and the country could achieve $450 billion of economic growth by the middle of the century.  

While underlining the primacy of a peace deal, the report emphasizes the need for an inclusive and holistic recovery process that crosses all sectors of Yemeni society and puts people at the centre. 

Women’s empowerment critical 

Investment must be focused on areas such as agriculture, inclusive governance, and women’s empowerment. 

Auke Lootsma, UNDP Resident Representative in Yemen, stressed the importance of addressing what he called “the deep development deficits” in the country, such as gender inequality. 

“I think it’s fair to say that Yemen, whatever gender index you look at, it’s always at the bottom,” he told UN News ahead of the report’s launch. 

“So, bringing women into the fold, making them part of the labour force, and really empowering women also to contribute to the recovery and reconstruction of Yemen is going to be incredibly important”.  

Act now 

The report was carried out by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver, located in the United States, and is the third in a series launched in 2019. 

While outlining potential peace dividends, it also provides grim future trajectories should the conflict continue into 2022 and beyond.  

For example, the authors project that 1.3 million lives will be lost if the war continues through 2030.  Moreover, a growing proportion of those deaths will not be due to fighting, but to the impacts on livelihoods, food prices and the deterioration of health, education and basic services. 

UNDP said there is no time to waste, and plans to support recovery must be continuously developed even as the fighting rages on.  

“The people of Yemen are eager to move forward into a recovery of sustainable and inclusive development,” said Khalida Bouzar, Director of its Regional Bureau for Arab States.  

“UNDP stands ready to further strengthen our support to them on this journey to leave no one behind, so that the potential of Yemen and the region can be fully realized – and so that once peace is secured, it can be sustained”. 

Grave concerns in Marib

Meanwhile, UN humanitarians are extremely concerned about the safety of civilians in Yemen’s northern Marib governorate, which is home to some one million displaced people. 

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, warned that as the frontlines of conflict shift closer to heavily populated areas in the oil-rich region, those lives are in danger. 

Access to humanitarian aid is also becoming harder, said UNHCR Spokesperson Shabia Mantoo. 

Rocket strikes close to the sites hosting the displaced are causing fear and panic. The latest incident was reported on 17 November when an artillery shell exploded, without casualties, near a site close to Marib City. UNHCR teams report that there is heavy fighting in the mountains surrounding the city and the sound of explosions and planes can be heard day and night”, she elaborated.

UNHCR is warning that further escalation of the conflict will only increase the vulnerability of people in Marib, and is calling for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen. 

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Middle East

UAE chalks up diplomatic successes with uncertain payoffs

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Image source: Wikipedia

It has been a good week for United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

Headline-grabbing, fast-paced moves reinforce the UAE’s position as a regional power. They highlight the UAE’s willingness to chart a course that increasingly competes with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s regional behemoth; is at times at odds with US policy; and scoffs at assertions of human rights abuse by activists and Western politicians.

Controversial Emirati general Ahmed Naser al-Raisi was elected this week as the next president of Interpol despite calls by the European Parliament for an investigation into allegations that he oversaw physical abuse of detainees. Last month, two British nationals filed court cases against him.

The UAE has denied the allegations. “Major General Al-Raisi is a distinguished professional with a 40-year track record in community and national policing. As the President of Interpol, he will remain committed to protecting people, making communities safer and providing global law enforcement the latest tools in the fight against sophisticated criminal networks,” the UAE embassy in London said.

Mr. Al-Raisi won the election at a gathering of the international policing body in Istanbul weeks before the UAE takes up its seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Turkey has been accused of being a major abuser of the Interpol system.

Human rights activists fear that Mr. Al-Raisi will use his new position to legitimize abuse by autocrats of Interpol’s red notice arrest warrants to detain abroad and extradite dissidents and political refugees. The UAE designated four exiled dissidents as terrorists days before Mr. Al-Raisi’s election.

Mr. Al-Raisi was elected a day after Prince Mohammed paid a ground-breaking visit to Ankara to patch up relations with Turkey and throw President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an economic lifeline. Turkey and the UAE have been at odds for a decade over Turkish support for popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa and political Islam.

The rapprochement is part of a broader effort by Middle Eastern rivals, spurred independently by the United States, China, and Russia, to reduce regional tensions and prevent disputes and conflicts from spinning out of control.

The UAE and Turkey have been on opposite sides of civil wars in Libya and Syria that erupted in the wake of popular revolts and at odds in the Eastern Mediterranean. The UAE has sought to reverse the achievements of uprisings supported by Turkey that succeeded in toppling an autocratic leader like in Egypt. Turkey has suggested that the UAE funded a failed 2016 military attempt to remove Mr. Erdogan from power.

The Emirati moves also include a bid to replace Qatar and Turkey as managers of Kabul’s international airport; efforts to return Syria to the international fold despite US policy that aims to isolate the country; and steps to improve relations with Iran. In addition, the UAE this week concluded a solar energy deal with Jordan and Israel that Saudi Arabia sought to thwart.

The UAE hopes that reviving Syria’s membership in the 22-nation Arab League and reconstruction funding will persuade President Bashar al-Assad to loosen his ties to Iran. Prince Mohammed’s visit to Turkey coincided with talks in Dubai with a senior Iranian official in advance of an expected trip to Tehran by the crown prince’s brother and national security advisor, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The moves reinforce the UAE’s position as an influential middle power on the international stage in defiance of being a small state with a population deficit.

Nonetheless, the moves also prove that reducing tensions and managing differences do not by definition bury hatchets, end rivalries, or reduce competition.

The jury is out on the degree to which the Emirati moves will successfully persuade one-time detractors like Turkey to alter their policies fundamentally. For example, Turkey is unlikely to shutter its military base in Qatar that it expanded during the 3.5-year UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state. Closing the base was one of the boycott’s demands.

Mr Erdogan desperately needs the investments. He sees Prince Mohammed’s economic olive branch as a way to reverse a downturn in his economy that threatens to spiral further downwards. The crisis has already fueled street protests and opposition hopes to defeat him in the next election.

In a welcome step, the UAE announced hours after Mr. Erdogan met with Prince Mohammed that it would put US$10 billion into an investment fund that would target energy, food, health and climate change-related sectors of the Turkish economy as well as trade.

Emirati investments in Turkish ports are likely to significantly strengthen Dubai global ports management and logistics company DP World’s network in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In addition, Iranian officials said the UAE moves had made a transport corridor from the UAE to Turkey via Iran possible. A first ship departing from Sharjah in the UAE en route to Mersin in Turkey docked at the Iranian port of Shahid Rajai a day after Prince Mohammed ‘s visit.

Mr. Erdogan expects the Emirati investments to buoy Turkey’s floundering economy at a time that its currency is tumbling. The Turkish lira appreciated by about one point as Prince Mohammed arrived in the country.

However, Qatar, with US$22 billion already invested in Turkey, may not stand idly by as the UAE improves relations with Ankara. On the contrary, it could well seek to cement its existing relationship with further investments.

It remains unclear how much of a political price, Mr. Erdogan may be paying for UAE support. So far, he has curbed Muslim Brotherhood activity in Istanbul in response to Emirati and Egyptian demands but refused to expel the Brothers or extradite them to Egypt.

Similarly, the UAE’s bid to displace Qatar and Turkey at Kabul airport may prove to be an uphill battle. It is hard to see why the Taliban would want to create friction with Qatar, representing US interests in Afghanistan as well as offering a home to Western diplomatic missions focused on Afghanistan, and hosting talks between the Islamist group and the United States.

In sum, Mr. Erdogan may be down as he rebuilds relations with the UAE, but he’s not out. That, in turn, could put a damper on what reconciliation with the UAE will achieve politically.

“Turkeys s economy might be going through its darkest days decades, yet foreign policy still allows…Erdogan to score points,” said prominent Turkish journalist Cengiz Cander.

Indeed, as he seeks to improve strained relations with Middle Eastern states — the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel — Mr. Erdogan is also attempting to carve out his own sphere of influence by blowing new life into the Organization of Turkic states. The organisation groups Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, with a total population of some 170 million people.

However, the Emirati-Turkish rapprochement could help shape developments in conflict zones like Libya, where the UAE and Turkey supported opposing sides.

With the Libyan election scheduled for next month, the UAE is betting on one of two horses in the race: rebel commander Khalifa Haftar and Aref al-Nayed. Mr. Al-Nayed is a former UAE ambassador to the Emirates who heads a UAE group that propagates the UAE’s moderate but autocratic version of Islam. The group was one of several created to counter Islamist clerics supported by Qatar.

Suggesting that rapprochement with the UAE has not reduced Turkish influence in Libya, unconfirmed reports said that Mr. Haftar’s son, Saddam Haftar, made separate visits to Turkey and Israel to solicit support.

In a move that simultaneously supported UAE diplomacy, Mr. Haftar this week released seven Turkish nationals held captive by his forces for the last two years,

“Turkey is in bad shape economically, and Erdogan seems to be crumbling politically. However, it may still be too early to write him off thanks to foreign developments,” said Mr. Candar.

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Middle East

Sino- Iranian Deal: A new marriage of convenience

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Upon asking who were the friends and enemies of United Kingdom, a member of British Parliament Palmerston said, “We don’t have perpetual enemies and eternal friends; only our interests are eternal and perpetual.” Dramatic shifts in international politics are no surprises; only the costs and benefits of those changes would make headlines. Foes turn friends, and friends turn foes have been the perceived course of actions of states in international politics. last year in June another such turn of alliance was done when China and Iran sit face-t-face in a table to sign a 25-years cooperation deal.

China and Iran have signed a deal worth $400 billion dollars. This deal has sparked a controversy because it came when global politics is having a turbulence. This deal is believed to be balancing attempt of USA’s growing influence in the Asian region especially in energy rich portion of Asia, Central Asia.  This deal would complement Chinese foreign policy in Middle East and Central Asia. USA’s growing interests in the backyard of China – Central Asia – is indeed worrisome situation for think tanks in Beijing. This deal would help China to minimize this growing interest driven influence of USA in Central Asia. Iran is having share in an important Caspian Sea where USA’s logistics navigate from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan to reach Afghanistan. This deal, if reaches to its full potential would be helpful to poses any kind of serious threat to USA logistic. It would be highly in favor of Iran as well as China. This presence of China in Caspian region via Iran would make American access to the region difficult.

This deal would not only give access to China to reach the energy resources of Caspian region, but also would be a balancing factor to USA clout in the region. This would also complement CPEC project as it would give additional rout to China to reach Middle East which could help her to escape Malacca dilemma. Also, China would get undisruptive oil from Iran which would be a factor to escape any potential threat from oil embargo form USA and other regional powers. Also, this deal would be an important addition to the One Belt One Road initiative of China which aimed to connect different regions.

This deal has a long-term impact on the politics of Asian region especially Central and West Asia (Middle East). It gives China access to important strait that are important in terms of trade. China will have access to Iranian seaport especially in Caspian Sea, strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf. Iran being on the junction of West Asia (Middle East) and Central Asia, provides a decisive role to China in the politics of both energy rich portions of the world.

Through Iran, China will have an important role in energy politics of Central Asia. The enemy of my enemy is my friend would be a point of leverage to China here. Iran and China shared common antagonistic sentiments regarding USA and consider her common enemy which other Central Asia Republic sharing border with China don’t. Therefore, China would get better access to the region via Iran than Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with which China shared border.

And also, Iran have conflict with Central Asia republics over the issue of Caspian Sea, where Iran strived to declare it lake and get 20 per cent of the share in the resources. Of course, having China by its side which is an important member of UN having Veto power in the assembly would add some steel in the neck of Iran against other states.

China and Iran, through this deal have plan for joint military exercise and intelligence sharing. European intelligence report says that around 5k Chinese troops would be deployed in Tehran to protect Chinese interests and investments. The deal stretching from Caspian to Indian ocean is a break-through that strengthen Chinese position. It has sparked turbulence in the Europe also because Chinese presence in the Caspian region via Iran would be another major hurdle after Russia to their Trans-Caspian pipeline project. It also strengthens Chinese to withstand any kind of blockade in sea-lines. Having an ally at the heart of Middle East and in the gateway of Central Asia would be exhausting for America and its allies in the region.

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