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.
Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?
“You are betraying your country by exposing its defects!” is a common accusation made by the sycophants to the ruling regime in Egypt who have managed to well situated themselves in our society simply by blindly praising the ruler’s policies. Apparently, these sycophants place a higher value on the privileges that they have gained to living in a truly advanced nation. In fact, the real betrayers of any given authoritarian nation are those who justify this immoral ruling mechanism for their own personal gain.
Despotism is the evilest ruling mechanism ever devised; apart from its cruelty and unfairness, it works on inflating the ruler’s ego by mirroring his thoughts that are always passionately endorsed by his flatterers, regardless of their merits! Meanwhile, the ruler’s manipulation of the entire political sphere impairs the state’s ability to detect and correct its blunders. Concurrently, the harsh and inhuman treatment of the state’s critics, which includes threats to their personal lives, results in spreading fear throughout the entire society.
A successful strategy for running a country ruled by a tyrannical government is to enable ignorant citizens to dominate the state media exclusively, thus empowering them to express their opinions on a much wider scale than knowledgeable citizens. This approach consequently creates significant friction between knowledgeable and ignorant citizens, resulting in the polarization of the entire nation. The state methodically fuels this process by labeling the mediocre as loyal citizens and accusing its critics of treason.
The privileging of sycophants financially, along with advancing their power and upscaling their status, have prompted many Egyptians to join this beneficial club, which prerequisites praising superiors and justifying their faults, thus compensating for the natural dullness and incompetence of the flatterers. Meanwhile, the state’s critics who demand freedom and stand by their values are aware that they are engaged in a long-lasting battle and are risking their lives for generations to come!
In fact, sycophants are the weakest link in the state’s ruling dynamics. They hypocritically heap intense praise on the security apparatus who sacrifice their lives to defend our nation – but do their utmost to ensure that their youngsters abandon their military duty; just one facet of their deceitful conduct. Sycophantic behavior and false testimony are the most sinful acts in Islam; yet they have become, ironically, a habitual pattern of behavior in our social norms.
That Egypt needs to be ruled by an Iron-fist is a common argument put forth by the flatterers. It is translated into applying harsh measures to critics and laxity toward lawbreakers – a proposition that reflects the low moral values espoused by flatterers to secure their status. The policy of maximum repression adopted by the current ruling regime might be successful in controlling society; however, it has certainly contributed to an escalation of terrorism activities by political Islamists against the military apparatus.
In my former party, the Egyptian Democratic Front, a few executive party members used to instantly report our internal discussions to the State Security apparatus. In addition totheir immoral conduct and betrayal of their peers, they used to enhance their ratting out by exacerbating our opposing political stands. I argued, at that time, for either offering those ratters a crash course on “minutes-taking” or inviting the State Security apparatus to participate in our meetings to better learn about our viewpoints.
“Cairo is a dirty city” – a painful remark that I occasionally hear from international visitors to our capital. The Egyptian State will never be able to manipulate the perception of millions of diversified tourists who visit Cairo yearly, but we can easily work to bring order to our city and live in a hygienic place. The same applies to other qualities of life such as freedom, dignity and justice; we need to highlight deficiencies in these areas to be able to advance our nation.
President Al Sisi has a clear desire to be a remarkable leader; he believes that expanding our roads and building new flyovers will make Egypt an advanced nation and that these developments will be credited to his legacy. The president is unaware that the future of our country will be written and judged by the youths of today, who are extremely angry with him due to his policy of demolishing humanity and freedom, compounded by his inability to create decent jobs for youngsters.
Egypt is currently confronting a number of complex internal and external challenges, including an economic slowdown, a civil war on our eastern borders, a potential water shortage due to the filling of Ethiopian GRED and rising unemployment. All of these challenges, and many more, will simply be intensified by our deep polarization, further weakening the state. The sycophants’ deliberate misleading of Egypt concerning these challenges is dragging our nation downward, transforming us into a fragile state.
Advancing an old-fashioned country like Egypt requires honest citizens who have bold ideas and enough courage to implement their ideas. These qualities are found more among knowledgeable citizens and critics of the state who are already sacrificing for their country; large numbers of them are spending their best years in prison simply for having voiced their opinions. Modernizing Egypt will require our president to unite our nation, appointing well-educated citizens to key positions and completely discarding state sycophants.
Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling
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.
Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?
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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