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Iranian protests expose contours of leadership in the Muslim world

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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If week-long anti-government protests in Iran exposed the Islamic republic’s deep-seated economic and political problems, they also laid bare Saudi Arabia’s structural inability to establish itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world.

The responses to the protests of major Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrated that none of the contenders for regional dominance and leadership that include Turkey and Egypt were willing to follow the Saudi lead.

In fact, the responses appeared to confirm that regional leadership was likely to be shared between Turkey, Iran, and Egypt rather than decided in a debilitating power struggle between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic that has wreaked havoc across the Middle East and North Africa and that the kingdom has so far lost on points.

Uncharacteristically, Saudi Arabia under the rule of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has refrained from commenting on the protests. The kingdom has also been silent in the walk-up to US President Donald J. Trump’s decision what to do with American adherence to the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

While Saudi media, oblivious of the potential for dissent in the kingdom, gloated about the exploding discontent in Iran, Saudi leaders stayed quiet in a bid to avoid providing Iranian leaders with a pretext to blame external forces for the unrest. (That did not stop Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian leaders from laying the blame at the doors of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States).

Similarly, Saudi Arabia, whose regional prominence is to a significant extent dependent on US, if not international containment of Iran, stayed publicly on the side lines as Mr. Trump deliberated undermining the agreement that for almost three years has severely restricted Iran’s nuclear program and halted the Islamic republic’s potential ambition of becoming a nuclear power any time soon.

While the Saudis would welcome any tightening of the screws on Iran, they have come to see the agreement as not only preventing Iran, at least for now, from developing a military nuclear capability but also as avoiding a regional nuclear arms race in which Turkey and Egypt as well as potentially the United Arab Emirates would not be left out.

The agreement gives the kingdom in the meantime an opportunity to put in place building blocks for a future military nuclear capability, if deemed necessary. Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to ease restrictions on Saudi enrichment of uranium as part of his bid to ensure that US companies play a key role in the development of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy sector facilitates the Saudi strategy.

In contrast to the Saudis, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was vocal in his support for the Iranian government and call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to express his solidarity. Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has not commented on the protests but has been studious in avoiding being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, including its multiple proxy battles in Yemen and elsewhere.

The different responses to the Iranian protests represent more than a difference of evaluation of recent events in the Islamic republic. They represent the fault lines of two, if not three, major alliances that are emerging in the Middle East and North Africa and adjacent regions like the Horn of Africa around the contenders for regional leadership.

They also highlight Saudi Arabia’s inability to garner overwhelming support for its ambition and/or multiple efforts to achieve it by among others declaring an economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, intervening militarily in Yemen, and failing to force the resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri.

Turkey has effectively sought to counter Saudi moves not only by forging close ties to the Islamic republic despite differences over Syria, but also by supporting Qatar with a military base in the Gulf state and the supply of food and other goods whose flow was interrupted by the Saudi-led boycott.

Turkey has further established a military training facility in Somalia; is discussing creating a base in Djibouti, the Horn of Africa’s rent-a-military base country par excellence with foreign military facilities operated by France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan; and recently signed a $650 million agreement with Sudan to rebuild a decaying Ottoman port city and construct a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels on the African country’s Red Sea coast. Saudi Arabia sees the Turkish moves as an effort to encircle it.

Turkey, to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia, and its closest regional ally, the UAE, as well as Egypt has supported the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other strands of political Islam. Egypt this week launched an investigation into embarrassing leaks from an alleged intelligence officers that were broadcast on the Brotherhood’s Istanbul-based Mekameleen tv station and published in The New York Times. Egypt has denied the accuracy of the leaks.

If Saudi Arabia, backed by the UAE and Bahrain and Israel as an officially unacknowledged partner constitutes one block, Turkey forms another that could either include or cooperate with the region’s third pole, Iran. Egypt, conscious of its past as the Arab world’s undisputed leader, may not be able to yet carve out a distinct leadership role for itself, but has worked hard to keep the door open.

Underlying the jockeying for regional dominance is a stark reality. Turkey, Iran and Egypt, to varying degrees, have crucial assets that Saudi Arabia lacks: large populations, huge domestic markets, battle-hardened militaries, resources, and a deep sense of identity rooted in an imperial past and/or a sense of thousands of years of history. Saudi Arabia has as the custodian of Islam’s most holy cities, Mecca and financial muscle. In the longer run, that is unlikely to prove sufficient.

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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War in Libya: A rare instance of US-Russian cooperation

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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There is little that Russia and the United States agree on these days. Renegade Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar may be a rare exception.

As Mr. Haftar’s mortars rained on the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli and fighting between his Libyan National Army (LNA) and the United Nations-recognized government expanded to the south of the country, both Russia and the United States stopped a call for a ceasefire from being formally tabled in the UN Security Council.

Russia, which has joined US allies that include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France, in supporting Mr. Haftar because of his grip on Libya’s oil resources and assertions that Islamists dominate the Tripoli government, objected to the British draft resolution because it blamed the rebel officer for the fighting.

The United States gave no reason for its objection. Yet, it shares Russia’s aversion to Islamists and clearly did not want to break ranks with some of its closest Middle Eastern allies, certainly not at a time that the UN was investigating allegations that the UAE had shipped weapons to Mr. Haftar in violation of an international arms embargo.

The significance of US-Russian agreement on Mr. Haftar’s geopolitical value goes far beyond Libya. It reveals much of how presidents Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin see the crafting of a new world order. It also says a great deal about Russian objectives in the Middle East and North Africa.

Messrs. Trump and Putin’s preference for a man with a questionable human rights record who, if successful, would likely rule Libya as an autocrat, reflects the two leaders’ belief that stability in the Middle East and North Africa is best guaranteed by autocratic rule or some democratic façade behind which men with military backgrounds control the levers of power.

It is a vision of the region promoted by representatives of UAE crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed who sees authoritarian stability as the best anti-dote to popular Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011 and more recently in Algeria and Sudan are proving to have a second lease on life.

Underlying the Trump-Putin understanding is a tacit agreement among the world’s illiberal, authoritarian and autocratic leaders on the values that would underwrite a new world order. It is an agreement that in cases like Libya reduces rivalry among world powers to a fight about the divvying up of the pie rather than the concepts such as human and minority rights that should undergird the new order.

Moscow’s support for Mr. Haftar serves Russia’s broader vision of the Middle East and North Africa as an arena in which Russia can successfully challenge the United States even if Messrs. Trump and Putin agree on what side to support in a Libyan civil war that is aggravated by the interference of foreign powers.

Russia national security scholar Stephen Blank argues that Mr. Putin’s strategy is rooted in the thinking of Yevgeny Primakov, a Russian Middle East expert, linguist and former spymaster, foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

Mr. Primakov saw the Middle East as a key arena for countering the United States that would enable Russia, weakened by the demise of the Soviet Union and economic problems, to regain its status as a global and regional power and ensure that it would be one pole in a multi-polar world.

“In order to reassert Russia’s greatness, Primakov and Putin aimed ultimately at strategic denial, denying Washington sole possession of a dominant role in the Middle East from where US influence could expand to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)” established in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union to group post-Soviet states, Mr. Blank said.

Messrs. Primakov and Putin believed that if Russia succeeded it would force the United States to concede multi-polarity and grant Russia the recognition it deserves. That, in turn, would allow Mr. Putin to demonstrate to the Russian elite his ability to restore great power status.

Syria offered Russia the opportunity to display its military prowess without the United States challenging the move. At the same time, Russia leveraged its political and economic clout to forge an alliance with Turkey and partner with Iran. The approach served to defang Turkish and Iranian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Mr. Blank argued.

Similarly, Russia after brutally repressing religiously inspired Chechen rebels in the 1990s and despite the lingering memory of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has in line with UAE precepts, proven to be far defter than either China or the United States at promoting politically pacifist or apolitical loyalist Islam in a complex game of playing both sides against the middle.

Russian engagement runs the gamut from engaging with militants to cooperating with Muslim autocrats to encouraging condemnation of activist strands of ultra-conservative Islam to hedging its bets by keeping its lines open to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

Even if Russia may be walking a tightrope in balancing its relationships with Mr. Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, like in Syria, it is positioning itself with the backing of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the potential mediator that maintains ties to both sides of the divide.

Said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: “We believe that Libya’s future must be determined by the Libyans themselves. We are convinced that there is no alternative to an inclusive intra-Libyan dialogue… Our work on this track proceeds in this spirit and the belief that there is no alternative to preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya.”

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Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Credit: Institute of Security Studies

Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.

So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.

What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.

The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.

If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.

Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.

The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.

With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.

Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.

In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.

Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.

The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.

Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.

Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.

Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.

The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”

Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”

Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.

The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.

Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.

Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.

The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.

As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.

What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.

All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.

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As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait

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IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.

For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.

Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.

Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’

Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.

But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’. 

These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.

But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’

What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.

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