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Looming Large: The Middle East Braces for Fallout of US–China Divide

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China would like the world to believe that the Middle East and North Africa region does not rank high on its totem pole despite its energy dependence, significant investment and strategic relationships with the region. In many ways, China is not being deceptive. With relations with the United States rapidly deteriorating, China’s primary focus is on what it views as its main battleground: the Asia–Pacific. China is nonetheless realising that remaining aloof in the Middle East may not be sustainable.

In assessing the importance of the Middle East and North Africa region to China, the glass seems both half full and half empty with regard to what it will take for China to secure its interests. In the final analysis, however, the glass is likely to prove to be half full. If so, that will have significant consequences for Chinese policy towards and engagement in the region.

Indeed, measured by Chinese policy outputs such as white papers or level of investment as a percentage of total Chinese overseas investment, the Middle East and North Africa region does not emerge as a priority on Beijing’s agenda even if virtually all of it is packaged as building blocks of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It was only in 2016 that China published its first and only Middle East-related white paper, devoted to the Arab states rather than the region as a whole. Apart from rehashing China’s long-standing foreign policy principles, the paper highlighted opportunities for win-win cooperation in areas ranging from energy, trade and infrastructure, but also technology, nuclear development, and space.[1]

Investment figures tell a similar story. Of the US$2 trillion in Chinese overseas investment between 2005 and 2019, a mere US$198 billion or under 5 per cent went to the Middle East and North Africa.[2]

The region is unlikely to climb Beijing’s totem pole any time soon, given the dramatic decrease in Chinese foreign investment in the last four years to about 30 per cent of what it was in 2016[3] and expectations that Middle Eastern and North African economies will significantly contract as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and sharp downturn in energy markets.[4]

Half Full Rather Than Half Empty

What turns the glass half full is the fact that the Middle East fulfils almost half of China’s energy needs.[5] Moreover, some of China’s investments, particularly in ports and adjacent industrial parks in the Gulf, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean,[6] are strategically important. What was once primarily a Belt and Road “string of pearls” linking Indian Ocean ports has evolved into a network that stretches from Djibouti in east Africa through Oman’s port of Duqm and the United Arab Emirates’ Jebel Ali port into a near dominant position in the eastern Mediterranean and onwards into the Indo–Pacific.

China already exerts influence in the eastern Mediterranean region through its involvement in ports in Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. It has expressed interest in the Lebanese port of Tripoli and may well seek access to the Russian-controlled ports of Tartus and Latakia if and when it gets involved in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. This was one reason that the Trump administration warned the Israelis that China’s engagement in Haifa, where they have built their own pier, could jeopardise continued use of the port by the US Sixth Fleet.[7]

Asserting the importance of the Middle East, Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), wrote back in 2017: “The politics and security of the Middle East [are] inextricably related to China. This is the first time in history that China has possessed political, economic and security interests in the Middle East simultaneously.”[8] CICIR is widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank.

More recently, however, Niu has taken what seems like an antipodal position, maintaining that the Middle East does not feature prominently in China’s strategic calculations. In a webinar in May 2020, he said: “For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies … Covid-19, combined with the oil price crisis, will dramatically change the Middle East. [This] will change China’s investment model in the Middle East.”[9] Niu emphasised that China considers the Asia–Pacific rather than the Middle East as its primary battleground for differences with the United States.

This shift was part of a game of shadow boxing to subtly warn the Gulf, and particularly Saudi Arabia, to dial down tension with Iran to a point where it can be managed and does not spin out of control.

To ensure that its message is not lost on the region, China could well ensure that its future investments contribute to job creation, a key priority for Middle Eastern states struggling to come to grips with the economic crisis as a result of the pandemic and the sharp fall in oil demand and prices. Middle East political economy scholar Karen Young noted that Chinese investment has so far focused on a small number of locations and had not significantly generated jobs.[10]

Subtle Messaging

Subtle Chinese messaging was also at the core of China’s public response to Iranian leaks that it was close to signing a 25-year partnership with the Islamic republic that would lead to a whopping US$400 billion investment to develop the country’s oil, gas and transportation sectors.

China limited itself to a non-committal on-the-record reaction and low-key semi-official commentary. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, a “wolf warrior” or exponent of China’s newly adopted more assertive and aggressive approach towards diplomacy, was exceptionally diplomatic in his comment. “China and Iran enjoy traditional friendship, and the two sides have been in communication on the development of bilateral relations. We stand ready to work with Iran to steadily advance practical cooperation”, Zhao said.[11]

Writing in the Shanghai Observer, a secondary Communist party newspaper, Middle East scholar Fan Hongda was less guarded. Fan argued that the agreement, though nowhere close to implementation, highlighted “an important moment of development” at a time that US–Chinese tensions allowed Beijing to pay less heed to American policies. In saying so, Fan was echoing China’s warning that the United States was putting much at risk by retching up tensions between the world’s two largest economies and could push China to the point where it no longer regards the potential cost of countering US policy as too high.[12]

Diplomacy with “Chinese Characteristics”

Nonetheless, China’s evasiveness on the Iran agreement constituted a recognition that the success of its Belt and Road initiative and its ability to avoid being sucked uncontrollably into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts depends on a security environment that reduces tension to manageable proportions and ensures that disputes do not spin out of control.

“Beijing has indeed become more concerned about the stability of Middle Eastern regimes. Its growing regional interests combined with its BRI ambitions underscore that Middle East stability, particularly in the Persian Gulf, is now a matter of strategic concern for China,” said Mordechai Chaziza, an expert on China–Middle East relations.[13]

Reflecting what appears to be a shift in China’s approach to regional security, Chinese scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike described the Middle East in a recently published article as a “key region in big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in a new era”. Sun and Wu suggested that Chinese characteristics would involve “seeking common ground while reserving differences”, a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution. The scholars said Chinese engagement in Middle Eastern security would seek to build an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance and the containment of differences.[14]

A Blunt Rebuke

But China’s conflict management diplomacy may not go down well with the Gulf Arabs, notably Saudi Arabia, judging by what for Saudi media was a blunt and rare recent critique of the People’s Republic. In a game of shadow-boxing in which intellectuals and journalists front for officials who prefer the luxury of plausible deniability, Saudi Arabia responded bluntly in a column authored by Baria Alamuddin, a Lebanese journalist who regularly writes columns for Saudi media.

Alamuddin warned that China was being lured to financially bankrupt Lebanon by Hizballah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’a militia. She suggested in a column published by Arab News, the kingdom’s primary English-language newspaper, that Hizballah’s seduction of China was occurring against the backdrop of a potential massive 25-year cooperation agreement between the People’s Republic and Iran. “Chinese business and investment are welcome, but Beijing has a record of partnering with avaricious African and Asian elites willing to sell out their sovereignty. Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange”, Alamuddin charged.[15] She quoted a Middle East expert from a conservative US think tank as warning that “vultures from Beijing are circling, eyeing tasty infrastructure assets like ports and airports as well as soft power influence through Lebanon’s universities.”[16]

Abandoning Saudi official and media support for some of the worst manifestations of Chinese autocratic behaviour, including the brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the repression of democratic expression and dissident, Alamuddin did not mince words.

Alamuddin went on to assert that “witnessing how dissident voices have been mercilessly throttled in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, Lebanese citizens are justifiably fearful that their freedoms and culture would be crushed under heavy-handed, authoritarian Chinese and Iranian dominance, amid the miserable, monolithic atmosphere Hizballah seeks to impose.”[17]

A Hair in the Soup

Further complicating Chinese efforts to nudge the Middle East towards some degree of stabilisation are China’s technology and military sales with no constraints on their use or regard for the potential geopolitical fallout. The sales include drone and ballistic missile technology as well as the building blocks for a civilian nuclear programme for Saudi Arabia, which would significantly enhance the kingdom’s ability to develop nuclear weapons should it decide to do so at some point in future.

These sales have fuelled fears, for different reasons, in Jerusalem and Tehran of a new regional arms race in the region.[18] Israel’s concerns are heightened by the Trump administration’s efforts to limit Israeli dealings with China that involve sensitive technologies while remaining silent about Chinese military assistance to Saudi Arabia.[19]

Washington’s indifference may be set to change, assuming that the recent rejection by the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi of an offer by the UAE to donate hundreds of Covid-19 test kits for screening of its staff was a shot across the Gulf’s bow. A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI Genomics, a Chinese company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy.[20]

The American snub was designed to put a dent in China’s “Silk Road” health diplomacy centred on its experience with the pandemic and predominance in the manufacturing of personal protective and medical equipment as well as pharmaceutics.

A Major Battlefield

Digital and satellite technology in which Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s 5G cellular technology rollout is but one component seems set to be a major battlefield. US officials have warned that the inclusion of Huawei in Gulf networks could jeopardise sensitive communications, particularly given the multiple US bases in the region, including the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, or Centcom, in Qatar.[21]

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said the United States had advised its Middle Eastern partners in the region to take “a careful look at investment, major contracts and infrastructure projects.” He warned that certain engagements with China could “come at the expense of the region’s prosperity, stability, fiscal viability and longstanding relationship with the United States.”

Schenker cautioned further that agreements with Huawei meant that “basically all the information and your data is going to Huawei, property of the Chinese Communist Party”. The same, he said, was true for Chinese health technology. “When you take a Covid kit from a Chinese genomics company, your DNA is property of the Chinese Communist Party, and all the implications that go with that.”[22]

The rollout of China’s BeiDou Satellite Navigation System (BDS), which competes with the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s GLONASS and Europe’s Galileo,[23] sets the stage for battle, with countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey having signed up for what is known as China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative.[24] So far, Pakistan is the only country known to have been granted access to BeiDou’s military applications, which provide more precise guidance for missiles, ships and aircraft.[25]

Promoting “the development of the digital service sector, such as cross-border ecommerce, smart cities, telemedicine, and internet finance (and) … technological progress including computing, big data, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and quantum computing,” the initiative will enable China to enhance its regional influence and leverage in economics as well as security.[26] China’s state-owned international broadcaster, China Global Television Network (CGTN), implicitly anticipated US resistance to its Middle Eastern partners being roped into a Chinese digital world when it declared that “a navigation system is like a gold key of your home that should be kept only in your own hands, not others.”[27]

The successful launch in July of a mission to Mars, the Arab world’s first interplanetary initiative, suggested that the UAE was seeking to balance its engagement with the United States and China in an effort not to get caught in the growing divergence between the two powers. The mission, dubbed Hope Probe, was coordinated with US rather than Chinese institutions, including the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG). It launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.[28]

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

A continuously deteriorating relationship between the United States and China is a worst-case scenario for Middle Eastern states. It would progressively reduce their ability to walk a fine line between the two major powers. That would be particularly true if US efforts to force its partners to limit their ties to the People’s Republic compel China into defiance by adopting a more geopolitically assertive posture in the region.

Ironically, the US desire to recalibrate its engagement with the Middle East and a realisation on the part of Saudi Arabia and Iran that their interests are best served by a reduction of tension rooted in an arrangement based on a non-aggression agreement could serve as a catalyst for a new Gulf security architecture. This could involve embedding the US defence umbrella, geared to protect Gulf states against Iran, into a multilateral structure that would include rather than exclude Iran and involve Russia, China and India.

A more multilateral security arrangement potentially could reduce pressure on the Gulf states to pick sides between the United States and China and would include China in ways that it can manage its greater engagement without being drawn into the region’s conflicts in ways that frustrated the United States for decades.

None of the parties are at a point where they are willing to publicly entertain the possibility of such a collective security architecture. Even if they were, negotiating a new arrangement is likely to be a tedious and tortuous process. Nonetheless, such a multilateral security architecture would ultimately serve all parties’ interests and may be the only way of reducing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran and managing their differences, which would in turn help China secure its energy and economic interests in the region. This reality enhances the likelihood that the glass is half full in terms of China ultimately participating in such a multilateral security arrangement, rather than half empty, with China refraining from participation.

Author’s note: This article first appeared in Middle East Insights of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute 

End Notes

[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China, “China’s Arab Policy Paper”, 13 January 2016, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1331683.shtml#:~:text=Since%20the%20establishment%20of%20diplomatic,fields%20has%20been%20constantly%20deepened.&text=The%20Chinese%20government%20has%20issued,development%20of%20China%2DArab%20relations.

[2] American Enterprise Institute, “China Global Investment Tracker”, https://www.aei.org/china-global-investment-tracker/.

[3] Agatha Kratz speaking on “China and the Mediterranean Region in and Beyond the Pandemic, German Marshal Fund”, 3 July 2020, https://www.gmfus.org/events/china-and-mediterranean-region-and-beyond-pandemic.

[4] James M Dorsey, “Turning Gulf Security Upside Down”, Insight 238, Middle East Institute Singapore,  6 July 2020, https://mei.nus.edu.sg/publication/insight-238-turning-gulf-security-upside-down/.

[5] Michal Meidan, “China’s Energy Security at 70”, The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, October 2019, https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Chinas-energy-security-at-70.pdf.

[6] James M Dorsey, “Syria lures but will China bite?”, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 12 June 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/06/syria-lures-but-will-china-bite.html.

[7] Dorsey, “Syria lures but will China bite?”

[8] Niu Xinchun, “China’s Middle East Strategy under the ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative”, Foreign Affairs Review 04/2017.

[9] Niu Xinchun speaking on “How are China’s Relations with the Middle East Evolving During the COVID-19 Pandemic?”, Chatham House, 19 May 2019, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2721841274725780.

[10] Karen Young, “The false logic of a China–US choice in the Middle East”, Al-Monitor, 30 June 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/06/false-logic-china-us-choice-mideast-economic-political-power.html.

[11] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference on 6 July 2020,  https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/t1795337.shtml.

[12] “Iran announced a 25-year comprehensive cooperation plan with China. Can China–Iran relations get closer?”, Shanghai Observer, 20 June 2020, (观察家 | 伊朗宣布与华25年全面合作计划,中伊关系能否进一步走近?)https://www.shobserver.com/news/detail?id=264494.

[13] Mordechai Chaziza, “Religious and Cultural Obstacles to China’s BRI in the Middle East”, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 12 June 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/china-middle-east-obstacles/.

[14] Sun Degang and Wu Sike, “China’s Participation in Middle East Security Affairs in the New Er: -Ideas and Practice Exploration” (中东研究】孙德刚 吴思科:新时代中国参与中东安全事务-理念主张与实践探索), Shanghai International Studies University, July 2020.

[15] Baria Alamuddin, “Chinese and Iranian vultures circling over Beirut”, Arab News, 2 August 2020, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1713456.

[16] Danielle Pletka, “Lebanon on the Bbrink”, American Enterprise Institute, 9 May 2020, https://www.aei.org/op-eds/lebanon-on-the-brink/.

[17] Baria Alamuddin, “Chinese and Iranian vultures circling over Beirut”.

[18] Phil Mattingly, Zachary Cohen and Jeremy Herb, “US intel shows Saudi Arabia escalated its missile program with help from China”, CNN, 5 June 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/05/politics/us-intelligence-saudi-arabia-ballistic-missile-china/index.html.

[19] Mattingly, Cohen and Herb, “US intel”; Timothy Gardner, ”US approved secret nuclear power work for Saudi Arabia”, Reuters, 28 March 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-saudi-nuclear/us-approved-secret-nuclear-power-work-for-saudi-arabia-idUSKCN1R82MG.

[20] Interview with author, 8 June 2020.

[21] Interview with author, 10 July 2020.

[22] Middle East Institute, “Shifting Dynamics and US Priorities in the Middle East: A Conversation with David Schenker”, 4 June 2020, https://www.mei.edu/events/shifting-dynamics-and-us-priorities-middle-east-conversation-david-schenker.

[23] Ben Westcott, “China’s GPS rival Beidou is now fully operational after final satellite launched”, CNN Business, 24 June 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/24/tech/china-beidou-satellite-gps-intl-hnk/index.html.

[24] Belt and Road News, “China’s Global Digital Silk Road is arriving in the Middle East”, 16 September 2019, https://www.beltandroad.news/2019/09/16/chinas-global-digital-silk-road-is-arriving-in-the-middle-east/.

[25] Maria Abi-Habib, “China’s ‘Belt and Road’ Plan in Pakistan takes a military turn”, The New York Times, 19 December 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/world/asia/pakistan-china-belt-road-military.html.

[26] Huang Yong, “Construction of digital Silk Road lights up BRI cooperation”, People’s Daily, 24 April 2019, http://en.people.cn/n3/2019/0424/c90000-9571418.html.

[27] Kristin Huang, “China’s answer to GPS complete as final BeiDou satellite launches”, South China Morning Post, 23 June 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3090186/chinas-global-aspirations-lift-beidou-satellite-launches-orbit?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=share_widget&utm_campaign=3090186.

[28] Jesse Yeung, “The UAE has successfully launched the Arab world’s first Mars mission”, CNN, 21 July 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/19/middleeast/uae-mars-hope-launch-intl-hnk-scn-scli/index.html.

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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Turkey signals sweeping regional ambitions

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A nationalist Turkish television station with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dug up a 12-year-old map that projects Turkey’s sphere of influence in 2050 as stretching from South-eastern Europe on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and Libya on its southern shore across North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant into the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Buoyed by last year’s Azerbaijani defeat of Armenia, TGRT, a subsidiary of Ihlas Holding, a media and construction conglomerate that has won major government tenders, used the map to advance a policy that has long constituted the agenda of some of Mr. Erdogan’s closest advisors.

The broadcasting of the map, first published in a book authored by George Freidman, the founder of Stratfor, an influential American corporate intelligence group, followed calls by pan-Turkic daily Turkiye, Ihlas’ daily newspaper that has the fourth-largest circulation in Turkey, to leverage the Azerbaijani victory to create a military alliance of Turkic states.

In a country that ranks only second to China as the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, Ihlas Holding media would not be pushing a pan-Turkic, Islam-laced Turkish regional policy without tacit government approval at the very least.

The media group’s push reflects Turkish efforts to capitalize on the fact that Turkey’s latest geopolitical triumph with Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed victory is already producing tangible results. The military victory has positioned Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey, as an alternative transportation route westwards that would allow Central Asian nations to bypass corridors dominated by either Russia or Iran.

Turkmenistan, recognizing the changing geopolitical map, rushed in January to end a long-standing dispute with Azerbaijan and agree on the joint exploitation of Caspian Sea oil deposits. The agreement came on the heels of a deal in December for the purchase from ENI Turkmenistan of up to 40,000 tonnes of petroleum a month by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).

The agreement could boost the completion of a Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline (TPC) that would feed into the recently operational Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), bypass Russia and Iran, and supply Greece and Bulgaria via the former Soviet republic.

Last month, Azerbaijan agreed with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to develop the Lapis Lazuli transport corridor that would link the war-ravaged country to Turkey. At about the same time, Kazakhstan began exporting copper cathodes to Turkey via Azerbaijan in a first step intended to capitalize on the Caucasian nation’s position as a transit hub.

Azerbaijan and Turkey’s newly found advantage has rung alarm bells among Russian and Iranian analysts with close ties to their respective governments even though the TGRT broadcast may have been primarily intended to whip up nationalist fervour at home and test regional responses.

Russian and Iranian politicians and analysts appeared to take the broadcast in that vein. Nonetheless, they were quick to note that Friedman’s projection includes Russia’s soft underbelly in the northern Caucasus as well as Crimea while Iranians took stock of the fact that the Turkish sphere of influence would border on Iran to the north, south and west.

Turkey and Ukraine have in recent months agreed to cooperate in the development of technologies with military applications related to engines, avionics, drones, anti-ship and cruise missiles, radar and surveillance systems, robotics, space, and satellites. Turkey has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, home to Crimean Tartars, and criticized Russian support for Ukrainian rebels.

Most Russian commentators sought to downplay the significance of the map, leaving Andrei Krasov, deputy chairman of the defence committee of the Russian parliament’s lower house to warn that “if they (the Turks) want to test the strength of the Russian spirit and our weapons, let them try.”

With Iran excluded from TGRT and Stratfor’s projection of Turkey’s emerging sphere of influence, Iranian officials and analysts have largely not responded to the revival of the map.

Yet, Iran’s actions on the ground suggest that the Islamic republic has long anticipated Turkish moves even though it was caught off guard by last year’s Azerbaijani-Armenian war.

For one, Iran has in the past year sought to bolster its military presence in the Caspian Sea and forge close naval ties with the basin’s other littoral states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

Viewed from Tehran, TGRT’s broadcasting of the Stratfor map was the latest in a series of provocative Turkish moves.

They include Mr. Erdogan’s recital of a nationalist poem while attending a military parade in Azerbaijan that calls for reuniting two Iranian ethnic Azeri provinces with the former Soviet republic and publication by state-run Turkish Radio and Television’s Arabic service of a map on Instagram, depicting Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan with its large population of ethnic Arabs as separate from Iran.

The Instagram posting came days after the disclosure that Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA, had been kidnapped in Istanbul by an Iraqi Kurdish drug baron in cooperation with Iranian intelligence and transported to Iran.

While senior Iranian officials talked down the Turkish provocations, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency left little doubt about what Iran’s true sentiments were.

“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran. If Iran had not helped you on the night of the coup, you would have had a fate like that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi,’ protesters chanted in front of the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, the capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The protesters were responding to Mr. Erdogan’s poem recital and referring to the failed military coup against him in 2016 as well as the toppling of Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a takeover by the Egyptian armed forces.

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Notes on Turkish Politics (5): The Need for a Vibrant Civil Society

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This is the last piece of my “Turkish politics” article series. In this piece, I will try to address the role of civil society in Turkish political life and democracy in a brief way.

The role of civil society is very important in shaping the democratic institutions and processes in a polity. Turkish political culture has long been characterized by having a weak civil society and strong state mechanism. As noted in my earlier piece titled “Notes On Turkish Politics (I): Strong State Tradition”Turkey has a “strong state tradition” as first stressed by distinguished Turkish academic Metin Heper. The non-state units and grass-roots movements have been weak in Turkish political life due to a number of reasons which also lead to democratic erosion.

Civil society is related with autonomous social units and organizations like voluntary associations, private companies, private associations etc. These social units or organizations that make up civil society are based on the principle of recognition of basic human and civil rights. It is known that civil society is seen as one of the basic social bases of  liberal democracy.

The historical background of Turkey from the very beginning of the Republic experienced an evident antagonism between the state and the society. The military, the high bureaucracy and some academics along with some particular media actors used to show a certain amount of distrust towards the society until the multi-party politics.

In the post-1980 period, a revival of civil society was witnessed. Turkey went through important changes in the 1980s as the free market economy policies were accepted. One of the most important consequences of this change was the development of the systems of communication and information and this development empowered civil society actors as well. Turgut Özal has been one of the influential political elites paving the way for the strengthening of Turkish civil society. Özal challenged Kemalist state tradition to some degree. As an extension of Özal’s liberal policies, a free market economy was formed and legal obstacles to political freedom were also removed by abolishing Articles 141, 142, and 163 of the 1982 Constitution, which prohibited the free expression of thought (Çaha, 2001).

The 1990s witnessed a military intervention and this “post-modern” coup narrowed the arena for civil society associations and certain identities like that of Islamic identity were vilified by the state elites.

In the early years of the AK Party rule (up until 2010 referendum) Turkey saw positive developments in terms of democratization and this played a positive role for civil society as well. However, in the last years, Turkish civil society has begun to weaken once again. A recent example of this is Turkey’s NGO bill that was introduced in late 2020. In a news article published by Duvar English, the warnings of Human Right Watch were addressed. According to HRW, the bill introduces “annual inspections of nongovernmental groups, which will severely affect their activities since the inspections frequently last months and reduce the group’s capacity to operate. It introduces severe fines if the Interior Ministry deems a group’s online fundraising unlawful.”

In one of my articles titled “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?” published in 2011, I wrote the following about the relationship between civil society and political culture for Turkish context:

“The Turkish case indicates that the advancement of civil society is closely related to the function of and the role of state. The governance of state in accordance with the rule of law and its neutrality is necessary for the advancement of a competitive social environment where social groups can freely compete. Also, it is important to note that there is almost a direct relationship between civil society and democracy.”

Turkey needs a vibrant civil society to have a working democracy and of course civil society is only one piece of the prerequisites for democracy!

Cited resources

  • Burak Begüm, 2011, “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?”  19264 (dergipark.org.tr) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)
  • Çaha Ömer, 2001, “The Inevitable Coexistence of Civil Society and Liberalism: The Case of Turkey”, Journal of Economic and Social Research 3, 2.
  • Duvar English, (Dec. 24, 2020), “Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW” Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW (duvarenglish.com) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)

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The Influence of Persian Racism on Status of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran

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Language is the carrier of the people’s culture and is one of the fundamental national identity elements.  Therefore, the culture and identity of the nation can strengthen by the powerful and widespread language. Reinforcing the language needs official and systematic support. Otherwise, in the age of informational technology and communication, the languages spoken by a small group of people may disappear under the influence of powerful languages and cultures widely used by influential ethnics and nations worldwide. Indeed, the fade or thrive of native languages depends on the government, socio-economic development, and cultural context. Deliberately, racist states fulfill the assimilation policy to decay the other native languages to reinforce imposed language. They mobilize all their resources to implement this policy by resorting to military and security forces. Iran is a diverse society with several ethnicities, languages, and cultures. In order to Persianization of the other non-Persian people like Turk, Arab, Kurd, Baloch, Lor, Persian-centered government performs the racist politics against them across the country. Turk ethnicity is the largest ethnic group in Iran that has been subjected to Persian racism and internal colonization since 1925.

There are no accurate statistics about the number of Turkish ethnicity members in Iran because the authoritarian racist Iranian state has not allowed independent censuses, and statistics are mostly based on estimates. According to the Ethnologue, more than 38 percent of Iran’s population are Turks, mainly Azerbaijani Turks who live in the northwest of Iran, and that region is known as South Azerbaijan. Since 1925, with the beginning of the Pahlavi regime, people with Turkish identity and other non-Persian ethnic groups have been deprived of primary rights like education to the mother language. This racist process has aimed to indicate and impose the language, history, culture, and identity of the Persian ethnic group as the only authentic and superior for all Iranians. Since establishing the Pahlavi regime in Iran, assimilation and alienation of Turkish ethnic groups have been continuing, and widespread protests for racist policies have not succeeded, and Turk activists’ peaceful actions have not sustained the Iranian regime from its inhumane racist behavior. Turks do not have any right to promote their culture and language. Turkish children must educate in Farsi, and all official correspondences have to be in the inflicted language. Since the formation of the Pahlavi monarchy, approximately the name of more than 500 areas like village, city, river, lake, and forest has been changed from Turkish to Persian terms. Furthermore, depriving Turk children of learning and education in their mother language is one of the main reasons for high illiteracy rates, the decline in academic performance, and a sense of humiliation of those children compared with Persian children. That racist ideology has accompanied most scholars, academicians, writers, journalists, poets, thinkers, teachers, and intellectuals’ support, and it has reached the Persian society sphere. They humiliate Turks in their writing, interviews, newspapers, and particularly in state media. For example, they analogized the Turkish people to cockroaches with feeding on toilets in the state-run Iran newspaper in May 2006 that sparked extensive protests in various Turkish cities, especially Tehran; dozens of protestors were killed and injured, hundreds of demonstrators detained and sentenced to long prison terms. Consequently, the policies that have been implemented against the Turks in Iran since the commencing of Pahlavi monarchy have been a linguistic and identity genocide for the benefit of strengthening the Persian language culture and identity. Because in their thought, Turkish language, culture, and identity are significant threats to the existence and expansion of the Persian language and culture and could jeopardize the territorial integrity.

Simultaneously, with linguistic assimilation and identity alienation policies, Persian-oriented colonial plans against the Turks have been plotted after the Raza Khan coup. Based on colonial policies, every year the bulk of the country’s budget flowed to the Persian regions to create prosperity and establish manufacturing companies and industrial centers. For instance, the comparison of Ardakan located on the desert in central Iran and Varzegan surrounded with copper and gold mines and forest represents that Ardakan is provided with many factories, but Varzegan is deprived. Overall, most Persian regions are in a good situation regarding welfare amenities, prosperity, and workplaces compared with non-Persian areas. Besides, the Turkish regions’ colonialization causes severe desperation and migration of Azerbaijani Turks to the Persian regions who confront with humiliation by racist society with a high level of supremacy. Under such conditions, they become more assimilated into the Persian language and culture and alienated from their original identity. Indeed, economic colonialization, assimilation, and alienation policies are positively correlated in Iran and reinforce each other against non-Persian ethnic groups.

Despite the repression atmosphere and oppressive politics of governing apparatuses in Iran, South Azerbaijan National Movement activists continue their peaceful struggle against the racist Iranian government’s colonial policies. In contrast, the Islamic Republic security forces raid demonstrations and activists’ homes, detain them, and sentence them to long prison terms by holding arbitrary trials on baseless and false accusations like “Propaganda against the regime”, “acting against national security” and separatism.  For instance, Abbas Lesani is a famous Azerbaijani activist who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for his legal activities such as demanding education in the mother language at schools by the Ardabil appeal court. The supreme court of Iran rejected his objection and upheld the appeal court decision. Therefore, Azerbaijani Turk activists’ initial demands are establishing the schools in the Turkish language and ending the economic discrimination, which has hindered the equitable development of the Turkish-populated areas in Iran.

     Although the linguistic assimilation, alienation, and systematic racist activities of the government to eradicate the language, culture, and identity of the Turkish society in Iran have caused the Persianization of different generations during the last century, with the awakening and spontaneity of Turks, Turkish language and culture are a critical requirement to retrieve their ethnic identity. Moreover, their national values, beliefs, culture, and identity are embedded within the language. For this reason, education in the mother tongue can play vital role for the extrication of the Turks from the bondage of Persian colonialism. Also, it can neutralize the adverse effects of racist policies against these oppressed people. However, denial, repression, and government oppression have led to an increase in identity-seeking in the Turkic-speaking regions, especially in South Azerbaijan, and it intensifies exponentially over time. The Director-General of the Civil and Personal Status Registration office recently talked to the media that 40 percent of the people names in East Azerbaijan province are in Turkish. Despite official restrictions, it demonstrates that activities to revive the Turkish language, culture, and identity continue between Azerbaijani Turks and other tribes with Turkish identity throughout Iran. On the other hand, the Iranian government’s racist policies against the Turks have intensified ethnic divisions and divergence among the Turks, and the denial policy and repression cause a gradual reduction in their desire for territorial belonging to Iran.

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