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Abu Mazen and the Politics of Paranoia: the Creation of a Palestinian Leadership

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The researchers Robins and Post have advanced the theory of political paranoia to deepen our understanding of the psycho-politics of personality. They outline seven elements of a paranoia syndrome. It is characterized by: a) suspiciousness; b) centrality; c) grandiosity; d) hostility; e) fear of loss of autonomy; f) projection; and e) delusional thinking.

All these can be attributed to political leaders, especially patrimonial ones, whose operational code is conservative and closed. This syndrome, very much typifies and explains Abu Mazen personality and his political behavior, as well as his approach towards the circles of activists that he operates in and interacts with: the inner circle (Palestinian), the regional (inter-Arab), the policy towards Israel.

Suspiciousness. The paranoid leader’s personality, according to Robins and Post is typified by suspiciousness of others, both relatives and strangers, and by pervasive distrust and lack of cooperation. He suspects that others are exploiting, deceiving, and conspiring against him. He is preoccupied with doubts about others’ friendship or loyalty, and he is reluctant to confide in others. To the paranoiac, things are never what they seem. He does not permit himself to be distracted by innocent facts, and searches for hidden meanings according to pre-existing ideas and conclusions reached in advance, that support his conspiratorial thesis. Events do not simply occur, they are deliberately caused. There is no room for ambiguity, and the classifications made are black and white, good/bad, friend/enemy, and have no balance among them.

Abu Mazen is chronically suspicious towards everyone, his loyalists and allies in his close environment, and enemies in distant environments. He does not rely on anyone. His paranoia is in everything and have to do even with his personal security. His decisions have always been in accord with his own judgment, while he has often changed them without warning. Like Arafat Abu Mazen is very sensitive to his place in the Palestinian history, and identifies himself as an important part of the Palestinian revolution. Therefore he will never compromise with Israel and will not allow any freedom of action to his assistants or to those who negotiate in his name.

In fact, he prevents the growth of an alternate leadership or the possibility of revolt against himself, or even a blow at his authority. He deeply believes in conspiracies, in attempts to liquidate him, hence, his tendency to create myths about him being a possible victim of his enemies’ schemes. This situation leads him to act through crisis management. He is at his best in times of crisis. Energetic and eager for battle, his face wears a smile from ear to ear, as he has great love for situations of heroism.

Centrality. The paranoid leader’s world is populated by all sorts of enemies, of whom he perceives himself to be the focus of attention. All their actions and remarks are taken as directed against himself. He is totally sure that he is the object of great interest on the part of everyone around him. At the same time, he constantly surveys his surroundings, carefully watching how he is being watched. These beliefs and behaviors lead to a dynamic sequence of close relations, intense feelings of persecution, and vindictive retaliatory rage in the paranoid leader.

Violently angry, the paranoid leader defends himself by posing as the victim of outside enemies. Being extremely sensitive to criticism, his interpersonal relationships are disturbed. The world of politics is the best source for enemies of the paranoid leader. This is the “warfare personality” which exhibits extreme traits of focusing on demonic enemies and conspiracies, and on how to defeat them. The profound feelings of persecution lead to attempts to put the blame on outside enemies in order to overcome one’s sense of inferiority, insecurity, and unlovability. He is busy with himself, so self-centered and arrogant that he shows very little concern for the needs and feelings of others. Indeed, he is not at all bothered by the wretched situation of his people, socially, economically, or educationally. He does not care about their well-being.

Abu Mazen’s style has an exceptionally centralized character which is typical of a Byzantine court as well as of patrimonial leadership. He does not grant any authority to anyone, and decides everything himself, down to the smallest details. The structure of his government is personal, hierarchical, rigid, and closed in, despite its not being alienated. He brings up subjects for discussion only as a formal gesture, without any operational meaning. And he always has the last word.

Everyone must report to him, and in very detailed form. On the other hand, he does not convey current information, nor does he share it with others, except very selectively. No one has decision-making authority, even over the smallest details, unless he has received Abu Mazen’s authorization. This is a central part of his capacity to control different environments. Patrimonial rule does not make possible creation of an institutionalized opposition. Formally, the centralized framework does not make possible any qualitative change. The opposition is always viewed as a disruptive factor “in this stage of political development.”

Abu Mazen’s leadership style is extremely centralized. He is the exclusive source of authority and makes all the decisions on all matters, through hierarchical management. This may be described as “information management to obtain control,” as he is sure that no one will dare oppose him. He controls all the information, and this control is part of his power over his people, and over all the Palestinian organizations. Together with his complete control over the finances, makes him irreplaceable and invincible.

He is one-dimensional personality. He does not spend leisure time, nor personal friends, and he is addicted chiefly to the communications media. Being a workaholic, the Palestinian case occupies his time all day long. He knows how to be affable and is the perfect host, according to the Arab tradition, but he also knows how to hurt and insult. He has a gifted ability to impress people in personal meetings, and to win hearts as the victim of the situation.

On the other hand, he is impatient and exemplifies this in his agenda. He shouts at his advisors and screams at those close to him, and at the same time, weeps over his bitter fate of not being understood. He expresses his sorrow and apologies for hurting his advisors, and then repeats what he has done. Above all, he an actor of skill, who acts out of “calculated spontaneity”. Abu Mazen is a craftsman who controls his reactions, as they are part of his exceptional theatricality. This reflects the need for personal recognition of his honor, his lack of affection and sympathy, his obsessive need for recognition and esteem.

Abu Mazen rules the whole financial structure, and everything is done through his decisions. By that he confirms the old saying: He who controls the money holds the power. He purchases everyone, enemies and friends alike, enabling them to have a life of corruption so that they will not intervene in his activities. The PLO is the greatest and richest terrorist organization in history. Its capital is estimated in billions of dollars. Its sources of money are: “protection” funds paid by Arab oil states; pan-Arab and international monetary aid. All these funds are under his control and expenditure.

The huge amount of money the Palestinians get is by no means the greatest sinful act in the record of human beings. To make it very short:

According to the United Nations data, there are more than one billion people around the world that earn less than two dollars a day. You will not find even one Palestinian among them.

According to the United Nations data, at least 25 percent of world population, that is almost two billion, are in severe shortage of water to drink, and the drink water the highly risk their health, to the brink of death. You will not find even one Palestinian among them.

According to the United Nations data, 35 percent of world population have no toilets and other basic hygienic means at home, and they do it outdoor or in the field. Very few if any can be found among the Palestinians.

Most of the third world countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, including some Arab states, would have been extremely happy and satisfied to have the Palestinian standard of living, Gross National Product and monthly income.

Only in the Philippines, there are, according to the UN data, four million children, almost the size of all the Palestinian people that live in horrible inhuman conditions, in hunger and misery, with terrifying health conditions that is a disgrace to any human being. Yet, the Palestinians continue to get billions of dollars every year and huge assistance from the donating states.

Above all, the Palestinians are the only gifted among world population to have a monthly economic parcel of existence. The UN gives to 4.25 million Palestinians a monthly assistance of food products, the only ones on a regular basis from 1950 to the end of history. That is why they continue with the victimology strategy, to get more and more, at the expense of those billion of people in the world that really need it.    

One has to personally visit and investigate the real situation of the Palestinians in the PA territories and in Gaza, and then to go to most of African, Asian and South American states to make the comparison. He will be embarrassed, astonished, bewildered, and at the same time with the highest guilt and shame of the injustices done by world hypocrisy and evildoing injustices. Yet, the international money donations continue to flow heavily. This is a shame, a huge black hollow on the conscience of humanity.

Grandiosity. The paranoid leader is notorious for his arrogant grandiosity through which he boasts of his feats and triumphs. The paranoid leader relies on the primitive psychological defenses of denial and distortion. They are his tools for looking at the world. Through them, he assumes great importance. The grandiosity acts as a shield for a fragile ego, highly sensitive and insecure. The result of his unbearable shame is outside rage and aggressiveness. He knows the real and only truth, and this leads to a high likelihood of exaggeration and falsification.

Abu Mazen identifies himself with the Palestinian revolution, being busy with national symbols. From his viewpoint, the world must understand the situation of the Palestinians, and must compensate and support them without asking questions and really investigating their real situation. He is very sensitive about his honor and takes pains to ensure that he is treated as a world esteemed leader.

He does not accept dictates made in public, even at a high price, since he feels that it means that someone is trying to humiliate him. Personal gestures influence his mood to gain honor and recognition. He is capable of breaking the rules of the game if he feels that he is not getting due respect. He always reacts very angrily and goes on the attack if he is not treated as President of Palestine, though he is the chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

Abu Mazen is an absolute liar who believes in his own words, and presents false data as solid facts. He makes frequent use of exaggerate detached from reality declarations, and utilizes all the features of the Arabic language: overemphasis (Tawqid), through repeating words and sentences; verbal exaggeration (Mubalaghah); and boasting of deeds and successes (Mufakharah). Being a professional liar, Abu Mazen has declared that the map of Greater Israel is inscribed on the Israeli 10 agora coin, and turned it into a symbol as if the Israeli scheme was already being discussed in a concrete way.

He is capable of lying without blinking his eye, without outward or inward signs, and without changing the line of his emotions. Very often he slides into megalomania and the mythical self-image. Above all, he is anti-Semite, a holocaust denier, an extremist that will never give up any part of the entire territory of Palestine, “from the sea to the River,” in fact including Jordan.  

Even if his deceitful accusations are groundless and ridiculous, Abu Mazen uses them without any problem, persistently. He has a dramatic talent which he makes frequent use of, in speech and in body language, in code terms and in allusions. He is an actor who suits his style and messages to fit his target audience. In meetings with the Israeli and international publics, he appears as a sensitive moderate man, capable of accepting a “logical political arrangements,” who pleads to reach diplomatic arrangements.

At the same time, he refuses to accept any proposal, even those that give him almost all the 1967 borders. See his extreme stand in Camp David II, with Barak and Arafat; his refusal to accept Israeli proposal in January 2001 (made to Arafat) and his refusal of Olmart proposal in 2009 and to the Israeli Minister, Zipi Livni, in 2012.

In hundreds of blunt declarations he utterly said that he will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also refuses to accept the American proposal of Jewish and Palestinian states living together side by side. In his declarations he refers to this as “the Two States Solution,” meaning a Palestinian state and a none-Jewish state, “a state of all its citizens,” or “a secular states,” as the Jews have no national ingredients and they do not deserve a state.

Abu Mazen is against full-fledge terrorism, like a national Intifada. But this not on a moral or political basis, but because he believes that a full-fledge Intifada unites the Israeli people, make him stronger in resistance, and mainly because it threatens the Palestinian case in the world and alienates it from world public opinion.    

Hostility. The paranoid exhibits a highly hostile attitude towards the world. He is belligerent and irritable, humorless and extremely sensitive in an ever-growing need for love. The hostile paranoiac – suffused with suspicion and distrust – is ready for rejection, and he perceives it as a way of life. Thus, he is never disappointed. He is chronically angry, and senses hostility all around. He reacts viciously, savagely, to any perceived threat, and does not forgive insults, psychological wounds, or slights. He reacts by quick, cruel counterattacks. Above all, he is a loner, a solitary leader, who creates escalating social conflicts. He very accurately detects any hostility towards him, but is oblivious to his own role in creating and promoting it. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy which provokes hostility. The men around him, even his most loyal aides, must behave as if always walking on eggs, and absorb his rage.

Arab conspiracy thinking has a powerful value. Its aim is to remove responsibility from the Arab person or group by believing that one is the victim of a conspiracy. Arab-Islamic culture aims to explain why the Arab or the Arabs are in a specific situation in the political, social, or economic fields. The Arabs are not to blame for their plight, but only outside factors. They externalize the guilt. They are always right. Furthermore, their reaction is aggressive and totalistic, as we can see in the Return to Islam phenomenon, especially in its new, more murderous form exemplified by Bin Laden’s movement.

Arab-Islamic political culture is a fertile field for political paranoia. The Middle East is bound to conspiracy thinking. It starts with a psychological process uncommon and unrecognized in Western culture, externalizing guilt. In Jewish and Christian culture, one takes responsibility and internalizes guilt. In contrast, the opposite is true in Arab-Islamic culture. The main question is: “Do I have a problem? You are guilty!” There is no tolerance for the rights and justice of the other. There is no conscience and no guilt or remorse. They are always right.

The need for enemies has socio-biological and psychological roots. In the Middle East, enemies are those outside Islam, and the politico-cultural adversaries of the Arabs. To the paranoiac, enemies are chosen because they have assumed roles, acquired traits, and displayed behavior that the paranoiac wishes to describe as fitting enemies. The Jews/Israelis fit the pattern of accusation perfectly, not only because of their historic role in the Diaspora and as a “protected people” (Dhimmi) in Islam, but because of Arab self-interest, both symbolic and material.

Fear of Loss of Autonomy. The paranoid leader is always prepared for an emergency, and in a state of readiness to flee. He is a man on the run, constantly worried about attempts by outside superior forces to impose their will on him. This is why he manifests exaggerated independence. At the same time, he puts himself in danger, precisely because of the fear of losing control. Subordinating and accommodating oneself to the will of others is necessary in political life. But the paranoiac cannot tolerate and accept compromise, and he finds himself in constant conflict with both real and imaginary situations and adversaries.

One of the first decisions Arafat made on his political road, and Abu Mazen continues his track, was that his organization would preserve its full independence of action. It would not be subject to the patronage of any Arab state, in order to ensure that it would act on behalf of Palestinian interests alone. He has zealously preserved this principle to this day. Nevertheless, knowing that the activities of his organization depended on the aid, support, and backing of Arab states, he made use of all possible manipulations and provocations, in order to drag them into war with Israel.

Abu Mazen, like Arafat, sought to bring about the deep involvement and active intervention of the Arab states in “the Solution to the Palestine Question”, however, without imposing patronage on the Palestinians. They are committed to independent action in conformity with their interests. From Arafat’s vantage point, and Abu Mazen follows, “independence of decision” (Istiqlal al-Qarar) is one of the three central strategies of the Palestinians. This is the right way from which there must be no retreat. This means that they need to make decisions independently, without dependence on alien interests. They must be the masters of their fate.

This is on the political level. On the personal level Abu Mazen absolutely refuses to accept domination by others. He is very sensitive to his independence, and does not tolerate any challenge to his status. He has partners on his way, but he is very sensitive to any criticism of himself. In this sense, Abu Mazen created a link and full integration between the ego, the personal, and the Palestinian collectivity.

The sense of betrayal enables Abu Mazen not only on account of the externalizing Arab culture, to lay the guilt on Israel for all the wrongs that the Palestinians have carried out, as well as for the harsh terrorist attacks against Israel itself. In his mind, this is a legitimate response of the weak, being the victim. The dehumanization of Israel and the Jews as such, are central in Abu Mazen’s worldview.

Projection. Projection is an aberration of the normal state of shame. The paranoiac externalizes his painful feelings to his environment, thereby transforming intolerable internal threats into more manageable external threats. This is the result of presuming that internal changes or states are due to external causes. At the same time, the purpose of projection is to be a device by which the paranoid leader externalizes threatening internal states to his surroundings. The personality style is characterized by hypersensitivity, loneliness, and aggressiveness. The paranoid leader does not withdraw from the world. Rather, he is concerned with the hidden motives of others lying behind appearances.

Abu Mazen has a powerful need to dominate his surroundings up to the smallest details, and to direct events. He is characterized as possessing low emotional stability, and this explains his deep emotional need to demonstrate superiority, a profound aspiration to earn the admiration and respect of others, but at the very same time, profound suspicion towards them. He is constantly in competition, constantly aspiring to win and prove his superiority to others. His speeches rampant with contradictions. He uses ambiguity both inwardly and outwardly, both in Arabic and in English, towards the Israeli “peace camp” and towards hostile factors opposed to him.

He is ready to sacrifice many others of his own people for the sake of achieving the goal, without any emotion or regret. He never did any soul searching or expressed regret or had any doubts about the price. He sees this as an advantage, presenting the Palestinian distress to the world. The sacrifice in lives is the most successful means of attaining the goal, and the Palestinian victims mandate resoluteness in the struggle. From his vantage point, the end justifies the means. For that reason he has never been concerned about the social-economic-employment-health situation of the Palestinians. With all the billions of dollars that he has received, not one refugee family has been rehabilitated from their refugee state.

Abu Mazen is addicted to the communications media, and brilliantly uses them as a tool of manipulation. The exaggerations, the lies, the total distortions are tools central in importance in the media’s openness to him. Even when he appears ridiculous, he succeeds in transmitting his messages. These skills show in his unique negotiations management. The bargaining is in the spirit of an Oriental bazaar, by which only the cunning wins. In all discussions he displays impressive dramatic ability, though his suspicion is obsessive. Whenever he has come to negotiations, it has been difficult for him to believe assurances, and he has brought the talks to a dead end.

Delusional Thinking. The paranoiac holds strong, false beliefs about his surrounding reality that represent the crystallized expression of projective thinking. Of all the paranoid delusions, those of persecution and grandiosity, in particular, form part of his political world. The paranoiac expects to be treated in a special way, and when he thinks he is not receiving his due, he reacts with hurt, anger, and vindictive rage. Delusion leads to the distortion of actual events and of rational beliefs. At the same time, the paranoid leader expects to receive special treatment, as a manifestation of his narcissistic pathology. This means he cannot trust anyone, nor confide in anyone. Indeed, intimate personal friendship is a luxury that he cannot afford. On the other hand, delusional thinking may be politically helpful, since political failures confirm his suspicions while political success seems to confirm his grandiosity.

Abu Mazen’s behavior is impulsive, with a strong inclination to outbursts of rage that are difficult to anticipate, while his moods change quickly and often. He was and remains unpredictable in his reactions. He reacts impulsively and sharply out of proportion to any criticism. This is the reason why it is not clear how he will react to proposals for a settlement or accord. At the same time he has an astonishing ability to impress and win over people in personal meetings. He leads people to empathize with him, to feel sympathetic, to see him as a vulnerable man deserving protection and defense.

Summing up: he who really believes that Abu Mazen is a reliable partner for peace negotiations – think again. He is the embodiment of stubbornness, like Arafat, with other means. He does not recognize Israel and he is not willing to reach a territorial compromise with Israel. Unfortunately, the international support he gets and the huge benevolent monetary donations the Palestinians get makes him more stubborn. That is why, paradoxically, the first step to bring the Palestinians to the negotiation table and to have an endurable solid peace is that the international donations will be cut off, and the Palestinian leadership will be opposed by harsh options. Continuation of the current circumstances is a guaranteed formula to conflicts and violence, never to peace.      

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Foreign intervention in Libya

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Since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Tripoli has transformed into an appalling sight of consistent injustice, rising fundamentalism and morbid law and order situation. Amidst the whirlwind of fractured institutions and failed socio political system in Libya, foreign countries have also found a suitable battleground for fighting their proxy wars. Currently, there are two governments operating in libya, each claiming to reflect the genuine mandate of Libyan people. The United Nations backed government of National Accord, under the leadership of President Fayaz al serraj is being supported by Turkey, Qatar, Italy and publically by all western democracies. Whereas, a shadow government, is being maneuvered from the eastern city of Tobruk. It enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2012, less than a year after NATO intervention, Libyans turned to polls, in the pursuit of voting for an efficient leadership. As a result of elections, the General National Congress or GNC came into power. It was tasked with devising a constitution within the next eighteen months. Despite, it’s full capacity, the government failed to deliver on time due to evident disorganization and post-gaddafi mayhem, which was still at large. However, Libyans again went to vote in 2014, electing a House of Representatives or HoR in power, this time. These elections were repudiated and their result was declared illegitimate by GNC, on the claims of low voter turnout and series of violence which engulfed the entire electoral process, across the country. Rejection to form government, forced HoR to flee Tripoli and establish itself in Tobruk, where they aligned themselves, with Libya’s strong man, commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Forces.

Haftar had remained a part of Libya’s political arena for as long as Muammar Gaddafi had, he joined the military in 1961 and served in its ranks until, the Chad misadventure of 1987, which not only made him fall out with Gaddafi, but also enforced him into exile in the United States. Nonetheless, Haftar returned to Libya after the war and started rebuilding his former network of loyalists who worked with him decades ago, and ended up establishing the Libyan National Forces. His forces launched “Operation Dignity”[1]in 2014, with the official intentions of relieving Libya from local militias, radical nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

Amidst the chaos of political deterioration and significant power vacuum, foreign countries started to manipulate the Libyan crisis for their own interests. Turkey is a regional player, and is severely concerned about their maritime trade route. For, being surrounded by hostile neighbors, Turkey finds it hard to trade through any other channel smoothly, except Mediterranean which it shares with Libya. Thus, it is actively vouching for a friendly government in Tripoli. Turkey’s parliament has recently passed the controversial law that has permitted the deployment of Turkish troops on Libyan soil, in order to support al Serraj’s government. Meanwhile, states like Italy and France are  interested in Libya’s oil resources, and are also supporting respective governments as per their interests. International oil companies such as Italian Eni, French Total and Russian Taftnet, along with British Petroleum are on and off, getting exploration and management contracts to tap oil resources, with the Libyan National oil corporation. Where Russian mercenaries are fighting on ground with Haftar’s forces, France has also provided covert logistical support to his forces, each interested in their own share of resources.

Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates, Cairo and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are eagerly backing Haftar’s LNA for the sake of preventing another wave of Arab spring, to reach their borders. UAE has conducted airstrikes on Benghazi in 2014, from an Egyptian base in Libya, in order to support Haftar’s operation Dignity. They have also recently established their own base in eastern province of Al-Khadir, to support further LNA’s advances. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also pledged it support to Haftar under the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. As, just before Haftar’s Tripoli offensive,  Riyadh promised him millions to buy tribal leader’s loyalties and to financially support the fighters in LNA.

Another reason behind Arab countries ardent sponsorship is, the question of muslim brotherhood. LNA has vowed to eliminate all the elements of religious extremism, including the muslim brotherhood. Cairo, UAE and KSA are known for their crack down on the brotherhood, while Turkey and Qatar are assumed to support the political activities of organization. Such difference in approaches has also led these countries into a state of perennial proxy war with each other.  

Recent Moscow talks and Berlin conference, in the beginning of this year, has indeed provided an opportunity for all the parties in conflict to come on the negotiating table, and draw out strategies for adherently following the Libyan arms embargo of 2011, for effective ceasefire. Yet, without a proper policy in place, which can prevent foreign interventions in Libyan domestic crisis. It will create a potential environment for Tripoli to transcend into a turmoil similar to Syria and Yemen. War in Libya, has already incited an endless cycle of unnecessary fighting, uncountable deaths and a vicious void of ills like; human trafficking and smuggling. From, exponential worth of 53.2 billion dollars in 2012 to 4.6 billion dollars in 2016, Libya’s natural revenues have shrunken conspicuously over the last decade. In addition to that, with global coronavirus pandemic still out and loose, conflicts like one in Libya have a higher potential of turning into a major confrontation. It’s a textbook example of how precarious the situation might get, if not taken sensibly, by international community.


[1] Anderson, Jon Lee. “The unravelling.” The New Yorker 23 (2015).

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The Coronavirus and Conflicts in the Middle East

Aleksandr Aksenenok

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The question of the political and socioeconomic consequences the COVID-19 pandemic will have for global development has prompted heated analytical discussions among leading politicians, economists and political scientists. The range of opinions is staggering, varying from “the world will never be the same” (Henry Kissinger) to “the pandemic will accelerate history rather than reshape it” (Richard Haass). Should we, therefore, expect radical shifts in the global leaders’ thinking or will the dangerous inertia of the last two decades ultimately come out on top?

The only thing most people agree on is that the coronavirus has plunged the world into a global, multidimensional crisis. This crisis is made particularly acute and unpredictable by the developments that predated it: the slowdown of global economic growth, the collapse of oil prices, socioeconomic differentiation, the rapid increase in military spending, protracted “unresolvable” conflicts and the growing threat of losing control amid geopolitical rivalry. There are new nuclear missiles, cyber- and biotechnologies, “hybrid wars,” and the consequences of all these trends are not yet entirely clear, which makes this rivalry far more dangerous than the USSR-US confrontation.

Thus far, it is difficult to say confidently what direction these developments will take and whether they will become a turning point. In any case (and here Russian and Western analysts agree), the statesmanship, competency and acumen of all world leaders will be put to the test, as will their ability for reasonable compromise. This “test” will be particularly relevant for those states in the greater Middle East that are involved in various conflicts and for their leaders, whose ambitions are, at this historical juncture, under powerful pressure from both within and without; this test may be even more relevant there than in other parts of the crumbling, yet interconnected world.

“Old” internal conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, new-type protest movements demanding a change of the ruling elites (the “everyone means everyone” slogan) in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, balancing on the brink of an armed conflict in the Persian Gulf – this chronic instability constantly feeds into mutual enmity, the preference for solutions by force, and overall thinking along the lines of “winner takes all.” Regional wars remain a sore point on the Russia-West global agenda, which is already overburdened with many acute problems. At the same time, it has become apparent that domestic driving forces increasingly trump extra-regional influences such as the geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the US, between Western states (France, Italy, Germany, Greece), including Turkey, as is happening in Libya, between the regional powers themselves (Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Qatar) in Yemen, or between all of them in Syria.

The pandemic has affected Libya, Syria and Yemen to a lesser degree than the US and West European states. At the same time, the number of cases is still growing and is gradually approaching the limits of their capacities as these countries are exhausted by protracted wars and external aggressions. In that sense, they have much in common, which causes concern to the UN’s specialised agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and non-governmental humanitarian organisations. The ICRC has warned in a press release that “it will be nearly impossible to fight COVID-19 in countries already devastated by conflict unless a concerted response by states and humanitarian organisations is launched immediately.”

Despite appeals from the UN Secretary-General, from Russia, the US, several leading European states and other members of the international community, military hostilities are still raging in the region; they periodically abate and then flare up again. It takes a strong state, suppressing political violence, and a legitimate authority to succeed in combating the consequences of military conflicts in the Middle East in the middle of the pandemic. In the meantime, these three regional conflict centre have still not restored their territorial integrity, the principal criterion of national sovereignty, and the prospects for a final settlement appear quite vague.

The fight for territories continues. Local administrations of those states’ constituent parts largely depend on non-state actors, various militias, including those of a terrorist persuasion. International humanitarian aid is either inaccessible in many areas or is used for political purposes. Healthcare systems have been completely destroyed or significantly undermined, transport and commercial communication lines have been interrupted, while, according to the UN, about 38.4 million people (25 million in Yemen, 11 million in Syria and 2.4 million in Libya) are in need of humanitarian aid. Until recently, the World Health Organisation had no information about Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen, including the number of COVID-19 cases. Overcrowded city centres, prisons and camps for refugees and displaced persons are seen as the source of the infection.

Syria is a special case in the general picture of Middle Eastern conflicts amid the coronavirus pandemic. The outcome of the internal confrontation will have far-reaching consequences. If compromise solutions are found, a settled Syrian conflict might serve as a precedent for the global community and as a model and a key for resolving other conflicts. Alternatively, if Damascus fails to learn the lessons of 2011, this conflict might become a powder keg under the prospects of Syria’s stable domestic development. Not should we rule out the possibility of the country being split into areas of influence with socioeconomic rehabilitation in each area carried out by external sponsors (mostly with the help of Russia, Iran and China in Damascus-controlled lands, by Turkey in the northwest, and with the support from the US and some Gulf states in the east). The latter variant, though, appears the least probable.

At the extended meeting of the government in early May, President Assad made a powerful statement similar to the one made in the summer of 2015, when the Syrian regime was on the verge of collapse, and the President acknowledged publicly for the first time the dearth of domestic military resources, emphasising the need to “preserve useful Syria.”[1]  This time, now that the regime appears to have bolstered its positions thanks primarily to Russia, Assad has again warned the Syrian public and the global community that, if the coronavirus cases spike, Syria would face a “real catastrophe.” The current relatively low level of infection (there were 47 cases at that time), he said, did not mean Syria had avoided the danger. The World Health Organisation lists Syria among high-risk countries.

The President had more than enough reasons to make this statement. In late 2019, only 64% of the country’s hospitals and 52% of its medical outposts were still operating, while about 70% of healthcare workers found themselves among refugees and displaced persons. The geographical distribution of the medical institutions that are working is highly uneven: two-thirds of them are in Damascus, in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus, while there are none in Deir ez-Zor in the country’s east. According to the Brookings Institution, there are 1.4 medical workers per 10,000 people and a grand total of 100 ventilators in Idlib. Immediately after the first coronavirus cases were recorded, food and medication prices went up 20–40% on top of the existing inflation.

Since the first coronavirus cases were recorded on 22 March, Syria’s government has been mobilising its internal capabilities in three areas:

First: preventing the spread of the infection within the area under its control. In Syria’s northeast (Afrin, Idlib), similar measures are being introduced by local authorities that are under the influence of Turkey and several groups that have been declared terrorists, and by the Kurdish administration in inner Syria east of the Euphrates. The announced administrative and legislative measures envisaged even harsher steps than international standards suggested. A curfew was imposed immediately, external borders were closed, control was stepped up over transport between provinces and between the cities within them. This was a vital step for Syria, with its close commercial ties and cross-border contacts with Lebanon, Jordan and Iran (Syria has particularly intensive contacts with the latter). As of late April, Iran accounted for 79.1% of all coronavirus cases in the Middle East; Arab states of the Persian Gulf accounted for 12.1%, and other states for 8.8%. Territorial fragmentation, however, stands in the way of coordinating the fight against the coronavirus throughout the country. It is creating serious difficulties in handing out the international aid that is coming into Syria.

Second: mitigating the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, especially because surges in protests have been recorded since last spring, including in regions with predominantly Alawite population. The government imposed state price regulation, primarily for food, medications and essential goods. Fuel subsidies were maintained and bread stamps were introduced for people in particular need. At the same time, a set of solutions was introduced to remove administrative and bureaucratic procedures for import contracts on essential goods. Syrian importers working with such goods were offered preferential currency exchange rates. The government’s emergency decisions also included exempting individual types of business from taxes for April and gradually (since the first ten days of May) lifting restrictions on work in industrial and service sectors.

Third: concentrating the fragmented financial resources within the inner circle of the President’s power. This could mean transitioning to a policy of centralised distribution of the reduced state revenues, which means the authorities intend to be more decisive in fighting corruption and the “shadow economy” (between 2010 and 2017, GDP fell from USD 60.2 bn. to USD 17 bn.). The experience of many states, including European ones, shows that enhanced financial discipline is a must at a time of crisis, especially in collecting taxes and combating illegal economic activities.

Yet, as regards Syria, Arab and Western media focused rather on looking for sensations than on providing a balanced analysis of the situation with a view to helping find ways out of the crisis that had been compounded by the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Regrettably, the media show the latest economic steps undertaken by the Syrian government through the lens of the conflict between the President and his cousin, Syria’s wealthiest businessman, multibillionaire Rami Makhlouf.

His business empire does, indeed, span a range of key economic sectors: telecommunications, oil and gas, banking, construction, real estate, commerce, etc. The rise of Rami Makhlouf began soon after Assad came to power, during the short period of liberal economic reforms. During the war, his standing in Syria’s economy was consolidated significantly by the preferences given in exchange for charitable activities and financing militias loyal to the government. Now is the time to pay the bills and some of his assets have been frozen. The conflict peaked when the Syrian oligarch decided to publicise the economic dispute about paying Syriatel’s taxes totaling USD 180 m. He did this at a juncture that was critical for the country. Consequently, the conflict was broadly politicised and resulted in rumourmongering about a split in the presidential elites similar to the late 2017 events in Saudi Arabia (Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had several members of the royal family temporarily detained on allegations of large financial claims against them).

Incidentally or otherwise, precisely in April and May, the western and Arab media were inundated with various speculations concerning Russia-Syria relations. Distorted interpretations were given to those articles in the Russian media and on Russian social networks that contained benign criticism of Damascus’ inflexible policies in political settlement and of the widespread corruption getting in the way of reconstruction and handling the most pressing socio-economic problems. These articles were presented as allegedly reflecting the Russian political elites’ discontent with President Assad personally.

Deliberately fake news affected even the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), whose expert materials always contain objective analysis and verified facts, whether people like it or not. At the instigation of Syrian opposition sources, citing some RIAC paper, fake news was disseminated about Russia, the US and Turkey (with possible participation by Iran) having some plan about removing Assad from power and establishing a “transitional government” consisting of representatives of the “Syrian regime,” the opposition and “Kurdish militias.” Even more regrettable is the excessively emotional response by some “members of the public” in Damascus itself, expressed in the spirit of the ideological rhetoric of the past, of the outdated black-and-white foreign policy notions. They classify members of the Russian expert community (journalists serving purely corporate interests do not count) as “those in favour” and “those against,” into “pro-Western” and “patriotic.” The former naturally strive to “undermine the allied relations” between Russia and Syria.

Meanwhile, despite the many barriers dividing the world, cooperation in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, this “common enemy” as Antonio Guterres called it, is being gradually established, but things are far more complicated in the Syrian conflict.

Besides the WHO, the International Red Cross and some other international organisations, real external aid to Syria’s government is provided only by Russia, China and, to a lesser degree, Iran, with limited aid coming from some European and Arab states. With the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Russia launched humanitarian deliveries to Syria, bringing in face masks, coronavirus testing systems, and other medications and medical equipment. Food aid has been no less important for Syrians. In April, Russian grain, which had previously been in short supply on the market, was delivered to the port of Tartus.

Although the European Union expressed its support for the UN Secretary General’s appeal to lift the sanctions off several states, including Syria, so that the needed medical and humanitarian aid could be provided, in practice, Europe’s contribution is doubtful. First, EU member states have no consensus on Syria and, second, European companies are, as in the case of Iran, extremely wary of secondary US sanctions.

The stance of the Trump Administration is, like that on several other foreign political issues, rather ambiguous, not to say hypocritical. On the one hand, they introduce all kinds of “exceptions,” “authorisations” and “special licences” for providing humanitarian aid to Syria and some other states during the fight against COVID-19. This procedure is detailed in a relevant paper by the US Department of the Treasury dated 16 April 2020 (Department of the Treasury, Washington DC, Office of foreign control, Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance and Trade to Combat COVID-19). On the other hand, the US is putting “maximum pressure” on Syria, stepping up its verbal threat campaign against President Assad personally and warning those countries, including Arab states, that are willing to provide Syria with the necessary financial and material support, about the consequences. European experts believe that, even if Syria agreed to use the offer of exemptions from the sanctions, this would hardly produce any results because of the large number of duplicate sanctions imposed over the last 20 years and also the “bewildering” bureaucratic procedures.

Many statements made by official US representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey in recent months are just as contradictory and confused. One day, he says the US does not want to overthrow the Syrian regime and supports the launch of the Constitutional Committee; another day, he says that Assad is utterly unacceptable, which can be understood to mean that he is unacceptable even as a presidential candidate at the elections to be held under Resolution 2254. Statements about his contacts with Russian partners and unwillingness to intervene in Russia-Syria relations do not jibe with his words that the purpose of the US is to let Russia get bogged down in Syria. As for jointly fighting international terrorism, there is a certain slyness there, as well, concerning Hay’At Tahrir al-Sham, which apparently cannot really be considered quite terrorist since it has never carried out terror attacks outside Syria and only fights the Assad regime.

The reality is that the coronavirus pandemic caught Syria in the midst of an unsettled conflict and social tensions, a destroyed infrastructure, limited internal reserves and financial resources. We need to understand that in this emergency the way out of the crisis or the simple act of meeting the urgent needs of the people, regardless of their political preferences, is closely linked to the integral progress in several areas: mobilising internal economic resources and creating conditions equally favourable for the work of public-private partnerships and foreign investors; providing a safe environment for refugees to return; creating an atmosphere conducive to national reconciliation; what is required politically is for these efforts to be enshrined through specific steps taken in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, largely spearheaded by Russia.

 [1] See: A. Aksenenok. “The Syrian Crisis: A Thorny Journey from War to Peace” [in Russian] // Valdaiskie zapiski [Valdai Memoranda] No. 104, Valdai Discussion Club. P. 11.

From our partner RIAC

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