Middle East & Arab World 2020

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Middle East & Arab World

24 May
Middle East: From COVID-19 invasion to an epidemic of disintegration?
(Modern Diplomacy) The start of the leap year 2020 was marred by the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, followed by an oil price collapse. According to the World Health Organization, the health care systems of developing countries are unable to cope with the pandemic on their own due to the lack of medical facilities, equipment, medical staff and even basic protective gear. While developed countries have allocated huge financial resources to check the spread of COVID-19, poor countries, most of which are struggling for survival, cannot afford the introduction of long-term quarantine, nor do they have enough money to assist their citizens. Moreover, the real picture of the spread of the coronavirus infection in developing countries remains pretty dim, meaning that the socio-political consequences of the pandemic for these countries can be disastrous.
The dramatic fall in oil prices has not only dealt a severe blow to the economies of the oil-producing countries, sharply choking off their budget revenues, but it also exacerbated the situation in the countries that survive largely on money transfers from their citizens working abroad and assistance from oil and gas-rich neighbors.



10 February
The Most Immediate, Unexpected Threat of Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan
By Bernard Avishai
(The New Yorker) Just two weeks after its release, the Trump Administration’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace has already been so widely discredited for its one-sidedness and its political deviousness that there is a risk of ignoring its most immediate threat—which is not to the Palestinians but to Jordan. In Israel, the plan, or “Vision,” as the document unveiled at the White House calls it, has been received as an American warrant for the Israeli government to annex West Bank territory. This could precipitate a crisis in the Hashemite kingdom of Abdullah II, whose stability is critical to Israel’s security, and to that of America’s regional allies, particularly in any effort to thwart Iranian forces in Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf.

31 January
Why are Arab states ‘divided’ in the face of Trump’s plan?
Several countries facing social and economic upheaval and a perceived threat from Iran fail to challenge Trump’s plan.
by Farah Najjar
(Al Jazeera) The divided reaction from Arab states to US President Donald Trump‘s so-called Middle East plan has come as no surprise, analysts say, noting that the main reason for support – whether strong or subtle – is to guarantee Washington’s backing against a common regional enemy, Iran.
It is also indicative of the division among Arab countries and their inability to prioritise the Palestinian people’s plight over domestic economic agendas and political calculations in relation to the Trump administration, they say.
Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which traditionally championed Palestinian cause, have cosied up to Israel in recent years as they see Iran as a bigger regional threat.

25 January
What to expect from a new Lebanese government: ‘Anti-corruption’ as witch hunt
Jeffrey Feltman
(Brookings) Beyond the imploding Lebanese economy, Lebanon’s incoming pro-Syria, pro-Hezbollah government has a problem. President Michel Aoun and the political forces pulling the strings behind the new cabinet relish the opportunity to unleash, at last, the powers of the state against their pro-West political rivals.
Fighting corruption can in theory provide populist support to a questionable new cabinet. But in practice, this government’s anti-corruption slogans will be designed to mask an ugly witch hunt. …the new government’s anti-corruption agenda will be selective. It will amount to vindictive retribution against those Lebanese political figures who had the temerity to stand up to, or represent, an alternative view to the anti-West Aoun-Hezbollah-Damascus vision for Lebanon that the incoming cabinet embodies. Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, former Prime Minister Fouad Sinoira, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and their allies will be targeted. Outgoing Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and his cronies, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, and others associated with the Aoun-Hezbollah-Damascus axis — no less deserving of scrutiny — will be spared.

20 January

US isolationism leaves Middle East on edge as new decade dawns
With Trump deciding against protecting allies, old rivalries are converging across the region
(The Guardian) Throughout the Middle East’s modern history, a constant remained – the US held a prominent stake and would throw its weight around to protect its interests and allies. The maxim held true as ideologies rose and fell, Gulf monarchies, Israel, and Arab nationalist police states took root – and war and insurrection periodically raged.
But it ended during Donald Trump’s third year, a time when an isolationist, unworldly president began to see regional interests through a much narrower lens. The effect has been profound and 2020 will continue the process of recalibration by traditional friends of the US without a country whose clout they used to defer to and whose agenda they could more or less understand. (29 December 2019)
Key events that shaped the Middle East and North Africa in 2019
Uprisings, elections and conflicts: some of the key moments of an eventful year in the region
(Al Jazeera) For many, the year 2019 had echoes of the protest movements, dubbed the Arab Spring, that gripped the region eight years ago.
Mass demonstrations broke out across Algeria, SudanIraq, Lebanon and Iran as citizens rallied against their governments over corruption and stagnant economies, among other issues.
Elections also caused an upset, with Israel facing an unprecedented third election in March 2020 after two indecisive trips to the polls, and Algeria holding a controversial presidential vote after two failed attempts amid widespread popular disapproval.
Elsewhere, the long-running humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories were overshadowed by tit-for-tat oil tanker seizures, which marked rise in tensions between Iran and the West. (30 December 2019)

20 January
Eric Reguly: Lebanon’s mass protests turn violent as the economy and the banks approach collapse
(Globe & Mail) The mass demonstrations in Lebanon that brought down the government in October entered a new, dangerous phase over the weekend when battles erupted between protesters and police, pushing the economy another step closer to collapse.
The Lebanese economy suffers from endemic corruption, lack of capital investment – Beirut’s roads and power plants are crumbling, and the city has no public transportation system – and an unbalanced financial system that is running short of U.S. dollars, which are used to support the fixed peg between the dollar and the Lebanese pound (also known as the lira). The peg is becoming unsustainable, and the pound, whose fixed rate is 1,500 per dollar, is now trading on the black market at about 2,300.

14 January
Hezbollah Has Prepared for This Moment for Decades
The Lebanese Militant Group Could Star in Iran’s Response to the Soleimani Strike
(Foreign Affairs) Hezbollah is unlikely to pick a fight with the United States by itself. The group has its own tensions with Israel to worry about, and huge domestic protests jeopardize its political grip on Lebanon. It also suffered heavy losses in Syria, where it fought hand-in-glove with Iran to prop up President Bashar al-Assad. But not wanting a war isn’t the same as being unwilling to fight one. Hezbollah has been preparing for this day for decades, building up military, terrorist, and cyber capabilities in Lebanon, the Middle East, and around the world in order to strike back at the United States and anyone else who might join a war against Iran and its allies. Now, because of its ideological commitment to and military interdependence with Iran, the group may have no choice but to enter a conflict with the United States.
Last week’s Iranian missile attack on two Iraqi bases that host U.S. forces was Tehran’s initial, symbolic, and overt response to Soleimani’s death. The full response will unfold in the coming months and years—and will likely feature Hezbollah in a starring role. Playing to its strengths and avoiding a direct conventional confrontation with the United States, the Quds Force and its Hezbollah partner may attempt to orchestrate a regional campaign of asymmetric attacks across the Middle East and possibly outside of it. Their goal will be to disrupt, threaten, and restrict the operations of U.S. soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence officers to the point that the benefits of their presence in the Middle East no longer outweigh the costs.

10 January
‘We are in a dark tunnel’: Lebanese fear economic collapse more than the Iran-U.S. conflict
Lebanon has been without a government since October as many people struggle to make ends meet
(CBC) … Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis, the worst since civil war ravaged the country between 1975 and 1990.
The Lebanese pound has depreciated by more than 30 per cent against the U.S. dollar since September.
And capital controls imposed by the banks are drastically limiting how much money people can withdraw, leaving many struggling to pay rent and put food on the table.
The protests were remarkable in that they crossed the sectarian lines that tend to define Lebanese politics, drawing demonstrators from the Sunni, Christian, Druze and Shia communities. They were united in their opposition to what they see as rampant cronyism, nepotism and influence peddling.
… the man chosen to lead a new government, Hassan Diab, has the backing of Hezbollah.
Diab has so far failed to win support from al-Hariri, or from Christian factions worried that his association with Hezbollah, already the target of U.S. sanctions, will deter much-needed international investment in Lebanon.

5 January
Iran ends nuclear deal commitments as fallout from Suleimani killing spreads
Iraqi parliament votes to expel US-led troops, while hundreds of thousands march in Iran
(The Guardian) In Lebanon, one of Suleimani’s main arenas, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, claimed the so-called “axis of resistance”, in which the Lebanese militia is a key player, was aiming for the removal of the US military presence from the Middle East.
“The US army has killed these people,” Nasrallah said, referring to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an ally of Suleimani also hit in the airstrike in Baghdad in the early hours of Friday. “We do not at all mean the American people and citizens across our region … It is up to anyone from the axis of resistance to deliver a fair punishment after Soleimani’s assassination.” Hezbollah’s reaction had been seen as a harbinger of how coming days and weeks might play out in a region deeply unsettled by Suleimani’s death, and Nasrallah drawing a distinction between US citizens and the country’s military allayed fears in Beirut diplomatic circles of a broader risk to western interests.
In Tehran, a former chief of the Revolutionary Guards said the Israeli city of Haifa would be included in Tehran’s retaliation. “Iran’s revenge against America for the assassination of Suleimani will be severe … Haifa and Israeli military centres will be included in the retaliation,” Mohsen Rezaei said in a televised speech.

3 January
What Comes Next After the Killing of Qasem Soleimani
Utter political turmoil inside Iraq
(New York) Sunni Iraqis, and some of the young demonstrators who resent Iranian influence in their country, are rejoicing today. But their government depends on Iranian political and financial support even as it tries to balance the countervailing U.S. influence. If one or both sides try to force Iraq to choose, as they surely will, more violence and chaos — including more targeting of Americans — is the likely outcome. Commentators are predicting that Iraq may ask the U.S. to remove its forces, which would be a setback not just for the Trump administration’s effort to put military pressure on Iran, but also for its continuing effort to contain remnants of ISIS still active in the Iranian and Syrian borderlands.
More violence throughout the Middle East
Even before Khamenei promised “forceful revenge,” there was no doubt that Iran would retaliate for the killing of an official this senior, and it has plenty of options. Its proxies can target Americans and allied governments from Saudi Arabia to Israel. Hezbollah, in particular, is considered the world’s most effective non-state armed force; with Iran, it can surely go after Americans anywhere in the region. Before the sun was up Friday, the U.S. had issued a security alert instructing Americans to “depart Iraq immediately.” Meanwhile, Israel announced it was moving forces north to counter potential Iranian responses.

1 January
What protests in Lebanon can tell us about inequality worldwide
Confronting inequalities is not about merely bridging gaps, it requires confronting entrenched interests.
(Al Jazeera) Lebanon is more than two months into the wave of protests rocking the country. Chief among the grievances driving people onto the streets are entrenched inequalities and compromised human dignity. Even given the notorious vacuum of data, Lebanon is clearly a highly unequal place where nearly a quarter of income is held by the richest 1 percent, a larger share than in, for example, South Africa and the US.
Poverty is staggering and is well recognised as the outcome of public policymaking driven by elite interests. This is why protesters no longer call for policy reform. Denouncing the deeply entrenched private interests that tie the main pillars of Lebanon’s failing economy to the ruling elite, they are demanding a radical transformation of the political system.
Unlike older generations, today’s protesters are unwilling to compromise, unafraid to defy, and outraged by structural inequalities that they associate openly with crony capitalism, sectarianism, patriarchy, and homophobia. They have loudly made their points clear in marches, chants and graffiti. Their complete loss of confidence in government has made #no_trust one of the most trending hashtags in the past weeks.

Iraqi Protesters Ending Standoff at U.S. Embassy, on Orders From Militia Leaders
American forces used tear gas to drive off some of the protesters, many of whom were drawn from Iranian-backed militias. The last holdouts were withdrawing by early evening, but the situation remained tense.
(NYT) The United States blamed Kataib Hezbollah for a rocket attack on Friday on an Iraqi military base, which killed an American contractor and wounded several other people. American forces responded on Sunday with strikes on five sites controlled by the militia, in Syria and Iraq, that killed at least two dozen people and injured twice as many; Iran has put the death toll at 31.
On Tuesday, thousands of Iraqis, many of them militia fighters, marched on the United States Embassy compound in Baghdad to protest the American strikes, and some of them forced their way through the outer wall. They did not attempt to breach the embassy itself, and there were no reports of serious injuries, but the clash evoked memories of the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

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