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Syria: a labyrinth of ruin

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The conflict and resulting destruction in Syria has been going on since 2011 and no foreseeable end is in sight.

Over a quarter million deaths have occurred and half of the entire population has been displaced, with millions of refugees travelling to other countries, from regional neighbors to various European countries, driven asunder by ISIS. Various state actors have their own personal agendas and each posits a solution unique to its own interests. Is there a way out of this quagmire and how feasible is it to implement it?

The United States and Western Europe have no desirable options in combatting ISIS, nor for that matter do they have a comprehensive plan outside of an adherence to a parochial binary platform in which a thriving democracy must somehow be implemented and all the undesirable factions removed. Not only is this at best problematic, it is not working. The United States insists that the only solution is to remove Assad from power, that his continued presence makes it difficult, if not impossible to end the civil war. Washington has made their position on Assad clear with President Obama reiterating policy by recently stating, “Let’s remember how this started, Assad reacted to peaceful protest by escalating repression and killing and in turn created the environment for the current strife.” Assad’s violent reaction against a democratic movement, one of the ideological cornerstones of American core values and a lynchpin in directing American foreign policy, further eroded what little legitimacy he had with Washington thus necessitating his removal in their eyes.

The insistence by the White House that Assad needs to be removed from power in order to facilitate the destruction of ISIS is short-sighted at best and realistically counter-productive. The air campaign led by the Americans has done very little to stop the ISIS advance within Syria. Current gains within Syria in the last few weeks show this to be the case. Since ISIS captured Palmyra in central Syria this summer they have progressed in their advance on Damascus. Recently they captured the town of al-Qaratayn which now extends their reach considerably and places their forces within 30 kilometers of the M5, the arterial highway that links Damascus with those other parts of Syria still under government control. In the case of Palmyra, they captured it fairly easily because of the Americans refusal to engage ISIS with a single munition because the area was defended by government forces. American reluctance was surely increased by their recognition that Palmyra was a place in the past associated with severe repression by the Assad regime, its notorious prison there was the site for hundreds of executions of political dissidents and accounts of brutal torture still echo within the Syrian community that surrounds the region. That fact aside, witness American involvement in defending the Kurdish city of Kobani, in which at least one thousand air strikes were conducted to defend the city, helping the Kurds to eradicate ISIS forces that were besieging the city at the time.

While there is continued American reluctance to assist the forces of Assad in any way, the following scenario is realistically possible. If ISIS is able to sever the M5 or even control a stretch of the highway it will most certainly cut off the only arterial connection that Damascus has in logistically supporting the other areas in Syria that it currently controls. If this happens it will most likely lead to the collapse of the regime. The impending collapse of the Assad government will remove the primary combatant against ISIS who will then seize Damascus. ISIS, whose efficiency at wholesale destruction resembles that of a plague of locusts, will waste no time in eradicating whole swaths of the population they identify as government supporters, apostates and other categorical definitions deemed incompatible with ISIS ideology. Up to 20 million people presently live in government controlled areas and the collapse of the government would lead to a refugee crisis that will dwarf the current one underway in Europe, with potentially up to five million more people fleeing across the Syrian border.

For months the U.S. has focused on the training of a moderate force which can counter ISIS gains or at least impede further progress by the barbaric organization. This is simply wishful thinking. Recently it was announced by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Christine Wormuth, that there are only four or five fighters left from the first group of 54 Syrian fighters that had been trained by the U.S. as part of a $500 million program to combat ISIS with only one hundred lined up for additional training. Half a billion dollars and the immediate result is less than half a dozen fighters. After reports of U.S. trained rebels defecting and turning over their U.S. supplied equipment to hostile factions such as al- Qaeda, the Pentagon suspended the program to train and equip Syrian opposition forces in September of this year.

While there are certain parallels with the American intervention in Iraq in the past decade, the difference with Syria is that the stakes are higher, not only for regional players but on the worldwide stage as well. Weapons of mass destruction (primarily those of a chemical composition such as sarin) will be the most coveted spoils of the collapsed state. A recent French intelligence report concluded that Syria most likely possessed more than one thousand tons of various chemical agents that could be, or were already, militarized for use. International consensus is that Syria has employed the use of chemical weapons on its enemies and also that captured stockpiles have been utilized by ISIS as well in counter-strikes. The fact that the dispersal range for chemical weapons invariably harms more of the civilian population that its military target is irrelevant to both sides. If Syria falls, it will be up to those states which have the means to destroy or eradicate the chemical stockpiles, a procedure that is both at times unreliable as well as fraught with danger. The only semblance of order comes from the hated Assad regime, but order it is nonetheless and the prospects for its internal collapse leading to a bloody and protracted civil war involving a myriad of players are great.

But what would happen if Assad was ousted by force, either through direct intervention by the Coalition forces formed against him or by succumbing to ISIS and other rebel factions? There will be a security vacuum. We have seen this before in other failed states, both as a result of outside intervention and in those with internal collapse.

If Assad is ousted a plethora of scenarios are possible, none of them appealing save some isolated regional imbalances of power that will favor one state over the other. The possibilities are as follows. The collapse of the regime will result in a Syria that is overrun by extremists. Even if the extremists left behind along with ISIS (such as the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham) end up in conflict with one another, the fact remains that ideologically they share the same goals; the various factions will eventually merge, either through combat or through assimilation and ISIS will be in a better position to exert its will. The most likely scenario is a protracted civil war reminiscent of the one experienced by Lebanon’s sectarian conflict in the 1980’s which lasted well over a decade and involved multiple actors both politically, ideologically, and religiously motivated. Such a protracted conflict could produce hundreds of thousands of casualties. The inherent danger in this potential scenario, however, is much greater here than it was in Lebanon. Because the civil war in Syria is divided among Sunni-Shiite lines (along with other manifested hostilities to minority classifications such as Christians, Kurds, etc.), the possibility of the conflict spreading to other neighboring countries (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and possibly even Turkey) with the same sectarian demographic is certainly worryingly possible. The consequences of such an inter-regional conflagration could be catastrophic to both the U.S. and Europe’s long term strategic and economic interests and would lead to massive regional instability.

The possibility of such a scenario does have a potential silver lining in that it would make Iran more susceptible to American demands because of the distinct possibility of the erosion of the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis if Assad falls. However, the United States so far have refused to recognize this possibility and insists on negotiating on issues that simply are more important to them than they are to Iran (the much maligned nuclear deal for example). As Iran and its various proxies groan under the mounting casualties and loss of equipment, Washington could use these setbacks as leverage to keep Iran somewhat more compliant during future negotiations.

There is one regional actor, however, whose fortune could improve if said scenario develops; Israel will lose no sleep if Hezbollah is weakened significantly, certainly possible if Assad falls and Iran loses its key political and geographical intermediary between them and Lebanon. Hezbollah has already lost hundreds of fighters in its attempt to bolster the Baathist regime, and has refocused strenuous efforts to prevent penetration into Lebanon from ISIS and other rebel forces such as the al-Nusra Front, which have penetrated into Lebanon on several occasions.

Israel is in a unique position in that there are indeed a few scenarios that may be advantageous in regards to their own security. Although current thinking within Israeli leadership is that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t, based on the assumption that they know Assad realizes the limits to imposed aggression against the Israeli state while ISIS doesn’t, the possibility exists that a collapse of Syria will bring about a more stable security on their Northern border with Lebanon. Syrian collapse, coupled with weakening Iranian support, will inevitably result in a weakened Hezbollah. Compounding the problem is that Hezbollah is already engaged with ISIS and other numerous rebel factions and has suffered hundreds of casualties. The concern that ISIS would further encroach into Lebanon is not held as being realistically probable because of the current Israeli belief that the present international coalition against ISIS would increase substantially if such a takeover was even possible. Indeed, it is one of the few instances in which the major Sunni powers in the Middle East, Russia, and the United States would be united in stopping further ISIS encroachment. Furthermore, those areas in which Syria has an active role in encouraging international condemnation of Israel, primarily the return of the Golan Heights, would effectively cease. Most likely this would result in Israel’s permanent claim to the Golan Heights going widely unchallenged in light of a fractured and collapsing Syrian state.

It could even be rationally argued that an ISIS presence within Lebanon would be easier for the Israelis to deal with that Hezbollah, which has the backing and logistical support provided by both Syria and Iran and whose actions are primarily decided upon by Tehran. Key differences also include the regional aspirations of ISIS as opposed to Iran’s sweeping objective to incorporate Hezbollah into their goal in becoming a major actor within the Middle East. This isn’t to say that Israel would prefer ISIS, whose irrational actions, cruelty, and opposition to adhere to even the slightest diplomatic protocol, make them difficult to predict and as a result very dangerous. One thing is for certain – ISIS doesn’t have the extensive capabilities that Hezbollah is afforded as a result of being backed by moderately strong state (Iran).

The Russian argument that Assad should stay in power for the time being is fast becoming the only valid argument in play. Russian entry into the conflict changes the dynamics of the current crisis considerably. Russia and Syria have had a bilateral relationship dating back to a non-aggression pact signed in April of 1950. With the advent of the Cold War, the ties between the two countries deepened both economically and militarily in reaction to the various wars and conflicts that erupted across the region over the last several decades, to the point that the Syrian port of Tartus was Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base until the widening civil war resulted in Russia evacuating its naval personnel from the region. The United States has been using Syrian air space to lead a campaign of air strikes against ISIS, and an increased Russian presence raises the prospect of the Cold War superpower foes encountering each other on the battlefield – something that neither side relishes for obvious reasons.

The Kremlin has made no secret of its disdain in removing “legitimate institutions” via the imposition of democratic reform backed by American support. Putin, who in his recent U.N. address cited Iraq and Libya as prime examples of the dangers of forced democratization, stated that, “Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a flagrant destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty, and a social disaster.” Addressing “those who’ve caused the situation,” specifically those in the West who tried to export democracy through “revolutions,” Putin said he’s temped to ask, “Do you realize now what you’ve done?” To Putin the power vacuum created in several countries of the Middle East and North Africa has led to anarchy with growing numbers of extremists eager to radicalize areas outside of their borders including those countries where they originated from.

There are no “rational actors” in this conflict, and none that could even remotely be considered as providing reasonable expectations in participating in peace negotiations should Assad fall. In addition, the Kremlin has steadfastly maintained that at least Assad is more predictable than non-state actors, especially considering the fact that most of the rebel factions (those relevant outside of ISIS) don’t have a reasonable hierarchy in which one spokesman can represent and control the multi-tentacled factions.

Putin has ulterior motives as well, motives that he believes (with some merit) are a distinct possibility, that the jihadists fighting in Syria would inevitably spread their militant ideology to the soft underbelly of Russia, from the predominantly Muslim regions under direct Russian control to the secular but overwhelmingly Muslim republics. Russia has long had problems with Islamic insurgencies, dating back centuries, and the Kremlin is keen on removing any possibility of incubation via returning jihadists. This is especially true with the increasing number of Chechnyans who are fighting with ISIS and have made no secret of their desire to attack Russia and “liberate” Chechnya and the Caucasus from Russian influence. Omar al-Shishani, Isis’ Chechen military commander, has repeatedly stated that Russia is their next target. The Kremlin is also acutely aware that the majority of ISIS fighters from non-Middle East countries are from Russia. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov announced recently that over 2000 Russians are currently fighting with the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS) terrorist group. Calling the figures “alarming,” Syromolotov added that they are constantly monitoring growing calls by ISIS leaders to carry their jihad to the Northern Caucasus and in Central Asia.

Russian’s sudden demonstrative action in getting directly involved in Syria will have the intended effect of giving them even greater leverage within the Middle East, something that has not been attainable for the Kremlin since Egypt abandoned them for the Americans in the late seventies. In the eyes of those in the Middle East, the Russian desire to actively engage the crisis in a way that the Americans are not willing to do has increased their presence substantially. Since taking on a larger role, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have all met with Putin. In essence, Middle East leaders are detecting America’s regional decline and Moscow’s rise – and are planning accordingly.

While both Washington and Moscow have repeatedly stated that their primary enemy is ISIS, Russia steadfastly supports Assad, while the Americans state that his continued (though diminished) rule is untenable and makes the current situation worse. Oddly enough, both the United States and Russia have the same goal in mind, changing the balance of power on the ground, they just happen to be backing different sides. As both sides continue to pour in material and support (complete with corresponding air campaigns), there is a chance that the combatants will grow exhausted and some sort of compromise acceptable to both sides will occur. But before that point is reached, hundreds of thousands will have to die, as neither side is willing to entertain any idea of stopping the fighting short of their respective goals.

Meanwhile the slaughter continues.

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The role of Guangdong Province in the Egypt – China relationship

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For the past few years, Egypt-China bilateral trade has witnessed a big leap where Egypt has opened up its markets to the Chinese products. There are many aspects that impressed me the most about the economic and trade cooperation between Egypt and China, regarding the recent important role of Guangdong in the Egypt – China relationships.

  Guangdong has special relations with Egypt, as they work together to advance and strengthen economic and commercial exchange and cooperation with the continent of Africa, and in particular with Egypt, as Egypt was keen to work and conduct many discussions and joint meetings with officials of Guangdong Province on enhancing investment and trade between Guangdong, China and Egypt. The trade and economic cooperation talks of Guangdong Province with Egypt came under the supervision of the (People’s Government of Guangdong Province), in cooperation with the Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Authority of Guangdong Province and the General Authority for investment and Free Zones in Egypt. The (General Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce) is also keen to open prospects for joint economic and investment cooperation with Guangdong Province.

 Both Egypt and the officials at Guangdong have already held (a conference on investment and trade between the Chinese province of Guangdong and Egypt) to identify the most important joint investments between the two parties.

 The Guangdong provincial government has prepared an unprecedented large-scale trade and economic delegation to visit Cairo, which included more than 60 institutions with great weight covering all disciplines to participate in the talks with the Egyptian side. This Chinese delegation represented a number of leading and important institutions in Guangdong Province, in the field of communications, household electrical appliances, building and construction, the manufacture of motorcycles, furniture, spinning, weaving and other light industries, to transfer their expertise and investments to the Egyptian side.

 Officials in the Chinese province of “Guangdong”, which represents the largest province in China in terms of the volume of foreign trade exchange, signed many agreements for investment cooperation with Egyptian businessmen.

  The agreements included the establishment of a number of joint venture companies between the Egyptian and Chinese sides in the field of electronics, motorcycles and information technology, in addition to one agreement stipulating the acquisition of 32.5% of the shares of the Egyptian “Raco” electronics company by the Chinese “GD Media” holding company and Carrier for the manufacture of refrigerators.

 The total value of the agreements signed yesterday amounted to about 400 million dollars and comes within the framework of activating the role of Chinese companies in the economic zone northwest of the Gulf of Suez, which is being developed by TEDA-Egypt.

 Most of the agreements between Egypt and Guangdong are aiming to transfer the Chinese manufacturing technology to the Egyptian market, provided that it is re-exported to the Middle East and African markets with an Egyptian mark of origin, to enjoy the incentives offered by the governments of neighboring countries for exported and locally manufactured products.

 The first of these agreements between Cairo and Guangdong was an agreement between the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation in Guangdong Province and the TEDA Egypt Investment Company to promote the economic zone in the northwest of the Gulf of Suez to Chinese companies.

 The Chinese Guangdong Group also signed an agreement with Egypt China Friendship Motorcycle Company to export motorcycles, in addition to another agreement to establish a factory to assemble bicycles locally.

 The same group also signed another agreement with Metal Technical Company to export electronic devices and freedom products, while Guangzhou Environstar Company signed an agreement with “Teda Egypt Company” to set up a non-woven fabric factory.

And the Guangzhou Dayun Motorcycle Company signed an agreement with the “Ibrahim Mahmoud Ibrahim” group to establish the “Egypt-dayu” company for motorcycles.  The China National Research Institute of Electrical Appliances also signed a joint cooperation agreement with Rajamec Mechanical and Electrical Works Company.

 Guangzhou Wuyang Motors CO. also signed an agreement with the “United Brothers” company for the distribution of motorcycles and spare parts, while Finmek Electronics signed an agreement with the economic zone in the northwest of the Gulf of Suez for investment cooperation.

 Shoppingmode Huawei for Communications and Information Technology signed 3 agreements, the first with the Suez Economic Zone to undertake the work of an integrated technology system for the region, in addition to an agreement with the National Center for Communications to conduct a training program on telecommunications technology, as well as signing an agreement with Luxor Governorate in the presence of Governor Samir Farag to establish  E-learning project in the province.

 Guangdong Winone Elevator entered into a partnership agreement with Megastar Elvato to export electric elevators.

 Guangdong VTR Buo-Tech signed an agreement with Delta Vet Center for Feed Export, in addition to Guangdong Han’s Yueming Laser Technology Company and Sharjah General Trading Company signed an agreement to export machinery.

 Zhongshan City Fudi Electrical Equipment Company signed an agreement with Al-Fas Engineering Company to export home appliance accessories, in addition to TCL Overseas Marketing Company signing an agreement with the Engineering Company for Electronics and Technological Industries to export color televisions, while Zhaoqing Foodstuffs Company for export and import agreed with Al-Jasr Herbs Company  for the export of agricultural products and the company “GAC-QHD (Meizhou)” for auto components, in agreement with the Matrix Engineering Company for the export of auto parts, while the Chinese Victory Furniture Factory signed an agreement with Beni Suef Governorate to establish a furniture company in the governorate.

 In connection with the above, we reach an important conclusion that it is not possible to talk about Chinese investments in Egypt in isolation from addressing the tangible role of Chinese companies in the giant Guangdong Province in the process of economic and social development in Egypt, and the distinguished results they achieved in this regard. The Suez canal Zone for economic and trade cooperation between China and Egypt, known as TEDA, has become an industrial zone that enjoys the best comprehensive environment, the highest investment intensity and the highest production unit in Egypt, assisted by a large number of companies and investments in the Chinese province of Guangdong operating for years and after the launch of the Belt Initiative.  And the Chinese road in Cairo, which had a special role in strengthening the special relations between Cairo and Guangdong as a special Chinese economic zone.

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Iran: A major Replacement of Human Resources

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Since 1979, when the mullahs seized power, Iran has topped the list of countries affected by the “brain drain”. What appeared to be local bleeding at the time may now become total bleeding affecting other sectors of the population.

The headline of one of the stories in the official news agency, IRNA, was: “It is not only the elite that migrate.” The daily newspaper, Javan, affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, warned that Iran was losing some of its best-educated people, and stated that mass immigration of “elite elements” “costs the nation millions of dollars.” But immigration now attracts Iranians with less skills or devoid of skills.

According to the best semi-official estimates, since 1979 some eight million people, roughly 10 percent of the population, have left Iran, including an estimated 4.2 million highly educated and highly skilled people.

In the past four years, the brain drain has accelerated, with an average of 4,000 doctors leaving each year.

According to IRNA, at present, 30,000 general practitioners and senior nurses are awaiting the “good professional standing” certificates that developed countries require from those wishing to immigrate from so-called “developing countries”, such as Iran.

A study conducted by two researchers from the University of Tehran, Adel Abdullah and Maryam Rezaei, showed that almost all Iranians who immigrate seek to enter the European Union or the so-called “Anglosphere” countries such as Britain, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia.

Only 10 percent of potential immigrants are willing to go “anywhere else” to get out of Iran.

The immigration requests did not include a single request who wanted to go to a Muslim country, and the only exception is Iraq, which attracts thousands of Iranian mullahs and students of theology who go to Najaf and Karbala to escape the government’s domination of religion in Tehran.

Potential immigrants also avoid China, India and Russia, while the only two Asian countries still attracting Iranians are Malaysia and Japan.

For many potential immigrants, the first destination they want to go to is Dubai, then Istanbul, then Cyprus and until recently Yerevan (the capital of Armenia), where visas are being applied for to desired destinations. Some immigrants may have to wait two or three years to obtain visas from the European Union, Canada and the United States.

Who migrates and why?

Some of the answers came from a three-year study conducted by Sharif University (Ariamher) in Tehran. According to the study, a survey of 17,078 people across all 31 provinces of Iran showed that 70 percent of senior managers and highly skilled employees in the public sector wish to immigrate.

In the projects and businessmen sector, 66 percent expressed their desire to emigrate. This figure drops to 60 percent among doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.

The study shows that the majority of potential immigrants are highly educated, unmarried youth from urban areas, i.e. the higher the education of the individual, the greater the desire to leave.

Among those who express “dissatisfaction with the current situation,” 43 percent of them want to leave the country. This figure drops to 40 percent among those who feel “great satisfaction”, which reveals that the desire to leave is deeper than occasional social and political concerns, which is confirmed by other figures in the same study.

Of those who felt “despairing about the future in Iran,” 42 percent want to leave, a figure that drops to 38 percent among those who still have some hope for the country’s future.

The study shows that the desire to flee Iran is not caused by economic hardship as a result of unemployment or inflation. It is not only the poor or the unemployed who wish to flee, but also those with good jobs, or candidates for well-paid jobs and a seat on the mullahs’ train and their security and military partners.

The largest number of immigrants comes from the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan and Qom, where per capita income is 30 percent higher than the average income in the country. Poorer provinces such as Sistan Baluchistan, Boyer Ahmad, Koh Kiluyeh, and South Khorasan are at the bottom of the list in terms of immigrant numbers.

The study does not provide figures, but there is anecdotal evidence that tens of thousands of immigrants, especially to Canada and the United States, are descended from ruling Islamic families.

None of the studies we looked at suggested other reasons as potential attractions for immigrants, such as the great success stories of Iranian immigrants around the world. A study conducted by Nooshin Karami revealed that more than 200 politicians of Iranian origin now occupy senior positions in the political structures of 30 countries, including those of the European Union and the Anglosphere. 1000 Iranians hold senior positions in international companies, while thousands more are active in the media, scientific research and academic circles in the leading industrialized countries. Dozens of Iranian writers, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers have built successful careers for themselves outside of Iran.

At the other end of the spectrum, Iran also attracts immigrants from neighboring Iraq, from the Kurdish and Shiite Arab regions, the Nakhichevan enclave, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while hosting thousands of religious students from Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Nigeria. Qom.” According to state media, many students remain in Iran after completing their studies and marrying Iranian women.

All in all, Iran hosts more than six million “foreign guests,” including Afghan, Pakistani, and Iraqi refugees. Interestingly, the desire to leave seems to have reached the “guests” as well. Between March 2021 and March 2022, more than half a million Afghan refugees returned to their homes.

To deal with the consequences of this “brain drain,” the Islamic Republic unveiled a program to attract highly educated and skilled people from “anywhere in the world” with the promise of one-year contracts, good salaries, and enjoyment of “all citizenship rights except the right to vote.”

An estimated 300,000 fighters who served under the Iranian command in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen were promised permanent residence in Iran and access to agricultural land to start a new life.

Critics claim that the Khomeinist regime is pleased that so many potential opponents among the urban middle class are leaving Iran, as Iran can compensate for the loss of population with newcomers from poor Muslim countries who aspire to a better standard of living under what they see as a “true Islamic” regime.

It is worth noting that other authoritarian regimes, notably the former Soviet Union, communist China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, benefited from the exodus of what they saw as potential enemies from the middle class, allowing them to implement a scheme of “great replacement.”

On this, Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Mohammad Reza Najdi said: “Let those who do not love us leave the country, to make room for those who love us.”

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‘Saudi First’ aid policy marries geopolitics with economics

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When Mohammed al-Jadaan told a gathering of the global political and business elite that Saudi Arabia would, in the future, attach conditions to its foreign aid, the finance minister was announcing the expansion of existing conditionality rather than a wholly new approach.

Coined ‘Saudi First,’ the new conditionality ties aid to responsible economic policies and reforms, not just support for the kingdom’s geopolitics.

For the longest time, Saudi Arabia granted aid with no overt strings. The aid was policed by privately demanding support for the kingdom’s policies, often using as a carrot and stick quotas for the haj, the yearly Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca allotted to countries across the globe.

As a result, over the years, Saudi Arabia poured tens of billions of dollars into black holes, countries that used the aid as a band-aid to address an immediate crisis with no structural effort to resolve underlying causes.

For countries like Lebanon, Egypt, and Pakistan, this meant stumbling from one crisis to the next.

“We are changing the way we provide assistance and development assistance. We used to give direct grants and deposits without strings attached, and we are changing that. We are working with multilateral institutions to actually say, we need to see reform,” Mr. Al-Jadaan told this month’s World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos.

Saudi First serves multiple Saudi purposes.

It ties geopolitical drivers of Saudi aid to economic criteria that are likely to enhance the kingdom’s influence, create opportunities for Saudi investment and business, and enhance the kingdom’s ties to recipient countries.

In doing so, the additional conditionality positions the kingdom as a constructive, forward-looking member of the international community. It aligns Saudi Arabia more closely with multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), regional development banks, and major donors such as the United States and the European Union.

It also enables Saudi rulers to circumvent the implications of the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ that traces its roots to the American revolution.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s social and economic revamping of the kingdom while tightening the political screws as part of his plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy has involved introducing taxes with no political participation.

“Saudi people see their resources going abroad while they’re being asked to pay taxes, have their benefits cut, and so on. So, I think this Saudi first stance really serves as a way to both court and contain populism,” said Gulf scholar Kristin Smith Diwan.

Saudi circumvention of the American revolutionary principle, irrespective of whether it helps pacify Saudis, has already had unintended consequences.

Earlier this week, the Jordanian parliament fired a deputy, Mohammad Al-Fayez, for asking Mr. Bin Salman to stop aiding Jordan.

“All your aid lands in the pockets of the corrupt. Your donations pay bills that have nothing to do with the Jordanian people. We hear about aid coming in for the state. However, this aid only goes to a corrupt class that is getting richer at the expense of the proud Jordanian people,” Mr. Al-Fayez said in a letter to the crown prince.

The Jordanian parliament’s measure coincided with the Saudi finance minister’s announcement. Mr. Al-Fayez wrote his letter in December at the height of clashes in the southern city of Maan between security forces and protesters angry about rising fuel prices and poor governance.

Countries like Lebanon, Pakistan, and Egypt that are potentially most impacted by the new conditions for Saudi aid illustrate the geopolitical complexities of the change.

For Saudi Arabia, Lebanon is about countering Iran and its Lebanese Shiite proxy, Hezbollah, a powerful militia and political movement with significant influence in government and the country’s power structure.

Saudi Arabia hopes that the new conditionality will force a change in Lebanon’s power dynamics.

“The whole world knows what the kingdom offered Lebanon…until it…was back on its feet. But what can we do if current Lebanese policy chooses to surrender the reins of an ancient Arab nation to Iran’s proxy in that country?” asked Saudi columnist Hammoud Abu Taleb.

To be sure, the Lebanese establishment is responsible for the country teetering on the brink of collapse.

The World Bank has described the crisis fuelled by corruption, waste, and unsustainable financial policies as one of the worst globally since the mid-19th century.

This week’s judicial battle over holding powerful figures accountable for the 2020 Beirut port explosion that has spilled onto the streets of the Lebanese capital reflects the establishment’s determination to shield itself no matter the cost to Lebanon as a whole.

The explosion in a warehouse in the port housing hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, killed 218 people, injured more than 6,000, and damaged large parts of Beirut.

A Saudi contribution to forcing political change, a sine qua non for putting Lebanon on a path toward recovery, would be welcome.

It would also go some way towards the kingdom taking responsibility for its role in fighting a decades-long proxy war with Iran that helped bring the Mediterranean nation to its knees.

That is, if the conditions imposed by Saudi Arabia are tailored in ways that contribute to change while seeking to alleviate the pain the Lebanese endured, with the Lebanese pound losing 95% of its value, prices skyrocketing, and purchasing power demolished.

One way would be making accountability for the Beirut blast a condition for future aid.

Recent Saudi standoffishness towards the regime of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was evident in the kingdom’s conspicuous absence at a gathering of regional leaders in Abu Dhabi earlier this month. Mr. Al-Sisi was one of the attendees.

The standoffishness reflects the fact that Egypt is a black hole. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states have injected tens of billions of dollars with few tangible results except for keeping in power a regime that emerged from a 2013 military coup supported by the kingdom and the Emirates.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed the coup as part of a campaign to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The coup also ended the flawed presidency of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader. Because he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi was like a red cloth to a bull in the two Gulf states.

The UAE recognised early on that it needed to ensure its billions were judiciously deployed. So it based a Cabinet-level official in Cairo to advocate reforms and assist in crafting policies that would help put the economy back on track.

The Emirati effort came to naught, with Egypt continuously needing additional funds from the Gulf and the IMF, and the UAE, allowing Mr. Al-Sisi to turn the military into the country’s foremost economic player.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war on commodity and energy prices only aggravated Egypt’s economic crisis that is largely the result of Mr. Al-Sisi’s economic mismanagement

Mr. Al-Sisi unsuccessfully tried to manipulate Egypt’s currency, set misguided spending priorities, launched wasteful megaprojects, and expanded disruptive state and military control of the economy.

Time will tell what lessons the Saudis may learn from the Emirati experience. Unlike Lebanon, the question is whether Saudi Arabia will strictly impose its news aid policy conditionality or continue to view Egypt as too big to fail.

The problem for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is that popular discontent is simmering just below the surface in Egypt and could explode at any time. What makes things potentially more volatile is the possibility of the plight of the Palestinians, aggravated by the policies of Israel’s new hardline, Jewish nationalist government, becoming the catalyst for anti-government protests.

Such demonstrations have a life of their own, and in a moment, they can turn into a protest against the government, against poverty and waste, and we have a direct confrontation whose results can be lethal,” said an Egyptian journalist.

One factor in Saudi thinking about Egypt may be the perception that the North African country, which refused to get sucked into the kingdom’s war in Yemen, may no longer be the security buffer in Africa it once was together with Sudan, a country in transition following a 2019 popular revolt.

That seemed to be one reason for this month’s signing of a memorandum on defence cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Chad, a nation in a region wracked by ethnic and jihadist insurgencies.

The memorandum signals a potential Saudi interest in playing some security role in West Africa at a time that France is on the retreat while Turkey, Iran, and the Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, are on the march.

Last year, Qatar mediated a peace agreement between the Chadian government and more than 30 rebel and opposition factions. However, nine groups, including the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), the most powerful insurgent faction, refused to sign the deal.

The likelihood of Saudi Arabia taking on an expanded security role far from its shores may be slim in the immediate future.

Even so, creating building blocks that include tighter relations with recipients of Saudi foreign aid through sensible strings attached is one step towards cementing the kingdom’s geopolitical influence.

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