Elections in the Lebanon
The general elections in the Lebanon were held on May 6 last. They had originally been scheduled for 2013 but,due to the repeated failure of Parliament to elect a new President from April 23, 2014 to October 31, 2016 because no candidate had succeeded in obtaining the required two-thirds majority, the Parliamentary term had been extended at first until 2017 and then until 2018.
A new electoral law had been adopted in 2017, providing a proportional representation system for the first time in the history of the country.
The maximum proportional representation system in elections coincides with the maximum destabilization of a country.
Finally, Michel Aoun was elected President on October 31, 2016 at the 46th electoral session of the Lebanese Parliament, breaking a 29-month deadlock.
Aoun is a Maronite Christian, as provided for by the Lebanese Constitution, and he was Head of the Armed Forces as early as 1984. From 1988 to mid-October 1990 he served also as Prime Minister appointed by the then departing Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, whose controversial decision led to the paradoxical situation of having two rival Lebanese governments contending for power, one by Aoun and the other by Selim Hoss, apparently pro-Western and self-appointed Prime Minister.
The Lebanese Constitution lays down, inter alia, that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Head of government an Islamic Sunni and the President of Parliament a Shi’ite.
The Lebanese Constitution, however, does not define – as happens also in other Middle East countries – traditional political groups, but sectarian parties of religious origin and affiliation.
Until Aoun’s election, two coalitions competed in the country. The first one was the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, a politician close to Saudi Arabia floundering in a very severe financial and political crisis – a political alliance currently established, together with the Christians of Samir Geagea, by the group of Sami Gemayel, the Head of the Maronite Phalanx, and by Walid Jumblatt, the historical leader of the Druses.
From the very beginning the whole “March 14 Alliance” was closely linked to Saudi interests.
It is worth recalling, however, that the Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, with a 150% share of the GDP, a total net indebtedness of 79 billion US dollars and an increase in the debt / GDP ratio which, according to the International Monetary Fund, could reach a 180% share in three years.
In a forthcoming Conference to be held in Paris, the Lebanese government will ask for foreign investment targeted to infrastructure equal to at least 16 billion US dollars, while banks do not provide liquidity to anyone.
As evidenced by the growth of grassroots parties, infrastructure and local public services, as well as urban management issues, are the true weak point of the Lebanese State.
70% of the Lebanese public spending goes to wages and salaries and to debt servicing, in particular, while as much as 10% goes on subsidies to the electricity and energy bills of the poorest population.
Hence there is no room for any government to reduce the Lebanese public spending significantly.
Therefore there is always a very close link between the dysfunctionality of political systems and State’s indebtedness and, finally, between the rigidity of electoral representation and the impossibility of controlling the connection between debt and GDP.
This should be studied to further clarify the “Italian case”.
The March 8 Alliance, however, was established by Hezbollah – the Shiite Party founded in 1982 by Imam Khomeini “as if it were the apple of his eye”, as well as by Nabih Berri’ Shi’ite movement of Amal (Hope) and, finally, by Michel Aoun’s Maronite Christian Party.
According to what is currently maintained in the Lebanon, the agreement between the two major factions envisages the “green light” of the March 8 Alliance for the future premiership of Saad Hariri, one of the leaders of the other coalition.
However, who is Michel Aoun? First and foremost, the military commander of the 8th Brigade of the Lebanese Armed Forces who succeeded in stopping the offensive of the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt who, at that time, was leading the pro-Syrian militia.
As already stated, in the years following his appointment as Head of government, Aoun clashed especially with both the Shi’ite and Druse groups and the Maronite militia of Samir Geagea’s “Phalanx”.
As was also the case in Northern Ireland and Spain, with the Basque movement, the political revolution easily gives way to illegal activities.
In 1989, after the signing of the inter-Lebanese peace agreement -a sectarian pact, named Taif Accord because it was made in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which put an end to the Lebanese civil war-the new President Hrawi dismissed Michel Aoun and ordered him to leave the presidential Palace. He refused to dismiss and barricaded himself in the Palace to prepare for his defense, thus refusing to give up the power.
Not very long after the attacks on the presidential Palace Aoun was asked to leave the Lebanon and later went into exile in France. For the former Head of the Lebanese Armed Forces the exile was inevitable after the victory of the Syrian forces that entered the Lebanon to stabilize the “province” of Beirut.
It was a period in which Aoun established very close relations with the French intelligence services and, above all, with the Israeli ones.
During those years the Lebanon became a full Syrian protectorate.
Nevertheless Aoun came back to the political scene and to the Lebanon in 2004, when the UN voted Resolution No. 1559, which obliged all the Syrian Armed Forces to leave Syria.
Aoun ended 15 years of exile when he returned to the Lebanon on May 7, 2015 – eleven days after the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from the Lebanon following the assassination of Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. The huge demonstrations following the assassination of Hariri, guarantor of the Lebanese reconstruction -although with the Saudi money – after the massive destruction caused by the civil war, forced the Syrians to leave the country.
It was from that moment that Aoun, who had long secretly and later overtly returned to the Lebanon, quickly began to approach and come closer to his long-standing enemies, the Shi’ites of Hezbollah and Amal.
Amal, the old movement of Nabih Berri, had fought against Hezbollah for control over South Beirut in the “Lebanese civil war” and, however, had been founded by Musa al-Sadr, the Imam who established the belonging of the Alawites – hence the elite currently ruling Syria – to the Shi’ite Islam and was most likely killed, upon Gaddafi’s order, in Rome in 1978.
As can be easily seen, the Lebanese politics has always been a game of shadows and paradoxes.
In 2008, however, Aounhad failed in his first presidential project, while reestablishing relations with his old Maronite enemy, Samir Geagea, who in 2016, withdrew from the presidential election and made his votes converge on Aoun.
Nevertheless Aoun could anticipate the real presidential victory only when Saad Hariri, weakened by the financial crisis of his company operating in Saudi Arabia and pressed by the French Embassy for other very urgent financial problems, gave him his support – certainly in return for a future Premiership, thus abandoning the Christian candidate of his coalition, Suleiman Frangiehjr.
Aoun, however, is old since he is aged 82. He is supposed to pave the way for his son-in-law and current Foreign Minister, Gebrain Bassil.
Moreover, the two coalitions – both heirs of the civil war – are ever less voted by young people and by all those who want to lay the ghost of the Lebanese political and military factionalism. There are many of them.
Not surprisingly, in the latest elections the two coalitions even joined forces to defeat the new civic and environmental movement known as Beirut Madinati (“Beirut My City”) which, however, unexpectedly won one of Beirut’s three electoral districts.
Beirut Madinatiis a movement which emerged after the 2015-16Lebanese protests as a reaction to power and water shortages, streets filled with trash and dizzying urban infrastructure. Nothing destroys political representation as disaster in basic public services.
Nothing supported Hezbollah more than its supply of sectarian welfare, which replaces a State that no longer has the money nor the rules – stupidly “liberalized” – to help the poor in hospitals, schools and at work.
The rules of privatization will destroy political representation also in the West.
As can be easily imagined, however, the core of the Lebanese political system is currently the intelligence service network.
Also as a military leader, Aoun is still at the centre of the Lebanese intelligence system.
He is the guarantor and the mitigator of both the demands of the Shi’ite alliances, including Hezbollah -Aoun’s ally since 2005 and traditional point of reference for Syria and, above all, for Iran – and of the multifarious, but powerful world of Sunni militias.
The Sunnis are a politically growing area no longer tolerating the defeats of the “jihadist brothers” in Syria and Iraq, nor the perceived dominance of Hezbollah and Amal.
The Lebanon, however, has four intelligence agencies: the “Intelligence Section of the Interior Security Forces” (IS-ISF); the “General Directorate of General Security” (GDGS); the “Military Intelligence Directorate” (MID) and the “State Security Directorate” (SSD).
The IS-ISF deals with counterterrorism, anti-drugs and criminal investigations; the GDGS works on visas and passports, censorship, port and airport checks, as well as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.
Conversely, the MID operates in the field of military espionage, the protection of Armed Forces’ sites and facilities, as well as the prevention of political upheavals.
Finally, the SSD protects public offices and important personalities.
General Antoine Suleyman Mansour has recently replaced his peer Camille Daher as Head of the MID.
Mansour was born in the Beqaa Valley and followed counterterrorism courses in the USA, in France, but above all in Syria.
The Beqaa Valley is the axis of Hezbollah’s economic and strategic power.
It is in that region, which is essential also for Israel’s defense, that the “Party of God” organizes its drug trafficking and where its main very secret arms caches are located.
The “Shi’ite pathway” stretching from Iraq to Teheran up to South Beirut – as currently imagined – is vital for the very survival of Hezbollah, but also for the Iranian power system.
It is the most evident threat to the Israeli system, especially if we relate it to the Iranian operations in the Gaza Strip and in the Territories.
Moreover, General Daher also dealt – directly with Saudi Arabia – a supply of brand new French weapons paid by Saudi Arabia and worth three billion US dollars. Nonetheless the negotiations failed and the weapons were later bought by Saudi Arabia for its armed forces.
It is easy to understand what this meant for the Lebanese internal political equilibrium.
It is said that General Daher bears the brunt of his affinity with General Kahwahj, former Chief of Staff in Beirut and, above all, Aoun’ sworn enemy and internal rival.
General Karaa, the first Head of the SSD and Abdou Fattou, responsible for the confidential funds of the Service, were replaced by Tony Saliba and Wafiq Jizzini, respectively. In 2008 General Karaa had investigated into Hezbollah’s advanced and confidential communication network, which is very powerful and secret, while Abbas Ibrahim, who leads the GSDS, is explicitly supported by the “Party of God” and hence has remained at his place.
Ibrahim has also held the recent and complex negotiations between the Daesh-Isis, Al Nusra and Hezbollah for the transfer – hence the recent increase in the Lebanese sectarian violence – of Sunni terrorists to Syria, under the direct protection of Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence Service.
Hence what is the current electoral system in the Lebanon? In June 2017 the various religious and political forces reached an agreement on electoral procedures.
The agreement led to a proportional representation system, wanted above all by the Maronite world, and, in particular, by Aoun’s movement, namely the Free Patriotic Movement, as well as by its Shi’ite allies.
Considering the 6.2 million inhabitants of the Lebanon, Muslims account for 54%, of whom 27% are Sunni and 27% Shi’ite, with the latter growing significantly. Christians account for 40.5%, of whom 21% are Maronite, 8% areGreek Orthodox, 5% are Greek Catholics, 6.5% are other types of Christians, while the Druses are 5.6%.
As could be easily predicted, currently Hezbollah is the real winner of the latest Lebanese elections.
Together with Amal, united in a joint list called Al Amal wal Wafa (“Hope and Loyalty”), the two Shi’ite Parties, along with other friendly lists, won 13 and 15 seats respectively.
Beforehand, the two pro-Iranian Parties, with a very long history of violent struggle between each other, had 13 seats each in the Lebanese Parliament, which has a total of 128 seats.
As many as 7,000 clearly documented infringements of the electoral procedures were checked, with a voter turnout lower than 50%. Hence many operations of tampering with people’s will were recorded, whatever this means in the Lebanon.
Aoun’s movement rose from 18 to 22 seats while, at least this time, Geagea’s group–Hezbollah’s traditional Maronite opponent and Aoun’s current ally -rose from 8 to 14 seats.
Also the Azm Party of former Prime Minister Najib Mikatirose from one to four seats.
The Azm Party was founded by Mikati, the well-known Premier of the March 8 Alliance, with the support of Hezbollah, Aoun and their local allies.
The Syrian National Socialist Party and Tashnag, the political group of reference for the Lebanese Armenian community, obtained two and three seats, respectively.
However, Kollouna Watani(“We are All National”) – a recently-established political group -got no seats.
Saad Hariri’s Party, which seems to be no longer close to its Saudi friends’ heart, fell from 33 to 21 seats only. Moreover, in Beirut, in the traditional strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the Shi’ites won.
The Druse Party of Walid Jumblatt, namely the Progressive Socialist Party, lost two seats falling from 11 to 9.
Here demography rather than militant politics matters – as well as the great Lebanese migration of the middle class to Europe and the United States.
The Kataeb Party, the old Maronite Phalanx of Sami Gemayel, fell from five to three seats.
Marada, Frangieh’s old movement, kept its three seats.
Certainly the prorogation of Parliamentary terms of office began with the outbreak of riots in 1975 – except for the extraordinary appointment of 40 MPs elected in 1991. Hence the Parliamentary Assembly elected in 1975 lasted in office precisely until 1991.
The Parliament just dissolved had been elected in 2009, for four years only, but its term was extended four times in a row.
Furthermore, the election of President Suleiman on May 25, 2008 had been made possible only by the inter-Lebanese Dialogue held in Doha on May 21, 2008, shortly after the (military) show of strength by Hezbollah in West Beirut, right in the Sunni area of the capital city.
Therefore the elections of June 2009 directly followed President Michel Suleiman’s rise to power.
Four years later, the elections already scheduled for June 7, 2013, were postponed again.
The Parliament continuously renewed its term of office until 2014, then until June 2017 and again until 2018. A failed link between the Presidency and local representation.
Moreover, at military level, since that moment Hezbollah has been a unit integrated with the rest of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Hence the Syrian army, the “Party of God” and the Al QudsIranian brigades have become actors on the operational front as early as the fall of Aleppo, on December 22, 2016, while a real Iranian military protectorate on the Lebanon has been created by the presence of said three forces along the axis stretching from Northern Syria to Southern Lebanon, through the Golan Heights.
Later, after the clear support of the “Party of God” to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the cleavage, i.e. the final “break” between Sunnis and Shi’ites, widened, even in the Lebanon alone.
Therefore, after the end of the “Caliphate”, Saudi Arabia and its allies have no elements on which to manipulate the balance of power and forces in the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis.
All this happens while Saad Hariri, together with the Saudi “enemies” that are still in the broad March 8 Alliance, are agreeing with Hezbollah to form a “national unity” government. Hariri, who is floundering in a financial crisis, needs this government to get back on track.
As an old South American parliamentarian used to say, politics “es muy lucrativa pero muy peligrosa”
With specific reference to Hariri, this is the sense of his defacto “being held hostage” by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as from November 2017.
This is the internal and external sphere of power relations in the Lebanese political system.
The rationale of the new electoral system provided for by Law No. 44 of June 17, 2017 is to project internally the external equilibria which ensure unity and funding to the Lebanese State.
With a view to avoiding further chaos, after Michel Aoun’s election, all the electoral districts and constituencies were designed to preserve and stabilize the traditional religious-sectarian electorate.
In fact, electoral law No. 44/2017 divides the country into fifteen major electoral constituencies, further divided into 26 cazas, namely minor electoral districts, thus putting together the classic proportional representation system with a mechanism defined by the specific “preferential voting”.
This means that each voter shall vote for one of the competing lists and shall be entitled to cast one preferential vote for a candidate of the same list he/she has chosen.
This voting system selects candidates only within the caza, the first and smallest electoral district.
The vote, however, is valid only if the preferential votes are cast in all fifteen regional constituencies – with the electoral quotient determined by the number of voters in a given constituency divided by the number of seats already allocated for that constituency.
The preferential voting, however, defines the ranking – hence the winner at caza level.
In other words – as is also the case with Western Europe -this happens to create a sort of electoral elite as against the mass of irrelevant representatives.
Therefore the Lebanese system creates a hidden electoral bonus, but only for the best known candidates.
Nonetheless the real issue is another one: the division is currently within the March 14 Alliance, with the Sunni, Druse and Christian side opposing the Syrian designs on the Lebanon, as against the March 8 Alliance that is increasingly linked to the Syrian regime and its external supporters.
Hence the local paradoxes of a now clear geopolitical framework: Samir Geagea’s “Lebanese Forces” of Samir Geagea are hostile to the Syrian-Iranian axis and close to Saudi Arabia, but are allied with the Free Democratic Movement of Aoun and his son-in-law Bassil, who have instead signed a written contract with Hezbollah.
Therefore, in the Lebanon, there is a political system reaffirming and maintaining the destabilization of the country indefinitely. It brings back memories.
The Reality of Multipolarity in the Middle East
Middle Eastern states have always welcomed China’s involvement in economic fields. China’s total trade with the region has increased dramatically since the beginning of the twenty-first century, and it is growing steadily, rising from $180 billion in 2019 to $259 billion in 2021. On the other hand, the total Middle East trade with the United States has declined from $120 billion dollars in 2019 to $82 billion in 2021. China is still working to consolidate its economic ties, transcending regional divisions, which contributes to strengthening its position as the largest trading partner for regional powers such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
China has historically avoided getting involved in regional conflicts or taking direct positions on thorny disputes. Instead of challenging the US hegemony and military supremacy in the Middle East in the post-Cold War era, China, as a secondary superpower, benefited from the US security cover without contributing to it, without incurring the same security cost as the US, and without facing same strategic dilemmas. However, this reality seems to be changing today. By mediating the agreement to resume relations between Riyadh and Tehran, Beijing is embarking on a new turning point based on expanding its involvement in the region by moving from economic exchange to negotiating dispute resolution.
The way China works to achieve negotiated solutions to disputes is an attractive factor for the states of the region, which have on several occasions since 2011 criticized successive US administrations for their strategic withdrawal from the Middle East, and resented the failure of US intervention in Iraq, Libya, Syria and other states. China may hail its brokering of the Saudi-Iranian deal as a diplomatic success short for the United States, but Tehran and Riyadh must first honor their commitments to it.
As China plunges into the midst of Middle Eastern politics and its complexities, it will face strategic challenges that will undermine its image as a neutral party, and the success of its new strategy in the region will depend on local realities on the ground. China, as it has been Iran’s largest trading partner for ten years, is in a unique position to get Iran to live up to its commitments, although China’s willingness to do so remains uncertain. But it is clear that it made an ambitious bet in its mediating role between the two states, and the future course of events will depend on the amount of pressure that China intends to apply, and to a much greater extent, on the behavior that Iran and Saudi Arabia choose to follow.
In the next stage, beyond mediation, China will have to decide what role it wants to play in the region: that of a diplomatic mediator, a military sponsor, or a distracted economic giant. It is still too early to anticipate the shifts that China’s regional stature may undergo, but its recent forays into Middle Eastern diplomacy suggest broader geopolitical interests. The best example of this is the Chinese-Arab summit, which was held for the first time in Riyadh last December, and the strategic partnership agreements that China signed with Iran on the one hand and some Arab states on the other.
It is not clear whether Beijing’s “zero conflict” policy can distance it from diplomatic pressure to define final geopolitical alignments. But it will have to navigate this new geopolitical atmosphere in measured ways. China, through its work to promote the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, may cause the wrath of Israel, which is not enthusiastic about this rapprochement. And Beijing, as it continues to implement the “zero conflicts” approach, must not turn a blind eye to the permanent issue in the Middle East, that is, the Palestinian issue, if it wants to maintain its credibility among the Arab masses. In the face of these conflicting interests, China’s regional policy based on strategic hedging may inadvertently evolve into a comprehensive policy to balance power and ensure security in the Middle East. A rising China may hold prospects for global multipolarity in the Middle East, but it will have to face and overcome the same pitfalls that the United States encountered if it is to bring about tangible change in the regional status quo.
As for the United States, it should not view the expansion of Chinese involvement solely as a threat. Beijing cannot and does not want to usurp Washington’s role as the dominant military power in the region. Rather, the reality of the situation is that China’s expanded geopolitical involvement may open up avenues for increasing its cooperation with the United States, by investing in specific regional relationships that Washington lacks, the best example of which is the strong trade ties between China and Iran. Since these two great powers align on some of their core interests in the region, including ensuring the flow of global energy resources and freedom of navigation, the United States must act prudently by refraining from pressuring its Arab allies into exclusive partnerships. Instead of Washington fearing and contributing to a cold war in the Middle East, it should reassess its priorities in the region and look for ways to achieve positive and stabilizing outcomes from engagement with Beijing.
The Middle East may be preparing to become an arena for multipolar competition, but this competition may not be vertical and may not happen overnight. Therefore, the great powers must respond to the realities on the ground by listening to the local forces and adapting to the changing regional concerns. And as long as it is no longer possible to maintain American unipolarity, perhaps it is more appropriate for the United States to keep pace with the current changes to achieve its interests in the best way.
Unleashing an Iranian tiger
A Gulf investor with an analytical and artistic bent, Ali al-Salim pinpointed the long-term challenges Saudi Arabia faces as it reestablishes relations with Iran.
While most analysts focused on the immediate reduction of regional tensions and the possible opening for an end to the eight-year-long Saudi military intervention in Yemen as a result of a Chinese-mediated agreement to restore diplomatic relations between two Middle Eastern arch-rivals, Mr. Al-Salim is looking at Iran’s long-term competitive edge compared to the kingdom.
“As relations between Saudi and Iran begin to thaw, the logic for Saudi’s ambitious ‘Trojena’ ski resort will come further into question. Iran boasts world-class ski resorts an hour from Tehran and 90km of slopes. Oh, and it’s all natural, even the snow,” Mr. Al-Salim said on Twitter.
Mr. Al-Salim was referring to a yet-to-be-built resort on mountain peaks overlooking Neom slated to be home to 7,000 people by 2026 and annually attract 700,000 visitors. Trojena would be the Gulf’s first outdoor ski resort.
Neom is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s US$500 billion fantasia. It is a futuristic science-fiction-like new city and tourism destination along the Red Sea in a mostly unpopulated part of the kingdom.
Somewhat incongruously, the Olympic Council of Asia has awarded Trojena the right to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.
In contrast to Iran’s up to 5,600-metre high, 600-kikometer-long Alborz mountain range that stretches along the Caspian Sea, snow falls occasionally on Trojena’s 2,400-metre high Sarawat mountains.
To compensate for its shortage, Trojena plans to create an outdoor ski slope by blasting artificial snow on the mountains. This slope would be powered by renewable energy.
In Mr. Al-Salim’s mind, Trojena appears to be emblematic of the broader challenge posed by an Iran that eventually is freed of the shackles of crippling US sanctions and has rebuilt its economy.
Unshackled and recovered, Iran brings to the table much that Saudi Arabia has and more. With a population close to 90 million, Iran is almost three times the size of the kingdom. It ranks as the world’s third-largest oil and second-largest natural gas reserve holder.
Beyond boasting one of the Middle East’s largest domestic markets, an innovative and technology-savvy youth, a deep-seated identity rooted in empire, and a battle-hardened military, Iran occupies strategic geography at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and a coastline along the Arabian Sea, the western end of the Indo-Pacific.
To be sure, Iran has a long way to go to fully capitalize on its assets with no immediate prospect of its clerical regime doing what it would take to persuade the United States to lift sanctions, rebuild confidence with its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, and introduce necessary political, economic, and social reforms.
As a result, Saudi Arabia has a first-starter advantage, which Mr. Bin Salman is bent on exploiting with his social reforms and efforts to diversify the Saudi economy to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil exports, of which Trojena is one building block.
Even so, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia constitutes a first step to strengthen the Iranian economy. This would enable Iran to position itself as not just a formidable political rival but also an economic competitor.
“Evidently, de-escalation will reduce the cost of regional security for all parties and free up more potential for trade and cross-border investments and partnerships that the region needs,” said Bijan Khajehpour, a keen observer of the Iranian economy.
Iranian hopes have been buoyed by plans by the United Arab Emirates to boost annual trade with Iran to US$30 billion in the next two years, up from $20 billion in 2022, Emirati interest in Iranian infrastructure, including the strategic Arabian Sea port of Chahbahar, and prospects for Saudi investment in the Islamic republic.
Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan recently told a private sector forum of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund that investment in Iran could happen “very quickly.”
Optimistically, Mr. Al-Jadaan went on to say that “there are a lot of opportunities for Saudi investments in Iran. We don’t see impediments as long as the terms of any agreement would be respected.”
Mr. Al-Jadaan’s remarks did not refer to US sanctions, the elephant in the room. Instead, he hinted at Iran’s need to clean up multiple legal and operational ambiguities that pose obstacles to foreign investment, even without considering externally imposed restrictions.
Laying out a roadmap for Saudi and Gulf investment in Iran, Mr. Khajehpour suggested that initially, investors could target non-sanctioned industries, such as food and pharmaceuticals while developing “creative banking and financial solutions” that would enable circumvention of sanctions.
Furthermore, Mr. Khajehpour held out the possibility that the United States could provide waivers for investments that address water scarcity and climate change.
If and when sanctions are lifted, the sky is the limit.
Opportunities range from cooperation on petroleum products and petrochemicals, development of an offshore Saudi-Iranian-Kuwaiti gas field, and connecting electricity grids, to investment in transportation linkages, according to Mr. Khajehpour.
Saudi interest in getting in on the ground floor of Iran’s eventual reemergence extends beyond geopolitical, security, economic, and commercial considerations.
Economic cooperation has the potential to blunt the impact of an unleashed Iran by making the kingdom a partner.
“Iran’s rise is inevitable. When it happens, the Middle East will be a different place. Saudi Arabia knows that. It sees the short- and long-term benefits of recalibrating relations with Iran. Iran hasn’t quite thought that far but ultimately it will,” said a European official who closely monitors Middle Eastern developments.
The New Middle East: The Winners and Losers
The Middle East and the Gulf regions are experiencing a political and diplomatic movement that they have not witnessed in the last three or four decades.
Behind this movement are the influential states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Egypt. A few years ago, it was impossible to imagine any political or diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Turkey and Egypt, and between a number of Arab states and Syria.
For decades, the US has been working on a “New Middle East” that embraces Israel, and then the circumstances tend towards a “new one that includes Iran!
What led to this movement, which will have repercussions on alliances and threads of differences?
There are several regional and other remote factors that are no less influential.
Domestically, it is clear that the region, with its leaders and people, is tired of wars and turmoil and is now envious of the world’s progress while it is mired in its endless complexes and crises.
Internationally, it is possible to talk about the US role and then the political and social changes in Europe coinciding with the rise of international powers on the periphery such as India, China and others, and finally the war in Ukraine.
The beginning was with the arrival of President Donald Trump and his resort to painful language in its frankness, which does not hide that the man does not respect the region and its leaders, but rather considers it a mere bazaar in which he markets whatever he wants without objection from anyone, and a mere ATM that withdraws from it whenever he wants and as much as he wants. Not to mention his frankness that he will not fight wars on behalf of a region he deems lazy and backward and refuses to rely on itself. Trump embodied this conviction when he refused to strike Iran in response to the dangerous Houthi attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in mid-September 2019.
This crude frankness and lack of respect led the Middle East and the Gulf region, especially states that considered the United States an eternal ally such as Saudi Arabia, to ask: What will the Democrats do to us if Trump, our Republican ally, disrespects us like this?
Then came their reply. The Democrats did not wait long after Joe Biden came to the White House to take an approach similar to Trump’s, but for other reasons and from a different mentality. In addition to the annoyance of Saudi Arabia and other states in the region about the issues of rights and freedoms hinted at by the Biden administration, there is the great confusion shown by this administration in dealing with the problems of the region, in contrast to Trump’s frankness, and its excessive interest in the conflict with China and later the war in Ukraine at the expense of the US’s allies traditionalists in this region.
The Trump and Biden administrations should be given credit for waking up the leaders of the Middle East and the Gulf, because their approaches were a wake-up call that it would be dangerous to ignore. The service provided by the two administrations to the staff of the region is that they are equal in their disdain for everyone: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, with a keenness to further strangle Iran and Syria for well-known reasons.
In the midst of that labor, Russia’s war broke out against Ukraine to shuffle the cards across the world, but specifically in the Middle East and the Gulf regions due to its traditional strategic tensions and its richness in oil and natural resources, and the need for both conflict camps to gain its support for it.
As far as the Ukraine war and above all Europe, it constituted a wake-up call in the positive direction of the Gulf leaders. The Ukraine war was an outlet for these leaders on more than one level. It first gave them the opportunity to maneuver and express their displeasure with the US insults. And I gave them an alternative that is no less powerful than the traditional West, which they can deal with in better conditions and without insults, which is the camp of Russia, China and dozens of states that swim in their orbit around the world.
It would be a mistake to be overly optimistic about this multi-faceted movement. Realism requires acknowledging that the more exceptional it is, the more reasons for its failure it contains in the absence of sufficient sophistication and the required sacrifices from all parties. One of the weaknesses of this movement is that it is the result of pressure, driven by need, not by conviction. Iran is stifled by sanctions and the unstable internal situation. Saudi Arabia can no longer tolerate a single missile from the Houthis. The economy and financial situation in Türkiye is in dire straits. Egypt is not moved by anything other than “rice”. The regime in Syria wants to get out of its isolation, which will be the culmination of what it considers a victory over its opponents. The UAE wants to prove to US that it is not everything in this universe.
This is on the political level. On the practical level, there are many obstacles that will stand in the way of this movement, especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Turkey. It is a good coincidence (and bad at the same time) that normalization (or lack thereof) between Riyadh and Tehran will be reflected far beyond the two states, and the same applies to Ankara and Cairo.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are separated by political, religious and strategic differences that are not easy to overcome. The theaters of confrontation between the two states are vast, including Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and inevitably there are other areas and issues that constitute points of contention.
Turkey and Egypt are stuck on many issues, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, Libya and the energy fields in the Mediterranean. In addition to Egyptian foreign policy that is not completely independent and directed by the winds of the Gulf, Turkish foreign files, including normalization with Egypt, remain dependent on the results of the presidential elections scheduled in Turkey in late May.
It will also be necessary for the Arab and Gulf leaders who decided to engage in this movement, taking into account that the United States will not easily accept maneuvers behind its back in a region that it has considered guaranteed for more than seventy years. There is also the position of Israel, which will not accept the rehabilitation of the Iranian regime in the region, and will not easily swallow that the region has favored Iran.
The consolation is that this movement is not isolated from what is happening in the world, but is part of it. What is happening in the world outweighs the US and Israel and is happening against their will. It is an opportunity that will not be repeated easily if the region knows how to benefit from it for the benefit of all.
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