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China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship

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China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.

The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.

Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.

Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”

During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.

China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.

China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.

Mohamad Zreik is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Studies (SPIS), Central China Normal University, Wuhan, Hubei, China. His research focuses on the One Belt One Road initiative and the Chinese presence in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon.

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Middle East

The Return of the ‘Arab Voice’ Through a Portal From the Underworld

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The events of the “Arab Spring” that began 10 years ago were considered a tectonic shift, capable of overturning the previous development logic of the Middle East. While the collective West counted on “democratisation” due to their liberal ideology, Russia or China called for a more cautious assessment of what was happening. The region itself has been torn apart by the clash of ideologies, identities, wars, terrorism, drought, and, most importantly, the stagnation or underdevelopment of socio-economic systems. In many ways, it was the impasse in the development of states (and statehood) coupled with an external factor at a certain stage in history that predetermined the scale of these problems.

As noted in the Valdai Club report “The Middle East in Search for Lost Awakening” about the Middle East leaders, “This constellation, brought to the fore by extraordinary circumstances that happened in a tormented region of a crumbling world, is emerging as a generation of tacticians.” “Excessive pragmatism” and the absence of “philosophical quests”—these words really characterise the current elites in the region. This is how the history of the Middle East developed, especially the part of it where the balance of influence between global forces was ruined after the collapse of the USSR. In many ways, the elites of the Middle East states have to react, because, being in a region that has become an experimental testing ground, each of them could find themselves in the position of a “pariah”. Moreover, no one was going to leave such a pariah in peace, he was destroyed, if not by neighbours, then by external forces. The latter had enough strength, resources, capabilities and influence to implement strategies and “romantic” (but terrifying in practice) ideologies.

In the post-bipolar world, one external factor has been expressed too strongly—the United States, which has paid special attention to the Middle East region. American ideology for the Middle East was packaged in pretty boxes, but behind them was the brutal reality of military repression. It was only resistance that gave rise to a change in approaches, a redrawing of policy, the use of other methods of realising interests and, ultimately, taking into account the interests of the “other part”. But direct resistance without the necessary resources and suitable external conditions of the game between the global poles means looking for trouble. The Arab leaders were not ready for this. Given such regional uncertainty and the “bull in a china shop”, there could only be a desire to react, not to build a strategy; to answer, avoiding collisions, but not to threaten to attack.

Under these conditions, the most valuable skill was concealing one’s opinion—to avoid additional problems and reactions. The “Arab voice” and the character of a proud Bedouin, taught to young Arabists in domestic universities—went underground from regional politics, but did not disappear. We can assume that, hiding, the Arab nationalist movements are waiting for the necessary external and internal conditions to mature. The glimpses of the ideas accompanying these movements, although loudly sounded on the streets during the 2019–2020 protests in the Arab world, are still barely noticeable. Arab nationalist movements have not gained internal resources. External players ignored the ongoing mass demonstrations, as if not noticing them, but the elites of the Arab countries—disunited and with limited legitimacy—felt the growing demand of the population for justice.

Despite the fact that the protesters primarily addressed their demands to their own governments, there is another aspect related to external forces. Before speaking about this, we must indicate that we are talking primarily about the Arab world that suffered during the Arab Spring. There is a difference between the Middle East—a British-designed construction to designate countries on the maritime way to India—and the Arab world. The Arab world includes Arab states, while the Israelis, Iranians or Turks are considered by many representatives of Arab nationalism as hostile external forces. Thus, there are two levels of conditional external influence on the affairs of the Arab world—regional and global. Thus, the protests in Arab countries carry an Arab nationalist charge directed against the interference of their neighbours such as Turkey and Iran (and even Israel, despite the normalisation of relations), and against the West. A separate problem is the perception by Arab nationalists of the corrupt regional regimes and their leaders, which sold their souls to the West. All this leads to limited support from the West for these protests (as opposed to the “Arab Spring”), and a desire to exploit them, to rule behind the scenes. There should be no illusion that in the event of the arrival of nationalist forces, the Iranians and Turks, as well as the Americans, will have to reduce their presence.

Parallel worlds, but no portal

The political map of the Middle East is well known to everyone, as well as the fact that it often does not reflect the real state of affairs. The states themselves do not exist within their borders—even those are determined by the colonial past. They also have difficulty settling down in lands which they claim. Of course, this state of affairs did not develop without the participation of neo-colonialism, a characteristic feature of which is irresponsibility. But this is not the point—we are talking about the region itself. And here the approach of a “game” reflects the situation well.

Imagine that you are playing a computer game with a portal. So, you are on one map, and then go into the portal—and you are transferred to the same map, but of a different colour, with different content and another set of tasks. These are parallel worlds. Using this analogy, one world of the Middle East is the one we are used to see on the political map, the other reflects the real state of affairs. The first world is the world of invented nation-states, the second is a complex world of clans, tribes, Islamist movements and external interests (specific military boots, tanks, aircraft and aircraft carriers) that are not visible on the first map. This is a more complete, complex structure, but the main thing in it is the threads of connections that lead from one actor to another, regardless of boundaries. Precisely speaking, the borders on this second map do not exist.

Today’s Middle East is immersed in this “second map”. For example, the sheikhs of Iraqi tribes are associated with representatives of their tribes—the heads of large and often high-tech corporations—in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Kuwait. The Westernised clans which presently rule Iraq are closely linked with London by their threads and finances. This map clearly shows that adherence to the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation) gives rise to the unexpected alliance of many groups throughout the Middle East (from the elites in Qatar and Turkey to the Egyptian oppositionists who have gone underground; from the Islamist parties of Tunisia and Morocco to the Islamist movements in Idlib). There are also radicals of different colours who can establish control over territories, sell smuggled oil (and everything that brings money to maintain another parallel world—and such scenarios are known in computer games). The very existence of this other world requires the participation of those who generally want to remain on the first map. States and regimes also have to go through the portal in order to keep their finger on the knobs of this game—they do it in order to survive. Hence, for example, there is Tehran’s specific approach with the use of Shiite groups in the failed states. All this, again, without looking at the borders, which were easily dissolved by Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Americans who killed him, by this very murder also showed that they knew no borders. No one will ever remember how and when the portal of chaos to this parallel world was opened.

Today, the experts of the Gulf monarchies or American think tanks believe that the Iranians are to blame for the troubles of the region because of their “Khomeinist” or neo-Shiite ideology. But if you analyse the recent history of the region, you can come to other conclusions. It’s not even about the specific overthrow of the Mossadegh government organised by the American special services and the coup d’état in Iran in 1953. When in 2003 the Americans invaded Iraq, one of the largest and most significant states for the balance of power in the region, a very big “black hole” appeared in the Middle East. Two years earlier, the Americans had invaded Afghanistan. And throughout this period of time, they strengthened their military contingent in the Gulf states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other countries. In these conditions, Iran could not stand aside. It was surrounded by countries that the United States destroyed, and from which a stream of refugees poured. The portal was already open, it was necessary to act—to ensure their safety. And Iran began to use all the tools it had, developing a wide and specific network of contacts throughout the region. It worked best where people clung to their identities in the destroyed states (Iraq was destroyed by the Americans, Syria or Yemen in many ways by regional players, including the Gulf states). But it seems that with the restoration of statehood, the role and influence of external forces—like the Iranians—will weaken.

“Arab voice” from the underworld

In many regions of the world, there are regional structures whose goal is integration and interaction. In the Arab world, all the projects that have been offered since the 20th century fell apart before being realised. The key supranational organisation, periodically representing the voice of the Arab world, was the Arab League. In the 20th century the participation of the Arab League in regional affairs meant legitimacy. The organisation, of course, was criticised, but it continued to function. In the 21st century a lot has changed. A number of decisions discredited this organisation, and many began to forget about it. But has the naive desire to establish an “Arab nation” disappeared?

In the Arab segment of social networks, one can find the concept of janahei al-alam al-arabiy or “two wings of the Arab world”. As a rule, this means Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, cooperation between these two countries could provide an interesting synergistic effect that would force non-Arab regional and global powers to reckon with the countries with the largest Arab population and the largest hydrocarbon resources. Nevertheless, such an alignment has not yet taken shape. Having carried out a number of active foreign policy moves with the aim to demonstrate its capabilities during the 2010s, Saudi Arabia never received the status of a recognised leader of the Arab world (despite making this claim in previous periods). As we have already noted, Iraq was undermined by an external invasion, while the Syrian issue—and Syria is considered the “heart” of the Arab world—finally demonstrated the regional forces’ lack of the ability to seek compromises, as well as the inferiority of the “regional” forces to resolve conflicts independently. There is also the problem of the structural return of such a major force as Egypt, which over the past decade has not occupied a place worthy of its status in regional affairs.

Half a century ago, the “Arab voice” in world affairs came from Cairo. Gamal Abdel Nasser forced the global powers to adjust, to work with each other and against each other, to seek answers to questions that were not always raised by them. The very formulation of the Arab position in international relations was presented in one form or another. Arab socialism, which in fact was a hidden form of Arab nationalism, was generally accepted and widespread. Later it would be said that the regimes failed, the ideology of Arab nationalism failed. The Islamist movements have launched attempts to replace it, but even they, once in power, will not be able to solve pressing problems. Hamas and Hezbollah, specifically, are not considered suitable for nation states, there are also questions related to how effective these structures could be in addressing the conditions of the revived Arab states. It seems that if state institutions are rebuilt, there would be little room for them. But this can happen only at the moment when the player approaches the solution of the tasks set in the “underworld”—he finds a portal that will either bring him to a new map, or return him back to the old one, but understandable, familiar, with the established rules of the game. And this process can be spurred on not by internal, but by external conditions.

***

These external conditions are formed by the “crumbling” world. In this world, the “Arab voice” can be heard. The voice itself can again sound from Cairo—the capital of the state with the largest Arab population and a rich history, which is actively developing its armed forces and economy (impressive achievements in the last five years), as well as political experience and regional recognition. It is the country where the headquarters of the Arab League is located, and can distinguish itself favourably over the next decade, not only and not so much because of its own development, but rather because of the serious decline of its neighbours, who will not have time to recover (Lebanon, Syria, Libya, etc.)

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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Middle East

Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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