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Bashar al-Assad feels safe, won’t quit

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It is by far clear now that Syrian president al Assad, under Russian shield, feels secure now and he is more firm than ever not to quit presidency. Russian strongman Putin who became president for third term now defends Assad who never faced – and is scared of – an election to stay in power. Possibly Putin, who promotes Russian variety of Soviet era democracy in Russian federation, feels there is hardly any difference between dynasty and democracy.

After pushing for the removal of President Assad for years, now USA, under pressure from Russia which withdrew troops from Syria possibly on agreement with Washington, seems stopped asking him to quit. This makes Assad to be firm in stay8in gin power. Russian military intervention made Assad’s stay in power fairly easy.

The main opposition, along with the United States and other Western nations, has long insisted any peace deal must include the departure of Assad from power, while the Syrian government and Russia have said there is no such clause in the international agreements that underwrite the peace process.

The UN mediated third indirect peace talks between Syrian opposition and the Syrian government in Geneva on March 20 has not made even tentative resolution to end the war in Syria or Assad’s fate. Arguments over Assad’s fate were a major cause of the failure of previous UN peace efforts in 2012 and 2014 to end a civil war that has now lasted five years, killed more than 250,000 people and caused a refugee crisis. The peace meeting in Geneva, owing to divergent opinions, also did not make any headway n revolving the political transition in Syria. The Syrian opposition assesses whether to continue indirect peace talks with the Syrian government.

The Syrian president looked more secure than ever at the start of the latest round of talks, riding high after a Russian-backed military campaign. But Russia’s surprise withdrawal of most of its forces during the week signaled that Moscow expected its Syrian allies to take the Geneva talks seriously. And de Mistura appointed a Russian expert to sit in the negotiations with him and to advice on political issues.

Russian president Putin has warned that his forces would return to Syria if required.

Syrian government negotiators at Geneva peace talks are coming under unaccustomed pressure to discuss the fate of President Bashar al-Assad -the issue which is far outside their comfort zone and are doing their best to avoid the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura describes Syria’s political transition as “the mother of all issues” and, emboldened by the Russian and US muscle that brought the participants to the negotiating table, he refuses to drop the subject. After a week of talks in Geneva, Mistura praised the opposition for the depth of their ideas, but criticised the veteran diplomats on the government side for getting bogged down. “The government is currently focusing very much on principles, which are necessary in any type of common ground on the transition,” he said, “but I hope next week, and I have been saying so to them, that we will get their opinion, their details on how they see the political transition taking place.”

Unlike previous rounds, the talks have run for a week without any hint of collapse, forcing the government delegation led by Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari to acknowledge de Mistura’s demands. Ja’afari began by giving de Mistura a document entitled “Basic elements for a political solution”. “Approving these principles will open a serious dialogue under Syrian leadership without foreign intervention and without preconditions,” Ja’afari said in a brief statement after the longest session of the talks so far. But officials and diplomats involved in the talks variously described the document as “very thin”, “bland” and “off the point”. It listed familiar goals such as maintaining a ‘secular state’ and Syria’s territorial integrity and the importance of fighting ‘terrorism’, according to sources who have read it. But it said nothing about a political transition.

In sessions with de Mistura, Ja’afari has approached the negotiations as slowly as possible, reopening UN resolutions and going through them “by the letter”, said a source with knowledge of the process. “Mr Ja’afari is still in a kind of delusion of trying to filibuster his way out of town, or to filibuster the opposition out of town,” said a western diplomat. “He will spend every minute questioning the nature of the opposition, quibbling about the font in the agenda.”

De Mistura said Ja’afari’s team needed to go faster and couldn’t avoid the substantive question forever. “The fact that the government delegation would like to set different rules or play with the terms of this agreement is I think a non-starter,” said opposition delegate Basma Kodmani.

A diplomat involved in the peace process said Assad was not used to having to compromise, and that made Ja’afari’s negotiating position rigid. “He has to have control. If he gives up 1 percent, he loses 100 percent. He’s designed like that,” the diplomat said.

In three meetings with each side during the week, de Mistura quizzed the negotiators about their ideas, and they were also able to put questions to their rivals through him.

The UN mediation team spends the sessions “stripping the papers apart and delving deep into the subject and forcing them to do more homework and forcing them to give answers”, said a source with knowledge of the process.

The negotiators do not meet each other, but face de Mistura in a functional, windowless room with desks arranged in a square. There is space for eight or nine people around each side, but the conditions are slightly cramped, and afford no luxury beyond a plastic bottle of mineral water on each desk. “De Mistura is dragging the regime in with his queries on their position paper, rather than allowing them to talk about what they want,” said the diplomat involved in the peace process. The regime had in the past a bit of space to play and to manoeuvre. He said: “The regime knows it has to come and stay but is not prepared for the idea that it has to engage the opposition.”

Syrian government is so far has refused to engage in detailed negotiations and instead continuing to starve Syrians into submission, its chief negotiator has said.

Mohammed Alloush, the leader of the Syrian opposition delegation at the peace talks, suggested in a interview that little progress has been made in the first week of negotiations and many pitfalls lie ahead. Alloush, a political figure in the Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army) rebel group, is the senior negotiator for High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the official Syrian opposition delegation at the Geneva peace talks. He is probably the single most important figure in the opposition and through his connections with Jaysh al-Islam, which Damascus and Moscow consider a terrorist group, has credibility with some fighters on the ground.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Syrian special envoy, is struggling to persuade the Syrian government to engage in detailed discussions about plans for a transitional body to run Syria over the next 18 months and the role of Bashar al-Assad in such a government. De Mistura is shuttling between the two main delegations in search of common ground but has admitted there are large gaps.

The opposition could not accept the Syrian president as part of the transitional body and added that “those with blood on their hands can have no part in a reconstituted Syrian army”.

The new transitional body, Alloush said, should have the powers of the president, the government, parliament and the courts. He added that those charged with war crimes should be dealt with by Syrian courts and not the International Criminal Court, arguing the ICC has a backlog of 30,000 cases that would delay justice.

Alloush said his team will decide whether to continue with the talks at the end of the week and the whole world can then see clearly who is procrastinating and who is putting obstacles in the way. He said so far the Syrian government had only put forward a very general paper of eight principles that was not relevant to the task of forming a transitional government.

By contrast, he said his team had put forward detailed papers covering justice, security and political transition. “We are ready to answer all questions in detail put to us by the UN. The UN has said our paper is detailed, positive and moderate. The government paper is simply not relevant to what we have come to discuss.”

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is due to meet Vladimir Putin for talks in Moscow this week that will include Syria. Alloush said “America had a moral duty to increase the pressure” and, in particular, needed to intervene to persuade Russia to require Assad to negotiate seriously, including by ending the use of starvation sieges to force Syrians to abandon the resistance. He also warned European leaders to be more involved in the talks. “More refugees are heading to Europe. The international community has to tackle the root cause of this problem. We cannot just deal with symptoms. The root cause is the one person Assad who has forced millions and millions to leave their homes”. “Take Bashar al-Assad and 1,000 criminals then Syria could take back the refugees. That would be the logical and just solution for this problem. The international community is capable of doing this. More financial measures are not the answer.”

In a further sign of problems ahead for De Mistura, Alloush showed hostility to the idea of the Syrian Kurdish YPG being represented at the talks, describing them as “followers of the Assad regime”. The YPG has been excluded from the talks, partly due to Turkish protests, and the HNC has other Kurds on its delegation. He also reported no progress on the issue of political detainees, saying “we know there are 9,000 women in detention centres and none of them have been released”.

Executions were carried out daily by the Assad regime. Reeling off a list of towns still under siege, Alloush said Russian intelligence was working with Syrian intelligence to blackmail towns especially in rural areas around Damascus by offering to trade food in return for reconciliation agreements and truces. Using food like this is a war crime, according to the UN.

Alloush also challenged claims that Russia had truly announced a military withdrawal last week, and accused Russia of a reckless bombing campaign. By saying they can return to return to Syria within four hours, it is clear it is not really even a partial withdrawal. The Russians were given targets that were not accurate: 90% of the air raids were conducted against citizens. They hit 67 schools, over 40 local markets and over 100 hospitals and medical facilities. Russians said they were targeting terrorists but really they were targeting civilians but even when they target Raqqa, they target civilians. Alloush said a war like this cannot be won from the air. Russia knows that.

Middle East

Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?

Mohammed Nosseir

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“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.

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Middle East

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

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

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

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

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

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

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Middle East

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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