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Saudi chairmanship of G20 proves to be mixed blessing

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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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

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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