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Transition in the Middle East: Transition to what?

Dr. James M. Dorsey



Transition is the name of the game in the Middle East and North Africa. The question is transition to what?

Dominating the answer is an Arab autocratic push for a Saudi-led regional order that would be based on an upgraded 21st century version of autocracy designed to fortify absolute rule. To achieve that autocrats have embraced economic reform accompanied by necessary social change that would allow them to efficiently deliver public goods and services. It is an approach that rejects recognition of basic freedoms and political rights and is likely to produce more open and inclusive political systems that ensure that all segments of society have a stake.

At the core of the volatile and often brutal and bloody battle that could take up to a quarter of a century to play out is the determination of Arab autocrats to guarantee their survival at whatever cost. Geopolitics play a major role in Arabic autocratic ambition. To compensate for their inherent weakness and lack of the building blocks needed for sustainable regional dominance, Arab autocrats except for Egypt, the one Arab state with the potential of being a dominant, long-term regional player, need to contain first and foremost Iran, and to a lesser degree Turkey.

It is a geopolitical struggle, dominated by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that has enveloped the Middle East and North Africa for almost four decades and progressively undermined regional stability; fuelled the rise of extremism and jihadism; encouraged supremacist, intolerant and anti-pluralistic tendencies far beyond its borders in countries like Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia; and turned it into the most volatile, repressive, and bloody part of the world.

Littered with the bodies of the dead and the dying, countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen have been scarred for generations to come and are struggling to ensure territorial integrity against potential secessionist ethnic, regional and religious challenges. Possible US-backed Saudi efforts to destabilize Iran with attempts to stir ethnic unrest risk the Islamic republic and Pakistan becoming the next victims. Countries such as Lebanon teeter on the brink.

Restive populations meanwhile hang in the balance, hoping that their continued surrender of political rights in new social contracts unilaterally drafted by autocratic leaders will bring them greater economic opportunity. In some countries like Egypt expectations have been dashed, in others such as Saudi Arabia expectations are unrealistic and poorly, if at all, managed.

The successful and brutal Saudi and UAE-led counterrevolution has killed hopes and popular energy that exploded onto the streets of the Arab cities during the revolts of 2011 and produced tyrants and mayhem. For now, it has all but erased popular will to risk challenging autocratic rule that has failed to deliver or that has created expectations that may prove difficult to meet.

That is not to say that like in the period prior to the 2011 revolts, popular anger and frustration is not simmering. Like in the walk-up to the uprisings, popular sentiment remains ignored or unrecognized by officials, scholars and pundits, who, if it explodes are likely to be caught by surprise. No one knows whether it will explode and, if so, in what form and what might spark an explosion.

It was the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia in late 2010 that set the Middle East and North Africa alight. While history may not repeat itself literally, events six years later in the Rif, a rebellious region of northern Morocco, sparked by the death of Mouchine Frikri, an unemployed street merchant, suggest the writing may be on the wall. 

Mr. Fikri was crushed to death in a trash compactor while trying to retrieve fish confiscated by the authorities. A year of protests since Mr. Fikri’s death suggests that the effectiveness of King Mohammed VI’s constitutional reforms in an initially successful bid to co-opt the demonstrators as well his support for the Rif’s indigenous Berber culture and promises of state investment that would turn the region into a manufacturing hub have either run their course or fallen short.

Nasser Zefzafi, a 39-year-old unemployed man with an understanding of the power of social media, has despite the government’s use of security forces, succeeded with online videos and fiery speeches denouncing corruption and dictatorship, to not only keep the protests alive but also encourage their intermittent spread to other parts of the country. The Moroccan capital of Rabat witnessed in June its largest anti-government protest since the 2011 revolts.

“Regimes have closed off channels for political expression, and responded to popular protests with increasing brutality. The governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and, to some extent, Morocco, epitomize Arab regimes’ seeming inability to escape the autocracy trap – even as current circumstances suggest that another popular awakening is imminent,” said Moroccan-born former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Mr. Ben-Ami’s timeline may be optimistic, but the underlying message remains valid. Regime survival-driven, government-controlled economic reform that seeks to ensure that private enterprise remains dependent on the public sector, limited social reforms, exclusionary rather than inclusionary policies, and rejection of political change may buy time, but ultimately will not do the trick.

Autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa are, for now, riding high buffeted by the ability to divert public attention with promises of economic change, the spectre of Iran as a foreign threat, US support for regional autocrats and containment of Iran, and the fuelling of ethnic and sectarian tension.

At best, that buys Arab autocrats time. The risk is festering and new wounds that are likely to come to haunt them. Four decades of global Saudi propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservativism to counter what initially was Iranian revolutionary zeal but later transformed into Iranian strategy in a long-standing covert war has turned Arab Shiites and their militias into potent political and military forces. The spectre of the Houthis organizing themselves on the border of Saudi Arabia on the model of Lebanon’s Hezbollah is but the latest example.

Autocratic self-preservation and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, coupled with disastrous US policies, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have wracked countries across the region and fostered a generation of Syrians and Yemenis that is likely to be consumed by anger and frustration with their human suffering and what is likely to be a slow rebuilding of their shattered countries, whose existence in their current form and borders is at best uncertain.

In short, transition, in the Middle East and North Africa has deteriorated into a battle for retention of political control. It constitutes a struggle for the future of a region that with near certainty will produce more conflict as well as black swans that could create even more havoc long before it yields sustainable solutions that ensure equitable economic development and transparent and accountable rule of law.

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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Middle East

The role of spin doctors in the Eastern Ghouta crisis



When it comes to war, it is exceedingly important to get all the facts straight: always remember there are—at least—two sides to every story and be careful to distinguish reality from propaganda.

Many words have been spoken about the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ghouta: the Damascus district, in fact, is paying the price of the umpteenth conflict between pro-Syrian government forces and rebels.

The protests against President Bashar al-Assad have been going on in the area since 2011 and the next year the rebel fighters managed to establish their control over the territory.

The initial tensions rapidly developed into a full-blown war that did not spared civilians—including a large percentage of children—from being a target.

In the last few weeks, a global campaign of solidarity—#IAmStillAlive—has been launched on social media platforms to support the children trapped in the rebel-held enclave, where there is almost no food left, nor medical supplies and humanitarian access has been completely cut off.

In this regard, it is necessary to remember that international aid convoys have been regularly delivered from the United Nations, the Syrian government, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Russia. It became known, anyway, that the supplies do not always reach civilians falling, instead, directly in the hands of the rebels.

But who are exactly the so-called “rebels”?

Numerous groups are active inside the besieged region and, despite being in opposition to each other, they stand together against the Syrian Arab Army.

Jaysh al-Islam represents the largest factionwith an estimated 10-15,000 members. Formerly allied with Al-Nusra Front—al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria— they conducted several deadly attacks, such as the infamous “Adra massacre”.

The Syrian Military claimed that in last December 2013 over 80 people were executed in the city of Adra and, during the following days, dozens of others were kidnapped and use as human shields.

Geopolitical analyst Patrick Henningsen believes that the foreign encouragement of rebel forces was to blame for that tragedy; in an interview with RT he goes even further, claiming that “there is involvement by the Western intelligence agencies that have links to some of those radical jihadist groups.

The Hay’-at Tharir al-Sham and the Faylaq al-Rahman—which is also affiliated to the Free Syrian Armyorganizations are linked to al-Qaeda and they are responsible for a huge amount of atrocities, including the heinous attack that took place on 16 December 2016 in the Al-Midan neighborhood in Damascus, when jihadi-father Abu Nimr al-Suri sent his two daughters to die in a suicide-bombing attack against the police station.

The Ahrar al-Sham coalition is probably the biggest terrorist group in Syria and it is currently aligned with Jaysh al-Islam against al-Nusra Front.

The criminal organizations above—some more than others—aim at the extermination of Syrian religious minorities, proving themselves to be nothing but terrorist groups.

Furthermore, they are said to have received “donations” from Saudi Arabia, Qatar ,Turkey and the US, although they rejected those claims.

The Western Media seemed initially reluctant to highlight the Tafkiri-Jihadi inspired nature of the rebels, depicting them as “moderate rebels” or “freedom fighters”.

Once again, it is necessary to check the accuracy of sources of information and report on solid facts exclusively.

It can be quite tricky, since much of the country is inaccessible to journalists on the ground and news coming out is often filtered through “media activists” or unofficial outlets.

Every major newspaper and outlet gleaned the information from the often quoted Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group—actually a one-man band—run by Rami Abdul Rahman.

According to the New York Times “military analysts in Washington follow its body counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war,” as well as providing mainstream media with daily updates about the Syrian crisis.

In the same article from the NYT, he admitted to receive “small subsidies from the European Union and one European country that he declines to identify.

Mr. Abdul Rahman—born Osama Suleiman—is a three-term convicted criminal in Syria, due to his years of activism against the Assad regime.

He fled to the United Kingdom eighteen years ago and the government relocated him to Coventry, in the West Midlands region; he has not returned to his home country ever since.

In the UK, he has had direct access to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, where has been documented meeting with the former Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Both Hague and current Foreign Minister Tobias Ellwood endorse Rahman’s political position.

Among Rahman’s network of contacts there is Rafid al-Janabi, better known as “Curveball”. The Iraqi defector played a crucial role in the 2003 Iraq War, falsely accusing Saddam Hussein of having weapons of mass destruction and pushing the US and its allies into launching offensive.

In 2011 he eventually admitted that he “had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime,” and spread the fake information that became the centerpiece of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s pro-intervention speech at the United Nations.

It is hard to believe that the Western press never considered to examine its main source’s political connections and background before using hisnot-necessarily-objective reports.

Funded in 2013 by  ex-military officerJames Le Mesurier, the White Helmets NGO aims to rescue civilian survivors trapped in bombed buildings and the people who   volunteer for the corps are hailed as some sort of heroes in the West.

The Netflix heart-breaking Oscar-winning documentary (“The White Helmets”, 2016) focuses indeed on the “perilous work of volunteers who brave falling bombs to rescue civilians from the carnage of Syria’s civil war.”

They present themselves as an unarmed, non-governmental and neutralorganization, yet they have had a leading role in various controversial events.

Although they claim to be apolitical, they actually actively campaign for a no-fly zone and they are largely funded by Western governments which advocate for regime change.Their principal funder is, in fact, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), along with the UK, and Europe.

They work exclusively in rebel-controlled areas, which raised doubts about the independence of their reports; in addition, some volunteers happened to be photographed while assisting in terrorist executions.

In 2016 members of the group were caught staging a rescue scene, later justified as their version of the popular ‘mannequin challenge,’ in which people were supposed to freeze for the camera. They apologized for the fact calling it an “error of judgment,” but the footage has been subject of harsh criticism on social media.

This does not mean that their effort as rescue workers is unappreciated, but it truly indicates the need to examine whatever information they provide with a critical eye.

In order to understand the reasons that could lead media to distort information, we have to introduce the concept of “spin”.

Spin is a form of propaganda used by public relations agencies—referred as “spin doctors” in this case—which provide a biased interpretation of facts and data to influence public perception on significant matters.

Cited as an invaluable source of information by Western media outlets, the Syria Campaign is a public relations and marketing company that, among other operations, branded and promoted the White Helmets to the international public.

The agency presents itself as impartial and non-political, yet they not only called for a no-fly zone, but also pushed for military intervention in several occasions.

They even attacked the UN’s work in Syria by publishing a 50-page report on a dedicated website that used a UN logo soaked in blood.

Ironically, among the supporters of their anti-UN campaign was the previously mentioned Ahrar Al-Sham.

The supposed most-reliable media outlets feed us altered and even fake news sometimes.

The majority of information we have about the Syria’s war do not come from  disinterested observers: citizen journalists and activists, in fact, are either pro-rebel or pro-regime, which is no guarantee of objectivity.

In conclusion, we have a duty to question where the news is coming from, whether it has been manipulated or whether there is an intentional attempt to shape our own opinion.

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Middle East

Three Years of Saudi Heinous Crimes in Yemen

Sondoss Al Asaad



Yemen a miserable isolated Arab country has been devastated by an ongoing Saudi bloody war. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies (GCC) have launched a vicious military campaign against Yemen to reinstall its former government. Recently, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the UK has refocused attention on this silent conflict.

The collation has imposed a blockade on the port of Hodeida city, the main entry point for food and medicines and has been repeatedly accused of unlawful airstrikes on civilian targets which amount to war crimes. Obviously, the U.K., U.S. and other Western governments back, supply weapons and provides training to the GCC soldiers.

Amid the global silent and the mainstream media hypocrisy, the criminal collation systematically targets residential areas, claiming it would control arms transfer to the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia regards the Houthis as Iranian proxies and intervened to check their advance. These heinous massacres have prompted accusations by some Western opposition MPs and human rights groups of significant responsibility for civilian casualties. Thousands of Yemenis have been killed and the infrastructure has been thoroughly pulverized.

The GCC collation has imposed a blockade on Yemen’s air, sea and land borders in November 2017 in response to Huthis firing missiles towards Riyadh airport, closing an aid lifeline to tens of thousands of starving Yemenis. The U.K. government denies that its forces are advising the Saudis on specific targets, though they admit that, after a raid, British officers can give advice on future targeting policy.

A UN panel of experts that reviewed 10 Saudi airstrikes found Saudi denials of involvement in these specific airstrikes were implausible, and individuals responsible for planning, authorising or executing the strikes would meet the standard for the imposition of UN sanctions. The panel reported early in January, “even if the Saudi Arabia-led coalition had targeted legitimate military objectives … it is highly unlikely that the principles of international humanitarian law of proportionality and precautions in attack were respected.”

At the end of February, Russia vetoed a UK draft resolution that included a condemnation of Iran for violating the UN arms embargo in Yemen over claims that it supplied the missiles used by the Houthis that were fired towards Riyadh.The ongoing war has witnessed heinous atrocities, which emphasizes the urgent need of taking all necessary and possible steps to stop the war, bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure impunity.

Since the beginning of the military campaign, the coalition has targeted numerous facilities including schools, hospitals, airports, ports, universities, water and electric utilities, roads, bridges.  Although international conventions grant full protection for civilian installations, the Saudi warplanes have systematically targeted civil facilities using several internationally forbidden weapons, during the systemic raids over densely populated areas.

Medics have voiced alarm over the raging spread of the cholera epidemic in the impoverished country, saying that one child is infected every minute. Malnourished children, who number more than two million in Yemen, are greatly susceptible. Yemeni Health Ministry says that the Saudi aerial embargo has prevented patients from travelling abroad for treatment, and the entry of medicine into the country has been blocked. Over the following three years, the war has engulfed the entire country causing unbearable suffering for civilians. Due to the relentless bombardment, many civilians have been killed or injured, and a humanitarian crisis has spiraled, while the world ignores this raging war and hears little about its devastating consequences.

Various hospitals were shut because of the bombarding, and the insufficient medical teams. Further, vaccinations of major infectious diseases have been banned, amid the growth of the indicators of child malnutrition, and the spread of epidemics. In addition, more than 95% of doctors, nurses and consultants have been killed or fled the country. The lack of medicines has caused the deaths of many with Thalassemia and Anemia who need a monthly blood transfusion. Dialysis centres have made an SOS to save the lives of more than 6 thousand patients with Renal failure by providing them with necessary medical supplies, pointing out that the number of deaths of patients with renal failure exceeded 17 deaths in every 8 months.

The blockade imposed by the coalition has left more than 12,000 people killed, 49,000 injured and around 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. It has also created the world’s largest food security emergency. Human Rights Watch has accused the Saudi-led coalition of committing war crimes, saying its air raids killed 39 civilians, including 26 children, in two months. Additionally, The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that the number of suspected cholera cases in war-torn Yemen has hit one million. More than eight million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation, making Yemen the scene of, what the United Nations calls, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.The Saudi regime has launched his war to eliminate the Houthis movement and to reinstall a Riyadh-friendly regime in Yemen.

However, the collation has failed to achieve its geopolitical and ideological objectives regardless of spending billions of dollars and enlisting the cooperation of its vassal states as well as some Western countries. The world’s largest humanitarian crisis caused by Saudi prolonged military onslaught has pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation. Unfortunately, the UN has not yet taken any effective measures to halt the humanitarian tragedy for the sake of the ultimate objective that Saudi Arabia is pursuing in the country, which is eliminating the threat of the Houthis. Obviously, the Saudis have not achieved their basic goals; hence, they are seeking revenge on the innocent Yemenis through their aimless bombardment.

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Middle East

West using JCPOA as lever to pressurize Iran



Recently, Reuters claimed European countries had commenced negotiations with Iran over the country’s role in the region in order to ease U.S. President Donald Trump’s concerns over the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Reuters alleges that the talks got off the ground on the fringes of the Munich security conference, with Yemen and certain regional issues taking center stage, and that the negotiations are going to continue in the future.

“European powers and Iran have started talks over Tehran’s role in the Middle East and will meet again this month in Italy as part of efforts to prove to U.S. President Donald Trump that they are meeting his concerns over the 2015 nuclear deal,” wrote Reuters.

What is worth mentioning about the Reuters’ report is that the news agency claims the talks between Iran and Europe on regional issues conducted is phased. Reuters says the first round of the negotiations were held on the sidelines of the Munich security conference with the Yemen war top of the agenda, and that the Europeans hope to discuss the role of the groups supporting Iran in Lebanon and Syria. A few points need to be taken into account in this regard.

First, regional talks with Iran has been one of the common demands of the U.S. and the European Union following the conclusion of the JCPOA. When the nuclear deal was signed in July 2015, many analysts unanimously believed that Washington and the European Troika intended to use the JCPOA as a springboard for regional talks with Tehran.

Efforts by Germany, Britain and France to hold regional talks with Iran can be analyzed accordingly. Here, France seeks to play the role of a leading player. The trip to Iran by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian comes within the same framework. Paris has promised Washington to spare no effort to hold negotiations with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s regional policies. Accordingly, Germany and Britain have got on board with France, too.

The second point is that while the general meeting of the UN General Assembly was underway in New York last summer, key talks were held between U.S. President Donald Trump and senior European officials over Iran’s regional policies and their connection with the JCPOA. In the talks, French President Emmanuel Macron promised his U.S. counterpart to channel and manage missile and regional talks with Iran. This comes as the fundamental principles of Iran’s foreign policy will remain unchanged. The principles include Iran’s backing for resistance groups, and above all, the country’s firmly dealing with the regional threats made by the U.S. and its allies and cronies. This firm approach by Iran will shatter the U.S. and Europe’s hope for regional talks with Iran. Still, the European officials believe the commencement of regional negotiations with Iran (even if unofficial), per se, can serve as a starting point to curtail Iran’s power and influence in the region. Thirdly, the Iranian diplomacy apparatus’ insistence on the unchangeable and general strategies of the country’s foreign policy, namely support for resistance groups, promotion of the resistance discourse, and fighting Takfiri terrorism will play a key role in foiling the ploys adopted by the U.S. and the European Union for talks.

One should bear in mind that the European Troika are channeling the talks on behalf of the U.S. and in coordination with the Trump administration. What Iran will employ to counter the joint game launched by Washington, Paris, London and Berlin will be the determination to safeguard the country’s strategic and behavioral principles in the region. It goes without saying that with this firm and prudent defense, the U.S. and the European Troika will not achieve any of their objectives in restricting Iran’s maneuvering power in the region. And lastly, the U.S. and the European Union are using the JCPOA as a lever to channel regional talks with Iran and pressure Tehran into giving in to Washington’s regional demands. In other words, Instead of serving its function as an independent legal document, the JCPOA has turned into a political tool to exert pressure on Iran. Here, too, the Iranian diplomacy and foreign policy apparatus should act very prudently and consider “safeguarding Iran’s regional power” as its red line, not “safeguarding the JCPOA.” Obviously, Washington and the European Troika should get to understand the definitive principle that Iran will not compromise on its fundamental strategies in the region.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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