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Saudi chairmanship of G20 proves to be mixed blessing

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Saudi Arabia’s chairmanship of the Group of Twenty (G20) is proving to be a mixed blessing.

The country and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saw their chairmanship as an opportunity to showcase the kingdom’s leadership and ability to be a visionary global player. But plans to dazzle the grouping and international community with glamorous events in which officials, experts, analysts and faith representatives would develop proposed cutting-edge solutions for global problems at a time of geopolitical rivalry and jockeying for a new world order had to be shelved as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the worst global economic downturn since World War II.

Lockdowns and other public health safety measures, coupled with the evisceration of air travel, meant that numerous preparatory meetings and brainstorming sessions had to be virtual, replacing glamour, generous hospitality, and organic networking with the sterility of online gatherings. For example, Riyadh had hoped that a high-level interfaith summit in October, a first on Saudi soil, would cement its transition from an austere, inward-looking country that promoted religious ultra-conservatism to one that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism and freedom of religion. The summit will now have to be held online, although there is a chance that a meeting involving a few prominent non-Muslim religious figures will be held in Saudi Arabia itself.

Prince Mohammed may have seen recognition of Israel following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as a way of dramatically changing  perceptions of the kingdom in the final walk-up to the G-20 summit. However, Saudi Arabia has so far signalled that it favoured normalization but would not do so prior to Israel resolving its differences with the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution. That decision likely represents King Salman rather than the crown prince’s inclination but could be overturned if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the November 2020 US presidential election. In that case, Saudi Arabia may well see recognition of Israel in advance of the G-20 summit as a way to smooth what otherwise threatens to be a troubled relationship with the incoming administration.

Prince Mohammed’s ambitions were also dampened by other problems, some of which were beyond his control and others that were of his own making. The economic downturn and oil price plunge cast a dark shadow over Vision 2030, his bold plan to transform Saudi society and the economy. Uncertainty on multiple fronts, including the outcome of this year’s US presidential election, to be held three weeks before the G20 summit, subtle Chinese and Russian pressure to reduce tensions between the kingdom and Iran in a bid to rejig the Gulf’s security architecture, and multiple regional rivalries and conflicts complicated the projection of Saudi Arabia as a bright star on the international horizon. So did multiple controversies that raised concerns about its human rights record and its adherence to the rule of law.

The United Arab Emirates’ decision to forge diplomatic relations with Israel threw another spanner in the works. It highlighted contradicting demands: Catering to United States President Donald Trump’s political needs, countering significant criticism of the kingdom in America’s corridors of power and hedging bets on the outcome of next month’s US election on the one hand, and  Saudi aspirations for unchallenged leadership of the Muslim world on the other. Following in the UAE’s footsteps would have changed the US landscape from a Saudi perspective, but it would have also exposed it to a wave of criticism from the Muslim world, particularly from its non-Arab constituency.

The absence of an international secretariat offers the rotating chair of the G20 a unique one-year opportunity to shape the global agenda, as well as that of the world’s largest economies. Saudi Arabia’s 2020 chairmanship had the potential to give the kingdom and Prince Mohammed a chance to project themselves as agents of change in a region which, with few exceptions, seemed incapable of liberating itself from the shackles of history, tradition, poor governance, and ingrained animosities and rivalries.

Prince Mohammed initially appeared to have set the stage with his Vision 2030, which envisioned far-reaching social liberalisation and economic diversification: Lifting the ban on women driving; relaxation of gender segregation; the subjugation of the ultra-conservative religious establishment and clipping the wings of the religious police; opening up a modern entertainment industry that featured cinemas, Western-style concerts and other forms of artistic creativity; and the propagation of an undefined moderate interpretation of Islam that promoted tolerance and religious pluralism.

The buzz was reinforced by the prospect of an initial public offering (IPO) of up to 5 per cent of Aramco, the state-owned oil company, privatisation of other assets, including the national airline and utilities, opportunities in multiple other sectors of the economy and liberalisation and deepening of financial markets. Much of that buzz began to fizzle out early on as a result of a  valuation of the company at US$2 trillion imposed by Prince Mohammed against the advice of the oil minister, senior Aramco officials, and foreign advisors. The buzz was also dampened by recognition of legal risks involved in a listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) related to potential 9/11-related legal claims, the NYSE and London Stock Exchange’s transparency requirements, and the kingom’s subsequent decision to list on the Saudi stock exchange.

The repeated postponement of the Aramco IPO as a result of differences over the company’s valuation, queries about corporate governance that would ensure that it would not be required to take on non-core projects at the request of the government, and a reluctance to subject Aramco to submit to transparency and reporting requirements associated with a listing on exchanges in New York, London or Tokyo raised questions in investors’ minds. As a result, the IPO valued the company at US$1.7 trillion, well short of the Crown Prince’s goal of US$2 trillion. Shares were also traded only on the Tadawul, Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange.

The kingdom has also suffered significant reputational damage as a result of the grinding war in Yemen and multiple other issues involving human rights abuse and violations of the rule of law. These included the arrests of powerful members of the ruling Al Saud family and the business community on questionable charges of corruption, creating the perception of a power grab.

Other issues include the detention of dissidents, including activists campaigning for the very reforms implemented by the Crown Prince, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the secretive handling of the judicial aftermath, and the insertion of moles in social media companies such as Twitter. Foreign policy fiascos such as the blockade of Qatar and diplomatic spats with Canada and Germany did nothing for the kingdom’s reputation, either.

As a result  the chairmanship of the G20 constituted a badly needed opportunity for Saudi Arabia, but it has thus far been a missed opportunity, at least where the West – where it counts most – is concerned.

The Crown Prince’s insistence on pushing ahead with flashy big-ticket projects, including Neom, a US$500 billion futuristic smart city on the Red Sea; Qiddiya, billed as the world’s largest entertainment city; and a massive luxury tourism drive has raised questions about his priorities at a time when the kingdom needs to focus on structural economic and financial reforms and further social changes.

The major issues confronting G20 leaders – containing Covid-19 and tackling its effects, including job loss and stymied economic growth – are magnified in Saudi Arabia, which had an unemployment rate of just under 12 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, before the effects of the pandemic were felt. The G20 chairmanship created a stage for Saudi Arabia to put its leadership in tackling issues and producing solutions on display. Job creation and economic diversification are what will define Prince Mohammed’s regency.

To be fair, few, if any, G20 members will be able to boast of having put the crises behind them by the time the summit is held. The stakes for Prince Mohammed were reflected in a rare credible poll of Saudi public opinion. Asked whether the kingdom’s ban on demonstrations like the ones that toppled leaders across the Arab world over the last decade was a good thing, public opinion was split evenly: 48 per cent agreed and exactly the same percentage did not.

Saudi Arabia had also banked on a negotiated end to the Yemen war to restore some of the gloss to its reputation. Those hopes have so far been dashed by failed attempts to agree on a face-saving solution for all parties. The failure has fuelled calls in Western capitals for restrictions on arms sales.

A failed bid by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), for English Premier League team Newcastle United reflected the depths to which its reputation had sunk. The takeover bid was withdrawn after massive pressure was put on the Premier League by human rights groups and others to block the sale.

One significant source of pressure came from the Qatar-owned beIN television network, which is one of the Premier League’s biggest broadcasters. The network has charged for years that the Saudi state was behind a huge effort to pirate its programming It  was vindicated by a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling in June this year. In it, the WTO said Saudi Arabia actively promoted and supported the pirate broadcaster, the curiously-named beoutQ. By doing so, the ruling said, Riyadh had breached its international law obligations on intellectual property rights.

Prince Mohammed had walked away from the 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires, months after the Khashoggi murder, confident that he had put the incident behind him. His confidence was based on a high-five from Russian President Vladimir Putin and a business as usual approach by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That may have been true for powers like China, Russia and India, but was a premature conclusion with regard to Western powers, with the exception of the White House, an attitude that was not shared by a far more critical US Congress and in much of Europe.

With barely two months to go until the G20 summit in November, Saudi Arabia still has an opportunity to exploit its chairmanship to polish its image and project itself as not only a regional, but global leader in tackling problems with which the world is grappling, chief of which are containing Covid-19 and battling the resulting economic downturn. To do so, it has to quickly adopt a public diplomacy and communications strategy that allows it to put issues that have severely tarnished its image behind it and put its best foot forward.

There are multiple issues that Saudi Arabia could constructively tackle that would significantly improve its image, including a negotiated end to the Yemen war, the release of political prisoners, greater transparency on the Khashoggi case, and formalisation of ties with Israel. But tackling any of these issues entails significant political risk, making it unlikely that the kingdom will successfully do so prior to the G20 summit.

The problem is further that there is little indication that Prince Mohammed has drawn lessons from the fallout of past actions that have significantly damaged his and the kingdom’s image. So far unsuccessful efforts to negotiate a face-saving exit from the Yemen war may be the exception.

Saudi prosecution of alleged perpetrators of Khashoggi’s killing did little to convince the international community that the kingdom honoured due process and the rule of law. Neither did the continued detention of activists, scholars, clerics, businessmen and members of the ruling family on often seemingly trumped up and arbitrary charges nor the continued arrests that seem primarily designed to tighten Prince Mohammed’s grip on power.

Ultimately, the cost-benefit analysis of Saudi Arabia’s G20 chairmanship, once conducted in retrospect, is complicated by factors that it does not fully control. The nature of Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States three weeks after it hands over the baton of the chairmanship will depend on who wins the US election, who controls Congress and how it approaches a potential Joe Biden administration.

The stakes for Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed are high. How it handles the final stretch of its G20 chairmanship is likely to influence its relations with Western powers as well as its leverage in any future talks on rejigging the Gulf’s security architecture, which would involve a more multilateral approach, as well as an easing of tensions with Iran.

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

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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