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Theresa in Arabia: Engaging beyond trade

Samantha Maloof

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap] he UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to Bahrain this week for the Gulf Cooperation Council summit is a bid to strengthen ties with the GCC member states ahead of Britain’s exit from the European Union, but it is also a chance for the UK to nudge some of its key partners toward long-overdue respect for human rights and democratic reforms.

On the face of it, of course, this is just one in a series of trips by May to salvage the UK’s trade ties amidst Brexit uncertainty. In a statement about the visit released this past weekend, May emphasized the importance of cooperation between Britain and the GCC in the realms of counter-terrorism, Gulf investment in cities across the UK, and British investment that will hopefully help the Gulf states pursue major reforms.

Given the recent history of Bahrain, however, such high-profile engagement was bound to spark controversy. A number of campaign groups have urged May not to ignore human rights issues in pursuit of free trade deals with Middle Eastern countries. Amnesty International has been one of the most outspoken, saying in a statement ahead of May’s visit that British ministers have acted like “overexcited cheerleaders” for Bahrain’s “woefully inadequate” reforms since the 2011 crackdown on the country’s democracy movement. Amnesty notably questioned the effectiveness and independence of two UK-backed human rights institutions in Bahrain, which the NGO described as “PR exercises.”

Downing Street obviously anticipated these responses, emphasizing in its statement: “We don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them.”

There is certainly cause for cautious optimism in the fact that May is not just the first British PM but also the first woman leader to attend a GCC summit. The occasion will is not only an opportunity for British and Gulf businesses, but also a chance for the UK to effectively broach touchier subjects with the GCC member states.

First and foremost, though, will be the hunt for business prospects. London has reportedly identified £30 billion of “high-value opportunities for British businesses across fifteen different sectors over the next five years in the Gulf.” May hopes to form a new joint working group with GCC members to examine a possible new UK-Gulf free trade agreement, and her government has emphasized that the Gulf states are collectively Britain’s largest investor and the second biggest non-European export market.

That the UK and Gulf states like Saudi Arabia already enjoy strong trade ties is going to become increasingly important as Riyadh and the region’s other oil-dependent nations try to diversify their economies. UK exports to Saudi Arabia exceeded £5.5 billion last year, making Britain one of the Saudi’s top 10 trading partners. There are more than 200 joint venture British-Saudi businesses inside the Kingdom, worth more than £17.5 billion. These companies and others employ about 30,000 British nationals.

The hope on both sides is that this cooperation will expand further as a result of the Vision 2030 program, which seeks to promote cultural openness within the Kingdom in addition to reducing dependence on oil and attracting foreign investment. The privatizations and non-oil growth the program is aiming for can only be successful with the help of outside backers, and Saudi leaders see Britain as one of the countries whose expertise and financial clout will be integral to bringing their work to fruition.

With her eagerness for closer economic ties, May evidently feels the same way. The British PM specifically mentioned Vision 2030 in her speech to the GCC leaders, announcing the historic Mansion House in London would host an event on the Gulf’s economic transformation programs next year. In addition to bringing down trade barriers, she also insisted the UK would be the region’s “partner of choice” in pursuing reforms. With so many trade and investment opportunities at stake, a closer relationship is obviously in the self-interest of both sides.

May’s speech might have been focused on the financials, but human rights campaign groups should not dismiss her presence as nothing more than a favor to business interests. By engaging in trade talks with the GCC member states, the UK does more than boost its credibility, its capital, and its standing as a key ally. It also puts itself in a more strategic position when it comes to pushing these nations forward in spheres beyond trade and investment.

For one, May’s very participation in the summit is in and of itself a repudiation of the limits placed on female participation in political life in the region. Beyond that, increasing Britain’s economic clout among the Gulf emirs will make any statement on rights or norms more impactful. These countries are far more likely to listen to a partner sitting down together at the same table than they are to an outsider shouting at them from the next room. Just across the water from Bahrain, Iran provides a ready example of why that latter approach doesn’t work.

Of course, it will take years and likely decades of reforms before those living in the Persian Gulf states enjoy women’s rights and freedom of expression the way they are taken for granted in places like Britain. However, the seeds of change are there, as promising recent events like the anniversary of Saudi female participation in elections go to show. By casting herself as an indispensable partner, Theresa May is setting herself up to help those seeds grow more in the future.

Samantha is a freshly minted graduate in International Relations based in Cairo, currently working as a research assistant in a small think tank looking at development and inequality in Africa

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All Those Croatian Presidents

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Stjepan Mesic

Since those days when it emerged from the ruins of the Yugoslav federation as an independent state, Republic of Croatia had 4 Presidents – 4 men and a Lady President. The first one whom only death, in the opinion of many, saved from the International Hague Tribunal, but who is still (or because of that?) called by his admirers “Father of the Nation” was a self-proclaimed “Mesiah”, who although “only” a President acted as master and commander. One of his closest collaborators remembers how Franjo Tudjman asked him once: “To whom should I leave Croatia?” For a monarch without heirs from the 19th century a quite appropriate question. But, for the President of a modern state that found its way to the international scene at the very end of the 20th century – unthinkable!

On the wave of the desire for changes, which grew more and more as dark sides of the war for independence and of the privatization and transition started (but only started) to emerge, Tudjman was after his death succeeded by a former highly positioned politician of his Party who broke all ties both with Tudjman as well as with the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), because he could not and would not support their policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina. Before doing that he, alas, following the official HDZ policy, gave a couple od “antologic” statements which he found himself in a position of explaining even after years. However, Stjepan Mesić displayed enough honesty and political courage to admit these statements and escapades and to apologize for them, saying they were wrong and out of place. He won the presidential elections twice and although he is by his enemies from the right still branded both as a clown and as a traitor, he initialized key processes aimed at putting Croatia on the world scene again, after it was, at the end of Tudjman’s rule, practically put into international isolation because of his policy towards minorities, especially the Serb one, and to human rights in general.

Mesić opened the way for returning antifascism (although already put into Constitution) to the place it deserves in the Croatian society; without any reservations he labeled fascism and its Croatian version (Ustasha) as evil and as a crime; he opposed the historical revisionism that was present from the very beginnings of the Croatian state;  ha changed the attitude towards minorities, in the first place, the Serb minority and he favored the return to Croatia of those Croatian citizen of Serb origin who fled the country during the war; he laid foundations for a everyday’s normalization of the relations in the region; he opened Croatia to the world, presenting it as a partner willing to cooperate on the terms of full equality with everybody. Despite diminished powers, because Croatia switched after Tudjman’s death from semi-Presidential to parliamentary system, he knew how to resolutely say “no”, when Croatia’s interests were at stake (for example resisting the pressure to make Croatia part of the so called Coalition of willing put together by the US for the purpose of invading Iraq). And he never ceased repeating that he is a citizen-President whose job is not to rule, but to serve.

After his 10 years in office a new tenant came into the Office of the President – university professor and composer, candidate of the left, Ivo Josipovic. There can be no doubt that he too wanted to be a “real President”, that he even had some ideas how to do this (let us forget his statement that he intends to compose an opera, while being President), the fact remains that he – objectively – managed to halt or to freeze many of the positive processes started by his predecessor; though at the same time some of them he simply copied, repeating for example in the Israeli parliament the excuse, on behalf of the Croatian state, for the crimes committed by the Ustasha against Jews. If he is going to be remembered for anything, it will be for being a weak President, who – by not being able to define himself and by not understanding what politics is all about, practically put in the position of the President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic. Because, apart from the HDZ voting machinery, people did not vote for her, wanting just her as the new President, but because they were, to put it mildly – fed up by Ivo Josipovic. He did not know how to make real contact with citizens (contrary to Mesic, who was a virtuoso in doing this) and the citizens did not understand him – for example when he announced that he will run for the second term with he concept of a new Constitution.

The first woman-President in the short history of Croatia, presented a respectable C/V (minister for European Integration, Foreign minister, ambassador to the US, assistant to the Secretary General of NATO). But, very soon it became apparent and it remained apparent through her 5 years in office that she came totally unprepared and unfit for the position. She was intoxicated by the ceremonial accompanying the position of the President, she was literally in love with the military component of the function (although the President is the Supreme commander only in times of war), she loved uniforms and weapons and, above all – she was obsessed – by moving her Office from one town to the other (together with a ceremonial military unit that was present during the playing of the national anthem and raising the flag upon her arrival; in normal circumstances it is just the President visiting this or that town, or region of Croatia, which was – but without the pomp upon which she so insisted – done by Mesic, by Josipovic, even by Tudjman. 

She will be remembered by stubbornly repeating some notorious lies (such as that Croatia/Yugoslavia was behind the Iron Curtain, or that Croats were not allowed in times of Yugoslavia to call themselves as Croats, or that the Ustasha salute (For homeland – ready) was an ancient Croatian salute (here she eventually admitted, most probably under pressure from outside, that she was wrong, blaming one of her advisers for this!). She will not be remembered for her policy, even not for the “3 seas concept” she so loved to speak about, although it is not her concept at all. But she will be remembered as an enthusiastic cheer leader during the World soccer championship, as somebody who embraced sweaty soccer players in their wardrobes and – as her term in office started to come close and closer to its end – as somebody who liked to sing in public (even “discussing” this with some media, objecting that they reported she does not know how to sing, although – she said – “I sing well”). Finally she will be remembered by a series of public appearences which made many people to raise their eyebrows and than to start laughing at her (“My friend, the American general”, or “they say it’s not possible, but I tell you it is possible; I have already arrangements with certain foreign countries that Croats will go there for schooling, return after that to Croatia and work on-line from their homes for 8.000 Euro monthly”, ending with “I will stay in Croatia, although I have offers from all around the world”. She loved to sing a song whose text portrays part of Bosnia and Herzegovina as Croatia, she boasted that the pop-singer, icon of the political right whose most popular song begins with the Ustasha salute “For homeland – ready!” is her favorite singer, and let us stop here, although there would be much more. She missed no opportunity to equale antifascism (calling it communism) with fascism and she loved to remember how both of her grandparents were partisans, but turned into anticommunists right after the victory in 1945. About her being sent to school in the US she said that her father sent her there and not Tito (“forgetting” that Tito was at that time several years dead already).

She made peace with the HDZ prime minister, because she needed her party’s support in the election campaign. All the HDZ politicians started to repeat, as parrots; “She will win!”. She lost. If she manages to get into history, than history will remember her as somebody who transformed the role of the President into a stage act and managed, instead of policy that should be waged at the top of the state, to present a rather bad “patriotic” reality show.  

It is high time for “realpolitik” to replace this reality show. Yes, we might expect some surprises from the President-elect too, some of them might not please those who voted for him. But, one thing is sure; because of Zoran Milanović nobody who really cares for Croatia and for Croatia’s reputation in the world, will not blush, or feel ashamed (which was not the case in previous 5 years). Milanović in not an “unknown”, both in Croatia and in the world, neither as a person, nor as a politician (chairman of the Social-democratic party, Prime minister). It is a known fact that he too, sometimes, speaks and even acts faster that he thinks, putting himself in the position to explain afterwards what he really wanted to say or demonstrate (the most benign example is his jumping from a APC and falling to the ground before TV cameras, and saying laconically only: “I wanted to boast”.

In retrospect: the first “mesianic” President saw himself as the owner of the country and behaved accordingly. The second, and history will one day admit this, was a President, as Presidents should be. The third did not know how to be the President and the fourth, the Lady President, understood and performed her duty  as a cheap reality show. One should hope, the time is ripe for a “realpolitiker”, someone who is fully aware of the fact that he is the President of a small country, but at the same time aware of its (meaning his) responsibility for the state of democracy in Croatia, for the situation in the region and for Croatia’s place in the world. Voters do remember Milanovic from previous times. So it is no surprise that on internet one can read such a commentary: “Good luck, don’t slip, because we will not forgive.”

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US naming of first corrupt Bulgarian official is a joke

Iveta Cherneva

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Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the first ever designated Bulgarian official barred from entering the United States over corruption, under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act.

The newly implemented non-judicial mechanism to “fight corruption” in Bulgaria had many here in high hopes. Would the US really name names and help Bulgarian society clean up by pointing the finger and sanctioning the most corrupt and dangerous elements?

Well, don’t hold your breath.

The glaringly political and self-serving designation disappointed many here. The US government black-listed a Bulgarian judge and the only thing he is known for is that he allowed a pro-Russia society activist to visit Russia and receive an award from Russian President Putin, while the pro-Russian activist was under investigation over espionage charges.

The decision struck many here as something out of an outdated Cold War scenario. 

The US is not really fighting corruption with this move — it’s just settling old scores with a pro-Russian judge. Actually one does not even have to be pro-Russia to ask themselves if a decision we don’t like automatically becomes corruption. The US has not provided any evidence for corruption — whether the judge was paid, whether there were any shady dealings, etc.

The US has a long way to go if it wants to show that corruption rather than pro-Russian interests is what it is really after in Bulgaria. As this is just the first designation in a long list to come, the US Embassy in Sofia would do well to address actual corruption that Bulgarian citizens are sick of. That’s the way to win over Bulgarians.

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Britain after Brexit: Between US and EU

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On January 31, the United Kingdom left the European Union, after three years of exhausting negotiations in which the terms of the “divorce” were postponed several times. Now, Britain is setting sail free. A staunch supporter of the exit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims that breaking away from the EU will “liberate the country from a terrible” yoke “.” Johnson promises the British “a decade of prosperity and opportunity.” A major advantage to the breakaway is believed to be the prospect of a new rapprochement between Britain and the United States. How realistic are these expectations?

US current President Donald Trump spoke strongly in favor of Brexit from the very beginning. He called for a most dastic form of severing relations between Britain and the European Union, in return for which he promised the British a comprehensive free trade agreement in the shortest possible time. In September last year, British media reported that Trump and Johnson had allegedly agreed to sign a free trade agreement, which “will become the largest-scale deal the United States has ever reached.” According to these reports, the final signing of the contract is scheduled for July 2020. The terms of the transaction will not take effect immediately but after the Brexit transition period, which, according to the current agreements between London and Brussels, will come to a close in December 2020.

On January 25, US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin said he was optimistic about the possibility of concluding a US-British free trade agreement this year. According to Reuters, Donald Trump also tends to consider the feasibility of reaching an agreement with the UK before the US presidential election in November. Britain, in turn, expects to use the agreement with the United States as an argument during trade negotiations with the EU. Both London and Washington declare their intention to “substantially expand” bilateral trade. Meanwhile, Mnuchin, along with a number of American Congressmen, have already made it clear that they deem unacceptable London’s plans to introduce a tax on digital services by such American IT giants as Facebook, Google and Amazon. So differences in the economic sphere are already in place now.

The doubts of the American establishment are also clear. Ten years ago, optimists believed that Britain’s future was unimaginable without the EU. Simultaneously, “special relations” with the United States enabled London to become a major moderator and, perhaps, the only Western country capable of streamlining the predictably inevitable weakening of American hegemony. At least, it was done with minimal losses for the entire “golden billion”, and in case of success it made possible extending its leading position among other world players for the foreseeable historical perspective.

When the “impossible” – Brexit – became reality, it became clear that the appearance of yet another “variable” in Europe could be beneficial for both Washington and London. The United States gets an effective tool of influence on Europe – it will make use of the differences between London and a number of East European countries traditionally oriented at the UK, and the other leading EU capitals. And the United Kingdom gets a chance to return to the “top of the world” with the support of still strong, but not so “strategically astute” or “politically flexible”, America.

By now, skeptics say, the nature of British-American relations has changed irreversibly. The trade deal could become a major stumbling block. In the first place, Trump has so far signed only one truly fundamental trade agreement – a new version of NAFTA. He is always seeking to dictate his will – “particularly, if the partner is weaker or in need.” “And for the United States, Britain is, at best, a satellite, not an equal partner.” In addition, with less than a year to go before the US presidential election, voters expect Trump to step up protective measures, rather than make concessions. Secondly, a full-scale trade agreement is subject to approval by the Congress. Trump is currently at “war with the Democrats.” Many Republicans may also come forward with requests to secure significant concessions from London. These could be farmers, the Irish lobby, who would want concessions over the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and representatives of IT corporations.

Thirdly, a trade agreement with the EU is more important for London. According to the BBC, British exports to the EU are 2.5 times higher than to the United States. The EU share in UK imports is almost 5 times higher than that of the US. The European market is closer and larger, while the overseas market is much smaller. Technically, an agreement with the European Union seems to be more achievable, given that now both parties have “common rules and standards”. Moreover, success in trade negotiations with the EU will deprive London of the opportunity to make substantial concessions to America. Finally, comprehensive trade agreements are prepared for years, if not decades. There could be exceptions, of course, for example, a kind of “mini-transaction” confined to a particular industry. However, such deals “will be problematic to present to the public as overwhelming success of Britain on the global scene and they will hardly make an adequate compensation for the break with the EU.” It is also unclear whether London is willing to pay the political price. For example, Trump may require unconditional support in the confrontation with China, or Iran, as a “bargain”. Or he may ask for a rejection of the “digital tax.” As a result, it will not be a trade agreement, but only a “transaction concerning trade”.

Meanwhile, in geopolitical sphere, relations between London and Washington are far from perfect too. In the summer of 2018, the UK expressed interest in establishing cooperation with the participants in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The latter is an upgraded version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump, in the very first weeks of his presidency, renounced as “not beneficial” for America. Britain’s position also clashes with that of the US on the preservation of a nuclear deal with Iran. Moreover, in addition to supporting Europeans, Germany and France at the diplomatic level, Britain was among the initiators of a European payment mechanism to circumvent US sanctions against Iran (INSTEX), which, however, has yet to become functional.

According to The Economist, in January this year, British Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace publicly questioned Washington’s credibility as an ally. Present-day Britain, he said, is far from always ready to fight on the side of America. Wallace also expressed regret over his country’s “very strong” dependence on the United States for military aviation, as well as for electronic intelligence and surveillance. “We need to diversify our options” in these areas, – summed up the head of the military department of the United Kingdom. British experts were quick to remark that there had been no statements of this kind in London’s official statements of the past 70 years. The British leadership is still hoping to pursue the country’s own programs of creating advanced weapons, including fighters and spy satellites. Finally, what causes London’s growing concern is Trump’s “contempt for the allies” and the difference in strategic priorities. One British diplomat commented in The Economist as follows: “We fear Russia more than anyone else, while the US is wary of China. ”

What triggered the bulk of political and trade differences between London and Washington is London’s intention to include the Chinese company Huawei into the suppliers of equipment for fifth-generation telecommunications networks. The United States accuses Huawei of acting on orders from official Beijing to “spy” on residents of Western countries and even damage communications systems. Washington has been doing its utmost to convince all its allies that it is true. Last December the US introduced an amendment to the 2020 defense budget under which the government is to cut intelligence data exchanges with those allies that have endorsed the use of Huawei technologies in fifth-generation networks. The amendment will first concern anglophone countries that form the Five Eyes alliance whose members are involved in tight-knit cooperation on intelligence data exchanges and integrating electronic espionage infrastructure. Washington commentators describe the amendment as a “warning signal”.

The head of the US State Department Mike Pompeo did his best to put pressure on Britain, including in the course of his meeting with the head Foreign Office in Washington in January. However, what the US has achieved so far is Britain’s reiteration of its commitment to its former position under which Huawei will be kept away only from the “most sensitive” in terms of security elements of British IT and communication infrastructure. The US executive and legislative branches of power have reacted differently. The day before Brexit, on January 30th, Pompeo visited London, where he assured the British about the inviolability of privileged relations within the Five Eyes group. According to Reuters, Mike Pompeo expressed optimism over the prospect of signing a trade deal. Simultaneously, a number of Republican Senators have signaled unavoidable obstacles in the way to a bilateral trade agreement, which will entail London’s decision on 5G.

Overall, it looks like we are in for a long period of struggle for influence on Britain between Europe and the US. President Emmanuel Macron of France, along with the European Commission’s Head of Task Force for Relations with the UK Michel Barnier and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrel, have made it clear that the EU is planning to maintain close ties with Britain, including in «security and defense», and in addressing global issues in a multilateral international format. «The EU and Britain share history, geography, culture, common values and principles, and in international relations they are both committed to a multilateral approach on the basis of rules». Rules in this context mean European rules and standards. 

As for the US, Washington began to move «away from Europe» in the days of George Bush Jr. and continued to do so under Obama. For many Europeans it has long become clear that Trump’s European policies of the past three years smack of the old imperial principle of “divide and rule”. Apparently, the EU leadership have grounds to believe that the British will quickly come to the understanding that the current “world order” is impossible to preserve. The times of «symphony» between Thatcher and Reagan are a thing of remote past. Donald Trump is but a sign of the changes, not their cause. As said above, some principal figures in the Johnson Cabinet have said openly that the pattern of relations with America which came into existence after 1945 is going into the past. It looks like the prime minister is secretly hoping to organize a geopolitical “auction” in which two coasts of the Atlantic will bet for new terms of a union with the Foggy Albion. Right now, however, as Brexit critics say, after leaving the EU, Britain is playing the role of «a minor empire squeezed between two major ones». Is this the kind of future breakaway supporters want for their country?

From our partner International Affairs

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