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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

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

President Duterte wants peaceful relations with US

BreakingNews @en di

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said that he does not want to make an enemy out of the United States anymore, following the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election. In a speech before the Filipino community on the first day of his two-day official visit in Malaysia on Wednesday, Duterte briefly recounted the controversy surrounding his quarrel with his country’s long-standing ally, the US, and the advice he received to stop swearing at the western country and its leaders.

Donald Trump congratulated by Saudi King Salman for winning the US presidency

BreakingNews @en/Politics di

Saudi King Salman on Wednesday has congratulated the Republican Donald Trump for winning the US presidency and said that Saudi Arabia government and its people offer their best wishes for the new US leader. The king also wished more progress for the US government and its people, and more ease for the new Trump administration to be able to achieve security and stability not only in the Middle East but all around the world.

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.

Rouhani in Rome: Italian-Israeli relations at risk?

Politics di

 

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani begins his tour in Europe from Italy. It is the first time after the lifting of the international sanctions against Iran. A sign of openness towards the West, it also shows Iran’s willingness to restore and strengthen its relationship with European countries, such as Italy.

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The Iranian leader’s trip to Italy has a triple meaning. From a political perspective, Rouhani’s visit comes at a significant moment both for Iran and for the Middle East. Indeed, the lifting of the international sanctions and the nuclear deal boost Iran relationship with the rest of the world, thus ending decades of political isolation. This gives also Teheran a chance to contribute to solving ME security problems.

Secondly, the religious dimension. The meeting between a Shiite Muslim leader and the highest representative of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is an important event in a time when the sectarian tensions and the increasing threat of Islamic terrorism make it difficult the coexistence between different faiths. In the Catholic Rome, Rouhani portraits the good side of Islam and the Vatican itself talks about “common spiritual values” and the importance of Iran for peace in the Middle East.

Final point on Rouhani’s agenda is economy. Seven institutional agreements have been signed, including an understanding between Mise and the Iranian Ministry of Industries and Mines. New business deals cover also energy and mining, constructions, shipbuilding and transport industries, reaching an amount of about 17 billion.

Despite criticism and controversies (as the one related to the covering up of naked statues in Capitoline Museum), Rouhani’s visit marks a relevant rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and Italy. An Italy that, while adhering to international sanctions, has maintained good relations with the Arab country, based -today as in the past- on mutual benefit.

Politically, strengthening ties with a European country means, for Iran, to be freed from the isolation of the past years and to project again the nation in the European and international environment. To be acknowledged a capillary role in restoring stability in the Middle East gives back legitimacy to a country that has been seen for decades as a threat to regional and global security. On the other hand, Italy acquires a vital ally in the fight against international terrorism and, by mediating the reintegration of Iran in world major fora, it can gain in terms of diplomatic influence.

Economically speaking, the lifting of the sanctions not only comes as a breath of fresh air for Iran, but it also paves the way for new investments in Italy. Iran has a young population, attracted by Western markets, especially those of luxury, car and fashion. Therefore, Iran can be an important partner to relaunch the “Made in Italy”.

However, what will be the reaction of the historic enemy of the Islamic Republic, Israel? Which repercussions could there be in the relationship between Italy and the Jewish country?

Historically, Italy has had good relations with Israel, based on cooperation in the political, economic, scientific, cultural and military areas. A promoter of the peace process in ME and of the creation of the State of Palestine, the Italian government has always worked in order to hinder the spread of anti-Semitism in the region and to facilitate the dialogue between Israel and the neighboring Arab states. The end of sanctions and the nuclear deal (with respect to which Israel has openly expressed his disagreement) have alarmed Netanyahu government about a possible resurgence of Iran. Seeing a traditionally friend state –as Italy- that strengthens its ties with the Islamic Republic, could actually create friction between Rome and Jerusalem.

The key factor in this balance may be the military element. The agreements signed between Rome and Tehran do not include the military sector, neither in terms of military capabilities nor of training. A similar low profile is presumably acceptable to Israel for a twofold reason. On the one hand, it does not affect Iranian military capacity; on the other, the actual opening to Iran is a positive sign for its allies (e.g. Russia). By contrast, a closing attitude towards Iran might stiffen the relationships between the West and Iran’s friends, thus undermining efforts to tackle other common threats, such as the Islamic State.

Hence, it is hard to believe that Italy could opt for an either-or option, which will exclude relations with one of the two countries in favor of the other. In his meeting with the Iranian president, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has pointed out the importance of relations with Israel and the right/duty of the latter to exist as a State. Considering the interests at stake and Italian political traditions, it is more likely, therefore, that the government will opt for maintaining a balanced position: a strategic choice that ensures the benefits of trade with Iran without irritating Israel.

 

Paola Fratantoni

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Iran-Saudi Arabia: the most dangerous fight

Politics di

 

The contrast between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been a sort of Cold War for years, is likely to turn into a “hot” conflict. The rivalry between the two Middle East big powers is everything but new. However, latest events –the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the continuous drop in oil price and the end of international sanctions against Iran- have added fuel to the fire, thus causing concern about the regional and global stability.

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The reasons behind tensions

The religious factor. Saudi Arabia, almost entirely Muslim, has a Sunni-majority population (the real family professes the Wahhabi ideology, a minor stream of Sunni Islam). Shiites, around 15% of the population, are concentrated in the eastern province of Al-Sharqiyah. They push for autonomy and the monarchy accuses Iran to foster their aspiration. By contrast, the Islamic Republic represents Shia Muslims, who are more than 90% of Iranian population. Self-proclaimed as protectors respectively of Sunni and Shia communities, SA and Iran stand for opposite tradition and interests, which result in a real sectarian conflict.

The black gold. SA is one of the biggest producer of crude oil and in 2014 the country has significantly increased its production, resulting in a price collapse which was aimed to target not only Iranian market and Moscow’s revenue, but also to make it economically inconvenient for the USA the extraction of shale oil. However, Riyadh’s plans haven’t gone perfectly, with US and Russia still playing a leading role in the energy market. A considerable setback for Saudi Arabia, at a time when the lifting of international sanctions against Iran pushes one of SA biggest competitor back in the game.

The regional hegemony. SA has a significant geopolitical weight, due both to its strong participation in regional and global affairs, but also to its relationship with the Gulf countries and the US. This position has often turned into an attempt to impose its political and religious leadership in the region. This fact not only raises friction within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) –for example with Qatar- but also makes it almost impossible a peaceful coexistence with Iran. On the other hand, in fact, the Islamic Republic, after decades of international isolation, aims to establish its supremacy in the Middle East, where SA, along with Israel-a Jewish country, friend to the US- curbs its ambition.

What future?

It is hard to believe that some form of cooperation between Iran and SA is possible, especially after the killing of the Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, who encouraged Saudi Shiites to take side against the government and along with Iran. The execution of the leader is a clear message to the population, while the following break of diplomatic relations is a clear political signal. The consequences are not late to come: the UAE, Kuwait, Sudan, Qatar and Bahrain have already ceased the relations with the Islamic Republic.

Similarly, an open conflict is unlikely to happen. With a budget deficit of about $100 billion, it would be illogical for the Saudi monarchy to undertake an armed conflict. Iran has just been freed from those sanctions that have hampered country’s development, while it’s showing openness towards the US. Declaring war to SA could play against its own interest, inevitably involving other powers-USA, Russia, Israel- and adding new instability to the already volatile game of power in the region.

This condition of “cold war” is the most likely scenario, with peaks of tension between the Iranian and Saudi capitals, and “hot” clashes confined to peripheral theatres like Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, where Tehran and Riyadh support respectively Shia and Sunni groups.

Unfortunately, another actor plays a key role in this context: the Islamic State. ISIS is spreading among Sunni community, thus worrying Riyadh, which is trying to preserve its influence among Sunni population. On the other hand, Iran is fighting ISIS forces but only to a certain extent. Indeed, Iran could benefit from a conflict between ISIS and SA, as this could gradually weakens both the actors, thus leaving Iran free to confirm itself as regional leader. However, the serious risk is that this game gets out of control, considering the support that ISIS is still finding locally and globally.

It seems that the instability in Middle East is doomed to persist. Moreover, these tensions might break out in a series of conflicts at several levels, involving several actors and following multiple and different political agendas. Will there be a second Iraq, with a vacuum of power and foreign powers ready to step in or it will be one of the regional rival to take the lead? Or will the most feared actor win and the entire Middle East fall under the brutal force of jihadist terrorism?

 

Paola Fratantoni

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Immigration beyond the Channel

Politics di

That Great Britain has never been a supporter of a Europe without borders is nothing new. However, what we are recently witnessing is an increasing rift between British approach to asylum and immigration and the one adopted by other EU members, with criticism arising from both the latter and forces within the country.

The UK, which doesn’t adhere to Schengen Agreements, has a particular position concerning the arrival of foreigners in the country. A strict policy, which doesn’t categorically exclude immigration but allows it in a controlled form. It encourages the entry of skilled workers and students, potential resources for the future. Conservatives’ key principle is simple: protecting country’s interests and security. Therefore, those who want to work hard and contribute to this goal are more than welcomed; no place for the others.

If a similar approach doesn’t draw particular attention in normal times, perspectives change when a massive wave of migrants affects the whole European territory, altering the internal balance of several countries. In the last years, Europe has witnessed two major waves of migration. The first coming from Libya, the second from Syria; both the two still in progress (though with different characteristics and intensity), both related to the breakout of conflicts in those countries, thus forcing people to look for a better future on the other shore of the Mediterranean.

These waves of refugees have provoked emergencies across first countries of arrival –above all Italy, Greece and Spain-, which had to welcome a number of people that goes beyond the capabilities of existing welcome facilities. Hence, the call for help to EU partners, in an attempt to share more equitably the burden of people arriving, thus guaranteeing them acceptable living conditions without compromising security and order of the country itself.

Britain seems to turn a deaf ear. During the Libyan crisis, Mr Cameron made the Royal Navy available for rescue operations in the Mediterranean, but categorically excluded the creation of welcome facilities in British territories. However, if help was needed, it wasn’t at sea, but on land, after the rescue. Syrian crisis did not make British government more inclined to support the EU allies. Opt-out from the UK, indeed, on EU quota system, which consists in the relocation of 160,000 refugees currently in Italy, Greece and Hungary among other EU countries, in proportion to the capacities of the country. However, British PM promises to accommodate 20,000 refuges over the next five years: quite a paltry sum if compared to the commitment of other nations, e.g. Germany, which accepted to take up to 800,000 refugees by the end of 2015. Moreover, British offer concerns only refugees still in the Middle East and not the ones already arrived in Europe, solution that –as EU members have noticed- doesn’t really help to alleviate the emergency situation in first countries of arrival.

Hot spot in EU fora, immigration issues are an element of tension between the political and social forces of the country. Major criticisms come from the Labour Party, which considers inadequate the support provided by Cameron. They refer to human rights, fundamental principles of the EU and to the history of their country, a sanctuary of hope and hospitality after the Second World War. What happened to this tradition? What do the rights enlisted in the Magna Charta and the Universal Declaration mean?

In respect to these rights, another criticism arises from a different actor, British Charities. The major disagreement is related to families’ reunions, allowed by the system in place but with several restrictions. Only spouses and children under 18 are allowed to enter the country. Adult and other relatives are excluded from these lucky people. Why? Aren’t they experiencing the same pain? If you look at children, the situation is even worse. Unaccompanied children have no right to reunite to their families, even their parents. As the traumas of war, of the escape, of the arrival in a foreign country, where they don’t even know the language, would not be enough. In addition, the distance from their loved ones, the awareness of not being able to see them and the uncertainty about their future and lives. Where are human rights?

The question is: can we do something more? Maybe yes. Hence, one wonders why a country like Britain, -built on certain values and principles and with an economic capability that allows to afford a stronger efforts- pulls back, turning his back to the EU allies, when his help is most needed, but also compromising that image of guarantor of rights that has been built over the centuries. A UK that seems to take more distance from Europe, in order to protect its borders. How far can this go before such an attitude becomes counterproductive? It is no longer just a matter of Brexit or not Brexit. It runs the risk of challenging Nation’s fundamental values, with the following implications this may have in terms of internal stability.

Tornado Le Pen: towards the end of Europe?

Politics di

France finally heaves a sigh of relief. Indeed, the second ballot of the administrative elections has knocked Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) out, the same that won the first round. French far-right fails to win a single region, while seven go to Republicans and five to Socialists. But there’s another side of the coin: in the first round FN gets 6 million votes; in second ballot the number reaches the peak of 6.7 million, almost 11.6% more. These figures show that something is changing in French electorate and Republicans and Socialists now have a real adversary to beat. As French far-right leader Marine Le Pen already mentioned, this defeat will not stop their run and the dream of 2017 presidential elections is still alive.

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So, what is FN standing for and why is France so afraid?

French people and France come first. In such a multi-ethnic and multicultural society as the French one, far-right party wants to protect first the interests of France and French citizens. This inevitably clashes with immigration issues, about which France has usually adopted a less strict approach, compared to other European countries. Mrs Le Pen proposes changes. Reviewing Schengen and increasing controls, reducing illegal immigration, but also limiting legal immigration and free assistance to “sans papiers”.

On one hand, a greater closure toward outside; on the other, improving nation’s position in the world. Avowedly Eurosceptic, Marine Le Pen highlights weaknesses and limits of institutions such as the European Union, whose technocracy clips nations’ wings. A centrifugal force that would like to push France outside the EU, but also outside NATO, thus freeing from all their ties and obligations and restoring nation’s diplomatic and military independence.

Immune to accusation of fascism or xenophobic and anti-European populism, Mrs Le Pen has enough energy and determination to stand as a thorny adversary. In addition, she has those 6 million and more votes. Those French people that chose a far-right party, which talks less about community and assistance and more about what is actually and practically needed to restore security and stability, dragged off by latest months’ terrorist attacks.

Strict positions, then, which scared French political class but also other European countries, where extremist and Eurosceptic parties have widely broaden in recent years. We’re talking about the British UKIP, which supports Brexit, or the Italian Lega Nord, which advocates the exit from Eurozone but also a review of EU structure. In Poland itself, traditionally involved in communitarian policies, Euro sceptics won, thus taking away one of the strongest EU supporters.

It is clear that French voice is not a single on in the European arena. And recent events didn’t help to change their minds. By contrast, what happened has just strengthened the believes of those disappointed by the Union, an Union that exists on paper but lacks of efficiency and rationality. A Union that is strongly driven by German decisions (and interests). A Union that failed in providing security to its members and whose strict economic policies have basically sharpened the economic crisis, thus turning EU in a less attractive institution.

Thus, that’s why politicians fear Mrs Le Pen. Because she has passion and willing to take a leading role and foster a knock-on effect across anti-European forces, creating a single front that could push for a substantial modification of EU structure. First steps have already been taken. Matteo Salvini, Lega Nord’s leader, announced a common plan with Marine Le Pen to review EU treaties, from Maastricht to Schengen. Waiting for Milan Summit in January, where all Eurosceptic parties will meet up and discuss an alternative solution to present Europe.

It seems that scepticism toward EU keeps on increasing, although it misses unity of action. Mrs Le Pen’s France might get the leadership and lead anti-European parties to play a stronger role both at national and international levels. Geopolitical context is evolving: threats and fear grow, along with disappointment and willing to do something more. The European Union has to give an answer to those changes and adapt to the new environment and members’ needs. Ad hoc alliances are not the solution. As Clausewitz teaches, “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”.

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Paola Fratantoni
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