Friday, 30 June 2017

Trump’s sugar hit in Israel mugged by reality

Arriving in Israel on 22 May, Donald Trump told the Israeli President that he’d ‘just got back from the Middle East’. Not the most geographically informed start to the visit but from then on it was all schmooze, to the obvious delight of Trump’s hosts. Remarkably, Trump gave his twitter fingers a well-deserved rest and stayed on script. This might have been welcome except for the script itself. It appeared to include nothing of consequence – so even Trump’s critics acknowledged that as he had nothing to say he said it well. As Trump settled back into the White House, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – both important to US strategic interests in the Middle East – resumed their spiteful relationship.

For a President who has spoken of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the ‘ultimate deal’ to finish the ‘war that never ends’ what was truly remarkable about Trump’s two-day sojourn in Israel was the public absence of any pointer as to how his administration plans to put that deal together. Nothing about Palestinian statehood – or the alternatives, nothing about Israeli settlements, nothing about borders and capitals, nothing about mutual security, nothing about Palestinian refugees. These issues are critical to any deal yet there was not the faintest hint of how the Trump administration might approach them. In the words of one Israeli commentator, Trump offered Israelis a diet consisting almost entirely of sugar and sweets. 

Some of the saccharine quickly rubbed off when, on 1 June, Trump broke an election promise and signed a presidential waiver delaying the move of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Reaction from Israeli and Palestinian leaders was predictable, one Zionist Union MP describing Trump as a ‘false Messiah’. But US Presidents have signed the waiver every six month since 1998 and the fact that Trump broke a pre-election undertaking surprised no-one. The White House said the waiver was a ‘decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians’. It’s a card to be dealt much later in any negotiating process.

Media reports have suggested the US is mulling over a ‘Principles Paper to restart negotiations. We might ask what new principles are left to be discovered? The elements of a resolution go back to the much maligned (sometimes unfairly) 1993 Declaration of Principles.  In late 2016, then US Secretary of State’s, John Kerry, unveiled the six principles which he said had to underlie a renewed search for peace based on a two-state solution. 

Perhaps these familiar principles are now old hat. During Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last February, Trump declared that the US ‘will encourage peace and really a great peace deal … But it is the parties themselves who must directly negotiate such an agreement. To be honest, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy – I’m happy with the one they like the best.’
Trump’s happiness is irrelevant. It is delusional to think that the Palestinians will give up on a state of their own, or that Israelis will accept a one-state solution in which, over time, Jews might become a minority.

Barely had Trump settled back into the White House than Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. There is a long history of antagonism between the Saudis and Qataris, based on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, its funding of Al-Jazeera and its less than openly hostile relationship with Iran. The ostensible reason for the break was Qatar’s support for ‘terrorism’, quite ironic given Saudi Arabia’s record of support for extremist Islamic thinking.

But with his tweeting fingers back on normal duty Trump wrote with usual modesty and understatement:

During my recent trip to the Middle East [during which he met with the Emir of Qatar] I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology … Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!

So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off … They said they would take a hard line on funding … Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!

We’ve yet to see Trump’s analysis of the possible effect on the operation of al-Udeid air base in Qatar, home to the US military’s Central Command and about 10,000 American troops. Vladimir Putin will be watching with interest.

First published on 8.7.17 at Pearls and Irritations

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia and the Hypocrisy Olympics

The breathless hypocrisy of Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia should leave us all reeling. The fact that the new president could make his first overseas journey to the very country he previously castigated, rightly, as the mother lode of 9/11 is bad enough. But the sycophancy he displayed to his hosts, especially King Salman, demonstrated just what a dangerous chameleon Trump is.   

What an irony that Trump’s speech in Riyadh to the leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries proclaimed that “we will make history again with the opening of a new Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology, located right here”.

Does this man know anything about history, including his own? Has he forgotten his 2011 observation about Saudi Arabia: “It’s the world's biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars … to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.”? Has he forgotten his 2015 comment: “The primary reason we are with Saudi Arabia is because we need the oil.”?

Even though he detested her, Trump might have learned from Hillary Clinton. A leaked 2014 email from Clinton said the US should use it diplomatic and traditional intelligence assets to pressure Qatar and Saudi Arabia, “which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region”. These countries, she argued, should be forced to balance their ongoing competition to dominate the Sunni world with the consequences of “serious U.S. pressure”. Another Clinton email from early 2016 included an excerpt from a closed-door speech in October 2013 in which she stated baldly: “the Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years”.

Using its enormous oil revenues to fund this export, Saudi Arabia is in a league of its own. The sums involved are vast – estimated by intelligence agencies, scholars and others at upwards of US$100 billion. That buys a lot of “cultural advancement”.
The US State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities worldwide, Farah Pandit, wrote in 2015: “I travelled to 80 countries between 2009 and 2014 … In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence; changing the local sense of identity, displacing historic, culturally vibrant forms of Islamic practice; and pulling along individuals who were either paid to follow their rules or who became on their own custodians of the Wahhabi world view. Funding all this was Saudi money, which paid for things like the textbooks, mosques, TV stations and the training of Imams.” 
In late 2015, the Algerian journalist, Kamel Douad, neatly described Saudi Arabia as “an ISIS that has made it”. It is the country which produced Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, sent more suicide bombers to Iraq than any other country after 2003, and has supplied more foreign fighters to the Islamic State than any country other than Tunisia.
Perhaps the Saudi royal family and religious establishment have seen the error of their ways. Perhaps King Salman, over whom Trump positively drooled, has turned a new leaf. Or perhaps Trump’s wilful amnesia, combined with his limitless vanity, make him an easy mark.
Salman certainly has form as an ardent promoter of jihadists. He was the royal family’s bagman for jihadis in Afghanistan during the 1980s and the Balkans in the 1990s. Shortly after ascending the throne, in early 2015 he presented the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam to Zakir Naik, an Indian Muslim “televangelist”. One of Naik’s contribution to international harmony was to describe 9/11 as an inside job led by President George W. Bush.

For a fleeting moment in Riyadh, it seemed that Trump might call the Saudis out. No discussion of Islamic extremism, he declared, would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists “safe harbour, financial backing and the social standing needed for recruitment”. But he was speaking, “of course, of Iran”.

Iran is no model international citizen. But it has just conducted a free and democratic election to choose a new political leader. That’s more than can ever be said for Saudi Arabia or indeed for most Arab states. 
Trump termed the new approach he unveiled in Riyadh – which omitted any reference to democratic governance and basic civil and political rights – as “Principled Realism”. Tragically, this president wouldn’t know a principal even if it were illuminated in neon from atop one of his towers.

First published on 31.5.17 at Pearls and Irritations

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US: the conniving and the confused

 Saudi Arabia’s ultimatum to Qatar says much about the Kingdom’s dreams of regional hegemony, its proxy war with Iran, and its glaring double-standards over ‘interventionism’. It amounts to a demand for Qatar’s total surrender. Qatar faces meaningful pain from the Saudi-led economic boycott but the chances of it acceding to the ultimatum are zero. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration struggles to develop a coherent approach.

The 13 point ultimatum issued in late June makes crystal clear the goal of bringing Qatar to heel and of brooking no domestic or regional behaviour that challenges the authority of Saudi Arabia and its anti-Qatar squad, principally the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

The ultimatum’s requirements range from the obvious to the ludicrous. The more predictable ones include: winding back Qatar’s relations with Iran and Turkey; the cutting of ties to individuals or non-state actors opposed to Saudi Arabia and its allies—under the guise of anti-terrorism measures; the closure of al-Jazeera and its affiliates—the contest here, despite the rhetoric from both sides, not being about freedom of expression but which Arab autocracy should rule the airwaves.

The last four demands in the ultimatum have a decidedly Monty Pythonesque flavour. They require Qatar to: pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other financial losses caused by its policies in recent years; consent to monthly audits for the first year, quarterly audits in the second and annual ones over the following 10 years; align itself with other Gulf and Arab countries ‘militarily, politically, socially and economically’ and, finally, to agree to all 13 demands within 10 days, after which the list becomes ‘invalid’.

Qatar is as practiced as any of its regional neighbours in dodgy behaviour but the ultimatum gives new meaning to the term ‘ambit’. We can only puzzle, for example, how willing the Saudis would be to allow a 10+ year audit of their financial or other support for ‘terrorists’, or to recompense those who have been victims of Saudi action or inaction. And exactly which ‘other Gulf and Arab states’ offer the model for Qatar to follow: Iraq, with its Shia majority; Bahrain (part of the Saudi-led bloc), with its Sunni rulers perched atop a not always quiescent Shia majority; perhaps Yemen, where the Saudis and the UAE are struggling to contain an Iranian backed insurrection?

The 10-day deadline will pass with the two sides locked in insult.

If the ultimatum seems a bit over the place it has a soulmate in US policy. In one of his infamous tweets, Trump took credit for the Saudi-led move against Qatar. Since then the beleagured State Department and Secretary of State Tillerson have tried to inject a measure of commonsense. (Tillerson, we might note, is on record as observing: ‘I’m not involved in how the president constructs his tweets, when he tweets, why he tweets, what he tweets’.) Before the ultimatum became public, Tillerson urged that any demands be ‘reasonable and actionable’. Boris Johnson following a similar script with ‘measured and realistic’.

Trying to steer a course through this mess, Tillerson has since headed for the half-way house, describing the ultimatum’s requirements both as ‘very difficult to meet’, yet offering ‘significant areas which provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to a resolution’. He would much rather keep his distance and let the ‘Arab family’ sort it out. But the US has a lot at stake with these family members.

With its ostracisation, Qatar now faces the financial burden of needing to fly in a much greater proportion of its food and other daily essentials. Given its ranking in world GDP (PPP), at US$139,100 second only to Liechtenstein, (Australia sits at 29, with US$48,800), Qatar has an enviable cushion. But foreign workers, including more than 200,000 Egyptians, make up nearly 90 per cent of Qatar’s population of about 2.6 million. Many of them will be vulnerable to any significant price rise for basic commodities. If the blockade were to be prolonged it could also prompt nail-biting globally over the construction schedule for soccer’s world cup in 2022. Flying in steel and cement is a rather different proposition to flying in meat and vegetables.

An immediate loser from the blockade is Qatar Airways, shut out of busy regional markets at a time when Doha and Dubai are competing to be the Middle East hub between Asia and Europe. One bit of ‘good’ news for Qatar Airways is that its world-record longest commercial flight, from Doha to Auckland, is now a little safer. The airline took the title in early 2017 with a flight distance of 14,529 kilometres, beating the previous record of 14,200 kilometres—set by Emirates. With Qatar Airways now having to avoid Saudi airspace, New Zealand is just that bit further away.

First published on 20.6.17 at Pearls and Irritations