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Arab NATO against Iran, an unfulfilled dream

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Washington will face defeat in the formation of a united Arab front against Iran, as Arab states are still struggling with many regional and domestic challenges and Iran will remain a strong actor in the region.

The largest military drill- land, naval, air and special forces kicked off in Egypt on Sunday with participation of the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan, and the observers Morocco and Lebanon.

The drill is held at the Mohamed Naguib Military Base in Egypt’s north-western governorate of Marsa Matrouh until November 16.

The exercise, dubbed Arab Shield 1, claims to come in the framework of strengthening joint military cooperation between Egypt and Arab countries, to build the combat capabilities of the armed forces, and achieve common objectives.

This is a military campaign that has long been the subject of talks and statements from the rise of the Arab NATO. Interestingly, Qatar and Oman did not participate in this exercise, and the location of the drill, shows that Egypt, with the largest Arab army is likely to be the headquarters of the Arab NATO.

The objective of this NATO surely is not to confront the Zionist regime, since the Arab states are moving towards normalization of their relations with Tel Aviv, which has intensified recently. In fact, the US government seeks to end the step-by-step implementation of the century deal and unveil it in the latest plan to form a new security and military order in the region. Hence, the ultimate goal of this military-security organization is to confront opposition of the new order, and at the head of them lay Iran, and the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance forces.

The military exercise comes only a month after the meeting of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the foreign ministers of Arab states in New York. Earlier, Persian Gulf military commanders held a meeting in Kuwait at the invitation of US military commanders in the region.

US President Donald Trump’s government is pursuing to launch a so-called Arabic version of the NATO coalition to confront Iran by putting subtle pressure on the Persian Gulf Arab States along with Egypt and Jordan. Of course, this coalition will be formed partly under the name of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), but it is also known as the Arab NATO. Bahrain’s foreign minister said on Saturday at the IISS Manama Dialogue, the annual Middle East’s security summit, that the coalition would be formed by the start of the New Year, a claim that many analysts are skeptical of.

The Arab NATO is a transformed plan that was first initiated at the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), an initiative launched during NATO’s 2004 Istanbul summit. The plan was to expand NATO to the Persian Gulf region. Proposed by Ahmed al-Sabah and approved by NATO Secretary General, the NATO office was launched in Kuwait in 2011.
The plan, however, has seen a few changes since:

Removal of Turkey and Qatar, Arab NATO will continue to work independently of the NATO, Expansion of the Arab NATO from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, particularly to Egypt, has the US support, counters Iran’s influence in the Middle East region, and coordination of operational intelligence with Israel.

The ICC is an offer to engage in practical security cooperation activities with states throughout the Greater Middle East. The initiative offers practical cooperation with interested nations in the Greater Middle East in such areas as: The ICC counter-WMD; counterterrorism; training and education; participation in NATO exercises; promoting military interoperability; disaster preparedness and civil emergency planning; tailored advice on defense reform and civil-military relations; cooperation on border security to help prevent illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people.

In fact, NATO seeks to confront new threats, including Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, and so on, to ensure the security of regional partners, prevent the non-proliferation regime gaining access to nuclear weapons, ensure the sources of energy and its transit lines, and provide a model of regional order with regional countries except Iran and Iraq.
The plan to form a new regional coalition was supposed to reach a very large circle, and the Arab NATO was going to confront the so-called hostile regional forces, but following the crisis between Qatar and Arab states in the Persian Gulf region in June 2017, it seems the coalition cannot stand united against Iran.

Many analysts believe that formation of the coalition will be postponed to 2019, particularly now that the Saudis are grappling with Jamal Khashoggi’s murder case in their consulate in Istanbul.

Perhaps the US is waiting to observe the impact of its political and economic sanctions on Iran prior to joining the regional coalition against Iran so are the Arab states in the region.

In addition, the Arab countries need more time to form this coalition, as they are struggling with many challenges in the political and military arena of the region, including Qatar’s crisis, the Yemeni War, Jamal Khashoggi’s case, and Arab differences in regional issues, especially over Palestine.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have different interpretation of terrorism. While Saudi Arabia cooperates with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and Syria, Egypt considers the Sunni Islamist organization a terrorist group. Saudi Arabia and Qatar also hold different views over the organization.

Iran’s influence in Arab countries, including Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, creates further obstacles to the formation of the coalition. According to reports, Trump is scheduled to hold a meeting in Washington, where he will announce the launch of the regional coalition.

The US has placed a number of conditions on the Arab countries, including the need to fulfill Saudi military objectives in Yemen and the withdrawal of the strategic harbor of al-Hudaydah and reconciliation with Qatar.

Amidst all these, Trump is seeking an opportunity to announce the so called the “deal of the century” to resolve the issue of Palestine, and for that Arab countries need to have an integrated stance.

The other side of the deal is Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran is, too, promoting its position in the region by strengthening its strategic alliance.

Thus, Washington will face defeat in the formation of a united Arab front against Iran, as Arab states are still struggling with many regional and domestic challenges and Iran will remain a strong actor in the region.

First published in our partner MNA

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UAE and the Golden Visa Strategy

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Countries like UK, US, Canada and Australia have remained preferred destinations for South Asian professionals and students — especially from India  — not because of the employment opportunities available in these countries, but also the fact that they provide residency and citizenship. One of the reasons why the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in spite of having numerous advantages – proximity to South Asia, a large South Asian expat population and reasonable quality of life – lost out for very  long to the West was its visa system, whereby there was no concept of ‘residency’ or citizenship for expats . Apart from this, there was no substantial grace period for professionals who lost jobs and the focus of the Gulf state for long was on attracting businessmen, or individuals investing in real estate, and not professionals or researchers per se.

In recent years, UAE has focused on reducing it dependence upon oil and creating a new economic model for the future for which it would be important to attract talent from different parts of the world. While UAE had introduced changes to its visa system by introducing long term visas – such as the Golden Visa – before the covid19 pandemic, it has introduced some further changes/relaxations in order to attract not just entrepreneurs willing to invest, but also individuals who have excelled in R&D, the arts and even philanthropy.

Some important changes to the long-term UAE Visas came into effect on October 3, 2022. These include some significant revisions to the Golden Visa Residency Program (10 year residency), Green Visa and the introduction of new categories such as the ‘job exploration visa’. The Golden Visa and Green Visa are important, because they remove the requirement of a local sponsor for businesses. Amongst the latest revisions are a provision whereby the holder of the Golden Residency/Green  visa can sponsor family members, and what is significant is that while earlier the Golden visa would be invalid if the holder stayed outside the UAE for a period of 6 months or more, now a holder of the Golden Visa can stay outside the UAE for an indefinite period. Another important change is that the Green Visa which was earlier 2 years has now been extended to 5 years. Interestingly, freelancers who meet certain criterion are eligible for the Golden Residency Visa and Green Visa.

Through the Golden Visa and Green Visa, UAE is trying to attract not just entrepreneurs, but individuals with specific skills such as scientists and researchers, and students, which clearly shows UAE’s objective of not just viewing immigration from the prism of investment into real estate or businesses. What is also interesting is that unlike earlier, UAE provides a grace period – of six months – after the expiration of the Green visa. Another interesting category is the ‘job exploration visa’ where by graduates from the top 500 universities of the world can visit UAE to explore job opportunities (those wanting to avail of this visa can apply for three durations – 60 days, 90 days and 120 days).

While in recent years, UAE has emerged as a favored destination for High Networth individuals (HNWI’s) from different parts of the world including India (especially after the second wave of Covid19). In 2022, UAE is predicted to draw a net inflow of 4,000 HNWI’s. With the changing geopolitical uncertainty arising after the Ukraine-Russia war, UAE is likely to attract even more expats.

The Golden Visa has made UAE an attractive destination not just for HNWI’s but also talented professionals and even students. It would be pertinent to point out, that over the past few decades, there has been a trend of many South Asians from the West relocating to the UAE, due to its geographical location but also the fact that it is home to top Multinational Corporations MNC’s and is also emerging as an important educational hub (home to a number of western campuses). South Asians account for over half of the total expat population, and this also makes it an attractive destination for individuals of South Asian origin.

 The new visa rules could be a decisive push towards being a first choice for not just those seeking employment, but also students. Here it would also be pertinent to point out, that it is not just the west but even countries like Singapore — which are an attractive destination for Indian professionals — could lose out as a result of the recent revisions to the visa system.

In conclusion, countries like Australia and Canada which have emerged as alternative choices to UK and US for students from South Asia – especially India – and have of late been trying to tighten immigration can no longer take things for granted at least in the long run if the UAE is able to successfully deal with the new visa system.

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Saudi crown prince shifts into high gear on multiple fronts

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is simultaneously speed dating and playing on multiple diplomatic, religious, and economic chessboards.

The latest feather in his crown, his appointment as prime minister, aims to ensure that he can continue to do so with as little collateral damage as possible.

The appointment shields him from legal proceedings in the United States, France, and potentially elsewhere, including the International Criminal Court in the Hague, in which plaintiffs assert that Mr. Bin Salman was responsible for the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

As a head of government, Mr. Bin Salman enjoys sovereign immunity, a status he could not claim as heir-apparent.

While the legal manoeuvre is certain to succeed, it is unlikely to significantly improve his image tarnished by the killing and his domestic crackdown on dissent that in recent weeks produced outlandish sentences to decades in prison for little more than a tweet.

Reputational issues have not stopped Mr. Bin Salman from shifting into high gear as he pushes ahead with efforts to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy; replace regional competitors like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the center of gravity at the intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe; demonstrate his diplomatic clout and relevance beyond oil to the international community; and position himself and the kingdom as the beacon of a moderate, albeit an autocratic, form of Islam.

Mr. Bin Salman’s multi-pronged dash has produced mixed results.

In his latest foray onto the international stage, Mr. Bin Salman sought to display his diplomatic skills and relevance to the international community by securing the release by Russia of ten foreign nationals captured while fighting for Ukraine. The foreigners’ release was part of a Ukrainian-Russian prisoner swap negotiated by Turkey.

Although Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al Saud rejected as “very cynical” assertions that Mr. Bin Salman was seeking to shore up his image by associating himself with the swap, it seems likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin was happy to give him a helping hand.

In a similar vein, people close to Mr. Bin Salman see mileage in asserting that the crown prince’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving and enhancement of women’s rights and professional opportunities is what inspired women-led protests in Iran that have entered their third week as well as Iran’s recent relaxing of its prohibition on women attending men’s soccer matches.

Ali Shihabi, an analyst who often echoes official Saudi thinking, claimed in a tweet that “Saudi reforms for women have had a big impact on the world of Islam. As the previous upholder of ultra orthodoxy #MBS’s dramatic changes have sent a powerful signal that has undermined Uber conservatives across the region like the Mullahs in Iran.” Mr. Shihabi was referring to Mr. Bin Salman by his initials.

The nationwide protests were sparked by the death of a young woman while in the custody of Iran’s morality police. The police had arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for what authorities described as sporting an “improper” hijab.

By contrast, Mr. Bin Salman’s economic diversification efforts appear to be producing more unambiguous results. For example, the Saudi industry and mineral resources ministry issued over 500 industrial licenses in the first six months of this year, primarily in the food, steel, and chemicals sectors.

The ministry reported that the number of factories that commenced operations doubled, from 303 to 721. Buoyed by massive oil export revenues, Mr. Bin Salman hopes to brand a ‘Made in Saudi’ label as part of his non-oil export drive.

Even so, foreign investment in manufacturing has been slow to take off, particularly in Mr. Bin Salman’s, at times, futuristic mega projects like his US$500 billion city of Neom on the Red Sea. New Jersey-based Lucid Group broke the mold when it announced in February that it would build its first overseas electrical vehicle production facility in the kingdom.

More controversial are plans for a beach in Neom scheduled to open next year that envision a wine bar, a separate cocktail bar, and a bar for “champagne and desserts” in a country that bans alcohol.

The plans seem out of sync with religious sentiment among a significant segment of Gulf youth if a recent opinion poll is to be believed,

Forty-one per cent of young Gulf Arabs, including Saudis, said religion was the most important element of their identity, with nationality, family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagging far behind.

More than half of those surveyed, 56 per cent, said their country’s legal system should be based on the Shariah or Islamic law. Seventy per cent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture.

In contrast to economics, the going in turning the kingdom into a sports and esports hub has been rougher.

In his latest move, Mr. Bin Salman launched a US$38 billion “National Gaming and Esports Strategy” to make Saudi Arabia an esports leader by 2030. The budget includes US$13 billion for the acquisition of “a leading game publisher.” The kingdom has already invested in Capcom, Nexon, Nintendo, ESL Gaming, SNK, and Embracer Group.

In addition, Saudi music entertainment company MDLBEAST saw a business opportunity in the 2022 Qatar World Cup that would also help project the once secretive kingdom as a forward-looking modern state. MDLBEAST has invited  56 top international and regional performers to entertain soccer fans on a custom-built stage in Doha during the 28 days of the tournament.

On an even grander scale, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the world’s more notorious human rights violators, together with Greece, are considering bidding to host the 2030 World Cup –a move that sounds like an invitation to a perfect public relations fiasco, if Qatar’s experience is an indicator.

The potential bid did not stop soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo from dashing initial Saudi hopes to attract a superstar to the kingdom’s top football league when he turned down a US$258 million offer to play for Al Hilal, one of Saudi Arabia’s top clubs.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s endeavour to bankroll Liv Golf, a challenger to PGA Tour, the organizer of North America’s main professional men’s golf tournaments, has turned into a public relations fiasco amid allegations that the kingdom was seeking to launder its reputation.

A refusal by major broadcasters to secure the rights to air the League’s tours exemplifies its problems.

Religion has proven to be the arena in which Saudi Arabia may have scored its most prominent public relations fete.

The Muslim World League, Mr. Bin Salman’s primary vehicle to garner religious soft power and propagate an autocratic version of Islam that is socially liberal but demands absolute obedience to the ruler, achieved a public relations coup when it forged an unlikely alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama. Nahdlatul Ulama.

Nahdlatul Ulama is arguably the world’s only mass movement propagating a genuinely moderate and pluralistic form of Islam.

Moreover, as the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and democracy, Nahdlatul Ulama’s words and actions have an impact.

As a result, the League counted its blessings when Nahdlatul Ulama’ recognised it as a non-governmental organization rather than a de facto extension of Mr. Bin Salman’s rule.

The recognition opens doors for the League, which has so far traded on Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities; lofty statements and conferences that produced little, if any, real change; and funding of emergency and development aid in various parts of the world.

It allowed Nahdlatul Ulama to invite the League, a major promoter of Saudi ultra-conservatism before Mr. Bin Salman’s rise, to co-organize the newly established Religion 20 (R20), a summit of religious leaders under the auspices of the Group of 20 that brings together the world’s largest economies.

The first R20 summit, scheduled for early November in Bali, is part of the run-up to the meeting of G20 leaders later that month hosted by Indonesia, the group’s chairman for the year. The R20, the G20’s latest official engagement group, aims to “position religion as a source of solutions rather than problems across the globe.”

The limits of Saudi tolerance were evident last month when authorities arrested a pilgrim to Mecca for dedicating his pilgrimage to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, a non-Muslim who had just died.

Nahdlatul’s outreach to the League is part of a bold and risky strategy. However, Nahdlatul Ulama believes that engagement creates an opportunity to persuade the League to embrace a more genuine and holistic vision of moderate Islam rather than one that is self-serving.

That may be a long shot, but it also may be a way of launching Saudi Arabia on a path that would help it repair its badly tarnished image. That is if Mr. Bin Salman pairs genuine religious moderation and pluralism with a rollback of domestic repression and greater political pluralism. So far, that appears to be one thing the crown prince is unwilling to consider.

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Iraq and the ‘Blind Gordian Knot’

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After its occupation by the United States in 2003, Iraq fell into the double trap of the United States and Iran and became an insoluble problem. Similar to the legendary ‘Gordian’ knot, which Gordias, the king of Phrygia, tied so tightly that it was said that no one could untie it; Until ‘Alexander the Great’ came and cut it in half with one stroke of the sword and the knot was opened.

The trap that America set for Iraq was the constitution that it drafted for this country after the occupation. In this constitution, America removed Iraq’s Arab identity and imposed a two-thirds majority to elect the president, paving the way for the use of a ‘suspended one-third’.

At the same time, he set the conditions for amending this article and all the articles of the first chapter of the constitution so difficult that it was practically impossible to amend it. This constitution divided the power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, as a result of which, the Iraqi society was subject to chaos and fragmentation, and the army that was created based on it collapsed in front of ISIS in Mosul. Now let’s skip the destructive role that Nouri al-Maliki had as the prime minister in this story.

But the trap that the Islamic Republic of Iran set for Iraq was that it formed armed groups affiliated with the Quds Force and gave them legitimacy under the umbrella of ‘The Popular Mobilization Forces, which resulted in the monopoly of power in the hands of the Shiites.

So far, all efforts to free Iraq from this double trap have failed. The popular revolution of 2019 in Baghdad, Karbala, and other southern cities did not reach anywhere with its anti-Iranian slogans, nor did the government of Mustafa al-Kazemi solve the problem with its patriotic government project, nor did the recent efforts of the Sadr movement under the leadership of prominent cleric Moqtada Sadr bear fruit.

The Sadr movement, which won the majority in the elections, tried to form a national majority government in an agreement with the coalition of the Sunni ruling party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the coordination framework was dependent on Iran, using the one-third weapon, defeated the efforts of the Sadr movement.

In Iraq, there is no ‘Alexander the Great’ who will rise up and open the blind Gordian knot with one stroke of the sword and save Iraq from the crisis. No random event occurs. Now, the land between the two rivers is caught in deep-rooted and growing corruption and has lost its way among various Arab, Iranian, Eastern, and Western trends. Even Moqtada’s plan for the formation of a national government, which was put forward recently with the slogan ‘Neither East, nor West”, is also facing many difficulties and obstacles.

Of course, expecting the formation of a democratic system with the management of armed sectarian parties that advance politics based on religious fatwas and the force of destructive war missiles and drones is a futile thing, and talking about a national government in which power is in the hands of religious parties affiliated with the neighboring religious government is gossip and superstition.

Apart from that, according to the current laws of Iraq, the main power is in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, and the powers of the President are limited and few, as a result, Shiite parties and organizations, especially their larger organizations, get more privileges, and the main power is exclusive to the Shiite community.

In addition, the organization that will be called the largest and the majority based on the political Ijtihad of the Supreme Court of Iraq will actually be the same organization that the Islamic Republic of Iran creates within the Iraqi parliament, not the organization that will receive the most votes in the elections. As we saw in the last parliamentary elections, the Sadr movement won the majority of votes and tried to form a majority government in an agreement with the Sunni ruling coalition and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the groups affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran stood against it under the name of the coordination framework. And they made his efforts fruitless.

It is for this reason that it has been almost a year since the Iraqi parliamentary elections were held, but the parliament has so far been unable to form a government and elect a new president.

Of course, this is the nature of totalitarian systems. Although the Iraqi system is a democratic system according to the constitution, in reality, the ruling system in Iraq is a totalitarian system. Just like the ruling systems in the Soviet Union and China, where power rotates among the leaders of the Communist Party; Both the rulers were members of the Communist Party, and the political opponents were imprisoned or executed. Because in Iraq, all the pillars of political power are in the hands of the Shiites; Both the factions that are actually in power are the Shiites, and the factions that lead political struggles and protests as opponents are Shia parties. Even the revolution of 2019 was actually a revolution of the new generation of Shiites who had risen against the influence of Iran and America and their supporters.

The fact is that with this situation, Iraq will never be able to free itself from the American-Iranian double trap and untie the blind Gordian knot. Rather, it can only do so when all the Iraqi national and patriotic parties and groups come together under the umbrella of a democratic, national, independent, non-sectarian coalition that is not dependent on foreign countries, and form a strong national government that, while being independent, is in touch with the outside world and establish good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Arab countries, and Eastern and Western countries.

The bottom line is, when the minds that have produced destructive thoughts cannot produce liberating thoughts, Iraq needs those thinkers and new political figures who will establish a correct, solid, and independent political system in Iraq. The current situation is rooted in the incorrect political structure, the foundation of which was laid in 2003. But it is a pity that only a clear understanding of the crisis is not enough to solve it.

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