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Yemen war challenges Saudi moral authority

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi conduct of its ill-fated war in Yemen coupled with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alignment with the Trump administration and Israel, and his often coercive approach to diplomatic relations, has opened the door to challenges of the kingdom’s moral leadership of the Sunni Muslim world, a legitimizing pillar of the ruling Al Saud family’s grip on power.

The cracks in Saudi legitimacy are being fuelled by the escalating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, described by the United Nations and aid organizations as the world’s worst since World War Two; shocking civilian deaths as the result of attacks by the Saudi-led coalition; electoral successes by populist leaders in countries like Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan; and the kingdom’s inability to impose its will on countries like Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Oman.

An attack this week on a bus in the heartland of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that killed at least 43 people, including 29 children returning from a summer camp, dealt a significant body blow to Saudi moral authority.

The coalition said it would investigate the attack that has sparked international outrage.

The attack was but the latest of multiple incidents in which weddings, funerals and hospitals have been hit by coalition forces in a war that has gone badly wrong and demonstrates Saudi military ineptitude despite the fact that the kingdom’s armed forces operate some of the world’s most sophisticated weaponry, according to military sources.

Mr. Trump reversed a decision by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to halt the sale of air-dropped and precision-guided munitions until it had better trained Saudi forces in their targeting and use of the weapons. An Obama official said at the time that there were “systemic, endemic” problems in Saudi targeting.

“Malaysia and other Muslim nations can no longer look up to the Saudis like we used to. They can no longer command our respect and provide leadership. The Saudis have abandoned the Palestinians, just like the Egyptians. The Saudis have moved much closer to Israel who are suppressing and killing the Palestinians,” said Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah Raja Ahmad, a member of Malaysia’s upper house of parliament and the head of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition in the Malaysian state of Terengganu.

“Perhaps Malaysia under the leadership of Dr Mahathir Mohamad should take the lead again in speaking up for the oppressed Muslims of the world. It is about time Malaysia again show the leadership that was once so much admired and respected worldwide,” Mr. Bahrin added.

Malaysia has sought to distance itself from Saudi Arabia since the return to power in May of Mr. Mahathir, whose past Islamist rhetoric and stark anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish statements propelled him to prominence in the Islamic world.

Malaysia has in recent weeks withdrawn troops from the 41-nation, Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) and closed the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) in Kuala Lumpur. Mr. Mahathir’s defense minister, Mohamad Sabu, long before taking office this year, was already highly critical of Saudi Arabia.

In anticipation of investigations into allegations of corruption against former prime minister Najib Razak and his recent indictment, Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull, Mr. Mahathir’s newly appointed anti-corruption czar, noted barely a week after the May election that “we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, (and the) UAE.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera last month, Mr. Mahathir said that “we are disappointed that Saudi Arabia has not denied that the money was given by Saudi,” referring to $681 million in Saudi funds that were allegedly gifted to Mr. Razak.

Malaysia is but the latest Sunni Muslim nation to either challenge Saudi Arabia or at least refuse to kowtow to the kingdom’s foreign policy as it relates to its bitter rivalry with Iran; Prince Mohammed’s tacit backing of US President Donald J. Trump’s staunch support of Israel and pressure on Palestinians; its 14-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar; and the war in Yemen.

Like Mr. Mahathir in the past, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite his evolving autocracy, has emerged as an Islamist populist counter pole, his credibility enhanced by his escalating disputes with the United States, his often emotional support for the Palestinians, and opposition to moves by Mr. Trump like his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey this week became the latest target of Mr. Trump’s wielding of trade and economic sanctions as a means of bullying countries into submitting to his demands. Mr. Trump doubled metals tariffs on Turkey after earlier sanctioning two senior Turkish ministers in an effort to force Mr. Erdogan to release American evangelist Andrew Brunson.

Mr. Brunson has been detained in Turkey for the past two years on charges of having been involved in the failed 2016 military coup against Mr. Erdogan and seeking to convert Turkish Kurds to Christianity.

Mr. Erdogan has in recent years consistently thought to thwart Saudi policy in the region by positioning himself as the leader of a Muslim world opposed to Mr. Trump’s Israel-Palestine approach and a de facto Arab alliance with Israel, maintaining close ties to Iran and defying US sanctions against the Islamic republic, supporting Qatar, and expanding Turkish influence in the Horn of Africa in competition with the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s closest regional ally.

Mr. Erdogan has portrayed Prince Mohammed’s vow to return Saudi Arabia to an unidentified form of ‘moderate Islam’ as adopting a Western concept.

“Islam cannot be either ‘moderate’ or ‘not moderate.’ Islam can only be one thing. Recently the concept of ‘moderate Islam’ has received attention. But the patent of this concept originated in the West. Perhaps, the person voicing this concept thinks it belongs to him. No, it does not belong to you. They are now trying to pump up this idea again. What they really want to do is weaken Islam … We don’t want people to learn about religion from foreign facts,” Mr. Erdogan said.

Echoing former US president George W. Bush’s assertion of an axis of evil, Prince Mohammed charged in March that Turkey was part of a triangle of evil that included Iran and Islamist groups. The crown prince accused Turkey of trying to reinstate the Islamic Caliphate, abolished nearly a century ago when the Ottoman empire collapsed.

Similarly, Pakistan’s prime minister-in-waiting appeared to be charting his own course by saying that he wants to improve relations with Iran and mediate an end to the debilitating Saudi-Iranian rivalry despite the fact that the kingdom has so far ruled out a negotiated resolution and backs US efforts to isolate the Islamic republic.

In a bow to Saudi Arabia, Jordan has backed the kingdom in its row with Canada over criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record and refrained from appointing a new ambassador to Iran, but has stood its ground in supporting Palestinian rejection of US peace efforts.

Similarly, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri has reversed his resignation initially announced in Riyadh last year under alleged duress while Oman and Kuwait, alarmed by the Saudi-UAE campaign against Qatar, have sought to chart a middle course that keeps them out of the firing line of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

For the time being, Saudi Arabia is likely to successfully fend off challenges to its leadership of the Muslim world.

However, responding viscerally to criticism like in the case of non-Muslim Canada or, more importantly, two years ago to Muslim leaders who excluded Wahhabism and Salafism, the religious worldview that underpins the Al Sauds’ rule, from their definition of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah or the Sunni people, is unlikely to cut ice in the longer term.

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

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Credit: Institute of Security Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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