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Parliamentary elections in Iran and how they affect domestic and global policies

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On February 21 the Islamic Republic of Iran held parliamentary elections to the country’s Majlis, a unicameral parliament known as Majlis of Islamic Council. Simultaneously, it held midterm elections of seven members of the Assembly of Experts.

Before analyzing the election outcome, it would be appropriate to say a few words about the peculiarities of the legislative power in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The specifics of legislative power in Islamic Republic of Iran

The longest section of the Iranian Constitution – Chapter VI – is devoted to the legislative branch of government, represented by the Majlis. In accordance with this chapter, the total number of parliamentary deputies is 290, of them 285 are elected by a general vote, one deputy is elected by the Zoroastrian and Jewish communities, two deputies are elected from the Armenian community and one representative is elected by the Assyrians and Christians.

Elections are held once every four years.

Under the current Constitution the parliament – Majlis – is authorized to initiate legislation in all spheres of human activity, to exercise control of the activities of top government officials (the president, ministers), including the appointment of ministers and hearings on their performance. Majlis has the right to carry out inquiries in any areas of public activity and is empowered to announce the impeachment of the president, demand that the president be removed from office, express a vote of no confidence in the government or some of its ministers. (The final decision rests with the Supreme Leader).

Parliamentary activity cannot run counter to the official state religion or the Constitution. Responsibility for ensuring that Majlis does not breach the Islamic principles or violate the Constitution lies with the Supervisory Board, or the Council for Monitoring the Observance of the Constitution.

This supra-parliamentary organ, the Supervisory Board, consists of 12 members, 6 of which (representatives of the Islamic clergy) are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and the other 6 (lawyers) are appointed by the Majlis.

The main function of the Supervisory Board is to make sure that the bills, laws and activities of officials comply with the Constitution. The Council approves Majlis decisions on candidates for key posts, including the president, deputies of the Majlis, members of Islamic councils and government ministers. It has the right to return any bill for finalization by the Majlis or veto any parliamentary decision, as well as to make amendments to the Constitution.

The Supervisory Board is empowered to monitor the elections of members of the Council of Experts (the main function of which is to elect the Supreme Leader), the president of the republic, the Majlis, as well as referendums and other forms of expression of public opinion. The SB has the right to reject candidates for the presidency, for the Majlis or the Council of Experts, as well as to abolish laws that run counter to the Constitution and Islamic principles.

The history of Iran knows instances of acute differences between the Supervisory Board and the Majlis which de facto blocked the adoption of major laws and forced the government to work in a legislative vacuum. In order to avoid such deadlocks, the Expediency Council was set up in 1988 to consider the appropriateness of the decisions taken and make the final decision in the event of disagreement between the Majlis and the SB. In later years, the powers of this Council were expanded to embrace supervision of the activities of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, the armed forcesetc.

Throughout the entire history of the IRI the Majlis has been the center of debates and the scene of open (or closed) political battles. Opposition representatives use the Majlis to voice their discontent with the policies of president or the government.

The role of the Iranian parliament becomes clear from the fact that in the past 40 years there wasn’t a government proposed by the newly elected president and fully and unanimously approved by the Majlis at first go. Under pressure from the Majlis the presidents had to replace ministers or have them as acting ones.

Of course, the Iranian Majlis does not play a major role in political decision-making. Important decisions are usually the result of informal negotiations within the political and clerical elite of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the presence of the Supreme Leader, in his office, or in the High Council of National Security.

Nevertheless, the Iranian parliament creates the appropriate decision-making atmosphere and lays the foundation of political activity in the country. The Majlis is able to assist the activities of the government or, conversely, impede or even obstruct the implementation of executive agenda.

The specifics of political landscape in IRI

The specific feature of the Iranian political landscape since the second half of the 1980s has been the formation of three ideological trends in Islamic political discourse which reflected the presence of differences within the establishment on a number of issues. These ideological trends, which can be identified as liberal-reformist, pragmatic and radically conservative, after surviving numerous transformations and changing some of their positions, still determine the development of political processes in Iran. Each of these wings have their own flanks, their own factions of the moderate, the centrists and the radicals, who are  “waging battles” as well but within the framework of a single system of political values. Fairly often, representatives of these factions change their political coloring and join the ranks of their former opponents. For this reason, analysts signal the presence of only two political affiliations: the liberal – reformists and the radical conservatives. In all likelihood, this interpretation of the political scene in Iran makes sense, the more so since the presence, as said above, of moderate factions, the centrists and the radicals in these groups makes the political landscape in the country more complicated and at the same time more colorful.

For three decades, representatives of opposing factions alternately led the executive and legislative branches and tried to put their ideas into practice. At times, their rivalry escalated so much that it turned into a grave conflict which deteriorated to involve wider sections of the society but never to an extent when it could pose a threat to the stability of the regime. At the most critical times, the intervention of the Supreme Leader balanced the situation. It should be mentioned that the fierce political struggle between representatives of the opposing doctrines has been waged exclusively within the bounds of the Islamic regime, for its preservation, strengthening and prosperity (and, of course, for power). The differences can only be found in the tactics.

The Iranian Nuclear Program (INP) has become a major factor in the country’s foreign and domestic policy since the exposure of its secret aspects in 2003. The INP triggered the anti-Iranian resolutions of the UN Security Council in 2006-2010, as well as the introduction of international and unilateral sanctions against Iran, which led to a profound economic crisis of 2012-2015.

On the other hand, the INP led reformist liberals who insisted on “nuclear talks” into Iran’s power structures. In 2013, a liberal (by Iranian standards), Hassan Rouhani, assumed the presidency, formed a government of his supporters, brilliantly held talks with permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union, in 2015 concluded a most important nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) , which led to the lifting of anti-Iranian sanctions. The spectacular victory of Rouhani became the  foundation of his policy, opening broad prospects for the development of Iran, for its participation in international cooperation.

However, the radical groups opposed to Hassan Rouhani, first of all, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), used their presence in the Majlis, as well as the Institute of Islamic Councils, primarily the Supervisory Board, to thwart Rouhani’s attempts to carry out at least limited reforms. Meanwhile, corruption and poor management (including of financial and economic processes) “ate away” at the opportunities provided by the JCPOA.

In these no-easy circumstances US President Trump dealt a blow against the JCPOA, removing the United States from the agreement and announcing sanctions against Iran. The blow came as devastating for the Iranian economy, striking at the standard of living of the Iranians, at the liberal reformatory wing of the Iranian political establishment, against the fundamental principles of foreign and domestic policy of President Rouhani.

The radicals saw their chance! The radical-conservative opposition, taking advantage of the moment, accused the president of inability to handle the situation and the entire country and launched preparations for assuming control of power.

Majlis Elections 2020   

Elections to the Iranian parliament have become the most important political event of  the year 2020. The radicals and conservatives went to the polls well-prepared.

First, let’s consider a few figures. Of the nearly 83 million Iranians, 57.9 million are eligible to vote. 54,611 polling stations were opened in 208 constituencies.

Of the more than 16 thousand bids for participation in the elections as candidates for parliamentary deputies (including from 782 women), 7148 were approved for 290 seats in the Majlis. The Supervisory Board disqualified 60% of the applicants, which marked the highest dropout rate since the 1979 Revolution. The overwhelming majority of the dropouts were representatives of the liberal reformists and moderate centrists. Among them were 90 members of the current Majlis.

As a result, many supporters of the reformists and of the moderate decided to boycott the elections. And not only them. Many Iranians could no longer trust the regime, the president, the government, and the Majlis, which had failed to do anything to improve the worsening conditions of ordinary citizens. It is necessary to add that this time the turnout was influenced by the coronavirus epidemic from Chinese Wuhan which seriously affected Iran. Some voters, especially those  politically inactive, might have refrained from going into the polls for fear of catching infection.

Indeed, the February 21 turnout turned out to be a record low in the entire history of the Majlis elections after the Revolution in Iran – 42.57% of the total number of registered voters (24.6 million people). The average for the previous 10 parliamentary elections was about 60%, while the minimum stood at 51%.

According to the election results, conservative radicals who call themselves “principalists”, that is, defenders of the principles of the Islamic Revolution and the legacy of the founder of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, won a crushing victory. According to estimates, they got 223 of the 290 seats possible. In the previous Majlis, there were about 120 representatives of the radical-conservative political wing.

The coalition of reformers and moderates managed to get only 20 seats. In the previous parliament, about 140 deputies represented their interests. Thus, their result worsened seven times.

Another 36 deputies are independent candidates, that is, they do not belong to either of the two camps. The fate of 11 more seats will become clear in the second round, which will be held on April 17. One representative of the reformers and one woman have a good chance to win, so the number of women in the new Majlis may increase to 17.

In Tehran, a coalition of conservatives and hard-liners led by the former mayor of the Iranian capital, Mohammad Bagher Halibaf , won all 30 seats granted to the city. Halibaf received 1.2 million votes. In the opinion of many political analysts,  he may become Speaker of the new Majlis.

The “principalists” won a victory, not least because of the low turnout. This victory raises the issue of the legitimacy of the future parliament. Observers indicate: of  the 24.6 million people who turned out 77% voted for the conservatives, that is, 19 million of the 57.9 million eligible to vote, which is one third. Such low support for hard-liners is fraught with serious consequences in the future. And, what is important is that reform supporters are clearly keeping a low profile.

A survey conducted by ISPA (Iranian Student Interview Agency) a few days before the election revealed that in Tehran, for example, the number of students who intended to boycott the election was double the number of those who were planning to go to the polls – 44% against 21 %.

So, conservative radicals took upper hand in the struggle for the Majlis. What’s next?

Possible scenarios for developments in and around Iran

The 11th Iranian Majlis will get down to work in May. Presumably, in the first months of its activity the “parliament of the hard liners” will not make any drastic political moves, especially in the international scene.

Top on the agenda will be domestic policies – preparations for the presidential election in May 2021. President Hassan Rouhani and his government, the only state body controlled by reformers, will be number one enemy for the radicals. Of course, impeachment of the president and resignation of the government would be a perfect option for deputies of the Majlis. But the Supreme Leader, in the current circumstances, is unlikely to allow such a political explosion with unpredictable consequences.

Most likely, the newly elected deputies will start a “cold war” against the president and his team in order to blemish the activities of the reformers and deprive them of any chance of vying for the presidency and stop any of Rouhani’s supporters from entering the new government, which will be formed by the new president in 2021 (after serving for two terms, Rouhani cannot run again).

Prior to the presidential elections the new Majlis is likely to completely block the activities of the president and his government and will change the country’s political agenda not in favor of moderate forces.

Undoubtedly, anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Western propaganda will intensify. Measures will be tightened inside the country to prevent the penetration of Western ideology and culture. There will be a fierce fight against violators of Islamic principles and carriers of alien ideas.

As for foreign policy, the JCPOA will remain key. Two scenarios are possible in this respect.

The first, under which Iran is unlikely to perform any political somersaults, covers the period until the May presidential elections in Iran. This period also embraces the presidential elections in the USA in November 2020. Under this scenario, te “principalists” – anti-Westerners will still seek ways to address the issue of sanctions and the JCPOA as a whole, possibly through dialogue (with Europe and even with the USA ). After all, by and large, Tehran has no alternative but negotiations given that the economic and foreign policy position of Iran is becoming increasingly complicated. Not to mention the oil embargo, in 2019, not only trade with Europe collapsed by 74%. Hopes for finding an alternative in the East also crumbled: the long tentacles of American sanctions significantly cut down the volume of trade with China (-34%) and India (-79%).

In addition, Britain, France and Germany have launched a dispute resolution mechanism under the JCPOA, which could lead to the resumption of  international sanctions against Iran.

On the election day 21.02.2020, FATF after several warnings blacklisted Iran after President Rouhani failed to convince his opponents to ratify the Palermo Convention  and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.

Under the second scenario, the situation around the IRI may infuriate the radicals causing them to resort to extreme measures. Amid the intensifying differences with the West it could mean a withdrawal (possibly gradual) from the JCPOA, from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) with lessening control over the INP from the IAEA.

Simultaneously, Tehran is likely to step up efforts to restore its nuclear infrastructure with a view to creating the conditions for the production of nuclear weapons.

This, as one might say, is the saddest option for the country. Presumably, neither Israel nor the United States will put up with Iran’s deliberate moves in the nuclear field with the prospect of an atomic bomb. They will surely try to get rid of such a threat by force. And this, of course, means a war.

Incidentally, the second scenario could take effect after the presidential elections in the USA and Iran, that is, upon completion of the first soft scenario. Though, before that, much can change in the world, in the Middle East and in Iran, where the “silent majority” may still manifest themselves and begin to act against the radicals.

However, whatever the scenario – soft or hard, Iran will likely be moving more and more away from progressive social and economic reforms at home. Led by the radicals, Tehran will expand the “hybrid war” against its regional and world opponents, and will toughen its foreign policy, which will become an explosive factor.

Hopefully, the pragmatic politicians, who are quite a few among the radical conservative bloc, will prevent the events from following the military scenario.

In general, we can state for sure that today in Iran we are witnessing the strengthening of the conservative wing of the Iranian establishment as a result of the influence of numerous internal and external factors, not least the aggressive and ill-considered policy of US President Donald Trump on  the withdrawal from the JCPOA and introduction of austerity sanctions against Tehran !

From our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

Biden’s Opportunity To Reset Relatons With The Muslim World Begins In Istanbul

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When President Obama delivered his famous speech at Cairo University in June of 2009, it was an historic moment. The symbolism of a sitting U.S President speaking to Muslims, and not about them, was refreshing and enormously impactful. America’s first African American President opened his speech with “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning, between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” 

It appeared to many the world was changing and with American leadership, the global community was embarking on a new era of understanding between East and West.

Obama’s speech hit all the right notes: he acknowledged the contributions of Muslims throughout history. He recognized the common humanity between Muslims and people of other faiths. He disavowed the narrative of an inevitable civilizational divide. And he emphasized the need to support democratic reforms in the Muslim world. He reiterated the right of Palestinians to a dignified living, promised to leave “Iraq to Iraqis,” and sought to prioritize diplomacy over war in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. 

A year and half later Obama’s message would be tested by the Arab Spring. As Muslim communities across the Arab world rose up against autocratic rule demanding freedom and democracy, the Obama White House struggled to support the people. The optimism that followed his Cairo speech had fizzled.  

The pledge to establish a “new beginning” was neglected during Obama’s presidency and then destroyed by President Trump’s divisive policies. Since his inauguration, Trump has taken a wrecking ball to America’s relationship with Muslims at home and around the world. He claimed that “Islam hates us,” and on his first day in office fulfilled his campaign promise to ban visitors from several Muslim-majority countries. On election day this year, he tweeted warning that his rival, Joe Biden, will increase “refugees from terrorist nations.”  President Trump’s one serious claim of progress toward Middle East peace, the Abraham Accords, was viewed by many as little more than a last-ditch effort to deliver a foreign policy victory for Trump in time for his reelection bid. The Accords willfully left out the Palestinians, the most crucial stakeholders in the conflict, leaving a hollow agreement with few guarantees for a lasting peace. 

More than a decade after the Cairo speech, the divide between East and West seems to have only deepened.  Muslims feel the world is at war with them – fueled not only by American military actions but by the continued persecution of Muslims in Burma, Kashmir, China and elsewhere. There is a sense that Islam’s most revered symbols are under attack, and that Muslim identity is suspect in the eyes of many in the West.

However, the picture is not entirely dark. As the Trump era comes to a close, there is an opportunity for President-elect Biden to pick up where Obama left off in 2009: a chance to reset the partnership between America and the Muslim world.  This opportunity passes straight through Istanbul. If in 2009 Egypt represented “the heart of the Arab world”, to reset ties with the Muslim world today, Biden will need Turkey. 

The centrality of Turkey to the Muslim world and The East today is undisputed. Tens of thousands of Muslim dissidents and human rights defenders from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya have taken refuge in Turkey.  Istanbul has become a hub of diaspora intellectual activism. Because of a leadership vacuum in the Muslim world, Turkey continues to emerge as the champion of Muslims under persecution, and that role resonates with Muslims around the world. 

Turkey took the lead in launching the Alliance of Civilizations in 2005 to combat extremism and broker deeper understanding between Muslim societies and the West, this project now comprises 146 members including member states and international organizations.  The pluralistic Islam practiced in Turkey today is more representative of Muslim communities around the world and starkly different from the Wahhabi-influenced regimes of the Arabian Gulf, with whom Trump became very friendly during his tenure. 

Turkey is also a critical NATO ally, with the second largest military contribution. Trump’s continual attacks on NATO have challenged and weakened the world’s strongest military alliance. Biden will need Turkey’s assistance to strengthen NATO to meet new regional challenges, especially with Russia, as well. 

Although Turkey’s human rights record is not perfect and its democracy has been tested since the failed military coup of 2016, the government has shown commitment to democratic principles, and its institutions and civil society continue to be lightyears ahead of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle Eastern.

Turkey today can be the bridge between the West and the Muslim World, mending the deepened rift and launching that new beginning promised by Obama eleven years ago.  When Biden used the word inshallah, which means “God-willing” in Arabic, during a presidential debate, Muslims in America and abroad took note. Muslim American turnout in critical battleground states like Michigan was decisive in his favor. Biden should capitalize on the momentum of his gesture to re-engage with the Muslim world and repair America’s image around the world. The destination of his first foreign trip could even be to Istanbul, to listen and to signal change. It would represent the metaphoric start of a new chapter.

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Covid-19 Vaccine: A Mutual Partnership between Morocco and China

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Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Kingdom of Morocco (1958), a strong and rapid strategic development of mutual ties categorized contemporary collaboration.

On August 31th 2020, King Mohammed VI held telephone talks with Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, which falls within the framework of the existing friendship between the two countries, which was strengthened through the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Establishment of the People’s Republic of China. A strategic partnership was signed by the King and Chinese President during the royal visit to Beijing in May 2016.

The phone talks between King Mohammed VI and the President of the People’s Republic of China touched on the development of bilateral relations in all fields, especially political dialogue, economic cooperation, and cultural and humanitarian exchanges. King Mohammed VI and President Xi Jinping also discussed the partnership between the two countries in combating “Covid-19”.

According to Moroccan Newsmedia, Minister of Health Khalid Ait Taleb is expressed his satisfaction with the signing up of a cooperation agreement between Morocco and China National Biotec Group Limited (CNBG) on the COVID-19 vaccine trials. This shared Moroccan-Chinese collaboration will allow the Kingdom of Morocco to be among the prior served in terms of the vaccine against the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, he added, under his Majesty, The Kingdom of Morocco would be able to take part in creating vaccines in sense of the exchange of Chinese expertise. Though, to strengthen the Sino-Morocco strategic partnership, to boost both countries’ international solidarity and promote health cooperation.

The issue of discovering an anti-“Covid-19” vaccine still raises several controversies, and altercations especially since the kingdom of Morocco issued its participation in the clinical trials of the Chinese vaccine, but without giving any details about how these trials were conducted, or, knowing its initial outcomes.

Accordingly, despite those who attempt to question it, China’s vaccines constitute a trendy choice because they are affordable and can be distributed in a substantial and more successful capacity. Yet, several states which face similar economic issues, people, and ambiance-based impediments are likely to see China’s vaccines as the obvious choice. That does not mean it will be the sole state they do trade with, as several of the states have more than one trade partner.

Though, Chinese vaccines have a competitive price and making capacity, allowing developing countries like Morocco a way out of the pandemic as fast as possible. Unlike European companies, is not only about business; China has also agreed to give billions of vaccines.

China has timely released the latest vaccines information, China’s vaccines are gaining international steam and a growing number of states are following up to obtain them. Whilst the achievements of Moderna and Pzifer are widely lauded, in the end, these companies only complete a part of the jigsaw in ending the COVID-19 crisis. Not everyone has the privilege or infrastructure to buy them. Therefore, the accomplishment of SinoVac, CanSino, and SinoPharm are set to play a significant role in making a difference for billions of people around the world.

According to Jamal Eddine Bouzidi, a doctor specializing in chest diseases, allergies, and immunology, president of the Moroccan Association for Fighting Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases, pointed out: “They say that the Chinese vaccine is purely safe, but to make sure of that.” You must wait for a long time because there are side effects that may appear after a period of up to two years or after months at least. Therefore, we might say that it is 100% safe. “

He added, “All vaccines that are produced around the globe go through many phases in the laboratory, then they are analyzed and checked on mammals and followed by humans. And when tested on humans, they also go through three stages; and during each stage, the number” of people subject to testing, so that the effects are discovered. Side effects of the vaccine and its effectiveness. “

Under such circumstances, The Moroccan minister noted that the vaccine, according to the statements of Chinese officials, is successful at a rate of between 97 and 98 percent, and is given in two doses with a difference of 14 days, and the antibodies are manufactured within a month and can sustain in the blood to defend the body for two years. “The vaccine experiments will originally involve volunteers as of next week,” the official said.

Ait Taleb highlighted that the agreements reached will allow Morocco to have its vaccine as soon as possible with the help of our Chinese health expertise. The signing of the agreements will allow Morocco to launch its first experience of clinical trials.

Meanwhile, Al-Bouzidi considered that what is being said is the “only guess”, indicating that the near-term side effects of this vaccine are high temperature, a little fatigue, slight pain at the injection site, and some tremors. The long-term symptoms are not yet known.

As acknowledged by Chinese officials, “Jun Mao” said the signing of the agreements paves the “excellence of strategic relations between China and Morocco in terms of cooperation against COVID-19, which is entering a new phase.” The Chinese diplomat Mao reaffirmed that Rabat and Beijing’s commitment to deepening their cooperation through the clinical trials. He said he hopes the newly-signed agreement will yield “decent results” as soon as possible for the peoples of the two countries.

In conclusion, China has big expectations for the Kingdom of Morocco as the latter has an extreme pond of resources to spur its anticipated vision and China’s economic growth. As a superpower, China’s motive in partnership with Africa through the creation of more legality and impartial world order places the East Asian giant is a powerful stand to provide more substantial aid to Africa under win-win cooperation.

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The Muslim world’s changing dynamics: Pakistan struggles to retain its footing

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Increasing strains between Pakistan and its traditional Arab allies, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, is about more than Gulf states opportunistically targeting India’s far more lucrative market.

At the heart of the tensions, that potentially complicate Pakistan’s economic recovery, is also India’s ability to enhance Gulf states’ capacity to hedge their bets amid uncertainty about the continued US commitment to regional security.

India is a key member of the Quad that also includes the United States, Australia and Japan and could play a role in a future more multilateral regional security architecture in the Gulf.

Designed as the backbone of an Indo-Pacific strategy intended to counter China across a swath of maritime Asia, Gulf states are unlikely to pick sides but remain keen on ensuring that they maintain close ties with both sides of the widening divide.

The mounting strains with Pakistan are also the latest iteration of a global battle for Muslim religious soft power that pits Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Turkey, Iran, and Asian players like Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Islamic movement.

A combination of geo- and domestic politics is complicating efforts by major Muslim-majority states in Asia to walk a middle line. Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Shiite Muslim minority, has reached out to Turkey while seeking to balance relations with its neighbour, Iran.

The pressure on Pakistan is multi-fold.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan charged recently that the United States and one other unidentified country were pressing him to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

Pakistani and Israeli media named Saudi Arabia as the unidentified country. Representing the world’s second most populous Muslim nation, Pakistani recognition, following in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain, would be significant.

Pakistan twice in the last year signalled a widening rift with the kingdom.

Mr. Khan had planned to participate a year ago in an Islamic summit hosted by Malaysia and attended by Saudi Arabia’s detractors, Turkey, Iran and Qatar, but not the kingdom and a majority of Muslim states. The Pakistani prime minister cancelled his participation at the last moment under Saudi pressure.

More recently, Pakistan again challenged Saudi leadership of the Muslim world when Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi complained about lack of support of the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for Pakistan in its conflict with India over Kashmir. The OIC groups the world’s 57 Muslim-majority nations. Mr. Qureshi suggested that his country would seek to rally support beyond the realm of the kingdom.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on a visit to Pakistan earlier this year, made a point of repeatedly reiterating his country’s support for Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute.

By openly challenging the kingdom, Mr. Qureshi was hitting Saudi Arabia where it hurts most as it seeks to repair its image tarnished by allegations of abuse of human rights, manoeuvres to get off on the right foot with incoming US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, and fends off challenges to its leadership of the Muslim world.

Pakistan has not helped itself by recently failing to ensure that it would be removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, despite progress in the country’s legal infrastructure and enforcement.

Grey listing causes reputational damage and makes foreign investors and international banks more cautious in their dealings with countries that have not been granted a clean bill of health.

Responding to Mr. Qureshi’s challenge, Saudi Arabia demanded that Pakistan repay a US$1 billion loan extended to help the South Asian nation ease its financial crisis. The kingdom has also dragged its feet on renewing a US$3.2 billion oil credit facility that expired in May.

In what Pakistan will interpret as UAE support for Saudi Arabia, the Emirates last week included Pakistan on its version of US President Donald J. Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

Inclusion on the list of 13 Muslim countries whose nationals will no longer be issued visas for travel to the UAE increases pressure on Pakistan, which relies heavily on exporting labour to generate remittances and alleviate unemployment.

Some Pakistanis fear that a potential improvement in Saudi-Turkish relations could see their country fall through geopolitical cracks.

In the first face-to-face meeting between senior Saudi and Turkish officials since the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, the two countries’ foreign ministers, Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Mevlut Cavusoglu, held bilateral talks this weekend, on the sidelines of an OIC conference in the African state of Niger.

“A strong Turkey-Saudi partnership benefits not only our countries but the whole region,” Mr. Cavusoglu tweeted after the meeting.

The meeting came days after Saudi King Salman telephoned Mr. Erdogan on the eve of a virtual summit hosted by the kingdom of the Group of 20 (G20) that brings together the world’s largest economies.

“The Muslim world is changing and alliances are shifting and entering new, unchartered territories,” said analyst Sahar Khan.

Added Imtiaz Ali, another analyst: “In the short term, Riyadh will continue exploiting Islamabad’s economic vulnerabilities… But in the longer term, Riyadh cannot ignore the rise of India in the region, and the two countries may become close allies – something that will mostly likely increase the strain on Pakistan-Saudi relations.”

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