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Syria lures but will China bite?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China looms large as a potentially key player alongside Russia and Iran in President Bashas al-Assad’s post-war Syria. With Russia and Iran lacking the financial muscle and the United States and Europe refusing to  engage with the Al-Assad regime, China is from Syria’s perspective the shining knight on a white horse. Syria could become a key node in China’s infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Syria could also bring it closer to being sucked into the Middle East’s multiple conflicts.

China’s economic interests in Syria

Mohammed Jarah and Ahmad Bustati’s warehouse in Damascus symbolized China’s emergence as the largest supplier of industrial and consumer goods to Syria on the eve of the Syrian civil war. The dilapidated warehouse was stocked with everything from Chinese laser cutting machines to plastic toys for children.

A decade of fighting dashed the two Syrian entrepreneurs’ hopes. However, things seem to be looking up for businessmen like Mr. Jarah and Mr. Bustati with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad having gained the upper hand in the war with Russian and Iranian assistance and China seeing longer-term economic potential in Syria as a regional node of what BRI will look like irrespective of the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic consequences.

Syrian officials have sought to drive home China’s competitive advantages and perceived interest in taking a lead in the reconstruction of their country. “The Silk Road is not a silk road if it does not pass through Syria, Iraq and Iran,” said Buthina Shaaban, Bashar al-Assad’s media advisor, referring to the BRI.

Chinese access to the Syrian Mediterranean Sea ports of Tartus and Latakia is an attractive prospect for China’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic. It would complement Beijing’s footholds in Greece’s Piraeus and the Israeli harbours of Haifa and Ashdod and echo Syria’s key position on the ancient Silk Road.

Closely connected to Chinese interest in Syrian ports is the exploration by China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) of the possible upgrading of the deep seaport of Tripoli, Lebanon to allow it to accommodate larger vessels. In contrast to Syrian ports, Tripoli would grant China greater freedom of action because it would not have to share control with Russia. Together with Syrian ports, Tripoli would serve as an alternative to passage through the Suez Canal.

Russia appeared to be anticipating potential Chinese moves when it last year negotiated with the Assad government an extension of its access to military bases including what it describes as a “logistics support facility of the Russian navy” in Tartus.

In the absence of making the agreement public, it remained unclear what Russian intentions are. However, modernization of Tartus for military purposes that would guarantee Russia a role in control of the Eastern Mediterranean would have to involve upgrading it to be able to accommodate all types of vessels, including aircraft carriers.

In a further move, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his foreign and defence ministries in May to reach agreement with Syria on an additional expansion of a 2015 accord that governs Russia’s naval presence in Tartus and allows the Russian navy to base up to 11 ships in the port for 49 years. Mr. Putin wants the life of the agreement to be extended by an additional 25 years.

“From the coast of Syria, there is an opportunity to control not only the eastern part, but the entire Mediterranean Sea,” said Captain 1st Rank Anatoly Ivanov, a Moscow-based naval expert. “The United States has in the Mediterranean Sea not only the ships of its Sixth Fleet, but also an extensive ship repair base and training centres of the Navy. For Russia, the Mediterranean Sea is much closer not only geographically, but also geopolitically. Therefore, to use the opportunity to establish (itself) more densely in Syria seems to be a reasonable measure”

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has already sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to China’s state-owned COSCO Shipping Lines docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria. China has suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the  BRI and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.

Adding to China’s expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean, COSCO acquired in 2015 a 65 percent stake in Turkey’s  Kumport Terminal on the Ambarli coast of Istanbul. To round off the circle, Egypt’s navy last year signed an agreement with China’s Hutchinson Ports to build a terminal in Abu Qir, a port 23 kilometres northeast of Alexandria.  Chinese companies already operate Alexandria’s own port as well as that of El Dekheila, ten kilometres west of the city.

Chinese influence in at least ten ports in six countries bordering the Eastern Mediterranean – Israel, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Syria – could complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

This was one reason that the Trump administration has warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa, where the Chinese have built their own pier, could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US sixth fleet.

Informing US thinking is China’s Military Strategy white paper, published in 2015, that emphasises the “strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas.” It raises the spectre of Chinese-managed or owned ports in the Eastern Mediterranean serving the People’s Republic’s economic and commercial, as well as military interests.

The Chinese sway over multiple ports in the Eastern Mediterranean could also  encourage  Turkey to bolster its grip on the  energy-rich waters in violation of international law. Turkish military support for the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord produced a maritime agreement between the two entities that created an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean favouring expansive Turkish claims.

China’s interest in Mediterranean ports is part of a larger effort to integrate the Middle East into the maritime leg of the Belt and Road that also includes the Gulf, the Arabian Sea with the Pakistani port of Gwadar as its focal point, and the Red Sea with the establishment of the People’s Republic’s first military outpost in Djibouti.

The integration is further advanced by Chinese investment in ports and logistics facilities in among others Dubai and Oman as well as industrial parks linked to maritime infrastructure. China’s moves have been embraced by Gulf states, several of which have incorporated them in long-term plans to diversify and streamline their economies.

Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador in Damascus, spelled out China’s interest in Syria when he stressed in 2018, in a statement in 2018 to the People’s Republic’s state-run news agency Xinhua as well as in a letter, his country’s intent to expand its economic, political, and military footprint in  the.

“I think it’s about time to focus all efforts on the development and reconstruction of Syria, and I think China will play a bigger role in this process by providing more aid to the Syrian people and the Syrian government,” Mr. Qi said during a visit to a hospital in the Syrian capital.

Donations in recent years of at least US$44 million to Syria for humanitarian purposes back up Mr. Qi’s statements.

In  a letter written in August 2019, the ambassador focussed among other things, on the development of Syrian railways and seaports. The letter was published a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to lend  $20 billion to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Jordan for reconstruction and economic development.

Few doubt that China, even prior to the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic fallout, is best positioned to be a key, if not the key player, in post-war reconstruction of Syria, estimated to require between  $250 and $400 billion in investment.

This is even more the case as other potential funders, the United States, Europe, Russia and the  Gulf Cooperation Council states, will either refuse to work with the government of Mr. Al-Assad or be consumed with fighting a domestic and global recession and substantial loss of revenues in the wake of the pandemic. 

Moreover, in opposition to Western states, China on six occasions, backed Russian vetoes in the United Nations Security Council that blocked condemnations of the  Syrian government and its backers, Russian and Iran; calls for ceasefires; and sanctioning of alleged war criminals.

One  of China’s comparative advantages in heavily sanctioned Syria is the experience it garnered  in circumventing US and United Nations sanctions imposed on  Iran and North Korea. 

China further benefits from  alternative institutions that it built like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that it either controls or in which it has considerable influence.

That has not stopped the US Justice Department from accusing Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei of operating in Syria in violation of US sanctions. The department is seeking the extradition from Canada of Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer and daughter of its founder. Ms. Meng was detained in Canada at the request of the United States.

Seemingly oblivious to the risk of being targeted by the long arm of US justice, some 200 Chinese companies in 2018 and 58 in 2019, active in sectors such as telecommunications, oil and gas, and transportation, attended the Damascus International Fair where they discussed deals ranging from car manufacturing to development of mobile hospitals.

The participation of China National Heavy Duty Truck Company highlighted Chinese interest in the Syrian automotive sector. Syria could also prove to be a lucrative market for Chinese military exports. Mr. Al-Assad could well see Chinese interest as a way of loosening Moscow and Tehran’s grip on his country despite Russian and Iranian effort to reap the benefits of their boots-on-the-ground support for his government by winning lucrative reconstruction contracts.

China has so far refrained from responding in any real way to Syrian urging to kickstart reconstruction of critical national infrastructure even before remaining rebel strongholds in the country are reconquered. It has however exploited commercial opportunity.

The vast majority of Syrian exports go to China and Chinese goods are ubiquitous in Syrian markets. Hama, Syria’s most important industrial region after the collapse of manufacturing in Aleppo and Damascus as a result of the war, is awash with Chinese-made car parts, machine tools and equipment for the automobile, motorcycle, and shoe industry.

Multiple delegations of Chinese investors and businessmen have visited Syria in recent years. In 2018, China hosted its First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects with some 1,000 Chinese companies in attendance and pledged $2 billion for the construction of industrial parks.

China’s security concerns from Syria

Mr. Al-Assad’s ability to regain control of most Syria, with the exception of the rebel-held northern region of Idlib, created not only economic opportunity but also heightened already existing Chinese security concerns.

As  Syrian government forces rolled back rebel fighters, China feared that their battle-hardened Uyghur and Central Asian contingent would gravitate towards Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan from where it would be easier to target China.

The presence of Uyghur fighters in Syria was one driver for a brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang. It also persuaded China to step up border security cooperation with Tajikistan and Afghanistan, where militants of the Uyghur jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, allegedly fight alongside the Taliban.

The Uyghur presence in Syria prompted China to consider sending Chinese troops to join the fight for Idlib in violation of its foreign and defense policy principles. China ultimately dropped the idea, which would have amounted to the People’s Republic’s first military intervention in recent memory beyond its borders.

Repeated unconfirmed media reports have, however, suggested that China has been sharing intelligence with Syria and has been sending military advisors for the past four years to help in the fight against Uyghur militants.

The discussion about an intervention followed a pledge in 2016 by Rear Admiral Guan Youfei of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to increase military cooperation with the  Syrian government.

Two years later, a Syrian state-controlled newspaper, Al Watan, Mr. Qi, the Chinese ambassador, and China’s military attaché, Wong Roy Chang, as saying that China wanted to contribute “in some way” to Syrian military campaign against the rebels in Idlib. The PLAN took nine days to deny Chinese interest in getting involved in the fighting, calling the report a “misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile, while supportive of efforts to negotiate an end to the Syrian war, China has studiously avoided taking a leading role. Its sole initiative to shape the outcome of the conflict was a four-point plan that never gained significant traction.

China’s dilemma in Idlib lies partially  in sensitivity to Turkish opposition to an all-out assault on Idlib. Turkey fears that it would likely spark a renewed refugee exodus and concern that Chinese involvement in an assault could whip up pro-Uyghur sentiments in Turkey despite growing anti-refugee sentiment in the country.

Turkey has long supported Uyghur rights and has frequently turned a blind eye to Uyghur militants.

An Uighur dressed in a Turkish military uniform and sporting an automatic weapon, claiming in a video clip posted on Twitter that he was fighting in the northern Syrian district of Afrin alongside Turkish-backed rebels, advised Han Chinese residents of China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang to leave the area. “Listen you dog bastards, do you see this? We will triumph! We will kill you all. Listen up Chinese civilians, get out of our East Turkestan. I am warning you. We shall return, and we will be victorious,” the Uyghur said.

Syria in the wider Chinese Middle East  policy

Beyond its hesitancy of becoming embroiled in the Syrian war, China, despite its consistent backing of the Syrian government as a secular bulwark against Islamic extremism, feared that greater involvement in Syria could jeopardise its successful efforts to remain aloof in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran that influenced multiple disputes in the Middle East.

That fear has receded with states in the GCC ending their long-standing support for anti-Assad rebels and cosying up to the Syrian leader in an effort to counter Iranian and Turkish influence.

Chinese aloofness also shielded it from entering into direct competition with Russia and Iran in the post-war reconstruction phase. Deepening Chinese-Russian ties in the wake of the pandemic and perceived greater Iranian dependence on China may allow for a divvying up of the pie in ways that turn Syria into an important Belt and Road node

Author’s note: The original version of this article was published by the Geneva Center for Security Policy

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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Iran- Turkey Partnership: A New Front in Libya

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There is strategic consensus among political elites currently ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey states. Despite of few turmoil, both states want to retain cordial relations that can lead towards the support of each other’s national sovereignty and stability.

Eight years after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya continues to struggle to end its violent conflict and build state institutions. External actors have exacerbated Libya’s problems by funneling money and weapons to proxies that have put personal interests above Libyan people. Libya myriad armed militias led by general Haftar really hold and sway nominally backing two centers of political power in the east and west with parallel institutions. General Haftar is backed by NATO member states of France, Russia, Egypt, UAE and Saudi and on the other hand, Tripoli administration, the international recognized government, known as the government of national accord under the leadership of prime Minister fayaz AL Sarah is being backed by the United Nations, Turkey, Qatar and now Iran. The collaboration of Iran and Turkey in Libya is going to mark another hallmark in the historical relationships of two neighbor power.

From past to present, Iran and turkey have seen multiple strains in their relations. The history of relations between turkey and Iran can be dated back to the sixteenth century, when two competing imperial systems, the ottoman and the safavids, consolidated their rule ship over respective countries. Turkey and Iran were both imperial centers, and the modern states established in these two countries are considered to the successors to the ottoman and the safavid imperial rule that had dominated most parts of western Asia for centuries.

As the nearby an imperial system, territorial and political conflicts prevailed over the ottoman-safavid relations against interval periods of peace. The emergence of west oriented nation states in turkey and Iran in 1920, under the leadership of Kemal Turk and Raza Pehlevi facilitated further cooperation between two states.

By in the late 1970, when the Pehlevi monarchy was overthrown by the Islamic revolution, it was difficult to discern containing patterns of accord signed between political elites of both states. Parallel to the turkey’s “New” Middle East foreign policy started in the early 2000s, turkey – Iran relations have undergone through unprecedented periods of rapprochement. Ideological and security issues that dominated the relations between two neighbors have been gradually replaced by the pragmatic considerations on each side. Increasing volume of economic interaction, security and diplomatic cooperation on a number of issues and fulfillment of energy demand by turkey were the highlighted initiatives of that era. Ankara domestic exemption level of oil and gas had increased. To overcome this issue, turkey signed $23 billion agreement of worth oil for next 25 years. Overall, trade level between Iran and turkey increased by many time comparable to the past decade. The amount of trade increased from $1.2 billion to $4.3 billions between 2001 and 2010 and reached $10 billions in 2015.

The spread of Arab spring provided an other opportunity to both Iran and turkey to exploit the emerging New order in middle east. Both states attempted to launch their ideologies in the Arab states. Iran wanted to spread Muslim revolution although turkey wanted to spread democratic values to exert more influence in the Middle East.

Turkey’s role in the Iranian nuclear dossier has been often portrayed as that “facilitator “and bridge builder between Islamic Republic of Iran and the western camps of negotiations. Turkey has basically no interests in the Iran nuclear weapons but being a critical of international sanctions, turkey has always stressed the need of political solution of Iranian nuclear crisis. They don’t want to enter into the nuclear race with the Iran but support them to acquire nuclear weapons but for peaceful energy purposes under the guidance of NPT and IAEA.

Geographical proximity has always forced turkey to cooperate with Iran economically despite of divergence in political and ideological outlook. Common membership in regional organizations, however, provided a pragmatic bond of cooperation on issues of regional and neighbor countries. All the same, Turkey and Iran relations have been undergoing a deteriorating in the walk Syrian Civil War. Turkey supports the anti elements of president Bashar Al Assad’s who is the true state ally of Iran in the Middle East and provide safe path to support the Hezbollah in the Lebanon. Kurdish issue has also engaged the turkey who suspects of Syria and Iran of backing the Kurdistan worker party.

The Libya, a state situated in the north Africa region has become a new playing field for power and resource hunger states. After the overthrown of Qaddafi regime, multiple groups started to claim the legitimacy in the state. The authorities in the east led by the General Khalifa Haftar controls the most part of the state as it is claimed by his representatives since April 2020, he has been striving to control the capital. He has been supported by the Russia, Egypt, NATO member France, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia while Tripoli government recognized by the United nations is backed by the Turkey, Qatar and now Islamic Republic of Iran. The entry of Saudi and other anti Iran allies has invited the Islamic Republic of Iran to sway and evaluate its involvement in this crisis.

Iran has announced his support for the Turkish-backed Libyan government of national accord based in Tripoli. Javed zarif visited Istanbul and during a press conference and stated“We seek to have a political solution to the Libyan crisis and end the Civil War. We support the legitimate government and we have common views with the Turkish side on way to end the crisis in Libya and Yemen.”

Moreover, Gvusoglu,The Foreign minister of turkey reiterated Turkey’s opposition to US sanctions on Iran. He further added “Iran’s stability and peace is important for us”

Sarya ansar, the Shia backed Iraqi militia, also operating in the Syria has entered the Libya to support Turkey. Security and defense cooperation agreements have been signed between Turkey and Iran and following the information of International revolution guard coast an affiliated ship has delivered the weapons to the militias in Libya.

Most of Libya’s vast territories and oil resources are much desired by the resource scarce Turkey. Further, Turkey under the leadership of President Erdogan wants to regain its old status and territories of ottoman empire. The formation of new Islamic block is being predicted which would be comprises of Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Pakistan Tunisia and Libya. Moreover, Turkey is striving to put more pressure on the Europe to award her a membership of European Union. The strategic position in the Persian Gulf, strait of harmuz and Ankara controls of the Bosporus strait are sole basis for energy cooperation between two neighbor powers. The support of Iran militias would provide strength to the Turkey in Libyan and will force the anti government elements to bow down head in front of government of national accord.

On the other hand, Iran has found an opportunity to spread Islamic revolution in sunni dominated state. It would help Iran to reorient the relations with Turkey. From the statements of foreign minister of Turkey, it is evident that they want more positive relations with Iran. Iran is the state who have second largest oil and gas reserves in Middle East. Turkey can provide a platform to raise the sanctions issues to Europe and United States of America. The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Kurdistan issues could be resolved by taking joint actions of both states and through this way stable political and economical relations would be achieved. The identical stance on Israel issue would strengthen the relations in positive way. Despite of political differences, both states have defended the stronger Bilateral cooperation

To cut the long story short, Iran-Turkey relations have seen ups and down phases in the history but they are much significant for each other’s stability in the region to fight with common enemy. No doubt that Turkey wants to achieve its high ambitions in the Middle as well as in North Africa to be a main player but right now, Iran needs more economic strength and Turkey could provide her this opportunity. This cooperation can facilitate the shattered economy of Iran in broader perspective. Libya is a new front providing the opportunity to both states to come more close.

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Controversial Israeli soccer club may be litmus test for UAE soft power ploy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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An Emirati offer to invest in Israel’s most controversial soccer club could serve as a figurative litmus test of hopes that Arab recognition of the Jewish state may persuade it to be more empathetic towards Palestinian national aspirations.

It was not immediately clear whether the offer was to acquire or co-invest in Beitar Jerusalem, notorious for its links to the ruling Likud party and the Israeli far-right as well as racist anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiments among an influential segment of its fan base.

Israeli sources suggested that the offer was made by a businessman with close ties to the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG).

ADUG, owned by UAE deputy prime minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a half-brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, has a majority stake in Football City Group that controls soccer clubs on four continents, including Manchester City FC.

Israeli media reports said that the offer was made to club owner Moshe Hogeg.

Mr. Hogeg has been struggling to confront La Familia, a militant hard right fan group that has stopped Beitar from hiring Israeli Palestinian players, denounced the contracting of Muslims, and regularly chants ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘Death to Muslims’ during matches.

Mr. Hogeg last year faced down La Familia who demanded that a new hire, Ali Mohamed, change his Muslim name, even though he is a Nigerian Christian.

UAE officials have argued that establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel stopped the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from annexing parts of the West Bank, occupied since Israel conquered it in the 1967 Middle East war.

Mr. Netanyahu said he had suspended, not cancelled his annexation plans.

A UAE stake in Beitar would take the Gulf state’s soft power ploy to an arena that is both the Likud’s heartland as well as football that evokes deep-seated passion in a soccer-crazy country.

Founded during the period of the British mandate in Palestine to create the ‘New Jew’ who would be able to build and defend the Jewish state, Beitar initially drew many of its players and fans from Irgun, an extreme nationalist, para-military Jewish underground group.

Among the club’s fans were throughout the years right-wing Israeli leaders. Today, they include Mr. Netanyahu and multiple members of his government.

In interviews with Israeli media, the Emirati businessmen hinted at the soft power aspect of the UAE initiative.

“Fanaticism is rooted in ignorance and fear of the other. If there is a spirit of tolerance, we can create  an atmosphere of pure friendship between us and others. Sports is an international language graced with the ability to promote tolerance and peace between nations and people,” Israeli tv channel Sports 5 quoted him as saying.

The businessman made no explicit reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his remarks appeared to refer to it.

Emiratis appear to hope that a UAE stake in Beitar will boost the club’s more moderate fans, weaken its more militant fan base, and help shape a public opinion that is more willing to compromise with the Palestinians.

They count on fans like Yitzhak Megamadov who told Al-Monitor in response to the UAE bid: “I tell our fans to open their hearts and minds and receive them with open arms. They are our cousins. They want real peace and solidarity. We have gotten used to knowing about Palestinian Arabs through terrorist attacks and war. … We need to educate ourselves and change our perspectives.”

It’s an approach that worked when Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City in 2008 in what critics described as a reputation laundering operation. The English club’s fans embraced its new cash-flush owners, rejecting human rights activists’ concerns about the UAE’s regular abuse of human rights.

Winning over fans is likely to prove a lot easier than changing Israeli policies, something  more powerful players like the United States and Europe have unsuccessfully tried.

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, voted down an amendment that would have added equality for minorities to a controversial law defining Israel’s Jewish character just days after Israel signed agreements establishing diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain at the White House.

In other words, there is little reason to believe that the businessman and the UAE together with Bahrain can achieve what others did not.

Fact of the matter is that the carrot of recognition has not helped solve the Palestinian problem or fundamentally change Israeli policy in the 18 years since Saudi Arabia first unveiled an Arab peace plan that offered recognition in exchange for land.

Neither did the earlier peace treaties between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, two states that, unlike the UAE and Bahrain, had and still have a direct stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Nor did it stop US President Donald J. Trump from accepting the legitimacy of annexation of occupied Palestinian land. Mr. Trump has endorsed Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem as well as the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

What an Emirati stake or acquisition in Beitar will do is enhance Israeli empathy for the UAE.

Without a tangible political fallout beneficial to Palestinians, It will also reinforce critics’ assertion that the UAE is using the Palestinian issue as a fig leaf for a move that serves Emirati issues with no Palestinian dividend.

The Emiratis may find that time does not work in their favour. They appear to be playing a long game on an unstable board that could prove incapable of sustaining it.

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The Forgotten African Slaves of Lebanon

Funmilola Ajala

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Photo Credit: Amnesty International

In April 2020, authorities in Lebanon arrested one Wael Jerro after posting an advertisement to sell a Nigerian lady, Peace Busari, for a $1,000 on a popular ‘Buy & Sell in Lebanon’ Facebook group. In the post which had a screenshot of the 30-year-old lady’s international passport, Wael described Peace as “…very active and very neat.”  He was subsequently charged to court for human trafficking while his victim was repatriated by the Nigerian authority.

Peace may be considered a lucky soul if her case is compared to other African migrants, who mainly work as maids, in the gulf country. For instance, back in March 2020, 23-year-old Faustina Tay from Ghana committed suicide after weeks of sending out several voice notes complaining of being molested by her employers. Her body was found in a car park in her employers’ storey building in Beruit. Faustina’s search for the proverbial greener pastures to Lebanon only lasted 10months during which she shared pictures of her bruised face and audios of her ordeal with family members back home. In an investigation by media outfit Aljazeera, her employer, Hussein Dia, whom Faustina had accused of beating her, refuted such claims. Ali Kamal, the man whose recruitment agency facilitated Faustina’s journey to Lebanon, also denied the lady was ever physically abused.

In 2018, the body of a 26-year-old Ethiopian was discovered drowned in a swimming pool within the premises of her agent in the town of Dweir only days after a baby delivered of her died due to birth complications. These cases represent a fraction of what many of the estimated quarter of a million Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) in Lebanon often experience and the story may, unfortunately, not change for the better anytime soon as highlighted by recent happenings.

Social Media to the Rescue

One of the incidents pushed to the front burner in the aftermath of the August 4 massive explosion which claimed 200 lives at a Beirut seaport storage facility is the maltreatment of foreign maids. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an approximate eight percent of the 300,000 people affected by the incident are MDWs. Before the cataclysmic occurrence, the 6million Lebanese population had come under severe living conditions occasioned by a strained economy (with an estimated 25% inflation rate) compounded by the stringent measures of the Covid-19 pandemic. The dire situation is said to have equally taken a toll on employers of MDWs many of whom were reportedly sent parking from their temporary homes with nowhere to go. Reports claim many of the stranded aliens resorted to passing the nights on the sidewalks in the Lebanese capital.

Kafala System

One of the 5,000 wounded in the devastating blast is Nkiru Obasi from Ebonyi in Nigeria. While getting ready to be evacuated to Nigeria alongside others on August 12, she and four others were stopped from embarking on a Lagos-bound airplane after her ‘madam’ interjected unmindful of the fact that the young lady was nursing wounds. The demeaning lifestyle of most migrant workers in Lebanon is bundled into an archaic tradition known as the ‘Kafala system that allows a domestic worker’s wholesome subjugation by his/her ‘masters.’ The practice is traced to the era of slave trading in many parts of Arab land, and – perhaps – explains the reason why it is largely sustained till date in Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), and so on. Human rights abuses such as sexual molestation, denial of movement, working long hours, and physical assaults are some of the trademarks of the physical-cum-psychological trauma which foreign domestic employees are subjected to by their employers with no legal reprieve. It is a system that has continued to consume generations of young, unsuspecting souls from Sub-Sahara Africa – and parts of Asia – lured with the prospect of a non-existing rosy life far beyond their abode.

Bureaucratic Impediments

For most non-Lebanese migrant workers, the harrowing experience of suffering neglect, abuse, and ill-treatment by unsympathetic employers is rather endured if the other available option of approaching the authority is taken into consideration. Amnesty International says in trying to enforce the extant laws of the land, undocumented MDWs are intermittently rounded up and herded into detention by Lebanese General Security. Few days before the ratification of the UN’s Adoption of the Global Compact on Migration in November 2018, the Lebanese government released 35 foreigners from prolonged detention for lack of residency papers. This is the treatment likely to be faced by any daring migrant worker who attempts to unilaterally exit his/her Lebanese employer as he/she may lose the legal residency status which makes their stay valid in the first instance. The Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a September 2020 report titled “Without Protection: How the Lebanese Justice System Fails Migrant Domestic Workers,” criticized the exemption of MDWs from Lebanese labor law despite the huge economic importance of these individuals to their original and host societies. While calling for the abolishment of the kafala system, the HRW reveals that more than $90million was sent overseas by MDWs from Lebanon in the first six months of 2009, hence the imperative of providing legal cover for these individuals.

The First Bold Step Towards a Lasting Reform?

Despite the ongoing social unrest on the local scene since August 4 which had forced the political leadership in the country to resign its appointment, the implication of the plight of MDWs in Lebanon on the image of the country abroad seems not lost on Beirut and its government is responding to the challenge.

In what is seen as a cheering development, the Lebanese Caretaker Labour Minister, Lamine Yammine, recently announced the launch of a new standard unified labour law which “enshrines the rights” of foreign employees in the country. Yammine adds that, with the new contract law, MDWs would be able to “obtain all their contractual rights and benefit from the broadest social protections.” Similarly, while hosting top officials from the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) last June, in Abuja, the Lebanese Ambassador to Nigeria, Houssam Diab, claims that his government has suspended the issuance of working visas to Nigerians seeking to work as domestic workers in Lebanon to rid the current system of exploitation and abuse.

However, many activists accused the government of cheery picking and opine that the new labour law appears to have fallen short of expected cancellation of the Kafala system which they view as the major stack against the MDWs. Nonetheless, one can applaud the initiative as a positive step (albeit trifling) towards guaranteeing a better future for foreigners working as domestic employees in Lebanon.

Going forward, one key area which authority should not overlook is the role being played by recruiting agents like Ali Kamal who told Aljazeera that his firm accounts for the entrance of 1,000 foreign workers into Lebanon, each year. A constant searchlight must be beamed into the activities of such companies if the life of the enrollees is, indeed, fancied beyond lip service as worth more than that of mere ‘slaves’.

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