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David and Goliath: How Qatar took on the world…and nearly won

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To say that the Middle East is a region of instability would be an understatement. The ongoing violence in Syria & Iraq receives heavy international news coverage. Now though, it seems it’s perpetuated up through to the highest levels of diplomacy.

Four months ago, a coalition of Arab nations abruptly cut off all diplomatic ties with Qatar. Qatar is famous for being the world’s richest country per capita. Among the various allegations were that Qatar is funding terrorism. Having an amicable relationship with Iran seems to only make things worse.

The coalition includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The coalition has called for the shutdown of Al Jazeera. A preposterous claim, as Al Jazeera is widely considered the only true bastion of free press in the region. The Qatari foreign minister likened this ludicrous demand to if China were to call for the UK to shut down BBC.

Currently, no evidence has surfaced to back up these claims. On the contrary, Qatar has insisted, that along with the US, it has fought tirelessly in the War On Terror. It would make sense too, seeing as the US military has a middle east headquarters at the Qatari Al Udeid Airbase.

Despite global media coverage, it seems that most of the world has viewed this as a mere family fall. Of course, with the hope that it’s all a misunderstanding that will end up in hug and make up.

Sadly, far from just being a small regional squabble, the ramifications are proving to be more serious. The fall out is threatening to disturb decades of global diplomatic progress.

Last week in Paris, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held an election to appoint its new leader.

UNESCO is headquartered in Paris and was set up as the intellectual agency of the UN in post-war 1945. The agency is tasked with promoting peace, social justice, human rights and international security. It strives for international cooperation on educational, science and cultural programs.

UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program. Its true aim though is to promote and maintain peace through inter-cultural understanding.

After more than a year of campaigning, 8 candidates from various nations competed for the votes of the Executive Board.

Among the candidates were Qian Tang of China, Audrey Azoulay of France, Moushira Khattab of Egypt and Hamad Al-Kawari of Qatar.

This election was of prime importance. UNESCO has been crippled by funding issues and politicization. In 2009, the United States withdrew their funding contribution, a third of UNESCO’s total budget. This was in response to UNESCO choosing to recognize Palestine as a member state.

This election was widely referred to as the ‘Arab election’. Uniquely, 4 of the 8 candidates in contention were from the Arab world. Up until now, no leader of UNESCO has come from the Arab world. Many diplomats around the world and those in the media have said it’s their time.

The electoral process begun on the 9th of October and consisted of several rounds of voting. Executive Board members voted for their preferred candidates. Each round sought to result in a candidate with a majority (30) of the 58 total votes.

After the first round of voting, Hamad Al-Kawari of Qatar emerged as the frontrunner.

Al-Kawari, a seasoned diplomat has decades of experience as ambassador to various nations, including France and the US. Having previously, served as the Minister of Culture for his country, Al-Kawari was clearly the favorite.

Disappointingly for China, Tang didn’t win more than 5 votes and pulled out from the contest in the 3rd round. This was despite Tang currently being UNESCO’s Assistant-Director-General for Education. Clearly, having the support of a sole superpower was not enough.

Trailing behind Qatar were France and Egypt. Egypt’s candidate, Khattab, had received much criticism in the run up to the election. Her backers, the oppressive El-Sisi regime, are under intense scrutiny itself for a litany of human rights abuses. Among those are the jailing of journalists and political opponents and censorship. Many NGOs and media outlets warned that if elected, Khattab would only be a mouthpiece of Egypt’s dictator, el-Sisi.

Egypt’s image has deteriorated rapidly in the past several months, with several experts calling for the US to limit its relations with it.

After four rounds of voting, Al-Kawari continued to lead from the front. In contention for second place was Egypt and the French candidate, Audrey Azoulay.

Azoulay’s candidature was announced at the last minute, the day before the deadline, the 15th of March of this year. This was widely speculated as a last minute foreign policy push by President Hollande prior to his departure.

Azoulay, just 45-years, old briefly served as Culture Minister for France. Daughter of Andre Azoulay, adviser to Morocco’s King Mohamed VI, she has no diplomatic experience.

A French candidate for the leader of a UN agency is generally seen as a ‘safe’ vote. Out of the 10 Director-Generals that have lead UNESCO in the past, 7 of those have been from Europe or the US. A French leader would seem to be the default with its headquarters being in Paris.

For the fifth and final round of voting, the top two candidates from the previous day would compete. However, Azoulay and Khattab were tied for second. Votes were first taken to decide who would go against Al-Kawari.

France’s Azoulay prevailed and thus the world waited for the final round of voting against Qatar.

The Arab, anti-Qatar coalition had lost their preferred candidate, Khattab. Despite Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE not having a seat on the Executive Board, their influence no doubt is substantial.

They could have embraced the fact that with Al-Kawari, the arab world could, for the first time, have one of their own at the head of UNESCO. Or they could choose to act spitefully and undermine his efforts. Unfortunately, they chose the latter. The Egyptian Foreign Minister of Egypt, Sameh Shoukry was rather explicit in this. He was seen openly finger prodding and berating the Ambassador Kenya to vote against Qatar. His words were “despite it being a blind vote, we’ll know who you voted for”.

To add to the drama, President Trump of the United States announced his plan to withdraw the country from UNESCO. Israel was to follow suit. Both countries have loudly accused UNESCO of anti-Israel bias in the past. Whether the thought of a Qatari Director-General was the last straw is only speculation. Perhaps, President Trump was simply in another insular, anti-diplomatic mood.

Al-Kawari was the first candidate to announce his campaign and had begun work almost 2 years ago. Considered the underdog from the beginning, Al-Kawari visited over 60 world leaders during that time. Each visit, he would seek to understand the needs of each nation so he could best serve them as head of UNESCO.

Entering the first round of voting, it was clear he was the underdog no more. Al-Kawari had already received the firm support of many around the world. Support came from nations as diverse as Sweden, Pakistan, South Africa and Guatemala. With such strong support from Latin America, Guatemala’s own candidate pulled out of the race in support of Qatar.

Despite it all, the fierce Arab lobby against Qatar tipped the balance. In the final round, Azoulay won the required majority of 30 votes. Al-Kawari was just 2 votes short, with 28.

The results pose key two questions:

  1. What if anything did, France or UNESCO gain from the appointment of Azoulay?

For France, not much. France already has formidable soft-power as a nation. It is considered by many to be the cultural capital of the world and is the country frequented most by tourists. It’s unlikely that the head of UNESCO being French will do much for it. In addition, France has significant issues with maintaining its own cultural institutions, the additional burden of UNESCO may eventually turn out to be a diplomatic failure for the French Government as many regions felt France had little or no right to even contest for the post due to the unofficial regional rotation of the UNESCO DG post.

For UNESCO? It doesn’t make a strong statement about its pursuit for diversity and understanding. This election was the perfect time to appoint an arab candidate. Instead of striving to depoliticize the agency, it allowed itself to be swayed by political infighting and the bullying of the United States.

An inexperienced candidate with no diplomatic experience will do little to add the stability the agency needs.

  1. Is Qatar the real winner here?

Qatar’s Al-Kawari began the race as an underdog, fought his way to the front of the pack and it required a regional crisis to defeat him. With the United States throwing a tantrum and choosing to leave the agency, would have Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain had followed suit?

Qatar through Al Kawari’s global campaign was able to gain significant support from the developing nations and small islands nations.  In a highly significant diplomatic bow to his candidature, Guatemala withdrew its candidate in favour of Qatar. The support from El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina and St. Kitts and Nevis  has created new bonds for Qatar and this indeed has given the small nation a stronger foreign policy advantage.

His campaign, director by Dentons strategist Richard Griffiths was hailed as a great success for Qatar by the international community as Hamad al Kawari visited every country on the 58 member executive board. This intensive campaigning gave Qatar and their candidate a strong foothold in regions such as Latin America, South Asia and East Africa.

Even if Al-Kawari had secured the extra 2 votes, would these countries have kicked their level of spite up a notch? It certainly is not out of the question. Rumours suggested that Al Kawari would never take office as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the blockade countries would spare no expense or political capital to block him from taking office. The UN general conference still would need to confirm him on Nov.10 in New York.

What remains is the fact that Qatar has shown that when it comes to the highest levels of diplomacy, it is a contender. Despite the regional squabbles, Qatar won the support of half of the world. Qatar may have lost the Director General of UNESCO post but they have gained in Al Kawari an internationally known Statesman with significant backing globally.

This support will not be forgotten by either side. Perhaps Qatar is just getting started, and the world has shown Qatar they can be a player globally.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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