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Playing With Fire: China Fuels Middle East Arms Race

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, with Saudi King Salman during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 16, 2017. (Lintao Zhang Pool Photo via AP)

Aided and abetted by China, the Middle East risks barreling towards a nuclear and ballistic missiles arms race.

A disclosure in the last week that Saudi Arabia has constructed, with the help of China, a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium is the latest in a series of Chinese moves that advance the kingdom’s drive to acquire nuclear technology.

Saudi Arabia has denied building a yellowcake facility but insisted that mining its uranium reserves was part of its economic diversification strategy. The Saudi energy ministry said it was cooperating with China in unspecified aspects of uranium exploration.

The Saudi nuclear drive is likely to stiffen Iranian resolve, fuel Turkish ambitions, and heighten Israeli worries that its regional military superiority could be jeopardized.

For the past year, Iran has progressively walked away from commitments it made as part of a 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions after the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018 and re-imposed harsh economic sanctions.

Saudi Arabia, despite denials, like Israel, fears that the United States will renegotiate the deal in ways that would fall short of providing iron clad guarantees that Iran will not  develop nuclear weapons or enhanced ballistic missile capability or curb its support for militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.

The fear is irrespective of whether Donald J. Trump or presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the November election in the United States.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned in 2018 that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

Faced with the prospect of a Saudi-Iranian nuclear arms race, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year insisted that it was unacceptable that nuclear-armed countries were preventing his nation from developing nuclear weapons.

Ironically, Chinese support for a peaceful Saudi nuclear program that inevitably would provide the kingdom with building blocks that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons risks driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The two countries have, in the absence of formal diplomatic relations, forged close informal ties based on their shared animosity towards Iran and the kingdom’s effort to capitalize in Washington and elsewhere on being seen to engage with Israel as well as Jewish groups.

“For Israel, a Saudi nuclear military capability is a red line that it will be willing to enforce,” said Sigurd Neubauer, author of a just published book on Israeli-Gulf relations.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear focus serves various goals: diversification of its economy, reduction of its dependence on fossil fuels, countering a potential future Iranian nuclear capability, and enhancing efforts to ensure that Saudi Arabia rather than Iran emerges as the Middle East’s long-term, dominant power.

Cooperation on nuclear energy was one of 14 agreements worth US$65 billion signed during Saudi King Salman’s 2017 visit to China.

The nuclear-related deals involved a feasibility study for the construction of high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia as well as cooperation in intellectual property and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs to be built in the kingdom.

The agreement was one of a number of nuclear-related understandings concluded with China, including a uranium-related memorandum of understanding with China National Nuclear Corp., an agreement with China Nuclear Engineering Group Corp., and a 2012 accord to cooperate on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Saudi Arabia has signed similar agreements with France, the United States, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, and Argentina.

To advance its pre-pandemic goal of constructing 16 nuclear reactors by 2030 at a cost of US$100 billion, Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah Atomic and Renewable Energy City devoted to research and application of nuclear technology.

Concern about Saudi intentions was fueled in the last 18 months by Saudi hesitancy to agree to US safeguards viewed as the nuclear industry’s gold standard that would require it among other things to sign the Additional Protocol of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Saudi Arabia has not ruled out signing the protocol.

The unease was further heightened by evidence that the kingdom was building a ballistic missile production site in a remote desert region. Satellite pictures suggested that the facility resembled a similar site of nuclear power in Pakistan.

Saudi cooperation with Pakistan has long been a source of speculation about the kingdom’s ambition and the implications of its involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, the author of a semi-official history of Pakistan’s nuclear program, said in an interview that he had no doubt about the kingdom’s interest.

“Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear program to continue, especially when the country was under sanctions,” Mr. Khan said, referring to US sanctions imposed in 1998 because of Pakistan’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggested in a report published three years ago that “Pakistan may assist [Saudi Arabia] in . . . important ways, such as supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing.”

The report, referring to the Iran nuclear agreement, warned that “there is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns . . . if the deal fails.”

Rather than embarking on a covert program, the report predicted that Saudi Arabia would initially focus on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure as well as a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce.

This would allow the kingdom to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle at some point in the future. Saudi Arabia has in recent years significantly expanded graduate programs at its five nuclear research centers.

Saudi officials have repeatedly insisted that the kingdom is developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes such as medicine, electricity generation, and desalination of sea water.

“The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term,” the Institute said.

The report’s analysis suggests that China, by failing to impose restraints on its nuclear dealings similar to those maintained by the United States, may be contributing to a regional downward spiral that would be detrimental to Chinese interests in the longer term.

Author’s note: An initial version of 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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An Enemy Among Us

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The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.

We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.

Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West. 

Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world. 

Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with. 

Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO. 

Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come. 

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Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’

To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?

Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.  

Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.

AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.

Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.

Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.

Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.

While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden,  who called Erdogan an autocrat.

Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.

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Saudi-Turkey Discourse: Is a Resolve Imminent?

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The two prominent Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia and Turkey have had an undulating relationship over the course of decades and despite of the geographical and religious proximity, the two have rarely been on the same page. Recent tide over the relation is an outcry by the Saudi Chambers of Commerce to ‘Boycott everything Turkish’. Allegedly the boycott spans over a wide range: level of investment in the country, tourism interchange and even the imports are to be curbed. This was deemed as a “moral responsibility” of every Saudi citizen against the nation’s enemies; as per the statement of Saudi’s Chamber of Commerce head Ajlan Al Ajlan.

The duo have taken opposing sides for decades, especially when it narrows down to regional conflicts. The history relays strong relations between the two Sunni-majority Muslim countries, however, with polar position in the Syrian crisis followed by a blood-ridden civil war, the relations never recovered to a modest degree. The Saudi Kingdom, under the premiership of Muhammad Bin Salman, shifted its Syria policy in late 2018, seeking to normalize Assad’s regime while Turkey continued to support the opposing forces. Meanwhile, in Libya, Riyadh aided warlord Khalifa Haftar, while Ankara intervened to channel militarily assistance to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

The relations between the two Islamic nations were again triggered by the statement of Turkish president, Receb Tayyib Erdogen, accusing the Gulf nations for the instability in the region. This was the statement that incited such a hoarse reaction from the economic entity within the kingdom. The tie between the two was never a strong one but a major incident strained the relations back in 2018. The murder of Saudi citizen and a columnist of The Washington Post, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi, back in October 2018 set all fires loose when Saudi government was outright accused of involvement in the brutal murder at Saudi Consulate. The Turkish president went as far as insinuating the involvement of crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, in the gruesome murder. Earlier in 2017, Ankara stood as a vital support mechanism, alongside Tehran,to Doha in terms of the rudimentary facets of finance and military when Qatar was excluded and sectionalised by Saudi Arabia and its allies on account of close affiliation with rebellious groups in the region backed by Iran; accounts that were repeatedly denied by the Qatari regime.

The two Islamic republics have been at head once again ever since the recent controversial decision of UAE, Bahrain and Morocco to join hands and normalise relations with Israel came to light. Turkey and Iran, despite of the Shia-Sunni disparity, have relatively been close in ties since both have stood at odds with the foreign involvement in the region while Saudi Arabia has welcomed it with open arms. Even with the normalisation of relations with Israel, UAE and Bahrain met heavy criticism around the Muslim world but majorly championed by Iran and Turkey: former calling the move as a “Stab in the back” while the latter threatening to sever ties with the Gulf states. Both the statements were shrugged by the Saudi representatives as an ‘internal matter’ and warning the duo to refrain from interference. The Saudi position on the normalisation was clear when Israeli flights were allowed to fly through the Kingdom’s airspace en route to UAE.

The growing animosity is not novel between the duo as they have been in contrasting positions on multiple foreign policy issues and have even held starkly different positions over the islamist groups operating in the west European region. Although Saudi government officials have not confirmed the implication of the statement of its Chamber of Commerce, the signs of blooming tensions were sensed earlier this year. Even pre-Covid, the tourism dropped 17% between the countries and Turkey, being the 12th highest trade partner of the kingdom, saw a steady decline in bi-lateral trade. Albeit the externalities of the pandemic, the relations continue to deteriorate, and the signs might turn more apparent over time.

Now with Mr. Joe Biden prepared to take on the United States’ foreign policy, the Middle East would be the prime focus as per his pensive thoughts over the issues of the region. As he mentioned to ‘Reassess’ the relations with Saudi Arabia, the regard is clearly in terms of Saudi’s nefarious role in fanning the steps of Trump in the region, more specifically its involvement in the Yemen civil war and the controversial killing of the Washington Post columnist, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi. With isolation looming and need for solid alliance for better foundations for US relations, Saudi Arabia may have started with reconciling with Qatar but Turkey is optimistically the next on the radar.

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