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Saudi effort to isolate Iran internationally produces results

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Saudi efforts to isolate Iran internationally are producing results in North Africa and Central Asia. Authorities and religious leaders in Tajikistan and Algeria have in recent weeks accused Iran of subversive activity and propagating Shiism while Morocco last month announced that it was breaking off diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic.

While similar accusations have been lobbed at Iran in the past as part of a four-decade-long covert war between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic, the more recent incidents suggest that the Saudis are increasingly focussing on isolating Iran diplomatically.

In doing so they are benefitting from ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam’s appeal in North Africa and Central Asia even if Saudi Arabia is believed to have substantially reduced its financial support for Salafi and other groups.

At times, like in the case of Algeria, a country in which Shiites account for at most two percent of the population and that has seen an increase in popularity of Saudi-inspired Salafi scholars, the allegations seem to involve above board Iranian activities that are unlikely to have the alleged effect of fomenting sectarianism.

The anti-Iranian campaign at times also appears to be designed to pressure countries like Algeria, whose relations with the kingdom are strained because of its refusal to adopt anti-Iranian Saudi policies. Algeria supports the embattled 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran as well as Iran’s presence in Syria and has refused to declare Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, a terrorist organization.

In the most recent incident, Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, a pan-Arab, Saudi-owned newspaper, quoted, former Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments official Idah Falahi as demanding the withdrawal of Iranian diplomat Amir Mousavi because of his “extensive contacts with civil society groups, through Facebook and social media” and alleged attempts to meddle in the dispute between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara.

Morocco last month broke off diplomatic relations with Iran, alleging that Tehran had provided financial and logistical support as well as surface-to-air missiles to the Algerian-backed West Saharan liberation movement, Frente Polisario, using Hezbollah as an intermediary. Both Iran and Hezbollah have denied the allegation.

“It…became apparent that Mousavi was in fact an Iranian intelligence agent, whose remit was to interfere in the dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara conflict,” said Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Tony Duheaume.

The newspaper reported that Iran was seeking to recruit Algerian Shiites who travel to the holy city of Karbala in Iraq and was using Iranian companies as vehicles to promote Shiism. “With the launching of a production line for Iranian vehicles, plus another for the production of medicines, and with the two countries boosting their cooperation enormously in the private sector, Iran has ensnared Algeria through an ongoing succession of trade deals,” Mr. Duheaume said.

The newspaper quoted Algerian member of parliament Abdurrahman Saidi as charging that Iran was attempting to create a Shiite movement in North Africa. “The Algerian state is aware today that it faces the risk of sectarianism,” the newspaper asserted.

Algerian minister of endowment and religious affairs Muhammad Issa last year compared Iran to the Islamic State in an interview with a Saudi newspaper amid a growing anti-Iranian sentiment in Algeria.

An international book fair in Algeria banned Iranian books because they “incite sectarianism and violence” after Bou Abdullah Ghulamallah, the head of Algeria’s High Islamic Council, , charged that “thousands of imported books carry dangerous thoughts that are aimed at convincing the Algerian people that their Islamic religion is wrong.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani cancelled a visit to Algeria after an Arabic-language hashtag, #No to Rouhani’s visit to Algeria, went viral.

“It is difficult to corroborate allegations made in the Asharq al-Awsat report. It is also unlikely that Tehran would be able to significantly expand its influence in Algeria through the Shiite community,” said Ahmad Majidyar, the director of the Washington-based Middle East Institute’s IranObserved Project.

Its equally difficult to verify a link between Saudi-inspired Salafism’s increased popularity and rising anti-Iranian sentiment, but the development of anti-Shiite sentiment is not dissimilar to growing intolerance, anti-Iranian sentiment and anti-Shiism in countries like Tajikistan, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia where the influence of Saudi-inspired religious ultra-conservatism is expanding.

Developments in Tajikistan, ironically a nation that has linguistic and cultural links to Iran, mirror the growing anti-Iranian sentiment in Algeria. Tajikistan’s Council of Ulema or Islamic scholars, this month accused Iran of trying to destabilize the country. The council charged that Iran was funding Muhiddin Kabiri, head of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), that has been designated a terrorist organization by the government.

The council’s statement came days after anti-Iranian demonstrators in front of the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe demanded the return of Tajik religious students from Iran and accused the Islamic republic of supporting extremists and planning assassinations.

Iran has in recent years suspended charitable operations in the capital Dushanbe, including a hospital managed with Tajik health authorities, and halted its economic and cultural activities in Khujand, Tajikistan’s second largest city, on orders of the government.

“Nowhere is this contrast between the hyped-up Iranian threat and reality more evident than in Tajikistan,” said Eldar Mamedov, who is in charge of the European Parliament’s delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Gulf, and North Africa.

Iran helped negotiate an end to Tajikistan’s civil war and an agreement between President Emomali Rahmon, a former Soviet Communist Party official, and the IRP. Mr. Rahmon, determined to demolish any opposition, banned the IRP in 2015.

The stirring of the anti-Iranian pot coincided with a Saudi effort to woo Mr. Rahmon who was invited last year to an Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh with Donald J. Trump during the US president’s visit to the kingdom despite the fact that he is a bit player on the global stage. Tajikistan was earlier invited to join a Saudi-led Muslim counter terrorism force.

Like in Algeria, it also coincided with rising popularity of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism in Tajikistan.

In a move that garners favour in Riyadh, Tajikistan has opposed Iran’s application for membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that requires approval of membership by unanimous vote. Iran has observer status with the SCO, while Saudi Arabia has yet to establish a relationship.

By stirring the pot, Mr. Rahmon has a vehicle to maintain his iron grip at home and garner investment and financial support from the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia agreed last month to acquire a 51 percent stake, in troubled Tojiksodirotbank (TSB), Tajikistan’s largest bank. The Saudi investment was a life saver after other investors, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), turned the opportunity down.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Saudi-Turkey Discourse: Is a Resolve Imminent?

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The two prominent Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia and Turkey have had an undulating relationship over the course of decades and despite of the geographical and religious proximity, the two have rarely been on the same page. Recent tide over the relation is an outcry by the Saudi Chambers of Commerce to ‘Boycott everything Turkish’. Allegedly the boycott spans over a wide range: level of investment in the country, tourism interchange and even the imports are to be curbed. This was deemed as a “moral responsibility” of every Saudi citizen against the nation’s enemies; as per the statement of Saudi’s Chamber of Commerce head Ajlan Al Ajlan.

The duo have taken opposing sides for decades, especially when it narrows down to regional conflicts. The history relays strong relations between the two Sunni-majority Muslim countries, however, with polar position in the Syrian crisis followed by a blood-ridden civil war, the relations never recovered to a modest degree. The Saudi Kingdom, under the premiership of Muhammad Bin Salman, shifted its Syria policy in late 2018, seeking to normalize Assad’s regime while Turkey continued to support the opposing forces. Meanwhile, in Libya, Riyadh aided warlord Khalifa Haftar, while Ankara intervened to channel militarily assistance to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

The relations between the two Islamic nations were again triggered by the statement of Turkish president, Receb Tayyib Erdogen, accusing the Gulf nations for the instability in the region. This was the statement that incited such a hoarse reaction from the economic entity within the kingdom. The tie between the two was never a strong one but a major incident strained the relations back in 2018. The murder of Saudi citizen and a columnist of The Washington Post, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi, back in October 2018 set all fires loose when Saudi government was outright accused of involvement in the brutal murder at Saudi Consulate. The Turkish president went as far as insinuating the involvement of crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, in the gruesome murder. Earlier in 2017, Ankara stood as a vital support mechanism, alongside Tehran,to Doha in terms of the rudimentary facets of finance and military when Qatar was excluded and sectionalised by Saudi Arabia and its allies on account of close affiliation with rebellious groups in the region backed by Iran; accounts that were repeatedly denied by the Qatari regime.

The two Islamic republics have been at head once again ever since the recent controversial decision of UAE, Bahrain and Morocco to join hands and normalise relations with Israel came to light. Turkey and Iran, despite of the Shia-Sunni disparity, have relatively been close in ties since both have stood at odds with the foreign involvement in the region while Saudi Arabia has welcomed it with open arms. Even with the normalisation of relations with Israel, UAE and Bahrain met heavy criticism around the Muslim world but majorly championed by Iran and Turkey: former calling the move as a “Stab in the back” while the latter threatening to sever ties with the Gulf states. Both the statements were shrugged by the Saudi representatives as an ‘internal matter’ and warning the duo to refrain from interference. The Saudi position on the normalisation was clear when Israeli flights were allowed to fly through the Kingdom’s airspace en route to UAE.

The growing animosity is not novel between the duo as they have been in contrasting positions on multiple foreign policy issues and have even held starkly different positions over the islamist groups operating in the west European region. Although Saudi government officials have not confirmed the implication of the statement of its Chamber of Commerce, the signs of blooming tensions were sensed earlier this year. Even pre-Covid, the tourism dropped 17% between the countries and Turkey, being the 12th highest trade partner of the kingdom, saw a steady decline in bi-lateral trade. Albeit the externalities of the pandemic, the relations continue to deteriorate, and the signs might turn more apparent over time.

Now with Mr. Joe Biden prepared to take on the United States’ foreign policy, the Middle East would be the prime focus as per his pensive thoughts over the issues of the region. As he mentioned to ‘Reassess’ the relations with Saudi Arabia, the regard is clearly in terms of Saudi’s nefarious role in fanning the steps of Trump in the region, more specifically its involvement in the Yemen civil war and the controversial killing of the Washington Post columnist, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi. With isolation looming and need for solid alliance for better foundations for US relations, Saudi Arabia may have started with reconciling with Qatar but Turkey is optimistically the next on the radar.

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Why is Melih Bulu Seen as a Pro-AKP “Trustee” Rector?

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Photo: Youth Committees / Twitter

The new year started under the shadow of social tensions triggered by Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Professor Melih Bulu had founded the Sarıyer district organization of the incumbent AK Party in 2002. Bulu who in 2015 became a candidate for being a deputy from AK Party could not gain nomination to run in the elections. Bulu also worked as a rector in two private universities before: İstinye University and Haliç University.

On December 31 2020, Bulu was the rectorate of Haliç University. The abrupt appointment of Bulu as the rector to Turkey’s most prestigious university prompted a major outrage since the move was regarded as a direct interruption of academic freedom.

Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University caused a large unrest among Bosphorus students, graduates and scholars. In addition, people coming from different sectors of society who are critical of Erdoğan administration have also joined the “anti-Bulu” protest campaign on social media. After Bulu’s appointment, Bosphorus University students protested the appointment on social media by using the hashtag #KayyumRektörİstemiyoruz (“We don’t want a trustee rector”). For a couple of days, students of Bosphorus University have been making protests calling Bulu to resign. However Bulu posted an announcement on his Twitter account saying that he will embrace everyone and he is very excited and happy for his new duty.

After Bulu’s appointment, not just his political identity affiliated with AK Party was put under debate but also his academic background was put under scrutiny as well. Allegations of plagiarism against him broke out especially on Twitter. Bulu defined these allegations as “slander” and argued that this was the literature survey part of his PhD thesis and said, “I did not write some parts between quotation marks. We did not have something written available. There were different citation rules but I put it in the bibliography section.”

According to the Global Academic Freedom Index Turkey has only 9.7 points out of 100 and it is in the rank of 135 out of 144 countries. Turkey is in the similar level with Syria and Turkmenistan.

In previous weeks, journalist Cüneyt Özdemir hosted Bulu in his live Youtube programme and in live broadcast, Bulu saluted the students from the window of his office at rectorate building while the students yelled asking for his resign and this act of Bulu caused surprises and ironies on social media. Amid this environment, on January 5, a group of Bosphorus University academics staged a peaceful protest by standing with their backs to the rectorate building during the handover ceremony for Bulu. The academics of Bosphorus University  made a public statement underlining that this appointment is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

Their full statement is as follows:

“’We don’t accept, we don’t give up!’

On January 1, 2021 at midnight, an academic outside Bogazici University community was appointed as rector, which is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

This is yet another case of many ongoing anti-democratic practices since 2016, aiming at abolishing rectorial elections. We do not accept it as it clearly violates academic freedom and scientific autonomy as well as the democratic values of our university. We refuse to compromise the principles the University Senate officially stated in 2012:

1. To enhance scientific research and social development, it is indispensable that universities be free from any pressure or influence from a person or an institution and not be used as a political tool.

2. For academic freedom, it is imperative that decision-making processes be delegated to democratically elected academic administrators and boards. All academic administrators including the Rector, Deans, Directors of Institute, Directors of Schools and Department Heads can be appointed only after being elected by the university community.

3. As universities are autonomous constitutional establishments, it is vital that university instructors and/or university boards decide on academic programs and research policies, which is an essential prerequisite for scientific freedom and creativity.

We strictly adhere to the principles above and we pledge to follow them up with all the other members of our university community.”

On the other hand, police forces detained more than 20 university students in home raids after the protests against the appointment of Bulu. In the mainstream pro-government media actors’ coverage of these events, it is argued that the detained people are not students, but they are members of illegal organizations whereas Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Republican People’s Party’s current provincial president in Istanbul rejected this and argued that they are students.

According to Althusser (1971), the modern state keeps the authority and control through two main systems: Repressive State Apparatuses & Ideological State Apparatuses. One of  areas concerning the ideological state apparatuses is known as education. In this regard, Erdoğan’s appointment of Bulu can be seen as a step of using ideological state apparatuses.

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Middle East

Morocco Increases Pressure on Hezbollah by Arresting One of its Alleged Financiers

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At a time when global attention is focused on the fight against the pandemic and the global effort to vaccinate populations, terrorist organizations and organized crime are trying to take advantage of the situation to carry out operations to finance their operations. In this context, Morocco’s announcement of the arrest of an alleged international con man linked to Hezbollah is considered a success for the Moroccan security services.

According to an official statement relayed by the Moroccan Official Agency, a suspect was arrested last Wednesday by the National Brigade of the Judicial Police (BNPJ). The 57-year-old Lebanese national is linked to the Hezbollah movement, an organization supported by Iran and considered as a terrorist group by the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. During the search conducted by the Moroccan police force, following intelligence and investigative work carried out by the Directorate General of Territorial Surveillance (DGST), investigators found European passports – French and Italian – as well as identity documents listed in the Interpol database as stolen. The suspect was taken into custody and brought before the King’s Prosecutor in order to continue the investigation, in partnership with Interpol and the countries involved in the alleged identity document thefts.

U.S. Recognition of Moroccan Sovereignty over Western Sahara

Moroccan authorities believed the suspect used these false identities to present himself as holding important roles in multinational corporations to defraud victims with promises of juicy deals and quick profit. While it is unclear at this stage of the investigation whether the international swindler intended to raise funds for Hezbollah, the arrest comes at a particularly crucial time for Morocco, following the recognition by the United States of America of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara on December the 10th, and the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israël. After this recognition, The US announced a 3 billion dollars investment plan to help Morocco boost its economy and development, as well as the opening of a regional office of its “Prosper Africa” initiative. Moreover, this Sunday, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker came to Western Sahara on the 9th of January to inaugurate a U.S. consulate in the coastal city of Dakhla, alongside the Moroccan minister for foreign affairs, Nasser Bourita.

Morocco Broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2018

Since 2018, Morocco has vigorously denounced Hezbollah’s alleged links with the Polisario Front separatist movement, and broke diplomatic relations with Tehran in the process, as explained by the Think-Tank Atlantic Council . Although both Iran and Hezbollah immediately refuted Morocco’s accusations regarding the organization’s alleged links with the Polisario Front, Rabat continued to increase its pressure and has since taken substantive action to curb the actions of the organization’s agents. In March 2017,  Kingdom arrested at the Casablanca airport Kassem Tajjedine, described by the Americans as the main financier of the organization. The latter was wanted for fraud, money laundering, and financing of terrorist activity, according to Reuters. Tajjedine was extradited to the US where he was sentenced to five years in Prison, and was released on July 2020 as part of a secret US-Iran deal.

Morocco is considered a stable country in North Africa, both on the political and economic level, as well as an important Hub for doing business in Africa and Europe. Over the last twenty years, the Kingdom had a steady growth rate of its GDP at around 4% and built top-class infrastructures, including the largest African port in Tangiers, 2000 Miles of Highway, a High-Speed train between Tangiers and Rabat, and the largest solar station of Africa in the south of the country.

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