“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.
China-US and the Iran nuclear deal
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.
Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility
Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.
Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.
This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.
The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.
IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”
And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.
In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.
IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).
The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.
The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.
Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.
Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).
And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).
There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.
But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions.
Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.
Saudi diplomacy needs flesh on its skeleton of sports and religion
Like Qatar, after winning the right to host this year’s World Cup, Saudi Arabia is discovering the pitfalls of seeking soft power, whether through sports or religion, without coming to grips with skeletons in its closet.
Last week, France spotlighted the pitfalls when it questioned security in the kingdom following a mysterious explosion in a support vehicle carrying six members of the Sodicars Racing team exploded outside the Donatello hotel in the coastal city of Jeddah.
The explosion, days before last week’s start in the kingdom of the Dakar Rally, severely injured French driver Philippe Boutron. The 61-year-old suffered ‘burnt and torn” legs and was moved to a military hospital in Paris for further medical treatment after three initial operations in the kingdom. The other passengers escaped unscathed.
The explosion cast a shadow over Saudi efforts to project itself as a prime venue for major international sports events. It also dented the impact of last month’s visit to the kingdom by French President Emmanuel Macron and his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Macron was the first Western head of state to engage directly and publicly with the crown prince since the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Differences between France and Saudi Arabia over the cause of the explosion could raise questions about security in the kingdom as well as the crown prince’s crackdown on potential rivals and any form of dissent.
Originally dubbed the Paris-Dakar rally, the race moved from North and West Africa several years ago for security reasons, first to South America and in 2020 to Saudi Arabia.
France opened a terrorism investigation into the incident, but Saudi Arabia has insisted that its inquiry had found no initial criminal suspicions. The Saudi foreign ministry said it was liaising with French authorities.
The issue was likely discussed in a telephone conversation on Sunday between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Mr. Le Drian demanded earlier that Saudi Arabia provide “the greatest possible transparency.”
In addition, France warned its nationals in the kingdom to exercise “maximum alertness” in the wake of the blast.
Sodicars chairman Richard Gonzalez supported French suspicions of a deliberate attack. “I saw everything. It was a deliberate act; there’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Gonzalez said.
Saudi Arabia is widely believed to see sports as an opportunity to diversify its economy away from dependence on oil exports and as a vehicle for improving public health and a means to polish its badly tarnished human rights image.
The explosion coincided with a second recent setback in Saudi efforts to distract from its human rights abuses not only through sports but also by projecting the kingdom as a religiously tolerant beacon of a ‘moderate’ interpretation of Islam and a leader in inter-faith dialogue.
The kingdom’s projection suffered a defeat with the forced decision to move its King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) from Vienna to Lisbon. The centre hopes that the kingdom’s lack of freedom of religion and tarnished human rights record will spark less controversy in the Portuguese capital.
Supporters of the centre, part of a Saudi effort to garner religious soft power in competition with other Middle Eastern and Asian states, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia, have blamed anti-Muslim sentiment for the controversy surrounding it.
Heather Wokusch, a consultant who has worked with KAICIID, noted that the centre had offered free of charge workshops to integrate Muslims into Austrian society and organized events to build capacity in peaceful dialogue and interfaith principles. These included initiatives to counter hate speech in Nigeria and protect Rohingya in Myanmar.
“Why close an office that is successfully supporting vulnerable populations in Austria and abroad? And who will take responsibility for all those services if the KAICIID Dialogue Centre is shut down?” Ms. Wokusch asked.
Unanswered was why the promotion of inter-faith dialogue and inter-communal harmony should be primarily outsourced to a Saudi-funded institution rather than be as much an equally-shared responsibility of Austria and other members of the international community.
Similarly, unmentioned is the lack of a degree of religious freedom and tolerance in the kingdom that contrasts starkly with its global promotion of inter-faith dialogue. In contrast to most Muslim-majority countries, the kingdom bans public non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship.
To be fair, the kingdom has allowed oblique references to Christmas and Valentine’s Day in recent years. Last year, it removed supremacist references to Jews, Christians, and Shiites in schoolbooks.
However, Saudi Arabia may also be encountering headwinds in its traditional diplomatic efforts to dial down tensions in the Middle East, in part by entering into an Iraqi-managed dialogue with Iran.
In a reversal of what appeared to be efforts by both countries to tone down their rhetoric, Saudi media in recent days published articles raising issues to which Iran is particularly sensitive.
The publications came days after Saudi King Salman expressed concern about Iran’s alleged lack of cooperation with the international community on its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and its “negative behaviour” in the region.
Together with earlier statements by Saudi officials designed to temper expectations about the talks with Iran, the king’s remarks and the publications appeared to suggest that progress in the dialogue was slow-moving.
“We follow with concern the Iranian government’s policy which is destabilising regional security and stability, including building and backing sectarian armed militias and propagating its military power in other countries,” the king said.
Feeding an Iranian belief that Saudi Arabia together with the United States would like to see a break-up of Iran as a nation-state, Arab News, the kingdom’s foremost English-language newspaper, last week published a full-page article detailing the plight of repressed Iranians of Arab descent in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan and their century-old aspirations.
Similarly, in a recent article, Al-Jazirah, a daily newspaper that, like all Saudi media, toes the government line, reverted to sectarian rhetoric. The article asserted that Iran sought to spread its Shiite strand of Islam beyond the Middle East, particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.
None of this is to say that Saudi public and traditional diplomacy has failed.
However, it does suggest that to be effective, efforts to project Saudi Arabia as an enlightened kingdom require greater degrees of transparency and adherence at home to the same principles it propagates abroad.
It also suggests that a rapprochement between the kingdom and Iran is likely to be fragile and more a mutually acceptable arrangement than a meeting of the minds irrespective of whether or not talks in Vienna succeed in reviving the 2015 Iranian agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.
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