It is early days, but first indications are that the global pandemic is entrenching long-drawn Middle Eastern geopolitical, political, ethnic, and sectarian battle lines rather than serving as a vehicle to build bridges and build confidence.
The coronavirus crisis is also changing the region’s political landscape as non-governmental organizations and militants in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon fill gaps where governments have failed to cater to social and health needs created by the pandemic.
The empowerment of NGOs and militant groups, particularly where they fill a gap without coordinating with government, potentially raises security issues as militants capitalize on their ability to show up the state’s lack of capability.
The expanded militants’ role takes on added significance as states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates use the pandemic to entrench as well as manage many of the Middle East’s fault lines, if not widen them to their advantage.
The pandemic has also not stopped the region’s foremost external power, the United States, from taking Iran’s bait in an escalating tit-for-tat that risks a larger military conflagration.
In a similar vein, the UAE has used the pandemic to solidify its limited outreach to Iran designed to shield the Gulf state from becoming a battlefield in any US-Iranian military confrontation.
While the United States reportedly blocked an Iranian request for US5 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fight the virus, the UAE was among the first nations to deliver medical aid to Iran and facilitate shipments by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The shipments led to a rare March 15 phone call between UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javid Zarif.
The UAE began reaching out to Iran last year when it sent a coast guard delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security in the wake of alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers off the coast of the Emirates.
The Trump administration remained silent when the UAE last October released US$700 million in frozen Iranian assets that ran counter to US efforts to strangle Iran economically with harsh sanctions.
The UAE’s moves amount to a lowering of the temperature. Officials insist that there will be no real breakthrough in Emirati-Iranian relations as long as Iran supports proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed made that clear when he phoned Syrian President Bashar -al-Assad in a bid to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran and complicate Turkish military interventions in Syria as well as Libya.
UAE support for Syria and Libyan rebel forces led by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar spotlight the contradictions in the Emirates’ projection of itself as a humanitarian actor. Neither Mr. Al-Assad or Mr. Haftar have shied away from targeting hospitals and medical facilities at a time functioning health infrastructure is a priority.
In cuddling up to Syria and reaching out to Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia may have common goals even if they pursue them in different ways that are dictated by the degree of risk they are willing to shoulder.
As a result, Saudi Arabia, in contrast to the UAE, has maintained a hard line towards Iran, casting aside opportunities to build bridges by, for example, offering Iran medical aid.
Instead, Saudi Arabia appeared to reinforce the divide by accusing Iran of “direct responsibility” for the spread of the virus. Government-controlled media charged that Iran’s allies, Qatar and Turkey, had deliberately mismanaged the crisis.
Moreover, the kingdom, backing a US refusal to ease sanctioning of Iran, prevented the Non-Aligned Movement from condemning the Trump administration’s hard line at the time of a pandemic.
Saudi Arabia’s failure to follow in the UAE’s footsteps could prove to be costlier than meets the eye.
The coronavirus coupled with the global economic breakdown and the collapse of the oil market has somewhat levelled the playing field with Iran with the undermining of the kingdom’s ability to manipulate oil prices as well as its diminished financial muscle.
Add to that the weakening of Saudi Arabia’s claim to leadership of the Islamic world as the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities, as a result of its efforts to combat the pandemic.
One has to go way back in history to find a precedent for the kingdom’s banning of the Umrah, Islam’s minor pilgrimage to Mecca; the likely cancelling of the haj, Islam’s major pilgrimage that constitutes one of the faith’s five pillars; and the closing down of mosques to avoid congregational prayer.
Just to make things worse, Saudi Arabia has jeopardized its close ties to the United States with an oil price war against Russia that collapsed oil markets, drove oil prices to rock bottom, and significantly undermined the US shale industry with its ten million jobs.
Nonetheless, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a twist of irony given his record on human rights and rule of law, has emerged as a model in some Muslim countries like Pakistan that have been less forceful in imposing physical distancing and lockdowns on ultra-conservative religious communities.
“What if this year’s haj was under Imran Khan rather than Mohammad bin Salman? Would he have waffled there as indeed he has in Pakistan?” asked Pakistani nuclear scientist, political analyst and human rights activist Pervez Hoodbhoy referring to the Pakistan prime minister.
Saudi Arabia has so far carried the brunt of US criticism despite the fact that it remains more closely aligned with US policies than the UAE which to date has succeeded in flying under the radar.
That is a remarkable achievement given that the Emirates backed Saudi Arabia in its debilitating price war by announcing that it too would raise oil production.
The strategy has since been put on hold with an agreement to radically reduce production among members of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC), non-OPEC producers, including Russia, and the Group of Twenty that brings together the world’s largest economies.
In the same vein, the UAE’s outreach to Syria and Iran runs counter to US policy.
The policy contradictions stem from Gulf efforts to ensure that entrenched conflicts do not spiral out of control, particularly as they battle a pandemic and struggle to cope with the economic fallout.
That is also their core message to US President Donald J. Trump amid heightening tensions with Iran: “Don’t let this get out of hand. You live thousands of miles away. It will be us, not you who pays the price and you won’t be there to rush to our defense,” said a prominent Saudi.
This article has been republished with permission from Gulf Insight.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, a syndicated columnist and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. A veteran, award-winning foreign correspondent whose career focused on ethnic and religious conflict, James focuses at RSIS on political and social change in the Middle East and North Africa, the impact of change in the Middle East and North Africa on Southeast and Central Asia and the nexus of sports, politics and society in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman meeting with Donald Trump in the White House, March 2017 (White House photo by Shealah Craighead)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.