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US-Gulf divergence: Placing risky bets

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spotlights seemingly widening differences between the United States and its closest Middle Eastern allies, sparking eulogies for an era of bygone American regional dominance.

“America’s Middle East Friendships are Dying a Natural Death” predicted foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook this week after countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, to varying degrees, rebuffed US requests to help reduce energy prices and join sanctions against Russia.

A Saudi television satire that could not have been broadcast without at least tacit government approval mocked US President Joe Biden as a leader who had lost his memory and needed Vice President Kamel Harris as a prop. The reference to Mr. Biden’s memory was an apparent reference to Saudi and Emirati assertions that Mr. Biden has forgotten who America’s longstanding regional allies are.

In a further sign of strained US-Saudi relations, Saudi Arabia this week pushed the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its partners, including Russia, to stop using oil data from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) numbers when assessing the state of the oil market because of the United States’ alleged sway over the organisation.

Swansongs for US regional partnerships may be premature, despite the daylight in attitudes towards the Ukraine crisis, a divergence in perceived national interests, Saudi and Emirati frustration with recent American policies towards Iran, and uncertainty about Washington’s continued commitment to regional security.

Analysis of the impact and political significance of the US military presence in the Middle East suggests a degree of interdependence between the United States and its regional partners that makes their partnerships both indispensable and irreplaceable for Middle Eastern autocratic rulers.

The analysis also suggests that neither China nor Russia have the capability, or a military strategy predicated on the ability to project force in any part of the world or the wherewithal to replace the United States as the guarantor of the Middle East’s autocratic rule.

Moreover, the Russian military performance in Ukraine laid bare logistical and maintenance problems that, coupled with the sanctions, make Russia a less attractive alternative arms supplier.

Saudi and Emirati crown princes Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed may be testing the limits of the leverage they derive from their interdependence with the United States by refusing to increase oil production to reduce oil prices and condemn Russia.

They may also be venting their anger at a US refusal to respond more robustly to Iranian and Iranian-backed Houthi rebel attacks on their oil facilities and critical infrastructure.

The US Navy said this week that it would initiate a new task force with allied countries to patrol the Red Sea in response to Houthi attacks on shipping in the strategic waterway without identifying the rebels by name.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly apologized to Mr. Bin Zayed last month for the slow US response to the attacks. Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to Washington, said a meeting between the two men had helped “move the relationship between the UAE and the US back on the right track.”

The announcement and Mr. Biden’s apology reaffirmed that the US military presence in the Gulf remains one pillar of the Gulf states’ multi-faceted regime survival strategy.  

A study by political scientists and international affairs scholars Andrew Stravers and Dana El Kurd argues that, despite paying lip service to democratic values, the US commitment to autocratic rule in the Gulf is as much a function of US military strategy as it is of the Middle East’s strategic geography that straddles some of the world’s most important maritime chokepoints.

“American forces have an autocratising effect on host nations in strategically valuable regions. American and host interests align…in supporting regime survival where the location is critical to the United States and its global system of trade and military pre-eminence. This alignment produces increasing autocracy rather than simple regime stability,’ Mr. Stravers and Ms. El Kurd wrote.

The authors argue that an American military presence can increase autocracy in strategic regions “where American planners are uncertain of the (national) military’s ability to withstand regime change.”

Some leaders in the Gulf have at times shared that uncertainty. Mr. Bin Zayed, for example, contracted Erik Prince, founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater, more than a decade ago to help ensure regime security.

Mr. Stravers and Ms. El Kurd go on to reason that the US military presence “produces a need for the host regime to suppress opposition, in order to maintain perceived stability and entrench its domestic position. This increases the level of authoritarianism over time.”

This phenomenon is particularly true for the Gulf, where the loss of a military base would have far more far-reaching consequences for the US global position than the need to close or move a facility in, for example, Japan.

The authors’ emphasis on the significance of strategic geography in support of autocracy or democratization is borne out in a comparison of US policy regarding the 2011 popular uprising in Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, and protests six years earlier in Uzbekistan, where the US had a significant military presence at the height of the Afghan war.

The US stood aside when Saudi-led Gulf troops quashed the revolt in Bahrain. In Uzbekistan, Washington had no problem losing its military facilities after taking the government to task for repressing protests and violating human rights.

“An American military presence has an autocratising effect in particular regions of strategic importance. In areas of less strategic importance, American presence has relatively little effect on regimes,” the authors concluded.

Mr. Stravers and Ms. El Kurd’s analysis raises the question of whether recent Gulf moves related to Ukraine and Emirati efforts to return Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab and international fold signal a watershed in relations with the United States or an effort by Gulf leaders to flex their muscles at a time that the US may need them most.

The tendency of the US military presence to encourage increased autocracy may be something Messrs. Bin Salman and Bin Zayed don’t want to lose, particularly not without an immediate replacement.

That is all the truer, given that it is not clear that either man has full confidence in the ability of his security forces to fend off a concerted effort at regime change or an assault by Iran.

Messrs. Bin Salman and Bin Zayed’s problem is that the decision about the future of the US presence in the Gulf is beyond their grasp.

Washington is lowering its valuation of the strategic importance of the Gulf’s geography as its interest in the free flow of the region’s energy diminishes.

Messrs. Bin Salman and Bin Zayed may be placing a risky bet: put the relationship with the US on edge in the hope that the need to replace Russian energy will return Washington to its senses.

That may be a long shot. But, just like Saudis and Emiratis remember that the US did not respond robustly to attacks on their critical facilities even if it took steps to reassure them, US policy and opinionmakers are likely to recall friends who were absent when they needed help most.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

China and the Middle East: Heading into Choppy Waters

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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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Recognising Israel: Any Asian volunteers?

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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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The West Gives Ukraine What It Denied to Libya

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photo: IOM/Amanda Nero

Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict more than 6 million refugees have left Ukraine in search of a better life in Europe. Most of them faced no considerable problems in crossing the border and eventually find what they were looking for thanks to the lenient approach taken by the government of European nations. Welcoming Ukrainians with open arms comes in sharp contrast with the experience of refugees from Africa or Middle East, who also run from chaos and war. What is the reason behind this discrimination? Is it the double standards of the West or simply a disastrous concatenation of circumstances?

The downfall of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 caused an exodus of around 2 million Libyans. Most of them migrated to Tunisia and only 300,000 chose to try their luck in EU, predominantly Italy and Malta. Unlike the Ukrainians, Arabs did not receive such a warm welcome. On the contrary UN allocated more than $700 million to deter Libyans from crossing the Mediterranean. The funds went on costal guard training and improvement of border control. In practice this means seizing vessels with refugees in the open sea and sending the people who paid smugglers exorbitant amounts of money back to poverty and suffering. The West is acting as if it’s trying to avoid Africans and Arabs like a plague while 6 million Ukrainians were accepted with ease and even given special treatment in certain countries like Poland.

Instead of taking in the Libyan refugees the EU could have committed to rebuild infrastructure and improve the living standards in Libya. At one point in time it seemed that this strategy would be implemented: according to Financial Tracking Service from 2011 until 2022 Tripoli received $1.2 billion worth of aid. It is quite a large number, which rounds up to $109 million per year. However, it’s not sufficient from a stand point of a country. For example in 2021 Egypt has dedicated around $3 billion for low-income housing while having 27.9% poverty rate. At the same time Libya has 53% poverty rate, which means $109 million per year could probably provide housing for less than 0.2% of those in need. As for Ukraine, FTS recorded $1.8 billion in foreign aid since 24 February 2022 – more than Libya received in 11 years.

It is not only about the refugees and funding but about the causes and solutions of the crisis. In Libya thousands of innocent lives were taken, thousands of homes and crucial infrastructure objects annihilated in the wake of the military operation conducted by NATO with no one brought to responsibility. Now, the news about war crimes and casualties in Ukraine can be heard in any part of the globe. Evidently when military force is used to establish “democracy” far away from the homeland, lost Arab lives is an acceptable sacrifice in a white man’s eyes.

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