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Saudi Arabia: first leg of Trump’s international trip

Policy/Politics di

Yesterday Donald Trump opened his first international trip as US President. The busy agenda includes The Vatican, Israel and Brussels, for a nine-day tour around Europe and the Middle East.  He chose Saudi Arabia for the inaugural meeting, a well-calculated choice that clearly marks the new administration’s approach toward one of the US historic and most strategic allies.

This international trip is a crucial political moment, especially for a newly elected president. Especially for a newly elected president that is already having political scandals back home. Indeed, it represents an excellent opportunity to meet several heads of states and government representatives all over the world, as well as a key moment to strengthen US alliances and to give a new breath to the nation posture in the international political arena.

The choice of Saudi Arabia as the first meeting is, therefore, a first quite unequivocal sign of the path President Trump wants to undertake. Saudi Arabia has always been one of the most important US allies in the region and the two countries share economic, political and strategic interests. Relations have been very close and friendly, showing a strong mutual understanding and the willingness to cooperate in several areas. However, under Obama’s administration, the happy marriage went through a very hard time, often referred by Saudi representatives as the worst in the US-Saudi history. Trump’s decision seems to be a smart move to show Saudi Arabia and the entire world the administration intention to go back to the strong and loyal relationship between the countries, after the challenging times of Mr Obama.

Several reasons stand behind this strategic choice, which can be read within the US-Saudi Arabia partnership’s framework, but also within the broader context of the US strategy in the Middle East.

Regarding US-Saudi relations, economic and security interests are the main issues on the table. Deals on weapons and defence systems are back on track after Obama stopped selling arms to the monarchy, worried about its possible influence –better said military support- in Yemen’s war (Saudi Arabia leads an international coalition supporting the government against the Houthi rebels). Trump seems not be sharing these concerns: the deals include, indeed, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system, a C2BMC software system for battle command and control and communications as well as a package of satellite capabilities, all provided by Lockheed. Under consideration also combat vehicles made by BAE Systems PLC, including the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M109 artillery vehicle. Contrary to the previous administration, the US appears to be supporting a more interventionist Saudi role in the region. Along the commercial agreements, Washington and Riyadh are also enhancing best practices in maritime, aviation and border security.

Looking at the broader US strategy in the Middle East, the visit in Saudi Arabia makes even more sense.

Since taking office, fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) has been Trump’s top national security priority. As the president made clear, ISIS -and terrorism in general- is not a regional problem, but one that affects the all international community, harming, therefore, also US interests back home and abroad. Similar consideration for the security conditions in the Middle East, which are essential to protect US economic and strategic interests in the region. These reasons made Trump reconsidering the US role in the Middle East. If Obama tried to step back and put some distance between the US politics and Middle Eastern affairs, giving the impression that the American power was turning the back to its allies in the region, Mr Trump has clearly shown different intentions.

The US is to re-take its posture in the Middle East, perhaps that security guarantor role that used to play in the past, willing to bring safety and stability in the region and, therefore, at the global level. Hence, the strong position taken by Iran’s antagonist behaviour and the attempt to reassure the US allies in the Gulf can be easily related to this new approach.

So, what does that mean in terms of regional security and international political games?

–    With the US support in fighting terrorism, the Gulf monarchies will be able to strengthen their positions against the Islamic State and terrorist groups. ISIS and other terrorist groups, indeed, have been trying to destabilise the Gulf monarchies. On the one hand, they took advantages of religious minorities and social differences in the countries. On the other, they benefited from an inconsistent European strategy in the region and a US administration probably more focused on domestic authoritarian issues and human rights records in its ISIS-fight partners than on the actual final goal. Trump seems to be setting priorities and boundaries: ISIS and terrorism come first; democracy and authoritarian tendency are a domestic issue that the US does not have to deal with now. To fight ISIS we need stable countries: simple as that. As the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand.”

–    A new challenging US-Iran relation. If Obama’s era will be remembered in all history books for the multilateral nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic, Trump administration will unlikely follow the same path. As initial steps, Trump tightened sanctions against Iran, thus sending the message that time had changed and Iran must better behave. Several press statements denounced Iran’s antagonistic behaviour and defined the country as a plague for the Middle East and US interests there. No surprise, then, if engagement and accommodation of Obama’s office will be replaced by confrontation and hostility, a move very welcomed by the Arab countries.

–    By signing new weapon deals with Saudi Arabia, the US indirectly supports the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, a conflict that involves Iran too. The Islamic Republic, indeed, militarily support the Houthi rebels against the government. As mentioned above, Iran is considered a real threat to Middle East stability.

–    A stronger commitment to the Middle East stability cannot overlook the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump is pursuing peace talks between Israel and Palestine to set a lasting agreement. The two-state solution has been a core pillar of US foreign policies for decades -an independent state of Palestine in West Bank and Gaza in return for Israel’s safety and security. However, Trump affirms to be also opened to a one-state solution, where Israel will be the only state and Palestinians will either become citizens of Israel or else live under permanent occupation without voting rights. As the president said, “I’m happy with the one they [Israelis and Palestinians] like the best”. Not easy to understand, though, how Palestinians could like the second one.

–    Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country but also the home of the most significant Islamic religious sites, can be read as a strategic move to achieve the role the US would like to play in the Middle East. With the implementation of the immigration policies in the States and several statements against the Muslims, President Trump has attracted severe criticisms, describing him and his policies as anti-Muslim. Not the best precondition for someone that aims at playing a greater security role in the region. Hence, visiting the Saudi monarchy shows that the US and Arab Muslims can actually form a partnership and cooperate on some issues.

–    At first glance, it is understandable to think that a more interventionist US role in the Middle East could upset Russia. On several capillary topics -such as Syria and Yemen- Russia and the US have quite divergent views and stand on the opposite sides of the fight. A US administration willing to play the police role in the region and -possibly- put feet on the ground is not exactly what the Kremlin would like to see. However, the scandal that has recently hit the White House- regarding Trump sharing highly classified information with the Russians-questions the real relationship between Washington and Moscow.

In conclusion, Trump’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s leaders goes beyond the routine diplomatic visits, as it also entails powerful political messages to the Arab countries and the entire world. A new page for the US foreign policy that aims to bring the old glory and its leader role in the Middle East. It looks like the new administration is backed by a crispy and definite strategy; however, on some topics it seems like Trump is proceeding blindly, just reacting to whatever it happens. The question is: does he have a strategy in mind? The US is a very powerful nation and -willing or not- its actions have a substantial impact worldwide. Hopefully, there will be some still unrevealed aces in the hole: the last thing that the world would like to see is the US wandering around without knowing what to do. It is time to take sides, it is time to make decisions, and Trump seems to be quite confident in doing so. However, to be effective, those decisions need directions, need a strategy, a smart long term project aiming at a specific goal. Let’s hope the current US administration truly has one.

Paola Fratantoni

Egypt: Militant group Hassm claims responsability for attack on Nasr City chekpoint

BreakingNews @en di

North Sinai victim of new attacks against Egypt authorities. On Monday, two policemen had been killed, and 5 people injured in Nasr City. The attack happened on a checkpoint of the city. Attack is vindicated by a new-born terrorist group, named “the Hawks of Determination”. The terrorist group announced the death of 6 people, and has promised to publish a video of the attack on social media, soon. The group, form in 2016, has vindicated other similar attacks since June 2016 in the region. However, even if this attack show insecurity in North Sianai, we need to underline that according to the latest report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policies (TIMEP), the number of terrorist attacks in Egypt decreased in the last quarter of 2016 to 168, compared to 209 in the third quarter, with 92 percent of the attacks taking place in North Sinai.

Swedish Ambassador visits Hermel, says his country keen on supporting Syrian refugees in Lebanon

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Wedish Ambassador to Lebanon, Peter Semneby, expressed on Thursday his country’s deep concern for Middle Eastern affairs, especially those involving Syrian refugees. “Despite the evacuation of the Swedish Embassy in Syria, we remain in contact with the Syrian state. We are also assisting Syrian refugees on Lebanese territories”, the Swedish diplomat said, confirming his country’s relentless efforts to provide support to Syria and other neighboring countries. He made clear that during the second half of 2017, funding will take place through UNICEF. “This will take place following a thorough study on the needs of Syrian refugees and their hosting societies”, he added.

Iranian Defense Ministerr warns US to avoid war in Korean Peninsula

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Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan warned the US not to be after warmongering in the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, stressing that any such resort to the military action by Washington would only harm the US. “He (the US defense secretary) and the US leaders would be better off if they go after resolving their country’s domestic problems and avoid creating a new crisis and igniting the flames of war in Korea and the Middle-East”, General Dehqan said in reaction to US Defense Secretary James Mattis’s recent remarks against Iran. He advised Mattis to study the history of the US wars and crimes in the world in the past decades and find the root causes of Washington allegations against others. General Dehqan reminded Mattis that the era of gun crimes and allegations against others has ended, adding that such remarks are only an attempt in vain to reverse the stands of the accused with the plaintiff in the eyes of the public. On a visit to South Korea this week, the US vice-president, Mike Pence, warned Pyongyang against testing Trump’s “resolve”, and declared an end to Obama’s “strategic patience” policy. But North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Han Song-Ryol, said that Pyongyang would continue to test missiles “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”. All-out war would ensue if the US took military action, he said.

Saudi Arabia toward the economic diversification

Middle East - Africa/Politics di

In the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia has been at the centre of intense diplomatic activities, mainly directed to make significant economic deals. It is not a coincidence that some of the actors involved are the three biggest world economies: The United States, China and Japan. Indeed, while King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has taken a six-week trip in Asia, His Energy Minister Khalid-Al Falin headed for in Washington, to meet the US President Trump at the White House.

Such an intense effort goes beyond the normal diplomatic relations, especially given that the King’s visit in Japan has been the first visit to the country by a monarch of the Middle East oil-rich countries in the past fifty years. So, what is behind this busy agenda? First and foremost, oil. For decades, the vast availability of oil combined with the harsh regulations imposed by the monarchy -which did not encourage foreign companies entering Saudi markets-  have made oil the country’s one and only source of income.

However, the recent drop in oil price has been worrying the oil-rich monarchy. IMF projection for Saudi economic growth is not more encouraging, sharply foreseeing a drop from 2% to 0.4% this year. Hence, Saudi Arabia is exploring alternative economic paths, which include attracting foreign capitals and developing other industrial sectors. The short-term strategy, indeed, sets investments and infrastructure maintenance, especially electricity and transport networks, as first priorities. In a long-term perspective, “Vision 2030” expresses goals and expectations of the nation, based on three strong pillars: leading role in the Arab and Islamic word, become a global investment powerhouse and become a global hub, thus connecting Asia, Africa and Europe.

Having said that, Saudi effort to diversify its economy is more understandable. However, it is important to analyse also the political implications that these visits and commercial agreements may have.

Let’s start with Japan, the first trip of King Salman. As mentioned above, the Saudi King arrival in the Asian island is not an ordinary event, though the Kingdom is the largest provider of oil export and the two countries have friendly relationships. But this time King Salman has decided to travel all the way to the East and meet the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two leaders, then, agreed and signed the “Saudi-Japan Vision 2030”, a governmental project that aims to enhance the cooperation between the two countries.

By developing this project, Saudi Arabia and Japan will become equal strategic partners and Japanese companies will be given a designated zone in Saudi Arabia to allow fluid entry into the country, thus facilitating the economic partnership. The developmental projects outlined in the document include both government-related and private sector ones.

Notable names emerge with the private projects. Toyota is opting to produce cars and components in Saudi Arabia; Toyobo will cooperate in technological developments of desalination plants and several banks -i.e. Mitsubishi Tokyo UFJ Bank- will be promoting investments in the Kingdom, while Softbank Group is planning to create investment funds worth 25$ billion for technological investments.

Therefore, Japan raises as a key actor to diversify Saudi Arabian economy. However, there are also political reasons behind this stronger partnership. The Japanese government is trying to contribute to Saudi Arabia political and economic stability, which is a fundamental factor to maintain the stability in the region. The competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the leadership in the Middle East has been deteriorating security and stability in the area for a long time. Japan has friendly relations with both countries and welcomes a productive dialogue between the two powers. Helping Saudi Arabia to strengthen its economy is indeed essential to maintain some balance between the two nations, also given that the relationship with the US -traditional ally and a core pillar of Saudi foreign policy- has recently gone through a hard time.

Moving forward, or better said westwards, King Salman reached China, the world’s second-largest oil consumer as well as the third largest economy. Similarly, as for Japan, the Sunni monarchy is the primary source of China’s energy demand. The two countries have sharply deepened their relationship by signing up to 65$ billion economic and trade deals. Within this framework, the countries are promoting manufacturing and energy sectors, included downstream oil opportunities. Moreover, the deals include a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the oil firm Saudi Aramco and China North Industries Group Corp (Norinco) to look into the construction of refining and chemical plants in China. Meanwhile, Sinopec and Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC) agreed upon the development of petrochemical projects both in China and Saudi Arabia.

The stronger economic relationship comes as mutually beneficial for the countries. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia may see new trade opportunities in sectors other than oil, while confirming his position as key energy partner for China; on the other, China can benefit from further Saudi investments in its markets but also for the kingdom’s strategic location in the Middle East. Indeed, Saudi political, religious and economic influence in the region is a key factor for the Chinese “One belt, one road” initiative, that aims to build connectivity and cooperation between Eurasia and China.

However, Saudi Arabia also has its strategic advantages. From a security perspective, Saudi Arabia has always strongly relied on the US and its military presence in the Gulf. However, under Obama’s administration concerns and disappointments arose, as the US failed to show a firm determination in dealing with Iranian attempts to further develop its nuclear capabilities, thus jeopardising the stability of the region. In the past, China has refrained from interfering in the Middle East issues, trying to keep a neutral position between the two rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran and stressing the importance of close consultation. Some changes occurred, though.

In 2016, China backed Bashar al-Assad, offering its military cooperation and supported Yemen’s government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels (A Saudi-led military coalition supports Yemen’s government). Lastly, the Chinese government signed an agreement to set the first factory for Chinese hunter-killer aerial drones in Saudi Arabia, first in the Middle East.

Is China going to replace the US in the Middle East? Perhaps it is still too early to make such an assumption, especially given the new development in Syria. However, it seems that China may and would like to play a more influential role in promoting security and stability in the region, having all the means (military and economic) to do it.

And here comes the third core piece of this puzzle: The United States. As mentioned above, Obama administration has seriously challenged the relationship between the West power and the Saudi monarchy. The major issue was the multilateral nuclear deal signed with Iran, which allowed Iran to sell its vast oil supplies more freely and solicit investment in its energy industry, increasing competition with top oil exporter Saudi Arabia. However, the new presidency has made clear its approach toward Iran, by immediately imposing additional sanctions on entities involved in the nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia visit to Washington seems to open a new phase in US-Saudi relations. While the King was busy in Asia, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih and the Deputy Crowne Prince Mohammed bin Salman met President Donald Trump at the White House. As Saudi minister pointed out, US-Saudi relationship is one of the most central to global stability and now seems to be better than ever. Indeed, the two countries again align on all the major issues, such as confronting Iranian aggression and fighting ISIS, but also enjoy the benefit of a closer personal bond between his royal highness, the Deputy Crown Prince and President Trump.

At the economic level, new investment programs are focused on energy, industry, infrastructure and technology. According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia is interested in investing up to $200 billion in US infrastructure, which is a core pillar of Trump’s agenda. As Falih explains, “The infrastructure program of President Trump and his administration is something that we’re interested in because it broadens our portfolio and it opens a new channel for secure, low-risk yet healthy return investments that we seek”.

These are only some of the economic negotiations and deals that Saudi Arabia is currently conducting, but they help to understand the new economic course of the country. They represent, indeed, a “Plan B” against the drop of oil revenue and the chance to reinforce and diversify the economic capabilities of the country, which can rely on resources other than oil, such as phosphate, gold, uranium and other minerals. Developing new sectors will also attract foreign investments and create new job opportunities for a young and ambitious local population.

One of the risks of such a massive network of economic deals is the reaction that other partners may have to commitments taken with other countries. As known, commercial arrangements have political consequences and impacts. Therefore, one of the main challenges for Saudi leaders will be to pursue its economic goals, while balancing its position toward all his major allies and friend nations, especially when some of its partners are not the best friends ever.

An obvious example is China. Despite years of lack of interest for Middle East issues, China is now trying to play a bigger role in the region, as the support in Yemen and Syria but also the Chinese warship tour in the Arab Gulf (January 2017) prove. Saudi Arabia welcomes this kind of assistance, as it can help to reduce Iran’s influence in the region. However, it is important not to upset a key and historical ally, the United States. As the new administration has shown a different approach toward the main regional issues -Syria and Iran- it might be a strategic mistake to bond too closely to the new player. Indeed, this might give the impression that a new guarantor of security in the Middle East has replaced the United States, a change that President Trump may not be entirely happy with.

In conclusion, the diversification of Saudi Arabia’s economy is a smart and necessary move to make. However, it goes beyond the economic sphere, as it also shapes Saudi political posture, as a regional power but also among the biggest foreign nations involved in the Middle East political struggle. It appears that the country is trying to bond closer ties with all those powers that have more interests -but also economic and military capabilities- influencing the stability and security of the region, thus trying to get the strongest support possible against its main rival, Iran. China and USA are on the spot but do not forget Russia, which has developed bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia in the past few years and has strong political and strategic interests in the Middle East. Lastly, a key factor will be the development of the Syrian war, especially after the US Tomahawk missile strike on an air base in Syria, very well welcomed by Riyadh.

It is likely that the future economic strategy of the Kingdom will follow the political and strategic needs of the country, confirming once again the strong interrelation between economic and political dimensions, but also the importance of a robust and independent economy to maintain an influential and leading role in the region.

 

Paola Fratantoni

2016 hailed as best year for Israeli economy in 4 years

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According to the Israel’s Bank Israel economy grew by 4% in 2016, outperforming the U.S. and other Midlle East countries. The Israeli economy grew by 4% in 2016, exceeding projections by 1.2 percentage points and marking the most solid economic performance for the country since 2012, the Bank of Israel said Wednesday. In its 2016 annual report, the bank noted that the gross domestic product hit a record 1.22 trillion shekels ($337 billion); Israel had a record $12.4 billion surplus in its current account balance of payments; unemployment dropped to 4.8% in 2016; public debt dropped to an all-time low of 62.8% of GDP; the number of employed Israelis hit a record high of 3.74 million people; the GDP per capita reached a historic high of $36,800; private consumption climbed by 6%; and Israelis overall standard of living increased by 5%. Israel’s economy growth it was 2.3 times higher than the average growth among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members; and 2.5 times higher than average growth in the eurozone. According to the data, since 2011, the Israeli economy grew by a cumulative 21.6%, exceeding all OECD member states. Netanyahu hopes that economy growth even better thanks tto the excellent management of the country. Israel is also ranked second to last among OECD nations in terms of the actions taken by the government to help households out of poverty.

Tilllerson: Defeating ISIS is top US priority in Middle East

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that defeating ISIS would be the United States’ top priority in the Middle East and hinted at establishing a safe zone for refugee protection. The US will continue to pursue a five-pronged strategy of using military force; identifying and intercepting terrorist fighters who go to Syria from other countries; targeting the terror group’s finances; working to counter its propaganda; and stabilizing areas once ISIS has been ousted.

Hezbollah has acquired advanced Russian missiles that could change the balance of power in the Middle East

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Hezbollah has acquired about 8 advanced Russian-made strategic naval missiles that could change the balance of power in the Middle East. According to Israeli YediothAhronoth newspaper, western intelligence agencies have expressed “grave concerns” that Hezbollah has acquired Yakhont missiles, also known as Onyx, a Russian supersonic anti-ship cruise weapon that is regarded as the naval equivalent of the antiaircraft S-300. These missiles can be fired from the shore and have a range of up to 300 kilometers. “Even the most advanced missile interception systems are unable to effectively intercept it”, said the reports.

According to Pakistan, UNSC is not doing anything to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

BreakingNews @en/Defence di

Pakistan has criticised UN Security Council’s inaction to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which it deems essential for peace and stability in the Middle East. Speaking in the General Assembly in the debate on “The Question of Palestine”, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi said that inaction by the Security Council has not only undermined its own credibility but has also weakened the ideals that the organisation espouses. These, she said, includes ideals of human dignity, of peaceful coexistence based on sovereign equality of all nations and of the right to self-determination of all people.

According to PM Medvedev, USA’s active role in the Middle East is necessary

BreakingNews @en/Defence di

On Friday, following talks with Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, affirmed that Washington’s active role in the Middle East is necessary.  He also said that Russia will continue its efforts to settle the relations between Israel and Palestine. Mahmoud Abbas in his turn also confirmed that Palestine expected the new US administration to help it settle its conflict with Israel. Abbas has also called on Russia to play a permanent effective role in ironing out disagreements between Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian leader noted that during the talks with Medvedev the two leaders raised the issue of a trilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Moscow, which, according to Abbas, the Israeli side earlier proposed to postpone.

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