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Understanding Arab-Islamic Politics: Advocating the Case of the Political Culture Approach (B)

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The deepest crisis of our world today is of leadership. What happened in the first half of the 20th century was a crisis of world democratic legislature, the inability of the parliamentary to act according to its authority and to impose restriction on the executive.

The result was the breakout of the two World Wars. Unfortunately the beginning of the 21st century witnesses the crisis of leadership, the weakness of the executive to follow a bold courageous policy. The immediate result is the power vacuum created that has led to the encroachment of Islam as the main actor of world politics.

Leadership is not ready to admit the problematic nature of its “mirror imaging”, works to avoid cognitive dissonance and at the same time is busy with appeasement. This means that it has closed its mind to any trend or development that is not acceptable to, and refuses to believe that the problems created originate from its own values and policy. From its point of view, even if the existing reality does not portend good tidings, the leaders work by the approach “minor changes to the midway point”.

That is, in the last analysis, the situation is OK, and the problems that have burst into the open are small and soluble. The main thing is to continue with the policy and not to stop. But the critical question that must be asked of citizens who look at a failing policy and at the conduct of their leaders, is: If the state were a business enterprise, whom would you appoint or choose to run it? And what would you do as chairman of the board of directors of the company, when you realize that the management has failed and is covering up? Would you allow it to continue with the disastrous policy? Now, here we are only dealing with a business. What happens when the failure might bring the state to the brink, and even more, endanger the existence of peoples?

Who is the realist leader as against the extremist? Was it Chamberlain, who promised peace, or Churchill, who promised blood and tears? Was it Clinton, who appeased North Korea, or the Prime Minister of Israel, Begin, who bombed the Iraqi atomic reactor? He who sells dictatorship of utopia and peace now, or he who shouts loudly that the enemy is here and we must fight? He who cried out in the 1930s that the Jews must eliminate the Diaspora before the Diaspora eliminates them, or those who did not believe that the holocaust could occur? Was it Huntington, who offered “the clash of civilizations”, or those who accused him of not understanding Islam?

In reaction to these critical remarks, about the “mirror image” that expresses flaws of leadership, the retort came: Don’t the leaders know this? Aren’t they aware of these phenomena? Don’t they have this information? The answer is clear. They know and see everything, and the information at their disposal is good and much more plentiful than would allow them to overlook key features. But they are politicians, and the most outstanding traits of this breed are their evasiveness and refusal to admit failure. Have you ever seen a gambler losing almost everything get up from the table? No. He will risk what is left, out of the hope that he will regain what he has lost. This picture very much fits political leadership. Politicians’ egoism, their conceptual misdoings, their distorted perceptions are deep and complex. They will not admit failure, and they will certainly not retreat from the line of policy that they have shaped.

As for Islam, Winston Churchill wrote in his two-volume work, The (Nile) River War: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries… The fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog… Insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live… Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities…but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.” Churchill concluded: “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith… the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

In 1938, Hilaire Belloc, the President of the Oxford Union and a member of the British Parliament, wrote in The Great Heresies (1938): “Mohammedism was a perversion of Christian doctrine… The success of Mohammedanism…was an extreme simplicity which pleased the unintelligent masses… Will not perhaps the temporal power of Islam return and with it the menace of an armed Mohammedan world which will shake off the domination of Europeans – still nominally Christian – and reappear again as the prime enemy of our civilization?…

The future always comes as a surprise but political wisdom consists in attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam… anyone with a knowledge of history is bound to ask himself whether we shall not see in the future a revival of Mohammedan political power, and the renewal of the old pressure of Islam upon Christendom… yet over and over again they have suddenly united under a leader and accomplished the greatest things…”

Belloc concluded: “…Now it is probable enough that on these lines – unity under a leader – the return of Islam may arrive. There is no leader as yet, but enthusiasm might bring one and there are signs enough in the political heavens today of what we may have to expect from the revolt of Islam at some future date perhaps not far distant.”

The First Cultural Flaw in Thinking: The Arab Personality

Arab society is mainly tribal-nomadic, with its outstanding trait being clan loyalty and the anarchy of the desert. Most of its values were shaped in the Jahiliyah. , The important values in Arab conceptions and behavior reflect the pre-Islamic ideals. In the Jahiliyah age, it is stated that “The Arabs did not know Allah and his Messenger and the rules of the religion.”

Therefore, it is defined as “the period of ignorance”. However, since the researcher Goldziher, it has been agreed that the Jahiliyah was a period of wildness, savagery, tribal jealousy and idol worship. The tribe made up the exclusive social-cultural unit. It was in constant conflict with other tribes over sources of subsistence. The political struggle principally embodied the scarcity of resources against the many demands to obtain them. This was a society of, “His hand shall be against all men,” as God said of Ishmael.

The two most important activities of the Arab tribes were constant fights and quarrels on other tribes, embodied by raids (Ghazawat) with the aim of taking booty (Ghanaem), the utmost: kidnapping women and boys and girls. The reason was power politics. Women represent a producing babies machinery and boys as fighters. The bigger the tribe was from fighters on the battleground perspective, the stronger, victorious, and respected it became.

Under Islam, Muhammad took this situation and funneled it into a total warfare against the infidels. From now on Muslims love and cherish other Muslims while they hate and fight the infidels. This has become a religious commandment called al-Wala’ wal-Bara’. Therefore, the social-political tribal syndrome of raids-booty has become a religious fighting-call to battle the infidels wherever and whenever they are. These traits had also been showed in the scourge of Islamic slavery of more than two hundreds of millions of black and white slaves from Africa, Asia and East Europe. It was also shown by the Devshirme system employed by the Ottoman Empire, of kidnapping young boys and girls, converting them to Islam and using them as soldiers, administrators and concubines.  

The extended family-clan-tribe syndrome was as follows: the head of the tribe was the Sayid, who was elected from among by the small group of the elders, and was only first among equals in status. This reality runs all Islamic history and contemporary: the leaders are from among the military or from the respected tribes serving as Sultans or kings. The Muslim peoples have never chosen or elected their own leaders, and were never part of the decision-making processes. They have not shaped or influenced the decision-making process as tribes, before Islam, as subjects of an Islamic empire, and as a contemporary inhabitants of the state political system. One cannot find citizenship, and sovereign electing people in Arab-Islamic political system.

Among the tribes was the Haram area, a place of agreed upon neutral holiness. It was a place for clarifications and intertribal agreements. From this, the Arabs accumulated immense experience in conducting negotiations. Thus, structures developed for obtaining mediation and compromise that were institutionalized. These were called “mechanisms of Wustah or Wasat.”

Despite their desert character, the city was the Arabs’ focus of change and political activity. Mecca was a center of trade and pilgrimage, since it was on the caravan routes. This is the Islamic strategy today in the Free World territories: occupation comes from the cities, and the main activity to achieve this goal has been in the city.

Religion had secondary importance in Jahili society. Religious customs were observed out of tradition and feelings of respect for forefathers, but religion was fetishist, and values were fatalistic, out of absolute faith in the decrees of fate. Secular values took a central place, and were expressed in the concept of manliness (Muruwwah), which meant the whole set of traits of the perfect Bedouin. The most important framework was preserving tribal solidarity (‘Asabiyyah). The tribe was the foundation for personal and group existence.

The critical phenomenon in its importance to Arab-Islamic society is honor. A man’s honor is Sharaf. It is flexible, dynamic, and subject to change in accord with his deeds. A woman’s honor is ‘Ird (also meaning her pelvis). In contrast to a man’s honor, it is firm and permanent. The woman grows up with her honor, and her most important role is to preserve it. The moment that a woman’s honor is lost, it cannot be restored, and a man’s honor is severely wounded. Indeed, Muslim society is based on the virginity of its daughters. Honor is the most important supreme value in Arab life, more important than life itself. A man without honor is considered dead. Hence the saying, “It is better to die with honor than live with humiliation.”

A man’s place in the tribe, as well as the tribe’s place among the tribes, was according to the measure of his and its honor. When honor was harmed, shame was caused which originated in public exposure, overt to everyone, a phenomenon which severely humiliated a man. Indeed, the Arab individual is caught up throughout his whole life in intensive activity to avoid shame and advance his honor. The central means for this was vengeance. Honor is restored only when vengeance has been carried out in public and is known to all.

This syndrome: honor-shame-vengeance is of highest importance in Arab-Islamic life, and is the focus of all other cultural traits analyzed herewith. Everything stems from this syndrome and everything is influenced from it. Publicity is the measurement, the variable that determines the action.

Tribal tradition and clan loyalty had dominant influence in society. Likewise significant were blood ties within the extended family and the clan, which determined group loyalties and identifications. Most of these social traits exist to this day, and influence the functioning of Arab society as a primordial system in which symbolic values are more important and esteemed than concrete values and the overall, holistic system of beliefs. This is “a shame society”, in which everyone must behave according to the accepted norms and internalize his own feelings in the system of group behavior.

A significant phenomenon that typifies the Arab is a basic lack of trust, indeed, suspicion, and hostility toward the “other”, even if he is a neighbor and member of the same clan. This is a central phenomenon in social life, which goes to an extreme of course when non-Muslim foreigners are involved. All the mechanisms of receptions and the intensive activity of welcoming and hospitality are meant to create a defensive barrier, to soften the threatening interpersonal encounter. For this purpose, the political system has proven itself so very flexible and deeply adaptable. Life in such a hostile environment, and with resources so hard to get, has created a society of adaptability that comes to terms with reality. Political conformism is required as well as acceptance of rules of behavior, which define the society’s goals in religious terms.

This reality expressed too the collective’s superiority over the individual. In contrast to modern societies which promote the individual’s interests, and in which the ethos is what the individual takes and receives from the generality, in Arab society, the ethos is what the individual does for the collective. There is a communal consensus in contrast to an individual’s opinion. Islam does not encourage individualism, rather favoring organized, orderly authority. The individual does not exist by his own right, and he and his opinions are unimportant, except through his belonging to a group framework.

This is based on the Hadith attributed to Muhammad: “The opinion of the many [clan, tribe, religious community] cannot be mistaken.” There is nothing more contemptible than individualism, which is viewed as factionalism and as harming the achievement of goals. This is also the basis for the attitude towards political opposition, which is not accepted in principle. Therefore, one may analyze the Arab personality as moving along a continuum in accordance with the following criteria:

a) The syndrome of honor–shame–vengeance. When shame (‘Eb) has taken place, Arab personality urge him to act with unrestrained cruelty and violence in the pursuit of vengeance (Intiqam, Thar). Indeed, the means for preserving honor and even reinforcing it is revenge. In the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab-Muslim perspective is clear: Israel is guilty and deserves to suffer vengeance due to its very existence as a Jewish state, when there is no Jewish people; due to its location as a state in the heart of the Arab world, when it divides the Arabs, preventing them from reaching their goals; and due to its activity as a violent state, expanding to obtain additional Arab territories.

Can a solution be reached in these circumstances? The answer touches more on the balance of forces and Israel’s effective deterrence than on issues of honor, since in the last analysis, national interests are what decide. Nevertheless, the issue weighs heavily on attaining legitimacy and assent (if only resigned and reluctant) for Israel’s existence.

b) Internalized personality in contrast to externalized personality: Jews and Christians internalize the guilt. The Jews extend one cheek in the sense of, “We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have committed crimes,” while Christians extend the second cheek, in the sense of “mea culpa.” In contrast, the Arabs externalize guilt: “Do I have a problem? – You are guilty!” Among them, there is no attempt to compromise. They have no tolerance for the justice and rights of the other. From their vantage point, justice and rights are totally on their side. Among Arabs and Muslims, one will not find the phenomenon so typical of Judeo- Christian culture: doubts, a sense of guilt, the self-tormenting approach, “Maybe we were not entirely OK,” or “Maybe we need to act or react differently.”

These phenomena are totally unknown in Arab-Islamic society towards outsiders. They have no doubts about their positions or the justice of their side. They have no sense of guilt that they may have erred. They have no twinges of conscience nor any regret that they may have done wrong to anyone else. From their viewpoint, they have no problem concerning the infidels. The phenomenon of the homicide bombers, mistakenly called suicide bombers, is an indication. There is no condemnation, no regret, no problem of conscience among Arabs and Muslims, anywhere, in any social stratum, of any social position. For the most part, there is total support without reservations. And if there are doubts, they have to do with the effectiveness of the phenomenon, not with condemnation of it.

c) Factionalism vs. Unity. The Arab personality oscillates in the space between the anarchic Arab character, separatist and violent, and the need to act jointly to achieve goals. This is the syndrome of polar reversals between factionalism and unity, between competitiveness and cooperation, between the aspiration for tribal freedom, the free spirit of the desert, and accepting authority and submitting to government. This is the syndrome between the stormy, violent personality, and the demands of society and the environment for conformity and submission. This is the syndrome between clan loyalty and tribal separatism, on one hand, and accepting tyrannical, authoritarian rule submissively, without challenge, on the other.

In this anarchic and violent society, the fear of social breakdown and disorientation is paramount, and dictates passive patterns of behavior. Above all, the most important continuum for understanding the Arab personality is that between submission to and fawning over those with perceived power, at one end, and cruel, violent, anarchic, unrestrained wildness, at the other.

Hostility and suspicion are dominant characteristics in the Arab personality. This is expressed by the saying: I and my brothers against my cousins’ sons; I and my cousins’ sons against the neighbor; I and the neighbors against the other. On one hand, flattering welcomes and gestures of politeness, but at one and the same time, continuing suspicion of the other and his intentions. The custom of hospitality, which is so famous an Arab social phenomenon, can be seen in the context of obtaining honor and externalizing it towards the environment. The mechanisms of reception and the polite welcomes in Arab society are meant to soften the interpersonal encounter which is so oppressive and threatening, to create a defense barrier.

d) The Collective Culture of Stubborn Social Limits. Characterizing Arab personality are various taboos and prohibitions of social and class hierarchy, in a constant attempt to be “OK” and to protect the accepted rules, to avoid failure in a matter that is likely to embarrass or to shame your rival in public. This refers to a puritanical society of firm prohibitions, which is based on its daughters’ virginity. This is a culture of hierarchy and discipline, of stiff homogeneity, contrasting with the pluralism and competition which indicate flexible heterogeneity in Western culture.

This is a culture wherein rumors are an integral part of social activity, and they quickly become absolute truth which cannot be challenged. It has to do with exaggerations, flights of fancy, and especially, in a society that believes in conspiracies, a society wherein every date is important, that remembers everything and forgives nothing. This is a society wherein the lie is an essential component of behavior patterns, and lying is endorsed by religious sages.

The famous Muslim theologian, al-Ghazzali, claimed that the lie is not wrong in itself. If the lie is the way to achieve good results for Islam, then it is permissible. It is necessary to lie when the truth might lead to unpleasant or undesired results. This is a society in which looking someone straight in the eye is forbidden, since it constitutes a challenge. There is also the prohibition to use the left hand, “the dirty hand”. Body language, like the manner of walking and the way of sitting, is very prominent. Indeed, the Arab personality is very diffuse from the structural and stratification standpoint.

e) The language as a cultural phenomenon, which makes it possible to understand the social environment and communicate with it. Language is critical in importance in Arab culture. The Arabs are motivated by admiration for the Arabic language and wide use of witticisms, sayings, fables, and allegories, as a filter of high importance for preventing shame, and consequently, for evading frictions and conflict. These bring the Arab personality to pathos and bellicose rhetoric, and from here to exaggerating reality, to overemphasis, to overstatement.

In all forms of interpersonal communications there are several phenomena: exaggeration in describing events (Mubalaghah); personal boasting of one’s deeds (Mufakharah); and repeated stressing of words (Tawqid). The role of the word in the Arab world (the word is a decoration) is totally different from that in the West (the word is a commitment). For the Syrian poet, Qabbani, the Arabs have been subject to 1,500 years of imperialist occupation by poetry.

What happens in the cultural encounter between the overstatement approach of Arab culture and the understatement approach of Western culture? Indeed, the influence of the Arab language on the behavior of the Arab personality is astonishing. Not only are they convinced that it is the most beautiful of all languages, but also that it proves their superiority and the superiority of Arab culture.

The Arab linguist al-Tha`alibi stated: “Whoever loves the Prophet, loves the Arabs. And whoever loves the Arabs, loves the Arabic language. The Prophet Muhammad is the most excellent of all prophets; the Arabs are the best, most admirable people of the world; and the Arabic language is the most excellent of all tongues.

f) The Phenomenon of Time. This too is a cultural matter totally different from its counterpart in Western culture. Western culture sanctifies the “here and now”. It wants “to make time”, to achieve everything now, to arrive much more quickly anywhere. In contrast, in Arab culture, there is time in abundance. It can be wasted indefinitely. After all, it is not necessary to do everything here and now. This is the reason for the totally different approach to negotiations among the Arabs, for the lack of speed in agreeing to accords, and for the tendency to postpone till tomorrow dealing with complex problems. In Western culture, everything is viewed as a “window of opportunity”, in an admired and attractive expression. Meanwhile, in Arab culture, the belief is that one should not hurry, since haste is the work of Satan (al-‘Ajalah Min al-Shaitan).

An apt summary of the matter was written by the famous Egyptian journalist, Muhammad Hassanayn Haykal, former editor of the daily, al-Ahram:

Arab logic tends to retreat in the direction of the instinct. Our thoughts are dust while our emotions are fire. We were and still are tribes, raging at one moment and quiescent at another. We hold our weapons in front of one another, and later we clasp each other’s hand and embrace as if nothing had happened.

The late Fuad Ajami proves that the kind of Western modernity that the Arabs imported gave birth to a monstrous, arid world, a false image of modernity, since they have no spirit of curiosity, nor hunger to know by totally changing values, nor openness to absorb and process other matters.

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Whither the Arab and the Muslim world?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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An agreement to establish diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel and a Saudi-Pakistani spat over Kashmir coupled with feuds among Gulf states and between Turkey, the kingdom, and the Emirates drive nails into the notion that the Arab and Islamic world by definition share common geopolitical interests on the basis of ethnicity or religion and embrace kinship solidarity.

The UAE-Israel agreement weakens the Palestinians’ efforts to create a state of their own but their criticism of the UAE’s move to become the third Arab country after Egypt and Jordan to officially recognize the Jewish state is based on a moral rather than a legal claim.

The UAE and Israel see their relations with the United States and the perceived threat from Iran as bigger fish to fry.

Both countries hope that an upgrading of their relations will keep the US engaged in the Middle East, particularly given that it puts pressure to follow suit on other Gulf states that have similar concerns and have engaged with Israel but not to the degree that the UAE has.

The UAE and Israel further worry that a potential victory by presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the US’ November presidential election could bring to office an administration more willing than President Donald J. Trump to seek accommodation with Iran and emphasize human rights and basic freedoms.

The establishment of diplomatic relations strengthens the UAE’s position as one of the United States’ most important partners in the Middle East and allows Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to argue that his hardline policy towards the Palestinians does not impede a broader peace between the Jewish state and Arab nations.

Mr. Netanyahu is however concerned that his argument may resonate less with a Biden administration that potentially could be less empathetic to Israel’s annexationist aspirations on the West Bank as well as with the right-wing in Israel that may not feel that the UAE is worth surrendering what they see as historical Jewish land.

Ironically, the price of suspending annexation in exchange for diplomatic relations with the UAE gets Mr. Netanyahu off the hook in the short term.

Mr. Netanyahu had pledged to annex parts of the West Bank on July 1 but has dragged his feet since because the Trump administration, while endorsing the principle, opposed any tangible move on the ground. Mr. Trump feared that annexation would have pre-empted his ability to claim some success for his controversial Israel-Palestinian peace plan.

Emirati officials had made clear that a formal annexation of parts of the West Bank, captured from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East war, would preclude the establishment of formal relations with Israel.

The question now is whether the UAE will put paid to that notion by opening their embassy in Jerusalem, whose status under international law has yet to be negotiated, rather than Tel Aviv.

So is what the UAE, alongside Jordan and Egypt, will do if and when Israel legally incorporates West Bank lands sometime in the future.

The UAE’s willingness to formally recognize Israel constituted the latest nail in the coffin of Arab and Muslim solidarity that has been trumped by hardnosed interests of the state and its rulers.

As Messrs. Trump and Netanyahu and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed were putting the final touches on their coordinated statements, traditional allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were locked into an escalating spat over Kashmir.

India last year revoked the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and imposed a brutal crackdown.

Muslim countries with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the lead, much like in the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, have been reluctant to jeopardize their growing economic and military ties to India, effectively hanging Pakistan out to dry.

The two Gulf states, instead of maintaining their traditional support for Pakistan, feted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as developments in Kashmir unfolded.

In response, Pakistan hit out at Saudi Arabia where it hurts. In rare public criticism of the kingdom, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi suggested that Pakistan would convene an Islamic conference outside the confines of the Saudi-controlled Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) after the group rejected Islamabad’s request for a meeting on Kashmir.

Targeting Saudi Arabia’s leadership and quest for Muslim religious soft power, Mr. Qureishi issued his threat eight months after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan under Saudi pressure bowed out of an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur convened by the kingdom’s critics, including Qatar, Turkey, and Iran.

Saudi Arabia fears that any challenge to its leadership could fuel demands that Saudi Arabia sign over custodianship of Mecca and Medina to a pan-Islamic body.

The custodianship and Saudi Arabia’s image as a leader of the Muslim world is what persuaded Crown Prince Mohammed to reach out to Israel primarily to use that as well as his embrace of dialogue with Jewish and Christian groups to bolster his tarnished image in Washington and other Western capitals.

The UAE’s recognition of Israel puts Saudi Arabia more than any other Gulf state in the hot seat when it comes to establishing relations with Israel and it puts Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the driver’s seat.

That is all about interests and competition and has little to do with Arab or Muslim solidarity.

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Rejiggering Gulf Security: China’s Game of Shadow Boxing

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China and its Gulf partners appear to be engaged in a game of shadow boxing.

At stake is the future of Gulf security and the management of differences between the region’s conservative monarchies and revolutionary Iran.

With governments passing to one another unofficial subtle messages, intellectuals and journalists are the ones out front in the ring.

In the latest round, Baria Alamuddin, a Lebanese journalist who regularly writes columns for Saudi media, has cast subtlety aside.

Ms. Alamuddin warned in strong and rare anti-Chinese language that China was being lured to financially bankrupt Lebanon by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia.

Writing in Arab News, the Saudi Arabia’s primary English-language newspaper, Ms. Alamuddin suggested that the Lebanese Shiite militia’s seduction of China was occurring against the backdrop of a potential massive 25-year cooperation agreement between the People’s Republic and Iran.

Her tirade was as much a response to reports of the alleged landmark agreement as it was to a declaration by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that China was willing to invest in Lebanon’s infrastructure.

“Chinese companies are ready to inject money into this country. If this happened, it would bring money to the country, bring investment, create job opportunities, allow heavy transport, and so on,” Mr. Nasrallah said.

In a state-controlled media outlet in a country that has studiously backed some of the worst manifestations of Chinese autocratic behavior, including the brutal crackdown on Uyghur Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the repression of democratic expression and dissidents, Ms. Alamuddin did not mince words.

“Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange.”

“Chinese business and investment are welcome, but Beijing has a record of partnering with avaricious African and Asian elites willing to sell out their sovereignty. Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange,” Ms. Alamuddin charged.

She quoted a Middle East expert of a conservative US think tank as warning that “vultures from Beijing are circling, eyeing tasty infrastructure assets like ports and airports as well as soft power influence through Lebanon’s universities.”

She went on to assert that “witnessing how dissident voices have been mercilessly throttled in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, Lebanese citizens are justifiably fearful that their freedoms and culture would be crushed under heavy-handed, authoritarian Chinese and Iranian dominance, amid the miserable, monolithic atmosphere Hezbollah seeks to impose.”

Ms. Alamuddin’s outburst implicitly recognized that China was signaling Gulf states, at a time of heightened uncertainty about the reliability of the United States’ regional defense umbrella, that they need to reduce tensions with Iran if the People’s Republic were to engage in helping create a new regional security architecture.

China was signaling Gulf states, at a time of heightened uncertainty about the reliability of the United States’ regional defense umbrella, that they need to reduce tensions with Iran.

Expressing concern about last month’s US decision to withdraw troops from Europe a day after Ms. Alamuddin’s stark criticism of China, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Assistant Secretary-General for political affairs and negotiation Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg suggested that “a more systematic framework, with organic feedback to the leadership and decision-makers” was needed for US-Gulf security discussions.

The GCC groups the Gulf’s six monarchies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.

China has been subtly pressuring Gulf states through academic and Communist party publications and public statements by prominent scholars with close ties to the government in Beijing.

Its messaging has primarily targeted Saudi Arabia, the one Gulf state that has so far refrained from engaging in any gestures towards Iran that could facilitate a dialing down of tension.

recent article in a renowned Chinese journal laid out the principles on which China is willing to break with its long-standing foreign and defense policy principles to engage in Gulf security.

The principles included “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution.

Most Gulf states have extended a helping hand to Iran, the Middle East country most hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Iranian and UAE foreign ministers agreed in a recent video call to cooperate during the health crisis.

“We agreed to continue dialogue on [the] theme of hope—especially as [the] region faces tough challenges, and tougher choices ahead,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter.

UAE officials said earlier that there were limits to a reduction of tensions. They said a real détente would only be possible once Iran changed its behavior, meaning a halt to support for proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen and a surrender of its nuclear ambitions.

The Chinese-Gulf shadow boxing takes place against a slow-moving and seemingly troubled US and Chinese-backed Pakistani effort to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Chinese-Gulf shadow boxing takes place against a slow-moving and seemingly troubled US and Chinese-backed Pakistani effort to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said last week without providing details that he had averted a military confrontation between the two Gulf powers. He said mediation was “making progress but slowly.”

Ms. Alamuddin’s column coupled with Saudi Arabia’s refusal to capitalize on the pandemic as way to reduce tensions, suggests that Saudi Arabia has yet to fully embrace Mr. Khan’s efforts.

Mr. Khan’s efforts are likely to be further complicated by the disclosure last month by Pakistani law enforcement that a Baloch gang leader, who was detained in 2017, had confessed to giving “secret information and sketches regarding army installations and officials to foreign agents,” believed to be Iranians.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the disclosure.

Pakistan has long asserted that Iran and India have lent support to Baloch nationalist militants responsible for multiple attacks on military and Chinese targets in the South Asian state.

“The Iran-Pakistan border issues are mainly affected by the sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For Pakistan, this is a costly and difficult diplomatic situation at this time,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Pakistan has a vested interest in helping dial down Saudi-Iranian tensions. It takes, however, two to tango and a mediator whose efforts are not burdened by bilateral issues of his own with any of the parties.

To move the pendulum, more will be required than a regional go-between or subtle nudging. With the US likely to refrain from doing the heavy lifting, that task may be left to China. If Ms. Alamuddin is an indication, China is already discovering that changing the paradigm in the Middle East is easier said than done.

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

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Evolving Japan-UAE ties

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Mohamed bin Zayed with Japan's Abe. Image Credit: WAM

Japan and the UAE share a unique relationship with each other. Japan recognised the UAE as an independent state in 1971 and opened its Embassy in the UAE in 1974 and on the other hand, UAE opened its embassy in Japan in 1973. Both nations share strong bilateral economic relations, dating back to 1961 when the first shipment of the crude oil was exported from Umm Al-Sharif offshore field in Abu Dhabi to Japan. Japan is known to be the world’s fourth-largest importer of oil. In 2017, it was the second-largest export market, behind China, for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. The UAE became the top destination in the Middle East region for Japan’s exports, valued at $7.18 billion in 2019, taking economic bilateral relations to a great level. However, on 19 July 2020, UAE spacecraft rocketed into blue skies from a Japanese launch centre at the start of a seven-month journey to Mars on the Arab’s world’s first interplanetary mission. This mission gave a boost to its strategic relations as well as space cooperation.

Understanding their bilateral relations

The longstanding cordial relationship between the UAE and Japan has been honored for decades. In 2013, PM Shinzo Abe visited the UAE and both nations jointly announced the statement on the strengthening of the Comprehensive Partnership between Japan and the UAE towards stability and prosperity. The relations between both countries have mostly focused on the economy and trade ever since they established their diplomatic relations. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Japan as an official guest in February 2014 to follow up the Joint Statement issued during the Prime Minister’s visit to the UAE in May 2013.

In 2016, the number of Japanese citizens living in the UAE totalled 4,000, while hundreds of Emirati citizens are in Japan for education and investment purposes.

According to the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), In 2017, Japan imported Dh57.3 billion worth of oil from the UAE.

In 2018, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Initiative (CSPI) was signed between the two countries when Abe visited the UAE. With the signing of the CSPI, the relationship between Japan and the UAE entered a new era of strategic partnership for the future and joint cooperation strategy between the institutions of the two countries. They also agreed to increase trade in areas which included renewable energy, advanced robots, artificial intelligence and health care. Ensuring cordial energy ties are critical under the CSPI. In 2018, Japan also acquired an oil concession in Abu Dhabi for the coming 40 years which proved that Japan is an important strategic energy partner in the UAE.

The leadership of the UAE has been keen on strengthening ties with Japan in areas like education, scientific research and industry. It aims to seek its ties with Japan to new levels as Japan possesses advanced technology which would serve the sustainable and comprehensive development goals in the UAE. Cooperation is very strong in the education field. The first Japanese school was inaugurated in the UAE in 2009 and began teaching the Arabic language, Islamic education and social studies to the students of the Emirates along with the Japanese curriculum. Furthermore, around 100 students from the Emirates are studying in Japanese universities for bachelors, masters and even PhD degrees.

In 2019, an attempt of initiating to teach Japanese as a second foreign language in some UAE high schools was discussed among both countries. Akihiko Nakajima, new Japanese ambassador to the UAE affirmed that ‘both nations are currently giving importance to educational cooperation’. The friendly ties were further strengthened in recent times when Sheikh Hazza Bin Zayed Al-Nahyen, Deputy Chairman of Abu Dhabi Executive Council and Dr Sultan Ahmad Al-Jaber, Minister of State and Special Envoy to Japan, attended the enthronement ceremony of the Japanese Emperor Naruhito in 2019. They wished that Japan shall achieve a brighter and more prosperous future during the ‘Reiwa Era’.

Japan and the UAE have been closely cooperating in space sciences. In October 2018, ‘KhalifaSat’ was launched into outer space from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan aboard an H-IIA rocket. In January 2020, Shinzo Abe made an official visit to the UAE and other Gulf countries to further bolster the strong ties which have been evolving on multiple fronts like trade, energy, technology, space and education. “UAE-Japan relations are historic and based on trust, cooperation, respect and mutual interests,” Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said. Abe and Sheikh Mohammad also witnessed the signing of an Energy Cooperation Agreement between supreme Petroleum Council, represented by Adnoc (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), and Japan’s agency for natural resources and energy.

Space Cooperation

The lift-off of the Mars orbiter named Amal or Hope probe on 19th July 2020, from a Japanese launch centre is to be followed soon by China and the United States. Amal blasted off from the Tanegashima space centre aboard a Mitsubishi heavy industries H-IIA rocket. This has given a major boost to space cooperation between Japan and the UAE. Amal is set to reach Mars by February 2021, which will mark the year the UAE celebrates 50 years since the country’s formation. It points out that the launching of Amal was well planned in line with the celebration of 50 years of the country’s formation. “The UAE is now a member of the club and we will learn more and we will engage more and we’ll continue developing our space exploration program,” UAE Space Agency chief Mohammed Al Ahbabi told a joint online news conference from Tanegashima. The Amal statecraft costs $200 million and it is about the size of a small car, carries three instruments to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change. Japan’s services of such launches are known well for accuracy and on-time record. However, the providers are working to cut costs to be more competitive internationally. Japan also has its own Mars mission planned in 2024, where it aims to send spacecraft to the Martian moon Phobos to collect samples to bring back to Earth in 2029.

The objective of the UAE’S mission is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics and fundamentally, building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 days. Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager said, “What is unique about this mission is that for the first time the scientific community around the world will have a holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day at different seasons. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has said that ‘Hope Probe’ exemplifies the distinctive strategic partnership between the UAE and Japan.

It is the first time that the UAE attempted to send a deep space mission, that of a mission to Mars. It clearly sends a strong message to the Arab youth that if the UAE is able to reach Mars in less than 50 years, then they certainly can do much more. Emiratis also believed that it represented a step forward for the Arab world and for scientists.

However, energy remains a key priority in the ongoing relations between the two countries which may contribute significantly to energy development and economic diversification in the UAE and Japan. Through space and strategic cooperation, the two countries are looking to expand and deepen the fields of cooperation. A successful mission to Mars will indeed be a major step for the oil-dependent economy seeking a great future in space. The launch of the hope probe demonstrates that effective space cooperation is a driving force for strengthening their bilateral ties. Hope is expected to begin transmitting information back to earth by September 2021.

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