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Libya: From the Arab Spring to the identity dissolution

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Of all the states of the Maghreb and Mashreq of the Middle East and North Africa that have experienced the phenomenon of the “Arab Spring” resulting, in some of them, with removing the gerontocratic dictatorships, Libya is a country that has known one of the most striking forms of post-revolutionary development: from the internationally supported banishment of the dictator Muammar al-Gaddhafi in 2011, to a democracy sabotaged from its very first stage of germination, by identity conflicts and tribal and caste contradictions. In the period which followed, up to the present stage where, from the first half of 2014, the former Jamahiriya presents itself to the observer as a state of armed militias, of ambitions for power, of anarchy and rapid slippage towards social dissolution and, apparently, by towards misidentification and national fragmentation.

The fratricidal struggles between the Libyans are not recent, they arose when the TV in print media presented the bloodied and death disfigured face of the one who was the “the great leader of the revolution of September 1, an image in which all Libyans saw a sign of victory, but which each understood ac- cording to ambitions, interests, adventurism and aspirations of power and influence groups, families, tribes and clans of the most diverse, in a society whose demography is perhaps more acutely than in the case of the other Arab states, marked by a complicated ethnic and centrifugal plurimorfism which, in addition to Arabs, is composed of other ethnicities: Imazighen (Berbers), Greeks, Maltese, Italians, Pakistanis, Turks, Indians.  In the well-known tradition of faith in predestination and shifting responsibility for what is going on to anyone else but themselves, the Libyans do not cease to accuse the West, unanimously and regardless of the divisions that separate them, for the state in which Libya is today, nearly four years after the removal and trial less murder of Colonel Gaddhafi, in an advanced state of dissolution.

There is no doubt that the Western community and the influential Arab powers have their share of responsibility the “Libyan spring” – which was and certainly will still be examined in the minutest details – but it is equally doubtless that the Libyans themselves have their own and overwhelming responsibility at least to have too easily forgotten their national identity, the values for which they fought with gun in hand and the free future they are entitled to, and this social, mercantile, customary, territorial ideological and confessional frag- mentation is most clearly expressed in the realities of the multitude of “patriots” and “nationalists” who, on behalf of outdated vocal slogans, defend their own fortifications of concepts and interests.  This study aims to present, to the extent allowed by the printing space, a picture of Libya today, viewed from several perspectives – political, security and military – to facilitate a deeper understanding of contemporary Libya and the chaos in which it is struggling.   

A land of independent ”revolutionaries”  Today, the “private” armed militias are making the law in Libya. Their emergence, which coincided with the overthrow in August 2011, of the Gaddhafi regime, has at least two causal reasons: massive and brutal use of the former regime from, the early moments of social unrest, of military repression against the demonstrators, which determined their reaction to retaliate by using weapons, and secondly, limiting the actions taken by NATO regarding the air bombardment of the positions held by the military or by supporters of the former dictator, in parallel with the arming and the financial and logistical support of the protesters, in order to tilt the balance of forces in their favor. Well armed, both the revolutionaries and the military, the police and security forces defeated with the help of the Western military intervention, were organized in militia divided into two hostile camps, so that, in the next three years, amid the chronic political in- stability and the inability of the installed authorities (by the Western coalition leading the “democratic” Libya) to dissolve the extra-institutional and military formations and end the “militia phenomenon”, they grew numerically and from the point of view of the manpower, becoming, in their whole, a political, military and security force even stronger and more active than the governments that have succeeded and even than the national army.  
According to former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, if in the first days after the fall of Gaddhafi, the number of the “armed” rebels was around 30,000 people, today we speak of the active existence of more than 200,000 “militia” members of various colorations and ideological affiliations. Moreover, with time, the extra-governmental armed formations mosaic managed to impose itself and to substitute the very military institution in the execution of the state security and defense missions normally assigned to the army and police, such as the security and pro- tection of the major importance objectives (port facilities, oil fields, ports, airports, borders etc.).

We are currently experiencing the dramatic situation in which the government itself uses the services of the militia in this sense, as the same procedure is applied to the political parties or alliances engaged in the power struggle or in the liquidation of their political opponents. It is understood that, for their services, the militias require proper rewards which refer not only that the “beneficiaries” satisfy their pragmatic and group claims (of economic-financial nature), but also issues related to the sphere of politics or the interest of national and social unity, as in the case of the request for the establishment of the independent administrative region Brega – the most important reservoir of oil resources of the country – or the monopolization of oil exports out of the control of  any governmental control the requests being supported even by forceful action – the taking over of government and legislative offices, including the parliament building (which was forced, at gunpoint, to adopt the famous law of “political isolation (lustration) of the uncomfortable politicians”, especially those with a Ghaddafist past. In the same category is included  the use of the militias, by the political factors, either to repress peaceful demonstrations calling for reforms and improving the living standards, or for attacking foreign commercial consular or diplomatic representative offices, resulting in hostage taking and even fatalities.  
With the appearance of the retired General Khalifa Haftar on the political-military scene, leader of the inter-militia alliance self-entitled “Karamat Libya” (Dignity of Libya), fierce conflicts and political disputes appeared both within the government coalition and in the parliament, em- bodied, inter alia, by recourse to the support of the “private militias” to resolve political disputes and to organize, in early August, new anticipated elections, which resulted in the establishment of a new parliament and of a new executive disputed by the opponents, so that Libya offers the novelty of a country that has two simultaneous governments and two parliaments which repel each other, not hesitating to support their positions by appealing to strong arguments of the “party and clan militias”.   
The morphology of the military scene the current picture of the Libyan military spectrum dominated by militias is divided be- tween two large groups of armed formations, whose membership we will present in the following lines: It is the alliance that acts as the “Libya Dawn” (Fajr Libya) and its self-entitled adversary “Libya’s Dignity” (Karamat Libya) led by (ret.) General Khalifa Haftar.   

I. The alliance “Libya Dawn” (Fajr Libya) is organized as the oldest structure, consisting of formations encountered in the context of the revolution and the most heterogeneous in what regards the ideological orientations and programmatic objectives. The “alliance” is com- posed of the following main militant currents:  1) The “Shield of Libya” militias (Dar’u Libya) consisting of three regional divisions (central, eastern and western). Having its operational pivot in the Missurata region and city it is, in its great majority, composed of militant-Islamist elements whose ideology and doctrine are inspired and close to those of the “Muslim Brotherhood” movement. 2) “The Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Center”, an Islamist armed militia which acts mainly in the eastern areas of the national territory, fulfilling police specific missions. The formation was constituted in mid-August 2013, in Tripoli, through the merger of several “revolutionary” armed groups.

3) “The Revolutionary Phalanx of Tripoli ” (Katibat Thwwar Tarablus), a rebel formation of Islamist ideological doctrine affiliation, close to Abdel Hakim Belhajj, former leader of the Libyan Is- lamic opposition party “Al-Gama Al- Libiya Al-Muqatila” (the Libyan combat group). “The Phalanx” was founded by a former member of this group, Al-Mahdi Al-Harati (also founder of a Jihadist faction fighting in Syria) and who became after the Revolution … mayor of the capital Tripoli.  4) “The Shoura Council of the Revolutionaries of Benghazi”, appeared on June 20, 2014 as a partnership between several tiny Salafist-Jihadist groups, with the objective of fighting against forces led by (ret.) General Khalifa Haftar and the so-called “Al-Saika Battalion”, made up of former soldiers and officers of the Libyan army.  5) “February 17 Brigade”, considered to be the largest and best equipped formation, created as an “armed arm” of the Libyan “Muslim Brotherhood” movement. It works in the port city of Benghazi in the east. 6) “Al-Sahat Ra’fatallah Detachments” that is also present in the perimeter of Benghazi. Although it has announced its willingness to be integrated into the national army, the group has kept two training camps and its entire armament. It was the first militia which engaged fights with General Haftar’s troops in May this year.

7) The “Group of the Shari’a Partisans” militias (Gama’at Ansar Al-Shari’a). The main and most active Jihadist-Salafist party in Libya constituted, in addition to local Libyans, of thousands of foreign fighters coming, especially from Algeria, Tunisia and the sub-Saharan Sa- hel African countries. The group is on the list of terrorist organizations drawn up by the US Sta- te Department.  8) The group “The First Shield of Libya”, of Jihadist orientation, was established and operates in the city of Tripoli. More recently it has merged with the group “Gama’at Ansar Al- Shari’a”, alongside which it is engaged in confrontations with the armed formations led by General Khalifa Haftar.   
II. The Alliance “Libya’s Dignity” (Karamat Libya) is, in turn, a combination of armed military formations constituted by former Libyan soldiers and national army officers which is present in several conflict regions of the country. Accused by the alliance groups “Libya Dawn” of having “anti-revolutionary” objectives and character, the alliance is created and commanded by (r) Lieutenant General Khalifa Haftar and is composed by the following main entities:  1) “Libyan National Army” Forces, which include about a third of the soldiers and officers of the Libyan military. It is under the direct command of General Khaif Haftar.  2) “Al-Sai’ka” Forces (Thunderbolt), coming from the elite units of the national army and ordered by Colonel Younes Abu Hamadeh.  3) “Al-Sawaiq” Brigade (Lightning), belonging to the family of Al-Zintan – the largest as- sociation of Libyan tribes – well equipped and trained, and similar, in what regards the specific tasks and structure, with the Western private security firms. It is commanded by General- Colonel Mustafa Trabulsi, who is in close relations with the monarchy of the United Arab Emir- ates, from which he receives substantial financial and logistical aid.  4) “Qa’qaa” Brigade (translatable, approximately, by “thunder”, “noise” or “weapon noise”), established in 2011 as an armed militia of revolutionaries who fought against the armed forces loyal to Colonel Gaddhafi. It is commanded by Osman Mleiqta

5) “Warshafana” Battalion, a militia calling itself after the name of the tribal clan Warshfana from the ranks of which come most combatants.  6) “Libyan Tribes Council” Battalion, composed of Warshafana clan warriors and several close and ally tribes, in kinship with it.  7) “Tibou” tribal union forces, in the extreme south of the Libyan territory.   
The polarization of the political scene  In July 2012, were held the first free general election that Libya has experienced in the last half century and which provided a first look at the guidelines and beliefs of the Libyan electorate under the new conditions after the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Al-Ghaddafi and his “Jamahiriyan” regime. At that time, 80 of the 200 members of the new parliament in Tripoli – People’s General Congress – were elected on party lists, while the rest, the majority of 120 MPs awarded a nominal victory on the vote. Unlike other countries that have experienced the phenomenon of the “Arab Spring”, the poll revealed the landscape of the predominant orientation of the citizens towards the political liberal mainstream led by Mahmud Jibril who, with a total of 39 seats in parliament, was invested as the first head of post-revolutionary Libyan government.

At the other extreme, another party which entered the election race, the National Front, member of the political coalition self-named National Rescue Front, succeeded to win only three parliamentary seats. Instead, the Justice and Edification Party, derived from the Muslim Brotherhood movement received 17 seats, while two other Islamist parties – Nation’s Party, a center party led by Sami Saadi and the Center National Party, led by Ali Tarhouni, each obtained only two seats in the parliament.   However, the Libyan political life was to focus, quickly, in a different direction than the one crystallized in the first democratic election ballot, that of a strong centrifugal and multipolar movement, generated, in particular, by party, tribal and personal interests of the Libyan political class, so that, at the moment, the Libyan political map has the following plurimorphous configu- ration:  1. National Forces Alliance formed in the wake of the removal from power of the Gaddafi regime and consisting of a mosaic of the first forces and political trends that Libya knew after decades of dictatorship.

The alliance includes a small number of 41 political parties, hun- dred of independent members and civil society organizations and it is headed by Mahmoud Ji- bril, a former member of the Transitional National Council, formed after the regime change in the country. Proclaiming democracy, national identity and human rights as guiding principles of its program, the Alliance is ideologically characterized as liberal and secular, even though its leader, Mahmoud Jibril, said in July 2012, that the Shari’a Islamic law is the main principle of the Alliance’s actions which, besides the already mentioned guidelines, stands for accepting and encouraging the so-called “mid-moderate Islam”. At the legislative elections of July 2012, the Alliance won 39 seats out of the 200 seats of the Libyan parliamentary forum.   

2. “National Front” Party (Al-Djabha Al-Wataniya) set up in Tripoli, on the remains of the former National Rescue Front (created as a clandestine opposition movement in 1981, au- thor of a failed attempt to overthrow the regime Muammar Al-Ghaddafi by force, in 1984). Be- tween 1987 and 1990, the Salvation Front continued to organize military structures, using for this purpose the territory of the neighboring African country Chad, where they were set up as the “Libyan Patriotic Army”, which was subsequently to be actively involved in armed anti- Gaddhafi confrontations until his removal from power. The National Front, formed after this moment, in 2011, enrolled in its political platform approx. 16 principles and action objectives, including the adherence to the values of democracy, civilian and human freedoms, ensuring the establishment of political plural- ism as an expression of the freedom of opinion, etc. At present, the party is led by Mohammed Mugrif, who was, between 2012 and 2013, the president of the new Libyan parliament (the General National Congress).  

3. The “Muslim Brotherhood” Movement in Libya, which appeared in 1949, but, unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian branches of the “Muslim Brotherhood”, has failed to achieve a significant dissemination in its ideology among the masses, trade unions, and civic organizations, due, mainly, to the draconian repressive measures applied by the Ghaddafi regime. Only on March 3, 2012, did the Movement announce the establishment of a political party of its own, under the name of the “Justice and Edification Party” led by Mohammed Sawwan. Freedoms and human rights, participation of all citizens, without discrimination, to the edification of the society, decentralization and economic liberalization, balanced development of all provinces and regions of the country, reducing unemployment, increasing chances at a job and a life of dignity for all citizens, achieving social harmony and concord, are just some of the objectives of the political program of this party which during the elections in June 2014, won 14 seats in the Legislative forum of Libya.   

4. The federalist political current formed during the revolutionary events of 2011 from the representatives of the Libyan historical provinces Brega and Fezzan, wishing for the cessa- tion of the state of marginalization and underdevelopment that they had experienced during the former regime, claims from the new post-revolutionary authorities to be reintroduced in the na- tional circuit of resources and social and economic values of development. More than one year after the revolution and in response to the indifference with which the authorities in Tripoli have treated these claims, a group of officers led by Ahmed Senoussi Zubeir and several tribal leaders from eastern regions of the country, declared the establishment of a “Council of the Federal Province Brega”, headed by Ahmed Senoussi and having as programmatic objective the “protection and promotion of the province in a federal liberal state”. Simultaneously, another entity led by Ibrahim Jazran, organized as an armed militia, self-proclaimed independent as the “Political Bureau of the Province Brega”, taking control by force, of the oil terminals destined for the Libyan oil exports, as a means of pressure on the central authority to satisfy their grievances, among which the first was the demand for the establishment of the autonomous province Brega within the borders it had during the monarchy period of the Libyan history (from the city of Sirte to Tobruk, near the state border with Egypt). The current is known, in terms of the crises it has caused, and as the “Armed Liberal Current”.   

5. Tibou Movement is the ethnic and tribal groups settled in northern and western part of Chad, in the Tibesti mountain range in the south-eastern oases of Libya, in the far western part of Sudan and northern Nigeria. These are nomadic Bedouin tribes with a total population of approx. 5 million people (of which approx. 400,000 are Libyans), divided into 38 tribes and having as main occupation agriculture and sheep breeding. The Libyan ethnicity of the Tibou group was, starting in 2007, involved in protest and resistance actions against the Gaddafi regime, establishing, in this sense, its own political party the “Tibou Front for the Salvation of Libya”. According to the Tibou leader, Abdel Magid Mansour, the number of the Tibou combat- ants amounts to 1,200.   

The evolution of the internal crisis – main stages  The tensions on the Libyan political and social scene have entered into a process of rapid degradation and violent confrontation with taking control, by the armed militias, of the “field” initiative, which led to continuous pressure put on the policy makers and on the legislative and executive leadership, which progressively amplified the armed confrontations and the regional and international interference in the internal affairs of this country.  – In May 2013, the Parliament adopted the so-called “Law of Political Isolation” aimed at removing the former regime officials and supporters of Gaddafi from the political life. The adoption of the law occurred as a result of the pressure of the armed groups, after they took over government offices, including those of the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs and threatening to extend such actions.  – On August 3, 2013, armed separatist groups occupied major oil fields by force, claiming the autonomy of the province Brega.

The action, also continued this year, has brought huge losses to the national budget by stopping royalties and income from oil exports.  – In the same month, a new actor in the person of General Khalifa Haftar appeared on the political-military fringes along with his military coalition “Libya’s Dignity”, which marked the entrance of the internal situation in a stage of chaos, violent clashes and of personal and group vengeances, all resulting in loss of life and in significant losses and damage to the national economy of the country.  – On 10 March 2014, the then Prime Minister of the Libyan government, Ali Zeidan chose to resign, taking refuge in Germany after a loaded tanker managed to escape unhindered off- shore in the direction North Korea being, however, stopped by US ships patrol and brought back to the Benghazi port. In Zeidan’s place, the parliament invested Defense Minister Abdallah Al Thaniy to lead the Executive, but he also resigned after a few days, due to his inability to form a new national unity government.  – In early May 2014, the General National Congress (the Parliament) appointed Ahmad Moaytiq as Prime Minister, but the appointment was annulled by the Constitutional Court; – In mid-May this year, Gen. Khalifa Haftar ordered the beginning of the “Libya’s Dignity” national scale operation against the Islamist rebel groups and formations. – June 25: gathered in Cairo, the representatives of Libya’s neighboring states called all groups, forces and militias involved in the confrontation to accept the initiation and execution of an extensive dialogue of national reconciliation, promising, at the same time, to refrain from any intervention in the internal Libyan problem. In its turn, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution to that effect, warning the imposition of international sanctions if the players on the Libyan fringes do not accept a general cease-fire. – On July 21, the Libyans elected a new parliament dominated by liberals and Islamists.
The United States decided to close its embassy in Tripoli and evacuate the personnel.  – As of mid-July, the Libyan conflict takes on the dimensions and characteristics of a genuine civil war, particularly carried out in Tripoli and Benghazi.  – August 4, 2014: the elected Libyan Parliament held its first meeting at Tobruk, in the absence of the Islamist MPs. At the request of Tunisia, a new meeting of the representatives of the neighboring countries is held in Algiers, to analyze the possibilities of achieving a cessation of hostilities between Libyans. Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Niger and Chad are participating. – August 18 2014: Foreign bombardment devices of unknown identity perform bombing raids on the positions held by Islamist militias and on the international airport in Tripoli. Egypt and the UAE are charged with these actions. Both Cairo and Abu Dhabi reject the accusations.  – August 23: the “Libya Dawn” coalition militias (Fajr Libya) take control on the international airport in the Libyan capital. The Parliament in Tobruk declares the Jihadist groups “Ansar Al-Shari’a” and “Fajr Libya” terrorist organizations. Libya is a country with two governments and two parliaments (Tripoli and Tobruk) who deny each other’s legitimacy. – On August 25, the National General Council (whose mandate had expired since March) appoints Omar Al-Hassi as prime minister. The appointment is challenged by the Coun- cil (parliament) in Tobruk.  – September 4: According to a press release from the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva, about. 250,000 Libyans had fled their homes, finding shelter or in other areas of the country or in the neighboring countries.  

– September 7, 2014: A military transport plane loaded with weapons for the militia coalition “Libya Dawn” is intercepted and forced to land. Sudan’s military attaché is declared persona non grata and expelled in connection with this incident.  – September 22, 2014: the Libyan Parliament elected (in Tripoli) approved the composition of a second government led by Abdallah Al-Thaniy. 13 states (including the US and France) and the UN and the European Union address, in New York, a collective call for “an immediate ceasefire in the Libya immersed in political and security chaos” and the two parallel governments and parliaments each claims their legitimacy. – October 2, 2014: The violent fighting continued in Benghazi, 50% under the control of the Islamist rebels, between the “Shoura Council of the Revolutionaries of Benghazi” militia and units of the Alliance “Libya’s Dignity”, commanded by General Khalifa Al-Haftar, who sought help from the aviation and armor. Five attacks with explosives carried out by Islamist fighters caused the death of more than 50 soldiers from the units of General Haftar. The 15 members of the Security Council addressed a new call to the cessation of the armed confrontation, warning with the imposition of new international sanctions against Libya.  – On October 6, the self-entitled Jihadist movement “The Shoura Council of the Revolutionaries of Benghazi”, member of the “Libya Dawn” proclaimed the city and oil district Derna in the east of the country as “Islamic emirate”, pledging, at the same time, the oath of allegiance and loyalty to the leader of the Islamic State, “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It was the first significant penetration of the Da’ish Jihadist offensive in Libya which, in the absence of an urgent national reconciliation dialogue between all parties involved in the Libyan war, “threatens to expand rapidly and make the Libyan territory the third part of the “Islamic caliphate” in Syria and Iraq”, according to Bernardino Leon, the representative in Libya of the UN Secretary General. – 15 to 16 October: the Libyan army and the forces led by General Khalifa Haftar triggered a strong ground offensive, supported by aircraft and armored vehicles, on the positions held by the Islamist militias in the northeast and in the city of Benghazi. News releases, formally belied both by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo and by the spokesman of the US State Department referred to the Egyptian involvement in the bombing raids on Islamist parties. The attacking units took control of the quarries in the south and west of the city Benghazi, as well as on the sites and logistics of the militia and self-entitled “February 17 Brigade” – the armed arm of the Libyan movement “Muslim Brotherhood”.  

Libya, which, after the dictatorship of Muammar Al-Gaddafi, went through a “bloody spring” just to come under the dictatorship of gangs, militias and armed tribes, seems to move rapidly towards social dissolution and national and territorial dismantling despite the regional and international community attempts to determine, through dialogue or through penalties and economic pressures, a ceasefire and transition to a national reconciliation process. Such prospects still remain remote, as long as, in addition to the ambitions and interests of the political class, of the “professional revolutionaries” and tribal influences, this situation is maintained by the regional actors, including by funding and support of a political orientation or of one or the other of the armed militias.  Will the new multinational anti-terrorist campaign have a positive influence – be it only as a warning – on this complicated and dramatic situation? Only short-term developments will allow an answer to this question.  

 

First published in “Geostrategic Pulse

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

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

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

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

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

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

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Middle East

Foreign intervention in Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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