Buried in the Gulf crisis is a major development likely to reshape international relations as well as power dynamics in the Middle East: the coming out of small states capable of punching far above their weight with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, a driver of the crisis, locked into an epic struggle to rewrite the region’s political map.
Underwriting the struggle are different strategies of the Gulf’s small states, buffeted by huge war chests garnered from energy exports, to project power and shape the world around them. Both Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies. Despite their different attitudes towards political Islam, Qatar and the UAE have both developed societies in which religious scholars have relatively little say and Islamic mores and norms are relatively liberally interpreted.
That, however, may be where the communality in approach ends. At the core of the different strategies as well as the diplomatic and economic boycott imposed in June 2017 on Qatar by a Saudi-UAE-led alliance, lie opposed visions of the future of a region wracked by debilitating power struggles; a convoluted, bloody and painful quest for political change; and a determined and ruthless counterrevolutionary effort to salvage the fundaments of the status quo ante.
The UAE views autocracy as the key to regional security and the survival of its autocratic regime. It is seeking to “impose a narrative of authoritarian stability onto the Middle East,” said security studies scholar Andreas Krieg.
As a result, the UAE has backed regime change in a number of countries, including Egypt and reportedly Turkey; supported anti-Islamist, anti- government rebels in Libya; joined Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen; and in the latest episode of its campaign, driven imposition of the boycott of Qatar. The UAE was also a driving force in persuading Saudi Arabia in 2014 to follow its example and ban the Muslim Brotherhood. It has attempted with relatively little success to create a more acquiescent, apolitical, alternative Muslim grouping.
In contrast to the UAE, Qatar has sought to position itself as the regional go-to go-between and mediator by maintaining relations not only with states but also a scala of Islamist, militant and rebel groups across the Middle East and northern Africa. It moreover embraced the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and supported Islamist forces, with the Brotherhood in the lead that emerged as the most organized political force from the uprisings. Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood, despite their differing interpretations of Islam and contradictory political outlooks, amounted to aligning itself with forces who were challenging Gulf regimes and that the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia was seeking to suppress.
The UAE and Qatar’s starkly different visions and the determination of both small states to shape the Middle East and North Africa in their mould as a matter of a security and defence policy designed to ensure regime survival made confrontation inevitable. It is an epic struggle in which Qatar and the UAE, governed by rulers who have a visceral dislike of one another, could in the short and middle term both emerge as winners even if it is at the expense of those on whose backs the battle is fought and with considerable damage to their carefully groomed reputations.
The UAE and Qatar’s duelling visions complicate the region’s lay of the land wracked by multiple rivalries in which the interests of regional and external protagonists at times coincide but more often than not exacerbate the crisis. That has been nowhere more evident than in Syria where the Gulf’s major players supported Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, yet aggravated the struggle by at times aiding rival groups.
At the bottom line, the rival strategies that involve the UAE working the corridors of power of the Gulf’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia, whose focus is its existential fight with Iran, and Qatar sponsoring opposition forces, has left the Middle East and North Africa in shambles. Beyond Syria, Libya and Yemen are wracked by wars. Egypt is ruled by an autocrat more brutal than his autocratic predecessor who has made his country financially dependent on Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has been unable to fulfil promises of greater economic opportunity.
Offense is the best defense
Qatar’s vision of a future Middle East and the survival of its ruling family is rooted in the creation in 1971 of a state, the only country alongside Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere interpretation of Islam, that was intended to be everything that the kingdom is not. Despite being a traditional Gulf state, Qatari conservatism is everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s stark way of life with its powerful, conservative clergy, absolute gender segregation; total ban on alcohol and houses of worship for adherents of other religions, and refusal to accommodate alternative lifestyles or religious practices.
Qataris privately distinguish between their “Wahhabism of the sea” as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabism of the land,” a reference to the fact that the Saudi government has less control of an empowered clergy compared to Qatar that has no indigenous clergy with a social base to speak of; a Saudi history of tribal strife over oases as opposed to one of communal life in Qatar, and Qatar’s outward looking maritime trade history.
The absence of religious scholars was in part a reflection of Qatari ambivalence towards Wahhabism that it viewed as both an opportunity and a threat: on the one hand, it served as a tool to legitimise domestic rule, on the other it was a potential monkey wrench Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control. Opting to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on Saudi clergymen to develop its own. That would have produced a clergy steeped in the kingdom’s austere theology and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have advocated a Saudi-style, state-defined form of political Islam. By steering clear of the grooming of an indigenous clergy of their own, Qatari leaders ensured that they had greater manoeuvrability. They did not have to give a clergy a say in political and social affairs. Qatar’s pragmatic relationship to Wahhabism eased the forging of a close relationship with the Brotherhood even before it achieved independence.
Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood was moreover facilitated by the fact that key figures from the group like controversial Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born, naturalized Qatari citizen who became a major influence in the absence of a class of religious scholars, Libyan imam Ali Al Sallabi, and fellow Egyptians Sheikh Ahmed Assal and Sheikh Abdel Moez Abdul Sattar have had a base in Doha for decades. Headhunted by the head of Islamic sciences at Qatar’s education department, Abdullah bin Tukri al-Subai, Al-Assal arrived in Qatar in 1960 and where he taught in schools, lectured in mosques, and helped form Brotherhood groups.
Al-Sattar, the personal emissary to Palestine of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna was appointed in the early 1960s director of Islamic Sciences at the ministry of education and co-authored numerous textbooks for the nascent Qatari school system that allowed for an approach that was not exclusively informed by Saudi interpretations of Wahhabism. Qaradawi and Al-Sallabi were among 59 people listed by the Saudi-UAE-led alliance as Qatar-supported terrorists at the outset of the Gulf crisis.
Qaradawi, who has been resident in Doha since he was forced into exile in 1961 by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, has emerged as one of the Muslim world’s most influential religious scholars. He is believed to have opted for Qatar as his new home rather than Saudi Arabia that accommodated the largest number of fleeing Brothers in consultation with the Brotherhood’s leadership.
Freshly out of prison, Qaradawi’s move to Qatar was likely facilitated by Abdul-Badi Saqr, an Egyptian who came in 1954 at the invitation of the Qataris as one of the first of the Brothers to help set up their education system. Saqr had been recommended by Muhib al-Din al-Khatib, the proprietor of a Salafi bookshop in Cairo. To fill the need for teachers, he invited Brothers who according to scholar Abdullah Juma Kobaisi “stamped the education system with their Islamic ideology since the education department was under their control.”
The role of the Brotherhood was further enhanced by the fact that Qatar limited the institutional opportunities available for religious scholars of any description to exert influence domestically. Religious schools as first founded by Qaradawi in 1961 remained niche and in 2008 to 2009 only taught 257 students, the vast majority of whom were not Qatari. Taking a leaf out of the books of Kemalist Turkey and the late president Habib Bourgiba’s Tunisia, two secular states that sought to ensure that Islam was perceived as a personal rather than a public practice, Qatar University’s College of Sharia and Islamic Studies, the country’s sole provider of higher religious education, unlike multiple similar institutions in Saud Arabia, enjoyed no special status even though Qaradawi was its first dean.
Instead, with Qaradawi, Qatar created a global mufti who in the words of Islam scholar Yahya Michot represented the three dimensions of a spiritual leader that many in the global community of faithful were looking for: independence as a Muslim scholar and activist, representation of a transnational movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and association with an international organization such as the Qatar-backed International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) that Qaradawi chairs.
Qaradawi offered the Al Thanis, who hail from the Bani Tamim, the tribal group that brought forth Wahhabism’s founder, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, a powerful shield against religious criticism. Moreover, he and other Brothers, helped Qatar develop its own fusion of Salafist and Brotherhood thinking that was initially expressed in publications such as Majalat al Umma. They counterbalanced the influence of local Saudi-influenced scholars and Salafis who were influential in the ministries of justice and religious endowments.
The dismantling of the Brotherhood’s Qatari branch in the 1990s, a reformist voice within the group, assured the Gulf state that it would be spared the emergence of a home-grown Islamist movement. Diverting the Islamist focus away from Qatar was further facilitated by Qatar’s funding of Brotherhood media outlets, including a show for Qaradawi on Al Jazeera, Islamweb.net and Islamonline.com. Qaradawi’s show, Al Sharia wal Hayat (The Shariah and Life) that reached a global audience of tens of millions of Arabic speakers, helped give Al Jazeera its Islamist stamp. It also was a fixture on Qatar state television which broadcasted his Friday prayer sermons live.
The Qatari media strategy offered the Gulf state influence across the Middle East and North Africa where Brotherhood off-shoots were active including Gaza with Hamas, which Qatar lured away from Syria and Iran, as well as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan. The setting up of Al Jazeera paralleled the structuring of the Gulf state’s ties to the Brotherhood. While Al Jazeera steers clear of critical coverage of Qatar, the Brotherhood was allowed to operate everywhere except for in Qatar itself.
Former Qatari justice minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi encapsuled the strategic relationship between Qatar and the Brotherhood as well as the Gulf state’s more liberal interpretation of Wahhabism by noting that “Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi — and all his daughters drive cars and work.”
With the eruption of the protests in various Arab countries in 2011, Qaradawi was instrumental in persuading Qatar to use its political and financial muscle to support the Brotherhood in Egypt; the revolt in Libya against Col. Moammar Qaddafi; the post-Ben Ali Ennahdha-led government in Tunisia; an assortment of Islamist groups in Yemen and Morocco, and opponents of Syrian president Assad. Three days after a triumphant appearance in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011, Qaradawi issued on Al Jazeera a fatwa or religious opinion authorizing the killing of Qaddafi. He asserted further that historic links between Egypt and Syria put Syria in protesters’ firing line. In response, Syrian officials accused Qaradawi of fostering sectarianism.
If Qatar’s strategy was confrontational, the UAE opted for an approach that granted it a measure of plausible deniability by influencing the policies of Big Brother Saudi Arabia, establishing close ties to key policy makers in Washington, acquiring ports straddling the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and crafting a reputation as Little Sparta, a military power that despite its size and with the help of mercenaries could stand its ground and like the big boys on the block establish foreign military bases.
For much of the last decade, the UAE has argued against the notion of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain as a defense pact. Instead, the UAE advertised itself as the United States’ most partner in the region. “I am not a believer in grouping the GCC together…ask us who wants to be involved and we will step forward, the others will take a step back… Encourage those of us who wish to lead to lead and we will; sooner or later the others will step forward but only when it is necessary,” UAE Crown Prince and strongman Mohammed bin Zayed told US officials in 2009.
While Qatar’s ever closer military ties to the United States centred on the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US base in the Middle East that is home to the forward command post of the US Central Command, the UAE deepened relations in part by participating in every US war in the region since 1991 except for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Those wars included the 2001 US assault on Afghanistan despite the fact that the UAE, surprisingly unlike Qatar, was only one of three countries alongside Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to have recognized the Taliban regime.
The fundamental differences in UAE and Qatari strategy also expressed themselves in their different approaches towards hard and soft power. Qatar focussed primarily on the soft power aspect with a fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy; a world class airline; high profile investments in arts, real estate and blue chips; and sports with an eye on becoming a global hub and centre of excellence in multiple fields.
Qatar arms acquisitions were modest compared to those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE until 2014 when it went on a $24 billion buying spree days after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain first withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, and its subsequent $12 billion acquisition of US fighter planes in 2017 days after the current Gulf crisis erupted. The US embassy in Doha reported prior to the 2014 rupture in relations that Qatar lacked a national military strategy and seemed reluctant to draw one up. The embassy concluded in a cable to the State Department that “the QAF (Qatar Air Force) could put up little defense against Qatar’s primary perceived threats – Saudi Arabia and Iran – and the U.S. military’s presence here is larger and far more capable than Qatar’s forces.”
Qatar’s inclination to rely more on soft rather than hard power and its positioning as a friend-to-all and mediator is rooted in a tradition of playing both sides against the middle that dates back to the 19th century. Qatari tribes were juggling Ottomans, Brits, Omanis, Saudis and Iranians who were competing for influence on the tribes’ peninsula. They have seen their empires rise and fall. Extrapolating from that experience, modern-day Qatar sees intellectual creativity and debate as long as it does not involve discussion of the Gulf state itself as a soft power tool. The controversial Al Jazeera television network, the in-gathering of the exiles, and the support of opposition groups are vehicles that position Qatar at the centre of a world of ideas that is likely to shape the future of the Middle East and North Africa.
The UAE adopted some of the same soft power elements, such as world class airlines and museums, blue chip investments, and sports but in contrast to Qatar saw its stepped-up military engagement and projection of strength as both a hard and soft power ploy. While Qatar primarily used its financial muscle, political support for multiple groups, and Al Jazeera to manipulate developments in the region, the UAE flexed not only its financial and commercial muscles, but also its improved military capability to intervene in multiple regional crises to a far greater extent than Qatar did.
By positioning itself as a power behind the Saudi throne, the UAE successfully exploited margins in the corridors of power in Riyadh to get the kingdom to adopt policies like the banning of the Brotherhood, a group that has the effect of a red cloth on a bull on Bin Zayed, but that the Saudis may not have pursued otherwise. The UAE, moreover, by aligning itself with Saudi Arabia rather than antagonizing it, has been far defter in its ability to achieve its goals and project its power without flying too high above the radar.
The UAE’s approach has also allowed it to ensure that major policy differences with Saudi Arabia on issues such as the conduct and objectives of the Yemen war, a role for the Brotherhood in a Sunni Muslim alliance against Iran, the degree of economic integration within the GCC and the thwarting of Saudi-led efforts to introduce a common currency, and Hamas’ place in Palestinian politics, did not get out of hand. Even more importantly, the approach ensured that the UAE’s policies were adopted or endorsed by bigger powers.
In fact, Bin Zayed’s finger prints were all over the Saudi-UAE-led alliance’s demands that Qatar halt its supports for Islamists and militants, shutter Al Jazeera and other media outlets, and close a Turkish military base. In 2009, Sheikh Mohamed went as far as telling US officials that Qatar is “part of the Muslim Brotherhood.” He suggested that a review of Al Jazeera employees would show that 90 percent were affiliated with the Brotherhood.
Distrust of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia dates back to post-9/11 Brotherhood-backed calls for reform in the kingdom and its support for Saddam Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 that culminated in then Interior Minister Prince Nayef declaring that the group was at the root of all of the kingdom’s problems. Two years later, Bin Zayed took advantage of the fact that ailing King Abdullah had an approximately two-hour concentration span to convince him with the help of the head of the Saudi court, Khaled al Tuwaijri, to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
It was a decision that was at stake in the power struggle that occurred as Abdullah lay on his death bed. Bin Zayed initially lost with the dismissal of Al-Tuwaijri and other Saudi officials close to the UAE crown prince by newly appointed King Salman. Within weeks of his rise in 2015, Salman, eager to form a Sunni Muslim alliance against Iran, made overtures to the Brotherhood. In a first public gesture, two weeks after Salman’s inauguration, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Feisal told an interviewer that “there is no problem between the kingdom and the movement.” The Muslim World League, a body established by Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and dominated by the Brotherhood, organized a month later a conference in a building Mecca that had not been used since the banning of the brothers to which Qataris with close ties to the Islamists were invited.
Not to be defeated and determined to stiffen the Saudis back when it came to the Brotherhood, Bin Zayed forged close ties to his namesake, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son who was being groomed to become Salman’s successor. Bin Zayed became young Salman’s model for the kind of authority he wanted to project.
“A close working relationship has developed between the two men, who share a ‘can-do’ mentality that favours ambitious ‘big-picture’ approaches to national and regional issues… Most significantly, for Qatar, Bin Zayed has secured Saudi backing for his hard-line approach to the Muslim Brotherhood and other regional Islamist groups… Although King Salman pragmatically engaged with members of the Brotherhood after he came to power in January 2015, the Saudi stance has once again moved closer to the Emirati one in recent months,” said Gulf scholar Kristian Coates Ulrichsen.
If change in the Middle East and North Africa is ultimately inevitable, the UAE is no less vulnerable than Qatar. While the rulers of the seven emirates that constitute the UAE under the leadership of Abu Dhabi’s Al-Nahayan family may well agree on the threat posed by the Brotherhood, it remains unclear whether they are equally enthusiastic about Bin Zayed’s aggressive policies towards Qatar.
The Gulf crisis “is about Abu Dhabi asserting its dominance in foreign policy issues, because this is not in Dubai’s interest,” said former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir William Patey. By implication, Sir Patey was suggesting that unease among the various emirates may be one reason why Abu Dhabi refrained from tightening the screws on Qatar by closing a partially Abu Dhabi-owned pipeline from Qatar that supplies Dubai with up to 40 percent of its natural gas needs.
Bin Zayed’s obsession with Qatar and the Brotherhood is rooted in the fact that the Brotherhood-affiliated Jamiat Al-Islah party, founded in the Emirates in 1974 by Emiratis who had met Brothers while studying in Egypt and Kuwait, was created after a decade in which Brothers operating from Qatar had agitated n the UAE. Paving the way for the establishment of the party, Abdel Badie Sakkar, an early Muslim Brotherhood migrant to Qatar, travelled regularly to the Emirates where he established Al-Iman school in Dubai’s Rashidiya neighbourhood of Dubai that was staffed by Al-Sattar’s relatives and associates.
The US embassy in Abu Dhabi reported in 2004 that “in a meeting with (US) Deputy Secretary (of State Richard) Armitage on April 20, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed noted that UAE security forces had identified ‘50 to 60’ Emirati Muslim Brothers in the Armed Forces, and that a senior Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer is within one of the ruling families – a reference, we believe, to Sharjah Ruler Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi… whose ties to Saudi Arabia are well known.”
At its peak, Al-Islah enjoyed significant support among Emiratis as well as within the country’s armed forces. Al-Islah’s size and influence was ultimately limited by restrictions on political activity that forced the group to focus on social, cultural and educational activities. Al-Islah campaigned against Westernization and sought to imbue younger Emiratis with Islamic mores.
The restrictions were part of a collapsed deal negotiated in the late 1990s under which the party would have been allowed to remain active in exchange for ending its allegiance to the Brotherhood’s global leadership, a halt to its recruitment in the UAE’s armed forces and end to political activities. Bin Zayed estimated that in 2004 Al-Islah had some 700 members. Scores of Al-Islah members were put on trial in 2012 on charges of plotting to undermine the government in through recruitment in the military and the bureaucracy.
Bin Zayed’s obsession despite the Brotherhood’s small numbers in the UAE itself has prompted the government to spend tens of billions of dollars on fighting the group. “By doing so, the UAE isn’t fighting a real threat, rather it is trying to suppress a popular trend,” said analyst Galip Dalay.
Shaping the environment
If Qatar’s strategy was to promote political change by supporting legitimate opposition forces, the UAE’s was to help engineer coups that would put in power men who were more to their liking. The Gulf crisis, provoked according to US intelligence officials, by the UAE orchestrating the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim, was but the latest example of the Emirates’ interventionist policies. The US intelligence assertion carries weight given that Qatar invited the FBI to investigate the hacks that were allegedly approved by senior UAE officials. The false reports planted by the hack constituted the basis for the boycott of Qatar declared by the Saudi-UAE-led alliance.
The hack followed a pattern. In 2013, the UAE bankrolled a military coup in Egypt that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, and together with Saudi Arabia has kept his successor, general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who brutally cracked down on the Brotherhood, financially afloat.
The UAE, in a twist of irony, may have created in Turkey, which has sent troops to Qatar in the wake of the Gulf crisis, one of the major obstacles to the ability of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance to impose its will on the Gulf state. Turkish media aligned with the government have accused the UAE of funding the 2015 failed coup aimed at overthrowing Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a watershed event in modern Turkish history, that served as an excuse for his massive crackdown on dissent. Erdogan has arrested tens of thousands of his critics; dismissed up to 140,000 people from jobs in the judiciary, the military, law enforcement, civil service and education sector; declared a pro-longed state of emergency; and used the failed takeover to introduce a presidential system of government in which he has far-reaching powers.
Yeni Safak columnist Mehmet Acet quoted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying that “we know that a country provided $3 billion in financial support for the coup attempt in Turkey and exerted efforts to topple the government in illegal ways. On top of that, it is a Muslim country.” Acet said the minister identified the country as the UAE in a subsequent conversation. Daily Sabah, another paper with close government ties, as well as Turkish foreign ministry officials repeated the assertion.
Middle East Eye, an allegedly Qatar-supported online news website, quoted Turkish intelligence officials as charging that Mohammed Dahlan, an Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief with close ties to the UAE’s Bin Zayed, Al-Sisi and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, had served as the UAE’s bagman and contact with Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Turkish in the United States, whom Erdogan blames for the attempted coup. The UAE, in a bid to mend fences with Erdogan once the coup had failed, detained two Turkish generals at Dubai airport and deported them to Istanbul. Moreover, a senior UAE foreign minister official, Abdullah Sultan al-Nuaimi,, told a Turkish columnist that his country had offered to drop its objection to the Turkish military base in Qatar and was willing to hand over Gulen supporters resident in the Emirates in exchange for the extradition of nine Emiratis members of the Brotherhood in Turkey.
In Libya, the spectacle of small states punching above their weight and waging proxy wars against each other far from home has at the very least aggravated the struggle for the future of the country since the 2011 toppling of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi. In a twist of irony, Qatar rather than the UAE is backing the legitimate, United-Nations-recognized Islamist government while the Emirates and Egypt support an anti-Islamist alliance led by a renegade general.
In the case of Palestine, Bin Zayed convinced the Saudis to drop Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that controls the Gaza Strip, from the list of groups the Saudi-UAE-led alliance wanted Qatar to distance itself from to create an opportunity for the return of Mohammed Dahlan, the UAE-backed Palestinian politician and former security chief who frequently does the Emirati crown prince’s bidding and whom US President George W. Bush described during an internecine Palestinian powers struggle in 2007 as “our boy.” If successful, the UAE would have succeeded in clipping Hamas wings and installing its own man in the Gaza Strip in a move that would likely strengthen cooperation with Israel, potentially facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and take the Jewish state’s increasingly close ties to the Gulf state out of the shadows.
The UAE effort involved a carrot and stick approach in which Israel and Palestine Authority (PA) President Mahmood Abbas played bad cop while Egypt was the good cop in a pincer move that was intended to weaken Hamas. A lowering of public sector salaries in Gaza by Abbas and reduced electricity supplies by Israel at the Palestinian leader’s behest drove Hamas into the arms of the UAE and Egypt as the International Red Cross and other international agencies warned of an impending calamity.
In response, Egypt and the UAE moved to alleviate the economic crisis in Gaza in a bid to sweeten an agreement on power sharing between Hamas and Dahlan that was being negotiated in Cairo. At the same time, Egypt began to send diesel fuel at market prices, but without taxes imposed by the PA, and has signalled that it would open the crucial Rafah border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai. Associates of Dahlan were reported to be preparing the border station for re-opening with a $5 million donation from the UAE.
In Yemen, the UAE walked a tightrope between ensuring that it had a seat at the table in Riyadh while pursuing its own goals that at times differed from those in the kingdom and managing a widening rift with Saudi-backed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi fired in April 2017 two ministers known for their close ties to the UAE. One of the ministers, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, a former governor of Aden, declared the formation of a transition council that would govern southern Yemen. Al-Zubaidi’s move fuelled concern that the UAE was laying the groundwork for a return to the pre-1990 era when Yemen was divided between two states in the expectation that the south would align itself with the Emirates. “The extent of this rift reverberates in the Arab coalition, particularly as the sidelined southern leaders are supported by the UAE,” said Yemeni a government official.
In a twist of irony, the UAE and Qatar were both seeking to project themselves as key US allies by focusing on different aspects of overall US policy. While the UAE positioned itself as Little Sparta, Qatar largely appealed to values underwriting US foreign policy such as freedom and more pluralistic societies. Both countries presented themselves as pushing reform of Islam, albeit in ways that supported their visions of regime survival.
The UAE quietly nurtured the creation of moderate Islamic institutions such as the Muslim Council of Elders, the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies and the Sawab and Hedayah Centres in a bid to counter the influence of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood, and more militant Islamist forces. For its part, Qatar promoted itself as a centre of theological change that endorsed basic political rights and opposed autocracy.
Qatar’s sincerity and willingness to back political change and let the chips fall where they fall and Qaradawi’s ideological legitimization of Qatari policy quickly failed their litmus test with the eruption not long after the revolts in Egypt and Libya of uprisings in Bahrain and Syria. Bahrain was simply too close to home for Qatari comfort while Iranian support of President Bashar al-Assad and the growing involvement of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia in the Syrian conflagration threatened the delicate balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia that Qatar sought to manoeuvre.
Acting as a barometer of Qatari policy, Qaradawi was quick to condemn the Bahraini revolt, even though it started like others in the region as a peaceful, cross-section protest in demand of greater equality and social and economic opportunity, and as in Syria, stopped short of calling for the fall of the regime. “Truly the Bahraini revolution, it’s not a revolution, rather it’s a sectarian uprising… That’s the problem, it’s Shiite against Sunni, I’m not against the Shia, I’m against fanaticism…They aren’t peaceful, they’re using weapons,” Qaradawi said. Qaradawi spoke as Saudi and UAE forces entered Bahrain in March 2011 with the blessings of Qatar and at the invitation of the minority Sunni Al Khalifa ruling family that had deliberately turned the revolt into a sectarian conflict with the island state’s majority Shiite population.
The jury on the differing UAE and Qatari approaches is still out. Qatar has been able to defy the boycott and, so far convincingly, reject demands of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance that would undermine its sovereignty and turn it into a vassal based on its financial muscle and an international refusal to endorse the approach of its detractors that many view as extreme, unrealistic and unreasonable.
Taking the long view on the assumption that change is inevitable, Qatar could emerge as having been on the right side of history even if the notion that it can promote change everywhere else except for at home is naive at best. A wave of nationalism with Qataris rallying around their emir in defiance of the Saudi-UAE-led boycott that reinforced the notion that Qatar is Al Thani and Al Thani is Qatar, masked criticism of the ruler’s policies and the Gulf state’s repression of dissidents.
Assuming Qatar emerges from the crisis with its ability to independently chart its own course and emotions have calmed, Sheikh Tamim’s challenge will be the transformation of the wave of nationalism into a form of sustainable support for his regime. “In the marketed image of Qatar, all Qataris accept being ruled by the Emir, and always have done. In the idealized vision of Qatar, the image projected to the outside world, there is no politicking, there are not always even clear positions on international affairs, except a position defined by security, development and prosperity… Yet this idealized narrative obscures a more complicated and interesting history, a history that lies just beneath the five-star hotels, international news channels and premium airport lounges. Qataris themselves have not forgotten this history,” noted Qatar scholar Allen J. Fromherz.
Just the beginning
However the Gulf crisis ends, Qatar’s revolutionizing the Middle East and North Africa’s media landscape with the 1996 launch of Al Jazeera speaks to the ability of small states to shape their environment. The television network’s free-wheeling reporting and debates that provided a platform for long suppressed voices, shattered taboos in a world of staid, state-run broadcasting characterized by endless coverage of the ruler’s every move. Al Jazeera, despite its adherence to the Qatari maxim of change for everyone but Qatar itself by exempting the Gulf state from its hard-hitting coverage, forced irreversible change of the region’s media landscape in advance of the advent of social media.
Qatar’s brash and provocative embrace of change as opposed to the UAE’s subtler projection of power that shies away from openly challenging the powers that be, may be too risky an approach for small states to emulate. What is clear, however, is that the ability of small states to chart their own course is at the end of the day a function of vision, policy objectives, assets small states can leverage, ability to network, appetite for risk, and the temperament of their leaders. Qatar and the UAE represent two very different approaches that offer lessons but are unlikely to serve as models. In the final analysis, both Qatar and the UAE may pull off punching far above their weight even if they fail in achieving all their objectives. It comes however at a price paid in part by others that ultimately may come to haunt them.
Already, the long-standing media war between the UAE and Qatar in which allegations of support of terrorism bounce back and forth, has prompted victims of 9/11 to consider naming the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia as a defendant in a host of law suits. Court documents filed in New York alleged that Dubai Islamic Bank “knowingly and purposefully provided financial services and other forms of material support to al Qaeda … including the transfer of financial resources to al Qaeda operatives who participated in the planning and execution of the September 11th attacks.” That could be just the beginning.
Iran and Sudan’s Rapprochement in 2023: New Changes in the Regional Geopolitics of the Middle East
The Middle East is a strategic region that connects Asia, Africa, and Europe and has significant natural resources, especially oil and gas. The Middle East is also a source of various conflicts and crises that pose threats to regional and global peace. The change in Middle East politics can shape the social and political transformations of the people and societies in the region, as well as their relations with other regions. With that, Iran and Sudan’s rapprochement has brought a new dynamic into the politics of the Middle East.
Iran and Sudan have been allies since the 1989 coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power, but their relations have been strained by the political and economic crisis in Sudan, the US sanctions on both countries and the regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The rapprochement between Iran and Sudan in 2023 adds a new dimension to the regional geopolitics of the Middle East. It has strengthened Iran in the region, as it gained Sudan as a strategic ally and a potential gateway to Africa.
Currently in Sudan, the civil war erupted in April 2023 after a failed coup attempt by a faction of the military against the transitional government that replaced al-Bashir in 2019. The instability and conflict in both countries have affected their domestic and foreign policies. Iran has been facing internal challenges, such as protests, corruption, inflation, and environmental crises. Iran has also been involved in regional conflicts, such as the war in Yemen, the civil war in Syria, the tensions with Israel, and the nuclear standoff with the US. Sudan has been undergoing a political transition since the ouster of Omar al-Bashir in 2019, but the process has been disrupted by a military coup in October 2021. Sudan has also been dealing with humanitarian crises, such as food insecurity, displacement, and violence in Darfur and other regions.
By restoring ties with Sudan, Iran can expand its economic and political influence, as well as its access to natural resources and markets. Sudan can also serve as a counterweight to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have been hostile to Iran and have supported the opposition forces in Sudan’s civil war. This has challenged the Saudi-led coalition in the region, which has been trying to contain Iran and its allies. Saudi Arabia and its partners, such as the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel, have formed a bloc to counter Iran’s regional ambitions and to promote their interests. The rapprochement between Iran and Sudan can undermine their efforts and create new security threats for them. For example, Sudan can provide Iran with access to the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which are vital for Saudi Arabia’s oil exports.
The change in the US outlook on the Middle East has reduced its involvement and influence in the region. The US has shifted its focus to other strategic priorities, such as countering China’s rise, addressing climate change, and dealing with domestic challenges. The US has also withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and reduced its military aid and arms sales to its allies in the region. The US has also adopted a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supporting a two-state solution and restoring aid to the Palestinians. The US has also resumed negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, which was abandoned by the previous administration. The change in the US policy has created more space for regional actors to pursue their interests and initiatives without external interference or pressure.
Iran’s interest in Sudan’s Red Sea coast is mainly driven by its strategic and economic objectives. Iran wants to strengthen its influence in the region. Iran has decided to send military support to the Sudanese army in 2023, following talks between the foreign ministers of Sudan and Iran in Baku in July. Iran wants to secure the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which are vital for its oil exports and maritime trade. Iran has been hosting its naval fleets in Port Sudan for decades, to the dismay of Saudi Arabia, which lies opposite Port Sudan on the other side of the waterway. Also, Iran wants to expand its economic and political ties with other African countries, especially with the involvement of China as a mediator. China’s role can help reduce tensions and violence in the region, as well as foster greater integration and cooperation.
The position that the rapprochement between Iran and Sudan has reduced the US leverage in the region, as it lost a key ally and a potential partner in Sudan. The US has been supporting the democratic transition in Sudan and has lifted some of the sanctions that were imposed on the country for its human rights violations and its support for terrorism. The US has also provided humanitarian and development assistance to Sudan, as well as diplomatic and military support to the transitional government. The US has hoped to use its influence in Sudan to advance its interests and values in the region, such as promoting peace and stability, countering extremism, and resolving the conflicts in South Sudan, Darfur, and Ethiopia. However, the rapprochement between Iran and Sudan can undermine these efforts and weaken the US position.
It has increased challenges for the US in the region, as it faces a more assertive and resilient Iran and its allies. Iran and Sudan have been subject to US sanctions for their alleged support for terrorism, human rights violations, and nuclear activities. The sanctions have hampered their trade and investment opportunities, as well as their ability to import essential goods and services. The US has been pursuing a dual-track policy of pressure and diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program and its regional activities. The US has imposed severe sanctions on Iran and its proxies, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis, and has supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian threats. The US has sought to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to curb influence in the region. However, the rapprochement between Iran and Sudan can complicate these objectives and increase the risks of confrontation.
From a regional perspective, Saudi Arabia and its partners, such as the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel, have formed a coalition to counter Iran’s regional ambitions and promote their interests. They have also intervened militarily in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya to support their proxies and allies. Saudi Arabia has also offered economic and military assistance to Sudan and other African countries, such as Djibouti and Somalia, in exchange for cutting ties with Iran. Previously, Sudan has been a major contributor to the Saudi-led coalition fighting against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015, but its participation has been controversial and costly for the Sudanese people.
The easing of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran has enabled Iran to restore ties with some of the Sunni-led Arab states that were previously aligned with Saudi Arabia against Iran, such as Sudan, Oman, Iraq, and Qatar. Also, it challenges the influence of UAE and Egypt in Sudan, which have been supporting the military-led transitional government since the ouster of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The UAE and Egypt have been wary of Iran’s presence in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, and have sought to limit its access to ports and trade routes in the region. The Sudan-Iran rapprochement could undermine their efforts and create more competition for resources and influence in Sudan.
In conclusion, the Middle East is an arena of competition and cooperation among various regional and external powers. So, the rapprochement between Sudan and Iran has brought change in Middle East politics can alter the balance of power and interests among these actors, and create new opportunities or challenges for dialogue and partnership.
Sisi and the “New Republic” model in Egypt
Egypt’s participation came through President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in the G20 meetings held in the Indian capital, New Delhi, over the course of September 9 and 10, 2023, as confirmation of what the new Egyptian Republic has achieved during the era of President “El-Sisi” at the Arab, regional and international levels, and what the new Egyptian Republic enjoys. From a pivotal and influential role in the region as a result of the vision and efforts of President “El-Sisi” in restoring Egypt to its position on the global stage. In addition to President Sisi’s vision of the new republic of Egypt in an attempt to re-integrate it to create balance with the new world order, and to emphasize its shift from unipolar control, to creating one world under the umbrella of “One Family… One Future”, India also chose a name and slogan for that summit. The reason for inviting Egypt to attend the G20 summit in India comes as a result of its status among the major countries organizing the summit, as the summit includes the largest international economic and political bloc, accounting for 85% of the global economic output and 75% of the volume of global trade. The observation worth noting remains that the differences between the major powers around the world, such as the United States of America, China and Russia, have been reflected in each party’s attempt to find new allies, by deepening the concept of a multi-power system, by creating a stronger world based on increasing the involvement of developing countries in the global economic processes, such as welcoming Egypt, the Emirates, and Ethiopia to join the BRICS economic group earlier at the G20 summit in India, in an effort to win the favor of many international parties from African and developing countries to reduce the financing gap and restructure debts that limit countries’ abilities to grow, and thus gain new allies from before. Various international powers. This was reflected in the agenda of the Egyptian leadership of President El-Sisi through understanding the mechanisms of this competition between China and the United States of America in neutralizing differences and diversifying Egypt’s economic relations with various international partners.
During his participation in the G20 summit in India, President El-Sisi is trying to present (the features of the new Egyptian Republic), which were reflected in the transformation of Egypt into a leading global commercial, logistical and industrial center, thanks to the national projects that were established in the new Egyptian Republic, whether in infrastructure and ports, in addition to establishing 17 industrial cities that include thousands of new factories, in addition to encouraging the establishment of factories to provide production requirements and raw materials in the new Egyptian Republic. Building the new republic during the era of President Sisi and promoting its most prominent features and projects confirms that Egypt is at the heart of the map of international and regional interactions, presents visions and approaches to Egypt’s economic dealings around the world at this time, and creates a kind of balance for Egypt in its relations around the world. In addition to marketing the national economy in Egypt, and confirming the merit of the political transformation in the new Egyptian Republic, in addition to reserving a role for Egypt in the economic partnerships and international blocs that are now being formed, such as Egypt’s joining of the world’s leading BRICS group of countries immediately before the G20 summit in India.
The conditions for holding the G20 summit internationally at the present time come in the midst of the Russian military operation in Ukraine and its effects on the shape of the international system and the Middle East, where the global order is being restructured again, as well as the architecture of the Middle East again, and it is in the interest of Egypt and the major G20 economic countries, to not be far from all these developments, and to restructure their relations in a way that allows them to benefit from all these developments. In light of these variables, the importance of President Sisi’s participation to discuss the mechanism and ways of providing effective support from the G20 countries to developing countries to achieve sustainable development goals, to confront the negative repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian war on the economy, food, and energy, and what it led to many successive global crises. Also, in view of the multiple regional, continental and international roles that Egypt plays and the influential and major role it has now enjoyed with all parties, the features of the Egyptian project for modernization and development through which the new republic in Egypt, led by President “El-Sisi”, presents a model for comprehensive and sustainable development, as it adopts a multi-dimensional strategy.
If we analyze the final statement of the G20 Summit in India in the presence of President “El-Sisi”, we will see that it reflects the Egyptian agenda in the international action necessary to confront the challenges that the world is currently witnessing, whether on the security, military, political, economic and development levels, or the problems of hatred and discrimination and the importance of respecting the cultures and beliefs of peoples or anything related to confronting them. Climate problems. The statement also adopted the Egyptian point of view regarding Africa’s demands and the need to support the development efforts of its people. Knowing that the African Union has been accepted as a member of the G20, which is a major and notable qualitative development in the African march of advancement led by Egypt, under the leadership of President “El-Sisi”. This is if we focus on the speech of President “El-Sisi”, in his capacity as Chairman of the Steering Committee of Heads of State and Government of the “African Union Development Agency” (NEPAD), and his announcement of setting specific goals in consultation with African partners to support the countries of the continent, including enhancing continental economic integration, implementing the African development agenda and activating Continental Free Trade Agreement.
The note worth noting for me remains that President Sisi’s meetings during the G20 summit were not limited only to the leaders of the participating countries, but rather extended to the heads and representatives of international organizations and groups on various continents and those responsible for them, the most prominent of which is President Sisi’s participation in the African-European Summit. The mini conference, which was held on the sidelines of the G20 summit. The most important agenda put forward at the top of President Sisi’s agenda, during his participation in the summit of the Group of Twenty major economic countries, was the emphasis on strengthening Egyptian and international efforts to facilitate the integration of developing countries into the global economy in an equal manner, against the backdrop of the mutual opportunities and advantages that this provides. It contributes to attracting investments and achieving economic growth and development for all parties. Also, in light of Egypt’s previous hosting of the “COP27” climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, President “El-Sisi” will be keen to determine the extent of developed countries’ commitment to their pledges within the framework of international agreements and mechanisms to confront climate change, and to enable developing countries to increase their reliance on new and renewable energy sources.
Accordingly, President “El-Sisi” was keen to present the features of the new Egyptian Republic during the G20 Summit in India, which was a source of great confidence from all international partners in the strength of the Egyptian economy. This is not the result of the moment, but the result of great economic work undertaken by Egypt since years during the era of President “El-Sisi”, and it reflected positively on the increase in foreign investment inside Egypt, and on the occurrence of many successes in the field of cooperation between Egypt and major international companies, especially with the strength of the Egyptian economic situation now, as a result of the reform measures taken by the new Egyptian Republic during the era of President “El-Sisi”. Therefore, during his participation with the permanent members of the G20 in the India Summit, President “El-Sisi” was keen on a pioneering plan aimed at enhancing trade between India, Egypt and various countries of the Middle East and Europe, as it will thus link the regions that represent about a third of the global economy, which represents the pinnacle of success for the New Republic of Egypt during the era of President “El-Sisi”.
The Surge in Saudi Arabia’s Tourism
Saudi Arabia, a land traditionally synonymous with oil and Hajj pilgrimages, is making headlines with its burgeoning tourism sector. Over a three-month period, the kingdom witnessed a staggering inflow of 7.8 million people, generating a revenue of $9.86 billion in the first quarter of this year. This unprecedented growth has not only stimulated the Saudi economy but has also thrown a spotlight on the country’s untapped potential in sectors beyond oil.
Saudi Arabia has long been a destination for religious tourism, particularly for the Muslim pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah. With the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina within its borders, the Kingdom has drawn millions of devout Muslims from around the world. This influx has inevitably contributed to the revenue stream, especially in sectors like hospitality, food, and travel.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, an ambitious blueprint for diversifying its economy, aims to reduce dependency on oil revenues and invest heavily in various sectors, including tourism. Spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Vision 2030 encompasses transformative projects like the Red Sea Resort and NEOM, a planned $500 billion megacity. These initiatives intend to open Saudi Arabia to international tourists, attracting a demographic that goes beyond religious pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia has gradually eased its travel restrictions and visa policies to make it more tourist friendly. The introduction of the e-visa system, in particular, has made it easier for travelers to visit the Kingdom.
The recent revenue of $9.86 billion from tourism serves as an immediate economic shot in the arm for Saudi Arabia. The numbers are impressive, especially when compared to other nations with robust tourism sectors. The surge in tourism directly translates into increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employment opportunities. The tourism sector has started to become a pivotal component of the Saudi economy, potentially contributing to a percentage rise in the annual GDP. The massive inflow of tourists is also expected to generate job opportunities, especially in hospitality, retail, and transport.
Saudi Arabia has recently been grappling with a fragile economic situation, exemplified by a current account deficit. The influx of tourism revenue significantly ameliorates this concern, facilitating a healthier balance of payments and boosting financial reserves. The robust earnings from tourism herald a new phase of financial diversification for Saudi Arabia. As the country reduces its dependency on oil revenues, a balanced economic portfolio incorporating tourism revenue minimizes vulnerability to global market fluctuations in the oil sector.
The surge in tourism is also a strong magnet for foreign investment. Investors are likely to see the economic uptick as a signal to invest in Saudi tourism and related sectors. Moreover, it opens doors for international collaborations and partnerships. Whether it’s in marketing strategies to promote tourism or technology transfer for sustainable practices, global partnerships are expected to enrich Saudi Arabia’s tourism landscape in multiple dimensions.
The tourism boom also brings a wave of cultural interchange. The conservative nation is now exposed to various global perspectives, which could be a step toward more progressive societal norms. However, this sudden rise in international exposure raises questions about the country’s cultural ethos. How will a traditionally conservative Saudi society balance its deeply rooted customs and religious norms with the more liberal attitudes of a diverse global tourist populace?
Saudi Arabia’s staggering earnings in a short period elevate it to the league of nations like the United Arab Emirates, which earned $44.4 billion in tourism. It is clear that Saudi Arabia has not only joined the tourism competition but has also managed to give some of the leading nations a run for their money.
Impact on Industries
The sheer number of tourists flocking to Saudi Arabia in such a short span undoubtedly places a considerable demand on the hospitality industry. Hotels, resorts, and other lodging options need to be ready to accommodate millions, which creates a positive ripple effect in related sectors like construction, interior design, and facility management. Moreover, there’s a corresponding need for improved public infrastructure, including roads, airports, and mass transit systems to cope with the influx of visitors.
As part of the country’s broader digital transformation goals, the Saudi government is looking at adopting smart city technologies not only for its futuristic NEOM project but also in existing cities to facilitate smooth tourism operations. This could mean the rise of app-based services that guide tourists, digital information kiosks, electronic payment gateways, and similar tech-savvy enhancements that modern travelers expect.
With a multicultural visitor base, the demand for a diverse range of food options is inevitable. This change is likely to fuel a boom in the food and beverage industry, perhaps even encouraging a more cosmopolitan culinary scene in Saudi Arabia, which is traditionally dominated by Middle Eastern cuisine.
Any surge in tourism comes with environmental ramifications, and Saudi Arabia is no exception. From pollution and waste management to natural resource consumption, the country needs to invest in sustainable practices to mitigate the environmental impact of its booming tourism sector.
Saudi Arabia is located in a geopolitically sensitive area, and thus security is a significant concern. The country will need to invest in both physical and cyber security measures to protect its visitors and its newfound economic interests.
Saudi Arabia’s astronomical rise in tourist numbers and the corresponding billions earned in revenue mark an unprecedented shift in the country’s economic and social landscape. It is a bellwether not just for Saudi Arabia but also for how countries can pivot their economies in the 21st century. The transformation from a mono-economy, dependent on fossil fuels, to a diversified portfolio that includes a burgeoning tourism sector, could serve as a model for other nations seeking to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing global marketplace.
The next ten years will be crucial for Saudi Arabia, not only to maintain this momentum but also to address the associated challenges effectively. If managed wisely, this sea change in Saudi tourism could be a cornerstone in the country’s long-term growth and stability, fundamentally altering its role and reputation in the global arena. With strategic planning, investment in sustainable practices, and a commitment to evolving without losing sight of its cultural heritage, Saudi Arabia is well on its way to defining a new future for itself and setting a precedent for the world to follow.
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