The 29th Arab League Summit which will be held in Riyadh on April 15th is taking place at volatile Arab and international atmospheres, amid sharp Arab divisions and disagreements. In the midst of various dangers the Arab countries are facing due to the repercussions of the so-called “Arab Spring” in some Arab countries and political rifts regarding some regional issues, the summit is slated to draw a “road map” for the coming era.

The summit in Riyadh, which will be preceded by several preparatory meetings due as of April 9, would be different as it comes after the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman concludes his visit to the US, where Saudi Arabia is trying to push the American administration to fill the vacuum that was deepened by the failure of its previous pull-out strategy from the region. The Arab summit will be held at very delicate conditions, amid great regional and international challenges, with internal threats of some groups that are supported by foreign countries which would pose a major threat to all Arabs. In the midst of the repercussions of incidents in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt, Arab leaders will have to find a way out to end their schism that hampers the solution of many pending issues.

The most important topic will be the Palestinian issue and the frantic attempts to liquidate it by some foreign powers proposing risky projects, ending the dream of Palestinians of a state with Jerusalem as its capital. This means the abolition of the right of return to Palestinians that would lead to Judaization of Jerusalem with all its religious and spiritual significance to Muslims and Christians.

The performance of the Arab League is on the table of Arab leaders as it has become a must to develop the performance to meet the aspirations of Arabs since the league has mostly failed to solve many Arab issues since its establishment on March 22, 1945.

The timing of the summit is important as it comes in the aftermath of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to the US and his meetings with American officials. Such a summit will pay dividends in regime gaps between Arab countries and USA regarding some regional issues to rally around against Iran.

The delay of the summit from March to April is attributed for two major reasons: Saudi Crown Prince’s visit to the US and the presidential elections in Egypt (March 26-28), 2018. Thus, since Egypt has witnessed presidential elections, it has been important to wait and see the outcome to determine the new regional approach towards many regional issues and conflicts.

After the return of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to Riyadh, many deliberations will start among Arab states, which would be conducive to a proposal of a different creature of the Arab League. The question is: Will there be a unified stand towards some regional issues and conflicts starting from Syria, Yemen, Libya, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? What is the trajectory of the Arab League towards Iran?

It is not expected that Arabs will be united on all issues, especially Syria and Iran, However, the trajectory of the league coalescing around an anti-Iranian platform is growing after American President Donald Trump’s decision to re-address the nuclear deal with Iran by either adding new items that prevent Iran from producing ballistic missiles or by ripping up the deal by May 2018, with proposals to impose new sanctions on Iran for interfering in Arab affairs and posing threats to its neighbors.

The outcome of Riyadh Summit will be a continuum of the previous one held in Amman in March 2018, calling for restarting of stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians on a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, with a focus on the Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Capital of Israel.

The coming summit is critical as the focus will be on means to counter terrorism, and to tackle political, economic, social issues of concern to Arab states. Beyond the veneer of sanguine statements, it is projected that the summit will bring closer the Arab countries at first hand, then bring them closer to the US to proceed with the coming regional transformation process of their societies in a bid to jointly confront extremism and terrorism and Iranians expansionism despite the fact that some Arab states would be conservative when dealing with Iran.

The leaders will advocate regional and international security. They will also focus on the hostile positions of the Iranian regime and the continued interference in Arab internal affairs in flagrant violation of international law and the principles of good-neighborliness, warning of the risk of Iranian ballistic missiles on the stability of the Middle East region. They will be calling for a joint action to protect regional waters and to combat piracy which adversely affect the commercial movement and economic growth of the region, with a call for combatting organised crime and drug smuggling

The Riyadh Summit will be an enhancement of the former Arab-Muslim-American Summit which was held May 21, 2017 in Saudi Arabia to further build a close partnership between Arab and Muslim countries and the US to achieve peace, stability and development regionally and internationally.

Observers here in Washington believe that the summit will draw up a “road map” for the leaders to consolidate relations and joint action on issues of common interest.  The summit will recommend promoting coexistence and constructive tolerance among different nations, religions and cultures, with clear rejection of any attempt to link terrorism with any religion, culture or race.

Will we witness a new form of Arab League to be formed after the coming summit to better serve Arab interests and causes? Will we see a new coalition against Iran supported by the US? These questions are almost the part of the mission of the Saudi Crown Prince in the US.

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2018/04/03/april-arab-summit-decisive-and-at-critical-time/

Published in Tribune

Article by Shehab and Maria Al Makahleh

US President Donald Trump will host Gulf leaders separately in a bid to pave the way for American-Gulf summit scheduled for next spring, albeit in May in Camp David. This year’s meeting is different than those in previous years as almost a one-year rift between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Qatar still exists without being resolved in spite of all endeavors and shuttle missions of American officials to the region. The meetings this year with Trump will not help solve the issue as it is structural that requires Qatar to break its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and to deport its leaders from Doha.

Gulf leaders are preparing for the "pilgrimage" to the United States in March and April to discuss the possibility to hold a US-Gulf summit, which has become an annual tradition, since the first meeting of this kind at Camp David, the American presidential resort in 2015.

While it is not clear whether the upcoming talks will result in the summit being held in its fourth edition after the last summit held in Riyadh, on May 21, 2017, it sounds that both sides of the Gulf conflict are preparing to gather as many power cards as possible to go to the White House, voicing hope to strengthen their attempts to gain the administration’s advocacy and support at the expense of the other side at a time Washington is not ready to resolve the dispute in favor of any of its four allies.

According to information provided by senior US officials two days ago, the first to arrive to the White House will be Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on March 19, 2018 after a stopover in London where he is expected to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May. His agenda hasn’t yet been revealed, but he will head from London to New York, Washington, San Francisco and Texas for talks on energy, technology, politics, industries, capital markets and education. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed will visit Washington two days later, followed by Emir of Qatar Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani who will visit the White House in April.

Will Washington succeed to end the conflict?

Many argue that the US administration will not be able to reunite the Gulf allies because the US is benefitting more once they are not united. However, the constant focus in the coming meetings will be on counterterrorism as Trump will call on Qatar to take "more advanced" steps in this area and reward Doha for "obedience" to a series of agreements signed during the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue last January. Washington would succeed in bringing together Gulf leaders under the banner of countering terrorism with the aim of reaching a symmetrical views to enhance effectiveness on many fronts as Secretary of Defense, James Matisse, said earlier.

Qatari Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani announced his country's readiness to participate in the US-Gulf summit, expressing his belief that "the situation will be under control in the end," stressing "Qatar is sparing no effort in fighting terrorism, and all countries can do more." The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said that "Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE should be given the credit as all the Qatari previous policies which include funding and financing extremism and terrorism have decreased. Qatar would not have conceded in this regard without such pressure form the three states, according to Gargash.

In spite of this, the dispute between the Gulf states has started to have other political dimensions that the US administration may not be interested to deal with, leaving a regional mediator, Kuwait, to play the role to bring the parties together. However, Kuwait feels now it is targeted in a way or another, driving it to call the British to have a military base in Kuwait, fearing military escalation.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adil Al-Jubeir said last week in Brussels that "Qatar is a small issue if compared to other important issues in the region”. However, Qatar continues its efforts by running media propaganda and diplomatic war to serve its own interest and to clarify its own stand at the international level.

Article published by Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/gulf-leaders-annual-pilgrimage-to-washington/

Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Published in Tribune

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense’s visit to the US is very indicative at this time as it is the first for him as crown prince and it paves the way for proceeding ahead with economic plans in pursuance of Vision 2030.

The crown prince arrives in Washington DC with five agendas: economic, political, military, technology transfer and financial investments. He will tour New York, Washington DC, Seattle, California’s Silicon Valley, Houston and Boston with the aim of improving Saudi-American relations.

Investment cooperation

The United States and Saudi Arabia have a common vision on international issues. Given the changing geopolitical scene, the two countries have utmost interest to maintain strong ties and sustain friendly relations. The Crown Prince’s US tour will include a planned meeting with US President Donald Trump and his advisers.

He will pay visits to Wall Street in New York and to the Silicon Valley in California and Seattle for heavy industries. He is expected to tour Houston for gas and oil talks and in Boston for higher education cooperation. This is their first meeting since last May 21, 2017 when Trump visited Riyadh.

The Crown Prince is also set to hold talks with Apple and Amazon executives to open outlets and data centers in Saudi Arabia, in a bid to redirect the Saudi economy to be knowledge-oriented and technology-based, benefitting from American expertise to turbo-charge his plans to turn the kingdom into a new Silicon Valley Hub in the Middle East. There is a historic alteration in the nature of economic relations between Washington and Riyadh, from oil to economic development and financial and technological investments.

Saudi Arabia is eager to cement political, economic and military ties with the US through major deals that would change the nature of cooperation into win-win equation

– Shehab Al-Makahleh

The slated agreements to be signed will shape the nature of future economic partnership between both countries as the pacts will enhance investments through joint ventures, through American backing of investments in Saudi Arabia or through supporting Saudi investments in the US treasuries or through offering Aramco shares the New York Stock Exchange as Trump is vying with London to host the stock market listing of Aramco which is estimated at $1.5 trillion.

Since last May, such huge agreements which are expected to be signed in the US could not have been achieved without a colossal modification in the nature of Saudi economy that albeit determines the relationship between Riyadh and Washington as the latter has pushed Saudi for more modernization for full capacity of cooperation to support Saudi Vision 2030.

The Crown Prince’s visit is promising to launch a new era of relations between the two countries with qualitative changes in strategic relations for a long term strategic and economic partnership through diversification of the kingdom’s economy.

Thus, the visit does not stand at the traditional basis, and is different from previous Saudi officials’ visits to the US because it opens the door to major financial and investment firms and corporations in the US and in Saudi Arabia to launch joint ventures and investments after an American greenlight for domestic foundations to set up projects in Saudi Arabia.

The visit sends a series of messages to key players at the regional and international levels. According to some experts, the visit is slated to witness a greater inflow of international investments into the Saudi economy, mainly in technological fields. The Crown Prince seeks from his tour to New York to gain further support of Riyadh as a global industrial and financial center in the Middle East through new qualitative partnerships with leading American companies.

Political synchronization

Both Saudi and US leaders have sharp anti-Iran positions, which brings the current US administration closer to Riyadh. The Obama administration had seen unbridled rigidity and uninhibited pressure in the relationship between the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because the former president ignored Iran’s orientations and actions in the region at the expense of Arab Gulf state’s interests.

This was part of the process of restructuring US foreign policy toward the Middle East and rapprochement with Iran, with the aim of strengthening what Obama considered moderate wing in Tehran, leading to 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last year was aimed to restore these relations and build on them for a sustainable peace in the Middle East.

The upcoming visit of the Crown Prince aims to rebalance US policy toward the region as former American administration has adopted policies against the region’s interests, which allowed Russia and China to return to the region as key players by formulating alliances, mainly with Iran and Turkey.

Among the topics on the Crown Prince’s visit are combating terrorism and extremist factions as well as efforts to counter Iranian interference in Arab affairs. The two sides are also likely to discuss the war in Yemen and Syria, mainly the current developments in Eastern Ghouta.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is on top of the agenda of the Crown Prince as his visit comes few days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington and his talks with American officials regarding the final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Crown Prince will try to convince Trump to postpone moving the American embassy to Jerusalem until final settlement is reached.

Nuclear deals

Trump will open talks with the Crown Prince on a potentially lucrative nuclear power agreement, indivisibly connected to an Obama-era atomic agreement with Iran, with promises of billions of dollars in contracts for American firms. Saudi sources believe that Riyadh, in less than a month, will unveil the names of companies winning the tender for the construction of two nuclear power reactors, scheduled to start at the end of this year 2018, in a move Riyadh aims to enter the nuclear club for the first time in its history.

Under the framework of the Saudi National Atomic Energy Project, Saudi Arabia aims to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20-25 years, which are to be under the supervision of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and are aimed at enabling the country to benefit from the peaceful uses of nuclear power.

The idea to construct nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia is not new; however, it has gathered momentum in the past two years. New motives for Riyadh have crystallized to proceed with the construction of nuclear reactors, particularly in the aftermath of the pact signed with Iran during Obama’s administration, which hampered negotiations between Riyadh and Washington. Some analysts in the White House believe that the deal with Iran “made it difficult to force Saudi Arabia to abide by Law 123.”

Trump knows that American companies are competing with Korean, Chinese and Russian. If he seeks to support the American companies in this deal, he has to give green light when he talks to the Crown Prince. Thus, Trump has to abandon certain controls that restrict nuclear proliferation. Therefore, if Saudis reach agreement without any restrictions, it would be a remarkable shift in US nuclear policy since 50 years.

Saudi Arabia is eager to cement political, economic and military ties with the US through major deals that would change the nature of cooperation into win-win equation. Major focus, however, will also be on the “Century Deal” to end the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/03/13/Denotations-of-Saudi-Crown-Prince-s-visit-to-the-US.html

Published in Tribune

While the world’s attention remains focused on the nuclear brinkmanship and missile launches on the Korean peninsula, the Middle Eastern arms race, pitting Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates against Iran has been slowly heating up and could soon reach a boiling point.

The spending boom among the gulf states, the Saudis and Emiratis chief among them, has accelerated in recent years but is not a wholly new phenomenon.  Careful observation can discern that increases in Saudi military spending appear to be linked to moments when the House of Saud feels threatened by the growing power of its Persian neighbor.  Following the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979—a moment that also coincided with the takeover of the Great Mosque in Mecca by extremists and Saudi financial involvement in repelling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—the Saudis embarked on a spending spree, buying sophisticated weapons from Western countries in the billions.

Saudi Arabia has long feared that its leading position in the Muslim world would be threatened after the clerics took power in Iran. Between 1978 and 1982, Saudi Arabia doubled its military expenditures. Again, in 2003, after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein government in Iraq and signs that it would be replaced by a Shia-led government far friendlier to Iran, Riyadh again boosted its arms purchases.  Between 2003 and 2015, the Saudis quadrupled their military budget, persisting in large outlays despite the effect that depressed petroleum prices have had on other areas of the government’s budget.

With Saudi Arabia feeling new pressures from Iran in recent years, particularly in Yemen, it’s no surprise that its leaders have once again opened the coffers to acquire the latest in military hardware. Last May’s deal between the Saudis and the United States, in which the Americans would supply a package of arms, maintenance, ships, air missile defense, and maritime security totaling an astronomical $100 billion, was followed only months later by a deal between Riyadh and Moscow for the Saudis to purchase Russian-made S-400 air defense systems.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Saudi Arabia has spent more than 10% of its GDP on weapons purchases in each of the past three years.  For the sake of comparison, the United States has spent, on average, 3.3% of GDP during the same time period while the United Kingdom has spent 1.9%.  The UAE regularly spends more than twice as much on military hardware and arms as Iran despite having a population approximately one-tenth the size of Iran’s.

Shiite Crescent

Saudi Arabia remains convinced that its nightmare, a “Shiite Crescent” stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean, passing through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, remains a real possibility if Iran is left unchecked. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi lobbied extensively, and unsuccessfully, against the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that the Obama administration negotiated with Tehran.  Both the Saudis and Emiratis have a fundamental distrust of Iran and suspect that eventually their Persian rivals will renege on the commitments made in the agreement.

On the other hand, Saudi and Emirati doubts about the credibility of the United States of America as a strategic ally have risen, especially following the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear agreement and the lifting of the economic sanctions against Tehran.  The Obama administration’s decision to refrain from enforcing its red lines on Syria also caused a shift in thinking, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi convinced they may have to rely on themselves in the event of a conflict with Iran.

During the 2012-2016 period, Saudi Arabia ranked second and the UAE third in global imports of weaponry (India, which buys largely from Russia, was first).  That four-year period marked a 212% increase in Saudi military spending compared to 2007-2011.

Winning Western countries’ loyalty

There is a secondary reason as well for the large military outlays by the Saudis and Emiratis. Gulf countries seek to win the support—and in some sense, the loyalty–of Western countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany through huge arms deals worth billions of dollars. The Gulf states hope that should their cold war with Iran ever turn hot, their close ties with Western powers—achieved, in part, by decades of weapons deals—will translate into tangible military and diplomatic backing.

Yet the alliance between the Gulf states has been marked my mutual mistrust and internecine disputes. During the Obama years, Washington encouraged the Gulf states to build a join missile defense shield against a potential Iranian attack, but the GCC countries could not resolve their disagreements about how and where to do so.  Fundamental differences over the Muslim Brotherhood and several conflicts in the region further undermined the alliance, as did the drop in petroleum prices in 2014, which has strained budgets and nerves.  While the Yemen war has showcased the close working relationship between the Saudis and Emiratis, it has also revealed the depth of disagreement within the bloc, with Oman and Kuwait declining to participate in the war while Qatar, which originally made a modest commitment of troops, has now decided to withdraw its forces against the backdrop of its dispute with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama.

The Gulf states are also well aware that before Yemen, they lacked military experience, unlike Iran which fought a long war against Iraq during the 1980s, sent paramilitary forces to Iraq after the fall of Saddam, and has been deeply involved in Syria since 2011.

Although Iran has more modest financial resources than its rivals across the Persian Gulf, it too is working to strengthen its military arsenal. In 2017, the Iranian parliament passed a resolution to raise military spending to 5 percent of GDP. In the meantime, Tehran has indicated no halt to its development of long-range missiles, armed drones, and cyber warfare capabilities.

In recent years, Iranian arms imports have declined, from nearly $14 billion in 2010 to just above $10 billion the last several years (though it did see an uptick to $12.3 billion in 2016). In the past, Iran has equipped its armed forces with Russian and Chinese weaponry in addition to developing its own indigenous capabilities. Despite its lower spending, most military analysts in the region believe that Iran would remain competitive with its Gulf rivals in any conflict as a result of its more-developed tactical capabilities.

As Saudi Arabia and its allies invest their money in acquiring the latest fighter aircraft, tanks, and Western missile defense systems, Iran continues to develop its missile program and its aims of expanding its political and military influence in the region show no signs of abating. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces maintain a presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and possibly even Yemen, all of which fuel the fears of Saudi Arabia and its allies over the spread of Iranian influence in the region.

Despite the continuation of the economic embargo and the recent street protests over corruption and economic conditions, Iran maintains sufficient financial resources to fund its military and paramilitary influence in a number of the Middle East’s hot spots. The Saudis suspect that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have not been eliminated, only postponed.  And thus, the buildup of military capability, and the overall arms race, continues to grow hotter and more dangerous by the day.

Article published by Foreign Policy Association: https://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2018/02/27/saudi-arabia-uae-heat-arms-race-iran/

Published in Tribune
Monday, 26 February 2018 22:12

Atomic derby in the Middle East

The Middle East has entered the nuclear age. The existing strategic equilibrium in the Middle East is shifting as the region seeks a new balance, an equipoise which has been in perpetual flux over the past 30 years. The Arab-Israeli and the Iranian-Arab conventional weapons race began in earnest in the mid-1980s. Some countries plunged into nuclear others into biological, chemical and ballistic missile systems. Since then, the new strategic dimensions have become part and parcel of imbalance ever since. Many atomic states are on a hair trigger in the Middle East, which is the most capricious and volatile region which has been witnessing gigantic political transformations in the past two decades.

When American president Donald Trump said that he would revise the nuclear deal with Iran if he wins in the elections, the Middle East has started to change. Many countries started to think of means to get nuclear plants for energy. The question is which countries are making nuclear arms or which countries have the ability to produce them in the Middle East? Two countries for sure: Iran and Israel.

Since 2000s, Middle Eastern countries have voiced their interest to have their own peaceful atomic nuclear programs, including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The Middle East states have announced their atomic energy plans in response to Iran’s stagy progress towards nuclear supremacy. The reason behind the deal with Iran was to thwart any bids by Tehran to have a bomb which would lead to a nuclear race in the Middle East. 

Doctrinal Shifts

Arab countries’ fears are not far-fetched. They have started changing their military doctrine since1991. Arabs, mainly in the Gulf region, started looking for tactical and strategic non-conventional weapons to make a balance of power with Iran by securing clear inclination for technological advances and institutional torpor and apathy to proceed at their own impetus. The Middle East states, after the gradual pullout of the American troops from the region, have been undergoing a state of transition at all levels — strategic, political and economic, militarily structural to reach the point of “balance of terror” with their enemy: Iran.

Debate over Iran’s nuclear program has heated up since the beginning of 2000s. Even after Tehran reached a nuclear deal with the international community, the USA and other countries still accuse Iran of seeking to build nuclear arms. Tehran for its part denies these accusations and says Iranian reactors are for peaceful purposes to produce energy.

Though Israel and other Arab countries tried hard to foil the attempts to sign the nuclear deal with Iran, Middle East countries are heading towards atomic arms race, fueled by fear of Iranian expansionism and resurgence, mainly from Saudis and Emiratis.

Both Israel and the Arab countries have at present one enemy: Iran. Israeli and Arab fears from Iran are much bigger than having a nuclear bomb but rather an existential threat that can turn Tehran into an independent atomic capability.

Proxies ignite nuclear race

Sunnis in the Gulf, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, view Iran as a religious risk, fueling proxies and threatening the stability of the Arab world through Tehran’s endeavours to revive Shiite states in the heartland of the Middle East region.  Since Iran is regarded as a political rival since 1979 Revolution, which has been threatening the Arab monarchies, Arabs started to think of having a deterrent weapon that can curb Iran from continuously interfering in their internal affairs and intimidating their people.

In 2016, Al-Riyadh daily commended Saudi Arabia to start preparing an atomic program for peaceful purposes” to have the first Saudi nuclear reactor operational by 2030. Though there are rumors that Riyadh has purchased “off-the-shelf” atomic bomb from Pakistan, this has not been confirmed by either of the two countries. Thus, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East has also dragged other countries.

Middle Eastern states may have genuine reasons and authentic motives to invest in nuclear power. For example, Jordan has almost few quantities of oil and gas; this has prompted the government to ask the Russians to help set up a nuclear power plant to produce energy. However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have colossal crude reserves. Turkey also imports huge amounts of oil and gas to produce energy. Thus, it is in dire need of nuclear plants for this purpose.

Saudi nuclear plants

Within less than a month, Saudi Arabia will unveil the names of companies winning the tender for the construction of two nuclear power reactors, scheduled to start at the end of this year 2018, in a move Riyadh aims to enter the nuclear club for the first time in its history.

Under the framework of the National Atomic Energy Project, Saudi Arabia aims to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20-25 years, which are to be under the supervision of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and are aimed at enabling the country to benefit from the peaceful uses of nuclear power.

Washington’s approval for the Saudi move remains one of the main dilemmas facing Riyadh, and it is expected that it will top the agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the United States early March which will take him to other states as well.  Donald Trump’s administration faces a critical position in this regard as negotiations between Saudis and Americans on nuclear energy had reached a deadlock.

The idea to construct nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia is not new; however, the pace accelerated more during the past two years. New motives for Riyadh have crystallised to proceed with the construction of nuclear reactors, particularly in the aftermath of the agreement signed with Iran during Obama’s administration, which hampered negotiations between Riyadh and Washington. Some analysts in the White House believe that the deal with Iran “made it difficult to force Saudi Arabia to abide by law 123.”

Trump’s two options

Trump knows that American companies are competing with Korean, Chinese and Russian. If he seeks to support the American companies in this deal, he has to give the green light when Prince Mohammad bin Salman visits Washington in March 2018. With this he has to abandon certain controls that restrict nuclear proliferation. Thus, if Saudis reach agreement without any restrictions, it would be a remarkable shift in US nuclear policy since 50 years. Analysts view this case as a new test for Trump’s negotiating skill as well as his son-in-law Jared Kushner who visited Riyadh several times.

It seems that Kushner has prepared well in anticipation of the upcoming visit of Mohammed bin Salman to Washington to conclude the deal in favor of “Westinghouse” company.

Russian, American and Korean rivalry

November 2017, Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak, expressed Rosatom’s interest to be involved in building nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia.

The company presented its offer during the meeting of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdul Aziz with Novak, and discussed ways to strengthen and develop bilateral cooperation in the fields of energy.

The Russian company has applied to participate in the construction of two nuclear reactors in the Kingdom. In mid-December 2017, Moscow and Riyadh signed a roadmap for cooperation in the field of “peaceful nuclear energy” to promote cooperation in the field of atomic power.

The signing of the road map has coincided with Riyadh’s announcement that it intends to build 16 hydroelectric reactors over a period of 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion, as well as other small desalination plants.

On the other hand, a Saudi-Korean meeting revealed several months ago the completion of more than 20% of the engineering designs of the SMART reactor and the completion of the success of the first and second stages of the human development program for Saudi engineers participating in the project.

Nuclear power in Jordan 

Jordan imports over 95 per cent of its power requirements, at a cost of about 20 per cent of its GDP. In 2007, Jordan set out a program for atomic energy to provide 30 per cent of electricity by 2030. In 2015, Jordan signed a US$10 billion agreement with Russia to construct the first nuclear power plant in the kingdom with two reactors to produce 1,000 megawatt power. The construct is expected to finish by 2022. According to the agreement, Jordan will buy fuel from Rosatom for both reactors for 10 years.

UAE first nuclear plant to open summer 2018

The UAE is due launch the Arab world’s first nuclear power station in summer 2018; the other three plants will be commissioned by 2020. Once the four nuclear power plants are fully operational, they will produce 25 per cent of the country’s electricity demand. By 2050, The Barakah nuclear plant will deliver up 50 percent of the country’s power requirements. The UAE has committed not to enrich uranium itself and not to reprocess spent fuel.

Egyptian nuclear program

Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Cairo on December 11, 2017 with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi where a delegation from both countries signed an agreement to launch Egypt’s atomic energy plant at El -Dabaa. Rosatom has announced that construction work on the El-Dabaa plant, which is located west of Alexandria, had started end of December. The Russian company will service the plant’s four reactors for 60 years.

To sum up, the major countries surrounding Israel and Iran are setting out plans to have their nuclear power plants. If Sunni Arabs become nuclear-armed or even just nuclear-capable, the strategic advantage Israel has enjoyed for more than 40 years will disappear and the ballistic missile technology that Iran prides itself with will vanish. Though the Israelis know that the Arab target is Tehran not Tel Aviv, will the Israelis approve the nuclear trend of the Middle East? Failure to reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement or a settlement to the current Arab-Iranian conflict would lead to further escalation and tension, a prelude to armed conflict or external intervention.

Published in Tribune

The specter of federalism is wandering the Middle East. On the political horizon, there are more and more federalization projects, where external and internal actors see the opportunity to get out of the cloaca of universal conflict with more and more countries and regions being created.

There is Yemen, where the number of projects of this kind has already exceeded a dozen; Syria, where a vigorous struggle for a new constitution unfolds and only the lazy does not participate; Iraq, where the Kurds recently showed the shakiness of the line between federalism and secession; Libya, where decentralization is the only chance to stop anarchy and chaos.

The most ambitious plans concern Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Morocco. One country, Sudan, was dismembered, but this did not solve the acute internal problems of the two states that were created on the site of the former unified one.

The external actors, including those who do not even know where one  or another country is located, and who get ideas from tourist guidebooks (although we will have to wait for the return of tourism to the region), have begun drawing new boundaries with enthusiasm. They could be suspected of an ambitious desire to taste the glories of the famous apologists of colonialism, the Englishman Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot, who forever left a mark in history, but with a bad taste. 

An array of political scientists have long been talking about the death of pan-Arab nationalism. Certainly, all sorts of unionist projects on the background of universal particularization seem to be out of fashion today, but how can disappear a nationalism that often only changes its face? The King is dead, long live the King! After all, it was Arab nationalism, and not the Sykes-Pico sweet couple, that created the system of states that existed in the Middle East, but recently suffered an ever-widening crack, unable to withstand the test of globalization. Even a new attempt against the sancta sanctorum, undertaken this time by the eccentric leader of the largest world power, the Arab character of East Jerusalem, is no longer strong enough to consolidate the Arabs as one would think, and even the Muslims, in the fight against the terrible threat of losing control over the sanctuary. I am sure that nationalism has not only not perished, but is preparing for a revival, although it can take new forms. Moreover, while a significant part of the local society will see in various sorts of unification projects a way to get rid of the internal conflicts that are destructive for the peoples, eroding their identity, these projects will remain unsinkable.

However, we will hope that the perverted-jihadist version of the Islamist unification project is disappearing into oblivion after the liquidation of its territorial base in Syria and Iraq. As for another radical version of the Pan-Islamic project, the Muslim Brotherhood, the rumors of its death may prove to be exaggerated.

Will the universal federalization ensure a successful way out of the crisis in the region that does not cease to amaze the world, or at least of those countries, which became classified as failed states? Perhaps this will happen. However, let us not downplay the risks that a radical change in the configuration of the state structure of any country brings, especially in the context of the traditional confrontation of unionism and particularism, Islamism and secularism. Anyway, such a restructuring should be carefully prepared, verified in all details, based on qualified expert knowledge. And most importantly, it must get the support of the population

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/middle-east-pandora-s-box-of-federalization/

Photo credit: Bilal Hussein/AP

Published in Tribune

Article by Sheab Al Makahleh and Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova).

Peace and stability in Yemen is likely to succeed only when all major players and the five permanent United Nations Security Council members take honest and true measures to end the bloodshed in this poor country, which pays the bill of other countries’ rifts and disputes and has been transformed in a battlefield of their interests.

The roots of Middle East armed conflicts are as multifarious and effervescent as the region’s social fabric. Modern challenges mirror heirloom of imperial dominance and ruthless despotism. They also echo changes in political perceptions and in relationships with political communities. Fierce non-state actors exploit legitimate complaints to fan the sparks of violence.

Since the inception of the Arab Spring in 2011, Yemen has been under the focus of global players and media. The conflict has been developing in a dramatic scenario, turning into the complicated civil war, tearing the country in all dimensions, following new and old lines of schism. Yemeni humanitarian situation was already acknowledged by the international community as a true humanitarian catastrophe, to stop which international community needs at least ceasefire agreements and start of political process. But the attempts to reach any agreement between main belligerent parties, until now have been collapsing. And it seems that the chances to reach any are totally vain.

With the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after more than 40 years of political life, 33 years of ruling the country, it is slated that the war between the Houthis and the General People’s Congress Party will open a new chapter in the Yemeni tragedy. The true war is just about to start. The reasons for the Houthi distrust of the former Yemeni president was his “contradictory” alliances: once with Saudi Arabia and later with the Houthis and then back to the Arab Coalition. Thus, the military conflict will be multifaceted in Yemen: The Houthi-Saleh, the Houthi Muslim Brotherhood (the Yemeni Reform Party), the Saleh-Muslim Brotherhood.

Amidst this shift in Yemen politically and militarily, the scene looks gloomy as the Houthis will be openly backed by Iran and other key players in the region while the legitimate government of Hadi will be backed by the Coalition and Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party. The U-turn in Saleh’s position towards the Houthis was based on an advice from the UAE to rehabilitate the forces of the Congress Party to reach a result in order to put an end to war at any cost.

With the solution of the Syrian conflict in the offing, two dynamics will define political change in Yemen for years to come. The first is identity, faith and race. The second is the young generations of Yemenis who are more than 75 percent of the population, living in poor conditions that would aggravate their future dreams and would make them victims for other countries’ political agendas and Islamist ideologies.

Peace and stability in Yemen is likely to succeed only when all major players and the five permanent United National Security Council members take honest and true measures to end the bloodshed in this poor country, which pays the bill of other countries’ rifts and disputes and has been transformed in a battlefield of their interests. The Saudi-led coalition has to reconsider its approach to the Yemeni conflict, as the continuation of the current policies or even intensification of the military actions will only aggravate the situation, enhance the Houthi resistance, strengthen the Iranian involvement without bringing the conflict to an end.

The coming few months are heating up in Yemen because there is no comprehension of the difficulties of reforms due to rival identities which derailed the political approach stemming from suspicious interference from regional countries which try to export their domestic rifts and issues to other states, turning the hotspots into proxy wars destabilizing the region and having far-going consequences. Since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the same scenarios recur in various forms because of major players exporting their internal difficulties to their neighbors to avoid any domestic repercussions.

The picture is vibrant. Yemen is riddled with turmoil, gushes of violence and autocratic governments amidst intervention of some regional powers. Thus, it is blatant that Yemenis have an uphill battle to fight and to reach settlement themselves without listening to external factors and other countries’ demands, all of which have agendas to dictate and achieve in Yemen at the expense of Yemenis. Dialogue is the only way to stabilize the region, stop the deepening Shia-Sunni divide and stop the spread of proxy wars, as the Saudi-Iranian confrontation is getting moved into other countries, like Syria and Lebanon.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/will-yemen-rift-continue-to-widen/

Photo credit: Hani Mohammed/AP

Published in Tribune

The leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia, the guarantor countries trying to broker peace in Syria, will meet just before the new round of Geneva talks. The timing is significant, as Syria is again boiling over, developments on the outskirts of Damascus are making matters worse and rebel groups are threatening the ceasefires reached in the de-escalation zones in four areas of Syria. 
At the beginning of the month, after Astana talks that were attended for the first time by Saudi representatives, the Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran to meet Iranian and Azerbaijani leaders, with the Syrian issue on the table. The Syrian opposition will meet in Riyadh on Nov. 22 as Saudi Arabia tries to unify them under one umbrella. At the same time, Russia, Iran and Turkey will discuss the peace process, apparently choosing a strategy for different scenarios depending on the success or failure of the Geneva talks, and will discuss the possible outcomes of the Syrian National Dialogue Conference next month organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Some perceive this conference as an attempt to foil the UN Geneva talks, but that is what they once said about Astana — which was, and remains, an instrument for making Geneva more effective. The conference is intended to launch an indispensable reconciliation dialogue to proceed in tandem with political dialogue and the post-war political process.
The meeting of Turkish, Russian and Iranian presidents on Nov. 22 in Sochi will touch upon the latest developments in Syria and the Middle East. It is particularly important taking into account tensions with the US. Ankara has threatened possible attacks on US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. Turkey’s ties with NATO are becoming more hostile than ever. 
Washington is trying to revise the Iran nuclear deal and restore sanctions against Tehran, so Iran is openly inviting Moscow to form a coalition to counter the US. Iran’s activities in the region are anathema to the Gulf states, the US and Israel, while Moscow, Ankara and the Assad regime view its participation as vital.
The summit in Sochi has to be seen in the context of the Dialogue Congress 10 days later; timing that suggests Putin wants to draw united positions from Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani to declare the end of the war in Syria.
The three countries’ coordination on Syria has increased since 2016, although Ankara’s position on the Assad regime differs from Moscow’s. Putin and Erdogan discussed the Syrian crisis in Sochi on Nov. 13, when they announced that relations between them were fully restored. Later, Ankara announced the purchase of Russia’s sophisticated S400 missile defense system.

There is a clear mutual understanding about a political solution in Syria, and on other related issues, but Russia and Turkey appear to prefer to keep the details secret. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that during the talks the parties will discuss the possibility of the expansion of de-escalation zones in Syria, which is indispensable for peace. 

Some years ago, the West and regional allies were insisting that Bashar Assad should go and the political process had to start before Daesh could be destroyed. Now it is clear that any political process goes hand in hand with national reconciliation and the launch of post-war restoration, without necessarily clearing Syria of every terrorist cluster. 
Moscow, which has changed the course of the Syrian conflict since it intervened militarily in September 2015, has given a series of signals that it is continuing to craft a political solution. The agenda of the Sochi Dialogue Conference is the political future of Syria after transformations in which the opposition lost large parts of its control, and Daesh is on the verge of defeat. A Syrian national unity government may be proposed, but the most important topics are the constitutional reforms and parliamentary and presidential elections.
As for the Syrians themselves, they have little hope that the conflict will be settled any time soon. Some fighting groups have transformed into criminal gangs sucking blood and money from the miserable people living in territory they control, and profiting from the continuing war — which explains why they are trying to break the ceasefires. The international community, notably the West, is ignoring many issues, playing with facts to serve their own agendas and hiding behind noble statements. There is pessimism, but also a clear understanding that most of the foreign players are not interested in conflict resolution. Kicking the “annoying players” — Russia, Turkey and Iran — out of Syria would clearly serve their national interests, but not the peace settlement goals. However, there is still hope that the next Geneva talks will be more successful than the previous rounds and give hope for other initiatives to be successful as well. Syria needs peace.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1196166

Photo credit: www.facebook.com/SyrianNationalCoalition / Facebook

Published in Tribune

The current status of the Middle East is similar to that of the Balkans in the years before the World War I. Are we going to witness a Balkanization of the region — geopolitical fragmentation caused by other countries’ foreign policies? And what are the chances of an Iranian-Arab war or a Shiite-Sunni conflict that could lead to the redrawing of the Middle East map?
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said a ballistic missile fired at Riyadh this month from Houthi militia-held territory in Yemen was supplied by Iran, and described it as “direct military aggression” and an “act of war.” The accusation was repeated by the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in his resignation statement: “Iran controls the region and the decision-making in both Syria and Iraq. I want to tell Iran and its followers that it will lose in its interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” He specifically blamed Iran for interference in the affairs of Lebanon.
Saudi rhetoric aimed at Iran has escalated in the past few weeks, and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir accused Tehran of being behind all evil acts in the region. “The Iranian terror continues to terrorize the innocent, kill children and violate international law, and every day it is clear that the Houthi militias are a terrorist tool to destroy Yemen,” he said. “The Kingdom reserves the right to respond to Iran at the right place and time.” Last week Saudi Arabia called on the UN to take measures against Iran to hold Tehran accountable for its conduct.
Events are moving fast. They could lead to a military confrontation, including the intensification of proxy wars, and a deepening of the Shiite-Sunni divide. The danger persists as long as the two superpowers, Russia and the US, stand on opposing sides of the spectrum on many regional issues, especially Iran. Recent comments from the Oval Office make it clear that the latest events have full US approval and conform with its expectations and policies.
The Iranian ballistic missile program is a key factor in Arab strategies and alliances. Many countries in the Middle East started heading east and west to purchase air defense missiles, such as the Russian S-300 and S-400 and the American Patriot and THAAD systems. Arab countries also started to think of producing their own military equipment by having offset projects with weapons manufacturers in China, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, France, the UK, Germany, Brazil and the former Yugoslavia.
Saudi Arabia is also concerned about the influence of Iran in Lebanon through its proxy, Hezbollah, even more so since Riyadh believes Hezbollah operatives fired the most recent missile launched at the Kingdom from Yemen. “The Lebanese must all know these risks and work to fix matters before they reach the point of no return,”  said the Saudi Minister for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan.

Russia is keeping a close eye on the growing threat of military action against Iran — not a direct conflict, which is unlikely, but an extension of existing proxy wars.

Maria Dubovikova

This war of words may lead to a military clash in the Gulf or in Lebanon, further escalation in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, where Iran has a strong presence, and further proxy wars, unless the Americans take direct action against Iranian troops in Syria and Iraq. And that would lead to a dramatic escalation of tensions between regional and international powers already competing for influence in the Middle East.
Iran is a direct threat to the stability of the region, and US President Donald Trump has listed it as a major global threat. Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, as well its activities in support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, pose a threat to the interests of the Arab world.
Action may be taken, including the military option, against the Iranian presence in the Levant. Escalation in Lebanon, the worst-case scenario, may result in a military conflict that would explode the region and drastically affect global stability because the players involved are so numerous and the stakes so high.
Nevertheless, the concerned sides understand that direct conflict would be a zero-sum game, and has to be avoided. The way to do so is by conducting proxy wars, but the cost of such wars on global stability and human life would also, inevitably, be too high.
Russia closely follows developments in the region because it has become directly involved. For Moscow, regional processes are critical. Historically, stability in Russia depends a lot on the climate in the region, and the Middle East is again one of its national interests. It has succeeded in building normal ties with all the players in the region, even those that are rivals with one other. Having good ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia has been proposing itself as a potential mediator in the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, although the offer has not yet been taken up. Russia is worried about the possibility of escalation of already existing proxy wars and the emergence of new ones, especially in Lebanon. 
In commenting on the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia has used diplomatic rhetoric, calculating all the possible risks and scenarios. A war in Lebanon would mean a drastic deterioration in regional stability, especially in Syria. The region needs stability, and political and diplomatic solutions for its disputes.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1194021

Photo credit: Mersad

Published in Tribune

With the demise of Daesh faction in both Syria and Iraq shimmering in the horizon, Iraq has started getting back on track with official visits of top Iraqi officials  to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, preparing to re-establish security and to reignite development in the war-torn country.

Amman has sent an invitation to the Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr who pays a three day visit to Jordan where he had two closed door meetings with King Abdullah II and held meetings at the highest levels. This visit coincides with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

According to Jordanian media reports on the office of the Shiite leader, the latter received an invitation from the king. Prince Ali bin Al Hussein also had talks with the Iraqi cleric regarding "internal Iraqi reconciliation”.

The presence of Abadi in Riyadh is necessarily understandable. Amman has resumed its relationship with Baghdad for some time now, and today there is a trade that passes through the Iraqi "Turaibeel" crossing with Jordan. An oil pipeline is supposed to be on the verge of implementation, and many other economic details are on top of the talks as well.  However, Abadi has shed the light on his vision for a unified Iraq on his visit as well as Al Sadr, who prefer a unified Iraq to a divided sectarian country.

Although there are not many details about Abadi's new vision, the Iraqi prime minister wants to send various messages to all regional powers that Iraq can tackle all issues without any external interference. Such two visits of Iraqi officials also coincides with Rex Tillerson to the Gulf States as he issued a statement for Iranian troops to leave Iraq.

Some experts in Jordan believe that such an invitation to a Shiite leader may show a real Jordanian inclination to measure the possibility of a cautious rapprochement with the Iranians through Shiite Iraqi clerics, who are gatekeepers to Tehran.

On the other hand, Iraqi observers believe that Abadi's visit would not certainly stand within the boundaries of the Saudi-Iraqi committee despite the great importance of such as visit to enhance relations between Riyadh and Baghdad at various levels, but it would also inevitably address the volatile situation in the city of Kirkuk. The Iraqi prime minister who headed a high-level delegation of more 60 ministers, officials and government advisers who attended the signing ceremony of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council agreement.

The signing of the agreement of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council, after the meetings and mutual visits between officials of the two countries in recent months, and the talks of the Iraqi Prime Minister on June 14 in Jeddah which resulted in the resumption of flights from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad, after they were suspended for 27 year reflect that Iraq and Saudi Arabia are heading towards a new page of relations, especially after the fall of Daesh.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has taken part in the inaugural meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council. Such meetings are regarded in Baghdad as how the Americans delegate Saudi Arabia to deal with Iraq.

 A new phase of joint Arab action began with the warmth of the Saudi-Iraqi relations, which culminated in the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abbadi to Riyadh, the establishment of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council and his visit to Jordan few days ago.

Al-Abbadi's visit to Riyadh and Amman in the past few days marks the emergence of a new world in the Arab region after the expulsion of Daesh from Mosul and Raqqa, where the reconstruction phase and the great role regional companies can play in the reconstruction of Iraq.

After four months of Abadi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he returned to resume talks which are critical to both countries at this time. These mutual visits of Iraqi and Saudi officials indicate the mutual interest of both Baghdad and Riyadh to move ahead with their ties to another level. Such improvement in relations will reflect on the strategic and security cooperation between both countries.

However, the talk about the role of the council indicate that Riyadh wants to have a role in reconstruction of Iraq and may be later on Syria after the end of war on terrorism especially with the upcoming conference that will be held in Kuwait for the reconstruction of Iraq. The other important angle is that such enhancement of relations would empower Iraq balance out its positions and strategies towards regional conflicts to avert any political and military as well a security repercussions which have destroyed Iraq since 2003.   

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq were cut for 25 years, before recent rapprochement, after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Saudi Arabia has blamed Baghdad for being in the Iranian orbit and under Tehran’s influence. With the visits of Iraqi top officials to Amman and Riyadh, Baghdad is going to play a pivotal role in the coming era for regional stability and will help regain Iraq to its status before 1990 away from any regional influences. Saudi and Iraqi diplomats agreed at a March 12, 2017 meeting in Riyadh to stop exchanging aggressive remarks against each other and they are willing to open a new page in economic, security and tourism fields despite concerns over Iran's influence in Iraq. Normal bilateral ties between Baghdad and Riyadh would serve both peoples and their interests. 

 

Published in Tribune
Page 1 of 4