From the beginnings of modern Turkey, the Kurds have been considered outsiders, often not even allowed to speak their own language without the threat of punishment.
With Mustafa Kemal Atatürk modeling the nascent republic on the somewhat ethnically homogeneous European nation-states of the time, and the constitution declaring that “the Turkish state, with its territory and nation, is an indivisible entity,” there was little room for permitting, and certainly not encouraging, the open expression of disparate ethnic or national identities within Turkey’s borders. Instead, Ankara’s answer to the “Kurdish question” has been, more often than not, to deny the existence of the Kurds altogether and simultaneously to attempt to pacify the region militarily, crushing all dissent while forcibly assimilating its “mountain Turk,” that is Kurdish, population.
In more recent times, the Turkish government has sought to exploit a massive infrastructure undertaking, the Southeast Anatolian Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi or GAP), as a means of resolving the Kurdish dilemma. How this project came about and how it came to be seen as a solution to a largely self-created problem is a tale unto itself with roots in the nineteenth century and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
Roots of the Kurdish Problem
Defining what is meant by a Kurd can be a difficult task. The Kurdish people presently live in large numbers in four major states—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—speak numerous languages alongside Kurdish, which itself has several different dialects, and profess several different religions besides the predominant one, Sunni Islam. Kurdish world population is estimated at thirty million, the largest ethnic group without its own state. The Kurdish population in Turkey is estimated to be between ten and twenty million; such a wide range reflects the difficulty of obtaining population statistics for a people that has been for a long period of time denied existence by the state. Whatever the precise numbers, the Kurds are clearly the second largest ethnic group within the Turkish state behind the Turks themselves. Kurds can be found in all of Turkey’s geographical regions but are concentrated in the eastern and southeastern sections of the country.
In the aftermath of World War I, the Allied powers attempted to split the Ottoman Empire into a rump Turkish state, a series of great-power “zones of influence,” and a few independent states for minority populations, one of which was for the Kurds. This 1920 Treaty of Sevres firmly planted the idea in the Turkish psyche that the West had conspiratorial designs against the Turks. In this view, the formation of any Kurdish entity would inevitably weaken the Turkish state.
While there had been clashes with Kurdish leaders in the late Ottoman period, largely in conjunction with the government’s centralizing initiatives, tensions between the Kurds and the Turkish government came to a head in 1925 with the Sheikh Said rebellion. The rebellion sought a degree of independence, or at least a voice, for the Kurdish peoples of Anatolia. This threatened the Kemalist idea of a unified secular Turkish state. The revolt was crushed by the Turkish military; martial law was declared, and fifty-two thousand Turkish troops were introduced into predominantly Kurdish regions. Subsequent Kurdish rebellions, in Ararat in 1930 and Dersim in 1938, were similarly met with force and crushed by Ankara. A 1927 law allowed the Turkish government to forcibly relocate “an indefinite number of Kurds” from the southeastern provinces while the 1934 Law No. 2510 granted the state the power to assimilate forcibly or “evacuate” areas of the country with “non-Turkish culture” or language. Thus the Kurds were viewed from an early date in the history of the Turkish Republic as a threat that demanded a firm government response.
Turkey’s Kurds in Modern Times
Beginning in 1978, Turkey’s political order began to spiral out of control, leading the military to intervene and culminating in a 1980 coup, which led to the drafting of the constitution of 1982. But while the military went back to their barracks in 1983 to make way for a return of civilian government, their intervention had a devastating impact on the Kurds.
The religious threat to Turkey’s newly-created, secularist identity was one of the key pretexts to the military intervention, and the members of the general staff focused on the Kurdish population as part of the problem. One method employed by the generals in an effort to defuse tensions was to establish a “village guard system” that provided tribal leaders in southeastern Anatolia who demonstrated loyalty to the state with weapons and funds to pacify their territory. However, this system only increased hostility toward the state by many Kurds as it resulted in deepening tribal tensions between those backed by the state and those who were not. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK), which had begun to attack the machinery of government in the late 1970s, increased its violent activities, directly targeting the village guards.
The PKK received support not only from Kurds within Turkey’s borders but from external sources, including the Soviet Union, and the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, and Iran, as well as from the Syrian government, which sought to weaken Turkey. As the 1980s progressed and the village guard system failed to provide the security sought by the state, the government imposed a state of emergency in 1987, which lasted until 2002. During this period, 378,335 Kurds were forced to evacuate their villages while 55,371 were arrested on charges relating to terrorism.
In the 1990s, the unofficial war between the Turkish government and the PKK ebbed and flowed, alternating between periods of escalating conflict and temporary cease-fires. As a consequence of the 1991 Kuwait war and the establishment of a no-fly zone in heavily Kurdish northern Iraq, the PKK was provided a safe haven from which it could launch operations on Turkish targets.
For Turkey in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, political instability led to a series of short-lived coalition governments unable to develop and sustain coherent policies toward the Kurds. Thus, under the political leadership of Prime Minister (later president) Turgut Özal (1983-89) as well as Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel (1991-93), a new path, which countered the traditional Kurdish policy set by the military command was sought. Shortly after reassuming the office of prime minister, Demirel declared:
Turkey’s border, flag, and official language cannot be debated, but ethnic groups [sic] demand to retain their own ethnic identity and culture should not be rejected … They have their own history, language, and folklore. If they wish to develop them, let them do so.
PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan joined in similar sentiments, but the thaw abruptly ended when clashes between Kurds and Turkish soldiers broke out surrounding the 1991 Newruz New Year celebrations, originally a Persian holiday but long observed by the Kurds.
A later 1993 unilateral cease-fire, declared by Öcalan, failed to “translate into concrete actions” despite rhetorical support by Ankara. Under Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan (June 1996-June 1997), the Welfare Party (RP) made overtures to the Kurdish population; the RP included Kurds and Turks in their proposed “Islamic nation” and advocated a poorly defined “just solution” to the Kurdish problem as well as advocating lifting emergency rule in the southeast. The Kurdish population, however, was less receptive to the cause of Muslim unity than to defending its Kurdish identity, and in any event, the RP’s weakness made carrying out its policies difficult. Instead, most of the decade witnessed continued military control over the “formulation of Turkey’s Kurdish policies” due to “divisions within the civilian elite and [the civilian elite’s] abdication of control over all aspects of the operations in the southeast against the ongoing insurgency.”
But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, events steered the Turkish government toward an evolving policy vis-à-vis the Kurds. The staging of Turkish forces on the Syrian border in 1998 led to the exile from Syria, and eventual capture by Turkish forces, of Abdullah Öcalan. With the PKK leader in custody, the organization made a transition to peaceful opposition at the urging of Öcalan, who declared that the Kurds “want to give up the armed struggle and have full democracy.” The current governing party of Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), has sought a solution to the problem with a much publicized “Kurdish initiative.” However, any progress on the issue must overcome a variety of obstacles, foremost the resurgence of an armed PKK. After the cease-fire declared by Öcalan in 1998, as well as additional cease-fires in 2002 and 2010, conflict continued to boil to the surface. Following the June 2011 election and the revoking of the previous year’s cease-fire, Öcalan called for the PKK’s removal of arms from Turkish soil in March 2013 in a cease-fire agreement, which has lasted to date.
Since 2011, Ankara has been forced to deal with the PKK within the context of responding to turmoil and changes with two of its own neighbors. Turkey’s response to the ongoing conflict in Syria and the uprising seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad has effectively ended its “zero problems with neighbors” policy. As of July 12, 2013, there were 381,462 Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations in Turkey with over 400,000 estimated to be in the country. These numbers pose a problem for the Turkish government as they remain in the southeastern, largely Kurdish portion of the country. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s call for the removal of Assad triggered a counter-response by the Syrian government that has allowed the PKK to fill a power vacuum in the territories near the Turkish border. The Party of Unity and Democracy, the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, has so far held its grip on power in the region, forcing Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to declare that Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria would be acceptable in a post-Assad environment.
Coinciding with this public acceptance of Kurdish autonomy in a bordering state, Turkey has supported the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq as the KRG has assisted in efforts to contain the PKK on its soil. Meanwhile, Ankara’s own relations with the government in Baghdad have soured: A proposed Turkish-KRG oil pipeline would bypass the Baghdad government and would provide the Kurdish government in northern Iraq with a source of independent funding. The quid pro quo in this relationship relies on the KRG’s ability to assist in containing the PKK. Iraqi Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani’s call for the PKK to “lay down its arms” or else “bear the consequences” has demonstrated that the KRG is seeking better relations with Turkey to provide support against the government in Baghdad.
While Turkey has shown its support for Kurdish autonomy in Syria and Iraq, within its own borders, Kurdish autonomy is still viewed as a threat, despite the PKK and other Kurdish groups’ official statements that they no longer seek an independent Kurdistan but rather equal rights within the state. Erdoğan responded characteristically that Kurdish calls for a federal structure were “[d]aring to abuse the democratization efforts in order to subvert national unity … a political assassination directed against the nation’s will.” For the foreseeable future, the Kurds will remain a marginalized and excluded group within the Turkish state.
Framing the Kurdish Problem
The issue of how to manage the Turkish Kurds—specifically dealing with the reasons behind and solutions to the violence that recurs in predominantly Kurdish areas—is framed in one of three ways by the Turkish state. These frames offer differing views on why the Kurds are a problem, why they fail to assimilate into the Turkish state, and why the Kurds continue to support PKK activities. Underlying these views is the belief that the Kurdish problem is essentially one of terrorism.
As a result of this premise, one viewpoint posits that the problem is primarily due to domestic Kurdish support for terrorism, necessitating population control and monitoring. This framing underlies Turkish attempts to introduce the village guard system that would secure areas for the Turkish military and create a population loyal to Turkey.
Another standpoint views the Kurdish situation as a function of international terrorism. Thus Turkey’s Kurdish problem is due to support received from Syria and Iraq, both from the central governments themselves and from their local, indigenous Kurdish communities; without such international support, Kurds would voluntarily join and integrate into the Turkish state. This framing blames international actors for keeping a Kurdish identity alive in order to destabilize Turkey. From this perspective, border control and pressure on foreign governments will solve the Kurdish issue. This point of view is most responsible for bilateral Iraqi-Turkish agreements that allowed Turkey to conduct several cross-border raids into Iraq in the late 1980s in pursuit of PKK terrorists. Both viewpoints are widespread within Turkey and have the support of both nationalistic political parties and the military.
The final frame of reference examines the Kurdish problem from a civilizational approach, concluding that the poor socioeconomic status of the region has resulted in violence. The solution to the problem is then perceived as one of economic and social development. In practice, initiatives in this direction have resulted in forced assimilation and the social and cultural destruction of Kurdish identity. The displacement and assimilation policies of the Turkish state, dating back to 1927 and 1934 laws, were intended to weaken traditional social bonds, encourage urbanization and educational assimilation.
None of these approaches to the Kurdish issue include the possibility of a rejection of the ethnic Turkic identity of the nation-state, which leaves no room for minority expression. Although, since the late 1980s, there have been moves on the part of the government to allow at least some form of Kurdish cultural or political expression, these efforts were relatively limited and often failed to translate into practice. While not mutually exclusive, each of the frames of reference outlined above leads to differing conclusions about how to proceed toward a solution to the problem. However, the project which offers solutions to all three frames simultaneously is the Southeast Anatolian Project or GAP.
The Southeastern Anatolia Project
The history of GAP goes back to the foundations of the Turkish Republic. Atatürk called for surveying and mapping southeastern rivers within the Tigris-Euphrates basins as a starting point to harnessing their power in order to satisfy the growing energy needs of the country. The current form of the project, however, only began to develop in the 1980s. Currently, GAP is the largest internal developmental project in Turkey and is one of the largest in the world. GAP has been supported by every governing party and coalition since the 1980s.
GAP covers nine Turkish provinces, an area of 75,358 square kilometers, nearly 10 percent of Turkey. The area is bordered by Syria and Iraq in the south and southeast. The population within this area is largely Kurdish, and the region itself is one of the poorest regions within the country. So far, Ankara has built 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric plants, and extensive irrigation systems on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It consumed 7 percent of all public investment in Turkey throughout the 1990s and has continued apace since then. In 2009, total investment in GAP was US$4.68 billion, 14.4 percent of which was public investment according to government statistics. This was a large increase over public investment in 1990-2007, which averaged 7 percent showing a continued and, in fact, increasing public interest in the project.
Initially seeking to provide power for the western regions of Turkey, GAP has since expanded to include nearly every manner of developmental initiative and has grown into a catchall developmental project. Due to international criticism over the social and environmental impacts of dams in the 1990s, the project’s goals shifted to improving the economic situation, increasing political stability, and supporting urban and industrial development within Turkey. With Ankara’s application to accede to the European Union in 1987 and human rights concerns voiced by the EU in the late 1990s and 2000s, the project began to emphasize “the need for community participation, improved basic education, health, and social services, the advancement of women, the creation of more employment opportunities, efficient use of resources, and environmental preservation.”
While the stated goals of GAP may be to increase agricultural trade—especially to the Middle East—and to provide social and economic development, so far it has only served to increase power generation within Turkey. There has been little progress in any other sector with regional employment in particular showing few gains. Despite decreasing economic dependence on agriculture, the high level of government spending on GAP would indicate that GAP is more a nationalistic, political project than an economic one. While some economic benefits are expected to accrue, GAP mainly serves the political goal of addressing the Kurdish issue.
GAP and Framing the Kurdish Problem
Internationally, GAP serves a public relations function, something that can be sold to foreign investors and governments to show that Turkey is attempting to make progress on human rights and environmental concerns. GAP was cited by the Turkish government as a fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria for Turkey’s entrance into the EU. This repackaging occurred without any major change in the schedule of construction or its ultimate goals. The fact that the main focus of the program could switch from irrigation and electrical generation to one that sought environmental, social, and health benefits demonstrates that it was merely a rebranding decision on the part of Ankara. GAP is in essence a program whose major goal is internal security and homogenization of the state.
In fact, the international PR campaign is less important to the state than issues of domestic security. Turkey has, in several instances, continued controversial GAP projects, such as the Ilisu dam, despite international concerns and withdrawal of foreign investment. When European capital pulled out, due to projected environmental, cultural, and social damages, Turkey merely sought funds from China and chose to increase government funding for the dam. Negative European perceptions, even when the campaign for EU membership was in full swing, were an acceptable price for Turkey.
GAP was begun for “domestic political reasons” in order to “dilute potential Kurdish national aspirations for an independent homeland.” Thus, the perceived domestic benefits of the project, especially potential political stability, far outweigh any resulting international tensions with neighbors or the loss of European support. GAP can be seen as a response to the three viewpoints through which the Turkish state perceives the “Kurdish question.” When one views the Kurds as a domestic terrorism problem, increased governmental control and monitoring of the local population is necessary. GAP addresses this by using dam projects, such as the Ilisu, to cut off routes that the PKK use while reservoirs, such as the one behind the Keban dam, force the local population to use the limited number of military-controlled ferries for transport. This centralization of transport allows the military to monitor the inhabitants closely, transforming water control into a method of population control.
Looking at the Kurdish issue as an international terrorism problem shifts the focus to PKK support from neighboring states and their Kurdish populations. GAP serves to limit the international dimensions of Ankara’s Kurdish problem by creating a giant water moat between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The eleven dams envisioned in this project serve little purpose in generating hydroelectric power—the Ilisu dam, for example, will produce only an estimated 2 percent of Turkish electrical needs—or in providing irrigation for a sparsely populated region. Instead, their main function is to make it difficult for the PKK to receive supplies or to operate across Turkey’s borders. According to analysts Soner Cagaptay and Altay Sedat Otun, these dams would flood the canyons and terrain utilized by the PKK, providing the Turkish government with a “hydro-victory” against the Kurdish rebels. The string of dams along the border with Iraq in the Sirnak and Hakkari provinces would make any PKK incursions into Turkey more difficult while generating only token amounts of hydroelectric power.
GAP has also provided the Turkish government with an effective tool for pressuring neighboring governments. It has limited water flow to downstream nations, particularly Syria, and reduced overall water quality because of agricultural runoff and other pollutants. The resulting control over water flow allowed Turkey to threaten Syria with a cutoff of water in 1998, which in turn compelled Damascus to end overt support for the PKK and forced Öcalan out of the country. GAP has also prompted the construction of new military roads and bases in the border regions, both to protect the dams and to allow ease of military transport. This increased ease of transport helps the military combat the externally-based PKK irregulars.
The ruling AKP party has, more recently, emphasized the socioeconomic framing of GAP over the terrorist perspective, which was in vogue in the early and mid-1990s. This avoids ruptures with the AKP constituencies in the southeast and increases AKP support by Turkish businesses and industry while effectively continuing the antiterror strategy, which has the support of the military. But it also has important and potentially destructive ramifications for the Kurdish way of life. While GAP will purportedly industrialize the region, it will also force the urbanization of the population in the southeast by forcing Kurds from their ancestral homes. This serves to eliminate traditional social and cultural networks and encourages the breakup of families. Displaced rural Kurds are encouraged to move to cities where educational opportunities are supposedly available. Living in cities, however, also forces Kurdish assimilation into “mainstream Turkish society and culture.”
Within seemingly benign official language, GAP’s website boldly declares its intention to “enhance the presence and influence of modern organizations and institutions” and remove traditional ones “which impede development.” The objectives of GAP also include creating “an infrastructure upon which local subculture elements may form a positive synthesis with the national culture.” This clearly implies the absence or the inadequacy of the culture already in the area. GAP will destroy the centers of Kurdish culture and identity. For example, the Munzur dams will uproot the only concentrated population that still speaks the Kurdish dialect of Zaza. These dams will also flood battlefields associated with the 1930s uprisings, which remain important cultural and historical links for the Kurdish people. The Ilisu dam will flood Hasankeyf, one of the most important sites of Kurdish heritage with its wealth of archeological sites dating from the Kurdish-origin Ayyubid dynasty.
It bears repeating that the three framings of the Kurdish issue are not mutually exclusive; in fact, solutions to one also tend to further others. The concentration of population allows for closer government monitoring (the domestic terrorism frame), but it also advances the assimilation and industrializing aims of the socioeconomic frame. Infrastructure projects, likewise, improve the economic potential of the region, but they also allow easier military access and often serve to reroute long-existing transportation networks.
By reinforcing all three of these standpoints at the same time, GAP provides increased political stability to the Turkish state, resulting in its widespread support, both through time and across the political spectrum. The military supports GAP because it allows a military-oriented solution in the southeast seen through the terrorist framework. Various business groups support GAP because the socioeconomic framing of the problem opens up the economic potential of the region and increases opportunities for investments. By ignoring the underlying issues driving approaches to the “Kurdish question,” such as the single-minded focus on a monoethnic Turkish nation, GAP allows the state to draw support from the maximum number of domestic groups without alienating any large constituency—except, of course, the Kurds.
The issue of the Turkish Kurds has bedeviled modern Turkey since its founding as a republic. Historically, the answer to the question has been to deny the Kurds’ existence and to pacify their communities through military force. Beginning in the 1980s, political openings appeared to offer a new way forward, and the Southeast Anatolian Project (GAP) seemed to offer a method through which to solve it. These political openings quickly floundered, and GAP became a vehicle through which the answer to the “Kurdish question” remained stuck in traditional Kemalist attitudes toward the minority.
The project provides a catchall solution to the three main ways in which the Kurdish problem is framed by the Turkish majority. GAP can solve the problem of domestic terrorism by limiting internal travel and concentrating populations, making the Kurds easier to control. GAP can solve the problem of international terrorism by providing the Turkish government with a tool with which to threaten foreign nations and by making cross-border incursions more difficult. Finally, GAP can solve socioeconomic problems by encouraging economic growth in the region while forcibly assimilating the society.
Initially an electrical generation project, GAP was sold as a way to improve the economic performance of Turkey and to build up the backward, underdeveloped southeastern region within the country. This integration approach was also intended to allay many European human rights concerns about Turkey and to expedite the process of Turkish inclusion in the European Economic Community and later the European Union.
Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case. GAP has, in actuality, served as an alternative method of assimilation and government control over an area that is notorious throughout Turkish history for being difficult to dominate. Supported by other government policies, it encourages permanent displacement of Kurdish populations and the destruction of Kurdish culture. Even the regional socioeconomic improvements are implemented in a way that seeks to force the assimilation of the Kurdish population. Despite limited openings within Turkish politics and society for the Kurdish population, GAP continues to provide policy expression to the Kemalist idea of a nation-state based on the single ethnic identity of Turk. Far from developing and integrating the Kurdish populations, GAP furthers the solution of Turkey’s Kurdish problem by erasing the Kurds themselves.
Robert Hatem received B.A.’s in history and political science from UNC Wilmington and a M.A. in Middle East studies from George Washington University. Mark Dohrmann received his B.A. in political science from the UNC Wilmington and M.A. in international affairs from American University.
 The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, 2001, amended, art. 3.
 Kerim Yildiz, The Kurds in Turkey: EU Accession and Human Rights (London: Pluto Press, 2005), p. 5.
 Kemal Kirisci and Gareth M. Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey: An Example of Trans-State Ethnic Conflict (London: Frank Class, 1997), pp. 119-20.
 Phillip Robins, “The Overlord State: Turkish Policy and the Kurdish Issue,” International Affairs, Oct. 1993, p. 659.
 Yildiz, The Kurds in Turkey, p. 15.
 David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (New York: I.B. Tauris and Co., Ltd., 2004), p. 197.
 Ibid., pp. 199, 207.
 Haldun Çancı and Şevket Serkan Şen, “The Gulf War and Turkey: Regional Changes and Their Domestic Effects (1991-2003), International Journal on World Peace, Mar. 2011, pp. 42, 46.
 Robins, “The Overlord State,” p. 662.
 James Brown, “The Turkish Imbroglio: Its Kurds,” Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science, Sept. 1995, p. 119.
 Abdullah Bozkurt, “Raising the Specter of Emergency Rule Brings Back Forgotten Memories,” Today’s Zaman (Istanbul), Dec. 20, 2009.
 Çancı and Serkan Şen, “The Gulf War and Turkey,” p. 47.
 Hurriyet (Istanbul), Nov. 26, 1991.
 Brown, “The Turkish Imbroglio,” p. 121.
 Henri J. Barkey and Graham E. Fuller, “Turkey’s Kurdish Question: Critical Turning Points and Missed Opportunities,” Middle East Journal, Winter 1997, p. 68.
 Kirisci and Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey, p. 145.
 Çancı and Serkan Şen, “The Gulf War and Turkey,” p. 58.
 Barkey and Fuller, “Turkey’s Kurdish Question,” p. 69.
 Abdullah Öcalan, quoted in Stephen Kinzer, Crescent and Star: Turkey between Two Worlds (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001), p. 127.
 Gonul Tol, “The PKK cease-fire and Syria’s Kurds,” Foreign Policy, Mar. 22, 2013.
 On the zero problems policy, see Ilias I. Kouskouvelis, “The Problem with Turkey’s ‘Zero Problems,'” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2013, pp. 47-56.
 “Syrian Refugees Response Regional Overview,” The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, accessed July 14, 2013.
 Financial Times (London), Aug. 22, 2012.
 Today’s Zaman, Aug. 9, 2012.
 Gonul Tol, “Turkey’s KRG Energy Partnership,” Foreign Policy, Jan. 29, 2013.
 Yildiz, The Kurds in Turkey, p. 116.
 Today’s Zaman, Apr. 20, 2012.
 Michael M. Gunter, “The Continuing Kurdish Problem in Turkey after Ocalan’s Capture,” Third World Quarterly, Oct. 2000, pp. 855-6.
 Yildiz, The Kurds in Turkey, p. 116.
 Kirisci and Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey, p. 46.
 Robins, “The Overlord State,” p. 664.
 Phebe Marr, “Turkey and Iraq,” in Henri J. Barkey, ed., Reluctant Neighbor: Turkey’s Role in the Middle East (Washington: United States Institute for Peace, 1996), p. 45.
 Kirisci and Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey, p. 122.
 McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, p. 199.
 “Southeastern Anatolian Project,” Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., accessed July 10, 2013.
 Alexendra M. Pool and Velma I. Grover, “GAPs in the Dialogue of Governance: Conflicting Ideologies of Development in Turkey” in Velma I. Grover, ed., Water: Global Common and Global Problems (Enfield: Science Publishers, 2006), p. 377.
 Ali Carkoglu and Mine Eder, “Domestic Concerns and the Water Conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin,” Middle Eastern Studies, Jan. 2001, pp. 44-5.
 Pool and Grover, “GAPs in the Dialogue of Governance,” p. 373.
 Paul Williams, “Turkey’s H20 Diplomacy in the Middle Easy,” Security Dialogue, 1 (2001), p. 31.
 “GAP,” Office of the Prime Minister of Turkey, Ankara, Dec. 2010, p. 5.
 Anna Brismar, “The Ataturk Dam Project in South-east Turkey: Changes in Objectives and Planning over Time,” Natural Resources Forum, May 2002, p. 104.
 Pool and Grover, “GAPs in the Dialogue of Governance,” p. 380.
 Brismar, “The Ataturk Dam Project in South-east Turkey,” p. 108.
 Abdullah Akyuz, Turkish politics and society, lecture, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., Apr. 7, 2011.
 Jan Selby, “The Geopolitics of Water in the Middle East,” Third World Quarterly, 2 (2005), pp. 336-7.
 Pool and Grover, “GAPs in the Dialogue of Governance,” p. 378.
 “The Ilisu Dam Project,” Kurdish Human Rights Project briefing paper, London, Dec. 23, 2009, pp. 6-7.
 Murhaj Jouejati, “Water Politics as High Politics: The Case of Turkey and Syria,” in Barkey, ed. Reluctant Neighbor, p. 136.
 “The Cultural and Environmental Impact of Large Dams in Southeast Turkey,” Fact-Finding Mission Report, Kurdish Human Rights Project, London, Feb. 2005, p. 41.
 Selby, “The Geopolitics of Water in the Middle East,” p. 334.
 Inter Press Service News Agency, June 10, 2012.
 Joost Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict,” Middle East Policy Council, Spring 2010, p. 142.
 Soner Cagaptay and Altay Sedat Otun, “Flooding out terror? Turkey’s Ilisu dam project,” CNN World, May 3, 2012.
 Paul Williams, “Euphrates and Tigris Waters: Turkish-Syrian and Iraqi Relations,” in Dhirenda K. Vajpey, ed. Water Resource Conflicts and International Security: A Global Perspective (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2011), p. 44.
 Frederick M. Lorenz and Edward J. Erickson, The Euphrates Triangle: Security Implications of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1999), p. 37.
 Mark Adams, Water and Security Policy: The Case of Turkey (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2000), accessed Apr. 15, 2011, p. 9.
 Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey,” p. 142.
 “The Cultural and Environmental Impact of Large Dams in Southeast Turkey,” p. 24.
 Ibid., pp. 34, 36.
 “Objectives of GAP,” Turkish Ministry of Development, Southeastern Anatolia Project Regional Development Administration, Şanliurfa, 2011, accessed Mar. 10, 2012.
 “The Cultural and Environmental Impact of Large Dams in Southeast Turkey,” p. 59.
 Thomas Moran, “The Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts of Hydro-electric Dams in Turkish Kurdistan,” Roskilde University Digital Archive, Trekroner, Den., accessed Mar. 10, 2012, pp. 80, 82.
Elections in the Lebanon
The general elections in the Lebanon were held on May 6 last. They had originally been scheduled for 2013 but,due to the repeated failure of Parliament to elect a new President from April 23, 2014 to October 31, 2016 because no candidate had succeeded in obtaining the required two-thirds majority, the Parliamentary term had been extended at first until 2017 and then until 2018.
A new electoral law had been adopted in 2017, providing a proportional representation system for the first time in the history of the country.
The maximum proportional representation system in elections coincides with the maximum destabilization of a country.
Finally, Michel Aoun was elected President on October 31, 2016 at the 46th electoral session of the Lebanese Parliament, breaking a 29-month deadlock.
Aoun is a Maronite Christian, as provided for by the Lebanese Constitution, and he was Head of the Armed Forces as early as 1984. From 1988 to mid-October 1990 he served also as Prime Minister appointed by the then departing Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, whose controversial decision led to the paradoxical situation of having two rival Lebanese governments contending for power, one by Aoun and the other by Selim Hoss, apparently pro-Western and self-appointed Prime Minister.
The Lebanese Constitution lays down, inter alia, that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Head of government an Islamic Sunni and the President of Parliament a Shi’ite.
The Lebanese Constitution, however, does not define – as happens also in other Middle East countries – traditional political groups, but sectarian parties of religious origin and affiliation.
Until Aoun’s election, two coalitions competed in the country. The first one was the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, a politician close to Saudi Arabia floundering in a very severe financial and political crisis – a political alliance currently established, together with the Christians of Samir Geagea, by the group of Sami Gemayel, the Head of the Maronite Phalanx, and by Walid Jumblatt, the historical leader of the Druses.
From the very beginning the whole “March 14 Alliance” was closely linked to Saudi interests.
It is worth recalling, however, that the Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, with a 150% share of the GDP, a total net indebtedness of 79 billion US dollars and an increase in the debt / GDP ratio which, according to the International Monetary Fund, could reach a 180% share in three years.
In a forthcoming Conference to be held in Paris, the Lebanese government will ask for foreign investment targeted to infrastructure equal to at least 16 billion US dollars, while banks do not provide liquidity to anyone.
As evidenced by the growth of grassroots parties, infrastructure and local public services, as well as urban management issues, are the true weak point of the Lebanese State.
70% of the Lebanese public spending goes to wages and salaries and to debt servicing, in particular, while as much as 10% goes on subsidies to the electricity and energy bills of the poorest population.
Hence there is no room for any government to reduce the Lebanese public spending significantly.
Therefore there is always a very close link between the dysfunctionality of political systems and State’s indebtedness and, finally, between the rigidity of electoral representation and the impossibility of controlling the connection between debt and GDP.
This should be studied to further clarify the “Italian case”.
The March 8 Alliance, however, was established by Hezbollah – the Shiite Party founded in 1982 by Imam Khomeini “as if it were the apple of his eye”, as well as by Nabih Berri’ Shi’ite movement of Amal (Hope) and, finally, by Michel Aoun’s Maronite Christian Party.
According to what is currently maintained in the Lebanon, the agreement between the two major factions envisages the “green light” of the March 8 Alliance for the future premiership of Saad Hariri, one of the leaders of the other coalition.
However, who is Michel Aoun? First and foremost, the military commander of the 8th Brigade of the Lebanese Armed Forces who succeeded in stopping the offensive of the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt who, at that time, was leading the pro-Syrian militia.
As already stated, in the years following his appointment as Head of government, Aoun clashed especially with both the Shi’ite and Druse groups and the Maronite militia of Samir Geagea’s “Phalanx”.
As was also the case in Northern Ireland and Spain, with the Basque movement, the political revolution easily gives way to illegal activities.
In 1989, after the signing of the inter-Lebanese peace agreement -a sectarian pact, named Taif Accord because it was made in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which put an end to the Lebanese civil war-the new President Hrawi dismissed Michel Aoun and ordered him to leave the presidential Palace. He refused to dismiss and barricaded himself in the Palace to prepare for his defense, thus refusing to give up the power.
Not very long after the attacks on the presidential Palace Aoun was asked to leave the Lebanon and later went into exile in France. For the former Head of the Lebanese Armed Forces the exile was inevitable after the victory of the Syrian forces that entered the Lebanon to stabilize the “province” of Beirut.
It was a period in which Aoun established very close relations with the French intelligence services and, above all, with the Israeli ones.
During those years the Lebanon became a full Syrian protectorate.
Nevertheless Aoun came back to the political scene and to the Lebanon in 2004, when the UN voted Resolution No. 1559, which obliged all the Syrian Armed Forces to leave Syria.
Aoun ended 15 years of exile when he returned to the Lebanon on May 7, 2015 – eleven days after the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from the Lebanon following the assassination of Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. The huge demonstrations following the assassination of Hariri, guarantor of the Lebanese reconstruction -although with the Saudi money – after the massive destruction caused by the civil war, forced the Syrians to leave the country.
It was from that moment that Aoun, who had long secretly and later overtly returned to the Lebanon, quickly began to approach and come closer to his long-standing enemies, the Shi’ites of Hezbollah and Amal.
Amal, the old movement of Nabih Berri, had fought against Hezbollah for control over South Beirut in the “Lebanese civil war” and, however, had been founded by Musa al-Sadr, the Imam who established the belonging of the Alawites – hence the elite currently ruling Syria – to the Shi’ite Islam and was most likely killed, upon Gaddafi’s order, in Rome in 1978.
As can be easily seen, the Lebanese politics has always been a game of shadows and paradoxes.
In 2008, however, Aounhad failed in his first presidential project, while reestablishing relations with his old Maronite enemy, Samir Geagea, who in 2016, withdrew from the presidential election and made his votes converge on Aoun.
Nevertheless Aoun could anticipate the real presidential victory only when Saad Hariri, weakened by the financial crisis of his company operating in Saudi Arabia and pressed by the French Embassy for other very urgent financial problems, gave him his support – certainly in return for a future Premiership, thus abandoning the Christian candidate of his coalition, Suleiman Frangiehjr.
Aoun, however, is old since he is aged 82. He is supposed to pave the way for his son-in-law and current Foreign Minister, Gebrain Bassil.
Moreover, the two coalitions – both heirs of the civil war – are ever less voted by young people and by all those who want to lay the ghost of the Lebanese political and military factionalism. There are many of them.
Not surprisingly, in the latest elections the two coalitions even joined forces to defeat the new civic and environmental movement known as Beirut Madinati (“Beirut My City”) which, however, unexpectedly won one of Beirut’s three electoral districts.
Beirut Madinatiis a movement which emerged after the 2015-16Lebanese protests as a reaction to power and water shortages, streets filled with trash and dizzying urban infrastructure. Nothing destroys political representation as disaster in basic public services.
Nothing supported Hezbollah more than its supply of sectarian welfare, which replaces a State that no longer has the money nor the rules – stupidly “liberalized” – to help the poor in hospitals, schools and at work.
The rules of privatization will destroy political representation also in the West.
As can be easily imagined, however, the core of the Lebanese political system is currently the intelligence service network.
Also as a military leader, Aoun is still at the centre of the Lebanese intelligence system.
He is the guarantor and the mitigator of both the demands of the Shi’ite alliances, including Hezbollah -Aoun’s ally since 2005 and traditional point of reference for Syria and, above all, for Iran – and of the multifarious, but powerful world of Sunni militias.
The Sunnis are a politically growing area no longer tolerating the defeats of the “jihadist brothers” in Syria and Iraq, nor the perceived dominance of Hezbollah and Amal.
The Lebanon, however, has four intelligence agencies: the “Intelligence Section of the Interior Security Forces” (IS-ISF); the “General Directorate of General Security” (GDGS); the “Military Intelligence Directorate” (MID) and the “State Security Directorate” (SSD).
The IS-ISF deals with counterterrorism, anti-drugs and criminal investigations; the GDGS works on visas and passports, censorship, port and airport checks, as well as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.
Conversely, the MID operates in the field of military espionage, the protection of Armed Forces’ sites and facilities, as well as the prevention of political upheavals.
Finally, the SSD protects public offices and important personalities.
General Antoine Suleyman Mansour has recently replaced his peer Camille Daher as Head of the MID.
Mansour was born in the Beqaa Valley and followed counterterrorism courses in the USA, in France, but above all in Syria.
The Beqaa Valley is the axis of Hezbollah’s economic and strategic power.
It is in that region, which is essential also for Israel’s defense, that the “Party of God” organizes its drug trafficking and where its main very secret arms caches are located.
The “Shi’ite pathway” stretching from Iraq to Teheran up to South Beirut – as currently imagined – is vital for the very survival of Hezbollah, but also for the Iranian power system.
It is the most evident threat to the Israeli system, especially if we relate it to the Iranian operations in the Gaza Strip and in the Territories.
Moreover, General Daher also dealt – directly with Saudi Arabia – a supply of brand new French weapons paid by Saudi Arabia and worth three billion US dollars. Nonetheless the negotiations failed and the weapons were later bought by Saudi Arabia for its armed forces.
It is easy to understand what this meant for the Lebanese internal political equilibrium.
It is said that General Daher bears the brunt of his affinity with General Kahwahj, former Chief of Staff in Beirut and, above all, Aoun’ sworn enemy and internal rival.
General Karaa, the first Head of the SSD and Abdou Fattou, responsible for the confidential funds of the Service, were replaced by Tony Saliba and Wafiq Jizzini, respectively. In 2008 General Karaa had investigated into Hezbollah’s advanced and confidential communication network, which is very powerful and secret, while Abbas Ibrahim, who leads the GSDS, is explicitly supported by the “Party of God” and hence has remained at his place.
Ibrahim has also held the recent and complex negotiations between the Daesh-Isis, Al Nusra and Hezbollah for the transfer – hence the recent increase in the Lebanese sectarian violence – of Sunni terrorists to Syria, under the direct protection of Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence Service.
Hence what is the current electoral system in the Lebanon? In June 2017 the various religious and political forces reached an agreement on electoral procedures.
The agreement led to a proportional representation system, wanted above all by the Maronite world, and, in particular, by Aoun’s movement, namely the Free Patriotic Movement, as well as by its Shi’ite allies.
Considering the 6.2 million inhabitants of the Lebanon, Muslims account for 54%, of whom 27% are Sunni and 27% Shi’ite, with the latter growing significantly. Christians account for 40.5%, of whom 21% are Maronite, 8% areGreek Orthodox, 5% are Greek Catholics, 6.5% are other types of Christians, while the Druses are 5.6%.
As could be easily predicted, currently Hezbollah is the real winner of the latest Lebanese elections.
Together with Amal, united in a joint list called Al Amal wal Wafa (“Hope and Loyalty”), the two Shi’ite Parties, along with other friendly lists, won 13 and 15 seats respectively.
Beforehand, the two pro-Iranian Parties, with a very long history of violent struggle between each other, had 13 seats each in the Lebanese Parliament, which has a total of 128 seats.
As many as 7,000 clearly documented infringements of the electoral procedures were checked, with a voter turnout lower than 50%. Hence many operations of tampering with people’s will were recorded, whatever this means in the Lebanon.
Aoun’s movement rose from 18 to 22 seats while, at least this time, Geagea’s group–Hezbollah’s traditional Maronite opponent and Aoun’s current ally -rose from 8 to 14 seats.
Also the Azm Party of former Prime Minister Najib Mikatirose from one to four seats.
The Azm Party was founded by Mikati, the well-known Premier of the March 8 Alliance, with the support of Hezbollah, Aoun and their local allies.
The Syrian National Socialist Party and Tashnag, the political group of reference for the Lebanese Armenian community, obtained two and three seats, respectively.
However, Kollouna Watani(“We are All National”) – a recently-established political group -got no seats.
Saad Hariri’s Party, which seems to be no longer close to its Saudi friends’ heart, fell from 33 to 21 seats only. Moreover, in Beirut, in the traditional strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the Shi’ites won.
The Druse Party of Walid Jumblatt, namely the Progressive Socialist Party, lost two seats falling from 11 to 9.
Here demography rather than militant politics matters – as well as the great Lebanese migration of the middle class to Europe and the United States.
The Kataeb Party, the old Maronite Phalanx of Sami Gemayel, fell from five to three seats.
Marada, Frangieh’s old movement, kept its three seats.
Certainly the prorogation of Parliamentary terms of office began with the outbreak of riots in 1975 – except for the extraordinary appointment of 40 MPs elected in 1991. Hence the Parliamentary Assembly elected in 1975 lasted in office precisely until 1991.
The Parliament just dissolved had been elected in 2009, for four years only, but its term was extended four times in a row.
Furthermore, the election of President Suleiman on May 25, 2008 had been made possible only by the inter-Lebanese Dialogue held in Doha on May 21, 2008, shortly after the (military) show of strength by Hezbollah in West Beirut, right in the Sunni area of the capital city.
Therefore the elections of June 2009 directly followed President Michel Suleiman’s rise to power.
Four years later, the elections already scheduled for June 7, 2013, were postponed again.
The Parliament continuously renewed its term of office until 2014, then until June 2017 and again until 2018. A failed link between the Presidency and local representation.
Moreover, at military level, since that moment Hezbollah has been a unit integrated with the rest of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Hence the Syrian army, the “Party of God” and the Al QudsIranian brigades have become actors on the operational front as early as the fall of Aleppo, on December 22, 2016, while a real Iranian military protectorate on the Lebanon has been created by the presence of said three forces along the axis stretching from Northern Syria to Southern Lebanon, through the Golan Heights.
Later, after the clear support of the “Party of God” to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the cleavage, i.e. the final “break” between Sunnis and Shi’ites, widened, even in the Lebanon alone.
Therefore, after the end of the “Caliphate”, Saudi Arabia and its allies have no elements on which to manipulate the balance of power and forces in the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis.
All this happens while Saad Hariri, together with the Saudi “enemies” that are still in the broad March 8 Alliance, are agreeing with Hezbollah to form a “national unity” government. Hariri, who is floundering in a financial crisis, needs this government to get back on track.
As an old South American parliamentarian used to say, politics “es muy lucrativa pero muy peligrosa”
With specific reference to Hariri, this is the sense of his defacto “being held hostage” by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as from November 2017.
This is the internal and external sphere of power relations in the Lebanese political system.
The rationale of the new electoral system provided for by Law No. 44 of June 17, 2017 is to project internally the external equilibria which ensure unity and funding to the Lebanese State.
With a view to avoiding further chaos, after Michel Aoun’s election, all the electoral districts and constituencies were designed to preserve and stabilize the traditional religious-sectarian electorate.
In fact, electoral law No. 44/2017 divides the country into fifteen major electoral constituencies, further divided into 26 cazas, namely minor electoral districts, thus putting together the classic proportional representation system with a mechanism defined by the specific “preferential voting”.
This means that each voter shall vote for one of the competing lists and shall be entitled to cast one preferential vote for a candidate of the same list he/she has chosen.
This voting system selects candidates only within the caza, the first and smallest electoral district.
The vote, however, is valid only if the preferential votes are cast in all fifteen regional constituencies – with the electoral quotient determined by the number of voters in a given constituency divided by the number of seats already allocated for that constituency.
The preferential voting, however, defines the ranking – hence the winner at caza level.
In other words – as is also the case with Western Europe -this happens to create a sort of electoral elite as against the mass of irrelevant representatives.
Therefore the Lebanese system creates a hidden electoral bonus, but only for the best known candidates.
Nonetheless the real issue is another one: the division is currently within the March 14 Alliance, with the Sunni, Druse and Christian side opposing the Syrian designs on the Lebanon, as against the March 8 Alliance that is increasingly linked to the Syrian regime and its external supporters.
Hence the local paradoxes of a now clear geopolitical framework: Samir Geagea’s “Lebanese Forces” of Samir Geagea are hostile to the Syrian-Iranian axis and close to Saudi Arabia, but are allied with the Free Democratic Movement of Aoun and his son-in-law Bassil, who have instead signed a written contract with Hezbollah.
Therefore, in the Lebanon, there is a political system reaffirming and maintaining the destabilization of the country indefinitely. It brings back memories.
A Ramadan Humiliating Commercial: A Blatant Call for which Sort of Peace?
The Kuwait-based Zain Group, a leading Mobile Telecommunications Company (MTC) in the Middle East and North Africa, has released a three-minute ad by the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. The commercial ad features a child addressing the leaders of powerful countries including U.S.’s Donald Trump, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The child, who allegedly expresses children’svoice living in various conflict areas tell them [The Leaders] that they [Arabs and Muslims] will soon break their fasting in Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine, But!!
The suspicious viral Ramadan ad has sparked a social media backlash, accusing Zain of taking advantage of the Palestinians’ and of other Arabs and Muslims refugees’plight.At the first place, seventy years after the Palestinian diaspora [Nakba,] an Arabian effective and influential company has finally and surprisingly remembered the Palestinian cause and the misery of its people along with other peoples.
Indeed, Jerusalem is definitely and unarguably the capital of Palestine, however it is more than shameful to utilise this cause in Zain’s marketing projects for two obvious reasons. First, to gain more profits under the umbrella of standing in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Secondly, to covey hidden-messages, i.e. normalising ties and ‘peace’ connotations. It would be reasonable, if the ad was purely commercial, however it is a politicised invitation to Arabs and Muslims to break their fasting, in Jerusalem, with their enemy on the same table.
Zain’s ad, shockingly and audaciously, promotes the scheme of reconciliation and peace with the Zionist enemy and its imperialist allies, which kills on daily basis tens of innocent Palestinian children, youth and elderlies. Apparently, this ad, sponsored by Zain,has not been arbitrarily picked, exploiting a vulnerable child to beg Trump’s sympathy.How come an oppressed plea his oppressor to grant him peace?
While the American president does not appear in a place other than his disreputable office, Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, sits in a starving family’s kitchen, portraying him as the murderer of the Syrian children. On the other hand, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel rushes to save one of the refugees children on the death boats.
In the same scene, also the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shows up to promote how kindly Canada and Germany welcome the Syrian refugees. Laughably enough, the same state where Zain and its other GCC allies have long refused to welcome refugees. These states in many cases deal with foreigners as second-class citizens or they exploit them in their demographic schemes as what is goingcurrently in Bahrain.
The ad continues its dramatic farce when the child tells the North Korean President Kim Jong-un that he cannot sleep; as whenever he closes his eyes, he hears an explosion. I wonder,has North Korea bombarded any missile against the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqis, Yemenis, Palestinian? Who knows everything is possible according to the Persian peninsula’s governments and their media!
The legendary melodramatic ad does not only cover Arabs’ miseries; although it is supposedly addressing the Zionist arrogance American tyrant Donald Trump, inviting him to a humiliating fast-breaking in Jerusalem; the capital of Palestine!! It further reflects the Rohingya ethnic crises, where a group of displaced victims, together with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, walk in rough ways and cross a river. This hypocritical part attempts at showing Zain’s concern over this humanitarian melancholic catastrophe, through a suspicious ad, but not efficiently on the ground.
The ludicrous ad is purely a clear call of peace with Trump’s aggressive administration and a reprehensible approval of the imperialist hegemony; despite its ongoing genocides and atrocities. Unfortunately, Zain has made foolish of itself, demeaned the innocent victims and particularly degraded the Palestinian cause. Instead of promoting such a ridiculous ad. Unequivocally, Zain should have either exerted pressure on its government to resolve the Palestinian calamity or it should have backed those peoples financially to purchase weapons and resist the occupation.
Besides, Zain’s ad promotes the Arab’s dilution belief, which requires a quick reconciliation with the Zionist enemy. A claim that obviously refutes the resistance choice and approves the superiority of the West. Furthermore, the ad boosts an emotional generation to avoid resistance and to easily accept humiliation and subjugation. Zain surprisingly turns blind eyes and deaf ears to the fact that this awaited ‘Saviour,’ i.e. Trump, due to his arrogance and foolishness, has already put the Middle East into a ‘ring of fire’ by declaring Jerusalem as a capital of the Zionist illegal entity.
Saudi Arabia’s Entertainment Plans: Soft Power at Work?
Saudi Arabia recently broke ground on its ambitious “entertainment city” known as Qiddiya, near Riyadh. The splashy launch, attended by 300 dignitaries from around the world, highlights a frequently overlooked aspect of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan: the entertainment industry as a growing economic sector. As the kingdom diversifies its economy away from reliance on petro fuels, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been keen to showcase the increasing openness of his country, promoting festivals, concerts and sports events and ending the country’s 35-year ban on cinemas.
These projects are partially intended to bolster the economy and attract FDI—but not only. Saudi Arabia is also playing catch-up with other regional actors, such as Qatar and the UAE, in terms of cultural output and cultural participation. With Qiddiya and the other cultural projects in the works, Saudi is now carving out a road for itself to become a regional culture hub.
Thefirst phase of Qiddiya, which includes high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area, is expected to be completed in 2022. Saudi officials hope the park will draw in foreign investment and attract 17 million visitors by 2030; the final phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2035, by which point the entertainment resort will be the largest in the world, dwarfing Florida’s Walt Disney World.
Beyond these financial incentives, however, the Qiddiya project is Saudi Arabia’s answer to events like the Dubai Expo 2020 or the Qatar World Cup 2022 and suggests that the kingdom is trying to position itself as the next big destination for lucrative events – which also add to the idea that entertainment, culture, and innovation are key to Saudi Arabia’s economic vision and success.
Vision 2030’s emphasis on entertainment raises a key question: is Riyadh attempting to increase its soft power across the region in a constructive and proactive way? The answer to that question is yes.
In the immediate future, Qatar and the UAE will remain the region’s foremost entertainment and cultural hubs. From Qatar’s Islamic Museum of Art, which famous architect I.M. Pei came out of retirement to design, to Dubai’s theme parks, including a $1 billion behemoth which is the world’s largest indoor theme park, these two Gulf states are demonstrating their prowess to develop an arts and culture scene. In Doha, Qatar is exemplifying its unique outlook towards world affairs by emphasizing humanitarianism and fourteen centuries of history. Qatar is also hosting the World Cup in 2022, intended to bring Doha center-stage in the sports world. Abu Dhabi’s Louvre has been referred to as “one of the world’s most ambitious cultural projects”, while advertisements throughout the emirate insist that the museum will cause its visitors to “see humanity in a new light”.
Despite these Gulf states’ head start on developing vibrant entertainment sectors, there is still room for Saudi Arabia to offer something new. For one thing, some of its neighbors are dealing with trouble in paradise: Qatar’s once-strong economy is under increasing strain as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt boycott it; meanwhile, the company which owns many of Dubai’s largest theme parks lost $302 million in 2017.
The Qiddiya project also represents a particular vision that’s distinct from neighboring countries’ cultural programs. Qiddiya is designed to mix desert heritage and the ethos of the past with the technological advances of the future. The intended result is to be a fusion between aspirations and building on those achievements from desert to post-modernity, on a colossal scale.
The project is crafted both to satisfy domestic demand—it includes plans to build 11,000 homes to serve as vacation homes for Riyadh residents— and to compete directly against Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the Gulf. With two-thirds of the Saudi population under the age of 35, building a thriving entertainment sector is particularly important.
The kingdom is hoping to use its idea of mixing the past with the future in Qiddiya to significantly alter the flow of tourist revenues in the Gulf. The UAE, Qatar and Bahrain rely on tourists from the Gulf and beyond for essential cash inflows—including the $30 billion a year Saudis spend on tourism abroad every year. By providing new entertainment options in-country for Saudi Arabia’s citizens and residents, who pay more than any other country’s citizens while on vacation, Riyadh aims to redirect some of this overseas tourism spending back into the kingdom. It’s set up concrete goals to this effect, hoping to increase domestic spending on culture and entertainment from about three percent of household income to six percent. Saudi Arabia also likely hopes that Qiddiya will attract significant international tourism as well—one senior official tied the park’s creation to the goal of making Riyadh one of the top 100 cities in the world to live.
Of course, it is likely to be a long wait before the kingdom itself starts producing the cultural output that will make it a real entertainment hub; after all, Saudi public schools still do not teach music, dance and theater, and the kingdom lacks music and film academies. But by taking the first steps of embracing the vast economic potential of the entertainment sector, the kingdom may well be on its way there.
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