The Real News Network - Independent News, Blogs and Editorials
NO ADVERTISING, GOVERNMENT OR CORPORATE FUNDING
DONATE TODAY
 
 $121,141
 
 283

HOT TOPICS ▶ Target: Iran     The Real Baltimore     Reality Asserts Itself     United Kingdom    

The Real News Network - Independent News, Blogs and Editorials

Saudi Arabia’s Lebanon gamble may pay off

By James M. Dorsey / Mid-East Soccer.

Time will tell, but Saudi Arabia’s gamble to pressure Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Lebanese Shiite militia, by forcing Saad Hariri, the country’s prime minister, to resign, may be paying off despite widespread perceptions that the manoeuvre backfired.

Broad international support for Mr. Hariri following his announcement from Riyadh in a speech in which he denounced Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy that was wreaking havoc in the Middle East and the prime minister’s decision to put his resignation on hold once he returned to Beirut to a rock star’s welcome reinforced the belief that Saudi Arabia had overplayed his hand.

Mr. Hariri’s decision has, however, opened the door to backroom negotiations in which Hezbollah, a major Lebanese political force, is finding that it may have to compromise to avoid a political breakdown in Lebanon and secure achievement of its most immediate goals.
Mr. Hariri is believed to be demanding that Hezbollah halt its support to Houthi rebels in Yemen and withdraw from Syria where its fighters supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in line with Lebanese government policy not to become involved in conflicts raging elsewhere in the region.

Hezbollah signalled a willingness to compromise by urging Mr. Hariri to withdraw his resignation, calling for calm, advising its supporters not to take to the streets, and announcing that it was withdrawing some of its units from Syria and Iraq, where they supported Shiite militias in their fight against the Islamic State.

Mr. Hariri, who signalled this week that he may withdraw his resignation, put it earlier on hold at the request of Lebanese President of Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, who allowed the militia in recent years to outmanoeuvre the prime minister. At the same time, Hezbollah charged that Mr. Hariri had not announced his resignation of his own free will but had been forced to do so by Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Hariri, who blames Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, his father and prime minister at the time of his death, agreed to Mr. Aoun’s election as president and to become head of a government that was dominated by Hezbollah in the false belief that Mr. Aoun would ensure that the militia would not endanger Lebanon’s effort to avoid being sucked into the civil war raging in neighbouring Syria.

Bruised by his inability to force Hezbollah’s hand, Mr. Hariri appears to have reversed his slide in popularity with his threat to resign and enhanced his prospects in forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Mr. Hariri’s newly found popularity and leverage, despite Saudi Arabia’s zero-sum-game approach to its proxy wars with Iran in Lebanon and elsewhere, may enable him to cut a deal that would allow Hezbollah to focus on its all-important goal of securing Lebanese-Syrian relations at the expense of the Houthis in Yemen.

To be fair, Hezbollah and Iran view the Houthis as an opportunity to complicate life for Saudi Arabia in the kingdom’s backyard rather than as a strategic priority. Far more crucial is ensuring that Lebanon maintains close ties to the government of Mr. Al-Assad. Curbing the Houthis, who recently fired a ballistic missile at the international airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh, is at the top of the kingdom’s agenda.

Hezbollah, Syria and Iran need Lebanon to have normal, if not close ties to an-Al Assad government once the guns fall silent given that international and US sanctions against Syria as well as Mr, Al-Assad and his associates are likely to remain in place. Lebanon has long been Syria’s vehicle to circumvent the sanctions.

That becomes even more important against the backdrop of China suggesting that it would contribute to post-war Syrian reconstruction and could see Syria becoming an important node in its Belt and Road initiative that intends to enmesh Eurasia in a web of infrastructure, transportation and telecommunication links that would link Europe and much of Asia to China.

Like so often in recent years, Saudi Arabia could prove to be its own worst enemy in its effort to curb Iranian influence and win tactical victories in what amounts to a dangerous regional chess games in which Saudi players have not always thought their moves through.
A wild card in Mr. Hariri’s efforts to cut a deal that would weaken Iranian influence in Yemen and force Hezbollah to act more as a Lebanese rather than a regional player while at the same time allowing it to protect Syrian interests is staunchly anti-Iranian Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan, a major influence on Crown Prince Mohammed’s regional strategy.

A former military attaché in Lebanon and the kingdom’s first ambassador to Iraq since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Iraq, who was asked by the Iraqi government to leave after only nine months in Baghdad, Mr. Al-Sabhan has successfully advised Prince Mohammed to adopt an uncompromising approach towards Hezbollah.

US officials, according to Associated Press, accused Mr. Al-Sabhan when he visited Washington earlier this month of undermining US policy in Lebanon that involves strengthening the Lebanese armed forces to enable it to match Hezbollah’s military power and supporting Lebanon’s hosting of more than a million Syrian refugees.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged Mr. Al-Sabhan’s influence by denouncing him in a recent speech as a “hairy monkey” and “man acting like a child.”

In response, Mr. Al-Sabhan tweeted that “if an incompetent man criticizes me, this is proof that I am a whole man.”

A deal between Mr. Hariri and Hezbollah is unlikely to make the likes of Mr. A-Sabhan happy because it would continue to legitimize the Iranian ally. Nonetheless, it could help the kingdom with its ill-fated intervention in Yemen that has sparked a massive humanitarian crisis and cost Saudi Arabia enormous reputational capital.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Add a comment

Gulf Crisis Creates Opportunity for Asian Nations

By James M Dorsey / Pragati.

The rift between the Gulf countries and Qatar has created a space for Asian countries to step in to engage with the small peninsular state.

There’s a silver lining for Asian countries in the six-month old crisis in the Gulf that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar. That is as long as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates shy away from attempting to harness their financial muscle to shore up lagging international support for their diplomatic and economic boycott of the idiosyncratic Gulf state.

Asian nations, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, whose nationals populate the Gulf’s labour force, have already reaped initial benefits with Qatar, eager to put its best foot forward, significantly reforming its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship regime.

Qatar recently became the first Gulf state to introduce a minimum wage, albeit criticized by human rights groups for being at $200 below earning levels in many of the labour-supplying states. It has also sought to improve workers’ rights and committed to improving their living conditions.

Qatar was under pressure to reform the kafala system long before the Gulf crisis erupted, but the dispute with its Gulf neighbours strengthened its interest in being seen to be doing the right thing. Its moves are over time likely to persuade other Gulf states to follow suit.

The boycott as a result of its refusal to accept UAE-Saudi demands that would curtail its independence has forced Qatar to restructure trade relationships, diversify sources for goods and services, creative alternative port alliances, and recalibrate the strategy of its national carrier, Qatar Airways.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and their allies insist that Qatar unconditionally break its ties to various political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, adhere to Saudi and UAE foreign policy, reduce relations with Iran, shutter the Al Jazeera television network, and accept monitoring of its compliance. Qatar has rejected any infringement of its sovereignty and called for a negotiated solution.

The two countries have so far shown no willingness to compromise on their insistence on unconditional Qatari acceptance, but have also shied away from escalating the dispute, by among others pressuring third parties to choose sides.

The dispute has further divided the Arab world with some countries like Egypt and Bahrain siding with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, others like Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia,and Algeria sitting on the side lines and calling for a negotiated solutions, and finally nations like Oman and Algeria who have stepped in to help Qatar offset the impact of the boycott.

The fracturing of the Arab world was on display at a meeting in Cairo in mid-November of Arab foreign ministers. Saudi Arabia was able to wrest a statement condemning Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, but failed to achieve a consensus as Lebanon teetered on the balance because of Saudi pressure.

Without breaking the stalemate and the initiation of negotiations that at best would achieve a face saving formula that falls short of a fundamental resolution, the dispute is likely to settle in as a fact of life and further undermine the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups the six Gulf states. Saudi Arabia and its allies have said they were not contemplating military intervention even if they have sought to foster tribal opposition to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani led by lesser known members of the ruling family.

The UAE’s articulate ambassador to Russia, Omar Ghobash, suggested in June that “there are certain economic sanctions that we can take which are being considered right now. One possibility would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and say you want to work with us then you have got to make a commercial choice.”

Six months later, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have yet to act on their threat, creating business opportunities as Qatar settles in for the long haul and structurally ensures that it will no longer depend primarily on its Gulf neighbours.

Food is one key area, making food security a Qatari priority. Turkey and Iran were quick to step in to fill the gap created by the Saudi ban on export to Qatar of dairy and other products. With the import of some 4,000 cows, Qatar has sought to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency with domestic production within a matter of months accounting for approximately 30 percent of consumption. Nonetheless, with a minimal food processing industry, Qatar will seek to diversify its sources, creating opportunity for Asian producers.

With the loss of some 20 Gulf destinations as a result of the boycott, state-owned Qatar Airways, the region’s second largest airline, may be the Qatari entity most affected by the crisis. Against the backdrop of a likely annual loss, Qatar Airways is looking to expand its route network elsewhere and weighing stakes in other airlines.

Asia is an obvious target. Qatar is scheduled to initiate flights to Canberra in Australia, Chiang Mai and Utapao in Thailand, and Chittagong in Bangladesh in the next year. The airline has rejected proposals that it bid for Air India, but plans to move ahead with plans for the launch of a domestic Indian airline. Elsewhere, Qatar Airways acquired a 9.61 percent stake in troubled Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific for $662 million.

Similarly, Qatar has had to compensate for its loss of port facilities, primarily in the UAE by diverting to Salalah in Oman and Singapore. While that solved the Gulf state’s immediate bottlenecks, it is probable that Qatar will take an interest in other Asian ports in competition with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Given Saudi interest in China-backed ventures such as Pakistan’s Gwadar and the Maldives, Qatar could well look at Indian alternatives, including the Indian-supported Iranian port of Chabahar, a mere 75 kilometres further up the coat from Gwadar. Singapore port has stepped in with Qatar availing itself of shipping and logistical services. Vietnam and India see opportunities in the sale of food and construction materials.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Asian countries like India, in a bid to ensure the security of their energy supplies, are looking at diversifying their sources and increasing the non-Middle Eastern portion from producers like the United States. Indian Oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan adopted a tough stand in recent talks with OPEC Secretary General Sanusi Mohammad Barkindo, advising him that India was looking at alternative sourcing. India recently cut crude oil imports from Iran because of stalled negotiations over the development of an offshore gas deposit in the Gulf, forcing Iran to look for alternative buyers in Europe.

The Gulf, irrespective of if and how the crisis may be resolved, is unlikely to return to the status quo ante. As a result, the crisis is certain to influence political, economic and commercial relationships for decades to come. That creates opportunity that Asian nations potentially can capitalize on.

Add a comment
TheRealNewsNetwork.com, RealNewsNetwork.com, The Real News Network, Real News Network, The Real News, Real News, Real News For Real People, IWT are trademarks and service marks of Independent World Television inc. "The Real News" is the flagship show of IWT and The Real News Network.

All original content on this site is copyright of The Real News Network. Click here for more

Problems with this site? Please let us know

Web Design, Web Development and Managed Hosting