Syrian crisis has provided significant stimulus for the Saudi kingdom to act quickly to bring all West Asian Muslim powers under one strategic umbrella that, in turn, led to Saudi king to resort to active shuttle diplomacy in the region, shoring up support for a peaceful Mideast. Arab world has been in turmoil for years now, sacrificing millions of Muslims without any real cause.
There have been a series of visits by Saudi leaders, including the king Salman himself, to Turkey and Egypt to expand the Saudi’s diplomatic profile in the region. King Salman’s recent first ever visit to Egypt plays important role in streamlining the Saudi led Mideastern relations in general.
Unlike Turkey which is focused on establishment of Palestine state at the earliest and containing of Israeli arrogance and military aggression with a legal framework, Egypt, supporting Israeli aggression and creating joint terror blockades around Palestine, thereby making the Palestinians feel suffocation, seeks economic assistance from Saudi Arabia.
Turkey pursues friendly policy towards Saudi Arabia and Iran and seeks Egyptian help to make the Mideast tension free and free from illegally nuclearized Israeli aggression.
Saudi Arabia’s King cum PM Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz concluded a five-day visit to Egypt on April 11, before he left for Saudi Arabia. King Salman arrived in Cairo on April 07 on his first official state visit to Egypt since ascending to the Saudi throne in January 2015. Saudi king Salman was greeted by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi upon arrival. King Salman met grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highly prestigious Sunni educational institution, on Saturday. The Saudi leader delivered a speech in the Egyptian parliament. Salman previously visited Egypt’s southern Sinai city of Sharm El-Sheikh in March 2015 for an Arab League summit.
During his five-day visit, the king pledged billions of dollars in new investment for the cash-challenged country and the two sides signed four agreements worth roughly 22 billion dollars. As the latest Saudi policy, the Saudi king called for Egyptian cooperation against extremism and terrorism. The visit comes at a time when Egypt is suffering political and economic pressures due to years of domestic political turmoil that led to economic recession and security challenges resulting from regional chaos.
The two sides have signed eight agreements, six memos of understanding and three cooperation programs that covered fields including education, health, housing, agriculture, electricity and marine transportation. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have agreed on establishing King Salman University in the North Sinai city of Tour. Among the agreements signed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia during the visit are those related to housing projects in the Egyptian Sinai peninsula, the establishment of King Salman University in Tur town of South Sinai, the development of Egypt’s largest public hospital Qasr al-Aini, the building of a power station in western Cairo and the formation of a joint investment fund with a capital of 60 billion Saudi riyals -about 16 billion dollars. “All these agreements show the seriousness of the Saudi side to support the Egyptian economy, as there will be capital flow to Egypt which means there will be more employment and economic movement in the country in the near future.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have agreed on establishing a land bridge to connect the two countries, visiting King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz said in a joint press conference. “The land bridge will be named after King Salman,” Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said. Earlier, President al-Sisi has granted the Saudi king, who arrived on Thursday in Cairo for a five-day visit, the Collar of the Nile. The two sides have signed eight agreements, six memos of understanding and three cooperation programs that covered fields including education, health, housing, agriculture, electricity and marine transportation. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have agreed on establishing King Salman University in the North Sinai city of Tour.
For his part, Sissi transferred to the Saudis sovereignty of two islands in the Straits of Tiran that were contested by both countries. The two uninhabited islands that Sissi gave to the Saudi king are of enormous strategic importance, lying at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba from where it can control access to Jordan’s Port of Aqaba, Israel’s Port of Eilat. Sissi went out on a political limb to gift the two islands to the Saudis, a very unpopular move among Egyptians.
The Egyptian presidency described Salman’s visit to Cairo as “crowning the close brotherly ties between the two countries.” In a show of support for President General Abdel-Fatteh Al-Sissi, the king pledged billions of dollars in new investment for the cash-challenged country. For his part, Sissi transferred sovereignty to the Saudis of two islands in the Straits of Tiran that were contested by both countries. The Saudi king called for cooperation against extremism and terrorism.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also agreed on establishing a land bridge to connect the two countries, visiting King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz said in a joint press conference. “The land bridge will be named after King Salman,” Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said. Earlier, President al-Sisi has granted the Saudi king, who arrived in Cairo for a five-day visit, the Collar of the Nile. (Such honors have become a customary phenomenon in bilateral visits as a sign of willingness on the part of the host nation for future ties)
The Saudi investors show awareness that their investment in Egypt today is investment in the future, because politically Egypt represents a political weight and strategic depth for the Gulf region, and economically investments in Egypt are promising and fruitful.
However, Saudi investment in Egypt is nothing new, as Saudi business tycoons have been investing in the country over the past few decades. Today, it is the Saudi government that pumps investments into Egypt, which is a new and positive aspect and an indicator of the soundness and healthiness of the investment environment in Egypt, Saleh explained.
Sisi in Riyadh
Before taking over power in Cairo, Sissi had illegally toppled the first ever elected president of Egypt Mohammad Morsi of Muslim Brotherhood in a bloodless coup and established his residency with support from Saudi Arabia and USA, among others.
The Egyptian presidency described Salman’s visit to Cairo as “crowning the close brotherly ties between the two countries.” Saudi Arabia has supported Cairo with billions of US dollars to help revive the country’s economy following the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Earlier, Egyptian President Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had visited the kingdom in 2015 for economic support. On 02 March 2015, visiting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud held in-depth talks in Riyadh over the thorny regional issues before discussing the economic package for Egypt. The two leaders highlighted the current crisis in the Middle East and reviewed aspects of bilateral cooperation. They emphasized the depth of strategic relations between the two countries. The meeting also addressed the security conditions following the growing political chaos in Yemen. During a TV interview, Sisi said the two countries need to coordinate considering the “difficult condition” in the Arab region. Sisi’s visit was the latest in a series of meetings in Riyadh between Salman and top officials from his Gulf neighbors and Jordan.
Since late March, Egypt has joined a Saudi-led military coalition that has been launching airstrikes against the Shiite Houthi militants in Yemen, who have seized several cities in the country since September 2014, including the capital Sanaa, and have recently forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Egypt is currently providing naval support to the coalition, which has been airdropping weapons and equipment supplies to pro-Hadi tribal militia in Aden to fight against the Houthi militants. Despite Russia’s abstaining, the UN Security Council voted in favor of an arms embargo against the Houthis and the supporters of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The resolution also imposed sanctions on the Shiite group, demanding its withdrawal from the Yemeni areas it has previously seized.
Later, on 15 April 2015, during a Saudi minister’s visit to Cairo, Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed to carry out a major strategic military maneuver in the latter’s territory, which is to be joined by other Gulf and Arab states, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said in a statement. The statement came after a meeting between al-Sisi and visiting Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman, who had also held talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sedqi Sobhi. “Egypt represents one of the main and effective forces to achieve security and stability in the Middle East region,” the Saudi defense minister said.
During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Saudi King Abdullah expressed support for Hosni Mubarak. “No Arab or Muslim can tolerate any meddling in the security and stability of Arab and Muslim Egypt by those who infiltrated the people in the name of freedom of expression, exploiting it to inject their destructive hatred. As they condemn this, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its people and government declares it stands with all its resources with the government of Egypt and its people.” He condemned the “people who tried to destabilize the security and stability of Egypt.
On 10 May 2012, ambassador Kattan announced that the kingdom agreed to provide US$500 million in aid to Egypt and will deposit an additional US$1 billion at the country’s central bank as part of the $2.7 billion support package they had agreed in 2011. Saudi Arabia will also export $250 million worth of butane to Egypt, which has faced ongoing shortages of the fuel, as well as US$200 million to help small and mid-sized firms. The donation was part of a move by multiple Gulf States to send a large aid package to Egypt.
Muslim Brotherhood leader and Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi’s first official visit was to Saudi Arabia in July 2012, although his views are not fully aligned with those of the Saudi government. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi stated that Saudi Arabia is a pragmatic country and that whoever the president of Egypt is, Saudi government is aware of the fact that it has to maintain good relations with this country.
Saudi Arabia has supported Cairo with billions of US dollars to help revive the country’s economy following the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. On 10 May 2012, the Saudi kingdom agreed to provide US$500 million in aid to Egypt and will deposit an additional US$1 billion at the country’s central bank as part of the $2.7 billion support package they had agreed in 2011. Saudi Arabia also exports $250 million worth of butane to Egypt, which has faced ongoing shortages of the fuel, as well as US$200 million to help small and mid-sized firms. The donation was part of a move by multiple Gulf States to send a large aid package to Egypt.
Saudi Arabia has been the key backer of al-Sisi since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 after mass protests against his one-year rule. It has pumped billions of dollars to help and invest into Egypt’s battered economy. King Salman met grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highly prestigious Sunni educational institution; the Saudi leader also delivered a speech in the Egyptian parliament. Sisi’s visit was the latest in a series of meetings in Riyadh between Salman and top officials from his Gulf neighbors and Jordan.
According to Saudi Press Agency, on 02 March 2015, the visiting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud held in-depth talks in Riyadh over the thorny regional issues. The two leaders highlighted the current crisis in the Middle East and reviewed aspects of bilateral cooperation. They emphasized the depth of strategic relations between the two countries. The meeting also addressed the security conditions following the growing political chaos in Yemen. During a TV interview, Sisi said the two countries need to coordinate considering the “difficult condition” in the Arab region.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia on 15 April 2015 agreed to carry out a major strategic military maneuver in the latter’s territory, which is to be joined by other Gulf and Arab states, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said in a statement. The statement came after a meeting between al-Sisi and visiting Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman, who had also held talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sedqi Sobhi. “Egypt represents one of the main and effective forces to achieve security and stability in the Middle East region,” the Saudi defense minister said.
Since late March, Egypt has joined a Saudi-led military coalition that has been launching airstrikes against the Shiite Houthi militants in Yemen, who have seized several cities in the country since September 2014, including the capital Sanaa, and have recently forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to the Saudi capital of Riyadh. In return for economic aid, Egypt is currently providing naval support to the Saudi led coalition, which has been airdropping weapons and equipment supplies to pro-Hadi tribal militia in Aden to fight against the Houthi militants.
Despite Russia’s abstaining, the UN Security Council voted in favor of an arms embargo against the Houthis and the supporters of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The resolution also imposed sanctions on the Shiite group, demanding its withdrawal from the Yemeni areas it has previously seized.
In the years immediately after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia were cordial, though driven by mutual suspicion of the Hashemites reigning in Jordan and especially Iraq at the time, and continuing from an anti-Hashemite alliance formed by King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, King Farouk of Egypt and President Shukri al-Quwatli of Syria after the foundation of the Arab League in 1945. Subsequently President Gamal Abdel Nasser and King Saud of Saudi Arabia co-operated to limit the reach of the Baghdad Pact, which they felt was designed to increase the influence of Hashemite Iraq. As a result, the two countries signed a bilateral military pact in 1955, and worked to successfully prevent Jordan from joining the Baghdad Pact.
Egypt came to have extensive involvement in the Saudi army, economy and education system. However the alliance was undermined by Saudi anxieties about the Egyptian government’s promotion of anti-monarchical forces in the Arab World, including the uncovering of an Egyptian-style Saudi Free Officers Movement and increasing labor unrest, Egypt’s increasing shift towards the Soviet Union, and efforts by Iraq and its western allies including the United States to drive a wedge between the two countries.
Under President Nasser, Egypt, backed by the Soviet Union, came to represent the Non-Aligned Movement and pan-Arabism, and was a nominal advocate of secularism and republicanism. The Saudis by contrast were strong supporters of absolute monarchy and Islamist theocracy, and were generally close to the governments of the United Kingdom and USA.
By 1958 this deterioration in the relationship apparently had led to King Saud offering a bribe of £1.9 million to Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, the head of Syrian intelligence at the time and later Vice-President of the United Arab Republic, to secure the assassination of Nasser. An era of tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia set in, negatively impacting the pan Arab nationalism.
Arrival of Mubarak as Egyptian leader tried to put the bilateral ties with Saudi back to normal footing. Unlike the situation at the time of Nasser, Mubarak’s Egypt – a conservative dictatorship closely allied with Washington – no longer represented an ideological or political polar opposite to Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, there remained mutual suspicion and a rivalry between the two countries, both aspiring to preeminence in the Arab World in general and among the Arab allies of the US in particular. Saudi’s preeminence remained intact, however.
Egypt has been in need of the economic push because the country is suffering declining foreign currency reserves, shortage of US dollars and low investment growth rates. All these investments will have a very positive effect on Egypt and it needs them at least until the end of 2016 to evaluate the investments based on how much funds will have been pumped into Egypt, what investments will have been initiated, etc.
After the 2011 turmoil, the economic growth was as low as 1.5 percent and it gradually increased until it reached 4.5 percent in the current fiscal year and is expected to reach 5.5 percent in the coming fiscal year as the government stated, which shows that Egypt is on the rise economically,” the political economy professor illustrated. Over the past five years, Egypt’s foreign currency reserves declined from 36 billion US dollars in 2011 to 16.5 billion dollars as of end of March 2016, and the government is currently struggling to reduce an ongoing budget deficit of about 36 billion dollars.
The Saudi Egypt rivalry manifested itself, for example, when President Barack Obama made a major tour of the Middle East in 2009, soon after assuming power. The Saudis resented Obama’s choice of Cairo as the venue for making a key policy speech, and State Department officials made an effort to mollify the Saudi leadership by following up the Cairo speech with a high-profile Presidential visit to the Saudi capital.
The USA views Mideast with Israel playing the central role. Obama also shamelessly continued the traditional US policy for essentially fascist Israeli, though in a low key. He also visited Israel and enjoyed life with Jewish criminals, invited them to White House for “talks’. The democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is wooing the strong Jewish lobbyists in USA and Israeli regime as well to support her candidature.
Egypt has been facing Western political pressure, particularly from Italy, after the recent death of an Italian young student Giulio Regeni in Cairo and Italy’s suspicion of the involvement of the Egyptian police in the tragedy, to the point that the Western country recalled its ambassador to Cairo for consultations. Saudi King’s visit has a political dimension, as it indicates a sort of support to Egypt amid some political challenges, including the case of Italian Giulio Regeni’s death in Cairo.
Egypt has conducted feasibility studies for these Saudi projects to ensure their benefit to the Egyptian economy. When the Saudi funds are transferred to Egypt, they will positively affect the value of the US dollar compared to the Egyptian pound as they will increase the currency reserves at the Egyptian central bank, and if they do not devaluate the dollar, they will at least stop the current deterioration of the Egyptian pound.
The just concluded five-day visit of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Egypt represents Riyadh’s willingness for political and economic support for Cairo to overcome its current challenges. The visit saw the signing of agreements of Saudi investments in Egypt worth about 25 billion US dollars, and joint projects.
Saudi investments in Egypt may lead to more Gulf investments in Egypt, since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are greatly interrelated politically and economically. However, Saudi Arabia has to focus on a very important issue- establishment of Palestine in Mideast. True, so long as Israel is in Mideast, it won’t allow Palestine to get UN recognition as a full state, though it has won defacto recognition in the UN general assembly against the will of US-Israeli twins.
Saudi Arabia has been strenuously making efforts to free Palestine from Israeli terror regime but without any success. Israel and Egypt are jointly causing existential problems with terror blockades from both sides for the besieged Palestinians and Gaza Strip where the Hamas rules is the prime target of Israeli military, attacking it regularly on fictitious pretexts. Even turkey’s efforts to breach the blockades to free Gaza Strip have ended in Israeli military attacks on the Turkish aidships.
It is a fact that Israeli aggression on Palestine territories continue with its military using US terror goods and Pentagon services. Israel and its major terror ally USA very conveniently use the Hamas-Fatah conflict to divide the Palestinians and create obstacles for the establishment of much delayed Palestine state.
Saudi kingdom could use its new friendship with Egyptian regime to remove the blockade from its side so that Palestinians could begin to live human life. Giving justice to the Palestinians should be the key objective of new Saudi Egyptian relations.
Saudi-Egyptian ties are bound to grow in strength and depth with increasing number of mutual visits from both sides at high levels. Economic and security ties will gather momentum.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
The Russian bear in Lebanon
It turned out that the Biden-Putin summit on May 16 has established a wider effect than anyone would expect.
It exceeded by far political analysis, especially in Lebanon. The summit almost coincided with the Russian economic delegation’s visit to Beirut on the 18th of the same month and the announcement of its study results to initiate investments projects in Lebanon.
The results revealed the Russian delegation’s future plans in rebuilding the oil refineries in Zahrani and Tripoli and rehabilitating the latter’s port. Regardless of the projects, the Russian companies intend to deal with, if they are approved and encouraged by good signs changes can be relied upon. It means that Lebanon has taken an important leap in its economic policies by gradually moving towards the East.
Naturally, Lebanon’s orientation towards the East “if it happens” will not be absolute and definitive, but rather principled and partial. This is an important matter by itself. It is marked as a qualitative leap that may minimize the private companies’ monopolization of energy imports, which will be directly reflected, firstly, in electricity production in Lebanon, and secondly in facilitating the provision of petroleum products in Lebanon. Such projects became a necessity, in particular, after the collapse of the Lebanese lira against the American dollar.
Logically, changing the reality of the production of electricity will reveal immediate results. It will be reflected in the change in the rehabilitation of the economic infrastructure fields in Lebanon. It will also positively reflect in other vital areas, such as determining the prices of food commodities, which became outrageously high.
Accordingly, one of the most important reasons for the obscene rise in food prices is related to the high costs of transportation in the last month alone. It is almost above the purchasing power of the Lebanese. For example, the prices of vegetables and fruits, a non-imported commodity, which is not supervised by government support, remained within reasonable prices; however, once the diesel prices started rising, it directly affected the prices of the seasonal vegetables and fruits.
In addition, there are unseen accomplishments that will go with the entry of Russian companies, which is creating new job opportunities in Lebanon. Lately, it was reported that unemployment in Lebanon will reach 41.4% this year. It is a huge rate, which the Lebanese media, in general, use to provoke people against the current resigned government. However, it neglects to shed the light on the importance of the Russian investment in creating new job opportunities, which will affect all social groups, whether they were transporters, building workers, porters, cleaners, or university graduates.
The companies coming to Lebanon are directly supported by the Russian state. However, they are private companies, a fact that has its advantages. They are familiarized with dealing with other Western international companies. Russian companies have previously coordinated with French and Italian companies in Lebanon, through contracts concluded for the extraction of gas in Lebanese fields and in other fields outside Lebanon. Russian- European coordination process is also recognized in rebuilding Beirut’s harbor. A German company will rebuild the docks, while the French will rebuild the containers or depots, and the Russian companies will rebuild the wheat silos.
It seems that the process is closely related to the future of Lebanon and the future of the Chinese project, the New Silk Road, [One Road, and One Belt]. However, it is not clear yet whether the Russian companies will be investing in Tripoli’s refinery and in regenerating and expanding its port or it will be invested by the Chinese companies. If this achievement is accomplished, then Tripoli will restore its navigating glorious history. Tripoli was one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. Additionally, there is a need for the Russian and the Chinese to expand on the warm shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Secondly, the project will boost Tripoli and its surroundings from the current low economic situation to a prosperous economic one, if the real intentions are there. The results in Tripoli will be read as soon as the projects set foot in the city. Of course, this will establish another Sino-Russian victory in the world of economy and trade, if not in politics as well.
The entry of the Russians and the Chinese into the Lebanese field of commerce has international implications. It will come within international and global agreements or understanding. Nevertheless, it is a sign that the Americans are actually losing their grip on Lebanon. This entry will stop the imposition of a limited number of European-oriented Lebanese monopolizing companies, which have dominated the major Lebanese trade of oil and its products. Dominance is protected with the “illusion” of meaningless international resolution. It is true that the Americans are still maneuvering in several places; however, this is evident to the arbitrariness of decisions making in the U.S. today. It is the confusion resulting from ramifications of the “Sword of Jerusalem” operation in Palestine; it seems that they do not have a clear plan towards policies in the region, other than supporting “Israel”.
If the above is put into action, and the Russian companies start working within a guarantee agreement with the Lebanese state. This means a set of important issues on the international and regional levels. And it also means that the Americans would certainly prefer the Russians to any Chinese or Iranian economic direct cooperation in Lebanon.
Firstly, it is clear that in their meeting Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin reached a kind of consent to activate stability in the region. Two years ago, the Americans had a different plan. According to an established source, the Americans actually intended to strike internal stability in Lebanon and ignite another civil war round, before finalizing stability in Syria. This assertion tunes with David Hale’s, an American envoy to Lebanon, a declaration about the American anger over the $10 billion spent in Lebanon to change the political reality and overthrow Hezbollah from the government. Consequently, the American project is behind us now. Russia and China need to invest in the stability of Lebanon, in order to secure their investments in the process of rebuilding Syria.
Secondly, the Lebanese state guarantee, which the Russians require, is directly related to the lack of confidence in the Lebanese banking policies, which have lost their powers as a guarantor for investments after the role they played since November 17, 2019 till today. It proved the inefficiency of the financial policies of the Lebanese banks, which was based on the principle of usury since the nineties of the last century. In addition, a state guarantee will enable the Russian companies to surpass the American sanctions.
The state guarantee increases the value and importance of the Lebanese state as an entity in the region, and this can be understood from Macron’s statements after the explosion of Beirut port last August when he said that Lebanon’s role in the region as we know it must change.
Thirdly, if we consider the history of international unions in the world, including the European Union, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and others, they started as economic alliances before they end as political alliances. Therefore, at this historical stage and in order to work on the economic recovery of Lebanon, which needs more investments instead of falling under the burden of more debts. Lebanon needs to head East towards economic unity with Syria. In cooperating with two superpowers, Lebanon and Syria can form an economic bloc on the Mediterranean shores, a bloc that can get Lebanon out of the vortex of Western absurdity and expand its alliances and horizons to be a real economic and cultural forum where the East and the West can meet.
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