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Middle East & Arab World 2020-
Written by Diana Thebaud Nicholson // March 16, 2023 // Middle East & Arab World // Comments Off on Middle East & Arab World 2020-
Brookings Middle East and North Africa
Perspectives from Inside a Tumultuous Middle East:
Syria-Iraq-ISIS-Russia and Iran
Brookings: Five books you should read to better understand Islam
Middle East & Arab World
Foreign Affairs March/April 2022
The End of the Middle East
How an Old Map Distorts a New Reality
By Marc Lynch
In early December 2021, the Ethiopian government pulled off a dramatic reversal in its yearlong civil war with rebels from the Tigray region. Armed with a new arsenal of drones and other forms of military support from Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ethiopian forces were able to push back an offensive by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which itself was supported by Somali fighters, who were in turn backed by Qatar.
Many American observers were surprised by the direct involvement of no fewer than four Middle Eastern countries in what appeared to be an African conflict. But such interest is hardly unusual. In recent years, Turkey has established more than 40 consulates in Africa and a major military base in Somalia. Israel has announced a “return to Africa,” in part to find new alliances as it faces growing international pressure over its occupation of the West Bank. Saudi Arabia has bought wide swaths of agricultural land in Ethiopia and Sudan in pursuit of food security, and the UAE has built naval bases across the Horn of Africa. Egypt has been embroiled in a conflict with Ethiopia over its plans for a dam at the head of the Nile River.
Nor are these entanglements limited to Africa. Oman has traditionally seen itself as an Indian Ocean nation and maintains strong economic ties with India, Iran, and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have long meddled deeply in the affairs of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkey has become increasingly involved in Central Asia, including with a military intervention in Azerbaijan. Almost every Gulf state has recently upgraded its partnerships with China and other Asian countries.
… For centuries, the Arab provinces of North Africa and the Levant were part of the vast, multinational Ottoman Empire. The coastal communities of the Gulf were organically linked to the Horn of Africa across the Red Sea. Islamic networks connected Egypt and the rest of North Africa to areas deep in sub-Saharan Africa.
… Today, if anything, political developments in many Middle Eastern countries have made the region’s traditional boundaries increasingly meaningless. Sudan’s 2018 revolution—and its more recent military coup, which was backed by Egypt, a leading Middle East power, but opposed by the African Union, an international body representing 55 African states—showed the extent to which the country straddles two regions. Elsewhere in Africa, migration and the growth of Islamist insurgencies across the Sahel have shifted the political, security, and economic interests of the Maghreb states southward. Libya’s civil war has fueled flows of migrants, weapons, drugs, and radicalism across central Africa, further blurring the line between North Africa and the rest of the continent. Many of the migrants arriving in Europe from the Middle East originate in countries south of the Sahara. In response to the growing strategic importance of the Sahel, Morocco has focused on spreading its religious authority in West Africa, and Algeria has been involved in security operations in Mali.
Other political dynamics have also revealed the limited value of defining the Middle East as a single geographic area. The Iranian-Saudi rivalry, for example, has little relevance in North Africa. The political battle among Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE after the 2017 blockade of Qatar by several states in the region played out in a competition for support not only in neighboring Arab countries but also across the African continent and even in Washington. The appeal of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), even more than that of al Qaeda, was more global than regional, as manifested by the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and the spread of the movement across Africa and Asia. It is difficult to sustain counterterrorism models based on problems said to be uniquely Arab when some of the most active jihadi insurgencies unfold in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia.
Middle East round-up: Iran, Saudi Arabia and a changing region?
Here’s a round-up of Al Jazeera’s Middle East coverage this week.
Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to restore diplomatic relations, Lebanon’s currency takes another dive, and boat tragedies in the Mediterranean. Here’s your round up of our coverage, written by Abubakr Al-Shamahi, Al Jazeera Digital’s Middle East and North Africa editor.
Things can change very quickly in the Middle East. Just days before Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to patch things up and restore diplomatic relations, there had been talk that it was actually Israel that was edging closer to Riyadh. In fact, much of the friendlier relations, shall we say, between Israel and several Gulf countries can be tied to their mutually shared animosity towards Iran. And yet, seven years after Iran and Saudi Arabia had severed ties, here they were in the same room, announcing a deal to reopen embassies in their respective capitals within two months.
The Arab Forum for Sustainable Development (AFSD) brings together Arab Governments and a broad range of stakeholders to address sustainable development priorities from a regional perspective, discuss progress, review national experiences, and enhance the region’s voice at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). …
AFSD-2023 will discuss solutions and inspire action for accelerating the recovery from COVID-19 and the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the Arab region. It will focus on the five Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under review in 2023 at HLPF, namely SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation, SDG 7 on affordable and clean energy, SDG 9 on industry, innovation and infrastructure, SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities, and SDG 17 on partnerships for the Goals. It will also focus on other regional goals and priorities, particularly poverty, inequality and gender equality. AFSD-2023 will be chaired by Bahrain.
Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to resume ties after years of hostility
By Parisa Hafezi, Nayera Abdallah and Aziz El Yaakoubi
(Reuters) – Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed on Friday to re-establish relations after years of hostility which had threatened stability and security in the Gulf and helped fuel conflicts in the Middle East from Yemen to Syria.
The deal was announced after four days of previously undisclosed talks in Beijing between top security officials from the two rival Middle East powers.
Tehran and Riyadh agreed to resume diplomatic relations and re-open embassies within two months, according to a statement issued by Iran, Saudi Arabia and China. “The agreement includes their affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs,” it said.
In recent years Saudi Arabia has blamed Iran for missile and drone attacks on the kingdom’s oil facilities in 2019 as well as attacks on tankers in Gulf waters. Iran denied the charges.
Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement has also carried out cross-border missile and drone attacks into Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition fighting the Houthis, and in 2022 extended the strikes to the UAE.
Regional Economic Integration Comes into Focus at Second Baghdad Conference
The second meeting of the Baghdad Conference on Cooperation and Partnership took place in Amman, Jordan on December 20. Last year’s meeting in Baghdad initiated a process for multilateralism, dialogue, and cooperation between Iraq and its neighbours, some of whom met for the first time in years. This year’s gathering in Amman cemented the initiative as an annual regional summit and, importantly, added economic integration to the regional agenda.
Will the 2nd Baghdad Conference Prepare Ground for Regional Dialogue?
Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi
There is a growing realization among think tanks and decision-making centers in the region of the need to establish a sustainable regional mechanism to resolve disputes and achieve stability as a pre-requisite for sustainable development.
It is unimaginable that a bilateral agreement on any pending issue would survive under pressure from other parties with overlapping interests – geo-economic or geo-political – given the competing projects for regional dominance.
Despite the region’s need for a regional dialogue platform, one cannot expect much from the second Baghdad Conference unless various parties meet basic requirements that can change their nature and rationale.
Tehran’s engagement in a comprehensive dialogue with regional actors contradicts Iran’s traditional strategy of compartmentalizing issues and dealing with various regional actors separately rather than as one single bloc.
Tunisian president urged to resign after election debacle
(AP) — Tunisian opposition figures called Sunday for the president’s resignation after disastrous parliamentary elections in which less than 9% of voters cast ballots.
The mass voter disavowal was a dramatic development for the country that was the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic leaders a decade ago — and the only one to emerge from that upheaval with a democratic political system.
The elections Saturday were meant to replace and reshape a legislature that President Kais Saied dissolved last year. It was one of several moves he has made to consolidate his power and tackle Tunisia’s protracted economic and social crisis.
Many opposition parties boycotted the vote, and many voters stayed away too.
According to provisional figures announced by the president of the electoral commission Farouk Bouaskar, around 800,000 voters took part in the elections out of approximately 9 million registered.
Libyan Operative Charged in 1988 Lockerbie Bombing Is in F.B.I. Custody
Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud, a Libyan bomb expert, is accused of building the explosive device used in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
(NYT) A Libyan intelligence operative charged in the 1988 bombing of an American jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, was arrested by the F.B.I. and is being extradited to the United States to face prosecution for one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history, officials said on Sunday.
The arrest of the operative, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud, was the culmination of a decades-long effort by the Justice Department to prosecute him. In 2020, Attorney General William P. Barr announced criminal charges against Mr. Mas’ud, accusing him of building the explosive device used in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 passengers, including 190 Americans.
Mr. Mas’ud faces two criminal counts, including destruction of an aircraft resulting in death. He was being held at a Libyan prison for unrelated crimes when the Justice Department unsealed the charges against him two years ago. It is unclear how the U.S. government negotiated the extradition of Mr. Mas’ud.
Why Qatar is a controversial host for the World Cup
(NPR) The selection of Qatar to host this year’s FIFA World Cup brought cheers to the streets of Doha in a celebration of the first edition of the tournament to be held in the Arab world.
But the choice, made in 2010, also sparked instant criticism…
[FIFA’s former leader says making Qatar a World Cup host was a mistake]
Qatar’s emir, Putin discuss Ukraine conflict’s impact on energy markets
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met for talks on the sidelines of a summit in Kazakhstan. They discussed the Ukraine crisis and its impact on energy markets and food security. They also talked about the conflicts in Libya and Syria, and the Iran nuclear talks. Qatar was among the 143 countries that backed a resolution condemning Russia’s move to annex parts of Ukraine at a UN General Assembly vote on Wednesday.
The Economist highlights: Boom time in the Gulf
…we look at how the energy crisis and fresh alliances are making the Gulf more powerful—and more volatile. The region is in the midst of a $3.5trn energy bonanza, courtesy of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have the long-run goal of being the last men standing in oil production, enjoying the lowest costs and least-dirty extraction. Together, they aim to raise output from 13m barrels per day last year to 16m. Qatar wants to produce the equivalent of 33% of all the liquefied natural gas traded worldwide in 2021. The Middle East is also adapting to a multipolar world in which America is no longer a reliable guarantor of security. This is reflected in the Abraham accords, signed by Israel and two Arab states in 2020. The accords will help normalise relations in the region and develop common defences against Iranian drones and missiles, probably using Israeli technology. But it is also a bet that trade can make these countries richer in a region with puny cross-border links. The new-look Gulf is destined to remain pivotal for decades to come. Yet climate change, Iran and domestic politics mean that it may not be a source of stability
Mass firing at UAE newspaper raises question of censorship
(AP) The story about high fuel prices was safe, editors agreed, even under the strict press laws of the United Arab Emirates.
Instead, it unleashed a firestorm at Al Roeya newspaper in Dubai. Within days, top editors were interrogated. Within weeks, dozens of employees were fired and the print paper declared dissolved.
The upheaval recalled other dramatic episodes that have rattled the UAE’s local press in recent years. In 2017, the government temporarily banned Arabian Business magazine from publishing after it reported Dubai courts were liquidating dozens of failed real estate projects stemming from the 2009 global financial crisis.
The downturn, drawing a slew of negative headlines about Dubai’s debt crisis, caused the UAE to tighten its media laws. The country’s crackdown on online dissent then peaked in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which were kindled by economic discontent.
Why US allies in the Middle East aren’t taking sides in the Ukraine war
By Mark N. Katz
(Atlantic Council) It comes as no surprise that Moscow’s closest partners in the Middle East, Syria and Iran, have expressed support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (with the latter even selling drones to assist the Russian campaign). If President Vladimir Putin fails there, those regimes are looking at a return to decades past, when Russia was less active in the region and therefore unable to support them against either the United States or its regional allies.
It might seem like Washington’s traditional Mideast allies, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, would have the opposite incentive—perceiving active support for Ukraine as an opportunity to gain favor with the Biden administration and strengthen them against Iran and Syria. But the reality is that governments in the region are simply not interested in becoming involved in Ukraine for fear of upsetting a diplomatic, economic, and political balance that they have long worked carefully to achieve.
Wealthy Arab Gulf oil producers have been reluctant to heed a White House call to export more oil in a bid to tamp down rising energy prices (a result of sanctions on Russian oil) for several reasons: They fear the petroleum price collapse that could result if they do, and they are also afraid that if Moscow sees them as taking actions that hurt Russian interests, it can—and will—take actions that hurt theirs, such as boosting support for Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE may also be reluctant to help the United States in Ukraine since they feel Washington is not helping them enough to fight Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Middle Eastern Autocrats Embarrassed Biden at Will
America’s supposed allies feel entitled to humiliate the president.
By Shadi Hamid
America is being manipulated by the very countries that depend on it for their security. Somehow, the United States has managed the unlikely feat of undermining both its values and its interests. As it turns out, in the Middle East, the two cannot be separated.
Biden’s big chance to build a new coalition in the Middle East
By Daniel B. Shapiro
(Atlantic Council) Regional integration. It’s one of the overarching themes of US President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week—and might sound out of place in the famously volatile and conflict-prone Middle East. But it shouldn’t: While previous US presidential trips have focused on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, managing the Iran nuclear program, promoting democracy, or visiting troops in active conflict zones, something new is brewing in the Middle East.
… The first is a series of normalization agreements: the Abraham Accords establishing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and two other pacts between Israel and Morocco and Sudan. Normalized relations between Israel and Arab states offer immense possibilities for a more peaceful and prosperous future for the peoples of the region. It both reflects and encourages already changing attitudes—particularly among younger Arabs—holding that it’s normal for Arabs and Israelis to live and work together.
Biden will highlight the US commitment to expand this trend of normalization. He will participate in a quadrilateral virtual summit with the leaders of Israel, the UAE, and India (in the so-called I2U2 format); he hopes to announce steps by Saudi Arabia toward eventual normalization, such as permitting Israeli civilian overflights in its airspace; and he will encourage parties to the Negev Forum—which includes Israel, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and the United States—to develop their budding regional organization with practical projects that benefit their citizens (while also opening the door for Jordan to formally join and for the Palestinians to participate).
The second major regional development is Israel’s inclusion in the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, which oversees military operations and relationships across the Middle East.
UN says Yemen’s warring parties agree to 2-month truce
(AP) — Yemen’s warring sides have accepted a two-month truce, starting with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the U.N. envoy to Yemen said Friday.
The envoy, Hans Grundberg, announced the agreement from Amman, Jordan, after meeting separately with both sides in the country’s brutal civil war in recent days. He said that he hoped the truce would be renewed after two months.
The agreement comes after a significant escalation in recent weeks that saw Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claim several attacks across the country’s borders, targeting the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he hoped the truce would pave the way toward peace, but added, “we know that these agreements are always fragile.”
Yemen’s war began in September 2014, when the Houthis swept into the capital, Sanaa, from their northwestern stronghold in the Arab world’s poorest country. The Houthis then pushed into exile the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, elected in 2012 as the sole candidate after the long rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A Saudi-led coalition, including the UAE, entered the war in March 2015 to try and restore Hadi’s government to power. But the war, which evolved into a proxy conflict, stretched into long bloody years, pushing much of Yemen’s people to the brink of famine.
Fears of Wider Instability in Iraq After Attack on Prime Minister’s Home
Armed drones struck the Iraqi prime minister’s home in what was seen as a warning as Iranian-backed groups dispute the results of parliamentary elections.
(NYT) On Friday, tensions over results of the Oct. 10 parliamentary elections came to a head after a clash outside the Green Zone — the site of the executed leader Saddam Hussein’s former palace grounds — where the U.S. Embassy and many other Western diplomatic missions are. Iraqi security forces used tear gas and live ammunition on militia members protesting the election results after the protesters tried to breach the heavily fortified zone’s barriers.
Iraq’s election commission has yet to announce final results for the nationwide elections held almost a month ago as it wades through fraud accusations.
Life with Robert Fisk: I realised I would not be at peace until I wrote this book
(Irish Times) I did not attempt to write a biography of Robert, though I believe that an accurate portrayal of him emerges from the book. It is a chronicle of the two decades between my first meeting with him and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the last war we covered together.
I wanted it to be a story of love and adventure, which it is, in part. But the injustices, massacres and suffering we chronicled in the Middle East and former Yugoslavia, as well as our divorce and his remarriage, repeatedly tugged it towards the tragic.
Lara Marlowe: Robert Fisk, my former husband, was the finest journalist of his generation (7 November 2020)
Cleric Sadr wins Iraq vote, former PM Maliki close behind -officials
Sadr sees his party expand presence in parliament
Pledges nationalist gov’t free of foreign meddling
Low turnout shows disenchantment with politics
First assembly polls since 2019 protests against elite
Many Iraqis seek escape from poverty, economic misery
Sunday’s election was held several months early, in response to mass protests in 2019 that toppled a government and showed widespread anger against political leaders whom many Iraqis say have enriched themselves at the expense of the country.
The Economist Intelligence Unit: In recent months there has been a change in what was hitherto one of the region’s most stable alliances: that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. With the countries being the largest and fourth-largest oil producers in OPEC+ in 2020, the largest and third-largest economies in the Middle East respectively, and with two of the region’s biggest military forces, the alliance held large sway over regional affairs. The two countries’ complementarities extended this influence in many ways: the relative openness of the UAE provided an indirect channel for Saudi Arabia to engage in issues and with partners that it could not do so directly.
This major partnership is now fraying. This week the OPEC+ group failed to reach a deal to increase oil production, largely owing to disagreement between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia has launched policies aiming to undermine Dubai’s pre-eminence as a regional business hub, and also to shift economic activity out of the UAE’s free zones. The UAE’s diplomatic recognition of Israel nearly 12 months ago has caused further friction in the relationship. The disunity within this important alliance introduces further uncertainty in Middle Eastern affairs in the years ahead.
Egyptian, Jordanian and Iraqi leaders meet in Baghdad
(AP) — Iraq, Egypt and Jordan took a step toward deepening a regional alliance by holding tripartite talks in Baghdad on Sunday.Talks ranged from trade to Mideast crises.
Abdel Fattah el-Sissi was greeted by Iraq’s President Barham Salih upon arriving Sunday morning. It marked the first time an Egyptian president paid an official visit to Iraq since the 1990s when ties between both countries were severed after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II arrived shortly afterwards, he and el-Sissi then met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi for a third round of tripartite talks. The meetings are seen largely as an attempt to neutralize Iran’s influence across the region and have been welcomed by the U.S.
A statement issued after the meeting said the three sides also agreed on the importance of security and intelligence coordination to combat terrorism, drug trafficking and cybercrime.
Cooperation in the energy sector was also discussed, including the possibility of linking gas transmission networks between Iraq and Egypt through Jordan. To date, Iraq is highly reliant on Iranian gas and electricity imports to meet domestic demand.
They also highlighted the importance of re-opening borders to encourage more trade in light of the economic crises brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Heather Cox Richardson June 12, 2021
Yesterday, David Ignatius had a piece in the Washington Post that uncovered the attempt of the Trump administration to reorder the Middle East along an axis anchored by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudia Arabia (more popularly known as MBS), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Jared Kushner of the U.S.
To make the deal, the leaders involved apparently wanted to muscle Jordan out of its role as the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, a role carved out in the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan that was hammered out under President Bill Clinton. The new dealmakers apparently wanted to scuttle the U.S.-backed accords and replace them with economic deals that would reorder the region.
This story has huge implications for the Middle East, for American government, for religion, for culture…. Kushner apparently thought he could create a brand new Middle East with a brand new set of alliances that would begin with changing long standing geopolitics in Jerusalem, the city three major world religions consider holy. It is eye-popping to imagine what would have happened if we had torn up decades of agreements and tried to graft onto a troubled area an entirely new way of interacting, based not on treaties but on the interests of this new axis. Apparently, the hope was that throwing enough money at the region would have made the change palatable. But most experts think that weakening Jordan, long a key U.S. ally in the region, and removing its oversight of the holy sites, would have ushered in violence. The heart of the American contribution to the idea of reworking the Middle East along a new axis with contracts, rather than treaties, seems to have been that enough will and enough money can create new realities.
David Ignatius: Inside the palace intrigue in Jordan and a thwarted ‘deal of the century’
(WaPo) President Donald Trump had a dizzying dream for a diplomatic “deal of the century” for Arab-Israeli peace that would unite his allies Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
It never happened, in large part because Jordan’s King Abdullah II would not bend to pressure and make concessions on the status of Jerusalem and other issues affecting the Palestinians. His resistance came at a price: Abdullah’s kingdom has been shaken by tremors over the past several years, encouraged by the squeeze from top political leaders in the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Jordanian turmoil surprised observers, some of whom suspected that Abdullah was overreacting to family politics. But a careful reconstruction of the story…shows that the pressure on the king was real and had been building since Trump began pushing for his mega-peace plan, with Netanyahu and MBS as key allies.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and chief adviser on the negotiations, embraced Netanyahu and MBS — but grew increasingly antagonistic toward the Jordanian king. “It became a belief of Trump that the king was a hindrance to the peace process,” says one former senior CIA official. While Trump, Netanyahu and MBS don’t appear to have been working to overthrow the king, their actions clearly weakened him and encouraged his enemies.
Trump’s campaign for normalization of Arab relations with Israel was laudable. It yielded the so-called Abraham Accords that forged new links between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. But the prize Trump and Kushner wanted most was Saudi Arabia — and to clear the way, they tried to muscle Jordan, for decades one of the United States’ closest Arab allies.
Now the winds have shifted: Trump has left office, and Netanyahu appears to be on his way out. Jordan is back in favor, and Abdullah’s advisers say he will visit the White House this summer, the first Arab leader to meet personally with President Biden. MBS is in limbo with the Biden administration and still awaiting a presidential phone call or invitation.
Bloomberg Politics newsletter: The recent news from the Middle East makes for familiarly gloomy reading.
Palestinians and Israelis are clashing in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. U.S. and Iranian boats are in showdowns near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s supreme leader is tweet-storming the resistance against what he calls the “Zionist regime.” Saudi Arabia is parrying attacks by air and sea from Yemen-based Houthis.
Yet beneath the surface, a growing wariness of long-running conflicts has given way to quiet diplomacy, and with it the promise of patching over deep rivalries.
Iraq, the poster child of Middle East instability for two decades, is playing the role of peacemaker, brokering talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia and seeking to mediate an end to the war in Yemen.
The Turks are working to patch up relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after years of hostility that included backing opposite sides in regional wars and revolutions.
Qatar’s ruler and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince met in Jeddah this week, as the two nations at the heart of the rift that’s divided the Arab world work to fully restore diplomatic ties.
Covid-related travel restrictions aside, Israelis are now free to holiday in Dubai, and Emiratis in Tel Aviv. Sudan, Morocco, Oman and Bahrain are opening up to Israel as part of the Abraham Accords negotiated with the backing of the Trump administration.
Most importantly, the U.S. and Iran are inching closer to reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that Donald Trump abandoned.
If that succeeds, President Joe Biden could be looking at a very different Middle East from the one his predecessors faced — one where statesmanship and de-escalation are replacing conflict and rivalry.
The GCC region confronts the climate change quandary
(Arabian Business) Oxford Economics estimate that the economy of the GCC could be nearly 20 percent smaller by 2050 if temperatures rise by 2°C, compared with a scenario where temperatures remain at pre-industrial levels. However, if necessity is the mother of invention, the Middle East is responding to the challenge. This was highlighted by the US Climate Envoy’s recent visit to the UAE, where the two countries launched the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate and discussed the progress the UAE is making in developing vertical farming.
Pandemic puts a Gulf AI company on the cutting edge of genome research
Genetic analysis to help scientists better understand origins of COVID-19, identify variants and improve testing
If successful, Abu Dhabi-based G42 Healthcare’s Hayat-Vax will make the UAE the first Arab country to produce a COVID-19 vaccine
(Arab News) In the race to understand the source of the coronavirus, G42 Healthcare, an Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence and cloud computing company, launched its own SARS-CoV2 genome sequencing study last year.
The entire study will soon be published as a scientific paper, which is now in its final stages of production.
The company has also recently announced its collaboration with China’s Sinopharm CNBG to develop Hayat-Vax — “Hayat” meaning “life” in Arabic — with the potential to make the UAE the first Arab country to develop its own COVID-19 vaccine. As rich nations squabble over a limited supply of vaccines, Hayat-Vax is seen by some as a promising new option for the developing world — that is, if Phase III clinical trials are opened to peer review and the public is convinced it can be trusted.
‘We Want a Nation’
By Kim Ghattas
A new generation of protesters has taken lessons from the Arab world’s failed uprisings of a decade prior.
(The Atlantic) …amid the despair and fear, a new cohort of protesters and activists has taken to the streets since 2019, in places such as Iraq, Sudan, and Lebanon. This new generation has learned a key lesson from their predecessors: A revolution can help bring down a regime, but it cannot build a state. They are getting organized, learning about politics and electoral laws, and planning for the state they want to build—one that serves citizens, not rulers. Most important, they have learned from the setbacks of 2011 that what lies ahead is a long slog, not a quick jog to victory in one election.
Yet in addition to all the usual challenges that activists and dissidents face worldwide, one is emerging as a major obstacle for those in the Arab world: They’re being hunted down one after the other, shot on the street or in their homes, forcibly disappeared or thrown in jail, men and women alike. Some make international headlines, while others only make the local news. Across the Arab world and all the way to Afghanistan, a rising generation of promising new leaders and their mentors, all of whom have a role to play in building the future of their countries, is being decimated—and no one knows how to stop this wholesale, methodical silencing.
Sheikh’s missing daughter casts shadow over Derby favorite
(AP) — Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has spent millions trying to win the Kentucky Derby, and in the process plowing money into horse racing worldwide. Now with the overwhelming favorite, Dubai’s ruler faces increased scrutiny for allegations that he has violated human rights and orchestrated the disappearance of his own daughter.
The controversy, well-known in the Middle East for a more than a year, has gotten renewed attention as Essential Quality prepares for Saturday’s race.
One of Sheikh Mohammed’s daughters, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, said last spring that she is being held against her will, according to video diaries she said were recorded inside a Dubai villa and broadcast by the BBC. Sheikha Latifa was detained by commandos in 2018 after she tried to flee Dubai in a yacht.
The princess’ 38-year-old sister, Shamsa, was taken from Cambridge, England, on Aug. 19, 2000, and hasn’t been seen since. A judge in England ruled last year that Sheikh Mohammed orchestrated both abductions. The sheikh had told the the court he was relieved at having found his “vulnerable” daughter Shamsa after she went missing.
The judge was ruling on a case between Sheikh Mohammed and his second official wife, Princess Haya, over their two children. She is the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, and married Sheikh Mohammed in 2004. She fled Dubai in 2019 with her two children saying that she was scared of her husband’s threats.
Lawyer says mediation resolves feud among Jordan royals
(AP) — Mediation between Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his outspoken half brother, Prince Hamzah, successfully de-escalated one of the most serious political crises in the kingdom in decades, the palace and a confidant of the prince said Monday.
The apparent resolution of the unprecedented public feud capped a weekend of palace drama during which the king had placed Hamzah under house arrest for allegedly plotting with foreign supporters to destabilize Jordan, a key Western ally.
Divided Kingdom: Jordan Shaken by Split Between King and Ex-Crown Prince
A royal rift laid bare. Key figures arrested. Rumors of a failed coup attempt. An intense bout of palace intrigue has knocked Jordan’s image as a reliable bulwark in a turbulent part of the world.
(NYT) … The prince denied involvement in any plot against King Abdullah, though he did condemn the government as corrupt, incompetent and authoritarian.
To many international observers, the confrontation between king and prince underscored the fragility of the social structures that lie beneath Jordan’s calm facade.
The country is in the middle of a particularly brutal wave of the coronavirus. Its economy is struggling. And with 600,000 refugees from Syria, it is one of the countries most affected by the fallout from the Syrian war.
A significant proportion of Jordan’s nine million citizens are descended from Palestinians who fled to the country after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. The rest are native Jordanians, whose tribes have been absorbed into the structure of the state, and whose support is crucial to King Abdullah’s legitimacy, analysts say. This weekend’s imbroglio came against a backdrop of recent and very public attempts by Prince Hamzah to build closer ties with those tribes.
Jordan gov’t accuses ex-crown prince of ‘malicious plot’
Jordan’s deputy prime minister says King Abdullah’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah, has links with ‘foreign parties’ over plot to undermine security.
(Al Jazeera) On Saturday the military said it had issued a warning to the prince over actions targeting “security and stability” in the kingdom. Prince Hamzah, King Abdullah’s half-brother, later said he was under house arrest. Several high-profile figures were detained.
“Initial investigations showed these activities and movements had reached a stage that directly affected the security and stability of the country, but his majesty decided it was best to talk directly to Prince Hamzah, to deal with it within the family to prevent it from being exploited,” he said.
Efforts were under way to resolve the crisis within the royal family, but Prince Hamzah was not cooperative, he added. “It’s a break from the traditions and values of the Hashemite family,” Safadi said. What we know so far about Prince Hamzah’s ‘house arrest’
Biden Ends Military Aid for Saudi War in Yemen. Ending the War Is Harder.
Nearly six years of war have shattered Yemen in a way that could thwart efforts to make peace, regardless of whether American bombs are no longer used.
(NYT) “This war has to end,” Mr. Biden said, calling it a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”
While Yemenis and many others welcomed the decision, many shared a sense that it had come years too late and was unlikely to exert a swift effect.
The United States had already reduced much of the military aid it was giving to the Saudi-led coalition. Years of Saudi bombings failed to shake the rebels, known as the Houthis, from their grip on the capital city and Yemen’s largest port. And years of conflict have shattered Yemen, creating a number of smaller conflicts inside the larger one.
“Even if the weapons are put down, there are deeply rooted disputes, grievances, tensions and divisions in Yemen today and more than 30 fronts of armed fighting between different factions,” said Afrah Nasser, a Yemen researcher with Human Rights Watch. “It was the responsibility of the U.S. to have a strong stance on its role, but we need a comprehensive approach to ending the conflict.”
(See also Farea Al-Muslimi: A new hope for Yemen? – Chatham House 29 January)
The GCC in 2021: Outlook and Key Challenges
Chatham House experts look ahead at what’s in store for the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries in 2021.
After the blockade
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Now that the Qatar blockade has been lifted, thus ending the deepest – and longest – rift in the GCC’s 40-year history, a key focus for the organization in 2021 is likely to be strengthening its framework to ensure that future disputes are handled within existing mechanisms. While the GCC charter does contain a provision for dispute resolution, it has not been institutionalized and was not used during the two most recent GCC disputes in 2014 and 2017.
The fact that the GCC secretary-general, Nayef al-Hajraf, is from Kuwait, one of the two member states (the other being Oman) that has traditionally tried to balance regional relationships, could provide some impetus to rethink the role of the GCC at an institutional level and vis-à-vis its member states.
An early test for the GCC in 2021 could be when the US Biden administration re-engages with the JCPOA and looks to secure regional buy-in to any further dialogue with Iran. As immediate neighbours of Iran, all six GCC states have an interest in what comes next, but their leaders may choose to prioritize national responses over leveraging their collective influence.
Opinion: A decade after Tahrir Square, there is still hope for the Arab world
The failure of the three Arab political forces to coexist, their unrealistic dreams and their inattention to governance hollowed the promise of the Arab Spring. This is the bad news. But the good news is that these three mistakes offer a pathway to good democratic governance. Liberals, Islamists and ruling elites can build such a pathway if they accept their own limitations; accept the principle of coexistence; scale down their transformative dreams; and focus on finding solutions to the real-life governance challenges that shackle their societies. This requires them to reconsider their strategies, which might be a tall order — and might require external help. But if they manage to do that in just one country, it would offer the whole region a way forward.
Ten years ago, we rocked Cairo’s Tahrir Square with acts of freedom, defied a culture of apathy and conservatism, broke a brutal security apparatus and ousted its leader, forcing the political space open in an unprecedented way. Above all, we filled Egyptians with pride and optimism instead of fear and resentment. We did all that and more before we were resolutely defeated.
Since then, all those who took part in the Tahrir Square protests have been evicted from the scene, along with the hope for the Arab world they had generated. In their place, old and new authoritarian rulers stand vindicated. Although they preside over failed regimes, they are able to keep it all together.
What to do – and what not to do – in the Middle East
Tamara Cofman Wittes
(Brookings) For over a decade, the United States has sought to wind down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, reduce its military footprint in the Middle East, and redirect scarce resources to Asia. Global and regional trends reinforced this American desire to reduce the priority of the Middle East in its global strategy, and the military “pivot” is well underway. The challenge for American policy is how to protect its remaining and still important interests in that region in an era of austerity and fierce power competition, both in the region and globally. The incoming Biden administration should not waste the window for a reset.
Gulf Arab partners, facing fiscal constraints from lower energy prices and the COVID-19-induced global recession, are more open to conflict resolution in the proxy wars they hagve been fighting across the region. But their relative penury will also impede their ability to invest in stabilizing weaker neighbors, including key states like Jordan and Egypt. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran is sanctioned to the hilt, and used to wielding regional influence on the cheap. Thus the balance of power in the region may even favor the Iranians as the pandemic begins to recede.
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.
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.
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.
What to expect from a new Lebanese government: ‘Anti-corruption’ as witch hunt
(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.
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, Sudan, Iraq, 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)
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.