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The Algerian crisis of March 2019

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Since last February 22, Algeria has been shaken by street demonstrations that occur almost simultaneously in all the 48 provinces of the country.

 Working on the assumption that the people’s anger is entirely spontaneous, its immediate origin is the announcement by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika  he wants to run for his fifth term, which should start following the elections scheduled for next April.

  President Bouteflika, who is over 80 years of age, is in very poor health. In fact, as far as we know, he is currently hospitalized in Geneva for treatment, probably as a result of the two strokes he suffered in 2013.

 Bouteflika, however, made his spokesman, Abdelghani Zaalane, state that the upcoming election will be held on a date to be set by the National Assembly.

  In any case, Bouteflika does not intend to serve until the end of his next presidential term, but will confine himself to setting, as President, the date of the new election.

 Moreover, the elderly and sick leader has promised the adoption by referendum of a new Constitution, partly already drafted, and a reform of the electoral law.

 The Presidency, however, is currently run by the Head of the intelligence Services and by the Chief of the Armed Forces, who really pull the strings of Algeria’ s political and economic transition.

 However, who is really ruling in Algeria while, in the electoral campaign,  Bouteflika keeps on showing his photos of twenty years ago and is never heard on the radio or on TV?

 The power of the traditional leader of the FLN, who has been President for twenty years, is now divided into three groups: the presidential and political power; the military and intelligence one, and finally – albeit  certainly not to be neglected – the branch of family and State affairs, as well as internal and international influence.

  The Armed Forces, however, still play a primary role and seem to have great autonomy.

 Over the last few years, President Bouteflika has tried to reduce their autonomy in favour of his business clan, to which not even the senior officers of the intelligence Services and of the Armed Forces are alien.

 The military take orders only from the President himself, where possible, but above all from his brother Said.

  In the Algerian political circles’ imagination, the latter still epitomizes the true eminence grise of the regime.

 It should be recalled that Abdelaziz Bouteflika was Foreign Minister several times from 1960 to 1970. In 1979 he voluntarily relinquished power after the death of Houari Boumedienne, of whom he had been private secretary. He finally settled abroad, at first in the United Arab Emirates (which, in fact, have played a significant role in Algeria’s current “transformation”) and later in Switzerland and France.

 Shortly after Boumedienne’s death, he was accused of embezzlement of State funds.

 In 1999, only upon the military’s request, he returned to Algeria to rule it, following the resignation of General Liamine Zeroual.

  The old FLN President, however, has always done everything to move the military leaders away from the real centre of power, namely business and intelligence.

  Moreover, Bouteflika amended the Constitution twice to increase his powers and, above all, he has brought to power a new class of businessmen, who depend only on him.

   As happens also in Western Europe, the political parties are now only the pale shadow of what they were in the past.

 Political aggregation is achieved with the traditional advertising-style systems commonly used also in the West, but there is a sort of fear and prestige of the Leader, namely Bouteflika, that still lingers within the crowds.

 Here the political parties include the traditional group of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its traditional ally –  the former Soviet-style single party, known as Rassemblement National Democratique- as well as the Islamists (we do not know yet whether “moderate” or not) of the Rassemblement de l’Espoir de l’Algerie, and various other small parties. There is also the old single union, namely UGTA.

 As already mentioned, one of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s first supporters is his brother Said, who is the official advisor to the Head of State.

 He is aged 61, but nobody knows his true role and personal power which, however, is presumably very strong.

Opponents say he is the only one who chooses Ministers, but also decides policies and carefully coordinates news on the media. He never granted interviews.

 Former Professor at the University of Algiers and trade unionist, Said has a wide network of very solid friendships, both in Algeria and abroad, including Italy.

 The other man at the core of Algerian power is Ahmed Gaid Salah.

 He is aged 79 and is both Armed Forces Chief of Staff and Deputy-Minister of Defense, considering that the role of Minister is officially played by the President of the Republic.

 He is considered Bouteflika’s lieutenant.

 He has certainly obtained personal advantages thanks to his current role, especially when, in September 2015, the elderly President marginalized  Mohamed Mediene, known as Toufik, the traditional Head of the Algerian intelligence Services he had led for 25 years in a row.

 Bouteflika had openly accused Toufik of incompetence but, in the logic of the elderly President, the sense of his removal is to fully and safely control all the Algerian military apparatus and subject it to his wishes, which are above all those of the lively Algerian business community.

 At the core of the Algerian FLN power elite, there is also Athmane Tartag.

 He is the new Head of the intelligence Services. In the 1970s he trained for a long time at the KGB and in the 1990s he was a protagonist of Algeria’s very tough fight against jihadist terrorism.

 He is very close to Said Bouteflika.

 Nevertheless, the demonstrations throughout the country have now been reduced significantly by the current Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouhaya, who has spoken of “unknown sources” that allegedly fuel the street riots. Probably he is not entirely wrong.

 The fear of a new civil war, not necessarily linked to a new uprising of the “sword jihad”, troubles not only the ruling classes, but also the crowds in action. The latter do not absolutely want to go back to the 1990s and that was the spectre which, alone, stopped the possibility of an “Arab spring” in Algeria.

 It should be recalled that, at the beginning of the 1990s, the Algerian civil war – which was also the first mass evolution of jihad-exacted a toll of at least 200,000 deaths.

 For the Algerian crowds, in 2011 the only memory of those years avoided the “contagion” of the “Arab Springs” among the Muslim Brotherhood and the clumsy Western agents.

 The population and economic data, however, are currently similar to those found in the “democratic” propaganda machine of 2011: very strong corruption of the public apparata; widespread unemployment; a very high rate of youth unemployment and people’s poor aptitude for work.

 In fact, as early as the mass demonstrations of last February, the protesters’ demands have focused on stopping price increases – and in this case the  government has decided not to cut subsidies -and on protecting and increasing the now miserable salaries of the public sector (hence with a quasi-automatic recourse to the corruptive bakshish), as well as on finally finding a solution to the very severe housing emergency.

 The government, however, has no money.

 It still depends on oil remittances (to the tune of 65%), which obviously fall in time of low oil prices and OPEC restrictions. The government must also come to terms with an old Soviet-style bureaucracy. It still has a very extensive power on business and companies – a real longa manus –  but is in fact isolated from the new strategic and military equilibria of the Maghreb region, to which it reacts without being able to change them.

 Furthermore, the relative increase in oil prices – made possible almost exclusively by a decrease in the production of OPEC, of which Algeria is also a member – has certainly provided a small new channel of fresh liquidity to the Algerian government, but has also broken fiscal discipline and further increased public spending.

 Hence higher taxes on imported goods – as first economic measure implemented by the government -and relinquishment of the subsidy cuts introduced in 2017, as well as increases for investment and social spending.

  According to the Algerian General Accounting Office, however, rebus sic stantibus, the deficit should be redressed in 2023.

Furthermore, many customs duties have been levied on imports, which lead to an increase in prices. We should also consider the very poor success of the plans for economic diversification and for reducing “oil dependence”. Indeed, if anything, the Algerian authorities are trying to maximize profits from oil and natural gas and currently the GDP is growing thanks to the increase in public spending generated only by the increase in the oil price.

 However, what would be the real political alternatives to Bouteflika?  Probably for want of anyone better, the FLN has already crowned him, but it could not do otherwise. Prime Minister Ouyahia does not know where else to turn, although he is also the leader of the Rassemblement National Democratique.In particular, there is such a level of tension between the various powers within the clan and political affairs of Bouteflika and the Armed Forces that no true new national leader can emerge.

 Among the protesters in the streets, there is growing consensus for JilJedid, the “new generation” political party, but the possible candidates  also include Chabib Khelil, former Energy Minister and OPEC President, who has also the Moroccan citizenship, and is currently a powerful international consultant.

 Chabib Khelil has strong ties with the United States and a Palestinian wife with a US passport.

 This makeshis candidacy impossible, due to Algeria’s rules and regulations.

 Not to mention the judicial problems due to his old relations with SAIPEM.

 Another “new” candidate could also be Mouloud Hamrouche, a former “moderate” Prime Minister.

 Within the establishment’s natural strategy designed to fully support Bouteflika’s candidacy, we must also consider the recent ousting of the Police Chief, Abdelghani Hamel – who, at the time, was considered one of the most natural successors to Bouteflika – as a result of a drug trafficking case involving the powerful Algerian Police, that can rely on 200,000 men but – after the above mentioned reforms-is deprived of a reliable and stable Security Service.

 What doAlgeria’s current decision-makers fear? Obviously the “sword jihad”.

 We Europeans – and Italians, in particular – could add that the irrational disruption of Algeria relating to the “Arab springs” leads to a porous and uncontrollable Algerian coast, just as the danger of migration flows from Libya is slowly fading away and the migration flows from Tunisia have stabilized.

 Algeria is also deeply concerned about the tribal, jihadist and military instability that emerged in Mali during the elections held there between last July and August.

 The Algerian decision-makers are also worried about the great instability in Libya – currently a major problem for its military decision-makers – and obviously in Tunisia.

 With specific reference to Libya, Algeria is a clear, open and very helpful supporter of Al-Sarraj’s GNA, while its intelligence Services, which know the sub-Saharan deserts very well, are endeavouring for peace between the militias and the non-jihadist tribes of Fezzan, so as to later achieve the goal of a unified Libya.

 Shortly before the arrival of Haftar, who currently holds about 80% of the Libyan territory from the South.

 Nevertheless, apart from the recent amnesty for the local jihadists, which led to the surrender of about 88 militants of the “holy war”, all the Algerian military operations in Sahel are of scarce political relevance – and this is a very severe matter.

 Currently the Algerian Armed Forces can rely on 147,000 people – all well trained even in the desert -and on a total number of 460,000 reservists.

 It should also be recalled that, despite the economic crisis, Algeria spends 10 billion US dollars a year on weapons and, between 2012 and 2016, its military spending increased by 277%, almost all (80%) used to purchase Russian weapons.

 Algeria is still the fifth largest importer of weapons in the world and the third largest buyer of Russian weapons.

 It is also worth recalling that, although currently Algeria is not a place for migrant transit to Europe, there are still very active old routes from sub-Saharan Africa up to Tamanrasset and then leading to Morocco, Libya and Tunisia.

 Currently the only chance for avoiding the rehabilitation of the Algerian coasts for the transit of migrants heading to the EU and, above all, to Italy, is solely the Algerian authorities’ very firm will to repress these flows.

If this is no longer the case, we will soon have a powerful and effective alternative for the new transit of illegal migration flows from the Maghreb region to Italy and to the other European and Mediterranean ports.

 Algeria, in fact, has long been gathering its many irregular migrants and directing them, manu militari, towards Mali and Niger.

 There are some agreements between Algeria and the Sahel countries, but there have also been tensions, since Algeria has often imposed its pace and its weapons on sub-Saharan Africa, even with some clashes with Mali’s and Niger’s forces.

 Hence there is great fear that insecurity – now endemic in the Maghreb region – spreads also to the wide Algerian territory, the greatest true strategic driver of Bouteflika’s current management.

 The Algerian regime is certainly not wrong in assessing the facts in this way.

 The Kingdom of Morocco has denounced the fact that some months ago Algeria had the Iranian support in its old fight against the Polisario Front, with the subsequent closure of the Tehran diplomatic representative office last May.

 Even before the Algerian independence, the Polisario Front has been one of the souls of the FLN foreign policy.

 This is a sign that now the Algerian (and Moroccan) issue is at the core of the link between the jihad and the overt operations in all the internal areas of the two countries – and hence of their connection with the Sahel region.

 Nevertheless, there is still another issue on the table that is much more important than it may appear at first sight, i.e. the joint candidacy of Morocco and Algeria to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

 Another very great bet on the internal security of Bouteflika’s regime – and of Mohammed VI, who is very focused on this event to make his Alawite Kingdom rise to world fame.

 In all likelihood, however, the great global forces that disrupted Tunisia, at first, and then Egypt and Libya – thus making those old, but basically stable regimes an unbalanced system, largely porous from the South – are caring precisely about Algeria, which has all the characteristics to interest the global propaganda for world democracy: an old and sick leader – almost an absolute leader – an old protectionist and oil-based system, to be possibly made available to other OPEC countries; an internal demographic bomb and a major crisis preventing the young people and the new elites from finding opportunities in the Northern developed countries.

 A political-propaganda paradigm that is now very well tested, although ever more dangerous.

  The perfect scenario for an “old vs. young people” fight – as already seen in the US and French propaganda – or even a possible platform for internal liberalization, probably with the usual “moderate Islamists” who enter the political game, also because – just to use again the old-fashioned standards of Western propaganda -the blame for the sole presence of the sword jihad in the Maghreb region is to be laid on the “reactionary” governments’ “repression”.

 As already noted, with a view to facing the economic crisis and the lack of investment, the current Algerian regime has implemented a short-term expansionary fiscal policy, which has led to high inflation and only enables the government to buy for time, without being able to solve the central issues of State economy and the relationship between bureaucracy, political power, oil revenues and industrial transformation.

 For Algeria oil and natural gas still account for 97% of total exports, two thirds of State revenues and one third of GDP.

 These figures date back to 2014, but today data is only slightly different.

 The quantity of oil and gas reserves, however, does not bode well.

Oil experts talk about twenty years of reserves still possible for oil and fifty for natural gas.

 It should be noted, however, that Algeria’s foreign debt still accounts for a mere 2% of GDP.

 Hence probably Bouteflika and his successors want to keep things as they are and, in the future, start modernization by resorting to debt and foreign investment, with two additional years of debt fiscal spending and then a massive sale of Algeria’s public debt securities, which could finance again both the currency status quo, held artificially too high, and public spending in subsidies and bureaucratic jobs for young people.

 However, the demographic bomb – the trigger of the “Arab Spring” old crises – is one of the first aspects to study.

 Also from the anthropological and cultural viewpoints. The young people, also in the West, aredéracinés, without the memory of what happened to the FLN to make it reach that point.

 Currently five sevenths of the Algerian population is below 21 years of age.

 In 2019,for the Algerian young protesters, “democracy” is not the fight against France and the pied noirs, possibly helped by ENI and the USSR, but only a decent job and food every day.

 Hence crowds easy to manipulate, who probably Elias Canetti, in his extraordinary book Crowds and Power, would have defined “incited crowds”.

 Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood that has always been at the origin of  “Arab springs” – also for induction and interferences from abroad – is particularly active in Algeria.

 Hence the classic paradigm of the quasi-spontaneous people’s rebellion is ready, but probably Bouteflika will agree-albeit only after his fifth reelection (probable because his regime is seen as a factor of stable economic and civil growth) – on a new name, although always representing the old elites. A new leader that will build new and good relations with China (which has reduced its oil and gas purchases), but above all with Japan and the EU, which could really change the whole production formula of future Algeria, by changing and expanding the terms of economic trade between Algeria and the European Union.

 Provided said leader will have the necessary skills and strength, attitudes about which I am doubtful.

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. “

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Landing in Riyadh: Geopolitics work in Putin’s favour

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin lands in Riyadh this week for the second time in 12 years, his call for endorsement of his proposal to replace the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multilateral security architecture is likely to rank high on his agenda.

So is Mr. Putin’s push for Saudi Arabia to finalize the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system in the wake of the failure of US weaponry to intercept drones and missiles that last month struck key Saudi oil installations.

“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people. They need to make clever decisions…by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 air-defence systems. These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” Mr. Putin said immediately after the attacks.

Mr Putin’s push for a multilateral security approach is helped by changing realities in the Gulf as a result of President Donald J. Trump’s repeated recent demonstrations of his unreliability as an ally.

Doubts about Mr. Trump have been fuelled by his reluctance to respond more forcefully to perceived Iranian provocations, including the downing of a US drone in June and the September attacks on the Saudi facilities as well as his distancing himself from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu following last month’s elections, and most recently, the president’s leaving the Kurds to their own devices as they confront a Turkish invasion in Syria.

Framed in transactional terms in which Saudi Arabia pays for a service, Mr. Trump’s decision this week to send up to 3,000 troops and additional air defences to the kingdom is likely to do little to enhance confidence in his reliability.

By comparison, Mr. Putin, with the backing of Chinese president Xi Jinping, seems a much more reliable partner even if Riyadh differs with Moscow and Beijing on key issues, including Iran, Syria and Turkey.

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not. Many in the Middle East may not approve of Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s beleaguered ally in Syria,” said Middle East scholar and commentator Mark N. Katz.

In a twist of irony, Mr. Trump’s unreliability coupled with an Iran’s strategy of gradual escalation in response to the president’s imposition of harsh economic sanctions in a bid to force the Islamic republic to the negotiating table appear to have moderated what was perceived as a largely disastrous assertive and robust go-it alone Saudi foreign and defense policy posture in recent years.

While everyone would benefit from a dialling down of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mr. Trump’s overall performance as the guarantor of security in the Gulf could in the longer term pave the way for a more multilateral approach to the region’s security architecture.

In the latest sign of Saudi willingness to step back from the brink, Saudi Arabia is holding back channel talks for the first time in two years with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The talks began after both sides declared partial ceasefires in the more than four year-long Yemeni war.

The talks potentially open the door to a broader Russian-sponsored deal in the context of some understanding about non-aggression between the kingdom and Iran, in which Saudi Arabia would re-establish diplomatic relations with Syria in exchange for the Islamic republic dropping its support for the Houthis.

Restoring diplomatic relations and reversing the Arab League’s suspension of Syrian membership because of the civil war would constitute a victory for Mr. Al-Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran. It would grant greater legitimacy to a leader viewed by significant segments of the international community as a pariah.

A Saudi-Iranian swap of Syria for Yemen could also facilitate Saudi financial contributions to the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at last month’s Rebuild Syria Expo in Damascus.

Mr. Putin is likely to further leverage his enhanced credibility as well as Saudi-Russian cooperation in curtailing oil production to boost prices to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow through on promises to invest in Russia.

Saudi Arabia had agreed to take a stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic-2 liquefied natural gas complex, acquire Sibur, Russia’s largest petrochemical facility, and invest an additional US$6 billion in future projects.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak predicted that “about 30 agreements and contracts will be signed during President Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia. We are working on it. These are investment projects, and the sum in question is billions of dollars.”

In anticipation of Mr. Putin’s visit, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said it was opening its first overseas office in Riyadh.

RDIF and the kingdom’s counterpart, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), are believed to be looking at some US$2.5 billion in investment in technology, medicine, infrastructure, transport and industrial production.

The Russian fund is also discussing with Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, US$3 billion in investments in oil services and oil and gas conversion projects.

Saudi interest in economic cooperation with Russia goes beyond economics. Ensuring that world powers have an increasing stake in the kingdom’s security is one pillar of a more multilateral regional approach

Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”

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No peace for Kurds: Rojava still under attack

Silvia Fornaroli

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The Amazon is still on fire. The “lungs of the Earth” are hardly breathing while the flames are threatening people and nature reserves. As long as we do not see with our own eyes the burnt trees, the endangered species and the indigenous tribes fighting to save their dying forest, we seem incapable to understand the actual consequences.

Thousands of miles away from this environmental catastrophe, a different kind of tragedy is waiting to happen. Rojava-Northern Syria Federation — the self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish people managed to carve out in northeastern Syria during the Civil war — is burning again.

On September 24, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly and proposed to create a “safe zone” in the north of Syria, in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees. He is hoping to establish a peace corridor with a depth of 32 kilometers and a length of 480 kilometers, which would easily turn the area into the world’s largest refugee camp. Despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, this might represent the umpteenth attempt to destroy the Kurdish dream of an independent democratic enclave.

It is undeniably clear, in fact, how Turkey could take advantage of the situation: Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has already claimed that Ankara’s aim is also to clear the borders from “terrorist elements.”

The People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), which — along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — played a key role in the fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are the official army of Rojava but currently designated as terrorist organizations. These armed groups, in fact, are considered as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the far-left militant and political organization founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan and  often involved in armed clashes with Turkish security forces.

Kurdish people are about to be left alone once again and the recent decisions of the White House trigger alarm in the whole Middle East.

On October 7, president Donald Trump announced that the United States  — so far the main financer, trainer and supporter of Kurds — would start pulling troops out of those territories, although it would not constitute a full withdrawal.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,” and that “The US Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.”

Mazlum Kobanê, the commander in chief of the SDF, announced that they will protect Syrian’s borders and fight back against Ankara’s army. Since the majority of Kurdish cities are located in this area, it is not difficult to understand how potentially devasting this ongoing operation could be.

Turkish assault is going to begin from the city of Gire Spi/Tell Abyad, once controlled by the so-called Caliphate and captured in 2015 by the YPG during the Tell Abyad offensive. The cities of Qamishli, Derek/Al Malikiya, Tell Tamer and Kobanê/Ayn al Arab are next to become target of air strikes and artillery fire as well.

It is no coincidence that shortly after the siege of Kobanê, Kurdish forces directed their efforts towards Tell Abyad, being such a strategic site for ISIL militias. The city, in fact, was better known in the West as the “Jihadi Highway”, a de-facto corridor for foreign fighters. In the chaos caused by the fighting, jihadists would surely try to regain strength and Turkish move is serving the cause.

At the Al-Hol camp — a huge detention female camp near Al-Hasakah — numerous riots have occurred in the past few weeks, and the managers of the structure believe that the women held in the prison — former jihadi brides — might be the vehicle for renewed forms of radicalization.

In view of the fact that US officials confirmed that they will not intervene nor will they seize control of those prisons, Kurdish forces called Washington’s move “a stab in the back”. Meanwhile in Raqqa, ISIL militants are still carrying out suicide bombing attacks against SDF positions.

Shervan Derwish, official spokesman of the Mambij Military Council, has expressed his concern with a very touching message on Twitter.

The YPG and YPJhave fought in many historical battles and their solitary resistance during the last Turkish Afrin offensive in January 2018 became a symbol of their resilience.

On the other hand, Turkey’s army will be backed by their well-known rebel allies:  “The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly, “wrote Fahrettin Altun — Turkey’s communications director — in a Washington Post column. Numerous military groups are active in the region and, although their nature is still debated, there are evidence of many connections with jihadi-inspired organizations.

Working in cooperation with the SDF, Rojava’s cantons are ready to resist and defend their independence, but Trump’s decision sounds like a betrayal.

If forests are burning, so will be democracy in Syria. The Rojava project is in imminent danger, and this time there will be no mountains for the Kurds to seek refuge in. Here in the West we are blessed not to directly witness the destruction of both tragedies, but it is still up to us whether to look those flames in the eye or remember them as the unique environments they actually were.

In loving memory of Mehmet Aksoy, who dedicated his life to the Kurdish cause.

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Revisiting Saudi-Iranian Rivalry: From A Cold War Perspective

Zaeem Hassan Mehmood

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Middle East considered the “bridge between the East and West” has long grabbed attention of great power policy makers due to its geostrategic and geopolitical significance. After the discovery of oil in the early part of 20th Century, Iran and Saudi Arabia had gained a prominent position at the global international arena. The defining moment in their relation was the year 1968, when the British government announced its withdrawal from the “Persian Gulf,” threatening thereby the balance brought to an equilibrium by more than 150 years of English security guarantees to the sheikdoms. The international community largely sees the conflict in terms of sectarian and on religious grounds which is an inadequate approach and one that rules out other detrimental factor. There have been little analysis and studies undertaken on the conflict from a “Cold war” perspective, which can significantly help other states in maintaining a viable balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The conflict dubbed as the “New Middle East Cold War” or “Saudi-Iranian Cold War” is not the first event termed as “Cold war” in the Middle Eastern history. Malcolm Kerr writing in his acclaimed book Arab Cold War 1958-67 termed the growing rivalry and quest for leadership in the Middle East at the aftermath of British and French withdrawal between Republican Egypt and conservative Arab monarchies as a regional equivalent of Cold war. The present relations of Saudi Arabia and Iran are short of war, a condition where although the contenders do not engage in open battlefields face to face, it is a ‘battle’ nevertheless fought on different fronts including the media. Daniel Serwer of John Hopkins writes that Saudi-Iran conflict is regional equivalent of20th century US-Soviet Cold war.

Characteristics of Cold War

The term ‘cold war’ had been in use before 1945 to describe period of extreme tensions between states that were just short of war. In the year 1893, German socialist Eduard Bernstein described the arms race between Germany and its neighbors as a kind of ‘cold war’ where “there is no shooting but bleeding.” The term rapidly came back into use when United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) faced each other eyeball to eyeball. British writer George Orwell remarked on the significance of the moment foreseeing “a peace that is no peace” where the two mighty powers were to be “unconquerable and in a permanent state of cold war.”Anders Stephanson has defined the essence of a Cold War as consisting of characteristics whereby both sides deny each other the legitimacy as a regime, attempting to attack each other by all means short of war. This is in the view of the author, followed by an intense military buildup with a prolonged arms race.

Cold War since then has exclusively referred to as the ‘sustained state of political and military tensions’ between the 20th century superpowers. Although the rivalry had ceased with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the term and subject-matter has remained ever relevant to an extent that the study of grand strategy and security is considered incomplete without the former’s inclusion. Saudi Arabia and Iran, in order to contain conflict and to ensure; that it ends up being short and as shallow as possible, need to revitalize the lessons of the ‘original Cold War.’ United States and Soviet Union despite their sustained rivalry developed a variety of mechanism for escalation and risk management. This was undertaken without foregoing their core national interests and ideologies. The leadership understood that there was ‘wisdom in engaging’ rather than isolating the other. The approach is more relevant today in the era of globalization than it was in those years. “Geo-economics must replace geopolitics” as the focal Saudi-Iranian approach in order to reach a ‘non-zero sum situation.’

Religious and political ideology plays an important role in the foreign policy between Riyadh and Tehran. The two offer competing ideologies and political model with a strong desire for strategic and geopolitical supremacy. The standoff, experts believe is also the result of the desire and aspirations of the two, for political leadership in the Islamic world. The conflict is not the result of alleged schism between Shia and Sunni school of Islam, but is rather a byproduct of centuries’ political and religious contestation that existed between empires and is now manifested into politics of these modern states.

Diplomacy is integral to the Middle East cold war. Since establishing relations in 1929, the two have had their ups and downs. In the years of the Shah, relations began to take the turn for worse when Shah’s ‘hegemonic desires’ and Saudi Arabia’s desire not to accept Iran predominant role in the Gulf and beyond. Nevertheless, relations remained intact at least diplomatically despite severity of incidents such as Gunboat coercion and the oil wars.

Conclusion

Wars have recognizable beginnings and they comprise of direct fighting between the adversaries with armistices and peace treaties as their conclusive ends. However, a Cold war has none of these characteristics, in words of Walter Lippman, “it brings neither peace nor honour to those who wage it.” The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has “spillover effects” and repercussions beyond the region. States such as those in the West, and Pakistan in particular close in proximity to the two have had a tough time “balancing” their relations. A careful, delicate and pragmatic approach needs to be adopted on part of statesmen, taking into account the opportunities and challenges arising from a “Cold War” need to be taken into account. Media on both sides has an important role to play in patching up the hostilities by upholding ethical standards and avoiding propagandist contest to avoid further aggravation of the conflict. 

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