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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

Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?

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In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.

In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.

Tensions for decades

Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.

With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.

Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.

But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.

What happened?

Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.

It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.

The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.

In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!

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