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Paola Fratantoni @en

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

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

SA’s retaliation: air strikes hit Sana’a

Defence/Middle East - Africa di

SAUDI-YEMEN-CONFLICT

On September 20, Saudi Arabian authorities authorised air strikes against Houthis rebel positions in the Yemen’s capital Sana’a. Around a dozen bombs or missiles hit the Headquarters of the National Security Bureau -it is the first time since the beginning of the conflict- the defence ministry, a checkpoint in the capital’s north-western suburbs and two rebel military camps in the southeast district of Sanhan.

This attack comes as a response to a missile fired by the rebels on Monday evening. According to Saudi Arabia (SA), the Qaher-1 missile was aimed at SA’s King Khalid Air Base, 60 km north of the Yemeni border, in the city of Khamees Mushait. SA reports the missile was intercepted by the kingdom’s air defence before it could cause any damage to the base and neighbourhood, though Houthis-run Saba News Agency discloses the missile actually hit the target.

Regardless, SA immediately responds to the attack, causing at least one civilian death and some wounded, witnesses said. It is not the first time that the hostilities cause civilian deaths, proving once again the heavy criticism for high civilian death toll since the beginning of the Saudi Arabia-led air campaign.

 

Houthis and government forces have battled on-and-off since 2004 but it was in 2014 that a civil war eventually broke out. Indeed, in September 2014, Houthis -a rebel group known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) that adheres to the branch of Shia Islam called Zaidism- took control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, and forced President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Saudi-backed government to temporarily flee to Riyadh.

Security forces split in two groups, one supporting the international recognised government, the other backing rebels. The scenario was deeply worsen by the emergence of two other actors. On one hand, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which gained grip in the south and south-east region. On the other, a Yemen affiliate of the Islamic State, which was trying to overrun AQAP and claimed responsibility of some suicide bombings in Sana’a.

Conflict escalated in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and her allies launched a massive air campaign in Yemen in order to restore Hadi’s government. Since then, more than 6,600 people have been killed, while the number of displaced people has risen to 3 million.

To date, fighting has not stopped and the situation in Yemen is still unstable. The United Nations often report alarming data on civilian deaths, recently accusing Saudi Arabia-led coalition to be responsible of 2/3 of those and Houthis to be involved in mass civilian casualties due to the siege of the city of Taiz.

In addition, several foreign countries have taken part -though with different means- in the fighting. The international coalition includes SA, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal. United States, United Kingdom and France are supporting the coalition providing supplies, with the US also carrying air strikes targeting ISIS and AQAP positions in Yemen. On the other side, Iran has been accused of arming Houthis rebels, though the country has always denied it.

It should be added that the conflict in Yemen cannot be reduced to a civil war or a terrorist battlefield, but it is the result of several and conflicting dynamics involving multiple actors and opposite interests. Indeed, despite the civil war and the terrorist threat, Yemen is the theatre of the proxy war between the two major powers in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran, thus dragging into the scene alliances and games of powers that escalate tensions and foster instability in the region.

 

Paola Fratantoni

 

 

Iran: no negotiation over defence

Defence di

Whoever thought that, after the signature of the nuclear deal and the lifting of the international sanctions, Iran would have become a docile and friendly country, well, probably made a wrong calculation. Indeed, in the last weeks, we’ve seen a strong and resolute nation, aimed to restore its position in the international area and to pursue its national interests, no matter what.

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The spotlight is on the Islamic Republic in particular due to its recent ballistic missile tests, which have raised new fear and concern among Western countries and the Gulf monarchies. Last month, indeed, during a military large-scale drill –codenamed Eqtedar-e-Velayet-, the Islamic Revolutin Guards Corps (IRGC) tested two ballistic missiles class Qadr, the Qadr-H and the Qadr-F. Both the missiles were launched from the heights of East Alborz Mountains, northern Iran, hitting targets on the southeast coasts of the country. According to reports, missiles have a range of 1,700 km and 2,000 km respectively.

The international reaction wasn’t long in coming. On the one hand, the condemnation of the United States and Europe, which saw tests as a breach of UNSC resolution 2231; on the other, Russia stated that these tests do not violate the mandate of the document. Even Western powers failed to raise actions against Iran at the UN. It seems that Washington later withdrew its accusation, confirming that the tests do not represent a breach of the resolution.

According to the latter, indeed, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designated to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology…”. Questions arise whether these technologies could be able -as Israel affirms- to  carry nuclear warheads. However, recent declarations from the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif state that the country does not have any missile capable of carrying this kind of warheads.

Several Iranian personalities have spoken about this topic. The Expediency Council (EC) Secretary Mohsen Rezaei stressed that the Iranian missile programme only has deterrent purposes and is aimed to exercise the country’s right to self-defence in case of an armed attack. According to the Secretary, it is easily understandable that disarm could not be an option for Iran: indeed, if the country gives up investments in defence, it would be subjected to attack and there are several enemies that could take advantage from this situation.

General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the air forces of the IRGC, has even a stricter position. The Islamic Republic will continue to strengthen defensive and missile capabilities, which ensure Iran’s security and deter enemies from attacking the country. These enemies are also the ones, which have boosted the country’s defence power for more than 30 years; and US new sanctions just confirm this idea. Missile capabilities are a matter of national security and Iran clearly states that there is no room for negotiation or compromise over it. “No wise individual will negotiate over his country’s security” said the Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi.

It is clear that similar statements can raise concerns, especially among countries such as Israel and the Gulf monarchies. The first has been a target of Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini and the rhetoric of “wiping out” the Jewish country has recently come out several times.  The Gulf countries do not support the economic and military growth of a country that not only aims to achieve regional hegemony but also backs and fosters several fundamentalist groups, drivers of instability in the region. Tensions are likely to arise in the coming months: it is to be seen how Arabic countries will react to an Iran not so prone to cooperation and aimed to achieve its national goals, the consequences on the relationship among these actors and the role that powers such as US and Russia could play in fostering or hampering these relations.

 

Paola Fratantoni

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France to withdraw from CAR

Defence di

The news was announced by the French Defence Minister Jean – Yves Le Drian during his visit in Bangui. Operation Sangaris, launched by France in December 2013 in response to the UN resolution 2127 (5 December 2013), will end in 2016. “We can finally see the country emerging by a long period of trouble and uncertainty”, the minister said. In two years, the mission was able to restore stability in the country, thus fulfilling its objectives. Perhaps this is the reason behind French decision to withdraw its contingents.

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Disorder in CAR began in March 2013, when a Muslim rebel movement, known as Seleka, overthrew the government of the Christian president Francois Bozize, replacing him with their leader Michel Djotodia. The Djotodia government remained in office for 10 months: at that period, the ethnic violence between the Muslim minority and the Christian majority spread out in the country, thus causing the death of thousands of people.

The international community reacted unanimously and approved the above resolution. This resolution not only condemned the spiral of ethnic and religious violence fueled by rebel groups, but also authorized the deployment of MISCA mission (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine). This mission authorized French forces to take all necessary measures -in respect of the mandate- to achieve the three main objectives of the mission: disarmament of armed groups, restoration of civil authority and support in the preparation of the elections.

Begun with 1,600 soldiers, Operation Sangaris had around 2,500 men deployed at its peak. The Djotodia government proved to be unable to keep rebels -who had brought him to power- under control, thus dragging the country into a civil war. The situation improved after the resignation of the President and the appointment of a transitional government led by Catherine Samba-Panza, the first woman president of the country. Improvements in CAR security contest induced the French government to reduce the forces gradually, while continuing supporting the international mission.

Today, France has 900 units deployed in the Central African Republic. Minister Le Drian stressed that 300 soldiers will remain there even after the end of Operation. These troops will support the UN mission MINUSCA (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) and will participate in the training mission led by the European Union (EUTM RCA). Some units will provide security at the airport; others will be based in Ivory Coast and in the Sahel region ready to intervene if necessary.

As Le Drian refers, in fact, the security environment in the country has significantly improved, but there are still problems to be solved. The disarmament of rebel movements and the creation of a legitimate and efficient army are the major challenges that the newly elected President Faustine Archange Touadera will face. This explains the permanence of international missions and French forces. As it is known, indeed, France cares about the relations with the territories once belonging to its colonial empire and has repeatedly helped in internal crisis by sending its armed forces.

The withdrawal from Bangui is not a surprise. From the beginning, French mission was supposed to be a temporary mission and over the years, France has tried to decrease- when conditions made it ​​possible- its military presence on the ground. However, ensuring the continued presence of some units in the future once again emphasizes French commitment abroad -a clear sign that, despite the international situation and the threats to the country, France defends its values ​​of free nation and his influential position in the former colonial empire.

 

Paola Fratantoni

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Iran’s economic offensive

Asia @en/Energy di

With the enforcement of the nuclear deal in January, several economic sanctions -which have wreaked havoc on Iran’s economy for years- has been lifted, thus paving the way for its re-integration into the international economic competition. However, as the Expediency Council points out, the hostility of many countries is still alive, along with their desire to curb the country’s economic recovery. Likewise, some countries, for example some European partners, will have to gradually win back Iran’s trust towards them. In other words, Tehran bets again on the well-known economy of resistance strategy, which has taught the country to maximize the use of national resources, while minimizing vulnerability and damage caused by sanctions. This policy, indeed, allowed the Iranian economy to survive decades of isolation, still being (in terms of GDP) the second of the Middle East and the seventh in Asia.

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The openness towards foreign countries will be carefully planned: the aim is to strengthen key economic areas, while continuing to exploit the internal resources, which have proved to be productive, such as industrial infrastructure and the petrochemical industry. Hence, priority is given to investment from abroad, increasing export of non-oil products and to address the problem of foreign exchange reserves still frozen by sanctions. At a time when international attention is focused on fighting ISIS, Tehran is launching its economic “offensive”, paving the way for trade agreements especially with Asian and African countries.

Concerning import-export, Iran and Russia are considering the creation of a free trade zone, as Russian Energy Minister Alexsandr Novak recently announced. The first draft of the project sets metal and chemical products as the main objects of Russian exports to Iran; in return, Iran would provide fruit and vegetables up to one billion dollars, a significant increase compared to the current trade ($194 million).

Important achievements also with Vietnam. The two countries aim to increase their trade value from 350 million to 2 billion over the next five years, with investment projects in several sectors, i.e. agriculture, tourism, energy  and technological innovations. In order to foster cooperation, their central banks have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding. Ongoing negotiations also with Turkey, Côte d’ Ivoire and other African countries, which are willing to enhance economic relations with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s achievements in energy, healthcare, technology and infrastructure make it an ideal partner to supply the needs of the African continent.

Two major projects are on the table in energy sector. The first concerns the construction of an undersea gas pipeline linking Iran to India: 1400 kilometers of infrastructure that will allow to bypass Pakistani exclusive economic zone, bringing up to 31.5 million cubic meters of gas per day in India. A big investment, about $ 4.5 billion, which confirms –and rewards- the good relations that the nations preserved even during the sanctions regime. The second new project is a scientific and technological cooperation between the Elettra Synchrotron of Trieste (Italy) and the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences in Tehran. Key points are the training of Iran’s scientific and technical personnel and the joint design of a new line of light, to be used both in the study of chemical and biological phenomena, and in industrial sectors.

Pakistan marks an important turning point in banking sector. As some sanctions are still in force, payment in dollars for products imported from Iran is not yet possible. Hence, Pakistani businessmen decided to open letters of credit (LCs) in euro rather than in the US currency. In this way, the American banks will be no longer the intermediate banks, but the European ones will clear the LCs.

To conclude, it seems that Iran has a clear economic strategy in mind. On the one hand, it focuses on internal resources, such as oil – Iran will begin to cooperate with other producing countries about freezing production only when the its output will reach the quota of 4 million barrels a day. On the other, it aims to strengthening key economic sectors, by intensifying relations with medium and big Asian powers, thus favoring them rather than Middle Eastern and Western countries, a clear sign that the distrust towards those who most benefited from sanctions is far from over.

 

Paola Fratantoni

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German divisions over immigration

Politics di

“A difficult day” for the party said German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the state election held last Sunday. The CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union) lost the majority in two out of three federal states, Baden – Wuttemberg and Rhineland- Palatinate. A remarkable result: although the CDU remains the main political force, we clearly see the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)party, led by Frauke Petry, gaining increasing support. Key issue: immigration policies.

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In response to the Syrian and Middle Eastern refugee crisis, Chancellor Merkel has been promoting an open-door policy, according to which Germany grants asylum to refugees and migrants coming from war zones. In 2015, more than a million people crossed the German border. A “humanitarian” policy, which distances itself from the position taken by other European countries. For instance, Slovenia has opted for closing the borders, while Austria has imposed stricter controls at the borders and a ceiling of refugees to be accepted.

Very different the approach presented by the AfD, which stands for securing the borders. “Asylchaos beenden” – the party’s motto- clearly shows the concern for national internal stability. The right-wing party supports a conservative political line, aimed to protect the traditional Christian values. The constant influx of Muslim immigrants is perceived as a threat to these values​​: a xenophobic attitude, then, that seems to get more support among the German population.

The AfD, in fact, is gaining votes also outside the traditional far-right supporters. Many conservatives, usually closer to the positions of the CDU but disillusioned by the centrist policies promoted by Merkel, have given their preference to the far-right. The alternative offered by Petry’s populist party, indeed, seems to get closer to their needs and ideas.

We are seeing a strongly polarized electorate. On the one hand, those who has supported and continues to support the open policies promoted by Merkel, whose real fear is not the influx of refugees , but the closure of borders . Doing so would endanger the European Union’s fundamental principles, such as the free movement of persons, free trade and the single currency. On the other hand, the far-right xenophobic party bets on a more radical approach, which aims to defend the national integrity and security at the expense of community values, indeed, the freedom of movement.

Nothing new nor surprising. We have already seen the same process in France with the rise of Le Pen’s xenophobic far-right party and now in the US with Trump’s successes. It seems that in Western countries the intolerance towards permissive policies on refugees and foreigners is sharply growing. And the sense of insecurity due to ongoing threats and attacks carried out in various European capitals certainly does not facilitate an opener position.

In the background of this internal conflict there are also the negotiation leading by the Bundeskanzlerin within the EU with Turkey, in order to sign an agreement on migrants. Erdogan has recently requested an extra 3bn Euros (on top of the 3bn Euros already made available), while proposing an exchange mechanism according to which for every Syrian refugee readmitted in Turkey, the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey to other EU Member States. “Understandable” demands, according to Germany; different reaction from other European leaders, such as the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel that defines the agreement as a sort of blackmail.

However, neither the outcome of the election, nor the conflicting opinions within the EU have changed Merkel’s plan: no U-turn in the open-door policy, while the agreement with Turkey still remains the only possible way to solve the crisis.

Likely, there will be consequences both at national and European level. In Germany, the CDU is not only facilitating the growth of far-right parties, but it is endangering the internal stability of its own party. Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU, sister party of the CDU in Bavaria, has heavily criticized Merkel’s decisions, saying that after similar electoral results the only acceptable response is a policy change. At European level, the distance between an EU-leading Germany and other Member States once again questions the credibility and stability of the institution as well as the effectiveness of any agreement achieved with Turkey. As there are many European countries to have interests at stake, an EU response must take into account these different needs. And if Merkel wants to maintain her leadership, she cannot close her eyes on other countries’ positions.

 

Paola Fratantoni

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Growing digitisation in the EU

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On 25th February, the European Commission published the result of the 2016 Edition of the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). Good news. Data show a general growth; however, we are still far away from the full development of our digital capabilities.

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What is the DESI?

The DESI is an online tool to measure the progress of EU Member States towards a digital economy and society. More than 30 indicators define the DESI and are grouped into five policy areas: connectivity (25 % of the total score), human capital/digital skills (25 %), Internet use (15 %), integration of digital technology (20 %) and digital public service (15 %). Indeed, this index is used to identify which sectors needs more investment in order to improve the country’s performance.

The index not only shows the general status of the European Union -still far from the level of digitalization of countries such as the US or Japan-, but also points out the considerable differences among Member States. Denmark, Sweden and Finland take the lead in Europe but they are also top countries in world rankings. At the very bottom are Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia: not only their DESI score is well below the EU average, but data show also a slower growth rate, which will increase the distance from the rest of EU members. The DESI, indeed, also shows the growth rate of the nation in the field of digital technologies. And here, once again, we can see a multi-speed Europe.

Some countries have a DESI score higher than the EU average, but also record a faster growth in the last year. We are talking about Austria, Estonia, Malta, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands. Good growth rates also in Italy, Croatia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia and Spain, although their DESI score currently remains below average. However, according to analysts, there are good hopes for these countries to reduce the distances from the most digitally advanced countries. By contrast, a drop has been recorded in the growth of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Belgium, Lithuania and Ireland, though they DESI scores are still high.

What should we do to improve the situation? Last year, the EU approved the Digital Single Market strategy, a set of initiatives that countries have to deliver by the end of 2016 in order to coordinate and standardize digitization processes in EU countries. This strategy is built on three pillars: improving access to goods and digital services for consumers and industries across Europe; create a favorable environment and equal opportunities for the development of digital networks; maximise the growth potential in the sector.

Apparently, the implemented strategy is paying off. 71% of European households now have broadband access at high speed (in 2014 only 62%), while the number of subscribers to mobile broadband has increased up to 75 contracts every 100 inhabitants (compared to 64 last year). It is true, however, that there is still a lot of work to do, especially in some sectors. As the DISE report points out, for example, almost 45% of Europeans do not have basic digital skills, e.g. the use of email or the main editing tools. The e-commerce is still far from being a reality for small and medium enterprises: only 16% of them sell their products online and only 7.5% across the border. Promoting online shopping is not enough: it is essential to encourage electronic commerce, by approving a better legislation to protect consumers, especially in cross-border shopping. Finally, the data on public services are not satisfactory at all. Despite a greater variety of services made available online by Public Administrations, it seems that only 32% of users actually use these platforms.

On one hand, therefore, it is important that the EU provides a coherent and effective legislation that protects both citizens and entrepreneurs; on the other, Member States must support the creation of the digital single market, investing in the most underdeveloped sectors and promoting the digitalization of civil society. Achieving this goal will revitalize the European economy in general and make our market more competitive, but it will also allow EU members to make the most of the untapped potential, creating new opportunities (especially across the border) for enterprises, but also for individuals.

 

Paola Fratantoni

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Iran: the country of Ayatollahs at the polls

26 February 2016. An historical date for Iran that, for the first time after the end of the international sanctions, calls its citizens to the polls for a double vote, Parliament and Assembly of Experts. This vote is also a test for President Hassan Rouhani, who, since 2013, has been promoting political and social reforms, characterised by openness towards the West. The outcome of these elections, indeed, will show both to what extend the reformist line of the President is rooted in the society and which could be the future developments for the Republic.

The first vote will be cast for the Parliament, Majlis, consisting of 290 seats, 5 of them allocated to non-Muslim religious minorities. The Parliament is the legislative body, responsible for passing legislation, approving the annual budget and signing international treaties. To date, its majority, conservative and fundamentalist, has sharply contrasted Rouhani’s policies. It is clear how a different arrangement may influence the country’s future actions, as well as its posture in the international arena. “You have created a new atmosphere with your vote” tweeted president Rouhani after the elections.

The Assembly of Experts, instead, is composed of 88 members, exclusively Islamic scholars, serving eight-year terms. In fact, it is the most important body in the country, as it elects the Supreme Leader, the most powerful political and religious position. Considering the poor health condition for the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is very likely that the newly elected Assembly will select his successor.

Therefore, it is not just a nomination of candidates: it is a choice between two opposite political paths. The first is headed by president Rouhani and characterised by openness –especially economic openness- towards the West and by an attempt to promote a positive image of the country in the world. On the other hand, Ayatollah Khamenei, conservative and openly against the West, is the spokesman of a policy that aims to pursue a resistance economy and a political system based on the power of the Revolutionary Guards.

The results of the elections, which was attended by nearly 60% of the electorate (about 33 million Iranians), could have relevant consequences for the future of the Islamic Republic. Reformists won, controlling 96 seats in Parliament, while fundamentalists and independents won respectively 91 and 25 seats. However, two aspects should be pointed out. First, the concept of “reformism” should be seen through the lens of Iranian culture. Their reformism is far away from our reformism. It’s always about fundamentalism, though hidden behind a curtain of openness towards the West. Suffice to say that the real reformists have been disqualified from the list of eligible candidates in both the Parliament and the Assembly.

Secondly, we should consider the electoral base. Reformists have gained ground in metropolitan areas, while fundamentalists obtained more consensus in rural districts, home for one third of the population. However, the eight major cities, where almost half of the Iranians lives, won only 57 of 290 seats in Parliament. Given that 52 of these seats will be allocated in a runoff in late April, it seems that games are still open.

So what next?

Perhaps greater openness, yes, but it doesn’t mean, as some people think (or hope), that Iran will turn into a Western democracy. It is likely, and desirable, a détente in the relations between Iran and the West. However, we should bear in mind that Iran is still a fundamentalist regime, based on Shari’a, which, to date, refuses to give voice to the real reformists, who advocate a significant change in the political, economic and social system. Reformism, indeed, does not mean democracy.

Moreover, it is hard to believe that fundamentalists will easily give up. As percentages show, their ideas are mainly rooted in the rural society, which can still significantly affected the final composition of the Parliament. More than this. If Teheran celebrated the outcome of the elections, the reaction in Qom, Iran’s Shiite heartland, was different. “People in the real Iran are the ones here, we respect and follow the path laid down by Ayatollah Khomeini and we must protect our values”, said a 23-year-old clerical worker.

Questions remain about the future of the country. Despite the victory of reformists, fundamentalist strands are still eradicated in both the political élite and the society. Inevitably, there will be a change: however, we should keep our feet on the ground. It remains to be seen, indeed, whether the path of reformism will actually shape an Iran closer to Western democracies, or whether the hard-line fundamentalism will find a way to regain the support lost, thus hampering the openness towards the West promoted by Rouhani in recent years.

Kuwait delays the Eurofighter deal

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A contract for 28 Eurofighter aircraft was to sign on 31st January between Italy and Kuwait. As an Italian Ministry of Defence source referred, the signature was delayed for “procedural reasons”. No leak about next meeting.

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The contract follows a memorandum of understanding signed between the Italian Minister of Defence Roberta Pinotti and the Kuwaiti colleague Khaled al-Jarrah al-Sabah in September 2015. According to the document, Kuwait has ordered 28 Eurofighter Typhoon (22 single-seat and 6 twin-seat) for a total value of 8.7 billion dollars. Announced deadline in 20 years.

The Eurofighter Consortium is driven by aerospace and defence industries of four European countries: Germany and Spain (Airbus), United Kingdom (BAE System) and Italy (Finmeccanica). But it’s the Italian company to grab the contract with Kuwait. Over 50% of the value of the deal will be earned by Finmeccanica, which will provide the design, development and production of the aircraft (Alenia Aermacchi) but also the on-board electronic systems (Selex ES).

The deal signed with Finmeccanica ends a negotiation begun in 2010, after Kuwait decision to replace the existing fleet of F-18 Hornet held by its air force. Initially, the choice fell on a new fleet of F-18 Super Hornet produced by the United States. However, repeated delays in the acquisition induced the emirate to opt for the Eurofighter programme. It is likely this choice also hides military and strategic considerations.

The F-18 is a swing-role, twin-engine and supersonic fighter, able to carry air-to-air and air-to-land weaponry. Though employed for several tasks (aerial recognition, close air support, interdiction and fighter escort), the F-18 is mainly a fighter-bomber and was introduced in Kuwaiti armed forces after the Gulf War.

Despite sharing similar features with the F-18 (both are twin-engine and multi-role aircraft), the Eurofighter Typhoon is primarily an air interdiction and air superiority fighter. Faster and more manoeuvrable, the aircraft is provided with electronically scanned array radar and advanced navigation, discovery and attack sensors. Technologically advanced munitions, mainly designed for air-to-air combat, complete the technical specifications of the aircraft, which has already shown its value in different operational theatres, such as Libya or the Baltic States.

Al-Shabab’s choice to rely on Eurofighter seems to reflect a national strategy aimed to strengthening the defensive military capabilities rather than the offensive ones. Twenty-eight air-superiority fighter jets will ensure greater safety in Kuwaiti skies, given their ability to intercept enemy aircraft or planes illegally entering Kuwait’s air space. Indeed, high speed and manoeuvrability make the Eurofighter the ideal candidate to intervene, should an imminent threat from neighbouring countries arise. Considering Kuwait geographical position and the level of insecurity that characterises the Middle East, Kuwaiti decision does not sound that inappropriate.

Kuwait’s urgency in reaching a deal first with the US, then with Italy, shows a feeling of uncertainty and the necessity to strengthen its military assets, in the view of a deterioration in the regional environment. After latest delays due to caveats about pilots’ training (Kuwait has agreed to train its pilots in Italy and not in the UK as initially requested), last obstacle is the approval from the Audit Court of Kuwait, which –apparently- didn’t have enough time to evaluate the final terms of the deal (Best and Final Offer, BAFO). As Minister Pinotti highlighted, during Wednesday meeting in Rome the Kuwaiti Minister of Defence has reiterated the willingness to sign the deal as soon as possible.

On its side, Italy has all the reasons to hold on such a commitment. First, a 20-year contract with a Middle Eastern country gives Italy the chance to reinforce its presence in a key strategic area, rich of commercial opportunities. Secondly, the contract gives Finmeccanica a significant economic momentum. As gen. Tricarico, former Chief of the Italian Air Force, states, “the contract is particularly important because it allows maintaining production lines -which would have fallen into disuse over years-, thus allowing also keeping jobs and know-how skills”. Finally, Italy’s leading role in the deal will have a two-fold benefit on our country: on one hand, it will allow Italy to gain weight within the Eurofighter consortium; on the other, a renewed confidence in its capabilities could lead Italy to rethink its position in the international affairs.

 

Paola Fratantoni

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