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Putin, clumsily, seeks to exploit mounting Gulf tensions

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Vladimir Putin, eager to capitalize on escalating tension in the Gulf, looks like he needs a marketing and reputation management advisor.

Mr. Putin recognized opportunity when he urged Saudi Arabia to move ahead with the acquisition of Russia’s much-touted S-400 anti-missile defense system after the kingdom’s six battalions of US-made Patriot batteries failed to detect drone and missile attacks on two of the country’s key oil facilities, knocking out half of its production.

“For self-defence, for the defence of one’s country, we are ready to provide help to Saudi Arabia, the political leadership of Saudi Arabia. It is enough to take a wise government decision…They will protect any infrastructure objects in Saudi Arabia effectively,” Mr. Putin said.

Russian efforts to capitalize on the mounting tensions are as much opportunistic as they are strategic.

The attacks, whether executed by an Iranian-backed group based on an decision of its own or at the behest of Iran or launched by the Islamic republic itself, sent a message not only to  Riyadh and Washington but also Moscow and Beijing: Iran and its allies will not sit idly by as the United States seeks to cut off Iranian oil exports, allow Saudi Arabia to gobble up Iranian market share and force the Islamic republic on its knees.

Leaving aside the veracity of Mr. Putin’s claim that Russian systems would perform against low-flying drones and projectiles where US systems had failed, the Russian leader didn’t necessarily inspire confidence by making his offer flanked, but two of Saudi Arabia’s foremost regional enemies and rivals: presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

As if to drive the point home, Mr. Putin pointed out while making his offer that he had already sold Russian systems to Turkey and Iran.

Saudi Arabia was careful to let Mr. Putin’s seeming faux pas pass. The kingdom has played its cards close to its chest by similarly refraining from responding to US President Donald J. Trump’s apparent rewriting of the long-standing US commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the attacks.

Mr. Trump’s emphasis on the fact that the attacks were against Saudi Arabia and not against the United States and that his administration would support a Saudi response or potentially act on its behalf against payment will nonetheless not have gone unnoticed in Riyadh and elsewhere in the Gulf.

Question marks about the United States’ commitment were first sparked by President Barak Obama when he paved Iran’s initial return to the international fold with the 2015 agreement curbing the Islamic republic’s nuclear program and his publicly expressed belief that Saudi Arabia and Iran needed to share power in the Middle East.

Gulf concern diminished with Mr. Trump visiting Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president months after assuming office in 2017, his withdrawal last year from the Iranian nuclear accord and imposition of harsh economic sanctions on the Islamic republic, and his defense of the kingdom in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

That started to change when Mr. Trump in June failed to respond to the downing by Iran of a US drone, reacted cautiously to attacks since on tankers in the Gulf, and Mr. Trump’s apparent transactional approach to the targeting of Saudi oil facilities.

Trump, in his response to Iran, is even worse than Obama. His inaction gave a green light to this. Now an Arab Gulf strategic partner has been massively attacked by Iran — which was provoked by Trump, not by us — and we hear Americans saying to us, you need to defend yourselves! It is an utter failure and utter disappointment in this administration,” said UAE political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.

Gulf anxiety is further fuelled by a growing sense that the United States, no longer dependent on Gulf oil imports, is changing its perception of the Gulf’s strategic importance and has embarked on a gradual process of turning its back on the region.

The United States is leaving the Persian Gulf. Not this year or next, but there is no doubt that the United States is on its way out… Leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, and Muscat understand what is happening…and have been hedging against an American departure in a variety of ways, including by making overtures to China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey,” said Steven A. Cooke, a scholar at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Anxiety lies at the root of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s more assertive posture that has led to several years of ill-conceived, erratic and largely failed disastrous political and military initiatives including the devastating war in Yemen and the debilitating diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In what may have been both an indication of changing Gulf attitudes towards the United States and a bow to US demands for burden sharing, Saudi Arabia has started in the wake of the oil attacks to reach out to other countries for help in bolstering its air defences.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had requested South Korean assistance in the strengthening of the kingdom’s air defense system.

The Pentagon, in response to a request from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and an effort to cushion potential Gulf doubts about the United States’ commitment, said it was sending an unspecified number of troops and equipment to the two countries to bolster their defences.

General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US would help provide “a layered system of defensive capabilities to mitigate the risk of swarms of drones or other attacks that may come from Iran.”

Seeking to enhance Iran’s international isolation and share the burden, a first step towards reduced US engagement, General Dunford  said the US was looking “for other international partners to also contribute to Saudi Arabia’s defense.”

The US deployment followed a Saudi decision to  join a US-led maritime coalition to protect shipping in the Gulf.

Nevertheless, the US president’s limiting of his country’s commitment, anchored in the 1980 doctrine proclaimed by president Jimmy Carter that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf, could make elements of a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a revamping of the region’s security architecture more attractive.

The proposal involves a collective security concept that would replace the Gulf’s US defense umbrella and position Russia as a power broker alongside the United States.

It entails creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolution of conflicts across the region and promote mutual security guarantees.

It would involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British and French forces and bases.

The proposal called for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions.”

The coalition, to include the Gulf states, Russia, China, the US, the European Union and India as well as other stakeholders, a likely reference to Iran, would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.

That could be the proposal’s Achilles Heel. It’s hard to envision Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly stated that it would only sit with Iran at one table on conditions unacceptable to Tehran, reversing its position and joining a security pact that would include the Islamic republic.

To push its potential advantage, Russia’s state military exporter, Rosoboronexport, said a day after Mr. Putin urged Saudi Arabia to follow through on its intention to buy a Russian anti-missile system, that it would put its latest defences against unmanned aerial vehicles and other air attack weapons on display at the Dubai Airshow in November.

Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Middle East

Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Middle East

Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility

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Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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