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Egyptian President Al-Sisi steps up repression to cover policy failure

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Egyptian general-turned-president Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi would likely be the first to admit that an iron fist is no guarantee for retaining power. Not because of the fate of the country’s longest ruling autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011 by a popular revolt.

But because Mr. Al-Sisi’s iron fist has not squashed resistance, nor has it enabled him to properly deliver badly needed public goods and services.

Mr. Al-Sisi has, however, not concluded in advance of elections expected next year that he should perhaps loosen the reigns, reduce the role of the military in the economy that is drowning out much of the private sector, and opt for economic policies that are not centred on huge, white elephant infrastructure projects but instead target job creation and lifting millions out of poverty.

Instead, backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Al-Sisi is tightening his grip on youth groups and sports clubs that were at the core of the 2011 revolt. He is also believed to be attempting to ensure that credible presidential candidates are prevented from running in the election for which he has yet to declare himself a candidate.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s failed policies, insistence on repressive state-centred control of public life, and electoral processes that are everything but free and fair, raises questions about the sustainability of UAE-Saudi-led counterrevolution that aimed to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab uprisings in which the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were overthrown. Mr. Al-Sisi came to office in 2013 in a UAE-Saudi backed military coup that toppled the country’s first and only democratically elected leader.

Egypt has proven resistant to the policy formula adopted by the UAE and Saudi Arabia at home and advocated elsewhere in the region. The two Gulf states have embraced economic reform and greater social freedom while employing repression to retain ever tighter political control. Repression and absolute political control appears to be the only aspect of the UAE-Saudi formula that Egypt has wholeheartedly adopted.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s policies forced US president Donald J. Trump, who has deemphasized human rights in his administration’s policy and is a fan of the Egyptian leader, to cut off some military aid earlier this year in compliance with US law.

The Washington Post, commenting in an editorial on last month’s jihadist attack on a Sufi mosque in the Sinai that killed more than 300 people, effectively described Mr. Al-Sisi as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. “The regime has used terrorism as a pretext for the most severe repression in Egypt’s modern history,” the Post said.

Former Egyptian prime minister and senior air force commander Ahmed Shafiq, potentially Mr. Al-Sisi’s most serious challenger, charged this week that the UAE had barred him from travelling to his home country. UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash denied the charge but acknowledged that his country had “severe reservations about some of his (Mr. Shafiq’s) positions.”

Mr. Shafiq moved to the UAE in 2012 after he was charged with corruption and acquitted in the wake of his defeat in presidential elections that were won by Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi, whom Mr. Al-Sisi forced out of office a year later.

Despite being financially dependent for support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Al-Sisi has differed with them on policies towards Iran and Syria, but joined the two states’ six-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a move that is likely to provoke ire in the United States, Egypt and Russia this week agreed on a draft agreement that would allow the Russian air force to operate from Egyptian bases. The agreement would permit the UAE and Saudi Arabia to enhance arm’s length military cooperation with Russia, particularly in Libya where they support controversial military commander Khalifa Haftar.

Mr. Al-Sisi, following years of failed efforts to forge a politically controlled dialogue with Egyptian youth, has launched a two-pronged effort to control youth and sports organizations, potentially alongside Mr. Shafiq, the greatest threat to his continued rule.

Militant soccer fans, who played a key role in toppling Mr. Mubarak and student protests against Mr. Al-Sisi that were brutally repressed in 2013 and 2014, rejected several overtures by the president and have in recent months again witnessed the blunt side of his rule.

Hundreds of ultras — battle-hardened, anti-authoritarian fans opposed to the commercialization of soccer — were arrested in recent months for wearing jerseys with the number 74 on them in commemoration of supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli killed in 2012 in a politically loaded soccer brawl in the Suez Canal city Port Said. The incident, the worst in Egyptian sporting history, was widely seen as an effort by security forces that got out of hand to teach fans a lesson.

Another 500 members of Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of Al Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek SC, were arrested in July as they tried to attend their team’s match against Libya’s Al Ahli Tripoli. Many have since been released.

Egypt’s parliament last month approved in principle a new law governing youth and sports organizations that although portrayed as a gift to Egyptian youth bans clubs from engaging “in any political or partisan activity or promoting any political or partisan activity” or even “promoting any ideas or political objectives.”

Many Egyptian clubs, including Al Ahli and Zamalek were founded in the early years of the 20th century as politically motivated groups and have retained their aura despite having long moved on. Al Ahli was established as an anti-monarchical, anti-colonial, and pro-republican club while Zamalek identified itself as pro-monarchy and pro-British.

Parliament’s gift was in advance of a World Youth Forum in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, one of several such gatherings intended to give Egyptian youth a sense of participation, however limited, by connecting them to policymakers. While the law banned discussions where youth gather, the forum was held under the motto of “we need to talk.”

Saudi Arabia signalled the significance it attributes to control of sports clubs by having its ambassador in Cairo attend this week’s election of soccer icon Mahmoud Al-Khatib as Al Ahli’s president.

The absence of senior Egyptian government officials was likely intended to avoid attracting intention to the fact that the government, in violation of world soccer body FIFA rules, owns a majority of the country’s premier league clubs, and to its increased political control of the sport. FIFA has long looked the other way in countries like Egypt and Iran.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s tightening of the reins comes in advance of Egypt’s participation for the first time in 28 years in World Cup finals in Russia in 2018. Football success in the Middle East often equals heightened emotions in a soccer-crazy part of the world and amounts to a double-edged sword for autocrats.

Identification with successful teams offers autocrats an opportunity to polish their tarnished images, certainly if success sparks nationalist fervour. Yet, heightened soccer-driven emotion can also result in anti-government protest, one reason Egyptian stadiums have largely been closed to the public for the last six years. The new law governing youth and sports organizations is unlikely to reduce the risk of stadiums again becoming platforms of protest if, and when, the ban is lifted.

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

Battling it out at the UN: Potholes overshadow US-Iran confrontation

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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It’s easy to dismiss Iranian denunciations of the United States and its Middle Eastern allies as part of the Islamic republic’s long-standing rhetoric. The rhetoric makes it equally easy to understand American distrust.

But as President J. Trump and Hassan Rouhani, his Iranian counterpart, gear up for two days of diplomatic sabre rattling at the United Nations in advance of next month’s imposition of a second round of harsh US sanctions, both men risk fuelling a conflict that could escalate out of hand.

Both are scheduled to address the UN general assembly on Tuesday and Mr. Trump is slated to chair a meeting on Wednesday of the Security Council expected to focus on Iran.

Adding to the likely drama at the UN, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, snubbed Mr. Trump, by announcing the creation of a payment system that would allow oil companies and businesses to continue trading with Iran despite US sanctions.

The risk of escalation is enhanced by the fact that Messrs. Trump and Rouhani are sending mixed messages.

Mr. Trump’s administration insists that its confrontational approach is designed to alter Iranian behaviour and curb its policies, not topple its regime.

Yet, the administration stepped up its engagement with exile groups associated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Saudi-backed organization that calls for the violent overthrow of the government in Tehran and enjoys support among current and former Western officials, as Messrs. Trump and Rouhani battle it out at the UN.

John Bolton, who has repeatedly advocated regime change before becoming Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, is scheduled to give a keynote address at the United Against Nuclear Iran’s (UANI) annual summit during the UN assembly. So is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another hardliner on Iran.

Mr. Pompeo and Mr, Bolton, who has spoken in the past at events related to the Mujahedeen, had so far since coming to office refrained from addressing gatherings associated with opposition groups.

The administration left that to Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, who last weekend told the Iran Uprising Summit organized by the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, a Washington-based group associated with the Mujahedeen and attended by the exile’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, that US. sanctions were causing economic pain and could lead to a “successful revolution” in Iran.

“I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen,” Mr. Giuliani, said speaking on the day of an attack on a military march in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz that killed 25 people and wounded at least 70 others.

Messrs. Bolton, Pompeo and Giuliani’s hardline stems from US suspicions rooted in anti-American and anti-Western attitudes that are grafted in the Islamic republic’s DNA and produced the 444-day occupation in 1979 of the US Embassy in Tehran. They are reinforced by the humiliation of a failed US military operation to rescue 66 Americans held hostages during the occupation.

Iranian rhetoric; bombastic threats against Israel; denial of the Holocaust, support for anti-American insurgents in Iraq, the brutal regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas in the Gaza Strip; propagation of religiously inspired republican government as an alternative to conservative monarchy in the Gulf; and degrees of duplicity regarding its nuclear program, reaffirm America’s suspicion.

Iran’s seemingly mirror image of the United States traces its roots further back to the 1953 US-supported overthrow of the nationalist government of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and his replacement by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi whom Washington staunchly supported till his fall in 1979.

Iranian concerns were reinforced by American backing of Iraq in the 1980s Gulf war, US support for Kurdish and Baloch insurgents, the broad spectrum of support of former and serving US officials for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, unequivocal Saudi signals of support for ethnic strife as a strategy to destabilize Iran, and Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program despite confirmation of its adherence to the accord.

Responses by the US and its Gulf allies as well as a series of statements by militant Iranian Arab groups, including the Ahvaz Resistance Movement, suspected of being responsible for this weekend’s attack, have only deepened Iranian distrust.

Those statements included one by the Arab Liberation Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz effusively praising Saudi Arabia on its national day that the kingdom celebrated a day after the attack.

Yadollah Javani, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the target of the attack, vowed revenge for what he termed years of conspiracies against the Iranian revolution by its enemies.

Mr. Javani was referring to past US attempts to destabilize Iran and a four-decade long global Saudi campaign that included backing of Iraq in the Gulf war during the 1980s and an estimated $100 billion investment in support of anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim groups.

All of this means that mounting hostility between the United States and Iran is muddied as much by fact as by perception – a combustible mix that is easily exploitable by parties on both sides of the divide seeking to raise the ante.

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Attack in Iran raises spectre of a potentially far larger conflagration

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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An attack on a military parade in the southern Iranian city of Ahwaz is likely to prompt Iranian retaliation against opposition groups at home and abroad. It also deepens Iranian fears that the United States. Saudi Arabia and others may seek to destabilize the country by instigating unrest among its ethnic minorities.

With competing claims of responsibility by the Islamic State and the Ahvaz National Resistance for the attack that killed 29 people and wounded 70 others in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which borders on Iraq and is home to Iran’s ethnic Arab community, it is hard to determine with certainty the affiliation of the four perpetrators, all of whom were killed in the incident.

Statements by Iranian officials, however, accusing the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, suggest that they see the Ahvaz group rather than the Islamic State as responsible for the incident, the worst since the Islamic State attacked the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in 2017.

Iran’s summoning, in the wake of the attack, of the ambassadors of Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark, countries from which Iranian opposition groups operate, comes at an awkward moment for Tehran.

It complicates Iranian efforts to ensure that European measures effectively neutralize potentially crippling US sanctions that are being imposed as a result of the US withdrawal in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

Ahvaz-related violence last year spilled on to the street of The Hague when unidentified gunmen killed Ahwazi activist Ahmad Mola Nissi. Mr. Nissi was shot dead days before he was scheduled to launch a Saudi-funded television station staffed with Saudi-trained personnel that would target Khuzestan, according to Ahvazi activists.

This week, a group of exile Iranian academics and political activists, led by The Hague-based social scientist Damon Golriz, announced the creation of a group that intends to campaign for a liberal democracy in Iran under the auspices of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted Shah of Iran who lives in the United States.

While Iran appears to be targeting exile groups in the wake of the Ahvaz attack, Iran itself has witnessed in recent years stepped up activity by various insurgent groups amid indications of Saudi support, leading to repeated clashes and interception of Kurdish, Baloch and other ethnic insurgents.

Last month, Azeri and Iranian Arab protests erupted in soccer stadiums while the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reported clashes with Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

State-run television warned at the time in a primetime broadcast that foreign agents could turn legitimate protests stemming from domestic anger at the government’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption into “incendiary calls for regime change” by inciting violence that would provoke a crackdown by security forces and give the United States fodder to tackle Iran.

The People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), a controversial exiled opposition group that enjoys the support of serving and former Western officials, including some in the Trump administration, as well as prominent Saudis such as Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief, who is believed to be close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has taken credit for a number of the protests in Khuzestan.

The incidents fit an emerging pattern, prompting suggestions that if a Gulf-backed group was responsible for this weekend’s attack, it may have been designed to provoke a more direct confrontation between Iran and the United States.

“If the terrorist attack in Ahvaz was part of a larger Saudi and UAE escalation in Iran, their goal is likely to goad Iran to retaliate and then use Tehran’s reaction to spark a larger war and force the US to enter since Riyadh and Abu Dhabi likely cannot take on Iran militarily alone… If so, the terrorist attack is as much about trapping Iran into war as it is to trap the US into a war of choice,” said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

Iran appears with its response to the Ahvaz attack to be saying that its fears of US and Saudi destabilization efforts are becoming reality. The Iranian view is not wholly unfounded.

Speaking in a private capacity on the same day as the attack in Ahvaz, US President Donald J. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, declared that US. sanctions were causing economic pain that could lead to a “successful revolution” in Iran.

“I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen,” Mr. Giuliani told an audience gathered in New York for an Iran Uprising Summit organized by the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, a Washington-based group associated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.

Mr. Giuliani is together with John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, a long-standing supporter of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq that calls for the violent overthrow of the Iranian regime.

Mr. Bolton, last year before assuming office, drafted at the request of Mr. Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, a plan that envisioned US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition,” “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and assistance for Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan and Baloch in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Balochistan province.

The Trump administration has officially shied away from formally endorsing the goal of toppling the regime in Tehran. Mr. Bolton, since becoming national security advisor, has insisted that US policy was to put “unprecedented pressure” on Iran to change its behaviour”, not its regime.

Messrs. Bolton and Giuliani’s inclination towards regime change is, however, shared by several US allies in the Middle East, and circumstantial evidence suggests that their views may be seeping into US policy moves without it being officially acknowledged.

Moreover, Saudi support for confrontation with Iran precedes Mr. Trump’s coming to office but has intensified since, in part as a result of King Salman’s ascendance to the Saudi throne in 2015 and the rise of his son, Prince Mohammed.

Already a decade ago, Saudi Arabia’s then King Abdullah urged the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.

Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, Amal Al-Hazzani, an academic, asserted in an op-ed entitled “The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz“ that Khuzestan “is an Arab territory… Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925… It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective.”

More recently, Prince Mohammed vowed that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent UAE scholar, who is believed to be close to Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, played into Iranian assertions of Gulf involvement in this weekend’s attack by tweeting that it wasn’t a terrorist incident.

Mr. Abdulla suggested that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option” and that the number of such attacks “will increase during the next phase”.

A Saudi think tank, believed to be backed by Prince Mohammed last year called in a study for Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran. Prince Mohammed vowed around the same time that “we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Pakistani militants have claimed that Saudi Arabia has stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian fighters.

The head of the US State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs, Steven Fagin, met in Washington in June with Mustafa Hijri, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), before assuming his new post as counsel general in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The KDPI has recently stepped up its attacks in Iranian Kurdistan, killing nine people weeks before Mr. Hijri’s meeting with Mr. Fagin. Other Kurdish groups have reported similar attacks. Several Iranian Kurdish groups are discussing ways to coordinate efforts to confront the Iranian regime.

Similarly, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) last year appointed a seasoned covert operations officer as head of its Iran operations.

Said Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Khalid bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother: President “Trump makes clear that we will not approach Iran with the sort of appeasement policies that failed so miserably to halt Nazi Germany’s rise to power, or avert the costliest war ever waged.”

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Turkey’s Great Game in Syria

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.

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With ISIS on the run in the desert of South Syria, Al Qaeda’s affiliated jihadists in Idlib brace for the final assault by the combined forces of the Syrian Army, the Russian air force and the Iranian proxies. The president of Turkey, who fancies that he could be the new Caliph himself, implores the United States to join in the quashing of Bashar Al-Assad “before he kills again.” While there are some common of interests between Washington and Ankara, the United States gains nothing by assisting Erdogan’s Syrian gambit, because the cure he would bring could be worse than the disease. On the other hand, the President’s call five months ago to pull out of Syria altogether would be risky.

Idlib, Home to some three million people, half of whom are the displaced people running away from Assad’s atrocities, has also been an uncertain sanctuary for former Salafist-jihadi fighters, who may number  30,000 according to the US military. The UN special envoy for Syria estimates there are around 10,000 al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Idlib, most of whom under the control of Hay’atTahrir al-Sham, (HTS), al-Qaeda’s latest rebranding, which hold nearly 60 percent of the city. The rest of Idlib is controlled by Turkey-backed militias. Turkey has a dog in this fight; the Western coalition does not.

Armies of four major players in the area vie for territory: Syria, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Ankara agreed to help create de-escalation zones and 12 observation posts to protect civilians during the Astana peace talks in January 2017.

The battle for Idlib has differing objectives for the four armies on the field.

For Syria, the Idlib offensive allows al-Assad to kill thousands of Sunni rebels with barrel bombs, Russian airstrikesand Iranian militias, all with an unforgettable exclamation point. Brutal, yes, but it’s a strategy that has worked in the area for 5,000 years.

For Russia, driving on Idlib will be the final blow against the rebels and the guarantee of Russia’s permanent military bases in Tartus and Latakia.

For Iran, conquering Idlib would remove the last major obstacle to the Shia land bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran wants to extend its influence in the region and have uninterrupted access to Lebanon to boost Hezbollah’s power and its supply chain.

For Turkey and Erdogan, the Idlib strategy is complicated. It is estimated that an assault would drive more than 700,000 people toward the Turkish border. But Turkey, with more than 3 million refugees already and a spiraling financial crisis, won’t accept another humanitarian flood, according to Turkey’s foreign minister. Additionally, Turkey has been investing in northern Syria to extend its influence including in Idlib by providing humanitarian aid via NGO’s such as the IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation), opening schools, and sending teachers and imams to establish a favorable Turkish sphere of influence for long-term investment; therefore, Turkey fears to lose the ground it already controls.

Since January 2017 Erdogan anticipated that he could trust Russia and Iran and have a military presence in the region per the Astana agreement. According to Erdogan, Turkish military presence would thwart a Syrian offense against Idlib. He also wanted to extend Turkish control of northern Syria along the Turkish border, including the cities of al-Bab and Afrin, in an effort to block a Kurdish-controlled corridor along the same border. On both counts, Erdogan miscalculated.

Erdogan has been playing a dangerous game both at home and abroad. He closely but surely distanced Turkey from the West; particularly the U.S. Under his control, Turkey has become an authoritarian state, jailing thousands of people on false charges. Among the victims are hundreds of journalists, including several Western reporters and an American Christian pastor.

The fact is, Turkey no longer behaves as a U.S. ally. Under Erdogan, Turkey allowed more than 40,000 foreign fighters to pass through her borders to join Salafist Jihadi terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq from 2013 to 2016. Though Turkey may be an enemy of Assad, the Erdogan regime has been a silent partner with Russia and Iran.

Erdogan’s disdain for the United States also stems from a New York federal court case involving the Iranian embargo. Turkish Halkbank and gold trader Reza Zarrab, under the orders of Erdogan, helped Iran to circumvent the American embargo banning the sale of Iranian oil and transferring millions of dollars to Iran and its proxies. Turkey’s president likely thought the Trump Administration would kill the Zarrab case.

Realizing his ill-intended policies and demands were not being met by the Trump Administration, Erdogan decided to play the Russia card. Turkey, a NATO member nation, recently purchased Russian s-400 missile systems amid US protests and will install these weapons systems in 2019.

The U.S. should set its priorities in the region based on international and humanitarian values and to eradicate the conflict in the long run by promoting the protection of the civilians first. U.S. military assets in Syria should stay put for four reasons. First, to act as a deterrent to al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and other atrocities. Second, to frustrate Turkish expansion and control of Syria’s northern border. Third, to control Iranian ambitions in the region. Fourth, to assist the local allies to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State 2.0.

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