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Unrest in Algeria: A blow against Russia?

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The political situation in Algeria has been aggravating as the number of the participants in protest rallies has amounted to one million and these are now being joined by representatives of the Algerian community in other countries – first of all, in France. Thousands of Algerians opposing the regime of incumbent President Abdelasziz Bouteflika have mounted rallies in a number of French cities while the most numerous demonstrations have been reported in Paris and Marseille.

About 200 protesters and the same number of policemen have been injured amid promises by rally activists to paralyze the country’s economic and political life by means of a nationwide strike. For Algeria, a country which has been the stronghold of stability in North Africa for nearly two decades, such a course of events could turn out to be a severe trial. However, what is happening is due to a whole range of internal and external reasons.

Among the internal reasons that have been fuelling tensions in Algeria is the refusal by many Algerians to acknowledge the decision by 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, to run for the fifth term in the presidential elections on April 18th.  What has caused a pubic outcry is not the president’s credentials (he played a significant role in the country’s struggle for independence and takes credit for securing an end to the bloody civil war in 2002), but the condition of his health. After surviving a stroke in 2013, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been moving around in a wheel-chair and has been experiencing severe speech problems. He has been rarely seen in public over the past few years and had to send his representative to the Central Electoral Commission to register him as candidate to presidency from his ruling National Liberation Front. According to reports, at the time of registration the president was under treatment in Geneva and his condition has worsened of late. For this reason, many protesters announced that they had no intention of voting for an “empty place” alleging that the candidate in question barely understood what elections he would be taking part in.  «We don’t even know whether our president is still alive, or whether he is dead. We don’t know who is acting on his behalf», – the French Le Monde quotes one of the protesters as saying.

Nevertheless, shortly after the protests erupted the Algerian news media published the written version of the address to the nation by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in which the president made it clear that he had opted in favor of nominating his candidacy following «requests from the civil society and the political class». «Millions of Algerians have expressed their willingness to back my candidacy by collecting signatures and making their own personal contributions», – the president wrote. He praised the «feeling of civil duty», which, in his words, drove the participants in street protests: «I want to make it clear that I will not allow anyone to gain control of my country’s riches or its future in the interests of some underground influence groups».

Should he win in the elections, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to organize a nationwide dialogue so that citizens and political groups alike could discuss how to reform the system of government in Algeria and prepare the draft of a new Constitution which will be then put to vote at the nationwide referendum. On top of that, the incumbent president signaled readiness to step up struggle against corruption and assured the country’s citizens that the fifth term in office would in any case become the last for him.

In turn, Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has called for peace and quiet having warned the street protesters about the destabilizing consequences of their actions: «People were offering roses to the policemen, which is good. But I would like to remind you that the turmoil in Syria started with roses too». «They say some are calling for nationwide strikes but I remember the strikes in 1991», – the prime minister said recalling the tragic events of Algeria’s recent history, – when the Islamists took advantage of the protest rallies and political instability in the country to launch their armed struggle for power.

However, political processes at home are not the only factor underlying the current protests in Algeria. Unlike its Maghreb neighbors, Algeria survived the turmoil of the 2011 “Arab Spring” in good condition and with minimum pain. The Algerians received an injection against mass protests when the disturbances of the late 1980s spilled into a decade of civil war, – says Karima Diresh, an expert on North Africa at the Paris-based National Scientific Research Center. In her words, this cost Algeria about 200, 000 killed, and dozens of thousands still unaccounted for.

That’s why what causes the greatest concern in the current situation is not purely internal processes, but the striving of external forces to take advantage of the protests and instill them with a particular urgency. According to reports, standing behind the protest movement are not only activists of the Algerian diaspora abroad but also certain groups within the leadership of the European Union and some in the United States, which are extremely annoyed with the Algerian leadership for faltering in two vital sectors –the military-political and the energy.

 In terms of military-technical cooperation, Algeria is one of Russia’s key partners – not only in Africa, but worldwide. According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in a period from 2013 to 2017 Russia supplied Algeria with weapons for a total value of 2.4 billion dollars, which accounted for 59% of the Algerian arms imports. According to 2016 reports, Algeria came third in the list of buyers of Russian weapons ($ 923.6 million), running ahead of Vietnam and coming close to China ($ 958.8 million).

This is largely due to two major factors – firstly, the historical traditions of cooperation which go back to the days when independent Algeria was brought into being with the support of the USSR, and secondly – the country’s strained relations with neighboring Morocco over the Western Sahara. This conflict forces the Algerians to tirelessly strengthen their combat capability.

On the whole, trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Algeria has been developing progressively. According to the results of 2017, Algeria ranked second among African countries in imports from Russia, amounting to 4.6 billion dollars,  after Egypt (6.2 billion dollars). In 2016, the Russian-Algerian trade did not exceed $ 4 billion.

Significantly, all other African countries in 2017 accounted for a total of $ 3.9 billion worth of imports from Russia. According to preliminary data for 2018, the Russian-Algerian trade turnover increased to 5.4 billion dollars (of which only 10 million dollars accounted for Russian imports from Algeria).

In the course of his visit to Algeria in October 2017, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev discussed in detail with the country’s leadership the prospects for the supply of Russian technologies and knowhow in order to create a national atomic industry. “A trustworthy regulatory and legal framework has been set for cooperation in the nuclear power industry,” the head of the Russian government said back then adding that Russia is already preparing nuclear industry specialists for Algeria. “At the same time, we are ready to consider projects for the generation of “clean” power at wind and solar stations,”- Dmitry Medvedev said.

While cooperation between Algeria and Russia is rather a long-running source of headaches for the EU, NATO and the United States, the intention of the current Algerian leadership to re-consider gas supplies to the European market took Brussels by surprise and, according to reports, prompted an agenda that raised the issue of removing the incumbent leadership from power at an early date. A statement on gas supplies was voiced at the end of December 2018 by the Algerian Minister of Energy Mustafa Gitoni, who said that in the next five years his country will cut export gas supplies due to increased domestic consumption. In 2017, Algeria delivered 49.6 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe through pipelines and in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). However, according to the minister, gas consumption at home is growing at an ever faster pace, and therefore, the leadership will have to re-consider gas exports in 2022: “We have enough gas for our domestic needs only,” predicts Mustafa Gitoni. Algeria is currently producing 130 billion cubic meters of gas, half of which goes for domestic consumption. As for gas consumption in Europe, in 2017 gas supplies amounted to 560.5 billion cubic meters. Of these, 260.4 billion cubic meters of gas were provide by European suppliers  (including non-EU member Norway). The Russian Gazprom shipped 194.4 billion cubic meters to Europe in 2017, while another 105.7 billion cubic meters came from other countries.

Among them, Algeria (with 49.6 billion cubic meters of pipe gas and LNG) was a top supplier, significantly ahead of Qatar (24 billion cubic meters) and Nigeria (12.5 billion cubic meters). The United States accounted for 2.61 billion cubic meters.

Plans by the Algerian government to reorient gas supplies to domestic consumption caused an immediate negative reaction both from the European Union leadership and in the United States. Given the reduction of gas production in the Netherlands and Norway, it is uninterrupted supplies from Algeria that should largely ensure the energy security of Europe and thus allow it to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

Another option is LNG supplies to Europe from the United States, but their volumes largely depend on the price and demand in European and Asian markets – primarily in China, where the situation has been following an unwelcome course, from the point of view of Europeans.

According to reports by the General Administration of Customs of China for 2018, the growth of China’s gas imports compared to 2017 amounted to 31.8%. By 2025, China’s additional demand for LNG will hit some 78 billion cubic meters, –  analysts at Vygon Consulting say: “In fact, this means gas imports will double, even without Taiwan, by the middle of the next decade.” “China will likely  continue to absorb the growth of supply on the LNG market as new terminals are commissioned, primarily in the US,”- says Fitch Corporation Director Dmitry Marinchenko. According to the company’s reports,  if the above trend persists, by 2024 the absolute volumes of the Chinese gas market will grow almost fourfold.

In the current situation, we should expect more intervention from the United States and the European Union in order to provide Algeria with a ruling politician who would act in line with Western interests. So far, this politician is believed to be the richest man in the country, the billionaire industrialist Issad Rebrab, who makes no secret of his orientation towards France. However, he is already 74 years old, which makes him a transition figure. “The nationalist government formed on the basis of the National Liberation Front deliberately restrained Algerian-French ties, although from the geographic point of view, France, or Italy, are the two most suitable trading partners for Algeria. The younger generation is different. There are a lot of pro-French and pro-American representatives among the opposition who know little about the role the USSR played in the liberation of their country,”- testifies Sergey Balmasov, an expert of the Russian Council on International Affairs.

In addition, the current situation plays into the hands of Islamists who will undoubtedly try to replay the scenario of the civil war of the 1990s with more gains for themselves. And this is fraught with a new escalation of tension in  North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

Peter Iskenderov, senior research assistant at RAS Slavic Studies Institute, candidate of historical sciences

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Middle East

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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