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How Saudi Arabia’s canal plans could backfire

Samantha Maloof

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Thanks to its rift with neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Qatar could soon find itself an island nation, should the rumours that the kingdom intends to construct a 60-kilometer canal along the border between the two countries come to fruition.

Although the plans have yet to be confirmed by Riyadh, media reports claim that a number of companies have already been invited to tender for a project dubbed the ‘Salwa Channel’, with an ambitious budget – and an even more ambitious construction schedule. Costs are expected to top SR2.8 billion ($745 million).

If completed, the canal would further isolate Qatar – geographically as well as politically – from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, following the severing of ties between the two factions last June.

Extending the Gulf blockade hasn’t been plain sailing so far

The extraordinary canal project is the latest in a series of Saudi-led initiatives intended to punish Qatar for its alleged state sponsorship of terrorist groups in the region – allegations Qatar strenuously denies. Among its other recent moves, Saudi guards have seized control of the Salwa border crossing, effectively cutting off Qatar’s only land link, while Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has reportedly threatened military action should Qatar go ahead with plans to install a Russian air defence system.

Yet, despite Saudi’s sabre-rattling, there’s no sign of an end to the dispute; rather, evidence is growing that Riyadh’s strategy is beginning to backfire – to the benefit of Doha.

After twelve months of enduring what has been dubbed the ‘Qatar crisis’, reports suggest that not only has the tiny emirate revitalised its flagging financial situation but has also taken the opportunity to polish up its human rights record. Contrary to Saudi expectations, there doesn’t appear to be any sign that the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani is in any hurry to capitulate to Saudi demands.

Qatar’s economy is rebounding

The Qatari economy in particular has seen a dramatic turnaround from the early days of the crisis, which were marked by panic over the possibility of food shortages and a potential Saudi invasion. Then, Qatar had to turn to allies in Turkey and Iran for supplies as imports plummeted by 40 percent of their previous levels.

Now, daily life has largely returned to normal, thanks to the government’s determination to explore new trade routes, while providing state support to banks and helping to boost domestic production of certain essential goods such as dairy products. Qatar is also looking to expand its production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in partnership with Iran.

Qatar’s progress is impressive by any metric: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the country’s economy to grow by 2.6 percent this year – up from 2.1 percent in 2017, while the country’s fiscal deficit has also narrowed as a percentage of GDP.

Riyadh risks antagonizing Western stakeholders

In addition to the unexpected economic effects of the blockade, there is also the potential for blowback from key partners that are growing increasingly weary of the protracted dispute. Indeed, a year in from the start of sanctions, Saudi Arabia in particular is in the tricky position of wanting to punish Qatar while still maintaining positive relations with key Western allies – notably the UK, France and the US – all of whom would like to see an end to the friction, given their own political and commercial interests in the Gulf.

The good news story in Saudi Arabia at the moment is the announcement that women have been given the right to drive for the first time in three decades. Marked by a ribbon-cutting ceremony and lauded by Western publications like the Economist, the repeal of the driving ban has made for great headlines – though a number of prominent female activists who have been campaigning for a change in the law are still languishing in jail, suggesting that the repeal is hardly a resounding victory for women’s rights.

Nor is Saudi Arabia’s ongoing involvement in the Yemen conflict helping its cause. According to the UN’s latest Children and Armed Conflict report, the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 370 of the 552 child deaths in Yemen in 2017. The UN has repeatedly criticised the coalition for the high number of civilian casualties resulting from its airstrikes.

Qatar – slow yet real progress on reforms

Qatar has attracted its own share of criticism for human rights abuses, especially in relation to its ‘kafala’ sponsorship system for foreign labourers. As the emirate prepares to host the World Cup in 2022, the system has come under renewed scrutiny, with repeated calls to boycott the tournament over the high number of worker deaths that have occurred during the construction of new stadiums.

Yet there are small signs of progress: in its World Report 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) credits Qatar for reforms designed to improve labour standards for both domestic and migrant workers. In August, the Emir ratified Law No. 15 on domestic workers, which grants them protections including a maximum 10-hour shift, three weeks of annual leave, and healthcare benefits. Two months later, the International Trade Union Confederation announced that Qatar had agreed to extensive reforms of the kafala system. Of course, details are still lacking on how certain measures will be implemented, but such initiatives would be ground-breaking in a region where migrant workers make up such a large proportion of the labour force.

Meanwhile, as Qatar enacts reforms at home, the Gulf dispute rumbles on. In the latest development, Qatar has taken the UAE to the International Court of Justice, alleging discrimination as Qataris have been unable to visit family members in the Emirates due to the boycott. A provisional ruling is expected within the next few months. As the Qatari crisis enters the next phase, there’s no indication that either side is ready to concede. However, unless Saudi Arabia can change the narrative, the protracted blockade may end up being a blessing in disguise, not only for the Qatari economy but also for the civil liberties of its residents.

Samantha is a freshly minted graduate in International Relations based in Cairo, currently working as a research assistant in a small think tank looking at development and inequality in Africa

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Middle East

God’s Grace: Reichstag Fire and July 15 Military Coup

Zakir Gul, Ph.D.

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“By the grace of God!” Some rulers use the cry to explain why certain events happen and why they play out as they do. They will argue that God, in allowing the events to happen, has bestowed his grace upon the ruler. Two rulers and two events—the Reichstag fire in Germany on February 27, 1933,and the military coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016—illustrate the devastating consequences this twisted logic can have on the lives of ordinary people.When Adolph Hitler arrived at the scene, he told German Chancellor Franz von Pape, “This is a God-given signal” to crush Communists (and later opponents). Immediately after the failed military coup, Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the event was “a gift from God” and justification for Erdogan to start cleansing the military (and later purging opponents).

The similarities between the two events are striking in terms of beneficiaries, consequences and suspicions about the rulers’ true intentions going forward. Soon after the fire, Hitler started to consolidate his powers in the name of protecting the state’s security and democracy. To do so, Hitlersuspended civil liberties and shut the door on the rights and freedom of the country’s citizens. The fire in the heart of the countrywas used to justify the notion that the country was in a great danger. With decrees, Hitler purged his opponents, even though there was only one person considered to be responsiblefor the fire. Erdogan followed a similar path when he has declared a state of emergency after the coup attempt and consolidated his powers with radical changes in the country’s political and legal systems. With decrees, Erdogan purged hundreds of thousands of people under the guise of protecting the country’s security and democracy—even though soldiers who allegedly were involved in the coup attempt that night already had been into custody.In the political arena, Hitler increased the number of votes he received in the election that took place a week after the fire. Similarly, public support for Erdogan increased after the coup attempt. History does, indeed, repeat itself. These are two of many examples that could have been cited.

It may not be possible to know for sure who staged and orchestrated the Reichstag fire orthe military coup attempt; however, it is clear that the rulers’ purported motives are suspicious and their explanations filled with inconsistencies, given the many controversies arising from both events.The Reichstag firehas been discussed by scholars and historians who concluded that Hitler and his team—either directly or indirectly—helped to instigate the fire. Indeed, the arsonist responsible for the fire was pardoned years later. The military coup in Turkey wasa terrorizing and wicked deed against humanity and democracy, and the persons responsible must be identified and punished based on the rule of law and democratic values. It is, however, a Herculean task. Too many loopholes and controversies about the coup attempt need to be clarified. Erdogan should provide evidence-based, honest and objective explanations to remove the suspicions surrounding the coup attempt. Many answers are needed. For example,why did Erdogan refuse to answer questions from the major opposition party (the Republican People’s Party, or CHP) about the coup? Why has the investigation case report and the report of the parliament’s investigation committee deemed inappropriate and unsatisfactory even by some members of the committee? More important, why has an international committee not been allowed to investigate the case? Questions such as these highlight the many mysteries and suspicions that still surround the event two years after it occurred.

An independent international investigation committee should be established by the United Nations to examine the coup attempt and eliminate possible suspicions about Erdogan and his governing team. The committee also should determine whether thousands of people were responsible for organizing the coup attempt, as the government alleges, and clarify the following: whether some U.S. citizens, such as Andrew Brunson, who is still in jail, were among the primary plotters of the coup; whether some other U.S. citizens for whom bounties were offered were behind the coup attempt; and whether the United States was behind the coup attempt, as Turkish politicians and government officials claim—even though the United States has denied any involvement in the event.

Another independent international investigation committee should be established by the U.N.(or some other internationally accepted institution)to investigate the aftermath of the coup. Violations of internationally accepted human rights (as reported by credible human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) that have been committed by government security and intelligence officials since the coup attempt should be investigated. The committee also should also determine whether persons victimized in any way (such as imprisonment, job loss, inhumane treatment, and deprival of constitutional rights and freedoms)were based on evidence or resulted from the arbitrary application punishment. A final task of the committee should be to investigate allegations of abductions, extrajudicial executions and torture by government security and intelligence agencies. As John Dalhuisen,Amnesty International’s Europe director, has said, “It is absolutely imperative that the Turkish authorities halt these abhorrent practices and allow international monitors to visit all these detainees in the places they are being held.”

An independent and objective domestic committee that consists of members from every political party in the country—regardless of the parties’ percentage of the vote among constituents—should be established to investigate the same issues the two international committees need to review. Care must be taken to ensure that the members of this domestic committee—unlike those serving on the committee that was formed after the coup attempt—can maintain their objectivity and are aware of their responsibilities. The committee should be transparent and its actions and discussions observed and by international representatives of the U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, and individual countries and/or journalists.

Finally, the European Court of Human Rights, an internationally accepted high court of which Turkey is a member,should determine for itself—rather than rely solely on the response from government officials—whether the country’s domestic legal and judicial system can be accessed openly and freely by all citizens and the attorneys representing them in legal matters.

It is only through these independent international and domestic investigations that the truth about the failed coup attempt can come to light.

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Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian Pioneer Author of Resistance Literature

Sondoss Al Asaad

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The eighth of July marks the 46th martyrdom anniversary of Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated by the Zionist Intelligence;  Mossad, along with his 17-year-old niece Lamees. Days before their martyrdom, Lamees had asked Kanafani to diminish his activitism and to concentrate on his writings. He answered her,” I write well because I believe in a cause, in principles. The day I leave these principles, my stories will become purposeless. If I were to leave behind my principles, you yourself would not respect me.”

Kanafani was born in 1936, in Palestine, to a father who was a national activist in the resistance against the British colonialism. After the 1948 Zionist occupation, his family sought refuge to Syria, when he was 12-year-old. In the refuge camps, Kanafani wrote most of his novels which highlights the sufferings that the Palestinians endure in the diaspora. He won multiple awards for his works both during his life and posthumously. For instance, in “Umm Saad,” Kanafani’s protagonist is a symbol of the Palestinian women in the refugee camps.

Kanafani was inspired by Jamal Abd al-Nasser’s ideas of national independence and defiance of imperialism. Due to the decline of Nasserism after the 1961 failure to consolidate Egypt and Syria under a unified United Arab Republic, the ascendancy of imperialism and Zionism and the rise of communism; Kanafani, along with his comrade George Habash, resolved to adopt Marxism. They belived that the political crisis in the Arab world could only be solved by turning the anti-imperialist struggle into a social revolution.

In Lebanon, Kanafani adopted the Communist philosophy and become a leading member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He says, “The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”

Besides, he was a prolific creative and brilliant novelist and the first to anticipate the “resistance literature” genre. His literary products and fictitious works have inspired a whole generation of resisting youth, both during and after his lifetime as they are greatly rooted in the Palestinian culture and cause. Kanafani dedicated his works to reflect on the Palestinians’ lives and the challenges they face under the Zionist occupation. He states, “My political position springs from my being a novelist. In so far as I am concerned, politics and the novel are an indivisible case and I can categorically state that I became politically committed because I am a novelist, not the opposite.”

The assassination of Ghassan Kanafani was the result of his commitment to the Palestinian cause and the resistance methodology. Today, his legacy echo within every free revolutionary who devoted his life to confront the imperialist conspiracies. Indeed, Kanafani was murdered merely because he had constituted an intellectual threat to the Zionist entity. He refused the negotiations with the enemy, pointing that it would be “a conversation between the sword and the neck […] I have never seen talks between a colonialist case and a national liberation movement.”

The chief thematic field of Kanafani’s writing was inseparably connected to the anti-imperialism struggle. He stressed that the Palestinian cause could not be resolved in isolation of the Arab ‘s social and political crisis. Further, he insisted on developing the resistance movement from being a nationalist Palestinian liberation movement into being a pan-Arab revolutionary socialist movement of which the liberation of Palestine would be a vital component.

Definitely, Kanafani played an influential role in raising consciousness on the issue of imperialism. He maintains, “Imperialism has laid its body over the world, the head in Eastern Asia, the heart in the Middle East, its arteries reaching Africa and Latin America. Wherever you strike it, you damage it, and you serve the world revolution. “Shortly after Kanafani’s obituary in Lebanon, “The Daily Star” stated, “He was a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was a ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages.”

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Bahrain’s Top Spiritual Leader in U.K. for Medical Reasons

Sondoss Al Asaad

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Eventually, Bahrain’s prominent, 80-years-old, Top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim has been flown to the U.K., after the severe deterioration of his health conditions.

The Bahraini authorities have frequently procrastinated the proper hospitalisation of the ailing Ayatollah Qassim until last week when the Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa twitted that Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s ruler, had approved off Ayatollah Qassim’s “facilitation of travel” to find medical assistance.

Ayatollah Qassim was earlier transferred to Bahrain’s International Airport by ambulance. The authorities have currently issued a one-year temporary passport for Ayatollah Qassim as he is technically stateless since Bahrain’s Cassation Court stripped him of citizenship.

The arbitrary prosecution of Ayatollah Qassim has been related to his religious duty of collecting charities, known as “Khoums.” This religious ritual has been violated by the government, the charities have been confiscated and the Ayatollah has been audaciously accused of “money laundering.”

Ayatollah Qassim’s medical team issued a statement confirming his transfer abroad in order to avoid further complications in his health. The team said, “Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim left Bahrain for England Monday morning, July 9, 2018.This measure has been taken on the basis of medical reports and consensus of his doctors who emphasized the need for his immediate transfer to a specialised hospital to prevent a further deterioration.”

Moreover, Ayatollah Qassim’s health has been deteriorating after the authorities imposed on him a house arrest. Medical sources have informed that Ayatollah Qassim is suffering from cancer, which is in an early stage.

Since June 2016, Ayatollah Qassim has been arbitrarily stripped of his nationality. Bahrain’s Court of Cassation convicted Ayatollah Qassim of “illegal collection of funds and money laundering, serving foreign interests” and sentenced him to one year in jail suspended for three years. It also ordered him to pay $265,266 in fines.

The unfair, politically motivated,  blatant trial had led Ayatollah Qassim’s followers to peacefully protest, on daily basis, in his residence area, up to 23 May 2017.

On that day, the government violently stormed the sit-in zone, in Duraz village, murdered 5 youth and arrested around 300. Since then Ayatollah Qassim has been under house arrest and denied adequate medical care, which let his situation to drastically worsen and to another health complications.

Clearly, the denaturalisation of Ayatollah Qassim and various dissents is regarded as a systematic reprisal against the political and religious freedom in the country.

Since the onset of the 2011 peaceful uprising, Duraz village along with scores of Bahraini villages have been subjected to an ongoing clampdown and restrictions.

Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has gone to great lengths to clamp down on dissents. On 15 March 2011, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were deployed.

Religious freedom has been violated  until the central Friday prayer; the largest Shiite religious congregation, held in Duraz, has been banned. Armoured vehicles were deployed to cordon off Duraz’s mosque and various police checkpoints were set to thoroughly lock down the village.

Regularly, the government have been criticised for violating the freedoms to religious rituals, assembly, association, expression, etc. Since 2011, when protests; demanding democracy, reforms and justice, have erupted; tensions have simmered.

Dozens of high-profile activists have been detained or exiled, opposition associations have been dissolved and citizenships have been revoked.

Unfortunately, the Shiite community have long endured a pivotal and methodological persecution in  an attempt to forged the demographic representation.

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