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Chinese Geo-strategic Expansion in the Levant: A Case Study of Lebanon

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As soon as the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, China and the Middle East faced a series of challenges. In recent years, China’s influence in the region has expanded due to its economic interests in energy, trade, infrastructure construction, and diplomatic contacts with the region’s countries. This is linked to President Xi Jinping’s Belt-Road Initiative (BRI), which was announced in 2013 in response to the increasing middle class’s needs for infrastructure and economic exchanges. As the world’s largest consumer of oil, China’s relations with major oil exporters such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are frequently scrutinized. However, part of the BRI involves the construction of new channels to promote trade through the expansion of existing infrastructures.

It is predicted that the Middle East will become a major region for industrial upgrading in the near future. Chinese economic interests and influence may be threatened by the region’s instability. With its dynamic structure, Iraq has been noted by Keskin and Braun (2016) as an intriguing country with implications for China’s engagement in the area. Lebanon is sometimes neglected because of its complicated political situation and the presence of international influence. As it turns out, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, as well as Christians, and Kurds, find themselves at odds with each other.

The security situation is another stumbling block in the face of the Sino-Lebanese partnership. Foreign interventions, extremist groups, and the complexities of the Syrian crisis have all been faced by Lebanon and Syria. For the BRI, Lebanon is strategically located in the Levant region and has direct access to the Mediterranean Sea, making it ideal location for the Chinese project.

Through a literature review of academic papers, government documents, and news-paper articles, this paper aims to examine China’s diplomatic approach and interests toward Lebanon. An in-depth look at China’s relationship with Lebanon and Syria since it was established as the People’s Republic of China is presented here. It covers the period from 1949 to the present to give a greater sense of how ties and problems have evolved through time. Additionally, the non-intervention policy and the sway of other important countries are considered in Lebanon.

A Review of Bilateral Relations for the Era (1949-2000)

During the second half of the 20th century, China’s connections with Lebanon are described here. The People’s Republic of China was created in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party seized control of Beijing and became the country’s most powerful government. China is pursuing a peaceful diplomatic strategy and openness towards Lebanon. China has always been a friend of Lebanon at all stages, despite Beijing’s little interest in the region during this time. Shichor’s works are the primary source of information on China’s early contacts with Lebanon, as he has been a pioneer in the field of Chinese relations in the Middle East.

In 1949, Lebanon did not recognize the Communist Party as the central authority of China, following the founding of the PRC. China contributed troops to the Korean War to defend North Korea and fight against US forces, prompting Lebanon to label China an aggressor in the conflict in 1951. The United States had advised Lebanon to delay a vote on a resolution that would have excluded Taiwan as representative of the Republic of China (ROC). Both the parliament and the government were divided on Lebanon’s position, which sparked a lot of discussion in both. In the early 1950s, Lebanon’s attitude toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was hostile, Lebanon was Western-oriented, and the Lebanese government extended alliances with the West, led by the United States.

Following the Bandung Conference in 1955, China negotiated ten trade agreements, including one with Lebanon, which sparked a positive shift in China’s outlook. China’s Islamic Association’s head met with the leaders of Lebanon back in 1956. In the early 1950s, Lebanon had stronger links with Taiwan than it has now. So for many years after this event, the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (PRC) in Lebanon remained low-key. There was a lack of trust between the PRC and Lebanon due to a series of incidents. China and extreme groups in Lebanon had been suspected of colluding at the time, but there was no proof to back this up.

China, on the other hand, objected to Lebanon’s 1969 measures against the Palestinians. Reactionary authorities in Lebanon were accused of collaborating with Israeli aggressors to target Palestinian guerrillas. The two countries continued to work together on trade deals despite these issues. When China surpassed Taiwan in commerce in the late 1960s, the two countries formed a tighter relationship. For a long time, diplomatic contacts between Lebanon and China were limited because of the on-going civil war and political killings in the country. During that time, the relationship was mostly founded on economic considerations.

Beijing viewed Lebanon as an export partner for Chinese commodities when diplomatic relations were established, but they also saw Beirut as the Middle East’s banking and commercial capital. In Beirut, China opened a branch of the National Bank of China in 1972; as a result of the first visit by Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Khalil Abu Hamad to China later that year, the two countries signed a new trade deal for reciprocal most-favoured nation treatment, mutual transit facilities, and an expansion of mutual commerce in the following year. However, the civil war in Lebanon delayed Beijing’s intentions in 1976. Russia has been blamed for aggravating, perpetuating and stoking conflict. China viewed the issue as one that should be settled by the people of the region, and not by outsiders. During that time, few efforts have been made to deepen ties with Beirut.

Relations between China and Lebanon have been characterized by ups and downs throughout the 20th century, but overall it has been restricted. Economic connections between Beijing and Beirut grew in the 1970s, but the country’s internal instability prevented it from expanding its cooperation with Lebanon. Although China has a long history of supporting its neighbouring countries, its policy of non-interference in foreign disputes began early on. In uncertain domestic conditions, China has not been afraid to stand aside while staying supportive.

The Post-2000 Era: Emerging Bilateral Relations

This section illustrates the increased development of relations between China and Lebanon from 2000. It emphasizes on collaboration in trade, cultural exchange, and agreements struck in recent years.

The Chinese government began to expand relations with Beirut after 2000. During a visit of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beijing to meet Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in 2002, both countries expressed their determination to intensify cooperation on joint projects. It has led to an extended collaboration in numerous sectors.

In 2005, China and Lebanon signed a tourism cooperation deal. This deal was intended to stimulate investments in reciprocal tourism sectors and boost communication between tourist enterprises through the sharing of professional talents. The relationship also evolved to include academic and cultural exchanges, as Mandarin language courses are given at the American University of Beirut. There is also a Confucius Institute in Beirut at Saint-Joseph University.

However, exchanges in culture, tourism, and education are not the sole markers of closer diplomatic relations between both countries. In 2009, China welcomed more than 150 Lebanese professionals to attend seminars and symposiums in diverse disciplines including as business, finance, agriculture, press, and education. The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China depicts 2014 as a year during which the relations with Lebanon advanced, resulting in stronger collaboration.

That year, the CPPCC Vice Chairman Luo Fuhe attended a reception marking the 70th anniversary of Independence Day of Lebanon. In 2015, Prime Minister Tammam Salam indicated that Lebanon aspired to be a trusted partner to China during the Arab- Chinese Businessmen Conference. Both sides consider the bilateral collaboration in culture, education, press, arts, and military as a method to extend the friendly interactions. It is important to note that the extended cooperation indicated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came not long after the launch of the BRI.

The major interest of the bilateral connections appears to be closely connected to economic goals. A rise of economic linkages has been noted in recent years. In 2013, China became the primary trading partner of Lebanon. Beirut did making efforts to bring more Chinese investment with its participation at the Shanghai Expo in 2010. China helped Lebanon establish a mobile telecommunications network, solar heating systems, and monetary aid programs to Palestinian refugee camps.

However, efforts to boost further trades between the two nations have been hindered by the Syrian crisis, as the land routes for Lebanese exports were closed. Alternatives to establish secure and safe avenues for Lebanese exports had limited success. Out of total imports from Beijing, 73 per cent came through Beirut Port, limiting options to boost trades. The largest export product from Lebanon to China is steel. China exports to Lebanon electrical equipment, textiles, plastic items, and machinery. Lebanon imports $1.89 billion from China, representing 9.1 per cent of its total imports, while it exports to China $24.1 million, which is a little percentage of their overall exports of roughly 0.62 per cent. Even if the economic links are likely to develop in the future with the BRI, it is feasible to identify an important trade deficit between both countries.

Over the past few years, China and the United States have expanded their commercial ties. Beijing’s heightened interest in Arab countries in terms of commerce has included Lebanon. However, the BRI has the potential to exacerbate existing trade imbalances.

China in Lebanon: A Peaceful Partner

China’s policy of non-interference helped to promote peaceful development and conflict resolution at home. Beijing’s stance in bilateral conflicts is reflected in this section. Humanitarian aid and a push for quick domestic resolution were key factors in its success.

In 2006, China became entangled in an Israeli–Lebanese conflict initiated by Hezbollah. Both an Israeli anti-aircraft warship and an Egyptian merchant ship were hit by two Chinese-made C-802 missiles launched from the Lebanese coast by Hezbollah back in 2006. Hezbollah may have obtained the missiles from another source, but there is no evidence that China sent them.

A number of reasons were given by Shichor (2006) for China’s lack of interest in partnering with Hezbollah. First and foremost, it is considered a terrorist organization by the United States. As part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), China has deployed more than 1,000 peacekeepers to Lebanon, which was announced by Wen Jiabao. Beijing has been alerted to the fact that Chinese peacekeepers have been injured or killed during this operation.

Chinese Deputy Representative to the United Nations Lui Zhenmin criticized Israel’s actions in 2006 because they were violating Lebanon’s sovereignty. Force should be used less frequently and the armed blockade should be lifted, Zhenmin said. Hezbollah’s military actions of crossing the Israeli-Lebanese border and launching missile attacks on Israeli cities were also opposed by China. Hezbollah’s acts were openly blasted for the first time in China’s history. They further accused the United States of manipulating the conflict to exert pressure on Iran and Syria and to spread democracy around the world. For China’s economic benefit, the crisis has been resolved quickly by words rather than deeds. Through its involvement in the United Nations and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), China was able to play an indirect role in the Lebanon mediations. During Lebanon’s civil war, China has also provided financial assistance.

Both China’s role as a UN Security Council member and its involvement in the Syrian war had a significant impact on diplomatic ties. China has long advocated non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and non-use of military force. When it comes to world peace and security, the United States’ vetoes on Syria resolutions are crystal apparent. In the past, Beijing rejected a resolution in Libya by exerting pressure on the Libyan government to ensure the safety of the populace. Responsibility to protect (R2P) was abstaining from voting on the resolution 1973, which triggered quick military action in Libya in 2011. The Chinese government remained, however, steadfast in its opposition to the use of force within the country. Beijing’s approach to R2P was informed by Libya. Multiple UNSC resolutions on Syria were vetoed by Beijing and Moscow together. Russia and China work together to avoid a military intervention that would topple the administration of Bashar al-Assad.

In 2011, when they rejected a resolution denouncing Syria, China and Russia exercised their first veto in their strategic collaboration on the Syrian conflict. President Bashar al- Assad’s resignation and cessation of violence against opponents were blocked by China and Russia in the UN Security Council (UNSC) in February 2012. Both countries voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning Syrian regime crimes in March of that year. Indeed, it opposed the Assad regime’s collective punishment and chose a more cautious R2P policy. Through impartial mediation, China urged all Syrian sides to stop all violence, especially against civilians.

As far as Beijing and Moscow are concerned, this posture reflects their fears of a strong military response. It’s worth noting, though, that China hasn’t always complied with Russia’s veto decisions in the Syrian issue. To strengthen its political role, it abstained on several occasions to align itself with Russia on resolutions. As in 2012, Moscow vetoed seven UNSC resolutions, while Beijing did so only twice in 2013. For the third time in as many years, China exercised its veto power over a United Nations Security Council resolution in 2017. Strategic collaboration on sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security in the region is offered by both countries.

Foreign meddling in the internal affairs of states, the use of force, and a confrontational posture were all opposed by China’s diplomatic position; as part of a diplomatic effort to mediate between Syria and the various opposition organizations, Beijing volunteered to participate. Beijing encourages non-interference in foreign disputes and a rapid return to stability. According to Sun and Zoubir (2015), China’s constructive engagement, is characterized by political involvement rather than military intervention. It supports a peaceful conversation as a solution while respecting the legitimate aspirations of the people.

A regional consensus on regional development promotes peace in the Middle East, allowing for the expansion of diplomatic discourse in the region. Acting as an intermediary and proposing constructive ideas are two of the key roles of this process. The Assad regime has received help from China. China provided humanitarian assistance to Syrians. As of 2017, Syria has the most individuals forced to flee their homes, and it received the most humanitarian aid. During the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Chinese government provided 1,000 tons of rice and signed three agreements totalling $40 million in humanitarian relief as part of an emergency food aid programme to support countries.

More than a dozen international organizations, including the United Nations (UN), the World Food Program (WFP), and the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), have already provided aid to Syria. However, China did not make the top 10 list of humanitarian aid donors, while Turkey and the United States were the first two. Many countries have contributed to the World Bank’s Lebanon-Syria Crisis Trust Fund to help those affected by this conflict. Syria received more than $10 billion in development assistance and government aid in 2017, according to the World Bank. China’s assistance appears to be limited in comparison to that of other countries.

The contributions of China to Lebanon have been minimal until recently, compared to other countries. This policy of non-intervention has resulted in good relations with all the countries of the region as well as close cooperation with Russia on the Security Council.

Lebanon: China’s Strategic Partner in BRI

With the BRI, China’s ties with Lebanon have a bright future. CCPIT signed two Memorandums of Understanding in 2017 with the Arab Chambers of Commerce to help expand the BRI to include Lebanon. Beirut received aid packages totalling more than $100 million from China as part of the 2018 China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF). China’s future bilateral relations with Lebanon may revolve around the BRI. That’s why it’s crucial to keep an eye on how things can change.

Lebanon aims to be a major player in the effort. Investing in infrastructure in Tunisia makes sense because of its strategic location and easy access to the Mediterranean Sea. Beirut and Tripoli’s port facilities might be used as a regional hub for Mediterranean Sea trade. As a corollary to this reasoning, China has made significant investments in expanding the port’s infrastructure. That the Tripoli Municipalities Union is a member of China’s Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce is worth mentioning (SRCIC). SRCIC Chairman Adnan al Kassar said that the SRCIC is willing to lend Lebanon $2 billion at reasonable interest rates, according to Lebanese-Chinese relations. China’s ambassador to Lebanon Wang Kejian stated that his country was willing to assist Lebanon in developing its southern cities and communities. Chinese investment in the repair of Syrian infrastructure could be facilitated by the country’s proximity to Syrian territory.

Chinese officials have made it clear that they have no intention of undermining Moscow’s position in the region. With the BRI, Chinese interest in the Middle East has risen, which could lead to a more assertive diplomacy in the region, particularly in countries with sectarian differences and political crises. Syrian and Lebanese economic investments may be better protected as a result of this. However, it is possible that China and Syria’s diplomatic relations will be based on mutual economic interests. The prolonged conflict in Syria has limited China’s ability to assist in reconstruction efforts in Syria, as it has stated its willingness to do so.

Beijing held the First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects in July 2017 and announced a $2 billion investment in the country’s reconstruction efforts. As a result, it’s hard to tell exactly how much of that money has been received thus far. Russia, China, Iran, and Lebanon are participating in the trade fair. At the 60th Damascus International Trade Fair in 2018, more than 200 Chinese firms signed agreements to build steel facilities and power plants and to make Chinese-brand automobiles. Syria will welcome Chinese investment in its rehabilitation, President Assad said in an interview with Phoenix Television. In the future, he sees an increase in trade between the two countries. Syria’s acceptance of China’s invitation to join the BRI was widely applauded.

In 2018, China supplied to Syria’s main port 800 electrical power generators. China’s mega-projects are jeopardized by the Syrian crisis and international intervention. The stability of Syria will be a top priority for Beijing since economic links between the two countries are expected to grow significantly in the near future. An alternative route to the Suez Canal via China, Central Asia, and West Asia is provided by the Levant. The Levantine area is an important one for the BRI because of its importance.

President Michel Aoun and CCPIT Director Jiang Zengwei met in Beirut to discuss ways to improve bilateral relations. Among other things, the relationship intends to foster cooperation in the development of infrastructure, as well as investments in new energy and other key industries. Suleiman, a former Lebanese president, believes that the country needs more cooperation in the alternative energy sector. The Chinese government’s support for private investments in the Arab East could have a positive impact on Lebanon. Chinese enterprises are indeed being sought out for the expansion of its industrial market. Prime Minister Hariri cited China as an example of modernization to be emulated. This might make Beirut a logistics, economic, and business centre for China’s BRI in the region. He brought up the subject of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and said that China, with its policy of opening up, might provide support in this area. Suleiman made an interesting observation about how the two countries can work together in the future.


As Lebanon situated in a dynamic and complex region, the importance of the Lebanese-Chinese relations is increasing. Beijing has avoided direct involvement in the Lebanese civil war and other internal conflicts; using a supportive attitude to the government and a one-distance approach from all political parties. With China’s BRI program, Lebanon can be geostrategic ally, allowing for greater economic ties. Lebanese officials expressed an interest in playing a key role in the project. Domestic factors, however, still impede trade cooperation. The BRI’s expansion of bilateral ties with Lebanon could be a good opportunity for Beijing to learn more about the region. Mutual understanding could be fostered by academic and professional interactions. For Beijing to change its approach if its economic interests are put at risk, this may be a sign that the region is in danger. A prudent loan and support strategy by China is likely to take advantage of the lack of infrastructure development in Lebanon. It seems unlikely that nations like Lebanon will push China to change its policy of non-interference in the foreseeable future, despite its strategic importance to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Mohamad Zreik is an independent researcher, doctor of international relations. His areas of research interests are related to the Foreign Policy of China, Belt and Road Initiative, Middle Eastern Studies, China-Arab relations, East Asian Affairs, Geopolitics of Eurasia, and Political Economy. Mohamad has many studies and articles published in high ranked journals and well-known international newspapers. His writings have been translated into many languages, including French, Arabic, Spanish, German, Albanian, Russian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, etc.

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Middle East

View Turkey’s Life Following the 2023 Elections

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Turkey has just celebrated the victory of its presidential election amidst inflation and also just recovering from the earthquake that occurred some time ago. The vote advantage in this election certainly leaves many pros and cons for the figure of an authoritarian leader in the country that oversaw the Arab Spring revolution. President Erdogan managed to win with only about 52% of the vote based on the results of the incomplete official vote count. This is because almost half of the voters in the deeply divided country do not support Erdogan’s authoritarian vision for Turkey. But in other parts of the world, Erdogan is still a favorite and a role model as a Muslim leader who can lead and last. In essence, no politician or president is truly good and ideal, each has its vices and disgraces. It’s just that the standards of good and bad are judged by time and the needs of the times.

What Erdogan means to Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a very influential figure in the Turkish political landscape. He has been a prominent politician in Turkey for over two decades and has held various positions of power, including Mayor of Istanbul, Prime Minister, and now President of Turkey. Throughout his political career, Erdogan has been known for his conservative, nationalist, and Islamist political views.

Erdogan’s leadership has been praised by many for his ability to bring stability and economic growth to Turkey. During his tenure, Turkey has experienced significant economic development, and Erdogan has been credited with spearheading many of the country’s modernization efforts.

However, Erdogan’s leadership has also been criticized for its authoritarian tendencies, with many accusing him of eroding democratic institutions and muzzling opposition voices. In recent years, Turkey has been the subject of international scrutiny for its crackdown on dissent, including the imprisonment of journalists and human rights defenders. Erdogan’s role in Turkish politics is complex and controversial, with opinions on his legacy varying widely depending on one’s political beliefs and values.

A brief biography of the leader

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was born on February 26, 1954 in Rize, Turkey. Before entering politics, he worked as an imam and was active in Islamic organizations. In 1994, he was elected Mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality of the newly established Justice and Development Party (AKP). In 2003, Erdogan was elected Prime Minister of Turkey and became President in 2014. During his tenure, he succeeded in bringing Turkey economic progress and gained widespread support from Turkey’s conservative and Islamist society. However, Erdogan’s leadership has also been criticized for being accused of restricting press freedom and curbing political opposition as well as being associated with human rights violations.

The strengths and weaknesses of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership in Turkish politics have always been a topic of debate among the public and politicians. Here are some examples of the strengths and weaknesses of Erdogan’s leadership:

Strengths of Erdogan’s Reign

Erdogan has managed to create economic stability in Turkey and attract foreign investment to his country.

He has succeeded in removing the ban on women wearing headscarves in Turkish state institutions.

Erdogan has strong support from conservative and Islamist circles in Turkey.

He has built adequate infrastructure in Turkey, such as fast railways and new airports.

Erdogan has successfully introduced education reforms and protected the rights of minorities.


Erdogan has been criticized for being authoritarian and suppressing political opposition, such as the arrest and detention of activists and journalists critical of his government.

He is also accused of restricting media and internet freedom in Turkey, such as shutting down media critical of him and suspecting people active on social media.

Erdogan has played a role in the conflict in Syria, which some say has caused security problems in Turkey.

He is in cahoots with conservatives and Islamists in Turkey and has taken no decisive action to push the country towards modernity.

Erdogan is considered unresponsive to humanitarian issues, such as failing to respond quickly to natural disasters, such as the earthquake in Turkey.

Erdogan in Turkish and Global View

The international community’s view of Recep Tayyip Erdogan varies. Some view him positively and appreciate his success in creating economic stability and modernizing infrastructure in Turkey, while others criticize him for being authoritarian and suppressing political opposition as well as limiting civil liberties and human rights.

Some of Erdogan’s controversial moves, such as granting mosque status back to Hagia Sophia and taking military action against Kurdish terrorists, have created pros and cons in international circles.

In addition, Turkey’s relations with neighboring countries are also sometimes not harmonious. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, has been involved in several conflicts and disputes with neighboring countries. Here are some of them:

1. Syria: Erdogan has been involved in the Syrian conflict, including supporting rebel groups fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Turkey’s relations with Syria are already not good, however, and Erdogan has also been criticized by some neighboring countries for perceived interference in Syria’s internal affairs.

2. Military Coup in Turkey and Relations with Greece: In 2016, an attempted coup was staged by followers of fethullah gulen in Turkey. Erdogan claimed that Fethullah Gulen fled to neighboring Greece and accused them of refusing to hand over Gulen to Turkey. This conflict caused relations between Turkey and Greece to deteriorate further.

3. Armenia and Azerbaijan border: Erdogan has supported Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that took place in 2020 and called for the withdrawal of Armenian soldiers from the region. This has worsened Turkey’s relations with Armenia and its relationship with Russia, which mediates the conflict.

4. Libyan conflict: Erdogan has given support to the UN-recognized Libyan government and has denounced the support of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt for giving support to different parties. This has worsened relations between Turkey and these countries.

Erdogan’s conflicts with leaders of neighboring countries have created tensions and worsened bilateral relations. Nevertheless, Turkey remains an important player in global geopolitics and Erdogan continues to be active in international relations including in the role of mediator in various regional and global conflicts.

However, Turkey remains an important country in global geopolitics, and Erdogan continues to be active in international relations, including in the role of mediator in various regional and global conflicts.

Turkey: Glance the Near Future

Following his election victory in 2023, Erdogan’s leadership in Turkey will enter a period that extends his rule after nearly 20 years in office. Here are some of the changes that can be seen in Erdogan’s leadership:

Extension of the term of government: With the victory, Erdogan extends his term as Turkey’s leader. This will allow him to implement a longer and more extensive political and economic agenda.

Consolidation of power: Erdogan’s election victory implies that he still receives strong political support from conservative and Islamist circles. This strengthens his position in allocating power and maintaining political control.

Economic Issues: Erdogan will be faced with the challenge of improving Turkey’s economic situation which still suffers from several problems such as inflation and budget deficit. Consolidation of political power may provide the stability needed for the implementation of economic policies.

Future of Foreign Relations: Erdogan needs to find ways to strengthen Turkey’s relations with several neighboring countries and international organizations. Appropriate foreign policy is needed to maintain stable regional and global relations.

Human rights and civil liberties: There are concerns about the suppression of political opposition, human rights and civil liberties in Turkey. Erdogan needs to take appropriate measures to improve this situation.

Erdogan’s victory in the 2023 election gives him strong political power to carry out the policies and programs of the Turkish government. However, the policies and actions he takes during his leadership will still be monitored and assessed by a number of national and international parties.

It is uncertain whether the future of Turkey will continue under Erdogan’s leadership in the economic atmosphere and post-recovery from natural disasters. But it is likely to be more complex.

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Gulf support for Turkey’s Erdogan is about more than economics

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is received by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Feb. 14, 2022, in the UAE. - Twitter

When jailed Turkish politician Selahattin Demirtas apologized for his pro-Kurdish party’s poor performance in recent Turkish elections, he did more than take responsibility.

Mr. Demirtas implicitly questioned the notion that Turks vote primarily along ideological and identity lines rather than based on assessing which party will best further their economic and social interests. However, the reality is that all the above shape how Turks vote.

Mr. Demirtas’ Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), running under another party banner due to a potential ban over alleged militant ties, won 8.79 percent in last month’s parliamentary election compared to 11.7 per cent in 2018. Even so, it remains the third-largest party in parliament.

At first glance, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s economic performance suggested that Turks would choose change. Inflation hovers around 44 per cent; the Turkish lira has lost 90 per cent of its value over the last decade and hit a new low a day after Mr. Erdogan’s electoral victory.

In addition, many blame corruption and a failure to enforce building standards for the degree of devastation caused by earthquakes in February in eastern Turkey, parts of which are predominantly Kurdish.

Stunning as those statistics and allegations may be, they tell only part of the story.

Counterintuitively, Mr. Erdogan likely benefitted not only from skills that best come to the fore when he is in a political fight but also from his religiosity, religious lacing of politics, and promotion of greater freedom for public expressions of piety in a country that long sought to restrict them to the private sphere.

Conservative religious women were one major constituency that benefitted economically and socially from Mr. Erdogan’s rollback of Kemalist restrictions that barred women from wearing headscarves in government offices and universities.

“Erdogan is loved that much because he changed people’s lives,” said Ozlem Zengin, a female member of parliament for the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Similarly, religion may have been one reason voters in earthquake-hit areas favoured the AKP above Mr. Demirtas’ HDP.

Economist Jeanet Sinding Bentzen notes that “individuals become more religious if an earthquake recently hit close by. Even though the effect decreases after a while, data on children of immigrants reveal a persistent effect across generations.”

Economics in mind, some voters questioned whether opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu with his vow to reintegrate Turkey into the Western fold, would have been able to secure badly needed support from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

After years of strained relations, Saudi and Emirati support for Mr. Erdogan was displayed within days of the Turkish leader’s electoral success.

The UAE ratified a five-year, US$40 billion trade deal with Turkey three days after the vote. ‘This deal marks a new era of cooperation in our long-standing friendship,” said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani al-Zeyoudi.

Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s national oil company, met in Ankara with some 80 Turkish contractors this week to discuss US$50 billion worth of potential projects.

“Aramco wants to see as many Turkish contractors as possible in its projects. They are planning refinery, pipeline, management buildings, and other infrastructure construction that will be worth $50 billion in investment,” said Erdal Eren, head of the Turkish Contractors Association.

In a bow to foreign investors, including Gulf states that increasingly tie aid to recipients’ economic reform policies, Mr. Erdogan on Saturday named Mehmet Simsek, a widely respected former banker and deputy prime minister and finance minister, as his new treasury and finance minister.

Foreign investors and analysts saw the appointment of Mr. Simsek, an advocate of conventional economic policies, as a sign that Mr. Erdogan may shift away from his unorthodox refusal to raise interest rates that fueled inflation and an exodus of foreign money.

In addition to stabilizing the economy, Mr. Erdogan faces challenges funding reconstruction in earthquake-hit areas as well as northern Syria as part of an effort to facilitate the return of refugees.

With 3.7 million registered refugees, Turkey is home to the largest Syrian exile community. Anti-migrant sentiment and pledges to return refugees were important in last month’s election campaigns. Refugee return is also part of the Gulf states’ renewed engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In a twist of irony, Gulf support for Mr. Erdogan, despite his Islamist leanings, may be driven as much by economics as geopolitics.

At a time when the UAE and Saudi Arabia adopt positions at odds with the policies of the United States, the region’s security guarantor, they may see Mr. Erdogan as an increasingly important partner irrespective of whether the Gulf states’ moves constitute a genuine policy shift or merely a pressure tactic to persuade the US to be more attentive to their concerns.

Like the two Gulf states, Mr. Erdogan, despite Turkey’s NATO membership, has pursued an independent foreign policy involving close ties to Russia and a military intervention in Syria that impacts Gulf efforts to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran.

In its latest charting of an independent course, the UAE said it was pulling out of a US-led maritime security force, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).

Led by a US admiral, the CMF groups 38 countries, including Saudi Arabia, in a bid to halt Iranian attacks on commercial ships, weapons smuggling, and piracy.

The UAE said its withdrawal was part of an assessment of “effective security cooperation” in the Middle East.

However, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Emirati counterpart, Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, did not mention a UAE withdrawal in a joint statement on Friday after talks in Washington.

“Sheikh Tahnoon praised the United States’ strong security and defense partnership with the UAE. Mr. Sullivan confirmed the US commitment to deterring threats against the UAE and other US partners while also working diplomatically to de-escalate conflicts and reduce tensions in the region,” the statement said.

Moreover, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will meet in Saudi Arabia this week with his Gulf Cooperation Council counterparts, including the UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.

At the same time, various Iranian and other media quoted a Qatari news website, Al Jadid, saying that China was facilitating talks between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iran to create a joint naval force to enhance maritime security in the Gulf.

The report did not clarify whether China would play an active role in the force or whether participation would be limited to Middle Eastern states.

Iranian naval commander Rear Admiral Shahram Irani discussed plans for a joint maritime force on local television but did not mention Chinese involvement.

In a first response, CMS and US Fifth Fleet spokesman Commander Tim Hawkins dismissed the notion of maritime forces that includes Iran. ““It defies reason that Iran, the number one cause of regional instability, claims it wants to form a naval security alliance to protect the very waters it threatens,” Mr. Hawkins said.

Nevertheless, the force, if created, could cast a different light on Emirati and Saudi efforts to boost Mr. Erdogan.

Taken together, the UAE’s alleged withdrawal from the US-led CMF, the creation of a China-associated alternative force, and support for Mr. Erdogan would signal a Gulf willingness to take greater responsibility for the region’s security.

It would also indicate a qualitative change in Chinese engagement in the Middle East following the China-mediated agreement in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran that restored diplomatic relations.

Turkey has been conspicuously absent in discussions about Gulf security even though it is a regional powerhouse with a battle-hardened military, an expanding homegrown defence industry, and regional ambitions. The UAE and Saudi Arabia account for 40 per cent of Turkish arms exports.

Turkey first proposed establishing a military base in Saudi Arabia in 2015, two years before the kingdom and the UAE initiated a 3.5-year-long diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar that was lifted in 2021. The Gulf states demanded, among others, that Qatar halt military cooperation with Turkey and shut down a Turkish military base populated by Turkish forces at the beginning of the boycott.

“If the current trend of US detachment from the region continues, and Turkey’s rising regional posture keeps moving in a forward direction, Ankara may have an opportunity to fortify its position in the Gulf,” said Middle East scholar Ali Bakir.

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Middle East

Wanted: A Democracy Assistance Strategy for Iran



At the second Summit for Democracy, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the importance of advancing gender equality and women’s participation worldwide, including by commending the brave women of Iran for fighting for “woman, life, and freedom.” Yet, the people of Iran continue to face brutal repression as the Islamic Republic kills, tortures, arrests and assaults Iranians who are fighting for basic rights.

Iran has seen a sharp rise in human rights violations over the past seven months, when protests erupted across the country—sparked by the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini, a young Kurdish Iranian who died in the custody of the morality police for an “improper hijab.” These protests have trained a spotlight on deep societal grievances fostered by over four decades of persecution, oppression and impunity which cannot be reversed by the regime’s crackdown. The Islamic Republic now faces a dire crisis of legitimacy.

Although the United States has taken some steps to support the democratic movement in Iran, including by expressing solidarity with the demonstrators, the time has come for a more active stance in supporting those risking their lives to promote change by helping opposition leaders and providing assistance to pro-democracy forces to enable them to advance peace and human rights in Iran. Working through the State Department, USAID and independent NGOs, the U.S. can draw on existing resources and experience on promoting peaceful, political transitions to help democratic activists articulate their vision of a democratic future.

To begin with, the U.S. government should amplify and support the opposition leaders in developing a united vision for Iran’s future. Momentum for change has found footing as opposition leaders collaborate to establish a new political identity that rests on the principles of democracy, secularism, and human rights. This has also taken shape in inclusion, which is a first step in enshrining the principles of human rights, inclusion and a secular democracy.

The U.S. should seize this opportunity to provide dialogue platforms for opposition leaders and activists inside Iran to work across divides to refine their strategy, key policy priorities and their vision for democratic transformation. This could also entail providing technical assistance to Iranian activists on issues of peace, democracy, and governance. International support for the opposition as a legitimate alternative to the regime could reinvigorate hope among the protestors in Iran, while helping activists become better organized around clear goals could maximize the chance of a democratic breakthrough.

The U.S. government should adopt a long-term strategy and start planning how to support a democratic Iran, in line with USAID’s emphasis on supporting “bright spots” and leveraging the momentum of democratic openings. Given that protest movements and political transitions alike sometimes stall or encounter barriers, the U.S. should maintain flexibility as it anticipates and supports a democratic breakthrough. Whether the regime falls in the next few months or years, the U.S. should be prepared to provide assistance that empowers the Iranian people to build a new democratic foundation. This could include assisting an interim government, preparing leaders to govern, supporting political party development, codifying inclusion in a legal framework, mitigating the impacts of spoilers and managing security sector reform.

In designing these plans for assistance, policymakers should take care to encourage an inclusive approach that recognizes the rights and priorities of youth, women, ethnic, religious, sexual, and racial minorities. Under the Islamic Republic, these groups currently face extreme forms of discrimination, persecution and violations of human rights. After decades of oppression, women and youth are at the forefront of the uprising today—the U.S. should amplify their messages and support the fight for women’s rights as part of its policy objectives.

Minimizing the risk of elite capture and maximizing public participation will be critical to unifying the Iranian opposition, as well as helping ensure that inclusion is featured in a long-term vision for democracy in the country. This should include  mitigating backlash from elite and dominant groups by educating and informing the public of the benefits of expanding political participation to include women and ethnic, religious, sexual, and racial minorities.

Advancing democracy and governance in any country is a long-term endeavor, and in Iran it would be no different. If the democratic movement in Iran were to succeed, it would represent an extraordinarily consequential event in the global fight for democracy. As President Biden has said, “We’re at an inflection point in history, where the decisions we make today are going to affect the course of our world for the next several decades.” Enabling the Iranian people to lead the way in defining the future of democracy in their country could impact the future for decades to come. The U.S. should stand on the right side of history.

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