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.

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Arab autumn woes

As the global wrangling over Syria continues, militant attacks go on in ‘post-Arab Spring’ nations

Two-and-a-half years on from the explosive revolutions that toppled dictators and forced deep re-organisations of countries’ politics from Morocco to Yemen, there seems to be no let up in the deadly instability that has rocked many of the nations that underwent upheavals.

Yesterday, the Egyptian air forces carries out raids on Islamist militant positions in the restive Sinai area – a double strike as part of an ongoing battle with insurgents in the region more generally and also in probable retaliation for two suicide car bombings on Wednesday 11. Six soldiers lost their lives and many more people were wounded in the twin assault: one targeted the intelligence building in the town of Rafah and the other hit an armoured personnel carrier. A little-known jihadist group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility.

There was another car bombing on Wednesday, to the east over the border in Libya. This time the device went off near the country’s Foreign Ministry in the city of Benghazi. There were no serious casualties but the explosion came on both the anniversary of the 9/11 attack in the US in 2001 and the attack on the American Consulate in the Libyan city. The U.S. ambassador and three others died as al-Qaeda-linked militants broke into the diplomatic mission last year.

At the start of the week, on Monday, the Tunisian security forces killed two Islamist fighters belonging to the Ansar al-Sharia extremist group. And just today there was another bombing of Yemen’s main oil pipeline in the central Maarib province. It is the fourth attack on the pipeline in a month.

Algeria has also been in the news over the last few days after the release of a report into a deadly siege attack in January on a gas plant in the country’s desert borderlands with Libya. 40 people were killed when Islamist extremists overran the In Amenas facility, which was home to many Western workers as well as Algerians. Statoil, the Norwegian company, published on Thursday the conclusions of an internal investigation into the militant assault.

But despite all this unrest across the region, the past seven days have been another week where the focus of the world’s media has been on Syria. There has now been an agreement between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov over how to address the 21 August use of chemical weapons, but there remains a nervousness, with the use of force by the US not totally ruled out for all contexts. The world powers may be trying to deal with the Syrian crisis, but they are only looking into the chemical weapons side of that conflict, not the deteriorating state of the nation itself, wrecked by a war that shows no signs of stopping, and is becoming ever more complex regarding the ethnic and religious alliances and hostilities at play.

What this past week encapsulates is the overarching worry of the examples now being played out by the countries ahead of Syria in the ‘Arab Spring’ transition ladder. The war in Syria seems a long way from ending (if it ever technically does, that is), but even if it were concluding, the extremist elements on both sides of the conflict point to an ominous future for the country. If terrorist bombings can continue in countries that are perceived to have already gone through the ‘Arab Spring’, then the outlook for Syria, (which has had the longest war of all those countries, and thus more time for militants to weave their extremist aims into the region), is bleak – despite the Russia-US negotiations appearing to start to bear fruit.

Foreign drills, internal slicks

Foreign oil companies are being both courted and sidelined by Iraq’s central government

Love and favour can be achieved in the Iraqi energy market if you drill in the right areas. And, for the central government in Baghdad, the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region is certainly not one of those areas. Over the last week, temperatures have been rising between the government, the Kurds and external energy firms. Baghdad seems to be dishing out most of the orders, and all its demands seem to follow the theme of ‘Them (the Kurds) or Us’.

In 2011, the US oil giant Exxon Mobil was censured by the central government after it penned a deal with the Kurdish regional government. It has now been given an ultimatum by Baghdad; politicians have been trying to win the Americans over with the prospect of developing the lucrative southern fields. Exxon would like to be able to work in both the north and south of the country but the relations between Iraq’s national government and its restless, independentist Kurds up north have been deteriorating quickly recently.

The Kurdish semi-autonomous region is made up of three of the northern provinces along with parts of three more neighbouring provinces. It has been in charge of its regional politics and its armed forces since 1991. It feels that it is constitutionally allowed to pursue its own oil deals with foreign countries without Baghdad’s permission. The central government says that signing any such agreements behind its back is illegal.

The central government has already been weighing in when it comes to those sought-after southern fields. Earlier in the week, Baghdad signed a deal with the Kuwait Energy and Dragon oil group to explore an area near the Iranian border. However, the government stuck its oar in to ensure that the Turkish affiliate which had originally been involved was kicked off the team. Turkey has been one of the countries doing pipeline deals with the northern Kurds.

These arguments aptly demonstrate the power of the the growing black gold market in the Middle East. They also show us the contentious flare-ups that can arise when outside forces get involved in regional disputes. What may seem a simple problem (who drills where in Iraq) can be shown to be a serious undertaking despite an outsider’s first glance showing both sides to be part of the same country. The Kurdish issue is one of Iraq’s domestic fault-lines but we can find examples of bitter religious and cultural divisions across the region. The Kurdish example includes four nations – any future Kurdistan state would encompass land from Iran, Turkey and Syria as well as Iraq. Then there is the obvious conflict between Israel and Palestinian Territories, which is taking place on disputed territory. Syria, which is suffering from a devastating civil war at the moment that, on a simple level, pits Sunni Muslim rebels against the Alawite-led government (the Alawites are a smaller group, split off from Shia Islam).

In Bahrain, the Shia majority have been demonstrating against their Sunni rulers but their protests have been suppressed, in part, by Saudi Arabia. Despite being wary of Shia unrest in Bahrain, Riyadh has been more than happy to help Sunni rebels in Libya and Syria. In Egypt, Coptic Christians (who number about an eighth of the population) have been on the receiving end of attacks on their churches. The whole region is split up externally and internally along blurry fault-lines.

This is why the choices of companies such as Exxon Mobil cannot be taken lightly. The risks, pitfalls and blood-letting are clear when outside powers try to exert their hard influences on a particular place. But the reaction of the Baghdad government to this current oil argument also shows the significance of soft outside influences inside such unsteady countries. It is all very well planning (although in the case of Iraq it could be argued that the Western forces did not do that as well as they should have done) for the problems and transitions caused by international conflict, or hard pressure. But it is just as important to focus on the soft pressure side of foreign relations – be it who is supplying arms to whom in Syria or who is drilling where in Iraq.

The Syrian whirlpool

UN human rights investigators confirm outsiders, including jihadis, are present in Syria

On Monday 17 September the United Nations chief investigator for Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said that “foreign elements”, including fundamentalist fighters, are operating inside the war-torn country. He also accused both sides of carrying out war crimes, although the list of atrocities alleged against the government was longer. Activists estimate that up to 27,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict so far. But what Mr Pinheiro was outlining was official confirmation of what many people have known and even admitted before: that overseas influences are being deployed inside Syria for outside political and religious objectives.

On Sunday 16 September General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, confirmed that members of its special forces are in Lebanon and Syria providing “counsel and advice”. However, the commander denied that the existence of the commandoes meant that Tehran had a ‘military presence’ in either country. On Tuesday 18 September Egypt hosted Iran as part of a get-together of the ‘Islamic Quartet’, which also includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Cairo warned Tehran that the two countries’ relations are going to continue to stumble along unless the latter changes its stance on the situation in Syria.

It has long been understood that Iran has been worried that the Syrian civil war is having a negative effect on its alliances in the area. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which has been responsible for the worst bloody episodes of the conflict so far, has been one of Iran’s friends for a long time. The admission that the elite Iranian Quds Forces are also out and about in Lebanon is not a great surprise either, seeing as Hezbollah are based in that country.

All three parties – the Iranian state, the Hezbollah movement and the Syrian leadership – are linked by the Shia branch of Islam. They all have a mutual aim and a clear desire (as any political entity anywhere in the world would have) to continue to exist and to exert power where they can. At the moment, the civil war in Syria is stirring up all sorts of regional power and influence struggles and the Islamic religious dividing lines are one of the most obvious battle areas.

Saudi Arabia, the massive Sunni Muslim strongman, is none too happy about Iran getting involved and Riyadh is licking its lips at the prospect of kicking out the Assad Alawites (an offshoot is Shia Islam) and installing a new Sunni government in Damascus. Saudi Arabia has been flexing its muscles by arming the rebel fighters in Syria and while it is undeniable that the regime has acted in an unjustifiable manner in suppressing opposition to its rule in such a brutal way, you cannot simply characterise the rowdy rebels as ‘the good guys’ and thus, by default, laud Saudi Arabia for its actions. Paulo Pinheiro’s words on Monday condemning the violence from either side prove this.

The sheer abundance and complexities of the ethnic links, political unions, religious divides and linguistic differences in the Middle East illustrate how the situation in Syria is much more of a dizzying whirlpool than the less intricate conflict in Libya last year.

Here is a basic outline of which country thinks what and why they have made made the Syrian civil war so regionally significant:

Syria: 74% Sunni Muslim; 16% Shia, Alawite, Druze Islam; 10% Christianity (via CIA World Factbook – as are all religious percentages below). Kurdish community in north-east. Friends with Iran and Hezbollah. Loosely tied to Russia.

Turkey: 99% Muslim (mostly Sunni). Western-allied. Member of NATO. Wants Assad regime out. Has taken in up to 60,00 Syrian refugees, according to the UN. Large Kurdish community in north with which it is conducting an internecine war.

Iran: The major Shia powerhouse. 89% Shia Muslim; 9% Sunni Muslim. Friends with Syrian government and Hezbollah. Distrusts Saudi Arabia. Detests Israel and the West. Large Kurdish community in north. Quds special forces active in Syria and Lebanon.

Iraq: 60-65% Shia Muslim; 32-37% Sunni Muslim. Large Kurdish community in north. Fighting ongoing insurgency since end of war in 2009.

Qatar: Majority Sunni Muslim. Active in both Syria and Libya in arming the rebel fighters.

Saudi Arabia: The major Sunni powerhouse. Active in Syria in arming the rebel fighters.

Jordan: 92% Sunni Muslim. Expanding Zaatari refugee camp in north of country to allow it handle up to 80,000 refugees from Syria. Has welcomed Syrian fighter pilots and politicians defecting from regime.

Egypt: 90% mostly Sunni Muslim; 10% mostly Coptic Christians. Supports uprising against regime.

Israel: 76% Jewish; 17% Muslim. Friends with the West. Detests Iran and is highly suspicious of its nuclear programme.

Palestinian Territories: Mostly Muslim and at centre of Middle East peace process over territorial disputes with Israel.

Lebanon: 60% Muslim; 40% Christian. Hezbollah group is Shia Muslim and supports Assad regime and Iran. More than 60,000 Syrian refugees are in the country. Nation not wholly in favour of one particular side or grouping in the conflict. Risk of sectarian strife spilling over from Syria.

Bolivarian bluster

A Latin American left-leaning bloc show their internal unity and their international exposure

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) group of socialist nations is certainly filled with bombastic leaders living up to its florid name. The bloc has just had its most recent get-together and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was a more than willing host for the club.

The leaders met yesterday for talks and debates and came out with some conspicuous agreements. Firstly, they ensured they set themselves against popular opinion at the United Nations by resoundingly supporting Russia and China’s veto of a proposed Security Council resolution on Syria endorsing an Arab League peace plan. These Latin and Caribbean countries are well known for their dislike of all things Western (as far back as September 2010 this blog highlighted the friendship between Bolivia and Iran – see ‘Latin-Persian alliance on the way? – 25/09/10′). Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador last month to re-affirm the mutual contempt for London, Paris and New York. Hugo Chávez called the veto “very positive” and Bolivian president Evo Morales said that ALBA “joins the veto”.

Controversial statements like these were not surprising. Chávez took this opportunity to criticise the handling of the Libya conflict by the Western powers with his famous categorical hyperbole :

“They invade, bomb, destroy a country, assassinate its president…it’s imperialism’s schizophrenia”

There are two Latin American nations sitting as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and, notably, neither of them are in ALBA. Colombia and Guatemala (who both currently have conservative presidents) voted in favour of the resolution condemning the violence in Syria and calling on president Bashar al-Assad to stand down. So despite the fact that the leftist bloc’s title supposedly includes ‘the Peoples of Our America’, their support for Russia, China and Iran and anti-Western sentiment is not shared across the region.

One topic that does garner more backing from Latin Americans outside ALBA is the Falkland Islands/Malvinas territorial dispute. This weekend ALBA favourite Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian leader, called for:

“more concrete, more forceful decisions, Latin American sanctions against Great Britain…[the UK’s position is] an assault on sovereignty, extemporaneous colonialism”

Hugo Chávez has excitedly addressed Queen Elizabeth II in the past to hand over control of the islands to Argentina and this blog has covered the issue in previous posts (see ‘An island life for me‘ – 11/02/11).

The membership list of ALBA is a real political mix, including regional giants like Venezuela, Central Americans like Nicaragua and tiny Caribbean states like Antigua & Barbuda. The noises they make are often parochial proposals. But every now and again they come out with provocative opinions on sensitive global issues. ALBA loathes foreigners meddling in other states’ affairs but it seems unmovable on the Syrian violence even if, in this case, the UN resolution was based on Arab League reforms drawn up by Middle East politicians. While the Western powers will not lose sleep over the failure of St Kitts & Nevis to support them, Ecuador and Cuba are important players in that developing region and it is worrying that the ALBA organisation seems fundamentally opposed to all Western ideals.

Re-freezing Russia?

On 4 March Russia will hold a presidential election that is expected to return PM Vladimir Putin to the top job

There are other candidates, of course. Gennady Zyuganov will stand for the Communists, Sergey Mironov is from the A Just Russia party, the chosen Liberal Democrat is Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Mikhail Prokhorov will fight the vote as an independent. But the United Russia candidate is the favourite for the presidency – and why would he not be? The party is in complete control of the country’s politics and this has been one of the spurs for a rise in recent protests across the nation.

But the prime minister does not only have a fight on his hands to convince the electorate why they should be excited about another six years of Putin-power; he also has a fight on his hands to convince the world of Russia’s ongoing importance.

Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a bridge between the West and the East but the significance of that role is declining. It is in the BRICS bloc but the other members, Brazil, India, China and South Africa, are all engaging across the planet and all have development plans to project local and regional influence. It is a problem identified by a trio of authors at the European Council on Foreign Relations in a recent report entitled ‘Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia’. Aside from addressing the problems facing a Russia in 2012 caught between global institutions and alliances, they also highlighted a further issue Vladimir Putin is going to have to deal with: corruption. The report claimed:

The economic crisis has exposed a governance crisis inside Russia: even Putin now admits that as much as 80% of Kremlin orders have been ignored in the regions.

Instead of modernising, Russia in 2010 was as corrupt as Papua New Guinea, had the property rights of Kenya and was as competitive as Sri Lanka.

And this is one of the reasons for the regular protests in Moscow and other cities in the country. There was a popular rejection of the rigged December parliamentary elections for the lower house, the Duma, and thousands of people are now frequently airing their grievances over the intricate sleaze in the Kremlin. On Sunday 29 January the most recent anti-Putin demonstration took place along Moscow’s ring-road as thousands of motorists decked their vehicles in the protesters’ colour white to show their opposition to Putin’s presidential bid.

The main stumbling block for Western outsiders looking into Russia’s foreign policy is currently the Russia-Syria friendship. Moscow has been criticized for selling arms to Syria but the trade in military and police equipment has always been a controversial profession. On 27 January the human rights group Amnesty International criticised the UK’s decision to export tear gas to Bahrain. In that country protesters have been subjected to a crackdown by a government that has been firing the weapon on the marchers.

Nevertheless, the list of nations, from the Arab world as well as the West, queuing up to condemn Syrian president Assad’s regime and call for his resignation is growing. Russia is not in that group. Moscow’s latest manouevre has been to invite the Syrian government and the opposition to Kremlin for talks. Russia follows the Chinese view of total opposition to overseas intervention and is more than willing to wave its veto at any European-led resolution suggestions.

It still maintains a naval base in Syria, at Tartus, and a Russian naval flotilla, led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, visited the port earlier this month as part of a planned deployment in the Mediterranean that finishes later in February.

Western powers previously preferred to provide passive support for strongmen incumbents, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, even if those autocratic regimes were unmovable and unable to be booted out of office by ordinary citizens. In Russia the situation is slightly different. The West has been cautious in its dealing with Russia and Russia has been equally as mistrustful. Putin recently accused the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, of providing financial support to the Russian pro-democracy demonstrators.

Dmitry Medvedev has been the president for the last four years but his mentor was in the hot-seat before then and will be again for another six years come March. Putin has avoided being seen as a president-in-perpetuity but he must be regarded as one in every aspect bar name. He has been the prime minister since 2008 but clearly he has been as prevalent in the corridors of power as he was when he was president first time round. But the horizon does not seem so rosy at the moment and the throngs of protesters on his doorstep are determined to remind him that popular demonstrations against governments are not just confined to the Middle East.

Waiting game

On the regional diplomatic front-line against the Syrian violence, more might be expected from Lebanon

It is a fractious neighbourhood. The repressive Assad regime in Syria is surrounded by Iraq (still rocking with violence of its own), Iran (currently quietly watching events from the corner), Israel (dealing with its own Spanish indignado-style protests at the moment), Jordan (where King Abdullah has spoken recently to reassure the people of reforms), Turkey (starting to get restless with Syria and now using its megaphone to condemn Bashar al Assad) and Lebanon (a successful democracy, sitting between West and the Middle East).

However, Beirut is failing to use its geopolitical location and the fact that it has a seat on the UN Security Council at the moment to be able to lead the pack on Syrian policy. When the condemnatory statement was on the table in New York, Lebanon lifted its pen and passed it on. Discussing his country’s refusal to sign, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted as saying that:

“The decision reflected Lebanon’s clear convictions. This position sought the higher interests of Lebanon and the entire region, including Syria.”

It is true that a resolution would have been a more defiant outcome and the European-led statement was weak. But that is not a reason not to express support for a small step on the road to reform, sanctions or intervention. This last option is the most worrying and the one that scares Russia and China the most at the moment. But Lebanon does not have to call for a Libyan-style military move.

The violence has escalated in recent days to the shelling of the port of Latakia from the sea by the Syrian navy. A simple denunciation would carry weight, as Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern and major Muslim nation on the present Council (although Gabon and Nigeria have sizeable Islamic populations as well).

But Lebanon has some tricky politics. Hezbollah, the militant Shia Muslim group, supports the Assad regime. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, looks more to the West. With politics opening up across the region, Hezbollah ought to pause and consider the fallout if it were to continue to support a regime that was to be thrown out and whose members, like Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, ended up in caged docks in front of a condemnatory public. Hezbollah has links to Iran and it is hard for them to think purely within national borders, such are the complexities of the regional patronages and ties.

If it were to do so, it may see the reformist agenda led by Hariri and also the tide of condemnation growing in regional big beasts like Turkey. Lebanon is swimming against the flow at the moment and it would be better at least to turn to face the shore, rather than the swelling, international, condemnatory white rollers brewing out at sea.

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.