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The Gulf crisis: Small states battle it out

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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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.

Plausible deniability

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.

Obsessed

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.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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A glance at a world map reveals one great reason why the Middle East (ME) claims the attention of great power centres of the world.  A roughly rectangular area stretching from the Adriatic Sea, East to the black sea ,and south to the Indus River.   The ME is a joining point of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa and one of the most vital crossroads on the planet.   It is the cradle of world civilization and the birth place of the three monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.    Further, it is rich in oil, gas, and other commodities.   According to British Petroleum 2019 (BP) Statistical review of World Energy, the Middle East holds 836 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which constitutes 48% of world total.   In comparison to other regions of the world, it holds 3X the proven oil reserves of the U.S, Canada and Mexico combined, and 58X the proven oil reserves of Europe.   Likewise, the Middle East has the world’s largest proven reserves of Natural Gas (NG); standing at 38.3% of the world’s total, while the Common wealth of Independent States (CIS) holds the second largest reserves at 31.9%.

Historically, the strategic foundation for the U.S. involvement in the Middle East was shaped by several policy objectives reflecting both regional dynamics and U.S. interests.  These strategic interests centred primarily around protecting the reliable free flow of commodities and commercial activity through well known checkpoints in the Arabian Peninsula, especially the strait of Hormoz and Suez canal; supporting the security, stability, and prosperity of U.S. partners in the region, including the State of Israel; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering Jihadist movements, and terrorism.  Since 2011, geopolitical tensions, trade disputes, and changes in the international security landscape have tested the US-ME relationship, and have caused the strategic pillars of the U.S. Involvement in the region to undergo a state of transition, hastened by three major factors: 

First; In a speech by former Secretary of Defence James Mattes at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, January 19, 2018, he asserted” Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security”.  Further, according to President Obama’s June 2015 National Military Strategy and also President Trump’s January 2018 National Defence Strategy  (NDS), they both acknowledged that the shift in U.S. strategic direction is driven by a return to great power competition with China and Russia, underlined by a rising trend in strategic cooperation between two countries on many issues across many regions of the world, In fact; this strategic cooperation can be seen taking shape in the economic and military spheres.  For example, according to various press reports, in September of 2019, Chinese and Russian troops took part in joint military manoeuvres; dubbed, “Tsentr-2019” to strengthen their military readiness.  Further, direct trade between the two countries is increasing.  According to data from statista, trade between Russia and China reached a record level, exceeding $100 billion compared to previous years.  Likewise, China’s natural gas imports from Russia more than doubled in 2019 subsequent to operating the “Power of Siberia”  gas pipeline with a total initial capacity of 5 Billion Cubic meters (BCM) of gas, and a targeted capacity of 38 BCM by 2025, which constitutes 13% of China’s 2018 demand.  Equally important; China’s expanding major economic development project, the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative.  The BRI initiative is an ambitious plan to build an open and balanced regional economic architecture connecting dozens of countries in Asia, Eurasia, and Europe by constructing six international economic corridors and an extensive rail network linking China to Europe through a “new Eurasian Land Bridge”.  In the same way, the project aims to construct economic corridors linking China, Mongolia, and Russia; also, China to west, central, and South Asia. 

The evolving dynamics of economic corridors connecting all sub-regions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe, and Africa is consistent with the ideas of the Eurasianist Aleksandr  Dugin’s, and the ideas advanced in his book published in 1997 titled “Foundations of Geopolitics”, in which he calls for the realization of a Unified Economic Landscape called Greater Eurasia.  Greater Eurasia refers to countries that are on the territory of the Eurasian continent across Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  It consists of two regions of energy consumption (Europe & Asia Pacific) and three regions of energy production (Russia and Arctic & Caspian & Middle East) in between.  It includes 91 countries, which represents two-thirds of the world population, exports of goods and services and GDP.

These evolving and developing geographic and economic integration projects based on strategic cooperation between Russia and China create a geographic mass of countries across, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East that are increasingly interdependent, and their interests are more closely intertwined than ever before.  Consequently; shifting geopolitics in Greater Eurasia driving the strategic convergence in economic power between Russia and China is posing challenges to U.S. leadership in the region and the world.   These interactions between Russia and China in the military and economic spheres demonstrate a growing trend in strategic cooperation between the two countries and may be driven by an ideological denominator, where both countries view the U.S. as the “Glavny Protivnik”.

Second; according to the U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States became the world’s largest producer of petroleum hydrocarbons and the largest producer of oil with a total production capacity of 12.7 million barrels of oil per day as of March 2020, surpassing the daily production capacity of both Russia and Saudi-Arabia.  In the same manner; according to BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy report, the U.S. is still the world leader when it comes to natural gas production, averaging approximately 920 billion cubic meters of gas in 2019, followed by Russia, Iran, and Qatar.  As a result, the United States is undergoing an oil and natural gas production renaissance that will likely continue to change the global energy landscape, and lead to wide-ranging regional and global geopolitical implications.   The Age of Abundance for the U.S is driving the change in relations with regional allies, which, in part, will be redefined based on relations that are built around competition in the global gas market, and the supply of cleaner energy sources, especially, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

Third; according to the CIA’s Global Threats Report  2019.  The ME region is highly vulnerable to changes in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, and floods, and that combined with Poor Governance – leads to increased food and water insecurity.    As a result, it is very likely that there will be an increased risk of social unrest, migration and tension between regional State, and non-State actors.

It stands to reason that the U.S. views the strategic benefits derived from maintaining the  historical strategic pillars, and policy objectives in the ME vis-à-vis the strategic risks associated with such policy as costly and no longer viable because of the greater strategic threats posed by both Russia’s aggression towards its neighbours in Europe in consequence of Russia’s own economic, political, and social agenda, which opposes the international liberal order promoted, and protected by the U.S. since the second world war., and China’s expanding financial and economic influence, and strategic cooperation with Russia in multiple domains to amass political and strategic advantage through improved economic and energy connectivity projects in Europe, Eurasia, Middle East, and Asia pacific.  Therefore; U.S vital strategic interests lay elsewhere and the U.S. views Russia and China as a greater strategic risk than Iran and Al-Qaeda, and that requires the U.S. to “do less” in the Middle East.  In consequence, from U.S perspective the Middle East region is no longer a priority for the United States.  

The strategic implications of the ongoing U.S. long goodbye to the M.E. region over the past decade have shifted the regional geopolitical environment and caused the formation of a power vacuum where state and non-state actors competing in a multi-level and proxy executed competition to gain diplomatic, economic, and strategic advantage.  As a result, three regional spheres of influence emerged vying for control and power in the region, including the conservative wing, comprising Saudi Arabia (GCC, less Qatar), Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. The anti-American wing includes Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.  Lastly the Islamist wing includes Turkey, and Qatar.  Add to this complex geopolitical landscape, Russian and Chinese inroads through military, economic, and weapons sales to regional actors to increase their regional influence.  In fact; in recent years, Moscow has strengthened its military foothold in Syria and secured access to military bases on the Mediterranean Sea, in order to expand its regional political, military, and economic influence.  Moscow’s regional engagement has solidified since 2015 Russian intervention in Syria.  Moreover, Russia’s expanding military exercises and weapons sales with Egypt selling 2$ billion worth of aircrafts to Cairo.  Further, Moscow support and expanded ties with Khalifa Haftar in Libya,  talks to sell S-400 Missile Defence System to Qatar, cooperation with Saudi Arabia to stabilize global oil markets, and strengthening relations with Israel and Iran are clear indications of Moscow’s increasing influence in the Middle East region.

In the same way, China’s strategic cooperation with Middle Eastern countries is on the rise.  For instance, the region is China’s No.1 source of imported petroleum products.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over 50% of Chinese Oil imports come from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq, and Iran, with Saudi Arabia providing 16% of Oil imports.  Further; Qatar, is the one of largest LNG suppliers to China.  Moreover, In July 2018, China and the UAE announced an upgrade to their 2012 strategic partnership to a “comprehensive Strategic Partnership”- China’s highest level of diplomatic relations, outlining cooperation in wide range of fields such as politics, economics, trade, technology, energy, renewable energy, and security.   Likewise, In Egypt, in September 2018 President Sisi visited Beijing and signed 18$ billion worth of deals with China including projects covering rail, real estate, and energy.  Again, Chinese construction firms are heavily engaged in constructing Egypt’s new administrative capital outside of Cairo and developing the Red Sea port and industrial zone.  Likewise, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt are important to China’s expanding BRI initiative.   The majority of Chinese trade with Europe passes through the Suez Canal, and China is expanding the cooperative zone around the canal by expanding the port and shipping facilities.   Finally, Jordan joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, and Israel high speed rail project with China that will connect Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean to Eilat on the Red Sea.  Clearly, the multitude of Chinese driven infrastructure projects in the region are an indication that countries in the Middle East are welcoming China’s economic investments, and if history is a gauge of future developments, then it is reasonable to conclude that China is likely to increase its political engagement and expand its military presence in the region to protect and secure its economic interest.

In 2017, during a visit by president Trump to Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh declaration was announced.  The declaration is a U.S. proposal for a multilateral regional arrangement between Gulf Cooperation Council nations (GCC), including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Jordan and Egypt, dubbed the Middle East Strategic alliance (MESA).  The proposal centres on the idea of a regional system with shared security, economic, and political architecture.   According to data from the World Bank Development Indicators (WBDI) (2018), the MESA boasts a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion and represents a market of 175 million consumers.  The proposal joins an increasing number of regional alliances that exist across the globe, such as the three seas initiative (3SI), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), among others.  Since its announcement, an ongoing dispute among the competing, regional spheres of influence, due to differences in their respective interests, capabilities, and threat perceptions has caused little progress in the future trajectory of this multilateral arrangement.

Finally, the reality is that the U.S. should not fully extricate itself from the region due to the U.S. great power competition with China and Russia, which the Trump Administration has placed at the centre of its national security strategy.   Instead, the U.S. should invest in its regional network of allies and partners to work together to maximize their strengths and address common challenges that are vital to U.S. national security and geopolitical stability.  The U.S. should push for and hasten the strategic convergence of the MESA member States by promoting deeper coordination and interaction among participants through multilateral cooperation in the economic, political, security, and energy spheres by calling to build the tools and the governing institutions to govern MESA operations and decision making such as a Middle East Strategic Alliance Council with prime ministers as members, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Economic Commission to manage the organizations day to day decision making activity, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Court system, tasked with managing disputes among member States, and a Middle East Strategic Alliance development bank and stabilization fund to support and drive integration efforts through regional lending and investment programs to boost, along an East-West axis, cross-border economic development, energy, water, transportation, and digital infrastructure connectivity projects.

As noted above, the U.S. should reposition itself at the helm of key Middle East dynamics, while simultaneously working with regional partners to balance Russian and Chinese inroads and expanding patterns of influence in the region.  Else, a lack of a clear, unified strategy for the Middle East, will perpetuate the current Hobbesian state of a bellum omnium contra omnes, which renders the whole Middle East system in a quantum state of neither at peace, nor at war, but, entangled in a super position of both states simultaneously; waiting for an observer; to implement the wrong policy option, resulting in the collapse of the state function; into a wilderness of tempestuous combustion; likely, paving the way, to the last age of Pax Americana.

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Middle East

Economic Crisis Does Little to Dampen Mohammed bin Salman’s Pricey Ambitions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan announced austerity measures in May, including an $8 billion USD cut back on spending on Vision 2030 — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plan to restructure the Saudi economy — economists and pundits assumed that was the death knell for trophy projects like NEOM, a $500 billion USD plan for a futuristic mega smart city on the Red Sea.

Economists and pundits may want to think again.

Plagued by questions about the project’s strategic value at a time when the kingdom is struggling with the economic fallout of a pandemic, the impact of an oil price rout, and controversy over the killing of a tribal leader who resisted displacement, NEOM last week sought to counter the criticism by hiring a US public relations and lobbying firm.

NEOM’s $1.7 million USD contract with Ruder Finn – a PR company with offices in the US, Britain, and Asia – was concluded as the kingdom sought to salvage another trophy project, the acquisition of English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United, beset by accusations that the Saudi government had enabled TV broadcasting piracy in its rift with fellow Gulf state Qatar.

The controversy proved to be a lesson in the reputational risk involved in high-profile acquisitions. Piracy was not the only thing complicating the acquisition of Newcastle. So was Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as a result of mass arrests of activists and critics and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

With the publication of a damning report by the World Trade Organization (WTO), Saudi Arabia moved quickly to counter the criticism by removing boxes of BeoutQ, an operation that pirated sports broadcasts legally contracted by BeIN, the sports franchise of state-owned Qatari television network Al Jazeera. BeoutQ broadcasts were carried by Saudi-based Arabsat.

BeoutQ was taking advantage of the banning of BeIN in the kingdom as part of the three-year-old Saudi-UAE diplomatic and economic boycott of fellow Gulf state Qatar. Saudi sports cafes began broadcasting BeIN for the first time immediately after release of the WTO report.

Like the Saudi response to the WTO, NEOM’s contract with Ruder Finn seems to be an effort to repair reputational damage.

Ruder Finn’s mandate appears designed to counter the fallout of the killing in April of Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti, whom the government labelled a terrorist, and to project NEOM as a socially responsible corporation bent on engagement with its local community.

Taking issue with the suggestion that NEOM was in damage limitation mode, Ali Shihabi, a political analyst, former banker, and member of NEOM’s advisory board who often reflects Saudi thinking, argued in a series of tweets that project NEOM was about much more than refuting negative media reporting.

“There is much more substance to NEOM than ‘flashy projects.’ NEOM will be heavily involved in serious projects like advanced desalination, innovative desert agriculture and more use of solar and wind energy, etc. that are very relevant to the country and the region’s urgent needs. These have been very well planned/researched and some are already being executed,” Mr. Shihabi wrote, admitting that the company behind the project had yet to detail its plans.

Mr. Shihabi’s claims were seconded by Ruder Finn in its filing to the US Department of Justice as a foreign agent.

“NEOM is a bold and audacious dream,” Ruder Finn said. “It’s an attempt to do something that’s never been done before and it comes at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions.”

Ruder Finn’s contract was announced after NEOM said that it was taking multiple steps to demonstrate that it was being “socially responsible and [would] deliver . . . impactful, sustainable and committed initiatives.”

In lieu of Mr. Shihabi’s anticipated detailing of NEOM’s grandiose plans, Ruder Finn’s filing to the Department of Justice as a foreign agent, as well as NEOM’s announcements, seemed less geared toward projecting the futuristic city’s economic and environmental contribution and more towards repairing damage caused by the dispute with local tribesmen and the killing of Mr. Al-Huwaiti.

Mr. Al-Huwaiti, a leader of protests against alleged forced evictions and vague promises of compensation, was reportedly killed in a gun fight with security forces.

Mr. Al-Huwaiti predicted that he would be either detained or killed in a video posted on YouTube hours before his death. In the video, he claimed that whatever happened to him would be designed to break the resistance of his Huwaitat tribe to their displacement.

He denounced Prince Mohammed’s leadership as “rule by children” and described the kingdom’s religious establishment that has endorsed the Crown Prince’s policies as “silent cowards.”

An estimated 20,000 people are expected to be moved out of an area that Prince Mohammed once said had “no one there.”

NEOM declared earlier this week that it would be offering English-language lessons at its recently established academy and that some 1,000 students would be trained in tourism, hospitality, and cybersecurity.

At the same time, the government said that eligible Saudis would be compensated for loss of land with plots along the coast as part of a program to improve standards of living.

Online news service Foreign Lobby Report reported that Ruder Finn would produce informational materials, including a monthly video to promote NEOM’s engagement with the local community as well as visual materials highlighting the company’s fulfillment of its social responsibility.

Ruder Finn’s efforts were likely to do little to convince the kingdom’s critics.

Writing in Foreign Policy in April, Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s former Middle East and North Africa Director, and Abdullah AlAoudh, a Saudi legal scholar, dismissed NEOM’s grand ambitions. Mr. AlAoudh’s father Shaykh Salman Al-Odah, a prominent reformist religious scholar, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 2017 for advocating an end to the rift with Qatar.

“Whether the NEOM project is even remotely viable, given the global financial collapse because of the coronavirus and rising Saudi debt amid historically low oil prices, is highly doubtful,” Ms. Whitson and Mr. AlAoudh said. “The only result we’ve seen from this vision for a futuristic city is the promised destruction of a historic community and the death of a Saudi protester, using archaic means with no room for modern notions of rights and justice.”

Author’s note: An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Middle East

Netanyahu’s plan to annex West Bank: Old and new problems

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced plans to establish as of July 1 Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and over some areas of Judaea and Samaria, also known as parts of the West Bank and the River Jordan, which fell under the  control of Israel as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. At present, about half a million Israelis reside in these areas. However, most countries, citing international law, consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal on the grounds that they pose an obstacle to clinching peace with Palestinians.

The announcement of the Israeli leader had nothing sensational about it. Israel’s policy, aimed at de facto annexing Palestinian territories and at legal acts regarding Israeli communities in the West Bank, undergoes no substantial changes. But this time, the issue under consideration is the legitimization, the establishment of the legal status of these territories as Israeli.

Ideas of this kind are constantly circulating within the ranks of the country’s right-wing politicians. Moreover, being a staunch Zionism maximalist and after 15 years in power, in the course of which he frequently enjoyed a parliamentary majority,  Benjamin Netanyahu could have easily secured this status. However, political caution and pragmatism held him back. That’s why the question is why these plans have acquired a clear-cut shape now, with even a date set for the start of the process.

There seem to be many reasons for this. Naturally, some are personal. At the peak of success, in connection with the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and Washington’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty of the Golan Heights, and also, following a triumphant recovery from the long-running government crisis, Benjamin Netanyahu is set on strengthening his positions, on winning the support of a maximum number of Israelis, particularly in the light of recent events, after his case went to court.[1]

But the main reason is overall support of Israel from the Trump administration. Never before were relations between Washington and Jerusalem that close.

Undoubtedly, what triggered the process was the ambitious and difficult-to-implement draft agreement proposed by US President Donald Trump to secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which, in the opinion of the White House, guarantees a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and puts an end to the more than 70 – year conflict in the Middle East.  The 180-page document stipulates that Israel maintains its sovereignty over the territory of the Jordan Valley, Judea and Samaria. In addition, Washington insists that Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands should be recognized as territory of Israel. That is, all Jewish settlements will remain in their places, including 15 remote settlements which are in no way connected to territories that will be handed over to Israel.

It’s no secret that the draft was developed by Trump’s officials within the framework of consultations with Israelis. The document, presented by Trump on January 28, 2020, was dubbed “the deal of the century”. After the presentation, Israeli and American teams got down to work to make maps of West Bank areas which Israel could annex first under the plan. Although, the American and Israeli positions do not always coincide.

Yet, the coming on the scene of the “deal of the century” and the Netanyahu plan are no accident. Times are changing.

Firstly, after a months-long political crisis in Israel a coalition government has been formed which will be run by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for 18 months, and the remaining 18 months after November 17, 2021 (if nothing extraordinary happens) until the next elections – by Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz. Thus, the political instability at home has been neutralized.

The coalition agreement which has been achieved in Israel hinges on a document signed by Netanyahu and Gantz on behalf of their parties Likud and Kahol Lavan. This document regulates division of power, the functioning of the new government, and a detailed procedure of decision-making with the right of veto. One important reservation is that expansion of Israeli sovereignty (or annexation) can be proclaimed by Netanyahu and his party without the consent of Gantz, and accordingly, his party. This is the only political area which has such a reservation which abolishes veto.

What speaks of Netanyahu’s “resoluteness” is a changed role of Israel in regional and global affairs. Having integrated into the global economy, Israel, without any exaggeration, has achieved a lot, both technologically, and in terms of security potential. This was backed by progress in the demographic sphere (which is important for Israel), and in the economy. In 2000 the population of Israel was a little over 6 million, in April 2020 – 9,2 million. (At the time of the declaration of independence in 1948 Israel was home to 872 700). In 2000 per capita GDP totaled $ 21038, by 2020 it increased to $ 42823.

The hefty reserves of natural gas which were discovered on Israel’s Mediterranean coast in 2010 and which are already being developed form a foundation of the country’s energy independence and enable it to become a gas exporting country. All this contributes to Netanyahu’s confidence.

Israel’s position in the Middle East is changing as well. The Arab neighbors have become less adverse to it. Gulf monarchies, along with other Arab nations are getting closer and closer to Israel in their confrontation with Iran. Europe, preoccupied with migrant-related problems, is  less critical of Israel and  less protective of Palestinians. Meanwhile, Palestinian political institutes, just like Palestinian leaders, are split between the West Bank and Gaza, which makes them weaker politically.

On the whole, the Palestinian issue appears to be tiring for many actors in the  Middle East.

Therefore, a combination of positive factors, both subjective and objective, has set the stage for the  appearance of Trump’s “deal of the century” and led to the present announcement of the Israeli prime minister. 

US and Israeli leaders are in a hurry: November 3, 2020 – the day of the presidential elections in America – may become critical for the far-reaching plans of the parties concerned.

It needs to acknowledge, however, that if put into effect, the Netanyahu plan is fraught with severe consequences for Israel proper, and for the rest of the Middle East.

Undoubtedly, the initiative voiced by Prime Minister Netanyahu will prove explosive for the current political situation in the country, which is complicated enough without it. Protests are already rolling through Israel against the expansion of sovereignty to the West Bank. Even Netanyahu’s supporters are fully aware that the risks in the Netanyahu-proposed strategic game are extremely high. A great deal is put on stake: human lives, security, economy, the country’s international image. That is why voices against the plan are heard ever more frequently, demanding that the date of the start of the sovereignty declaration procedure be postponed.

Moreover, on June 9 the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice passed a ruling that could come crucial for the country and for the Israeli-Palestinian settlement process. The Court abolished a law under which Jewish settlements in the West Bank which were built on Palestinian territories illegally, can be legalized.

The Netanyahu plan boosts the risk of a new intifada, new terrorist attacks from radical Islamists. Naturally, Palestinians are highly adverse to the move. Deputy chief of the JAMAS “political bureau” Saleh Aruri has made it clear that a return of “armed confrontation” to the West Bank has become a possibility, “more probable   than some could imagine”.

A political storm at home will have a negative effect on Israeli economy and will undermine its defense potential, its power to confront JAMAS, Hezbollah and their ally – the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Tehran will get a good stimulus for activating anti-Israeli propaganda, for convincing its Arab neighbors of Israel’s wickedness, for expanding financial and military support of Palestinians in their struggle for a Palestinian state, for initiating a new phase of the hybrid war against the Jewish state.

The fledgling Israel-friendly architecture for the Middle East, which envisages a certain normalization of relations with Arab opponents, may crumble in a flicker of an eye.

Without doubt, Arabs will condemn the Netanyahu plan, though it may happen that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states, having joined the anti-Israeli chorus, will not risk jeopardizing cooperation with it.

Europe, which is a major trade partner of Israel, is against the Netanyahu plan. Israel is closely integrated with European cooperation programs, including in education, scientific research and innovations, which yield considerable mutual benefits. All this may now be put under threat. The position of the European Union on annexation is clear and consistent: the EU «does not recognize any changes of the 1967 borders, unless they are acknowledged by Israelis and Palestinians». The EU urges Israel to refrain from annexation.

China and Russia will adhere to their present positions, based on the resolutions of the UN Security Council and international law. Moscow and Beijing, while defending their views, will strive to prevent a deterioration of bilateral relations with Israel.

The Russian position on the Netanyahu plan was spelled out by Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov, who said that implementation of intentions to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank seemed a very dangerous scenario. Annexation of Palestinian territories by Israel will cross out prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement and trigger a new upsurge of violence.

The ambassador reiterated a position in favor of a two-state solution on the basis of a commonly recognized international framework. He pointed out the need to secure an early resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians under the patronage of the United Nations in order to negotiate a final status and achieve a comprehensive peace settlement on the basis of UN resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.

Earlier (on May 20) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on the phone  with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, confirmed Russia’s readiness in tandem with other members of the Middle East Quartet (Russia, the USA, the EU, the UN) to contribute to the reset of a peace process by means of a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.

The Palestinian-Israeli problem is clearly a knotty issue which has been a point of unsuccessful talks for more than 70 years. It penetrates the political, diplomatic and military space of the Middle East, affecting the situation in different parts of the region. The putting into effect of the Netanyahu plan on expanding the Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and parts of Judea and Samaria, coupled with Trump’ “deal of the century”, will surely cause an explosive reaction worldwide, in Israel proper, and throughout the Middle East.

It looks like the only positive thing about Netanyahu’s and Trump’s controversial and dangerous plans is that these projects have yet again attracted the attention of the world community to the Palestinian problem, an acute issue of our day. But July 1 is just round the corner! 

[1] Reference: On May 24 the first session of the Jerusalem District Court got under way to consider three cases which were filed against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is the first time in Israel’s history when an incumbent prime minister is officially accused of criminal wrongdoing. 

The first inquiry against the prime minister was held in 1999-2000. Back then, the police sued him on five charges – bribery, an attempt to embezzle state property, fraud, abuse of office and attempts to impede the inquiry. However, all lawsuits were closed before reaching court for lack of evidence.

The year 2016 saw a new inquiry which was conducted within the framework of three separate cases known in the press as «Case 1000», «Case 2000» and «Case 4000». On the basis of these cases the Israeli Prosecutor-General Avichai Mandelblit issued official charges against Netanyahu on November 21st, 2019. On  «Case 1000» and «Case 2000» the prime minister is charged with fraud and abuse of trust (Article 284 of the Criminal Code provides for a three-year imprisonment), on «Case 4000» he is charged with fraud, abuse of trust and bribery (Article 290 of the Criminal Code, up to 10 years in prison). On January 28, 2020 all cases were transferred to the Jerusalem District Court.

Benjamin Netanyahu denies all charges saying that all the cases against him have been fabricated for the purpose of removing right wingers from power.

From our partner International Affairs

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