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US troop withdrawals threaten to fuel greater, potentially problematic Gulf assertiveness

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As far as Gulf leaders are concerned, President Donald J. Trump demonstrated with his announced US troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan that his insistence that the “world is a dangerous place” has never been truer.

The troop withdrawals coupled with Mr. Trump’s praising of Saudi Arabia’s alleged willingness to foot the reconstruction bill in Syria, moves that emphasized his lack of geopolitical interest in the Middle East, leave primarily standing as a common interest between the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates only Iran and a shaky Afghan peace process.

If former US president Barak Obama’s seeming unwillingness to whole heartedly support embattled Arab leaders during the 2011 Arab popular revolts that toppled the heads of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, was at the root of at times reckless greater assertiveness displayed since then by the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Mr. Trump’s moves literally threaten to leave them hanging in the air.

A similar conclusion can be drawn for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appears to have successfully persuaded Mr. Trump to postpone publication of his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan until after Israel’s April 9 early elections because it portends to be less favourable to Israel than expected.

Despite Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the plan reportedly sees the city as the capital of both the Jewish and a Palestinian state.

The troop withdrawals and the peace plan confirm Middle Eastern leaders’, particularly those in the Gulf, worst fears: they are left without a reliable ally that will unconditionally protect their interests and they have no one to turn to who could fully replace the United States as their unquestioned protector.

The resignation of US defense secretary Jim Mattis deepens the crisis for Gulf leaders. “Mattis’ departure means the loss of a key interlocutor at the Department of Defense, the Cabinet-level agency with which the Gulf countries deal most. It also means losing a senior figure who views Middle Eastern strategic realities in terms very similar to their own. The fact that Mattis resigned over policy disagreements with the president does not bode well for future trends in Washington from a Gulf Arab perspective,” said Middle East scholar Hussein Ibish.

Mr. Trump has proven to be unreliable. His granting of waivers to Iran’s major oil buyers as well as for Indian investment in the Iranian port of Chabahar, viewed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a threat to their geopolitical and economic interests, was the writing on the wall despite the harsh sanctions imposed on Iran by the president. Syria and Afghanistan cement the fact that Mr. Trump is both unpredictable and unreliable.

The world’s other three major powers, Europe, Russia and China, have at best aspects of what the United States has to offer but lack the ability and/or interest to fully replace the United States as the Gulf leaders’ protector in the way that Mr. Trump seemed to do at the outset of his presidency.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE already have fundamental differences over Iran with the three powers who oppose US sanctions and want to salvage the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. Similarly, the three world powers have refused to back the 18-month old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar and call for a speedy resolution of the crisis.

Russia, moreover, is keen to sell weaponry to the Gulf, who are among the world’s biggest buyers, exploit vacuums created by US policy, and capitalize as a non-OPEC producer in enabling Gulf efforts to manipulate production and world oil prices but is not eager to inherit the US defense umbrella for the region.

Said Russia and energy expert Li-Chen Sim: “The Gulf is not a key focus of Russian foreign policy… I don’t see the Russians taking any advantage of the problems between the Saudis and the Americans to play a larger security role.” Ms. Sim was referring to US Congressional blaming of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and condemnation of Saudi conduct of the war in Yemen.

By the same token, China has neither the ability nor the appetite to replace the United States in the Gulf. On the contrary, China has preferred to benefit from US regional protection, prompting US assertions that the Chinese were free-riders. As is evident across Eurasia in projects related to China’s infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road initiative, Chinese support does not come without strings. The same is true for Europe.

China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims that is expanding to other Muslim groups in the country, moreover, represents a potential black swan in China-Gulf relations.

The impact of Saudi and UAE uncertainty with no one world power available to cater to all their needs is reflected in apparent efforts to rebuild bridges with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad whose ouster they sought for much of the Syrian civil war.

A recent visit to Damascus by embattled Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, the first by an Arab leader since the civil war erupted in 2011, was widely seen as the beginning of a thaw in Syrian-Arab relations.

Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syrian air force intelligence and a close associate of Mr. Al-Assad, met in Cairo days later with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

The UAE is, according to unconfirmed reports, refurbishing its embassy in Damascus that has been empty since Gulf states broke off relations with Syria early on in the civil war.

Adding to Gulf leaders’ uncertainty, Mr. Trump left many guessing when he this week thanked Saudi Arabia on Twitter for agreeing to “to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States.”

With Saudi Arabia refraining from comment, it was not clear what Mr. Trump was referring to. Saudi Arabia transferred in October in the immediate wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi US$100 million to the US to help stabilise parts of Syria.

The vacuum created by Mr. Trump risks fuelling greater Gulf assertiveness with potentially messy consequences.

A close associate of Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi asserted earlier this year that the UAE had offered Tunisia financial assistance if Mr. Essebsi followed the example of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who imposed a brutal autocracy after staging in 2013 a military coup to topple Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s only democratically elected president.

Saudi Arabia this month pledged US$830 million in aid for Tunisia following Prince Mohammed’s controversial visit last month as part of a tour designed to demonstrate that his position remained strong despite Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

Mr. Trump described the world as a dangerous place in shrugging off allegations that Prince Mohammed may have been responsible for the killing. Gulf leaders are likely to share that perception in response to the president’s seeming unwillingness to fully take their interests into account.

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

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Middle East

Biden’s Opportunity To Reset Relatons With The Muslim World Begins In Istanbul

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When President Obama delivered his famous speech at Cairo University in June of 2009, it was an historic moment. The symbolism of a sitting U.S President speaking to Muslims, and not about them, was refreshing and enormously impactful. America’s first African American President opened his speech with “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning, between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” 

It appeared to many the world was changing and with American leadership, the global community was embarking on a new era of understanding between East and West.

Obama’s speech hit all the right notes: he acknowledged the contributions of Muslims throughout history. He recognized the common humanity between Muslims and people of other faiths. He disavowed the narrative of an inevitable civilizational divide. And he emphasized the need to support democratic reforms in the Muslim world. He reiterated the right of Palestinians to a dignified living, promised to leave “Iraq to Iraqis,” and sought to prioritize diplomacy over war in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. 

A year and half later Obama’s message would be tested by the Arab Spring. As Muslim communities across the Arab world rose up against autocratic rule demanding freedom and democracy, the Obama White House struggled to support the people. The optimism that followed his Cairo speech had fizzled.  

The pledge to establish a “new beginning” was neglected during Obama’s presidency and then destroyed by President Trump’s divisive policies. Since his inauguration, Trump has taken a wrecking ball to America’s relationship with Muslims at home and around the world. He claimed that “Islam hates us,” and on his first day in office fulfilled his campaign promise to ban visitors from several Muslim-majority countries. On election day this year, he tweeted warning that his rival, Joe Biden, will increase “refugees from terrorist nations.”  President Trump’s one serious claim of progress toward Middle East peace, the Abraham Accords, was viewed by many as little more than a last-ditch effort to deliver a foreign policy victory for Trump in time for his reelection bid. The Accords willfully left out the Palestinians, the most crucial stakeholders in the conflict, leaving a hollow agreement with few guarantees for a lasting peace. 

More than a decade after the Cairo speech, the divide between East and West seems to have only deepened.  Muslims feel the world is at war with them – fueled not only by American military actions but by the continued persecution of Muslims in Burma, Kashmir, China and elsewhere. There is a sense that Islam’s most revered symbols are under attack, and that Muslim identity is suspect in the eyes of many in the West.

However, the picture is not entirely dark. As the Trump era comes to a close, there is an opportunity for President-elect Biden to pick up where Obama left off in 2009: a chance to reset the partnership between America and the Muslim world.  This opportunity passes straight through Istanbul. If in 2009 Egypt represented “the heart of the Arab world”, to reset ties with the Muslim world today, Biden will need Turkey. 

The centrality of Turkey to the Muslim world and The East today is undisputed. Tens of thousands of Muslim dissidents and human rights defenders from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya have taken refuge in Turkey.  Istanbul has become a hub of diaspora intellectual activism. Because of a leadership vacuum in the Muslim world, Turkey continues to emerge as the champion of Muslims under persecution, and that role resonates with Muslims around the world. 

Turkey took the lead in launching the Alliance of Civilizations in 2005 to combat extremism and broker deeper understanding between Muslim societies and the West, this project now comprises 146 members including member states and international organizations.  The pluralistic Islam practiced in Turkey today is more representative of Muslim communities around the world and starkly different from the Wahhabi-influenced regimes of the Arabian Gulf, with whom Trump became very friendly during his tenure. 

Turkey is also a critical NATO ally, with the second largest military contribution. Trump’s continual attacks on NATO have challenged and weakened the world’s strongest military alliance. Biden will need Turkey’s assistance to strengthen NATO to meet new regional challenges, especially with Russia, as well. 

Although Turkey’s human rights record is not perfect and its democracy has been tested since the failed military coup of 2016, the government has shown commitment to democratic principles, and its institutions and civil society continue to be lightyears ahead of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle Eastern.

Turkey today can be the bridge between the West and the Muslim World, mending the deepened rift and launching that new beginning promised by Obama eleven years ago.  When Biden used the word inshallah, which means “God-willing” in Arabic, during a presidential debate, Muslims in America and abroad took note. Muslim American turnout in critical battleground states like Michigan was decisive in his favor. Biden should capitalize on the momentum of his gesture to re-engage with the Muslim world and repair America’s image around the world. The destination of his first foreign trip could even be to Istanbul, to listen and to signal change. It would represent the metaphoric start of a new chapter.

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Covid-19 Vaccine: A Mutual Partnership between Morocco and China

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Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Kingdom of Morocco (1958), a strong and rapid strategic development of mutual ties categorized contemporary collaboration.

On August 31th 2020, King Mohammed VI held telephone talks with Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, which falls within the framework of the existing friendship between the two countries, which was strengthened through the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Establishment of the People’s Republic of China. A strategic partnership was signed by the King and Chinese President during the royal visit to Beijing in May 2016.

The phone talks between King Mohammed VI and the President of the People’s Republic of China touched on the development of bilateral relations in all fields, especially political dialogue, economic cooperation, and cultural and humanitarian exchanges. King Mohammed VI and President Xi Jinping also discussed the partnership between the two countries in combating “Covid-19”.

According to Moroccan Newsmedia, Minister of Health Khalid Ait Taleb is expressed his satisfaction with the signing up of a cooperation agreement between Morocco and China National Biotec Group Limited (CNBG) on the COVID-19 vaccine trials. This shared Moroccan-Chinese collaboration will allow the Kingdom of Morocco to be among the prior served in terms of the vaccine against the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, he added, under his Majesty, The Kingdom of Morocco would be able to take part in creating vaccines in sense of the exchange of Chinese expertise. Though, to strengthen the Sino-Morocco strategic partnership, to boost both countries’ international solidarity and promote health cooperation.

The issue of discovering an anti-“Covid-19” vaccine still raises several controversies, and altercations especially since the kingdom of Morocco issued its participation in the clinical trials of the Chinese vaccine, but without giving any details about how these trials were conducted, or, knowing its initial outcomes.

Accordingly, despite those who attempt to question it, China’s vaccines constitute a trendy choice because they are affordable and can be distributed in a substantial and more successful capacity. Yet, several states which face similar economic issues, people, and ambiance-based impediments are likely to see China’s vaccines as the obvious choice. That does not mean it will be the sole state they do trade with, as several of the states have more than one trade partner.

Though, Chinese vaccines have a competitive price and making capacity, allowing developing countries like Morocco a way out of the pandemic as fast as possible. Unlike European companies, is not only about business; China has also agreed to give billions of vaccines.

China has timely released the latest vaccines information, China’s vaccines are gaining international steam and a growing number of states are following up to obtain them. Whilst the achievements of Moderna and Pzifer are widely lauded, in the end, these companies only complete a part of the jigsaw in ending the COVID-19 crisis. Not everyone has the privilege or infrastructure to buy them. Therefore, the accomplishment of SinoVac, CanSino, and SinoPharm are set to play a significant role in making a difference for billions of people around the world.

According to Jamal Eddine Bouzidi, a doctor specializing in chest diseases, allergies, and immunology, president of the Moroccan Association for Fighting Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases, pointed out: “They say that the Chinese vaccine is purely safe, but to make sure of that.” You must wait for a long time because there are side effects that may appear after a period of up to two years or after months at least. Therefore, we might say that it is 100% safe. “

He added, “All vaccines that are produced around the globe go through many phases in the laboratory, then they are analyzed and checked on mammals and followed by humans. And when tested on humans, they also go through three stages; and during each stage, the number” of people subject to testing, so that the effects are discovered. Side effects of the vaccine and its effectiveness. “

Under such circumstances, The Moroccan minister noted that the vaccine, according to the statements of Chinese officials, is successful at a rate of between 97 and 98 percent, and is given in two doses with a difference of 14 days, and the antibodies are manufactured within a month and can sustain in the blood to defend the body for two years. “The vaccine experiments will originally involve volunteers as of next week,” the official said.

Ait Taleb highlighted that the agreements reached will allow Morocco to have its vaccine as soon as possible with the help of our Chinese health expertise. The signing of the agreements will allow Morocco to launch its first experience of clinical trials.

Meanwhile, Al-Bouzidi considered that what is being said is the “only guess”, indicating that the near-term side effects of this vaccine are high temperature, a little fatigue, slight pain at the injection site, and some tremors. The long-term symptoms are not yet known.

As acknowledged by Chinese officials, “Jun Mao” said the signing of the agreements paves the “excellence of strategic relations between China and Morocco in terms of cooperation against COVID-19, which is entering a new phase.” The Chinese diplomat Mao reaffirmed that Rabat and Beijing’s commitment to deepening their cooperation through the clinical trials. He said he hopes the newly-signed agreement will yield “decent results” as soon as possible for the peoples of the two countries.

In conclusion, China has big expectations for the Kingdom of Morocco as the latter has an extreme pond of resources to spur its anticipated vision and China’s economic growth. As a superpower, China’s motive in partnership with Africa through the creation of more legality and impartial world order places the East Asian giant is a powerful stand to provide more substantial aid to Africa under win-win cooperation.

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The Muslim world’s changing dynamics: Pakistan struggles to retain its footing

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Increasing strains between Pakistan and its traditional Arab allies, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, is about more than Gulf states opportunistically targeting India’s far more lucrative market.

At the heart of the tensions, that potentially complicate Pakistan’s economic recovery, is also India’s ability to enhance Gulf states’ capacity to hedge their bets amid uncertainty about the continued US commitment to regional security.

India is a key member of the Quad that also includes the United States, Australia and Japan and could play a role in a future more multilateral regional security architecture in the Gulf.

Designed as the backbone of an Indo-Pacific strategy intended to counter China across a swath of maritime Asia, Gulf states are unlikely to pick sides but remain keen on ensuring that they maintain close ties with both sides of the widening divide.

The mounting strains with Pakistan are also the latest iteration of a global battle for Muslim religious soft power that pits Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Turkey, Iran, and Asian players like Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Islamic movement.

A combination of geo- and domestic politics is complicating efforts by major Muslim-majority states in Asia to walk a middle line. Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Shiite Muslim minority, has reached out to Turkey while seeking to balance relations with its neighbour, Iran.

The pressure on Pakistan is multi-fold.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan charged recently that the United States and one other unidentified country were pressing him to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

Pakistani and Israeli media named Saudi Arabia as the unidentified country. Representing the world’s second most populous Muslim nation, Pakistani recognition, following in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain, would be significant.

Pakistan twice in the last year signalled a widening rift with the kingdom.

Mr. Khan had planned to participate a year ago in an Islamic summit hosted by Malaysia and attended by Saudi Arabia’s detractors, Turkey, Iran and Qatar, but not the kingdom and a majority of Muslim states. The Pakistani prime minister cancelled his participation at the last moment under Saudi pressure.

More recently, Pakistan again challenged Saudi leadership of the Muslim world when Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi complained about lack of support of the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for Pakistan in its conflict with India over Kashmir. The OIC groups the world’s 57 Muslim-majority nations. Mr. Qureshi suggested that his country would seek to rally support beyond the realm of the kingdom.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on a visit to Pakistan earlier this year, made a point of repeatedly reiterating his country’s support for Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute.

By openly challenging the kingdom, Mr. Qureshi was hitting Saudi Arabia where it hurts most as it seeks to repair its image tarnished by allegations of abuse of human rights, manoeuvres to get off on the right foot with incoming US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, and fends off challenges to its leadership of the Muslim world.

Pakistan has not helped itself by recently failing to ensure that it would be removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, despite progress in the country’s legal infrastructure and enforcement.

Grey listing causes reputational damage and makes foreign investors and international banks more cautious in their dealings with countries that have not been granted a clean bill of health.

Responding to Mr. Qureshi’s challenge, Saudi Arabia demanded that Pakistan repay a US$1 billion loan extended to help the South Asian nation ease its financial crisis. The kingdom has also dragged its feet on renewing a US$3.2 billion oil credit facility that expired in May.

In what Pakistan will interpret as UAE support for Saudi Arabia, the Emirates last week included Pakistan on its version of US President Donald J. Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

Inclusion on the list of 13 Muslim countries whose nationals will no longer be issued visas for travel to the UAE increases pressure on Pakistan, which relies heavily on exporting labour to generate remittances and alleviate unemployment.

Some Pakistanis fear that a potential improvement in Saudi-Turkish relations could see their country fall through geopolitical cracks.

In the first face-to-face meeting between senior Saudi and Turkish officials since the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, the two countries’ foreign ministers, Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Mevlut Cavusoglu, held bilateral talks this weekend, on the sidelines of an OIC conference in the African state of Niger.

“A strong Turkey-Saudi partnership benefits not only our countries but the whole region,” Mr. Cavusoglu tweeted after the meeting.

The meeting came days after Saudi King Salman telephoned Mr. Erdogan on the eve of a virtual summit hosted by the kingdom of the Group of 20 (G20) that brings together the world’s largest economies.

“The Muslim world is changing and alliances are shifting and entering new, unchartered territories,” said analyst Sahar Khan.

Added Imtiaz Ali, another analyst: “In the short term, Riyadh will continue exploiting Islamabad’s economic vulnerabilities… But in the longer term, Riyadh cannot ignore the rise of India in the region, and the two countries may become close allies – something that will mostly likely increase the strain on Pakistan-Saudi relations.”

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