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Libya: Blind alleys of political settlement

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An international conference on Libya, mediated by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that was recently held in Palermo, Sicily, was looking for ways to reconcile the rival centers of power and generally stabilize the situation in the long-troubled North African nation. One of these main power centers is the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, headed by Faiz Saraj, and the other is the Tobruk-based House of Representatives headed by its Speaker Aguila Saleh, who is supported by the Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Add to these the Islamists, local leaders in Fezzana in the south and in the Mediterranean coastal city of Misurata in the northwest and you will see that there are a lot of people willing to retain power in Libya, even on a regional scale.

Summing up the outcome of the Palermo meeting, commentators largely agreed that no breakthrough had been achieved in the long-running efforts to end the Libyan crisis with the rival leaders, Faiz Saraj and Khalifa Haftar, only reiterating their verbal commitment to the principles of settlement outlined in the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and the UN Action Plan proposed by the special representative of the UN Secretary General for Libya Ghassan Salame in 2017. To implement these guidelines Saraj and Haftar agreed to convene a National Conference at the start of next year to work out a constitutional declaration and pass a law on elections to be held in the summer of 2019.

It should be noted that taking part in those meetings were also Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Tunisian President Beji Caid Es- Sebsi, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Libya, Ghassan Salame. The Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay, who was not invited to join the meetings, walked out of the conference in protest, saying that shutting Turkey out from such contacts would have a “counterproductive effect” on the ongoing efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis.

Many observers keeping an eye on the Palermo parley said that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar set the tone for the conference. He not only refused to sit at the negotiating table with extremist-minded delegations from the western regions of Libya, but also managed, with Egyptian help, to make sure that the Turkish and Qatari delegations were kept out of his talks with Faiz Saraj. In the run-up to and during the conference, Haftar, who has been critical of Rome for the support it has been giving Saraj in the standoff between the two rival Libyan leaders, actually forced the Italian hosts to recognize him as not just a legitimate, but “indispensable” player in the settlement of the Libyan crisis.

Meanwhile, the results of the Palermo meeting did not come as good news to the political elite of Libya’s western regions, who rely on their militias. Speaking after the conference, the mayors of the cities of Zintan and Misurata, who had not been invited to take part in it, said that the situation in Libya would not change as the people who conferred in Palermo do not represent them. They also said that they were not ready for a nationwide conference scheduled for early next year, and that they needed more time to prepare for it.

It should also be borne in mind that these two cities’ militarized (“militia”) brigades constitute the main striking force of Islamic extremism in western Libya.

The deep split in the Libyan leadership and foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs was best evidenced by the November 18 statement by the head of the Supreme State Council, Khaled Mishri, about his agreement with Faiz Saraj to prevent Khalifa Haftar from taking up the position of the Supreme Commander of the Libyan army.

And this despite the fact that just a few days earlier Faiz Saraj told Italy’s Corriere della Sera that he was ready for a compromise and would look for a negotiated way to ensure Haftar’s appointment.

It is also worth mentioning the fact that on November 9, just ahead of the Palermo conference, Prime Minister Faiz Saraj and Foreign Minister Mohammed Siala were in Istanbul discussing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among other things, the agenda of the conference on Libya. A few days earlier, the Turkish defense minister and the military chief of staff arrived in Tripoli to discuss with Faiz Saraj and the head of the Supreme State Council, Khaled Mishri, how best to solidify military cooperation between the two countries, and the creation of unified Libyan armed forces.

The pushback by Khaled Mishri, who represents the Libyan Justice and Reconstruction Party and also the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist movement in Libya, sponsored by Turkey and Qatar, was fresh proof of the fact that he is hostage to Islamist brigades from Misurata. Mishri’s statement should also be viewed as a Turkish and Qatari response to their exclusion from the Saraj-Haftar mini-summit, which was the centerpiece of the Palermo conference. Mishri essentially disavowed the agreements clinched by the two leaders to continue their political dialogue.

The reaction of the opposite side did not take long coming. In a televised interview on November 20, the House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh said that Faiz Saraj was imposed on Libyans by the Western delegation when the text of the Libyan Political Agreement was being signed in the Moroccan city of Shirat in December 2015. He added that since the accord has not been ratified by the House of Representatives, Saraj cannot be considered the legitimate head of the Libyan state.

This is not the first and, apparently, not the last international initiative on Libya, whose decisions may remain on paper. During the May 29, 2018 meeting in Paris between Faiz Saraj and Khalifa Haftar, organized by the French President Emmanuel Macron, Libyan representatives pledged to adopt constitutional amendments and to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on December 10, 2018. However, a new wave of violence that swept across Tripoli just four months later, effectively dashed Macron’s hopes for holding elections as scheduled on December 10, 2018.

This time the troublemakers were militants in the western regions of the country affiliated with the government of Faiz Saraj.

On August 27, the 7th Infantry Brigade deployed in the town of Tarkhun, backed by tanks and artillery, advanced on enemy positions in the southern parts of Tripoli. According to a brigade representative, the operation was aimed at “flushing out corrupt police groups that use their status to get multi-million dollar loans while money-strapped ordinary citizens have to spend whole nights lining up outside bank doors to get scraps of their money to cover their everyday expenses.”

However, the main reason for the August 27 offensive by the 7th Brigade, commanded by Abdel Rahim Cani, and by allied armed militias from Misurata and Zintan, was not concern for the suffering residents of the capital but, rather, their leaders’ desire to have their share of money flows and control over resources as well as to demonstrate to all other political players that without taking into account their interests, ending the crisis in Libya would be a mission impossible.

The thing is, the Government of National Accord led by Faiz Saraj that came to power in Tripoli in March 2016, had to create new state structures virtually from the ground up and, with the absence of its own armed forces, had to rely on a patchwork of local militias as recommended by Western military specialists, mainly Italian ones, led by General Paolo Serra, a security adviser to the UN Mission in Libya.

The largest four of the 30 or so militia brigades active in the area, namely the “Special Forces of Deterrence” led by Abdel-Rauf Qara, the “Revolutionary Brigades of Tripoli” commanded by Haytem Tadjuri, the Navasi Battalion, headed by Ali Kaddur, and the Abu Slim Division” of the Central Security Apparatus under the command of Abdel-Gani Kikli, promised Saraj their assistance in ensuring the government’s security and maintaining law and order in the city. Operating as part of the Ministry of the Interior and endowed with the authority to investigate and arrest, these four groups eventually phased out their rivals from the city and carved up the capital into their areas of influence, establishing a sort of a cartel.

While remaining nominally loyal to the Government of National Accord, these four groups ultimately gained unprecedented sway over the country’s leadership turning into a mafia-style community that controlled the political institutions of the state and big business. A German study has repeatedly quoted the leaders of these groups as saying that “the GNA is only a screen they use to issue decrees that are favorable to them.”

Testifying to the scale of the lawlessness perpetrated by the cartel’s leaders are numerous facts that have become public knowledge. Thus, in October 2017, two commanders of the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades kidnapped the Transport Minister and set him free only after he had awarded a 78 million euro contract to restore the Tripoli International Airport to a certain company from Misurata.

The leaders of the “Special Forces of Deterrence” have similarly been involved in such lawless acts. Ignoring repeated protests by the Prosecutor General, they kept the Libyan Airways’ executive director and senior officials of the Libyan airline Afriqiyah Airways under arrest in order to have their people appointed to senior positions in both companies and enjoy various services provided by these two air carriers.

According to experts of the Atlantic Council – a US-based think tank – even before the August 27 offensive, the 7th Infantry Brigade’s commander Abdel Rahim Cani enlisted the support of Salah Badi, a brigade commander from Misurata, who played a very active role in the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, and of a brigade from Zintan, which was forced out of Tripoli in 2014.

The armed clashes that flared up in and around the capital on August 26, ended with a September 4 ceasefire mediated by the UN Special Representative Ghassan Salame only to resume shortly afterwards. It wasn’t until September 26 that the warring factions signed a truce, which has since been regularly violated by both sides. As a result, about 120 people have been killed, over 400 injured and an estimated 25,000 forced to abandon their homes.

The gun battles fought in Tripoli were yet another example of the United Nation’s failure to resolve the conflict – Faiz Saraj is a UN protégé – and the tragic consequences of the 2011 US-led military intervention by NATO countries. According to Jonathan Weiner, who served as the US Special Representative for Libya in 2013-2017, President Barack Obama’s decision to join in the military operation in Libya came “under strong pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.” At the same time, Weiner added, following Gaddafi’s downfall, France and Britain committed themselves to “democratizing” Libya – an effort that was much facilitated by the North African country’s $200 billion foreign exchange reserves.

Even though Washington’s current policy vis-à-vis Libya may look restrained and mainly limited to “combating international terrorism,” at the close of 2016, a coalition of police brigades from Misurata succeeded, with US air support, in driving ISIS militants out of the city of Sirt. The terrorist threat is still there though, necessitating regular US airstrikes on the militants’ positions in the region.

It should also be noted that the post of the US ambassador to Libya remained vacant up until early-November of 2018, when Peter Boddy was finally dispatched by Washington to take it up.

This is not to say, however, that the Americans just sit and watch what is going on in Libya. Even when Barack Obama was still in the White House, the US policy in Africa began to take on the features of “behind-the-scenes control” through its vassals. According to the Qatari-based news agency Al-Jazeera, the latest government reshuffle in Tripoli in October with the appointment of Fati Bashag as Interior Minister, and Ali Abdullaziz Issavi and Faraj Bumatari respectively taking up the posts of Economy and Finance Ministers, had been coordinated by Faiz Saraj with the UN Deputy Special Representative in Libya Stephanie Williams, who happens to be a US citizen.

With Muammar Gaddafi now gone, the British and French quickly forgot their promise of a “democratic reorganization” of Libya, which they had given Barack Obama, and handed the solution of this daunting task over to the United Nations. Since February 2011, six UN special representatives have taken turns dealing with these issues, with the last of them, Ghassan Salame, just like the five before him, falling victim to the conflict of interest of the outside actors, above all France and Italy, as well as Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, all of them rendering assistance to their supporters in Libya.

At the heart of Italy’s policy in Libya, apart from purely political considerations, such as a desire to remain the main partner of its oil and gas-rich former colony and resolve the acute problem of African migrants, are purely economic considerations. Rome’s support for Faiz Saraj and his Government of National Accord, which is nominally in control of the country’s western regions, is explained by the fact that the Italian energy giant ENI is pumping natural gas at the Mellita field west of Tripoli and sending it to Italy via the Green Stream pipeline running under the Mediterranean Sea, thus covering 25 percent of the country’s needs for natural gas.

ENI has also obtained concessions to explore large oil fields in Libya: one in the desert region and an offshore one, both covering 10 percent of Italy’s crude oil consumption.

Therefore, from an economic standpoint, Tripolitania, which, apart from energy production, is home to the bulk of Italian investments in other sectors of the local economy, is more important to Rome than the eastern regions of the country.

Meanwhile, France has been ramping up its political activity in Libya as part of its counterterrorism Operation Barhan being carried out in the Sahel zone. In the past few years, France, which has become the target of a series of high-profile terrorist attacks, has felt the painful pinch of its participation in the 2011 military intervention in Libya. Learning from its past mistakes, Paris has been providing military assistance to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, known for his unflinching opposition to Islamic extremism.

Economic interests are equally high on Paris’ mind. As transpires from then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, in February 2011, just ahead of the NATO intervention in Libya, French intelligence officers had several secret meetings in Benghazi with some representatives of the Libyan military promising them assistance in exchange for a preferential status granted to French companies working in Libya, especially in the country’s oil and gas sector.

As far as Russia is concerned, its interest in resolving the crisis in Libya is best evidenced by the high status of the Russian delegation in Palermo, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Russia and Libya share a decades-long history of trade, economic, humanitarian and military cooperation. According to various estimates, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Libyan Jamahiriya bought $17 billion worth of arms and military equipment from the Soviet Union.

Decades on, there is a great deal of interest in Russia in continuing this cooperation with Libya. In February 2017, Rosneft signed an oil and gas cooperation agreement with the National Oil Corporation of Libya, and Russian Railways is in talks with Libyan partners to resume a contract, put on hold by war and destruction, for the construction of the Sirt-Benghazi railway.

In fact, Moscow wants to work together with all sides in the Libyan conflict,  including the Government of National Accord led by Faiz Saraj, who was holding talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry in March 2017, and with Khalifa Haftar, who is acting on behalf of the House of Representatives in Tobruk. During his visit to Russia, Haftar repeated his request for the provision of Russian arms for his forces, but Russia refused citing a standing UN embargo on arms supplies to Libya.

During their December 13, 2018 visit to Moscow, a delegation of the House of Representatives of Libya, headed by Speaker Aguila Saleh, signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian State Duma. Having in mind the past experience of Soviet instructors training Libyan military personnel, Aguila Saleh reiterated his government’s request for the resumption of this program. He also expressed interest in the development of cooperation in oil and gas industry, the construction of the Sirt-Benghazi railway and other infrastructure facilities.

Earlier, on December 4, 2018, another Libyan delegation, this time representing the interests of Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who is backed by the supporters of the previous Libyan government, had a meeting at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow to share with the Russian side his vision of how best to end the crisis in Libya “in keeping with the UN plan, but without foreign interference.”

The efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis are complicated by the fact that numerous armed “brigades” and criminal groups active in the country are more than happy about the current status quo, which allows them to control their illegal business. According to Britain’s Royal Institute of International Relations, in 2016, they earned an estimated $978 million from smuggling migrants to Europe and, according to other sources they are annually making $750 to $2 billion from smuggling oil products.

And this is without taking into account revenues from drug trade.

The June 2018 attempt by Ibrahim Jadran, the onetime commander of the units ensuring the security of Libya’s oil facilities, and the Salafist-jihadist Benghazi Defense Brigade to seize the Ras Lanuf and Es Sidr oil terminals controlled by Khalifa Haftar, showed that the local players have no intention whatsoever to give up their economic power and abandon political ambitions in the struggle for power.

Some Western experts even believe that the brigades from Misurata, which in 2016 drove out the Islamic State terrorists from Sirt, could use their combat power and financial and military assistance from Qatar and Turkey, to launch, together with other opponents of Khalifa Haftar, a military operation to seize oil fields in the east of the country in order to deprive Haftar of the levers of economic and political pressure on the government in Tripoli. In a statement issued on October 20, 2018, the head of the city’s Military Council, Ibrahim bin Rajab, rejected any suggestions of establishing   unified armed forces that Khalifa Haftar could participate in.

The turbulent events of the past few months have dispelled the illusion of relative stability in the Libyan capital, and once again showed that the outside players, primarily the Western countries, which endorsed the Government of National Accord led by Faiz Saraj at the United Nations, simply refused to acknowledge the fact that implanted into the country’s political life from the outside, this government does not enjoy popular support and that the real power both in the center and in the regions is wielded by formations “armed to the teeth.” According to Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service, by the time of Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, there were about 1 million tons of weapons in Libyan arsenals – more than the entire UK army can boast of.

As one expert put it, “there can be no peace in a country where there are 20 million guns per 6 million people.”

In a situation where the government in Tripoli has proved utterly unable to end the armed clashes by loyal police brigades, the future of the political settlement in the war-torn country, even with international mediation, remains anyone’s guess. The general opinion is that in the run-up to next summer’s elections, the struggle for power between Libya’s rival factions will only be heating up and the country will enter a period of new upheavals.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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China and the Middle East: Heading into Choppy Waters

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China could be entering choppy Middle Eastern waters. Multiple crises and conflicts will likely shape its relations with the region’s major powers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.

The laundry list of pitfalls for China includes the fallout of the Ukraine war, strained US relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Turkish opposition to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, the threat of a renewed Turkish anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria, and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Drowning out the noise, one thing that becomes evident is that neither the Gulf states nor Turkey have any intention of fundamentally altering their security relationships with the United States, even if the dynamics in the cases of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey are very different.

Saudi Arabia recognizes that there is no alternative to the US security umbrella, whatever doubts the kingdom may have about the United States’ commitment to its security. With next month’s visit to Saudi Arabia by President Joe Biden, the question is not how US-Saudi differences will be papered over but at what price and who will pay the bill.

Meanwhile, China has made clear that it is not willing and not yet able to replace the United States. It has also made clear that for China to engage in regional security, Middle Eastern states would first have to get a grip on their disputes so that conflicts don’t spin out of control. Moves to lower the tensions between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt by focusing on economics are a step in that direction. Still, they remain fragile, with no issue that sparked the differences being resolved.

A potential failure of negotiations in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal could upset the apple cart. It would likely push Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to tighten their security cooperation but could threaten rapprochement with Turkey. It could also heighten tensions in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, where Iran supports a variety of political actors and militias. None of this is good news for China, which like other major players in the Middle East, prefers to remain focused on economics.

The dynamics with Turkey and Iran are of a different order. China may gleefully watch Turkish obstruction in NATO, but as much as Turkey seeks to forge an independent path, it does not want to break its umbilical cord with the West anchored in its membership in NATO.

NATO needs Turkey even if its center of gravity, for now, has moved to Eastern Europe. By the same token, Turkey needs NATO, even if it is in a better position to defend itself than the Gulf states are. Ultimately, horse-trading will resolve NATO’s most immediate problems because of Turkish objections to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

Turkey’s threatened anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria would constitute an escalation that no party, including China, wants. Not because it underwrites Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership but because with Syrian Kurds seeking support from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish and Iranian-backed forces could find themselves on opposite sides.

Finally, Iran. Despite the hot air over Iran’s 25-year US$400 million deal with China, relations between Tehran and Beijing are unlikely to fully blossom as long as Iran is subject to US sanctions. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement guarantees that sanctions will remain. China has made clear that it is willing to push the envelope in violating or circumventing sanctions but not to the degree that would make Iran one more major friction point in the already fraught US-China relationship.

In a world in which bifurcation has been accelerated by the Ukraine war and the Middle East threatened by potentially heightened tensions in the absence of a nuclear agreement, Gulf states may find that increasingly the principle of ‘you are with us or against us’ becomes the norm. The Gulf states hedged their bets in the initial months of the Ukraine war, but their ability to do so may be coming to an end.

Already Saudi Arabia and the UAE are starting to concede on the issue of oil production, while Qatar is engaging with Europe on gas. Bifurcation would not rupture relations with China but would likely restrain technological cooperation and contain Gulf hedging strategies, including notions of granting China military facilities.

Over and beyond the immediate geopolitical and security issues, there are multiple other potentially problematic issues and powder kegs.

A prominent Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, recently took issue with an increasingly aggressive tone in Chinese diplomacy. “China isn’t doing itself any favours … Chinese officials seem determined to undermine their own case for global leadership … Somehow Chinese officials don’t seem to recognize that their belligerence is just as off-putting…as Western paternalism is,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

China’s balancing act, particularly between Saud Arabia and Iran, could become more fraught. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement will complicate already difficult Saudi Iranian talks aimed at dialling down tensions. It could also fuel a nuclear, missiles, and drone arms race accelerated by a more aggressive US-backed Israeli strategy in confronting Iran by striking at targets in the Islamic republic rather than with US backing in, for example, Syria.

While Chinese willingness to sell arms may get a boost, China could find that both Saudi Arabia and Iran become more demanding in their expectations from Beijing, particularly if tensions escalate.

A joker in the pack is China’s repression of Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang. A majority of the Muslim world has looked the other way, with a few, like Saudi Arabia, openly endorsing the crackdown.

The interest in doing so goes beyond Muslim-majority states not wanting to risk their relations with a China that responds harshly and aggressively to public criticism. Moreover, the crackdown in Xinjiang and Muslim acquiescence legitimises a shared opposition to any political expression of Islam.

The problem for Muslim-majority states, particularly those in the Middle East, is that the era in which the United States and others could get away with the application of double standards and apparent hypocrisy in adhering to values may be drawing to a close.

China and, for that matter, Russia is happy to benefit from the global South’s reluctance to join condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions against Russia because the West refuses to apply the principle universally, for example, in the case of Israel or multiple infractions of international and human rights law elsewhere.

However, China and Middle Eastern states sit in similar glasshouses. Irrespective of how one judges recent controversial statements made by spokespeople of India’s ruling BJP party regarding the Prophet Mohammed and Muslim worship, criticism by Muslim states rings hollow as long as they do not also stand up to the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.

For some in the Middle East, a reckoning could come sooner and later.

Turkey is one state where the issue of the Uighurs in China is not simply a far-from-my-bed show. Uighurs play into domestic politics in a country home to the largest Uighur exile community that has long supported the rights of its Turkic brethren in China and still boasts strong strands of pan-Turkism.

These are all elements that could come to the fore when Turkey goes to the polls next year as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Turkish republic.

The question is not whether China will encounter choppy waters in the Middle East but when and where.

Author’s note: This article is based on the author’s remarks at the 4th Roundtable on China in West Asia – Stepping into a Vacuum? organised by the Ananta Aspen Center on 14 June 2022 and was first published by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

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Recognising Israel: Any Asian volunteers?

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The question for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not whether either country will recognise Israel but when and who will go first.

For the past two years, Saudi Arabia was believed to want a Muslim state in Asia, home to the world’s three most populous Muslim majority countries, to recognise Israel first. Asian recognition would give the kingdom, home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, a welcome fig leaf.

Numbers, as expressed by population size, were one reason. Compared to Saudi Arabia’s 35 million people, Pakistan has a population of 221 million, Indonesia 274 million, and Bangladesh 165 million.

That was one reason Saudi Arabia preferred an Asian state to take the lead in following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, who recognised Israel in the least two years.

Likely more important was the expectation that potential mass protest against a move toward Israel was more likely to erupt in Asia, where the margin for expressing dissent is greater than in much of the Middle East. Such protests, it was thought, would distract attention from the Custodian of the Holy Cities taking similar steps.

Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel but needs a cover to do so. The kingdom has emphasized this in recent weeks as it sought Israeli acquiescence in the transfer by Egypt to Saudi Arabia of sovereignty over two islands at the top of the Red Sea and prepared for a possible visit by US President Joe Biden.

The visit is designed to improve relations strained since Mr. Biden came to office over Saudi doubts about US security commitments, US demands that the kingdom increase oil production in a bid to reduce prices and limit Russian energy exports, Saudi acquisition of Chinese missiles, and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In advance of a visit, Saudi Arabia has not rejected a US proposal for a regional Middle Eastern air defence system that would include the kingdom and Israel.

Mujtahid, an anonymous tweeter who has repeatedly provided insights into the secretive workings of the House of Saud in recent years, reported that Saudi Arabia and Israel had created a “situation room” on the 14th floor of an Istanbul office building to advance the establishment of diplomatic relations. He said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s close aide, Saud al-Qahtani, headed the Saudi side.

Despite rampant speculation, Mr. Bin Salman is unlikely to see Mr. Biden’s visit as a capstone for recognition of Israel. More likely, he will continue to insist on a fig leaf in the form of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a major Asian Muslim-majority state going next.

Much of the attention focused in the almost two years since the UAE-led quartet forged relations with Israel focused on Indonesia. Not only because Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority state and its foremost Muslim democracy but also because it is home to the world’s most moderate mass Muslim civil society movement, Nahdlatul Ulama.

Heads of Nahdlatul Ulama have visited Israel and met Israeli leaders multiple times in the past two decades, even though Indonesia and Israel have no diplomatic relations. The movement also has close ties to various American Jewish groups.

Similarly, the absence of formal relations between Israel and Indonesia has not prevented Israeli diplomats, scholars, and journalists from maintaining contact with Indonesian counterparts and travelling to the archipelago nation or Indonesian pilgrims from touring the Jewish state. Nevertheless, Indonesia has rebuffed both the Trump and the Biden administration’s requests to move towards recognition.

Indonesia’s refusal may not come as a surprise. However, suggestions that Pakistan, despite its close ties to Saudi Arabia, may strike a deal with Israel come out of left field. Religious ultra-conservatism is woven into the fabric of society and at least some state institutions. Moreover, anti-Semitism is rampant in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, a recent visit to Israel by a delegation of Pakistani activists seeking to promote people-to-people contacts has sparked anger and debate in Pakistan. The group, which met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, included American and British Pakistanis, prominent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Qureshi, and Fischel BenKhald, a Pakistani Jew.

Without at least an overt nudge from powerful quarters, no Pakistani journalist could make this public trip to Israel and return safely, reflecting how attitudes pertaining to Israel have evolved in the world’s only Muslim nuclear power,” said London-based Pakistani journalist Hamza Azhar Salam.

That did not stop Pakistani state television from firing Mr. Qureishi.

“The good news is, we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is hug,” Mr. Qureishi said.

Many Pakistanis, led by ousted prime minister Imran Khan, saw the visit to Israel as part of an effort by Pakistan’s powerful military to forge closer ties to the Jewish state – a move Mr. Khan appears to have considered when he was in office.

His aide, Zulfi Bukhari, reportedly visited Israel for a meeting with then head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen. Mr. Bukhari has denied travelling to Israel.

The visit by the Pakistani activists came two years after two Pakistani academics called in an op-ed in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper for Pakistani-Israeli cooperation in resolving the South Asian state’s water stress and upgrading its agriculture sector.

Similarly, Pakistani political analyst Saad Hafiz recently argued that Pakistan’s recognition of Israel would earn it the support of the Biden administration and the Israeli lobby in Washington for continued International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid for his country’s battered economy. Mr. Hafiz also reiterated that Pakistan could benefit from Israeli water conservation technology.

“The US leadership, Congress, and the powerful pro-Israel lobby could support the resumption of financial assistance to Pakistan as an incentive if it agrees to normalize ties with Israel, “ Mr. Saad said.

Pakistanis and Israeli have links in other ways. For example, many Pakistanis offer their services on Fiverr, an Israeli marketplace for freelance professionals.

Degrees of Saudi cooperation with Israel and Pakistani feelers contrasted starkly with legislation passed in the last two weeks by the Iraqi parliament criminalizing contact with Israel and by the Houthi government in Yemen that outlawed contact not only with Israel but also with Jews.

Pakistan is unlikely to follow Iraq or the Houthis. Even so, “it is unlikely that Pakistan’s fragile coalition government has the credibility and time to take the politically risky decision to open dialogue with Israel, especially with (Imran) Khan snipping at its heels,” Mr. Saad said. “Yet, bold decisions are needed for Pakistan to compete in a changing world.”

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The West Gives Ukraine What It Denied to Libya

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migrants refugees
photo: IOM/Amanda Nero

Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict more than 6 million refugees have left Ukraine in search of a better life in Europe. Most of them faced no considerable problems in crossing the border and eventually find what they were looking for thanks to the lenient approach taken by the government of European nations. Welcoming Ukrainians with open arms comes in sharp contrast with the experience of refugees from Africa or Middle East, who also run from chaos and war. What is the reason behind this discrimination? Is it the double standards of the West or simply a disastrous concatenation of circumstances?

The downfall of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 caused an exodus of around 2 million Libyans. Most of them migrated to Tunisia and only 300,000 chose to try their luck in EU, predominantly Italy and Malta. Unlike the Ukrainians, Arabs did not receive such a warm welcome. On the contrary UN allocated more than $700 million to deter Libyans from crossing the Mediterranean. The funds went on costal guard training and improvement of border control. In practice this means seizing vessels with refugees in the open sea and sending the people who paid smugglers exorbitant amounts of money back to poverty and suffering. The West is acting as if it’s trying to avoid Africans and Arabs like a plague while 6 million Ukrainians were accepted with ease and even given special treatment in certain countries like Poland.

Instead of taking in the Libyan refugees the EU could have committed to rebuild infrastructure and improve the living standards in Libya. At one point in time it seemed that this strategy would be implemented: according to Financial Tracking Service from 2011 until 2022 Tripoli received $1.2 billion worth of aid. It is quite a large number, which rounds up to $109 million per year. However, it’s not sufficient from a stand point of a country. For example in 2021 Egypt has dedicated around $3 billion for low-income housing while having 27.9% poverty rate. At the same time Libya has 53% poverty rate, which means $109 million per year could probably provide housing for less than 0.2% of those in need. As for Ukraine, FTS recorded $1.8 billion in foreign aid since 24 February 2022 – more than Libya received in 11 years.

It is not only about the refugees and funding but about the causes and solutions of the crisis. In Libya thousands of innocent lives were taken, thousands of homes and crucial infrastructure objects annihilated in the wake of the military operation conducted by NATO with no one brought to responsibility. Now, the news about war crimes and casualties in Ukraine can be heard in any part of the globe. Evidently when military force is used to establish “democracy” far away from the homeland, lost Arab lives is an acceptable sacrifice in a white man’s eyes.

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