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The new Egyptian government

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Within an Islamic and non-Islamic context, dangerous for his Egypt, President Ahmed Fattah Al Sisi appointed ten new Ministers in the national government and also created some new Ministries. The government reshuffle, not foreseen even by the insiders of the Egyptian regime, took place on March 23 and regarded people and roles certainly not irrelevant in any government.

Undoubtedly the aim of the government renewal is the need to better tackle the economic crisis and its political consequences, which could undermine the stability of Al Sisi’s post-Nasser regime and, above all, its effectiveness in repressing the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai region, as well as its effectiveness in the internal struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Let us analyze the professional and political biographies of the newly-appointed Ministers. The new Justice Minister is judge Hossam Abdel Rehim, appointed just after his predecessor’s unfortunate statement that he would have put in jail even Prophet Muhammad if he had broken the law.

Hossam Rehim was the President of the Egyptian Supreme Court of Cassation and the Supreme Legislative Council, a body which oversees the internal administrative matters of ordinary justice.

Any appointment in this body lasts four years and is not renewable.

Amr al Garthy is the new Finance Minister, replacing Hany Kadry Dimian, who had been appointed to that post before Al Sisi’s Presidency.

While preserving the small and insufficient Egyptian growth recorded in 2015, Garthy must above all solve the severe shortage of foreign currencies and hence a significant difficulty for imports.

Furthermore the outgoing Minister, Dimian, said that Egypt would record a funding gap ranging between 25 and 30 billion dollars over the next three years.

The funds that Dimian had obtained from the World Bank before his resignation will be granted only in connection with some tax and fiscal reforms that the Egyptian government must absolutely implement.

For the World Bank this applies above all to a value added tax which is still being examined by the Egyptian Parliament.

Garhy comes directly from the business world: he worked for the Qalaa Holding, an important Egyptian financial holding operating in the oil, agrifood, transport and logistics, cement and mining sectors.

Previously Garhy had worked for the El Ahli Bank of Qatar, which deals with corporate banking and has 16 branches throughout the Emirate.

Later, before working for Qalaa, Garhy operated in the EFG Hermes and the Egyptian National Investment Bank, where he focused his activity on the matters he should address as Minister: the privatization of the Bank of Alexandria and the sale of Egyptian government bonds on international markets.

EFG Hermes is also a bank and an industrial holding company operating in seven Middle East countries, since it is now the first investment bank for the whole region stretching from Morocco to Jordan.

As Minister for Investment, Al Sisi chose Dahlia Korshed, former vice-President and treasurer of Orascom Construction, as well as former vice-President of the Egyptian Citibank.

Currently there are four female Ministers in the Egyptian government.

Al Sisi’s idea of separating this Ministry from the Ministry for Industry and Trade is the sign that the Egyptian President wants to give priority to infrastructure and industrial investment rather than to the often unproductive spending for supporting the now massive and bloated State apparatus.

We will analyze this matter later.

The main problem is that, after the structural decline of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) following the so-called 2011 “revolution” and despite the Conference on foreign investment held by Al Sisi in Sharm El Sheikh in 2015, which was certainly not a success, FDI does not take off at all.

From January to March 2015, the Egyptian FDI had reached 2.9 billion dollars, but fell dramatically to 690 million dollars in the following quarter, only to come back again to a still insufficient level of 1.39 billion US dollars in July-September 2015.

For the time being, the safest investment in Egypt comes mainly from Saudi Arabia, which promised 8 billion dollars in project financing over five years, and from China which signed some important contracts with Egypt during the recent visit of Xi Jinping in that country.

Egypt has a primary difficult to face: it does not always succeed in repaying foreign investors, who currently have credit with Egypt to the tune of 547.2 million US dollars.

In this connection, Egypt’s Central Bank has recently announced its offer of investment certificates in local currency at a 15% interest rate, but only in foreign currencies, considering the internal devaluation rate and the persistent overvaluation of the Egyptian currency.

The new Minister for Public Affairs, Ashraf Al Sharqawi, must monitor and supervise State-owned companies and support the growth of start-ups.

He is still the administrative Director of the Cairo University and is member of the Board of the State-owned bank Misr.

Sharqawi was President of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and member, as well as executive President, of the National Auditing Committee.

With specific reference to Misr, it is worth recalling that for 92 years this bank has been carrying out an activity of investment and collection of savings from regular clients and it has so far supported the establishment and growth of many companies in all Egyptian productive and commercial sectors. Currently it co-participates in over 202 projects, including agrifood, communications, finance and housing for the poor walks of society.

Furthermore, it also operates with Islamic financial criteria.

Hence, above all, Minister Sharqawi wants to reform and liberalize most State-owned companies.

This is also what Al Sisi has in mind, while announcing he will inject 25 billion US dollars in the Egyptian Central Bank to grant loans to small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as that loans to SMEs will account for at least 20% of all the loans granted by banks, at least for the next four years.

Clearly the Egyptian President’s goal is to recreate a strong and self-propelled internal market, by using foreign funds and internal financial leverage.

Nevertheless a 12.9% official unemployment rate, slightly decreasing as against last year, is a too strong political risk to run in a situation of great “youth bulge” (as we will see later on).

The financing envisaged by Al Sisi is functional and conducive to a youth employment expansion, which is the real sore point of the Egyptian society and economy.

The new Minister for Tourism, which is a key area for the Egyptian economy, is Mohammed Yehia Rashed, who replaces the previous Minister, Hisham Zaazou, who had been reconfirmed in September 2015 by Prime Minister Sharif Ismail.

A little score to settle in anticipation of Ismail’s confirmation as Prime Minister.

For many years Rashed worked in the international hotel chain, Marriot, and was responsible for the unit dedicated to Egyptian tourism within the Kuwaiti tourist agency Al Kharafi.

The Kuwaiti company Al Kharafi has been operating for over 100 years in the building and trading sectors and is currently active in the Middle East tourist sector.

Since 1960 it has been operating as a company for the building of real estate, especially in the tourist sector, and for civil construction throughout the Gulf area.

Al Sisi’s project is clear: to put builders, real estate agents and tour operators together for expanding Egypt’s tourist infrastructure.

Tourism is vital to Egypt and is also the sector floundering in the deepest crisis of its economy.

Before the shooting down of the Russian plane last October, the Egyptian tourist sector was worth 6.1 billion US dollars (and it was worth 12.5 billion US dollars just before the 2011 “revolution”) while, since the Russian plane crash, the Egyptian tourist business has fallen by 282 million US dollars per month.

These negative effects have been recorded even after Egypt hiring the international security consultancy firm Control Risks, while Russia has not yet resumed direct flights to Egypt.

Officers of the Russian security forces are still permanently deployed in Egyptian airports, while Italy has reopened all tourist channels, especially those regarding low cost airlines.

Nevertheless, through Thomas Cook and other national agencies, Great Britain still prevents travels to Sharm El Sheikh.

The task of Minister Rashed, who has a long experience in the luxury hotel sector, will be to convince Russia and Great Britain, in particular, to reopen their tourist routes to the South of Egypt and its archaeological sites.

As Minister for Civil Aviation, Al Sisi chose Sherif Fathy, former President of EgyptAir, who also worked at high levels both for the Dutch KLM and the American Northwest airlines.

The new Minister wants to develop new “unconventional” safety and security models and, together with his colleague of the Minister for Tourism, to convince Russia and Great Britain to return to Sharm.

Mohammed Safan is the new Minister for Manpower, a role which in Egypt is also related to the regulation of employment activities and young generations’ and unemployed people’s access to the labour market.

Before being appointed Minister, Safan had been the leader of the oil workers’ union and deputy-Secretary of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

Al-Sisi appointed Mohammed Abdel Atty, former Head of Egypt’s Nile Water Authority as Minister for Irrigation and Water Resources, which have been a key factor of the Egyptian economy and society as early as the time of Ramses I.

Nile’s control is certainly a relevant strategic factor, considering that, as early as King Farouk’s days, it is strategically essential for Egypt to secure the supply areas of the Nile River in Africa.

“O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children: there is not such a thing as an old Greek. You are young in soul, every one of you. For therein you possess not a single belief that is ancient and derived from old tradition, nor yet one science that is hoary with age.

And this is the cause thereof: there have been and there will be many and diverse destructions of mankind, of which the greatest are by fire and water, and lesser ones by countless other means”.

Plato reports in his Timeaus this speech by an Egyptian priest to Solon, but it is worth recalling that the very ancient civilization which made the Egyptians already adults was linked to the Nile River cycle.

And Nile’s security at its sources is also a serious military and security problem, particularly with regard to the long standing instability coming from the African Great Lakes region.

In fact, Minister Abdel-Atty has excellent relations with the Ethiopian authorities, which are very useful to make the project of the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” set again into motion.

Furthermore, in his public speeches, Minister Abdel-Atty has also always maintained the need to solve, in time, the predicament of structural water shortage in Egypt.

The new Minister for Transport is Galaal Al Saleed, a former Minister in the same Department under the Government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011.

Later, Al Saleed became Governor-General of Cairo.

Al Sisi chose Khaled Al-Anany as Minister for Antiquities.

In 2015 Al-Anany became general supervisor of the Grand Egyptian Museum but, previously, he had been the general manager of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

Finally, the last new Minister appointed by Al Sisi is Nihal El Megharbel, as vice-Minister of the Ministry for Planning.

What is the political goal of these new appointments made by Al Sisi?

Probably the aim is to buy time at internal level, while the Egyptian government gets ready for a new strategy of suasion and actual new possibilities for foreign investment, as well as attempting a controlled liberalization of domestic markets.

The substance and essence of these choices make us foresee some Al Sisi’s pessimism on Egypt’s future economic potential.

In a 205-page document made public a few days ago, Prime Minister Sherif has already announced that the unemployment rate has risen from the 9% recorded in 2009-2010 to the current 13.3%.

If we consider that, from 2009 to 2014, the total Egyptian population grew from 77 million to the current 90, the situation gets extremely problematic.

Again from 2009 to 2014, public subsidies for food and fuels doubled and, as it was easy to foresee, inflation sky-rocketed so as to force the Egyptian Central Bank to carry out a devaluation of about 13% at the beginning of March.

Meanwhile, military spending has inevitably increased and, considering what we have already said on tourism and Foreign Direct Investment, growth has dropped significantly.

Moreover market signals show that the Egyptian currency is still overvalued and hence prices have risen further.

If another devaluation does not occur, an injection of fresh (foreign) capital will be needed to support the Egyptian currency.

This is an economic and social scenario similar to the one which allowed the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, within the framework of a naive operation of North American coloured revolution.

But it was the Muslim Brotherhood – by providing the Praetorian Guard to the protesters gathered to demonstrate in Tahrir Square, among which the sister of Al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda, and the Head of Google in Egypt stood out – to build Mohammed Morsi’s electoral victory, guaranteed by the Muslim Brotherhood religious welfare for the countless Egyptian proletarians.

Then the well-known Al Sisi’s bloodless coup, the discovery of Morsi’s opening to jihad in the Sinai region, and the rest is very recent history.

Al Sisi is well aware that the problem lies in the fact that wages and subsidies account for 75% of public expenditure.

Both the fall of wages, with the resulting mass revolts, and the increase in prices, which would have the same political effect, must be avoided.

The public spending that Al Sisi can never reduce is the one for the Armed Forces, the real leader of Egypt’s economy. Nevertheless the rebellions being planned could thwart all the rational efforts for reforming the Egyptian economy imagined by Al Sisi.

If the new government succeeds in reforming the economy and, with a new internal security climate, in attracting the funds necessary for what the economist Walt Rostow defined the economic take-off (with specific reference to India in the 1960s), everything will turn out well and we will have strategic security in the Suez Canal and in the Sinai region, also for the European Union.

Otherwise the Egyptian crisis will recur, with two well-known scripts: the fundamentalist coup and the arrival of capital of the jihad and the countries sponsoring it.

Or Egypt’s endless economic decline, thus making the people of the most ancient country of the Mediterranean civilization add to the huge flows of people landing onto our shores.

It is also good to think about these facts, when we ask, with good reason, to know the truth about the assassination of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Middle East

The fallacy of soccer’s magical bridge-building qualities

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Imagining himself as a peacemaker in a conflict-ridden part of the world, FIFA President Gianni Infantino sees a 2022 World Cup shared by Qatar with its Gulf detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as the magic wand that would turn bitter foes into brothers.

It may be a nice idea, but it is grounded in the fiction that soccer can play an independent role in bringing nations together or developing national identity.

The fiction is that soccer has the potential to be a driver of events, that it can spark or shape developments. It is also the fiction that sports in general and soccer in particular has the power to build bridges.

Mr. Infantino’s assertion that if foes play soccer, bridges are built is but the latest iteration of a long-standing myth.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Soccer is an aggressive sport. It is about conquering the other half of a pitch. It evokes passions and allegiances that are tribal in nature and that more often than not divide rather than unite.

In conflict situations, soccer tends to provide an additional battlefield. Examples abound.

The 2022 World Cup; this year’s Qatari Asian Cup victory against the backdrop of the Gulf state’s rift with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt; the imprint the Palestinian-Israeli conflict puts on the two nations’ soccer; or the rise of racist, discriminatory attitudes among fans in Europe.

The Bad Blue Boys, hardcore fans of Dinamo Zagreb’s hardcore fans, light candles each May and lay wreaths at a monument to their comrades who were killed in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. They mark the anniversary of a riot during the 1990 match against Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, their club’s most controversial match, as the first clash in the wars that erupted a year later and sparked the collapse of former Yugoslavia.

Fact of the matter is that sports like ping pong in Richard Nixon’s 1972 rapprochement with China or the improvement of ties between North and South Korea in the most recent Summer Olympics served as a useful tool, not a driver of events.

Sports is a useful tool in an environment in which key political players seek to build bridges and narrow differences.

The impact of soccer in the absence of a conducive environment created by political not sports players, is at best temporary relief, a blip on an otherwise bleak landscape.

The proof is in the pudding. Legend has it that British and German soldiers played soccer in no-man’s lands on Christmas Day in 2014, only to return to fighting World War One for another four years. Millions died in the war.

Similarly, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites poured into the streets of Iraqi cities hugging each other in celebration of Iraq’s winning in 2007 of the Asia Cup at the height of the country’s sectarian violence only to return to killing each other a day later.

Soccer’s ability to shape or cement national identity is no different. In other words. football can be a rallying point for national identity but only if there is an environment that is conducive.

The problem is that soccer and the formation of national identity have one complicating trait in common: both often involve opposition to the other.

That is nowhere truer than in the Middle East and North Africa where soccer has played and plays an important role in identity formation since it was first introduced to the region in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Qatar has been in some ways the exception that proves the rule by plotting its sports strategy not only as a soft power tool or a pillar of public health policy but also as a component of national identity. That element has been strengthened by the rift in the Gulf and bolstered by this year’s Asian Cup victory.

Qatar’s efforts to strengthen its national identity benefits from the fact that the Gulf state no longer operates on the notion that Gulf states have to hang together. Today its hanging on its own in a conflict with three of its neighbours.

Soccer’s role in identity formation in the Middle East and North Africa was often because it was a battlefield, a battlefield for identity that was part of larger political struggles.

Clubs were often formed for that very reason. Attitudes towards the country’s monarchy in the early 20th century loomed large in the founding of Egypt’s Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC, two of the Middle East and North Africa’s most storied clubs.

Clubs in Algeria were established as part of the anti-colonial struggle against the French. Ottoman and Iranian rulers used sports and soccer to foster national identity and take a first step towards incorporating youth in the development of a modern defense force.

Zionists saw sports and soccer as an important way of developing the New Jew, the muscular Jew. To Palestinians, it was a tool in their opposition to Zionist immigration. And finally, soccer was important in the shaping of ethnic or sub-national identities among Berbers, Kurds, East Bank Jordanians and Jordanian Palestinians.

In other words, soccer was inclusive in the sense of contributing to the formation of a collective identity. But it was also divisive because that identity was at the same time exclusionary and opposed to an other.

The long and short of this is that soccer is malleable. Its impact and fallout depend on forces beyond its control. Soccer is dependent on the environment shaped by political and social forces. It is a tool that is agnostic to purpose, not a driver or an independent actor.

Edited remarks at Brookings seminar in Doha: Lessons from the 2019 Asian Cup: Sports, Globalization, and Politics in the Arab World

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Syrian Coup de Grâce

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The Middle Eastern land has a diverse blend of history with conflicts and developments in knowledge. Where on one hand Baghdad was considered as the realm of knowledge on the other hand Constantinople was a symbol of power and domination. But now it seems that all has been shattered completely with conflicts.

The Middle Eastern landscape is facing its worst time ever: a phase of instability and misery. The oil ridden land is now becoming conflict ridden, from Euphrates to Persian Gulf; every inch seems to be blood stained nowadays.  The region became more like a chess board where kings are not kings but pawns and with each move someone is getting close to checkmate.

Starting from the spring which brought autumn in the Middle Eastern environment, now the curse is on Assyrian land where blood is being spilled, screams have took over the skies. The multi facet conflict has caused more than 400,000 deaths and 5 million seeking refuge abroad whereas 6 million displaced internally.

What began with a mere peaceful civil uprising, has now become a world stage with multiplayers on it. Tehran and Moscow are playing their own mantra by showing romance with Assad while Washington has its own way of gambling with kings in their hand. Involvement of catchy caliphate from 2014 is worsening the complexities of the Syrian saga. The deck is getting hot and becoming more and more mess, chemical strikes, tomahawk show, carpet bombing, stealth jets and many more, Syrian lands is now a market to sell the products exhibiting fine examples of military industrial complex. While to some, Syrian stage seems to be a mere regional proxy war, in reality it seems like a black hole taking whole region into its curse. One by one every inch of the country is turned into altar as the consequence of war. A country is now ripped into different territories with different claimants, but the question still remains as “Syria belongs to whom?”

The saga of Syrian dusk has its long roots in past and with each passing moment it is becoming a spiral of destruction. What is being witnessed in current scenario is just a glimpse of that spiral. It has already winded the region into it and if not resolve properly and maturely it can spread like a contagious disease that can take whole Middle East into its chakra.

With recent development in Iran nuclear deal which left whole world into shock; and house of Sauds forming strong bond with western power brokers and Israel, to counter Tehran (because kings of holy desert have so much engraved hatred towards shiaits, that they prefer to shake hands with Jews and establish an unholy alliance) is making matters worse. This all has the potential to push the region into further more sectarian rifts. With Syrian stage already set. The delicacy of the situation is not secluded from the palette of the world.

Despite the condemnations from across the globe, humanitarian watch remains blind and failed to address the issues in Syria leaving Syrians in long lasting agony and despair The symphony of pain and suffering continues in the Middle Eastern region while world watches like a vicious sadist, the region becomes a playground for major powers as ‘Uncle Sam” has their own interests in engaging, Kremlin have their own concerns same goes for every single actor who is party to the conflict.

The panacea to the Arabian pain is simple “a sincere determined approach” to the disease. Even if every party with draws from the conflict the situation can get worse due to the generated power vacuum and can make Syria a replica of Iraq. The Syrian grieve needs to be addressed through proper management skills, if not the curse is upon whole region.

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The battle for leadership of the Muslim world: Turkey plants its flag in Christchurch

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became this weekend the first high-level foreign government delegation to travel  to Christchurch they were doing more than expressing solidarity with New Zealand’s grieving Muslim community.

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu were planting Turkey’s flag far and wide in a global effort to expand beyond the Turkic and former Ottoman world support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s style of religiously-packaged authoritarian rule, a marriage of Islam and Turkish nationalism.

Showing footage of the rampage in Christchurch at a rally in advance of March 31 local elections, Mr. Erdogan declared that “there is a benefit in watching this on the screen. Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”

Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “we have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday. You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”

Mr. Erdogan was responding to an assertion by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in which 49 people were killed in two mosques, that Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe.”

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu’s visit, two days after the attacks, is one more facet of a Turkish campaign that employs religious as well as traditional diplomatic tools.

The campaign aims to establish Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world in competition with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Morocco.

As part of the campaign, Turkey has positioned itself as a cheerleader for Muslim causes such as Jerusalem and the Rohingya at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Muslim nations are taking a step back.

Although cautious not to rupture relations with Beijing, Turkey has also breached the wall of silence maintained by the vast majority of Muslim countries by speaking out against China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Mr. Erdogan’s religious and traditional diplomatic effort has seen Turkey build grand mosques and/or cultural centres across the globe in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, finance religious education and restore Ottoman heritage sites.

It has pressured governments in Africa and Asia to hand over schools operated by the Hizmet movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan holds Mr. Gulen responsible for the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has in recent years opened at least 26 embassies in Africa, expanded the Turkish Airlines network to 55 destinations in Africa, established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and negotiated a long-term lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island in the Red Sea.

The Turkish religious campaign takes a leaf out of Saudi Arabia’s four decade long, USD 100 billion effort to globally propagate ultra-conservative Sunni Islam

Like the Saudis, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) provides services to Muslim communities, organizes pilgrimages to Mecca, trains religious personnel, publishes religious literature, translates the Qur’an into local languages and funds students from across the world to study Islam at Turkish institutions.

Turkish Muslim NGOs provide humanitarian assistance in former parts of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East and Africa much like the Saudi-led World Muslim League and other Saudi governmental -non-governmental organizations, many of which have been shut down since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, has significantly reduced global funding for ultra-conservatism.

Nonetheless, Turkey is at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkish support for Qatar in its dispute with the Saudis and Emiratis; differences over Libya, Syria and the Kurds; and Ankara’s activist foreign policy. Turkey is seeking to position itself as an Islamic alternative.

Decades of Saudi funding has left the kingdom’s imprint on the global Muslim community. Yet, Turkey’s current struggles with Saudi Arabia are more geopolitical than ideological.

While Turkey competes geopolitically with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Syria, ideologically the two countries’ rivalry is between the UAE’s effort to establish itself as a centre of a quietist, apolitical Islam as opposed to Turkey’s activist approach and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, the UAE projects itself and its religiosity as far more modern, tolerant and forward looking.

The UAE’s projection goes beyond Prince Mohammed’s attempt to shave off the raw edges of Wahhabism in an attempt to present himself as a proponent of what he has termed moderate Islam.

The UAE scored a significant success with the first ever papal visit in February by Pope Francis I during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

The signing was the result of UAE-funded efforts of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to depoliticize Islam and gain control of Al Azhar that Sheikh Al-Tayeb resisted despite supporting Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup.

To enhance its influence within Al Azhar and counter that of Saudi Araba, the UAE has funded  Egyptian universities and hospitals and has encouraged Al Azhar to open a branch in the UAE.

The UAE effort paid off when the pope, in a public address, thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration.

“Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist.

The Turkey-UAE rivalry has spilt from the geopolitical and ideological into competing versions of Islamic history.

Turkey last year renamed the street on which the UAE embassy in Ankara is located after an Ottoman general that was at the centre of a Twitter spat between Mr. Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan..

Mr. Erdogan responded angrily to the tweet that accused Fahreddin Pasha, who defended the holy city of Medina against the British in the early 20th century, of abusing the local Arab population and stealing their property as well as sacred relics from the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb,. The tweet described the general as one of Mr. Erdogan’s ancestors.

“When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours? Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery. What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has,” Mr. Erdogan retorted, referring to Mr. Al-Nahyan.

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