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Hedging Saudi bets: Iran looms, Israel beckons, and Taliban cause goosebumps

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Prince Khalid bin Salman may not have planned it that way but the timing of his visit to Moscow last week and message to Washington resounded loud and clear.

The Saudi deputy defence minister was signalling by not postponing the visit that he was trying to hedge the kingdom’s bets by signing a defence cooperation agreement with Russia as the United States fumbled to evacuate thousands from Afghanistan after Kabul was captured by the Taliban.

Saudi Arabia would have wanted to be seen to be hedging its bets with and without the US debacle. The kingdom, moreover, realizes that Russia will exploit opportunities created by the fiasco but is neither willing nor capable to replace the United States as the Gulf’s security guarantor.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia likely wants to capitalize on jitters in the United States as Washington tries to get a grip on what went wrong and come to terms with the fact that the Central Asian country will again be governed by the very religious militants it ousted from power 20 years ago because they allowed Al Qaeda to plan its 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda, alongside various other militant groups, still has a presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban insist that no one will be allowed to operate cross-border or plan and/or launch attacks on other countries from Afghan soil.

Yet, the willingness to exploit US discomfort may also signal jitters in Riyadh. The US withdrawal raises questions about US reliability when it comes to the defence of the kingdom and the Gulf, undermines confidence in US negotiation of a revival of the Iranian nuclear accord if and when talks start again, and raises the spectre of Afghanistan becoming a battlefield in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran despite both sides seeking to dial down tension.

Middle East scholar Neill Quilliam argues that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has increased its influence among the Taliban at the expense of the Saudis who backed away from the group in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The kingdom and the Taliban’s paths further diverged with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman liberalizing once shared ultra-conservative social mores while Afghanistan appears set to reintroduce them.

“The Taliban leadership will likely begin a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the Al Saud and appeal directly to the Saudi population to challenge the ruling family’s authority. At the same time, the Saudi leadership will be keen to align policy with the US and its Western partners and will follow their lead in establishing diplomatic relations with the new Afghan government and providing aid to the country’s population,” Mr. Quilliam predicted.

Mr. Quilliam’s analysis assumes that reduced Saudi interaction and closer Iranian ties with the Taliban means that the group’s inclinations would lean more towards Tehran than Riyadh.

In a similar vein, some analysts have noted that Saudi Arabia was absent among the Gulf states that helped the United States and European countries with evacuations from Afghanistan. Instead, it sent its deputy defence minister to Moscow.

Others suggested that Saudi Arabia chose to remain on the sidelines and hedge its bets given its past history with the Taliban. Saudi Arabia was until 2001 a major influence among Afghan jihadists that it funded during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s and one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government when it first gained power in 1996.

Fifteen of the 19 perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals. By then, Saudi influence had already waned as was evident in the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden before 9/11. 

If proven correct, Mr. Quilliam’s prediction would amount to a break with the Taliban record of not operating beyond Afghanistan’s borders except Pakistan, even though it tolerates Al Qaeda and others on territory it controls. Moreover, despite being strange bedfellows, the need to accommodate one another is unlikely to persuade the Taliban to do Iran’s bidding.

“Iran has tried to increase its influence within the group by getting closer to certain factions, but it is still suspicious of the Taliban as a whole,” said Iran and Afghanistan scholar Fatemeh Aman.

Moreover, the Taliban may want to steer clear of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, particularly if those that believe that US unreliability as demonstrated in Afghanistan leaves the kingdom no choice but to escalate the war in Yemen and confront the Islamic republic more forcefully get their way.

“We should take a lesson from the events in Afghanistan, and especially from the mistakes [that were made there], regarding Yemen. This is the time to crush the Houthis without considering the international forces… Giving Israel a free hand regarding the Iranian nuclear issue has become a reasonable (option)… It seems like (Israel’s) extremist (former prime minister) Netanyahu, was right to avoid coordinating with the (Biden) administration, which he considered weak and failing,” said Saudi columnist Safouq Al-Shammari, echoing voices of multiple commentators in the Saudi media.

Mr. Al-Shammari’s notions fit into Crown Prince Mohammed’s effort to replace the religious core of Saudi identity with hyper-nationalism. They also stroke with thinking among more conservative Israeli analysts and retired military officers.

In Mr. Al-Shammari’s vein, former Israeli Corps and Israel Defense Force (IDF) Military Colleges commander Maj. General (res.) Gershon Hacohen walked away from the US debacle in Afghanistan warning that “for all its overwhelming material and technological superiority, the IDF stands no chance of defeating Israel’s Islamist enemies unless its soldiers are driven by a relentless belief in the national cause.”

By the same token, Maj. General (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor and head of military intelligence research, argued that the US withdrawal would drive home to the Gulf states the proposition that an “open relationship with Israel is vitally important for their ability to defend themselves.”

Mr. Amidror went on to say that Israel could not replace the US as the region’s security guarantor “but together with Israel these countries will be able to build a regional scheme that will make it easier for them to contend with various threats.”

By implication, Mr. Amidror was urging the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain which last year established diplomatic relations with Israel to forge closer security cooperation with the Jewish state and suggesting that Saudi Arabia may be in the wake of Afghanistan more inclined to build formal ties with Israel.

While there is little doubt that Prince Mohammed would like to have an open relationship with Israel, it is equally possible that the victory of religious militants in Afghanistan will reinforce Saudi hesitancy to cross the Rubicon at the risk of sparking widespread criticism in the Muslim world.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Iraq: Three Years of Drastic Changes (2019-2022)

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When the wave of the protests broke out at the beginning of October 2019 in Iraq, the Iraqi politicians did not realize the size of the gap between the demands of the protesters which were accumulated more than seventeen years, and the isolation of the politicians from the needs of the people. The waves of the protests began in a small range of different areas in Iraq. Rapidly, it expanded as if it were a rolling snowball in many regions of Iraqi governorates. Moreover, the platforms of social media and the influencers had a great impact on unifying the people against the government and enhancing the protest movement.

Al Tarir Square was the region where most protesters and demonstrators were based there. At that time, they stayed all day in this region and set up their tents to protest and demonstrate against the public situation of their life.

The protesters demanded their looted rights and asked for making economic reforms, finding job opportunities, changing the authority, and toppling the government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The protest stayed between ebb and tide, pressuring the political authority in Iraq.

A new period began in the history of Iraq where clashes between the protesters and the riot forces broke out in Al Tahrir Square and many governorates in the south of Iraq. Tear gas and ductile bullets were used against the protesters to compel them to retreat and disperse them. But the protesters insisted on continuing their demands. Many protesters were killed and wounded due to the intensive violence against them. The strong pressure with falling many martyrs gave its fruit when the Iraqi representatives of the Parliament endeavored to achieve the protesters’ demands by changing the election law into a new one. On 24 December 2019, the Iraqi Parliament approved of changing the unfair Saint Leigo election law into the open districts. The new law divided Iraq into 83 electoral districts.

Moreover, this violent protest led to the collapse of the Iraqi government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi. He was compelled to resign by the end of 2019. Many political names were nominated by the Iraqi politicians but the protesters refused them all because they were connected with different political parties.

Finally, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who worked in the Iraqi Intelligence Service and had no party, was nominated by the politicians to be the new Prime Minister. He was well-known for ambiguity and far from the lights of media.

Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has become the Prime Minister in March 2020. The protests were over at the beginning of April 2020. With the taking of responsibility of helping Iraq, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi promised the protesters, who were called “Octoberians”, to hold a premature election, and the election was fixed on 10 June 2020.

Many politicians tried to postpone or cancel the premature election. Under their pressure, the premature election was postponed and fixed on 10 October 2020. During Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s period as a Prime Minister, he opened new channels with the Arab states to enhance the cooperation and held many summits to support Iraq in the next stage.

Attempts to postpone the premature election by the Iraqi politicians were on equal foot, but all these attempts failed and the election occurred on the due time.

Before the election, many Octoberians and influencers encouraged the people not to participate in the election. On the day of the election, it witnessed low participation, and people were convinced of not happening any change. These calls gave their fruits in the process of elections in Iraq where the election witnessed very low participation, and most Iraqis refused to participate and vote to the nominees even though there was a new election law. When the elections were over, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Iraq announced that the results would be within two days. After announcing the results of the election partially and defeating many political factions in the Iraqi arena, many convictions were directed to the commission, and it was convicted by fraud and manipulation with the results. This aspect affected the activity of the Commission and led to put great pressure on it. After two weeks of pressure and convictions, the final results of the elections were announced and many political elite Iraqi leaders were defeated gravely.

The results of the election gave a new start through new leaders who were supporting the October revolution that happened in 2019. And most names of these winning movements and alliances were inspired by the October Movement. Those, who represented October Revolution, were also convicted by other Octoberians that Octoberian winners in the election deviated from the aims of the October Revolution.

A new struggle has begun between the losers in the election and the new winners who will have the right to be in the next term of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Representatives. Moreover, many independent individuals won in the election, and the conflict would deepen the scope of dissidence between the losers and winners. Finally, all raised claims of election fraud have not changed the political situation.

The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives.  The Shiite Sadrist movement, which represents 73 seats, has wiped out its competitors. This aspect has compelled the losing Shiite competitors to establish an alliance called “Coordination Framework” to face the Sadrist movement, represented by the cleric Sayyed Muqtada al-Sader. On the other hand, Al-Takadum Movement (Progress Party), represented by the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives, Mohamed Al-Halbousi, has taken the second rank with 37 seats.

The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives.

Finally, the first session of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council was held. Mohamed Al-Halbousi has been elected as the spokesman of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council. During the next fifteen days, the president of the republic will be elected.

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China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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