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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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Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?

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In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.

In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.

Tensions for decades

Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.

With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.

Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.

But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.

What happened?

Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.

It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.

The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.

In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!

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