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US alliance with Gulf Decays as UAE Strengthens Ties with China and Russia

Marcus Salles

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The United States has stayed as staunched to its allies as it has remained to its foes. However, where the rivalry has been equally retaliated, some of its partners chose to maintain strategic relations. It won’t be a misconjecture to say that one of the most influential nations in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been that ally.

The Emirati sands have recently blown in a different direction altogether, as it began purchasing Chinese weapons, creating bloodbath in the MENA region. Besides, some secret meetings at Seychelles — involving Trump administration, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Russians — also influenced the US electoral process. The meddling not just hurt the US’ national interests, but is also believed to potentially change the American perception about Democrats in future elections.

Before the partnership between these three nations, the US was the sole influential player. Going back to the early 1970s, the US-UAE relations grew into one of the greenest trees in the global garden of alliances. Besides, the major benefits have fallen into the laps of the UAE, as its de facto ruler MbZ shrewdly expanded his empire of influence by following the American lead.

The formal diplomatic relation between the two countries was established in 1972, and the bilateral cooperation has since turned stronger. Both have been partners in defence, non-proliferation, trade and law enforcement.

With vast oil and gas reserves, the UAE became the single largest exporter to the US in the MENA region. Washington, on its part, provided protection from external aggression, especially Iran, with which both share a common rivalry.

Prince MbZ used American expertise for its military training and former spies to set up its intelligence service. From 2007-2010, Prince Mohammed spent huge amounts on acquiring weapons — 80 F-16 fighters, 62 French Mirage jets and 30 Apache combat helicopters. This was more than those received by other five Gulf monarchies put together.

In the later years, the US began deploying various aircrafts at Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. In 2014, the United States began supplying more fighter jets as well as bombs to assist the UAE’s mission in Iraq and Syria. Even today, America is backing the Emirates’ intervention in both Yemen and Libya. It still provides weapons, intelligence and other support to the Saudi-UAE led coalition, causing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

In 2018 fiscal year, the US supplied more than half of its arms to the Middle East. Out of Pentagon’s total foreign sales of $55 billion, more than $30 billion worth of weapons and other military products were sold to Saudi and the UAE, in particular.

Moreover, a number of US Officials have provided such militarily or intelligence assistance to the UAE in the past. However, many have also crossed moral and legal boundaries in order to aid the Gulf monarchy. A fine example would be a CIA veteran and former US assistant secretary of defense, Mary Beth Long. In 2017, the HuffPost revealed Long’s questionable links to the UAE ambassador to US, Yousef Al Otaiba. This was revealed through leaked emails.

The US official, Mary Beth Long, is also known for having connections with general Khalifa Haftar, during Mohammed Gaddafi’s era. At the time, she was heading a group of US companies lobbying a sceptical Congress to sell weapons to Libya.

In return, the Gulf nation has not just supplied oil to Washington, but also became the first Middle Eastern country to assist the US-led mission in Afghanistan by sending its troops. In 2003, Mohammed bin Zayed willingly deployed 1,200 soldiers belonging to the Presidential Guard forces. The Emirati troops reportedly remained in Afghanistan till 2014. Moreover, the UAE also made its military facilities available for America and allied use, after the September 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda in the US.

Along the same lines as US, even the Gulf nation opted unethical practices of supporting its only friend in the White House, Donald Trump, during the 2016 presidential elections. Apart from their role in Russian meddling, Otaiba and Emirati businessman Rashid al-Malik allegedly intervened in Trump’s May 2016 speech on energy policy. The links were revealed through the emails they exchanged with Thomas J Barrack Jr, the top campaign fund-raiser and close friend of Trump.

However, the alliance tree is now on the verge of decaying, as the UAE’s interests are now spreading in varied directions. US is no longer its sole focus. The UAE has remained clear in terms of its needs, maintaining strategic ties with the US and its greatest foes— China and Russia.

China Injures US in Silence

China has been standing up to President Trump and America in multiple areas, especially in the trade sphere. While Trump continues to throw sanctions at the Asian nation, China’s confidence remains unwavering. China has been working on attaining greater support from the rest of the world. It has increasingly been successful through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Along with African, European and Asian countries and the US rival Russia, the UAE is also set to play a big role in China’s BRI.

On April 27, 2019, the Dubai ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, concluded their partnership in the BRI. He announced that the deal would potentially boost existing $53 billion bilateral trade to $70 billion in 2020.

China has not just retaliated in the trade war, but has also strategically established a strong foothold in the UAE. Dubai’s tribute to the Chinese New Year from the past two years, celebrating it with a nine-days ‘Light Up’ show in Burj Khalifa, is a testimony to their growing camaraderie.

In December 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed visited China, which came as a major leap in relations of the two countries. He signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to launch a significant investment cooperation fund worth $10 billion.

The relations further strengthened when Xi visited the UAE in July 2018, and the diplomatic relations turned from a mere bilateral cooperation to a comprehensive strategic partnership. During the three-days visit, the Chinese leader also met the Dubai ruler, along with Abu Dhabi’s MbZ. Besides, the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan awarded Xi the Order of Zayed— the Emirates’ highest civil decoration.

The two nations announced 13 agreements and MoUs, which also included the approval for first Chinese state-owned financial services firm to set up in Abu Dhabi Global Market. Besides, the China National Petroleum Corporation and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company also agreed to explore joint business opportunities.

This year, Crown Prince MbZ visited Beijing for the first time since 2015, along with a considerable delegation of government and businesses. The three-day visit from July 21-23 advanced the relations between the two nations in more practical ways.

Leaders of the two nations announced to work towards increasing bilateral trade volume to $200 billion by 2030. Besides, a total of 16 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) were signed, aiming to strengthen cooperation across several sectors.

The visit also induced a major change in Arab culture, where the UAE became first Gulf nation to include Chinese language in their national education system.

China has also been facilitating the UAE’s needs better than America, when it comes to the Emirates’ ongoing missions in different countries of the MENA region. Top security partner to the UAE, the States’ Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy restricts the Pentagon from supplying armed drone technology to its Arab ally. On the other hand, China has displayed its weaponized drones in the market under its “no questions asked” policy.

Statistics reveal that the UAE’s defense spending grew by 10.8 per cent in a year— from $19.3 billions in 2017 to $21.4 billions in 2018. The UAE first purchased a Chinese drone, Wing Loong I, in 2016. More than a year later, in early 2018, the purchase of an upgraded and much deadlier version, Wing Loong II, was reported.

There were multiple reasons for the UAE to opt Chinese drones, particularly since America, under the Obama administration, denied to sell their armed UAVs to the Arab ally. Besides, Chinese weapons were easily available at much cheaper prices. The estimated cost of Wing Loong is about $1 million, while the US-made counterpart is sold at about $5 million.

In July 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese strikes and surveillance drones were being used by both UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war. A former Pentagon official and president of the US-UAE Business Council, Danny Sebright, stated that the Emiratis bought Chinese drones and equipped them with South African laser targeting systems. They have used them to guide missiles from planes for strikes in Yemen, he said.

According to the satellite images, the UAE has also used these drones to support Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who is in a battle of control against the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli.

While the US-UAE weapon trade cords were gradually rifting, the American President recently decided to win back the confidence of the Middle Eastern allies. On May 23, the Trump administration announced to sell $8.1 billion worth of munitions, aircraft parts, and other supplies to Saudi Arabia and UAE, without congressional approval. However, on July 17, the House joined the Senate and voted to block the arms sales.

UAE has also been engaging with a controversial military contractor, Erik Prince, the bother of US Secretary of Education, Betsy DaVos. He is allegedly the common link between China and the UAE. Prince is accused of training the militia for the ethnic cleansing of the Uighur Muslims in China and training the Emirati troops for showdown against the Houthis in Yemen.

China has also defeated the US in providing artificial intelligence technologies to the UAE. While such a technology faces escalated scrutiny in the States, China’s Hikvision and Huawei have been marketing biometric surveillance systems in the Gulf nation, which has made heavy investments in surveillance technology and has been using cellphone hacking software to spy journalists and dissidents.

Moreover, several Chinese firms have also been making large investments in Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD), over the last two years. Earlier this month, the East Hope Group of China also proposed an investment of $10 million, which would be implemented in three stages over 15 years.

The Rising Russia-UAE Axis

Russia has been another significant rival of the United States and an emerging major ally of the UAE. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, often have telephone conversations. In June this year, MbZ received a phone call from Putin. The two leaders reportedly discussed their relationship and joint co-ordination on international issues of mutual interest.

In June 2018, the Abu Dhabi ruler visited Moscow with a delegation for two days. Apart from discussing cooperation, the two nations also signed a declaration of strategic partnership in all domains, including political, economic, cultural and security.

MbZ had stated that it was crucial to “maintain a continuous coordination with Russia on regional issue to ensure security and stability”.

The Russian-UAE links were also highlighted in 2016, during a secret meeting in Seychelles that centered around influencing the US electoral process. Special counsel Robert Mueller, in his report, has mentioned the connivance between the Trump administration, MbZ, Russia and Erik Prince aimed at ensuring victory for Donald Trump.

Russia, too, has been supplying weapons to the UAE, indirectly backing the Emirates’ interests in war-torn nations like Yemen and Libya.

Russia is one of the three global producers of advanced air superiority fighters, along with China and the US, and the UAE was significantly interested in acquiring high-end fighter jets. Among the three producers, Washington has not produced a high-end fourth-generation heavy fighter, restricted the export of its fourth generation platform, the F-15C, to three clients, and has imposed a complete ban on the export of its fifth-generation platform, the F-22.

In the past, the UAE has constantly raised requests for F-35 aircrafts to the US, which have been rebuffed since 2011. China, on the other hand, remained unwilling to sell off its own air superiority platforms. Because of that, Russia became a monopoly in fourth-generation air superiority fighters, such as the Su-30 and Su-35.

In February 2017, Russia signed an agreement to sell multiple Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jets to the UAE, and help it develop a fifth generation platform for its Air Force. At the time, the Gulf nation also awarded a $708 million contract for anti-armor missiles to the Russian agency Rosoboron export, during the IDEX 2017.

The growing partnership between the UAE and Russia were believed to be the Emirates’ way of gaining US concessions on F-35s and other possible transactions, which according to the Congressional Research Service could have become possible due to the US concerns regarding Russia-UAE arms dealings.

The concerns slightly proved to be true on April 15 this year, when the US deployed the F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters to Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE. The aircraft costs about $90 million and could not be redacted by radar. Besides, on April 30, the Emirates also conducted airstrikes on a Daesh tunnel network in Iraq, using the US fighter jets for the first time.

The relationship between Russia and the UAE is enhancing at a greater pace. The trade between the two nations increased by nearly 35 per cent in two years – from around $161 million in 2015 to $217 in 2017.

Earlier this month, the Russian Energy Minister, Alexander Novak, met the UAE’s minister of state, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, running the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), to discuss cooperation in LNG projects in Moscow.

While the Trump administration is indulged in a conflict with China and Russia, these powerful global nations have been finding ways to establish strong relations with the Gulf. Several media reports have stated that it is crucial for the Pentagon to develop weapons, since both its rivals are developing hypersonic capabilities that can potentially defeat conventional anti-missile defense systems.

However, weaponry is not the sole area that is slipping from the hands of the US. Trade, energy, investments, diplomatic as well as cooperative relations, have also enhanced between the Gulf monarchy and the US foes – Russia and China. 

The UAE has been defying America by establishing stronger relations with both China and Russia. While the expanding distance with the allies is often blamed on the American policies, it could also be associated to the UAE’s nature of perceiving ties, which apparently strengthens strategic partnerships with countries facilitating its interests without a hitch.

A political analyst from Portsmouth, UK, with a specialization in politics from Middle East diaspora. A political science doctorate in modern liberalism and conservatism, emphasizing on the human rights and political connect constrained to a regional situation. Presently working as an activist and syndicated columnist.

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Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?

Mohammed Nosseir

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“You are betraying your country by exposing its defects!” is a common accusation made by the sycophants to the ruling regime in Egypt who have managed to well situated themselves in our society simply by blindly praising the ruler’s policies. Apparently, these sycophants place a higher value on the privileges that they have gained to living in a truly advanced nation. In fact, the real betrayers of any given authoritarian nation are those who justify this immoral ruling mechanism for their own personal gain.  

Despotism is the evilest ruling mechanism ever devised; apart from its cruelty and unfairness, it works on inflating the ruler’s ego by mirroring his thoughts that are always passionately endorsed by his flatterers, regardless of their merits! Meanwhile, the ruler’s manipulation of the entire political sphere impairs the state’s ability to detect and correct its blunders. Concurrently, the harsh and inhuman treatment of the state’s critics, which includes threats to their personal lives, results in spreading fear throughout the entire society.

A successful strategy for running a country ruled by a tyrannical government is to enable ignorant citizens to dominate the state media exclusively, thus empowering them to express their opinions on a much wider scale than knowledgeable citizens. This approach consequently creates significant friction between knowledgeable and ignorant citizens, resulting in the polarization of the entire nation. The state methodically fuels this process by labeling the mediocre as loyal citizens and accusing its critics of treason.

The privileging of sycophants financially, along with advancing their power and upscaling their status, have prompted many Egyptians to join this beneficial club, which prerequisites praising superiors and justifying their faults, thus compensating for the natural dullness and incompetence of the flatterers. Meanwhile, the state’s critics who demand freedom and stand by their values are aware that they are engaged in a long-lasting battle and are risking their lives for generations to come!

In fact, sycophants are the weakest link in the state’s ruling dynamics. They hypocritically heap intense praise on the security apparatus who sacrifice their lives to defend our nation – but do their utmost to ensure that their youngsters abandon their military duty; just one facet of their deceitful conduct. Sycophantic behavior and false testimony are the most sinful acts in Islam; yet they have become, ironically, a habitual pattern of behavior in our social norms.  

That Egypt needs to be ruled by an Iron-fist is a common argument put forth by the flatterers. It is translated into applying harsh measures to critics and laxity toward lawbreakers – a proposition that reflects the low moral values espoused by flatterers to secure their status. The policy of maximum repression adopted by the current ruling regime might be successful in controlling society; however, it has certainly contributed to an escalation of terrorism activities by political Islamists against the military apparatus.

In my former party, the Egyptian Democratic Front, a few executive party members used to instantly report our internal discussions to the State Security apparatus. In addition totheir immoral conduct and betrayal of their peers, they used to enhance their ratting out by exacerbating our opposing political stands. I argued, at that time, for either offering those ratters a crash course on “minutes-taking” or inviting the State Security apparatus to participate in our meetings to better learn about our viewpoints.

“Cairo is a dirty city” – a painful remark that I occasionally hear from international visitors to our capital. The Egyptian State will never be able to manipulate the perception of millions of diversified tourists who visit Cairo yearly, but we can easily work to bring order to our city and live in a hygienic place. The same applies to other qualities of life such as freedom, dignity and justice; we need to highlight deficiencies in these areas to be able to advance our nation.  

President Al Sisi has a clear desire to be a remarkable leader; he believes that expanding our roads and building new flyovers will make Egypt an advanced nation and that these developments will be credited to his legacy. The president is unaware that the future of our country will be written and judged by the youths of today, who are extremely angry with him due to his policy of demolishing humanity and freedom, compounded by his inability to create decent jobs for youngsters.

Egypt is currently confronting a number of complex internal and external challenges, including an economic slowdown, a civil war on our eastern borders, a potential water shortage due to the filling of Ethiopian GRED and rising unemployment. All of these challenges, and many more, will simply be intensified by our deep polarization, further weakening the state. The sycophants’ deliberate misleading of Egypt concerning these challenges is dragging our nation downward, transforming us into a fragile state.

Advancing an old-fashioned country like Egypt requires honest citizens who have bold ideas and enough courage to implement their ideas. These qualities are found more among knowledgeable citizens and critics of the state who are already sacrificing for their country; large numbers of them are spending their best years in prison simply for having voiced their opinions. Modernizing Egypt will require our president to unite our nation, appointing well-educated citizens to key positions and completely discarding state sycophants.

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Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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