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May 12: A potentially future-shaping day for the Middle East

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With US President Donald J. Trump scheduled to announce whether he will uphold the international community’s nuclear agreement on Iran and Iraqi elections slated for the same day, May 12 is gearing up to be a day that could shape the future of the Middle East.

May 12’s significance lies in what it will mean for the immediate course of the debilitating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has played out in proxy wars across the region and played politics with the differences that divide Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Underlying the drama of May 12 is a more fundamental shift in the approach of both Saudi Sunni Muslim leaders and Iraqi Shiite and Sunni politicians towards the region’s sectarian divide that may provide a first sign of light at the end of the Middle East’s tunnel of violence, civil war, and ethnic and religious strife.

Moreover, reduced sectarian tension lays bare the core struggle for regional power between Saudi Arabia by lifting the veil of religious dispute in which it was often shrouded. That struggle could intensify if Mr. Trump decides to increase pressure on Iran to compromise on issues like its ballistic missile program and regional proxies.

In a sign of the times, Iraqi politicians campaigning for the parliamentary election have been forging cross-sectarian alliances and wooing votes across the country irrespective of past history and religious allegiance.

Iraq’s largest Sunni Islamist political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a driving force behind the Sunni protest movement in 2013 that was hijacked by the Islamic State, has built an alliance with Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Last week, Mr. Abadi became the first Shiite leader to campaign in a wholly Sunni Muslim part of Iraq when he travelled to Anbar province, 110 kilometres west of Baghdad.

People must feel part of this country and like they are citizens of this country. At the end of the day, we must deliver to the people,” Mr. Abadi said earlier, insisting that Iraq needs to forge an identity that is inclusive in terms of nationhood as well as religious and tribal affinity.

The effort to break down sectarian fault lines that have dominated Iraq since the 2003 US invasion that toppled the Sunni minority regime of Saddam Hussein purveys the walk-up to the election.

Shiite-led electoral groupings are hopeful that they will see record-breaking gains in Sunni areas. Sunni politicians who fled the country because of sectarian violence have returned to compete in the poll.

Putting deep-seated distrust definitively to bed is likely to be a lengthy process, but the initial building of bridges was helped by Saudi efforts to forge close diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with Iraq after refusing to engage with the Shiite-majority country for more than a decade.

Saudi government moves to improve relations with the kingdom’s own long discriminated Shiite minority served, moreover, as evidence that Sunni Muslim attitudes may be changing.

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Iraqi charm offensive as well as his moves to turn a page with his own Shiites is as much an effort to project himself as a reformer as it is a bid to counter Iran and its regional influence.

Trends in Iraq and Saudi Arabia are in some ways mirror images of one another. Leaders in both countries are pushing nationalism rather than sectarianism.

The rapprochement between Iraq and Syria and the Saudi government’s overtures to Shiites who populate its oil-rich Eastern Province “mark a turn away from the years of pervasive anti-Shia sentiment in both domestic and regional politics and toward a more assertive nationalism,” said Gulf scholar Kristin Smith Diwan.

So far, Prince Mohammed’s moves and overtures by Mr. Abadi and Iraqi politicians appear to be producing results. Iraqi Sunni Muslim leaders are reconciling themselves to the fact that the days of sectarian minority rule are over and that they will have to carve out a space for themselves in a political landscape that is dominated by fractured Shiite political forces.

Similarly, Saudi Shiite voices have welcomed Prince Mohammed’s insistence in an interview with The Atlantic in which he acknowledged that Saudi Arabia was home to both Sunnis and Shiites and efforts to include Shiites in his top-down reforms.

“You will find a Shiite in the cabinet, you will find Shiites in government, the most important university in Saudi Arabia is headed by a Shiite. So we believe that we are a mix of Muslim schools and sects, Prince Mohammed said.

To be sure, Saudi overtures are built on the brutal crushing of Shiite protests in the Eastern Province and the destruction of large parts of the town of Awamiyah, that was home to Nimr al-Nimr, the opposition Shiite religious scholar who was executed in early 2016.

While they are designed to eliminate the adversarial tone in relations between the sects and increase social and economic opportunity, change does not involve giving Shiites a political say of their own as much as Sunnis are not being granted the option of political participation.

Yet, a growing number of Saudi Shiites, like many Iraqi Sunnis, are coming to grips with the fact that their best hope is to row with the oars that they have; in other words, in Saudi Arabia make the best of opportunities granted by an absolute monarch and in Iraq accept a minority role.

Taken together, the developments in Saudi Arabia and Iraq as well as in relations between the two countries not only help reduce sectarian tension but also challenge Shiite Iran’s projection of itself as a revolutionary force that represents all Muslims rather than just a sect.

No doubt, both Saudi Arabia and Iraq have a long way to go in rebuilding confidence between sectarian communities and ensuring that minorities truly feel that they have a stake in their nation.

Nevertheless, efforts to reduce the sectarian sting take on added significance as Mr. Trump could fuel the fires of controversy, if not conflict, by walking away from the Iran nuclear agreement on May 12.

Depending on what Mr. Trump does, May 12 could prove to be a watershed in the history of the Middle East. If he walks away, the question is whether he simply caters to his domestic base by refusing to certify to the US Congress Iranian compliance with the agreement or seeks to escalate confrontation with the Islamic republic by re-imposing sanctions on Iran.

An Iraqi election on May 12 from which Sunni Muslims emerge with a sense of being part of Iraq’s political process and future would be no less historic. How historic will depend on continued Shiite political efforts to give Sunni Muslims a stake. The same is true, for Prince Mohammed’s reforms, including his inclusionary gestures towards Shiites as part of an absolute monarchy that adheres to what he terms ‘moderate Islam.’

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 Eastern autocrats sigh relief: the US signals Democracy Summit will not change policy

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The United States has signalled in advance of next week’s Summit for Democracy that it is unlikely to translate lip service to adherence to human rights and democratic values in the Middle East into a policy that demonstrates seriousness and commitment.

In a statement, the State Department said the December 9-10 summit would “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” e State Department said that in advance of the summit, it had consulted with government experts, multilateral organisations, and civil society “to solicit bold, practicable ideas” on “defending against authoritarianism,” “promoting respect for human rights,” and fighting corruption.

Of the more than 100 countries alongside civil society and private sector representatives expected to participate in the summit, only Israel is Middle Eastern, and a mere eight are Muslim-majority states. They are Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Albania, Iraq, Kosovo, Niger, and the Maldives.

US President Joe Biden has made the competition between democracy and autocracy a pillar of his administration policy and put it at the core of the United States’ rivalry with China.

We’re in a contest…with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century,” Mr. Biden said.

Yet, recent statements by the Pentagon and a White House official suggested that, despite the lofty words, US Middle East policy is likely to maintain long-standing support for the region’s autocratic rule in the belief that it will ensure stability.

Popular revolts in the past decade that toppled leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon suggest that putting a lid on the pot was not a solution. That is true even if the achievements of the uprisings were either rolled back by Gulf-supported counter-revolutionary forces or failed to achieve real change.

To be sure, Gulf states have recognized that keeping the pot covered is no longer sufficient. As a result, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have developed plans and policies that cater to youth aspirations with economic and social reforms while repressing political freedoms.

The US appears to be banking on the success of those reforms and regional efforts to manage conflicts so that they don’t spin out of control.

On that basis, the United States maintains a policy that is a far cry from standing up for human rights and democracy. It is a policy that, in practice, does not differ from Chinese and Russian backing of Middle Eastern autocracy. Continuous US public and private references to human rights and democratic values and occasional baby steps like limiting arms sales do not fundamentally alter things.

Neither does the United States’ choice of partners when it comes to responding to popular uprisings and facilitating political transition. In dealing with the revolt in Sudan that in 2019 toppled President Omar al-Bashir and a military coup in October, both the Trump and Biden administration turned to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Israel. While Israel is a democracy, none of the US partners favour democratic solutions to crises of governance.

White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk signalled this in an interview with The National, the UAE’s flagship English-language newspaper, immediately after a security summit in Bahrain that brought together officials from across the globe. US officials led by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sought to use the conference to reassure America’s allies that the United States was not turning its back on ensuring regional security.

Mr. McGurk said that the United States had drawn conclusions from “hard lessons learnt” and was going “back to basics.” Basics, Mr. McGurk said, in a nod primarily to Iran but potentially also to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, entailed dumping “regime change policies.” He said the US would focus on “the basics of building, maintaining, and strengthening our partnerships and alliances” in the Middle East.

Mr. McGurk’s articulation of a back-to-basics policy was reinforced this week with the publication of a summary of the Pentagon’s Global Posture review, suggesting that there would be no significant withdrawal of US forces from the region in Mr. Biden’s initial years in office.

The notion of back to basics resonates with liberals in Washington’s foreign policy elite. Democracy in the Middle East is no longer part of their agenda.

“Instead of using US power to remake the region…policymakers need to embrace the more realistic and realisable goal of establishing and preserving stability,” said Council of Foreign Relations Middle East expert Steven A. Cook even before Mr. Biden took office.” What Washington needs is not a ‘war on terror’ built on visions of regime change, democracy promotion, and ‘winning hearts and minds’ but a realistic approach focused on intelligence gathering, police work, multilateral cooperation and the judicious application of violence when required,” he added.

Mr. Cook went on to say that a realistic US Middle East policy would involve “containing Iran, retooling the fight against terrorism, to reduce its counterproductive side effects, reorganizing military deployments to emphasize the protection of sea-lanes, and downscaling the US-Israeli relationship to reflect Israel’s relative strength.”

The United States is in good company in its failure to put its money where its mouth is regarding human rights and democratic values.

The same can be said for European nations and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority state and democracy. Indonesia projects itself directly and indirectly through Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement, as the only major supporter of a moderate interpretation of Islam that embraces human rights without reservations and pluralism and religious tolerance.

That has not stopped Indonesia from allegedly caving into a Saudi threat not to recognize the Indonesian Covid-19 vaccination certificates of pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Media if the Asian state voted for an extension of a United Nations investigation into human rights violations in the almost seven-year-old war in Yemen.

Similarly, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates on cooperation on religious affairs even though the UAE’s version of a moderate but autocratic Islam stands for values that reject freedoms and democracy.

The agreements were part of a much larger package of economic, technological, and public health cooperation fuelled by US$32.7 billion in projected Emirati investments in Indonesia.

The Biden administration’s reluctance, in line with a long list of past US presidents, to do substantially more than pay lip service to the promotion of human rights and democratic values brings to mind Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

President George W. Bush and his then-national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, acknowledged two decades ago that jihadist violence and the 9/11 attacks were partly the results of the United States’ failure to stand up for its values. They bungled, however, their effort to do something about it, as did Barak Obama.

It is not only the Middle East and other regions’ autocracies that pay the price. So do the United States and Europe. Their refusal to integrate their lofty ideals and values into effective policies is increasingly reflected at home in domestic racial, social, and economic fault lines and anti-migrant sentiment that threatens to tear apart the fabric of democracy in its heartland.

The backlash of failing to heed Mr. Einstein’s maxim and recognizing the cost associated with saying one thing and doing another is not just a loss of credibility. The backlash is also the rise of isolationist, authoritarian, xenophobic, racist, and conspiratorial forces that challenge the values in which human rights and democracy are rooted.

That raises the question of whether the time, energy, and money invested in the Summit of Democracy could not have been better invested in fixing problems at home. Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh nailed it by noting that “shoring up democracy is almost entirely domestic work.”

It’s a message that has not been lost on democracy’s adversaries. In what should have been a warning that hollow declaratory events like the Summit of Democracy are not the answer, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told last September’s United Nations General Assembly: “The United States’ hegemonic system has no credibility, inside or outside the country.”

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International Solidarity Day with the people of Palestine

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Since 1948, the people of Palestine were suffering due to Israeli oppression and aggression. Despite several resolutions on Palestine passed by the United Nation, Israel has not implemented either of them. Despite the struggle from all peace-loving nations, in various forms, the Palestinian people have not yet been given the right of self-determination, or self-rule, and are yet, forced to leave their land, homes and stay in refugee camps or migrate to foreign countries to live a miserable life. After failure from all aspects, the United Nations desp[erately declared to mark International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

In 1977, the General Assembly called for the annual observance of 29 November as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (resolution 32/40 B). On that day, in 1947, the Assembly adopted the resolution on the partition of Palestine (resolution 181 (II))

In resolution 60/37 of 1 December 2005, the Assembly requested the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights, as part of the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November, to continue to organize an annual exhibit on Palestinian rights or a cultural event in cooperation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN.

The resolution on the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People also encourages the Member States to continue to give the widest support and publicity to the observance of the Day of Solidarity.

The government and the people of Pakistan join the world community in observing the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (29 November).

The commemoration of this day is a reminder to the international community that the question of Palestine remains unresolved and the Palestinian people are yet to realize their inalienable right to self-determination as provided in various resolutions of the United Nations. It is also an occasion to reiterate our support and solidarity for the Palestinian people who continue to wage a just struggle against the illegal and brutal occupation.

On this day, Pakistan reaffirms its consistent and unstinted support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause, which has always been a defining principle of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The international community must shoulder its responsibility to protect the lives and fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, and play its rightful role in promoting a just and lasting resolution of the Palestinian question per international legitimacy in the interest of durable peace and stability in the Middle East. The international community should also ensure accountability for the widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the occupied territories.

We renew our call on this day for a viable, independent, and contiguous Palestinian State, with pre-1967 borders, and Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital being the only just, comprehensive and lasting solution of the Palestinian question, under the relevant United Nations and OIC resolutions.

The purpose of marking this day is to remind the whole world that the people of Palestine deserve your attention and your time to think about their sufferings. It is to remind that the whole world should understand the issue and try their best to solve it according to the UN resolutions. Those who believe in justice, may raise their voice in favor of the Palestinian people and condemn Israeli barbarism and atrocities. This Day invites all of you to join the [peaceful struggle of Palestinian people for their legitimate rights. Irrespective of your profession, social status, or your religion or race, you may support the Palestinian cause for justice on humanitarian grounds and keep your struggle till the people of Palestine gets their legitimate status and rights on equal footings according to the UN resolutions.

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Israel-Palestine: Risk of ‘deadly escalation’ in violence, without decisive action

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photo: UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

With violence continuing daily throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process urged the Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a more coordinated approach to the region.  

Tor Wennesland told Council Members that “recent developments on the ground are worrying”, pointing out the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority.  

“I therefore emphasize again the importance of concerted efforts by the parties to calm things on the ground. I am concerned that if we do not act quickly and decisively, we risk plunging into another deadly escalation of violence”, he warned. 

He informed that, in the last month, violence resulted in the death of four Palestinians, including two children, and injuries to 90 others – including 12 children – due to action by Israeli Security Forces. 

One Israeli civilian was killed in the same period, and nine civilians, including one woman and one child, and six members of ISF were injured.  

Challenges 

Mr. Wennesland said that a severe fiscal and economic crisis is threatening the stability of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. 

At the same time, he added, “ongoing violence and unilateral steps, including Israeli settlement expansion, and demolitions, continue to raise tensions, feed hopelessness, erode the Palestinian Authority’s standing and further diminish the prospect of a return to meaningful negotiations.” 

In Gaza, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, but the Special Envoy argued that “further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately enables a return of legitimate Palestinian Government institutions to the Strip.” 

Settlements 

The Special Coordinator also said that “settler-related violence remains at alarmingly high levels.” 

Overall, settlers and other Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank perpetrated some 54 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in 26 injuries. Palestinians perpetrated 41 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians, resulting in one death and nine injuries.  

Mr. Wennesland highlighted a few announcements of housing units in settlements, reiterating that “that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.” 

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans for some 6,000 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya and some 1,300 housing units for Palestinians living in Area C (one of the administrative areas in the occupied West Bank, agreed under the Oslo Accord). 

The Special Envoy welcomed such steps but urged Israel to advance more plans and to issue building permits for all previously approved plans for Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Humanitarian aid delivered 

Turning to Gaza, the Special Envoy said that humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts continued, along with other steps to stabilize the situation on the ground. 

He called the gradual easing of restrictions on the entry of goods and people “encouraging”, but said that the economic, security and humanitarian situation “remains of serious concern.” 

The Special Envoy also mentioned the precarious financial situation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which still lacks $60 million to sustain essential services this year. 

The agency has yet to pay the November salaries of over 28,000 UN personnel, including teachers, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, many of whom support extended families, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high.  

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