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Israel in Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Over the last two years alone, in complete silence, the Jewish State has already carried out over 200 airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

North American unconfirmed sources also speak about Israeli support for Islamic “rebels” fighting against Bashar el Assad and his allies.

They are supposedly 12 groups of so-called para-jihadist “rebels” operating in southern Syria, who oppose both the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and radical ISIS jihadist militants.

Obviously the Israeli intelligence services closely monitor – with systems active 24 hours a day – the three bridges connecting the Golan Heights with Israel, which are constantly used by the Israeli armed forces to support both the Golan populations and the military operating permanently in those areas.

Israel has named the “humanitarian support” to the region, including the aforementioned anti-Assad rebels, “Operation Good Neighbour”, but the real Israeli spearhead is the air missions in the Syrian skies, which have again much increased in recent times.

Israel has shifted from a policy line of limited tolerance – based on the analysis of the evident severe threat posed by the Sunni and jihadist “rebels” operating in the Southern Syria, who are obviously also enemies of Iran and Assad – to a posture of very clear “zero tolerance” for all the Iranian positions on the Golan Heights and in the rest of the region, which now increasingly dominate Southern Syria. Said positions were created to achieve Iran’s true aim, i.e. the stable, impregnable and strategic corridor between Lebanon – especially Southern and Central Lebanon – and the universal centre of Shiism, namely the Iranian and Twelfth-Imam Shiites (also called the Imamites).

Certainly Iran also hosts Sunni minorities – who are fully integrated with the regime and often act as an operational link with the other anti-Saudi Sunni minorities in Riyadh and in the rest of the region – but also the Zoroastrians, who are a very old minority operating between the para-Islamic armed and unarmed groups in India and the Himalayas, also in tune with the guerrillas supported by China.

But there are also Jewish minorities in Iran, who are entitled to some seats in the Majlis (Parliament) and often communicate with the Israeli motherland, in spite of the covert activity of the Iranian intelligence services.

Currently, in particular, Iran needs to break the Sunni encirclement, which is also a very powerful economic and oil intelligence operation by the Sunni OPEC against Iran.

It is equally certain, however, that the Shiite Republic has some sound Grand Strategy options in the greater Middle East, which are now certain and, in some respects, unavoidable for Iran.

Firstly, Iran will seek any opportunity – even the slightest one – to hit Israel and the USA if they harshly hit its interests in the region.

Hence this is Iran’s main strategic variable in Southern Syria: it has not yet hit Israel because – with its supplies to Hezbollah in the Lebanon – it is waiting to make a new big summer operation jointly with the Lebanese Shiite forces at the edges of the Golan Heights, as happened – to a lesser extent – in the “July war” of 2016.

There was also the strong action of the Iranian Shiite militia of Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq – another factor to support the borders east of Iran and to oppose the Kurds (but there are many Kurdish agents also in the Iranian intelligence services) and the Americans, as well as the link between Israel and Kurdistan, another essential asset of Israel geopolitics.

Nevertheless, Qatar -one of Iran’s rich friends – hosts the large US base that organizes the armed forces throughout the Middle East. It is the Al Udeid base, near the Abu Nakhlah airport, hosting over 12,000 North American soldiers and at least 1,000 aircraft.

An implicit blackmail, which President Trump has not considered at all, while swearing naive loyalty to the Sunnis who are “against terrorism” (nonsense!).

Hence an asset that does not enable Iran to fully use its Lebanese ally and its strongest economic partner, namely the Emirate of Qatar, which also hosts Al Jazeera, the old BBC in Arabic of British imperialism. It should also be recalled, in particular, that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have been stationing in Doha for many years.

The cradle of every contemporary Sunni jihadism, the Ikhwan, which -however – establishes its base in the Emirate which is politically closer to the Shiite Iran and in the traditional geoeconomic and strategic-military opponent of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, namely Saudi Arabia.

Doctrinal paradoxes that are certainly not mere coincidence. As we will see later on, wars are waged with religions and myths, almost more than with AK-47 Kalashnikovs which, if anything, stem from those religions and myths.

Certainly, in the Israeli strategic thought, the current “war of attrition” which opposes Israel and Iran – particularly in Syria – is destined to inflict a psychological defeat on Iran by Israel alone, which – in the short term – deters the Iranian decision makers from launching the primary direct attack.

As seen also recently, traditionally Iran tends to defeat its opponent with the great mass of averagely armed soldiers, who discourage it from continuing its fight (the model with which Imam Khomeini peacefully conquered his own country).

This is a model also at work in Hezbollah’ strategic thinking.

The same model followed by the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae – as the classics teach us.

King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan soldiers, however, fought all to death against the invading Persian forces.

Their sacrifice was commemorated by Simonides in the famous epitaph “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by / That here obedient to their laws we lie” which can still be read on the hill overlooking Thermopylae.

However, two are the weak points of the Iranian Grand Strategy against Israel: firstly, the strong social and economic weakness of the regime, which pushes the Iranian leaders to make wars of attrition “outside”, so as to create a rapid patriot unity “inside”, and possibly even send its dangerous masses to the front.

During the 2017 uprising for supporting their Iraqi Kurdish brothers, the Kurds acted in such a way as to severely jeopardize the Iranian security, while in 2006 the Azeris set fire to the government buildings of their Iranian North-East  – not to forget the huge 2009 “Iranian Green Movement”, after the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad. These are all signs that the vast minorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran are capable of severely undermining the stability of the regime. And mass poverty will play its sad role.

Hence, if Israel attacked the Iranian positions in Syria, Iran would likely be unable to react with a direct and significant military strike against the attacker.

The Iranian Shiites’ real and probably sole reaction will be to operate with Hezbollah in the Lebanon or with the Shiite minorities in Bahrain or to provide further support for the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.

But certainly a skilful and smart military strategist does not make the eternal severe mistake of underestimating the opponent and hence takes at least three other variables into account. Firstly, the possibility of a missile attack by the Islamic jihad between the PNA Territories and the Gaza Strip, together with Hamas – the official organization of the Islamic Brotherhood and hence easy to contact and train from Iran, via Qatar.

Secondly, an action by Hezbollah also between the Golan Heights – mainly used as rear zone and areas for diversionary actions – and the traditional Shiite line of the Litani river between the Lebanon and Israel, according to the model of the 2006  “July war” that the Lebanese Shiites still consider to be a successful and winning model.

Thirdly, a land-maritime attack by special forces, either local or with additional forces of the Pasdaran, from Qatar or Syria, but passing through Deirer-Zor or, on the other side of Syria, besides the Turkish forces south of Damascus.

In fact, it takes so little for defaming Israel as a “cruel and ferocious attacker” of the “poor Lebanese or Syrian farmers” and to quickly gain short-lived, but huge consensus in the “streets and squares” of the Middle East.

In spite of rhetoric, Iran does not want – and above all cannot – “destroy” Israel, but currently intends to create many points of friction with Israel, particularly outside the traditional places of clash and confrontation, especially with commando actions on the Israeli borders, but above all from the sea. A myriad of small blows, which hurt like a powerful strike.

Exactly as, in certain phases, the PLO strategy did from the sea and with many small and ferocious operations.

Another stable basis of Iran’s Grand Strategy is again the great importance of indirect strategies and of cyberwarfare – especially nowadays.

It serves above all to reduce the weight of sanctions and, to a greater extent, to keep the EU friendly to the Shiite regime.

As all those who know that they are bound to become poor soon, the Europeans think only about money, namely the rich contracts that Iran grants selectively and “politically” to the EU companies entering its domestic market.

Moreover, the penetration of Arab and Islamic capital in Europe is not only relevant for its size, but for its political and strategic significance.

All over the world, in 2021 the Islamic finance is expected to rise from the current 2 to 3.5 trillion US dollars of assets.

However, there are already 109 out of 622 institutions in the world that provide “education to Islamic finance” in Europe alone.

Hence, as can be easily imagined, the EU ruling classes are particularly pervious – under the politically correct rhetoric – to finance, ideological pressures, consortia and cartels, business mediation and brokerage, coming from Islamic finance and the already huge Islamic properties and investments in the various EU countries.

Currently, at least in Italy, both the so-called “right parties” and the “left parties” have only a minority – albeit variable in size – of openly pro-Israeli politicians.

The “battle for Europe” – as Raymond Aron called it – was lost at the time by the “Warsaw Pact” against NATO and nowadays what is in contrast with Europe’s and the Atlantic Alliance’s old and  traditional goals is precisely Islam, in all its forms, ranging from the “sword jihad” to the “business and dialogue jihad”. In all likelihood, Islam will win the real battle between the old two “big prairies”, namely the United States and the USSR, by using Europe as a financial, strategic and industrial “back-shop” (a 5% shareholding of Credit Suisse is owned by Qatar, not to mention Volkswagen, Siemens and many other companies) and as a future coverage area for its military and indirect actions against Israel and against the other European and US interests and allies in the Middle East.

But let us revert to Israel, which is in strategic conflict with Iran through the fundamental link between the two, namely Syria.

The inevitable fulcrum of any operation Israel may launch against Iran and, more probably, vice versa.

With its “asymmetric war” -the only one it currently wages on a continuous basis – Iran will hit primarily the United States – a necessary ally, but not always in agreement with Israel – to immediately isolate the Jewish State. Later, however, it will hit  Israel directly and, at the same time, the Gulf powers opposing Shiism, namely Saudi Arabia, Bahrain – possibly triggering here a guerrilla warfare between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority in power – Kuwait and probably other countries.

As Italian jurists say, the European Union “will be less of a defendant”, thus playing second fiddle.

Hence, if tension keeps on mounting – especially in Syria – both   Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran could witness an escalation particularly on the Syrian territory or anyway in the strategic link between Syria and the Lebanon.

A guerrilla warfare from the North that could also be triggered by the Palestinian Islamic jihad alone and also by Hamas, but only at a distance and jointly with Hezbollah and Iran in the North.

Nevertheless, this could also make the US or Israeli decision-makers fall into the temptation of a nuclear strike or a conventional and nuclear operation.

A very important variable is Iran’s use of the economic agreements with the EU, which could become essential. A “geoeconomic pact” with the naive and unprepared Europeans that Iran could use against the United States.

Hezbollah, however, already has the weapons that the US strategists consider to be game changer.

Given its long-standing and mounting tension with the Iranian forces operating in Syria, Israel is currently thinking about some primary strategic variables.

Firstly, Israel is not fully convinced of the US pro-Jewish stance and of the current US positions in Syria.

President Trump does not want to send (other) troops to Syria and, anyway, the local US champions have already made a bad impression there.

As a genuine pro-American politician, Francesco Cossiga, used to say “The Americans are always up in arms on a war footing, but -later – when they have taken the warpath, they do no longer know how to come out of it well”.

Israel cannot even fully rely on its good relations with Putin’s Russia which, however, have so far led to good results in the Syrian war.

I was about to write Syriac war, like the one between the Romans and the Seleucid Empire, namely Syria, Persia, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia, which ended in 188 BC.

The number one tension between Russia and Iran is the one in the Yemen of the Houthi insurgency, when Russia strongly resented Iran’s assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an old friend of theirs, on December 5, 2017.

Russia does not even want to deteriorate its excellent relations with a new and important ally, namely Saudi Arabia.

In particular, the Russian Federation does not want a US massive intervention throughout the Middle East.

Among other factors, at the beginning of the war in Syria, the presence of scarcely effective militants of the “Free Syrian Army” and of some gangs of quasi-jihadists trained by CIA or by the Department of State – immediately rushing to join forces with ISIS -led to the Russian presence in Syria.

Russia wants above all to create failed states in the Middle East, dependent on it, and to avoid any possible further hotbed of tension.

Iran wants the same thing, but obviously with its own leadership. It reminds us of the rivalry between Emperor Charles V and King Francis I of France, epitomized by his statement: “My brother Charles V wants the same thing I want”. In that case, it was the Duchy of Milan.

Iran often says it is “a stabilizing force” throughout the Middle East, but Hezbollah’s operations in Syria – the only real serious Shiite armed force, apart from the Iranian Pasdaran, who also train it -prove the exact opposite.

Russia, however, wants its strong hegemony in the region and does not want to share it with anyone.

For Russia, Israel – which is isolated at its borders and does not intersect Russian strategic interests – is already an even more reliable friend than Iran, at least for the future.

As an old Hebrew proverb says, “Friends are not those who wipes your tears away, but those who do not make you cry”.

Hence Russia will be subjected to a long phase of Israeli strategic verification in Syria and in the rest of the world.

Furthermore, the United States is willing to strengthen the Syrian peace talks between Geneva and Astana.

For the Syrian peace talks, Astana is a game especially between Turkey and Russia. Iran arrived in the Kazakh capital later, welcomed by cold smiles.

Currently the United States and Jordan are only “observers” in Astana, but the US diplomacy is waiting for some results, besides the already defined “de-conflict zones”, to fully enter the game.

Certainly the United States now wants Iran’s fully exit from the Syrian conflict.

It will be its card, impossible to play on to the end.

Recently President Trump has spoken of an “indefinite” effort by the US Armed Forces and diplomacy to impose and enforce peace in Syria.

Obviously another problem is the fact that Israel’s ongoing and very harsh polemic against Iran brings the Jewish State closer to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Paradoxes of history.

Some relations between the two countries have taken place also in the field of security and intelligence.

A double result of great importance: Israel no longer has its very dangerous sworn enemies in the Arabian peninsula, which is a great result for its safety and security.

It is also an opportunity for Israel to enter – via Saudi Arabia – the area of oil and political-financial relations that really count in the Arab world.

Israel is no longer a target of the Sunni Islam which, indeed, declares to everyone that it is an ally of what – in ancient times – it called the “Zionist entity” – as currently only Iran does. This is a great success for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli global strategy.

The much desired safety and security of Israel eastwards, so much called for as early as the time of Ben Gurion and of my dear friend Shimon Peres.

Meanwhile, the Iranian economy is severely worsening and this can create the classic effect of a diversionary war.

As early as last September, the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards”, the Pasdaran, declared they had attacked – with their missiles – Kurdish dissidents of Iranian origin based in Iraq.

Hence even the “Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan” can be seen as a danger, while Turkey is constantly air bombing the PKK Kurdish positions in the Qandil Mountains.

Therefore, in this case – apart from future and dangerous Shiite infiltrations in the Syrian-Lebanese axis -the current Israeli strategy could remind us of Mao Zedong’s old motto: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent”.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?

Mohammed Nosseir

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“You are betraying your country by exposing its defects!” is a common accusation made by the sycophants to the ruling regime in Egypt who have managed to well situated themselves in our society simply by blindly praising the ruler’s policies. Apparently, these sycophants place a higher value on the privileges that they have gained to living in a truly advanced nation. In fact, the real betrayers of any given authoritarian nation are those who justify this immoral ruling mechanism for their own personal gain.  

Despotism is the evilest ruling mechanism ever devised; apart from its cruelty and unfairness, it works on inflating the ruler’s ego by mirroring his thoughts that are always passionately endorsed by his flatterers, regardless of their merits! Meanwhile, the ruler’s manipulation of the entire political sphere impairs the state’s ability to detect and correct its blunders. Concurrently, the harsh and inhuman treatment of the state’s critics, which includes threats to their personal lives, results in spreading fear throughout the entire society.

A successful strategy for running a country ruled by a tyrannical government is to enable ignorant citizens to dominate the state media exclusively, thus empowering them to express their opinions on a much wider scale than knowledgeable citizens. This approach consequently creates significant friction between knowledgeable and ignorant citizens, resulting in the polarization of the entire nation. The state methodically fuels this process by labeling the mediocre as loyal citizens and accusing its critics of treason.

The privileging of sycophants financially, along with advancing their power and upscaling their status, have prompted many Egyptians to join this beneficial club, which prerequisites praising superiors and justifying their faults, thus compensating for the natural dullness and incompetence of the flatterers. Meanwhile, the state’s critics who demand freedom and stand by their values are aware that they are engaged in a long-lasting battle and are risking their lives for generations to come!

In fact, sycophants are the weakest link in the state’s ruling dynamics. They hypocritically heap intense praise on the security apparatus who sacrifice their lives to defend our nation – but do their utmost to ensure that their youngsters abandon their military duty; just one facet of their deceitful conduct. Sycophantic behavior and false testimony are the most sinful acts in Islam; yet they have become, ironically, a habitual pattern of behavior in our social norms.  

That Egypt needs to be ruled by an Iron-fist is a common argument put forth by the flatterers. It is translated into applying harsh measures to critics and laxity toward lawbreakers – a proposition that reflects the low moral values espoused by flatterers to secure their status. The policy of maximum repression adopted by the current ruling regime might be successful in controlling society; however, it has certainly contributed to an escalation of terrorism activities by political Islamists against the military apparatus.

In my former party, the Egyptian Democratic Front, a few executive party members used to instantly report our internal discussions to the State Security apparatus. In addition totheir immoral conduct and betrayal of their peers, they used to enhance their ratting out by exacerbating our opposing political stands. I argued, at that time, for either offering those ratters a crash course on “minutes-taking” or inviting the State Security apparatus to participate in our meetings to better learn about our viewpoints.

“Cairo is a dirty city” – a painful remark that I occasionally hear from international visitors to our capital. The Egyptian State will never be able to manipulate the perception of millions of diversified tourists who visit Cairo yearly, but we can easily work to bring order to our city and live in a hygienic place. The same applies to other qualities of life such as freedom, dignity and justice; we need to highlight deficiencies in these areas to be able to advance our nation.  

President Al Sisi has a clear desire to be a remarkable leader; he believes that expanding our roads and building new flyovers will make Egypt an advanced nation and that these developments will be credited to his legacy. The president is unaware that the future of our country will be written and judged by the youths of today, who are extremely angry with him due to his policy of demolishing humanity and freedom, compounded by his inability to create decent jobs for youngsters.

Egypt is currently confronting a number of complex internal and external challenges, including an economic slowdown, a civil war on our eastern borders, a potential water shortage due to the filling of Ethiopian GRED and rising unemployment. All of these challenges, and many more, will simply be intensified by our deep polarization, further weakening the state. The sycophants’ deliberate misleading of Egypt concerning these challenges is dragging our nation downward, transforming us into a fragile state.

Advancing an old-fashioned country like Egypt requires honest citizens who have bold ideas and enough courage to implement their ideas. These qualities are found more among knowledgeable citizens and critics of the state who are already sacrificing for their country; large numbers of them are spending their best years in prison simply for having voiced their opinions. Modernizing Egypt will require our president to unite our nation, appointing well-educated citizens to key positions and completely discarding state sycophants.

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Middle East

Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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Middle East

Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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