The current situation in Libya is far from simple.
In April 2019, Khalifa Haftar received from the new Russian envoy, Lev Dengov, the polite order not to reach Tripoli, which – however – is already surrounded from the South by the forces of the Benghazi General.
The conquest of Tripoli would not be the beginning of the unification of the two parts of the old unitary Libya of Gaddafi (and of Italo Balbo, who delayed – as much as possible – the implementation of racial laws in the Tripoli Governorate).
Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Al-Sarraj, is still the only one recognized by the UN and it has already budgeted 2 billion dinars, equivalent to 1.43 billion US dollars, to fund the war against Benghazi for the renewed control of the capital city by the GNA forces.
Funds to be provided without resorting to foreign loans, as Tripoli made it clear.
The funding for Tripoli’s government stemsabove all from the oil sale – currently 928,000 barrels a day – with 1.87 billion US dollars of net revenue, according to the latest data of April 2019.
Furthermore, Al-Sarraj acquires other funds from zero-interest loans from local banks to the Central Bankand finally from a 183% tax on foreign transactions made at official rates, namely 1.4 dinars on the US dollar.
The centralized collection of taxes, however, is decreasing ever more every day, even in the oil sector, and the leaders of the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) constantly complain about thefts and numerous unlawful acts.
As Hobbes used to say, if there is no fear, the “universal and legitimate condition of equality between men”, the clash between individuals leads to mutual aggression and results in bellum omnium contra omnes.
Hence the need for a pact between “subjects” that puts an end to the war of everybody against everybody else.
Indeed, we must apply Hobbes’ thinking to Libya.
As well as Machiavelli’s, when he reminds us that “ruling means to make people believe” and that “there is no avoiding war, it can only be postponed to the advantage of others”. Hence we need to immediately find a Libyan leader who – unlike Gaddafi, who discovered the Italian intelligence services in a meeting in Abano Terme – can reunite the country by “taking advantage of the beast and the man”, just to put it again in Machiavelli’s words.
This is the law of every “failed State”, due to the implosion of its central authority, which generates a crisis of confidence among all participants in the imaginative and yet real agreement to end the war of everybody against everybody else – which is exactly what is happening in Libya.
The unitary Libyan State failed not for its territorial extension, but for its lack – or illegitimacy for its subjects – of recourse to the use of force. In Gaddafi’s case, the use of force was materially prevented by Westerners, who wanted to get rid of him, after having squeezed him like a lemon of the many trees in Tripoli’s promenade.
As clearly stated in the Resolutions of the UN Security Council, however, General Haftar cannot sell the oil extracted from the territory under his control – although some trafficking has already taken place.
As the Security Council itself has recently decided, these Resolutions will be extended until 2020, albeit with the abstention of Russia and China.
General Haftar failed to conquer Tripoli, but instead hired a US political lobbying firm, Linden Government Solutions, for as many as 120,000 US dollars.
The firm has already spoken to President Trump, who is very careful about this type of advisory services.
General Haftar had already drafted an advisory contract with a Montreal-based consulting firm, Dickens & Madison, led by Ari Ben Menashe, a former Israeli military intelligence officer.
Hence, considering that General Haftar cannot use his oil proceeds on his own, he must operate with an account opened with the Central Bank of Libya long time ago, but both NOC and the Central Bank are obviously linked to Al-Sarraj’s government.
General Haftar’s attempts to sell oil on his own were partly blocked directly by the United States.
The conquest – albeit temporary – of the Fezzan tribes by Tobruk’s General and his rapid advance towards the areas of Al-Sarraj’s government were funded mainly by the dinars printed in Russia.
As is well-known, the Central Bank in Al-Bayda, namely General Haftar’s monetary entity of reference, split from the Central Bank of Tripoli in 2014.
As stated by Governor Al-Hibri, currently reserves amount to 800 million dinars, 60 million euros and 80 million US dollars.
The dinars printed in Russia – those with Muammar al- Gaddafi’s profile – even with the consent of the House of Representatives- amounted to 9.7 billion over a period of three years.
They amounted to 4 billion in 2016, 4 in 2017 and 1.7 in 2018.
For General Haftar, this money is mainly used to buy the Southern tribes and the mercenaries, from various parts of Africa and the Arab world, they use to fight GNA.
On Al-Sarraj side, however, the resources are equally drained by the need to pay his own mercenaries, who act both as internal security forces and as military groups against General Haftar.
Al-Bayda’s Libyan East sold its government bonds for a total amount of 35 billion dinars, but outside the official financial channels, considering that the Bank of Tripoli funds – in the East – only the wage bill of those who were civil servants before 2014.
Conversely, the Tripoli government spends an annual amount of 48.6 billion dinars, especially for the public sector’s wages and the subsidies for gasoline purchase.
The debt-to-GDP ratio of the GNA government in Tripoli is equal to 143%, with 70% of public spending going exactly on wages and salaries.
With specific reference to the two Libyan Central Banks, it should also be recalled that the establishment of the Central Bank in Al-Bayda in 2014 caused the interruption of the automatic clearing system with the Central Bank of Tripoli, namely the Real Time Gross Settlement. Later, apart from a few money transfers from Tripoli, in the East they sustained themselves by simply printing banknotes – as in the Weimar Republic -to the tune of 7 billion US dollars, equivalent to 10 billion dinars.
Does the global oil market need a producer like Libya undergoing an uncontrollable inflationary crisis? What would happen to OPEC and the other oil producers?
Hence the need for a Dawes-style plan, like the one for Weimar’s Germany, rescuing us from the Libyan contagion. How? Taking the formal value of wells into account? Calculating the nominal value of current or future concessions and licenses?
Certainly we could not draw up a budget by calculating the value of locomotives, as Dawes did for Weimar’s Germany.
The debt allocated in securities by the East-Libyan government, issued between 2015 and 2018, is currently worth 35 billion dinars, equivalent to 25 billion US dollars- a50% of which is still used to fund General Haftar’s forces.
Since 2017 the Tripoli government’s revenue deficit, concerning above all the fall in oil price and extraction, has reached approximately 15 billion US dollars a year.
Hence, considering expenses and lost revenue, currently the Tripoli government’s deficit is supposed to be 62 billion dinars, equivalent to 44 billion US dollars.
The Libyan East, however, signs checks from standard current accounts for its employees, that are changed and paid by the private banks where the employees have their own accounts.
Hence a system has been created parallel to the RTGS system, which applies to the official relations with Tripoli, and another one, which links the Benghazi-Tobruk government to all the Libyan private banks, including those in the West.
Hence the banks held their first guarantee system with the Central Bank of Tripoli and accumulated reserves and credits to support the operations ordered by the Central Bank in Al-Bayda.
The problem lies in the fact that the international financial institutions recognize Tripoli’s debt, but not Al-Bayda’s.
Currently commercial banks have 21 billion dinars of credits with East Benghazi banks, equivalent to 15 billion US dollars. This obviously leads to the fall in deposits.
In mid-March 2019, bank deposits in the Central Bank of Tripoli ranged between one and two billion dinars, but in the East they amounted to six billion.
A trade war disguised as a banking war.
This is certainly one of the reasons underlying the acceleration of war throughout Libya.
No defense and no advance can be maintained with these internal economies.
Nevertheless, if Haftar or Al-Sarraj fall, the funding of the two wars will take place completely “off the books”, as is still the case for the support of the jihad.
The latest polls show that 37% of Libyans want safety and security, in particular.
Whoever guarantees to put an end to the bloodshed in the streets wins the hearts of all Libyans. As would happen everywhere.
“Forgiveness” and “justice”, which are certainly not synonymous, rank second for Libyans (25%). This is a sign that, however, the sectarian tension and the war between factions have reached their psychological limit, which is also a limit to everyday recruitment and political bias and partisanship.
“Restorative” justice, in a context like the Libyan one, is favoured compared to “criminal or punitive justice”.
In other words, both in the East and in the West, the Libyan people want the return of what has been removed, the restitution of property – maybe even incomplete – in exchange for the undeterred, undaunted and useless continuation of the clash, or the dream of future reintegration at the end of the fight.
A metaphysical term, which is not used by chance.
40% of the Libyans interviewed by various Western research centers – and we consider a weighted average of data – answered that all belligerents should be forgiven, even those who perpetrated crimes. Clearly people cannot stand it anymore.
Libya and the Libyan people only want to live in peace, at last.
50% of the Libyans interviewed by Western research centers think that the Libyan diaspora should play a role in the peace process, while 43% do not believe so.
Said 43% do not want all those who made money in a “grey” way and ran away in time to still operate in Libya.
Nevertheless, there is still a vast Libyan diaspora of intellectuals, technicians, professionals, entrepreneurs and traders, who will inevitably be called back to their duties, when there is a credible peace project.
The pacification process must be led by Libyans, in a new national government and with the planned support of the powers interested in the stabilization (and unification) of Libya.
The splitting of Libya is just a silly memory of the peripheral vilayet(district) of the Ottoman Empire.
Certainly, as some agencies supporting populations at war or in a period of serious political crisis suggest, it will also be necessary to create new nation-binding initiatives between the various Libyan groups – possibly non-artificial – so as to eliminate the animosity, tension and hatred, which have naturally spread.
But “hate is a tiring exercise”, as Jean Rostand used to say.
Moreover, there will be the need for a reparation mechanism, organized by a Trust including European and Middle East banks appointed by their governments among the warring factions.
Paying means reigning, as Madame De Girardin maintained.
Hence stopping immediately – or in a reasonably short lapse of time – the endless discussions on the damage caused to shops, or even on the children murdered, or possibly on the unlawful damages received by banks.
Forgiving them their debts will be essential for genuine peace to materialize, without the anger and resentment of those who are or believe to have been damaged.
This is the reason why a Trust would be needed, funded with a share on the price of oil sold by Libya, plus a friendly, gracious and obviously anonymous contribution from the Libyan diaspora.
Clearly, women and young people shall be involved in a process of national reconstruction very similar to Gaddafi’s old “committees”.
The tradition of Gaddafism is still strong. Women are not excluded from social processes and civic participation, not even in areas with a very strong presence of radical Islamism.
Furthermore, neither of the two governments is fully trusted by Libyans: 63% of them reject Tripoli’s GNA and 71% reject Tobruk’s government.
The Libyans interviewed by the international organizations perceive the local units – that are parties to the conflict in all respects – as completely unreliable: only 28% of Libyans deem them effective.
Therefore, it will obviously be necessary to re-establish the local units, in agreement (only) with the Libyan central government, but with a different territorial design, avoiding tribal or sectarian localization and allowing the administrations’ military and social control.
Libya is large and the desire to still play the game of localist secession can be strong, especially in the presence of strong “natural” sources of income: oil, minerals, even water.
Hence a Parliament shall be created – albeit not similar to European national Parliaments, but rather a large Assembly appointed by the tribes, in their own ways (obviously, it is useless to democratize Fezzan) -as well as a national government, answerable both to the Assembly of the tribes, that cannot be eliminated, and to an elective assembly according to the traditional Western representation criteria.
The government shall have the vote of both bodies.
Rationally-designed areas of influence shall be created, with a view to resolving the OPEC Sunni countries’ struggle for Libyan oil, which emerged immediately after the silly war to bring “democracy” to Libya and to assassinate the “tyrant”, who was supported by all EU countries.
Needless to send Turkey away from the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar from Al-Sarraj’s GNA region.
We will never make it. The West is an old arthritic.
It will be a matter of regulating – by means of an international treaty – the relations of Turkey with Libya, as well as of Egypt, which has direct interests in Cyrenaica, or of Saudi Arabia or even France, which is now useless, considering the diplomatic relations broken off with Al-Sarraj and the friendly request to General Haftar to stop the Libyan National Army’s attack on Tripoli. The classic end of the too sly people or countries.
It will also be necessary for the United States, the European States, namely all the EU Member States, Great Britain and even Israel, to participate in the Libyan reconstruction, which will certainly be a long process.
Israel could guarantee remote security and the Libyan oil market’s future integration with the Lebanon-Cyprus-Turkey axis, which will be among the most important ones in the future.
A bank trust, an ad hoc agency, will ensure the sale of unitary Libya’s debt securities – with the set limits and some guarantees – by absorbing part of those still in circulation and possibly creating an international sales desk.
The Armed Forces will be rebuilt with the typical national criteria, but with a chain of command in which the Clausewitzian power of the political leader with respect to the military hierarchy will be very clear. There should also be a clear and innovative funding for the struggle against the illegal trafficking of migrants, starting from Fezzan and spreading to the other regions. All European countries will pay for it and will be very happy to do so.
We still need a great guardian in North Africa, but we also need to show that the Western madness of the “Arab springs” has been put to an end, thus stabilizing the other governments and starting to invest throughout North Africa, with the guarantees of a stable local government.
Otherwise, sooner or later, the sea of migration will engulf us, thus destabilizing the entire EU economy and our welfare State.
Assyrians are Not Refugees Who Settled in Iraq
In recent years, some Kurdish and Arab politicians and wanna-be historians have been making statements that the Assyrians of Iraq were refugees from Hakkari, Turkey and that the British brought them to Iraq. This absurd and misleading statement spread as Assyrians were trying to find their place in the new Iraq post 2003 US invasion.
On October 3, 1932 Iraq became the 57th member of the League of Nations (replaced by the United Nations on October 24, 1945 post World War II). On December 15, 1932, an article titled “Iraq and the Assyrians” was published in the periodical The Near East and India. The article addressed the settlement of the Assyrians in Iraq. The Assyrian leaders have been pleading to solve the settlement issue before ending the British mandate over Iraq and before admitting Iraq into the League of Nations as a sovereign and independent state (planned for 1932). The Assyrian leaders warned the West that Iraqi leaders could not be trusted and that Assyrians are not safe under the rule of Arabs and Kurds.
Before going further into the article aforementioned there is an important point that the readers must understand. The Assyrians did not fall from Mars onto northern Iraq. The Assyrians have been living in Northern Mesopotamia from time immemorial and their dynasties established one of the greatest civilization and empire in the Near East. The fall of the last Assyrian dynasty, i.e., the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in 612 BC and the last capital in Harran in 609 BC did not mean the disappearance of the people. This is similar to the fall of the Roman, Greek, Persian and many other empires. The people of those empires survived. The Assyrians continued to live in and around the historic Assyrian capitals of Ashur (Qal’at Sharqat), Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur Sharukin (Khursabad), Nineveh (Nebi Yunis) and Harran in upper Mesopotamia or lived in new settlements near by those capitals, such as Mosul, Arbil, Kirkuk, Urfa (Urhai or Edessa), Nisibin, etc. that were centers of the Assyrians’ Christianity.
Assyria was occupied by several nations including the Medes, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, Arabs, Mongolians, Ottoman Turks and others in between. The Assyrians adopted Christianity during the time of the Apostles and remained Christians ever since. The Christological controversies that followed the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) isolated these Assyrian denominational communities from each others. As the Church established further structure and hierarchy, the Churches of the Assyrians kept the various Assyrian communities together, each under its leader, the patriarchs. The Assyrian denominational terms Nestorian and Jacobite were born. Later, in 1681 in Diyar Bekir (Turkey) and in 1830 in northern Iraq (Alqosh) the conversion of Assyrians to Catholicism isolated more Assyrians as the term Chaldean was given to these converts.
With the clear establishment of these denominations, a clear distribution of the Assyrian population was shaped. The Nestorian Assyrians lived as a concentrated region of the Hakkari Mountains (Van Province) and Urmia region in Persia, Jacobite Assyrians in the Tur Abdin/Diyar Bekir region (Sandschak Zor and Diyar Bekir Provinces) and Chaldean Assyrians in Nineveh region/Arbil/Kirkuk (Mosul Province); however, these various denominational groups were intermixed in some locations. Despite this denominational separation, they all continued to refer to themselves as Suraye, which is Asuraye or Assuraye, meaning Assyrians.
The genocide of World War I (1914-1918) committed against the Assyrians by Turks and Kurds in Hakkari and Tur ‘Abdin (today both in modern Turkey) forced the Assyrians out. One escape route ended the Assyrians first in the camp of Baquba (1918 near Baghdad) and then in the camp of Mindan (1920 near Mosul) via Urmia, Persia.
Map of the Ottoman Empire divided by provinces Before its Fall in 1922
The other route ended up in Qamishli and Aleppo as genocide continued even after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed and the Turkish State was created in 1922. Therefore, the Assyrians were basically displaced because of genocide from one province to another within the same Ottoman Empire, i.e., from Hakkari to Mosul and from Diyar Bekir/Tur Abdin to Qamishli/Aleppo. Those displaced refugees from Hakkari and Urmia joined their Catholic brethren, the Chaldean Assyrians, in Mosul Province. Therefore, the Assyrians did not migrate from some foreign planet to Mosul Province considering also that there were Assyrians in Mosul region since the fall of the Assyrian Empire and these Assyrians after converting to Catholicism became known as Chaldeans.
Another important issue is the similarity in the geographical terrain. One of the principle Assyrian regions was the highlands that starts from Mosul (today in Iraq) and extends all the way to southern Lake Van (today in Turkey). The Assyrian people lived throughout these highlands. This continuation of topography was not divided politically until the official fall of the Ottoman Empire in November 1, 1922. After many disagreements, protests and negotiations, the British and the Turks finally signed the Treaty of Ankara on June 5, 1926 by which both states recognized the Brussels line (with some minor modifications) as the frontier between the two new created states of Iraq and Turkey. Even if we consider this new frontier, we need to understand that the large Assyrian region of Lower Barwar was always part of the Ottoman’s Mosul Province (Iraq) – the Assyrians of Lower Barwar did not migrate from Turkey to Iraq per se, unlike those of Upper Barwar.
During World War I, British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, authored a secret agreement (concluded on May 19, 1916 ) regarding the future spoils of the Ottoman Empire that was expected to lose the war. After few modifications and incidents, the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq was created from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra and immediately placed it under the British mandate. Modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria and other states in the region did not exist before 1921/22. Therefore, we cannot say that in 1918 people moved from Turkey to Iraq because Turkey and Iraq did not exist at the time.
Now back to the December 5, 1932 The Near East and India article, which stated that the Council of the League of Nations considered the question of the settlement of the 40,000 [Nestorian] Assyrians in Iraq. At the council meeting, Nuri al-Said, the prime minister of Iraq stated: “The government of Iraq is determined to assure the prosperity, the happiness and the tranquility of all inhabitants of Iraq. It is following the best and most practical path to this end, allowing itself to be guided by the most human principles, by considerations of the general interest and by respect for existing laws.”
It took only few months later from the promise of the Iraqi prime minister that 3,000 Assyrians were massacred in the state-sponsored Simele Genocide in August 1933. The Assyrians continue to be persecuted and oppressed in Iraq by the Arab and the Kurdish authorities as the leaders and historians of Arabs and Kurds continue to claim that the Assyrians were refugees from Turkey and Persia (later Iran) and needed to be relocated or settled outside Iraq, if they had any conditions or hard to meet conditions, regardless how reasonable.
One important note, Kurdish nationalists and writers claim that the Allies post WWI divided Kurdistan into north, south, east and west Kurdistans. Such wild claims must never be allowed to spread. Unlike the well established and historic Assyrian Empire, there never existed an official state or country on the world map under the name of Kurdistan. After European travelers and missionaries visited the Middle East region, they encountered the nomad Kurds and soon a border-less and unofficial region under such name began to be inserted on certain Middle East maps to reflect the presence of these stateless people. In 1946, a Kurdish state under the name of Mahabad Republic was established in west Iran, but it was crushed by the Iranian army after 11 months. The Kurdish nationalists have promoted an aggressive Kurdification campaign to erase the Assyrian history from northern Iraq and replace it with Kurdish history.
Education empowers people – it enables them to understand. When they understand, they discuss issues affecting them with confidence, logically and accurately. Assyrians and other undermined people around the world must participate in this great battle of survival armed with education, because they must not let the murderers or oppressors write the history. The Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq – history and archeology proves that. Throughout history, many Assyrians were forced to flee their homes and lands of northern Iraq (occupied Assyria) because of massacres and persecution.
U.S. Policy Case for Middle East under New Conditions
In contrast to the presidential elections of the past two decades, the new White House administration has faced great difficulties in shaping its Middle East policy. With internal division, polarization, political system failures and the unwavering pandemic, the Middle East has largely dropped out of U.S. foreign policy priorities. Shortly after his election, George W. Bush came up with the ambitious initiative of a Greater Middle East which entailed a democratic restructuring of the region; Barack Obama quickly sent a special envoy for the Middle East to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and Donald Trump, by contrast, dashed a number of traditional constants in the policies of his predecessors. It took Joe Biden’s administration a long time to realize the place of this troubled region in the U.S. grand strategy. Trump left Biden a heavy and intricate legacy, with no room for continuity or a sharp change of course on all fronts.
The continued policy of confrontation with Russia and China, framed ideologically as that of a democracy vs. autocracy, implied a revision of the approach towards the Middle East and a need to restore trust globally, taking into account all the painful experiences of the U.S., especially after the fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan. How to achieve this amid a shifting global balance of power—clearly, not in favor of the United States—and striking changes in the region where the U.S. is increasingly seen as a key regional player was exactly the question. As early as by President Obama’s second term, a kind of consensus had been reached in the U.S. after long discussions. Trump was also guided by it, although one of his first trips abroad was to Saudi Arabia. U.S. policy in the Middle East is overly militarized, while meddling in the region’s internal affairs and the resources invested do not yield proper political impact. This leads to the conclusion that the U.S. military presence and political commitments should be reduced, avoiding overstretching in the face of emerging global threats and challenges.
The president and the secretary of state were critical of their predecessors, while devising their own approach to the region, with its unresolved conflicts and socio-political cataclysms, was clearly delayed. There has been a sense of uncertainty in the Arab world as to how and when Joe Biden would set a course for the Middle East. Questions arose as to whether one should prepare for a U.S. withdrawal from the region and Washington’s search for foreign policy alternatives. There were growing security concerns in the Gulf, which viewed Iran as a real threat. Namely, they believed that the U.S., having lost interest in the region, would decide to abandon its traditional guarantor role in the face of ongoing course corrections. Washington’s general words about “recalibration,” “redeployment,” and “reorientation” evoked mixed feelings: On the one hand, a desire for America to somehow define itself; on the other, a loss of confidence in it. The prolonged lack of progress in reaching agreement on the terms of a U.S. return to the JCPOA and the uncertainty over the parties’ future intentions were perceived with concern by Washington’s regional partners; not only by the Arab monarchies but also by Israel. The complicated domestic situation in Israel after the establishment of a shaky two-headed coalition and the prospect of a fifth edition of parliamentary elections in the last two years have put U.S. diplomacy in an ambiguous position.
The negative for the United States impact of the Ukrainian crisis on global energy as well as predominantly neutral attitudes towards the crisis in the non-Western world, which is somewhat closer to understanding Russia’s motives, seemed to serve as a stimulant that prompted Washington to shift its attention back to the Middle East—especially since the current conditions on the oil market have led to a significant increase in fuel prices in the U.S., which could have an adverse impact for the U.S. administration in light of the approaching midterms.
In this environment, the announcement of Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East on July 15-16 was met with a lot of skepticism, especially within America. The visit to Saudi Arabia came in for particular criticism because Biden promised to make Riyadh a “pariah” after the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, and he was now planning to rehabilitate it in favor of domestic interests. Biden himself was forced to speak publicly to put the purpose of his visit to the Middle East in a broader global and regional context.
The pessimistic sentiments in the U.S. expert community were vividly expressed by Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller, two retired senior diplomats who worked for years in the Middle East and at the State Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The essence of this image, translated into political language, is as follows: “If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds.” Biden deprioritized the Middle East for sixteen months, and the weeds have grown in the meantime. And so the president was sent on a “diplomatic foray into the region to plant U.S. flags and start to repair the damage done to the flowers and greenery.” The conclusion is that the pivot to the Middle East will not last long, and one should not expect quick pay-offs.
The itinerary from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, where, alongside with the bilateral U.S.-Saudi negotiations, the U.S. president met with a number of Arab leaders in the GCC+3 format (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan) is quite telling. This list indicates the states the Biden administration intends to bet on as well as the range of oft-interrelated problems, the approaches to which the administration considers necessary to clarify and harmonize. These include regional security, continued normalization of the Arab-Israeli relations, the issue of a U.S. return to the JCPOA, warning signals to Iran, a new understanding of the nature of allied relations, conflict resolution with a focus on Yemen, continued Palestinian-Israeli contacts, etc.
The Israeli part of Biden’s trip showed that the United States was not going to revise the legacy of the previous administration, which formally declared Israeli settlements in the West Bank not contrary to international law and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. By and large, the status of Jerusalem, like the issue of Jewish settlements, is a fait accompli for the United States. At the same time, Biden reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it was a purely formal gesture, though: more of a tribute to his election campaign. This position is also enshrined, albeit one-sidedly, in the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration. Apart from passing remarks about his intention to promote dialogue with the Palestinians and provide humanitarian grants, the American president’s visit to the Palestinian Authority was more of a touristy, humanitarian nature. The text of this widely circulated declaration leaves no doubt that the U.S. continues to pursue the principled policy of ensuring Israel’s security and military dominance as “strategic commitments that are vitally important to the national security of the United States itself.” In this regard, we have seen additional measures of cooperation in air defense and laser technology development. Another important point of the declaration was the message to the U.S. partners in the region that America will “never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and will work with them “to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities.” Finally, the U.S. and Israel praised the Abraham Accords as a critical addition to Israel’s strategic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and an important starting point for building a new regional security system.
The most complicated and sensitive part of the president’s Middle East tour—the trip to Saudi Arabia—had two dimensions to it. First, a normalization of the long-struggling bilateral relations with a new focus on the policies of Trump and Obama; and second, a presentation of the U.S. administration’s vision of the Middle East strategy.
On the bilateral agenda, Biden tried to find some middle ground in the eternal conflict between “American values” and “national interests,” between respecting human rights and supporting rigid autocracies, which in the United States, i.a. among Democrats, include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There has been a heated debate in the United States over the dilemma where the prestige of a powerful figure in the kingdom, like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been directly affected by Khashoggi’s assassination. Did the U.S. president raise human rights issues with the Crown Prince and what was his reaction? Responding to the numerous questions, the president confirmed that he had discussed this issue “directly and openly,” though there remained great doubt in U.S. domestic political discourse about the administration’s determination (and that of Biden personally) to put ideological values above practical considerations. The reaction of the Saudi leadership was no less direct. As it became known in the Arab world, Mohammed bin Salman replied briefly: “And what about Shireen Abu Akleh?” (a journalist of Palestinian origin murdered in Israel). In general, the contrast between the way Americans “defend” democracy and human rights in Ukraine and the way they do it for the Palestinians in the Arab world has not gone unnoticed. This partly explains no mention of the Ukrainian conflict from the Arab side during the talks.
The U.S. president’s trip to the Middle East was the occasion for the public announcement of a revised foreign policy in its regional dimension. Biden thought it was symbolic that he was the first U.S. president to come to Saudi Arabia from Israel and the first to visit the region at a time when the U.S. has no military personnel engaged in military operations there. Thereafter, the U.S. emphasized intensive diplomacy with the caveat that the use of force is seen as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.
The U.S. Middle East strategy is presented in five main areas. First, the U.S. will not leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran, so it is not withdrawing from the region. Washington will bolster partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order, making sure these countries can defend themselves against foreign threats. Second, security cooperation. The U.S. will pledge determination to ensure the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, to prevent dominance by any country. Third, de-escalation and termination of regional conflicts. The U.S. is ready to work with the partners to counter threats from Iran by forcing it to curtail its nuclear program. Fourth, the development of bilateral political, economic, and security connections, and the promotion of regional projects in energy, free trade and investment. Fifth, the U.S. commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms and the values enshrined in the U.N. Charter.
It remains a matter of debate how the American president’s significant statements in the Middle East with a leadership bid can convert into practical policy. At the same time, growing tensions in Europe and Asia are gradually pushing this into the background. Assessments of the prospects for achieving the goal in practice are rather restrained, ranging from a complete disbelief in the U.S. ability to achieve ambitious goals in a rapidly changing region to assertions that Biden should be given time and that America still has chances to adjust its Middle East policy to the new realities in the world and in the United States itself. Looks like Biden took some not-so-heavy political baggage from the Middle East. U.S. attempts to present Saudi Arabia’s consent to overflight of its airspace by Israeli civilian aircraft as a breakthrough were quickly devalued by the Saudis’ official explanations that it was only about facilitating international air communications, not about normalizing relations with Israel. The Saudis have also made adjustments to the definition of the U.S. role in lowering oil prices. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Al-Jubeir hastened to declare that the decision will be based on market assessments, and Saudi Arabia intends to continue consultations with OPEC members as well as within OPEC+, i.e. with Russia. The Saudis oppose the politicization of the global financial system and do not support calls for an oil embargo. According to experts, if the decision to further increase oil production was made, such an increase wouldn’t be so critical that the U.S. could take the credit.
Biden’s post-Bush, post-Obama and post-Trump Middle East strategy looks like a desire to find a middle ground between two extremes: over-involvement in the regional set-up coupled with military intervention or a complete turn toward the Indo-Pacific. That is, there is an understanding that the U.S. cannot change the Middle East, nor can it afford to withdraw from it. At the same time, the focus on countering Russia and China, which allegedly took advantage of the vacuum in the region, remains part of this adjusted strategy, much as the pivot to mobilize traditional Arab partners to achieve U.S. goals. And that is where the main contradiction lies. The U.S. plan for a regional alliance of democracies has no real prospect in the Middle East. The results of Biden’s Middle East trip clearly showed that, in contrast to the times of the Soviet-American confrontation, the Arab countries pursue a diversified policy, avoiding a strictly one-sided orientation on the principle of “the enemy of my friend is not my enemy.” With a new round of global confrontation, the leaders of these countries tread carefully, without closing foreign relations on unstable alliances and believing that their national interests in the new geopolitical and regional realities are more consistent with maintaining a situational partnership with the major powers.
Strengthening the U.S. strategic partnership with Israel at the expense of the right of the Palestinian people to their statehood is unlikely to advance further normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but rather will complicate the country’s integration into the region. As a result, one can expect a sharp rise in radical sentiment among the Palestinians, with the support of the resistance front by Arab states. This is evidenced by the restoration of Hamas’ relations with Syria, as well as the meeting of all Palestinian factions in Algeria facilitated by the movement. In security issues, the Gulf monarchies are looking for opportunities to defuse tensions with Iran through regional mediation as an alternative to U.S. guarantees.
One should not expect a dramatic turnaround in the U.S. Middle East policy. The incumbent president will have to reckon with the balance of power in Congress, which cannot be changed by executive orders. The Middle East will remain a focus of the Democratic administration, albeit not a top priority. The new style, with its emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, will help set a more balanced course toward key regional issues. At the same time, the Biden administration will not be able to ignore that Russia’s multi-vector policy has shown its relevance over the past two decades. The new reality in the Middle East will force American diplomacy to seek interaction points with Russia through overcoming the credibility gap, even in the face of tense bilateral relations. The question is whether it is possible to separate the Middle East from the context of the real geopolitics unfolding at odds. In this sense, Syria will be an important indicator of U.S. intentions, being a country where both Washington and Moscow, like in Europe, are in direct military contact.
From our partner RIAC
An updated Chinese strategy towards the Arab region: Evidence from Saudi Arabia
The economic ties between Saudi Arabia and China are a reflection of both countries’ current development. From 1949 until the mid-1970s, interactions between China and the Muslim world were almost non-existent. During the late 1970s, China began its economic reform initiative, which reshaped China’s economy from 1978 to 2000, opening the way for developing the bilateral relations. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and China was improved with the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 2008, the global financial and economic crisis ravaged the United States; this paved the way for further progress in the Saudi-Chinese relationship.
After Saudi Arabia put out its 2030 vision for multilateralism, the movement in Saudi-Chinese relations coincided with the transformation in the global system, which is one of the most essential parts of multipolarity. As a result, China now has more possibilities for being involved in this process.
After China’s openness to the West, the country devoted itself primarily to the acquisition of advanced financial and technological infrastructure. At the time, China was not interested in strengthening its ties to Saudi Arabia and raising the level of the relationship to a strategic partnership. According to Saudi officials, the Chinese economy had nothing to tempt them to create links with it, regardless of China’s significant economic progress made. In terms of the world’s greatest economies, China has yet to make it into the top ten.
There was little trade between the two countries. A mere 1.171 billion riyals, or around 1.5 percent, of Saudi Arabia’s total imports were made in China in 1987. After more than 20 years of economic changes in China, this statistic remained unchanged. Even though China’s volume tripled, China’s share of Saudi imports remained at 3.5%, thus it takes time to create economic ties.
China’s imports to Saudi Arabia doubled in value between 1987 and 1999, rising from 1.2 billion to 3.7 billion riyals. The Saudi’s overall worldwide imports still dwarf this amount, notwithstanding the rise. However, by the end of the nineties, there was an improvement in this relationship. The year 2000 marked the beginning of a major shift in the economic ties between the two countries. There was an increase in bilateral trade that year of more than 1.7 times what it was last year. This is due to an increase in previously unreported Saudi shipments to China. Between 1990 and 2000, exports nearly quadrupled. Saudi’s on-going trade surplus with China can be attributed to this increase in exports.
Economic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia will be altered significantly. High-level visits, discussions, and exchanges of views between Saudi Arabia and China have created new horizons in bilateral relations, in addition to strengthening economic ties. Globalization has also contributed to the building of trade linkages between all countries, including China and Saudi Arabia. This is also relevant to the World Trade Organization’s principles and the development of a free market economy. The economic ties between the two countries developed dramatically between 2000 and 2007. This is mainly due to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Growth in China’s economy has begun to pick up steam, shifting the world’s top economies into a new position. China, which ranked sixth in 2000, surpassed the United Kingdom to take fourth place in 2006. In 2007, it overtook Germany to take third position.
During the period between 2001 and 2007, Saudi Arabia’s exports to China nearly doubled, while imports nearly quadrupled. In the time since 2008, major developments have led to stronger ties between the two countries’ economies, paving the way for future strategic collaboration. After the housing crisis, the financial and economic crisis of 2008 had a significant impact on the development of Saudi Arabia’s ties with China. Because of this tragedy, there was a global economic downturn. Except for China, the rest of the industrialized world’s growth rates were either negative or extremely low throughout this period. China rose from third to second place in the world’s economy between 2007 and 2010, ahead of Japan, which fell from third to fourth.
As of 2010, China’s GDP had overtaken Japan’s, ranking it second in the world’s major economies matrix. By 2028, China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful economy.
In terms of bilateral trade exchanges, minerals accounted for nearly eighty per cent of the overall value of Saudi’s top exports to China in 2019. Electrical goods and equipment are among the many items that China exports to Saudi Arabia.
It’s no surprise that Saudi Arabia ranked first and second in terms of oil exports to China in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Last year, China bought more than twice as much oil from Saudi Arabia as Russia did, at 1.69 million barrels per day.
The Chinese grand strategy, based mainly on the Belt and Road Initiative, will not make progress without a solid partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. China is a huge powerhouse that depends mainly on trade and industry; therefore, in order for China to survive, it is likely that in the next few years we will witness a qualitative leap in the bilateral relationship between China and Saudi Arabia.
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