West Asia Roundup: July 2023
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Winds of rapprochement continue to blow over the region. President Erdogan paid visits to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha. He also expressed keenness to talk to Greece while agreeing to remove his hold from the Swedish entry to NATO. During Erdogan’s visit, Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to purchase Turkish Bayraktar drones and other military equipment, providing Turkey with a much-needed financial lifeline to wealthy customers in the Gulf.

Turkey also exchanged Ambassadors with Egypt. Qatar continued to play a mediatory role between USA and Iran to secure the release of some prisoners in exchange for sanctions relief and release of crude sale funds held due to US sanctions as the JCPOA did not see much progress. A certain via media was worked upon. However, Iranian President began his outreach to Africa especially Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Crown Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia was keen to yet again provide a platform after the last Arab league meeting to Ukrainian President Zelensky with the participation of western powers as well as the countries from Global south to discuss the Zelensky plan and to try and find a way out for the Eurasian war. Likewise, inclusion of Syria in the Arab fold began in right earnest as after his visit for the Arab league Summit Assad also received Iraqi PM Sudani. Burning of a copy of Quran in Denmark in front of the Iraqi embassy led to a strong reaction and condemnation in several countries in the region as Baghdad expelled the Danish diplomat. As Israel continued to face domestic protests with the passage of the so-called judicial reforms, there was no let up in the violence in Palestine which continued with greater vehemence. However, US NSA Jake Sullivan visited Riyadh to explore the potential of some formal rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia as an extension of the Abraham Accords much to their dismay with the domestic developments in Israel due to extraneous policies of the ultra-right wing Netanyahu government. Netanyahu is still waiting for an official customary visit to Washington DC after his reelection.


On his way back from France PM Modi paid his fifth visit to UAE (July 15) which has emerged as India’s true and close strategic partner for India. He held meetings with his President Sheikh Zayed as well as Sheikh Jaber, Head of COP28 supporting fully the UAE Presidency. MoU between RBI and UAE Central Bank for the establishment of a framework to promote the use of local currencies (INR - AED) for cross-border transactions between RBI and UAE Central Bank for the bilateral cooperation on interlinking their payment and messaging systems. MoU between Ministry of Education of India, Department of Education and Knowledge, Abu Dhabi and IIT Delhi for planning to establish IIT Delhi in Abu Dhabi.

MOS V Muraleedharan visited Syria from 12-13 July 2023, the first Ministerial-level visit from India to Syria since August 2016.
During the visit, MoS called on Dr. Bashar Al Assad, President and H.E. Eng. Hussein Arnous, Prime Minister of Syria and discussed ways to further strengthen bilateral ties, including development partnership assistance, education and capacity building in his discussions with Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad. He also met Education and Health Ministers of Syria.

Under the aegis of the Arab-Indian Cooperation Forum, the 6th India-Arab Partnership Conference on: "New Horizons in Investment, Trade & Services” was organized on 11-12 July 2023 in New Delhi. Ministers, senior officials and businesspersons from Arab States and India participated in it.

Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, Secretary (CPV and OIA) paid an official visit to the Palestine from 05-07 July 2023. During the visit, he called on Prime Minister H.E. Dr. Mohammad Ibrahim Shtayyeh, Foreign Minister H.E. Mr. Riyad al-Maliki and Diplomatic Advisor to the President H.E. Dr. Majdi Khaldi. India has been extending various forms of economic assistance to Palestine amounting to approximately US$ 130.5 million, including US$ 70.6 million worth of developmental assistance. India has also provided budgetary support to the tune of US$ 39 million to the Palestinian Authority. Since 2002, India has contributed a total of US$ 29.53 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

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Turkish President’s visit to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached Saudi Arabia on 17 July and met with King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. President Erdogan earlier travelled to Saudi Arabia in April 2022 and Saudi Crown Prince visited Turkey in June 2022. Turkey suffering from economic crisis is seeking to improve ties with the Gulf States and expand joint investment and commercial activities. Saudi Arabia in March 2023 deposited US$ 5 billion in Turkey’s central bank. Erdogan was accompanied by around 200 business people. Saudi Arabia agreed to purchase drones from Turkish defence firm, Baykar.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abu Dhabi and Ankara signed agreements worth more than US$ 50 billion. Erdogan also met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Both leaders witnessed the signing of the joint statement marking the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Qatar-Turkey relations.

Greece and Turkey agree to Resume Talks

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the sidelines of NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on 12 July. Both leaders agreed to resume talks and undertake confidence building measures. The offices of both leaders released identical but separate statements announcing that Greece and Turkey have agreed to build on the positive momentum and activate multiple channels of communication. Both states have disputes over several issues such as energy resources, over flights above the Aegean Sea and Cyprus. The bilateral relations have improved in the recent past after Greece became one of the first countries to send to rescue workers to Turkey after the February earthquakes. Greece’s the then-Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was also the first European minister to visit Turkey after the quake.

The NATO Secretary General Jens Stolenberg announced on 10 July that Turkish government has agreed to forward Sweden’s membership bid to national parliament. Erdogan through his consent to Sweden’s membership in NATO is seeking to link Turkey’s membership in the European Union (EU).

Turkey and Egypt Reinstate Ambassadors

On 4 July, Turkey and Egypt re-instated ambassadors to restore relations at the highest diplomatic level after years of tension. Reportedly, Salih Mutlu Sen was appointed as the Turkish ambassador to Cairo and Amr Elhamamy was selected as the Egyptian ambassador to Turkey. The joint statement released by Turkish Foreign Ministry noted that the diplomatic measures are aimed at re-normalization of relations between both states and reflects the mutual will to improve bilateral relations in the interests of both peoples. Turkey was highly critical of the military coup by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to remove the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood led government headed by Mohammed Morsi. Turkey and Qatar in the post Arab Spring backed the political mobilization under the Muslim Brotherhood. The spat between Turkey and Egypt continued for years. The rapprochement with Egypt is part of Turkey’s recent foreign policy initiative to repair ties with other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel.

Iranian President’s African Tour

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi began his three country tour of Africa on 12 July visiting Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. In the first leg of the trip in Kenya, Iranian and Kenyan ministers signed five memorandums of understanding on IT, fisheries, livestock products and investment promotion. Iranian Foreign Ministry hoped to increase trade to more than US$ 2 billion in 2023. Iran has indicated interest to import large amount of Kenyan tea, meat and other agricultural products and allow its territory to facilitate Kenya’s trade to Central Asian states. In Uganda, the Iranian President offered support to build a domestic oil refinery, pipeline and petro-chemical production. In a controversial remark, Raisi blamed the west for promoting the idea of homosexuality. Iran and Uganda signed cooperation documents on visa waiver, agricultural cooperation and establishment of joint permanent commission. Iran and Zimbabwe signed 12 agreements including plans to create a tractor manufacturing as well as cooperation in energy, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, research, science and technology projects.

The UAE Signs Mining Deal with DRC

The UAE signed a US$ 1.9 billion deal with state mining firm, Societe Aurifere du Kivu et du Maniema (Sakima) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to develop four mines in South Kivu and Maniema provinces. The state-owned Sakima has mining concessions for tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. The agreement was finalized after DRC signed 25 year contact with UAE based firm Primera Group in December 2022 to export rights for some mined ores.

Iraqi Prime Minister’s Visit to Syria

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani visited Damascus and met with President Bashar Al Assad on 16 July. Iraq has maintained close relations with Syria even after most Arab states withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus and suspended Syria’s membership in Arab League. Both leaders talked about combating cross-border drug trafficking; return of Syrian refugees; lifting of western sanctions; Israeli attacks; water shortages in the Euphrates shared by both states. Water security has emerged as a crucial area of convergence between the two Arab states. Notably, Iraq is currently hosting about 250,000 Syrian refugees.

Sudan’s Ongoing Conflict

In the month of July, violent attacks continued between the Sudanese military forces and the Rapid Security Forces (RSF). In Omdurman, fierce battles occurred in the first week of July in which the army tried to cut off supply routes used by the RSF. The army carried out ground operations, air strikes and heavy artillery fire in several parts of Omdurman. Reportedly, at least 22 people were killed on 8 July which was blamed on the army. In western Sudan, tribal leaders from south Darfur declared their allegiance to the RSF that could further escalate the conflict.

Jake Sullivan’s Meeting with Saudi Leadership

The US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan met with the Saudi political leadership including Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on 27 July to discuss peace effort in the region. The US statement however made no mention of a possible normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a key priority in the region. The US noted that the meeting centered on bilateral and regional matters and included initiatives “for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous and stable Middle East”. The visit by the NSA coincides with Joe Biden administration’s efforts to establish relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Bomb Blast at Shiite Shrine in Damascus

On 27 July, a bomb blast near Sayeda Zeinab mausoleum in Damascus killed at least six people and injured more than 20 others. The terror attack was carried out a day before Ashura, a day of mourning observed by Shiites. Reportedly, the explosion occurred close to positions of Iranian militias. The Sayeda Zeinab mausoleum suffered from several deadly bombings since 2011 civil war including the February 2016 suicide attack by the Islamic State (IS) that killed 134 people.

Quran Burning outside Iraqi Embassy in Denmark

Two protestors calling themselves, Danish Patriots stomped on the Quran and set it on fire next to the Iraqi flag lying on the ground outside the Iraqi embassy in Copenhagen on 24 July. Israeli Foreign Ministry reacting to the incident called the authorities of European Union (EU) states to reconsider so-called freedom of expression and right to demonstrate. Danish Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen condemned the Quran burning incident calling it as an act of stupidity by by a few individuals. He stated it as, “a disgraceful act to insult the religion of others”. Earlier in June, similar Quran burning incident occurred in Sweden leading to suspension of Sweden’s Special Envoy by Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

On 20 July, Iraq expelled the Swedish ambassador shortly after Iraqi protestors angered by the burning of copies of the Quran in Sweden stormed the Swedish embassy. Iraq has recalled the charge-d’affairs in Sweden. The Iraqi government also suspended the working permit of Swedish telecom company Ericsson. Subsequently, the Swedish embassy’s operations and its expatriate staff were temporarily moved operations to Stockholm for security reasons. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom noted that his government understands that the despicable acts committed by individuals at demonstrations may be offensive to Muslims. He however called the storming of the embassy as “completely unacceptable”.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

On 3 July, Israeli army launched air raids on Jenin refugee camp in occupied West Bank as part of large scale effort to eliminate any violent Palestinian groups operating in the area. The Israeli raids killed around 12 Palestinians and injured at least two dozens of people residing in the refugee camp. According to the Palestinians, Israeli forces carried out 10 air strikes in Jenin and convoy of Israeli armoured vehicles surrounded the refugee camp and launched a ground military operation destroying houses and roads. Hamas operatives in Gaza launched rocketsin response to Israeli actions in Jenin. Israeli fighter jets retaliated by striking an underground weapons manufacturing facility belonging to Hamas. On 4 July, seven people were wounded in a car ramming and stabbing attack in Tel Aviv. The attacker, Hussein Khalaylah, a Hamas member was killed by Israeli forces. Hamas praised the attack calling it a “heroic operation” which was seen as response to Israel’s actions in Jenin refugee camp.

On 6 July, one Palestinian fighter from Hamas opened fire near the illegal Kedumim settlement killing an Israeli soldier. The Hamas fighter was also killed during the gunfight. On 10 July, one Palestinian threw a grenade and started firing at Israeli soldiers in Deir Nidham near Ramallah. Israeli army claimed that it destroyed the joint operations center of the Jenin Brigades. The center served as an advanced observation and reconnaissance; weapons and explosive and coordination and communication venue for Palestinian fighters. On 7 July, three Palestinians were killed in two separate incidents in Nablus and Umm Safa near Ramallah. On 20 July, Israeli Forces killed one Palestinian and injured at least four others in Nablus. The Nablus battalion of the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad group announced that their members were “fighting the occupation forces and groups of settlers who had stormed the area of Joseph’s Tomb”. On 21 July, two Palestinian teenagers were killed by Israeli forces in Umm Safa village. The Israeli forces claimed that the victims threw stones and rocks leading to the retaliatory attack.

On 25 July, three Palestinians belonging to Hamas were killed by Israeli forces near Nablus. Israeli military claimed the three “armed terrorists” had opened fire on its soldiers. The next day, one more Palestinian was killed. Israeli forces on 26 July killed a 14 year old Palestinian boy in Qalqiliya city in occupied West Bank. Reportedly, Israeli forces entered the local neighbourhood and retaliated to stone-pelting by killing the teenager.

Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir on 27 July led a group of more than one thousand ultra-nationalist settlers inside the Al-Aqsa compound in occupied East Jerusalem. This was his third such entrance to the site in 2023. Ben-Gvir announced that “this place is important to us and we have to return to it and prove our sovereignty”.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas held face to face talks with Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh on 30 July in El-Alamein, Egypt. The meeting attended by Fatah and Hamas members as well as representatives of most Palestinian political factions decided to form a committee on intra-Palestinian reconciliation. The latest attempt at reconciliation aims to bridge the gap between the parallel governments of Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas hoped that the committee through dialogue helps in ending divisions and achieve Palestinian national unity leading to “return of single state, a single system, a single law and single legitimate army”. The Hamas leader called for a new, inclusive parliament formed on the basis on free democratic elections.

Israel’s Political Turmoil

On 24 July, Knesset passed a bill to overhaul the judiciary and limit its powers despite mass protests from the opposition parties. The attempt towards a last minute compromise talks failed to stop the far right government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The final vote was passed by 64 for and 0 against since the opposition members boycotted the vote. The new act will prevent the Supreme Court to override government decisions. The supporters of the act argues that prior to the so called reform, unelected judges were given excessive powers over decision making by elected officials.

Notably, Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited the US on 17 July and met with the US leadership to smooth tensions between both states. President Herzog during speech in Congress to appealed to US lawmakers to continue investing in the “irreplaceable” relationship. He warned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and thanked the US to facilitate the Abraham Accords. President Joe Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop trying to overhaul the judiciary system. On 18 July, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution proclaiming that Israel is “not a racist or apartheid state”. The motion was passed by 412 for and 9 against vote. The legislation came in response to comments from Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, calling Israel a “racist state”.

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