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Saudi rushes to improve its image in advance of G20 and Biden

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Saudi Arabia has taken multiple steps to polish its tarnished image in advance of this weekend’s hosting of the virtual summit of the G20 that groups the world’s foremost economies and in anticipation of an incoming Biden administration in the United States that is expected to be critical of Riyadh and potentially more conciliatory towards Iran and non-violent Islamists.

The initiatives target US and European criticism of the five-year old war in Yemen that has produced one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises and concerns the Biden administration may adopt less Saudi and United Arab Emirates-centric policies than its predecessor headed by Donald J. Trump.

The steps further seek to project Saudi Arabia as being helpful in normalizing relations between Israel and the Muslim world even if it is not yet ready to do so itself and build links with Democrats in Washington as they prepare to take office in January.

Like other countries that fear a Biden administration may be less friendly than its predecessor, Saudi Arabia is looking for Washington PR and lobbying firms that can get it access to the president-elect and his entourage.

Saudi officials and Saudis close to Crown Prince Mohmmed bin Salman are counting on the fact that despite criticism US President-elect Joe Biden sees Saudi Arabia in line with long-standing US policy as a crucial partner. “I am very confident that will continue,” said Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan.

The kingdom, betting that the Biden administration would accept that Saudi Arabia as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, would recognize Israel only once recognition was more widely accepted in the Muslim world, has sought to curry favour by pressuring others to normalize relations with the Jewish state.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan charged last week that the United States and another unidentified country were pressing him to establish diplomatic relations. Pakistani and Israeli media named Saudi Arabia as the unidentified country. Representing the world’s third most populous Muslim nation, Pakistani recognition, following in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain, would be significant.

Missing from the Saudi menu is any effort to fend off criticism of the kingdom’s problematic human rights record. In fact, senior Saudi figures signalled that the kingdom was unlikely to bow to demands for the release of detained activists, clerics, and professionals and transparency on the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in response to Mr. Biden’s insistence that he would restore human rights as an important element of US foreign policy.

Former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to London and Washington Prince Turki Al Faisal suggested that the absence of human rights in the kingdom’s efforts was no coincidence.

Addressing an American audience this week, Prince Turki said: “As far as human rights is concerned, we admit that we have issues to improve and we’re working on that. It is a work in progress. But respectfully, your country also has issues of human rights to improve upon. Witness the turmoil during your elections and the police shootings. We did not…invent waterboarding. Your issues are also a work in progress… Your elections are a wonderful spectacle from which we can learn. They also include elements which we will not learn.”

To drive the point home, a Saudi human rights group asserted this week that Khaled al-Oudeh, a brother of prominent cleric Salman al-Oudeh, who has been held in prison since 2017 and potentially faces the death penalty, had been sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “inciting sedition and destabilising security.”

The Saudi Council of Senior Scholars last week, in the first official statement from the kingdom since Saudi Arabia and the UAE banned the group in 2014, labelled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The council said the group did not represent Islam, seeks “to grab the reins of power,” wreaks havoc, and commits “violence and terrorism.”

The council’s statement came as France and Austria were cracking down on Islamist groups, including the Brotherhood. The crackdown was in response to several attacks in Europe, including the gruesome murder of a French schoolteacher.

The statement, implicitly calling into question Saudi Arabia’s alliance in the Yemen war with Al-Islah, a Yemeni party aligned with the Brotherhood, came as the kingdom said it would honour a ceasefire if the Houthi rebels accepted a buffer zone along the Saudi-Yemeni border. The offer was designed to show that the kingdom was seeking a way out of the quagmire.

At the same time, Saudi authorities have stopped just short of blaming the Brotherhood for recent attacks on the French consulate in Jeddah, the Saudi embassy in The Hague and a French-sponsored World War One commemoration at a cemetery in the Red Sea port city, the first attack with explosives in years targeting foreigners in the kingdom.

The kingdom and the UAE fear that “Democrats can (re)create an atmosphere that enables the rise of the Brotherhood in the Sunni world like a decade ago. This is, in my view, what they see as a threat similar to the threat from Iran, if not a bigger one,” said Eran Segal, a research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Gulf States research at the University of Haifa.

Mr. Segal was referring to former US President Barak Obama’s support for elections in Egypt and Tunisia in 2012 in the wake of the 2011 popular revolt that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his Tunisian counterpart, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, longstanding US allies, despite the likelihood of Brotherhood electoral victories.

In Egypt, the victor, Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader, was removed from the presidency a year later in a UAE and Saudi-backed military coup that brought general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power.

Saudi Arabia’s G-20 presidency has sparked discussion on what the best approach to the kingdom would be: criticism and boycott or engagement. It is a debate that also confronts the incoming Biden administration.

The mayors of London, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris boycotted in September a G20 summit of urban leaders. Members of the European parliament and the US Congress have called on European leaders and Mr. Trump to not participate in this weekend’s summit.

It is an approach that David Rundell a US foreign service officer who served half of his 30-year career in the kingdom argues is doomed to failure. “Saudi Arabia needs encouragement for its economic reforms as well as in addressing its human rights record,” Mr. Rundell said, advocating greater engagement with rather than isolation of the kingdom.

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

Why the West Want to Stop Iran Becoming a Nuclear Power?

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Iran is a regional powerhouse in the Middle East only rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is centuries old in terms of sectarian differences of Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The thousand year of schism of Islam presents in the Middle East. Moreover, the Islamic Revolution made Iran a fundamentalist impulsive state hostile to the West and Sunni neighbors. Iran is trying to be a nuclear power since 2007 following the great powers and other nuclear states. Iran has always interpreted its nuclear ambition as only to acquire energy and always express against use it as weapon. But this is not true at all as it is going to acquire it to show power against the rival Saudi Arab, the West and USA. There are convictions that the Western Powers let India, Pakistan and Israel to be a nuclear power but they are now against Iran. But this is not the case as several Reasons are behind to stop Iran to be a nuclear power.

Firstly, if Iran becomes a nuclear power, it will simply emerge as the sole regional superpower in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the ally of the West will not be a match for Iran. The Middle Eastern ‘balance of power’ will not be maintained. This will lead to very severe repercussions and the chance of maintaining future ‘balance of power’ in the reason will be in disarray. As a result, Saudi Arabia will want to acquire nuclear weapon to counter Iran in the region. As Saudi Arabia has money, either it can acquire nuclear weapon by researching or to buy weapons or technology from Pakistan.

From 1990s, Pakistan is selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. As the economy of Pakistan is in great disarray, it might sell its nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia for billons of dollar. Turkey might try to acquire nuclear weapon to counter Saudi Arabia and the Egypt will want to acquire nuclear weapon to counter Turkey. It will start a sick competition in the Middle East to acquire the nuclear weapons which later may spread throughout the world. The efforts of Nuclear Proliferation will be null and void in a decade.

Another problem will arise if Iran becomes a nuclear power in terms of the failure of calculating nuclear deterrence. It is not unknown that USA acquired nuclear power first, then USSR acquired to counter or balance the power of USA, then it was the beginning of arms race. India acquired nuclear weapon to balance China in the region after the loss of 1962 war. Pakistan countered Indian nuclear power as it is unable to fight and win a war against a mighty power like India. Western powers primarily imposed sanctions on them but later withdrew. But if Iran acquired it, the nuclear deterrence or the calculation of nuclear war threats will be complicated. Who will counter who, who will attack who the probability or the calculation of the probability will be huge. There will be miscalculations and chances of total devastating war will be huge. Nuclear power Israel might attack Iran as preemptive action. In this indicating situation, Waltzs’ nuclear deterrence does not work.

Secondly, Iranian world view and ideology does not support the idea of Westphalia world order. The leaders of Iran and its revolution including Ayatollah Khomeini declared in 2013, they want to unite the believers (Muslim Ummah); they want to vanquish the dominance of the Western powers, USA and its allies. Iran is now influenced by Radical Islamist Syed Qutb according to Henry Kissinger, and working both with Shiite and Sunni Radical organization. According to Kissinger, Iran has connection to Al-Qaeda and Taliban as they armed them. Iranian leadership thinks that they are on a Holy War (Jihad) against the unbelievers and these ideas are making the nuclear program even threatening. If Iran has nuclear weapon, can be in the hands of terrorist organizations or the radical and impulsive leadership might be threat to the nearby states, US allies, Russia, China or Israel. Any impulsive leadership can use it to wipe out the unbelievers in fighting a Jihad. Even they can use the nuclear arms as bargaining chip with the West or neighboring countries as North Korea did.

Thirdly, Iran already has its own nuclear delivery system and missile technologies. This made Iran a more ready nuclear power than previous nuclear powers like India and Pakistan, have been. So the only way to inhibit the nuclear capability of Iran is to reduce its capability to enrich Uranium. Iran has thousands of Uranium centrifuges and they wanted to reduce capacity of the half of the centrifuge to only 5 percent Uranium. According to Iran they will not enrich Uranium to 20 percent. This 20 percent Uranium is not important as 5 percent Uranium as this 5 percent Uranium is the threshold from where in a few months Iran can produce weapon category Uranium which make Iran as more unreliable.

In 2015 Iran signed Joined Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear treaty with the five members of United Nations Security Council (P5) plus Germany which is called P5+1. As a result sanctions were withdrawn from Iran by the West. Ex-President Donald Trump declared withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and imposed the sections on Iran. Iran in 2019, Iran breached the limit set on the deal and IAEA confirmed it. After the Baghdad Airstrike killed Qasem Solaimani, Iran wanted to increase its nuclear capability. The good news is, in December 2020, America desired to rejoin the deal, and the new Biden administration is working on it.

Iran is a pivotal country in the Middle East. Anything Iran does may echo in the region. Middle East is already a complicated region with a lot of conflict and potential problematic issues. To sustain peace in the region including the balance of power, world powers are working on it. Time will tell how fruitful the initiatives are. The West must ensure that Iran respect and be a part of the Westphalia order which is a good start.

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Escalation of violence in Jerusalem

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Image source: protothema.gr

According to some analysts, a clause of the Emirates-Bahrain and Israel agreements opens the door to the prayers of Jews in the sacred place

On the afternoon of May 10, the Al-Qassem brigade in Gaza gave an ultimatum to the Israeli occupiers to leave the Al-Aqsa complex and release the prisoners. An hour later, missiles were fired from Gaza towards Jerusalem. An anti-tank missile was fired at an Israeli army jeep near the Gaza border. Subsequently, other volleys of missiles were fired by other resistance groups at targets near Gaza.

The Israeli military canceled the start of a large-scale maneuver it had planned to carry out over the next 30 days. That move was seen as a preparation for an all-out attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yesterday Hezbollah announced a general mobilization of its forces to deter a potential surprise attack. Israeli troops are now on alert for potential escalation within Israel and Gaza. After four elections, Israel still does not have a new government. Prime Minister Netanyahu is on trial for corruption. A broader war that can turn into a victory could help him avoid judgment and get votes in the next election. According to Jewish tradition, the ancient Jewish temple was located exactly where the Al-Aqsa mosque is now located. The Zionist movement aspires to rebuild the third temple, but in order to do so they must first remove the mosque.

According to an investigation by Terrestrial Jerusalem (TJ) an Israeli non-governmental organization, the claims contained in the normalization agreements between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Israel (known as the “Abraham Accords”) mark a “radical change in the status quo and have far-reaching and potentially explosive consequences ”. The violence that is taking place these days depends on those agreements.

According to the status quo established in 1967, only Muslims are allowed to pray on al-Haram al-Sharif [the Noble Shrine in Arabic, i.e. the Temple Mount], Temple Mount, according to the Jews, also known as the Al mosque complex Al-Aqsa. Non-Muslims can visit the site, but not pray. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, confirmed this status quo in a formal statement in 2015. However, a clause included in the recent agreements between Israel and the Gulf states indicates that this may no longer be the case. According to the joint statement between the US, Israel and the UAE issued on August 13, 2020, by US President Donald Trump: “As set forth in the Vision for Peace, all Muslims who come in peace may visit and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque, and Jerusalem’s other holy sites should remain open for peaceful worshippers of all faiths”.

But Israel defines Al-Aqsa as a ‘mosque structure’, as in the statement, clarifies TJ’s report: “…according to Israel (and apparently to the United States), anything on the Mount that is not the structure of the mosque is defined as ‘one of Jerusalem’s other holy sites’, and open to prayer by all–including Jews”, says the statement.

Consequently, this choice of terminology is neither random nor a misstep, and cannot seen as anything but an intentional, albeit surreptitious attempt to leave the door wide open to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, thereby radically changing the status quo”.

The same statement was repeated in the agreement with Bahrain.Palestinians have long been concerned about possible attempts to partition the holy mosque, as happened with the Ibrahimi mosque [Tomb of the Patriarchs for Jews] in Hebron.

A Temple Movement has developed over the years, consisting largely of “far-right nationalist religious Jews seeking to change the status quo” reports TJ. Some ask for prayer for the Jews inside the sacred complex, while others aim to build the Third Temple on the ruins of the Dome of the Rock which, according to Messianic prophecies, would announce the coming of the Messiah.

Over the years, the Israeli NGO Ir Amim has published numerous reports of this once marginal group, but which is now part of a dominant political and religious trend and enjoys close ties with the Israeli authorities.

These activists believe that allowing Jews to pray as a whole and divide the sacred site between Muslims and Jews is a step towards sovereignty, to one day achieve their ultimate goal, the construction of the temple.

A more brazen statement was included in the “deal of the century”, the plan for the Middle East unveiled in late January 2020 by Trump and Netanyahu in the White House.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, was the most prominent person working on the proposal, while Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the US, was credited with formulating the agreement.

The plan stipulates that “the status quo of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif should remain unaffected”, but the next sentence also says that “people of all faiths can pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif”.

The clause caused controversy and prompted David Friedman, US Ambassador to Israel, to retrace his steps during his press meeting on January 28, 2020. “There is nothing in the plan that would impose any alteration of the status quo that is not subject to agreement of all the parties”, he said.

Friedman’s quick retraction of the sentence contained in Trump’s plan attests that Dermer probably inserted it and that Kushner did not understand it. The fact that it was Friedman who retracted and not the White House also means that the language of Trump’s plan is still official and decisive when it comes down to it.

The normalization agreements come after the Israeli authorities installed loudspeakers on the east and west sides of the Al-Aqsa complex without the permission of the Waqf (Islamic institution).

The sacred complex is administered by the Islamic Waqf based in Jordan. According to the status quo, Israel is only responsible for security outside the gates. In his report, TJ notes that the agreement does not mention the Waqf and its autonomous role.

Meanwhile, Israel has killed 20 Palestinians in Gaza and injured hundreds in Jerusalem as tensions in Al-Aqsa flare up.

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Middle East

Attack On Jerusalem – Where Is The International System?

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Since mid-20th century the conflict has been referred to as the ‘most intractable conflict’ in the world with the ongoing Israeli occupation. For more than about 54 years the international system has failed to settle this dispute and the two countries did not reach a peace agreement. In past, the Israeli Government had restricted the Palestinians and have been involved in many illicit activities violating human rights. Palestinians remain subject to Israeli military occupation and the recent attack on Masjid Al-Aqsa is strong evidence of this fact. Tensions in Jerusalem and West Bank accelerated during the Holy month of Ramadan including evictions of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem.  

The third holiest site for the Muslim community, Temple Mount also known as Masjid Al-Aqsa, located in the city of Jerusalem has been attacked by the Israel forces on the Holy night of Laylat al-Qadar and again after two days in the morning. The incident has been brought forward by the media in several ways calling it an attack conflict or clash. The Israeli police forces stormed hundreds of Palestinians during prayer time. The unrest resulted as cops entered the compound, creating an atmosphere of fear echoes of prayer together with the noise of stun grenades and fires. More than 200 Muslims offering prayer have been targeted and hit by rubber bullets and a score of attackers themselves were wounded. When the prayer zone was turned into a battlefield, the loudspeakers of the mosque called for peace and calm.

“Police must immediately stop firing stun grenades at worshippers, and the youth must calm down and be quiet!”

Violation of Human Rights pushed Palestine to demand a session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas “held (Israel) responsible for the dangerous developments and sinful attacks taking place in the holy city.” Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law have been violated many times and now the international community is no more silent about it. Whatever is happening in East Jerusalem its occupation,  has no legitimate claims. UNSC has asked Israel to withdraw many times and has passed a number of resolutions demanding this. The United Nations has asked Israel to cancel any forced evictions in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, warning that its activities could add up to “war crimes“. Moreover, Israel has no legal claim on the city but is still carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign in East Jerusalem. The most recent example includes the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah.

Once again many statements have been given by the international community condemning the actions not finding the solution to end this. Muslim countries united joining hands in hands with their Muslim brothers and sisters. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, UAE gave their stance against Israeli actions and made it crystal clear that such actions cannot be tolerated at any cost. Moreover, European Union (EU) and United States (US) also expressed their concerns about violence.

The atrocities of Israeli police forces have now met the definitions of apartheid and persecution as stated by the report of Human Rights Watch (HRW); “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” released in April. This includes the crime against humanity in the region of Ghaza Strip, West Bank, and Israel. This well-researched report however has very little impact on the bilateral relations between Palestine and Israel. It states that a system of systematic oppression and racial domination with a claim over land and demographics is what Israel intends to have. Israel’s foreign minister claimed it to be an ‘anti-Israel agenda’ being both false and preposterous.

Blockade of Ghaza strip and freedom movement limitations further poses a serious threat to the population during the COVID-19 pandemic, making it more vulnerable. The firing by Islamic Jihad and its counter-attack, airstrikes against Ghaza and Hisbullah, demolitions, forcible transfers, violation of international law, discrimination, and use of force are all factors that aided the current situation between the two countries. Lack of access to health care units, feeling of fear and terror everywhere, insecure atmosphere all poses a serious question; “Where does the international system stand?”

With each escalation, all that comes forward is another resolution by UNSC for Israel to withdraw, statements from various states condemning the situation, and wait for another incident. While considering the Israel-Palestine conflict one might comprehend this issue as a failure of the international system to maintain peace. Many predictions and solutions have been brought forward by analysts and researchers each with some evidence supporting their stance. However thinking about a solution and solving the problem in actual seem to be two opposite poles of a magnet, but definitely not attracting one another.

For negotiations and peace agreements, the two states need to share a common vision which seems to be very unlikely to happen. The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories seems to end only by establishing a relationship between the two that involves a feeling of trust and security for other states. For this, the political arrangement should be right with adequate involvement of International Organizations such as the UN. Boarder modifications and acceptance for two-state solution tend to develop the ideal conditions for this relationship.

Thus reality points in a different direction and this raises a question to the international system. Where is the international law securing the lives and freedom of people in East Jerusalem? Where is the UN Charter providing education, health, and other facilities to the people of Gaza? Where are the efforts of great powers such US, China, Russia to safeguard and secure the local citizens and maintenance of peace? Where are the rights of citizens during occupation under Geneva Convention? Where is the role of International Organizations while considering this dispute? And last but not least where the answer to all these questions is.

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