March 2020. The world is facing the alarming and disruptive effects of the Coronavirus, proving that distant countries, such as Iran, Italy, China and South Korea, could be linked by the same threat, but also that countries are unprepared to face such a challenge. Governments reacted sluggishly, underestimating the emergency first and trying to recover later when the situation had already worsened. Eyes are all on COVID-19 and countries’ lockdown. However, COVID-19 is just one small piece of what is going on in the world. Keep Reading
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. Keep Reading
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.
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 …
Last week, the US and Saudi Arabia signed a deal for the purchase of a new sophisticated missile defence system. The deal has been in place since December 2016 and has eventually been finalised and confirmed by a State Department official on Wednesday. This signature will allow Saudi Arabia to purchase a $ 15 billion anti-ballistic missile defence system from the American Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company based in Maryland.
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.