A second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is raising its ugly head. It is putting Middle Eastern leaders at a crossroads as they struggle to contain the disease and tackle its economic fallout.
The question is whether they are getting the message: neither containing and controlling the virus nor economic recovery is a straight shot. Both are likely to involve a process of two steps forward, one step backwards, and no state can successfully tackle the multiples crises on its own.
The Middle East is a part of the world in which conflicts and problems are not just complex but inherently inter-connected. The pandemic poses not only political, economic, and social challenges. It also calls into question regional security arrangements that reinforce fault lines rather than create an environment that allows rivals to collectively manage disputes as well as diseases whose spread is not halted by physical and other boundaries.
At stake is not just regional but also global security. Focused on their own healthcare and economic crises, Western nations ignore Middle Eastern and North African instability at their peril. They risk waking up to threats that could have been anticipated.
Suspected Russian hopes that an end to the Libyan war would allow for the creation of a Russian military base on the southern shore of the Mediterranean that would complement facilities in Syria would be one such impending threat.
“Russia wants a foothold in Libya, and that’s a fact,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyist at the Jamestown Foundation. US officials warned that a permanent Russian presence would enhance Russia’s efforts to weaken the already strained trans-Atlantic alliance.
The prospect of increased Russian influence in the Mediterranean coupled with China’s expanding sway over ports in the Eastern Mediterranean raises the specter of emboldening Turkey as it aggressively seeks to grow its control of energy-rich waters in the region in violation of international law.
“To avoid the worst outcomes for an already fraught region, there is no substitute and frankly no alternative to some form of cooperation among regional actors. . . . With the Middle East likely to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis more fragile and potentially explosive than before, a cooperative architecture that can build regional resilience is an imperative,” said strategist Steven Kenney and international relations scholar Ross Harrison in a just released Washington-based Middle East Institute report.
The economic part of the message is already evident: Putting an end to the pandemic and economic recovery will be a painful and long-drawn-out process.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, and Israel are witnessing first signs of the pandemic’s second wave.
Increasing the likelihood of a cancellation of this year’s Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca scheduled for late July, Saudi Arabia re-imposed a lockdown in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, the haj’s major gateway, after a spike in coronavirus infections. The lockdown involves a two-week, 15-hour curfew from 15:00 p.m. to 06:00 a.m.
A dramatic surge in infections in Iran, averaging 3,000 new cases a day, has rekindled the Middle East’s largest outbreak, weeks after the country appeared to have tamed the virus.
Israel closed dozens of schools and ordered any school reporting a virus case to shut down following a surge in coronavirus cases that swept through classrooms two weeks after they were allowed to reopen.
Mass social and economic protests in Lebanon, a country on the brink of financial collapse, have heightened the risk of a second wave of the pandemic.
The surge bodes ill for economic recovery.
Based on a survey of 1,228 CEOs, the Dubai Chamber of Commerce warned that a staggering 70 percent of businesses in the emirate expect to close their doors within the next six months.
The warning came as the UAE government extended a nightly curfew following a doubling of infections after it eased lockdown restrictions.
Government-backed UAE carriers Emirates and Etihad Airways have since extended reduced pay for staff until September as they try to preserve cash.
Austerity measures threaten to bring the social unrest that has swept the Middle East and North Africa for the past decade closer to the Gulf.
“If it’s temporary, one or two years, I can adapt. My concern is that more taxes will be permanent — and that will be an issue,” said Mohammed, a Saudi government worker after his $266 USD a month cost of living allowance was cancelled and sales taxes were tripled as part of painful austerity measures announced by Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan.
Mr. Mohammed’s words were echoed in a rare pushback against the government by columnist Khalid Al-Sulaiman, writing in the Okaz daily, one of the kingdom’s tightly controlled media outlets.
“I was hoping [the minister] would say [the tax hike] would be reviewed after the coronavirus crisis is gone or contained, or when oil prices improve, but he did not say that. Citizens are feeling concerned that pressure on their living standards will last longer than the current crisis,” Mr. Al-Sulaiman said.
The challenges Gulf states face of an ongoing healthcare crisis and a painful, protracted, and complex road toward economic recovery, coupled with debilitating regional conflicts that not only fester but appear to be expanding, are almost insurmountable obstacles.
Kuwaiti efforts to resolve the rift in the Gulf and pressure by US President Donald J. Trump on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to lift their three-year-old air embargo of Qatar have raised, perhaps prematurely, the hope of an end to the conflict. Although there is no public indication that the parties are willing to seriously engage.
The proxy war in Libya, in which the UAE-backed forces of rebel commander Khalifa Haftar are on the defensive, is extending into the Eastern Mediterranean as Turkey claims rights in energy-rich territorial waters in violation of international law.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi-based English language newspaper The National, despite UAE efforts to reduce tension with Iran, seemed, to stop just short of inviting Israel to attack an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ command and control center on the outskirts of the main airport of Damascus, the capital of Syria.
“For now, the Glass House remains unshattered,” The National said in a detailed expose of the center dubbed The Glass House.
Middle Eastern leaders are confronting the worst pandemic of crises since independence.
Addressing those predicaments requires regional and global leadership which looks beyond immediate survival and ideological and geopolitical rivalries; a leadership which recognizes that stability and solutions to shared threats must be vested in longer term managing and cooperation in tackling common challenges rather than maintaining conflict.
The problem is that few leaders seem willing or able to step up to the plate.
Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia
The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan
As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.
China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.
Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.
As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.
Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.
However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.
In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.
With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.
In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.
Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.
Gulf security: It’s not all bad news
Gulf states are in a pickle.
They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.
The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”
Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.
The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.
Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.
The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.
From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.
Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.
Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.
Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.
Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.
That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.
Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.
The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.
In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.
“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.
There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.
Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women
Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.
The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.
The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.
Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.
That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.
The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.
A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.
The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.
The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.
The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.
Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.
The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.
Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.
In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.
Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.
To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.
Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.
It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.
The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.
It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.
An Airplane Dilemma: Convenience Versus Environment
Mr. President: There are many consequences of COVID-19 that have changed the existing landscape due to the cumulative effects of...
Vaccination, Jobs, and Social Assistance are All Key to Reducing Poverty in Central Asia
As the pace of economic recovery picks up, countries in Central Asia have an opportunity to return to pre-pandemic levels...
Wagner: Putin’s secret weapon on the way to Mali?
France is outraged at the prospect of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group arriving in Mali. However, Paris is seeking...
Why Traders Should Never Miss Forex Trading Investment Opportunities
Trading forex is a great opportunity to make money if you know how to do it right. Some of the...
The Emerging “Eastern Axis” and the Future of JCPOA
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh recently said that Tehran would further strengthen its ties with Moscow via a strategic...
There Is No Business, Like Small Business: New Strategy
Once upon a time, all big businesses of the world were only small businesses. However, occasionally, when big businesses classified...
Let’s play the squid game: but we play for our planet this time
Squid game is a current Netflix’s trend series and no one can escape from its influence. The world has Squid...
Defense4 days ago
China Says U.S.-China War Is Imminent
Defense3 days ago
The U.S. may not involve military confrontation in the South China Sea
Europe3 days ago
Is Kosovo Threatened by the European Far-Right? A Commentary on Forza Nuova and its Balkan Connections
Economy3 days ago
The Philippines’ Circular Future
Americas4 days ago
Hunter Biden Shows How to Become a Leading Artist in America
News4 days ago
China and Eurasia Rethinking Cooperation and Contradictions in the Era of Changing World Order
Arts & Culture2 days ago
Squid Game, Style influence and Sustainable consumption
Middle East4 days ago
Gulf security: It’s not all bad news