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The Killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh – Is Peace in Yemen Possible?

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Based on remarks at a 19 December 2017 NUS Middle East Institute seminar

The Middle East being the Middle East, everything is interrelated. What happens in the region impacts Yemen and what happens in Yemen impacts the region. The crisis in Yemen, like many conflicts in the Middle East, did not originate with the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but inevitably get sucked into it.

Yemen was a Saudi problem long before it took on the mantle of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war and it may be the conflict that is most important and most sensitive for the kingdom. It also may be the proxy war that comes to haunt Saudi Arabia the most. Beyond cross-border tribal relationships, Yemen, a devastated country where recovery and reconstruction is certain to be a slow process, is likely to have a next generation that will be deeply resentful of Saudi Arabia with all the political and security implications that go with that.

More immediately, two recent factors stick out that potentially have significant geopolitical consequences. First, the recent meeting between the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, with leaders of Yemen’s Islamist Islah party in the wake of the killing of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The presence of Mohammed bin Salman at the meeting was far less remarkable than that of Mohammed bin Zayed and it is not clear what it means. It is Mohammed bin Zayed rather than Mohammed bin Salman who is truly uncomfortable with any expression of political Islam and certainly with any link to the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah remains an Islamist party even if it announced in 2013 that it had cut its ties to the Brotherhood.

The question is whether Mohammed bin Zayed, who for the almost three years of the Yemen war opposed Saudi cooperation with Islah, sees an alliance with the party as an opportunistic one-off move or whether it signals a shift in policy that could be repeated elsewhere in the Middle East. If so, that would have consequences for the dispute with Qatar and there is no sign of that. In fact, Saudi Arabia signalled days after the meeting that there was likely to be no quick end to the dispute with Qatar by declaring its closed border crossing with the Gulf state permanently shut. Similarly, recent satellite pictures show that the UAE air force is gearing up for greater military engagement against Islamists in Libya. As a result, the significance of the meeting is likely to be limited to Yemen.

Nonetheless, the way the meeting was arranged is significant and tells a story that goes far beyond Yemen. The crown princes sent a private plane to Istanbul to pick up the Islah party representatives from an Islamic summit called to discuss US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It was a summit the two men decided not to attend and at which they were represented by lower officials. The message was: Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not their priority and their opposition to Mr. Trump’s move was skin deep. Their priority was the war in Yemen and the larger regional battle with Iran for dominance of the region.

In some ways, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s risky strategy has already backfired. It has given the Brotherhood, violently suppressed in Egypt, outlawed in much of the Gulf and marginalized elsewhere in the region, a new lease on life. Mr. Trump’s decision offered the Brotherhood an issue to rally around in an Arab world intimidated and cowed by the violence, repression, insurgencies and civil wars that have characterized it since the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

With a long history of opposition to a US-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Brotherhood has emerged in the front lines of many of the protests against the president’s recognition of Jerusalem. Muslim Brothers organized the biggest popular protest in Jordan in a decade and demanded the closure of the Israeli embassy in Amman. Beyond leading demonstrations in Kuwait, Brother members of parliament called on the government to review its ties with Washington and disinvest from the United States.

Mr. Trump’s move has also strengthened Brotherhood offshoots like Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Confronted with protests against its inability to break a crippling, economic stranglehold by Egypt, Israel and the Palestine Authority that starved the Strip of electricity and forced government workers to go unpaid for months, Hamas was forced by the UAE and Egypt to enter into a reconciliation agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud’s Abbas’ Al Fatah movement and entertain an independent governance position for powerful but controversial, Abu Dhabi-backed former Palestinian security chieftain Mohammed Dahlan.

The second factor are Houth ballistic missile strikes, including the firing in November of a projectile at the international airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh, subsequent claims and denials of a Houthi missile fired towards the UAE, the December 2017 targeting of the Al Yamama palace of the Saudi royal court as King Salman and Prince Mohammed were chairing a meeting of the kingdom’s leaders, and the Houthi threat of further attacks. A Saudi military spokesman said the kingdom had intercepted 83 ballistic missiles since the Yemen war started almost three years ago.

There is little doubt that the Saudi-UAE intervention in Yemen has fortified ties between the Houthis and Iran. Yet the recent theatrical display of Houthi missile parts and other weaponry that was made possible by Saudi Arabia and the UAE left their provenance in doubt. There was no smoking gun that established beyond doubt that Iran could be held responsible for the missile strikes. The missiles and other items could well have originated in Iran, they could also have come from elsewhere. Whether supplied by Iran or not, United Nations monitors reported to the Security Council that remnants of ballistic missiles launched into Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels appeared to have been designed and produced by Iran.

Iran insisted that it had not supplied the missiles, but said it would continue to support the Houthis and other “resistance forces” in the region. “Victory in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen will continue as long as the resistance coalition defends its achievements. And as long as necessary, we will have a presence in these countries… We must assist these countries and establish a barrier against the American influence,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former foreign minister.

Mr. Velayati’s remarks appeared to contradict Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s denial that Iran had a military presence in Yemen and was assisting the Houthis. So did an earlier admission by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jafari that Iran was providing the Houthis with “advisory military assistance,” the phrase the Islamic republic used for its support of militias in Syria and Iraq.

Evidence of Iranian military support for the Houthis has been mounting. The Australian government released in January pictures of anti-armour weapons that were seized off the Yemeni coast and had been manufactured in Iran. A report in late 2016 by Conflict Armament Research concluded that a weapons pipeline extended from Iran to Yemen as well as Somalia that involved “transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons and weapons that plausibly derive from Iranian stockpiles.”

The Houthis, a fiercely independent actor have, irrespective of the degree of Iranian support, repeatedly demonstrated, however, that they do not take orders from Tehran and at times ignore its advice. Iran opposed the Houthi move on the Yemeni capital of Sana’a to no avail and was against a Houthi advance in the south. The Houthis could well against Iran’s will throw another monkey wrench into the fragile Middle East mix if they continue to target Saudi and/or Emirati cities. The attacks would ultimately elicit a harsh response. The question is who would respond and what would the target be.

The answer seems at first glance obvious. It would be a Saudi and/or UAE response and the target would be the Houthis in Yemen. The deployment of a new, American-trained and supplied Saudi National Guard helicopter unit to the kingdom’s border with Yemen suggests an escalation of the Saudi-UAE campaign. The Pentagon said 36 AH-64E Apaches, 36 AH-6i Little Birds, and 72 Sikorsky UH-60M Blackhawks bought from the US at a cost of $25 billion would be used to protect Saudi Arabia’s borders and oil infrastructure. The deployment constitutes the first expansion of the Guard’s mission beyond protecting the ruling Al Saudi family, guarding oil facilities, and providing security for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina since Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a son of former King Abdullah, was relieved of his command of the Guard in November and detained by Prince Mohammed on corruption charges alongside other princes, senior officials and prominent businessmen.

The retaliatory target could, however, also be Iran and the response could be one in which the United States participates. The implications of such an escalation could be massive. “An Iranian missile fired at Riyadh sheds light on an important bottom line dynamic in the region: the Saudis have a far superior air force, defence system and navy than the Iranians. They have a better equipped military intelligence apparatus and far superior munitions… (Iran) has been wreaking havoc in the Middle East on its own terms and drawing on its own strengths. It must realise that such recklessness could cause its regional adversaries to draw on their competitive advantages,” said Middle East analyst Mohammed Alyahya.

A broader regional military altercation would occur at a moment that emotions are raw in the wake of Mr. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem and because protesters are already on the streets of various Middle Eastern cities. A strike against Iran involving the United States could turn fury about Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision against Arab leaders who would be seen to be cooperating with the United States and willing to sacrifice Palestinian rights to work with Israel. Soccer fans in Algiers who were protesting against the decision recently provoked Saudi Arabia’s ire by carrying placards depicting Mr. Trump and Saudi King Salman as two sides of the same coin. While the protests in recent week were primarily directed against the United States and Israel, they often had an undertone of criticism of Arab regimes that were seen to be meek in their response to Mr. Trump’s decision or in cahoots with the United States.

Ironically, differences among Arab leaders about how to respond to Trump’s Jerusalem decision may have temporarily prevented the Saudi Crown Prince from adding Palestine to a string of failed foreign policy moves aimed at escalating the kingdom’s proxy war with Iran. Prince Mohammed’s devastating intervention in Yemen, botched effort to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign, and hamstrung boycott of Qatar have backfired and only strengthened the Islamic republic’s regional influence.

Inadvertently, Palestinian President Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah did Prince Mohammed a favour when they reportedly rejected pressure by the prince not to participate in the summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul. Mr. Abbas may have further shielded the Saudi leader when his refusal to further accept the United States as a mediator was adopted by the summit.

The two leaders’ stand, coupled with the summit’s rejection of Trump’s move, make it more difficult for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to endorse any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that does not recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. The problem is that the Saudi and UAE crown princes run the risk of misreading or underestimating public anger and frustration in significant parts of the Arab and Muslim world.

The Saudi crown prince responded to the two leaders’ defiance by briefly arresting billionaire Jordanian Palestinians businessman Sabih al-Masri, who also has Saudi citizenship. “The Saudi detention of Masri was a crude but brutal political message to…King Abdullah and…President Mahmoud Abbas on how to behave on the Jerusalem issue and regional alignments. Riyadh wanted to signal to the Jordanian and Palestinian leaderships that it could swiftly cripple their economies and trigger existential crises in which banks would suffer terminal runs, the governments would fail to pay their employees, and the economies would sputter to a halt,” said Middle East scholar and analyst Rami G. Khouri.

Disagreement in the Arab world over how to respond to Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision and Mr. Abbas’ defiance has taken on even larger significance with the battle over a United Nations General Assembly vote on the issue. Mr. Abbas instructed his diplomatic representatives to ensure the passing of a resolution that condemns the US move despite a US threat to cut off aid to countries that vote in favour and at the risk of the Trump administration deciding to close the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington.

How Saudi Arabia and the UAE vote could impact relations with the United States and the degree to which they are sensitive to criticism of their conduct of the Yemen war, if they vote in favour of the resolution and Mr. Trump acts on his threat. In another indication of Saudi and UAE priorities, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled Ben Ahmed hinted at the Gulf states abstaining in the UN vote in a move that likely would contradict public opinion, Mr. Ben Ahmed, referring to Iran, tweeted that “it’s not helpful to pick a fight with the USA over side issues while we together fight the clear and present danger of The Theo-Fascist Islamic republic.”

Saudi, UAE and Bahraini willingness to break with a long-standing consensus in the Arab and Muslim world would have likely been strengthened with the publication of Mr. Trump’s national security strategy that, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, prioritizes combating “jihadist terrorists;” preventing the domination of “any power hostile to the United States,” an apparent reference to Iran and Iranian-backed proxies; and ensuring “a stable global energy market.”

The link between Israeli-Palestinian peace making and Iran, and by extension Yemen, is, moreover, likely to become undeniable when Mr. Trump next month must decide whether to uphold the 2015 international agreement with Iran that put severe restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

Under US law, Mr. Trump has to certify Iranian compliance every three months. In October, Mr. Trump refused to do so. He threatened to pull out of the agreement if Congress failed to address the accord’s perceived shortcomings within 60 days. Congress has refrained from acting on Mr. Trump’s demand that Congress ensure that Iranian compliance involves accepting restrictions on its ballistic missile program that is primarily designed to counter perceived US and Israeli threats, and support of regional proxies. A study by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) concluded that to counter challenges posed by regional insurgencies, failing states and extremism, Iran was likely to expand its weapons acquisition program to include surface- and air-to-air missiles, advanced fighter aircraft, tanks, advanced mines, and anti-ship cruise missiles.

Concern that proxies that fought in Syria could turn their attention to Yemen was enhanced by Ali-Reza Tavasol, a founder of the 20,000 man-strong Fatemiyoun Division, an Iranian-led Afghan Shiite militia group. “Our war is an ideological war and does not recognize geography and borders. Anywhere oppressed people need help, we will be present there and assist them,” Mr. Tavasol said. Mr, Tavasol’s statement echoed earlier remarks by Ismail Ghani, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who asserted that Fatemiyoun fighters did “not recognize borders to defend Islamic values.” Afghan officials alleged that some Fatemiyoun fighters has already been dispatched to Yemen.

At the end of the day, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is being fought on the back of the Yemenis who are paying a horrendous price. That is unlikely to change as long as Saudi Arabia sees its struggle with Iran as an existential battle. And to be fair to the Saudis, they have good reason to perceive Iran as an existential threat. Not because Iran engages in asymmetric warfare by using proxies, supporting groups like the Houthis or propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But because post 1979-Iran, even if t were to only sit back and do nothing, poses an existential threat in much the same way that the popular Arab revolts of 2011 posed an existential threat. Iran experienced, alongside Russia, the 20th’s century only true revolution in which a regime and a political system was overthrown. It was a revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of the United States. It was a revolution that introduced an Islamic system of governance that has whatever limited degree of popular sovereignty. That is the threat, it constitutes an alternative to an absolute monarchy that claims religious legitimacy and is seeking to ensure its survival.

And if that were not enough, Iran is one of three Middle Eastern nations, that, irrespective of what state of disrepair they may be in, have the building blocks to be regional powers. The other two are Turkey and Egypt. They have large populations, huge domestic markets, battle-hardened militaries, an industrial base, highly educated populations, geography and a deep sense of identity rooted in empire and/or thousands of years of history. Saudi Arabia has money and Mecca.

If Saudi Arabia and the UAE learnt a lesson during the era of US President Barak Obama, it is that nothing is permanent and that countries need to assert themselves. Yemen is an expression of that lesson. Mr. Trump has given the kingdom and the emirates the umbrella they needed. Saudi regional power is to a large extent dependent on an Iran that is hampered by US-led efforts to contain it. Again, to be fair, the UAE has been better than the Saudis at exploiting the opportunity.

Saudi Arabia has so far ended up with mud in its face. The war in Yemen is backfiring and threatens to create even bigger challenges in the longer term. In a toughening of US criticism of the kingdom’s conduct of the war, Mr. Trump’s nominee for the post of the State Department’s legal counsel, Jennifer Newstead, suggested that Saudi Arabia could be violating U.S. and international law by restricting the flow of humanitarian aid in Yemen. British international development secretary Penny Mordaunt issued a similar warning.  A determination that the kingdom is in violation would, amid widespread international criticism of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen sparked by Saudi military action, put at risk US support for the intervention, involving US assistance in mid-air refuelling of Saudi and Emirati fighter planes, the provision of precision-guided munitions, and the sharing of intelligence.

Moreover, with dissent repressed, it is difficult to gauge what public opinion in the kingdom is. Prince Mohammed has so far delivered long-overdue social changes but has yet to deliver on his economic reform plans. There is good reason to question the degree to which he will be able to deliver, not only because there are legitimate questions about his plans but also because of the way he has gone about implementing them. The recent arrests of scores prominent Saudis under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign and the financial settlements being negotiated for their release raises questions about what kind of checks and balances a new Saudi Arabia would offer and defy the principle of the rule of law.

No doubt, Prince Mohammed is an enormously popular figure. The problem is that he has created enormous expectations that have not been managed. Moreover, 40 years of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism rooted in a history of at least 200 years of ultra-conservative thought cannot be erased with the stroke of a pen. Prince Mohammed’s social changes are as popular as they are controversial. In a recent survey, young Saudis said they wanted change: they wanted to date women, they wanted to party, they wanted to drive fast cars, and, yes, they wanted good paying jobs. When asked whether they realized that those same rights would apply to their sisters, they pulled back. In a recent illustration of contradictory attitudes, a Saudi beauty queen withdrew from a Miss Arab World contest after being attacked and threatened online. Similarly, Saudis want jobs but are unprepared for a merit-driven labour market rather than one that offers cushy government jobs.

The long and short of all of this is that the war in Yemen cannot be seen independent of the convulsions of change that have enveloped the Middle East in a convoluted and often violent process with no end in sight. The wars in Syria and Iraq are dying down. Yet, without policies that ensure that all groups in society feel that they have a stake in society, the seeds for renewed conflict are being sown. The same is ultimately also true for Yemen. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Obama, he got it right when he told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Saudi Arabia will have to learn to share the Middle East with Iran.

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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Iran: A major Replacement of Human Resources

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Since 1979, when the mullahs seized power, Iran has topped the list of countries affected by the “brain drain”. What appeared to be local bleeding at the time may now become total bleeding affecting other sectors of the population.

The headline of one of the stories in the official news agency, IRNA, was: “It is not only the elite that migrate.” The daily newspaper, Javan, affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, warned that Iran was losing some of its best-educated people, and stated that mass immigration of “elite elements” “costs the nation millions of dollars.” But immigration now attracts Iranians with less skills or devoid of skills.

According to the best semi-official estimates, since 1979 some eight million people, roughly 10 percent of the population, have left Iran, including an estimated 4.2 million highly educated and highly skilled people.

In the past four years, the brain drain has accelerated, with an average of 4,000 doctors leaving each year.

According to IRNA, at present, 30,000 general practitioners and senior nurses are awaiting the “good professional standing” certificates that developed countries require from those wishing to immigrate from so-called “developing countries”, such as Iran.

A study conducted by two researchers from the University of Tehran, Adel Abdullah and Maryam Rezaei, showed that almost all Iranians who immigrate seek to enter the European Union or the so-called “Anglosphere” countries such as Britain, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia.

Only 10 percent of potential immigrants are willing to go “anywhere else” to get out of Iran.

The immigration requests did not include a single request who wanted to go to a Muslim country, and the only exception is Iraq, which attracts thousands of Iranian mullahs and students of theology who go to Najaf and Karbala to escape the government’s domination of religion in Tehran.

Potential immigrants also avoid China, India and Russia, while the only two Asian countries still attracting Iranians are Malaysia and Japan.

For many potential immigrants, the first destination they want to go to is Dubai, then Istanbul, then Cyprus and until recently Yerevan (the capital of Armenia), where visas are being applied for to desired destinations. Some immigrants may have to wait two or three years to obtain visas from the European Union, Canada and the United States.

Who migrates and why?

Some of the answers came from a three-year study conducted by Sharif University (Ariamher) in Tehran. According to the study, a survey of 17,078 people across all 31 provinces of Iran showed that 70 percent of senior managers and highly skilled employees in the public sector wish to immigrate.

In the projects and businessmen sector, 66 percent expressed their desire to emigrate. This figure drops to 60 percent among doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.

The study shows that the majority of potential immigrants are highly educated, unmarried youth from urban areas, i.e. the higher the education of the individual, the greater the desire to leave.

Among those who express “dissatisfaction with the current situation,” 43 percent of them want to leave the country. This figure drops to 40 percent among those who feel “great satisfaction”, which reveals that the desire to leave is deeper than occasional social and political concerns, which is confirmed by other figures in the same study.

Of those who felt “despairing about the future in Iran,” 42 percent want to leave, a figure that drops to 38 percent among those who still have some hope for the country’s future.

The study shows that the desire to flee Iran is not caused by economic hardship as a result of unemployment or inflation. It is not only the poor or the unemployed who wish to flee, but also those with good jobs, or candidates for well-paid jobs and a seat on the mullahs’ train and their security and military partners.

The largest number of immigrants comes from the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan and Qom, where per capita income is 30 percent higher than the average income in the country. Poorer provinces such as Sistan Baluchistan, Boyer Ahmad, Koh Kiluyeh, and South Khorasan are at the bottom of the list in terms of immigrant numbers.

The study does not provide figures, but there is anecdotal evidence that tens of thousands of immigrants, especially to Canada and the United States, are descended from ruling Islamic families.

None of the studies we looked at suggested other reasons as potential attractions for immigrants, such as the great success stories of Iranian immigrants around the world. A study conducted by Nooshin Karami revealed that more than 200 politicians of Iranian origin now occupy senior positions in the political structures of 30 countries, including those of the European Union and the Anglosphere. 1000 Iranians hold senior positions in international companies, while thousands more are active in the media, scientific research and academic circles in the leading industrialized countries. Dozens of Iranian writers, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers have built successful careers for themselves outside of Iran.

At the other end of the spectrum, Iran also attracts immigrants from neighboring Iraq, from the Kurdish and Shiite Arab regions, the Nakhichevan enclave, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while hosting thousands of religious students from Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Nigeria. Qom.” According to state media, many students remain in Iran after completing their studies and marrying Iranian women.

All in all, Iran hosts more than six million “foreign guests,” including Afghan, Pakistani, and Iraqi refugees. Interestingly, the desire to leave seems to have reached the “guests” as well. Between March 2021 and March 2022, more than half a million Afghan refugees returned to their homes.

To deal with the consequences of this “brain drain,” the Islamic Republic unveiled a program to attract highly educated and skilled people from “anywhere in the world” with the promise of one-year contracts, good salaries, and enjoyment of “all citizenship rights except the right to vote.”

An estimated 300,000 fighters who served under the Iranian command in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen were promised permanent residence in Iran and access to agricultural land to start a new life.

Critics claim that the Khomeinist regime is pleased that so many potential opponents among the urban middle class are leaving Iran, as Iran can compensate for the loss of population with newcomers from poor Muslim countries who aspire to a better standard of living under what they see as a “true Islamic” regime.

It is worth noting that other authoritarian regimes, notably the former Soviet Union, communist China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, benefited from the exodus of what they saw as potential enemies from the middle class, allowing them to implement a scheme of “great replacement.”

On this, Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Mohammad Reza Najdi said: “Let those who do not love us leave the country, to make room for those who love us.”

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‘Saudi First’ aid policy marries geopolitics with economics

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When Mohammed al-Jadaan told a gathering of the global political and business elite that Saudi Arabia would, in the future, attach conditions to its foreign aid, the finance minister was announcing the expansion of existing conditionality rather than a wholly new approach.

Coined ‘Saudi First,’ the new conditionality ties aid to responsible economic policies and reforms, not just support for the kingdom’s geopolitics.

For the longest time, Saudi Arabia granted aid with no overt strings. The aid was policed by privately demanding support for the kingdom’s policies, often using as a carrot and stick quotas for the haj, the yearly Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca allotted to countries across the globe.

As a result, over the years, Saudi Arabia poured tens of billions of dollars into black holes, countries that used the aid as a band-aid to address an immediate crisis with no structural effort to resolve underlying causes.

For countries like Lebanon, Egypt, and Pakistan, this meant stumbling from one crisis to the next.

“We are changing the way we provide assistance and development assistance. We used to give direct grants and deposits without strings attached, and we are changing that. We are working with multilateral institutions to actually say, we need to see reform,” Mr. Al-Jadaan told this month’s World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos.

Saudi First serves multiple Saudi purposes.

It ties geopolitical drivers of Saudi aid to economic criteria that are likely to enhance the kingdom’s influence, create opportunities for Saudi investment and business, and enhance the kingdom’s ties to recipient countries.

In doing so, the additional conditionality positions the kingdom as a constructive, forward-looking member of the international community. It aligns Saudi Arabia more closely with multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), regional development banks, and major donors such as the United States and the European Union.

It also enables Saudi rulers to circumvent the implications of the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ that traces its roots to the American revolution.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s social and economic revamping of the kingdom while tightening the political screws as part of his plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy has involved introducing taxes with no political participation.

“Saudi people see their resources going abroad while they’re being asked to pay taxes, have their benefits cut, and so on. So, I think this Saudi first stance really serves as a way to both court and contain populism,” said Gulf scholar Kristin Smith Diwan.

Saudi circumvention of the American revolutionary principle, irrespective of whether it helps pacify Saudis, has already had unintended consequences.

Earlier this week, the Jordanian parliament fired a deputy, Mohammad Al-Fayez, for asking Mr. Bin Salman to stop aiding Jordan.

“All your aid lands in the pockets of the corrupt. Your donations pay bills that have nothing to do with the Jordanian people. We hear about aid coming in for the state. However, this aid only goes to a corrupt class that is getting richer at the expense of the proud Jordanian people,” Mr. Al-Fayez said in a letter to the crown prince.

The Jordanian parliament’s measure coincided with the Saudi finance minister’s announcement. Mr. Al-Fayez wrote his letter in December at the height of clashes in the southern city of Maan between security forces and protesters angry about rising fuel prices and poor governance.

Countries like Lebanon, Pakistan, and Egypt that are potentially most impacted by the new conditions for Saudi aid illustrate the geopolitical complexities of the change.

For Saudi Arabia, Lebanon is about countering Iran and its Lebanese Shiite proxy, Hezbollah, a powerful militia and political movement with significant influence in government and the country’s power structure.

Saudi Arabia hopes that the new conditionality will force a change in Lebanon’s power dynamics.

“The whole world knows what the kingdom offered Lebanon…until it…was back on its feet. But what can we do if current Lebanese policy chooses to surrender the reins of an ancient Arab nation to Iran’s proxy in that country?” asked Saudi columnist Hammoud Abu Taleb.

To be sure, the Lebanese establishment is responsible for the country teetering on the brink of collapse.

The World Bank has described the crisis fuelled by corruption, waste, and unsustainable financial policies as one of the worst globally since the mid-19th century.

This week’s judicial battle over holding powerful figures accountable for the 2020 Beirut port explosion that has spilled onto the streets of the Lebanese capital reflects the establishment’s determination to shield itself no matter the cost to Lebanon as a whole.

The explosion in a warehouse in the port housing hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, killed 218 people, injured more than 6,000, and damaged large parts of Beirut.

A Saudi contribution to forcing political change, a sine qua non for putting Lebanon on a path toward recovery, would be welcome.

It would also go some way towards the kingdom taking responsibility for its role in fighting a decades-long proxy war with Iran that helped bring the Mediterranean nation to its knees.

That is, if the conditions imposed by Saudi Arabia are tailored in ways that contribute to change while seeking to alleviate the pain the Lebanese endured, with the Lebanese pound losing 95% of its value, prices skyrocketing, and purchasing power demolished.

One way would be making accountability for the Beirut blast a condition for future aid.

Recent Saudi standoffishness towards the regime of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was evident in the kingdom’s conspicuous absence at a gathering of regional leaders in Abu Dhabi earlier this month. Mr. Al-Sisi was one of the attendees.

The standoffishness reflects the fact that Egypt is a black hole. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states have injected tens of billions of dollars with few tangible results except for keeping in power a regime that emerged from a 2013 military coup supported by the kingdom and the Emirates.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed the coup as part of a campaign to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The coup also ended the flawed presidency of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader. Because he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi was like a red cloth to a bull in the two Gulf states.

The UAE recognised early on that it needed to ensure its billions were judiciously deployed. So it based a Cabinet-level official in Cairo to advocate reforms and assist in crafting policies that would help put the economy back on track.

The Emirati effort came to naught, with Egypt continuously needing additional funds from the Gulf and the IMF, and the UAE, allowing Mr. Al-Sisi to turn the military into the country’s foremost economic player.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war on commodity and energy prices only aggravated Egypt’s economic crisis that is largely the result of Mr. Al-Sisi’s economic mismanagement

Mr. Al-Sisi unsuccessfully tried to manipulate Egypt’s currency, set misguided spending priorities, launched wasteful megaprojects, and expanded disruptive state and military control of the economy.

Time will tell what lessons the Saudis may learn from the Emirati experience. Unlike Lebanon, the question is whether Saudi Arabia will strictly impose its news aid policy conditionality or continue to view Egypt as too big to fail.

The problem for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is that popular discontent is simmering just below the surface in Egypt and could explode at any time. What makes things potentially more volatile is the possibility of the plight of the Palestinians, aggravated by the policies of Israel’s new hardline, Jewish nationalist government, becoming the catalyst for anti-government protests.

Such demonstrations have a life of their own, and in a moment, they can turn into a protest against the government, against poverty and waste, and we have a direct confrontation whose results can be lethal,” said an Egyptian journalist.

One factor in Saudi thinking about Egypt may be the perception that the North African country, which refused to get sucked into the kingdom’s war in Yemen, may no longer be the security buffer in Africa it once was together with Sudan, a country in transition following a 2019 popular revolt.

That seemed to be one reason for this month’s signing of a memorandum on defence cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Chad, a nation in a region wracked by ethnic and jihadist insurgencies.

The memorandum signals a potential Saudi interest in playing some security role in West Africa at a time that France is on the retreat while Turkey, Iran, and the Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, are on the march.

Last year, Qatar mediated a peace agreement between the Chadian government and more than 30 rebel and opposition factions. However, nine groups, including the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), the most powerful insurgent faction, refused to sign the deal.

The likelihood of Saudi Arabia taking on an expanded security role far from its shores may be slim in the immediate future.

Even so, creating building blocks that include tighter relations with recipients of Saudi foreign aid through sensible strings attached is one step towards cementing the kingdom’s geopolitical influence.

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Middle East

MBS policies: Are a threat to the Washington-led Global Order or not?

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In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden, with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Amid the Ukraine crisis, Riyadh’s policy towards Washington took a bitter shift. The years-long loyalty of Riyadh towards Washington began to tremble. The Riyadh did not condemn Moscow’s attack on Kyiv, nor it fulfilled the Washington’s expectations by refusing to OPEC Plus’ decision of not increasing the oil production. Whether Moscow’s valiant attempt of opening war against Kyiv, against the will of Washington and NATO, inspired the KSA to take an unpredictable position or Riyadh’s policy shift is owing to its economic and strategic interests, it is quite debatable. This shift not only triggered the minds of researchers worldwide but also caused Biden’s eyebrows to rise. In addition, Riyadh also showed its willingness to join BRICS. In case, Riyadh joins BRICS to ensure its economic and strategic interests; it will challenge the supremacy of petro-dollar, as Saudi Arabia is one of the largest oil exporters. As a whole, it will affect US economy drastically, hence posing serious threats to the Washington-led Global Order.

The wake of the Ukraine war wreaked havoc throughout the globe by destabilizing the global economy. Moreover, this eruption of the conflict increased food and energy insecurity vertically and horizontally. Being a global leader, Washington stepped forward to discourage Moscow and compelled it to withdraw its troops from Kyiv. As a result, Moscow decided to cut off the energy supply to the west. This was just an initiation of the devastation. The clash of interests between Moscow and Washington led to the American use of so-called institutional power, freezing Moscow’s assets. Contrarily, Moscow’s denial to supply energy gave rise to energy insecurity caused by the rising oil and gas prices. Following the primacy doctrine, the global hegemon America took the responsibility to curb this energy insecurity leading to global economic instability. Continuing the long tradition, Washington intended to exercise the influence on the Middle Eastern partners KSA and UAE to supply the energy resources abundantly to fill the energy supply and demand gap.

This time the results were unpredictable, as both of these states defied to enhance their energy production. The unprecedented stance of the Saudi Monarch was to comply with OPEC Plus’ decision to decrease production and increase the prices of energy products. This denial of Riyadh was taken as a serious gesture by Washington. It was perceived that Riyadh’s refusal was a gesture for having goodwill for Russia, consequently creating the situation of “Either you are with us or against us.” In other terms, we may conclude that it was a shift in loyalties.

The whole debate revolves around the question, “Whether Riyadh’s policy has strength to shake the foundations of prevailing Washington led global order or not?” Is the global order a volatile structure to be transformed so easily just by shifting a policy of one state, or does this policy shift have some potential challenges? Before directly coming to the horror impacts of this policy, we should better discuss the worth of energy security and its irrefutable importance for the stable global economic system. If the fuel prices aren’t lowered, it will halt or lower the industrial processes of major industrialized states, including the U.S., consequently drastically affecting the states’ GDP and Per capita income. The vulnerabilities in economic position will surely lead to chaos and internal instability.  

The other facet of this debate, “Whether Riyadh is shifting towards Russia or not? Is Russia capable enough to serve the strategic interests of Riyadh? If not, then what does this policy shift mean?” The ultimate strategic interests of Riyadh always centered on attaining regional hegemony by countering Tehran. At the same time, Moscow is already enjoying better diplomatic ties with Tehran. Moscow will adopt a balanced approach between Riyadh and Tehran. Contrarily, there may be some possibilities of extension of this Riyadh-Moscow cooperation from energy to Economic and military cooperation because Russia is capable of providing the defense technology to Riyadh but unable to provide security in the region. Most importantly, Washington’s institutional hold can be used against Riyadh. These threats still can restrict Riyadh from standing up with Moscow. 

The other important frontier of this debate is KSA’s willingness to join BRICS. As the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has played a central role in the Petrodollar system. The country has used its vast oil reserves to maintain a strong influence on the global economy and has largely adhered to the practice of only selling oil in exchange for U.S. dollars. This has helped to ensure the continued global demand for U.S. dollars and has contributed to the dollar’s status as the dominant global currency. One potential outcome is that Saudi Arabia and other BRICS countries could agree to use a different currency for oil trade, such as the Chinese yuan or a new currency specifically for use by BRICS countries. This could lead to a decrease in global demand for U.S. dollars and potentially negatively affect the U.S. economy.

Saudi Arabia’s recent policy shift towards BRICS and Russia has raised questions about the stability of the current global order, particularly about the stability of Petro-dollars and global energy security. While it is debatable whether the shift is motivated by economic or strategic interests, it is clear that this move is a serious concern for the United States and has the potential to impact the contemporary Washington-led global order significantly. It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia will follow through with its potential decision to join the BRICS group and how this will affect its relationships with other countries, particularly Russia and the United States. In a nutshell, major global order changes are expected to occur if Saudi Arabia joins BRICS because it will affect the supremacy of Petro-dollars and consequently lead to the decline in U.S. economic power.

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