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Jordan between the Hammer of Economic Hardships and the Anvil of the “Deal of the Century”

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The public outrage seen in the Jordanian street has been growing louder, alongside the state’s failure to fight the country’s rampant administrative and financial corruption. The Jordanian government has of yet been unable to reform and change the status quo, and change the momentum of increasing economic hardships, income inequality, and inefficiency.

Jordan put forth an economic transformation program in 2008, to privatize their most successful firms in industries such as telecommunications, water and resource management, and trade facilitation. Since 2008, naturally, the government has lost billions of dollars in revenues. The loss was not just economic, but has also implicated political sovereignty: any country which loses control over its sources of return loses political power and influence internally, regionally and internationally.

After Jordan closed its border with Syria, Jordan faced a real threat with the rising unemployment rate and international pressure on the government and the people to accept new terms and conditions to harbor refugees from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and other countries. This huge demographic bomb would be devastating to the original population of the country who would become a minority of less than 25%, and would deprive Palestinians and Syrians of the right of return to the homes.

Jordanian merchants and industrialists received threats from the US commercial attaché in Amman to stop trade with Syria, warning that if the demands were not obeyed, ac-cording to a law called “Ceasar,” Jordan’s position in the region would be aggravated. As a result, Jordan’s economic situation would continue to deteriorate, and unemployment rates would skyrocket, especially among the youth, which currently has an estimated unemployment rate of 40%.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have demanded and exerted pressures on Jordan to impose more taxes and tariffs; thus, Jordan has lost a golden opportunity to change its foreign policy accordingly because of too much dependence on foreign aid which has twisted the country’s arm not to maneuver with its foreign policy. Economic hardships have overshadowed political ones which prevented Jordan from maneuvering East and West, seeking new alliances and playing geopolitical games to improve its negotiating status as Jordan rejects the idea of being a homeland for refugees.

Jordan rejects the “deal of the century” because it entails that the country relinquishes its religious and sovereign rights to Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. What other countries currently seek is to pressure Jordan by proposing both Morocco and Saudi Arabia to be supervisors along with Israel and Jordan on the holy sites in Jerusalem. For Jordan, that means political suicide. The reasons behind this are to undermine Jordan, in favor of the alternative homeland project to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict –at the expense of Jordan or, in fact, at the cost of trans-Jordanians, who are Eastern Jordanian tribes.

Sit-ins which broke out in the summer of 2018 have been a platform for demonstrators to voice their criticism of senior officials, who are seen as responsible for the deterioration in economic and political conditions in the country.

This prompted Jordan’s King Abdullah II to hold a meeting on February 18th, 2019 with several former prime ministers in Al Husainiyeh Palace in Amman. King Abdullah discussed with former premiers on a range of domestic issues and regional developments. The meeting reveals the monarch’s concerns about people’s anger, which is escalating day after day against government performance and incompetence due to growing frequency of corruption and nepotism. Some politicians interpret the meeting as brainstorming and diagnosis of ways out of current pending issues that Jordanians are undergoing, including poverty, inflation, unemployment, and the demise of the middle class.

Just the day before the meeting, the former prime ministers received the invitation to meet with the king. Some considered the invitation as protocol while others regard it as an urgent matter due to recent developments the country is undergoing: higher rates of unemployment and indebtedness, economic recession, mounting inflation, and taxation.

What reflects the urgency of the meeting, is that on the same day the king visited the Tafilah governorate where he met with representatives and dignitaries of the province before returning to Amman to meet the former premiers in his palace. The king was in casual clothes, unlike the other attendees, indicating that either the king had no time to change or that he seeks to convey to message that it is time for deeds and not words. The king called for self-reliance by providing a real economic reform process.

Such a meeting comes at a time the whole Middle East region is undergoing existential threats. The king recognizes that it is time to expand strategies to ensure the country’s national interests and secure its people against any future conflicts. King Abdullah expressed disappointed by some cabinets as they have not addressed people’s concerns and have not improved their quality of life. This could also be the reason for this urgent call for the meeting.

The meeting was attended by former prime ministers Zaid al-Rifai, Ahmad Obeidat, Tahir al-Masri, Abdul Salam al-Majali, Abdul Karim al-Kabariti, Fayez al-Tarawneh, Abdul Raouf al-Rawabdeh, Ali Abual Raghab, Adnan Badran, Maarouf al-Bakheet, Sameer al-Rifai and Aoun Khasawneh.

The briefing by Jordanian media was vague and provided somewhat insufficient information on the three-hour gathering. The king stressed that “talk about political reform is not a motto; there is a real will to develop political life in the Kingdom.” The monarch was referring to previous discussion papers about the necessity of political reform along with the economic transformation. He said, “We are all partners in achieving progress for the benefit of the nation, and we all have a responsibility to deal with the current situation and challenges facing the Kingdom.”

Notably, the king elucidated that the development of Jordan political life requires the cooperation of all Jordanians, principally the political elites. He referred to recent meetings with parliamentary blocs and civil society institutions, in which he aimed to motivate them to submit proposals determining political, economic, and social priorities for the coming years. The king echoed these same goals in his meeting with the ex-prime ministers, preparing them to adhere to their responsibility to make positive changes for the country’s future.

The frequent royal meetings with officials and former officials stand for a state of cooperation which the monarch strives to forge to enhance the dialogue among Jordanians to develop political reform. The meeting with the 13 officials is significant at this critical time, as the King briefed the audience in eight minutes about his perspective of the domestic and regional situation. He expounded that Jordan faces various security, economic, and social challenges that require everyone to stand together to confront these predicaments whether such officials are still in office or retired.

Amongst the top priorities for the King are the enhancement of the rule of law and integrity of the judiciary. Likewise, he stressed the commitment of all institutions concerned to achieve this by respecting the law, promoting integrity and increasing efficiency, not only in the security apparatus but in the judiciary system that disseminates parity amongst people.

The king called for the strengthening of the capacities of state institutions to develop their performance at all levels, including the implementation of a program to address corruption and administrative sagging. He highlighted that economic challenges are most pressing and stressed the role of the private sector to provide jobs and contribute to economic growth.

On the challenges facing the region, King Abdullah said that Jordan’s priority is to safeguard the country’s national interests. The most critical elements are the return of Syrian refugees and the reconstruction of Syria after reaching a political settlement. The King said that Jordan’s position is consistent with the Palestinian Authority and Amman will not be deviated from Jordanian-Palestinian interests, no matter how much pressure is exercised on both sides. He conveyed full support to Palestinian to establish their independent state on their national soil, with East Jerusalem as their capital.

Jordan’s concerns were elucidated in the Dead Sea meeting of the four Gulf countries, Egypt, and Jordan at the end of January 2019, two weeks before the Warsaw Conference on Security and Peace in the Middle East. They are wary of normalization between Arab states and Israel when it comes at the expense of Jordanian and Palestinian conflicts.

The changing shift of focus from Palestine to Iran burns Jordanian political cards. In the meantime, the King is trying to open channels with Arab countries, Tunisia, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. He bids to strengthen Jordan’s relations with these four states, willing to build a regional bloc of four countries soon after political settlement in Syria. This could provide Jordanian diplomacy with other cards to play with. By diversifying Amman’s strategic options without difficulty, they can follow a more balanced approach to protect the country’s national interests.

The royal meeting with former officials is of high importance at a time when the region is undergoing many political, security and economic transformations which could lead to further conflicts. Especially critical is the threat of more predicaments to Jordan, due to lack of regional and international financial support. The message of the meeting is that Jordanians should sit together at all levels to find a solution to their problems without depending on others to bail them out.

At present, Jordan is undergoing the most dangerous juncture in its history, and the country is now between the hammer of the Century Deal and the bids to deprive Jordan of the religious and sovereign right to supervise the holy sites in Jerusalem. Such a move would lead to internal mobilization and un-controllable escalation. The US should consider Jordanian people’s interest before the leap to the “deal the century.”

From our partner RIAC

President of the Jordan-based Political Studies of the Middle East Center, Founder of the US-based Geostrategic and Media Center

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Palestinians between COVID-19 pandemic and unilateral Israeli plan of annexation

Paola Canale

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

On March 2020 took place the third general elections in the parliamentary Republic of Israel, for the 120 seats of the Knesset. The results viewed the victory of the right-wing Likud party, leaded by Netanyahu, obtaining 58 seats, although his charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in November 2019, and the left-wing “Blue and white” party, headed by Gantz. After several compromises, the 20 April formed an emergency government of national unity for a limited period of 36 months, presided by Netanyahu for the first 18 months and by Gantz during last 18 months, under the approval of the president Rivlin. In the first phase Gantz will be vice-premier and Minister of Defence. The alternation on the guide of executive will be enshrined by a law of the Knesset.

This even slight predominance of Likud party will entail the implementation of the so-called US President Trump “deal of the century”, which encompasses the Israel political process of incorporation of the occupied West Bank, that include Israeli settlements, the region of Jordan Valley and nature reserves. In other words, government has been authorized to bring a de-facto ‘annexation” plan to debate in the Knesset since 1 July 2020. This Israeli proposal would include up to 30% of the total areas of West Bank.

Amnesty International underlines that this agreement would worsen the violations of human rights, the impunity of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross violations, perpetrating a flagrant violation of international law. Being annexation an acquisition of territories by the use of force, it’s breaching at the same time art. 2 (4) UN Charter, generally set out jus cogens norms and humanitarian laws. This plan would extend Israeli law to the OPT, not changing their legal status. In fact, under domestic Israeli law, it’s nothing else but an Israeli settlement expansion, thus denying civil and political rights to Palestinians, their freedom of movement, of speech, of association, equality and non-discrimination rules.

As well known, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world longest-running struggle between two self-determination movements: the Jewish Zionist and the Palestinian nationalism that claim the same territories and throughout this atavic conflict Israel has been accused of treating non-Israelis people as in the Soth African’s apartheid.

On both sides, have been recorded unlawful killings, that are crime of war, arbitrary detentions, many forms of discrimination, human trafficking, denial of humanitarian access, abuses and maiming of women and children, used as human shields and forced to be involved in military actions in an overall framework of rides, incitation campaigns and retaliations.

In his annual report on children and armed conflict, the UN Secretary General Guterres reported in June 2020 the omission from the “list of shame” of  States perpetrating these crimes, such as Saudi-led coalition, Yemen, Myanmar and also Israel, despite abuses in the occupied territories have been well-documented by UN. Human rights associations and organizations from all over the world are asking  this list be evidence-based, avoiding to coddle powerful countries.

The uprising of the turmoil in these strips of land are likely to escalate at a planetary level.   In front of what has been described by A.I. as an incoming “law of the jungle” after latest elections, this ngo is currently urging international community to strengthen the implementation of international law stressing, that any annexation of the occupied West Bank is nul and void. It’s also claiming an halt of the construction of Israeli illegal settlements and infrastructures in the OPT and all trades with them, decrying the Israeli attempts to undermine Palestinian human rights, including the right of return of Palestinian refugees and supporting ICC investigations and calls on governments to offer political and practical support to the Court over the Palestinian situation.

In fact, according to art.47 of the 4th Geneva Convention, protected people who are in occupied territories shall not be deprived of their rights as the result of the occupation neither by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the occupying powers, not by any annexation of whole or part of the occupied territories.

Moreover, it’s not clear what will be ruled out about citizenships and residency under this incorporation of lands. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu affirmed that Palestinian residents in the areas that will be annexed wouldn’t get Israeli citizenship.

Profiting from illegal blockade on Gaza and fragmentation of the population in the OPT, annexation would result in a mass-expropriation of private and agricultural Palestinian lands and home demolition, thus violating the right to adequate housing (in 2019 Israel demolished 617 Palestinian structures and evicted 899 people in the West Bank). The law of occupation prohibits demolitions if not necessary for military operations. Punishing demolitions are collective punishments, thus forbidden by international law as well as the transfer of prisoners in the occupying country, being in Israel occurring administrative detentions, with neither fair process nor accusations, of about 4600 people.

The PA (governing body of autonomous Palestinians regions) and the paramilitary  PLO called international community to impose sanctions against Israel and started boycotts and disinvestment, announcing that this Israeli expansion would face with the resistance of Palestinians in any forms, considering it as a “declaration of war” .

On the wave of the USA proposed “Deal of the Century”, an “International Conference on the Question of Palestine” was held last February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, gathering practitioners, academics and civil society, in order to thwart the phenomenon of unilateral actions and to implement the substantive exercise of inalienable rights in Palestine. In this occasion Member States of ASEAN were urged to continue their operations in the pursuit of justice and peace and was highlighted the uselessness of a new plan and the necessity of an effective execution of existing agreements and UN resolutions, based on the two-State formula.

More precisely, the 28 January Trump administration held a press conference in the White House, announcing a “peace to prosperity: a vision to improve the lives of the Palestinian and Israeli people” plan, that pleased to the new coalition government in Israeli. It proposed the incorporation of the existing Israeli settlements in West Bank, including Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem; Jerusalem as undivided capital of Israel; a territory for the future Palestine, including parts of West Bank, Gaza strip and some Jerusalem surrounding; linking of the Palestinian territories through new roads, bridges and tunnels; freezing for 4 years Israeli settlement construction; US embassy in Palestine; investment of $ 50 billion to build a new Palestine state.

The PA and the League of Arab States, among others, rejected the plan and under the mounting pressure of Tunisia and Indonesia, thereafter USA proposed many amendments.

Thus it’s crystal clear that lately  protests against the recently announced plan for annexation, proclaimed by Israel and sponsored by USA, and lockdown security measures against Covid-19 have dragged Palestinians in a hell of oppression and restrictions that considerably limit the freedom of civilians that are currently exacerbating further clashes and opposing resistance, regardless the ban of gathering for the pandemic and the quarantine imposition, being their lives at risk in any case.

The outbreak of coronavirus in 2019 propelled a common effort and a new opportunity of collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis in the attempt to enforce the Middle East peaceful process, being the watchword a strong cooperation on the ground and one at an international level. Nicholay Mlandenov, the Bulgarian Special Coordinator for the Middle East Process in the UN Security Council, stressed the “inspiring example” of cooperation in these lands, before the elections, in order to contain the spread of the virus and seized the moment to impact communities in order to make further steps toward peace and to reject unilateral decisions. In this perspective, UN has delivered over 1 million of aid items, such as protective equipment and test kits, for Palestinians hospitals and clinics, due to insufficient funding. Special Coordinator added that UN will do its utmost for the well-being and safety of Palestinians and Israelis, ensuring that no less than $137 million would be transferred to the region in the coming four months.

UN will move in this direction especially through the Middle East Quartet (composed of Russian Federation, USA, EU, UN), that see cooperating the world’s existent superpower countries and institutions involved in the pacification of these areas, its agencies (i.e. UNRWA and coordination office for Humanitarian Affairs -OCHA) and other international organizations, such as WHO.

In order to tackle the spread of the virus, Israeli government has approved a legislation for a partial lockdown and has increased restriction of movement of people and trade, exception done for health workers in Gaza strip, for special medical and humanitarian cases. Furthermore, it has imposed a curfew in the West Bank. It has also tactically allowed counter-terrorism surveillance technology to be used to track infections. On the other hand, an internal cooperation within Palestine, between Hamas and Fatah (in the PA) has been tightened.

Israel was one of the first countries to close its borders and imposed restrictions when the global pandemic first outburst and soon after PA followed its example, by adopting measures such as the suspension of. public prayers, although the mosques are still opened.

All over the world, many western countries, such as France and UK, but also countries in the Arab world, such as Gulf Arab states, are declaring and recognizing that, although their Israeli backing, this plan is occurring in open violation of international law, thus execrable, severely damaging and affecting human rights of Palestinians, not even ensuring the international minimum standard and the right of repatriation, compelling those who left their country to stay abroad.

The 1 July hundreds of Palestinians gathered in Gaza and West Bank against the annexation. The following day, Pope Francis summoned the US and Israel ambassadors for preventing an escalation of violence in these lands, reckoning that the state of Palestine and that of Israel have the same right “to exist and live in security, within international recognized borders”, discouraging unilateral actions.

The Pope and UN are, in fact, in search of an establishment that seems will never happen, trying to demonize the upcoming of a new world conflict, triggering an international alarm to stop this crusade and massacre of civilians. The Holy See recognized the State of Palestine in 2013, soon after followed the recognition by the UN with the status of non-Member observer State. Last March also the Muslim World League urged the moral duty of an interfaith partnership to overcome the crisis.

Israeli defence minister and alternate prime minister Gantz has announced that it would be desirable that the propaganded annexation would take place after the proclaimed state of emergency due to the coronavirus. In fact, the Palestinian ministry of health last week said that 2636 people have tested positive for Covid-19 compared with 1256 recorded a week ago, expressing the fear of a “second wave”of infections after the easing of the full lockdown since last May.

What furthermore is inflaming the crisis is the Palestinian economic dependence on Israel, especially for the 150.000 Palestinians working in Israel (5000 in Gaza) with official permit and about 60.000 work illegally in Gaza strip and West Bank. Their average daily income is 250 Israeli shekels (about $70 per day), so the adopted restrictions mean depriving hundreds of millions of dollars flowing for Palestinian market and a decline of Palestinian purchasing power due to the lack of liquidity, causing a reduction of 50% of the Palestinians civil servants wages. Moreover, the health measures imposed at Israeli airports, crossings and ports have impeded the arrival of imported products from Palestine, whose exportations have been banned, putting at risk the furniture of goods and foods. To get things worse OPEC continues to cut oil exports, holding up the prices. The World Bank reported in April that, if coronavirus crisis and its economic effects wouldn’t ease, the Palestinian economy will shrink by 7%, causing an unprecedented collapse.  Palestinian financial minister has already asked for a loan from Israel of 500 million Israeli shekels ($141 millions) per month until the end of the pandemic but it’s unlikely it could fulfill its obligations.

So, in conclusion, the economic downturn, the spread of Covid-19 and the paralysis of the both nationalisms, that claim the same lands under their religious auspices and believes, have highlighted the weakness of the international system in the Middle East, and in particular in Israel and Palestine, putting them in the hands of Trump’s American hegemonic policy of “America first”, consisting in the affirmation of its economic global power and its presence on the field in an anti-terrorist key of interpretation.

 As a matter of fact, although resonant speeches, has been revealed a consistent lack of democracy and effective protection of liberal values, especially from USA and UN on one hand, and through continuous terrorist attacks from Palestinian organizations recognized as terrorists by UN and EU such as i.e. Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, al.Aqsa Martyr Brigade and LFP, on the other

Bearing in mind that “terrorism” has been defined in 1994 by the UN as “criminal acts intended or calculating to provoke a state of terror in general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them”,  it’s clear that on both sides the destiny of innocent civilians, that are daily struggling simply for their livelihood are nowadays still put at risk.

In an economic strangulation and political entanglement, many Palestinian people are actually living in danger and facing violence; they are often forced, having no choice, to be enrolled in military corps, both terroristic or legally recognized, in order to avoid indigence, in a quest for revenge and social redemption.

 Once again, in the slowness and inadequacy of political summits in the control rooms of power, through the diplomatic meetings and clumsy changing strategies in the international arena, long distant from the dramatic reality ground, this is one of the saddest quarrels in which are always the helpless battered people that continues on suffering and paying for economic giants damages and interferences and that are far to be resolved in a lack of a clear direction and  solutions for a long-lasting peace and security at the four corners of the world.

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Russia in the Middle East: “Be with Us – and Remain Yourself”

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Discussions about a country’s soft power are generally triggered by foreign policy crises or an urgent need to renew the institutions responsible for projecting such power. The recent controversy in expert and journalistic circles about the effectiveness of Russian soft power in the Middle East is an example of both. As it turns out, the theoretical achievements of domestic and foreign researchers in this field do not always work in practice. Many of those with an interest in soft influence and public diplomacy understand how all these things should work theoretically in foreign affairs and even often provide competent recommendations to relevant agencies. But Russian soft power, if its critics are to be believed, is still more soft than powerful.

A “silver bullet” often proposed for resolving Russia’s problems in this area is an appeal to the American experience. Indeed, American practices are often seen as being rather successful in promoting US national interests and a positive image of America. Yet this is only partially true: not everything the Americans are doing (especially in the Middle East) is effective, and not everything is accessible to or appropriate for Russia. At the same time, if Russia wants to conduct a quality audit of its own approaches, it would benefit from reflecting critically on the US experience of projecting soft power in the Middle East.

Dialectics of Country and State: US Soft Power in the Middle East

The soft power tools used by the United States in the Middle East are not that different from their activity in other regions: Westernisation of elites, educational and cultural exchange programmes, support for civil society and some media, and promotion of the English language and American mass culture. Given the diverse regional specifics of the Middle East, the US has to vary how it approaches each subregion and specific country.

A concept the Americans have had to consider over their many years of working in the region is the “dialectics of country and state”: while rejecting American government policy, the locals readily accept American education, culture and commercial products. In practice, of course, there are many shades to this formula: the anti-Americanism of the ordinary people in many Middle Eastern societies is generally boosted by US-led military campaigns or exacerbation of Arab-Israeli tensions. In such situations, rejection of state policy is projected on to associated cultural images, and then those dissatisfied with American politics break windows at McDonald’s, burn the “stars and stripes” or defiantly boycott American pop products (though not for long).

In the same dialectics, the effects of America’s soft power are offset by US hard power. The United States government and state-affiliated funds invest billions in public diplomacy and educational exchanges, in development of civil society and the media, but Washington’s military actions often negate its own efforts to win public sympathy in the region.

The goal of US public diplomacy in the Middle East is to project an appealing image of the United States as an open, free and democratic society of equal opportunity. The US seeks to convince the target groups that they are not the enemy but rather contributors to strengthening regional peace and security. Given the region’s demographic and socio-cultural characteristics, the United States focuses on working with young people. It is important for America to create, if not a whole generation, then at least a thick stratum of US sympathisers among intellectuals in various fields and professions who might become public opinion leaders in the future. Plus, they do not necessarily have to be pro-American. It is enough for them to have empathy for the US, which could ensure less resistance by the “social material.” There is no direct correlation, of course, between “empathy” and “non-resistance” and this can be more complicated in practice. Yet this is the aim of the techniques used; how well they work will depend on the particular recipient.

All these features of American soft power policy were more relevant before Donald Trump came to the Oval Office, even though his predecessors had already highlighted a few flaws in the effectiveness of American soft power.

The question “Why do they hate us?” was seriously discussed by experts in the United States after the tragedy on 11 September 2001. The main reasons identified at that time were “intrusive missionary work” and “persistent imposition of ideals.” Less than two years later, the George Bush Jr. administration decided to invade Iraq. Seventeen years passed and it took a few more military adventures, unsuccessful for America and disastrous for the region, to finally make sure that such approaches trigger only rejection and resistance.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave the United States a chance to conquer the Middle East — especially its youth — by non-military methods. The image of Barack Obama as “the opposite of Bush” and his famous Cairo speech, among other things, gave hope for a change in US politics in the region. However, all these hopes were destroyed by the Arab Spring, the NATO military campaign in Libya, and the zigzags of US politics in Syria and Iraq. Some felt that Obama was unable to resist the American tradition of replacing “bad guys” by force. The trick of leading from behind in Libya did not help in this respect either: the United States, along with France and Great Britain, was considered equally involved in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Others, on the contrary, were disappointed by what they thought was Obama’s insufficient determination to support opposition groups and rebels.

One way or another, the US position in the region has been shaken, as the trust in Washington and the perception of its “reliability” have been undermined. Disappointment intensified during the Democratic President’s second term, when the traditional US allies in the region, Israel and the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, also became dissatisfied with Obama’s policies, including his attitude toward Iran.

Trump has managed to reverse this trend somewhat: his campaign against Iran made the Israelis and the Saudis more optimistic. This American president is very popular in Israel, and the Gulf has also found a business-like approach to negotiating with him. Today the US prefers to “strangle” objectionable Middle Eastern regimes with sanctions instead of overthrowing their rulers by striking with the dagger of the military. This process is more time-consuming but less painful in terms of public perception, which means it combines more harmoniously with soft influence. To a certain extent, Donald Trump’s attitude to the projection of soft power resembles the philosophy of the Green Berets during the Vietnam War: those in the military who disagreed with President Lyndon Johnson’s directive to “win the hearts and minds” of the enemy came up with their own half-joking slogan: “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

At the same time, the picture of “Trump’s America” created every day by liberal mainstream publications in the United States, the behaviour and decisions of the president himself, his anti-Muslim bans, and his image as an enemy of Muslims and a friend of Israel have done a lot to undermine those elements of a favourable perception that had persisted among the region’s population for decades.

Together with the political vacillations, the United States has demonstrated in the region in recent years, this cocktail has amplified the very same anti-American sentiments. Even so — and this is the fruit of decades of painstaking soft influence work by America — they have not completely turned their backs on the United States. For many in the region, the US is still the most coveted partner. They simply expect more from America itself, even if they do not always clearly articulate what “more” means and America is not sure whether it wants to provide this “more.”

Today, the United States is redefining where the Middle East lies among its foreign policy priorities and rethinking its global role in general. Many soft-power programmes that have worked for decades are now being phased out. Traditional US soft power instruments are being “weaponised.” American authorities increasingly do not bother to camouflage certain initiatives with considerations of “building an open society.” One specific example from 2018 is when Congress required the US-funded Voice of America to make its coverage of Iranian politics more aggressive and critical. In this sense, we are witnessing the emergence of a new era in US public diplomacy, including in the Middle East. As is usual in public diplomacy, the results of what the Americans are doing (or not doing) now will only become apparent in several years’ time.

The “Post-Syria” Middle East: A Chance for Russia?

The erosion of the regional elites’ confidence in the Obama administration and in the USA’s ability to protect them has caused many governments in the region to change their perception of America as omnipotent, even though it remains the most influential external player. Russia’s “return” to the Middle East has boosted but did not trigger this trend.

Russia has not supplanted the United States in the region, though this might be the perception following the success of Russia’s campaign in Syria. Moscow’s current presence in the region often affords a more rapid and convincing response, building the image of a “smoother operator.” Even so, the heady illusions in the wake of the triumph could throw Russia back to square one. Many regional governments are trying to use the opposition between Russia and the United States to pull ahead in their own games, often playing the Russia card at the table with Washington.

Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict provides a vivid backdrop against which the American soft power agenda in the region is being assessed today. By engaging in a critical discussion of the growing role of Russia in the Middle East compared with the “withering” of American influence, Western political circles are reflecting on the crisis of their own American model and the image of the US in recent years and sending an implicit appeal to American elites to do what is needed to update this model.

In turn, Russia is gradually moving toward a “post-Syria” foreign policy phase in the Middle East and to a “post-military” phase in Syria itself. Questions like “Moscow has won the war in Syria but can it win the world?” have become commonplace on all western and many Russian discussion platforms. Indeed, it is one thing to monetise the image of a “strong player” yet quite another to convert it into the image of a “caring power.”

In the former area, some strategy contours are visible: increasing the number of weapons supply contracts, establishing military and technical cooperation with a number of states in the Middle East and North Africa, posing as a mediator in key conflict areas, etc. As for the latter, there are individual campaigns, such as the delivery of humanitarian aid to states in a difficult COVID-19 situation, but a more systemic approach is needed to organise soft power efforts.

In the meantime, it most important to demonstrate equal ability in waging war and building peace. In the broader sense, this is a test of avoiding the very trap of the “dialectics of state and country,” where the image of a “cruel Russia bombing hospitals” cultivated by geopolitical competitors nullifies any efforts made to project soft power.

“Be with Us — and Remain Yourself”: the Principles of Russian Soft Power

An inventory of soft power goals in foreign policy and of the tools for achieving them should begin with at least two things. First, we should set a relatively low bar for expectations, especially in the short term. Second, we need to recognise the objective limitations.

Russia obviously lacks the ability to organise exchange programmes comparable to those offered by the United States. Yet, Russia is able — and has the relevant experience — to open up its education market, especially in specific strategic specialties, to promising young people from the Middle East. This could involve various forms of assistance for their studies in Russia, followed by career support at home. Tomorrow’s elites in the region are not always formed from among graduates of Western universities.

It is hardly worth counting seriously on the cultural “Russification” of considerable parts of third country populations. Russian culture is, by nature, more “elitist” than American mass culture. Products of the latter are a priori targeted on diverse segments of the population and are almost universally digestible. In addition, Americans use other tools, such as their influence in the international economy and ability to market brands properly and appealingly either by offering accessibility and simplicity or, if appropriate, pushing others aside. Perhaps it would make sense to adopt some of these tricks?

A change is needed in the very approach to organising Russian centres of science and culture abroad. The notorious “Soviet touch” cannot compete with what the Americans, Europeans, or even Turks offer to the region’s population. Assuming the traditional specifics are a projection of nostalgia for the Soviet past on the part of some of Russian officials and diplomats, we cannot expect third country populations to share this nostalgia. Soft power is not a way to maintain historical inertia but an opportunity to direct passionate young people, tomorrow’s public opinion leaders in their own countries, to follow the right imperatives.

Discussions of soft power resources generally avoid the obvious: the basis of soft power is, first of all, how well things are going in your own house. It is difficult to call to combat lawlessness and injustice in international relations until there are clear victories over similar social ills on the domestic front. It is not easy to get nations and societies to embrace your culture, language and education, while you are condoning their decline at home, be it deliberately or through negligence. You cannot expect a third party to adopt your “thought codes” if your predominant attitude is to “chase the moment”, when what matters is that the budget is spent and an event ticked off the list. One reason “balalaika diplomacy” has been replicated so much in foreign policy is because it is stereotypical and therefore understandable, so seen as a quick, lazy and supposedly effective (though not always cheap) way of doing things.

It is important to understand that most elites and the ordinary populace in the Middle East base their impressions of Russia and assessments of its foreign policy on reporting in the Western media and materials from British and American think tanks. Since the collapse of the USSR, foreign policy information support has become one of the most flawed areas. Only in recent years have institutions started appearing in Russia that are at least somehow capable of making up for Moscow’s political and reputational losses over the past decades, telling about Russian politics directly, presenting the Russian narrative without distortions introduced by foreign propaganda, and attracting an increasing number of people in the Middle East who are interested in Russia.

In this work, among other things, it is crucial to make the right choice of communication strategy in each specific case: sometimes, Russia needs to create and consolidate its positive image (Syria, Egypt), at other times it has to improve it (Syria, the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf), and at yet others, it has still to “repackage” Soviet or imperial “codes” (Iraq, Iran, Algeria).

The humanitarian area is another complex and emotionally taxing way to the hearts of the target audience. It is hardly worth the effort if the country’s public diplomacy is focused primarily on quick and short-term public relations. Yet, in a situation where some powers are depriving important international organisations of financing while others are using the economic difficulties faced by states to buy up their assets in order to penetrate deeper into their economic and political structure, work in this direction can cultivate the image of a “caring power.” This is an opportunity to literally saturate the human dimension of the relations between the donor country and the population of the recipient country. There is already an understanding of how to build humanitarian policy in this direction correctly. It is important to preserve and direct this impulse in the right direction in practice.

Finally, a frequent criticism leveled at the Russian projection of soft power is the lack of any pronounced ideology in Russia’s foreign policy. Those who disagree believe that Russia does have a quasi-ideology for these purposes: for some, it is “conservatism,” for others “pure pragmatism,” both of which can work in the Middle East. Others, in contrast, are convinced that ideology confounds unnecessarily the freedom of foreign policy manoeuvre. They talk rather about the need for “one big idea” that can “anchor” the entire foreign policy strategy. Russia supposedly lacks such an idea, while each of the US, the European Union, China, Turkey and Iran do have one. And if the United States’ soft power policy seems to say: “do as we do — and become us,” then the EU’s logic is “do as we do — and be with us.” Russia’s several years of activity in the Middle East might allow us to formulate such an idea today: “be with us — and remain yourself.” This idea reflects the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the Middle East states, on the one hand, and an orientation on cooperation, on the other; that is, without encroachment on the traditions, values, culture and political systems of these countries.

In general, soft power is often less costly than “hard” power and depends largely on the quality of local agents. Unlike military contracts, it does not bring quick profit, but investment in soft power is denominated in a different currency: people, their loyalty and gratitude (even if not expressed), their acceptance of your narrative, your vision of the future (if any) and the “thought code” of how to make this future real. If all these are available, the projection of soft power can be a valuable long-term investment.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Al-Kadhimi’s government in its first test

Diyari Salih

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On June 26, 2020, Iraq’s prime minister, Mostafa al-Kadhimi (MK), demanded the counter-terrorism forces head to a place located on the outskirts of Baghdad to arrest some persons working with Kataib Hezbollah (KH), one of the factions operating under the umbrella of the popular mobilization units (PMU), under the pretext of threatening Iraq’s national security.

While some observers deemed that decision as an irrational adventure, the others saw it as a significant step to entrench the notion of the state and to determine the nature of the relation among different actors affecting its functional structure. this piece is trying to shed light on the consequences of that move and its futuristic dimensions.

The first point we can mention in this regard relates to the huge public information capacity of KH. Through which, it managed to create its fabricated story as to that event. It was able to guide public opinion according to the information it offered on social media. In return, the governmental side was not prepared well to deal with the possible implications of that campaign. That put al-Kadhimi in severe trouble. 

The second point affirms that that critical moment was witnessing very dangerous signs. Many of KH’s leaders admitted they encouraged their followers to raid the Green Zone (GZ), the place where the most important governmental headquarters are located. They could control its basic entrances, and the government was under real siege. That was similar to various military coups that Iraq had seen in the past. This time, however, this coup did not become reality. PMU issued its directions for KH’s fighters to withdraw from there to end that tension.

The third case we have to state is questioning the tale of liberating GZ. Different officials belonging to KH tweeted and noted that another special force came to do that job. That force also belongs to KH. That movement exposed the military complicated structure of KH. Furthermore, it assures that the government does not have any ability to contain such actions or curb its effects. Therefore, MK must have been aware of the dangers of that decision before going to apply it.

In Iraq, it seems that we need more focus on how the relations between al-Kadhimi and KH’s leaders will develop. Interestingly, they no longer deal with him as a prime minister, nor do they hesitate of using insulting words against him. For example, they affirmed that they enforced him to free their detainees and to guarantee that he would never target them again. The tweets they published during those days proved they have since started to consider him an enemy. 

To affirm the rhetoric of confrontation with the state, KH released some degrading pictures. while celebrating their release, the detainees were stepping on the pictures of MK. Such a scene, as expected, sends contradictory messages that will restrain the symbolic power of the government. It will also mobilize people negatively against the law. It forms a direct challenge to the security decision of MK. in the same context, a widespread campaign of charges appeared against writers and commentators supporting MK’s step, classifying them as being clients of the US in Iraq.

It seems there a political and military confrontation that will take place between MK and KH. PMU administrators believe that the government wants to target their military capabilities. This will be an existential threat to their future. Hence, those leaders have many times warned him of dreaming about achieving this goal.    

They ignore that MK had himself said that he would not target PMU. Instead, he would launch a war against some other groups whom he accused of doing dirty business, exploiting the name of PMU, and putting Iraq’s future at risk. He was trying to send a clear message to them saying ” He can distinguish between these factions well. The government will only respect and protect who is working under its rules and laws”

The discourse of war has become clear in the statements of some parties. KH has declared that it will not hand its guns off to the government under no circumstance. This is a real challenge to the Iraqi state and its sovereignty too. This affirms that a hot dispute will happen between them in the coming months.

KH has started to look at some governmental institutions as a competitor that must not be allowed to play a vital role in the future. It is stating that Counter-Terrorism Force (CTF) is a tool in the hands of MK, who is seen from its standpoint as an agent to the US. KH emphasized that MK and CTF are paving the ground to execute their suspicious plans that will undermine PMU. This might lead to an uncontrolled military clash between them. To freeze such a conflict between KH and CTF, MK brought them together in a special meeting to directly talk about the upshots of this scenario.

In the last days, there was an extensive talk about the Shiite division towards the state and its philosophy. There are two opposing views on this matter. The first one is represented by the Shiite rational attitude of Syaid Ali al-Sistani, who has consistently prompted people to respect and obey the state and its law so long as it is fair. The second position advocated by the others who want to create a radical state. Some writers say that KH attempts to be the patron of this model. This will result in placing MK in an untenable position, and Iraqis’ dream of having a civil state will also be destroyed.  

KH still reiterates that MK is embroiled with others, especially the US, in the operation of assassination Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This will remain an important source of determining its interaction with this government. Therefore, it is predicted that KH will consider any decision taken by MK against its interests as a part of a broad conspiracy trying to end its presence in Iraq.  KH will count on this troubled relation to agitate people against MK. In the forthcoming period, KH might think of exploiting this matter to enhance its role politically, socially, and electorally.

Though difficult to foresee the mechanisms of settling these problems between KH and the government, it is clear that there are some efforts now being made to put an end to this confrontation. Thus, MK must be careful in dealing with this case. He must announce his convictions regarding how to solve this problem and how to consolidate the role of the state. He must convince public opinion that the institution of PMU will obey the Iraqi state’s commands. In return, KH must help him to achieve the Iraqi national security strategy, including not targeting the foreign missions by Katyusha rockets.

We are in need to produce an approach that can help the Iraqi state in its endeavors to face such turning points. We, as Iraqis, dread that such confrontations might lead to more regional polarization on the Iraqi ground. We apprehend that civil war might also return to hit the Iraqi cities. Hence, all actors participating in the new Iraqi political system must stay away from the politics of violence and counter-violence. The sacrifices of our nation in the sacred struggle it waged against Da’ish must be preserved. This cannot be reached without buttressing the state and its reforms to be practically engaged in the international order. Without meets these conditions, the state will be in the wind, and extensively social chaos will be prevalent. Iraq does not worth like this destiny.

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