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Features of US-Chinese competition in the Middle East through the Syrian and Iranian portal

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China has begun to adopt the approach of “increasing presence in the Middle East issues” with the transformation of its policy to be a “central player” in the affairs of the region, which represents a challenge to US influence. Here, we find that (the alliance between China, Russia and Iran in the face of the United States is getting stronger and more solid” on the impact of a “new cold war” between the West and China or the West and the East). This is what Chinese Foreign Minister “Wang Yi” indicated by giving clear indications of the intend of his country to play a pivotal role in the affairs of the region, and here we can understand and analyze the most important features of the competition between the United States of America and China, as follows:

There is a shift in China’s policy from “avoiding direct collision with American policies or even European policies in general” by managing its relations with the region from collective levels to “managing relations at bilateral levels with individual countries, regardless of their inter-conflicts, or the nature of its ties to American politics”.

There is a Chinese conviction, that (Iran is the only Asian power militarily and geographically suitable to help China find a balance with the United States in the Middle East, and to play the role of security guarantor of China’s economic and vital interests). On the other hand, fears are concentrated that (China’s granting of modern civil and military technology to Tehran may constitute an opportunity to make Iran a superior regional power that is difficult to swallow or subjugate in the future).

It is expected that the United States of America will gradually withdraw from the Middle East, which may prompt countries such as Saudi Arabia to “reconsider their relations with Iran and develop them to the level of partnership with mainly Chinese encouragement”, which is what the Saudi Foreign Minister (Prince Faisal Bin Farhan), stated with his frank talk about (the chances of launching a dialogue between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the possibility of developing relations between them to the level of partnership). The Saudi Foreign Minister demanded that the Iranian side:

  “The Iranian side should reduce its country’s regional concerns, which opens the doors not only for rapprochement, but even for partnership between Riyadh and Tehran”

The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement between China and Iran in March 2021 is expected to contribute to (expand the areas of influence and extensions of the Belt and Road Initiative to include the Gulf region, Iraq and Syria), through which work will be done on (transforming Damascus into a major trade center between Iran, Turkey and Iraq, and that is within a future partnership between them), which the United States of America sees as a “threat to its interests and influence in the region of strategic security and economic importance”.

China has built a relationship with Russia that has become (based on the intersection of real interests for it), and therefore (the Sino-Russian alliance with Iran succeeded in prolonging the Syrian crisis by supporting the steadfastness of the Syrian regime for President Bashar al-Assad, and imposing Iran as part of this solution after  excluded for several years), in order to gain influential power in front of the international community.

China has stood with the Syrian regime by using the (veto tlright for the three times to block any UN resolution in the Syrian issue against the Syrian regime and its allies), besides, China has also been working on defending the Syrian regime with its military support, in its desire to (weaken the  extremist Islamic movements and challenging the terrorist organizations, such as: The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), as well as a challenge to the West and Washington”.

China’s new activity in the Middle East was not limited to economic hegemony, as (Beijing realized that the Middle East as a region rife with political risks it necessitates approaching it, with the presence of strategic caution, which is a hallmark of China’s approach to the Middle East). China has worked hard to rearrange its political cards, and sought to highlight its activities in the Middle East and took (steps to mediate in Middle Eastern conflicts), after realizing that these conflicts affect its interests, especially that Chinese policy makers are afraid of the spread of what they call “Islamist ideology or the danger of extremism, terrorism, religious extremism and the growth of Islamic political currents, on top of which is the “terrorist organization ISIS” and its recruitment of almost five thousand of Uyghur’s Chinese fighters from “Xinjiang” Muslims in Syria and Iraq”. Therefore, “China began to carry out and prepare for counter-terrorism operations in a more expansive way outside the borders of its state for the first time in  its strategy and policy”.

The Chinese policy is characterized by (flexibility and pragmatism in managing its relations with the countries of the Middle East), so it turned more towards the “diplomatic front”, establishing relations with multilateral institutions, such as: (the League of Arab States and the China-Gulf Forum), and it also played a security role in  The Middle East, so Chinese forces participated in the deployment (peacekeeping forces in southern Sudan, and China built its first naval base overseas, in the country of Djibouti).

The nature of Chinese policies in general and in the Middle East has turned into (a more daring policy in defiance of Washington), especially after decades of Chinese reluctance to announce this, and China’s previous acquiescence to the US threat to impose sanctions and withdraw its companies from Iran.

We have begun to witness a shift in the “policy of Chinese approaching the Palestinian issue”. It is clear that China is launching a “diplomatic counterattack”, which is not only infiltrating the ranks of the countries allied to the United States, but also seeks to “entice the conflicting countries with Washington” in this or that issue, in addition to the formation of a kind of (bipolarity with Russia in the face of the United States of America in the countries of the region).

China seeks to the (policy of combining contradictions in managing its relations with the countries of the region), such as the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister “Wang Yi” to both Riyadh and Tehran together in March 2021, or to continue (supporting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad), or to establish relations with countries that have different approaches and policies to each other.

The (global balance of power) indicates that the counter-alliance between China, Russia and Iran in the face of US pressure is getting stronger and more solid.

We can conclude (Iran, under pressure from China and Russia, played an important role in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, to achieve a balance against Turkish influence). Russia, backed by China, will lead direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which will reinforce the decline and decline in indicators of American influence in the region.

There has become an increasing conviction in the region that (China will control the United States of America, and that the world will find itself forced to deal with these changes). There are several manifestations that show the weakness of the West, which “China can exploit to its advantage, including the deterioration of US-European relations since “Trump” assumed the presidency of the United States of America, and Washington abandoned France by adopting the new Aukus defense agreement deal with Britain and Australia). This weakens the idea of ​​a united West, in addition to the state of disintegration in the European Union after Britain’s exit.

The (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Beijing Social Sciences Reference Publishing House) has issued a book about: (The Yellow Book of the Middle East), in which Chinese experts believe that:

    “The Middle East region has entered the cusp of the “post-American era”, where the decline of the American role in the Middle East provided the opportunity for the eastern powers, especially Russia and China, to enhance their influence in this important region, and at the same time the confidence of the countries of the region increased in following their own development methods.  The Chinese and Russian model has become the most attractive to the countries of the region”

Another book issued by (The Research Institute of West Asia and Africa at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing) indicates that: “The balance of power in the Middle East has evolved from unipolarity to bipolarity, and then from bipolarity to multipolarity”. With the countries of the Middle East heading towards a “policy of looking towards the East”, towards the Asian countries, on their part, took the initiative to “open up to the West” and to develop strategic partnership relations with the countries of the Middle East.

Analyses of Chinese think tanks indicate that if the United States of America wants to restore its hegemony over the Middle East, it must (deter Russian and Chinese actions that challenge American interests in the region, and establish a multilateral regional force that works to deter any external behavior or interference), or at least to (create an opportunity for Moscow and Beijing to participate in the Middle East in a way that guarantees their interests).

   Through our referred analysis, China has its increased its  (economic, political and military influence in the Middle East). China’s economic hegemony policy has succeeded in order to enhance its access to energy sources in the region, especially with the (growing ambition of Beijing to become a great power that affects the international political system), whether this is achieved through political alliances with Middle Eastern countries or international powers or even through the diplomatic force to dislodge the United States America as a major external power in the Middle East.

Associate Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Politics and Economics / Beni Suef University- Egypt. An Expert in Chinese Politics, Sino-Israeli relationships, and Asian affairs- Visiting Senior Researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)/ Lund University, Sweden- Director of the South and East Asia Studies Unit

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Middle East

Why Israel should support the establishment of the Middle Corridor

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The governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan earlier in the year signed a declaration on improving the transportation potential throughout the region.   Following that, the Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Georgian and Turkish foreign and transport ministries decided that there should be accelerated transport routes throughout the region, which will include the development of the Middle Corridor, a rail freight and ferry system that will link China with Europe.  

It starts in Southeast Asia and China, and runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before reaching southern and central Europe.   This will permit trains to travel from China to Europe within 20-25 days, thus helping to reconnect the former Silk Road.  As a former Israeli minister, I believe that Israel should be supportive of the establishment of the Middle Corridor, as it will help to strengthen the Abraham Accords if it is expanded to include Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region.

The entire Middle East region used to be connected by train under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.   There are a number of remnants of this wonderful train system in Israel, including the Ottoman train stations in Beersheba, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.    These Ottoman train stations are historic landmarks from a bygone era when train travel across the Middle East was possible. Ottoman-era trains used to travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem, Haifa and other areas of the former Ottoman Turkish Empire, such as Medina and Damascus.

However, since Israel was declared to be independent, there has been no train travel between Israel and the Arab world.    This was one of many causalities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.     Yet in the wake of the Abraham Accords, this all has the potential to change, as the Arab countries no longer view Israel to be the pariah that they once viewed it to be.   If anything, the Persian Gulf countries now view Israel to be a partner in the struggle against Iran, as do the Turkic republics like Azerbaijan, who greatly disdain how the mullahs are treating the Azerbaijani population in the Islamic Republic.   

Thus, if this Middle Corridor is built, we Israelis can try to connect onto it as well, as it will help to counter the mullahs in Tehran by creating a stronger connection between the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab world.   We can connect to it via Turkey by ferry, and then from there, have another set of trains going from Israel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia and from there, to the United Arab Emirates.   In our times, this is within the realm of the possible.   

This will thus help to greatly expand trade between China, the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab countries.   Already, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan know that it is necessary to have a train that crosses from Israel to the Gulf states.  They are talking about it and thinking about it.  They are starting with trucks with containers that I arranged, where they bring containers from Abu Dhabi to Israel crossing from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Haifa.  They could continue from there to Turkey via ship and from there to Europe and anywhere else. 

That means that we can have a train traveling from Europe to Turkey and from there, ships can go to Haifa, and from Haifa to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and from there, to the Gulf states, and they can go back in the opposite direction.    I am in Bulgaria now to check how I can make it more relevant.  After that, a Saudi Arabian agreement with Israel can start with a new train, like what existed in the Ottoman times with the Hijaz Railway.   The people of Hijaz want to make it happen again. This is in the plan of the Abraham Accords Agreement and it will happen in the future.    

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Qatar punctures FIFA’s political fantasy

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If the Qatar World Cup proved anything, it’s that sports and politics are inseparable Siamese twins joined at the hip.

Politics popped up at every twist of the World Cup’s road, whether related to the right of freedom of expression of players, sports commentators and fans; anti-government protests in Iran; anti-Israeli sentiment among Qataris and Arabs; a backlash against Western, particularly German, critics of Qatar; or ultra-conservative religious rejection of soccer as a sport.

Qatari efforts to stage manage the intrusion of regional politics ranged from picking and choosing which protests fit its foreign policy agenda to seeking to ensure, where possible, that events elsewhere in the region would not overshadow or inflame passions during the World Cup.

Palestine is a case in point.

Amid escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Mohammad al-Emadi, the Qatari official handling Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, travelled to the region to ensure that it and Islamic Jihad, another Gaza-based organization, would not respond with rockets to Israeli use of lethal force against Palestinian militants on the West Bank.

Qatar feared that a response to last week’s killing of an Islamic Jihad commander on the West Bank and near-nightly Israeli raids could spark a renewed Israeli intervention in Gaza, already crippled by a 15-year-long Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

The Qatari pressure puts in a different perspective the Gulf state’s endorsement of expressions of support for the Palestinians during the World Cup in the form of pro-Palestinian flags and T-shirts and a refusal by Qatari and Arab fans to engage with Israeli reporters covering the tournament.

Despite refusing to follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan in recognizing Israel without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Qatar has a long-standing working relationship with the Jewish state that serves the interests of both countries.

The Gulf state, often at Israel’s request, has pumped millions of dollars into paying government salaries in Gaza, providing aid to thousands of families affected by past wars, and funding fuel for the Strip’s power plant as well as infrastructure projects.

Moreover, Qatar became the first Gulf state to put money into Israel when it funded in 2006 a six-million-dollar stadium in the predominantly Israeli Palestinian town of Sakhnin, an investment long before the UAE-led Arab recognition of the Jewish state 14 years later.

Sakhnin and the Doha Stadium are home to Bnei Sakhnin, Israel’s most successful Israeli-Palestinian club.

As a result, allowing expressions of pro-Palestinian sentiment during the World Cup served multiple Qatari purposes.

It gave a release valve to Qataris, a minority in their own country, who were concerned about the impact on their society of the government’s live-and-let-live approach towards soccer fans with very different cultural values visiting their country during the World Cup.

Preventing fans from taking pro-LGBT paraphernalia such as One Love and rainbow-coloured armbands and shirts into stadiums served a similar purpose.

It also allowed Qataris to vent their frustration at perceived double standards in European and American criticism of Qatar’s rejection of LGBT rights, particularly after the German team’s hands-over-mouth gesture in protest against FIFA’s denial of their right to wear pro-LGBT armbands.

In one instance, Qataris wore pro-Palestinian armbands of their own to a match as a protest against the donning of a pro-LGBT One Love band by German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, who attended the game.

Expressions of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli sentiment also suggested that Qatar’s refusal to recognise Israel was more in line with Arab public opinion than efforts to project the UAE-led recognition of the Jewish state as genuinely popular and indicative of a drop in support for the Palestinian cause.

If anything, recent polls show that public support for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel had fallen across the Arab and Muslim world, including in countries that normalized their ties to the Jewish state.

In Bahrain, 20 per cent of the population supports the accords, compared with 45 per cent in 2020, according to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy poll in July. Support in Saudi Arabia fell from 41 to 19 per cent. Even in the UAE, where normalisation had the greatest impact, support dropped to 25 per cent this year from 47 per cent in 2020.

For Qatari World Cup managers, Palestine was low-hanging fruit. Protest against the government in Tehran was a far trickier challenge.

A regional behemoth, Iran is a partner as well as a potential threat with which Qatar shares the world’s largest offshore gas field.

Maintaining relations with Iran has allowed Qatar, at times, to be a background mediator with the United States on issues like the moribund talks to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement.

Qatar feared that allowing stadiums to become venues of confrontation between opponents and supporters of the Iranian government could have persuaded Iran to rank the Gulf state, alongside Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, as an instigator of sustained anti-government protests in which security forces have killed hundreds.

As a result, Qatar sought to prevent anti-government banners, T-shirts, and pre-revolution flags from entering stadia. The problem resolved itself when Iran was knocked out of the World Cup in the group stage.

Yet, the larger issue remains. The Qatar World Cup demonstrates that FIFA’s insistence that sports and politics can be separated amounts to a political fantasy.

More concerning than that, it enables FIFA and autocratic World Cup hosts like Qatar to decide what are convenient and inconvenient expressions of politics. That hardly makes for a level playing field, the starting point for any sport.

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The challenges lie ahead Ankara’s decision to normalize relations with Cairo and Damascus

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as they attend reception hosted by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the occasion of the opening ceremony of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. [Murat Kula - Anadolu Agency]

Although Egypt and Syria are at the bottom of the list of states with which Turkey intends to reconcile, the 10-year conflict with the two mentioned countries, which is accompanied by conflict and bloodshed in Syria, is on the verge of ending, and Turkey’s relations with Egypt and Syria are returning to normal. 

Of course, the recent progress is due to the efforts of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey; Especially after the negotiators failed to close the last case of incompatibility between the two sides. The process of reconciliation began in 2021, in the city of Al-Ala in Saudi Arabia, and since then, Cairo and Ankara continued to strive and innovate in order to achieve reconciliation and compromise, and finally achieved positive and significant results.

However, the reconciliation between the two states was not at the leadership level; Until Qatar provided the ground for the meeting of Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Doha during the opening ceremony of the World Cup. The sitting of the Secretary General of the United Nations between the presidents of the two countries was not aimed at keeping them away from each other, and it seems that the Egyptians and the Turks had prepared for this occasion a few weeks ago, and the opening ceremony of the World Cup was held as a tribute to the mediation of Qatar, as the appointment was selected.

Regardless of political compliments, the reconciliation of Egypt and Turkey is very important; Because the continuation of tension between the two countries can lead to many risky developments. Relations between Egypt and Turkey became strained after the overthrow of the government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. At that time, it became clear to political observers that this inconsistency will last for a long time and will not end soon; Especially since the late president of Egypt tried to run his country with the mentality of a one party rule. For this reason, the solidarity of the angry protesters with the security institutions played a central role in changing the situation in this state and marked the end of the Muslim Brotherhood government. Then, the Muslim Brotherhood made Istanbul its alternative capital and began its plans and efforts to return to power from there. This caused a crisis in the relations between Egypt and Turkey, and with the passage of time, the incompatibility between the two states increased.

However, in the past year and a half, the governments of Turkey and Egypt have held several meetings in order to resolve the dispute and end the disputed cases, and they were able to achieve significant successes in terms of security and media. Ankara more or less stopped the activity of the Egyptian opposition in Turkish territory, but the reconciliation between the two sides was not complete and the disagreement over how to manage the Libyan war crisis and the dispute over territorial waters in the Mediterranean remained unresolved.

In the case of Libya, Turkey supports one side of the conflict and Egypt supports the other side. Libya plays a vital role for Egypt in terms of security, and it is an important market for Turkey in terms of economy. In addition, Libya has many debts to pay to Turkey since the Gaddafi government.

On the other hand, after the discovery of gas fields in the Mediterranean waters, which are believed to contain a large amount of energy, there was a dispute between Egypt, Turkey and Greece over territorial waters in the Mediterranean, and the aforementioned states have not been able to find a solution to overcome this challenge.

The issue of ending the tension between Egypt and Turkey is very important, because achieving this goal may help end the war in Libya, and this in itself is reason enough to be optimistic about the current efforts for reconciliation between the two states. However, the price of this reconciliation will be paid by the opposition affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood outside of Egypt.

Of course, the path of reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara is extremely chaotic and risky. It is so difficult to reach the stage of reconciliation between the two states that, according to Erdogan, if he himself goes to Damascus, he will not be able to find a quick solution to end this complex crisis. Turkey and Syria have been fighting indirectly for more than 10 years. In addition, several military powers, including the forces of the Islamic Republic, Russia, the United States, foreign militias, the remnants of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the separatist Kurds of Turkey, and the Syrian armed opposition continue to invade Syria.

Meanwhile, the inability of Damascus to control parts of the Syrian territory has created a power vacuum in different parts of the country. Millions of Syrian refugees live abroad; In addition, millions of other citizens who have been forced to leave their homes have sought refuge in areas far from the war and are still displaced.

Therefore, any solution that is presented to end the crisis should consider the above points. Currently, all sides want the war in Syria to end, but the path to achieving this goal remains elusive.

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