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Suspending Ukraine’s Agricultural Exports: Will Russia Save the Arab World from Food Riots?



When on March 12, Denis Shmygal, Ukraine’s Prime Minister, announced that a prohibition or severe restrictions would be imposed on exports of wheat, buckwheat, eggs, oil, sugar, and other foods, his message produced no sensation, given Ukraine’s largely paralyzed agrarian sector. Military action has disrupted economic, transportation and logistical connections, restricting navigation in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea (the leading Azov port of Mariupol is not functioning, while, Ukrainian authorities have fully or partially shut down the ports of Kherson, Nikolaev, Odessa, Izmail, among others, since February 25). Despite Kiev’s assurances concerning state support for agricultural manufacturers, Ukrainians should hardly be expected to start sowing on time in 2022, not to mention resuming full-fledged exports in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, it is fairly difficult to say what impact the toughened anti-Russian sanctions will have on Russia’s agricultural market and its agricultural exports. This uncertainty, combined with the desire to prevent price gouging on the global market, has forced the Russian government on March 14 to prohibit exports of wheat, rye, their mixture (maslin), barley, corn into the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union until June 30, 2022, and exports of sugar into third countries until August 31.

Even before Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, FAO experts estimated that decreasing crops had a negative effect on the turbulence on the global grain market, and Russia’s and Ukraine’s dominance in wheat sales have become an additional factor. In 2020, according to FAOstat, Russia was the largest exporter of wheat (USD 7.92 bn.), emerging ahead of the U.S. (USD 6.32 bn.), Canada (USD 6.3 bn.) and France (USD 4.5 bn.). Ukraine was the fifth-largest exporter (USD 3.59 bn.). Russia and Ukraine together, therefore, accounted for some 30.5% of total sales. Besides, Ukraine was the largest exporter of corn (according to UN Comtrade, its total exports in 2016–2020 were USD 15 bn., as compared to Russia’s USD 3 bn.).

It is therefore far from surprising that the price for a ton of food-grade wheat at MATIF, the Paris Futures Exchange, spiked from EUR 197.25 as of July 9, 2021 first to EUR 265 (February 17, 2022), followed by the record EUR 396.5 a few days later (March 7). Many analysts have expressed their reasonable concerns that the ongoing Ukrainian crisis could produce inflation and other consequences, whose impact would be even greater than that of the 2008 Great Recession. It would be pertinent to quote Gilbert Houghbo, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, who was warning about a possible hike in food prices as well as about a famine—something, he argues, threatens food security globally, bolstering geopolitical tensions.

The Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa end up in the risk group, particularly those having vast populations (Egypt – 106 million people; Algeria and Sudan – 45 million people each), those involved in armed conflicts (Yemen, Libya, Syria, the area of the Israel-Palestine conflict), those engulfed by a domestic crisis (Lebanon) or those facing an unstable political situation domestically (Iraq).

As much as in the countries plagued by problems, the elites of the relatively prosperous nations, such as Jordan, are increasingly apprehensive of the prospects for domestic political stability following an influx of 674,000 refugees from Syria (as of February 28, 2022), as the authorities fear that food riots under the slogans of the “Arab spring” could quite be possible. In the Kingdom of Bahrain ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty, an unexpected spiral of food inflation may cause unrest among the local Shia majority, as it happened in February–May 2011.

Leaders of the Arab nations never forgot that the initiators and participants of the first wave of protests in 2011–2012 demanded both freedom and bread. The main slogan of the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia was “Bread, Water, and No Ben Ali [Tunisia’s President – I.M.].” Given that Tunisia’s food security used to depend directly on deliveries of the Ukrainian wheat (USD 242 million in 2019 and a total of USD 770 million in 2016–2020), a simultaneous cessation of deliveries can indeed be fraught with an outbreak of social discontent.

According to UN Comtrade, Egypt, the region’s largest importer, purchased wheat for USD 7.39 bn. in Russia and for USD 2.34 bn. in Ukraine in 2016–2020. In 2019 alone, out of the total deliveries worth USD 3.02 bn., Russian deliveries totaled USD 1.44 bn., while Ukrainian deliveries totaled USD 773.4 million. This suggests that the two countries accounted for 73% of Egypt’s imports. Today, given the market’s volatility—owing to both the operation in Ukraine and toughened anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the West—Egypt faces an acute deficit of offers: GASC, the national supply agency, was forced to cancel the announced bidding on February 24, with deliveries between April 11–21, 2022, since only one offer had been submitted. In the coming days, Cairo will apparently have to take prompt measures to diversify its deliveries in order to avoid an appreciable deterioration in its food security.

Having lost stable wheat imports from the Black Sea region, Algeria’s state grain agency, the OAIC, is also considering an option of expanding its supplier geography. There are talks of allowing imports of French wheat, which had been prohibited since October 2021 over the scandal prompted by Emmanuel Macron’s negative statements accusing Algerians of re-writing the history of their colonization.

Issues of food security are quite tough in the territories controlled by the Palestinian National Authority (out of total deliveries of wheat USD 10.98 million worth in 2020, Russia accounted for 9.18 million, which is 83%) as well as in Lebanon, a country that, as the UK’s Crown Agents reports, imported 67% up to 95% of its grain in 2010–2018 from the Black Sea region. In 2010–2017, Russia was the principal exporter, while the leadership went over to Ukraine in 2018–2019 (with the exception of 2013, when Romania was the second-largest exporter). In 2021, Lebanon purchased 630,000 tons of wheat, of them 520,000 tons originated from Ukraine, with the rest coming from Russia, Moldova, and Romania. Therefore, amid a protracted domestic crisis and inexorable increase in prices on virtually all goods, a common Lebanese citizen was predictably facing a rapid and acute shortage of bread and flour once Ukrainian deliveries ceased.

However, the situation was the hardest in the countries going through domestic armed conflicts and frequently unable to fund commercial food deliveries. For instance, the UN reports that in 2019, out of the total imports of nearly USD 550 million, Yemen imported USD 145.8 worth of wheat from Russia (26.5%) and USD 79.8 million worth of wheat from Ukraine (14.5%). Accordingly, WFP’s executive director David Beasly did not rule out the possibility of the situation in Yemen’s food security deteriorating catastrophically in the nearest future. Things are not much better in Libya, a country ravaged by the civil war: amid the developments in Ukraine, the prices of bread and flour went up by 40%, while oil prices went up by 25%. In Iraq, bread and sugar prices increased by some 20%. Even though Syria’s Prime Minister Hussein Arnous assured on March 14 that wheat supplies would be sufficient to last until the next harvest, the situation in the country is still highly equivocal, owing to disrupted economic ties (the Trans-Euphrates region, long considered Syria’s “breadbasket,” is still controlled by the Kurds), devastation, and sanctions.

Can Russia save the Arab world from food riots? This is not a rhetorical question. Moscow appears to have a real potential to boost its exports to the Middle East. For instance, in January–July 2021, Russia succeeded in ramping up its agricultural exports to Tunisia by 4.5 times, as compared to the same period of 2020—in monetary terms, there was a sixfold increase, up to USD 112 million. Russia’s agricultural food-grade 3rd and 4th class wheat is quite competitive on the global market, as it is good quality grain sold at reasonable prices.

It would naïve to expect that, with a declared war of sanctions on Russia, the West will refrain from throwing up barriers in the way of Russia taking over the niche of Ukrainian exporters. The West will certainly use negative publicity, political pressure, manipulating the requirements for grain quality (for instance, setting ergot content requirement at zero or near-zero, which caused Egypt to reject as defective some of the wheat exported from Russia in 2018). Some international bodies may, using the external restrictions as a pretext, deny funding to Russia’s humanitarian deliveries to curry favor with the Western rivals.

Amid the emergency environment of hostile sanctions, Russia will need to devise a comprehensive approach to expanding its foreign trade with the Arab world, which means introducing new and efficient mechanisms, such as payments in national currencies and clearing payments—something the USSR successfully used in its trade with India. They could be used in trade relations with Egypt, Morocco and Algeria, where Russia shipped 60,000 tons of its wheat in June 2021, after a five-year hiatus. It would primarily be expedient to use these countries’ interest in increasing the exports of their own agricultural products to Russia (citrus cultures, seasonal vegetables).

The markets of the solvent Arabian Peninsula are of interest, too. Here, Russia has achieved certain success: the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Supervision (Rosselkhoznadzor) reports that Russia shipped 916,000 tons of wheat to Saudi Arabia as of January 17, 2022, in the current agricultural year (2021/2022), a figure six times higher than that of 2020/2021. Between July 1, 2020 and January 13, 2022, the Saudis imported 2.9 million tons of barley. Should mutually beneficial agreements on a broad range of cooperation be in place, including deliveries of Russian cutting-edge technologies, the members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf could, as an option, fund expanded humanitarian deliveries of the Russian wheat to Yemen, Syria, and Libya.

To recap. We should recognize Russia’s promising ability to play a more active role in ensuring food security in the nations of the Middle East and North Africa. This would solve the priority tasks of supporting Russian agrarians and acquiring additional sources of revenue for Russia’s treasury.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History, Full State Counsellor of the Russian Federation, 3rd class; Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Lecturer at MGIMO University under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; expert on Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, RIAC Expert

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Middle East

Saudi religious soft power diplomacy eyes Washington and Jerusalem first and foremost



Geopolitics is written all over Saudi religious soft power efforts. Nowhere more so than when it comes to Israel and Jews because of the growing importance of security cooperation with the Jewish state and the influence of the Israeli lobby in the United States, the kingdom’s most important yet problematic security partner.

In the latest move, Saudi Arabia ensured that it would be the first stop on the first overseas trip by Deborah Lipstadt as US special envoy to combat anti-Semitism.

“Lipstadt intends to build on the profoundly important Abraham Accords to advance religious tolerance, improve relations in the region, and counter misunderstanding and distrust,” the State Department said in a statement. The department was referring to the accords by which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan established diplomatic relations with Israel in the waning days of US President Donald J. Trump’s administration.

Ms. Lipstadt said that Saudi religious soft power diplomacy had created an atmosphere in which she could discuss with government officials and civil society leaders, who in the kingdom inevitably are likely to be linked to the government, “normalising the vision of the Jews and understanding of Jewish history for their population, particularly their younger population.”

Saudi Arabia has had a particularly troubled attitude towards Jews even though an older generation of Saudis in regions close to Yemen recall a Jewish presence in the first half of the 20th century.

Moreover, in the days when Israelis were barred from travelling to most Arab countries, Saudi Arabia also tailored its visa requirements to bar Jews.

European foreign ministers planning at the time to pay official visits to the kingdom would at times confront demands that Jewish journalists be dropped from the group accompanying the official.

Some American Jews who had filled out Jewish as their religion on Saudi immigration forms would have them returned with the word Jewish replaced by the term Christian.

That began to change long before the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Bin Salman has accelerated the policy change. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced that Israeli business people would be granted entry into the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has also allowed Jacob Yisrael Herzog, a US-born rabbi resident in Israel, to visit the kingdom several times to attempt to build Jewish life publicly. Some Jewish critics have charged that his bombastic approach could backfire.

Moreover, in a slow two-decade-long, tedious process, Saudi Arabia has made significant progress in scrubbing its school textbooks of anti-Semitic and other discriminatory and supremacist content.

To project Saudi Arabia as a moderate forward-looking nation and improve the kingdom’s tarnished image, particularly in the United States, Mr. Bin Salman has met with American Jewish leaders. Many of those leaders are willing to give Saudi Arabia a pass on its abuse of human rights and still weak track record on religious tolerance to advance the cause of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The crown prince has also turned the Muslim World League, once a prime vehicle for the Saudi government funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism globally, into a public relations tool for propagating Saudi religious tolerance.

The league’s head, Mohammed al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders on a ground-breaking visit in January 2020 to Auschwitz, one of Nazi Germany’s foremost extermination camps for Jews.

Earlier this month, he organized a Forum on Common Values among Religious Followers in Riyadh. Participants included 47 Muslim scholars, 24 Christian leaders, 12 rabbis, and 7 Hindu and Buddhist figures.

The timing of Ms. Lipstadt’s visit is significant. It comes weeks before an expected pilgrimage to Riyadh by President Joe Biden to tackle strains in the strategic relationship between the two countries.

Tensions have emerged over the degree and reliability of the US commitment to Gulf security, Saudi oil production policy in the wake of US and European sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine, Saudi technological cooperation with China, and Mr. Biden’s belief that Mr. Bin Salman was responsible for the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Moreover, the visits of Mr. Biden and Ms. Lipstadt come as hopes are fading that talks in Vienna between world powers and Iran will succeed in reviving the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme. A failure is likely to increase regional tension.

The spectre of a failure has driven increased regional cooperation between Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

At the sharp end of confronting Iran, Israel unveiled its newly adopted Octopus Doctrine this month. The doctrine expands Israel’s aiming at Iran’s nuclear, missile and drone programmes by increasingly attacking targets in Iran rather than primarily on battlefields like Syria.

Barbara Leaf, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, put Ms. Lipstadt’s visit in perspective when she told Congress last week that Mr. Biden hoped to achieve agreement on a roadmap for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel during his visit to the Middle East this month. US officials admit that it will be a lengthy process rather than a head-on lovey-dovey affair, as was the case between Israel and the UAE.

Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel but needs a cover to do so. The kingdom has emphasized this in recent weeks as it sought Israeli acquiescence in the transfer by Egypt to Saudi Arabia of sovereignty over two islands at the top of the Red Sea and prepared for a possible visit by US President Joe Biden.

Saudis want to meet us, talk, and rub shoulders with us. They want to learn. I kept getting inquiries. There is incredible potential for cooperation between the Saudi people and Saudi companies and Israel,” said Israeli businessman Eyal Waldheim who visited the kingdom in May travelling on a non-Israeli passport.

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Middle East

China and the Middle East: Heading into Choppy Waters



China could be entering choppy Middle Eastern waters. Multiple crises and conflicts will likely shape its relations with the region’s major powers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.

The laundry list of pitfalls for China includes the fallout of the Ukraine war, strained US relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Turkish opposition to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, the threat of a renewed Turkish anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria, and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Drowning out the noise, one thing that becomes evident is that neither the Gulf states nor Turkey have any intention of fundamentally altering their security relationships with the United States, even if the dynamics in the cases of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey are very different.

Saudi Arabia recognizes that there is no alternative to the US security umbrella, whatever doubts the kingdom may have about the United States’ commitment to its security. With next month’s visit to Saudi Arabia by President Joe Biden, the question is not how US-Saudi differences will be papered over but at what price and who will pay the bill.

Meanwhile, China has made clear that it is not willing and not yet able to replace the United States. It has also made clear that for China to engage in regional security, Middle Eastern states would first have to get a grip on their disputes so that conflicts don’t spin out of control. Moves to lower the tensions between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt by focusing on economics are a step in that direction. Still, they remain fragile, with no issue that sparked the differences being resolved.

A potential failure of negotiations in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal could upset the apple cart. It would likely push Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to tighten their security cooperation but could threaten rapprochement with Turkey. It could also heighten tensions in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, where Iran supports a variety of political actors and militias. None of this is good news for China, which like other major players in the Middle East, prefers to remain focused on economics.

The dynamics with Turkey and Iran are of a different order. China may gleefully watch Turkish obstruction in NATO, but as much as Turkey seeks to forge an independent path, it does not want to break its umbilical cord with the West anchored in its membership in NATO.

NATO needs Turkey even if its center of gravity, for now, has moved to Eastern Europe. By the same token, Turkey needs NATO, even if it is in a better position to defend itself than the Gulf states are. Ultimately, horse-trading will resolve NATO’s most immediate problems because of Turkish objections to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

Turkey’s threatened anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria would constitute an escalation that no party, including China, wants. Not because it underwrites Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership but because with Syrian Kurds seeking support from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish and Iranian-backed forces could find themselves on opposite sides.

Finally, Iran. Despite the hot air over Iran’s 25-year US$400 million deal with China, relations between Tehran and Beijing are unlikely to fully blossom as long as Iran is subject to US sanctions. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement guarantees that sanctions will remain. China has made clear that it is willing to push the envelope in violating or circumventing sanctions but not to the degree that would make Iran one more major friction point in the already fraught US-China relationship.

In a world in which bifurcation has been accelerated by the Ukraine war and the Middle East threatened by potentially heightened tensions in the absence of a nuclear agreement, Gulf states may find that increasingly the principle of ‘you are with us or against us’ becomes the norm. The Gulf states hedged their bets in the initial months of the Ukraine war, but their ability to do so may be coming to an end.

Already Saudi Arabia and the UAE are starting to concede on the issue of oil production, while Qatar is engaging with Europe on gas. Bifurcation would not rupture relations with China but would likely restrain technological cooperation and contain Gulf hedging strategies, including notions of granting China military facilities.

Over and beyond the immediate geopolitical and security issues, there are multiple other potentially problematic issues and powder kegs.

A prominent Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, recently took issue with an increasingly aggressive tone in Chinese diplomacy. “China isn’t doing itself any favours … Chinese officials seem determined to undermine their own case for global leadership … Somehow Chinese officials don’t seem to recognize that their belligerence is just as off-putting…as Western paternalism is,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

China’s balancing act, particularly between Saud Arabia and Iran, could become more fraught. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement will complicate already difficult Saudi Iranian talks aimed at dialling down tensions. It could also fuel a nuclear, missiles, and drone arms race accelerated by a more aggressive US-backed Israeli strategy in confronting Iran by striking at targets in the Islamic republic rather than with US backing in, for example, Syria.

While Chinese willingness to sell arms may get a boost, China could find that both Saudi Arabia and Iran become more demanding in their expectations from Beijing, particularly if tensions escalate.

A joker in the pack is China’s repression of Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang. A majority of the Muslim world has looked the other way, with a few, like Saudi Arabia, openly endorsing the crackdown.

The interest in doing so goes beyond Muslim-majority states not wanting to risk their relations with a China that responds harshly and aggressively to public criticism. Moreover, the crackdown in Xinjiang and Muslim acquiescence legitimises a shared opposition to any political expression of Islam.

The problem for Muslim-majority states, particularly those in the Middle East, is that the era in which the United States and others could get away with the application of double standards and apparent hypocrisy in adhering to values may be drawing to a close.

China and, for that matter, Russia is happy to benefit from the global South’s reluctance to join condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions against Russia because the West refuses to apply the principle universally, for example, in the case of Israel or multiple infractions of international and human rights law elsewhere.

However, China and Middle Eastern states sit in similar glasshouses. Irrespective of how one judges recent controversial statements made by spokespeople of India’s ruling BJP party regarding the Prophet Mohammed and Muslim worship, criticism by Muslim states rings hollow as long as they do not also stand up to the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.

For some in the Middle East, a reckoning could come sooner and later.

Turkey is one state where the issue of the Uighurs in China is not simply a far-from-my-bed show. Uighurs play into domestic politics in a country home to the largest Uighur exile community that has long supported the rights of its Turkic brethren in China and still boasts strong strands of pan-Turkism.

These are all elements that could come to the fore when Turkey goes to the polls next year as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Turkish republic.

The question is not whether China will encounter choppy waters in the Middle East but when and where.

Author’s note: This article is based on the author’s remarks at the 4th Roundtable on China in West Asia – Stepping into a Vacuum? organised by the Ananta Aspen Center on 14 June 2022 and was first published by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

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Middle East

Recognising Israel: Any Asian volunteers?



The question for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not whether either country will recognise Israel but when and who will go first.

For the past two years, Saudi Arabia was believed to want a Muslim state in Asia, home to the world’s three most populous Muslim majority countries, to recognise Israel first. Asian recognition would give the kingdom, home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, a welcome fig leaf.

Numbers, as expressed by population size, were one reason. Compared to Saudi Arabia’s 35 million people, Pakistan has a population of 221 million, Indonesia 274 million, and Bangladesh 165 million.

That was one reason Saudi Arabia preferred an Asian state to take the lead in following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, who recognised Israel in the least two years.

Likely more important was the expectation that potential mass protest against a move toward Israel was more likely to erupt in Asia, where the margin for expressing dissent is greater than in much of the Middle East. Such protests, it was thought, would distract attention from the Custodian of the Holy Cities taking similar steps.

Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel but needs a cover to do so. The kingdom has emphasized this in recent weeks as it sought Israeli acquiescence in the transfer by Egypt to Saudi Arabia of sovereignty over two islands at the top of the Red Sea and prepared for a possible visit by US President Joe Biden.

The visit is designed to improve relations strained since Mr. Biden came to office over Saudi doubts about US security commitments, US demands that the kingdom increase oil production in a bid to reduce prices and limit Russian energy exports, Saudi acquisition of Chinese missiles, and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In advance of a visit, Saudi Arabia has not rejected a US proposal for a regional Middle Eastern air defence system that would include the kingdom and Israel.

Mujtahid, an anonymous tweeter who has repeatedly provided insights into the secretive workings of the House of Saud in recent years, reported that Saudi Arabia and Israel had created a “situation room” on the 14th floor of an Istanbul office building to advance the establishment of diplomatic relations. He said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s close aide, Saud al-Qahtani, headed the Saudi side.

Despite rampant speculation, Mr. Bin Salman is unlikely to see Mr. Biden’s visit as a capstone for recognition of Israel. More likely, he will continue to insist on a fig leaf in the form of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a major Asian Muslim-majority state going next.

Much of the attention focused in the almost two years since the UAE-led quartet forged relations with Israel focused on Indonesia. Not only because Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority state and its foremost Muslim democracy but also because it is home to the world’s most moderate mass Muslim civil society movement, Nahdlatul Ulama.

Heads of Nahdlatul Ulama have visited Israel and met Israeli leaders multiple times in the past two decades, even though Indonesia and Israel have no diplomatic relations. The movement also has close ties to various American Jewish groups.

Similarly, the absence of formal relations between Israel and Indonesia has not prevented Israeli diplomats, scholars, and journalists from maintaining contact with Indonesian counterparts and travelling to the archipelago nation or Indonesian pilgrims from touring the Jewish state. Nevertheless, Indonesia has rebuffed both the Trump and the Biden administration’s requests to move towards recognition.

Indonesia’s refusal may not come as a surprise. However, suggestions that Pakistan, despite its close ties to Saudi Arabia, may strike a deal with Israel come out of left field. Religious ultra-conservatism is woven into the fabric of society and at least some state institutions. Moreover, anti-Semitism is rampant in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, a recent visit to Israel by a delegation of Pakistani activists seeking to promote people-to-people contacts has sparked anger and debate in Pakistan. The group, which met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, included American and British Pakistanis, prominent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Qureshi, and Fischel BenKhald, a Pakistani Jew.

Without at least an overt nudge from powerful quarters, no Pakistani journalist could make this public trip to Israel and return safely, reflecting how attitudes pertaining to Israel have evolved in the world’s only Muslim nuclear power,” said London-based Pakistani journalist Hamza Azhar Salam.

That did not stop Pakistani state television from firing Mr. Qureishi.

“The good news is, we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is hug,” Mr. Qureishi said.

Many Pakistanis, led by ousted prime minister Imran Khan, saw the visit to Israel as part of an effort by Pakistan’s powerful military to forge closer ties to the Jewish state – a move Mr. Khan appears to have considered when he was in office.

His aide, Zulfi Bukhari, reportedly visited Israel for a meeting with then head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen. Mr. Bukhari has denied travelling to Israel.

The visit by the Pakistani activists came two years after two Pakistani academics called in an op-ed in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper for Pakistani-Israeli cooperation in resolving the South Asian state’s water stress and upgrading its agriculture sector.

Similarly, Pakistani political analyst Saad Hafiz recently argued that Pakistan’s recognition of Israel would earn it the support of the Biden administration and the Israeli lobby in Washington for continued International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid for his country’s battered economy. Mr. Hafiz also reiterated that Pakistan could benefit from Israeli water conservation technology.

“The US leadership, Congress, and the powerful pro-Israel lobby could support the resumption of financial assistance to Pakistan as an incentive if it agrees to normalize ties with Israel, “ Mr. Saad said.

Pakistanis and Israeli have links in other ways. For example, many Pakistanis offer their services on Fiverr, an Israeli marketplace for freelance professionals.

Degrees of Saudi cooperation with Israel and Pakistani feelers contrasted starkly with legislation passed in the last two weeks by the Iraqi parliament criminalizing contact with Israel and by the Houthi government in Yemen that outlawed contact not only with Israel but also with Jews.

Pakistan is unlikely to follow Iraq or the Houthis. Even so, “it is unlikely that Pakistan’s fragile coalition government has the credibility and time to take the politically risky decision to open dialogue with Israel, especially with (Imran) Khan snipping at its heels,” Mr. Saad said. “Yet, bold decisions are needed for Pakistan to compete in a changing world.”

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