Choose one of us

Saudi Arabia worries over changing US direction in the Middle East

Rapprochement with Iran. Watching Vladimir Putin do his own thing over Ukraine and Crimea. And – as Saudi Arabia sees it – forgetting the rebels in Syria. The US has been pursuing a controversial line of foreign policy over the past few months. Several countries have been glad to see Western noses bloodied but there are others who are getting cross with the American State Department’s actions, or lack of them. One of the angry allies is Saudi Arabia. And it has lambasted the global community’s lethargy over the civil war in Syria. As the major world Sunni Muslim power, a defeat for the Shia-allied government of Bashar al-Assad would suit Saudi Arabia well. One country who would rather see a regime victory is Iran, Riyadh’s foe across the Gulf. And the United States has been getting on pretty well with Tehran so far this year, after a landmark deal in January on Iran’s nuclear activities.

The House of Saud has been getting annoyed with all this cosying up to Shia Muslim actors. Last week, at an Arab League summit in Kuwait, the Crown Prince vocalised Riyadh’s annoyance that the Sunni-majority rebels in Syria and their political wing, the Syrian National Coalition, were being sidelined and forgotten in what has been the longest struggle of the ‘Arab Spring’. The war in Syria has been going on for more than three years, with the number of people killed estimated to be in excess of 100,000. But the war gains are becoming more marginal, and the front lines are remaining largely the same. The rebels still manage to shoot down the odd regime helicopter but with Lebanese Hezbollah man-power and Russian hardware, Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces are still strong.

It was timely then that over the weekend US president Barack Obama paid a trip to Saudi Arabia for what was surely a testing head-to-head with King Abdullah. Riyadh was angered by the stalling uncertainty from Washington over the chemical weapons attack in Syria in August last year, when Congress ruled out a bombing raid on Assad regime posts in response to the Sarin nerve agent attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Instead, Russia outflanked the US and brokered a deal with the Syrian president which would see him give up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In this weekend’s meetings in the Saudi desert, Riyadh would have wanted assurances that Washington was not going to give up finding a solution to the conflict.

Barack Obama, with two years left on his contract in the White House, will be focused on finding an issue to work on abroad in order to be able to secure some kind of international legacy. And although American officials in the Holy Land started work again yesterday to try to organise a framework to extend an April deadline for Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, it seems unlikely that the two-state solution will be achieved any time soon. Washington’s point-of-view on the war in Syria seems increasingly to be that the answer to the crisis must come from within the fracturing country. There are many other points of contention in the region (Egypt’s twisting and turning Army-led confusion, Yemen’s instability and Iraq’s continuing sectarian violence) but it appears to be Iran that whets Obama’s appetite the most. The White House sees the nuclear issue in the Middle East as one that it can get its teeth stuck into properly.

The problem for Saudi Arabia is that this means a focus from its US friends on spending more time in Geneva hotels with Iranian politicians. Yet Saudi Arabia wants a deal as well. A nuclear-armed rival in the region is anathema to Riyadh, who have talked up air strikes from Tel Aviv or Washington on Tehran’s dodgy installations before. But the crux is that in order for the Saudis’ American allies to nullify any nuclear threat from Iran, they have to speak to the Iranians, and spend time with them, and things are getting a bit too friendly for Riyadh’s liking. They don’t want any nuclear bombs being made in Iran, but nor do they want the West’s rapprochement to divert from support for the big Sunni power. It’s a hard choice, but as the US pivots towards Asia, and works on peace deals with Iran, Riyadh does not want to be left out in the cold.

Shifting sands

On May 23 and 24 Egyptians will vote in the first round of the first presidential election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak

After growing unrest and anxiety over the military generals that have been governing the country since the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime last February, the public are finally getting their say. The parliamentary elections were welcomed and did not throw up many surprises, with the Islamists landing the most seats through the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. But it is the chance to elect the figurehead to lead the country away from dictatorship and military governance which has created the most excitement.

The first ever televised presidential debate took place last night, on 10 May, between the two front-runners of the 13-strong field of candidates. Neither ex-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa nor former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul-Futoh have clean copybooks and their battle once more draws a long, deep line in the sand in between the two men over the issue of religion: the open liberalism of Moussa against the moderate Islam of Abdul-Futoh. With parties of all colours represented in parliament, from hardline Salafis to hardline secularists to the young revolutionaries who powered the upheavals last year, it is unsurprising that there is such a long list of possible presidents to lead a free nation for the first time. However, in any race for the hot-seat in any country there is always a short-list and a couple of favourites, it is just a further source of division that the top two for the new Egypt have plenty of baggage between them.

The country that one of them will be heading is an important place. As the most populous member of the Arab world and one of the largest in Africa, with more than 81m citizens, by size alone Egypt is a key state. But economically it is significant as well. It has been categorised as one of the crucial emerging economies on the CIVETS list, alongside Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey and South Africa. This move has also been criticised, particularly seeing as economic growth has stalled in recent years. In 2009, GDP output was 4.6% but by last year, the revolutionary turmoil had taken its toll and the figures plummeted to 1%. Saudi Arabia has just approved a $2bn loan to help Cairo through this tricky period. Estimates for future Egyptian GDP growth are looking a bit brighter but do vary wildly:  forecasts for the 2012-13 financial period range from 1.6% to 3.5%. It is clear that the huge national changes that have taken place have wounded the country’s economy, mainly through scaring investors and foreign tourists. But they have been national changes which will hopefully free the nation.

The main geopolitical aspect to Egypt used to be its relations with Israel. Cairo not just recognised the Jewish nation but maintained a long-standing peace accord with its neighbour. However, in the debate last night, both candidates supported revision of the international deal, and Abdul-Futoh went as far as calling Israel an “enemy”. Egypt has an important trans-continental and regional role to uphold, being a bridge state between Africa-Asia, the Maghreb-Mediterranean, Arab-Israeli relations and Northern Africa-Central Africa. Egypt is also somewhere with major internal religious differences, as more than half of the world’s 18 million Coptic Christians live in the country. And Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become an unofficial focus point for the Arab unrest. It is a country on the move, but with an uncertain destination and with many uncertainties within. The next two weeks of campaigning to elect a fair driver to carry on the revolution are going to be as heated as the upheaval itself.

Indian summer of uncertainty

How will India make use of its month in the presidency of the UN Security Council?

India has a lot of domestic and regional defence and security issues on its plate at the moment. Bearing in mind the added responsibility of chairing the UN Security Council, Delhi has a lot to shoulder. Looking at the international situation first there is one major issue: what to do with Syria. Since the Arab League gave its first official condemnation of the ongoing repression across Syria, the Gulf Nations have been queuing up to denounce the regime and their ambassadors have been jumping on aeroplanes home.

However, India’s caution on the issue has stood out. The excitable Europeans have been at the forefront of the clamour for a condemnatory resolution, with their grouping led by the UK, France and Italy (and also this time Germany, notably ambivalent about the NATO mission in Libya). Then there are Russia and China, two heavyweight permanent members flapping their vetoes in the air as a warning. India has so far aligned itself with the Russians and Chinese, who also count current non-permanent Council member South Africa, (part of the emboldening BRICS global power bloc), amongst their ranks. The Council has so far failed to agree on a resolution and only issued a weak statement. With Arab countries of regional importance both to Syria and to India starting to turn away from Damascus, India should have something a little bit more negative to say about the terrible repression in Syria.

On the home front, a relationship that unnerves Delhi is the Sino-Pakistani one. However, it has soured somewhat with Beijing’s published fears that Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province have been popping over the border to Pakistan to terrorist training camps. India, the host country of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, is eyeing China with suspicion. Indo-Pakistani relations recently came under the spotlight after many attributed responsibility for the Mumbai bombings in July to a Pakistani group. However, Islamabad strongly condemned the attacks and many instead looked to India’s homegrown Mujahideen as the possible bombers.

A new ‘Great Game’ seems to be building slowly in India, Pakistan and China. All three have nuclear weapons and very strong armed forces. India has two eyes but must not train them in the same direction. Syria is clearly important but Delhi must deliver calm diplomacy and strong leadership in the sub-continent as well. It has the chance to be a mediator in Indo-Chinese disputes at home and international disputes via the Security Council and must use these opportunities calmly and wisely.

Kazakh cure

What can we expect from Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation?

Kazakhstan is about to complete its first month in the hotseat of the OIC – one of the most important Islamic blocs along with the Arab League and the World Islamic Economic Forum. The OIC, (the ‘C’ recently changed from ‘Conference’ to ‘Co-operation’), aims to promote common understanding, ambition and to foster goodwill and unity between member-states.

When one calls to mind Islamic countries, Kazakhstan does not often roll off the tongue naturally. It is true that there are bigger voices in the Islamic world, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey, and their reach goes beyond the borders of the Muslim world. But other, smaller members are beginning to show a bit more bite to their roles. The African Francophone members of the organisation are starting to grow in confidence but it is probably the Central Asian nations that are set to be the most significant group in the bloc. Kazakhstan embodies the image of a modern, political driver-nation that many countries, both within and outside the OIC, aspire to be.

Kazakhstan has said it wants to advance the OIC’s aim of continuing peaceful development with the rest of the world. It also wants to address the economic imbalances that exist within the organisation: Somalia and Benin are minnows compared to Malaysia and the UAE. The Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, outlined his proposals ‘to switch [the Islamic world] from commodity development to industrial innovation’, to develop a joint plan of actions in the energy sector and to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, an idea which he hopes could kick-start international de-nuclearisation.

Kazakhstan comes into the chairmanship in the right frame of mind and at the right time. From a global point-of-view, it is a nation well-positioned in the main pack chasing the front-runners – it is a forward-looking and forward-thinking country. From an Islamic perspective, it will be a reassuring but not tranquilising influence on a bloc still rocking from recent challenges. Arab uprisings in the Maghreb and Middle East, (notably the ongoing conflict in Libya and violence in Syria), ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, political violence in Ivory Coast and the war in Afghanistan are some of the issues confronting Astana.

But secularism is written into the constitution and Kazakhstan underlines the right to freedom of religion, although more than 70% of the population is Muslim. It has successfully modelled itself as a bridge-state: between Europe and Asia; between ex-Soviet nations and the West; and now, hopefully, between hardline Islamic nations and more open members of OIC. It is a time for a safe pair of hands. Kazakhstan has the perfect platform to press on with social, industrial and economic ambitions, backed up by a significant but not overbearing Muslim tradition.