Since China’s historic “Belt and Road” initiative was announced in 2013, several countries in the region, including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, have raised the question of moving east in order to benefit from this massive initiative, which is expected to break the vicious cycle of crises that these countries have been mired in for decades.
The Chinese initiative aims to connect China to Europe by constructing billions of dollars of infrastructure along the Silk Road. Ports, highways, railroads, and industrial zones are all included in this initiative. More than 120 countries are involved in this massive Chinese project, which aims to increase China’s exports to the world’s major markets.
On December 31, 1955, China and Lebanon signed a trade agreement in order to develop the goodwill between the peoples of Lebanon and China via commercial relations and economic cooperation between their two nations, on the basis of equal and mutually beneficial advantages. China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to connect Asia, Europe, and Africa via land and sea trade routes, is based on the idea that these connections are mutually beneficial to all parties involved.
The initiative is based on open collaboration and does not engage in protectionism; is devoted to mutual benefit and win-win and does not engage in a zero-sum game; moreover it does not interfere with politics. It doesn’t create new laws; instead, abide with international conventions.
Agreements on “joint promotion” were signed by the Chinese government and the Lebanese government in September 2017 to promote cooperation in this area. According to the Memorandum of Understanding, both countries will work together in areas of mutual interest such as transportation and logistics; infrastructure development; investments in renewable energy; and cross-cultural exchange.
Prior to the signing of this Memorandum of Understanding, the two countries signed numerous agreements in various fields, including the Maritime Transport Agreement (1996), the Activation and Protection of Mutual Investments (1997), the Economic, Commercial and Technical Cooperation Agreements (1997-2016), the Civil Air Transport Agreement (1997), a cultural agreement (2002-2005), and several agreements in this field that resulted on December 2, 2019 in laying the foundation stone for this Memorandum of Understanding.
Despite the growing ties between Lebanon and China, the Lebanese have yet to make a decision on whether to move east, more specifically to China, or keep the strong ties and bonds with western governments, such as the US and France, for political reasons related to the sectarian system, as well as economic and commercial interests of some actors or parties active in these areas.
When it comes to Lebanon’s relationship with China, some have shifted the focus from economics to politics, either by advocating a complete shift of the country’s economic focus from the United States to China, or by warning about the potential consequences of expanding relations with the Chinese side. In both circumstances, the connection shifts from national interests to ideological advantages. The Arab countries and Lebanon have never had an issue with China, neither in trade, culture, or politics; China has dozens of major projects in many Arab countries without these countries turning to the east or fearing any US encroachment.
China also contributes to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, in addition to its cultural, educational, and artistic agreements with Lebanon. We can see the positive return of the partnership with China in the tremendous progress in technological projects and infrastructure in Egypt, for example; or Algeria’s ports; Morocco’s industrial sector; Kuwait’s oil and communications industries; Saudi Arabia’s oil and communications industries; and the United Arab Emirates’ energy and agriculture industries.
“Sanctions were not threatened against Lebanon because of China’s growing trade ties with Lebanon, which amount to nearly $2 billion a year in exports to Lebanon compared to barely $60 million in industrial exports from Lebanon to China,” the American side said.
China is a powerhouse with the second-largest economy in the world, whereas Lebanon is a small nation with economic difficulties and a big trade imbalance. On the other hand, it is situated in a strategic location that allows it to serve as a gateway between the Middle East and Europe. So, there is the potential for significant economic and commercial entanglements between China and Lebanon, which might be beneficial to both nations.
More than ten billion dollars’ worth of development projects, including cleaning the Litani River and resolving the country’s electricity crisis were offered to Lebanon’s government by China. Other offers included getting China to participate in the oil and gas sector, turning Lebanon into a Chinese regional financial centre, and expanding the port at Tripoli. Because the United States has rejected any involvement for China in Lebanon, the Lebanese side was not enthusiastic about these initiatives.
Chinese ties with the Middle East are based on mutual benefit, common gain, cooperative growth and a win-win situation. China does not attempt to exert influence in the region. On the other hand, China’s new Ambassador to Lebanon, Qian Minjian, notes that Lebanon’s government and political parties have expressed a positive willingness to deepen practical cooperation with China within the Belt and Road Initiative framework; he stresses that the Chinese side always seeks to cooperate with Lebanon within the Belt and Road Initiative, with a commitment to do so.
Chinese and Lebanese diplomatic relations began in 1971, but commercial ties between the two countries date back to 1955, when the first trade agreement was signed between them, noting that these relations date back more than two thousand years ago.
Those who downplay China’s global economic, technological, and financial influence in contrast to the growing American influence and refuse to support Lebanon’s expansion or deepening of its ties with China on this pretext do not provide clear or logical answers about international expectations that China will hold the top economic position in the world. China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative will have drawn dozens of countries and thousands of globally successful institutions and companies by 2030, parallel to the success of the United States and its Western allies in preventing this project from launching and progressing despite the campaigns they launched to stop it. As a result, the media and propaganda are likely to disparage it and doubt its merits for the countries participating in it.
Lebanon failed to accept or consider the Chinese offers or projects presented to it. Based on its long and distinguished history of relations with China in the economic, commercial, cultural and technical fields, and in order to avoid repeating Iraq’s failed experience in repudiating a strategic partnership agreement with China under the influence of the US; therefore, the Lebanese government should be more aware in dealing with the Chinese in the future and not miss more opportunities.
When there are objections or reservations about the interests of monopolistic powers and activities or external political demands, especially American ones, this means more political and economic confusion in Lebanon and a waste of a historical opportunity that may not be repeated while Arab or foreign alternatives remain conditioned by suspicious political demands, in addition to its lack of transparency and waving a new colonial era as a matter of economics.
Making Sense of Iran’s De-escalation with Saudi Arabia
On March 10, 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia reached an agreement to resume diplomatic ties which had been severed for the last seven years triggered by the killing of a prominent Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by the latter. The agreement has been gaining special attention all over the world since two powers competing to gain strategic dominance in West Asia have agreed to come to terms, and even more so because of the agreement being brokered by a third country China which has gotten a step closer to deepening its presence in the region. However, this article intends to narrowly focus on the plausible reasons that led the Iranian regime to agree to reach this agreement.
Cementing Severed Diplomatic Ties
Following the visit of President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani visited Beijing on March 6, 2023, and had four days of intense discussions with his counterpart Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser Musaid Al Aiban to settle issues between their countries. This agreement, though as unusual an event it may be, is not very surprising after all. In his first speech after winning the elections, the incumbent President of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, stated that he is willing to restart diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and improve trade with neighbours under the policy of ‘Neighbourliness’.
However, it is not unusual in Iranian politics to say one something about its foreign policy approach without been meaning to do it. Moreover, the first round of talks started back in Hassan Rouhani’s term. Therefore, it would be unwise to give more credit than necessary to President Raisi’s policy of ‘Neighbourliness’. It is also important to notice that before Beijing came into the picture, Oman and Iraq were mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia and they had had five round of talks in Baghdad from 2021 to 2022 with no concrete result. The fast-changing regional dynamics and Iran’s internal situation have arguably played a key role in instrumentalising the agreement in March 2023.
Countering Regional Grouping
Given the fact that it is running proxy wars and supporting rebel groups in the region, Iran does not have many trusted allies in the region. There is an extent to which it can have sour relations with countries particularly in the neighbourhood since it may give rise to a regional grouping of countries against Iran. Post the signing of Abraham Accord, countries like Bahrain and UAE have already begun the process of normalising relations with Israel. Furthermore, backchannel talks have already been going between Saudi Arabia and Israel facilitated by the USA. Therefore, de-escalation with Saudi Arabia was in favour of Iran in the present especially because it would help undercut Israel’s efforts to isolate Iran in the region. In the light of these developments, Iran’s willingness to ease its years long rivalry with Saudi Arabia can also be seen as a policy of strategic hedging where Iran prepares for the worst by balancing Saudi Arabia by maintaining a strong military presence in the region but does not close itself from gaining whatever it can through constructive engagement.
Countering Internal Distress
Post the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in September 2022 in the custody of the Morality Police (Gasht-e Irshad), the anti-hijab protests raised some serious concerns for the regime. Although the protests have waned in recent weeks due to the brutal crackdown by the clerical regime, but even they have entirely died down. However, the protests that erupted were against the draconian hijab law but were not limited to it. They were also in response to rising inflation, high unemployment, corruption, lack of opportunities due to country’s isolation among others.
The anti-hijab protest draws inspiration from a series of protests which have marked the history of the clerical regime. Many Iranians, particularly the younger population, have been raising their voice against the use of country’s wealth to fund proxy wars in the region rather than using it for their own welfare. The slogan “Neither for Gaza nor for Lebanon; my soul is sacrificed for Iran” can be heard in every protest since the Green Movement of 2009. The ruling dispensation had not witnessed such a big protest since 2009. This may have brought to light the deep-seated unsatisfaction among the population which cannot go unaddressed for long. But to alleviate the economic hardships of its citizens, the government must have money in its disposal to fix the economy and to generate employment.
Saudi Arabia: A Potential Investor
Keeping in mind the sanctions put in place by the USA, the Iranian regime has been having a hard time getting investment into the country. If this agreement works out, the Iranians will be able to reduce their expenditure that they have been bearing for years for fighting proxy wars in the region. The Saudis are supporting the Yemeni government recognised by the United Nations whereas the Iranians are backing the Houthi rebels. By coming to an agreement with the Saudis about the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Iranians can save a lot of money and resources which can be diverted to strengthen their internal situation in the country. Moreover, Iran may also have a potential investor on their table.
Under the crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman, the diversification project, revolving around the aspirational document ‘Vision 2030’ has gained a momentum in order to decrease their reliance on oil as a means of state revenue. Therefore, the Saudis are looking forward for different ventures to invest. Given the low wage labour cost due to US sanctions, Iran could be a favourable investing site for the Saudis. In light of recent discovery of large reserves of lithium in Iran, 10 percent of the world’s total, rapprochement with Saudi may help in securing foreign investment and technology since energy and infrastructure costs are high for Iran to do it on its own and due to sanctions, Iran is unlikely to get big investors other than China and Russia. However, trade and tanks seldom go together. For getting Saudi Arabia to invest in Iran, de-escalation had to happen before in Yemen.
Through this agreement, the Iranian regime aims to strengthen its regional security through engaging with a strong neighbour to prevent a regional grouping against itself. Moreover, the regime is also trying to win the confidence of its aggrieved citizens by showcasing itself as responsible and pragmatic. The official statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is that the agreement shows “determination of Iranian government to protect the interest of the Iranian people and Muslim, friendly and neighbouring countries” which was hailed by Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the government backed news channel in Iran. Some other conservative media outlets focused more on how this agreement signals the defeat of USA and Israel. As much as the Iranian regime may hail it in the media, one must be cautious while overestimating the outcomes of the agreement. Through supporting Houthis in Yemen, Iran has been able to build significant influence in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula and it looks uncertain if it would abandon it. The agreement may reduce tension in the region; however, it is unlikely to settle profound differences between them in the foreseeable future.
Iran-Saudi Deal: Prospects for the Region
Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies within two months, according to both Iranian and Saudi state media. This marks a significant development as tensions between the two regional rivals had been high for years, with Riyadh breaking off ties with Tehran in 2016 after protesters invaded Saudi diplomatic posts in Iran following the execution of a prominent Shia Muslim scholar. Despite supporting rival sides in several conflict zones across the Middle East, including in Yemen, where the Houthi rebels are backed by Tehran and Riyadh leads a military coalition supporting the government, both sides have recently sought to improve ties.
The joint statement from Saudi Arabia and Iran also said the two countries had agreed to respect state sovereignty and not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, and to activate a security cooperation agreement signed in 2001. The announcement came on the day President Xi Jinping clinched a third term as China’s president amid a host of challenges. The presence of Beijing’s most senior diplomat, Wang Yi, at the talks signalled China’s interest in bolstering stability and peace in the region, as well as its own legitimacy.
The agreement has been welcomed in Iran, where senior officials have praised it as a step towards reducing tensions and bolstering regional security. However, some conservative media outlets have focused on how the deal signals a “defeat” for the United States and Israel. The US has cautiously welcomed the move, saying that it supports any efforts to help end the war in Yemen and de-escalate tensions in the Middle East region. Iraq and Oman, who had previously helped mediate the talks, greeted the rapprochement with optimism.
Improved relations between Tehran and Riyadh could have an effect on politics across the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon and Syria, where the two countries are on rival sides. This deal could lead to the creation of a better security situation in the region, and political analysts note that reducing tensions in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq can still entail wide-ranging interests for both sides. However, achieving success will require both countries to begin continuous and long-term efforts to try reliable ways that would guarantee mutual interests. While the development of re-establishing diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is considered a significant one for the region, it is important to note that ending the eight-year war in Yemen is still considered by some to be the most important eventual outcome of the agreement.
This will be a difficult goal to achieve, given the high level of distrust and the intensity of geopolitical rivalries, which may render the trend of reducing tensions reversible. Conservative economic dealings with Iran are expected from Saudi Arabia, as it does not want to be exposed to US sanctions, and normalisation does not necessarily mean that the two sides trust each other.
The resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia at both the national and international level is likely to have a significant impact. While it could reduce tensions and lead to improved cooperation in areas such as trade, security, and energy, there are still deep-seated issues that may not be easily resolved. Both countries have supported opposing sides in conflicts throughout the Middle East, and there are religious and geopolitical tensions at play.
Furthermore, the resumption of diplomatic relations may be viewed differently by different segments of society in both countries. At the international level, the agreement could potentially reduce tensions, contribute to stability and peace, and increase China’s influence in the region. It may also have implications for other countries with interests in the Middle East, including the United States and Russia. Ultimately, the impact of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will depend on the actions of both countries going forward and whether they can work towards lasting peace and stability in the region. There is another issue which is vital for the Middle East.
The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Iran and met with high-level officials to discuss enhanced cooperation and resolution of outstanding safeguards issues. Both parties agreed to collaborate, address issues related to three locations, and allow for voluntary verification and monitoring activities. Modalities for these activities will be agreed upon in a technical meeting in Tehran, and positive engagements could lead to wider agreements among state parties. This agreement can further help in reducing the tension on the Iran nuclear deal. In conclusion, it is a good deal which can have a long lasting impact on the peace security in the Middle East.
Arab plan for Syria puts US and Europe in a bind
A push by Arab allies of the United States to bring Syria in from the cold highlights the limits of a Chinese-mediated rapprochement between the Middle East’s archrivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The effort spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates, and supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, demonstrates that the expected restoration of diplomatic relations between the kingdom and the Islamic republic has done nothing to reduce geopolitical jockeying and rebuild trust.
At best, the Chinese-mediated agreement establishes guardrails to prevent regional rivalries from spinning out of control, a principle of Chinese policy towards the Middle East.
The Saudi-Iran agreement also is an exercise in regime survival.
It potentially allows the two countries to pursue their economic goals unfettered by regional tensions.
For Saudi Arabia, that means diversification and restructuring of the kingdom’s economy, while Iran seeks to offset the impact of harsh US sanctions.
The goal of countering Iran in Syria is upfront in the Arab proposal for returning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab and international fold.
If accepted by Syria, the United States, and Europe, it would initiate a political process that could produce a less sympathetic Syrian government to Iran.
It would also establish an Arab military presence in Syria designed to prevent Iran from extending its influence under the guise of securing the return of refugees.
For Mr. Al-Assad, the carrot is tens of billions of dollars needed to rebuild his war-ravaged country and alleviate the humanitarian fallout of last month’s devastating earthquakes in northern Syria.
Hampered by sanctions, Mr. Al-Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers don’t have the economic or political wherewithal to foot the bill.
Nevertheless, potential Gulf investment is likely to encounter obstacles. The US sanctions that hamper Russia and Iran, also erect barriers for Saudi Arabia and the UAE that will limit the degree to which they want to be seen as sanctions busters.
Moreover, countering Iranian influence in Syria would have to go beyond trade and investment in physical reconstruction. Iran has over the years garnered substantial soft power by focusing on embedding itself in Syrian culture and education, providing social services, and religious proselytization.
Meanwhile, China has made clear that its interests are commercial and further limited to aspects of Syrian reconstruction that serve its geopolitical and geoeconomic goals.
Mr. Al-Assad was in Moscow this week to discuss trade and humanitarian aid.
The Syrian president’s rejection of a Russian request that he meets his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suggests that Mr. Al-Assad will be equally opposed to key elements of the Arab proposal.
The Syrian president said he would only meet Mr. Erdogan once Turkey withdraws its troops from rebel-held areas of northern Syria.
Even so, the Arab push potentially offers the United States and Europe the ability to strike a reasonable balance between their lofty moral, ethical, and human rights principles and the less savory contingencies of realpolitik.
The terms of the Arab proposal to allow Syria back into the international fold after a decade of brutal civil war that killed some 600,000 people, displaced millions more, and significantly enhanced Iran’s regional footprint appears to take that into account.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the proposal offers something for everyone but also contains elements that are likely to be difficult to swallow for various parties.
While Mr. Al-Assad rejects the principle of political reform and the presence of more foreign troops on Syrian territory, legitimizing the regime of a man accused of war crimes, including using chemical weapons against civilians, is a hard pill to swallow for the United States and Europe.
However, it is easy to claim the moral high ground on the backs of thousands trying to pick up the pieces in the wake of the earthquakes.
The same is true for the plight of the millions of refugees from the war whose presence in Turkey and elsewhere is increasingly precarious because of mounting anti-migrant sentiment.
That is not to say that Mr. Al-Assad should go scot-free.
Nonetheless, the failure to defeat the Syrian regime, after 12 years in which it brutally prosecuted a war with the backing of Russia and Iran, suggests the time has come to think out of the box.
The alternative is maintaining a status quo that can claim the moral high ground but holds out no prospect of change or alleviation of the plight of millions of innocent people.
To be sure, morality is not a concern of Arab regimes seeking to bring Mr. Al-Assad in from the cold. However, countering Iran and managing regional conflicts to prevent them from spinning out of control is.
Even so, the Arab proposition potentially opens a way out of a quagmire.
It would enhance the leverage of the United States and Europe to ensure that political reform is the cornerstone of Mr. Al-Assad’s engagement with elements of the Syrian opposition.
In other words, rather than rejecting any solution that does not involve Mr. Al-Assad’s removal from power, the United States and Europe could lift sanctions contingent on agreement and implementation of reforms.
Similarly, the US and Europe could make sanctions relief contingent on a safe, uninhibited, and orderly return of refugees.
However, there would be questions about the ability and willingness of Arab forces loyal to autocratic regimes to safeguard that process impartially.
US and European engagement with Arab proponents of dealing with Mr. Al-Assad would potentially also give them a seat on a train that has already left the station despite their objections.
Ali Shamkani, the Iranian national security official who negotiated the deal with Saudi Arabia in Beijing, was in the UAE this week to meet President Mohammed bin Zayed. There is little doubt that Syria was on the two men’s agenda.
Mr. Al-Assad met this weekend in Abu Dhabi with Mr. Bin Zayed for the second time in a year and traveled to Oman for talks with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq last month.
The Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers recently trekked separately to Damascus for the first time since the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011.
Perhaps, the most fundamental obstacle to the Arab proposition is not the fact that Syria, the United States, and Europe would have to swallow bitter pills.
The prime obstacle is likely to be the Arab proponents of the plan. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan are unlikely to stick to their guns in presenting the plan as a package.
Having taken the lead in cozying up to Mr. Al-Assad, the UAE has since last year demonstrated that it is willing to coax the Syrian leader to back away from Iran at whatever cost to prospects for reform or alleviation of the plight of his victims.
Saudi Arabia, like Qatar and several other Arab countries, initially opposed reconciliation but the kingdom has since embraced the notion of rehabilitation of Mr. Al-Assad.
In early March, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud noted “that there is a consensus building in the Arab world, that the status quo is not tenable. And that means we have to find a way to move beyond that status quo.”
Mr, Al-Saud insisted, however, that it was “too early” to discuss Syria’s return to the Arab League that groups the Middle East’s 22 Arab states. The League suspended Syrian membership in 2011 because of Mr. Al-Assad’s prosecution of the civil war.
Even so, this puts the ball in the US and European courts.
Much of the Arab proposition is about enticing the United States and Europe to be more accommodating and more inclined to a conditioned lifting of sanctions.
The problem is that Mr. Al-Assad is likely to call the Arab states’ bluff in the knowledge that Iran is his trump card.
A speedy in principle US and European embrace of the Arab proposition would hold Emirati and Saudi feet to the fire and put Mr. Al-Assad on the back foot.
Erosion of Russia’s Hegemonic Stability in the South Caucasus and Transition to Risky Instability
In early nineteenth century, following the wars with Persian and Ottoman empires, Russia completed the invasion of the South Caucasus....
The Taliban’s Loss of Popular Support in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is currently facing an unprecedented crisis due to the Taliban’s takeover of the country in August 2021. Despite initially...
International Cooperation to Address Economic Inequality and Promote Sustainable Development
Economic inequality is a pervasive issue that has plagued societies across the world for centuries. The gap between the rich...
It’s high time to step up the protection of Europe’s critical maritime infrastructure
After the truth about the Nord Stream pipeline explosion came to light, the whole world knows that the United States...
Seeing Japan – Indonesia Collaboration in Energy Transition Cooperation
Holding the G7 presidency, Japan is increasingly active in establishing relations with several countries. One of them is Indonesia. The...
Women’s mobility must be a key focus in urban policy
Historically, cities across the world have been designed to fit the needs of able-bodied men, or a neutral, often male,...
Lemon peel, flax fibres hold keys to eco-friendly car parts
Natural materials including farm waste can make autos and other industries more sustainable, less toxic By HELEN MASSY-BERESFORD Think of the...
Eastern Europe4 days ago
Untouchable U.S. troops in Lithuania
Science & Technology3 days ago
New discoveries and advances ranging from the BRICS countries to Israel, Japan and South Korea
Eastern Europe4 days ago
The Ukraine War and Great Power Competition
Economy3 days ago
Azerbaijan’s Favorable Climate for Foreign Investments
Economy4 days ago
Blue Economy and its potential in Pakistan
Europe3 days ago
Europe’s relations with Africa and Asia are on the brink of collapse, and Russia is benefiting
Economy3 days ago
Vietnam’s macroeconomic policy and post COVID recovery
Finance4 days ago
Pre-Hung & Slab Doors: Comparison Guide