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.
The 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.”
This 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.
Middle Eastern autocrats sigh relief: the US signals Democracy Summit will not change policy
The United States has signalled in advance of next week’s Summit for Democracy that it is unlikely to translate lip service to adherence to human rights and democratic values in the Middle East into a policy that demonstrates seriousness and commitment.
In a statement, the State Department said the December 9-10 summit would “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” e State Department said that in advance of the summit, it had consulted with government experts, multilateral organisations, and civil society “to solicit bold, practicable ideas” on “defending against authoritarianism,” “promoting respect for human rights,” and fighting corruption.
Of the more than 100 countries alongside civil society and private sector representatives expected to participate in the summit, only Israel is Middle Eastern, and a mere eight are Muslim-majority states. They are Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Albania, Iraq, Kosovo, Niger, and the Maldives.
US President Joe Biden has made the competition between democracy and autocracy a pillar of his administration policy and put it at the core of the United States’ rivalry with China.
“We’re in a contest…with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century,” Mr. Biden said.
Yet, recent statements by the Pentagon and a White House official suggested that, despite the lofty words, US Middle East policy is likely to maintain long-standing support for the region’s autocratic rule in the belief that it will ensure stability.
Popular revolts in the past decade that toppled leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon suggest that putting a lid on the pot was not a solution. That is true even if the achievements of the uprisings were either rolled back by Gulf-supported counter-revolutionary forces or failed to achieve real change.
To be sure, Gulf states have recognized that keeping the pot covered is no longer sufficient. As a result, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have developed plans and policies that cater to youth aspirations with economic and social reforms while repressing political freedoms.
The US appears to be banking on the success of those reforms and regional efforts to manage conflicts so that they don’t spin out of control.
On that basis, the United States maintains a policy that is a far cry from standing up for human rights and democracy. It is a policy that, in practice, does not differ from Chinese and Russian backing of Middle Eastern autocracy. Continuous US public and private references to human rights and democratic values and occasional baby steps like limiting arms sales do not fundamentally alter things.
Neither does the United States’ choice of partners when it comes to responding to popular uprisings and facilitating political transition. In dealing with the revolt in Sudan that in 2019 toppled President Omar al-Bashir and a military coup in October, both the Trump and Biden administration turned to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Israel. While Israel is a democracy, none of the US partners favour democratic solutions to crises of governance.
White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk signalled this in an interview with The National, the UAE’s flagship English-language newspaper, immediately after a security summit in Bahrain that brought together officials from across the globe. US officials led by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sought to use the conference to reassure America’s allies that the United States was not turning its back on ensuring regional security.
Mr. McGurk said that the United States had drawn conclusions from “hard lessons learnt” and was going “back to basics.” Basics, Mr. McGurk said, in a nod primarily to Iran but potentially also to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, entailed dumping “regime change policies.” He said the US would focus on “the basics of building, maintaining, and strengthening our partnerships and alliances” in the Middle East.
Mr. McGurk’s articulation of a back-to-basics policy was reinforced this week with the publication of a summary of the Pentagon’s Global Posture review, suggesting that there would be no significant withdrawal of US forces from the region in Mr. Biden’s initial years in office.
The notion of back to basics resonates with liberals in Washington’s foreign policy elite. Democracy in the Middle East is no longer part of their agenda.
“Instead of using US power to remake the region…policymakers need to embrace the more realistic and realisable goal of establishing and preserving stability,” said Council of Foreign Relations Middle East expert Steven A. Cook even before Mr. Biden took office.” What Washington needs is not a ‘war on terror’ built on visions of regime change, democracy promotion, and ‘winning hearts and minds’ but a realistic approach focused on intelligence gathering, police work, multilateral cooperation and the judicious application of violence when required,” he added.
Mr. Cook went on to say that a realistic US Middle East policy would involve “containing Iran, retooling the fight against terrorism, to reduce its counterproductive side effects, reorganizing military deployments to emphasize the protection of sea-lanes, and downscaling the US-Israeli relationship to reflect Israel’s relative strength.”
The United States is in good company in its failure to put its money where its mouth is regarding human rights and democratic values.
The same can be said for European nations and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority state and democracy. Indonesia projects itself directly and indirectly through Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement, as the only major supporter of a moderate interpretation of Islam that embraces human rights without reservations and pluralism and religious tolerance.
That has not stopped Indonesia from allegedly caving into a Saudi threat not to recognize the Indonesian Covid-19 vaccination certificates of pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Media if the Asian state voted for an extension of a United Nations investigation into human rights violations in the almost seven-year-old war in Yemen.
Similarly, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates on cooperation on religious affairs even though the UAE’s version of a moderate but autocratic Islam stands for values that reject freedoms and democracy.
The agreements were part of a much larger package of economic, technological, and public health cooperation fuelled by US$32.7 billion in projected Emirati investments in Indonesia.
The Biden administration’s reluctance, in line with a long list of past US presidents, to do substantially more than pay lip service to the promotion of human rights and democratic values brings to mind Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
President George W. Bush and his then-national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, acknowledged two decades ago that jihadist violence and the 9/11 attacks were partly the results of the United States’ failure to stand up for its values. They bungled, however, their effort to do something about it, as did Barak Obama.
It is not only the Middle East and other regions’ autocracies that pay the price. So do the United States and Europe. Their refusal to integrate their lofty ideals and values into effective policies is increasingly reflected at home in domestic racial, social, and economic fault lines and anti-migrant sentiment that threatens to tear apart the fabric of democracy in its heartland.
The backlash of failing to heed Mr. Einstein’s maxim and recognizing the cost associated with saying one thing and doing another is not just a loss of credibility. The backlash is also the rise of isolationist, authoritarian, xenophobic, racist, and conspiratorial forces that challenge the values in which human rights and democracy are rooted.
That raises the question of whether the time, energy, and money invested in the Summit of Democracy could not have been better invested in fixing problems at home. Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh nailed it by noting that “shoring up democracy is almost entirely domestic work.”
It’s a message that has not been lost on democracy’s adversaries. In what should have been a warning that hollow declaratory events like the Summit of Democracy are not the answer, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told last September’s United Nations General Assembly: “The United States’ hegemonic system has no credibility, inside or outside the country.”
International Solidarity Day with the people of Palestine
Since 1948, the people of Palestine were suffering due to Israeli oppression and aggression. Despite several resolutions on Palestine passed by the United Nation, Israel has not implemented either of them. Despite the struggle from all peace-loving nations, in various forms, the Palestinian people have not yet been given the right of self-determination, or self-rule, and are yet, forced to leave their land, homes and stay in refugee camps or migrate to foreign countries to live a miserable life. After failure from all aspects, the United Nations desp[erately declared to mark International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
In 1977, the General Assembly called for the annual observance of 29 November as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (resolution 32/40 B). On that day, in 1947, the Assembly adopted the resolution on the partition of Palestine (resolution 181 (II))
In resolution 60/37 of 1 December 2005, the Assembly requested the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights, as part of the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November, to continue to organize an annual exhibit on Palestinian rights or a cultural event in cooperation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN.
The resolution on the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People also encourages the Member States to continue to give the widest support and publicity to the observance of the Day of Solidarity.
The government and the people of Pakistan join the world community in observing the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (29 November).
The commemoration of this day is a reminder to the international community that the question of Palestine remains unresolved and the Palestinian people are yet to realize their inalienable right to self-determination as provided in various resolutions of the United Nations. It is also an occasion to reiterate our support and solidarity for the Palestinian people who continue to wage a just struggle against the illegal and brutal occupation.
On this day, Pakistan reaffirms its consistent and unstinted support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause, which has always been a defining principle of Pakistan’s foreign policy.
The international community must shoulder its responsibility to protect the lives and fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, and play its rightful role in promoting a just and lasting resolution of the Palestinian question per international legitimacy in the interest of durable peace and stability in the Middle East. The international community should also ensure accountability for the widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the occupied territories.
We renew our call on this day for a viable, independent, and contiguous Palestinian State, with pre-1967 borders, and Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital being the only just, comprehensive and lasting solution of the Palestinian question, under the relevant United Nations and OIC resolutions.
The purpose of marking this day is to remind the whole world that the people of Palestine deserve your attention and your time to think about their sufferings. It is to remind that the whole world should understand the issue and try their best to solve it according to the UN resolutions. Those who believe in justice, may raise their voice in favor of the Palestinian people and condemn Israeli barbarism and atrocities. This Day invites all of you to join the [peaceful struggle of Palestinian people for their legitimate rights. Irrespective of your profession, social status, or your religion or race, you may support the Palestinian cause for justice on humanitarian grounds and keep your struggle till the people of Palestine gets their legitimate status and rights on equal footings according to the UN resolutions.
Israel-Palestine: Risk of ‘deadly escalation’ in violence, without decisive action
With violence continuing daily throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process urged the Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a more coordinated approach to the region.
Tor Wennesland told Council Members that “recent developments on the ground are worrying”, pointing out the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority.
“I therefore emphasize again the importance of concerted efforts by the parties to calm things on the ground. I am concerned that if we do not act quickly and decisively, we risk plunging into another deadly escalation of violence”, he warned.
He informed that, in the last month, violence resulted in the death of four Palestinians, including two children, and injuries to 90 others – including 12 children – due to action by Israeli Security Forces.
One Israeli civilian was killed in the same period, and nine civilians, including one woman and one child, and six members of ISF were injured.
Mr. Wennesland said that a severe fiscal and economic crisis is threatening the stability of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank.
At the same time, he added, “ongoing violence and unilateral steps, including Israeli settlement expansion, and demolitions, continue to raise tensions, feed hopelessness, erode the Palestinian Authority’s standing and further diminish the prospect of a return to meaningful negotiations.”
In Gaza, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, but the Special Envoy argued that “further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately enables a return of legitimate Palestinian Government institutions to the Strip.”
The Special Coordinator also said that “settler-related violence remains at alarmingly high levels.”
Overall, settlers and other Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank perpetrated some 54 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in 26 injuries. Palestinians perpetrated 41 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians, resulting in one death and nine injuries.
Mr. Wennesland highlighted a few announcements of housing units in settlements, reiterating that “that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.”
Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans for some 6,000 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya and some 1,300 housing units for Palestinians living in Area C (one of the administrative areas in the occupied West Bank, agreed under the Oslo Accord).
The Special Envoy welcomed such steps but urged Israel to advance more plans and to issue building permits for all previously approved plans for Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem.
Humanitarian aid delivered
Turning to Gaza, the Special Envoy said that humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts continued, along with other steps to stabilize the situation on the ground.
He called the gradual easing of restrictions on the entry of goods and people “encouraging”, but said that the economic, security and humanitarian situation “remains of serious concern.”
The Special Envoy also mentioned the precarious financial situation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which still lacks $60 million to sustain essential services this year.
The agency has yet to pay the November salaries of over 28,000 UN personnel, including teachers, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, many of whom support extended families, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high.
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