With the ouster of Abdelaziz Bouteflika as the president of Algeria and removal of Omar al-Bashir, as the president of Sudan – some scholars are arguing that the world is about to witness a new phase of change or the “Arab Spring 2.0” that might impact the political stability in the whole Middle East region. On April 2, 2019, months-long public protests forced the exit of president Bouteflika, and on April 11, 2019, Sudan’s president al-Bashir was ousted from power by the military. The fall of longstanding regimes in Algeria and Sudan has generated anxiety among the other authoritarian regimes in the region – fearing how the protests and sudden regime change in two important member countries of “Arab League” would impact the wider Arab-world or the Middle East region.
The original “Arab Spring” was a series of mass level anti-government protests and uprising that first started in Tunisia in December 2010. Later on, the uprising in Tunisia ignited protests against the authoritarian regimes in many Arab countries. Effective use social media platforms and large-scale participation of the youth – with men and women playing equal part was one of the the salient features of original “Arab Spring”. Similarly, in Algeria and in Sudan – youth – both men and women have effectively used social media in spreading the message and motivating people to come out for participating in the protests. Particularly, women have played a pivotal role in bringing the people to the streets. The key role of women protestors in the ouster of Bouteflika and al-Bashir is a massively exciting and stimulating moment which could open a window of opportunity for women to play more active role in the domestic politics of Arab countries. Moreover, youth’s persistent demand for the change of entire political leadership in Algeria and in Sudan might trigger a chain reaction in the neighbouring Arab countries to unleash the “Arab Spring 2.0”. However, this factor could also push the authoritarian regimes of the region; Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Iran – to take more strict or punitive measures against any kind of political protests to ensure that no more leaders would be forced to leave the office.
The original or first “Arab Spring” was met with a heavy-handed response and a massive crackdown against the protests was started in many Arab countries which resulted in the arrests and prisons of large numbers of protestors. After almost a decade, the tendency to suppress the opposition through oppressive means is still a key tool of various authoritarian regimes in the Arab/Middle East countries – whether it is Saudi Arabia showing an intent to reform but contradicting its claims by killing the journalists like Jamal Khashoggi and by arresting women rights activists like Samar Badawi, or Egypt which continues to arrest journalists and civil society activists like Esraa Abdelfattahh or Ibrahim Al-Husseini or Iran which is crushing the opposing voices and protests with the methods of repression.
Nearly a decade after the first “Arab Spring”, a whole new generation is coming of age in the Arab/Middle East countries. With the memories of protests and uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria are still fresh in their minds a key question is facing them; will the mass civil society uprising that toppled the oppressive and authoritarian regimes of Bouteflika and al-Bashir inspire this new generation in the Arab/Middle East countries to stage similar popular uprisings against the authoritarian rulers in their own countries? Looking at the chaos and instability in Libya, Syria and Yemen that followed by the Arab Spring, the majority answer to this question might be negative.
Although the people of Algeria and Sudan deserve huge appreciation but the events and happenings in both countries indicate that the regime change has only resulted in the change of faces and there has been no headway made to bring the real democracy. In Algeria, Abdelkadar Bensalah a longtime ally of Bouteflika and the Senate speaker has been brought in to oversee an interim government for 90 days, and in Sudan – Vice President Lieutenant General Awad ibn Auf seized the power with a promise to hold the elections after two years. On Saturday 13 April, bending to public pressure Gen. ibn Auf reversed his decision to head the Sudan military council and named Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan as his successor but the military stated that it will stay in power for two years.
Governments and people in the Arab-world have learned the lessons from the first “Arab Spring” and they are looking at the recent developments through the lens of firstuprising to shape their policy and response. Accordingly, it is more likely that the developments in Algeria and Sudan may not spark a similar kind of chain reaction which was triggered bythe popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya. A key reason whythe developments in Algeria and Sudan might have less impact in the Middle East region is that the majority of international community which supported the first “Arab Spring” in a misperceived sense of “democratic triumphalism”, is now much more cautious in its response towards the current uprisings. A careful response of international community shows that they have also learned the lessons from the events of Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt. Moreover, international community encouraged the uprisings in Egypt and Libya because both countries were important centers of power in the Middle East and North Africa. Historically, Egypt has remained a traditional centre of power in the Middle East and Libya being a leading Arab country and an important member of African Union has remained a regional power in North Africa. Although, the people have forced the regime change in both countries but these changes are controlled or “pacted transitions” which are brokered by the real power holders of both countries therefore the chances for a second phase of Arab uprising are very low.
From an external perspective, key international actors are carefully observing and monitoring the changes and developments caused by the fall of Bouteflika and al-Bashir regimes. France and Italy are concerned that the exit of Bouteflika might generate instability in the whole region of North Africa. A key reason for their anxiety is the fear that a prolonged political instability in Algeria might bring a rise in the “cross-Mediterranean” migration to Europe. The ouster of al-Bashir could engender some instability in “Horn of Africa”. This is true in the sense that Sudan is part of region which is equally important for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and also for Iran and Israel.
Russia is also keeping a close eye on what is happening Algeria and Sudan as it might have some short-term geopolitical consequences for Moscow which is very keen to develop military and political ties with both countries. In 2006, Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Algeria. During Putin’s visit Russia signed major arms deal with Algeria. In July 2018, Russian ambassador to Algeria revealed that Algeria purchases almost 50 per cent of Russia’s total arms sales to Africa. On March 19, 2019, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed Russia’s concerns over the mass protests in Algeria, declaring the situation as an attempt to undermine the political stability of Algeria. Similarly, on 16 March, 2019, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia and Special Presidential Envoy for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov during his visit to Sudan stressed Russia’s confidence in Al-Bashir’s leadership and stated that Russia has strong desire to strengthen its economic, political and military ties with Sudan.
Although the longstanding regimes have been removed from Algeria and Sudan but the situation both countries is still critical and precarious. The protestors are still out in the streets of Algiers and Khartoum fearing that the people in the new administrations are longtime allies of both Bouteflika and al-Bashir. The interim administration in both countries insist that they do not wish to stay in power for long time and the future of the countries will be decided by the people. But at the same, the military leaders of both countries have warned the people that they will not allow anyone to undermine the national security. This shows that the real power is still in the hands of the influential military leadership of both countries and they still holds the key to broke any agreement that will decide the future political setup in Algeria and Sudan.
Middle East: From COVID-19 invasion to an epidemic of disintegration?
The recent declaration of autonomy in southern Yemen and Khalifa Haftar’s declaring himself the ruler of all Libya once again drew the world’s attention to the phenomenon of separatism. This phenomenon is certainly not new, amply exemplified by events in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol. In Europe, the problem is normally discussed and resolved on a legal basis, if not always peacefully. When it comes to Asia and Africa, the chances of legal settlement of such issues are even lower.
Back in the early 1990s, Bernard Lewis, a renowned expert on Islamic civilization, foresaw the breakup of a number of states in the Greater Middle East. Later, in 2006, Armed Forces Journal published the “future” map of the region, drawn up by the US military expert, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, who predicted the division of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite states and the emergence of a number of countries on parts of the territories of today’s Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The events of the largely foreign-influenced “Arab Spring” gave a strong boost to the centrifugal processes in the region. In some places it resulted in the downfall of political regimes, in others it led to their transformation. Armed conflicts flared up in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, which continue to this day and there are no guarantees that before very long these countries’ borders won’t change.
The start of the leap year 2020 was marred by the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, followed by an oil price collapse. According to the World Health Organization, the health care systems of developing countries are unable to cope with the pandemic on their own due to the lack of medical facilities, equipment, medical staff and even basic protective gear. While developed countries have allocated huge financial resources to check the spread of COVID-19, poor countries, most of which are struggling for survival, cannot afford the introduction of long-term quarantine, nor do they have enough money to assist their citizens. Moreover, the real picture of the spread of the coronavirus infection in developing countries remains pretty dim, meaning that the socio-political consequences of the pandemic for these countries can be disastrous.
The dramatic fall in oil prices has not only dealt a severe blow to the economies of the oil-producing countries, sharply choking off their budget revenues, but it also exacerbated the situation in the countries that survive largely on money transfers from their citizens working abroad and assistance from oil and gas-rich neighbors.
In addition, the region has enough old problems to deal with.
Yemen, which is a patchwork of various tribes and tribal unions, was established in its present form in 1990 as a union of North and South Yemen (or rather as a result of the annexation of the country’s southern regions by the North). According to the UN, the country experienced a genuine “humanitarian catastrophe” even before the advent of the coronavirus and collapsing oil prices.
Just four years after the unification, the so-called Democratic Republic of Yemen was proclaimed in the country’s south, but existed only a couple of months. In 2014, an armed conflict erupted (and still continues) among the northerners themselves – the Shiite group Ansar Allah and the central government. In March 2015, an international Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia joined the fight against the Iranian-backed Shiites. In addition, the central government has since 2007 been confronted by yet another secessionist organization, now in the south – the so-called Southern Transitional Council, which recently declared self-governance of the territories under its control.
Faced with such a disturbing reality, the governors of several provinces, including the most economically developed ones, stop making financial transfers to the state budget and host foreign ambassadors and foreign military delegations.
Iraq is a country characterized by significant ethno-confessional diversity with almost two-thirds of the population being Shiite Arabs, most of them pro-Iranian due to the fact that during the long reign of the Ba’athists (members of the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party – PASV, or Ba’ath), Shiite Arabs were not considered as 100-percent citizens of the country. During the 2003 intervention by a US-led international coalition, many Shiite organizations allied themselves with the Anglo-American forces. During the subsequent occupation of Iraq, the local administration assumed real power over the country’s Shiite south and to this very day the central government in Baghdad does not completely control the southern governorates.
During the 1960s, the Kurds, who predominantly lived in northern and northeastern Iraq, mounted an armed struggle for independence. The government’s brutal, including with the widespread use of chemical weapons, crushing of the movement in 1987-1989 made it absolutely inacceptable for many Kurds to keep living in the same country with the Arabs, even after Iraqi Kurdistan was granted the status of autonomy in the wake of Operation Desert Storm. The invasion by the Western coalition forces allowed the Kurds not only to establish a regional government, but also to phase out the local Arab population and occupy a number of oil-rich regions, which the Kurdish leaders said had been taken away from them by the regime of Saddam Hussein.
An independence referendum for Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which was an attempt to finally legitimize the Kurdish statehood failed however, even though an overwhelming majority of votes were cast in favor of independence. At that time, the prospect of an independent Kurdistan did not sit well with either Iran and Turkey (as it would sent a “wrong” signal to the Kurds living there), or the United States, who believed that the Kurdish state in Iraq could lead to the emergence of a pro-Iranian Shiite entity in the south, including in the strategic Basra oil field.
Today, Sunni Arabs fear (rightly or not) that the final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq will make them defenseless both against the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, leaving them one on one with Iran, which Iraq fought against during the war of 1980-1988.
The ethno-cultural makeup in Syria is equally diverse, with over 70 percent of Syrians being Sunni Arabs and about 15 percent – Shiites, including the Alawites, whose affiliation with Islam is questioned by many. After the country gained independence in 1946, Syrian army officers and members of the state bureaucracy were traditionally and overwhelmingly recruited from Alawites, much to the chagrin of the country’s majority Sunnis, many of whom still support the armed opposition.
In 1920, France carved up the mandated territory of the Middle East entrusted to it by the League of Nations into four zones: Greater Lebanon, the State of the Alawites, the State of Aleppo and the State of Damascus. The Jabal Druze State and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which broke away from Turkey before WWII, were added the following year. However, France later ended its experiment on ethno-confessional division of the region, and the Alawite clan of the Assads, backed by the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party, has thus ruled Syria since 1963.
The “Arab Spring” all but destroyed Syria as an independent state, which survived only thanks to the political and military assistance of Russia and Iran.
The Kurds – the largest ethnic minority in Syria – live in the northeast of the country and make up about 10-12 percent of the population. After decades of discrimination (until recently, the Kurds did not even have Syrian citizenship), big and small revolts, Kurdish politicians, taking advantage of the chaos of the civil war, established regional authorities virtually independent of Damascus. Then, due to their support for the Western coalition fighting ISIL (ISIS, IS, Islamic State – a terrorist entity outlawed in Russia) and apparently heeding the advice of US instructors, the Kurdish groups, like Iraqi Peshmerga, occupied a number of the country’s traditionally Arab oil-bearing territories.
The Syrian Kurds are being sponsored by the United States, which is not going to cede to anyone its control neither over the territory, nor the local administration and militia, let alone the oil fields.
Syrian Turkmens (Turkomans) are a sizeable ethnic group, who are under the watchful care of Turkey.
For Christians (about 6 percent of the population) and Druze (about 3 percent), the threat posed by the Sunni Islamists borders on genocide, hence their unconditional support for the central government.
The territory of modern Libya consists of three historical provinces – Tripolitania (in the west), Cyrenaica (in the east) and Fezzan (in the south), which were united by Italy only in 1934. The country’s population is relatively homogeneous: the vast majority are Arabs, and there are also Berbers who live in the southwest, Tuaregs in the south, and Tubu in the southeast. The tribal organization of society plays a significant role in the socio-political life of the country.
Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years until he was deposed and killed in 2011. The country has virtually fallen apart as a result of a long-running war of all against all. There are two main rival political forces now existing in the country – the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar and based in the east of the country, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, with its headquarters in Tripoli. The opponents rely on the support of a various social groups, including Islamists, and divisions run along political, not national or religious lines.
Many analysts still see “a significant potential for the emergence of new centers of power.”
The long-term efforts by outside actors (primarily European countries and Russia) to set in motion the negotiating process have not yet yielded any tangible results. Khalifa Haftar recently announced the transfer of power in the country to the armed forces (i.e. to himself). The GNA assumed an equally implacable position, turning down an LNA-proposed truce for the duration of the holy month of Ramadan.
If the hypothetical disintegration of these four countries becomes real it would lead to a new spiral of degradation of the political situation in the region and to a further escalation of violence.
In the event of a collapse of Yemen, Iran will obtain a satellite in the form of the country’s Shiite north, but complicated logistics may hamper the provision of assistance to its newly-acquired ally. Riyadh will not tolerate Shiite statehood on “its” peninsula, and the military suppression of the Houthis will take long due to the Saudis’ low combat efficiency. Following the example of Djibouti, the country’s north and south will start selling land for foreign military bases (oil reserves are depleted and you can’t live long off exporting fish, and this is about all the country can sell now), which could escalate tensions in the strategic region of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.
In Iraq, interfaith clashes and social protests that began after the main forces of the Anglo-American coalition were pulled out in 2011, have not subsided, to say the least. The Kurds are taking their time, but the 92 percent of the “yes” votes cast in the 2017 independence referendum means that sooner or later they will resume their drift away from Iraq. The country’s breakup into three parts would theoretically be beneficial to Iran as the southern governorate bordering on Saudi Arabia would have to move under Tehran’s control. The country’s Sunni center will find itself sandwiched between Iran, the Shiite south, the Alawite-ruled Syria and the Kurds, who hold a longtime grudge against their Arab fellow citizens. Under such circumstances, the Sunnis will have to look for other patrons – the United States (if, despite all Trump’s statements to the contrary, the Americans stay on in the region, and it looks like they will), Saudi Arabia or Russia. This choice will determine the future course of events in Mesopotamia.
In Syria, centrifugal processes are presently being determined by outside players: Americans support the Kurds, Turks – Turkomans and Sunni Arabs along the border, Iranians – their fellow Shiites, and Saudis back the Arab Sunni tribes in the east. The most likely candidates for secession are the Kurds, who, having expanded their controlled territory in northeast Syria, have actually linked up with the semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan. So far, their political leaders haven’t been getting along with each other, but this may change if it meets the interests of Washington, which is sponsoring both.
Libya, meanwhile, is increasingly turning into an arena of proxy war, which the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are waging against Turkey and Qatar. The degree of hatred borne of many years of mutual extermination is going through the roof, making the prospects of a settlement close to nil. The country is actually fighting for oil and control over the flow of refugees, which, as the events of the recent years show, can be quite successfully used as a bargaining chip with Europe.
Many experts warn that any redrawing of borders in the region can bring about a chain reaction and even resuscitate the “Islamic international,” if under a different moniker. Meanwhile, the United States, as the Indian political scientist Brahma Chellaney put it, will not get rid of its addiction to interfering in the “chronically volatile Middle East.” And its policy over and over again turns out to be “spectacularly counterproductive.” Well, it’s hard to disagree with.
From our partner International Affairs
UAE-Turkish Rivalry Wreaks Regional Havoc in Libya and Syria
The Saudi-Iranian dispute may dominate headlines but a similar rivalry between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates is equally wreaking havoc in the Middle East and North Africa.
While Saudi Arabia may in some ways have a leg up on Iran, Turkey and the UAE are at a virtual draw.
In Libya, forces of the Turkish-backed, Tripoli-based internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) are pushing UAE-backed rebels led by renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar out of western Libya. Mr. Haftar further enjoys support from Saudi Arabia and Egypt with whom Turkey is also at odds.
In contrast to Libya, Turkey is discovering that in Syria the odds are stacked against it, even if its objectives in the country are more limited.
If in Libya, Turkish support for the GNA amounts to an effort to shape who controls the country as well as energy-rich waters in the Eastern Mediterranean; in Syria, Turkey is determined to prevent Syrian Kurdish nationalist forces from establishing a permanent and meaningful presence on its borders and control jihadist forces in Idlib, the last major Syrian rebel stronghold.
US abandonment of their alliance with the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State pushed the Kurds towards cooperation with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Kurds expect the cooperation to shield them from Turkish efforts to push them further out of border areas.
At the same time Turkey, already home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees – the single largest concentration of Syrians fleeing their war-torn and dilapidated homeland — also wants to stymie a potential new influx of many more if and when Idlib falls to Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
The UAE-Turkish rivalry — rooted in a battle for dominance of global Muslim religious soft power; geopolitical competition across the Muslim world, including the Middle East and the Horn of Africa; and fundamentally opposed attitudes towards political Islam — has escalated military confrontations and complicated, if not disrupted, efforts to resolve conflicts in Libya and Syria.
The UAE-Turkey scorecard is 1:1
Turkey so far has a winning hand in Libya.
In Syria, however, few doubt that Turkey will struggle to secure its interests with Mr. Al-Assad, backed not only by Russia and Iran but also the UAE, firmly in the saddle.
UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) reportedly promised Mr. Al-Assad $3 billion USD in April; $250 million of which was paid upfront, to break a ceasefire in Idlib imposed on Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Russia appears to have successfully thwarted Prince Mohammed’s move.
The Emirati crown prince had hoped to tie Turkey up in fighting in Syria, which would complicate Turkish military support for the GNA in Libya. Mr. Al-Assad’s failure to take up the offer likely contributed to Turkey’s ability to successfully focus on Libya in recent weeks.
The UAE has, nonetheless, one strategic advantage. Turkey’s reputation in Washington DC, much like that of Saudi Arabia, is severely tarnished. The UAE has so far skilfully evaded a similar fate, enjoying not only close ties to the United States but also Russia.
Turkish-US relations are strained over multiple issues, including Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s acclaimed S-400 anti-missile defense system, its close cooperation with Russia and Iran, and the continued presence in the United States of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher whom Mr. Erdogan accuses of staging the failed 2016 military attempt to remove him from office.
The Trump administration has nevertheless offered Turkey ammunition to be used in military operations in north-eastern Syria as well as humanitarian assistance in a hopeless bid to persuade Ankara to push back Iranian forces in the country.
Mr. Erdogan, in a surprise move this week, demoted and then accepted the resignation of Rear Admiral Cihat Yayci, the popular architect of Turkey’s intervention in Libya and aggressive stance in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mr. Yayci is believed to be an anti-Western Eurasianist who advocates closer Turkish relations with Russia and China.
Turkey’s ties to Russia are equally complex.
While Turkey and Russia support opposing sides in Libya, they have so far been able to balance their interests in Syria that sometimes coincide and sometimes diverge, leading earlier this year to clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces.
In Libya, it was Turkish drones that allegedly destroyed a Russian-made Pantsir air defense system even as hundreds of Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner Group, with close ties to the Kremlin, reportedly support Mr. Haftar’s forces.
If support for Mr. Haftar is Russia capitalizing on an opportunity to stoke a fire, UAE backing is part of Prince Mohammed’s determination to confront political Islam across the Middle East and North Africa.
“Turkey and the UAE [are] engaged in a regional power struggle. They see it as a zero-sum game, in which there is no way for both sides to win. If one wins, the other one loses,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).
It is a zero-sum-game played on proxy battlefields that bodes ill for those unwillingly sucked into it.
Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia
The potential dark side of the militarization of Gulf societies
The coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout calls into question Gulf states’ ability to fund a brewing, costly regional arms race. That in turn could not only reshape their geopolitical posture but also efforts to make the military a pillar of a new national identity at a time that they are forced to renegotiate outdated social contracts.
A significant drop in revenues, as a result of the collapse of oil and gas prices and vastly reduced global demand, raises the question whether countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, can maintain huge military expenditures that rank them among the world’s foremost arms buyers.
Saudi and UAE expenditure was driven by a perceived need to counter Iranian advances in the development of ballistic missiles and drones as well as a potential nuclear military capability and Iranian-backed Arab proxies. Qatar joined the race more recently in response to the three-year-old, Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.
The expenditure positioned the military as a driver of an identity grounded in nationalism rather than religion or tribal heritage and was intended to help lay the groundwork for eventual, potentially painful, transitions to more diversified and streamlined post-oil economies.
Male conscription introduced in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait and a Saudi decision to open volunteering for military service to women over the last decade served that purpose as well as government efforts to expand citizen participation in the workforce at the expense of migrant and expatriate labour, including in the armed forces.
The moves constituted a break with a past in which Arab rulers largely distrusted their militaries and employed multiple ways to shield themselves against feared military-backed attempts to remove them from power.
Saudi and Emirati rulers expected that their military intervention in Yemen and the UAE’s involvement in the Libyan war would boost the military’s prestige with quick and decisive victories.
Five years later, the ill-conceived intervention in Yemen has produced at best mixed results. So has the more recent effort to topple the internationally recognized, Islamist Libyan Government of National Accord.
The UAE, dubbed Little Sparta by former US defense secretary Jim Mattis, withdrew partially from Yemen in a bid to cut its losses. UAE forces, moreover, suffered the deaths of tens of Emirati citizens, a high number for a population of only 1.4 million nationals. As a result, the UAE relies increasingly on proxies and mercenaries.
Nonetheless, the UAE may have fared better than the Saudi military whose image, at least internationally, has been severely tarnished.
Recently, the kingdom appears to implicitly acknowledge that it cannot win the Yemen war militarily. Media reports suggested that the Saudi government was cutting back on funding of the internationally recognized, largely Saudi-based Yemeni government headed by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Saudi conduct of the war has involved multiple attacks on civilian targets, devastated the country’s economic and civilian infrastructure and turned it into one of the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophes.
Similarly, UAE-backed Libyan rebels led by self-appointed Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar have suffered a similar fate. Mr. Haftar’s promise more than a year ago to launch a blitz conquest of the Libyan capital Tripoli has not only proven to be an illusion. Turkish-backed government troops have put his rebels on the defensive.
Saudi and UAE rulers are betting that their emphasis on values associated with nationalism and armed forces such as patriotism, sacrifice, discipline, duty and concepts of heroic model citizens will reinforce public appreciation of the military despite its chequered track record. For now, that appears to be a winning bet.
Saudi Arabia has successfully garnered popular support for the armed forces and the Yemen war, despite widespread international criticism, by eulogizing patriotic sacrifices of Saudi military casualties, generously compensating families of permanently disabled or fallen soldiers and creating multiple institutions to ensure veterans’ rights. The UAE has institutionalized the honouring of military martyrs.
Ultimately, however, the Saudi and UAE military’s mixed track record raises questions about the degree to which they can be unqualified standard bearers of new national identities.
It also begs the question whether populations in countries such as Saudi Arabia that were forced to introduce painful social spending cutbacks with no indication that elites are sharing the burden will continue to endorse massive military expenditure at a time of austerity.
If social media are anything to go by, many Saudis praise the government for ensuring the return to the kingdom of Saudi nationals abroad at the beginning of the pandemic, funding their quarantining to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, and subsidizing private sector salaries impacted by a lockdown for up to 60 percent.
A fair number, however, expressed concern that the middle and lower classes would shoulder the brunt of the economic fallout of the pandemic and questioned continued investment in trophies like English soccer club Newcastle United by the Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund. Military expenditure has so far not been called into question.
Potentially complicating issues is the fact that a majority of Emirati and Saudi casualties in Yemen hailed from less privileged emirates in the UAE and provinces in the kingdom, some of which are home to religious minorities with a history of feeling disadvantaged, As a result, it remains to be seen whether military service will ultimately narrow or broaden social gaps.
“Militarization bolsters regime security, thereby serving national security twice over… However, rising nationalist feelings are likely to enhance regional polarization,” warned Gulf scholar Eleonora Ardemagni.
Ms. Ardemagni’s caution focused on the risk of militarization entrenching differences among Gulf states. The question is whether militarization’s so far successful boosting of domestic cohesion could have a flip side that in more dire circumstances polarizes rather than unites.
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