Throughout Syria’s civil war, women have risked their security to mediate the various conflicts that have affected their communities. Since international efforts to end the fighting have stalled, their role has grown in importance. The protracted fighting has taken countless lives, displaced millions in and outside the country and left much of the country’s infrastructure in tatters. The failure of international efforts to make much progress has been ascribed to the lack of understanding amongst formal mediators of the situation on the ground in local communities.
This is where Syrian women come to the fore. Most women involved in local mediation have some connection to the dispute, and are perceived as trustworthy and credible by the disputing parties. As “insider mediators”, they demonstrate two consistent strengths: the ability to build or leverage relationships, and the possession of detailed knowledge on the conflict and its parties.
An example of this strength came early in the war, in the Zabadani district, northwest of Damascus. As the district began to fall under the control of opposition forces, it was besieged by the government. The authorities demanded that men hand over weapons and surrender, which meant that only women could move safely across the lines of control.
A reversal of roles
Whilst, before the war, Zabadani women were usually expected to focus on responsibilities inside the home, the new restrictions and risks suddenly faced by men made it acceptable—and even necessary—for women to get involved in negotiations with government forces.
Quickly stepping into this newfound role, a group of women in Zabadani gathered and initiated a mediation process with the besieging forces in order to negotiate an end to the siege as well as a potential ceasefire.
“Most of these women became involved because their husbands were implicated with the opposition forces and were wanted by the government,” says Sameh Awad,* a peacebuilding expert familiar with the case. “The women themselves were mostly housewives and did not have any formal role in the community, but they gained their significance because they wanted to protect their husbands”.
Although the ceasefire later collapsed, doe to the changing political context, the women were, for a period of time, able to ensure that civilians were protected and evacuated.
In another example, in the northwestern city of Idlib, informal groups of women were able to save the lives of a group of detainees. After hearing a rumour that they were about to be killed by soldiers, a group of female teachers worked to convince a wider group of women, including the detainees’ mothers, to approach the headquarters of the battalion leader. The encounter ended with the faction leader agreeing to speak with the military council and, a month later, the detainees were released as part of an exchange deal.
Syrian women have also led mediation efforts with government forces to address security issues and service provision in areas formerly under opposition control. “The government insisted that men needed to complete military service, and this made many young men afraid to emerge in the public sphere,” explained MS. Awad. “So, women were involved in going out and exploring to what extent the discussions with the new authorities in the area were possible. During these negotiations, they discussed early recovery in their areas.”
Repairing social cohesion
Several years after the start of the conflict, Mobaderoon, a women-led civil society organisation in Damascus, noted an increase in localized violence towards internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had arrived in the capital. To address this violence, the organisation formed local committees made up of community and local government leaders, other influential community members such as teachers and civil society activists, and ordinary residents. They established neutral spaces where people could meet and discuss issues affecting their neighbourhoods, and where they could build their confidence and skills to address these issues.
After some time, the women-led organisation expanded its work to Tartus, a coastal city in western Syria, and partnered with another women-led organisation that enjoys strong community ties and presence in the area.
“Because of the war and the influx of IDPs there were no services, or not enough services,” says Farah Hasan*, a member of Mobaderoon. “Local youth accused the IDPs of being responsible for the war, because they originated from areas under opposition control, and they carried out violent attacks against them in nearby camps.”
This violence was creating substantial instability in the area, so the head of Tartus met with influential community members and local business actors, to convince them that the IDP camp should be integrated as a part of the community, so that IDPs could participate in the local economy.
Attitudes slowly changed, and the targeted neighbourhoods in Tartus witnessed notable differences in the treatment of IDPs: they reported less harassment and violence from host community members, greater acceptance of their children in schools, and more economic opportunities.
* Names changed to protect privacy
The role of Guangdong Province in the Egypt – China relationship
For the past few years, Egypt-China bilateral trade has witnessed a big leap where Egypt has opened up its markets to the Chinese products. There are many aspects that impressed me the most about the economic and trade cooperation between Egypt and China, regarding the recent important role of Guangdong in the Egypt – China relationships.
Guangdong has special relations with Egypt, as they work together to advance and strengthen economic and commercial exchange and cooperation with the continent of Africa, and in particular with Egypt, as Egypt was keen to work and conduct many discussions and joint meetings with officials of Guangdong Province on enhancing investment and trade between Guangdong, China and Egypt. The trade and economic cooperation talks of Guangdong Province with Egypt came under the supervision of the (People’s Government of Guangdong Province), in cooperation with the Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Authority of Guangdong Province and the General Authority for investment and Free Zones in Egypt. The (General Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce) is also keen to open prospects for joint economic and investment cooperation with Guangdong Province.
Both Egypt and the officials at Guangdong have already held (a conference on investment and trade between the Chinese province of Guangdong and Egypt) to identify the most important joint investments between the two parties.
The Guangdong provincial government has prepared an unprecedented large-scale trade and economic delegation to visit Cairo, which included more than 60 institutions with great weight covering all disciplines to participate in the talks with the Egyptian side. This Chinese delegation represented a number of leading and important institutions in Guangdong Province, in the field of communications, household electrical appliances, building and construction, the manufacture of motorcycles, furniture, spinning, weaving and other light industries, to transfer their expertise and investments to the Egyptian side.
Officials in the Chinese province of “Guangdong”, which represents the largest province in China in terms of the volume of foreign trade exchange, signed many agreements for investment cooperation with Egyptian businessmen.
The agreements included the establishment of a number of joint venture companies between the Egyptian and Chinese sides in the field of electronics, motorcycles and information technology, in addition to one agreement stipulating the acquisition of 32.5% of the shares of the Egyptian “Raco” electronics company by the Chinese “GD Media” holding company and Carrier for the manufacture of refrigerators.
The total value of the agreements signed yesterday amounted to about 400 million dollars and comes within the framework of activating the role of Chinese companies in the economic zone northwest of the Gulf of Suez, which is being developed by TEDA-Egypt.
Most of the agreements between Egypt and Guangdong are aiming to transfer the Chinese manufacturing technology to the Egyptian market, provided that it is re-exported to the Middle East and African markets with an Egyptian mark of origin, to enjoy the incentives offered by the governments of neighboring countries for exported and locally manufactured products.
The first of these agreements between Cairo and Guangdong was an agreement between the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation in Guangdong Province and the TEDA Egypt Investment Company to promote the economic zone in the northwest of the Gulf of Suez to Chinese companies.
The Chinese Guangdong Group also signed an agreement with Egypt China Friendship Motorcycle Company to export motorcycles, in addition to another agreement to establish a factory to assemble bicycles locally.
The same group also signed another agreement with Metal Technical Company to export electronic devices and freedom products, while Guangzhou Environstar Company signed an agreement with “Teda Egypt Company” to set up a non-woven fabric factory.
And the Guangzhou Dayun Motorcycle Company signed an agreement with the “Ibrahim Mahmoud Ibrahim” group to establish the “Egypt-dayu” company for motorcycles. The China National Research Institute of Electrical Appliances also signed a joint cooperation agreement with Rajamec Mechanical and Electrical Works Company.
Guangzhou Wuyang Motors CO. also signed an agreement with the “United Brothers” company for the distribution of motorcycles and spare parts, while Finmek Electronics signed an agreement with the economic zone in the northwest of the Gulf of Suez for investment cooperation.
Shoppingmode Huawei for Communications and Information Technology signed 3 agreements, the first with the Suez Economic Zone to undertake the work of an integrated technology system for the region, in addition to an agreement with the National Center for Communications to conduct a training program on telecommunications technology, as well as signing an agreement with Luxor Governorate in the presence of Governor Samir Farag to establish E-learning project in the province.
Guangdong Winone Elevator entered into a partnership agreement with Megastar Elvato to export electric elevators.
Guangdong VTR Buo-Tech signed an agreement with Delta Vet Center for Feed Export, in addition to Guangdong Han’s Yueming Laser Technology Company and Sharjah General Trading Company signed an agreement to export machinery.
Zhongshan City Fudi Electrical Equipment Company signed an agreement with Al-Fas Engineering Company to export home appliance accessories, in addition to TCL Overseas Marketing Company signing an agreement with the Engineering Company for Electronics and Technological Industries to export color televisions, while Zhaoqing Foodstuffs Company for export and import agreed with Al-Jasr Herbs Company for the export of agricultural products and the company “GAC-QHD (Meizhou)” for auto components, in agreement with the Matrix Engineering Company for the export of auto parts, while the Chinese Victory Furniture Factory signed an agreement with Beni Suef Governorate to establish a furniture company in the governorate.
In connection with the above, we reach an important conclusion that it is not possible to talk about Chinese investments in Egypt in isolation from addressing the tangible role of Chinese companies in the giant Guangdong Province in the process of economic and social development in Egypt, and the distinguished results they achieved in this regard. The Suez canal Zone for economic and trade cooperation between China and Egypt, known as TEDA, has become an industrial zone that enjoys the best comprehensive environment, the highest investment intensity and the highest production unit in Egypt, assisted by a large number of companies and investments in the Chinese province of Guangdong operating for years and after the launch of the Belt Initiative. And the Chinese road in Cairo, which had a special role in strengthening the special relations between Cairo and Guangdong as a special Chinese economic zone.
Iran: A major Replacement of Human Resources
Since 1979, when the mullahs seized power, Iran has topped the list of countries affected by the “brain drain”. What appeared to be local bleeding at the time may now become total bleeding affecting other sectors of the population.
The headline of one of the stories in the official news agency, IRNA, was: “It is not only the elite that migrate.” The daily newspaper, Javan, affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, warned that Iran was losing some of its best-educated people, and stated that mass immigration of “elite elements” “costs the nation millions of dollars.” But immigration now attracts Iranians with less skills or devoid of skills.
According to the best semi-official estimates, since 1979 some eight million people, roughly 10 percent of the population, have left Iran, including an estimated 4.2 million highly educated and highly skilled people.
In the past four years, the brain drain has accelerated, with an average of 4,000 doctors leaving each year.
According to IRNA, at present, 30,000 general practitioners and senior nurses are awaiting the “good professional standing” certificates that developed countries require from those wishing to immigrate from so-called “developing countries”, such as Iran.
A study conducted by two researchers from the University of Tehran, Adel Abdullah and Maryam Rezaei, showed that almost all Iranians who immigrate seek to enter the European Union or the so-called “Anglosphere” countries such as Britain, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia.
Only 10 percent of potential immigrants are willing to go “anywhere else” to get out of Iran.
The immigration requests did not include a single request who wanted to go to a Muslim country, and the only exception is Iraq, which attracts thousands of Iranian mullahs and students of theology who go to Najaf and Karbala to escape the government’s domination of religion in Tehran.
Potential immigrants also avoid China, India and Russia, while the only two Asian countries still attracting Iranians are Malaysia and Japan.
For many potential immigrants, the first destination they want to go to is Dubai, then Istanbul, then Cyprus and until recently Yerevan (the capital of Armenia), where visas are being applied for to desired destinations. Some immigrants may have to wait two or three years to obtain visas from the European Union, Canada and the United States.
Who migrates and why?
Some of the answers came from a three-year study conducted by Sharif University (Ariamher) in Tehran. According to the study, a survey of 17,078 people across all 31 provinces of Iran showed that 70 percent of senior managers and highly skilled employees in the public sector wish to immigrate.
In the projects and businessmen sector, 66 percent expressed their desire to emigrate. This figure drops to 60 percent among doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.
The study shows that the majority of potential immigrants are highly educated, unmarried youth from urban areas, i.e. the higher the education of the individual, the greater the desire to leave.
Among those who express “dissatisfaction with the current situation,” 43 percent of them want to leave the country. This figure drops to 40 percent among those who feel “great satisfaction”, which reveals that the desire to leave is deeper than occasional social and political concerns, which is confirmed by other figures in the same study.
Of those who felt “despairing about the future in Iran,” 42 percent want to leave, a figure that drops to 38 percent among those who still have some hope for the country’s future.
The study shows that the desire to flee Iran is not caused by economic hardship as a result of unemployment or inflation. It is not only the poor or the unemployed who wish to flee, but also those with good jobs, or candidates for well-paid jobs and a seat on the mullahs’ train and their security and military partners.
The largest number of immigrants comes from the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan and Qom, where per capita income is 30 percent higher than the average income in the country. Poorer provinces such as Sistan Baluchistan, Boyer Ahmad, Koh Kiluyeh, and South Khorasan are at the bottom of the list in terms of immigrant numbers.
The study does not provide figures, but there is anecdotal evidence that tens of thousands of immigrants, especially to Canada and the United States, are descended from ruling Islamic families.
None of the studies we looked at suggested other reasons as potential attractions for immigrants, such as the great success stories of Iranian immigrants around the world. A study conducted by Nooshin Karami revealed that more than 200 politicians of Iranian origin now occupy senior positions in the political structures of 30 countries, including those of the European Union and the Anglosphere. 1000 Iranians hold senior positions in international companies, while thousands more are active in the media, scientific research and academic circles in the leading industrialized countries. Dozens of Iranian writers, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers have built successful careers for themselves outside of Iran.
At the other end of the spectrum, Iran also attracts immigrants from neighboring Iraq, from the Kurdish and Shiite Arab regions, the Nakhichevan enclave, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while hosting thousands of religious students from Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Nigeria. Qom.” According to state media, many students remain in Iran after completing their studies and marrying Iranian women.
All in all, Iran hosts more than six million “foreign guests,” including Afghan, Pakistani, and Iraqi refugees. Interestingly, the desire to leave seems to have reached the “guests” as well. Between March 2021 and March 2022, more than half a million Afghan refugees returned to their homes.
To deal with the consequences of this “brain drain,” the Islamic Republic unveiled a program to attract highly educated and skilled people from “anywhere in the world” with the promise of one-year contracts, good salaries, and enjoyment of “all citizenship rights except the right to vote.”
An estimated 300,000 fighters who served under the Iranian command in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen were promised permanent residence in Iran and access to agricultural land to start a new life.
Critics claim that the Khomeinist regime is pleased that so many potential opponents among the urban middle class are leaving Iran, as Iran can compensate for the loss of population with newcomers from poor Muslim countries who aspire to a better standard of living under what they see as a “true Islamic” regime.
It is worth noting that other authoritarian regimes, notably the former Soviet Union, communist China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, benefited from the exodus of what they saw as potential enemies from the middle class, allowing them to implement a scheme of “great replacement.”
On this, Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Mohammad Reza Najdi said: “Let those who do not love us leave the country, to make room for those who love us.”
‘Saudi First’ aid policy marries geopolitics with economics
When Mohammed al-Jadaan told a gathering of the global political and business elite that Saudi Arabia would, in the future, attach conditions to its foreign aid, the finance minister was announcing the expansion of existing conditionality rather than a wholly new approach.
Coined ‘Saudi First,’ the new conditionality ties aid to responsible economic policies and reforms, not just support for the kingdom’s geopolitics.
For the longest time, Saudi Arabia granted aid with no overt strings. The aid was policed by privately demanding support for the kingdom’s policies, often using as a carrot and stick quotas for the haj, the yearly Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca allotted to countries across the globe.
As a result, over the years, Saudi Arabia poured tens of billions of dollars into black holes, countries that used the aid as a band-aid to address an immediate crisis with no structural effort to resolve underlying causes.
For countries like Lebanon, Egypt, and Pakistan, this meant stumbling from one crisis to the next.
“We are changing the way we provide assistance and development assistance. We used to give direct grants and deposits without strings attached, and we are changing that. We are working with multilateral institutions to actually say, we need to see reform,” Mr. Al-Jadaan told this month’s World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos.
Saudi First serves multiple Saudi purposes.
It ties geopolitical drivers of Saudi aid to economic criteria that are likely to enhance the kingdom’s influence, create opportunities for Saudi investment and business, and enhance the kingdom’s ties to recipient countries.
In doing so, the additional conditionality positions the kingdom as a constructive, forward-looking member of the international community. It aligns Saudi Arabia more closely with multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), regional development banks, and major donors such as the United States and the European Union.
It also enables Saudi rulers to circumvent the implications of the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ that traces its roots to the American revolution.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s social and economic revamping of the kingdom while tightening the political screws as part of his plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy has involved introducing taxes with no political participation.
“Saudi people see their resources going abroad while they’re being asked to pay taxes, have their benefits cut, and so on. So, I think this Saudi first stance really serves as a way to both court and contain populism,” said Gulf scholar Kristin Smith Diwan.
Saudi circumvention of the American revolutionary principle, irrespective of whether it helps pacify Saudis, has already had unintended consequences.
Earlier this week, the Jordanian parliament fired a deputy, Mohammad Al-Fayez, for asking Mr. Bin Salman to stop aiding Jordan.
“All your aid lands in the pockets of the corrupt. Your donations pay bills that have nothing to do with the Jordanian people. We hear about aid coming in for the state. However, this aid only goes to a corrupt class that is getting richer at the expense of the proud Jordanian people,” Mr. Al-Fayez said in a letter to the crown prince.
The Jordanian parliament’s measure coincided with the Saudi finance minister’s announcement. Mr. Al-Fayez wrote his letter in December at the height of clashes in the southern city of Maan between security forces and protesters angry about rising fuel prices and poor governance.
Countries like Lebanon, Pakistan, and Egypt that are potentially most impacted by the new conditions for Saudi aid illustrate the geopolitical complexities of the change.
For Saudi Arabia, Lebanon is about countering Iran and its Lebanese Shiite proxy, Hezbollah, a powerful militia and political movement with significant influence in government and the country’s power structure.
Saudi Arabia hopes that the new conditionality will force a change in Lebanon’s power dynamics.
“The whole world knows what the kingdom offered Lebanon…until it…was back on its feet. But what can we do if current Lebanese policy chooses to surrender the reins of an ancient Arab nation to Iran’s proxy in that country?” asked Saudi columnist Hammoud Abu Taleb.
To be sure, the Lebanese establishment is responsible for the country teetering on the brink of collapse.
The World Bank has described the crisis fuelled by corruption, waste, and unsustainable financial policies as one of the worst globally since the mid-19th century.
This week’s judicial battle over holding powerful figures accountable for the 2020 Beirut port explosion that has spilled onto the streets of the Lebanese capital reflects the establishment’s determination to shield itself no matter the cost to Lebanon as a whole.
The explosion in a warehouse in the port housing hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, killed 218 people, injured more than 6,000, and damaged large parts of Beirut.
A Saudi contribution to forcing political change, a sine qua non for putting Lebanon on a path toward recovery, would be welcome.
It would also go some way towards the kingdom taking responsibility for its role in fighting a decades-long proxy war with Iran that helped bring the Mediterranean nation to its knees.
That is, if the conditions imposed by Saudi Arabia are tailored in ways that contribute to change while seeking to alleviate the pain the Lebanese endured, with the Lebanese pound losing 95% of its value, prices skyrocketing, and purchasing power demolished.
One way would be making accountability for the Beirut blast a condition for future aid.
Recent Saudi standoffishness towards the regime of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was evident in the kingdom’s conspicuous absence at a gathering of regional leaders in Abu Dhabi earlier this month. Mr. Al-Sisi was one of the attendees.
The standoffishness reflects the fact that Egypt is a black hole. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states have injected tens of billions of dollars with few tangible results except for keeping in power a regime that emerged from a 2013 military coup supported by the kingdom and the Emirates.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed the coup as part of a campaign to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The coup also ended the flawed presidency of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader. Because he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi was like a red cloth to a bull in the two Gulf states.
The UAE recognised early on that it needed to ensure its billions were judiciously deployed. So it based a Cabinet-level official in Cairo to advocate reforms and assist in crafting policies that would help put the economy back on track.
The Emirati effort came to naught, with Egypt continuously needing additional funds from the Gulf and the IMF, and the UAE, allowing Mr. Al-Sisi to turn the military into the country’s foremost economic player.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war on commodity and energy prices only aggravated Egypt’s economic crisis that is largely the result of Mr. Al-Sisi’s economic mismanagement
Mr. Al-Sisi unsuccessfully tried to manipulate Egypt’s currency, set misguided spending priorities, launched wasteful megaprojects, and expanded disruptive state and military control of the economy.
Time will tell what lessons the Saudis may learn from the Emirati experience. Unlike Lebanon, the question is whether Saudi Arabia will strictly impose its news aid policy conditionality or continue to view Egypt as too big to fail.
The problem for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is that popular discontent is simmering just below the surface in Egypt and could explode at any time. What makes things potentially more volatile is the possibility of the plight of the Palestinians, aggravated by the policies of Israel’s new hardline, Jewish nationalist government, becoming the catalyst for anti-government protests.
“Such demonstrations have a life of their own, and in a moment, they can turn into a protest against the government, against poverty and waste, and we have a direct confrontation whose results can be lethal,” said an Egyptian journalist.
One factor in Saudi thinking about Egypt may be the perception that the North African country, which refused to get sucked into the kingdom’s war in Yemen, may no longer be the security buffer in Africa it once was together with Sudan, a country in transition following a 2019 popular revolt.
That seemed to be one reason for this month’s signing of a memorandum on defence cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Chad, a nation in a region wracked by ethnic and jihadist insurgencies.
The memorandum signals a potential Saudi interest in playing some security role in West Africa at a time that France is on the retreat while Turkey, Iran, and the Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, are on the march.
Last year, Qatar mediated a peace agreement between the Chadian government and more than 30 rebel and opposition factions. However, nine groups, including the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), the most powerful insurgent faction, refused to sign the deal.
The likelihood of Saudi Arabia taking on an expanded security role far from its shores may be slim in the immediate future.
Even so, creating building blocks that include tighter relations with recipients of Saudi foreign aid through sensible strings attached is one step towards cementing the kingdom’s geopolitical influence.
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