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Undestanding the Gulf States: The European Perspective

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Mitchell Belfer is President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre, a Rome-based organization that is engaged in building political and economic bridges between European countries and the Gulf states. Mr. Belfer is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Terrorism and Security at the Metropolitan University Prague (Czech Republic) and Editor-in-Chief of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies. He also sits on the Steering Committee of the Global Institute for Cybersecurity Technologies among other editorial, research, and scientific boards.

What is the mission of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre and why was it established?

We were founded in 2015, and I am the founder of the organization. Basically, after 10 years of working as an academic — I was the head of the Department of International Relations at the Metropolitan University of Prague — I saw that there was really a gap, not very much work was done in terms of outreach and trying to really create mechanisms of better understanding between civil society groups and between scholars in the Gulf and Europe. Most importantly, there was also a gap between decision-makers and practitioners of politics. Of course, there are national institutes in Europe that are related to the Middle East and vice versa, but I thought that an outreach center that does think tank work as well was something very much needed and in 2014 we set up a kind of process of dialogue to prepare the groundwork. Since then, we have hosted an assortment of activities: assisted with delegations, we have done events in Brussels, London, Paris, Prague, and of course, Rome. We have helped the European Parliament in terms of understanding different militia groups, from ISIS to Hezbollah. We have done work together with key leaders in Europe and the Middle East to try to establish contact points between them. This week we are moving to a different area a little bit — women’s empowerment in Europe.

Which Gulf states are considered to be the key partners of the EU? Which countries in the region have closer relationships with Europe and why?

I think there is diversity in security policy in Europe and the Gulf. The EU has a specific relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), they have been working on a free trade agreement for some 18 years and it is still not complete. But relations to the EU members are very engaged and the Arab Gulf states are very close to Europe. In terms of the trend, Europe is increasingly engaging with Saudi Arabia in terms of security, in an assortment of economic projects, religious affairs and in infrastructural development as well. I think that Saudi Arabia is going to play a much more important role in the European policy in the years ahead. Bahrain is a small island country, but it is also very important strategically. Britain has a naval facility there, and the United States which binds a lot all Europe together, especially under the aegis of NATO, also have a facility in Bahrain. Bahrain is also the most tolerant and open country in the region. Kuwait is another example of quite close partnership with the EU and the new delegation to Kuwait is an indication of their relationship. The UAE too is allied to nearly all EU states.

Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. In your opinion, are these claims grounded? How do you assess the efforts taken by the Qatari government to counter terrorism financing?

Qatar is a major financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood and fractions of the Muslim Brotherhood are very close to terrorism and radicalization. Some Muslim Brotherhood groups are championing all kinds of fringe groups like ISIS. Qatar is not signing over cheques directly to ISIS, it is signing them to Muslim Brotherhood cells who are aligned in ideology and strategy to ISIS and other radicals. For the record, a couple of years ago Qatar literally paid a billion dollars in cash to Islamic radical groups in Iraq for the release of a group of vacationing (in Iraq?) royals that had been taken a hostage in very odd circumstances.

I think that Qatar needs to be much more responsible. In the last year, it tried to cut back on financing the groups that are terror-linked. It is not 100-percent working. There are still members of their government who support these groups and do not even view these groups as terrorists. This is probably the biggest problem. Saudi Arabia also has a problem, but it is emerging as a country that is stopping and challenging radicalized militias.

Also, over the past 6–7 years, Qatar has started to work very closely with Iran, while Saudi Arabia and Iran have hostile relationships. Iran is responsible for creating great levels of instability in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in general. Some people in the Gulf question the loyalty of Qatar because of its relationships with Iran.

How is Qatar coping with the boycott?

It is not coping very well and has to import more from Turkey and Iran. The truth is that it always has been a small actor in these relationships. In the Gulf region, while the other countries are collaborating for their collective benefit, Qatar has to work closely with Turkey and Iran, and it is becoming dependent. In that dependence, the Qataris will never have the opportunity to break out. Turkey has a military base there and Qatar has less of a chance to tell them to leave as Ankara seeks to place more and more soldiers in Qatar to the point that the Turkish contingent will be half the size of Qatar’s own standing military. It is tremendous.

The New York Times reported a secretly recorded phone call suggesting that the Qataris could allegedly be behind a May bombing in Somalia. What are Doha’s interests in the region?

All counties in the Gulf have their interests in Africa in general. They are interested in it primarily because of resources. All the Gulf countries require food and water importation. Saudi Arabia does have its agricultural sector, but they also have to import so much food. Given those circumstances that all the countries do have vested strategic interests in Africa, they could have a kind of increased competition in Africa. And it is not only between the Gulf countries, but it also includes China. Basically, everybody looks at Africa as a new Great Game of competition. In term of specific recording and suggestion, I refrain from reading too deeply into it. This kind of information is not 100% reliable. But I could see it happening, I mean relationships between this kind of groups and countries like Qatar exist.

As for Saudi Arabia. Recently, the Saudi government announced that it would extend new rights to women. In particular, Saudi women will be able to travel independently. How do you assess these changes? Is it really a step towards greater freedom for women in Saudi Arabia?

Every time one goes to Saudi Arabia over the last decade, they see a different country. It is not only because of the 2030 program, that’s part of it, sure. But actually, you have a young population that is making demands on its government. And some of those demands are about women’s roles and others on the changing role of religion in society. And Saudi Arabia is developing its own national interests rather than pursuing pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism and its national interests are also about increasing tolerance and modernizing socially, politically and economically.

So it is not only that women can drive and women can travel freely, but that women can and are contributing to their country. More than 300,000 Saudis, men and women, leave the Kingdom every year to study abroad. They go to London and Paris, New York. And they come back and have ideas, ideas on how they can shape their society. Everyone is interested in seeing the evolution of the country. A whole generation is changing the country forever and women are at the forefront of those changes. There is a mixed institution — MISK — which is comprised of young men and women and it is an innovation center with projects all over the Kingdom. It is led by young ladies who are so vital to the future of the country and they know that their mission is not just about the center but about the country and women’s roles in it.

In your monograph titled “Small State, Dangerous Region: A Strategic Assessment of Bahrain” you focused on this country in the Gulf. Could you please tell us what this book is about?

Bahrain is a very good example of a small country surviving a very difficult strategic environment. If you think about the Gulf, one thinks of both the regional powers such as Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the global actors: the US, UK, Russia. I decided to look at something else, at Bahrain, the smallest state in the region. It is less than one thousand-square-kilometers. And the academic question of how Bahrain could survive against such massive forces around is important to answer. And the answer is simple—smart leadership, strong citizenry, and functional alliances.

The recent video appearance of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has sparked concerns among experts who warn that more terror attacks could be expected. In your opinion, what does this recording tell us?

The short answer is that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is still alive, ISIS has money and soldiers. I think that we should be reminded that just because the Islamic State has lost its territory, it should not be discounted. It remains a threat to European, Middle Eastern, and international security. And we need to take it seriously. I think that more emphasis has to be paid to finding and bringing somebody like Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to justice, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, to properly invest in the future of Iraq. If you don’t invest in the future of Iraq, we will keep getting a repetition of such groups and violence.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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