New Age Islam Edit Bureau
16 December 2017
Lebanon Remains Occupied
By Eyad Abu Shakra
Iran Expands Provision Of Ballistic Missile Technology To Militias
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
US Should Innovate To Become Great Again
By Fareed Zakaria
How Did Qatar Lose Its Audience?
By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Saudi Arabia’s New Foreign Policy Doctrine
By Ali Al-Shihabi
Putin Reading Zeitgeist on Middle East Tour
By Sinem Cengiz
Back to the Future: Resetting the Time Continuum From 1979
By Faisal Al-Shammeri
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
15 December 2017
New words and idioms have recently imposed themselves on Lebanon’s political dictionary, such as “preventing a vacuum,” “stability,” “realism” and “temporary truce.” All these express a particular situation pointing to a local imbalance that benefits from regional disorder and global confusion.
The Lebanese are now merely passing time while international strategies around conflict intersect and conceal themselves, as the players wait to agree on the lowest common denominator for a new world order. Before tackling the regional disorder from which one goes to deal with what is happening in Lebanon, let us look at the confusion encountered by three of the world’s most influential blocs.
A year ago, the US went from living under one of the most liberal/leftist administrations in its history to one that could be described as the most right-wing. Despite the US political system being based on checks and balances, the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president pointed to structural changes in the country’s social and political concepts, or so it seemed in November 2008.
In November 2016, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction with the election of Donald Trump. He is an ultra-conservative Republican and a businessman who came from outside the political establishment, fought the primaries against the Republicans’ traditional leaders, and was never elected to any political office.
His election pointed to yet another change in the public mood, if not America’s political culture. Moving from the extreme left to the extreme right uncovered a deep rift among a nation of immigrants, which after enjoying ever-increasing strength thanks to its diversity, has become averse to openness, tolerance and welcoming others.
What we have witnessed in America has also happened in Western Europe, where strident globalization was met with long-dormant racism that has rediscovered its voice and self-confidence.
With this phenomenon, people seem to have forgotten the disasters that nationalist and ethnic extremism caused in Europe in the 20th century, including the rise of Nazism and fascism, and later the Balkan crises in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR and the Berlin Wall.
In Asia — home to China and India, the world’s two most populous nations — complicated problems are becoming even worse against a background of diverging interests and different calculations, whether over a nuclear North Korea or the conflict over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, in addition to the problems of the Indian subcontinent, Myanmar and East Turkestan (Chinese Xinjiang).
The pre-occupations of these three major blocs were bound to have repercussions on the Middle East. Such a reality has helped three well-organized regional powers — Israel, Iran and Turkey — flex their muscles and compete for regional hegemony, or failing that, benefit from apportionment.
America’s unshakable support for Israel is not new, but has been further enhanced by Trump’s official seal of approval to the old Congress vote recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Washington has politically sponsored and militarily aided Israel for seven decades.
Iran and Turkey have had a rollercoaster relationship, from animosities to alliances. After they were US allies during the Cold War, their relations with Washington and Moscow changed radically as each pursued its own interpretation of political Islam, and invented its own Islamist slogans with a view to strengthening its presence in an Arab world that has since lost its nationalist identity without gaining an alternative capable of safeguarding the territorial unity of its political entities.
Iran began its interventions aimed at regional hegemony on the first day of the Khomeinist revolution in 1979. This was done through the slogans of “exporting the revolution,” which precipitated the Iran-Iraq war.
Turkey, on the other hand, had long dreamt of moving westward by joining the European family. But it eventually discovered that it was not a welcome addition to that family. Consequently, under Necmettin Erbakan then Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey changed direction, moving to the east and south toward the Arab world and western Asia.
The Arab Spring of 2011 was an opportunity for all three regional powers to compete for influence at the expense of Arab ambitions and aspirations. As Iran gained an early advantage in 2003 with the US invasion of Iraq, and later in 2008 as Hezbollah took control of Lebanon, Turkey decided to confront Iran by winning in Syria, Egypt and perhaps Libya too.
Israel has decided to benefit from the escalating Sunni-Shiite animosities by destroying any remaining chance of creating a Palestinian state, and by ensuring that the regional and Arab bloodletting continues, thus increasing its impregnability and killing off all that might threaten its existence.
By 2011, Iran had already achieved hegemony in Iraq and Lebanon, and through the Houthis established a foothold in Yemen. Later, in the Syrian conflict, Iran’s militias fought against forces supported by Turkey, before the Iranians and Turks were brought together in the Astana process due to Moscow’s limiting ambitions and Washington’s zeal in encouraging the Kurds.
Moreover, in 2013 Ankara suffered a major setback in Egypt, where it had regarded itself as a winner after the January 2011 uprising, which was soon exploited by the pro-Ankara Muslim Brotherhood that ruled Egypt between 2012 and 2013.
In Lebanon, people had begun to realize that the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was almost meaningless. The Assad regime was nothing but a front for a concealed Iranian occupation under the motto of “resistance.” The divisions between Lebanon’s factions were, and still are, too deep to build a responsible awareness of the need for an inclusive interest that is needed for nation-building.
Lebanon remains occupied, and worse, there is international collusion with this occupation, providing it with a veneer of constitutional legitimacy. Some Lebanese leaders, claiming to seek stability and adhering to realism after warning of the danger of a vacuum, have agreed to an apportionment that provides that cover. This is why they are now acting as if they did not know, although they know only too well what is asked of them.
Iran Expands Provision of Ballistic Missile Technology to Militias
The number of ballistic missiles deployed by Iran’s proxies is rising at an unprecedented level. Four ballistic missiles were fired at Saudi Arabia by Yemen’s Houthi militias this year. The UN has revealed in a report that these missiles appear to have been designed by Iran. Furthermore, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, has confirmed that the Houthis’ ballistic missiles are manufactured by Iran.
Tehran is ratcheting up its delivery of weapons to the Houthis as a robust message of defiance against the US and its allies, which have intensified their efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen and confront extremist groups. Iran’s agenda in arming the Houthis is much broader than what has been depicted in mainstream media.
At first, Tehran began helping the Houthis produce short-range ballistic missiles. Through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran would transfer parts to Yemen. But the missiles fired at Saudi Arabia show that Tehran is enhancing the Houthis’ ability to manufacture and launch long-range ballistic missiles.
This could grant Iran critical geopolitical leverage because its proxy is now able to fire ballistic missiles into any Gulf country. Iran’s major state-owned newspaper Kayhan, whose editor is a close adviser of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and is appointed by him, had a front-page headline saying: “The Houthis fired a missile into Riyadh. Dubai is next.”
In the last few months, Iran has intensified its efforts to advance the Houthis’ missile technology. A UN panel of experts said it is extremely unlikely that the Houthis could manufacture such missiles on their own. “The design, characteristics and dimensions of the components inspected by the panel are consistent with those reported for the Iranian-manufactured Qiam-1 missile,” the panel said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that Iran may be violating Security Council Resolution 2231, which “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”
The international community does need more evidence to conclude that Iran is violating international law. Its own leaders have said it is helping the Houthis. Influential Iranian cleric Mehdi Tayeb said this has been carried out in stages by the IRGC with the support of the navy. In addition, the deputy commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Esmail Ghani, said: “Those defending Yemen have been trained under the flag of the Islamic Republic.”
Statements by the UN and US, as well as reports by intelligence agencies, are significant because they corroborate and substantiate what Saudi leaders have previously pointed out, that Houthi missiles targeting Riyadh were made by Iran. This is an evident act of war that could have tragically killed and wounded hundreds of people.
The aforementioned statements and reports give further global legitimacy to Saudi Arabia, showing that its accusations against Tehran were based on evidence and objective investigation. Tehran harbors deep antagonism toward the Kingdom for religious, political and ethnic reasons.
Under the so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani, Tehran continues to incite violence, support terrorism and destabilize the region to advance its hegemonic ambitions. The aforementioned revelations should be used as powerful tools to mobilize the international community to hold Tehran to account and bring Iranian leaders who are responsible for supporting the Houthis and targeting Saudi Arabia to justice.
The UN should convert its words into action, otherwise the IRGC will be more emboldened. It is time to forcefully counter Tehran’s efforts to provide advanced missile technology to its militias; otherwise no country in the region will be outside their range.
December 15, 2017
The US has fallen into extreme partisanship and embraced a know-nothing libertarianism that is starving the country of the essential investments it needs for future growth
If the Republican tax plan passes Congress, it will mark a watershed for the United States. The medium- and long-term effects of the plan will be a massive drop in public investment, which will come on the heels of decades of declining spending (as a percentage of GDP) on infrastructure; scientific research; skills training; and core government agencies. The United States can't coast on past investments forever, and with this legislation, we are ushering in a bleak future.
The tax bill is expected to add at least $1 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, and some experts believe the real loss to federal revenues will be much higher.
If Congress doesn't slash spending, automatic cuts will kick in unless Democrats and Republicans can agree to waive them. Either way, the prospects for discretionary spending look dire, with potential cuts to spending on roads and airports, training and apprenticeship programs, healthcare research and public health initiatives, among hundreds of other programs. And these cuts would happen on top of an already dire situation. As Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution points out, combined public investment by federal, state and local governments is at its lowest point in six decades, relative to GDP.
The United States is at a breaking point. In August, the World Bank looked at 50 countries and found that America will have the largest unmet infrastructure needs over the next two decades. Look in any direction. According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, the US has almost 56,000 structurally deficient bridges, about 1,900 of which are on interstate highways - and all of these are crossed 185 million times a day. Another industry report says that in 1977 the federal government provided 63 percent of the country's total investment in water infrastructure, but only 9 percent by 2014. There's so much congestion in America's largest rail hub, Chicago, that it takes longer for a freight train to pass through the city than it takes to get from there to Los Angeles, according to Building America's Future, a public interest group.
There is no better indication of the US government's myopia than the decline in funding for research. A recent report in Science notes that, for the first time since World War II, private funding for basic research now exceeds federal funding. Research and development topped 10 per cent of the national budget in the mid-1960s; it is now under 4 per cent. And the Senate's version of the tax bill removed a crucial tax credit that has encouraged corporate spending on research, though the House-Senate compromise version will probably keep it. All this is happening in an environment in which other countries, from South Korea to Germany to China, are ramping up their investments in these areas. A new study finds that China is on track to surpass the U.S. as the world leader in biomedical research spending.
When I came to America in the 1980s, I was struck by how well American government functioned. When I would hear complaints about the IRS or the Federal Aviation Administration, I would often reply, "Have you ever seen how badly these bureaucracies work in other countries?" Certainly compared with India, where I grew up, but even compared with countries like France and Italy, many of the federal government's key offices were professional and competent. But decades of criticism, congressional micromanagement and underfunding have taken their toll. Agencies like the IRS are now threadbare. The Census Bureau is preparing to go digital and undertake a new national tally, but it is hamstrung by an insufficient budget and has had to cancel several much-needed tests. The FAA now lags behind equivalent agencies in countries like Canada and has been delayed in upgrading its technology because of funding lapses and uncertainties. The list goes on and on.
There are genuine problems beyond underfunding. The costs of building American infrastructure are astronomical. But during the Depression, World War II and much of the Cold War, a sense of crisis and competition focused America's attention and created a bipartisan urgency to get things done. Ironically, at a time now when competition is far more fierce, when other countries have surpassed the United States in many of these areas, America has fallen into extreme partisanship and embraced a know-nothing libertarianism that is starving the country of the essential investments it needs for future growth. Those who vote for this tax bill - possibly the worst piece of major legislation in a generation - will live in infamy, as the country slowly breaks down.
By Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Most UAE residents today do not watch Qatari television channels, including Al-Jazeera. They don’t even watch them via the internet or social media pages.
In the real world, they no longer exist even if they are registered on receivers. This is because most television services are linked to telecom service providers and now that they are suspended, they disappeared.
In Saudi Arabia, and in most of the region’s countries though at a lesser extent, hackers gained the audience of the Qatari beIN channel. They provide the same service in HD and for around one quarter of the amount.
Scientifically speaking, Qatar’s media empire is collapsing. It did not only lose around $5 billion which it invested in news channels, sports contracts, movies, multiple-platform broadcast networks, websites and social media accounts which are directed from Doha, Istanbul and London but it also lost all political messages it aimed to convey through them.
Qatar’s attempts to incite against the war in Yemen, its attempt to support Iran and attack the Saudi government’s internal decisions failed. Doha even failed at defending itself in the dispute with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE.
Perhaps losing billions of dollars is what worries the Qatari government the most compared with its political and propaganda losses. To Qatar, this propaganda is its project, and it is a strategic factor and the source of its significance. Qatar thought it could scare the region’s governments with the idea that it manages audiences from afar.
The countries that have a dispute with Qatar used to be patient as they tolerated the practices by Doha’s networks and branching networks. However, when the recent dispute surfaced, it included the media in the battle. Everything that Qatar invested in throughout the years, such as skills and technologies, as well as the multiple brands it created and the audience it gained was struck to death. What happened?
A series of consecutive measures were adopted such as disconnecting Qatar’s media networks, confronting them via opposing networks and mobilizing counter digital armies.
The countries which rely on cable networks and dial-up for television broadcast shut down dozens of Qatari channels including those that broadcast under different names that are actually owned by Qatar. This included political, documentary, children, drama and movie channels.
Most viewers – like the case is in the UAE – lost access to these channels on their televisions and mobile phones, except for those who still them via satellite receiver dishes. So why haven’t people rushed to other means to get access to these channels, such as by resorting to proxies, like what used to happen in the past? It’s because there are many alternative and suitable channels that compensate them for the Qatari ones.
Another move also struck Qatar’s sports networks in the core as channels which broadcast sports games and matches for cheap prices encouraged many to give up their subscriptions with Qatar’s television networks.
Qatar had adopted the policy of seizing the sports-related rights of all associations they own, particularly big ones in Spain, Britain, France and Italy. It bought them for overpriced sums, which are estimated at around $2 billion in order to prevent other television service providers from even considering to compete with it for years to come.
Some may condemn involving sports in political confrontations. This is true. However, it was Qatar who violated international regulations when it exploited its monopoly over sports’ channels and mobilized international players to talk via its channels and condemn boycotting Qatar when most of them do not even know how to locate Qatar on a map!
Its sports television network which is the most expensive in the region is not based on commercial bases. Hackers thus worsened Qatar’s losses, doubled them and destroyed whatever audience – which it wanted to politically use to serve its own purposes – it had gained in the region.
My next article will be about digital armies’ fierce wars in the confrontation against Qatar and governments’ attempts in general to regain control of the initiative and to regain its audiences whom they lost in the past ten years.
By Ali al-Shihabi
King Salman’s 2015 accession to the throne and the subsequent appointment of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as Crown Prince ushered in a period of unprecedented change in Saudi Arabia. This “tsunami” provoked polarized reactions, confounding many foreign observers while delighting, if not occasionally overwhelming, Saudis themselves.
The myriad challenges associated with restructuring the monarchy while simultaneously tackling extraordinary socioeconomic reforms and urgent foreign policy challenges have been accompanied by inevitable breakdowns in communication and occasional missteps in execution. This has disquieted friends and delighted foes and led many to assume the absence of a coherent plan built on sound strategic thinking. This is an entirely mistaken view.
In the foreign policy arena, a careful reading suggests that the new Saudi doctrine is based on three strategies: strengthening its military, reevaluating its alliances, and aggressively confronting Iranian expansionism.
For decades, Saudi Arabia relied on check book diplomacy, quiet mediation, secret agreements, and US guarantees to secure its foreign policy aims. Saudi leaders funnelled billions in aid to friends, many of whom used that money to bankroll their own agendas (or line their own pockets), while delivering little in return.
Attempts to buy off enemies often failed or backfired. Neighbours cast aside secret agreements signed in good faith. And US guarantees became less reliable and less credible. Extraordinary geopolitical change accompanied these disappointments. The 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed a wave of Iranian expansionism, and the chaos created by the 2011 Arab Spring accelerated it.
The Obama administration decided to withdraw US forces from Iraq, announced its pivot toward Asia, and failed to fulfil its “redline” pledge after Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons on his own people. Unchallenged by American might, Iran tightened its grip on Lebanon, took control of Iraq and Syria, infiltrated Yemen, backed insurgents in Bahrain, and trained and supplied terror cells in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
In light of this new reality, the King and the Crown Prince concluded that Saudi Arabia could no longer rely on outdated policies if they wished to successfully confront these rapidly growing threats.
Strengthening the Military
With the era of pax Americana in the Middle East seemingly ending, Saudi rulers have moved to rapidly build up a military that does not overly rely on the United States and is capable of meeting both Iranian and jihadist threats.
With some exceptions, today’s Saudi military is, in many ways, a holdover from the parade ground army of the 1960s. In the aftermath of midcentury Egyptian and Iraqi military coup d’états, the Kingdom designed its military to be a predominantly symbolic force, incapable of mounting a takeover of the government.
The United States, in turn, guaranteed the defence of the Saudi state in exchange for secure oil supplies and massive arms purchases. The armed forces were also meant to inspire loyalty by providing employment for ordinary citizens and senior positions for society’s grandees. Sadly, this patronage system also provided opportunities for tremendous corruption.
The Kingdom learned hard lessons during its first conflict with the Houthis in 2009–2010, where the Saudi military performed poorly. In response to this, Riyadh has sought to strengthen its armed forces by urgently enhancing its special forces capabilities, upgrading training across the board, localizing military production, reforming the military bureaucracy, and seeking out new sources of arms. Improved relations with Russia, for example, have allowed Saudi Arabia to diversify its arms and equipment purchases and have also augmented the Kingdom’s influence over global oil prices.
Despite these efforts, the Houthi takeover of Sana’a did not provide the Kingdom with adequate time to complete the restructuring of its armed forces.
However, real combat experience gained from the Yemeni conflict has provided the Saudi military, as war inevitably does, with invaluable data on its performance. The sustained air campaign, for example, exposed deficiencies in the Kingdom’s precision bombing capabilities, which it is now working to improve. Changes such as this will inevitably take time to fully implement.
The second component of the strategy is to re-evaluate existing bilateral and multilateral relationships by ensuring that the Kingdom’s “allies” hold up their end of the agreement.
To do this, the Kingdom began by focusing on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), its core regional security and economic alliance. Within the GCC, the recently improved Saudi-UAE cooperative security effort has acted as a force multiplier, augmenting the bloc’s ability to take collective action, as it did in Yemen.
It has also empowered the organization to address internal threats, most notably by imposing a boycott to end two decades of Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, political dissidents, subversive media campaigns against neighboring states, and attempts to co-opt (by buying off) Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini military, government, and religious officials, all of which the Kingdom and its allies saw as undermining their security and stability.
Outside the GCC, the Kingdom has moved to rebalance its relationships with Egypt and Lebanon. For decades, Saudi Arabia’s influence over these states was built on checkbook diplomacy, with an increasingly insignificant return on investment.
Following the 2013 coup against the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood regime, Riyadh poured over $25 billion into Egypt. After Egypt had received this bailout, a 2014 leaked audio exchange caught Egyptian leaders speaking derisively of Saudi aid and Saudis as “having money like rice.” In addition, many of Cairo’s policies seemed designed to demonstrate Egypt’s independence from, rather than deliver political support to, its ally.
Cairo’s vote in favour of a 2016 Russian-backed Security Council resolution on Syria that was strongly opposed by the Kingdom is one such example. Because of these actions, Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended an agreement to supply Cairo with over seven hundred thousand tons of refined petroleum products per month in late 2016. Rice, it seems, would no longer be plentiful.
The same logic seems to have influenced the Kingdom’s recent approach toward Lebanon. In 2013, the late King Abdullah earmarked $3 billion to support the Lebanese Armed Forces. After many in Riyadh objected to the funding of an army they saw as heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah in a state “captured” by Hezbollah, the new Saudi leadership rescinded this offer in 2016.
More recently, Lebanese leaders’ aggressive lobbying of the US Congress to “soften” sanctions against Hezbollah vindicated those who increasingly believed that when forced to choose between Saudi dollar diplomacy and an Iran that assassinates those who cross them, as it did with Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, Beirut would take Saudi money but prioritize appeasing Tehran.
The younger Hariri’s shocking resignation in Riyadh suggests that Saudi Arabia is signaling to Lebanon’s political class (and possibly the state) that they risk their political and financial relationships with the Kingdom if their actions (or inaction) continue to provide political cover and international legitimacy for Hezbollah.
Aggressively confronting Iranian expansionism
As Iran’s shadow grew and America’s footprint shrank, Saudi leaders concluded that the Kingdom would need to shift from a reactive to a proactive foreign policy posture when it came to dealing with the Islamic Republic.
Following the 2011 Bahraini uprising and the 2014 Houthi seizure of Sana’a, aggressively confronting Iranian expansionism became a strategic imperative in the Kingdom’s “near abroad.” But whereas Iran could rely on exploiting sectarian fault lines in order to create deadly proxies, the Kingdom had no such capabilities (its one attempt to emulate the Iranian model in Syria was an unmitigated failure). Saudi Arabia therefore needed to turn to multilateral military force to complement its soft power capabilities.
While a Saudi military intervention successfully helped deter an insurgency in Bahrain, Yemen’s mountainous terrain and size, and the considerable capabilities of its Iran-allied Houthi militias, posed a far more dangerous threat. Although it has been widely argued that Saudi Arabia’s foray into Yemen was based on the erroneous belief that the Houthis would quickly cave under a lightning “shock and awe” air campaign, this assertion is incorrect.
On the contrary, the Saudis recognized that the Houthis had acquitted themselves well during their first war against them without the full support of Hezbollah and Iran. In the years hence, Iran dramatically increased arms shipments to, and Hezbollah accelerated its training of, Houthi forces. In addition, the Kingdom understood that fighting a guerrilla force swimming, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, among the civilian population would be a long, arduous, and messy process.
With the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah working hard to upgrade Houthi capabilities, Riyadh concluded that war now was preferable to war later; even if the cost to Yemen (and Saudi Arabia) was high, it would be far higher if the Kingdom waited. Striking now would also clearly communicate to the Houthis and the world that the Kingdom would not tolerate the emergence of a new Hezbollah on its southern border with thousands of ballistic missiles aimed at Saudi cities.
In contextualizing the Saudi response, it is important to recall that the Kingdom reached this crisis point at a time when the regional credibility of the United States was at its nadir. In addition to the United States’ Asia pivot and failure to follow through on its “redline” pledge in Syria, the Obama administration sent clear signals that, post-JCPOA, the Kingdom would have to “carry its own water” and learn to “share the region” when it came to Iran.
While the Americans did ultimately provide refueling and limited targeting support to the Saudi air campaign, the Kingdom also secured the backing of six other nations, most importantly the UAE, to prevent the Iranians from succeeding in Sana’a. Outside the Arabian Peninsula, Riyadh has been strategic in choosing where and how to confront Iran. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia opted to push back against Iranian influence by engaging nationalist leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and exploring opportunities to engage with the Abadi government by opening the Arar border crossing to pilgrims and commerce.
The Kingdom has also ended its support where the cost was no longer justified. For example, in Syria, Riyadh stopped sending weapons and supplies when it became clear that the fractious opposition could not unseat Assad and was becoming increasingly dominated by radical jihadists.
Admittedly, the Kingdom’s execution of all these plans could have been handled better. Riyadh did not clearly broadcast its intentions, provide sufficient context or background for its actions, or effectively communicate its aims. As a result, the Kingdom’s moves appeared sudden and haphazard, unnecessarily rattling friends and allies.
Also, the Kingdom could have done a better job anticipating some of the unintended consequences of its new policies. While these missteps did serious damage to Riyadh’s public relations image, this does not mean that Saudi Arabia lacks a well thought out strategy or that its strategy is an unsound one.
While critics have been unable to resist pronouncing any Saudi initiative that does not produce instantaneous success a disastrous failure, Saudi leaders are instead operating on a longer timeline and do not expect immediate results. In Qatar, the Saudis can afford to wait, as the boycott imposes far less of an economic cost on the Kingdom and its allies than it does on Doha.
In Lebanon, Riyadh can put Beirut’s valuable ties to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies at risk, gradually increasing the price Lebanon’s political class pays for providing political cover to Hezbollah. And in Yemen, the Kingdom can wait for the opposition to splinter, the recent collapse of the Houthi-Saleh alliance being one such fracture. Riyadh is also learning from its mistakes. It has taken steps to be more proactive in tackling Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and has improved coordination with some international relief agencies.
For the Saudi leadership, the bottom line was that the cumulative effect of Iranian expansion and US inaction demanded that the Kingdom simultaneously tackle multiple foreign policy challenges quickly and decisively. This approach led to some tactical mistakes that disquieted and confused friends and provided fuel to critics.
But for the Kingdom’s leadership, these missteps are a small price to pay if one believes, as Saudi leaders clearly do, that inaction would have put the country in the position of the proverbial frog sitting in a pot of tepid water that is slowly being brought to a boil.
Putin Reading Zeitgeist On Middle East Tour
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy said people do not become leaders due to fate or their characteristics, but due to the social circumstances at that time — zeitgeist (spirit of the time). Nowadays, Russian President Vladimir Putin is reading the zeitgeist in the Middle East. He visited three critical countries on Monday, having breakfast with his Syrian counterpart, lunch with his Egyptian counterpart and dinner with his Turkish counterpart.
In Turkey, he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was their eighth meeting in a year, indicating how much bilateral relations have improved since the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara.
In Monday’s talks, agenda topics included the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there, details of Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, and the latest developments in the Syrian conflict. Erdogan discussed Jerusalem with Putin by phone a day after the US decision. The two leaders agree on the matter, and Putin threw his full support behind Turkey during a press conference in Ankara.
Following the Putin-Erdogan talks, the next meeting in Astana was announced. Turkey and Russia are central to the Astana peace process, which includes Iran. As the Syrian conflict is approaching an endgame, the three countries have further engaged in a process of cooperation.
Putin’s surprise announcement of a partial withdrawal of Russia’s military from Syria may contribute to further improving Turkish-Russian relations. In his first visit to Syria since 2015, he said the war on terror there is almost complete, and the time has come for a gradual pullback of Russian forces. This means the Syrian crisis has entered a new phase in which Moscow plans to lead the process in close cooperation with Ankara and Tehran.
Turkey and Russia are planning to hold a congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi, in which Moscow aims to bring together the Syrian government and opposition. The congress, according to Moscow, aims to address the adoption of a new constitution, the parameters of future Syrian statehood, and the organization of elections under UN auspices.
Turkey objects to the inclusion of the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), because of their links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara sees as a terrorist organization. In light of this, Moscow has reportedly proposed that the congress include all Kurdish groups except the PYD.
With his one-day tour of the Middle East, Putin sent a clear message to all relevant actors that Russia is emerging as a regional powerbroker at a time of declining US influence. With a cautious and well-planned strategy based on shuttle diplomacy in the region, he appears willing to fill the vacuum that the Americans are leaving behind.
Back To The Future: Resetting The Time Continuum From 1979
There are a host of issues in the Middle East grabbing headlines these days. Developments in Afghanistan and Iran, political instability in Egypt and acts of terrorism are some of the important areas in the news at this time.
These incidents are occurring almost simultaneously and before one can fully assess one event, another adds on to a growing list of geopolitical developments. It is tempting to look at four subjects mentioned above as all of them had their origins in 1979.
However, Egypt is perhaps the only exception in this regard in that it has remained stable until events that unfolded in 2011. Nothing has ever been the same since that year.
1979: The Watershed Year
Incidents of terrorism have increased at an exponential rate that show it is no longer a menace regionally, but is capable of afflicting every part of the globe. Khomeini seized power in Iran and introduced the most radical ideology since Lenin’s Bolshevik Russia. The world and the region has not been the same since the clergy started ruling from Tehran.
Since the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan has remained in a perpetual state of war. These events have shaken the world, especially the Muslim world, since 1979. The waves would come crashing on the shores of Saudi Arabia and in some cases they made inroads into the mainland.
Among other things lost that could be explained in two words are identity and narrative. In response to Khomeinist Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the narrative and true identity of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been lost.
The founding principle of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is Islam. Of this there is no question and nor should it ever be. However, our identity was lost in 1979 and it would remain missing on account of some who wished to deliberately deviate from Islam with the goal of wielding an instrument that simply sought political outcomes through the murder of innocents.
There was no history of terrorism in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and even Iran prior to 1979. From that year onwards, Iran embarked on a policy of terror which lasts to this very day. In response to this period of instability, it was thought that austerity and purity were the proper mantras.
What would emerge was neither our true identity as a citizenry. The result was a failure to develop a balanced economy that truly reflected the vast talents of the citizenry. This led to an unbalanced society where some felt left out as they watched first hand some of the greatest transfers of wealth in human history that arrived in the Kingdom.
The education system was not properly designed to educate the citizenry in a way that could be fully mobilized to participate in the development of The Kingdom and the world at large. The result was an inability to find our identity in a world that was rapidly changing into what would be the modern era that we see today. The result was a stultification of our progress that had been rapid and dizzying in the 1970’s.
Vision 2030 is about the future, but it is also about the past. While moving forward into the future to a place that is rightfully ours we will be defining our narrative by rediscovering, in some ways, our identity. As the official policy of Saudi Arabia moves on we will also be returning to the norms existing before 1979.
Across the GCC, we see how Islam and modernity go hand in hand. Further afield, we can see Islam and modernity going hand in hand in places like Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Islam has proven throughout its history to be at the forefront of scientific thought and modernity. It has been said that while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages the torch of civilization blazed in Córdoba.
The greatest asset that Saudi Arabia will have during this journey is its people. A fully mobilized citizenry, imbued with the belief that good character, good activity, and good habits will find their just rewards, will be well situated to reclaim its true identity and narrative.