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. Continue reading “PROJECTING POWER: THE SAUDI DESIGNS ON AFRICA” »
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.
On 15th April the 29th edition of the Arab League Summit ended. The meeting, held in Dharan (Saudi Arabia), has gathered the 21 active members of the Arab League and some key personalities of the International arena, such as the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, the chairman African Union Commission Moussa Faki and the Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres. The only missing member was Syria, suspended by the League in November 2011, when protests arose in the country and the regime reacted with violence over civilians.
Most of the countries were represented by heads of State or Government; Qatar, instead, sent his representative to the Arab League. The rest of the Arab community did not take the decision so well. As we know, the relationships between the Gulf monarchy and several Arab and Middle Eastern nations have sharply deteriorated in the past few months, thus causing a diplomatic crisis among neighbours. In particular, on 5th June, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke their diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing the country of supporting extremist and terrorist groups. Anyways, the Gulf nation received the invitation to the summit, also being ensured that the diplomatic crisis would not have been a topic on the summit’s agenda. Therefore, the absence of the Emir of Qatar has been seen as a sign of arrogance, thus fuelling the already tense relations.
The meeting focused on the topics on the agenda, showing alignment among leaders on major and essential issues related to the balance of power in the region but also to the relations among the Arab community and other external actors.
Three main topics on the table: the Arab-Israeli dispute, the war in Yemen and the dangerous influence of Iran. Not on the list, instead, neither the diplomatic crisis with Qatar nor the war in Syria. However, in a statement published by the Arab League after the summit, the League called for “independent International investigation to guarantee the application of the International law against anyone proven to have used chemical weapons”. To be noted that the summit started 24 hours after the US, UK and France launched air strikes on Syrian military installations in response to a chemical attack on rebels in Eastern Ghouta. Both Syria and Russia denied the action.
PALESTINE AND ISRAEL
Lights on Palestine and Israel. The Arab community showed an interesting position. On one hand, the countries have unanimously condemned president Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus officially recognising the latter as the capital of Israel. The US has traditionally played the role of mediator in the dispute between Palestine and Israel; hence, such a decision was seen by the Arab leaders as a significant shift from a neutral position, to the one of a direct stakeholder. Given the volatile situation in the Middle East, this move is not only relevant but potentially dangerous. King Salman -who named the meeting “Jerusalem Summit” to stress the solidarity of Arab countries towards the Palestinian people- reaffirmed during the day that Arab leaders recognise the right of Palestinians to establish their own independent nation, with Jerusalem as the capital. According to them, East Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinian territory. Moreover, King Salman announced the donation of $ 150 million to the religious administration that runs the Islamic religious sites in Jerusalem, such as the Al-Aqsa mosque and other $50 million to the programmes conducted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).
On the other hand, the Arab leaders- all but the Palestinian president Abbas- supported the peace plan presented by Trump. Although the details of this plane have not been notified yet, it is likely that it would be printed on a two-state solution.
WAR IN YEMEN
Another hot topic was the war in Yemen. After three years, this civil conflict is still on and involves several nations, both Arab and foreign ones, such as the US and Russia, both on a military level and a political one. The fight sets forces supporting the government of President Hadi, who, however, has lost control of several areas of the country against the Houthi rebels, who fight along with the former president Saleh and are militarily and financially supported by Iran. To complete the picture, we should add the Saudi-led military coalition, which involves also Western powers such as France and the UK, and Middle Eastern allies, as the United Arab Emirates. Once again, the Arab leaders reiterated their commitment to restore the unity, integrity, security, sovereignty and independence of Yemen. According to them, the Houthi bear the full responsibility for the situation and this assumption leads to the third main topic of the summit, that is Iran’s aggressive behaviour in foreign policy.
IRAN’S AGGRESSIVE POLICY
The summit was also an opportunity to condemn Iranian foreign policy, too often driven by an aggressive behaviour and persistent violation of the principles of the international law. First and foremost, Teheran’s support to the Houthis in Yemen, but also to President Assad in Syria. It seems clear that King Salman took the summit as a chance to align his Arab friends against his historic rival, Iran. To date, Iran is seen as the main cause of instability in the region, “guilty” as it is of using its military and financial resources to foster proxy wars in countries already devastated by a civil war, such as, indeed, Syria and Yemen. As already mentioned, the Iranian Shiite militias are fighting in Syria along with Assad’s regime, Shiite as well. Similarly, in Yemen, Iran’s military experience and weapons offer a valuable help to the Houthis, who have managed to take control of several areas of the country, included the capital Sana’a. The replay came almost immediately from Tehran. The spokesperson of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bahram Qasemi clearly stated that the accusation lifted during the summit was just the result of the pressure of Saudi Arabia, his main foe but also the host of the summit.
As we can see, the situation in the Middle East is still very tense. Though countries share some objectives and intentions, there are lots of hot topics still on the table but most of all there is no plan or clear “course of action” to achieve these aims. It is desirable that this unity of thoughts will soon turn into practical actions, which would lead –step by step- to improve the security and stability in the region.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who is leading a Macedonian delegation at the 16+1 Summit in Budapest, kicked off Monday official activities as part of the key forum of heads of government Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC) and China.Zaev addressed a plenary session at an economic, trade and financial forum of the 16+1 summit and presented Macedonia’s positions to the event’s participants, namely heads of government, the government press service said. Leaders need to be focused and should work hard to create opportunities for economic development and conditions to improve the standards of living of the citizens, Zaev said in his address adding that these issues had become extremely important in the era of globalization.The Macedonian government, he added, will continue to conduct activities that aim at significantly improving the business climate by introducing better institutional infrastructure to attract investments, thus contributing to an accelerated economic growth, development of the private sector and job creation.In the spirit of cooperation, Macedonia and China cooperate in many fields, most notably in healthcare and medicine. To that end, the government recently has given the green light for the opening of a center for traditional Chinese medicine in the city of Stip,” he said.
The press service of the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade of Ukraine reports that during the days of 8 and 9 of November a delegation of the Government of Ukraine headed by State Secretary of the Ministry of Economic Development Oleksiy Perevezentsev held negotiations with a delegation of the Government of the Republic of Turkey on concluding an agreement on development cooperation. During the talks, the parties noted that the signing of this agreement would create legal bases for the establishment of the Office of Program Coordination in Ukraine with the aim of developing a fruitful cooperation in the economic and social spheres between the governments of the countries. As a result of the negotiations, the parties agreed on the text of the draft agreement.
US President Donald Trump has spoken with President Xi Jinping regularly in “cordial” phone conversations since the two sides first met at Trump’s Florida estate in April, with the most recent chat taking place immediately after a key leadership conference in Beijing that solidified Xi’s position. “At the Mar-a-Lago summit back in the spring, President Xi and President Trump began to develop a very good personal relationship and that’s been fostered since then,” US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said at an event in New York. “They speak on the phone quite often and they’re by and large relatively cordial conversations, so at the human level there’s a much better rapport than the prior administration had had with the Chinese leadership”. The close ties with Beijing, which Trump administration officials have publicised, underscore the US leader’s preference for negotiating with power brokers. China’s 19th party congress made Xi the most powerful Chinese leader in decades when his name was added to the party constitution, a move that put him on a level with late paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The meeting, expected to take place during Trump’s visit to China on November 8-10, is part of a broader Asia trip likely to be dominated by concerns about North Korea’s ballistic and nuclear programmes. China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported that Xi expressed a desire to work with Trump to “jointly blueprint future development of China-US ties”. The 19th Party Congress provides the opportunity for us to get some things done in the relationship to put us on a good footing deep into the future.
Serbia will soon have ten operational MiG-29 jets and will not stop there, “as we want the citizens to feel secure”, Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday. Vucic added he would have “an important phone conversation” with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday. “We don’t want any kind of conflict, but we want to be sure that we are able to protect, preserve and defend our country”, Vucic said, after the opening ceremony of a new noodles factory in Ruma, a town in western Serbia. The situation in the military, according to the president, is now “incomparably better than it was before”. He recalled that when he became defense minister, “there was not a single MiG-29”. Soldiers will be more satisfied, Vucic pointed out, as they will receive “a significant, very significant increase in wages”.