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Confronting a Pandemic of Crises, Few Middle Eastern Leaders Step Up

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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

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

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Middle East

Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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Why the West Want to Stop Iran Becoming a Nuclear Power?

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Iran is a regional powerhouse in the Middle East only rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is centuries old in terms of sectarian differences of Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The thousand year of schism of Islam presents in the Middle East. Moreover, the Islamic Revolution made Iran a fundamentalist impulsive state hostile to the West and Sunni neighbors. Iran is trying to be a nuclear power since 2007 following the great powers and other nuclear states. Iran has always interpreted its nuclear ambition as only to acquire energy and always express against use it as weapon. But this is not true at all as it is going to acquire it to show power against the rival Saudi Arab, the West and USA. There are convictions that the Western Powers let India, Pakistan and Israel to be a nuclear power but they are now against Iran. But this is not the case as several Reasons are behind to stop Iran to be a nuclear power.

Firstly, if Iran becomes a nuclear power, it will simply emerge as the sole regional superpower in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the ally of the West will not be a match for Iran. The Middle Eastern ‘balance of power’ will not be maintained. This will lead to very severe repercussions and the chance of maintaining future ‘balance of power’ in the reason will be in disarray. As a result, Saudi Arabia will want to acquire nuclear weapon to counter Iran in the region. As Saudi Arabia has money, either it can acquire nuclear weapon by researching or to buy weapons or technology from Pakistan.

From 1990s, Pakistan is selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. As the economy of Pakistan is in great disarray, it might sell its nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia for billons of dollar. Turkey might try to acquire nuclear weapon to counter Saudi Arabia and the Egypt will want to acquire nuclear weapon to counter Turkey. It will start a sick competition in the Middle East to acquire the nuclear weapons which later may spread throughout the world. The efforts of Nuclear Proliferation will be null and void in a decade.

Another problem will arise if Iran becomes a nuclear power in terms of the failure of calculating nuclear deterrence. It is not unknown that USA acquired nuclear power first, then USSR acquired to counter or balance the power of USA, then it was the beginning of arms race. India acquired nuclear weapon to balance China in the region after the loss of 1962 war. Pakistan countered Indian nuclear power as it is unable to fight and win a war against a mighty power like India. Western powers primarily imposed sanctions on them but later withdrew. But if Iran acquired it, the nuclear deterrence or the calculation of nuclear war threats will be complicated. Who will counter who, who will attack who the probability or the calculation of the probability will be huge. There will be miscalculations and chances of total devastating war will be huge. Nuclear power Israel might attack Iran as preemptive action. In this indicating situation, Waltzs’ nuclear deterrence does not work.

Secondly, Iranian world view and ideology does not support the idea of Westphalia world order. The leaders of Iran and its revolution including Ayatollah Khomeini declared in 2013, they want to unite the believers (Muslim Ummah); they want to vanquish the dominance of the Western powers, USA and its allies. Iran is now influenced by Radical Islamist Syed Qutb according to Henry Kissinger, and working both with Shiite and Sunni Radical organization. According to Kissinger, Iran has connection to Al-Qaeda and Taliban as they armed them. Iranian leadership thinks that they are on a Holy War (Jihad) against the unbelievers and these ideas are making the nuclear program even threatening. If Iran has nuclear weapon, can be in the hands of terrorist organizations or the radical and impulsive leadership might be threat to the nearby states, US allies, Russia, China or Israel. Any impulsive leadership can use it to wipe out the unbelievers in fighting a Jihad. Even they can use the nuclear arms as bargaining chip with the West or neighboring countries as North Korea did.

Thirdly, Iran already has its own nuclear delivery system and missile technologies. This made Iran a more ready nuclear power than previous nuclear powers like India and Pakistan, have been. So the only way to inhibit the nuclear capability of Iran is to reduce its capability to enrich Uranium. Iran has thousands of Uranium centrifuges and they wanted to reduce capacity of the half of the centrifuge to only 5 percent Uranium. According to Iran they will not enrich Uranium to 20 percent. This 20 percent Uranium is not important as 5 percent Uranium as this 5 percent Uranium is the threshold from where in a few months Iran can produce weapon category Uranium which make Iran as more unreliable.

In 2015 Iran signed Joined Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear treaty with the five members of United Nations Security Council (P5) plus Germany which is called P5+1. As a result sanctions were withdrawn from Iran by the West. Ex-President Donald Trump declared withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and imposed the sections on Iran. Iran in 2019, Iran breached the limit set on the deal and IAEA confirmed it. After the Baghdad Airstrike killed Qasem Solaimani, Iran wanted to increase its nuclear capability. The good news is, in December 2020, America desired to rejoin the deal, and the new Biden administration is working on it.

Iran is a pivotal country in the Middle East. Anything Iran does may echo in the region. Middle East is already a complicated region with a lot of conflict and potential problematic issues. To sustain peace in the region including the balance of power, world powers are working on it. Time will tell how fruitful the initiatives are. The West must ensure that Iran respect and be a part of the Westphalia order which is a good start.

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Escalation of violence in Jerusalem

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Image source: protothema.gr

According to some analysts, a clause of the Emirates-Bahrain and Israel agreements opens the door to the prayers of Jews in the sacred place

On the afternoon of May 10, the Al-Qassem brigade in Gaza gave an ultimatum to the Israeli occupiers to leave the Al-Aqsa complex and release the prisoners. An hour later, missiles were fired from Gaza towards Jerusalem. An anti-tank missile was fired at an Israeli army jeep near the Gaza border. Subsequently, other volleys of missiles were fired by other resistance groups at targets near Gaza.

The Israeli military canceled the start of a large-scale maneuver it had planned to carry out over the next 30 days. That move was seen as a preparation for an all-out attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yesterday Hezbollah announced a general mobilization of its forces to deter a potential surprise attack. Israeli troops are now on alert for potential escalation within Israel and Gaza. After four elections, Israel still does not have a new government. Prime Minister Netanyahu is on trial for corruption. A broader war that can turn into a victory could help him avoid judgment and get votes in the next election. According to Jewish tradition, the ancient Jewish temple was located exactly where the Al-Aqsa mosque is now located. The Zionist movement aspires to rebuild the third temple, but in order to do so they must first remove the mosque.

According to an investigation by Terrestrial Jerusalem (TJ) an Israeli non-governmental organization, the claims contained in the normalization agreements between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Israel (known as the “Abraham Accords”) mark a “radical change in the status quo and have far-reaching and potentially explosive consequences ”. The violence that is taking place these days depends on those agreements.

According to the status quo established in 1967, only Muslims are allowed to pray on al-Haram al-Sharif [the Noble Shrine in Arabic, i.e. the Temple Mount], Temple Mount, according to the Jews, also known as the Al mosque complex Al-Aqsa. Non-Muslims can visit the site, but not pray. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, confirmed this status quo in a formal statement in 2015. However, a clause included in the recent agreements between Israel and the Gulf states indicates that this may no longer be the case. According to the joint statement between the US, Israel and the UAE issued on August 13, 2020, by US President Donald Trump: “As set forth in the Vision for Peace, all Muslims who come in peace may visit and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque, and Jerusalem’s other holy sites should remain open for peaceful worshippers of all faiths”.

But Israel defines Al-Aqsa as a ‘mosque structure’, as in the statement, clarifies TJ’s report: “…according to Israel (and apparently to the United States), anything on the Mount that is not the structure of the mosque is defined as ‘one of Jerusalem’s other holy sites’, and open to prayer by all–including Jews”, says the statement.

Consequently, this choice of terminology is neither random nor a misstep, and cannot seen as anything but an intentional, albeit surreptitious attempt to leave the door wide open to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, thereby radically changing the status quo”.

The same statement was repeated in the agreement with Bahrain.Palestinians have long been concerned about possible attempts to partition the holy mosque, as happened with the Ibrahimi mosque [Tomb of the Patriarchs for Jews] in Hebron.

A Temple Movement has developed over the years, consisting largely of “far-right nationalist religious Jews seeking to change the status quo” reports TJ. Some ask for prayer for the Jews inside the sacred complex, while others aim to build the Third Temple on the ruins of the Dome of the Rock which, according to Messianic prophecies, would announce the coming of the Messiah.

Over the years, the Israeli NGO Ir Amim has published numerous reports of this once marginal group, but which is now part of a dominant political and religious trend and enjoys close ties with the Israeli authorities.

These activists believe that allowing Jews to pray as a whole and divide the sacred site between Muslims and Jews is a step towards sovereignty, to one day achieve their ultimate goal, the construction of the temple.

A more brazen statement was included in the “deal of the century”, the plan for the Middle East unveiled in late January 2020 by Trump and Netanyahu in the White House.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, was the most prominent person working on the proposal, while Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the US, was credited with formulating the agreement.

The plan stipulates that “the status quo of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif should remain unaffected”, but the next sentence also says that “people of all faiths can pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif”.

The clause caused controversy and prompted David Friedman, US Ambassador to Israel, to retrace his steps during his press meeting on January 28, 2020. “There is nothing in the plan that would impose any alteration of the status quo that is not subject to agreement of all the parties”, he said.

Friedman’s quick retraction of the sentence contained in Trump’s plan attests that Dermer probably inserted it and that Kushner did not understand it. The fact that it was Friedman who retracted and not the White House also means that the language of Trump’s plan is still official and decisive when it comes down to it.

The normalization agreements come after the Israeli authorities installed loudspeakers on the east and west sides of the Al-Aqsa complex without the permission of the Waqf (Islamic institution).

The sacred complex is administered by the Islamic Waqf based in Jordan. According to the status quo, Israel is only responsible for security outside the gates. In his report, TJ notes that the agreement does not mention the Waqf and its autonomous role.

Meanwhile, Israel has killed 20 Palestinians in Gaza and injured hundreds in Jerusalem as tensions in Al-Aqsa flare up.

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