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Growing Political Instability in Middle East: A Case Study of Yemen

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Yemen’s full-blown war was the consequence of a series of events that succeeded one after the other. Violence escalated during the second half of 2014, when citizens grew massively discontent with the political instability of Yemen’s transitional government. Once violence became the norm, parties to the dispute quickly polarized, and as violence ramped up, polarization accelerated.

This violence more intensified because Yemen has fragile transitional government led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and was further debilitated when Houthi rebels captured Sanaa in September 2014. The president’s Peace and National Partnership Agreement had emerged as a kernel of hope for an early resolution to the violence, but it did not fulfil and produce its promised. Therefore, faced severe outcome and Boasted by their early success in capturing Sanaa, the Houthis had their militias take control over key institutions in the city. They installed their own people within major institutions and media outlets, and in other cases ‘puppeteer’ members of the government whose members were ultimately put under house arrest. All hopes for the Peace and National Partnership Agreement were lost in January 2015, when Hadi resigned shortly after his escape from house arrest in Sanaa. Following a brief residence in the city of Aden, he took refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Out of immediate danger, Hadi decided to revoke his resignation and continue his presidency from abroad. At the same time the Houthis decided to promote their own version of a national constitution and create their own government bodies. In the meantime, the Houthi insurgency continued, pushing all of Yemen into a civil war. Yemen’s current multipolar political landscape is nothing new. The country’s population has never—after its 1944 civil war, or since unification in 1990—taken on a single national identity. During the 2011 Arab Spring, group differences were exacerbated, but at the outset of the revolutions relative balance of power in the country was able to bring parties together, making possible negotiations at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).

This is no longer the case, and three important developments explain the changes post NDC. First, Yemen’s political scene became radicalized and at the same time was polarized. This made any links between the groups, whether based on historical ties or cultural similarities, impossible. Second, the changing balance of power and enduring resilience of the conflicted sides has inspired optimism within each group that and would prevail and achieve dominance over others. This reduces prospects for negotiating a settlement. For example, as the Houthis consolidated their power on the eve of their complete capture of Sanaa, rejecting calls for negotiations seemed easy, and group officials seemed unfazed by the UN resolution urging them to withdraw and reverse their course. Third, the people in Yemen have no faith in a central government, and even less faith in any political process as a solution to their problems; largely due to disappointment over a long negotiating process and an ineffective transitional government. In addition, there is no leader who inspires hope, or can rally Yemenis under one flag, or for a common purpose. While President Hadi enjoys international support, at home he is unable to ensure unity amongst even his allies, let alone the whole country.

While Yemen faces an internal quagmire, regional actors, in particular the GCC states, have been increasingly engaged in the conflict. A Saudi-led military campaign, Operation Decisive Storm’ began in March 2015, based on a coalition of forces originally supported—according to Saudis officials and public statements from countries in the wider MENA region—by more than ten countries. The UAE has been a strong supporter of the military action, contributing air support that has removed any ballistic threat for the region within the first 25 days of the operation. Other GCC states and MENA countries have also positively responded to Saudi Arabia’s move for military solutions.

Civil War in Yemen

Nations of the region have pledged military support and have become engaged in the second phase of the operation, titled ‘Restoring Hope.’ One of the strategic objectives of this operation is the disabling of the Houthi insurgency and the reinstatement of Hadi as the President of Yemen. For that purpose, large groups of pro-Hadi Yemeni fighters have been provided with weapons, equipment, and necessary military training. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have more recently delivered large quantities of heavy weapons (tanks), armored vehicles, and ammunition to the pro-Hadi fighters through the newly liberated areas in Aden. Troops from the Arab countries have been involved in training. Hadi’s army, which lacks expertise in operating for much of the weaponry and equipment being supplied. Some of the foreign troops, however, are reported to be involved in military operations themselves, and not simply working in a training capacity. Operation Restoring Hope also has a humanitarian component, and its first aid planes and ships have already arrived in Aden. The United States is also providing some assistance through intelligence, aerial refueling for fighter jets, and has indicated that it would provide possible assistance in rescuing of downed pilots. The thus empowered pro-Hadi army will be the much needed ‘boots on the ground’ to complement the Saudi air campaign. If the Southern Resistance answers Hadi’s call for a united anti-Houthi front positively, and thus integrates with Hadi’s army, a quicker advancement towards Sanaa may follow. Meanwhile, the UN is still at the forefront of the negotiations in Yemen. Negotiations are not a number one priority, however, since the UN’s reputation was significantly damaged following months of less than effective diplomacy engagement in Yemen. That is not to say that UN’s efforts are futile. Anyways, UN special envoys encourage Saudi government and Yemeni government to collaborate of sign a pact, aiming to end fight between government and separatist allies in the south. UN wants to political solution of Yemeni crisis.

Oman’s Role

Except Oman, which is not part of the campaign and it is offering a venue for negotiation and are in the strong support for President Hadi. Time may prove that the UN’s ongoing shuttle diplomacy is the best way to a ceasefire, followed by peace agreement. When taking stock of the current Civil war in Yemen, it is imperative to have a holistic view of the complex conflict, and especially when seeking to find a way out of the turmoil. As things stand, a clear path towards quick conflict resolution seems impossible. The murkiness of the actual support by the Yemeni people for current leaders, ongoing shifting political dynamics, and the mixed results of militarily operations makes any conflict resolution strategy difficult to argue. This, in turn, renders many of the policy recommendations focusing on just one or another approach risky to follow.

Understanding the Conflict’s Dynamics

Yemen’s conflict is saturated with different groups, and each have unique interests. Antagonism amongst the various Yemeni groups and the process of ‘othering’ between the Zaydis from the north and the Shaga is from the central and southern parts of Yemen has been obliterating memories of coexistence and making any reconciliation unforeseeable. The current conflict has even blurred the actual differences between theZaydis branch of Shia (Fivers) and those in Iran (Twelvers). This blurring is exacerbated when the Houthis’ religion is equated with the one of the Persian belief structures and used as an argument to link the two. A March Briefing report by the International Crisis Group observed this in action, noting that the “previously absent Shiite-Sunni narrative is creeping into how Yemenis describe their fight,” primarily through the labels used by the Houthis and the Sunni Islamist party Islah.

In a way, increased use of sectarian rhetoric by the group has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While domestically the Houthis managed to maintain control over a large part of Yemen, including the capital, this has not translated into commensurate international recognition. The group is aware that UN resolutions are clear that Hadi’s government is the only authority in Yemen. Attempts to make inroads in the international community have thus been carried out through economic ties, those aimed at Russia (which remains unresponsive) and China, which has an interest in the Yemeni oil industry. While these efforts indicate some determination to reach out to whole the international community, the Houthis have shown no state-building acumen and political alliances are made from convenience.

With little regard for other political parties, the Zaydi Shia militias have forged an unholy alliance with former president Aki Abdullah Saleh. The deal was made without regard to the two groups’ hostile history, which includes fighting in multiple wars against each other. For now, they seem to have been able to put most of their differences aside and unite against Hadi and his supporters. This alliance means the Houthis benefit from Saleh’s powerful friends in the Yemeni army, something that has contributed greatly to the Houthis’ early rise to power. The group may yet be aided by Saleh’s diplomatic skills. For his part, Saleh is on a quest to regain his lost authority.

The politically savvy former president of Yemen hopes to extend his influence through his political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), this can be read as a move against current President Hadi, who had been a member of GPC until November 2014, when he was kicked out. His ouster was the result of a travel.

International Crisis Group, “Yemen at War’

It is important to note that Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress has rejected the Houthi constitutional announcement from January 2015. This is just one example of their uneasy relationship. Ban and asset freeze imposed by the UN Security Council on Saleh and a few other leaders from the Houthi side. Hadi’s rivalry with Saleh and his break with the party only further speak to his inability to become a gravitational center in Yemeni politics.

At best, Hadi was able to become a rival of Saleh, use decrees to make new appointments and reassignments to reduce Saleh’s influence in the governing structures and military. Overtime, these moves have been able to attract defectors from Saleh’s faction, but without building a real base of his own. While having defectors on side is extremely useful when defections and declarations of support of Hadi from key GPC members provide a much-needed boost to the legitimacy of the current President, his overall legitimacy remains low. This is not least because of his moves to divide forces to steer against the Houthis.

His allies, the Southern (Popular) Resistance, are a secessionist movement with strong support in the South and do not share Hadi’s vision of a post-conflict Yemen. Influence also comes from Yemen’s immediate neighbors, who are generally strongly pro-Hadi. The political positions of regional actors and their interests in the different sides would indicate that regionalization of the Yemen conflict was inevitable. Saudi Arabia’s actions, however, are also in response to wider regional trends. Intervention in Yemen has a great deal to do with curbing Iranian foreign policy on at least two big issues – the Iranian nuclear deal and their role in Iraq. With the nuclear deal recently concluded without any direct input from the Saudis, and Iraq set to be an even bigger challenge in near future, Saudi involvement in the Yemen sphere seemed inevitable. Where Teheran’s involvement in Iraq is welcomed by the Western powers, and with there-engagement of Iran in the international community their role could be strengthen, Saudi Arabia does not share the West’s enthusiasm. But the situation in Yemen is different. The level of support from Iran, as secretive as it may be, is not the same as Iran’s support for the Shia militias in Iraq, the government of Syria’s Assad, or Hezbollah in Lebanon. While hesitation to become further embroiled may be very much connected to a fear of possible overstretching in the region and the fact that the Houthis are not under Iran’s direct control, It may also be the cane that Teheran has calculated the likelihood of a strong and determined response by Saudi Arabia if it were to step up involvement. Iran’s public declarations call for ceasefire, though they know the balance of power on the ground in Yemen matters a lot since it will transfer to the make-up of any negotiations table. Iran leaves little up to luck. Iranian Revolutionary guards are on the ground in Yemen, Iranian money and aid has been shipped to the Houthis. It should not be a surprise if more money were to be poured in, especially given the funds that will be made available in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal and an unfreezing of assets. Even though weapons may be much more needed than cash, the Houthis will still be more effective in maintaining control and popularity if they have no huge financial challenges.

Saudi Arabia Role

For the leadership in Riyadh, Yemen continues to be a foreign policy priority. The Kingdom acted as patron to Yemen’s government from the 1980s onwards, and it never accepted foreign influence in the country. In the 1960s Egypt’s then president Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to expand his Pan-Arab revolution to Yemen, only to see his efforts neutralized by the Saudis. This time around, as Iran employs their ‘revolution export ‘strategy, similar determination exists in the House of Saud and its key allies to thwart it. No accounting of the current conflict in Yemen would be complete, however, without accounting for terrorist groups. The best way to look at this issue is to understand the historical role of al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and its relatively recent branch of Daesh (The Arabic acronym for the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIL). AQAP is considered the most powerful of al-Qaeda’s branches after the death of Osama Bin Laden.

Moreover, a terrorist group with a long legacy in Yemen. Many men who fought alongside Bin Laden in Afghanistan at the end of the last century came back to Yemen and to found AQAP. Indeed, since 1990, leaders of the largest Islamic military groups in this country have claimed ties to Bin Laden.6 With the creation of AQAP, allegiance to Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al Zawahiri was declared, and has been reasserted repeatedly since. The newly appointed leader of the AQAP Qasm al-Rimi, who assumed his position after the death of Nasir al-Wuhayshi in June2015, made the same oath of allegiance when he took power. With such strong roots in Yemen, it would be difficult for ISIL to take over as a leader in the jihadist movement in the country. Further dividing ISIL and the AQAP is the firm policy of the latter for the gradual establishment of a caliphate when the ‘right conditions’ are met. This is already underway in Yemen and is not an ideology that is shared by the now rival terror group. As far back as 2009, the AQAP issued a recruitment call to aid in establishing an Islamic caliphate in Yemen.

The call anticipated the departure of Saleh from power, and the opportunity was taken at his departure to create new institutions in Yemen toward the goal of the caliphate. Further distinguishing the two groups, AQAP maintains that consultation with respectable scholars and influential leaders in the Ummah are a sine qua non for the establishment of a supranational entity. For AQAP, this serves as a source of unity and legitimacy. It is also cited in the attempts to challenge the authority.

Iran’s Role

Iran is seeking of wider legitimacy speaks to the priority of alliances for AQAP, which has indeed demonstrated success in gathering more allies amongst tribal leaders in Yemen than ISIL. These alliances are largely based on a common interest to deter any advancement of the Houthis, rather than any shared ideals for the future political reorganization of Yemen. Therefore, it is difficult to assess how long these alliances may endure, but, without a better alternative, it is likely the tribes’ current cooperation with AQAP will remain in place as long as Houthi movement provides a need for it. This means AQAP is well positioned to expand its governing territory, at least for the duration of the Yemeni crisis. ISIL may also expand their influence in Yemen, but they are unlikely to be a major player in the crisis.

While the group loyal to al-Baghdadi is increasingly popular in the media, it has had limited success in Yemen. The group will need to be accounted for, however, in the aftermath of the war and during a possible peacemaking process. Both AQAP and ISIL have declared that the Houthis deserve to be killed, however, ISIL has far more extreme methods and are prone to terrorist acts, which deepen the sectarian rift.Each of these parties is operating, moreover, in a country with limited economic prospects. In addition to high unemployment, water and food shortages, oil exports are failing to produce enough revenue for the government, due to the fall in oil prices and declining oil production because of the conflict. This means that the nation is not and will not be economically self-sufficient in the near future. The crisis in Yemen has all of the necessary conditions of a conflict that will continue for many years to come. Pro-Hadi forces have had a few recent successes securing territory in the south, which has further boosted their capabilities, allowing an increase of weapons shipments, as well as military and humanitarian aid in the south.

Conflict’s Unclear Future

The mercurial dynamics of the Yemini conflict and the multiple possible pathways upon which it might develop make planning unclear. Various scenarios explore multiple probable trajectories, and the many stakeholders – both domestic and regional – prefer diverse and conflicting outcomes. What does seem unlikely is that an outcome will be left to the will and capabilities of any one party to determine the outcome alone.

The four scenarios below represent the four poles of possible outcomes that current stakeholders may have to accommodate in any possible solution. The scenarios are fluid and represent a spectrum of possible outcomes. The X-axis represents the stability of Yemen, with outcomes ranging between its two extremes: war and peace. The war extreme examines the possibility of protracted conflict, where the war in Yemen continues at its current level, or even worse, at a heightened level of violence. At the other end of the spectrum is a peaceful solution, which assumes a peaceful resolution to the crisis. While obviously the peaceful solution is desirable, it is important to note that a resolution does not assume positive peace or an imminent reconciliation.

On the contrary, considering that this is a near-term analysis, certain ungoverned territories or sporadic violence should be expected even in the most optimistic future. The Y-axis tackles the issue of integrity. It assumes a possible return to the process of solidifying a unified Yemen, on the one hand, or dividing the territory into two separates entities on the other. ‘Integration’ marks the preservation of the country’s existing borders, regardless of its level(s) of decentralization (e.g. federation), where the opposite extreme reflects the endemic lack of national cohesion and thus represents the possibility of dividing the country in two separate states/territories. Such a scenario includes the possibility of reverting back to the pre-1990 borders, or even an alternative re-drawing of the map.

Stability and integration are key factors for the future of the country. Stability as a criterion is an overarching theme, vital for enabling further discussion on political, economic, and social issues. In other words, depending on the stability of the country and whether there is war or peace in Yemen, different policies should be applied. Integration on the other hand, provides a lens through which to examine key political developments that are equally unpredictable. Ultimately, having one or two countries on Yemen’s current territory would completely change the political landscape, and consequently, the strategies employed to reach a peaceful resolution. Understanding how these two factors combine helps complete the possible pictures of Yemen over the next few years.

Fluid Control and Power

A first scenario, based on Yemen’s current dynamics, plots a possible future for the country along the ‘development’ of the status quo. In this scenario, the country remains undivided as a political unit, but the war is unceasing and offensive operations are continuously being launched. Consequently, different parties gain or lose control of territory based on successful military/insurgent advances. This makes a map of territorial control one that constantly morphs, even within short time intervals. Such a future remains very much like today’s Yemen, where ongoing lashes between the Houthis and pro-Hadi insurgents in large cities like Aden and Taiz have given mixed results for each side. Earlier in the year the Houthis had managed to quickly gain a large territory in their quest to capture Aden, and it was then that they also overtook the al-Anad Air Base in Lahij. With the recent success of the popular resistance troops and Hadi’s supporters in retaking much of that same area, it is also possible that a further Houthi retreat may follow. A similar situation is seen in the battle for Taiz, the battle over which could go on for any length of time.

Warring Territories of Yemen

A second scenario posits that a certain level of war fatigue on the ground will result in a divided Yemeni territory, to be controlled by different groups. War-weariness may not be enough for the warring parties to conclude a peace process and may instead only serve to limit the conflict to the frontlines. A war-weary end to hostilities would simply entrench parties in their positions and focus each on defending areas under their control. The Houthis would then likely control the northern part of current-day Yemen, while the forces loyal to the regime in exile (which would likely return to Yemen under these conditions) could successfully defend the southern and central areas of the country.

Although still divided on how the future political map of Yemen should look, Hadi loyalists and the Southern Resistance (Hirak) are likely to keep a fragile and to a degree united front in the fight against their common enemy. Small areas of ungoverned territory may also exist in the current al-Qaeda controlled areas, with neither party willing or able to conquer the other territories. Under this outcome, the conflict would be expected to manifest through clashes alongthe frontlines, but sporadic terrorist attacks beyond these areas could not be ruled out. Military operations from regional state actors would also likely continue. However, without the ground support of Hadi’s loyalists, the air campaign would likely produce limited results.So far, success in regaining control of territory from the Houthis has been in areas in the south where the Houthi movement does not have massive support. It will be increasingly difficult to repeat these territorial gains in the north, which are areas of Houthi strongholds. This is, why the battle may be limited to the frontlines and over time a de facto disintegrated country could be created, as no institution has authority over the full territory.

Two Yemens

If violence is halted, the future of Yemen will be decided by the largest and most relevant parties in the country, in conjunction with help from the international community. One possible outcome in this direction would be for the negotiators to acknowledge that a Westphalian nation-state is impossible on this territory, and instead conclude an agreement to divide Yemen. This will not be a quick or easy process, but it has significant support in the county, especially in the south. The Popular Committees in the south and Hadi’s army fighting against the Zaidi Shia Islamist group there neither belong to a single tribe nor share a common strategic objective – just a common enemy. Clashes in mid-July – when control over Aden was claimed back from the Houthis – represented for some fighters the liberation of the nation’s second largest city. For the members of the region’s separatist movement, it was a liberation of their old (and possibly future) capital. For Saudi Arabia, this means having in what would become Northern Yemen, a neighbor that is no friend of theirs, and another, Southern Yemen, which will inherit the AQAP problem.

Reconciliation and Coexistence

While currently ineffective, peace negotiations may eventually lead toward a permanent cease-fire and a deal that will preserve the unity of Yemen. This could come to pass in one of two ways. First, as the result of an effective and creative diplomacy, or second, because of the success of Operation Restoring Hope, which seeks to put President Hadiin charge of Yemen and the surrender of the Houthi movement and Saleh’s forces. Whatever means peace talks may emerge, however, the years to follow are sure to be difficult.

Conclusion

One way the road to stability could be eased, is through a possible rebirth of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, or PNPA 2.0. This agreement, or a new form following similar lines, could revive internal political dialogue in the country. A successful agreement would mean that post conflict institutions would have to be agreed upon, and integration of different demographic groups would be expected to take place at various levels in the government. While a clear step forward, a PNPA 2.0 would merely begin the process of reconciliation and give hope for a prolonged stability. An international peacekeeping mission might also be necessary to keep the terms of any agreement in its in initial phases, as a united and relatively stable Yemen could slowly rebuild as a federal system.

However, since the terrorist organizations operating in the country will certainly not be part of the negotiations process, and not seen as a possible actor that could be integrated into the reconstructed national institutions, they will likely remain a problem for the next government of Yemen as well as the international sponsors of the peace process.

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The Qatar World Cup: Soccer upsets, politics, and sensitive situations

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Barely out of the starting blocks, the Qatar World Cup has already produced a fair share of upsets as well as politically and personally sensitive situations and incidents.

Qatar’s 2:0 loss to Ecuador in the tournament’s opening match will have reinforced critics’ conviction that the Gulf state should never have been awarded World Cup hosting rights, among other things, because of its alleged lack of a soccer legacy.

Leaving aside the merits of the allegation and Qatari disappointment, the jury remains out on what Qatar’s return on its massive investment in organising the World Cup will be regarding reputational capital.

For Qatar, the ultimate evaluation of the return will largely depend on how it manages the tournament and potential flare- and hick-ups as dissidents try to turn Iranian matches into venues of protest, activists seek to capitalise on the opportunity to campaign for their cause, and fans refuse to play to Qatari soft power objectives, let alone possible incidents of intoxication, rowdiness, and LGBT-related issues.

So far, the picture constitutes a mixed bag.

Addressing Iranian concerns, Qatar refused to accredit for the World Cup, Iran International, a Saudi-backed, London-based satellite television broadcaster, that the Islamic republic accuses of fomenting months-long anti-government protests that security forces have been unable to squash.

Similarly, to prevent matches from turning into platforms for protest, Qatar stopped Iranian fans from bringing Iran’s pre-revolutionary flag into the country’s first World Cup match against England.

The flag, dating from the time of the shah, toppled in the 1979 Islamic revolution, is viewed as a symbol of protest against Iran’s theocratic government.

That didn’t halt fans holding up signs in the stadium demanding freedom in Iran and pictures of demonstrators killed by security forces.

However, there was little Qatar could do when the Iranian national team refused to sing the country’s national anthem at the beginning of the game.

“I would like to express my condolences to all bereaved families in Iran. They should know that we are with them. And we support them. And we sympathize with them regarding the conditions,” the team’s captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, told journalists hours before the match.

While Qatar’s state-run domestic broadcaster avoided showing female supporters with their hair uncovered in the stadium, Iranian state television interrupted its live broadcast as the Iranian and Ecuadorian anthems were played.

For weeks, footballers have signalled support for the protesters by not celebrating Iranian League goals, wearing black wristbands, and expressing support for the Iranian people without mentioning the protests to evade government retaliation.

Nevertheless, current and former players have been questioned by authorities, detained, or charged with “acting against national security.”

The refusal to sing the national anthem and the team’s embarrassing 6:2 loss to England fed the Iranian government’s worst fear that the World Cup would turn out to be a global platform for dissent rather than a moment of unifying national celebration.

The national team was emboldened by their manager, Carlos Queiroz, who, breaking with FIFA’s fictional separation of politics and sport, insisted that “players are free to protest as they would if they were from any other country as long as it conforms with the World Cup regulations and is in the spirit of the game.”

Overall, Iran has lost in more ways than just on the pitch.

At the start of the year Iran, which sits across the Gulf, had hoped to attract World Cup tourists like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and proposed the crafting of a joint tourism plan with Qatar. Tehran even agreed to forgo the visa requirement for World Cup visitors.

That hope was dashed by the anti-government protests, the failure to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s inability to complete necessary infrastructure on its Kish Island.

The match against England could prove to have been a cakewalk compared to potential friction when Iran meets the United States on the Qatari pitch on November 29 in what is likely to be one of, if not the most politically charged match of the World Cup.

Similarly, Arab fans, reflecting sentiments among some Qataris, made clear that the World Cup would not be a bridge-building event, at least not when it came to relations with Israel and Israelis.

Arabs largely refused to be interviewed by Israeli media. Footage circulating online showed two Saudi fans, a Qatari shopper, and three Lebanese fans walking away from Israeli reporters in a demonstration of the limitations of soccer as a vehicle to build bridges. In another incident, Palestinians chanted “go home” when approached by Israeli reporters.

Qatari media published some videos of sharp encounters between Arab fans, Qatari nationals, and visiting Israelis with the caption: “No to normalization.”

“Sure, most countries in the Arab world are heading towards normalisation – but that’s because most of them don’t have rulers who listen to their people,” said Saudi football fan and oil worker Khaled al-Omri, who travelled to Qatar to support the kingdom’s national team.

The fans’ refusal to engage with Israeli reporters dashed hopes that ten Israeli charter flights ferrying up to 20,000 fans from the Jewish state to the World Cup, the first ever between Tel Aviv and Doha, would herald a new milestone in the normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations following the 2020 establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, has made the conversion of informal ties into formal relations conditional on a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under FIFA rules, Qatar was obliged to grant entry to fans irrespective of whether the Gulf state recognizes the country issuing a supporter’s passport.

In line with the rules, authorities allowed Israeli channels to broadcast from Doha, but unlike other major foreign networks did not provide them with a formal studio.

Protest was not the preserve of Iranians and pro-Palestinian Arabs. Prominent Qataris made statement of their own by wearing a pro-Palestinian armband at the Germany-Japan match after being told that German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser would sport a One Love pro-LGBGT band.

Ironically, Ms. Faeser was sitting in the stadium’s VIP section next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who had just banned players from wearing the One Love band on the pitch in support of LGBT rights.

In response, Germany’s players covered their mouths for the team photo before their opener against Japan.

Mr. Infantino, unmoved by Ms. Faeser’s gesture, apparently saw no contradiction between his ban and FIFA’s opening days later of disciplinary proceedings against Ecuador over homophobic chanting by their fans in the match against Qatar.

Meanwhile, the Qataris had likely forgotten their loss in the euphoria sparked by Saudi Arabia’s 2:1 defeat of favourite Argentina 2:1 the first of two initial World Cup upsets.

“Looking forward to the Japan-Saudi final,” quipped Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer after Japan, in a second soccer upset, beat Germany 2:1.

The New York Times noted in a tweet that the Saudi upset put Argentinian player Lionel Messi, widely viewed as one of soccer history’s best players, in “a strange position” given his agreement to promote Saudi tourism and potentially the kingdom’s joint bid together with Egypt and Greece for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup.

Mr. Messi would potentially be campaigning against his home country, with Argentina planning a rival joint bid with Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile. So far, Spain, Portugal, and Ukraine are the only ones to announce their joint interest officially.

The tweet and a headline in The Athletic, a sports publication that was recently acquired by the Times that accused Mr. Messi of selling himself to the devil, sparked a furious tweet by Mohammed Alyahya, former editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya English.

Staggering racism. It implies Arabs are incompetent & can’t win. It accuses a Latino world hero of corruption. Messi is the greatest footballer today, wealthy & only concerned about legacy. But according to the NYT, he’s a venal traitor in a shady deal with rich Arabs. Shameful,” Mr. Alyahya said.

Contrasting the Saudi victory with the Iranian defeat, author Lee Smith opined:

“The people of the Middle East recognize a strong horse when they see one: That horse is clearly not Iran. By attempting to reenter the Iran deal, fill the regime’s war chests with billions of dollars, and legitimize its nuclear weapons program, the Biden administration is doing something even worse than backing sectarian tyrants who spread death and destruction. It’s backing losers.”

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Further Setbacks over Fragile Iran Nuclear Negotiations Following Death of Mahsa Amini

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image source: Tehran Times

Authors: T-Fai Yeung and K. H. Wong*

On September 13, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, was arrested by the religious morality police of Iran’s government in Tehran, the capital of Iran, for allegedly wearing a hijab that did not meet the standards established by the Iranian authoritarian regime. She died in hospital three days later. Once her death became known, there was public outrage because numerous Iranian people believed that her death was attributed to police brutality. More fundamentally, the Iranians have held numerous grievances due to the long-term oppression of the country’s government. Amini’s death has given rise to large-scale demonstrations in Iran.

Unsurprisingly, the Iranian regime has attempted to suppress the protests, while also accusing the United States and Israel of provoking unrest, with the aim of undermining Iran’s stability. Nonetheless, the official tough stance has yet to crackdown on the so-called “hijab protest”. Analyses suggest that this anti-government protest is different from previous protests in Iran, because it is large-scale and the participants are determined to push for political reform. Given that the Iranian government has failed to curb this civil unrest, some foreign media have suggested a potential government collapse.

However, similar speculations have appeared since then-US President Trump re-imposed US sanctions on Iran. However, it is difficult to judge how far the Iranian regime is from collapsing at this time. It is relatively safe to claim that the hijab protests will hinder negotiations between the West and Iran for the resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Tensions between the West and Iran Have Been Unavoidable

In retrospect, the US, UK, and EU had hoped that the normalization of trade with Iran would be lucrative enough to end the development of the country’s nuclear weapons. However, with Trump at the helm, he unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and reactivated sanctions against the country on the grounds that the relevant agreement was full of loopholes, leaving the possibility of Iran developing its nuclear weapons secretly. Iran has reacted by increasing the production of enriched uranium in a high-profile manner, claiming that this breach of the agreement by the US is the main cause for its action.

It is certainly true that Joe Biden, who defeated Trump in the 2020 US presidential election and assumed office in 2021, has repeatedly shown his desire to re-negotiate with Iran regarding the nuclear deal. However, as some emphasize that Iran is getting closer to possessing nuclear weapons, it would be negligent for the West to re-join the agreement without adding any additional clause. Worse still, Iran’s rigged presidential election last year allowed Ebrahim Raisi (aka the “Butcher of Tehran”) to become president. This sent a signal to the West that the Iranian government has little intention to make compromise. As expected, subsequent negotiations have slowly continued.

It is perhaps true that there is no eternal enemy in international politics; but even if there are common interests, it does not mean that it will help much in narrowing the divergences between two sides. Soon after the West’s sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, the US allegedly wanted to reduce sanctions on Iran to ease the global energy crisis. However, the actual progress of this strategy was not as smooth as rumored. The nationwide hijab protests in Iran have made it even more difficult for the West to ignore Iran’s human rights abuses.

Notably, Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July this year was severely criticized because he had violated his promise of punishing Saudi for its killing of dissident journalist Khashoggi. If Biden made a tolerant gesture towards the Iran authoritarian regime amid the large-scale hijab protests, further criticism of the US president would be a certainty.

Additionally, Iran has recently been blamed for sending attack drones to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. Consequently, the West have been left with little choice but to maintain or even expand sanctions on Iran. Although the EU has not formally echoed the US sanctions against Iran, many European companies have already cut ties with Iran over concerns that they will be sanctioned for maintaining trade relations with Iran. It is therefore likely that relations between the West and Iran will further deteriorate, regardless of the EU’s position on sanctions against Iran.

The West Now Pay the Price for Downplaying Energy Independence in the Past

Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are three of the world’s major energy exporters, but now the West are going through an energy crisis. Furthermore, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia announced earlier that they would cut oil production to protect their own interests. This move may further harm the West’s efforts to mitigate soaring oil prices. Arguably, the energy crisis in the West is the result of overconfidence in global trade liberalization and failure to address the importance of energy independence. Once the major authoritarian energy exporting countries reduce their supply of energy, the hasty response of the West will be like “digging a well when they are thirsty”. The Economist recently warned that Europe’s energy crisis is unlikely to end after this winter, because it is difficult to find alternative sources of energy in the short term.

The West must face its energy and economic crisis; this issue is why many conservatives have claimed that strongman rule has the potential to replace democratic politics. Unfortunately, this type of false dichotomy often misleads many people, and has the potential to push the world to an even more dangerous level.

*K. H. Wong has been a researcher at the Global Studies Institute Hong Kong since March 30, 2022. His commentary articles have appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Linhe Zaobao (Singapore) and Ming Pao Daily News.

An earlier Chinese version of this article appeared in print on October 18, 2022 in Section B, Page 10 of Ming Pao Daily News. 

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Middle East

What Can Baku Expect from Netanyahu’s Return to Power?

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Whenever Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in power, Azerbaijani-Israeli relations always moved in the right direction.  He realised  that Azerbaijan was very strategic for the free world, as a Caspian Sea nation rich in oil that borders the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia.  Indeed, 40% of Israel’s oil originates in Baku, the capital city of a nation that serves as Israel’s  shield against Iran, a country whose leadership butchers and tortures its own people while routinely chanting “death to America” and “death to Israel.”

Relations between Azerbaijan and its southern neighbor Iran have worsened at a time when Netanyahu, who was chosen for his harsh attitude towards Iran, is coming to power for the third time.  One of the most important results of the Second Karabakh War was that the masks were torn off. Of course, the number one friend and ally of Azerbaijan is Turkey. At the same time, during the war, the Azerbaijani state and people witnessed that Israel was a loyal friend and partner of Azerbaijan. Israel did not give the modern weapons it gave to Azerbaijan to another state. Indeed, these are the best examples of friendship and strategic partnership.

The Israeli-Azerbaijani friendship is based on such solid foundations that it has a pace of development regardless of who is in power in Israel. Nevertheless, in any case, one should not forget that Azerbaijani-Israeli relations have been developing especially vigorously during the time when Netanyahu was the prime minister.  Higher results were achieved in the issues of energy and military security, as well as military-technical cooperation. The victory of Netanyahu’s party in the elections can be assessed as a happy event for Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan-Israel relations will most likely rise to a new level, as there are serious grounds for this today. In the meantime, it can be stated that the foundation of Azerbaijan-Israel relations was mainly laid by Netanyahu, notwithstanding the relations between Israel and Azerbaijan have been positive during all Israeli governments.

Cooperation in the security and military fields has been at a high level, especially after the establishment of an Azerbaijani Tourism and Trade Office in Tel Aviv, with a new Azerbaijani Embassy soon to be opened. One cannot expect anything will change here. However, Netanyahu can come to an agreement with some countries around Iran and create a coalition against this state. And due to Iran’s behavior and foreign policy, the surrounding countries except Armenia have become unfriendly countries to the mullah  regime. For Israel now, an alliance with the countries around Iran is more important.  The US has not fully fulfilled Israel’s hopes in the case of Iran. There is an objective reason for this. Today’s US administration still hopes that it will be able to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran.  One can believe that if there is any military operation against Iran, it will affect Azerbaijan as well. Furthermore, now there exists a grounded euphoria in Azerbaijan that Iran will be divided and a whole Azerbaijan will be created.    

Considering this, the government of Israel this time must make Azerbaijan even closer to us and to do everything to make peace in this vital region, as well as to help them stop the extremism within their borders.   The recent arrests of Iranian spies in Azerbaijan are an important step that helps to weaken the Iranian axis in our region.   The establishment of an Azerbaijani Embassy in the State of Israel will be the next step, as it will show Tehran that their fear-mongering and hatred does not intimidate neither Jerusalem nor Baku.   United, Azerbaijan and Israel will stand together in union, working to halt Iran’s hegemony in the region under the alliance of the new Netanyahu-led government and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

I think Israel has an interest to make the Turkic areas and wherever they speak Turkic languages to be in an alliance with us. Creating an independent South Azerbaijan is of critical importance, as it will help to tear apart the mullah’s regime and bring peace and prosperity to our region. Another step that Netanyahu should take is to continue to improve the relationship with Turkey. During the last few months, Turkey has moved back in the right relationship with Israel.  Israel should use this in order to build an alliance against Iran among Turkic countries, who form a strong block in union against Tehran.       

On top of that, I think that Israel must help Azerbaijan to develop Karabakh and to give them different technologies to rebuild the area.  Israeli technology can help to make Karabakh arable and ripe for agriculture again, which will help to address the global grain crisis that was caused by the war in Ukraine.   Just as Azerbaijani oil is the solution to the oil crisis caused by the war with Ukraine, Azerbaijani grain can also be used to fight against the rapid inflation in grain prices caused by the shortages in such a basic staple of food, which is causing hunger among the poorer elements in many developing countries.

According to the World Food Program, “The world is facing a food crisis of unprecedented proportions, the largest in modern history. Millions are at risk of worsening hunger unless action is taken now to respond at scale to the drivers of this crisis: conflict, climate shocks and the threat of global recession. The interplay of these drivers is making life harder each day for the world’s most vulnerable and reversing recent development gains.  As many as 828 million people go to bed hungry every night. The number of those facing acute food insecurity has soared – from 135 million to 345 million – since 2019. A total of 49 million people in 49 countries are teetering on the edge of famine.”

Karabakh has the potential to produce enough grain to address this global crisis.   I know for I was there on two separate occasions.   But in order for that to be possible, Israel must help them to find a solution to the landmine problem, which has left large areas of Karabakh uninhabitable for close to thirty years.   But Israeli robots can easily detect and eliminate these mines even in the absence of landmine maps, which will enable the area to be used for agriculture on a massive scale, especially if used in unison with Israeli agricultural technologies that can help the soil be cleaned up and replenished while overall reducing pollution in the area.  Already, an Israeli-Italian dairy farm is operating in Karabakh and Israel should do more to help improve the agricultural outputs in the region.  

Israel must help Azerbaijan with everything for combatting Iran, the enemy of all the free world which is willing to destroy Azerbaijan just as much as it wishes to destroy us.  This is because Iran sees a majority Shia Muslim country that champions multiculturalism, religious tolerance and women’s rights as a threat to its very existence in the region.  We must give the Azerbaijanis what is necessary in cyber security, satellite, etc. and give them all of the support, so that Tehran and its proxies can be defeated once and for all.    

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