Europe is progressively being sucked into the Middle East and North Africa’s myriad conflicts. As if wars on its doorstep in Libya and Syria were not enough, UAE support for an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline that could hurt Qatar economically — combined with Greek, Cypriot and French opposition to Turkish moves — leaves Europe with few, if any, options but to get involved.
Europe’s headaches just got worse. Its efforts to contain wars on its doorstep in Libya and Syria have failed at a moment that Europe is struggling to control a pandemic and reverse its economic fallout.
Proxy wars that pit the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey have spilled out of Libya and Syria into the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole.
European nations, including France, Greece, and Cyprus, feel threatened by Turkey’s use of Libya to extend its grip on gas-rich regional waters in violation of international law. As a result, Middle Eastern and North African disputes are becoming European problems.
Libya’s internationally recognized Islamist Government of National Accord (GNA), backed by Turkish military might, has forced rebels led by Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Russia, Egypt, France and the UAE to retreat in recent weeks from western Libya and fight to maintain control of key cities in the center of the country.
A statement last month by the foreign ministers of France, Greece, Cyprus, the UAE, and Egypt made their concerns clear.
The statement condemned Turkey’s “illegal activities” in the Eastern Mediterranean. It called on Turkey to “fully respect the sovereignty and the sovereign rights of all states in their maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Israel was conspicuously absent among the signatories even though it maintains close relations with all of them.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a prominent Israeli think tank, warned that “given that Israel’s ties with Turkey have been highly problematic and relations with Russia remain delicate, Jerusalem needs to prepare for the possibility of a continuing and even growing regional influence of both, especially in light of Washington’s continued reluctance to assume a more active diplomatic or military role.”
So does Europe, which at the European Union level has so far remained on the sidelines at its peril.
“Now that the catastrophic consequences of European inaction are evident and Haftar no longer has a chance to seize power, a (European) policy shift is both possible and indispensable,” said Libya scholar Wolfram Lacher.
“Two key goals should guide European policies: first, safeguard Libya’s unity; second, counter Russian influence in Libya as a matter of priority. The U.S. shares both goals. But Europeans will only be able to act in unison if the French position shifts away from its relative tolerance for Russia and adversarial stance towards Turkey,” Mr. Lacher suggested.
Mr. Lacher appears to believe that countering Russia would not only help thwart the threat posed by Moscow but also prevent Turkey and Russia from carving up Libya into spheres of influence, if not separate states.
Arguing that the EU can no longer afford to stand by, Mr. Lacher advised the EU to impose sanctions on Mr. Haftar in a bid to undermine Russian support for his forces.
“In parallel, Western states should finally push their interests in a stable Libya more strongly when engaging with Haftar’s other foreign supporters, particularly Egypt and the UAE, to dissuade them from further cooperation with Russia,” Mr. Lacher said.
Underlying the UAE’s Saudi-backed determination to stymie Turkey is its assertive global campaign to confront any expression of political Islam. The UAE is aided by Egypt, whose president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, came into power in a 2013 Emirati-backed military coup that toppled an elected Muslim Brotherhood president.
Coupled with an agreement between Turkey and the Tripoli-based GNA which extends the two countries maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish involvement in the wars in Libya and Syria appears to have fueled Emirati efforts to suck Europe, and ultimately the United States, into its conflict with Turkey.
Greece and Italy — which was believed to be supporting the GNA prior to Turkey’s intervention — this week signed a maritime boundaries agreement to counter Turkish moves. The accord recognizes Greek territorial waters off its many islands in accordance with the international Law of the Sea. The Turkish-Libyan agreement ignores those rights for a number of Greek islands.
The UAE and its partners in the Eastern Mediterranean were expected to support the Greek-Italian accord.
The UAE is banking on the fact that Turkey’s traditional ties to its NATO allies, Europe and the US, are strained over a host of issues, including Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, the fate of millions of refugees primarily from Syria hosted by Turkey, and Turkey’s relationship with Russia and its acquisition of an S-400 Russian anti-missile defense system.
The UAE has been putting in place the building blocks for enhanced influence in the eastern Mediterranean for some time. Increasingly close ties to Israel, whose relations with Turkey are complex, constitute a cornerstone. So does UAE participation in Greek-led annual military exercises in which Israel, Cyprus, Italy, and the United States also take part.
Containing Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean has taken on greater significance after the UAE’s hopes for a planned EastMed pipeline that would have transported natural gas from Israeli, Cypriot and Lebanese fields via Greece to Italy, were dashed.
The pipeline threatened to replace up to half of Qatari exports to Europe with gas from the Eastern Mediterranean.
Among Qatar’s detractors, the UAE is believed to be the most resistant to finding a compromise that would end the three-year-old UAE-Saudi-led boycott of the Gulf state.
The $7 billion USD, 2,200-kilometre-long pipeline project was effectively put on hold because of the economic fallout of the pandemic and the collapse of energy prices.
A consortium led by France’s Total, which includes Italian oil and gas major ENI and Novatek, Russia’s second largest gas producer, was expected to halt drilling after its first well proved to be dry.
ENI and Total have also suspended plans for six drillings off the coast of Cyprus while ExxonMobil has delayed exploration of its two wells in the area. US explorer Noble Energy together with Shell and Herzliya-based Delek Drilling is likely to follow suit in Israel’s Aphrodite field.
All of that does not seem to deter Turkey. The country’s Official Gazette announced on May 30 that state-owned oil company Turkish Petroleum had been granted 24 exploration licenses that include waters off the coast of Greek islands such as Crete and Rhodes.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’ warning that his country would answer what he called, “the Turkish provocation” if Turkey were to proceed would further draw Europe into the Eastern Mediterranean’s mushrooming imbroglio.
It is a development that would boost Emirati efforts to further corner Turkey internationally even if it would for now likely further dampen prospects for dealing a blow to Qatar.
Will the New Interim Government Lead Libya Out Of A Long-Standing Crisis?
Last week, February 17, Libyans celebrated the 10th anniversary of the revolution that ousted the long time leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The decade that followed the violent change of power has not brought Libya any closer to the desired outcome. Instead, the country plunged into endless wars and economic turmoil, the consequences of which did not cease to plague Libya until recently.
In June 2020, after the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) de facto established a ceasefire, the United Nations intensified its peacekeeping efforts to resume the political process. Jump started by Stephanie Williams, interim head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum paved the way for a step-by-step solution to the impasse in which Libya has found itself after almost a year and a half of non-stop hostilities. From the first meeting in Tunisia in early November of 2020 up to the last one held in Geneva this February, 75 forum members representing the Libyan society in its entirety have been working to determine the fate of the war-weary nation.
Finally, to the great surprise of many foreign observers familiar with the Libyan agenda, the forum participants managed to agree with little effort on the lists of potential candidates for positions in a transitional government, which is supposed to replace both rival administrations in Tripoli and Al-Bayda. By doing this, the representatives actually accomplished two main tasks: filling in the vacuum of legitimacy of the GNA conditioned by the expiration of the Skhirat agreement, as well as ending the vicious struggle for power, putting the implementation of reform under international supervision.
Its worth noting that the winning list of candidates comprised of the chairman of the Presidential Council (PC), his two deputies, and prime minister, appeared to be starkly different from the expectations of many. The vote gave victory to politicians with little fame not only among foreign pundits, but even Libyans themselves. Muhammad Younis Al-Manfi, a former diplomat, became the head of the PC, while Abdullah Al-Lafi and Musa Al-Quni took over as his deputies. In turn, Abdelhamid Al-Dabaiba, a prominent Libyan businessman hailing from an influential family of the city of Misurata, was appointed as prime minister. Al-Dabaiba is supposed to oversee the appointment of ministers and the formation of the so-called government of national unity, which will lead Libya to the national elections scheduled for December 24.
Holding general elections is the primary mission of the new government, along with the reform of the armed forces, which mainly implies their unification, as well as the disarmament and elimination of illegal armed groups. In order to fulfill this ambitious task, something their predecessors failed to do since 2015, the current leaders of the interim government should make every effort, keeping in mind that any manifestation of bias or flirtation with foreign powers at the expense of the aspirations of the nation can annihilate all achieved progress and spark the conflict anew.
These considerations must at all times remain at the top of the agenda of the transitional authorities, since many influential domestic players appear to be not fully satisfied with the current distribution of power and the appointment of undesirable persons to senior positions. Among these undesirables is a native of Misurata Abdelhamid Al-Dabaiba. After the 2011 revolution, the city exploited the seaport and ready access to the state budget to achieve a virtual independence, building an army of numerous and well-equipped militias. It is generally accepted that it was the Misurati groups that made a deciding contribution to lifting the blockade on Tripoli in 2020 and forcing Khalifa Haftar to withdraw his troops from western Libya. The election of Al-Dabaiba was only logical, as it represents an outcome of the conflict that ended in favor of a coalition where Misurata played a key role.
There is another circumstance that could potentially cause a démarche of the elites in eastern Libya, who still remember the bitterness of defeat. The Al-Dabaiba family has close ties with the Turkish leadership and personally President Erdogan. In particular, Ali Al-Dabaiba, cousin of the new prime minister Abdulhamid Al-Dabaiba and once mayor of the city of Misurata (1989-2011), who headed the Organisation for Development of Administrative Centers (ODAC) and granted Turkish companies 19 billion dollars in Libyan construction contracts during his tenure. The issue of Turkeys involvement still constitutes a main obstacle for normalizing relations between parties to the conflict. Ankara actively supported the GNA in the fight against the LNA, sending thousands of mercenaries, military equipment and advisers to Libya. The LNA repeatedly listed the withdrawal of the Turkish forces as a condition for national reconciliation. In addition, Ali Al-Dabaiba has almost succeeded in subversion of the work of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunisia, after he attempted to bribe its participants to make them vote for his cousin. This incident provoked uproar from the Libyan public, forcing the UN to open an investigation into the forum members.
In this regard, Prime Minister Abdelhamid Al-Dabaiba along other officials of the newly formed government will face a difficult challenge of meeting the expectations of the Libyan people and the international community. Although the recent reforms of governmental organs did not actually change the balance of power, keeping those loyal to the established allies of the GNA within the leadership structure, they sidelined the existing differences between the warring parties, allowing to prolong the fragile truce and relaunch the political process.
In the nearest future Libya’s current leaders should make it their priority to minimize the dictate of Turkey or the West, and, if possible, prevent their further interference, as well as maintain the transparency of the interim government before the general elections. Even the slightest retreat from neutrality and independence, two principles the new head of Presidency Council Mohammed Al-Manfi appear to be keen on upholding, may entail catastrophic consequences and lead to an indefinite delay in settling the Libyan conflict.
Gender in the GCC — The Reform Agenda Continues
In my previous Op-Ed about the road map for reforms in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), I talked about the importance of the human capital. Today, and as the world celebrates International Women’s Day this March 8th, it is a good moment to take stock of the impressive progress that some countries in the GCC are making in expanding opportunities for women in order to utilize all their human capital to achieve the developmental goals that they set for themselves. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged over the last couple of years as the region’s leaders in this effort. Along with Bahrain, they have introduced groundbreaking reforms that are allowing women to more fully participate in economic activities, as they also support equal treatment for women in their personal lives.
The benefits of such trendsetting reforms for the societies and economies of these three countries cannot be overstated. Furthermore, a spillover effect is being seen in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The reforms focused on gender not only allow reforming countries’ economies to tap into the productivity of 50% of their populations, they also contribute to poverty reduction, sustainable growth and, most importantly, gender equity for women in both the public and private spheres. To ensure the maximum impact of these benefits, those GCC countries that have introduced reforms must keep a laser focus on effective implementation, while those in the region that have yet to expand opportunities for women can look to their neighbors for inspiration.
In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s ranking in the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law report jumped by the largest number of points of any country in the world, as compared to its 2018 ranking. This was in large part due to Saudi Arabia’s historic enactment in July 2019 of a raft of measures to expand women’s roles in Saudi society and give them unprecedented economic freedoms. The reforms included increasing freedom of travel and movement by giving women the right to obtain passports on their own; enabling women to be heads of households in the same way as men and allowing them to choose a place of residency; a prohibition on the dismissal of pregnant women from the workplace; a mandate of non-discrimination based on gender in access to credit; the prohibition of gender-based discrimination in employment; the equalization of retirement ages between women and men; and a removal of the obedience provision for women. A year later, amendments to the Labor Law followed, which lifted restrictions on women’s ability to work at night and opened all industries to women, including mining.
As for the UAE, in September 2020, it became the first country in MENA to introduce paid parental leave for employees in the private sector. This historic reform was part of a broad package enacted by the UAE to support women’s labor force participation, which, at 57.5%, is one of the highest in the MENA region. The 2020 reform package builds on work the UAE has engaged in since 2019 to prioritize gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. In 2019, the UAE introduced a first set of reforms, including guaranteeing equality between women and men in applying for passports; allowing women to be heads of households like men; passing legislation to combat domestic violence and impose criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace; prohibiting gender-based discrimination in employment and the dismissal of pregnant women; and removing job restrictions for women in specific sectors such as mining. These reforms were recognized in the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2021 report, in which the UAE was the highest-ranked country in the MENA region.
The additional reforms introduced in 2020 address persistent legal inequalities, including those related to women’s mobility, their rights within the marriage and with respect to parenthood, and their ability to manage assets. Specifically, the reforms include the amendment of the Personal Status Law to remove the provision on women’s obligation to obey husbands and to lift restrictions of women’s ability to travel outside the country, new provisions to allow women to choose where to live and to travel outside the home in the same way as men, and an amendment to the Labor law that mandates equal pay for work of equal value across different industries and sectors.
Lessons Learned and Ingredients for Success
Three common elements underpin the success of these reform efforts: strong government commitment, effective collaboration across ministries, and the deployment of information campaigns supporting the reforms.
Strong government commitment is crucial because it ensures not only that reform-minded legislation is passed in the first place, but that it is underpinned by tools to ensure implementation. In the UAE for example, the government updated the Explanatory Note of the Personal Status Law to support the effective implementation of family-related reforms in the courts and to ensure accurate interpretation of new provisions by judges. To support implementation in Saudi Arabia, the government updated all employment regulations to reflect the new legislative reforms.
Effective collaboration and cooperation among government ministries is also key. In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the recent reforms were championed by a broad swath of government entities. And in Saudi Arabia specifically, a June 2019 royal decree established the Women’s Empowerment Committee, which includes representatives from a wide range of ministries and has as its mandate the coordination of efforts to achieve women’s empowerment through legal reforms.
Such cooperation among ministries is important because it can help support governments’ effective decision-making going forward. Specifically, all ministries whose mandates touch on issues related to women can collect reliable, uniform data to be used to support policy choices aimed at helping both women and the economy. In the UAE, for example, ministries are collecting gender disaggregated data on topics ranging from women’s opportunities for entrepreneurship to their dropout rate from the labor market to the incidence of domestic violence.
Effective implementation efforts have also included strong communication and information dissemination campaigns. The governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have placed great emphasis on raising awareness of the new provisions to ensure compliance with the legal framework and to show the economic and social benefits of these reforms. The reforms were widely covered by local and international media. The government also used social media, government websites, and government-sponsored seminars and workshops with various stakeholders to spread the word.
Throughout history, women have played a critical role in economic recovery following global crises. As the world continues to adapt to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal reforms in the Gulf are enabling women to contribute more effectively to recovery this time, as well. The role of regional leaders like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will be critical going forward, not just for inspiring reforms, but for sharing reform experiences, success factors and lessons learned from the reform effort. These three countries can play a transformational role in the MENA region and beyond in encouraging and supporting the implementation of gender-neutral laws.
Turkey signals sweeping regional ambitions
A nationalist Turkish television station with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dug up a 12-year-old map that projects Turkey’s sphere of influence in 2050 as stretching from South-eastern Europe on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and Libya on its southern shore across North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant into the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Buoyed by last year’s Azerbaijani defeat of Armenia, TGRT, a subsidiary of Ihlas Holding, a media and construction conglomerate that has won major government tenders, used the map to advance a policy that has long constituted the agenda of some of Mr. Erdogan’s closest advisors.
The broadcasting of the map, first published in a book authored by George Freidman, the founder of Stratfor, an influential American corporate intelligence group, followed calls by pan-Turkic daily Turkiye, Ihlas’ daily newspaper that has the fourth-largest circulation in Turkey, to leverage the Azerbaijani victory to create a military alliance of Turkic states.
In a country that ranks only second to China as the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, Ihlas Holding media would not be pushing a pan-Turkic, Islam-laced Turkish regional policy without tacit government approval at the very least.
The media group’s push reflects Turkish efforts to capitalize on the fact that Turkey’s latest geopolitical triumph with Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed victory is already producing tangible results. The military victory has positioned Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey, as an alternative transportation route westwards that would allow Central Asian nations to bypass corridors dominated by either Russia or Iran.
Turkmenistan, recognizing the changing geopolitical map, rushed in January to end a long-standing dispute with Azerbaijan and agree on the joint exploitation of Caspian Sea oil deposits. The agreement came on the heels of a deal in December for the purchase from ENI Turkmenistan of up to 40,000 tonnes of petroleum a month by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).
The agreement could boost the completion of a Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline (TPC) that would feed into the recently operational Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), bypass Russia and Iran, and supply Greece and Bulgaria via the former Soviet republic.
Last month, Azerbaijan agreed with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to develop the Lapis Lazuli transport corridor that would link the war-ravaged country to Turkey. At about the same time, Kazakhstan began exporting copper cathodes to Turkey via Azerbaijan in a first step intended to capitalize on the Caucasian nation’s position as a transit hub.
Azerbaijan and Turkey’s newly found advantage has rung alarm bells among Russian and Iranian analysts with close ties to their respective governments even though the TGRT broadcast may have been primarily intended to whip up nationalist fervour at home and test regional responses.
Russian and Iranian politicians and analysts appeared to take the broadcast in that vein. Nonetheless, they were quick to note that Friedman’s projection includes Russia’s soft underbelly in the northern Caucasus as well as Crimea while Iranians took stock of the fact that the Turkish sphere of influence would border on Iran to the north, south and west.
Turkey and Ukraine have in recent months agreed to cooperate in the development of technologies with military applications related to engines, avionics, drones, anti-ship and cruise missiles, radar and surveillance systems, robotics, space, and satellites. Turkey has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, home to Crimean Tartars, and criticized Russian support for Ukrainian rebels.
Most Russian commentators sought to downplay the significance of the map, leaving Andrei Krasov, deputy chairman of the defence committee of the Russian parliament’s lower house to warn that “if they (the Turks) want to test the strength of the Russian spirit and our weapons, let them try.”
With Iran excluded from TGRT and Stratfor’s projection of Turkey’s emerging sphere of influence, Iranian officials and analysts have largely not responded to the revival of the map.
Yet, Iran’s actions on the ground suggest that the Islamic republic has long anticipated Turkish moves even though it was caught off guard by last year’s Azerbaijani-Armenian war.
For one, Iran has in the past year sought to bolster its military presence in the Caspian Sea and forge close naval ties with the basin’s other littoral states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
Viewed from Tehran, TGRT’s broadcasting of the Stratfor map was the latest in a series of provocative Turkish moves.
They include Mr. Erdogan’s recital of a nationalist poem while attending a military parade in Azerbaijan that calls for reuniting two Iranian ethnic Azeri provinces with the former Soviet republic and publication by state-run Turkish Radio and Television’s Arabic service of a map on Instagram, depicting Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan with its large population of ethnic Arabs as separate from Iran.
The Instagram posting came days after the disclosure that Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA, had been kidnapped in Istanbul by an Iraqi Kurdish drug baron in cooperation with Iranian intelligence and transported to Iran.
While senior Iranian officials talked down the Turkish provocations, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency left little doubt about what Iran’s true sentiments were.
“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran. If Iran had not helped you on the night of the coup, you would have had a fate like that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi,’ protesters chanted in front of the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, the capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.
The protesters were responding to Mr. Erdogan’s poem recital and referring to the failed military coup against him in 2016 as well as the toppling of Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a takeover by the Egyptian armed forces.
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