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Arab Liberals on Arab Political Life (A)

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap] he Egyptian liberal intellectual, ‘Amr Isma’il accuses that the main issue is Arab culture that externalizes the guilt, irresponsibility, and inability to change the culture (www.elaph.com, October 31, 2004 – MEMRI, November 19, 2004, No. 816): “Why can’t the Arabs see things as the rest of the world? Why do we always feel that someone is conspiring against us, and that he is the cause of our problems, our cultural and economic backwardness? Why are we not able to criticize ourselves? Why do we talk by means of bullets, car bombs, and violence of suicide bombing?

Why do we kill and slit throats in the name of Allah and at the same time protest angrily when others depict Muslims as terrorists? Why are we the only nation that still uses religion, Islam, and the name of Allah in everything: politics, economics, and science? We kill in the name of Allah, we blow up people in the name of Allah, and we slit throats in the name of Islam. Why we do not ask ourselves why no other religious group perpetrates these acts of atrocity? Why we do not ask ourselves what are the roots to our extremist thinking and who should be blame for? Why we always blame others of intervening in our internal affairs, and we do not look at our deeds?

Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian American intellectual, declares: ‘Arab’ means never having to say you are sorry (http://www.think-israel.com): “To expect Arab and Muslim leadership to apologize is a reflection of the West Naïve and wrong expectations of Arab culture. In the Arab world, to take responsibility and say sorry is taken as unmanly sign of weakness that means more trouble. Those who admit guilt are given no mercy and end up taking all the blame and being brutally punished. It is a norm for Arabs to deny a fact and blame others, rather than admit to the wrongdoing and apologize.

In our politically correct liberal culture, the media and academia would urge to a collective self-psychoanalysis, to uncover the root causes of how we could have caused such evil behavior. This is not the case of the Arab world. How can anyone expect them to apologize for deep-rooted cultural and religious mission to defeat or kill infidels? Most Arabs still blame Israel for 9/11.

How can we expect these countries to sincerely cooperate with the international community to end terror and its barbaric brutality? Americans should stop judging other countries with the American value system, and especially stop expecting Arab-Islamic culture to respond rationally according to Western standards. Arab media never miss an opportunity to give the masses their daily dose of fear of America. What we see out of the Arab world is anger, hatred, revenge and a culture out of control.

The Tunisian intellectual and thinker, al-‘Afif al-Akhdar, analyzes and criticizes Arab cultural values and characters (www.elaph.com: MEMRI, May 4, 2003. Nos. 439, 499): All the peoples of the world are moving forward along the course of history towards globalization, a society of knowledge, and political modernization – all but the Arabs, who race in the opposite direction. The Eastern European countries have moved peacefully with speed from murderous Stalinist totalitarianism to democracy, from economic backwardness to continuing economic growth.

The Muslims are moving with rapid steps from backwardness into sub-backwardness, and from poverty into sub-poverty. The peoples of mankind are governed by the law of progress, while the Muslims are governed by the law of regression.

The insane obsession with vengeance has robbed the Muslims minds of the ability to think reasonably. That is why they are incapable of identifying their real problems and defining their political, educational and social priorities. In contrast to almost all other societies, Arab-Muslim societies are completely closed and irrational.

Their obscurantist religious culture is a terrible obstacle hindering their transition to a society less closed, less oppressive and less hostile towards the individual, to the woman, to the non-Muslim, towards the rational and the modern. This deep-rooted culture of tribal vengeance in Arab collective consciousness is a fundamental driving force, which has transmuted this consciousness into a fixated, vengeful mentality, instead of transforming it into far-sighted thought and self-criticism.

The culture of tribal vengeance haunts not only in our relations with the outside, but also our relations with each other, between Arab countries and within each country, from honor crimes to tribal and factional strife and state wars. The hysteria of vengeance on the West and on Israel has disastrous results. The policy of vengeance that prevails especially among the influential elites has banished any rational policy from the domestic decision making, just as people afflicted with depression.

al-‘Afif al-Akhdar discusses Arab identity crisis and its education (www.elaph.com., June 15, 2003- MEMRI Special Dispatch Nos. 499 and 518): Why is it that our countries are among the wealthiest in natural resources and poorest in human resources? Why does the world’s human knowledge double every three years while with us, what multiplies several times over is illiteracy, ideological fear and mental paralysis? Why expressions of tolerance, moderation, rationalism, and appeasement horrify us, and in cries for vengeance, we all dance the war dance? Why do other people love life, while we love death and violence, slaughter and suicide, and even call it heroism and martyrdom?

Distorted thoughts lead the Muslim to think that he belongs to ‘the best nation created for human beings’ that Allah designated it to guide and lead humanity. This is the reason why the Muslims find it impossible to imitate others and learn from them. Ethnocentrism leads them to believe that since the language of the Arabs is the mother of all languages, anyone not completely fluent in it considered an animal and a barbarian, and that since its culture is the most divine, and its religion is the only true religion, then the other cultures are unworthy and other religions are mere vanity, and both deserve to disappear or to be subjugated.

Muslims still believe that Islam is the supreme religion, and the Arab nation is the most important of all nations. However, the Arabs’ repeated defeats tell them that they are the last in line among the nations. This contrast-ridden discourse is the source of the Arabs psychological and social ills, and of their grave identity crisis.

The religious media and education to this situation provide an easy answer: Since we have given up our religion, Allah has given us up. Therefore, let us set out on a campaign of return to Allah and to the Golden Age, riding on a belt of explosives. Religious education systematically produces generations of people stricken by the madness of pure religious identity, such as the racial purity madness of the Nazis. For Nazism, this meant that the ‘master’ Aryan race had to destroy the ‘inferior’ races. In Islam, it means that the only ‘true’ religion must triumph over the other religions that are ‘false,’ and their fate is Hell. This belief of Islamic identity led them to megalomania, fanaticism, self-segregation, and terrorism.

The obligation to fight the infidels has created a psychological barrier between Muslim Arabs and modern culture, and has led them to an internalization of the view that modern institutions, sciences, universal values, and technology created by the infidels are heresy too.

Why did Germany and Japan not retaliate for their wounds after World War II with responses similar to ours? The answer is, because religious narcissism was not internalized in their modern cultures and adopting secularism prevented them hallucinatory responses. They imitate the West, assimilating into it, while we fought with it, struggled against it, and became locked in on our own values. The amok-struck Islam, the Islam of ‘conflict with the infidels’ and military vengeance against them, has lost its ability to unfurl the real problems openly and search for realistic solutions. This ‘conflict with the infidels’ is the hard core of Islamic fanaticism and the main reason for the conduct of terrorism.

Arab-Muslims must give up the requirement to confront the infidels, not to use jihad until the Day of Judgment; to abandon the loyalty to the Qur’anic ‘Verses of the Sword;’ to change the attitude towards the rational, the women, and the non-Muslims; to give-up the dreams of liberating Palestine to the last grain of earth, and regaining Andalusia. Yet, the most important is the total change in educational teachings of the youth in which the Arab world remains locked.

The author and journalist, Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi (www.rezgar.com, August 14, 2004: MEMRI, September 20, 2004. No. 786) condemned the growing support for terrorism and extremism in the Arab world, and the rejection of moderation and reason.

If the Arabs had today a well-burnished mirror in which they can see themselves, they would be stricken by fear and panic at the sight of themselves. The image is that we have become the most terrorist nation and the greatest spillers of blood in the world. The image is that we have become a nation devoid of reason.

What happened to the Arabs in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco, Yemen, and in other countries? Why have the Arabs gone crazy in such a manner? Is it a result of pervasive corruption prevalent in governmental institutions? Did this occur because of the dark religious educational system which incites to war against modernity, democracy, and permits the spilling of the blood of its supporters?

Did this occur as a result of the fact that the intellectuals have distorted the truth? Is it a result of the frightening spread of illiteracy and cultural ignorance in the Arab world that the vast majority does not read, does not know, and does not think? Is it a result of the proliferation of political totems in Arab life such as Abd al-Nasser or Saddam Hussein, or in counterfeit religious totems such as Bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, and many others?

Did this occur as a result of the fact that terrorist groups have huge incomes from charity organizations streaming in daily from good Muslims from the world? Did this occur as a result of the huge sums that the terrorists obtain by hashish and opium trade? The Islamists who hijacked Islam are now leading the flocks of Arabs towards the annihilation of human history.

Indeed, the Arabs have turned into slaves of blood-drenched religious totems. The Arabs think in a medieval fashion regarding politics, society, economy, and education. They are still living in the Middle-Ages, and they are slaves to a medieval mentality and to thinkers from the Middle-Ages. The Arabs have distanced themselves from reason, and speak to the world with the sword, the axe, the knife, and armies of masked bandits.

Journalist and former Kuwaiti communications minister Dr. Sa’d bin Tefla (Jordanian TV, June 8, 2004: MEMRI, August 24, 2004. No. 770), rejects the notion of blaming Zionism and imperialism of the Arab harsh and fanatic situation:

Zionism and imperialism have nothing to do with our culture of violence and religious extremism. Slaughter, anarchy, and bloodshed in no way resemble Jihad according to the Shari’ah. The anarchy and terrorism are indications of a culture of collective suicide. This culture of violence emanates from the spread of the extremist religious trend.

We are all responsible for this culture, and that Zionism and Imperialism have nothing to do with it. It is no less wrong to say that violence is the result of occupation, since it has cultural roots. Unfortunately, this culture of violence has existed before the Americans came to Iraq and the Gulf; before the Israeli occupation of Palestine; and before the American occupation of Afghanistan.

The number killed in Algeria surpasses the number of Palestinians killed by Israel. Before Iraq was occupied, there was violence that killed over one million Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, and Kuwaitis. This was not done by the Zionists or America, but by Arabs and Muslims.

The reformist Arab diplomat who writes under the pseudonym Abu Ahmad Mustafa (al-Sharq Al-Awsat, September 13, 2003) quotes Saudi philosopher Abdallah al-Qassimi, who said many times that ‘the greatest distance between two points in the world is the distance between an Arab’s words and his deeds.’

We have become accustomed to not asking questions and not searching for the truth. We must examine our history, our books, and our stories with an open mind without hatred and blaming of the other. ‘Islam is the solution’, is not true. Islam is not the answer. It is hidden in sick minds brainwashed with hatred for the brethren living nearby and peoples living miles away.

How can an intelligent person state or assert that we are a nation that preaches love among people, when in our own home we carry out ugly deeds and are silent about the disgrace? What is to blame is the culture of submission comes from the clerics of past and the idols of today.

Our struggles are connected to the past, not to health, not to education, not to human rights, not to general freedoms and political reform. We live in a situation in which most of our thinking is directed towards what happens after death, to the next world and not today.

Arab Liberal Columnist, Zuheir Abdallah (al-Hayat, MEMRI, August 12, 2003. No. 551) blames Arab fascism tyranny and Islamism for failing to achieve any accomplishments for the Arab world.

The Arab world were taken over by despotic tyrannical regimes. The economic and scientific growth regressed and reached the bottom level, in comparison to the rest of the countries in the world. Arab fascism and fundamentalist Islam have nothing to offer the people, except empty slogans revolving around themes of resistance and struggle.

Let us ask ourselves what did we offer for ourselves and the rest of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution to this day, from human sciences and inventions or any other added value to civilization? Unfortunately, the answer is: almost nothing. The Arab world is in deep backwardness.

After the Chechnya terrorists attack in Beslan, Nonie Darwish has published an article (http://www.noniedarwish.com) that she is not surprised of the Arab Islamic behavior.

Unfortunately, the world media is not doing its job in telling the Arab World about it. CNN feels that being “objective” is never to blame Arab culture, and it ends up supportive of Arab views in its delivery of news in the Middle East and around the world.

The horrible news from Chechnya, the Philippines, India, the Sudan or Pakistan, were always covered up and twisted to portray Muslim terrorists as innocent victims of terrible discrimination. These murderers were always portrayed as “freedom fighters” who needed to rise against the majority Christian or non-Muslim population. My culture of origin turns into robotic monsters with a wish to destroy life on earth in order to go to heaven. This is the basic of Arab-Islamic culture and religion.

Where are Muslim demonstrations against terror? All I’ve ever noticed following 9/11 were celebrations throughout the Arab world. I decided to make a stand against the Islamic culture of terror. It is time for the world media and the UN to take a serious stand against Islamic, yes, Islamic, terror. Oil rich Arab countries finance terrorism or teach that terrorists are heroes going to heaven. No “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” and no diluted language by the international media.

The out-of-control culture in the Middle East needs a wake-up call and a dose of reality. What is needed immediately is a united world stand against the Arabs’ stagnant and barbaric view of the world. We should demand from our media to report the truth and not stand as an obstacle in facing and fighting danger. The world cannot stand by, confused and equivocal about 9/11 and Islamic terrorism any more. Please, America and the good people of the world, save my Arab culture of origin from itself.

Nonie Darwish has ongoing criticized Arab-Islamic culture (http://www.noniedarwish.com):

Once beautiful culture has now decayed, very sick, and unable to accommodate other religions or cultures. This sickness is now contaminating the West through the terror of jihad. People who criticize the current culture of Islam are not the threat to Islam; rather, the silence and justification of 9/11 by Muslims is Islam’s true enemy. The Arab-Islamic world has lost its moral equilibrium, added to their paranoia and obsession with Israel.

Islam is cracking out from its core. This is a culture in convulsions, using anything and everything as weapons against the rest of the World. Instead of using reason to reform their religion and join the rest of the civilized world in a peaceful co-existence, they choose violence through their ancient doctrine of jihad. The end result is masses submitting to the terror of dictatorships in an oppressive social structure.

There is no tolerance in Islamic society to differing views, and freedoms are rare assets. In Islamic culture, one is accountable to everybody for one’s behavior. This is a collective culture. Paradoxically, submission is that it creates people who are extremely sensitive to criticism and with chauvinistic impulses. You thus see a loyal, submissive polite Muslim turn violently angry over the slightest differences of opinion. People explode in illogical overreaction to trivial disagreements.

The mothers of suicide bombers are speaking and living a life that is against the normal impulses of Motherhood. The religious and political indoctrination through tyranny pushed them against themselves and their child into insanity. Hate is a motivation for jihad and also helps unite the Muslims, in compliance. The use of fear and hatred is a very primitive but very effective tool. This manipulation of human beings has reached an art form in Muslim culture. The enemy of Islam becomes a very necessary part of the religion, since it contributes to the unity of Muslims and ensures compliance. This unity has to be fed, cultivated and nourished constantly at all levels of education and the media through hatred to the other.

The infidels are extremely useful in Arab-Islamic culture. There is less cohesion between Muslims as a result of love, compassion, constructive activities for the common good and working together for improving society and economy. Image and reputation is of utmost importance between Muslims and especially in front of foreigners. Their first instinct is always to lie, even in situations that do not require lying, to show only the good side and shame those who don’t go with the lie for the sake of saving face.

Oil money from Saudi Arabia got more and more influential in reviving the more extreme form of Islam among more moderate and poorer Muslim countries. That same Wahhabi sect was responsible for 9/11. It was a call of warning from Saudi extremists to Western civilization. They announced to us loud and clear ‘we are coming to Islamize you the same way we did to moderate Arab countries.’ All the Saudis want is to spread Islam and to be the Mecca of the World.

Arab columnists have published articles critical of the view that the main motivation to terrorism is poverty or despair. The main reasons and most important factors in motivating terrorism are cultural and religious. The incitement by religious and political leaders encourages conducting terror operations. Muhammad Mahfouz, a Saudi columnist claims (Saudi Gazette, December 30, 2004: MEMRI, January 26, 2005, No. 853):

The only way to end violence and terrorism is to fight a cultural and ideological battle. Terrorism is one of the most dangerous problems encountered in recent times, for it undermines the stability and security of all human societies. An external and superficial probing of the problem will not be effective until we delve deeply into its Islamic cultural and ideological roots. The relationship between the phenomenon of terrorism in Islamic society and culture is like the relationship between the cause and consequence. This may explain the reason why youths belonging to rich families and others from well position in society are implicated in terrorist crimes.

This means that financial and economic factors cannot be associated with this fanatic ideology and terrorism. It is cultural and religious factors that motivate to murder innocent people and not poverty. The only way to put an end to the wave of violence and terrorism is to fight ideological cultural battle against terrorism carried out by a group of brain-washed youth, influenced by glamorous slogans. Without fighting this fateful battle, we will never succeed in eliminating the menace on civilization. Any delay in fighting this ideological cultural battle will drag us to the abyss of instability. We need more than ever to dismantle the cultural and ideological incubators which feed this phenomenon and mold it socially and culturally.

The elimination of terrorism and violence are associated with uprooting the culture of violence which promotes killing, justifies terrorism, and provides it a legitimate cover. The security battle will not help much in putting an end to this phenomenon. On the contrary, it may give it a justification to continue. We need transparency and courage to put an end to this poisonous menace, and any laxity in this matter will cost more lives and destruction. Thus, the coming battle is the battle of culture, to fight and defeat terrorism in all its stages.

For ‘Abdallah Rashid (al-ittihad, January 10, 2005: MEMRI, January 26, 2005, No. 853) it is clear:

The greatest mistake of social and political commentators is their attributing the cause for the spreading of terrorism in the Arab and Islamic world to the lack of social justice, the situation of poverty, and the harsh social conditions in most of the Arab and Islamic countries. The socio-economic situation of most of the terrorists who participate in the criminal operations around the world is very good. They are from well-off families, with high education and good jobs, and many of them are even married with children.

Most of the volunteers who went to Iraq to join al-Qaeda terrorist groups are from Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States [61%!]. They come from families that are not poor and from a social environment that does not suffer from economic problems and wretchedness. The simple reason is the terrifying brainwashing suffered by most of the Arab youth at the hands of ‘religious clerics,’ the media, and particularly at the hands of the extremists with backward views. They nourish the Muslim youth with various kinds of racist views, destructive extremist principles, and nurse them with hostility, hatred, and resentment towards others.

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Syrian Coup de Grâce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who Will Rebuild Syria: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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After raging for eight years, the violent phase of the Syrian civil war seems to be reaching its final stages, with Idlib as the last holdout. Recently, leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey held talks in Sochi to discuss securing peace in Syria and preventing a large-scale military assault on Idlib, Syria’s last rebel enclave. World leaders have also discussed the the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged European Union countries to help rebuild Syria, arguing that it would lead to a faster return of refugees from Europe to their country. His efforts have so far been unsuccessful as EU countries refuse to participate in a rebuilding process that involves Bashar Al-Assad. Arab states are considering readmitting Syria into the Arab League and have shown interest in investing in the country’s reconstruction. However, the United States is pressuring the Gulf states to hold back on restoring relations with Syria and investing in its reconstruction. As such, it seems that in addition to Russia, China, Iran, and India are best poised to invest in and benefit from the country’s rebuilding. Former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura estimates the cost of Syria’s reconstruction to be 250 billion USD, while the Syrian government estimates the number to be 400 billion USD. Either way, the cost is too high for the Syrian government to finance on its own without the help of its leading businessmen and international partners and allies.

How the Civil War Changed Syria’s Economic Environment

However, during the eight years of ongoing civil war, some prominent faces in Syria’s economic arena have disappeared, giving way to new actors who have positioned themselves and their businesses to benefit from the vacuum created by the civil war and, therefore, became highly influential, obtaining access to Al-Assad’s ‘inner circle’. Some of Bashar Al-Assad’s inner circle members were forced to flee the country, defect to the opposition, or remain neutral—thus losing their favourable position in this inner circle. This applies not only to the decision-making process, but also to the country’s internal economic process. The International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling argues that the war “forced large families to exile or to shut their businesses down and allowed a new generation of wheeler-dealers to emerge.” However, most of these actors and their assets have been sanctioned by the West due to their relationship with, and involvement in projects linked to the Syrian government. This creates a hurdle on the way to Syria’s reconstruction as many businessmen find their own funds—as well as international funds, companies and suppliers—inaccessible.

Economic Sanctions as an Obstacle

Economic sanctions have been successful in limiting the activity of Syria’s economic actors. It didn’t put them out of business as they have developed methods to bypass sanctions. Among those is establishing a close relationship with the Syrian government based on a system of ‘favors’, in which businessmen provide the government with some financial services in return for access to lucrative projects across the country. This poses several obstacles in the face of the country’s reconstruction. How independent are these businessmen from the government as economic actors best poised in terms of access and financial resources to rebuild the country? Given their proximate relationship to the Assad government, it is unlikely that they will gain access to foreign funds needed for the country’s rebuilding. Moreover, do their interests lay in rebuilding infrastructure and improving citizens’ living standards? Or will they rather pursue lucrative projects that are not entirely related to infrastructure, and therefore, will not bring significant benefit to the majority of the population? Furthermore, given the nature of the political and economic process in Syria, foreign companies will need to partner with local Syrian actors who have close ties to the government to be able to effectively invest and participate in the rebuilding process. However, these partnerships are restricted due to economic sanctions. As such, it is important to identify these local actors, their relation to the Syrian government and what initiatives towards rebuilding the country they have taken thus far. The most prominent and currently active businessmen in Syria can be divided into two groups: the ‘old guard’ who have been able to withstand local and external pressures and remain operable, and the ‘new guard’, who saw in the civil war the opportunities to gain access to financially beneficial economic sectors and projects.

Syria’s Most Prominent ‘Old Guards’

Rami Makhlouf is at the top of the ‘old guard’ list. Even under Western sanctions, he is still successfully operating in the country. This is in great part due to his relation to Al-Assad: he is a cousin from mother’s side. Following the outbreak of the war, Makhlouf stated that he would turn to charity and no longer pursue projects that can generate personal gain. However, Makhlouf still has close ties with leading businessmen in the country and is active in several economic sectors, including telecommunications (he owns mobile network company Syriatel), import/export, natural resources, and finance. Moreover, the Makhlouf empire has branches in some European countries, and a team of lawyers creating shell companies and bank accounts to bypass economic sanctions. Therefore, even if at times he is not the face of projects, it is highly likely that Makhlouf is somehow still benefiting from his relations with other businessmen and his numerous shell companies.

Mohammad Hamsho is another infamous old guard who currently serves as Secretary of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce and member of the People’s Assembly for Damascus. In 2018, Hamsho visited Tehran and met with Secretary General of Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Bahman Eshghi. During the meeting, both sides affirmed their determination to work on improving their economic relation, and signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two countries in various economic, trade, investment and production sectors. However, given that both countries are under sanctions, the magnitude of their economic cooperation is still hard to predict. Hamsho has been subject to US sanctions since 2011, but has been successful in having European sanctions lifted in 2014 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence of his involvement with the regime. Two prominent Syrian businessmen who landed on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned individuals, published on January 21, 2019, are Nader Qalei and Khaled Al-Zubaidi. The two are leading actors operating in Syria with investments in the construction industry. One of their most significant investments is in the construction of Grand Town, a luxury tourist project. The Syrian government has granted Qalei and Al-Zubaidi a 45-year agreement for this project in exchange for approximately 20% return on revenue. According to the Council of the EU, Qalei and Al-Zubaidi benefit from and/or support the regime through their business activities, in particular through their stake in the Grand Town development. One of the most prominent actors in the country’s media sector is Majd Sleiman, otherwise known as the ‘intelligence boy’, son of Hafez Al-Assad’s cousin. Sleiman is currently the chief executive director of Alwaseet Group, one of the largest media groups in the Middle East and North Africa region. At the age of 25, he was already running several businesses and had established regional and international connections in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, Europe and the United States. Even though Sleiman is active in the media and publishing sector, which is considered unprofitable, his companies received significant amounts of money from British accounts. This could be indicative of potential money laundering for the Syrian regime through British banks, via Sleiman.

Syria’s Most Prominent ‘New Guards’

With some families falling out of Al-Assad’s favors, and others exiled or unable to operate due to economic sanctions, a few savvy businessmen found an opportunity to fill the newly created vacuum and establish ties with the Al-Assad government by providing it with much needed services. Most prominent among these ‘new guards’ is Samer Foz, a leading Syrian businessman, known for his ruthlessness in conducting business. In fact, in 2013, Foz served a six month jail sentence for killing a Ukrainian/Egyptian businessman in Istanbul, Turkey. Foz is involved in multiple sectors of Syria’s economy, including brokering grain deals, and a stake in a regime-backed joint venture involved in the development of Marota City—a luxury residential and commercial development project. After several of Al-Assad’s former business allies found themselves unable to continue their business activities, Al-Assad welcomed Foz to his inner circle. Moreover, after being heavily affected by the war, Syria’s agricultural industry suffered, and Foz positioned himself as one of the few businessmen with the ability to broker grain deals. As a result, he received access to commercial opportunities through the wheat trade. Through his investments in the food industry and some reconstruction projects, Foz made his way into the inner circle by providing financial and other support to the regime, including funding the Military Security Shield Forces. Notably, Foz maintains very close ties with Iran, as well as Russia and other Western and Arab countries such as Italy, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Lebanon.

Another relatively new name to the arena of businessmen in Syria is Mazen Al Tarazi. Al Tarazi resides in Kuwait and has launched several campaigns in an attempt to get into Al-Assad’s inner circle. One of his campaigns was named “Returning to Syria” in which he pledged to bear the cost of Syrians wanting to return to their country. Moreover, in 2014, he assigned a plane at his own expense to transfer Syrians from Kuwait to Damascus, and back to Kuwait so they can cast their votes in the Presidential election. In 2017, his attempts proved successful and he was granted an investment license for a private airline in Syria, as well as other projects including a deal with Damascus Cham Holdings for a 320 USD million investment in the construction of Marota City. The Syrian Palestinian businessman benefited from his public support of the Assad government. In fact, according to Syrian media, Al Tarazi’s investment in Marota City is the first investment in Syria in which the investor’s share is greater than that of the public sector (51% of the project was owned by Al Tarazi and 49% by the Damascus Holding Company of the Damascus governorate). This investment, as well as his outspoken support for Al-Assad landed him on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned persons. The final businessman on the ‘new guards’ list is Samir Hassan, owner and agent of several companies in Syria, including Nokia and Nikon. After bad harvests due to war, he invested in imports of food supplies, in particular wheat, rice, sugar, and tea, and developed a close relationship with the Al-Assad family. During the civil war and against the background of improved relations with Russia, Hassan was named the Chairman of the Syrian-Russian Business Council, quite a prestigious position given the special relationship between Russia and Syria. Hassan’s investments in the food industry will also be vital during the reconstruction of Syria where he will be able to provide materials and products needed for reviving the agricultural sector, one of the greatest contributors to Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Trends in investments of Syria’s Businessmen

In general, businessmen involved in the Marota City and Grand Town projects have found themselves under Western economic sanctions. Most of Syria’s prominent businessmen have invested in these projects thanks to their connections with the government. In addition to some of the figures mentioned above, Anas Talas, Nazir Ahmad Jamal Eddine, Khaldoun Al-Zoubi, Hayan Mohammad, Nazem Qaddour, Maen Rizk Allah Haykal and Bashar Mohammad Assi have been recently sanctioned primarily due to their participation in the construction of Marota City. The Marota City and Grand Town projects are not essential for the country’s reconstruction, as they represent luxury residential and commercial projects and do not contribute to rebuilding the damaged infrastructure. However, several of the mentioned businessmen have been investing in infrastructure-related industries, such as the metal and steel industry, as well as the electrical and food industries. Recently, Hamsho bought “Al Sewedy Cables” factory, previously owned by Egyptian businessman Ahmad Al Sewedy, which produces electrical cables, towers, columns, transformers and circuit breakers, as well as a foundry (metal melting) factory that produces material for construction. Hamsho was able to acquire Al Sewedy’s company after it defaulted on loans given to it by the Islamic Bank of Syria and was sold in an auction. Foz has also been investing in former businessmen’s assets as he secured the ‘empires’ of two Syrian millionaires previously in Al-Assad’s inner circle. Emad Hamisho, previously known as the “economic shark” of Syria, and his family were sanctioned by the Syrian Ministry of Finance in 2013 after defaulting on a loan of 3.8 million Syrian Pounds he had borrowed from the real estate bank. In 2014, the sanctions were lifted without any clarifications on whether Hamisho had settled his account with the ministry or not. In 2018, the Ministry of Finance issued a new decision to sanction the assets of “Hamisho Minerals.” Foz saw an opportunity in it and swooped in. He entered into a partnership with Hamisho and created a new company where he heads the board of directors. Moreover, after a series of tightening measures initiated against him by the Syrian government in the early phases of the civil war, Imad Ghreiwaty decided to gradually transfer his investments abroad and resign from his position as the head of the Union of Chambers of Industry. His assets included a cables company, “Syria Modern Cables”, which Foz bought in 2017. Notwithstanding the manner of purchase, these initiatives are important for the country’s rebuilding, and are profitable for the investors, as they will provide construction material necessary for the reconstruction phase.

Financing Syria’s reconstruction

It is evident that rebuilding Syria will be largely controlled by Al-Assad’s inner circle of businessmen who have preferential access to investments and are best positioned to receive projects and tenders in the upcoming period. However, a few businessmen will not be able to rebuild the country on their own, and even the country’s most prominent and richest businessmen will find themselves limited in their activities due to imposed economic sanctions. While Syria’s allies are willing to help, and have already begun cultivating and consolidating relationships with local actors to gain access to the Syrian market, they are also facing certain limitations. Iran and Russia are constrained by economic sanctions of their own, whereas India and China are reluctant to invest unless they receive security guarantees to insure and protect their investments in Syria. Therefore, while both local and external actors are willing and seek to invest in the lucrative industry of Syria’s rebuilding, they are faced with many obstacles, including economic sanctions. The irony of the matter is that actors who have access and finances to invest in rebuilding Syria cannot do so since their access depends on their relationship with Al-Assad—a relationship that has provided them with opportunities and finances, and landed them on international economic sanctions lists that now restrict their ability to operate at their full capacity. With the United States and European Union unwilling to foot the bill, it remains to see whether the Gulf States will overcome Western pressures, restore ties with Al-Assad and invest in rebuilding Syria.

First published in our partner RIAC

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