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Middle East

Seven Pillars of Fiction

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The modern Middle East was born when the European powers exploited the declining Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War I to gobble up its lands.

They did so by duping naive Arab nationalists to rise against their Ottoman suzerain and then cheated the Arabs of the fruits of their uprising.
So goes the popular narrative about the origins of the region’s troubles. It’s an emotionally gripping tale, but it’s also the inverse of truth. It wasn’t British officials but a Meccan potentate, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family, who in the summer of 1915 hatched the idea of overthrowing the Ottoman Empire. Impressed by Hussein’s promises to raise the Ottomans’ Arab subjects in revolt, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, tentatively accepted Hussein’s vision of an Arab successor empire and facilitated the revolt that began in June 1916.
Hussein never came close to fulfilling his end of the bargain. Most of the Arabic-speaking population remained loyal to the Turks until the bitter end, viewing the Hashemite insurrection with disdain. Even in his hometown of Mecca the sharif didn’t command absolute loyalty. Had he not been armed and fed by Britain (and, to a lesser extent, France) and provided with troops, military guidance and lavish shipments of gold to buy Bedouin loyalty, Hussein would have never been able to launch his uprising, let alone sustain it.
This act of insubordination in a secondary theater of the Great War played a negligible part in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Yet it was instantly immortalized as the “Great Arab Revolt,” winning the Hashemites territories several times the size of the British Isles after the war: The emirate of Transjordan (later to be known as the Kingdom of Jordan) was established in 1921 to satisfy the ambitions of Hussein’s second son, Abdullah, while in the same year the modern state of Iraq was created at the instigation of Abdullah’s younger brother Faisal. Hussein himself became king of the Hijaz, Islam’s birthplace, only to be evicted a few years later by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founding father of Saudi Arabia.
It was a young British participant, Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), who single-handedly produced this extraordinary feat of historical deception. Though aware that the revolt was but “a sideshow of a sideshow,” as he wrote in his cleverly titled 1922 memoir, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph,” Lawrence had no qualms about mythologizing it in grand style. In the process he catapulted himself to fame as “Lawrence of Arabia” and became perhaps the first mega-celebrity of modern times. His legend was amplified by generations of acolytes, including Lowell Thomas, whose “The Last Crusade” lectures about Lawrence played to full houses in New York and London in 1919; the British director David Lean, who gave us the Oscar-winning 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia”; and a lengthy string of fawning biographers.
The illegitimate son of a disgraced Anglo-Irish aristocrat and his children’s governess, Lawrence studied archaeology at Oxford and spent the prewar years working on digs in Syria and Palestine. When the Ottomans made their catastrophic decision to enter World War I on the side of the Triple Alliance in November 1914, Lawrence was recruited to a new intelligence unit in Cairo, the headquarters of Britain’s war effort in the Middle East. Two years later, in October 1916, he accompanied a senior British official to the Hijaz to inspect the state of the Hashemite insurrection that had begun a few months earlier. Staying behind to report on the situation, he endeared himself to Faisal, and the road from there to his creation of the myth of the revolt was short.
How did an archaeologist with no military education successfully brand himself a world authority on guerrilla warfare with considerable impact on the future shape of the Middle East? The answer offered by Scott Anderson’s beautifully crafted but ultimately flawed account of the desert revolt is that “Lawrence was able to become ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ because no one was paying much attention.” As Lawrence’s superiors saw it, the author says, permitting a daring young operator to lead the Arabs in distracting the Turks from the much bloodier and consequential European front was a low-cost, high-return investment.
The problem with this theory is that London did actually commit massive resources and serious efforts to the Middle East during the war. These ranged from the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landing, to the tortuous but successful Mesopotamian campaign (1915-16), to the conquest of the Levant (1917-18) by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force headed by Gen. Edmund Allenby. By the time fighting came to an end in 1918, no fewer than one million British and Commonwealth troops had been deployed in the region—hardly a reflection of “the low regard with which British war strategists viewed events in the Middle East,” as Mr. Anderson claims.
The Hashemite uprising was indeed a minor sideshow in the grand order of things, yet it was never the free-ranging operation suggested by the author. Rather it was an integral part of the Anglo-French war effort—Paris sent a military mission to the revolt commanded by a colonel—that was led by a string of seasoned officers, such as Col. Cyril Wilson and Lt. Col. Pierce Joyce, but never by Lawrence. As Lawrence himself put it, “I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them. Wilson, Joyce, Newcombe, Dawnay and Davenport were all over my head.”
Mr. Anderson recounts Lawrence’s life in chronological fashion, drawing on some contemporary sources, official correspondence and the like. Yet he is too willing to take his subject at his word, even as he acknowledges that “earlier than most, Lawrence seemed to embrace the modern concept that history was malleable, that truth was what people were willing to believe.”
To substantiate Lawrence’s largely fictionalized version of his exploits, Mr. Anderson juxtaposes them with those of three contemporaries, freelancers who the author thinks lived parallel lives to Lawrence’s. Throughout the book, the stories of these other men are interwoven with the central narrative concerning Lawrence: William Yale, a young oil man “who, as the only American field intelligence officer in the Middle East during World War I, would strongly influence his nation’s postwar policy in the region”; Curt Prüfer, a German antiquities scholar “who, donning the camouflage of Arab robes, would seek to foment an Islamic jihad against the Western colonial powers”; and Aaron Aaronsohn, “a Jewish scientist who, under the cover of working for the Ottoman government, would establish an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring and play a crucial role in creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”
Putting a human face on historical events is an appealing technique that makes “Lawrence in Arabia” a gripping read. Yet eloquence and color can’t authenticate a flawed historical argument. Prüfer is little more than a curiosity, notable only for his future Nazi sympathies. Yale was in no position to affect the outcome of a war that his country joined at the 12th hour and even then took no part in the Middle Eastern fighting. Yale’s minor advisory role at the postwar Paris conference made no difference whatsoever and, as Mr. Anderson writes, he “resigned from the American peace delegation in disgust and sailed back to New York.” As for Aaronsohn, he did indeed provide vital intelligence that facilitated Allenby’s rout of the Ottoman armies in Palestine, but he played no “crucial role” in the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. If anything, the exposure of his spy ring in autumn 1917 triggered a draconian Turkish retribution, with the Levant’s Ottoman master, Djemal Pasha, warning Zionist leaders that should the Turks be driven out of Palestine, there would be no surviving Jews to welcome the British forces.
Lawrence did indeed have a considerable impact on the creation of the modern Middle East, but this had nothing to do with his real war record. The revolt had been a complete fiasco. For all the British and French efforts, the Bedouins remained hopelessly immune to any concept of orderly warfare. They would break for coffee in the middle of the fighting and drop off occasionally to see their families; often a whole clan would tire of fighting and take a rest. They would attack small and lightly armed Turkish garrisons but would disperse in panic when confronted with a significant force, or even upon hearing artillery. Small wonder that they failed to vanquish the debilitated Ottoman forces in the Hijaz, with the strategic (and holy) city of Medina holding out to the end of the war. It was only in July 1917, more than a year after the start of the revolt, that the rebels managed to overcome the meager Ottoman resistance and capture the small port town of Aqaba, in the extreme northwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Their subsequent advances, which would carry them to Damascus at the war’s end, were but a corollary of Allenby’s Palestine offensive, and even these were achieved by the semiregular forces built by the British from among the prisoners of war shipped to Arabia.
How Lawrence managed to pass off this sordid power-grab by a local potentate as a heroic national revolt against an imperial oppressor Mr. Anderson doesn’t tell. He describes Lawrence as a “painfully shy” and “supremely private and hidden man” with a “craving for anonymity.” But painfully shy men, especially in the lowest rungs of strict, disciplinarian hierarchies like the military, don’t treat their superiors as equal or engage in high-level political machinations, let alone make their inner feelings known to the entire world via international best sellers—egomaniacs and compulsive attention-seekers do.
Lawrence was an exceptionally gifted charlatan with a keen eye to networking and self-promotion, who successfully cast his spell on far more senior and accomplished contemporaries, such as Allenby and Winston Churchill, who in his capacity as colonial secretary put the final touches to the post-Ottoman state system. As Lawrence admitted, tongue in cheek, in a rare moment of candor in “Seven Pillars”: “My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy.”

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UAE and the opportunity for an India-Pakistan “sporting war”

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The Dubai Cricket Council chief, Abdul Rahman Falaknaz recently said that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was willing to host a bilateral India-Pakistan cricket series, provided both countries agreed. Said Falaknaz:

 ‘The best thing would be to get India-Pakistan matches here. When Sharjah used to host India and Pakistan all those years ago, it was like a war. But it was a good war, it was a sporting war and it was fantastic’

UAE along with Oman had hosted the recent ICC (International Cricket Council) Men’s T20 World cup (won by Australia). The second half of the Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 2021 was also played in UAE (both the World cup and the second half of the IPL had to be shifted from India, because of the Covid19 pandemic). One of the most exciting matches in the Men’s T20 World Cup was the India-Pakistan clash on October 26, 2021 played at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. In spite of political relations between both countries being strained, the match was played in a cordial atmosphere. Pakistan one the contest by 10 wickets, and it was for the first time that it had beaten India in a World Cup match.

While scores and statistics relating to the match will remain only on paper, the image of Indian Captain Virat Kohli hugging Pakistani batsman Mohammad Rizwan after the match, in a wonderful display of sportsmanship, will be etched in the minds not just of cricket fans, but countless Indians and Pakistanis who yearn for normalisation of ties between both countries. The Indian captain did draw criticism on social media from trolls, but his gesture was also lauded by many cricketing fans in India.

India and Pakistan have not played any bilateral series, since 2013 ever since bilateral tensions have risen but have been playing each other in international tournaments. Significantly, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Sharjah was an important cricketing venue, which was witness to many gripping ODI cricket contests between India and Pakistan. After match fixing controversies in 2000, India stopped playing in Sharjah and as a result for some time, UAE’s importance as a cricketing venue declined significantly.

Ever since 2009 Abu Dhabi and Dubai have emerged as important cricketing centres, since Pakistan has been playing most of its home series (Tests and One Day Internationals) in UAE (after a terrorist attack on a Sri Lankan team bus in 2009, most countries have been reluctant to play cricket in Pakistan, though Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and West Indies have visited Pakistan)

Possibility of a cricket series in UAE

While it is always tough to hazard a guess with regard to India-Pakistan relations, there have been some positive developments in recent weeks; the re-opening of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor after 20 months, and Pakistan’s decision to allow a consignment of 50,000 tonnes of wheat and life saving drugs  from India for Afghanistan, to transit through its territory (the Pakistan government stated that it had made this exception, because this consignment was for humanitarian purposes). While there have been calls to revive people to people and trade linkages between both countries, especially between both Punjabs, playing a cricket series either in India and Pakistan seems unlikely at least in the imminent future.

The UAE as a neutral venue, for a bilateral series, has a number of advantages, which include not just the fact, that it is home to a large South Asian expat population (a large percentage of which consists of cricket enthusiasts), but also that matches would be played in a more relaxed atmosphere, with lesser pressure on players from both countries. UAE, an economic hub which has become increasingly cosmopolitan in recent years, has also been trying to promote local cricket and generate interest in the game amongst locals (other GCC countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia have also been trying to do the same, but UAE possesses a number of advantages vis-à-vis these countries). Hosting an India-Pakistan series will benefit the country immensely. Apart from this, if the UAE is able to convince both countries to play a cricketing series, it will also enhance not its diplomatic stock (it would be pertinent to point out, that UAE is supposed to have been one of the countries which played a part in the ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan — across the Line of Control/LOC earlier this year).

  In conclusion, the revival of cricketing ties between India and Pakistan is no mean task, but it would be easier on a neutral territory like UAE, which also has a substantial South Asian expat population interested in cricket. Not only will hosting a bilateral series between India and Pakistan, help the UAE in achieving its objective of emerging as an important cricketing hub for South Asia, and enhance the country’s soft power considerably, but it will also be a big achievement in diplomatic terms. Soft power, including cricket has been one of the important components in the links between UAE and South Asia in the past, it remains to be seen if in the future, the role of soft power, via cricket, becomes more crucial in linkages between UAE-South Asia.

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Turkey’s Foreign Policy Balancing Act

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It is often claimed that Turkey made a definitive break with the West in the 2000s after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The argument is that by changing direction internally, Ankara turned away from what the West was hoping to achieve in terms of its relations with Turkey.

Since 2003, Turkey has indeed increased its influence in all the geopolitically important regions on its borders: the Black Sea, the South Caucasus, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and Syria-Iraq. A general concept explaining this development can be found by looking at the map. There is no single great power in Turkey’s neighborhood which opens the door for greater Turkish economic and military engagement along its borders. Even Russia, arguably the biggest power near Turkey, could not prevent Ankara from giving its decisive support to Azerbaijan during the recent Second Karabakh War. Turkish troops, albeit a limited number, are now stationed on Azerbaijani soil alongside Russian.

The real reason for Turkey’s increasing engagement remains the Soviet collapse, though that engagement occurred over a longer period than many analysts expected. It took decades for Turkey to build its regional position. In 2021, it can safely be argued that Ankara has made a success of this venture. It is close to having a direct land corridor to the Caspian Sea (through Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan) and increases its military posture in the Mediterranean, and views northern Syria and Iraq as territories that can potentially provide strategic depth for an Anatolian defense.

A revealing element in Ankara’s foreign policy is that geography still commands the country’s perception of itself and its place in the world, perhaps more so than for any other large country. Rather than being attached solely to the Western axis, over the past two decades, Turkey has pursued a multi-vector approach to foreign affairs.

The country is on the European periphery. Its experience is similar to Russia’s in that both have absorbed extensive western influence, whether in institutions, foreign policy, or culture. Both have been anchored for centuries on the geopolitics of the European continent. Because a multi-vector foreign policy model provides more room for maneuver, economic gains, and growth of geopolitical power, both countries wanted to break free of their single-axis approach to foreign policy.

But neither Turkey nor Russia has had an opportunity to break its dependence on the West entirely. The West has simply been too powerful. The world economy revolved solely around the European continent and the US.

Turkey and Russia have significant territories deep in Asia and the Middle East, as well as geopolitical schools of thought that consider Europe-oriented geopolitical thinking contrary to state interests, particularly as the collective West has never considered either Turkey or Russia to be fully European. The two states have always pursued alternate geopolitical anchors, but had difficulty implementing them. No Asian, African, or any other geopolitical pole has proven sufficient to enable either Turkey or Russia to balance their ties with the West.

No wonder, then, that over the past two decades Turkey has been actively searching for new geopolitical axes. For Ankara, close relations with Russia is a means to balance its historical dependence on European geopolitics. The same foreign policy model can explain Moscow’s geopolitical thinking since the late 2000s, when its ties with Asian states developed quickly as an alternative to a dependence on, and attachment to, Western geopolitics.

Thus we come to the first misconception of Turkish foreign policy: that Ankara is distancing itself from the West with the aim of eventually breaking those ties entirely. Breaking off relations with NATO is not an option for Turkey. Its goal is to balance its deep ties with the West, which for various reasons were no longer producing the benefits it was hoping for, with a more active policy in other regions. Hence Turkey’s resurgence in the Middle East.

Turkey’s Middle East pivot (championed by former FM Ahmet Davutoglu) is not an exceptional development in the country’s foreign policy. During the Cold War, when Turkey’s focus on the Western axis was strong, leftist PM Bulent Ecevit promoted the idea of a “region-centric” foreign policy. The main takeaway was that Ankara should pursue diversification of external affairs beyond its traditional Western fixation, meaning deeper involvement in the Middle East and the Balkans. In 1974-1975, then Turkish deputy PM Necmettin Erbakan tried to pivot Ankara toward the Arab world. There were even attempts to build closer ties with the Soviets.

But throughout this period of reorientation, no move was ever made to sever relations with the West. Turkish politicians at the time believed diversification of foreign ties would benefit the country’s position at the periphery of Europe overlooking the volatile Middle East. The diversification would not hurt the country’s Western axis but would in fact complement it.

Contrary to the belief that Atatürk was solely interested in Turkey’s Western axis, the country under his leadership had close ties with nearby Middle Eastern states, as was necessary considering the geopolitical weight of those states at the time. Thus he hosted Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1934, and in 1937 signed a non-aggression pact with Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The pursuit of a multi-vector foreign policy has been a hallmark of Turkish political thinking. Even during Ottoman times, when a Europe-centered foreign policy was inescapable, the sultans sought alternatives to their dependence on Great Britain and France. Following the disastrous 1877-1878 war with Russia, Sultan Abdul Hamid began a cautious balancing effort by building closer ties with Imperial Germany, a trend that contributed to the German-Turkish alliance forged during WWI.

Returning to the present day, the Chinese factor is causing a reconfiguration in Turkey-West relations. The Asian pivot brings economic promise and increases Ankara’s maneuverability vis-à-vis larger powers like Russia and the EU. This fits into the rise of Turkish “Eurasianism,” the aspirations of which are similar to those that have motivated Russia for the past decade or so.

Turkey’s policies toward the West and the ongoing troubles in bilateral ties can best be described as intra-alliance opposition. It is true that in recent years, Turkey’s opposition to the West within the alliance has intensified markedly, but it has not passed the point of no return. Ankara is well aware that it remains a valuable ally to the collective West.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia today

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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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