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Hezbollah’s Plans for Lebanon

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Hezbollah first became known to the Lebanese public in 1985 with its now-famous open letter, whose introductory statement read: “We are the sons of the umma (Muslim community)—of the party of God (Hezbollah), the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran. … We obey the orders of one leader… that of our tutor and faqih [i.e., Ayatollah Khomeini]

.”[1] A year later Hassan Nasrallah, then an officer associated with the party’s consultative council and now its supreme leader, made the organization’s overall goals and strategy unmistakably clear: “We are incapable at the present time of installing the rule of Islam, but this does not mean postponing our ideology and project … We must work hard to achieve our goal, and the most important means of doing so is to transform Lebanon into a society of war.

 

It has been argued that Hezbollah’s 2009 manifesto, which revised the open letter, underscored the organization’s diminishing revolutionary zeal and growing acceptance of Lebanon’s permanence.[3] Yet a careful reading of the manifesto shows it to be merely playing with words, recognizing Lebanon as “our homeland” but not as a legitimate nation state.[4] Indeed, far from being in a “continuous process of identity construction,”[5] Hezbollah has striven during the past few years to overcome its limitations and promote its ultimate goal of transforming Lebanon into an Islamic state modeled after Iran’s wilayat al-faqih (the guardianship of the jurist).

 

Undermining the Lebanese State

 

Hezbollah needed physical space to spread its propagandizing mission and to carve out a constituency in the hearts of Lebanon’s Shiites. Even before the party’s official formation, proto-Hezbollah militants clashed with the police in the southern suburbs of Beirut. They seized on President Amin Gemayel’s (1982-88) attempt to clamp down on Muslim militias and restore state authority as evidence of his hostility to Muslims in general (and Shiites in particular) and transformed themselves from an innocuous movement committed to religious guidance and education into a full-fledged politico-military party.[6]

 

It was not particularly difficult for Hezbollah to undermine the role of the state in Shiite areas like Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley. Shiite quarters were poverty-stricken, and in northern Bekaa, the birthplace of Hezbollah, the state was virtually nonexistent. Thanks to generous Iranian contributions, Hezbollah took it upon itself to provide its impoverished constituency with basic services, such as water and sanitation, usually provided by a state. It successfully traded services for loyalty and proceeded to its next objective of becoming the sole Shiite hegemon.

 

Controlling the Shiites

 

Efforts to organize the Lebanese Shiites into a political movement of their own began to take shape in 1974 when Imam Musa Sadr, an Iranian cleric of Lebanese origin, ushered in political Shiism and founded the Movement of the Dispossessed. The movement soon built up a militia and, a year later, acquired a new name, the Amal (Hope) movement. Sadr’s success in rallying coreligionists behind him had much to do with his determination to place the impoverished Shiites on Lebanon’s political map and bring an end to the condescending treatment they received from other sects, as well as the Sunni preference for keeping them powerless.[7]

 

From its beginnings, the Amal movement opted to play by the rules of Lebanese confessional politics—provided the Shiites were no longer overshadowed by Sunnis—and was prepared to this extent to collaborate with the Maronite establishment.[8] Yet the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon after its 1970 eviction from Jordan interfered with Sadr’s plans to transform Shiites into a major actor in Lebanese politics. The imam disliked the presence of armed Palestinians in southern Lebanon but carefully avoided clashing with the PLO since it was politically incorrect for Muslim politicians to deny the organization’s right to fight Israel. At the same time, Sadr forged an excellent working relationship with the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad.

 

Sadr’s mysterious disappearance in Libya in 1978 and the success of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran less than a year later had a dramatic effect on Lebanon’s Shiites. Thanks to the size of the Shiite community and the country’s joint border with Israel, Lebanon featured prominently in Khomeini’s efforts to export his Islamic revolution.

 

Nabih Berri, who took charge of Amal in 1980, explicitly positioned it against the Palestinians and tried to challenge them militarily. His ideological laxity and political utilitarianism eventually eroded the movement and “plagued it with moral degradation.”[9] Since Amal did not present itself as a sufficiently credible ally, it became incumbent upon Khomeini to create a new politico-military group for his purposes. Tehran at the time wanted to respond to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) support for Baghdad in its war against Iran by creating an ideological base of support within an Arab country. As time went on, its local agency in Lebanon had grown strong enough to establish for itself a niche in the Shiite community. It soon targeted the Shiite Left and eliminated its prominent activists and ideologues, such as Hassan Bazzuni, a member of the central committee of the Political Action Organization, the communist thinker Hussein Mrouei, and academician Hassan Hamdan (aka Mahdi Amel), through assassination.[10]

 

After decimating the Shiite Left, Hezbollah turned its attention to fighting the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and its local surrogate, the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA), before taking on Amal and driving it out of Beirut’s southern suburbs, a task completed by 1988. A year later, Hezbollah resumed its offensive against Amal in those parts of southern Lebanon outside the control of the IDF and the SLA. The Iranians and Syrians intervened to normalize relations between the two Shiite forces and established a new balance of power that recognized Hezbollah’s preeminence.

 

Upon Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah shifted its main emphasis to consolidating its grip on the Lebanese political system and completing the construction of its own ideal society.[11] The outcome of this process was the creation of a distinct Hezbollah community that looked to Iran for inspiration and directives.

 

Monopolizing the Fight against Israel

 

In tandem with its effort to gain control of Lebanese Shiites, Hezbollah moved to monopolize the fight against Israel, which had begun in 1982 as the objective of the largely secular National Resistance Front (NRF). Those religious groups that had merged to create Hezbollah in 1985 did not initially participate in the low-grade anti-Israel guerrilla warfare that was at first led by Lebanese communists, members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and remnants of the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But by 1987, Hezbollah had taken control of the access routes to the Israeli-established security belt in southern Lebanon, which effectively rendered the NRF useless and led to its disbanding. Hezbollah also introduced its own military wing, the Islamic Resistance. It banned any group from launching independent operations and stipulated that all fight under its flag and name.

 

Hezbollah soon introduced its own reductionist definition for patriotism; terms such as “the liberation of Shib’a Farms and Kfar Shuba Hills,” “Hezbollah’s deterrent military capability,” and the “sanctity of the triumphant resistance” became nonnegotiable precepts of the Lebanese political parlance.[12] Questioning the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s military wing and its arsenal became synonymous with “conspiracy against the resistance, collusion with Zionism and U.S. imperialism.”[13]

 

Finding a Non-Ideological Maronite Partner

 

In Lebanon’s confessional politics, it is a must for any political group representing a major sect to affiliate with a counterpart from another major sect in order to navigate the turbulence of the political system. Shortly after the conclusion of the 1989 Ta’if agreement, which ended the decades-long Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah came to realize it needed to “to portray itself as a principal promoter of Muslim-Christian coexistence … through multi-confessional representation.”[14] Unable to identify with the Lebanese Force or the Phalange, whose ardent nationalistic ideologies clashed with its universalistic Shiite aspirations, Hezbollah eventually found a partner in the Christian former Lebanese Army commander, Michel Aoun, who was said to nurse a grudge against fellow Maronite politicians for denying him the presidency in 1988. After fifteen years of exile in France, he returned to Lebanon in 2005 and took up the reins of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) which he had led in absentia. In accordance with the logic of Lebanon’s confessional politics, FPM and Hezbollah needed each other, and, in 2006, they signed a memorandum of understanding that enabled them to pursue their distinct interests under the guise of unity.

 

Marginalizing the Sunnis

 

Before turning against the Sunni political and security establishments, Hezbollah needed to eliminate independent-minded and outspoken Sunni clerics because of their ability to frame religious identity through politics. This context helps to explain the 1982 assassination of the director of the Union of Islamic Associations and Institutions in Lebanon, Sheikh Ahmad Assaf; the head of the Supreme Islamic Shari’a Council, Sheikh Subhi as-Salih, in 1986, and the grand Sunni Sheikh Hassan Khalid in 1989. Assaf possessed strong organizational capabilities and displayed a powerful sense of communal identity whereas Salih had challenged the Twelver Shiite imamate and the wilayat al-faqih concepts, both of which under-girded Hezbollah’s ideology. Sheikh Khalid’s crime was to attempt to convince the GCC countries to lead a new Arab deterrent force to free Lebanon from the Syrian stranglehold. This was completely unacceptable to Hezbollah whose prospects of achieving success hinged on excluding GCC influence and relying on Damascus.[15]

 

The 1989 Ta’if agreement ensured that pro-Syrian Shiites and Maronites would control the country’s political, security, and judicial apparatus.[16] But the return to Lebanon of Sunni business tycoon Rafiq Hariri from Saudi Arabia shortly thereafter upset the political balance that Hezbollah had sought in its favor. In 1992, a majority of parliamentary deputies designated Hariri their favorite candidate for the office of prime minister. His meteoric rise to power threatened Hezbollah’s efforts to dominate the Lebanese political scene, especially since he received the unconditional backing of Saudi Arabia and the West.

 

Hezbollah concluded that Hariri represented a threat to be eliminated, a view shared by Tehran and its Syrian henchman, Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad. Hariri’s influence was unacceptable and contradicted the pattern of fading Sunni power in the region, and thus he was assassinated in 2005. In June 2011, the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) indicted four Lebanese suspects linked to Hezbollah in connection with the assassination. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has categorically refused to turn them in because “the STL is an American-Israeli tribunal, and the four indictees are our brothers in resistance who have an honorable record.”[17] The Hariri assassination brought to an end his project of reconstructing postwar Lebanon along political and economic lines that favored Saudi Arabia and the West. Thus, a formidable hurdle was removed from the path of Hezbollah’s designs for Lebanon.

 

Saad Hariri, Rafiq’s son and political heir, lacked the acumen and foresight to continue his late father’s policies, let alone keep Hezbollah in check. The key to Hezbollah’s getting away with the assassination required dismantling Hariri’s private intelligence outfit, the information section of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF). Hariri wanted to take advantage of the tradition that enabled Sunnis to lead the ISF and to attach an intelligence component to it to counter control of the Deuxieme Bureau (military intelligence) by Shiites and their Maronite allies.

 

Instead, Hezbollah began a new reign of terror. In 2006, Samer Shihada, an investigator into the Hariri assassination, was the victim of an attack that killed four of his security guards and convinced him to emigrate from Lebanon. In 2008, Wisam Eid, a captain in the information section of the ISF, was murdered in an explosion linked to his investigation of the mobile communications used by the hit team that assassinated Hariri. Eid’s innovative investigative techniques had alarmed Hezbollah officials, who told him “that some of the phones he was chasing were being used by Hezbollah agents conducting a counterespionage operation against Israel’s Mossad spy agency and that he needed to back off.”[18] In 2012, a major explosion in east Beirut killed the chief of the information section, Wisam Hassan, only a few hours after his return to Lebanon from a foreign trip. The identity of Hassan’s assassins has not been established, but the fact that Hezbollah completely controls security in Beirut’s international airport casts suspicion as to who might have committed the act. Hassan’s elimination from the scene ended once and for all the security challenge that the information section had presented to Hezbollah.

 

Hezbollah also used proxies to embroil its Sunni opponents in debilitating scandals. For this, the group prefers to use pawns such as Fayez Shukr, secretary general of the Lebanese Baath Party, and Wi’am Wahhab, chief of the minuscule at-Tawhid Druze party, and especially the pages of al-Akhbar, Iran’s mouthpiece newspaper in Lebanon.

 

During the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, al-Akhbar made its debut, coinciding with Hezbollah’s charge that Saad Hariri’s Future Trend (FT) party and Saudi Arabia were colluding with the U.S. and Israeli governments to destroy the group. In 2010, the newspaper fabricated charges against Tariq al-Rab’a, head of the administrative planning department for mobile phone operator Alfa, thereby playing a decisive role in his arrest by military intelligence on suspicion of communicating with the Mossad and giving the Israelis access to the Lebanese mobile network.[19] The arrest of Rab’a, a Sunni from Beirut’s Tariq al-Jadida neighborhood, bastion of Hariri’s political support, occurred with the help of partisans of Hezbollah’s Maronite ally Aoun, who have taken charge of the Ministry of Telecommunications and Alfa Mobile and framed a case against Rab’a.[20]

 

More recently, al-Akhbar has sought to implicate Hariri’s Future Trend in the arming of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting Bashar al-Assad. It featured on its front page the transcript of an alleged conversation between a member of Hariri’s parliamentary bloc and a representative of the FSA requesting arms.[21] While the FT may actually be acting as a liaison between the FSA and arms providers, the newspaper simultaneously ignored Hezbollah’s role in fighting alongside the Assad regime’s forces.

 

Conclusion

 

As a totalitarian political party, Hezbollah cannot survive without a military component and will not accept anything less than full control of the Lebanese political system. The problem of Hezbollah, which possesses the premier military force in Lebanon, is its inherent incapability to transform itself into a genuine domestic political force in fear that “its legitimacy [would] become equal to ordinary political groups that accept the rules of accommodation.”[22] This in turn means that Hezbollah has not abandoned its goal of creating an Islamic state of Lebanon.

 

Hezbollah has indeed gone a long way to achieving its objective of controlling Lebanon since its humble 1985 beginnings. It dominates the country’s domestic and foreign policy[23] and operates a military machine superior to the national army.[24] It has the final say on making governmental, administrative, and judicial appointments, and its interaction with Lebanese political groups has shown that it has no intention of truly assimilating into Lebanese political practices, not least since its Islamist Shiite orientation precludes its ability for a meaningful dialogue (as opposed to tactical alliances) with the Sunnis. Moreover, the Iranian paradigm of wilayat al-faqih, to which Hezbollah subscribes, baffles many critical-minded Shiites.[25] Not surprisingly, Ahmad al-Asaad, leader of the fledgling Shiite party, the Lebanese New Option Gathering, believes that “we must get rid of Hezbollah in order to build a viable state.”[26]

 

The winds of change are transforming the Middle East and are bound to leave their mark on the course of events in Lebanon. Syria’s uprising is unlikely to bring democracy to the war-torn country, but it will almost certainly alter the existing balance of power in Lebanon. The specter of a Sunni resurgence in Syria is already haunting Hezbollah in Lebanon.

 

Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

 

[1]An Open Letter, The Hezbollah Program,” as-Safir (Beirut), Feb. 16, 1985.
[2] Ibid., Apr. 12, 1986.
[3] Joseph Alagha, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011), p. 33.
[4] “Hezbollah Manifesto,” Moqawama.org, Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, Nov. 30, 2009.
[5] Alagha, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction, p. 22.
[6] As-Siyasa (Kuwait City), Aug. 1, 2011.
[7] Akif Haydar, al-Ashia Biasma’iha: Min Ajl Lubnan Afdal (Beirut: Sharikat al-Matbu’at li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawzi, 1995), p. 51.
[8] Khalil Ahmad Khalil, Naqd at-Tadlil al-Aqli: Shi’iat Lubnan wa-l-Alam al-Arabi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasa al-Arabiyya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 2001), p. 59.
[9] Haydar, al-Ashia Biasma’iha, p. 66.
[10] Waddah Sharara, Dawlat Hezbollah: Lubnan Mujtama’an Islamiyyan (Beirut: Dar an-Nahar, 1997), pp. 160-220.
[11] Hilal Khashan and Ibrahim Mousawi, “Hizbullah’s Jihad Concept,” Journal of Religion and Society, vol. 9, 2007, pp. 25-6.
[12] Nadia Aylabuni, “Niqat Muthira fi an-Niqash hawla Hezbollah,” in Ahmad Abu Matar, ed., Hezbollah: al-Wajh al-Akhar (Amman: Dar al-Karmil, 2008), p. 58.
[13] Sheikh Muhammad Yazbek, Ayatollah Khamene’i’s representative in Lebanon, sermon, accessed Dec. 28, 2012.
[14] Alagha, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction, p. 41.
[15] Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abidin, Ightial al-Hariri wa Tada’iyatih ala Ahl as-Sunna fi Lubnan (London: Dar al-Jabiya, 2007), p. 22.
[16] Ibid., p. 36.
[17] Al-Manar TV (Beirut), July 2, 2011.
[18] Naharnet News Website (Beirut), Nov. 23, 2010.
[19] Al-Akhbar (Beirut), Dec. 13, 2010.
[20] Ibid., May 15, 2012.
[21] Ibid., Nov. 29, 2012.
[22] Turki al-Hamad and Maza Yurid al-Sayyid, “Hassan Nasrallah wa Hezbollah?” in Ahmad Abu Matar, ed., Hezbollah: al-Wajh al-Akhar (Amman: Dar al-Karmil, 2008), p. 52.
[23] Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, “Disarming Hezbollah,” Foreign Affairs, Jan. 11, 2010; “Hezbollah Dominates Lebanese Government,” The Jewish Policy Center, Washington, D.C., June 15, 2011; “Hezbollah,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2012.
[24]Hezbollah,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2012.
[25] See Adel Hashemi Najafabadi, “Imamate and Leadership: The Case of the Shi’a Fundamentalist in Modern Iran,” Canadian Social Science, no. 6, 2010, pp. 192-205; Ahmad al-Katib, at-Tashayu as-Siyasi wa-t-Tashayu al-Dini (Beirut: Mu’asasat al-Intishar al-‘Arabi, 2009), p. 118.
[26] As-Siyasa, May 4, 2009.

 

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Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Foreign intervention in Libya

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on

Since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Tripoli has transformed into an appalling sight of consistent injustice, rising fundamentalism and morbid law and order situation. Amidst the whirlwind of fractured institutions and failed socio political system in Libya, foreign countries have also found a suitable battleground for fighting their proxy wars. Currently, there are two governments operating in libya, each claiming to reflect the genuine mandate of Libyan people. The United Nations backed government of National Accord, under the leadership of President Fayaz al serraj is being supported by Turkey, Qatar, Italy and publically by all western democracies. Whereas, a shadow government, is being maneuvered from the eastern city of Tobruk. It enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2012, less than a year after NATO intervention, Libyans turned to polls, in the pursuit of voting for an efficient leadership. As a result of elections, the General National Congress or GNC came into power. It was tasked with devising a constitution within the next eighteen months. Despite, it’s full capacity, the government failed to deliver on time due to evident disorganization and post-gaddafi mayhem, which was still at large. However, Libyans again went to vote in 2014, electing a House of Representatives or HoR in power, this time. These elections were repudiated and their result was declared illegitimate by GNC, on the claims of low voter turnout and series of violence which engulfed the entire electoral process, across the country. Rejection to form government, forced HoR to flee Tripoli and establish itself in Tobruk, where they aligned themselves, with Libya’s strong man, commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Forces.

Haftar had remained a part of Libya’s political arena for as long as Muammar Gaddafi had, he joined the military in 1961 and served in its ranks until, the Chad misadventure of 1987, which not only made him fall out with Gaddafi, but also enforced him into exile in the United States. Nonetheless, Haftar returned to Libya after the war and started rebuilding his former network of loyalists who worked with him decades ago, and ended up establishing the Libyan National Forces. His forces launched “Operation Dignity”[1]in 2014, with the official intentions of relieving Libya from local militias, radical nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

Amidst the chaos of political deterioration and significant power vacuum, foreign countries started to manipulate the Libyan crisis for their own interests. Turkey is a regional player, and is severely concerned about their maritime trade route. For, being surrounded by hostile neighbors, Turkey finds it hard to trade through any other channel smoothly, except Mediterranean which it shares with Libya. Thus, it is actively vouching for a friendly government in Tripoli. Turkey’s parliament has recently passed the controversial law that has permitted the deployment of Turkish troops on Libyan soil, in order to support al Serraj’s government. Meanwhile, states like Italy and France are  interested in Libya’s oil resources, and are also supporting respective governments as per their interests. International oil companies such as Italian Eni, French Total and Russian Taftnet, along with British Petroleum are on and off, getting exploration and management contracts to tap oil resources, with the Libyan National oil corporation. Where Russian mercenaries are fighting on ground with Haftar’s forces, France has also provided covert logistical support to his forces, each interested in their own share of resources.

Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates, Cairo and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are eagerly backing Haftar’s LNA for the sake of preventing another wave of Arab spring, to reach their borders. UAE has conducted airstrikes on Benghazi in 2014, from an Egyptian base in Libya, in order to support Haftar’s operation Dignity. They have also recently established their own base in eastern province of Al-Khadir, to support further LNA’s advances. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also pledged it support to Haftar under the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. As, just before Haftar’s Tripoli offensive,  Riyadh promised him millions to buy tribal leader’s loyalties and to financially support the fighters in LNA.

Another reason behind Arab countries ardent sponsorship is, the question of muslim brotherhood. LNA has vowed to eliminate all the elements of religious extremism, including the muslim brotherhood. Cairo, UAE and KSA are known for their crack down on the brotherhood, while Turkey and Qatar are assumed to support the political activities of organization. Such difference in approaches has also led these countries into a state of perennial proxy war with each other.  

Recent Moscow talks and Berlin conference, in the beginning of this year, has indeed provided an opportunity for all the parties in conflict to come on the negotiating table, and draw out strategies for adherently following the Libyan arms embargo of 2011, for effective ceasefire. Yet, without a proper policy in place, which can prevent foreign interventions in Libyan domestic crisis. It will create a potential environment for Tripoli to transcend into a turmoil similar to Syria and Yemen. War in Libya, has already incited an endless cycle of unnecessary fighting, uncountable deaths and a vicious void of ills like; human trafficking and smuggling. From, exponential worth of 53.2 billion dollars in 2012 to 4.6 billion dollars in 2016, Libya’s natural revenues have shrunken conspicuously over the last decade. In addition to that, with global coronavirus pandemic still out and loose, conflicts like one in Libya have a higher potential of turning into a major confrontation. It’s a textbook example of how precarious the situation might get, if not taken sensibly, by international community.


[1] Anderson, Jon Lee. “The unravelling.” The New Yorker 23 (2015).

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