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Transition in the Middle East: Transition to what?

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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

Safar Barlek of the 21st Century: Erdogan the New Caliph

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Since the American’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, it became clear that everyone is holding his breath. That is exactly what Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doing these days. Ten years have passed since his war on Syria; however, he has, so far, reached zero accomplishments towards his 2023 dreams. As a matter of fact, Erdogan is in the worst position ever. His dream of becoming the new Ottoman Caliph began to fade away.

If we want to understand what is going on in his mind, it is crucial to follow Gas and Oil pipelines: He actively participated in the war on Syria because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to betray his Russian and Iranian friends by allowing the Qatari gas pipelines to pass through Syria then Turkey to reach Europe. Such a step would have empowered Turkey, opened a wide door for it to enter the gas trade industry, and would become the American’s firmed grip around the Iranian and Russian necks. 

He saw the opportunity getting closer as the war on Syria was announced. He imagined himself as the main player with the two strongest powers globally: the U.S. and Europe. Hence, his chance to fulfil the 1940s Turkish- American plan to occupy northern Syria, mainly Aleppo and Idlib, where he could continue all the way to al-Mussel in Iraq, during the chaos of the futile war on ISIS seemed to be reachable. By reaching his aim, Erdogan will be able to open a corridor for the Qatari gas pipelines and realize the dream of retrieving the legacy of the old Turkish Petroleum Company, which was seized to exist after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1925. 

Consequently, Erdogan announced his desire to establish a 15 km deep buffer zone along the Syrian borders and inside the Syrian territory. This is in fact, an occupation declaration, which will definitely enable him to reach the Syrian oil and gas fields. He even tried to offer the Russians a compromise that he would like to share managing these fields with them after Donald Trump’s announcement of withdrawing the American troops from Syria in 2018. 

It was clear since the year 2019, after attacking the Kurds in east-north Syria, that he has lost the Americans and European support in the region. Especially after inking the Russian missiles S400 deal against the American’s will. Then he supported Azerbaijan against Armenia, threatening both Iranian and Russian security. 

The situation was repelled with Iran when he recited a poem on the 11th of December 2020, which could have provoked the feelings of the Azeris and incited them to secede from Iran. On the 28th of February 2021, he even accused Iran of harboring the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. 

Now the situation is escalating again. A few days ago, the Iranian Army’s Ground Force launched the “Fatih Khyber” maneuvers in the northwest of the country near the border with Azerbaijan, with the participation of several Armored Brigade, 11th Artillery Group, Drones group, and 433rd Military Engineering Group, with the support of airborne helicopters. A major maneuver that indicates there is an escalation between Iran and Azerbaijan, which is taking place under Turkish auspices. The escalation is an attempt to threaten Iran’s security from the north.

When Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist, was assassinated at the end of last year, the American newspaper New York Times described the deed as “the most brilliant work of the Mossad”. At that time, many resources revealed that the executors of the operation passed to Iran through Azerbaijan and were situated in Turkey for a while before moving. And now Iran has great concerns because of Azerbaijan hostess of active Israeli and American intelligence members. 

As Iran is going now to another stage of nuclear talks with G5+1, it is an opportunity for the American and Turkish interests to meet again, as Erdogan is pushing towards achieving a victory in the region, and the Americans are trying to create trouble to distract it. We know what the Americans want, but what matters here is what Erdogan wants. 

Erdogan wants to be a bigger participant in the Azeri oil industry. He wants to push Iran into aiding him to give him more space in the Syrian lands. He wants to be given a chance to save face and be granted some kind of victory in his “War on Syria”. It is his wars that he is leading in Libya, Sudan, the Mediterranean Sea, and now in Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. Erdogan was preparing himself to become the first of the new coming rein of the new Ottoman Sultanate in 2023. 

2023 is the date for two important occasions; the first is the Turkish presidential elections. And the second is the end of the Treaty of Lausanne 1923. Erdogan had high hopes that he would be able to accomplish a lot before the designated date. In involving Turkey in every trouble in the Arab country since the “Arab Spring” had begun. He has an agenda in each of them, from Syria to Libya, to the Mediterranean Sea, to where he seeks to preserve the Turkish right for expansion. 

Erdogan believed in building double alliances between Russia and Iran from one side and the United States through Turkey’s presence in NATO from the other, he can manipulate everyone to achieve his goal in Syria and secure the Buffer Zone. He started a policy of Turkification in northern Syria, which is against international law in occupied regions and countries. In addition, as he is still politically maneuvering to reach this goal, he is becoming more like a bull chasing a red carpet. He is backstabbing everyone, even his allies in Nusra.

Erdogan, the paranoid, has used every possible method to rally aggregations against local governments and authorities in each country as he built his alliances. In Syria, he played on sectarian differences to rally Sunnis and, in particular, on Muslim Brotherhood groups to build alliances against the current Syrian government. He imported terrorists from al-Nusra, armed them, and ideologically manipulated terrorists from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Chinese Xinjiang, into fighting in Syria in the name of Islam against the Alawites “regime”. He represented himself as the protector of Sunnis. In order to justify bombarding the Kurds, he was playing on nationalistic feelings.

In Libya, he played on empowering the Muslim Brotherhoods against other atheist groups, as he rates them. He empowered the al-Wifaq government along with the Americans to pave the way to dividing Libya, where the dirty international game almost tore the country apart using terrorist groups financially backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, i.e. Qatar. 

In Lebanon, he presented himself as the protector of the injustice Sunnis. Turkish intelligence paid around four million dollars to regroup Sunnis in Said and Tripoli. The same thing was going on with Hamas in Palestine in the name of the freedom of the Palestinians and their fight against Israel. In the Arab countries, Erdogan worked hard to be designated as the new Muslim leader and was very careful not to be perceived as a Turk but as a Muslim. And now the same game is going in Azerbaijan. 

Erdogan’s interference in Azerbaijan does not fall out of the American expected Turkish role. A few days ago, a congress member praised the important role Turkey is playing within NATO. It is not a language of reconciliation; it is a language of playing on Erdogan’s ego. Therefore, it is only fair to question the Turkish role in Azerbaijan, in particular to the relation between the two mentioned countries and Israel. 

Iran has been dealing with the two countries with tolerance, as neighboring countries, particularly Turkey, who is playing in this case on the nationalistic feelings of the Azeris in Iran to start trouble, in the least expression. It is clear, if the situation escalates with Azerbaijan, Iran would be walking through land mines. Therefore, it needs to be carefully leading its diplomatic negotiations. On the other hand, Iran knows, but it needs to acknowledge that as long as Turkey occupies one meter in northern Syrian, the region will never know peace and security. The first step to get the Americans out of Iraq and Syria will be to cut Erdogan’s feet in Syria, once and for all. 

In leading his quest for victory, Erdogan moved the terrorist around the region. Now he is filling Azerbaijan with these mercenary terrorists from the Arab region and center of Asia, just like the Ottoman when they dragged the compulsorily recruited soldiers from their villages and houses from all over the Arab countries to fight their war in the Baltic region. A dream that needs to put an end to it. The Syrians believe that it ends with ending the Turkish occupation in Idlib. However, it is important that their friends believe that too.

*The Safar Barlek was the mobilization effected by the late Ottoman Empire during the Second Balkan War of 1913 and World War I from 1914 to 1918, which involved the forced conscription of Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, and Kurdish men to fight on its behalf.

From our partner Tehran Times

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The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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