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Outflanking Iran: The Salman Canal Proposal

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The Riyadh-based Arab Century Center for Studies published a report last month that calls for a 950km canal to be built through Saudi Arabia and Yemen, allowing the oil rich gulf to bypass the Straits of Hormuz.

The project is estimated to cost $80bn and will take 5 years. What is perhaps most striking about the study and limited/regional media attention it has gotten, however, is the distinct lack of geo-strategic considerations and consequences.

salman1The focus of the study is on the social benefits to those living on or near the proposed canal, the time that transporters will save, and the potential for regional and international tourism that will be gained from this regional revival. This again is the accidental or intentional avoidance of the strategic reality this project will bring. Make no mistake, the proposed Salman Canal is a tinder box of ideas between Arabian and Persian energy competition. It should furthermore come as no surprise that this report has come only weeks after the signing of the JCPOA nuclear accord with Iran. Whether this study is the product of academic imagination, or an example of backroom side-dealing, the Salman Canal proposal represents Saudi fears and quite possibly Saudi Arabia’s first attempt to outflank a rising Iran post-JCPOA.

The report makes two primary claims as to the feasibility and benefit of this project: reduced costs for gulf exporters and the general social and quality of life benefits for the areas near the canal. First, exporters that commonly pass through the Straits of Hormuz will have their travel time cut in half. This will therefore reduce shipping costs – which is therefore a net benefit to producers and consumers. Second, the Canal will “revive the empty quarter” in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. This revival will see the construction of industrial and residential cities, new areas of tourism and commerce, and is estimated to potentially create millions of jobs. In short, according to the report, the Salman Canal is a win for everyone – Saudi and Yemeni citizens will have new and higher paying jobs, a poorer region will be revived and invigorated with energy and economic growth, and energy producers in the region and consumers around the world will enjoy better access and prices to one of the world’s most important energy-producing regions. To use the words of the Head of the Arab Century Center for Studies, Saad Bin Omar, “The canal will add 1,200km of clean and splendid coasts in the Empty Quarter and will have 20 tunnels for cars and pedestrians on the Saudi side, while it will add 700km of waterfront to Yemen and revive the desert areas in the east of the country.”

salman2This outlook requires one large assumption, or a certain degree of ignorance, regarding the parties that benefit from, or control, the Straits of Hormuz. In this case it is difficult to see how the Salman Canal is not seen as an act of Saudi economic warfare from the perspective of Iran. The most obvious lens to view the potential change is in oil, and therefore, money. While the JCPOA has been argued both positively and negatively as a plan that brings billions to Iran through the removal of economic sanctions, the Salman Canal will somewhat negate this benefit. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter through the Straits of Hormuz. However, the Canal will offer a benefit also to Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE. Each ship and barrel provides a transaction cost to the host it ships through. In this case, the Salman Canal, if it is indeed a shorter and cheaper route, undercuts Iran’s economic advantage in the region dramatically.

A second lens is each nation’s new geostrategic leverage. Iran has for many years used the global importance of Hormuz as a bargaining chip and at times a de-facto veto on the world stage. It has been long argued that if Iran were to blockade the Straits in order to secure a political or negotiated advantage that the global price of oil could increase by 50% in a matter of days. These terms are understandably unacceptable to the global market. The Salman Canal would effectively eliminate Iran’s most important geostrategic ploy. While the Salman Canal is only a document at this stage, what is important for energy and Gulf security experts is paying attention to key political moments in the coming months. In other words, if this report moves from paper to planning, where will the great and regional powers line up? Not just the United States and EU, but Russia, China, and India.

From the US perspective this question is quite challenging. On the one hand the US may feel compelled to make moves to assure and reaffirm its historic relationship with Saudi Arabia. This relationship has been tepid at best since the signing of the JCPOA. Supporting the Salman Canal could be seen as an act of balancing or a form of benign neutrality in Middle East policy. Just because US has begun to open diplomatic and economic ties with Iran, does not mean it needs to cut off or lessen its ties with Saudi Arabia. This, however, will be in direct contestation with Iran and Russia. For Iran, US support of Saudi Arabia in this venture could be seen as classic Western diplomacy – to extend one hand in favor while keeping the other clenched and concealed. Iran will likely turn to old and new forms of brinksmanship in negotiation – first by threatening to blockade the Straits of Hormuz and second by mimicking much of the current US Presidential primary debates with the Republican Party by threatening to ‘tear up the deal.’ From the Russian perspective, any US support will look no different than other moves to divert economic power and energy toward the strategic dominance of America. From the Caspian, to Ukraine, to the Gulf, Russia fears its influence is being challenged if not waning in respect to the US. The fear in all of these cases is when does brinksmanship cross the line and devolve into open and dangerous conflict?

As it currently stands the Salman Canal is just a proposal, nothing more. If the geostrategic realities continue to be ignored it should probably stay that way. For economic advantage aside, ignoring those realities will surely bring not just a quicker oil route through the Gulf, it will bring a whole new level of tension and potential hostility to a region that, quite frankly, cannot endure it.

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The challenges lie ahead Ankara’s decision to normalize relations with Cairo and Damascus

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as they attend reception hosted by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the occasion of the opening ceremony of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. [Murat Kula - Anadolu Agency]

Although Egypt and Syria are at the bottom of the list of states with which Turkey intends to reconcile, the 10-year conflict with the two mentioned countries, which is accompanied by conflict and bloodshed in Syria, is on the verge of ending, and Turkey’s relations with Egypt and Syria are returning to normal. 

Of course, the recent progress is due to the efforts of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey; Especially after the negotiators failed to close the last case of incompatibility between the two sides. The process of reconciliation began in 2021, in the city of Al-Ala in Saudi Arabia, and since then, Cairo and Ankara continued to strive and innovate in order to achieve reconciliation and compromise, and finally achieved positive and significant results.

However, the reconciliation between the two states was not at the leadership level; Until Qatar provided the ground for the meeting of Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Doha during the opening ceremony of the World Cup. The sitting of the Secretary General of the United Nations between the presidents of the two countries was not aimed at keeping them away from each other, and it seems that the Egyptians and the Turks had prepared for this occasion a few weeks ago, and the opening ceremony of the World Cup was held as a tribute to the mediation of Qatar, as the appointment was selected.

Regardless of political compliments, the reconciliation of Egypt and Turkey is very important; Because the continuation of tension between the two countries can lead to many risky developments. Relations between Egypt and Turkey became strained after the overthrow of the government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. At that time, it became clear to political observers that this inconsistency will last for a long time and will not end soon; Especially since the late president of Egypt tried to run his country with the mentality of a one party rule. For this reason, the solidarity of the angry protesters with the security institutions played a central role in changing the situation in this state and marked the end of the Muslim Brotherhood government. Then, the Muslim Brotherhood made Istanbul its alternative capital and began its plans and efforts to return to power from there. This caused a crisis in the relations between Egypt and Turkey, and with the passage of time, the incompatibility between the two states increased.

However, in the past year and a half, the governments of Turkey and Egypt have held several meetings in order to resolve the dispute and end the disputed cases, and they were able to achieve significant successes in terms of security and media. Ankara more or less stopped the activity of the Egyptian opposition in Turkish territory, but the reconciliation between the two sides was not complete and the disagreement over how to manage the Libyan war crisis and the dispute over territorial waters in the Mediterranean remained unresolved.

In the case of Libya, Turkey supports one side of the conflict and Egypt supports the other side. Libya plays a vital role for Egypt in terms of security, and it is an important market for Turkey in terms of economy. In addition, Libya has many debts to pay to Turkey since the Gaddafi government.

On the other hand, after the discovery of gas fields in the Mediterranean waters, which are believed to contain a large amount of energy, there was a dispute between Egypt, Turkey and Greece over territorial waters in the Mediterranean, and the aforementioned states have not been able to find a solution to overcome this challenge.

The issue of ending the tension between Egypt and Turkey is very important, because achieving this goal may help end the war in Libya, and this in itself is reason enough to be optimistic about the current efforts for reconciliation between the two states. However, the price of this reconciliation will be paid by the opposition affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood outside of Egypt.

Of course, the path of reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara is extremely chaotic and risky. It is so difficult to reach the stage of reconciliation between the two states that, according to Erdogan, if he himself goes to Damascus, he will not be able to find a quick solution to end this complex crisis. Turkey and Syria have been fighting indirectly for more than 10 years. In addition, several military powers, including the forces of the Islamic Republic, Russia, the United States, foreign militias, the remnants of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the separatist Kurds of Turkey, and the Syrian armed opposition continue to invade Syria.

Meanwhile, the inability of Damascus to control parts of the Syrian territory has created a power vacuum in different parts of the country. Millions of Syrian refugees live abroad; In addition, millions of other citizens who have been forced to leave their homes have sought refuge in areas far from the war and are still displaced.

Therefore, any solution that is presented to end the crisis should consider the above points. Currently, all sides want the war in Syria to end, but the path to achieving this goal remains elusive.

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Protest emerges as a mixed blessing for World Cup host Qatar

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Protest on the soccer pitch has proven to be a mixed blessing for World Cup host Qatar, exposing double standards in the Gulf state’s position as well as that of its critics.

Qatar embraced protest when it supported Qatari policies, such as the Gulf state’s increasingly assertive denunciation of double standards in Western criticism of discrimination against LGBT people or its refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in the absence of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, protesters and foreign media quickly encountered the limits of Qatari tolerance and notions of freedom of expression when they touched on politically sensitive issues, ranging from support for LGBT rights to solidarity with demonstrators in Iran, who have defied a brutal crackdown by security forces in more than two months of anti-government manifestations.

As a result, the debate on double standards at times amounted to the kettle calling the pot black.

That is not to question the legitimacy of criticism levelled by Qatar and its critics at each other. However, it is to note that both parties’ credibility is in question because of their inconsistencies and failures to put their own houses in order.

“On one level, the World Cup is unfolding smoothly. On another, we go from crisis to crisis,” said a journalist covering the tournament for a major Western news organisation.

Photographers were often on the frontline as Qatari authorities stopped them from snapping pictures of security forces preventing fans from wearing clothing to matches or taking into stadiums paraphernalia that signalled support for Iranian protesters or LGBT rights.

‘The real test case will be when the United States plays Iran. That could be the crescendo in the clash over what protesters and media can and cannot do,” said another journalist.

The November 29 match is likely the World Cup’s most politically charged game, with talks to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme all but dead and Iraq-mediated negotiations with archrival Saudi Arabia suspended.

Iran accuses the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel of inciting the sustained anti-government protests.

The US Soccer Federation joined the fray with Iran ahead of the two nations’ World Cup match when it briefly displayed Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying the move was in support of protesters in Iran.

Iran accused the federation of removing the name of God from their national flag and said it would complain to FIFA. However, US Soccer later restored the Islamic republic’s flag on social media.

Meanwhile, Qatari nationals, intending to protest against Western double standards in criticism of the Gulf state, didn’t encounter problems entering the stadium to watch Germany’s group stage match against Spain.

During the game, Qataris displayed pictures of former German national team player Mesut Özil, a German-born descendant of Turkish immigrants, while covering their mouths in protest against German double standards.

Mr. Özil quit the German team after becoming a target of racist abuse and a scapegoat for Germany’s early World Cup exit in 2018.

The Qatari demonstration was in response to Germany’s team covering their mouths at a group photo in advance of an earlier match against Japan in protest against FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s banning players from wearing One Love bands during games.

In the same vein, prominent Qataris wore pro-Palestinian armbands to the Germany Japan match to counter the pro-LGBT One Love band sported by German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser during the game.

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, signalled the Gulf state’s greater assertiveness in countering criticism when he lamented some three weeks before the kickoff of the World Cup that Qatar had been “subjected to an unprecedented campaign,” scrutiny, and scorn “that no host country has faced.”

In an indication that human rights, labour, and LGBT groups may be losing leverage, the emir said that “we initially dealt with the matter in good faith, and even considered some of criticism as positive and useful… (But) it soon became clear that the campaign tends to continue and expand to include fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question real reasons and motives behind this campaign.”

The critics’ problem is their past failure to tackle with equal ferocity issues of human rights, prejudice, and bigotry in the run-up to the 2018 Russian World Cup, as well as to separate the wheat from the chafe by distancing themselves from criticism of Qatar that was laced with bias and racism.

In doing so, critics are as much their own worst enemy as they have been drivers of social change in Qatar.

By allowing Qatar to deflect criticism by calling into question critics’ credibility, activists have enabled the Gulf state to take its counteroffensive to the next level.

A week into the World Cup, Qatar was reviewing, according to the Financial Times, its substantial investments in London after the city’s transport authority suspended advertising from the Gulf state because of the controversies over worker and LGBT rights.

Qatari investments include London’s landmark Harrods department store; The Shard, an iconic 72-storey skyscraper; and Canary Wharf, part of the city’s central business district. Qatar also owns Chelsea Barracks, the Savoy and Grosvenor House hotels, 22 per cent of Sainsbury’s supermarkets, six per cent of Barclays bank, and 20 per cent of Heathrow airport.

“Countries like…Qatar…view their investments as strategic bribes to mute criticism and resist reforms,” said Radha Stirling, a London-based lawyer who represents expatriates in the Gulf who run into legal difficult

To be fair, Qatar was one of 11 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia that were banned in 2019 from advertising by Transport for London on the grounds of human rights violations. Nevertheless, the agency allowed some Qatari advertising promoting the Gulf state as a tourist destination until last week’s World Cup kickoff, when it decided to implement the ban fully.

Even so, the list reinforced the notion of double standards by failing to include China at the height of its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang; Russia that was annexing Ukrainian territory, repressing LGBT people, and attempting to assassinate its critics at home and abroad; and Israel with its increasingly racial policies towards Palestinians.

Qatar is likely to be the first of numerous rights-focussed Middle Eastern battlegrounds, with countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt hosting or preparing bids to host multiple major sporting events, including Asian Cup competitions, the 2030 World Cup, and the 2036 Summer Olympics.

The bids constitute a rich and legitimate hunting ground for human, worker, and LBGT rights activists. However, their effectiveness will, to a significant extent, depend on their ability to put their own house in order.

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Iran on the Threshold of Another Syrianization

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Image source: Wikipedia

In the last few years, a new word has been added to the political vocabulary “Syrianization”. This new word means turning a country into a land without a government, in the common sense of a burnt, lawless land, every part of which is under the control of an armed mafia group.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic, who are now shaken by the mass movement of the Iranian people, are warning to save themselves that Iran may also be destroyed. In other words, our choice is limited to living or half-living under the rule of jurisprudential tyranny or falling into the second Syria.

How did Syria become Syrian? In the beginning, nearly 12 years ago, a group of Syrian youths came to the street in Daraa city to protest the continued suffocation, the spread of unemployment and the darkness of their life horizons. This demonstration was completely peaceful. The protesters didn’t set fire to anything and didn’t shout any incendiary slogans. If Syria had a government in the conventional sense that day, the wise way to respond to these protests would be to send a delegation from the central government in Damascus to listen to the protesters and find ways to fulfill at least part of their demands.

But the government of Bashar al-Assad, the president, was not a normal government. This was a government monopolized by a military-security-commercial minority, which itself was a minority within the framework of the Nasiri religious minority, which is also a minority in Shia Gholat, which is also a minority in the Islamic religion. Thus, accepting the Daraa protesters as equal citizens was not acceptable for the minority in question. In the political sphere of Assad and his Baath Arab Socialist Party, the government commands and the people, who are degraded to the level of subjects, obey. In this world, the answer to protest is bullets or prison.

However, the bloodbath that occurred in the valley did not end the protests. Within a few days, the Syrian people’s movement reached Hama, Aleppo, Sweida and Damascus. This time, some prominent figures of the Baathist regime demanded a political response to the protests in secret meetings with the regime leaders. But a regime that knows nothing but lies and repression could not take advantage of the tools offered by politics to solve society’s problems and get out of crises.

At a critical stage in 2012, Bashar al-Assad thought to save the entire Baathist regime by leaving the scene. The mood of those days was described by Brigadier General Hossein Hamdani, one of the officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran who was sent to Syria, in a long conversation, a year before his death in Syria. According to Hamdani, they packed their bags to leave in Damascus because at that time a part of the Syrian army had broken away from the Assad regime and hoped to conquer the capital by establishing the “Free Syrian Army”.

Although it can be said that Hamedani has exaggerated the importance of Tehran’s involvement, there is no doubt that the message of the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Bashar al-Assad was not ineffective in changing the opinion of the dictator of Damascus to leave the scene. Khamenei’s message was simple: stay and resist! We give whatever you want!

In the decade since that day, the Islamic Republic has spent more than 20 billion dollars in Syria, according to experts’ estimates. Tehran has also created several military units to fight against the Syrian people and for the benefit of Bashar al-Assad: the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the Zainbiyoun Brigade, and the units of the Morteza Ali movement belong to this category. Along with them, units from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, another branch of Khamenei’s proxy forces, have also fought in Syria. Iranian “volunteers”, who are called “defenders of the shrine”, have also been and are present alongside Syrian, Afghan, Pakistani and Iraqi mercenaries.

To add to the chaos in the country, Assad released more than 20,000 imprisoned Islamic “terrorists” to open a new front against the freedom-loving protesters. It was these freed terrorists who quickly participated in the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). At the same time, Assad promised the more than 1.5 million Kurds who had lost their Syrian citizenship that he would restore full citizenship to them. In this way, a part of the Syrian Kurds under the influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose main base is in Turkey, entered the battle against the Syrian freedom groups.

But all these measures were unsuccessful in suppressing the Syrian people’s movement. In 2014, Tehran made contacts with Russia to push Vladimir Putin into war in Syria. These calls came to fruition and Putin assigned the Russian Air Force to suppress in Syria. The price of this service to Bashar al-Assad was a 45-year contract according to which Russia obtained an air-sea base on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean and was able to expand its military presence to that strategic sea for the first time after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Putin used the same tactic in Syria that he used in Chechnya: bombing cities across the country. Thus, Aleppo, the second most populated city in Syria, like Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, became a mountain of rubble.

Gradually, “Syrianization” was formed as a political-historical concept. Destruction means widespread devastation in a country where half of its population has either become displaced and refugees or has become homeless within its own land. “Syrianization” means maintaining control of a part of the capital and fighting with dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of other armed groups across the country to formally recognize a regime that no longer exists. “Syrianization” also has another meaning: the division of two facts of a country into the sphere of influence of several foreign powers. Right now, part of Syria is controlled by Turkey, while the other part is controlled by the United States under the guise of its Kurdish allies. A third part is controlled by Russia and the Islamic Republic has the fourth part in the desert bordering Iraq. The fifth sector is also dominated by Druze armed forces with the help of Jordan Hashemi. Bashar al-Assad and what he calls himself the Syrian government are displaying their shadow legitimacy in a sixth section in Damascus.

Thus, the joint plan of Bashar Assad, the Baath Party, part of the Nasiri (Alawi) minority, Ayatollah Khamenei, Major General Qassem Soleimani, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are being destroyed. But another actor has played a role in this ominous show: the leadership of the Syrian people’s protest movement. This leadership was never able to present a clear strategy to gain power. This leadership lured the Western powers with mouth-watering promises and thought it was done taking pictures with the French president and receiving a message from the US secretary of state – endless seminars in more than 30 capitals, from Tokyo to Ottawa, where the real political work is done and took the cities and villages of Syria. A group of exiled figures who had been around Syria for years suddenly came under the global spotlight as the future leaders of Syria. Their work was consecutive interviews with Western media, often in suites of 5-star hotels in Paris, London, New York, etc. It is interesting here that many of the leaders of the Baathist regime, who were cut off from Bashar al-Assad, joined this shaved leadership in order to compensate for their lost political virginity and to take a share if there is a reconciliation.

“Syrianization” should be considered a new type of tragedy-comedy of human societies in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of idealistic, sincere and selfless people come to the field to overthrow an autocratic, and corrupt system, hoping to build a free and law-based society and justice. But, in the end, they are reduced to the level of a tool for the profit of the alleged leaders on the one hand and the battle of foreign powers on the other.

“Syrianization” could not have become a reality without Bashar al-Assad, Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and the ignorant or profit-seeking leaders of the popular movement. Today, Syria, this stateless land, is a breeding ground for the worst elements that threaten a modern society: various terrorists, looters, commercial and religious mafias and mercenaries. To rebuild this ruined country, more than three trillion dollars of capital is needed, a capital that will never be collected without the establishment of a government in its normal sense. In this way, Syria is faced with the question “came first the chicken or the egg”: capital comes first or the normal government?

Let’s go back to the propaganda of Khamenei and his accomplices about the “Syrianization” of Iran. At first glance, the presence of some agents of Syrianization, including Khamenei himself and his mentor, Putin, a part of the Revolutionary Guards and mercenaries of the Islamic Republic in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, makes the danger of Syrianizing Iran appear serious.

But several important factors, I think, protect Iran against the risk of becoming Syrian. The first factor is the deep roots of Iran as a nation. Before 1948, Syria never existed as an independent nation-state and was always a collection of ethnic, geographical and cultural entities within the framework of various empires from Chaldea and Assyria to Rome, Byzantium, Ottoman and finally, France. On the other hand, Iran has passed through the crucibles of the constitutional movement and has become familiar with the concept of freedom within the framework of the law during 150 years, although intermittently, before Ayatollah Khomeini took office. The role of the institution of the Kingdom of Iran in strengthening the national solidarity of Iranians cannot be ignored either.

Most importantly, the current movement of the Iranian people, unlike the protest movement of the Syrian people, which had a religious undertone – with the strong presence of the “Muslim Brotherhood” – does not have a religious or sectarian aspect, and is a movement that goes beyond religious, professional and ethnic concepts and demands a return to the path of constitutionalism. It means creating a society based on the law and serving the citizens. In recent months, the field leaders of this movement have displayed an encouraging maturity and political tact and have shown that, unlike the Syrian protesters, they are not waiting for a “green light” from Paris, London and Washington. Thus, those who want to help this movement must enter into the game with the conditions and regulations of this movement, not to impose their own conditions and regulations on it.

Today, Iran seeks to end the rule of Syria builders like Khamenei. Those who have played a role in Syrianizing Syria cannot scare us from becoming Syrian.

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