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Egypt and Israel in the Mediterranean region



An interesting article by Israeli journalist Ophir Winter leads us to express some considerations on the role played by Egypt and Israel in the Mediterranean region.

On January 15, 2020 Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and his Egyptian counterpart, Tarek al-Mula, announced the start of the natural gas flow from Israel to Egypt.

The joint statement marks a milestone in the relations between the two countries and further shows the increasing importance recently taken on by the Mediterranean region in Egypt’s and Israel’s foreign, security and economic policies.

This trend was also evident in the agenda of the World Youth Forum (WYF) held in Sharm el-Sheikh in December 2019, after the first one organized there in November 2017. In 2019, the WYF met in Sharm el-Sheikh under the auspices of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with the participation of about seven thousand young people from around the world.

The topic of the Forum’s discussions, which Egypt organised from 2017 to 2019, was to strengthen cooperation between Mediterranean countries in a variety of areas, including energy, employment, climate, science, illegal immigration and the fight against terrorism.

The Forum’s meetings were dedicated to both the Mediterranean countries’ concrete interests and to “softer” aspects, including the common historical and cultural denominators that link the peoples inhabiting the Mediterranean shores. The WYF agenda focused on Egypt’s foreign, security and economic policies and its attempts to position itself as one of the main Axis countries in the region.

Israel was mentioned in the Forum as a vital partner in gas deals with Egypt and as a full member on its side in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), established in Cairo in January 2019 with the participation of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority.

Israel’s role, however, remains marginal on Mediterranean issues going beyond the gas sector. Therefore,it needs to define a comprehensive Mediterranean policy that will enable it to seize further opportunities to develop its ties with Egypt and other countries in the Mediterranean basin.

In recent years Egypt has attached increasing importance to the Mediterranean region in the light of three main developments:

a) the discovery of the gas field that meets most of Egypt’s gas needs;

(b) the establishment of the EMGF in January 2019paving the way for Egypt to become the regional energy hub, including its objectives of establishing a regional gas market, developing resources and infrastructure, and deepening coordination and dialogue among Member States;

c) the threat posed by Turkey to the promotion of regional gas cooperation due to its refusal to recognise Cyprus’ maritime borders. The tension between Egypt and Turkey over the maritime boundary demarcation deal signed between Turkey and Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya has even escalated since November 2019.

A paper published by the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies (ECSS) on the WYF has noted that gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean create new regional dynamics, including the establishment of economic blocs, multilateral ties, alliances and counter-alliances.

It has also explained that Egypt offers Israel and Cyprus the cheapest alternative to exporting gas to Europe and other markets due to its liquefied gas infrastructure, which can be expanded at a relatively low cost when needed. Egypt, for its part, is interested in raking in a share of profits and strengthening its strategic position as a gas export hub in Europe.

In addition, the Union for the Mediterranean – an intergovernmental organisation bringing together 42 countries from Europe and the Mediterranean basin plus Libya as an observer -has discussed ways to tackle the employment crisis in the region, which has 12.5% of its residents unemployed (mostly young people from Southern Mediterranean countries), and environmental challenges including a global warming level which is about 20% higher than the global average.

Another regional challenge is illegal immigration across the Mediterranean. Egypt has highlighted its success in preventing the emigration of illegal migrants from its territory to Europe since 2016. At the same time, it has been argued that there is a need to increase cooperation between the ‘young’ countries of the Southern Mediterranean region (where around 60% of its inhabitants are under 30 years of age) and the ‘ageing’ countries of the Northern Mediterranean region so as to provide an integrative response to the labour market needs in the region.

From Egypt’s perspective, the response includes a series of legal migration flows from the Southern Mediterranean countries to Europe, along with strengthening the security and stability of the Southern Mediterranean countries in a way that makes it easier for them to attract investment and create jobs in their States.

In recent years, Egypt has also been working on building a Mediterranean identity, which is presented to the young Egyptian generation as one of the pillars of the Egyptian personality.

The nurturing and cultivation of a Mediterranean identity expresses Egypt’s desire to project itself in and out of a regional ethos that will serve as a platform to increase interactions in the Mediterranean region and expand its mark of what has been called for millennia the Mother of Nations, the meeting point of continents, countries, religions and civilisations, i.e. the cultural and historical foundations that make the Mediterranean a region and its peoples a community. Israel is not absent from the Mediterranean storytelling promoted and conveyed by Egypt, but its place has so far remained marginal on issues going beyond gas interests.

According to Egypt, the Egypt, Greece and Cyprus triangle is at the heart of Mediterranean cooperation, while Israel is a secondary partner whose role is limited. An ECSS publication has made it clear that Israel could not take part in the periodic military manoeuvres conducted by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, although it shares a similar security concept with the three countries. It has also suggested that its presence would make it difficult to enhance multilateral cooperation in the region.

Despite the traditional political reservations that accompany relations between the two countries, the Mediterranean has long been a new opportunity for Israel to deepen its ties with Egypt. Firstly, it must continue to expand cooperation in the gas and energy sector through its Egyptian partner and develop bilateral resources and infrastructure, multilateral coordination and the EMGF dialogue between government officials, companies and experts from both sides.

Egypt, Israel, Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Jordan and Palestine signed the EMGF Statute on September 22, 2020, turning the Forum into a regional international organisation based in Cairo, aimed at facilitating the creation of a regional gas market in the Eastern Mediterranean region and deepening collaboration and strategic dialogue between natural gas producing, transit and consuming countries, in an area that is confirmed to be full of great opportunities. France joined as a full member on March 9 2021, with the United States, the EU and the United Arab Emirates as permanent observers. Countries such as Turkey and the Lebanon are not participating in the Forum due to the persistent tension with Greece and Cyprus and the presence of Israel, respectively.

Apart from the aforementioned agreement, however, Israel needs to develop a comprehensive Mediterranean policy with the aim of expanding the range of common interests with Egypt and other countries beyond the gas sector. To this end, the provision of Israeli inputs to Mediterranean issues such as the environment, renewable energy, water desalination, emergency preparedness, education, science and employment should be explored.

The Union for the Mediterranean can serve as a useful platform for Israeli integration in such regional projects, and Israel should consider allocating more resources and manpower to increase its influence within it.

Furthermore, Israel – like Egypt – can benefit from nurturing and cultivating a Mediterranean identity, emphasising common denominators for the countries of the region and values of mutual openness, tolerance and acceptance of the others.

Finally, the Union for the Mediterranean itself has the power to encourage interaction between the Mediterranean peoples, as well as youth meetings and cultural exchanges that contribute to shaping the common area.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Middle East

Qatar World Cup offers lessons for human rights struggles



It’s a good time, almost 12 years after the world soccer body, FIFA, awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights and five months before the tournament, to evaluate the campaign to reform the country’s erstwhile onerous labor system and accommodate fans whose lifestyles violate restrictive laws and/or go against deeply rooted cultural attitudes.

Ultimately the balance sheet shows a mixed bag even if one takes into account that Qatari autocracy has proven to be more responsive and flexible in responding to pressure by human rights and labour groups than its Gulf brothers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

On the plus side, the initial wave of condemnation of the country’s repressive kafala labour system that put employees at the mercy of their employers persuaded Qatar to become the first Gulf state, if not the first Arab state, to engage with its critics.

Engagement meant giving human rights groups and trade unions access to the country, allowing them to operate and hold news conferences in Qatar, and involving them in drafting reforms and World Cup-related model labour contracts. This was unprecedented in a region where local activists are behind bars or worse and foreign critics don’t even make it onto an inbound flight.

The reforms were imperfect and not far-reaching enough, even if Qatar introduced significant improvements in the conditions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Furthermore, on the plus side, the hosting rights sparked limited but nonetheless taboo-breaking discussions that touched on sensitive subjects such as LGBT rights and the granting of citizenship to non-nationals.

Qataris openly questioned the granting of citizenship to foreign athletes so they could be included in the Qatar national team for the 2016 Olympics rather than medical personnel and other professionals who had contributed to national welfare and development.

Hosting the World Cup has further forced Qatar, albeit in a limited fashion, to come to grips with issues like LGBT rights that do not simply violate the country’s laws but go against its social grain to produce an inclusive tournament.

In some ways, that may have been more difficult than reforming the labour regime if one considers the difference between standing up for democratic freedoms that may have broad public support and the recognition of LGBT rights. In contrast to democratic rights, opposition to LGBT rights is deeply engrained in Qatar and other Muslim societies. It would likely be socially rejected, even if they were enshrined in law.

The difference means that the defense of LGBT and other socially controversial rights forces activists and human and LGBT rights groups to rethink their strategies and adopt alternative, more long-term approaches.

It also means that they will have to embrace less Western-centric attitudes frequently prevalent in the campaign to reform Qatar’s labour system. Those attitudes were evident in debates that were also often skewed by bias, prejudice, bigotry, and sour grapes.

Moreover, the criticism often failed to consider the context. As a result, achieving results and pushing for reform was, to a degree, undermined by what appeared to be a ganging up on Qatar and a singling out of the Gulf state.

Labour is an example. Human rights groups and trade unions treated onerous labour conditions in Qatar, even if the World Cup turned it into a prime target, as uniquely Qatari rather than a global problem that manifests itself in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and even Western democracies like Britain. Recent reporting by The Guardian showed that expatriate medical and caregiver personnel face similar curtailing of rights and abuse in Britain.

By the same token, Qatar was taken to task for being slow in implementing its reforms and ensuring that they were applied not only to World Cup projects but nationwide.

The fact is that lagging enforcement of policies and legal changes is a problem across the broad spectrum of Qatari policies and reform efforts, including the Gulf state’s high-profile, fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy.

Qatar’s handling of illegal recruitment fees paid by workers is a case in point.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the Qatari organizer of the World Cup, has obliged companies it contracts to repay the fees without workers having to provide proof of payment. Companies have so far pledged to repay roughly USD$28.5 million to some 49,000 workers, $22 million of which have already been paid out.

It is a step the government could apply nationally with relative ease to demonstrate sincerity and, more fundamentally, counter the criticism.

Similarly, in response to complaints raised by human rights groups and others, the government could also offer to compensate families of workers who die on construction sites. Again, none of these measures would dent Qatari budgets but would earn the Gulf state immeasurable goodwill.

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Middle East

‘Effort and patience’ required to restore Iran nuclear agreement



A view from the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran. (file) Photo: IAEA/Paolo Contri

Despite diplomatic engagements, restoring the so-called Iran nuclear agreement continues to be hindered by political and technical differences, the UN political and peacebuilding chief told the Security Council on Thursday.

In the landmark accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – reached in 2015 between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom – Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief.

In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reinstated the sanctions.

Achieving the landmark JCPOA took determined diplomacy. Restoring it will require additional effort and patience,” said UN political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo.

Although the landmark Joint Commission to restore the Plan resumed in November 2021, she acknowledged that despite their determination to resolve the issues, the US and other participants are yet to return to “full and effective implementation of the Plan, and [Security Council] resolution 2231”.

Appealing to both

Together with the Secretary-General, she urged Iran and the US to “quickly mobilize” in “spirit and commitment” to resume cooperation under the JCPOA.

They welcomed the reinstatement by the US in February of waivers on nuclear non-proliferation projects and appealed to the country to lift its sanctions, as outlined in the Plan, and extend oil trade waivers.

Together they also called on on Iran to reverse the steps it has taken that are inconsistent with its nuclear-related commitments under the Plan.

Monitoring enrichment

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to verify the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran, it estimates that there is currently more than 15 times the allowable amount under the JCPOA, including uranium enriched to 20 and 60 per cent, which Ms. DiCarlo called “extremely worrying”.

Moreover, on 8 and 20 June, IAEA reported that Iran had started to install additional advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and began feeding uranium into advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Fordow.

In his latest report, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, informed the Council that the UN agency’s ability to verify and confirm the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities are key to the JCPOA’s full and effective implementation.

Iran’s decision to remove site cameras and place them and the data they collected under Agency seals, “could have detrimental implications”.

Improved relationships ‘key’

Bilateral and regional initiatives to improve relationships with Iran remain “key” and should be encouraged and built upon, according to Ms. DiCarlo.

Additionally, Member States and the private sector are urged to use available trade instruments to engage with Iran and Tehran is requested to address their concerns in relation to resolution 2231 (2015) on its nuclear issues.

The senior UN official also drew attention to annex B of the resolution, updating ambassadors in the Council on nuclear-related provisions, ballistic missiles and asset freezing.

We hope that diplomacy will prevail – UN political chief

Triumph for multilateralism

The JCPOA was a triumph for non-proliferation and multilateralism,” said the UN political affairs head.

However, after many years of uncertainty, she warned that the Plan is now at “a critical juncture” and encouraged Iran and the US to build on recent momentum to resolve remaining issues.

“The Secretary-General is convinced there is only one path to lasting peace and security for all Member States, and that is the one based on dialogue and cooperation,” she said.  “We hope that diplomacy will prevail”. 

In Iran’s best interest

Olof Skoog, Head of the European Union Delegation to the UN, speaking in his capacity as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission established by the JCPOA, to the Security Council, recognized the negative economic consequences that the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has had on Iran but affirmed that restoring the agreement is “the only way” for the country to reap its full benefits.

He reminded that the Plan would comprehensively lift sanctions, encourage greater international cooperation, and allow Iran to reach its “full economic potential”.  

“It is, therefore, important to show the necessary political will and pragmatism to restore the JCPOA,” said Ambassador Skoog who, while acknowledging the sense of urgency, counselled against “escalatory steps” and to preserve sufficient space for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.

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Middle East

Dynamic diplomacy: From SCO to BRICS



Image source: Tehran Times

The tree of Iran’s balanced foreign policy approach is on the verge of being a one-year-old child. Stronger than before, Iran is pursuing dynamic diplomacy in a variety of cities such as Doha, Ashgabat, and other capitals. Baghdad will also join the list soon.

While Iran’s top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is engaged in intensive negotiations in Qatar with the United States through the European Union delegation, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and his oil and foreign ministers are in Ashgabat pursuing transit diplomacy as well as the legal regime of the Caspian Sea with the littoral states. 

Prior to his departure for Ashgabat on Wednesday, Raisi spoke to reporters about the purpose of his visit to Turkmenistan. 

“This visit is taking place at the invitation of the esteemed president of the brotherly and friendly country of Turkmenistan in order to attend the Caspian Sea littoral states summit,” he remarked.

The President called the Caspian Sea a common heritage and capital for the littoral states with more than 270 million people. 

“We have good relations with the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, but in addition to reviewing the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and peaceful use of the sea for the purpose of improving security at the sea, what will be discussed at the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states is cooperation between countries in the fields of transport, transit, trade, management of marine living resources, environment, as well as preventing the presence of outsiders in the sea, which is also agreed upon by all coastal countries.”

Prior to the beginning of the summit, Raisi met Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s President, as well as Chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

During the meeting with the President of Turkmenistan, Raisi pointed out that the implementation of the memoranda of understanding and cooperation documents signed by the two countries during Berdimuhamedow’s recent visit to Tehran will accelerate promotion of cooperation between the two countries.

Later, Raisi met with the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev. 

During the meeting, Raisi reminded Aliyev that the presence of the Israeli regime in any part of the world undermines security there.

The president also had a brief meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit. 

There’s little doubt that Tehran has not put all its eggs into the basket of the JCPOA revival, as it actively seeks to establish trade relations with the neighbors. It’s short-sighted thinking to assume that Iran has to wait for the United States to return to the JCPOA, while it can enjoy the benefits of regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). 

On Monday, Iran’s former Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, who was holding his last presser, told the Tehran Times correspondent that Tehran has submitted a membership request to the BRICS secretariat via Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. While dynamically trailing balanced and active diplomacy with the neighbors, Tehran is awaiting Washington’s serious political decisions to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Source: Tehran Times

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