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Afghanistan has lessons for the Gulf

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The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely clarify what the Gulf’s security options are.

Gulf states are likely to monitor how Russia and China handle the perceived security vacuum and security threats in the wake of the US withdrawal and abandonment, for all practical matters, of Central Asia. It will tell Gulf states to what degree Russia and China may be viable alternatives for a no longer reliable US security umbrella in the Middle East.

Gulf states are likely to discover that they are stuck with a less committed United States. That reality will push them to compensate for uncertainty about the United States with greater self-reliance and strengthening of formal and informal regional alliances, particularly with Israel.

No doubt, Russia, the world’s second-largest exporter of arms, and China will be happy to sell weapons and exploit cracks in the Gulf’s relationship with the United States. But neither has the wherewithal nor capacity to replace the US as the Middle East’s security guarantor.

That didn’t stop Russia from last month signing defence cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. With no details disclosed, the agreements seemed a Saudi and Egyptian effort to wave a warning finger at the United States while Moscow grabbed the opportunity to poke Washington in the eye.

“Given Saudi Arabia’s strategic ties to the United States, it is unlikely that Riyadh is going to cooperate militarily with Moscow to a degree comparable with the Americans any time soon,” said Russian Middle East scholar Alexey Khlebnikov.

“Moscow has neither the desire nor the capacity to replace Washington as the main ally of Cairo and Riyadh. It will try to exploit the situation in order to increase its arms deals in the region, which will give it more hard currency inflow,” he added.

In the same vein, Arab states would be wise to recognize that the Middle East is not Central Asia, the near abroad for China and Russia, which long dominated the region under the umbrella of the Soviet Union that was made up of Russia, the Central Asian states, and others. Threats stemming migration, political violence, and drugs in Central Asia are on Russia and China’s doorstep rather than in more distant lands.

How Russia and China deal with those threats will likely influence Gulf leaders’ thinking. It will be a litmus test for the two Asian powers that Gulf, and other leaders will pay close attention to.

“Moscow will be prepared to absorb a few spillover cases of extremism… Russian leaders will face a much stickier challenge if the self-proclaimed Islamic State or other organized extremist groups begin once again to target Central Asia or Russia itself from Afghanistan. This is precisely the scenario that Russian policymakers have worried about,” said Carnegie Endowment Russia scholar Paul Stronski.

Russia has sought in recent weeks to highlight its capabilities and commitment to Central Asian security in exercises with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance of former Soviet states.

However, Gulf states should take note: Mr. Stronski suggests that Russia’s reliability record is not much better than that of the United States. Russia failed to come to the aid of CSTO member Armenia in its war last year against Azerbaijan. It also did not step in to end days of inter-communal violence in 2020 along the border between CSTO members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan even though Sergey Shoygu, the Russian defence minister, was meeting his alliance counterparts in Dushanbe at that very moment.

The Taliban victory in Afghanistan has put into sharp relief the parameters of the Gulf’s options as Washington debates US foreign policy, including the scope and utility of the US military presence in the Middle East.

“On one side of the debate, some are pushing for the continuation or expansion of the current posture. The other extreme demands the elimination of all or nearly all fixed U.S. military facilities in the region. Both constituencies are loud and passionate, but a strong new consensus falling between these two positions is nonetheless emerging,” said analyst Hussein Ibish.

The room for compromise is created by the fact that Mr. Biden and his predecessor, Donald. J. Trump, adopt the same foreign policy driver even if they label it differently. Mr. Trump employed the principle of America First, a phrase first employed as a World War II-era anti-Semitic rallying cry

Mr. Biden emphasizes a narrowly defined national interest. Both embrace some notion of isolationism, albeit framed differently in scope, as do right-wing nationalists, libertarians and left-wing progressives engaged in the debate.

Mr. Ibish suggested that the consensus involved that US troops would remain in the Middle East for the long-term but that the deployment of men and military assets should be smaller, leaner, and more flexible.

“Given technological and strategic developments in recent years, and lessons learned from the post-9/11 era, the United States should now certainly be able to do more – or at least enough – with less,” Mr. Ibish said.

Mr. Ibish’s perceived consensus strokes with elements of a military strategy Mr. Biden laid out in a speech this week in defence of his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Mr. Biden insisted that the United States going forward would shun ground wars with large troop deployments.

Instead, the United States would focus on economics and cybersecurity in its competition with Russia and China. It would counter extremists with military technology that allowed for strikes against specific targets rather than wars like Afghanistan.

Mina Al-Oraibi, editor-in-chief of The National, one of the Middle East’s prime English-language newspapers, published in the United Arab Emirates, put her finger on the gap between the Gulf’s expectations and the reality as portrayed by Mr. Biden.

“Among policymakers in the Middle East, there is now an understanding the United States is no longer invested in maintaining stability abroad—unless its narrowly defined national interests are directly impacted,” said Ms Al-Oraibi.

In an article entitled, ‘America Isn’t Exceptional Anymore,’ she wrote that Mr. Biden’s definition of the US mission in Afghanistan as “preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland” and “narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation-building” had been heard loud and clear in the Middle East.

“In countries like Libya and Yemen, where conflicts continue and nation-building is crucial, Washington has been disengaged for a number of years. However, that disengagement is now official policy,” Ms. Al-Oraibi said.

“From the threat of terrorist groups like the Islamic State to emboldened militias like Hezbollah, US allies can no longer rely on Washington. As U. officials question some countries’ choices—like Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia increasing ties with China—they must understand Beijing comes across as a more reliable partner in the same way Russia proved a more reliable partner to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ensuring his survival,” she added.

Survival being the keyword, Ms. Al-Oraibi clearly defined the perhaps most fundamental consequence of the US withdrawal that played into the hands of autocrats even if Russia and China were unlikely to support them in the ways the United States has done for decades.

“With a disengaged United States and a lack of European consensus on filling that void, the establishment of systems of government in the shape of Western liberal democracies no longer makes sense. After two decades of promoting democracy as the leading system of government, the view from the Middle East is the United States has abdicated that rhetorical position. And that may not be a bad thing. Effective government should be the goal rather than governments formed simply through the ballot box that don’t deliver for their people,” Ms. Al Oraibi wrote.

Ms. Al-Oraibi’s hard-hitting analysis suggests that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has his work cut out for him when he travels to the Gulf next week to thank countries like the UAE and Qatar for  their help in the evacuation from Afghanistan.

The risk for the United States is that China may prove more adept at Mr. Biden’s game, particularly if relations between Beijing and Washington deteriorate further. China could, for example, try to exploit regional doubts by nudging the Gulf, home to the world’s oil and gas reserves, to price their energy in Chinese renminbi instead of US dollars – a move that, if successful, would undermine a pillar of US global power.

A possible litmus test for China’s engagement in Afghanistan will be whether a Taliban-dominated government extradites Uighurs. China has successfully demanded the extradition of its Turkish Muslim citizens from countries like Egypt, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Ji hinted at possible extradition requests in talks in July in China with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban. Mr. Wang demanded that the Taliban break relations with all militant groups and take resolute action against the Uighur Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP).

The Taliban have so far rejected irrespective of cost pressure to crack down on militants who have helped them in their wars over the past 25 years.

Haneef Atamar, the foreign minister in the US-backed Afghan government of former president Ashraf Ghani asserted that Uighurs, including one-time fighters in Syria, had contributed significantly to recent Taliban battlefield successes in northern Afghanistan.

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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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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