Abu Mazen and the Politics of Paranoia: the Creation of a Palestinian Leadership
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.
The Reality of Multipolarity in the Middle East
Middle Eastern states have always welcomed China’s involvement in economic fields. China’s total trade with the region has increased dramatically since the beginning of the twenty-first century, and it is growing steadily, rising from $180 billion in 2019 to $259 billion in 2021. On the other hand, the total Middle East trade with the United States has declined from $120 billion dollars in 2019 to $82 billion in 2021. China is still working to consolidate its economic ties, transcending regional divisions, which contributes to strengthening its position as the largest trading partner for regional powers such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
China has historically avoided getting involved in regional conflicts or taking direct positions on thorny disputes. Instead of challenging the US hegemony and military supremacy in the Middle East in the post-Cold War era, China, as a secondary superpower, benefited from the US security cover without contributing to it, without incurring the same security cost as the US, and without facing same strategic dilemmas. However, this reality seems to be changing today. By mediating the agreement to resume relations between Riyadh and Tehran, Beijing is embarking on a new turning point based on expanding its involvement in the region by moving from economic exchange to negotiating dispute resolution.
The way China works to achieve negotiated solutions to disputes is an attractive factor for the states of the region, which have on several occasions since 2011 criticized successive US administrations for their strategic withdrawal from the Middle East, and resented the failure of US intervention in Iraq, Libya, Syria and other states. China may hail its brokering of the Saudi-Iranian deal as a diplomatic success short for the United States, but Tehran and Riyadh must first honor their commitments to it.
As China plunges into the midst of Middle Eastern politics and its complexities, it will face strategic challenges that will undermine its image as a neutral party, and the success of its new strategy in the region will depend on local realities on the ground. China, as it has been Iran’s largest trading partner for ten years, is in a unique position to get Iran to live up to its commitments, although China’s willingness to do so remains uncertain. But it is clear that it made an ambitious bet in its mediating role between the two states, and the future course of events will depend on the amount of pressure that China intends to apply, and to a much greater extent, on the behavior that Iran and Saudi Arabia choose to follow.
In the next stage, beyond mediation, China will have to decide what role it wants to play in the region: that of a diplomatic mediator, a military sponsor, or a distracted economic giant. It is still too early to anticipate the shifts that China’s regional stature may undergo, but its recent forays into Middle Eastern diplomacy suggest broader geopolitical interests. The best example of this is the Chinese-Arab summit, which was held for the first time in Riyadh last December, and the strategic partnership agreements that China signed with Iran on the one hand and some Arab states on the other.
It is not clear whether Beijing’s “zero conflict” policy can distance it from diplomatic pressure to define final geopolitical alignments. But it will have to navigate this new geopolitical atmosphere in measured ways. China, through its work to promote the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, may cause the wrath of Israel, which is not enthusiastic about this rapprochement. And Beijing, as it continues to implement the “zero conflicts” approach, must not turn a blind eye to the permanent issue in the Middle East, that is, the Palestinian issue, if it wants to maintain its credibility among the Arab masses. In the face of these conflicting interests, China’s regional policy based on strategic hedging may inadvertently evolve into a comprehensive policy to balance power and ensure security in the Middle East. A rising China may hold prospects for global multipolarity in the Middle East, but it will have to face and overcome the same pitfalls that the United States encountered if it is to bring about tangible change in the regional status quo.
As for the United States, it should not view the expansion of Chinese involvement solely as a threat. Beijing cannot and does not want to usurp Washington’s role as the dominant military power in the region. Rather, the reality of the situation is that China’s expanded geopolitical involvement may open up avenues for increasing its cooperation with the United States, by investing in specific regional relationships that Washington lacks, the best example of which is the strong trade ties between China and Iran. Since these two great powers align on some of their core interests in the region, including ensuring the flow of global energy resources and freedom of navigation, the United States must act prudently by refraining from pressuring its Arab allies into exclusive partnerships. Instead of Washington fearing and contributing to a cold war in the Middle East, it should reassess its priorities in the region and look for ways to achieve positive and stabilizing outcomes from engagement with Beijing.
The Middle East may be preparing to become an arena for multipolar competition, but this competition may not be vertical and may not happen overnight. Therefore, the great powers must respond to the realities on the ground by listening to the local forces and adapting to the changing regional concerns. And as long as it is no longer possible to maintain American unipolarity, perhaps it is more appropriate for the United States to keep pace with the current changes to achieve its interests in the best way.
Unleashing an Iranian tiger
A Gulf investor with an analytical and artistic bent, Ali al-Salim pinpointed the long-term challenges Saudi Arabia faces as it reestablishes relations with Iran.
While most analysts focused on the immediate reduction of regional tensions and the possible opening for an end to the eight-year-long Saudi military intervention in Yemen as a result of a Chinese-mediated agreement to restore diplomatic relations between two Middle Eastern arch-rivals, Mr. Al-Salim is looking at Iran’s long-term competitive edge compared to the kingdom.
“As relations between Saudi and Iran begin to thaw, the logic for Saudi’s ambitious ‘Trojena’ ski resort will come further into question. Iran boasts world-class ski resorts an hour from Tehran and 90km of slopes. Oh, and it’s all natural, even the snow,” Mr. Al-Salim said on Twitter.
Mr. Al-Salim was referring to a yet-to-be-built resort on mountain peaks overlooking Neom slated to be home to 7,000 people by 2026 and annually attract 700,000 visitors. Trojena would be the Gulf’s first outdoor ski resort.
Neom is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s US$500 billion fantasia. It is a futuristic science-fiction-like new city and tourism destination along the Red Sea in a mostly unpopulated part of the kingdom.
Somewhat incongruously, the Olympic Council of Asia has awarded Trojena the right to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.
In contrast to Iran’s up to 5,600-metre high, 600-kikometer-long Alborz mountain range that stretches along the Caspian Sea, snow falls occasionally on Trojena’s 2,400-metre high Sarawat mountains.
To compensate for its shortage, Trojena plans to create an outdoor ski slope by blasting artificial snow on the mountains. This slope would be powered by renewable energy.
In Mr. Al-Salim’s mind, Trojena appears to be emblematic of the broader challenge posed by an Iran that eventually is freed of the shackles of crippling US sanctions and has rebuilt its economy.
Unshackled and recovered, Iran brings to the table much that Saudi Arabia has and more. With a population close to 90 million, Iran is almost three times the size of the kingdom. It ranks as the world’s third-largest oil and second-largest natural gas reserve holder.
Beyond boasting one of the Middle East’s largest domestic markets, an innovative and technology-savvy youth, a deep-seated identity rooted in empire, and a battle-hardened military, Iran occupies strategic geography at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and a coastline along the Arabian Sea, the western end of the Indo-Pacific.
To be sure, Iran has a long way to go to fully capitalize on its assets with no immediate prospect of its clerical regime doing what it would take to persuade the United States to lift sanctions, rebuild confidence with its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, and introduce necessary political, economic, and social reforms.
As a result, Saudi Arabia has a first-starter advantage, which Mr. Bin Salman is bent on exploiting with his social reforms and efforts to diversify the Saudi economy to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil exports, of which Trojena is one building block.
Even so, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia constitutes a first step to strengthen the Iranian economy. This would enable Iran to position itself as not just a formidable political rival but also an economic competitor.
“Evidently, de-escalation will reduce the cost of regional security for all parties and free up more potential for trade and cross-border investments and partnerships that the region needs,” said Bijan Khajehpour, a keen observer of the Iranian economy.
Iranian hopes have been buoyed by plans by the United Arab Emirates to boost annual trade with Iran to US$30 billion in the next two years, up from $20 billion in 2022, Emirati interest in Iranian infrastructure, including the strategic Arabian Sea port of Chahbahar, and prospects for Saudi investment in the Islamic republic.
Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan recently told a private sector forum of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund that investment in Iran could happen “very quickly.”
Optimistically, Mr. Al-Jadaan went on to say that “there are a lot of opportunities for Saudi investments in Iran. We don’t see impediments as long as the terms of any agreement would be respected.”
Mr. Al-Jadaan’s remarks did not refer to US sanctions, the elephant in the room. Instead, he hinted at Iran’s need to clean up multiple legal and operational ambiguities that pose obstacles to foreign investment, even without considering externally imposed restrictions.
Laying out a roadmap for Saudi and Gulf investment in Iran, Mr. Khajehpour suggested that initially, investors could target non-sanctioned industries, such as food and pharmaceuticals while developing “creative banking and financial solutions” that would enable circumvention of sanctions.
Furthermore, Mr. Khajehpour held out the possibility that the United States could provide waivers for investments that address water scarcity and climate change.
If and when sanctions are lifted, the sky is the limit.
Opportunities range from cooperation on petroleum products and petrochemicals, development of an offshore Saudi-Iranian-Kuwaiti gas field, and connecting electricity grids, to investment in transportation linkages, according to Mr. Khajehpour.
Saudi interest in getting in on the ground floor of Iran’s eventual reemergence extends beyond geopolitical, security, economic, and commercial considerations.
Economic cooperation has the potential to blunt the impact of an unleashed Iran by making the kingdom a partner.
“Iran’s rise is inevitable. When it happens, the Middle East will be a different place. Saudi Arabia knows that. It sees the short- and long-term benefits of recalibrating relations with Iran. Iran hasn’t quite thought that far but ultimately it will,” said a European official who closely monitors Middle Eastern developments.
The New Middle East: The Winners and Losers
The Middle East and the Gulf regions are experiencing a political and diplomatic movement that they have not witnessed in the last three or four decades.
Behind this movement are the influential states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Egypt. A few years ago, it was impossible to imagine any political or diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Turkey and Egypt, and between a number of Arab states and Syria.
For decades, the US has been working on a “New Middle East” that embraces Israel, and then the circumstances tend towards a “new one that includes Iran!
What led to this movement, which will have repercussions on alliances and threads of differences?
There are several regional and other remote factors that are no less influential.
Domestically, it is clear that the region, with its leaders and people, is tired of wars and turmoil and is now envious of the world’s progress while it is mired in its endless complexes and crises.
Internationally, it is possible to talk about the US role and then the political and social changes in Europe coinciding with the rise of international powers on the periphery such as India, China and others, and finally the war in Ukraine.
The beginning was with the arrival of President Donald Trump and his resort to painful language in its frankness, which does not hide that the man does not respect the region and its leaders, but rather considers it a mere bazaar in which he markets whatever he wants without objection from anyone, and a mere ATM that withdraws from it whenever he wants and as much as he wants. Not to mention his frankness that he will not fight wars on behalf of a region he deems lazy and backward and refuses to rely on itself. Trump embodied this conviction when he refused to strike Iran in response to the dangerous Houthi attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in mid-September 2019.
This crude frankness and lack of respect led the Middle East and the Gulf region, especially states that considered the United States an eternal ally such as Saudi Arabia, to ask: What will the Democrats do to us if Trump, our Republican ally, disrespects us like this?
Then came their reply. The Democrats did not wait long after Joe Biden came to the White House to take an approach similar to Trump’s, but for other reasons and from a different mentality. In addition to the annoyance of Saudi Arabia and other states in the region about the issues of rights and freedoms hinted at by the Biden administration, there is the great confusion shown by this administration in dealing with the problems of the region, in contrast to Trump’s frankness, and its excessive interest in the conflict with China and later the war in Ukraine at the expense of the US’s allies traditionalists in this region.
The Trump and Biden administrations should be given credit for waking up the leaders of the Middle East and the Gulf, because their approaches were a wake-up call that it would be dangerous to ignore. The service provided by the two administrations to the staff of the region is that they are equal in their disdain for everyone: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, with a keenness to further strangle Iran and Syria for well-known reasons.
In the midst of that labor, Russia’s war broke out against Ukraine to shuffle the cards across the world, but specifically in the Middle East and the Gulf regions due to its traditional strategic tensions and its richness in oil and natural resources, and the need for both conflict camps to gain its support for it.
As far as the Ukraine war and above all Europe, it constituted a wake-up call in the positive direction of the Gulf leaders. The Ukraine war was an outlet for these leaders on more than one level. It first gave them the opportunity to maneuver and express their displeasure with the US insults. And I gave them an alternative that is no less powerful than the traditional West, which they can deal with in better conditions and without insults, which is the camp of Russia, China and dozens of states that swim in their orbit around the world.
It would be a mistake to be overly optimistic about this multi-faceted movement. Realism requires acknowledging that the more exceptional it is, the more reasons for its failure it contains in the absence of sufficient sophistication and the required sacrifices from all parties. One of the weaknesses of this movement is that it is the result of pressure, driven by need, not by conviction. Iran is stifled by sanctions and the unstable internal situation. Saudi Arabia can no longer tolerate a single missile from the Houthis. The economy and financial situation in Türkiye is in dire straits. Egypt is not moved by anything other than “rice”. The regime in Syria wants to get out of its isolation, which will be the culmination of what it considers a victory over its opponents. The UAE wants to prove to US that it is not everything in this universe.
This is on the political level. On the practical level, there are many obstacles that will stand in the way of this movement, especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Turkey. It is a good coincidence (and bad at the same time) that normalization (or lack thereof) between Riyadh and Tehran will be reflected far beyond the two states, and the same applies to Ankara and Cairo.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are separated by political, religious and strategic differences that are not easy to overcome. The theaters of confrontation between the two states are vast, including Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and inevitably there are other areas and issues that constitute points of contention.
Turkey and Egypt are stuck on many issues, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, Libya and the energy fields in the Mediterranean. In addition to Egyptian foreign policy that is not completely independent and directed by the winds of the Gulf, Turkish foreign files, including normalization with Egypt, remain dependent on the results of the presidential elections scheduled in Turkey in late May.
It will also be necessary for the Arab and Gulf leaders who decided to engage in this movement, taking into account that the United States will not easily accept maneuvers behind its back in a region that it has considered guaranteed for more than seventy years. There is also the position of Israel, which will not accept the rehabilitation of the Iranian regime in the region, and will not easily swallow that the region has favored Iran.
The consolation is that this movement is not isolated from what is happening in the world, but is part of it. What is happening in the world outweighs the US and Israel and is happening against their will. It is an opportunity that will not be repeated easily if the region knows how to benefit from it for the benefit of all.
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