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PROJECTING POWER: THE SAUDI DESIGNS ON AFRICA

in AFRICA/MIDLE EAST/POLITICS by

Usually, when people talk about Saudi Arabia and its hegemonic policies, we tend to relate to the well-known rivalry between the monarchy and Iran, two capillary actors in the Middle East, who compete for the leadership in the region.

Recently, Riyadh has shown a deeper interest in other areas, such as the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. The strategic importance of these areas is widely recognised: around 13% of the world’s global trade flows across the Red Sea, which is connected to the south to the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb, an 18-mile chokepoint that handles around 4.8 million barrels a day of crude oil and refined petroleum products directed to Europe, USA and Asia. To the north, there is the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and allows 4 million barrels of oil and refined products to flow on a daily base.

Moreover, the Horn of Africa is rich in natural and human resources: hydropower and hydrocarbons have the same importance today as coal and steel in the industrialised Europe of the 1930s. The highlands of Ethiopia have a hydropower basin able to provide electricity to the entire region; oil and gas are also abundantly present in every country. However, infrastructure and investment are lacking, partly because of the instability and insecurity that dominate the region. Indeed, deep internal fractures and political instability plague several countries (including Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan), jihadist terrorism finds fertile ground for its expansion, Somali piracy threatens trade and security of the entire area and the war in Yemen worsens this already volatile scenario.

In recent years, the Saudi monarchy,  together with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has undertaken several projects in the area, to encourage regional cooperation and increase security conditions. If this general aim is true, it is also true that Riyadh has its own interest in intervening in this area. Recent events have, in fact, led King Salman to undertake new strategic paths. In the last period, we have seen Iran strengthening its position at the regional and global levels. Moreover, the killing of the journalist Khashoggi, the open criticisms of the US (with the exception of President Trump) and the accusations of the CIA against the Saudi sovereign have thrown a veil of uncertainty over the historic alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.

Not to forget the latest decisions in Washington’s foreign policy, such as the withdrawal from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) or the imminent withdrawal of troops from Syria that have floored its allies, especially in the region. Hence, if in past Saudi Arabia – and the other Middle Eastern countries – could count on the presence of the US Navy 5th Fleet in the Red Sea, today this guarantee would no longer be so granted.

These considerations and the desire to extend its influence in other territories, have pushed Saudi Arabia towards the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, aiming to develop its own security doctrine. This new doctrine would include collaboration with different partners, such as the UAE and other nations of the MENA region.

Thus, Red Wave 1 took place, a series of military exercises carried out in the Red Sea, attended by numerous countries including Jordan, Egypt, Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen and Sudan, as well as Saudi Arabia. Thanks to the military assets provided by these nations, the exercise involved various naval units, as well as Typhoon-type fighter jets and units used for shooting air and naval targets.

The main objective of this project is certainly to improve the security of an artery of international trade, but also to strengthen the naval defence of neighbouring countries, protect regional waters, promote military cooperation and the exchange of expertise and know-how among the participants.  In addition, among the active projects along the Red Sea coast, there is a commercial area of $ 500 billion shared with Jordan and Egypt and the construction of luxury resorts, future tourist destinations.

Citing the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir “This is part of the Kingdom’s effort to protect its interests and those of its neighbours and … to establish the region that we live in and to try to create synergies between the various countries “. Furthermore, if cooperation between the countries of the region increases, the interference and negative influence by external actors may decrease.

In conclusion, from a Saudi perspective, interest in Africa has a triple rationale: to lay the foundations of a new national security strategy; to project its power and influence into vital strategic territories, thus increasing national prestige and its image as a leading player in the region; to limit the interference of third parties, especially Western players. Saudi Arabia will then act as an alternative to the big powers that usually dominate the world scene, gaining a leading position also at the international level.

 

Paola Fratantoni

 

Pompeo’s tour in the Middle East

in MIDLE EAST/POLITICS/USA by

 

On Tuesday 8th January, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opens his tour in the Middle East visiting Jordan. The tour originally scheduled nine stops, including Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. However, due to family reasons, Pompeo had to cancel the final leg in Kuwait.

This tour comes at a time when the US is changing his policy toward Middle Eastern issues and his allies are questioning the new approach.

After the President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the nuclear deal signed with Iran and other Western countries during Obama’s administration, on 19th December the US President announced with a video on Twitter that he was pulling US forces out of Syria “now”.

Pompeo’s tour in the Arab countries can, therefore, be seen as an opportunity and means to clarify US position regarding Syria but also more broadly to define US policy in the Middle East.

Here the main points on the table.

–    US withdrawal from Syria does not mean that the US is withdrawing from the fight against the Islamic State, which is still a top priority for the White House. US partnership with the Arab countries, indeed, is essential to achieve some shared objectives in the region: defeating Daesh, countering Islamic terrorism, protecting global energy resources and countering Iran’s aggressive behaviour.

–    Unity among the GCC(Gulf Cooperation Council) is vital to achieving security and stability in the region. As Pompeo stressed, the internal dispute among the Gulf monarchies has gone far too long. Since June 2017, indeed, the Arab Quartet (UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) cut the diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing the country of funding terrorist groups and fostering instability in the Middle East. As a matter of fact, this situation hampers the efforts of the GCC to achieve common goals in the region. The GCC is a capillary institution in the Middle East: hence, its internal cohesion is an essential factor for the stability, prosperity, security and peace in the area.

–    The US strongly promotes the institution of a Middle East Strategic Alliance, also nicknamed Arab NATO. This organisation would join the GCC militaries with the militaries of other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan. This alliance would mainly counter Iran’s aggressive behaviour and protect the stability and security of the Arab countries.

–    US-Saudi relation is crucial for the stability in the region. In the Khashoggi issue –not clear if and how much Pompeo and the Saudi leader discussed it- President Trump stood by Saudi Arabia and this event –though clarification is still needed- has no hampered the relationship between the two countries. Saudi Arabia is a key actor in the anti-Iranian coalition. Moreover, the value of the arms purchases from Saudi Arabia is still a relevant fact for the US to consider.

–    Last but not least, Pompeo reiterates the need for peace in Yemen and call to boost effort in order to stop the bloody civil war that has been devastating the country for more than 3 years.

 

Trump administration approach in the Middle East has clearly moved away from Obama’s path in the past years, with the president not even trying to hide the criticism toward his predecessor. Indeed, Trump has repeatedly blamed Obama’s administration for his approach in the region, accusing of underestimating threats such as Daesh or Hezbollah.

In the past few months, Trump has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran and announced the imminent withdrawal from Syria; however, this does not mean a less presence or US interest in the regional issues, but it is a signal of a different posture. If Obama opted for engagement rather than confrontation with a country like Iran, Trump is taking the opposite path.

Note to mention that Iran, however, is not the kind of player that stays still and watches. By contrast, Teheran is strengthening its position in the region, supporting groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Moreover, it can count on some strategic allies, such as Syria, Russia and Turkey.

The risk is that the US might get engaged in a more complex and dangerous conflict that it could seem at first glance. Moreover, thought the US is working to align the Arab countries on the same path and join the effort toward the same goal -stability and security- there is still an important factor to consider. The Middle East is still sharply fragmented -ethnic division, religious schism, political rivalry, etc- and those countries that do not follow the US ideal of Middle East Strategic Alliance , like Iran, Syria, even Turkey or Yemen, play a peculiar role in the game, as their actions or the developments in their territories may considerably affect Washington’s project.

Hence, eyes on Trump and the Arab countries, as the withdrawal from Syria might not be the last twist of Trump’s policy in the Middle East. Moreover, the White House’s decisions may also trigger unexpected reactions of other players, as could be yesterday’s suicide bombing in Syria, the first one after Trump’s announcement, easy to relate to latest developments.

 

Paola Fratantoni

39th GCC SUMMIT: TENSIONS PERSIST AMONG THE GULF MONARCHIES

in MIDLE EAST/POLITICS by

 

 

 

 

The 39th GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) summit held in the Saudi capital Riyadh last Sunday. The GCC is an inter-governmental organization of six oil-exporting countries in the Middle East. Founded in 1981 in Riyadh, the GCC is a political and economic alliance and its member states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates-UAE, Oman and Bahrain) promote cooperation and unity within the region, pursuing common goals and protecting the cultural and identity values of the Islamic world. This alliance aims to strengthen relations between member countries at political, economic, cultural and military levels. The GCC has, indeed, a council for defence planning, which coordinates military cooperation between the six countries.

This harmony broke in June 2017, when the “Arab quartet” (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain publicly accused Qatar of supporting and financing terrorist groups. The quartet broke the diplomatic relations with the country and imposed air, naval and land embargoes. This event compromised the relations among the countries, but also the role of the GCC itself. Its credibility as a unified organization and a benchmark for the interests of the region is now inevitably questioned, as its ability to effectively guarantee unity, security and stability in the region.
Tensions are still high, especially after Qatar’s withdrawal from OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries – and the summit held in Riyadh is further confirmation.

It did not go unnoticed the absence of Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, who sent his foreign minister instead. A quick reaction came from the Foreign Minister of Kuwait, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, who criticized the absence of the Emir at the summit. Despite the tension, the summit took place following the objectives of the alliance, thus addressing issues related to the regional security, social, economic and political dynamics. During the opening meeting, the Saudi King Salman emphasized the need for greater cooperation to achieve regional stability and security. “The region goes through challenges, terrorism, and the Iranian threat,” said the Saudi monarch, who also urged the achievement of a political solution in Yemen. For years a civil war has devastated the country, thus fuelling instability in the Middle East and antagonisms between regional and global powers. Palestine, one of the organization’s top priorities, and Iran, a threat to monarchies and regional balance, were on the table too.

However, one of the biggest challenges that the GCC is currently facing is its own internal schism. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE openly oppose Qatar, while Kuwait and Oman are neutral to the disputes. The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad stressed the need to solve this division, calling on member states to strengthen unity and cooperation within the alliance, thus preserving the GCC position and role, and safeguarding the interests of their peoples. Here the seven steps listed in the Riyadh Declaration, signed at the end of the conference, essential to carry forward the objectives of the alliance.

1. Integration. The Council approved the development of a roadmap that includes the activation of the procedures necessary to achieve the objectives of integration between the GCC countries and to create a framework for their relations with the international community. Integration is intended here at multiple levels, from harmonizing economic reforms within the GCC countries to strengthening the security and stability of the region, improving the performance of the Council itself and consolidating its role both at regional and international levels.

2. Adherence to the time schedule for the implementation of economic reforms. The GCC countries set a plan to achieve economic integration among member states: the Council renews the importance of respecting these deadlines. Economic integration is, indeed, an essential step to set favourable conditions for a “Gulf” market and a customs union.

3. Collective defence. During the summit, member states appointed the commander of the unified military command of the GCC, an important step for the formation of a collective defence system. Furthermore, directives were given in order to speed up the procedures for the activation of this command and for the foundation of the Gulf Academy of Strategic and Security Studies. The aim is to give the command solid grounds and to form a qualified “Gulf” military class.

4. Security. The GCC leaders emphasized the need to maintain the security and stability of the region, combat terrorist organizations and extremist ideologies, through the promotion of values of tolerance, pluralism and justice, a benchmark of the Islamic religion and the Arab tradition.

5. Unified foreign policy. The leaders of the six countries underline the importance of unity in foreign policy, basing choices on the Council Statute and working to preserve regional interests and avoid local and international conflicts. They renewed their support for the Palestinian cause and the commitment to help the “brothers” in Yemen and other Arab countries to achieve peace, prosperity and security in their countries.

6. Strengthen strategic partnerships. In today’s environment, it is essential to strengthen strategic partnerships, at economic, cultural, military and political levels, among GCC members, between them and their friendly nations, as well as with different regional blocs. The GCC summits, therefore, renew their commitment to assist friendly countries, through humanitarian and development programs.

7. Maintaining the objectives achieved by the Council. At a time when the credibility of the GCC is being questioned, the leaders of the member countries reaffirm the value of the objectives achieved to date, the need to preserve them and to continue to promote projects aimed at achieving the goals of the organization.
Although the summit was valued positively, as claimed by the Emir of Kuwait, the major obstacle to achieving the GCC objectives is the schism within the group. To date, there is no concrete basis for an improvement in the situation.

During an event at the Council on Foreign Relations, the American think tank, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, expressed little positive opinion about the possibility that the GCC will continue to play that role of a unitary block that he had gained over the years. “When the GCC crisis started and they started, they enforced the blockade on Qatar, it changed everything. It changed the perspective on the eyes of the people. Shows that the GCC became an ineffective tool even to resolve its own problem because we would not be able to reach such a level of tension “.

On the other hand, the UAE and Saudi Arabia keep firmly their positions. The recent exit of Qatar from OPEC does little to reassure the minds. Beyond the economic aspect – hence the possibility of increasing the production of crude oil without the restrictions imposed by the Organization (though Qatar has declared an intention to invest massively in natural gas- the choice of the monarchy is seen as a challenge to the predominant role of Saudi Arabia and, therefore, an attempt to change the balance of the Middle Eastern geopolitical chessboard.
Worth to mention that all is happening in a region where Iran still is a destabilizing factor, the civil war in Syria is far from a solution, the Arab-Israeli conflict is vividly alive, the proliferation of terrorist groups does not stop and the interests at stake they are high.

Although the GCC could have been – and potentially still could be- the actor capable of guaranteeing order and security in the region, the road to actually achieving this goal seems to be far longer and more impervious than the Arab leaders have outlined on Sunday. To give stability to a region characterized by conflicts, struggles for hegemony, cultural and religious differences, it is primarily necessary to achieve internal unity among those who want to be the active players of this change. Perhaps, among the points of the declaration, a “solve our internal schism first…” should have been written …

 

Paola Fratantoni

Iraqi pro-govt troops says on high alert ahead of parliamentary elections

in DEFENCE/MIDLE EAST by

The pro-government paramilitary troops have announced repulsing a terrorist scheme by Islamic State to target the upcoming parliamentary elections, the command announced on Wednesday. A statement by the media service of al-Hashd al-Shaabi said, “as the Iraqi parliamentary elections, slated for May 12, near, the troops became on high alert to secure the border strip fearing any violations in Anbar and border areas.” The troops, along with security troops, “managed to carry out operations on the common borders with Syria in 2017 to eliminate IS members in Qaim, Rawa and Akashat regions as well as securing their vicinities,” the statement added. “Local police and army, backed by al-Hashd al-Shaabi, were tasked with securing the regions and towns that are near to the western desert of Anbar ahead of elections,” it said.

Ayatollah Khamenei stresses muslim world’s scientific progress

in MIDLE EAST/TECHNOLOGY by

Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei urged efforts for scientific progress in the Islamic world, voicing Iran’s readiness to share its scientific achievements and expertise with other Muslim nations. The Islamic world’s elites should establish a large-scale intellectual movement and a public demand for scientific growth and reaching the peak of science and knowledge,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a gathering of participants in the Congress on the Role of Shiite Islam in the Emergence and Promotion of Islamic Sciences, held in Tehran on Saturday. Referring to the West’s use of Muslim knowledge to compensate for centuries of scientific underdevelopment, the Leader said Westerners took advantage of the achievements of Muslims to gain wealth and scientific and military power to colonize Islamic nations.

“Such conditions need to change with the scientific progress of Islamic countries, and the Islamic world can once again be at the top of human civilization,” Ayatollah Khamenei added. The Leader also reiterated the call for Muslim unity and avoiding conflicts among Islamic denominations, stressing that any plan helping Muslims gain a better understanding of each other and allowing for synergy will contribute to Muslim solidarity. Ayatollah Khamenei then pointed to reports by international centers that the rate of Iran’s scientific growth in recent years has been 13 times faster than the world average, stressing, “We will continue on this path until reaching the boundaries of science and knowledge.” “Unlike the Westerners, Iran is ready to transfer its achievements and scientific growth to other Islamic countries,” the Leader said.

Rouhani calls Trump’s Iran nuclear deal withdrawal “psychological war”

in DEFENCE/MIDLE EAST by

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday that Tehran has adopted necessary measures to confront new anti-Iran pressures, saying that his US counterpart is launching psychological war and economic pressure on Tehran by announcing withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. “The Iranian nation will be more united and determined than ever. Trump is exerting economic pressure on Iran and launching psychological war, but we won’t let him achieve what he wants,” Rouhani said, addressing nation right after Trump’s announcement of the US decision to pull out of the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Stressing that Trumps decision was a historical experience for Iran, Rouhani noted that the US president has a history of undermining international treaties. “Tonight, it was proved that we were right for decades.

Iran is a country that remains committed to its promises, and the US is a country that has never lived up to its commitments.” He further noted that the JCPOA is not a deal between Iran and the US and the JCPOA has been a multilateral agreement approved by the UN. “The US tonight showed it is not committed to the agreements it signs, as it did on the Paris Climate and other trade agreements.” Rouhani also noted that Iran would remain in the nuclear deal without the US, saying, “From now on, the Iran nuclear deal will be a deal between Iran and five countries. The Group 5+1 has lost one of its parties.” The Iranian president then announced that he has ordered the foreign ministry to start talks with other five parties to the nuclear deal within the coming weeks. “After these talks,” Rouhani said, “If we conclude that we can achieve the results we expected from the deal, the JCPOA will remain in place regardless of the US decision.” Rouhani at the same time said that if Iran’s interests are not guaranteed, “I’ll soon address the nation and share with them the Establishment’s decision.”

Over 12000 observers monitor Iraqi elections

in MIDLE EAST/POLITICS by

More than 12,000 observers will monitor Iraqi parliamentary election on May 12 in Kirkuk, a spokesman of Kirkuk-branch of the electoral commission said on Tuesday (May 8). Spokesman of Kirkuk-branch of the Iraqi High Independent Electoral Commission (IHEC), Abdulstar Shwani said over 40 channels will also observe the parliamentary election next week in the city. “The preparations are in the final stage in Kirkuk,” Shwani told NRT. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces, federal police and security forces will maintain security in the city during the day of election, he added. Iraqi army helicopters will also observe the ballot stations in Kirkuk, according to the spokesman of Kirkuk-branch of the electoral commission.

Iraq is due to hold private election for security forces in the Defense and Interior Ministries on Thursday, he said. General election is held of Saturday. Around 7,000 candidates are competing to win the 329 seats in the Council of Representatives. A total of 24 million Iraqis are eligible to cast their votes to elect members of parliament, who will in turn elect the Iraqi President and Prime Minister. The parliamentary election will be the first general election since Iraq’s victory over Islamic State in December last year.

Iraqi warplanes strike ISIS positions in Syria for second time

in DEFENCE/MIDLE EAST by

The Iraqi Air Force has launched airstrikes against positions of the Islamic State militant group inside Syrian territory, the media office of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said Sunday. “The heroes of the Iraqi Air Force have dealt a severe blow to the site of the leaders of Daesh south of al-Dashisha village inside the Syrian territory,” the media office said in a statement referring to ISIS by a different acronym. Al-Dashisha village located in south of Hasakah.  The airstrikes by Iraqi warplanes in Syrian territory were second of their kind this year.

ISIS positions were hit by Iraqi airstrikes on April 19 following anorder by the Iraqi Prime Minister. At that time, Iraq said that the threat that ISIS militants pose in Syria to Iraq led to the strikes to be launched. “Our forces, our fighters and their pursuit of the terrorist gangs saved many lives and thwarted plans,” it said, adding that “these strikes will help accelerate elimination of the organization in the region after it was eliminated militarily in Iraq.”

Rouhani: “Iran could remain in JCPOA if interests guaranteed”

in DEFENCE/MIDLE EAST by

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said if the US decided to scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the other parties should guarantee that Iran will get all it wants from the 2015 nuclear agreement.  The US will be the real loser if it walks away from the nuclear accord, he added. “We have our own plan. Either what we demand from the JCPOA is fulfilled by the non-American (parties), (and in that case) the US withdrawal will be the removal of a trouble, or we (will resort to) our legal and rational option… if what we expect is not fully accomplished,” the president said.

He warned Washington against the “strategic mistake” of withdrawing from the nuclear deal, reiterating though that Iran has no concerns about the US’s cruel policies and wrong moves. US President Donald Trump in January set a 120-day deadline for US lawmakers and European allies to “fix” his predecessor Barack Obama’s main foreign policy achievement or face a US exit.

Iraqi foreign minister looks to boost ties in Ankara

in ECONOMY/MIDLE EAST by

During a meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Turkish Minister of Customs and Trade Bulent Tufenkegi expressed on Saturday (May 5) expressed his country’s desire to expand the Ibrahim al-Khalil crossing with Iraq and to open an additional gate in Feshkhabur in northwestern Iraq. “The unity, stability, and well-being of Iraq are the stability of Turkey. Iraq is a strong economic partner of Turkey and Turkish companies account for a large percentage of foreign companies in its southern neighbor,” he said. “Turkey is hosting a forum for the reconstruction of Iraq and providing investment support. [We are also convening] meetings of the Federation of Iraqi Chambers of Commerce and the Turkish Foreign Trade Relations Commission and meetings between Iraqi banks and Turkish banks, to increase the volume of cooperation,” he said.

Baghdad took control of the Ibrahim Khalil and Feshkhabur border crossings with Turkey following law enforcement and security operations carried out in the disputed areas with the Kurdistan region in October. The 18th session of the Iraqi-Turkish Joint Committee for Economic and Technical Cooperation was held in Ankara on Saturday, during which the minutes of the meetings were signed, including the activation of the comprehensive economic partnership agreements signed in 2009, the promotion and protection of mutual investments. Additionally, they discussed the issues of water, energy, industry, agriculture, health, environment, culture, tourism, education, science, and technology, “according to Jaafari.

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