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Sudan puts Saudi-UAE religious and cheque book diplomacy to the test

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Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ chequebook diplomacy driven-soft power strategy is being put to the test in Sudan where a stand-off between protesters and the country’s ruling military council is at a decisive point.

With protesters refusing to tear down barricades in front of the military headquarters in the capital Khartoum and surrender the street, breaking off talks with the military council and demanding immediate instalment of a civilian government, the stand-off has become a battle of wills.

Like in Algeria, Sudanese protesters have learnt from the 2011 popular Arab revolts that initially securing their success in forcing a long-standing leader to step down depends on their ability to sustain mobilization and street pressure.

Both Sudan and Algeria have, in the wake of the toppling of presidents Omar al-Bashir and Abdulaziz Bouteflika, promised elections and arrested and/or detained officials and/or businessmen on corruption charges in a so far unsuccessful bid to pacify demonstrators and persuade them to end their protests.

With elections scheduled for July in Algeria while Sudan’s military is talking about one or more years of pre-election transition, Algerian protesters may have a leg up on their Sudanese brethren.

Nonetheless, protesters have also learnt that pledges of support by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt potentially are a Trojan horse. The UAE and Saudi Arabia led the regional effort to roll back the achievements of the 2011 revolts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia.

Egypt joined the counterrevolution after general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president in a UAE-Saudi-supported coup in 2013.

As a result, protesters have also learnt that they are up against formidable opponents, who include not just the militaries and associated businessmen and politicians who have a vested interest in the ancien regime, but also their regional backers.

Saudi, UAE and Egyptian backing for renegade Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar in the battle for Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations-recognized government, serves as an immediate reminder of the obstacles and risks the protesters face.

It has prompted at least some Sudanese to demand that the ruling military council reject US$3 billion in aid offered in recent days by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

So far Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have paid lip service to the Sudanese and Algerian protesters while trying to bolster military efforts to be seen to be meeting their demands yet maintaining ultimate grip on their countries’ politics.

The removal of Mr, Al-Bashir in Sudan was of particular importance to the counterrevolutionary states because of the fact that he came to power with the support of Islamist forces, the Gulf states and Egypt’s bete noir.

Sudan moreover is geopolitically important because of its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, a battleground for rival camps in the Middle East, Mr. Al-Bashir’s playing of both sides of the Middle East divide against the middle, and the granting to Turkey of access to Suakin Island that faces the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah.

Initial indications are that protesters’ fears that Saudi and UAE cheque book diplomacy comes with strings attached are not unfounded. Anti-Saudi and UAE sentiment has also been fuelled by the two states’ acquisition of Sudanese agricultural land in recent years and opposition to the war in Yemen.

The head of Sudan’s military council, Lt. General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, developed close ties to the Gulf states in his former role as commander of Sudanese forces that are part of the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen.

Mr. Burhan, in apparent recognition of the 22-month old UAE-Saudi led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, refused to meet with Qatari foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani days after receiving a Saudi-UAE delegation. Sudan has since said it was working out arrangements for a Qatari visit.

Similarly, UAE and Saudi cheque book diplomacy has also bolstered Mauritanian support for their fight against Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

This week’s visit by Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan to Iran during which the two countries agreed to form a joint quick reaction force to combat militant activity on their shared border, increase Iranian electricity sales to Pakistan and build a railway linking Islamabad, Tehran and Istanbul, puts the effectiveness of Gulf cheque book diplomacy to the test.

Pakistan appeared to be tilting toward Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Iran after the kingdom and the UAE pulled the cash-strapped South Asian nation back from the brink with $US 10 billion in financial aid and pledges of another $10 billion in investment.

Saudi Arabia’s greater emphasis on cheque book diplomacy coincides with a substantial cutback in global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservativism to the tune of an estimated US$100 billion over the last four decades.

The cutback means that funding has been focused on regions that are of geopolitical importance to the kingdom such as the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders Iran and Yemen.

The cutback, however, does not mean that the fallout of the Saudi funding is no longer felt around the globe.

Some analysts believe that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman gives Saudi-backed ultra-conservative preachers a freer hand in Southeast Asia as opposed to Europe where he tries to project himself as an Islamic moderate. If so, its an approach that has produced at best mixed results.

Two Saudi-educated religious scholars, Bachtiar Nasir and Zaitun Rasmin, played a key role in ultra-conservative mass protests in 2016, the largest in Indonesian history, that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian and ally of Indonesian president Joko Widodo.

Both students in the 1990s at the Islamic University of Medina, a key Saudi vehicle for the promotion of ultra-conservatism, Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have since their return to Indonesia propagated a puritanical strand of Islam and built a substantial following among the middle class.

However, in contrast to the kingdom, that more recently has been pushing in countries like Algeria, Libya and Kazakhstan a quietist, loyalist interpretation of Islam, Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have advocated political activism similar to the kingdom’s Sahwa or Islamic Awakening movement that called for peaceful political reform.

The movement, believed to have been partly inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, lost ground with the banning of the Brothers in the kingdom and the arrest of many of its leaders after the rise of Prince Mohammed.

Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have aligned themselves with the far-right Sunni Muslim Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI), whose leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, a charismatic preacher and one-time vigilante of Yemeni descent, fled in 2017 to Saudi Arabia, where he has been allowed to reside to escape sexual harassment charges.

The alliance provides Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin a mass base that they can mobilize. The two men, moreover, huge followings on social media. Mr. Nasir has 1.1 million followers on Instagram, 526,000 on Facebook, and 217,000 on Twitter.

Mr. Rizieq was briefly detained and questioned in November by Saudi police after he flew a black flag inscribed with the Muslim principle of tawhid or the oneness of God at the back of his Mecca residence. The flag resembled ones used by jihadists, including the Islamic State.

“Are you a criminal for installing the flag on your house? I don’t think so… I think Rizieq is not a threat to my country. If he had violated any laws, he would have undergone a legal process. Rizieq doesn’t have problems,” commented Usamah Muhammad Al-Syuaiby, the Saudi ambassador to Indonesia.

Despite the seeming differences with Saudi policy, Mr. Rasmin appeared to be doing the kingdom’s bidding when he travelled to Malaysia in advance of the 2018 elections to support those segments of the Sunni ultra-conservative community that wanted to ensure that scandal-tainted prime minister Najib Razak would be re-elected.

Saudi Arabia had sought to help Mr. Razak, who stood accused of defrauding Malaysia’s 1MDB state fund of billions of dollars, by publicly supporting some of his questionable assertions. The Saudi strategy failed with Mahathir Mohamed’s defeat of Mr. Razak and the souring of Saudi-Malaysian relations.

Ultra-conservatives toeing the Saudi line argued that a defeat of Mr. Razak would lead to chaos. They denounced those who voted against him as khawarij, literally ‘those who walk away’ but frequently defined as ‘the dogs of hellfire.’

In an interview with Utusan, the newspaper of Mr. Razak’s party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Mr. Rasmin backed the ultra-conservative argument that “it is prohibited to elect or let a non-Muslim be elected,“ a reference to the fact that Mr. Mahathir’s alliance included non-Muslims and liberals.

Taken together, developments in Sudan, Algeria, Pakistan and Southeast Asia, suggest that the effectiveness of Saudi and UAE religious and cheque book diplomacy hangs in the balance. The developments raise the question whether short-terms successes can be maintained long-term.

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

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Middle East

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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Powershift in Knesset: A Paradigm of Israel’s Political Instability

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The dynamics of the Middle East are changing faster than anyone ever expected. For instance, no sage mind ever expected Iran to undergo a series of talks with the US and European nations to negotiate sanctions and curb its nuclear potential. And certainly, no political pundit could have predicted a normalization of diplomacy between Israel and a handful of Arab countries. The shocker apparently doesn’t end there. The recent shift in Israeli politics is a historic turnaround; a peculiar outcome of the 11-day clash. To probe, early June, a pack of eight opposition parties reached a coalition agreement to establish Israel’s 36th government and oust Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. While the political impasse has partly subsided, neither the 12-year prime minister is feeble nor is the fragile opposition strong enough to uphold an equilibrium.

Mr. Netanyahu currently serves as the caretaker prime minister of Israel. While the charges of corruption inhibited his drive in the office, he was responsible to bring notable achievements for Israel in the global diplomatic missions. Mr. Netanyahu, since assuming office in 2009, has bagged several diplomatic victories; primarily in reference to the long-standing conflict with Palestine and by extension, the Arab world. He managed to persuade former US President Donald J. Trump to shift the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the contentious city of Jerusalem. Furthermore, he managed to strike off the Palestinian mission in Washington whilst gaining success in severing US from the nuclear agreement with Iran. To the right-wing political gurus, Mr. Netanyahu stood as a symbolic figure to project the aspirations of the entire rightest fraction.

However, the pegs turned when Mr. Netanyahu refused to leave the office while facing a corruption trial. What he deemed as a ‘Backdoor Coup Attempt’ was rather criticized by his own base as a ruse of denial. By denying the charges and desecrating the judges hearing his case, Mr. Netanyahu started to undercut the supremacy of law. While he still had enough support to float above water, he lost the whelming support of the rightest faction which resulted in the most unstable government and four inconclusive elections in the past two years.

While Mr. Netanyahu was given the baton earlier by President Reuven Rivlin, he failed to convince his bedfellow politicians to join the rightest agenda. Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu probably hoped to regain support by inciting a head-on collision with the Palestinians. The scheme backfired as along with the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the tremors overtook Israel’s own Arab-Jewish cities resulting in mass chaos. The burning of Mosques and local Synagogues was hardly the expectation. Thus, both the raucous sentiment pervading the streets of Israel as well as the unstable nature of the Netanyahu-government led the rightest parties to switch sides.

As Mr. Netanyahu failed to convince a coalition government, the task was handed to Mr. Yair Lapid, a centrist politician. While the ideologies conflicted in the coalition he tried to forge, his counterparts, much like him, preferred to sideline the disputes in favor of dethroning Netanyahu. Mr. Lapid joined hands with a pool of political ideologies, the odd one being the conservative Yamina party led by the veteran politician, Mr. Naftali Bennett. While Mr. Lapid has been a standard-bearer for secular Israelis, Mr. Bennett has been a stout nationalist, being the standard-bearer for the rightest strata. To add oil to the fire, the 8-party coalition also includes an Arab Islamist party, Raam. A major conflict of beliefs and motivations.

Although the coalition has agreed to focus on technocratic issues and compromise on the ideological facets, for the time being, both the rightest and the leftish parties would be under scrutiny to justify the actions of the coalition as a whole. Mr. Bennett would be enquired about his take on the annexation of occupied West Bank, an agenda vocalized by him during his alliance with Mr. Netanyahu. However, as much as he opposes the legitimacy of the Palestinian state, he would have to dim his narrative to avoid a fissure in the already fragile coalition. Similarly, while the first independent Arab group is likely to assume decision-making in the government for the first time, the mere idea of infuriating Mr. Bennett strikes off any hope of representation and voice of the Arabs in Israel.

Now Mr. Netanyahu faces a choice to defer the imminent vote of confidence in Knesset whilst actively persuading the rightest politicians to abandon the coalition camp. His drive has already picked momentum as he recently deemed the election as the ‘Biggest Fraud in the History of Israeli Politics’. Furthermore, he warned the conservatives of a forthcoming leftist regime, taking a hit on Naftali colluding with a wide array of leftist ideologies. The coalition is indeed fragile, yet survival of coalition would put an end to Netanyahu and his legacy while putting Naftali and then Lapid in the office. However, the irony of the situation is quite obvious – a move from one rightest to the other. A move from one unstable government to a lasting political instability in Israel.

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Middle East

The Gaza War

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Destruction in Gaza following an Israeli strike in May 2021. UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

On May 22, 2021, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei’s website, posted a congratulatory message from one of the Hamas group’s leaders, Ziad Nakhaleh. In his message, Ziad Nakhaleh addresses Khamenei and says, “Qasem Soleimani’s friends and brothers, especially Ismail Ghani (Iran’s IRGC commander) and his colleagues, led this battle and were present with us during our recent conflict with Israel. … We pray for the preservation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its brave soldiers.”

Since the regime’s establishment 42 years ago, Iran has been instrumental in inflicting war and chaos regionally. When Iran finds itself cornered and entangled with its internal problems or facing an impasse, a war or bloody conflict gets ignited by the regime to divert the Iranian people’s attention. This undeclared policy of the Iranian regime frees itself from the most pressing internal issues, even temporarily.

Today’s Iranian society is like a barrel of gunpowder ready to ignite. Last year, the Iranian parliament declared that more than 60 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. According to the media close to the regime, close to 80% of the population below the poverty line this year. It is worth mentioning that Iran is one of the top 10 wealthiest countries globally, despite the challenges of the current sanctions.

This poverty is mainly the result of rampant institutionalized government corruption. According to Qalibaf, the current speaker of Iran’s parliament, only 4 percent of the population is prosperous, and the rest are poor and hungry. The two uprisings of 2017 and mid-November 2019 that surprised the regime were caused mainly by extreme poverty and high inflation. The regime survived the above widespread uprisings by opening direct fire at the innocent protestors, killing more than 1500 people. There is no longer any legitimacy for the regime domestically and internationally.

The explosive barrel of the Iranian discontent is about to burst at any given moment. To delay such social eruption, Khamenei banned the import of COVID-19 vaccines from the US, Britain, and France, hoping the people will be occupied with the virus and forget about their miserable living conditions.

On the other hand, the Iranian regime is in the midst of new negotiations with the western countries regarding its nuclear program. These negotiations may force the regime to abandon its nuclear plans that have cost billions of dollars, its terrorist activities in the region, and its ballistic missiles stockpile. This retreat will inevitably facilitate the growth and spread of the uprisings and social unrest across Iran.

The Deadlock of the Regime

The regime is facing an election that could ignite the barrel of gunpowder of the Iranian society. In 1988, when Khamenei wanted to announce Ahmadinejad as the winner of the presidential ballot boxes but faced opposition from former Prime Minister Mousavi. Widespread demonstrations were ignited. The same scenario is repeating itself in this year’s presidential election, where Khamenei intends to announce Raisi as the next president of Iran. There is a legitimate fear that demonstrations will ignite once again.

To avoid the happening of the same experience, Khamenei is forced to make an important decision. Like any other dictator, he pursues a policy of contraction during these challenging and crucial times, deciding to favor those loyal to him and his policies. Khamenei needs a uniform and decisive government to exert maximum repression on the Iranian people.

By disqualifying the former president (Ahmadinejad), the current vice president (Jahangiri), and most importantly, his current adviser and speaker of the two parliaments (Larijani), he has cut loose a large part of his regime. One way or another, Khamenei’s contraction policy is going to weaken his grip on power.

On the other hand, the Iranian regime must comply with the West’s demand for nuclear talks. In 2021, the political landscape is entirely different from 2015 in the balance of regional and global forces. The regime’s regional influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria has been severely weakened.

There is an explosive situation inside Iran. The resistance units spread throughout Iran after the 2019 uprising and have rapidly increased in recent months. They are spreading the message of separation of religion from the government, plus equality between men and women in a society where women do not have the right to be elected as president or a minister. The resistance units call themselves supporters of Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian regime’s sworn enemy. These units can direct a massive flood of people’s anger towards the Supreme Leader’s establishments with every spark and explosion.

Khamenei wanted to force the West to lift all sanctions and demonstrate a show of force within Iran and the region by initiating the Gaza war. The Gaza war was intended to divert the attention from Khamenei’s decisions on Iran’s presidential election. In this situation, the regime wanted to break its presidential deadlock by firing rockets through Hamas and carrying out a massacre in Israel and Palestine.

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