While the world’s attention remains focused on Ukraine, Crimea is portrayed as its hotbed. No wonder as this peninsula is an absolutely pivotal portion of the Black Sea theatre for the very survival of the Black Sea fleet to both Russia and Ukraine.
In the larger context, it revels the old chapters of history books full of overt and covert struggles between Atlantic–Central Europe and Russophone Europe for influence and strategic depth extension over the playground called Eastern Europe.
However, there are two other vital theatres for these same protagonists, both remaining underreported and less elaborated.
Author brings an interesting account on Caspian and Artic, by contrasting and comparing them. He claims that both water plateaus are of utmost geopolitical as well as of geo-economic (biota, energy, transport) importance, and that Caspian and Arctic will considerably influence passions and imperatives of any future mega geopolitical strategies – far more than Black Sea could have ever had.
Between Inner Lake and Open Sea
As the rapid melting of the Polar caps has unexpectedly turned distanced and dim economic possibilities into viable geo-economic and geopolitical probabilities, so it was with the unexpected and fast meltdown of Russia’s historic empire – the Soviet Union. Once considered as the Russian inner lake, the Caspian has presented itself as an open/high sea of opportunities literally overnight – not only for the (new, increased number of) riparian states, but also for the belt of (new and old) neighbouring, and other interested (overseas) states.
Interest of external players ranges from the symbolic or rather rhetorical, to the global geopolitical; from an antagonizing political conditionality and constrain to the pragmatic trade-off between (inflicting pain of) political influence and energy supply gain. Big consumers such as China, India or the European Union (EU) are additionally driven by its own energy imperative: to improve the energy security (including the reduction of external dependencies) as well as to diversify its supplies, modes and forms on a long run.
On a promise of allegedly vast oil and natural gas resources (most of which untapped), the Caspian is witnessing the “New Grand Game” – struggle for the domination and influence over the region and its resources as well as transportation routes. Notably, the Caspian is a large landlocked water plateau without any connection with the outer water systems. Moreover, 3 out of 5 riparian states are land-locking Caspian, but are themselves landlocked too. (Former Soviet republics of) Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have no direct access to any international waters. That means that pipelines remain the only mode of transportation and delivery of carbonic fuels, thus creating yet another segment for competition, and source of regional tension as the 3 raparian states do depend on their neighbours for export routes.
Both the Artic and Caspian have numerous territorial disputes and are of absolute geopolitical importance for their respective littoral states, and well beyond
Finally, due to both the unsolved legal status of the Basin as well as the number of political and territorial disputes in Caucasus and on the Caspian, numerous new pipeline constructions and expansion projects have been proposed, but so far not operationalized. For the EU, the most important being the Nabucco pipeline, which, although not fully guaranteed, serves as the hope for reduced dependence on Russia.
The following lines will therefore consider the geopolitical, legal and economic (including the energy security for the final end–user, supplier and transiting countries) features of the Caspian theatre, complex interplays and possible future outlook.
To explain the long lasting Russian presence at Caspian and still prone interested in the region, two factors are at interplay: geopolitical and geo–economic.
Ever since Peter the Great, Russian geopolitical imperative is to extend the strategic depth. It naturally necessitated ensuring the security for its southwest and southern flanks of the Empire. Such a security imperative brought about bitter struggles for Russia over the domination of huge theatre: Eastern and Central Balkans, Black Sea, Caucasus and Caspian basin. Russia was there contested by the Habsburg empire, by the Ottomans, Iran (and after collapse of the Ottomans by the Britons) all throughout the pre-modern and modern times.
Just a quick glance on the map of western and southwest Russia will be self-explanatory showing the geostrategic imperative; low laying areas of Russia were unprotectable without dominating the mountain chains at Caucasus, Carpathian – Black Sea – Caucasus – Caspian – Kopet Dag. Historically, the main fight of Russia was with the Ottomans over this line. When the Ottomans were eliminated from the historic scene, it was Britain on the Indian subcontinent and in Iran as a main contester – the fact that eventually led to effective splitting the basin into two spheres of influence – British and Russian.
The Caspian water plateau – a unique basin
The Caspian (Azerbaijani: Xəzər dənizi, Persian: دریای خزر or دریای مازندران, Russian: Каспийское море, Kazakh: Каспий теңізі, Turkmen: Hazar deňzi) is the world’s largest enclosed or landlocked body of (salty) water – approximately of the size of Germany and the Netherlands combined. Geographical literature refers to this water plateau as the sea, or world’s largest lake that covers an area of 386,400 km² (a total length of 1,200 km from north to south, and a width ranging from a minimum of 196 km to a maximum of 435 km), with the mean depth of about 170 meters (maximum southern depth is at 1025 m). At present, the Caspian water line is some 28 meters below sea level (median measure of the first decade of 21st century) . The total Caspian coastline measures to nearly 7,000 km, being shared by five riparian (or littoral) states.
The very legal status of this unique body of water is still unsolved: Sea or lake? As international law defers lakes from seas, the Caspian should be referred as the water plateau or the Caspian basin. Interestingly enough, the Caspian is indeed both sea and lake: northern portions of the Caspian display characteristics of a freshwater lake (e.g. due to influx of the largest European river – Volga, river Ural and other relatively smaller river systems from Russia’s north), and in the southern portions where waters are considerably deeper but without major river inflows, salinity of waters is evident and the Caspian appears as a sea. (Median salinity of the Caspian is approximately 1/3 relative to the oceanic waters average).
The geomorphology of the Caspian is unique and many authors have referred to the formation similarities of the Black Sea–Caspian–Aral and their interconnectivity back to Pleistocene. Most probably, some 5,5 million years ago two factors landlocked the Caspian: the tectonic uplift of the basin and the dramatic fall of the earth’s oceanic levels which literally trapped the Caspian to the present shores. Due to its unique formation and present water composition variations, the Caspian hosts rare biodiversity and many endemic species of flora and fauna (presently, threatened by rising exploration and exploitation of vast oil and gas reserves).
The Inner Circle – Similarities
The so-called “Inner Circle” of the Caspian Basin consists of the five littoral (riparian) states, namely Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, sharing the common coastline.
As much as the geographically distant as well as different by their distinctive geomorphology and hydrology, the Arctic and Caspian – when contrasted and compared – however resemble several critical similarities.
Both theaters are grand bodies of water surrounded by 5 riparian/littoral states. (Meaning both are water surrounded by landmass, while Antarctica represents landmass surrounded by water.) Both of them are of huge and largely unexplored natural resources and marine biota. Both the Artic and Caspian have numerous territorial disputes and are of absolute geopolitical importance for their respective littoral states, and well beyond. Finally, both theaters are also of unsolved legal status – drifting between an external quest for creation of special international regime and the existing Law of Sea Convention system (UNCLOS).
Ergo, in both theaters, the dynamic of the littoral states displays the following:
1. Dismissive: Erode the efforts of international community/external interested parties for creation of the Antarctica-like treaty (by keeping the UNCLOS referential);
2. Assertive: Maximize the shares of the spoils of partition – extend the EEZ and continental shelf as to divide most if not the entire body of water only among the Five;
3. Reconciliatory: Prevent any direct confrontation among the riparian states over the spoils – resolve the claims without arbitration of the III parties. (preferably CLCS).
One of the most important differentiating elements of the two theatres is the composition of littoral states. The constellation of the Arctic Five, we can consider as being symmetric – each of the Five has an open sea access (as the Arctic itself has wide connection with the oceanic systems of Atlantic and Pacific). On contrary, the Caspian Five are of asymmetric constellation. The Caspian Five could be roughly divided on the old/traditional two (Russia and Iran), and the three newcomers (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan). This division corresponds also with the following characteristic: only Iran and Russia have an open sea access, other three countries are landlocked – as the Caspian itself is a landlocked body of water.
Like no other country, the Persian proper is uniquely situated by connecting the Euro-Med/MENA with Central and South, well to the East Asia landmass. Additionally, it solely bridges the two key Euro-Asian energy plateaus: the Gulf and Caspian. This gives Iran an absolutely pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic posture over the larger region – an opportunity but also an exposure! No wonder that Teheran needs Moscow for its own regime survival, as the impressive US physical presence in the Gulf represents a double threat to Iran – geopolitically and geo-economically.
 The Caspian basin records gradual and cyclical water level variations that are basically synchronized with the volume discharge of the Volga river system and co-related to the complex North Atlantic oscillations (amount of North Atlantic depressions that reaches the Eurasian land mass interior).
Biden-Putting meeting: Live from Geneva
19:00 The places of the flags on the Mont Blanc bridge on which President Biden and President Putin will pass to reach the meeting venue on Wednesday usually hold the flags of the different Swiss cantons. Not today. The American and Russian flags have been placed to welcome the two leaders.
18:00 A day before the Geneva summit: Hotel Intercontinental where the American delegation and probably President Biden himself is staying, how the city looks like a day before the meeting, what are the security measures like, why isn’t the UN involved and are the usual protests expected?
Iveta Cherneva with live video political commentary from Geneva one day ahead of the Biden-Putin Summit
Will the promotion of cricket in GCC add to its Soft Power?
In recent years, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, have been trying to bolster their ‘Soft Power’ in a number of ways; by promoting tourism, tweaking their immigration policies to attract more professionals and foreign students and focusing on promoting art and culture. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken the lead in this direction (in May 2017, UAE government set up a UAE Soft Power Council which came up with a comprehensive strategy for the promotion of the country’s Soft Power). Under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia has also been seeking to change its international image, and it’s Vision 2030 seeks to look beyond focusing on economic growth. In the Global Soft Power Index 2021, Saudi Arabia was ranked at number 24 and number 2 in the Gulf region after the UAE (the country which in the past had a reputation for being socially conservative, has hosted women’s sports events and also hosted the G20 virtually last year)
Will the promotion of cricket in GCC add to its Soft Power?
One other important step in the direction of promoting Soft Power in the GCC, is the attempt to popularize cricket in the Gulf. While the Sharjah cricket ground (UAE) hosted many ODI (One Day International )tournaments, and was witness to a number of thrillers between India and Pakistan, match fixing allegations led to a ban on India playing cricket at non-regular venues for a duration of 3 years (for a period of 7 years from 2003, Sharjah did not get to host any ODI). The Pakistan cricket team has been playing its international home series at Sharjah, Abu Dhabu and Dubai for over a decade (since 2009) and the sixth season of the Pakistan Super League is also being played in UAE. Sharjah has also hosted 9 test matches (the first of which was played in 2002).
Sharjah hosted part of the Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament in 2014, and last year too the tournament was shifted to UAE due to covid19 (apart from Sharjah, matches were played at Dubai and Abu Dhabi). This year again, the UAE and possibly Oman are likely to host the remaining matches of the IPL which had to be cancelled due to the second wave of Covid19. The ICC Men’s T20 World Cup to be held later this year (October-November 2021), which was actually to be hosted by India, could also be hosted not just in the UAE, but Oman as well (there are two grounds, one of them has floodlights). International Cricket Council (ICC) is looking for an additional venue to UAE, because a lot of cricket is being played there, and this may impact the pitches. The ICC while commenting on the possibility of the T20 World cup being hosted in the Middle East said:
, “The ICC Board has requested management [to] focus its planning efforts for the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2021 on the event being staged in the UAE with the possibility of including another venue in the Middle East’
GCC countries are keen not just to host cricketing tournaments, but also to increase interest in the game. While Oman has a team managed by an Indian businessman, Saudi Arabia has set up the SACF (Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation) in 2020 and it has started the National Cricket Championship which will have more than 7,000 players and 36 teams at the school level. Peshawar Zalmi, a Pakistani franchise T20 cricket team, representing the city of Peshawar the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which plays in the Pakistan’s domestic T20 cricket league – the Peshawar cricket league — extended an invitation to the SACF, to play a friendly match against it. It’s owner Javed Afridi had extended the invitation to the Saudi Arabian team in April 2021. Only recently, Chairman of SACF Prince Saud bin Mishal met with India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dr Ausaf Saeed, to discuss ways for promoting the game in Saudi Arabia. He also visited the ICC headquarters at Dubai and apart from meeting officials of ICC also took a tour of Sharjah cricket ground.
GCC countries have a number of advantages over other potential neutral venues. First, the required infrastructure is already in place in some countries, and there is no paucity of financial resources which is very important. Second, there is a growing interest in the game in the region, and one of the important factors for this is the sizeable South Asian expat population. Third, a number of former cricketers from South Asia are not only coaching cricket teams, but also being roped in to create more enthusiasm with regard to the game. Fourth, UAE along with other GCC countries, could also emerge as an important venue for the resumption of India-Pakistan cricketing ties.
In conclusion, if GCC countries other than UAE — like Saudi Arabia and Oman — can emerge as important cricketing venues, their ‘Soft Power’ appeal is likely to further get strengthened especially vis-à-vis South Asia. South Asian expats, who have contributed immensely to the economic growth of the region, and former South Asian cricketers will have an important role to play in popularizing the game in the Gulf. Cricket which is already an important component of the GCC — South Asia relationship, could help in further strengthening people to people linkages.
Analyzing the role of OIC
Composed of fifty-seven countries and spread over four continents, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) is the second-largest intergovernmental body following the United Nations (UN). And it is no secret that the council was established in the wake of an attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Safeguarding and defending the national sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of its member states is the significant provision of the OIC’s charter. OIC charter also undertakes to strengthen the bond of unity and solidarity among member states. Uplifting Islamic values, practicing cooperation in every sphere among its members, contributing to international peace, protecting the Islamic sites, and assisting suppressed Muslim community are other significant features of its charter.
Recently, the world witnessed the 11-days long conflict between Hamas and Israel. In a recent episode of the clash between two parties, Israel carried out airstrikes on Gaza, claiming many innocent Palestinian lives. The overall death toll in the territory rose to 200, including 59 children and 35 women, with 1305 injured, says Hamas-run health ministry. This event was met with resentment from people across the world, and they condemned Israeli violence. After 11 days of violence, the Israeli government and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. The event of Israeli violence on Palestinians has called the role of OIC into question. The council, formed in the aftermath of the onslaught on Al-Aqsa mosque, seemed to adopt a lip service approach to the conflict. However, the call for stringent measures against Israeli aggression by the bloc was not part of its action.
Likewise, the Kashmir issue, which has witnessed atrocities of Indians on innocent Kashmiris, looks up to the OIC for its resolution. Last year, during the 47th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) in Niamey, Niger, the CFM reaffirmed its strong support for the Kashmir cause. The OIC categorically rejected illegal and unilateral actions taken by India on August 5 to change the internationally recognized disputed status of the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir and demanded India rescind its illegal steps. However, the global community seems to pay deaf ears to the OIC’s resolution. The Kashmir issue and the Palestine issue are the core issues of the world that are witnessing the worst humanitarian crisis. And the charter of the bloc that aims to guard the Muslim ummah’s interest rings hollow. About a year ago, the event that made rounds on electronic and social media was the occurring of the KL summit, which reflected another inaction of the OIC. The move of influential Muslim countries (Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia), to sail on the idea to establish another forum to counter the OIC, manifested the rift in the bloc.
Many OIC countries are underdeveloped and poorly governed and are home to instability, violence, and terrorism. The consequences of the violence and terrorism in the OIC countries have been devastating. According to Forbes, 7 out of 10 countries, which suffer most from terrorism are OIC members. The Syrian conflict is another matter of concern in the Mideast, looking up to OIC for a way out. An immense number of people have lost their lives in the Civil war in Syria.
Several factors contribute to the inefficiency of the bloc. The first and foremost reason is the Saudi-Iran stalemate. Influential regional powers (Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) in the Mideast share strained links following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Both sides dissent each other on many fronts. Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran of interfering in its internal affairs, using terrorism as a tool to intimidate neighbors, fuelling sectarianism, and equipping proxies to de-stabilize and overthrow the legitimate government. Locked in a proxy war in the Mideast, the KSA and Iran vie for regional dominance. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear program is met with strong resentment in the KSA since it shifts the Balance of Power towards Iran. Such developments play a vibrant role in their stalemate, and the bloc’s effectiveness is hostage to the Saudi-Iran standoff.
Political and social exclusion in many OIC states is the norm of the day, contributing to upheaval and conflict. In OIC countries, the level of political participation and political and social integration is weak. This fact has rendered OIC countries vulnerable to unrest. Arab Spring in 2011 stands as the best example. Furthermore, conflicts, since the mid-1990s, have occurred in weak states that have encountered unrest frequently.
Saudi Arabia has tightened its grip on the OIC. The reason being, the OIC secretariat and its subsidiary bodies are in the KSA. More importantly, the KSA’s prolific funding to the bloc enhances its influence on the bloc. One example includes, in the past, the KSA barred an Iranian delegation from the OIC meeting in Jeddah. Saudi authorities have not issued visas for the Iranian participants, ministry spokesman, says Abbas Mousavi. “The government of Saudi Arabia has prevented the participation of the Iranian delegation in the meeting to examine the deal of the century plan at the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation,” Mousavi said, the Fars news agency reported. Given the Iranian growing influence and its access to nuclear capabilities, the KSA resorted to using financial leverage to reap support from Arab countries against Iran. For instance, in past, Somalia and several other Arab states such as Sudan and Bahrain received a commitment of financial aid from Saudi Arabia on the same day they cut ties with Iran. Furthermore, the summits of OIC, GCC, and Arab League are perceived as an effort by Saudi Arabia to amass support against Tehran.
Division in the Muslim world and their clash of interests is yet another rationale behind its inefficacy. These days, many Muslim countries are bent on pursuing their interests rather than paying commitment to their principles, that is, working collectively for the upkeep of the Muslim community. Last year, the governments of Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that they had agreed to the full normalization of relations. Following this, the Kingdom of Bahrain became another Muslim country to normalize its links with Israel. Such moves by the Islamic countries weaken the OIC agenda against Israel.
OIC’s efficacy would be a distant dream unless the Saudi-Iran deadlock finds its way. For this purpose, Pakistan can play a vital role in mediating between these two powers. Pakistan has always been an active player in the OIC and played its role in raising its voice against Islamophobia, Palestine Issue, and the Kashmir issue. Shunning their interests and finding the common goals of the Muslim ummah, should be the utmost priority for the members of the bloc. Every OIC member ought to play its part in the upkeep of the bloc. Furthermore, a split in the bloc should come to an end since it leads to the polarization of member states towards regional powers. Many OIC countries are rich in hydrocarbons (a priceless wealth, which is the driver for the growth of a country); if all OIC members join hands and enhance their partnership in this sphere they can fight against energy security. And OIC is the crux for magnifying cooperation among its member states to meet their energy needs.
In this era of globalization, multilateralism plays a pivotal part. No one can deny the significance of intergovernmental organizations since they serve countries in numerous ways. In the same vein, OIC can serve Muslim ummah in multiple ways; if it follows a course of adequate functioning.
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