The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and potential Western sanctions against Saudi Arabia has sparked renewed debate about the value of the longstanding alliance between the United States and the kingdom.
The debate is not limited to the US or the kingdom, both of which are assessing the reliability of the other even if that is a debate that is waged in Saudi Arabia behind close doors. It is also being discussed In Europe where like in the United States commercial and strategic interests are pitted against values.
And it is on the minds of Israeli leaders who increasingly have concluded that they need to temper expectations that Saudi Arabia would be able to lead a Sunni Muslim alliance in the Middle East capable of confronting Iran and countries like Turkey and Qatar viewed as Islamists akin to the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel increasingly looks at its relationships with Gulf states in transactional rather than strategic terms.
No one is contemplating a full rupture in relations, yet leaders on all sides of the divide realize that the Khashoggi crisis is a watershed that at the very least has fundamentally changed perceptions. Tempered expectations did not stop Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu from travelling to Oman last month, the first such visit in more than two decades, or his culture and sports minister, Mir Regev, from going to Abu Dhabi.
The crisis has consequences even for powers like Russia and China that are unconcerned about rights and other Western concepts of universal values but worry about the threat posed by ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam to their soft underbellies in the Caucasus and Xinjiang.
It calls into question Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to make good on the pledge to steer the kingdom towards an undefined form of ‘moderate Islam’ by cowing the kingdom’s religious establishment into submission and shaving off of the sharp ends of Wahhabism with actions such as lifting the ban on women’s driving.
Much like the United States has in the past two decades had to cope with the fallout of Saudi Arabia’s embrace of an ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, Russia and China, with their own history of militant attacks, will increasingly confront similar risks.
That is particularly true for China that has framed its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang in what amounts to an almost unprecedented assault Islam as a fight against extremism and political violence.
At the core of the Western debate about Saudi Arabia’s viability as a reliable ally are several myths, including the belief that Saudi leaders over the decades were reformers who needed to tread slowly and cautiously in changing norms in a deeply conservative society as well as the notion that Saudi Arabia propagated an austere, ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that threatened US interests.
A critic of Prince Mohammed, Georgetown University historian Abdullah Al-Arian last year combed through 70 years of New York Times reporting that repeatedly depicted Saudi leaders as reformers rather than conservative leaders who over the decades made unavoidable accommodations with modernity to fulfil their part of a social contract and ensure their own survival as leaders.
For sure, Saudi Arabia and the United States certainly never did and do not see eye to eye when it comes to values, particularly with regard to human rights and basic freedoms.
Yet, Saudi global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism often served US purposes as an anti-dote to communism during the Cold War, no more so than in Afghanistan in the 1980s when ultra-conservative militants forced the departure of Soviet troops and set the stage for the demise of communism or when the kingdom helped the Reagan administration circumvent a Congressional embargo on the sale of arms to the Contras in Nicaragua.
That convergence of Saudi and US interests was severely dented by the 9/11 attacks with 15 of the 19 perpetrators hailing from the kingdom even if both sides realized that they were interdependent. The jury is out on whether the Khashoggi crisis constitutes a significant setback to Saudi Arabia’s US-backed regional ambitions, and if so to what degree.
The discovery by Saudi rulers that they share conservative family values as well as political interests when it comes to President Donald J. Trump and Israel with evangelists and fundamentalist Christians, a significant voting block in the United States and part of Mr. Trump’s support base, is emerging as one route to counter perceptions of the kingdom’s moral standing having been undermined.
Saudi Arabia, to fudge the growing perception of a lack of shared values with the United States reflected in Saudi actions, particularly since the rise in 2015 of the Salmans, King Salman and his son, Prince Mohammed, has poured tens of millions of dollars into public diplomacy and lobbying in the United States.
As part of the effort, the Salmans have sought to project the kingdom as a beacon of religious harmony despite its discrimination of Shiites and long-standing history of prejudice against Jews and Christians.
To that end, they have redirected vehicles the kingdom once used to promote its austere, intolerant interpretation of the faith such as the World Muslim League, to advocate inter-faith harmony.
Working through the kingdom’s various lobbying groups in Washington and contracted US public relations and lobbying firms, the league last month, as the Khashoggi crisis erupted, organized a conference in New York attended by Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to discuss a cultural rapprochement between the United States and the Islamic world and countering extremism.
The league’s general secretary, Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, who in the past in line with ultra-conservative precepts denounced witchcraft defined as including, among other things astrology, the use of plants for medicine, palm-reading, and animal calling, has emerged as the kingdom’s prime spokesman on religious tolerance.
Mr. Al-Issa has advocated tolerance and moderation, promoted dialogue, denounced violence against Israel and recognized the Holocaust, major steps for a country that once tailored its visa requirements to bar Jews from entry.
Mr. Al-Issa was last week present in a meeting between Prince Mohammed and US evangelical leaders close to Mr. Trump, including Reverend Johnnie Moore, Israel-based evangelical political strategist-turned-novelist Joel Rosenberg, former congresswoman Michele Bachmann; and prominent religious broadcasters.
The visit, despite evangelical denials had as much to do with US politics as it was about shared values. Reverend Pat Robertson, a key figure in evangelical circles, made that clear on his influential Christian Broadcasting Network.
Closely following Mr. Trump’s statements on the Khashoggi killing, Mr. Patterson went from warning days after the journalist’s disappearance that “you don’t blow up an international alliance over one person” to denouncing Prince Mohammed.
The message was that politics rather than shared values is likely to determine whether the Khashoggi killing constitutes a watershed or merely a blip in history.
After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians
The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.
The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.
“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”
Scandal of Al Hol’s children
Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.
“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”
Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021.
Blockades and bombardment
The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.
“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.
In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.
Living in fear
In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.
At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.
Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.
Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.
The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”
Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants
The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.
“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”
IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking
A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?
The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.
Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.
When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.
Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible. Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.
Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.
The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.
It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.
“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.
I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.
Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.
Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya
With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday.
Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December.
They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year.
At the crossroads
“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš. “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.”
He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.
Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation.
Foreign fighter threat
The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline.
“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.
“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.”
Young voters eager
The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results.
He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country.
So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women. Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots.
“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš.
He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.
“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned. “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”
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