For the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), late 2021 was supposed to herald the end of Libya’s domestic political chaos. The presidential election of December 24 was to bring an end to the drawn-out transition, stabilizing the situation—at least, temporarily—in a country that is still reeling after Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow and assassination. However, two days before the voting took place, the head of the Libyan High National Election Commission issued a decree dissolving all poll commissions, citing legal, logistical and security concerns. As a result, all attempts made by the two main political groups to design constitutional framework for the prospective presidential elections ended in failure, with yet another duumvirate regime appearing in the country—Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh’s cabinet in Tripoli and Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha, who was appointed by the House of Representatives in the east.
What this new division of power between competing political forces in Libya actually means is that the country has no real leader and that the interregnum period is far from over. At the same time, not only does the current situation define domestic and regional problems in the MENA region, but it also poses global challenges and threats (including of economic dimensions), which is especially important in the context of growing contradictions between the leading actors globally.
A Never-Ending Transition
Libya’s problems essentially come down to the inability of all those involved in the political process to establish effective mechanisms for the transfer of power to a legally elected parliament and president. This paralysis—in terms of establishing a single seat of power in the country—can be attributed to the problems setting out the requirements of eligibility for candidates in the first presidential elections and agreeing on when exactly they would take place. However, the country’s two main political forces managed to achieve an “unprecedented consensus” in Geneva in late June, at a two-day meeting between Speaker of the House of Representatives of Libya Aguila Saleh Issa and Chairman of the High Council of State Khalid al-Mishri. The sides reached mutual understanding on such issues as where the country’s executive and legislative bodies would be located, how seats in the two legislative chambers would be distributed, what areas of responsibility would be delegated to the various executive authorities, how the new boundaries of the provinces would be drawn, etc.
The disagreements on the requirements of eligibility for presidential candidates mostly concerned the backgrounds of potential applicants. According to Al Jazeera, the High Council of State insists that members of the military should not be allowed to run for presidency, which is a clear shot at the Supreme Leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar, a loyalist to the parliament who controls the country’s east. The uncertainty surrounding the new date for the election has already had a negative impact on the socio-political situation in the country, which had somewhat settled down once the Government of National Unity (GNU) was set up to replace the Government of National Accord (GNA), which openly opposed the forces of Khalifa Haftar. For instance, reports of clashes between the main political forces currently appear with increasing frequency.
Oil has become one of the main instruments in the struggle. Fathi Bashagha and his allies in the east of the country organized attacks on Libyan oil facilities, while local tribe leaders closed several oil facilities, including the country’s largest field. Besides, armed groups with links to forces in the East have successfully blockaded export terminals, which were only starting to resume operations. The purpose of all this was to reduce the flow of National Oil Corporation’s oil revenues to the Central Bank of Libya, which remains under control of Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and his government in Tripoli. People in Libya’s east believe that Dbeibeh will be forced to cede power if he does not have enough money to pay his supporters and the armed forces.
As usual during the times of political strife, ordinary Libyans have been thrust to the side lines, and their standard of living has suffered dramatically—primarily because of the lack of fuel and electricity in this oil-rich country. Political in-fighting has also led to difficulties in meeting budget obligations. The country is haemorrhaging around $60 billion per day, meaning that administrative staff and members of the security forces in both camps might get no pay. To make matters worse, prices of essential goods have gone up.
All this led to a wave of mass protests sweeping across Libya’s major cities. Protestors are calling for the resignation of all power structures, in both east and west of the country. “There are many reasons why protesters have decided to take to the streets in anger,” wrote Ahmed Mayouf, a well-known Libyan political commentator and writer, “but they can be summarised simply by the failure of the politicians to reach a political accord and their preference instead to wrestle with each other over power at the expense of ordinary citizens.”
That said, it is worth noting that protestors focused on different issues, depending on the parts of the country. For instance, while demonstrators in Tobruk called on the Presidential Council and its Chairman, Mohamed al-Menfi, to seize power before the elections even took place after setting fire to the parliament building, those in Al Bayda demanded that the High Council take control of the country on an interim basis. Some protestors in Benghazi called for the retired Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to assume power in the whole country. One of protestors’ main demands in western Libya was that an election be held. As a result, even the Libyan people, tired of this drawn-out period of transition, have failed to come together united by a single position that would influence the political process in the country.
Therefore, the domestic political situation in Libya remains uncertain. Perhaps, it is harkening back to the time of bloody confrontation between those vying for power. Fathi Bashagha’s appointment as Prime Minister could, in theory, contribute to the implementation of the road map for Libya, since he has managed to get in with the commander-in-chief of the LNA despite the fact that he represents part of the Western forces. However, political process in Libya is marked by a high degree of external involvement. This is likely why “former” Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh has managed to stay in office. Dbeibeh has a strong external ally in the form of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Libya policy opposes Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, a fact that further complicates the resolution of the Libyan crisis.
It would seem that Libya has effectively returned to the time of the Haftar–Sarraj confrontation, now heading towards a new round of the Civil War that has raged almost continuously since 2011. This makes it particularly difficult to be optimistic about a possible stabilization and normalization of the domestic political process. The situation is made all the worse by the global developments, which have made the Libyan crisis sparkle with new colours and which are further complicated by the intricacies of regional dynamics in MENA.
Global and Regional Projections of the Libyan Crisis
The ongoing global confrontation over Ukraine between Russia and the West has exposed various countries and entire regions, including MENA, as mere elements in the confrontation. This much is evident from President Biden’s tour of the Middle East (Israel and Saudi Arabia) and Vladimir Putin’s visit to Iran. What is more, Moscow and Washington are clearly in a position to use other options in the region to exert pressure on one another. Libya is key here, as the country continues to search for a solution to its domestic political woes and, as such, is extremely susceptible to external influence.
For example, the United States and its European partners likely seek to contain the political strife in Libya with an eye on concerns other than protect the Libyan population. The goal may well be to avoid further damage to the global energy market, which has been hit hard by the large-scale sanctions war that the West wages against Russia. The attacks on Libyan oil fields, which started this March, have resulted in a long-term closure of some fields and refineries and, consequently, a drop-off in Libya’s oil production to well below the base level of 1.2 million barrels a day.
The production shortfall in Libya, which will no doubt aggravate if the country returns to a full-blown civil war, comes at a time when the U.S. and Europe have—in an act of defiance—stopped importing Russian oil with global oil prices surging to more than $110 per barrel. With all that, it is clear that political groups in Libya are guided by their own interests rather than considerations pertaining to the global economy. However, the West’s desire to ensure sustained oil supplies to the global market could go some way to explaining the support for “former” Prime Minister of Libya Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, who was supposed to leave office after December 25, 2021, but refused to do so once the presidential elections were postponed. This decision effectively led to another internal political split.
In turn, if the United States steps up its actions in Libya, this will inevitably push Russia to enhance its support for political and military forces in the east, striving to achieve a political balance within the country. Russia’s high-ranking diplomats also point to the current impasse in the situation in Libya, noting that Stephanie Williams’ tenure as Acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), a position that is “not accountable to the Security Council”, is being delayed, “despite assurances this was a temporary measure.” Dmitry Polyansky, Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, stressed that Moscow believes this to be “evidence that our Western colleagues, in the spirit of neo-colonial thinking, would like to impose on Libyans their vision of what the future structure of the country should look like and who should govern it. This as a cynical and unacceptable position.”
We should also add that Fathi Bashagha, the new Prime Minister of Libya—whose supporters are located in the centre of the country separating the forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar and those linked to the government of the ex-prime minister in the West—has to perform a balancing act in his rhetoric on the international agenda. This was on display, for example, when Fathi Bashagha publicly condemned Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, ignoring the fact that Russia was the first country to welcome his appointment as Prime Minister. He would go on to meet with Ukraine’s ambassador to Libya in the spring, where he emphasized his support for Kiev.
At the same time, the incumbent prime minister is aware that playing the oil card for political gain must be done delicately at the current stage, and he understands that the West will not accept such a scenario. Fathi Bashagha has been clean that he does not want to take this path, even though it would surely allow him to take power in Tripoli. He clearly wants to keep his distance from Moscow to avoid the political price he might pay in his dealings with Western powers. He is also seeking an alliance with Libya’s eastern camp. Besides, his headquarters in the eastern and southern regions have increased the pressure on the government of Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. However, a conflict with the Kremlin could put an end to the incumbent PM’s political ambitions, which will force him to pursue a balanced policy. This includes the country’s food security, as it currently imports more than half of its grain from Russia and Ukraine (although Ukraine is unlikely to guarantee continued supplies).
What is more, a violent end to the Libyan crisis also seems unlikely in the near term, as the forces in the country’s east will have trouble organizing an effective attack on Tripoli without the support of Russia, whose military has other things in sight, with the conflict in Ukraine ongoing.
As for the implications that the domestic political situation in Libya will bear for MENA at large, the failure of the political process will prompt into action the region’s major actors, who have their own vision of how events should unfold. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have already been deeply embroiled in the goings-on, and they will continue to support Khalifa Haftar. On the other side, Turkey will step up its support to the forces in the west of Libya. All this will hardly reconcile contradictions between the countries of MENA, a region full of conflict potential as it is.
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To sum up, we should not that the disruption of the political process coupled with the uncertainty surrounding the elections and the structure of the Libyan government have caused the country to slip back into the interregnum, where there are no political forces in the country capable of consolidating the society and building power structures on a nationwide consensus. Grudges and distrust among the conflicting parties greatly increase the likelihood of Libya returning to the most violent phase of the Civil War, when the voices of politicians will be replaced by gunshots. And the global uncertainty as well as the divergent interests of MENA’s major players only make matters worse.
From our partner RIAC
Assyrians are Not Refugees Who Settled in Iraq
In recent years, some Kurdish and Arab politicians and wanna-be historians have been making statements that the Assyrians of Iraq were refugees from Hakkari, Turkey and that the British brought them to Iraq. This absurd and misleading statement spread as Assyrians were trying to find their place in the new Iraq post 2003 US invasion.
On October 3, 1932 Iraq became the 57th member of the League of Nations (replaced by the United Nations on October 24, 1945 post World War II). On December 15, 1932, an article titled “Iraq and the Assyrians” was published in the periodical The Near East and India. The article addressed the settlement of the Assyrians in Iraq. The Assyrian leaders have been pleading to solve the settlement issue before ending the British mandate over Iraq and before admitting Iraq into the League of Nations as a sovereign and independent state (planned for 1932). The Assyrian leaders warned the West that Iraqi leaders could not be trusted and that Assyrians are not safe under the rule of Arabs and Kurds.
Before going further into the article aforementioned there is an important point that the readers must understand. The Assyrians did not fall from Mars onto northern Iraq. The Assyrians have been living in Northern Mesopotamia from time immemorial and their dynasties established one of the greatest civilization and empire in the Near East. The fall of the last Assyrian dynasty, i.e., the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in 612 BC and the last capital in Harran in 609 BC did not mean the disappearance of the people. This is similar to the fall of the Roman, Greek, Persian and many other empires. The people of those empires survived. The Assyrians continued to live in and around the historic Assyrian capitals of Ashur (Qal’at Sharqat), Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur Sharukin (Khursabad), Nineveh (Nebi Yunis) and Harran in upper Mesopotamia or lived in new settlements near by those capitals, such as Mosul, Arbil, Kirkuk, Urfa (Urhai or Edessa), Nisibin, etc. that were centers of the Assyrians’ Christianity.
Assyria was occupied by several nations including the Medes, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, Arabs, Mongolians, Ottoman Turks and others in between. The Assyrians adopted Christianity during the time of the Apostles and remained Christians ever since. The Christological controversies that followed the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) isolated these Assyrian denominational communities from each others. As the Church established further structure and hierarchy, the Churches of the Assyrians kept the various Assyrian communities together, each under its leader, the patriarchs. The Assyrian denominational terms Nestorian and Jacobite were born. Later, in 1681 in Diyar Bekir (Turkey) and in 1830 in northern Iraq (Alqosh) the conversion of Assyrians to Catholicism isolated more Assyrians as the term Chaldean was given to these converts.
With the clear establishment of these denominations, a clear distribution of the Assyrian population was shaped. The Nestorian Assyrians lived as a concentrated region of the Hakkari Mountains (Van Province) and Urmia region in Persia, Jacobite Assyrians in the Tur Abdin/Diyar Bekir region (Sandschak Zor and Diyar Bekir Provinces) and Chaldean Assyrians in Nineveh region/Arbil/Kirkuk (Mosul Province); however, these various denominational groups were intermixed in some locations. Despite this denominational separation, they all continued to refer to themselves as Suraye, which is Asuraye or Assuraye, meaning Assyrians.
The genocide of World War I (1914-1918) committed against the Assyrians by Turks and Kurds in Hakkari and Tur ‘Abdin (today both in modern Turkey) forced the Assyrians out. One escape route ended the Assyrians first in the camp of Baquba (1918 near Baghdad) and then in the camp of Mindan (1920 near Mosul) via Urmia, Persia.
Map of the Ottoman Empire divided by provinces Before its Fall in 1922
The other route ended up in Qamishli and Aleppo as genocide continued even after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed and the Turkish State was created in 1922. Therefore, the Assyrians were basically displaced because of genocide from one province to another within the same Ottoman Empire, i.e., from Hakkari to Mosul and from Diyar Bekir/Tur Abdin to Qamishli/Aleppo. Those displaced refugees from Hakkari and Urmia joined their Catholic brethren, the Chaldean Assyrians, in Mosul Province. Therefore, the Assyrians did not migrate from some foreign planet to Mosul Province considering also that there were Assyrians in Mosul region since the fall of the Assyrian Empire and these Assyrians after converting to Catholicism became known as Chaldeans.
Another important issue is the similarity in the geographical terrain. One of the principle Assyrian regions was the highlands that starts from Mosul (today in Iraq) and extends all the way to southern Lake Van (today in Turkey). The Assyrian people lived throughout these highlands. This continuation of topography was not divided politically until the official fall of the Ottoman Empire in November 1, 1922. After many disagreements, protests and negotiations, the British and the Turks finally signed the Treaty of Ankara on June 5, 1926 by which both states recognized the Brussels line (with some minor modifications) as the frontier between the two new created states of Iraq and Turkey. Even if we consider this new frontier, we need to understand that the large Assyrian region of Lower Barwar was always part of the Ottoman’s Mosul Province (Iraq) – the Assyrians of Lower Barwar did not migrate from Turkey to Iraq per se, unlike those of Upper Barwar.
During World War I, British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, authored a secret agreement (concluded on May 19, 1916 ) regarding the future spoils of the Ottoman Empire that was expected to lose the war. After few modifications and incidents, the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq was created from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra and immediately placed it under the British mandate. Modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria and other states in the region did not exist before 1921/22. Therefore, we cannot say that in 1918 people moved from Turkey to Iraq because Turkey and Iraq did not exist at the time.
Now back to the December 5, 1932 The Near East and India article, which stated that the Council of the League of Nations considered the question of the settlement of the 40,000 [Nestorian] Assyrians in Iraq. At the council meeting, Nuri al-Said, the prime minister of Iraq stated: “The government of Iraq is determined to assure the prosperity, the happiness and the tranquility of all inhabitants of Iraq. It is following the best and most practical path to this end, allowing itself to be guided by the most human principles, by considerations of the general interest and by respect for existing laws.”
It took only few months later from the promise of the Iraqi prime minister that 3,000 Assyrians were massacred in the state-sponsored Simele Genocide in August 1933. The Assyrians continue to be persecuted and oppressed in Iraq by the Arab and the Kurdish authorities as the leaders and historians of Arabs and Kurds continue to claim that the Assyrians were refugees from Turkey and Persia (later Iran) and needed to be relocated or settled outside Iraq, if they had any conditions or hard to meet conditions, regardless how reasonable.
One important note, Kurdish nationalists and writers claim that the Allies post WWI divided Kurdistan into north, south, east and west Kurdistans. Such wild claims must never be allowed to spread. Unlike the well established and historic Assyrian Empire, there never existed an official state or country on the world map under the name of Kurdistan. After European travelers and missionaries visited the Middle East region, they encountered the nomad Kurds and soon a border-less and unofficial region under such name began to be inserted on certain Middle East maps to reflect the presence of these stateless people. In 1946, a Kurdish state under the name of Mahabad Republic was established in west Iran, but it was crushed by the Iranian army after 11 months. The Kurdish nationalists have promoted an aggressive Kurdification campaign to erase the Assyrian history from northern Iraq and replace it with Kurdish history.
Education empowers people – it enables them to understand. When they understand, they discuss issues affecting them with confidence, logically and accurately. Assyrians and other undermined people around the world must participate in this great battle of survival armed with education, because they must not let the murderers or oppressors write the history. The Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq – history and archeology proves that. Throughout history, many Assyrians were forced to flee their homes and lands of northern Iraq (occupied Assyria) because of massacres and persecution.
U.S. Policy Case for Middle East under New Conditions
In contrast to the presidential elections of the past two decades, the new White House administration has faced great difficulties in shaping its Middle East policy. With internal division, polarization, political system failures and the unwavering pandemic, the Middle East has largely dropped out of U.S. foreign policy priorities. Shortly after his election, George W. Bush came up with the ambitious initiative of a Greater Middle East which entailed a democratic restructuring of the region; Barack Obama quickly sent a special envoy for the Middle East to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and Donald Trump, by contrast, dashed a number of traditional constants in the policies of his predecessors. It took Joe Biden’s administration a long time to realize the place of this troubled region in the U.S. grand strategy. Trump left Biden a heavy and intricate legacy, with no room for continuity or a sharp change of course on all fronts.
The continued policy of confrontation with Russia and China, framed ideologically as that of a democracy vs. autocracy, implied a revision of the approach towards the Middle East and a need to restore trust globally, taking into account all the painful experiences of the U.S., especially after the fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan. How to achieve this amid a shifting global balance of power—clearly, not in favor of the United States—and striking changes in the region where the U.S. is increasingly seen as a key regional player was exactly the question. As early as by President Obama’s second term, a kind of consensus had been reached in the U.S. after long discussions. Trump was also guided by it, although one of his first trips abroad was to Saudi Arabia. U.S. policy in the Middle East is overly militarized, while meddling in the region’s internal affairs and the resources invested do not yield proper political impact. This leads to the conclusion that the U.S. military presence and political commitments should be reduced, avoiding overstretching in the face of emerging global threats and challenges.
The president and the secretary of state were critical of their predecessors, while devising their own approach to the region, with its unresolved conflicts and socio-political cataclysms, was clearly delayed. There has been a sense of uncertainty in the Arab world as to how and when Joe Biden would set a course for the Middle East. Questions arose as to whether one should prepare for a U.S. withdrawal from the region and Washington’s search for foreign policy alternatives. There were growing security concerns in the Gulf, which viewed Iran as a real threat. Namely, they believed that the U.S., having lost interest in the region, would decide to abandon its traditional guarantor role in the face of ongoing course corrections. Washington’s general words about “recalibration,” “redeployment,” and “reorientation” evoked mixed feelings: On the one hand, a desire for America to somehow define itself; on the other, a loss of confidence in it. The prolonged lack of progress in reaching agreement on the terms of a U.S. return to the JCPOA and the uncertainty over the parties’ future intentions were perceived with concern by Washington’s regional partners; not only by the Arab monarchies but also by Israel. The complicated domestic situation in Israel after the establishment of a shaky two-headed coalition and the prospect of a fifth edition of parliamentary elections in the last two years have put U.S. diplomacy in an ambiguous position.
The negative for the United States impact of the Ukrainian crisis on global energy as well as predominantly neutral attitudes towards the crisis in the non-Western world, which is somewhat closer to understanding Russia’s motives, seemed to serve as a stimulant that prompted Washington to shift its attention back to the Middle East—especially since the current conditions on the oil market have led to a significant increase in fuel prices in the U.S., which could have an adverse impact for the U.S. administration in light of the approaching midterms.
In this environment, the announcement of Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East on July 15-16 was met with a lot of skepticism, especially within America. The visit to Saudi Arabia came in for particular criticism because Biden promised to make Riyadh a “pariah” after the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, and he was now planning to rehabilitate it in favor of domestic interests. Biden himself was forced to speak publicly to put the purpose of his visit to the Middle East in a broader global and regional context.
The pessimistic sentiments in the U.S. expert community were vividly expressed by Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller, two retired senior diplomats who worked for years in the Middle East and at the State Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The essence of this image, translated into political language, is as follows: “If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds.” Biden deprioritized the Middle East for sixteen months, and the weeds have grown in the meantime. And so the president was sent on a “diplomatic foray into the region to plant U.S. flags and start to repair the damage done to the flowers and greenery.” The conclusion is that the pivot to the Middle East will not last long, and one should not expect quick pay-offs.
The itinerary from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, where, alongside with the bilateral U.S.-Saudi negotiations, the U.S. president met with a number of Arab leaders in the GCC+3 format (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan) is quite telling. This list indicates the states the Biden administration intends to bet on as well as the range of oft-interrelated problems, the approaches to which the administration considers necessary to clarify and harmonize. These include regional security, continued normalization of the Arab-Israeli relations, the issue of a U.S. return to the JCPOA, warning signals to Iran, a new understanding of the nature of allied relations, conflict resolution with a focus on Yemen, continued Palestinian-Israeli contacts, etc.
The Israeli part of Biden’s trip showed that the United States was not going to revise the legacy of the previous administration, which formally declared Israeli settlements in the West Bank not contrary to international law and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. By and large, the status of Jerusalem, like the issue of Jewish settlements, is a fait accompli for the United States. At the same time, Biden reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it was a purely formal gesture, though: more of a tribute to his election campaign. This position is also enshrined, albeit one-sidedly, in the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration. Apart from passing remarks about his intention to promote dialogue with the Palestinians and provide humanitarian grants, the American president’s visit to the Palestinian Authority was more of a touristy, humanitarian nature. The text of this widely circulated declaration leaves no doubt that the U.S. continues to pursue the principled policy of ensuring Israel’s security and military dominance as “strategic commitments that are vitally important to the national security of the United States itself.” In this regard, we have seen additional measures of cooperation in air defense and laser technology development. Another important point of the declaration was the message to the U.S. partners in the region that America will “never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and will work with them “to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities.” Finally, the U.S. and Israel praised the Abraham Accords as a critical addition to Israel’s strategic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and an important starting point for building a new regional security system.
The most complicated and sensitive part of the president’s Middle East tour—the trip to Saudi Arabia—had two dimensions to it. First, a normalization of the long-struggling bilateral relations with a new focus on the policies of Trump and Obama; and second, a presentation of the U.S. administration’s vision of the Middle East strategy.
On the bilateral agenda, Biden tried to find some middle ground in the eternal conflict between “American values” and “national interests,” between respecting human rights and supporting rigid autocracies, which in the United States, i.a. among Democrats, include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There has been a heated debate in the United States over the dilemma where the prestige of a powerful figure in the kingdom, like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been directly affected by Khashoggi’s assassination. Did the U.S. president raise human rights issues with the Crown Prince and what was his reaction? Responding to the numerous questions, the president confirmed that he had discussed this issue “directly and openly,” though there remained great doubt in U.S. domestic political discourse about the administration’s determination (and that of Biden personally) to put ideological values above practical considerations. The reaction of the Saudi leadership was no less direct. As it became known in the Arab world, Mohammed bin Salman replied briefly: “And what about Shireen Abu Akleh?” (a journalist of Palestinian origin murdered in Israel). In general, the contrast between the way Americans “defend” democracy and human rights in Ukraine and the way they do it for the Palestinians in the Arab world has not gone unnoticed. This partly explains no mention of the Ukrainian conflict from the Arab side during the talks.
The U.S. president’s trip to the Middle East was the occasion for the public announcement of a revised foreign policy in its regional dimension. Biden thought it was symbolic that he was the first U.S. president to come to Saudi Arabia from Israel and the first to visit the region at a time when the U.S. has no military personnel engaged in military operations there. Thereafter, the U.S. emphasized intensive diplomacy with the caveat that the use of force is seen as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.
The U.S. Middle East strategy is presented in five main areas. First, the U.S. will not leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran, so it is not withdrawing from the region. Washington will bolster partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order, making sure these countries can defend themselves against foreign threats. Second, security cooperation. The U.S. will pledge determination to ensure the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, to prevent dominance by any country. Third, de-escalation and termination of regional conflicts. The U.S. is ready to work with the partners to counter threats from Iran by forcing it to curtail its nuclear program. Fourth, the development of bilateral political, economic, and security connections, and the promotion of regional projects in energy, free trade and investment. Fifth, the U.S. commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms and the values enshrined in the U.N. Charter.
It remains a matter of debate how the American president’s significant statements in the Middle East with a leadership bid can convert into practical policy. At the same time, growing tensions in Europe and Asia are gradually pushing this into the background. Assessments of the prospects for achieving the goal in practice are rather restrained, ranging from a complete disbelief in the U.S. ability to achieve ambitious goals in a rapidly changing region to assertions that Biden should be given time and that America still has chances to adjust its Middle East policy to the new realities in the world and in the United States itself. Looks like Biden took some not-so-heavy political baggage from the Middle East. U.S. attempts to present Saudi Arabia’s consent to overflight of its airspace by Israeli civilian aircraft as a breakthrough were quickly devalued by the Saudis’ official explanations that it was only about facilitating international air communications, not about normalizing relations with Israel. The Saudis have also made adjustments to the definition of the U.S. role in lowering oil prices. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Al-Jubeir hastened to declare that the decision will be based on market assessments, and Saudi Arabia intends to continue consultations with OPEC members as well as within OPEC+, i.e. with Russia. The Saudis oppose the politicization of the global financial system and do not support calls for an oil embargo. According to experts, if the decision to further increase oil production was made, such an increase wouldn’t be so critical that the U.S. could take the credit.
Biden’s post-Bush, post-Obama and post-Trump Middle East strategy looks like a desire to find a middle ground between two extremes: over-involvement in the regional set-up coupled with military intervention or a complete turn toward the Indo-Pacific. That is, there is an understanding that the U.S. cannot change the Middle East, nor can it afford to withdraw from it. At the same time, the focus on countering Russia and China, which allegedly took advantage of the vacuum in the region, remains part of this adjusted strategy, much as the pivot to mobilize traditional Arab partners to achieve U.S. goals. And that is where the main contradiction lies. The U.S. plan for a regional alliance of democracies has no real prospect in the Middle East. The results of Biden’s Middle East trip clearly showed that, in contrast to the times of the Soviet-American confrontation, the Arab countries pursue a diversified policy, avoiding a strictly one-sided orientation on the principle of “the enemy of my friend is not my enemy.” With a new round of global confrontation, the leaders of these countries tread carefully, without closing foreign relations on unstable alliances and believing that their national interests in the new geopolitical and regional realities are more consistent with maintaining a situational partnership with the major powers.
Strengthening the U.S. strategic partnership with Israel at the expense of the right of the Palestinian people to their statehood is unlikely to advance further normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but rather will complicate the country’s integration into the region. As a result, one can expect a sharp rise in radical sentiment among the Palestinians, with the support of the resistance front by Arab states. This is evidenced by the restoration of Hamas’ relations with Syria, as well as the meeting of all Palestinian factions in Algeria facilitated by the movement. In security issues, the Gulf monarchies are looking for opportunities to defuse tensions with Iran through regional mediation as an alternative to U.S. guarantees.
One should not expect a dramatic turnaround in the U.S. Middle East policy. The incumbent president will have to reckon with the balance of power in Congress, which cannot be changed by executive orders. The Middle East will remain a focus of the Democratic administration, albeit not a top priority. The new style, with its emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, will help set a more balanced course toward key regional issues. At the same time, the Biden administration will not be able to ignore that Russia’s multi-vector policy has shown its relevance over the past two decades. The new reality in the Middle East will force American diplomacy to seek interaction points with Russia through overcoming the credibility gap, even in the face of tense bilateral relations. The question is whether it is possible to separate the Middle East from the context of the real geopolitics unfolding at odds. In this sense, Syria will be an important indicator of U.S. intentions, being a country where both Washington and Moscow, like in Europe, are in direct military contact.
From our partner RIAC
An updated Chinese strategy towards the Arab region: Evidence from Saudi Arabia
The economic ties between Saudi Arabia and China are a reflection of both countries’ current development. From 1949 until the mid-1970s, interactions between China and the Muslim world were almost non-existent. During the late 1970s, China began its economic reform initiative, which reshaped China’s economy from 1978 to 2000, opening the way for developing the bilateral relations. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and China was improved with the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 2008, the global financial and economic crisis ravaged the United States; this paved the way for further progress in the Saudi-Chinese relationship.
After Saudi Arabia put out its 2030 vision for multilateralism, the movement in Saudi-Chinese relations coincided with the transformation in the global system, which is one of the most essential parts of multipolarity. As a result, China now has more possibilities for being involved in this process.
After China’s openness to the West, the country devoted itself primarily to the acquisition of advanced financial and technological infrastructure. At the time, China was not interested in strengthening its ties to Saudi Arabia and raising the level of the relationship to a strategic partnership. According to Saudi officials, the Chinese economy had nothing to tempt them to create links with it, regardless of China’s significant economic progress made. In terms of the world’s greatest economies, China has yet to make it into the top ten.
There was little trade between the two countries. A mere 1.171 billion riyals, or around 1.5 percent, of Saudi Arabia’s total imports were made in China in 1987. After more than 20 years of economic changes in China, this statistic remained unchanged. Even though China’s volume tripled, China’s share of Saudi imports remained at 3.5%, thus it takes time to create economic ties.
China’s imports to Saudi Arabia doubled in value between 1987 and 1999, rising from 1.2 billion to 3.7 billion riyals. The Saudi’s overall worldwide imports still dwarf this amount, notwithstanding the rise. However, by the end of the nineties, there was an improvement in this relationship. The year 2000 marked the beginning of a major shift in the economic ties between the two countries. There was an increase in bilateral trade that year of more than 1.7 times what it was last year. This is due to an increase in previously unreported Saudi shipments to China. Between 1990 and 2000, exports nearly quadrupled. Saudi’s on-going trade surplus with China can be attributed to this increase in exports.
Economic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia will be altered significantly. High-level visits, discussions, and exchanges of views between Saudi Arabia and China have created new horizons in bilateral relations, in addition to strengthening economic ties. Globalization has also contributed to the building of trade linkages between all countries, including China and Saudi Arabia. This is also relevant to the World Trade Organization’s principles and the development of a free market economy. The economic ties between the two countries developed dramatically between 2000 and 2007. This is mainly due to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Growth in China’s economy has begun to pick up steam, shifting the world’s top economies into a new position. China, which ranked sixth in 2000, surpassed the United Kingdom to take fourth place in 2006. In 2007, it overtook Germany to take third position.
During the period between 2001 and 2007, Saudi Arabia’s exports to China nearly doubled, while imports nearly quadrupled. In the time since 2008, major developments have led to stronger ties between the two countries’ economies, paving the way for future strategic collaboration. After the housing crisis, the financial and economic crisis of 2008 had a significant impact on the development of Saudi Arabia’s ties with China. Because of this tragedy, there was a global economic downturn. Except for China, the rest of the industrialized world’s growth rates were either negative or extremely low throughout this period. China rose from third to second place in the world’s economy between 2007 and 2010, ahead of Japan, which fell from third to fourth.
As of 2010, China’s GDP had overtaken Japan’s, ranking it second in the world’s major economies matrix. By 2028, China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful economy.
In terms of bilateral trade exchanges, minerals accounted for nearly eighty per cent of the overall value of Saudi’s top exports to China in 2019. Electrical goods and equipment are among the many items that China exports to Saudi Arabia.
It’s no surprise that Saudi Arabia ranked first and second in terms of oil exports to China in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Last year, China bought more than twice as much oil from Saudi Arabia as Russia did, at 1.69 million barrels per day.
The Chinese grand strategy, based mainly on the Belt and Road Initiative, will not make progress without a solid partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. China is a huge powerhouse that depends mainly on trade and industry; therefore, in order for China to survive, it is likely that in the next few years we will witness a qualitative leap in the bilateral relationship between China and Saudi Arabia.
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