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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.

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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