West Asia Review - November 2020
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Even though sunset on Trump Presidency has begun the Middle East continued to engage his attention. His Secretary of State Pompeo visited the region especially Turkey, UAE, Saudi Arabia , Qatar and Israel to follow through the partially finished and unfinished agendas like normalisation of relations with Israel by more countries in the region; ending the blockade of Qatar ; security issues ; and stunting Iran’s nuclear capabilities so that the Biden is unable to undo the Trump Administration’s initiatives in the region which has several hotspots and concerns for the next Administration. His visit was followed by that of Jared Kushner to Qatar and Saudi Arabia to make last ditch effort to release blockade of Qatar and Saudi led quartet. It was said that Saudi airspace may be opened for Qatari flights to begin with.

More importantly a meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pompeo and Netanyahu was said to have been arranged in the iconic city of NEOM (22 November) which was not officially acknowledged but was aimed at persuading Saudis to establish explicit diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. But it might take some time as King Salman is not so ready for it. Discussions on threat from Iran could have been the key issue.

New York Times reported that Trump had asked senior advisers whether he had options to take action against Iran's main nuclear site in the coming weeks. However, Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Christopher C. Miller dissuaded him from moving ahead with a military strike, warning that a strike against Iran's facilities could easily escalate into a broader conflict.

It was perhaps a coincidence, although many observers believe otherwise, that the leading Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizade was assassinated in a few days after meeting between Pompo and Netanyahu. Iranians blamed Israel and vowed to avenge but maintained strategic patience awaiting change of guard in the White House. US also probably estimated only a verbal response from Iran. Although Iranian Majlis approved a bill to enhance enrichment of Uranium way beyond permissible limits and wanted to stop inspections by IAEA President Rouhani and FM Javad Zarif want to keep the door open and the bravado limited so as not to rock the boat and make it difficult for Biden Administration to start talks on US re-joining the JCPOA.

Surprisingly, Palestinians did not comment adversely on the reported meeting between MBS and Netanyahu as they have re-established their security cooperation with Israel and returned the Palestinian Ambassadors to Manama and Abu Dhabi who were recalled in protest in September pursuant to Abraham Accords. They too hope that with Biden on the scene some productive talks and an International Conference may happen sooner than later. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv has released $ 1bn in collected taxes to the Palestinian Authority as per standard arrangement.

New York Times reported that Israeli agents killed Al-Qaeda's number two Abu Muhammad Al-Masri in Tehran in August at the behest of the US. Iran denied the report.

Bahrain ‘s Foreign Minister visited Tel Aviv to discuss the way forward and invited Netanyahu to visit Manama. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s political troubles have piled up that will lead to the dissolution of their Parliament and the elections the 4th time in a short span. His political partners Benny Gantz and Defence Minister were unhappy about the secretive meeting between Netanyahu, Mossad Chief at Neom

Saudi Arabia and four other countries i.e. Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Pakistan have jointly launched the Digital Cooperation Organization (DCO) aimed at strengthening cooperation and accelerating the development of the digital economy at an event attended by representatives from the World Economic Forum and ITU.

Saudi Arabia virtually hosted the G20 Summit. It was also decided that now Indonesia will chair the G20 in 2022 and India in 2023. Primacy of joint fight against Covid-19, provision of vaccines and economic revival were ensured.

OIC : At the 47th OIC Foreign Ministers meeting in Niamey, Niger the issue of Kashmir was once again raised by Pakistan and a resolution issued which was decried and condemned by India in no uncertain terms "It is regrettable that OIC continues to allow itself to be used by a certain country, which has an abominable record on religious tolerance, radicalism and persecution of minorities, to indulge in anti-India propaganda." The statement by MEA, strongly and categorically rejected the factually incorrect, gratuitous and unwarranted references to India and added “OIC has no locus standi in matters strictly internal to India, including that of Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which is an integral and inalienable part of India." MEA further advised OIC to refrain from making such references in future.

Pakistan PM Imran Khan claimed that he had deflected the pressure from some brotherly countries (without naming Saudi Arabia and UAE or even US) to normalise relations with Israel. He predicated the normalisation to the resolution of the Palestinian issue but it seems some interactions have been taking place in recent times including the one reported in Jordan. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas praised Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his country's "consistent and supportive stances" with regards the Palestinian cause and refusal to recognise Israel.

China -GCC held a ministerial meeting at the level of Foreign Minister chaired by Abu Dhabi. UAE FM Abdullah Zayed said “We meet today with hope for further cooperation in different fields, including education, artificial intelligence, industry, health, agriculture and food, and human development. In addition to creating frameworks for cooperation in the fields of social and youth, the empowerment of women, the environment and climate”. Sheikh Abdullah thanked China for inviting ambassadors from the GCC and around the world to visit several of the country’s regions, including Xinjiang “to learn about China’s efforts in the development and protection of ethnic minorities.”

Qatar cancelled a $300 million annual trade subsidy for the Australian lamb industry after the country condemned a series of invasive medical examinations of its nationals in Doha in October. The deal was due to end in 2023, but the Qatari government has made the decision to finish the subsidy early, on 31 December this year.

Turkish military exports to Azerbaijan increased by a staggering 610 per cent ($256mn) during 11 months of 2020 as the Nagorno Karabakh conflagrated resulting in the victory for Ankara backed Baku. Prior to the conflict, both Turkey and Azerbaijan had conducted joint military drills as late as August shortly before the conflict began, and reportedly Turkey had left some of its F-16 fighter jets within Azerbaijan as a deterrent.

Dr S, Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister of India undertook a timely visit (November 24-26) to UAE and Bahrain to discuss bilateral and regional issues with their leadership and his counterparts. He also conveyed the condolences of the Indian government on the demise of Bahraini Prime Minister and called on the new Prime Minister. This was the first visit to take stock of the regional developments and collaborative potential after the Abraham Accords. He also visited the Dubai Expo and interacted with the Indian community in both the countries. EAM briefed the UAE side on the progress made by India in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, both on the health and economic front. Both sides reviewed their cooperation on various facets of their comprehensive strategic partnership including trade, investment, infrastructure, energy, food security and defence. EAM and the UAE Foreign Minister discussed recent regional and international developments and agreed to continue coordination on various multilateral issues.

More Details …..
Killing of Iranian Nuclear Scientist

Iran has accused Israel of killing Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on 27 November outside Tehran. Initial reports suggested that his convoy was ambushed. Iranian security officials later confirmed that Israeli forces used electronic device to remotely kill the nuclear scientist. Three of his bodyguards were killed in the incident.

The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei has demanded definitive punishment for those involved in killing the scientist. Israel has neither denied nor confirmed the killing. Israel is seeking to create difficult ground for the new administration in the US to reconcile with the Islamic Republic. President Hasan Rouhani is facing pressure to retaliate against the latest violation. However, any Iranian sponsored attack may jeopardise the prospect of rapprochement with the US and shrink its manoeuvring ground.

Earlier on 18 November, the US extended sanctions in Iran including a foundation under the control of Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the sanctions are aimed at punishing the regime’s human rights abuse and suppression of protestors. The measures are part of the country’s maximum pressure strategy.

On the following day, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp has launched a new heavy warship capable of hosting helicopters, drones, missile launchers. The ship is named after IRGC naval commander, Abdollah Roudaki. The Iranian aircraft carrier is posing to challenge the US’ military superiority in the Persian Gulf region.

Iranian Diplomat Faces Trial in Belgium

On 27 November, Belgian Court in Antwerp have put one Iranian diplomat based in Vienna, Assadolah Assadi and three other Iranians on trial on the charge of plotting a state sponsored bomb blast against a rally of exiled opposition group, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in France in 2018. The US President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudi Giuliani was the keynote speaker at the event. The plot was averted through coordination among French, German and Belgian security forces. During the clearing operation, one security official was injured after a bomb accidentally exploded.

Belgian authorities arrested two of Assadi’s aides with the explosive TATP and a detonator. Assadi was previously arrested in Germany and taken to Belgium. According to the charges, Assadi was the operational commander and he was responsible for carrying the explosives by commercial flight to Austria after which he handed it over to his accomplices in Luxembourg. He has refused to appear in the trial invoking diplomatic immunity. Assadi’s lawyer questioned the competence of the court to prosecute him due to his diplomatic status. The Iranians could face up to 20 years in prison on charges of “attempted terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group.” Iran has denied the charges calling it a false flag operation by NCRI. The Iranian government recognises NCRI as a terrorist organisation.

Iran Returns British-Australian Academic

British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert reached Australia on 27 November after authorities in Iran allowed her release after 804 days in jail for spying charges. She was detained in Tehran airport in 2018 after authorities discovered about her relationship with an Israeli citizen. The Iranian government in exchange of her release secured three compatriots jailed in Thailand due to their involvement in bomb blast plot against Israeli diplomats in Bangkok in 2012. Tehran has referred the three Iranians as economic activists and they were given hero’s welcome after returning.

Mahmoud Abbas’ Meeting with Jordanian King

Jordanian King Abdullah met with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in Aqaba on 29 November and discussed about Israel’s settlement policy, President Donald Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan. The Jordanian King reiterated that the country is committed to achieving Palestinian statehood. Jordan, a crucial ally of the US in the region, spoke with the US President-elect, Joe Biden and talked about cooperation for reaching two-state solution. During President Trump’s tenure, the US adopted unilateral measures such as recognising disputed Golan Heights as part of Israel, establishing embassy in Jerusalem in defiance of international law. From the US perspective, Israel’s normalisation of ties with the Gulf states would push towards Palestinian reconciliation. Palestinians have rejected the US peace proposals and sought help from Jordan to convey its position in the US policy making circles. Under Trump administration, Jordan’s role has been side-lined in the Arab-Israel peace process. King Abdullah is the custodian of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and Jordan fears that Israel’s normalisation with Gulf states would further weaken its position in preserving its control in the mosque compound and all the over peace process.

Abdel Fatah Al Sisi’s First Visit to South Sudan

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi in his first visit to South Sudan met with President Salva Kiir on 28 November. Both leaders discussed about the regional security situation and the usage of Nile waters. The visit is crucial considering the tensions with Ethiopia following the successful completion of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egypt has reiterated its historic rights over the waters of the Nile and called the project as an existential threat. The Blue Nile originating from Lake Tana in the north-western Ethiopian highlands contributes to 85 percent of the total water flow after it converges with the White Nile in Khartoum. Ethiopia that controls a substantial section of the Blue Nile intends to harness the water flow to generate electricity in the power-starved state. Power project according to Ethiopia is crucial for its national development. Sudan’s dependence on the river is comparatively less than Egypt. It would benefit from low-cost cost electricity provided by the GERD. At the same time, it fears that Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to control and release waters have increase flooding causing damages to lives and resources.

While Ethiopia was not extensively discussed, both leaders stressed about the potential for maximising the water use. Egyptian President’s attempt should be seen as his attempt to gather support from other Nile River sharing states. President Kiir focussed on the need for dialogue to tackle with issues harming regional security and talked about the responsibility of Africans to seek African solutions to African problems. The African Union has served as an effective platform to minimise the escalation and bringing both sides towards dialogue.

Saudi Arabia Extends Boycott of Turkish goods

Saudi Arabia in early November officially suspended the imports of meat, eggs, and other products from Turkey in light of the regional tensions. The relationship between the two regional powers has suffered after the killing of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October 2018 in Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish authorities subsequently accused Saudi officials of the brutal killing. The imports from Turkey prior to the official boycott had already reduced and Turkish exporters have complained obstacles in entering and selling in the Gulf state’s domestic market. Turkey’s exports to Saudi Arabia fell 16% in the first 10 months of 2029 to US$ 2.23 billion.

In terms of regional geopolitics, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are on opposite sides in the Libyan conflict, Qatar boycott and ongoing normalisation process between Israel and the Persian Gulf states. Turkey is also challenging the Saudi dominance over Islamic discourse in the region by invoking the glory of the Ottoman past.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are however, pragmatic players and considering the leadership change in the US, both states are anxious about the policy changes under the new administration. Joe Biden maintaining a critical posture on Saudi actions in Yemen conflict has promised reassessment of ties. Biden is also likely to face pressure to restrain Turkey’s activist foreign policy and penalise its growing defence ties with Russia.

Houthi Attacks on Oil Assets in Saudi Arabia

Houthi attacks towards Saudi Arabia have continued in November. In Jeddah, Houthi forces fired missile at a Saudi Aramco oil company distribution station on 23 November.

On 25 November, a Greek managed tanker on Maltese flagged vessel was attacked at a Saudi terminal on the Red Sea, north of the Yemeni border. The commercial vessel reportedly suffered minor damage from shrapnel and none of the crew suffered any injury. The attacks on Saudi assets have commenced since Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s involvement in Yemen conflict in 2015 to uproot the Houthi movement’s positions in northern areas. The Saudi plans have backfired as Houthis have continued to maintain their base and over the period have acquired high-quality weapons including drones and missiles.

Libyan Peace Talks Continue

The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli held talks with rival government based in Tobruk. The main subject of the talk was the possibility of national election in December 2021. U.N. acting envoy for Libya Stephanie Williams headed the online meeting of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. In the previous week, during the first round of talks in Tunis, the selection of the executive authority was undecided. The 75-member forum agreed to hold presidential and parliamentary election on 24 December 2021 and name a volunteer legal committee to prepare a constitutional basis for the election. The meeting allowed the participants to study the selection process. It has raised hope for return of peace. However, critical questions over the future role of General Khalifa Haftar, the de-facto leader of eastern Libya and integration of military forces would require resolution.

Israeli Prime Minister’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo in Neom on 22 November. Israel and Saudi Arabia share concern over Joe Biden’s efforts to re-join the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Accord (JCPOA). Israel had been persuading the new administration to reject dialogue with Iran that may escalate nuclear proliferation in the region. Trump administration’s days are numbered, and it is seeking to create conditions for normalisation by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia aware of its religious leadership role in the region has been cautious over the possible implication of peace with Israel without resolving the Palestinian issue.

At the same time, Saudi government has softened its approach towards Israel and starting with Air India it has allowed international flights to use its airspace to travel to Israel. Saudi government has not officially accepted that there was any such meeting. In Israel however, Prime Benjamin Netanyahu facing protests calling for his resignation has been projecting himself as a political maverick capable of achieving peace with Arab states. Netanyahu’s critics have pointed out that the news leak of the visit is deliberate in order to further promote his image as the peace maker.

Bahraini Prime Minister’s death

The 84-year Prime Minister of Bahrain, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has died in the US where he was under treatment. He was the son of the former ruler, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa who ruled from 1942 to 1961. The former Prime Minister was one of the richest men in the country and represented the old guard. During the 2011 Arab Spring protest in Bahrain, there were public demands calling for his ouster over charges of corruption. Following his death, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa has been named as the new Prime Minister. The Crown Prince following the Arab Spring protests had been attempting to weaken the Prime Minister’s control over the state’s economy.

US Approves Arms Deal to the UAE

The US President Donald Trump on 10 November notified the Congress about the plans to sell 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets to the UAE as part of the arms deal worth of US$ 23 billion. The deal was part of the normalisation agreement with Israel. Other items under consideration are 18 advanced armed drones and air to air and air to ground ammunitions. The procurement is likely to boost Emirati defences to thwart Iran’s military activities.

Israel has previously expressed some concern for the sale of F-35 jets due to keen attempt to maintain its qualitative military advantage. The US has assured Israel that it is committed towards Israel’s security.

Changes in Religious Laws in the UAE

The UAE on 7 November announced changes in Islamic personal laws such as allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, lifting penalties on alcohol consumption, sales and possession etc. The government in order to protect women’s rights has criminalized so-called honour killings in which a male relative may evade prosecution for assaulting a woman seen as dishonouring a family. The UAE over the years is attempting to portray itself as a modern and tolerant Islamic state willing to subdue radicalisation and offer western living standard within the country. It would improve tourism and entrepreneurship.

The latest decision has come in the background of normalisation with Israel and willingness to welcome Israeli tourists to visit the state. It would also help to expand commercial activity in the upcoming World Expo.

New Sanctions by the US on Lebanese Politician

The US Treasury on 6 November 2020 imposed sanctions on former foreign minister, Gebran Bassil belonging to Maronite predominant Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). FPM is seen as close to Hezbollah. The US Treasury did not mention about his connection with Hezbollah but stressed that he contributes to the prevailing system of corruption and political patronage in the country. The sanctions are aimed at cornering the activities of Hezbollah by targeting its allies.

Earlier in September 2020, the US imposed sanctions on former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former public works and transportation minister Youssef Fenianos. Both are close to Hezbollah. Besides, the geopolitical competition with Iran, the sanctions attempt by the US is intended to put pressure on the Lebanese leadership to maintain a flexible attitude during maritime boundary discussions with Israel.

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