The elections held in Tunisia saw 7,065,883 registered voters, with 49% of women and over a third of voters under 35 years of age. The voters outside the national territory were 385,546.
There were 217 seats to be assigned and 4,871 polling stations with 12,000 international observers.
The lists were closed: hence the voters elected the candidates already chosen by the party they selected from the list.
Currently the seats in Tunisia are allocated according to the Hare-Niemeyer method (also known as the largest remainder method), which requires the numbers of votes for each party to be divided by a quota representing the number of votes necessary to win a seat.
The result for each party usually consists of an integer part plus a fractional remainder. Each party is first allocated a number of seats equal to their integer. This generally leaves some seats unallocated: the parties are then ranked on the basis of the fractional remainders and the parties with the largest remainders are each allocated one additional seat until all the seats have been allocated.
The candidates are alternated between men and women in 33 multi-member electoral zones, as well as in 27 constituencies on the national territory, in addition to 6 for Tunisians abroad.
Electoral systems always determine the results.
It should also be recalled that the 2011 movement, which led to new elections after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has also drafted a new Constitution. It is essential to stay in power with the democracy granted by Western manipulations, including the jihadist ones.
The last few years, however, have been marked by an alliance between Nidaa Tounes, a secular party, and Ennahda, the political movement linked to the Tunisian group of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As to the candidates for Presidency, the Tunisian law requires that each competitor to the office behaves consistently with the constitutional values, shows financial guarantees and, finally, all the necessary documents of support from the parties and the groups of reference. Obviously each candidate shall also demonstrate of not having any criminal or civil conviction in place or already served.
Let us examine the candidates who took part in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections.
This will be the best possible interpretation to analyse Tunisia’s internal political structure.
In fact, it should be recalled that on September 15, 2019, the last Tunisian presidential election was held, with two main contenders, namely Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui.
In the second round, on October 13, 2019, the independent candidate Kais Saied won before his contender Nabil Karoui, labelled as “populist” by the Western media.
Kaid Saied, labelled as “conservative” by Western media, which are very good at creating banal labels, is a jurist and a professor of constitutional law at the University of Tunis.
He obtained 27.5% of votes, with a turnout slightly over 50% of those entitled to vote.
His electoral campaign without public funds at his disposal and with no party support was focused only on the fight against corruption.
Another theme of Kaid Saied’s campaign not to be overlooked is the federalist reform of administrative, tax and political regulations.
It is certainly surprising to see a federalist solution in a small country like Tunisia, but it should be noted that on May 6, 2018, local elections were held – on the basis of the 2014 Constitution – for as many as 350 Tunisian municipalities and regions.
It should also be recalled that the fragmentation and splitting up of representation was an old and ingenious idea of Habib Bourghiba.
Furthermore, the 2014 Constitution devotes the whole seventh chapter to the structure of local power.
In the last elections of May 2018, 37.16% of the local seats was won by candidates under 35 years of age, with 29.55% of the local presidencies won by women, who gained 47.05% of all the seats assigned.
The independent lists won massively also in local elections. In fact, Kaid Saied, the winner of the very recent run-off, repeated – at national level – the small miracle of the 2018 local elections.
It should be recalled, however, that only 35.7% of registered voters really went to the polls.
Nabil Karoui had been released from prison 48 hours before the elections, where he had been staying since last August 23. He had been arrested on charges of money laundering, financial fraud and corruption.
In the first round, however, Karoui had obtained 15.6% of votes, thus qualifying for the final round.
Karoui is the owner of Nessma TV and, in any case, regardless of the election results, his assets have been frozen and he cannot expatriate.
His release has even called into question the election regularity from the legal viewpoint.
However, only the leadership of Ennahda, the political faction of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood, branded Saied as “conservative”.
In principle, voters’ disappointment regards the “free market” reforms and the so-called “austerity” policies. However, the current political and hence electoral tension concerns above all unemployment, which is now over 15.6% and mainly affects the younger groups.
Not to mention the high inflation rate, which is equal to 6.7% but is relatively stable. Prices, however, rise by 0.6% every month, and this is essential to understand people’s feelings and mood.
According to the World Bank data – unlike what is known as on the spot rate – the average inflation rate, based on daily data, has been only 5.3% from 1963 to 2019. Hence nothing new under the sun.
As fully confirmed by the latest data, the growth rate for 2019 is equal to 1.5%.
However, according to the Monetary Fund, it will grow by 2.4% in 2020 and 4.4% in 2024.
Moreover, before elections, the Tunisian government has developed a new economic policy for purely electoral considerations, with an eye to winning votes.
The pillar of this policy is, essentially, to maintain a “sustainable” budget deficit, and hence of foreign debt, with a more careful control of the inflation rate and with a structural reform of public finance.
The idea is to reduce the budget deficit to 4.9% of GDP as from 2019.
The latest data on inflation, however, points to an increase of up to 7.2%, which is anyway physiological, although the so-called international bankers regard it as a severe alarm.
The Tunisian government is also planning to reduce wage and salary growth to 12% of GDP, as well as to increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 years.
Finally, it also plans to retire – without replacing them – thousands of civil servants until 2020, especially those over 55 years of age.
That is why some of these policies are under the voters’ scrutiny.
Wage cuts and actual stop of hiring in the public sector, as well as the increase in the fuel price and the above-mentioned debt restructuring partly funded by a 3 billion USD loan granted by the International Monetary Fund.
The jihadist issue, too, is causing debate. Over one thousand of the known 5,000-6,000 foreign fighters are already in prison in Tunis.
There are also 1,600 other prisoners in Tunisia who are accused of belonging to jihadist organizations, although they have not gone to fight abroad.
Finally, there are also about 2,500 jihadist militants, who are still entrenched in the Western mountains.
Despite the good anti-jihadist policies implemented by the Tunisian government, all Qaedists are still there, at the core of trafficking and situations that Tunisia, as well as other Maghreb countries, cannot fully control.
Moreover, we do not know whether the new President, who lacks a party supporting him, will have the strength to impose himself on a rather fragmented Parliamentary scene.
Let us see, in fact, who were the main candidates for Presidency, all long-time politicians.
Let us begin with Mohamed Abbou, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party known as the “Democratic Current”.
He was formerly the leader of the only real opposition party during Ben Ali’s rule, the Congress for the Republic.
Minister in charge of Administrative Reform after 2011, he quickly resigned from his post in controversy with the other parties, which did not give room for manoeuvre.
Another candidate was Abir Moussi from the Free Destourian Party, hence de facto heir to Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s great tradition.
Westerners, who like to put labels, define her a “populist”, but she is the sworn enemy of Ennahda, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood that she often declares she “wants to send back to prison”.
The candidates standing for the last Presidential election included also the aforementioned Nabil Kharoui, who is the owner of Nessma TV, the private satellite channel of which both Mediaset and Quinta Communications, a company of Tarak Ben Ammar, are shareholders.
It should be recalled that also Gaddafi had tried to acquire a shareholding in Quinta Communications, but the 2011 rebellion killed the Libyan Colonel and hence stopped the operation in Tunisia.
As a strong supporter of the late President Essebsi, before the last election Abir Moussi had founded the Heart of Tunisia Party.
Promoting her image as “candidate for the poor”, she is anyway active in charity work through her associations throughout the Tunisian territory, especially in marginal areas.
She was leading the opinion polls before the election.
Another candidate for Presidency was Lofti M’Raihi, proposed by the Union Populaire Républicaine, a social-national (but not national-socialist) party. He is a politician who speaks out mainly against “corruption” and proposes “direct democracy”, although not through the Internet.
Apart from his positions centred around opposition to the ruling establishment, which he accuses of corruption and the use of political media to serve narrow interests, his platform is similar to what in the West we would call “reformist”.
Another candidate was Mehdi Jomaa, the former Head of government in the technocratic phase from January to February 2015, which came as an alternative to the political alliance dominated by Ennahda.
He had previously served as Minister for Industry and Trade in the Troika government between 2011 and 2013.
The Troika was an alliance between Ennahda, the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, also referred to as Ettakatol – now strong only in Kasserine – and finally the Congress for the Republic.
Currently Mehdi Jomaa is the candidate of AlBadil Ettounsi, a liberal-republican Party with secular and conservative tendencies.
With a view to better describing Tunisia’s political landscape, we need to mention also another candidate for the Presidency, namely Hamma Hammami, the leader of the Popular Front, a coalition of small leftist parties.
As one of the old leaders opposing the former authoritarian regimes of Bourghiba and Ben Ali, he was very popular during the 2011 uprising. He believes, however, that Ennahda runs also a secret apparatus that collaborates with the “regime”.
In his opinion, the current rulers are simply “foreign agents”.
Another candidate was Mohammed Moncef Marzouki, who served as former President of Tunisia from 2011 to 2014, through the endorsement of members of the Constituent Assembly.
He was also a candidate in the 2014 presidential elections against the last President Essesbi, receiving 44% of the total votes cast.
He is known for his long political struggle and opposition against the authoritarian regimes in the era of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, as well as for his human rights activism. He was the most prominent leader of the Congress for the Republic Party, later named Al Irada. In the last election he ran as leader of the brand new coalition “Another Tunisia Alliance”.
As President, he had constantly criticized Assad’ Syrian regime and the Egyptian leaders. He was one of the harshest opponents of Essebsi’s government, but his electoral campaign also focused on the fight against universal corruption and shameful media manipulation in favour of the regime.
Mention must also be made of Abdelkarim Zbidi, former Defence Minister and heir to Essebsi.
He is a doctor and served as Defence Minister in the 2011-2013 and 2016-2019 governments.
He, too, is a bitter enemy of Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abdelfattah Mourou is Ennahda’s candidate. He is the current Speaker of Parliament. He is a traditionalist, but with the widespread reputation of being “moderate” and “tolerant”.
He supports democratic and pluralist Islam, but he has undoubted personal prestige and credibility both within the political class and the public at large.
He still hangs a portrait of Habib Bourghiba in his house, as he has declared to the Tunisian press.
Another candidate for the Tunisian Presidency was Youssef Chahed, former Head of the National Unity Government since August 27, 2016, serving as Minister for Local Development.
He was a former member of the aforementioned Republican Party and later of Nidaa Tounes, also known as Call for Tunisia, which is the political group founded by Essebsi.
Currently he is honorary President of the Tahya Tounes Party, also known as “Long Live Tunisia”.
He, too, fights a war against corruption, although critics have accused him of the same practices for which he criticizes his adversaries, i.e. exploiting public facilities and State resources in favour of his election campaign and to politically eliminate his opponents.
The female candidates included also Selma Elloumi Rekik, running for the Amal Tounes Party after her final separation from Nidaa Tounes.
She had already served as Minister in Habib Essid’s government (2015-2016) and she emphasized her commitment to continuing the path of the late President Essesbi, reaffirming her diligence to represent all social groups and defend women’s rights.
With a view to describing the Tunisian political dynamics, we also need to mention the candidate Ahmed Safi Saïd, who ran in the presidential race for the second time as an independent.
He enjoyed the endorsement and support of the People’s Movement, which has an Arab Nasserist nationalist ideology.
He is a refined intellectual and public figure – also with a Western background – and he much relies and bets on the youth voters’ base. He supports an idea of Tunisia as middle regional power, albeit decisive, among the various Maghreb players.
He also wants to strengthen and empower the intelligence Services, the true axis of every modern country.
He also has an ideology contrary to what nowadays is defined – confusingly – neo-liberalism. He wants a Tunisian society with enhanced military capabilities, suitable for rising up to the post-modernity challenges, including the regional ones.
The presidential candidate of the Social-Democratic Union was Abid Bikri, the current Secretary-General of the movement Tunisie En Avant (Tunisia Forward).
He was a senior leader of the Tunisian General labour Union prior to his appointment as Minister for Public Service and Governance in the National Unity Government of 2016-2017.
Chayed, too, has started another obvious fight against corruption, which is his sworn enemy.
He is another candidate opposing “Ennahda’s secret apparatus”, which indeed exists.
He is particular interested in resolving the situation in Libya.
Hence the divisions and fragmentation of the Tunisian political landscape are the a posteriori explanation of the 2011 rebellions.
Egypt’s search for a fig leaf: It’s not the Handball World Championship
Hosting major sports tournaments can confer prestige on a country, but in the case of Egypt, the 2021 Handball World Championship will do little to repair its relations with the US, Italy and states in the Gulf, argues James M. Dorsey in this analysis.
Egyptian general-turned president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi sees the 2021 men’s handball world championship in Cairo and Alexandria as an opportunity to put his best foot forward at a time when Egypt’s relations with its closest regional and global partners are encountering substantial headwinds.
Successful hosting of the championship, the first to involve 32 rather than 24 competing teams, would also serve to counter criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Egyptian health minister Hala Zayed recently admitted that many more Egyptians contracted the virus than the government has so far reported. A successful hosting would further put a crown in the feather of Egyptian-born International Handball Federation (IHF) president Hassan Moustafa.
Egypt has put strict pandemic-related precautionary heath measures in place for the tournament from the moment teams, officials, and journalists arrive at Cairo International Airport. The measures apply to training, lodging and media arrangements as well as the transport to and from hotels and the championship’s four designated match venues. Egypt is determined to ensure that the championship does not turn into a spreader of Covid-19.
That concern prompted the IHF and Egyptian authorities at the last minute to shelve a plan to allow fans into the four venues that include the Cairo Stadium Sports Hall, the New Capital Sports Hall in Egypt’s newly built desert capital east of Cairo, the Dr Hassan Moustafa Sports Hall in Giza, and the Borg Al Arab Sports Hall in Alexandria.
The IHF said the decision was taken “considering the current COVID-19 situation as well as concerns that have been raised, amongst others by the players themselves.”
Critics charge that Egypt is hosting the tournament even though it seems unable to meet the basic requirements of medical personnel who are on the frontline of the fight against the pandemic.
Doctors and nurses have protested against the high number of infections in their ranks because they lack access to sufficient personnel protection equipment and are threatened with imprisonment if they fail to report to work despite the risk to their lives.
Symptomatic for Mr. Al-Sisi’s brutal crackdown on any kind of criticism, several doctors have been arrested on terrorism charges for voicing their grievances.
Putting aside the fact that the impact of a handball tournament pales when compared to the prestige of hosting a mega-event like the World Cup or the Olympic Games, the handball tournament is unlikely to provide much of a fig leaf for Mr. Al-Sisi’s hardhanded repression of anyone voicing an opinion but his sycophantic supporters.
That is particularly true for the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden that has not only promised to emphasize human rights in its foreign policy but also needs to do so in its bid to repair America’s image and restore its credibility, severely damaged by four years of Donald J. Trump, widely viewed as an authoritarian who undermined foundations of democracy.
Similarly, the tournament will not change perceptions in Italy and much of Europe that hold Mr. Al-Sisi’s intelligence service and law enforcement responsible for the kidnapping, torture and killing of Giulio Regeni.
A 28-year-old postgraduate student at Cambridge University, Mr. Regeni had been researching Egypt’s independent unions before he went missing in late January 2016. His body was found in a ditch so badly mutilated that his mother could only identify her son by the tip of his nose. He reportedly had sustained a broken neck, wrist, toes, fingers, and teeth before his death, while initials were carved into his severely burned and bruised skin.
Relations between Egypt and Italy last month deteriorated further when Egypt’s public prosecution closed its investigation into Mr. Regeni’s murder, rejecting Italian prosecutors’ findings that accused four Egyptian security officials of responsibility for his death.
Mr. Al-Sisi’s abominable human rights record may not be of concern to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia but equally the tournament will do little to repair cracks in his relationship with the two Gulf states, his main financial backers.
In a move that will not have gone unnoticed in Gulf capitals, Egypt anointed the newly opened, Qatari-owned St. Regis hotel on the banks of the Nile River in Cairo as one of the tournament’s key logistics nodes, including its media center.
Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif al-Emadi landed in Cairo last week to inaugurate the hotel hours after a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit lifted a 3.5-year long Saudi-UAE led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, in which Egypt as well as Bahrain participated. Mr. Al-Emadi was the first Qatari Cabinet official to visit Egypt since the boycott was imposed in 2017.
Showcasing the hotel was meant to counter-intuitively signal to Saudi Arabia and the UAE Egypt’s concern that reconciliation with Qatar involved far too many concessions, including dropping demands for the closure of Qatar’s state-funded, freewheeling Al Jazeera television network and a halt to support of political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt was forced to reluctantly agree to lifting the boycott even though it accepted continued Qatari investment and Qatari gas supplies over the last 3.5 years.
Egypt also felt sidelined by the UAE and Bahrain’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. The move deprived Egypt of its role as Israel’s primary official diplomatic conduit to the Arab world at a moment that the Al-Sisi regime is seeking to put its best foot forward in anticipation of Mr. Biden taking office.
Mr. Al-Sisi’s concerns are compounded by Emirati support for Ethiopia with which he is at odds over the construction of a dam on the Nile that threatens Egypt’s water supply; the UAE’s growing influence in neighboring Sudan; plans to link the UAE and Israel through a pipeline that would compete with Egypt in selling gas to Europe; and Emirati interest in the port of Haifa that could create an alternative to the Suez Canal.
All of this could undermine Egypt’s position as a key pillar of US Middle East policy and persuade the US to further shift the focal point of its broader Middle East and North Africa policy to the Gulf.
Mr. Al-Sisi has sought to pre-empt an incoming Biden administration by releasing prisoners, highlighting his good relations with Egyptian Christians, and hiring US lobbying firms to plead his case to the Biden camp as well as Capitol Hill.
Hosting a handball world championship is a minor maneuver in the mountain that Mr. Al-Sisi is trying to move, particularly one that Mr. Trump tarnished by describing the Egyptian leader as “my favorite dictator.” That is a label a handball tournament is unlikely to alter.
Author’s note: This article first appeared on Play the Game
Looming Large: The Middle East Braces for Fallout of US–China Divide
China would like the world to believe that the Middle East and North Africa region does not rank high on its totem pole despite its energy dependence, significant investment and strategic relationships with the region. In many ways, China is not being deceptive. With relations with the United States rapidly deteriorating, China’s primary focus is on what it views as its main battleground: the Asia–Pacific. China is nonetheless realising that remaining aloof in the Middle East may not be sustainable.
In assessing the importance of the Middle East and North Africa region to China, the glass seems both half full and half empty with regard to what it will take for China to secure its interests. In the final analysis, however, the glass is likely to prove to be half full. If so, that will have significant consequences for Chinese policy towards and engagement in the region.
Indeed, measured by Chinese policy outputs such as white papers or level of investment as a percentage of total Chinese overseas investment, the Middle East and North Africa region does not emerge as a priority on Beijing’s agenda even if virtually all of it is packaged as building blocks of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
It was only in 2016 that China published its first and only Middle East-related white paper, devoted to the Arab states rather than the region as a whole. Apart from rehashing China’s long-standing foreign policy principles, the paper highlighted opportunities for win-win cooperation in areas ranging from energy, trade and infrastructure, but also technology, nuclear development, and space.
Investment figures tell a similar story. Of the US$2 trillion in Chinese overseas investment between 2005 and 2019, a mere US$198 billion or under 5 per cent went to the Middle East and North Africa.
The region is unlikely to climb Beijing’s totem pole any time soon, given the dramatic decrease in Chinese foreign investment in the last four years to about 30 per cent of what it was in 2016 and expectations that Middle Eastern and North African economies will significantly contract as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and sharp downturn in energy markets.
Half Full Rather Than Half Empty
What turns the glass half full is the fact that the Middle East fulfils almost half of China’s energy needs. Moreover, some of China’s investments, particularly in ports and adjacent industrial parks in the Gulf, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, are strategically important. What was once primarily a Belt and Road “string of pearls” linking Indian Ocean ports has evolved into a network that stretches from Djibouti in east Africa through Oman’s port of Duqm and the United Arab Emirates’ Jebel Ali port into a near dominant position in the eastern Mediterranean and onwards into the Indo–Pacific.
China already exerts influence in the eastern Mediterranean region through its involvement in ports in Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. It has expressed interest in the Lebanese port of Tripoli and may well seek access to the Russian-controlled ports of Tartus and Latakia if and when it gets involved in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. This was one reason that the Trump administration warned the Israelis that China’s engagement in Haifa, where they have built their own pier, could jeopardise continued use of the port by the US Sixth Fleet.
Asserting the importance of the Middle East, Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), wrote back in 2017: “The politics and security of the Middle East [are] inextricably related to China. This is the first time in history that China has possessed political, economic and security interests in the Middle East simultaneously.” CICIR is widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank.
More recently, however, Niu has taken what seems like an antipodal position, maintaining that the Middle East does not feature prominently in China’s strategic calculations. In a webinar in May 2020, he said: “For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies … Covid-19, combined with the oil price crisis, will dramatically change the Middle East. [This] will change China’s investment model in the Middle East.” Niu emphasised that China considers the Asia–Pacific rather than the Middle East as its primary battleground for differences with the United States.
This shift was part of a game of shadow boxing to subtly warn the Gulf, and particularly Saudi Arabia, to dial down tension with Iran to a point where it can be managed and does not spin out of control.
To ensure that its message is not lost on the region, China could well ensure that its future investments contribute to job creation, a key priority for Middle Eastern states struggling to come to grips with the economic crisis as a result of the pandemic and the sharp fall in oil demand and prices. Middle East political economy scholar Karen Young noted that Chinese investment has so far focused on a small number of locations and had not significantly generated jobs.
Subtle Chinese messaging was also at the core of China’s public response to Iranian leaks that it was close to signing a 25-year partnership with the Islamic republic that would lead to a whopping US$400 billion investment to develop the country’s oil, gas and transportation sectors.
China limited itself to a non-committal on-the-record reaction and low-key semi-official commentary. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, a “wolf warrior” or exponent of China’s newly adopted more assertive and aggressive approach towards diplomacy, was exceptionally diplomatic in his comment. “China and Iran enjoy traditional friendship, and the two sides have been in communication on the development of bilateral relations. We stand ready to work with Iran to steadily advance practical cooperation”, Zhao said.
Writing in the Shanghai Observer, a secondary Communist party newspaper, Middle East scholar Fan Hongda was less guarded. Fan argued that the agreement, though nowhere close to implementation, highlighted “an important moment of development” at a time that US–Chinese tensions allowed Beijing to pay less heed to American policies. In saying so, Fan was echoing China’s warning that the United States was putting much at risk by retching up tensions between the world’s two largest economies and could push China to the point where it no longer regards the potential cost of countering US policy as too high.
Diplomacy with “Chinese Characteristics”
Nonetheless, China’s evasiveness on the Iran agreement constituted a recognition that the success of its Belt and Road initiative and its ability to avoid being sucked uncontrollably into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts depends on a security environment that reduces tension to manageable proportions and ensures that disputes do not spin out of control.
“Beijing has indeed become more concerned about the stability of Middle Eastern regimes. Its growing regional interests combined with its BRI ambitions underscore that Middle East stability, particularly in the Persian Gulf, is now a matter of strategic concern for China,” said Mordechai Chaziza, an expert on China–Middle East relations.
Reflecting what appears to be a shift in China’s approach to regional security, Chinese scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike described the Middle East in a recently published article as a “key region in big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in a new era”. Sun and Wu suggested that Chinese characteristics would involve “seeking common ground while reserving differences”, a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution. The scholars said Chinese engagement in Middle Eastern security would seek to build an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance and the containment of differences.
A Blunt Rebuke
But China’s conflict management diplomacy may not go down well with the Gulf Arabs, notably Saudi Arabia, judging by what for Saudi media was a blunt and rare recent critique of the People’s Republic. In a game of shadow-boxing in which intellectuals and journalists front for officials who prefer the luxury of plausible deniability, Saudi Arabia responded bluntly in a column authored by Baria Alamuddin, a Lebanese journalist who regularly writes columns for Saudi media.
Alamuddin warned that China was being lured to financially bankrupt Lebanon by Hizballah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’a militia. She suggested in a column published by Arab News, the kingdom’s primary English-language newspaper, that Hizballah’s seduction of China was occurring against the backdrop of a potential massive 25-year cooperation agreement between the People’s Republic and Iran. “Chinese business and investment are welcome, but Beijing has a record of partnering with avaricious African and Asian elites willing to sell out their sovereignty. Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange”, Alamuddin charged. She quoted a Middle East expert from a conservative US think tank as warning that “vultures from Beijing are circling, eyeing tasty infrastructure assets like ports and airports as well as soft power influence through Lebanon’s universities.”
Abandoning Saudi official and media support for some of the worst manifestations of Chinese autocratic behaviour, including the brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the repression of democratic expression and dissident, Alamuddin did not mince words.
Alamuddin went on to assert that “witnessing how dissident voices have been mercilessly throttled in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, Lebanese citizens are justifiably fearful that their freedoms and culture would be crushed under heavy-handed, authoritarian Chinese and Iranian dominance, amid the miserable, monolithic atmosphere Hizballah seeks to impose.”
A Hair in the Soup
Further complicating Chinese efforts to nudge the Middle East towards some degree of stabilisation are China’s technology and military sales with no constraints on their use or regard for the potential geopolitical fallout. The sales include drone and ballistic missile technology as well as the building blocks for a civilian nuclear programme for Saudi Arabia, which would significantly enhance the kingdom’s ability to develop nuclear weapons should it decide to do so at some point in future.
These sales have fuelled fears, for different reasons, in Jerusalem and Tehran of a new regional arms race in the region. Israel’s concerns are heightened by the Trump administration’s efforts to limit Israeli dealings with China that involve sensitive technologies while remaining silent about Chinese military assistance to Saudi Arabia.
Washington’s indifference may be set to change, assuming that the recent rejection by the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi of an offer by the UAE to donate hundreds of Covid-19 test kits for screening of its staff was a shot across the Gulf’s bow. A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI Genomics, a Chinese company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy.
The American snub was designed to put a dent in China’s “Silk Road” health diplomacy centred on its experience with the pandemic and predominance in the manufacturing of personal protective and medical equipment as well as pharmaceutics.
A Major Battlefield
Digital and satellite technology in which Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s 5G cellular technology rollout is but one component seems set to be a major battlefield. US officials have warned that the inclusion of Huawei in Gulf networks could jeopardise sensitive communications, particularly given the multiple US bases in the region, including the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, or Centcom, in Qatar.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said the United States had advised its Middle Eastern partners in the region to take “a careful look at investment, major contracts and infrastructure projects.” He warned that certain engagements with China could “come at the expense of the region’s prosperity, stability, fiscal viability and longstanding relationship with the United States.”
Schenker cautioned further that agreements with Huawei meant that “basically all the information and your data is going to Huawei, property of the Chinese Communist Party”. The same, he said, was true for Chinese health technology. “When you take a Covid kit from a Chinese genomics company, your DNA is property of the Chinese Communist Party, and all the implications that go with that.”
The rollout of China’s BeiDou Satellite Navigation System (BDS), which competes with the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s GLONASS and Europe’s Galileo, sets the stage for battle, with countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey having signed up for what is known as China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative. So far, Pakistan is the only country known to have been granted access to BeiDou’s military applications, which provide more precise guidance for missiles, ships and aircraft.
Promoting “the development of the digital service sector, such as cross-border ecommerce, smart cities, telemedicine, and internet finance (and) … technological progress including computing, big data, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and quantum computing,” the initiative will enable China to enhance its regional influence and leverage in economics as well as security. China’s state-owned international broadcaster, China Global Television Network (CGTN), implicitly anticipated US resistance to its Middle Eastern partners being roped into a Chinese digital world when it declared that “a navigation system is like a gold key of your home that should be kept only in your own hands, not others.”
The successful launch in July of a mission to Mars, the Arab world’s first interplanetary initiative, suggested that the UAE was seeking to balance its engagement with the United States and China in an effort not to get caught in the growing divergence between the two powers. The mission, dubbed Hope Probe, was coordinated with US rather than Chinese institutions, including the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG). It launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.
You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide
A continuously deteriorating relationship between the United States and China is a worst-case scenario for Middle Eastern states. It would progressively reduce their ability to walk a fine line between the two major powers. That would be particularly true if US efforts to force its partners to limit their ties to the People’s Republic compel China into defiance by adopting a more geopolitically assertive posture in the region.
Ironically, the US desire to recalibrate its engagement with the Middle East and a realisation on the part of Saudi Arabia and Iran that their interests are best served by a reduction of tension rooted in an arrangement based on a non-aggression agreement could serve as a catalyst for a new Gulf security architecture. This could involve embedding the US defence umbrella, geared to protect Gulf states against Iran, into a multilateral structure that would include rather than exclude Iran and involve Russia, China and India.
A more multilateral security arrangement potentially could reduce pressure on the Gulf states to pick sides between the United States and China and would include China in ways that it can manage its greater engagement without being drawn into the region’s conflicts in ways that frustrated the United States for decades.
None of the parties are at a point where they are willing to publicly entertain the possibility of such a collective security architecture. Even if they were, negotiating a new arrangement is likely to be a tedious and tortuous process. Nonetheless, such a multilateral security architecture would ultimately serve all parties’ interests and may be the only way of reducing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran and managing their differences, which would in turn help China secure its energy and economic interests in the region. This reality enhances the likelihood that the glass is half full in terms of China ultimately participating in such a multilateral security arrangement, rather than half empty, with China refraining from participation.
Author’s note: This article first appeared in Middle East Insights of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute
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JCPOA Implementation Amid a Tug of War between Rhetoric and Facts
The man behind the insurrection at home and disarray abroad!
A few days before the fifth anniversary of Implementation Day of the JCPOA on 16 January 2021, U.S. House handed Trump a second impeachment. What is important in this regard is the fact that Trump was basically indicted by the U.S. legislature for violating the rule of law. The Article of Impeachment clearly states that the president is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors and the president stands accused of violating the Constitution of the United States. According to the Article of Impeachment he remains a threat to national security, democracy and the constitution. The truth is, Trump has been a threat not only to U.S. national security, but an abominable menace against international peace and security all along; what Iran has clearly understood and signaled to the world since the early days of this outgoing -or the soon-to-be-removed- Trump administration, the international community only secretly admitted and quietly wished for change.
Although the establishment in the United States put a stop to Trump, his unbridled bullying on the international scene persisted for the full duration of his term with little or no practical opposition at all. By his sheer disregard for all established principles and institutions Trump threw the anarchical nature of international relations in stark relief and all the U.S. traditional allies in Europe under the bus as well! Though Trump is now history in the U.S., some worrying signs in the past weeks suggest proper lessons have not been learned by some Europeans and Trumpism towards Iran might persist for quite a while.
The post-election developments in the U.S. were the source of considerable consternation among the European leaders; therefore, the impeachment was saluted in Europe as they could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Although the impeachment and power transition occur nationally in the U.S., it has nonetheless huge global ramifications. Jo Biden promised in Munich Security Conference of 2019 that they would be back! They are back now. The U.S. president-elect put out words that he would return to the nuclear deal with Iran provided that Iran returns to compliance. In this regard there are a few elements that require prompt attention.
First and foremost, Iran was the victim in the past two years; the victim of an unrestrained bully who made no secret of his disdain for the longest established principles of international conduct, chief among which pacta sunt servanda. Thus, any attempt to twist the facts and portray Iran as the actor who undermines the diplomatic process is grossly irresponsible and highly provocative. Second, unlike the Trump administration’s whimsical and unpredictable conduct, all the reversible steps undertaken by the Iranian side have been communicated in a transparent manner to all parties. Third, for every step there has been the element of predictability and nothing came as a surprise so as to ensure good faith throughout the process. Fourth, the reversible steps taken by Iran in the past year, much to the dismay of Europeans, were the inevitable result of Europeans’ inaction and non-performance of commitments which deprived Iran of billions of dollars and prevented the normalization of trade and economic relations specifically during the last year when the Covid-19 outbreak inflicted a huge human cost on Iran. Last but not least, the IAEA monitors every step of the way and has mounted one of the most rigorous monitoring and verification regimes in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This all means that the “concerns”, regardless of the scale of their intensity, as expressed by the European parties to the deal in their statements of 6 and 11 January, are only a reflection of the discursively constructed culture against Iran’s nuclear program.
With the IAEA in Iran enjoying full access under the Additional Protocol for now, and considering Iran’s status as an NPT member state, it is difficult to understand European’s “deep regrets” and their “repeated calls” to “reverse all action that are inconsistent with Iran’s JCPOA commitments”. It is also impossible not see the hypocrisy of it all; for instance, a regional ally of Europe, while sitting atop a vast nuclear arsenal, openly boasts their nuclear weapon capacities and asserts that they do not need to explain themselves on their nuclear warheads simply because they are not NPT member states. Moreover, there are other regional allies of Europe who are NPT member states, yet they have not even signed the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, let alone the Additional Protocol.
All through the past two years, Iran has pursued a measured nuclear diplomacy and avoided any action that might hint at provocation or escalation in the nuclear field. The term reversible has been purposefully chosen by Iran in description of its reduced commitments and if Europeans want to see a reversal of actions, they know what Iran expects; it is nothing more than the EU/E3 commitments expressly spelled out in the JCPOA.
Recent postures by the EU and the E3 do not help mainly because they portray Iran as the main culprit of the current nuclear standoff whereas it is only defending its natural interests in a matter of high security stakes. Such statements also ignore one very important fact, or at least tone it down significantly and that is the destructive role that the U.S. withdrawal played in the post 8 May 2018 drama.
A tug of war between rhetoric and facts
One might ask why it has been the case that Iran’s nuclear program is conceived of as a proliferation threat! To find the answer, we should take stock of the security context of the early 2000’s when discursive constructs of threat significantly outweighed factual analyses and calculations of the Bush administration. Iraq is a vivid example of such disregard for facts where Bush’s blind insistence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s arsenal, based on flawed cherry-picked intelligence despite all internationally verified evidence to the contrary, led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq the scourge of which is still fresh in the region.
It is a peculiar fact that Discourse shapes realities in foreign policy, and it has often been the case that discursive constructs play a far more effective role than substantial facts. The U.S. administration back in early 2000’s paid no heed neither to the IAEA expertise, not to words of warning by American senior politicians. At the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Bush’s claims were unconfirmed and to this day, not a trace of weapons of mass destruction has been found in Iraq. It was maybe for good reason that William Burns, recently tapped by President-elect Biden to lead the C.I.A. laments not “tak[ing] a hard stand against war altogether” and recounts the build-up to Iraq war and failure in mounting and effective opposition to it as his “biggest professional regret”.
In that light, it is safe to assert that Iran’s nuclear crisis was the direct product of such securitized foreign policy discourse which portrayed Iran’s nuclear program as a proliferation threat. Such frame of mind has poisoned everything related to Iran and its non-proliferation policies. From foreign policy circles to intelligence communities, from think thanks to centers of academic excellence, from press to media the rhetorical and constructed notion of “Iran as a proliferation threat” permeates debates and what seems to
be taken for granted is that whatever Iran does, even within the confines of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol, is inevitably linked to weaponization efforts! This construct has become an open wound that the U.S. and others in the region find easy to poke anytime their powerful lobbies deem it necessary to further their regional agenda of aggression and war mongering.
A return to the facts
In my capacity as ambassador, and so far as Covid-related restrictive measures would allow, I have been trying hard to accentuate the factual element in Iran’s nuclear program to European diplomats. The IAEA is present in Iran and its inspectors have access under the Additional Protocol to the places they might deem worthy of inspection. All nuclear activities in Iran are declared to the Agency and unfold before the eyes of IAEA inspectors. Besides, in sharp contrast to what the U.S. did on 8 May 2018, in the past two years Iran has had a transparent, verifiable and predictable and reversible course of action in its nuclear program. Let’s be clear, though, Iran agreed on a provisional basis to take confidence- building measures as stipulated under the JCPOA. You cannot build confidence forever, neither can such measures be taken for granted!
In the end, I would like to invite the European parties to the JCPOA to play a constructive role and acknowledge the fact that Iran was the victim of Trump administration’s policies in the past two and a half years. Secondly, I call upon the EU/E3 not to be part of this securitized discourse on Iran and not to tug at the rhetoric end of this discursive war and take the public opinion and its impact into serious consideration. Pursuing a policy of sanctions and coercion failed in the past and it is doomed to fail in the future as well. Finally, with the upcoming U.S. administration and the talks here or there in Washington about a prospective Biden administration return to the JCPOA it is important to build on this momentum rather than to create obstacles to the diplomatic process.
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