The Summary of this paper dated 9 September 2019 is reproduced for all intents and purposes below and the paper can be read online or as a Download PDF (opens in new window)
In the Middle East and North Africa, a growing number of internationally recognized (de jure) states with formal borders and governments lack de facto statehood. Often, governance vacuums are filled by alternative actors that perform state-like functions in place of, or alongside, weakened official institutions. This results in hybrid orders where the distinction between formal and informal actors in the state is blurred, as too are the lines between the formal, informal and illicit economies.
International policymakers have struggled to establish political settlements in these contexts. Would-be state-builders have mistakenly assumed a binary distinction between state failure and success. They have sought to recreate an idealized archetype of the ‘orderly’ state, critically failing to recognize the more complex networks of de facto actors on the ground. At times, international policymakers pick or support leaders who lack local legitimacy, capability and power. This stalls and fragments ongoing organic state transformations, and produces hybrid orders as de facto actors adapt by both capturing state institutions and creating parallel ones.
We propose a new model for understanding the fragmentary transformations of the state underway in Iraq and Yemen. It involves the concept of a multi-layered state, consisting of the executive, the formal bureaucracy, the de facto authorities and society at large. The gap in legitimacy, capability and power between the middle two layers in this model – the formal bureaucracy and the de facto authorities – is a critical source of instability and an impediment to reform. Bridging that gap is thus the key to effective peacebuilding and/or state-building.
This paper argues that all states lie along a chaos–order spectrum. No state is entirely chaotic or orderly. Even those that display many features of chaos – as in Iraq and Yemen – contain pockets of order that are all too often overlooked. The larger the gap between the formal bureaucracy and the de facto authorities, the more a state slides towards the chaos end of the spectrum. Effective state-building must find a way of institutionalizing improvised governance arrangements.
To achieve this, we advocate a ‘middle–out’ approach that aims to strengthen the connective tissues between the bureaucracy and de facto authorities. Simplified, this more inclusive approach entails reframing international involvement as playing the role of a ‘referee’ to monitor the transformations of the state while enforcing accountability, as opposed to the practice of picking ‘winners’ and integrating unfavoured actors into unpopular political settlements.
Chatham House Reports of one of its Middle East and North Africa Programme elaborates on the still on-going conflict economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The excerpts of the published Executive Summary reproduced here below do not include its Recommendations for Western policymakers, etc.
The conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. In seeking to explain the violence that has struck the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) over the past two decades, analysis to date has focused predominantly on ideological and identity-based factors. This report expands this discourse by incorporating approaches adopted from the literature on the political economy of war to examine the conflict economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
motivations, at the individual and group level, are key to understanding
the wars in these countries, yet have tended to be overlooked
in the MENA context. (As the wars have progressed and evolved, the
national and local economies in which conflict is embedded have also changed.)
Such motivations can offer an alternative or complementary
explanation for armed group membership and armed group behaviour. While some
groups will fight to promote or defend a particular identity,
others fight for economic survival or enrichment. For many more actors,
these motivations are tied together, and separating out ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’
is a difficult, if not impossible, task. Even
if economic motivations did not spark the wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and
Yemen initially, it is clear that such factors now play a critical
role in the persistence of open fighting, localized violence and
objectives of this report are twofold. First, it seeks
to develop a framework for comparative analysis of conflict
economies at the local level in the MENA region. Traditionally, the
idea of a conflict economy has been tightly linked to the
funding for arms, ammunition and fighters. Further, most analyses
of conflict economies are conducted at the national level. Even where
research is conducted on a regional basis, discussion
of the impact of conflict is brought back to the national
level. In contrast, we see a broader political economy
of war at work in the region. Our analysis illustrates how
a conflict economy is embedded within a complex local socio-political
system, in which many variables and agendas interact. We deliberately
avoid characterizing conflict economies in terms of ‘black’ and
‘grey’ markets that somehow need to be ‘cleaned up’, as this
erroneously implies that they can eventually be converted into licit
markets like their peacetime counterparts.2 A more
nuanced and multifaceted reading is essential. For the purposes
of this report, we define a conflict economy
as a system of producing, mobilizing and allocating resources
to sustain competitive and embedded violence, both directly and
we show that a ‘political economy of war’ framing offers new
approaches for reducing competitive and embedded violence. ‘Competitive
violence’ can be defined as violence ‘deployed by warring elites
to contest or defend the existing distribution of power’.4 Fighting
between rival armed groups for control over resources and rents, among other
things, usually falls into this category. ‘Embedded violence’,
in contrast, underpins ‘how a political settlement5 works,
as the deals agreed between elites may revolve around who has the “right”
to use violence’.6 In practice,
this could mean that one group is ‘permitted’ to use violence against
another group – and no punishment will be enforced. In the
context of this study, the use of armed force to assert the
status quo to limit the number of ruling elite members is one
example of embedded violence.
of conflict economies has mostly focused on state-level dynamics.7 However,
less attention has been paid to the development of conflict sub-economies that are specific to certain types of
location. This study demonstrates three distinct types of conflict sub-economy:
(1) capital cities; (2) transit areas and borderlands; and (3) oil-rich areas.
Our analysis highlights how each sub-economy creates distinct location-based
patterns of resource production, mobilization and allocation
to sustain competitive and embedded violence. The rents available
in these areas vary. In capital cities, rents focus on control
of the distribution of revenues and assets from the state and private
sector. In transit areas and borderlands, rents centre around taxation and
arbitrage. In oil-rich areas, rents are related to control
of the area itself (and therefore the ability to levy taxes upon
the oil sector), bearing in mind that the level of achievable
taxation depends on the extent to which a given actor controls
the supply chain.
As this report will elaborate, factors specific to each sub-economy type play a role in conditioning the nature of economic activities in each locality, and in determining whether and by which means violence is dispensed. For this reason, national-level generalizations and in-country comparisons of conflict economies are inadequate: for example, the conflict sub-economy of Baghdad has more in common with that of Tripoli than that of al-Qaim, an Iraqi town on the border with Syria. In turn, the conflict economy observed in al-Qaim has more in common with that of al-Mahra in Yemen than al-Mahra does with Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.
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In Equal Times (a trilingual news and opinion website) OPINIONS, an article by Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde titled Something is shifting in the MENA region – and it is happening from the ground up brings to light a near year-long movement of streets protests. These are affecting nearly all the so-called republics type of countries of the MENA. Fun fact, it was at the beginning generally thought of as being only a short trip by all leading elites. What they ignored then and/or overlooked was Mobile telecommunications and social media making quite a difference. Tomorrow will be the 50th Friday of streets pavement beating in Algiers as well as other town and villages of Algeria with yet again and as highlighted here by Nunez Villaverde, to no significant and noticeable effect.
With all the caution that any generalisation implies, the central feature of the mobilisations/revolutions now taking place, with varying intensity, in a growing number of countries – Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan being the most recent cases – is the huge public frustration with failed, corrupt, inefficient and totalitarian rulers who are incapable of guaranteeing decent levels of wellbeing and security for all. In this image from 11 January in Tehran (Iran), a woman chats with a policeman.(AP/Mona Hoobehfekr)
For too long, the Arab and wider Muslim world of the Maghreb, the Near East and the Middle East, has been perceived as synonymous with underdevelopment, instability and violence. Within the framework of imperfect systems – socially, politically and economically – the interests of dominant elites, determined to maintain their privileges at all costs, clash with those of increasingly critical citizens, driven by the inability to satisfy their basic needs, the violence they suffer in the flesh, the daily rights violations committed by their rulers and the denial of their right to a decent life.
Added to this is the traditional and pernicious interference of regional and global powers, much more attentive to the local elites than to the local populations, determined to meddle in the affairs of their neighbours and increase their global sway, with no regard for the malaise and insecurity generated for others.
A structural hotbed has thus been created, a breeding ground for the temptation to resort to violent repression, for some, and for social unrest and protest, for others. The result is a highly worrisome situation with no way out, or so it may appear at first sight.
For decades, violent repression has been by far the preferred option of the governments in the area, combined with variable doses of patronage and paternalism aimed at maintaining social peace. To maintain their grip on power whilst showing little sensitivity to the needs and demands of their respective populations, it has become commonplace for them to resort to punishment as the preferred method for preserving, in clear collusion with many foreign governments, a status quo of which they, and their allies, are the prime beneficiaries. Hardly willing to allow free speech, and even more so after the experience of the so-called Arab Spring, a real counter-revolution is now underway, the protagonists of which are the regimes of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Egypt (not forgetting Iran on the Shia side).
With the passing of time and the impact of the successive crises that have seriously impaired the capacity of the aforementioned regimes and most others to continue ‘buying’ social peace, what they are left with, above all, is their repressive capability, and they are applying it with great resolve. This means that no substantial change can be expected in their behaviour, as they cling on to a strategy that primarily seeks to keep them in power without giving up anything substantial in return.
And the same can be said, unfortunately, of the external actors with interests in the region, given that they generally prefer to deal with the current rulers – no matter how uncomfortable it may make them feel and no matter how much their own civil societies may criticise them for their crude ‘realpolitik’ – rather than risk allowing grassroots mobilisations to bring new rulers to power and jeopardise a regional order that has long served their interests.
This powerful dynamic is countered by another, driven by a growing number of citizens who want to find a way out and see a substantial change in their situation.
It is they who are really trying to overcome the current challenges and to find solutions to the problems that define their lives and life in their countries. They have far less power than that accumulated by their rulers and those who support them from the outside. But they have lost their fear of repression and their resolve seems to be growing ever firmer, fed by the visible disgruntlement that has built up over the years.
With all the caution that any generalisation implies, the central feature of the mobilisations/revolutions now taking place, with varying intensity, in a growing number of countries – Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan being the most recent cases – is the huge public frustration with failed, corrupt, inefficient and totalitarian rulers who are incapable of guaranteeing decent levels of wellbeing and security for all. All it takes, on such potentially explosive ground, is a simple spark to ignite the flames of revolt – such as the young man who set himself on fire in front of a police station in Tunisia; the repression of children who painted political slogans against the government in Syria; the attempt to apply a monthly fee of almost €6 for WhatsApp calls in Lebanon; the increase in the price of fuel, in Iran; or less outstanding factors, in the case of Libya, Yemen, Syria or Algeria.
The substantial difference with previous episodes of grassroots mobilisation – when the application of structural adjustment programmes at the end of the last century triggered revolts that were limited to demanding the reinstatement of subsidies for basic necessities – what we have been witnessing since 2011 is a movement with a decidedly political profile, demanding not only the removal of the ruler of the day, but also the dismantling of a status quo that, at best, offers no more than the crumbs of paternalism and clientelism. The more recent protest movements have been, and continue to be crosscutting (going beyond the usual signs of ethnic or religious identity), young (in keeping with the demographic structure of these countries), spontaneous (in the sense that they emerge from society itself and not out of foreign manipulation) and peaceful (it is the powers that be, faithful to their repressive pattern, that resort to violence as the default option).
Support for legitimate and representative regimes without delay
What is also clear, however, is that these movements have yet to be structured and the only factor seemingly uniting them is the desire to rid themselves of the current establishment. In many cases, this means that they have even stopped identifying leaders and do not, as a rule, have coherent government programmes. And all this reduces their strength to overcome the resistance of actors who are better organised and experienced when it comes to seizing and maintaining power.
This is why simply wishing them luck, trusting that they will finally succeed in overcoming all the obstacles in their path, will not suffice. It is likely that in addition to the persistent repression and in keeping with the Lampedusa paradox [“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”], some of these governments will be willing to accept cosmetic reforms to ultimately prevent any substantial change.
It is essential that Western democratic governments actively support these movements, overcoming the traditionally short-sighted approach that is content with merely patching up the surface in the hope that time will eventually bring all the pieces of the puzzle together.
The current rulers are not going to relinquish power without a fight, and even less so if they feel that they are supported by Washington, Brussels, Moscow or so many other administrations with interests in the region. The current socio-political and economic management model is totally spent, and the millions of people living in these countries no longer expect anything from leaders who have amply demonstrated that the only thing that moves them is the desire to increase their privileges. The elites have squandered any political capital left in the eyes of citizens who, fully aware of their plight and the fact that there are other ways, in the 21st century, of ensuring that their basic needs are met and their security guaranteed, are calling for a thorough clean-up of a profoundly dysfunctional system.
Although many unknowns remain, there is already scope for concluding that, without public pressure, none of these imperfect regimes is ready to change course. The problem is that the foreign powers involved in the region seem no more ready to stop aligning with them. They do not yet appear to have realised that backing failed governments is not the best way to defend their real interests, not to mention the fact that such behaviour clashes head-on with their own values and principles. It can only be hoped they will eventually come to the realisation that the best course of action would be to contribute to the establishment and consolidation of legitimate and truly representative governments.
It shows a score of 39, the same as last year. There seems to be little progress in improving control of corruption in the Middle East and North Africa region generally but the massive protests currently thronging the streets in mostly the republics types of states of the MENA could be taken as seeking for improvement. Excerpts of the Khaleej Times follow.
With a score of 71, the United Arab Emirates is the best regional performer, followed by Qatar (62). At the bottom of the region, Syria scores 13, followed by Yemen with a score of 15. Both countries are significant decliners on the CPI, with Yemen dropping eight points since 2012 and Syria dropping 13 points during the same period.
Lack of political integrity
The region faces significant corruption challenges that highlight a lack of political integrity. According to our recent report, Global Corruption Barometer — Middle East and North Africa, nearly one in two people in Lebanon is offered bribes in exchange for their votes, while more than one in four receives threats if they don’t vote a certain way.
In a region where fair and democratic elections are the exception, state capture is commonplace. Powerful individuals routinely divert public funds to their own pockets at the expense of ordinary citizens. Separation of powers is another challenge: independent judiciaries with the potential to act as a check on the executive branch are rare or non-existent.
To improve citizens’ trust in government, countries must build transparent and accountable institutions and prosecute wrongdoing. They should also hold free and fair elections and allow for citizen engagement and participation in decision-making.
The UAE has been rated least corrupt country, yet again, in the Middle East and North Africa by the Berlin-based Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2019.
Globally also, the country retained its 21st ranking, scoring 71 points.
At the bottom of the region, Syria scores 13, followed by Yemen with a score of 15. Both countries are significant decliners on the CPI, with Yemen dropping eight points since 2012 and Syria dropping 13 points during the same period.
“The region faces significant corruption challenges that highlight a lack of political integrity. According to our recent report, Global Corruption Barometer – Middle East and North Africa, nearly one in two people in Lebanon is offered bribes in exchange for their votes, while more than one in four receives threats if they don’t vote a certain way,” said Transparency International said in the report released on Thursday.
“To improve citizens’ trust in government, countries must build transparent and accountable institutions and prosecute wrongdoing. They should also hold free and fair elections and allow for citizen engagement and participation in decision-making,” it said.
With a score of 53, Saudi Arabia improved by four points since last year. In 2017, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman carried out an “anti-corruption” purge as part of his reform of the country.
Regionally, the UAE is followed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait.
Globally, the top countries are New Zealand and Denmark, with scores of 87 each, followed by Finland (86), Singapore (85), Sweden (85) and Switzerland (85).
More than two-thirds of countries score below 50 on this year’s CPI, with an average score of just 43. Similar to previous years, the data shows that despite some progress, a majority of countries are still failing to tackle public sector corruption effectively.
“Governments must urgently address the corrupting role of big money in political party financing and the undue influence it exerts on our political systems,” said Delia Ferreira Rubio Chair Transparency International.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region significantly improved its T&T competitiveness since the last edition of the TTCI. With 12 of the 15 MENA economies covered by this year’s index increasing their score compared to 2017, the region was able to slightly outpace the global average in competitiveness growth. This is particularly important given that, in the aggregate, T&T accounts for a greater share of regional GDP than in any of the other four regions. MENA is also the only region where international visitor spending is greater than domestic visitor spending. Yet despite improved competitiveness and a strong reliance on T&T for overall economic growth, MENA continues to underperform the global TTCI score average.
MENA’s below-average competitiveness is primarily a result of low scores on indicators related to natural and cultural resources and international openness. The region’s historical and religious heritage and geographic features create the potential for significant natural and cultural tourism; yet, while some individual nations come close, no MENA country scores above the global average for natural resources and only Egypt and Iran score above for cultural resources. In fact, the entire region’s score in both of these areas has fallen in recent years. More needs to be done to expand habit protection and heritage sites. Moreover, digital demand for MENA’s natural, cultural and entertainment demand is fairly low, indicating potential gaps in marketing and traveller perceptions. One potential reason for this gap is continued safety and security concerns. Eleven MENA countries rank within the bottom 40 for terrorism incidents, with two among the worst 10 countries globally. Further, the region is plagued by geopolitical tensions, instability and conflict. Security concerns also play a role in why MENA members are some of the most restrictive when it comes to international openness, with only Qatar, Oman and Morocco making significant improvements. Consequently, travellers often face barriers when visiting the region, while the aviation and overall T&T sector is stifled by limiting bilateral air service and regional trade agreements.
More positively, stability, safety and security have started to recover throughout the region, slightly reducing travel fears and underlying one of the key reasons for the recent pickup in arrivals. Furthermore, it seems that there has been greater recognition of T&T’s importance, with broad regional improvements in T&T prioritization, including increased government funding and more effective marketing campaigns to bring back or attract new visitors. Greatly enhanced environmental sustainability also has the potential to pay dividends for natural assets (note that environmental sustainability comparison is influenced by the use of new data to measure marine sustainability). In addition, prices have become more competitive among countries within the region, amplifying MENA’s single biggest advantage relative to the global average. As one of the world’s main producers of fossil fuels, MENA includes some of the world’s lowest fuel prices, with some governments offering subsidies. Moreover, many of the region’s economies offer visitors greater purchasing power (especially Egypt, Algeria, Iran and Tunisia), which has been increased by lower exchange rates. Yet it is reductions in ticket taxes and airport charges as well as lower hotel prices that have primarily driven regional price competitiveness in recent years.
Infrastructure has also improved, with particularly impressive growth in the number of airlines and route capacity. Despite these gains, world-class infrastructure remains concentrated among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The Gulf countries have been able to use their natural resource wealth, central geographic location and relative security to develop world-class T&T infrastructure, defined by quality airports, ports, roads, tourist services and some of the world’s leading airlines. These efforts are in stark contrast to some other MENA nations that—due to a lack of investment and ongoing instability—have yet to develop competitive infrastructure, especially regarding air transport. Similarly, the region’s above-average score on the Enabling Environment subindex is due to the performance of the Gulf countries and Israel, which have developed economies, strong business environments, ICT readiness and some of the highest scores in safety and security. Finally, most regional economies also score near the bottom when it comes to female participation in the labour market, depriving the T&T industry of a greater labour and skills pool.
The Middle East subregion is by far the more competitive of the two subregions, outscoring North Africa on nine pillars. Thanks to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and Israel, the subregion is wealthier and more developed than the North Africa subregion. Consequently, it is no surprise that the Middle East scores above the global and regional averages on indicators related to enabling environment and infrastructure, with particularly high ranks on ICT readiness and business environment. Nevertheless, the subregion does trail the world and North Africa on T&T prioritization and policy and natural and cultural resources. In particular, many Middle East nations score relatively low on the International Openness and Natural Resources pillars, which represent the subregion’s greatest disadvantages relative to global competition. One of the Middle East’s highest-scoring pillars is Price Competitiveness, with some economies leveraging their fossil fuel abundance to offer lower fuel prices. Since the 2017 edition of the report, the subregion has improved across all pillars of T&T policy and enabling conditions, safety and security, ICT readiness and much of infrastructure, but declined or stagnated on other pillars.
This year, eight out of the subregion’s 11 members improved their TTCI score since 2017. Oman demonstrated the greatest improvement, moving up eight places to 58th. MENA’s safest (3rd) country recorded the subregion’s fastest improvement for its human resources and labour markets (103rd to 65th), and is among the most improved when it comes to international openness (116th to 97th), environmental sustainability (109th to 57th) and overall infrastructure (60th to 52nd). Yet some of the improvement in environmental sustainability is exaggerated due to new marine sustainability metrics. In contrast, the UAE had the Middle East’s largest decline, falling from 29th to 33rd, including the biggest percentage decline in score on the Safety and Security pillar (falling from 2nd to 7th) and Ground and Port Infrastructure (19th to 31st) and the subregion’s only decline on Environmental Sustainability (40th to 41st). Nevertheless, the country remains in the lead in the Middle East and is MENA’s top TTCI scorer, leading on ICT readiness (4th), air transport (4th) and tourist service (22nd) infrastructure. The Middle East’s—and MENA’s—largest T&T economy is Saudi Arabia (69th), which scores above the subregion’s average on most pillars, but near the bottom on international openness (137th). Plagued by ongoing conflict and a lingering humanitarian crisis, Yemen (140th), ranks at the bottom of the global index.
North Africa scores lower than the Middle East, but demonstrates far greater improvement in overall competitiveness. The subregion outscores the Middle East on five pillars and bests the global average on four. North Africa is the most price competitive subregion in the world, with three out of its four members among the 12 least-expensive economies covered in the report. North Africa’s greatest advantage relative to the Middle East is its natural and cultural resources—although it still underperforms the world on both the Natural Resources and Cultural and Business Travel pillars. The subregion also bests the MENA average in prioritization of T&T and environmental sustainability, areas where it has improved since 2017. On the other hand, North Africa has underdeveloped infrastructure and T&T enabling environment, contrasting some of the high performers in the Middle East subregion. In particular, North Africa trails when it comes to tourist service infrastructure and ICT readiness. The subregion’s strong rate of improvement is due to enhanced safety and security, overall T&T policy and enabling conditions and air transport and ground infrastructure.
All four members of the North Africa subregion increased their TTCI scores over 2017. Egypt (65th) is the subregion’s top scorer and its largest T&T economy. The country is also MENA’s most improved scorer. Egypt is price competitive (3rd) and has MENA’s highest score for cultural resources (22nd). Its improvement comes from increases on 11 pillar scores. These include the world’s second-best enhancement of safety and security (130th to 112th), albeit from a low starting base. Morocco (66th) demonstrates North Africa’s slowest improvement in TTCI performance. The country is a close second to Egypt when it comes to overall competitiveness, boasting the MENA region’s top TTCI scores on natural resources (63rd) and North Africa’s best enabling environment (71st) and infrastructure (69th). However, TTCI performance improvement is tempered by declining safety and security (20th to 28th), which remains well above the subregion’s average, and a deteriorating combination of natural and cultural (41st to 54th) resources. North Africa’s lowest scoring member is Algeria (116th), which nonetheless did move up two ranks globally. The country ranks low on business environment (118th), T&T prioritization (132nd), tourist services infrastructure (136th), environmental sustainability (133rd), natural resources (126th) and international openness (139th). On the other hand, Algeria is one of the most price-competitive countries in the world (8th).
Peter Welby in his December 15, 2019, write up describes An alliance of people of goodwill in the Gulf, as More than 500 religious and political leaders, academics and civil society activists from over 80 countries gathered in Abu Dhabi last week to launch a set of principles that champion the shared values of different religions and promote joint action for the global common good and against extremism.
The image above is: A group of the world’s most respected Islamic scholars and faith leaders, joined by experts from governments and representatives of civil society organizations signed a new charter to build global peace, based on tolerance and religious freedom. (WAM)
It is notable that this took place in the Gulf, and not in Europe or the US. The UAE has long prided itself on its promotion of tolerance — naming this past year the Year of Tolerance — but the event was attended by religious leaders from across the region, including Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League in Saudi Arabia. The Charter of the New Alliance of Virtues is devoid of most of the usual platitudes that can form interfaith charters, and is based on an idea that could be embraced by all without being seen as owned by any one religion. This is because while the original Alliance of Virtues upon which this project was based is known of through the Islamic tradition, it predates Islam. The story goes that following the period of conflict around Makkah known in Islam as the Sacrilegious War, a Yemeni trader brought some goods to the city, and sold them to a Makkah nobleman, who refused to pay what was owed. The trader climbed Mount Safar, the place for public appeals at the time, and denounced his fraudulent purchaser and all those from Makkah who allowed one of their own to act unjustly. Other noblemen were appalled by the treatment meted out to this guest, in violation of the rules of hospitality let alone the rules of trade, and so convened an Alliance of Virtues that committed to defend the values deemed common among them, including the defense of the weak against the powerful. We know about this because Muhammad, before his prophethood, was there, and spoke about it later. And although it took place in pre-Islamic Makkah, he said that such was the value of this alliance that if he had been asked to join after the coming of Islam he would have done so. And despite this endorsement from the Prophet of Islam, the alliance can be viewed with equal approbation by other faiths too. The Alliance of Virtues was not formed by Christians or Jews, but by people whose goal was simply to do good work. This means that although this new Alliance of Virtues is designed with the Abrahamic faiths specifically in mind, it is open to any who share the values it espouses.
The Charter of the New Alliance of Virtues is devoid of most of the usual platitudes that can form interfaith charters, and is based on an idea that could be embraced by all without being seen as owned by any one religion.
But in the idea of shared values between the faiths lies the question. The interfaith world has long been dominated by a philosophy that seeks to downplay differences and focus on commonalities. There are plenty of commonalities to choose from, particularly in the Abrahamic faiths; for example, the belief in one God who created the universe and all that’s in it, and is directly concerned with the actions of humanity. But there are also profound differences, which will not be overcome by ignoring them. Moreover, the classical interfaith model is dominated, particularly among the Christian and Jewish participants, by religious liberals, occasionally operating well outside the orthodox parameters of their faiths. This domination leads to fears among many conservative believers of syncretism that the purpose of interfaith work is to deny that differences between religions are significant, and to push the belief that all paths to God are equally valid. The problem is that the social hostility and mutual suspicions between religions, at both a local and the global level, are often dominated by the conservatives. Gatherings dominated by liberals will fail to make significant movement toward overcoming these hostilities — they are preaching to the converted. Herein lies the delight of the new Charter. Not only are its values truly shared, at least in orthodox theologies of the Abrahamic faiths (values including human dignity, freedom of conscience, justice, mercy and peace), but it is backed by a number of US evangelicals, who among the Christian groups are most vocally hostile to Islam. They are also within the Christian tradition focused on the truth of the bible and the imperative to proselytize. They are not even close to syncretism between religions. The purpose is to draw on those shared values not to edge toward some specious “ever closer union,” but for shared action. Between them, the Abrahamic faiths account for more than half of the global population; if these principles are acted upon, it can have a powerful and wide-ranging effect. But here lies the challenge. Writing the Charter is only the beginning. Unlike many documents, it has been written, targeted at and signed by individuals rather than institutions or governments. Modeled upon the previous Alliance, it is an alliance of people of goodwill. But as with any Charter, its only value will come if it is acted upon. It must turn into practical reality. This will be the challenge for its signatories over the coming years.
Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion and Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby
NAGOYA, Japan (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is set to take over the G20 presidency for a year as it seeks to bounce back from an uproar over its human rights record and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Foreign ministers attend a dinner during the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting, in Nagoya, Japan November 22, 2019. Charly Triballeu/Pool via REUTERS
The kingdom’s new foreign minister, a prince with diplomatic experience in the West, landed in Japan’s Nagoya city on Friday to meet with his counterparts from the Group of 20 nations.
Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud was appointed in October in a partial cabinet reshuffle, joining a new generation of royals in their 40s who rose to power under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 34, the de facto ruler of the world’s top oil exporter.
Saudi Arabia – a key U.S. ally in confronting Iran – has faced heavy Western criticism over the murder of Saudi national Khashoggi, its detention of women’s rights activists and its role in the devastating war in Yemen.
Diplomats say the G20 might help put Riyadh’s problems behind it and could prompt it to close more disputed files such as the Yemen war and the boycott of Gulf neighbour Qatar, though they have yet to see much progress.
King Salman has hailed the kingdom’s G20 presidency as proof of its key role in the global economy. [nL8N28041F]
Prince Faisal will pick up the baton at a ceremony on Saturday in Nagoya, where G20 foreign ministers have gathered for talks.
Japan – which headed the G20 this year – was the kingdom’s second-largest export market last year, at $33 billion, according to IMF trade data.
Apart from its reliance on Saudi oil, Japan has deepened its ties to the kingdom thanks to Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank Group. Riyadh has been a big supporter of SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told Prince Faisal he was pleased to meet him for the first time and both sides wanted to boost relations, according to a read-out from Japan’s foreign ministry.
Motegi praised Saudi work to stabilise southern Yemen, where Riyadh orchestrated a deal to end a power struggle between Yemen’s government, which it backs, and southern separatists. [nL8N27L6J1]
King Salman also said this week Riyadh wants a political settlement in Yemen, where it has battled Iran-aligned Houthis in a nearly five-year war that has killed tens of thousands and drive parts of the country to the brink of famine.
A diplomatic source said there had been an “apparent de-escalation” in Yemen’s conflict in recent weeks. The source said Saudi airstrikes killing civilians would not be “a great backdrop for hosting the G20” and would not mesh with the kingdom’s message of opening up.
Diplomats said that Saudi Arabia plans more than a dozen G20 summits throughout the year on tourism, agriculture, energy, environment and digital economy.
Top diplomatic and business contacts suggest Riyadh has already gotten over much of the opprobrium it received over Khashoggi’s murder, but it still struggles to attract foreign investors, said analyst Neil Partrick.
A Saudi court charged 11 suspects in a secretive trial and Western allies imposed sanctions on individuals. But Riyadh still faces heat from some governments saying the crown prince – known as MbS – ordered the murder. He has denied this though said he takes ultimate responsibility as de facto ruler.
Riyadh has sought to fix its image or turn attention to its social reforms since Khashoggi’s 2018 killing at the hands of Saudi agents in Istanbul.
A share sale of giant Saudi state oil firm Aramco this month and a bond sale earlier this year – under a drive to diversify the largest Arab economy away from oil – attracted interest in the traditional sectors of energy and finance.
After boycotting the Saudis’ annual “Davos in the Desert” summit in 2018, Western executives returned to the 2019 gathering last month. “Davos in the Desert” is unrelated to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Reporting by Ellen Francis in Nagoya and Stephen Kailin in Bahrain with additional reporting by David Dolan in Nagoya; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich
Two and a half years after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain launched a boycott against rival Qatar, the quartet are headed to Doha for a soccer tournament on November 24 – a game-changer in the Gulf dispute.
In the absence of significant Qatari capitulations or face-saving gestures, it appears concerns over Iran’s ability to threaten oil production and shipping have compelled Riyadh and its allies to bring Doha back into the fold.
The most important thing to watch is whether Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, the peninsula state’s only land border to the rest of the Gulf, will open for the match.
“If the border opens up for the soccer game it will open up for regular visitors,” said Sigurd Neubauer, an analyst at the DC-based Gulf International Forum.
“This will be the game-changer,” he told Asia Times, as it could lead to a permanent lifting of the land and air blockade on Qatar and its lucrative national carrier, Qatar Airways.
Egyptian gas connection
While Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain may be subtle in their rapprochement with Qatar, Egypt has been willing to go to the next level to secure key energy supplies for its 90 million population.
In the past week, Qatar’s state gas company announced that a US$4.4 billion investment in Egypt – one of the countries supposedly boycotting it – had begun to bear fruit.
“Qatar Petroleum is pleased to announce the successful start-up of the Egyptian Refining Company (ERC) Refinery project located in Mostorod, north of the Egyptian capital Cairo,” a company statement said.
“All of the ERC Refinery units are now successfully operating, and are expected to ramp up to full production before the end of the first quarter of 2020, which will reduce Egypt’s dependence on imported petroleum products,” it added.
Qatar has quietly supplied the neighboring UAE with gas during the blockade, but the massive investment in Egypt – its largest in the Arab world and Africa – means Doha is going a step further to exhibit its strategic relevance.
With Saudi Arabia, a key patron of Egypt, focused on cooling Gulf tensions, deals like this may be increasingly granted a green light, if they even require a blessing at all.
“Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and even if [President] Sisi is aligned with Saudi, Egypt did not expel any Qatari citizens during the blockade and allowed Egyptians to keep working and sending remittances,” said analyst Neubauer.
In turn, Doha showed a willingness to distance itself from its key ally through the blockade: Turkey.
“The Qatari decision to invest in Egypt is a strategic decision and it angered [President] Erdogan. So this is another sign things are moving in the right direction,” Neubauer added.
For Egypt, a key qualm against Qatar was its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and support for the anti-government 2011 uprising. But for Saudi Arabia, the key issue was ties with its arch-foe Iran.
But with the US maximum pressure campaign on Tehran now understood to be limited to sanctions, and with Tehran exhibiting its willingness to hit the Arab monarchies where it hurts – the petroleum sector – Qatar may increasingly be seen as a potential mediator for its vulnerable neighbors, rather than as a spoiler.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, just a few years ago set on taking on every rival from the Houthis of Yemen to Iran, has massively changed his positioning since the summer.
The damage to Saudi Aramco facilities last month drove home the risk of escalation with Tehran, and by extension, the importance of Gulf unity and multilateralism. For the UAE, attacks on oil tankers off its coast earlier this summer had a similar effect.
The lightning attacks on Aramco facilities wiped out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in a span of hours, wreaking not only physical damage but financial – compelling international investors to consider fresh security risks amidst an IPO valuation.
With no US military response to the Aramco attacks, the Saudis were shown how they would bear the brunt of further aggravation of their powerful neighbor.
“The combination of those attacks in September and doubts about US reliability … has persuaded the UAE and the Saudis that they needed to start dialing down tensions,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“And that relates to Qatar and Iran.”
In the case of Qatar, the Gulf states will be looking to come to an understanding that allows all parties to save face.
But Doha, which over the course of the blockade has embraced dairy farms and shifted to greater trade with Iran, is unlikely to ever go back to reliance on food imports through its land border with Saudi Arabia.
“Whatever compromise you find, it is not going to be a return to the status quo. It’s going to take a while to heal the wounds,” said Dorsey.
The Qataris, he said, will not be suddenly putting their eggs into one basket.
Sukru Cildir of Lancaster University wonders how Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry has been shaped by American power. It has not historically been going for a long time and the recent decarbonisation wave sweeping the world does not seem to affect either party.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both oil-rich states in the Middle East, has oscillated from co-operation to conflict throughout history. Alongside a range of factors that shape their rivalry including sectarianism and nationalism has been the politics of oil.
Oil is a strategic international commodity, and its use as a political tool is widespread. Its role in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry can’t be understood without unpicking the international context, and the power structures that govern the way countries interact with each other. At the heart of this is the dominance of the US over this international system.
The dynamics between the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia over oil were laid bare in September 2019, after a series of drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The attacks caused the suspension of 5.7m barrels per day (mbpd) of crude oil production, nearly half the Saudi output.
The Houthis, a Yemeni faction, claimed responsibility. However, American and Saudi government officials accused Iran of committing these attacks. In return, the Iranians blamed foreign forces in the region for the insecurity and told the US to leave the area.
While the Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry is ostensibly the business of these two countries, it has always had an international dimension, overshadowed by the US.
The 1979 Iranian revolution marked a turning point for the place oil played within the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Before then, both countries were important allies of the US, a position which brought with it political and economic benefits, particularly to their oil industries. But the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran paved the way for a separation of paths.
As a result, ever since 1979, the Iranian oil industry has been subject to American pressure, through a range of economic sanctions and embargoes, which has crippled Iranian oil production. Iran has been unable to reach the level of oil production of over six mbpd that it had in the pre-revolution years. Meanwhile, Saudi oil production reached over 12 mbpd in 2018.
This led to the Iranian oil industry being deprived of necessary foreign investment and technology transfer, and it has fallen behind Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s state-owned oil company, and other regional competitors. Saudi Arabia has largely backed the US policy of isolating and sanctioning Iran, particularly the Iranian oil industry, which has, as I’ve argued elsewhere, contributed to the ongoing tensions in the Saudi-Iranian relationship.
As Saudi Aramco prepares for an IPO in December that could make it the world’s biggest publicly listed company, Iran is desperate to revitalise its own outmoded oil industry. As Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh admitted in early 2019, many of Iran’s ageing oil facilities are in fact “operating museums”.
The US continues to have such an influence on Middle Eastern oil politics because of the way it has successfully pushed its own international agenda since 1945. After World War II, the US cemented its dominance over an international system built on the basis of liberal and capitalist principles. While the US rewards its allies with economic and political benefits, it punishes its challengers through a range of political and economic measures, not least economic sanctions.
Oil became a strategic international commodity in the post-World War II period, and began to play a pivotal role in the way the US maintained its global dominance. To do this, the US aimed to open up and transnationalise oil-rich economies in the Global South such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to both promote its national interests and solidify its privileged position within the current system.
Accordingly, the supply of Middle Eastern oil into international markets without disruption – and at a reasonable price – became an essential instrument for maintaining American dominance, even though the US didn’t need to import oil from the Middle East.
A world of US dominance
The political economist Susan Strange provided a theoretical framework back in 1987 to explain the structure of US dominance over the international system through four main dimensions: production, finance, security and knowledge. This is also a useful way to understand how the US shapes the international oil market – and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
By 2018, in the wake of a shale boom, the US became the largest oil-producing country in the world by reaching production of 15 mbpd. Financially, oil has been priced and traded in US dollars, in particular since the early 1970s when a series of negotiations and agreements linking the sale of oil to the US dollar were made between Saudi Arabia and the US. This has increased global demand for US dollars, and helped the US deal with its trade deficit and keep its interest rates low. It has also helped the US to monitor the petroleum trade by controlling global bank transfers.
The US also stands as a main security provider to oil-rich Gulf monarchies, with publicly acknowledged military bases in over 12 countries in the Middle East. Additionally, it has a supremacy over global knowledge, most obviously through its continued domination and control of the sector’s technological needs. By leading global innovation and technological development in the shale revolution, for example, and having the highest budget for research and development, the US largely controls global technology transfer. This has also deprived Iran of necessary technology, capital and know-how to modernise its ageing oil industry, constraining production.
Therefore, despite the fact that the Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry seems like a regional issue, the role of American power in a globalised world has been key to shaping this regional political competition over oil.
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