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    The Aftershocks of the Saudi and American Debacle in Afghanistan

    Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have a complex relationship. Their ties date back to the 19th century when Afghanistan became the first Muslim country to recognize the second Saudi state of 1824 to 1891. In 1930, Ibn Saud recognized King Nadir Shah’s rule in Afghanistan, in 1932, the two countries signed their first friendship agreement, and in 1950, King Zahir Shah’s visit to Saudi Arabia was commemorated on a Saudi stamp.

    Ties over the following decades remained close. This was not so much because of Saudi geopolitical interests in Afghanistan, but rather how the country affected Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran and Pakistan, a major rival and an important ally of the kingdom respectively.

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    The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 marked the summit of Saudi influence. In coordination with Pakistan and the United States, the Saudis famously supported the mujahideen and also assisted many Afghan refugees. Throughout the 1980s, the kingdom exercised direct interference over various Islamist groups in Afghanistan and many Saudis traveled there to fight the Soviets.

    After the Soviet Union departed in 1989 and throughout the subsequent civil war in Afghanistan, the Saudis continued their role of manipulating Afghan politicians and factions, using their petrodollars and religious influence on behalf of the US, with mixed results. In 1993, all of the Afghan mujahideen factions signed a peace agreement in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but that failed to stop the conflict.

    Saudi Ties With the Taliban

    Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, some commentators have encouraged the Saudis to try to play the religious card again. In June, Muslim scholars from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia signed a “declaration of peace” in Mecca, which Arab News described as a “historic, landmark event on the path toward reconciliation between warring factions.” But the Taliban rejected the move — which, in any event, had no impact on peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government — as a theatrical attempt to steal the diplomatic limelight from Qatar using Islamic mercenaries.

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    Saudi influence over the Taliban began with funding hardline religious schools, or madrassas, in Pakistan where the movement started. It effectively ended in 1996 when the Taliban first took over Afghanistan. At the end of the 1990s, Saudi citizens were officially barred from giving money to any charity that was not state-approved, which meant Saudi public funding for the Taliban was largely cut off, except for a few individuals acting without the explicit knowledge of the government. A 2013 research paper by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs stated that Saudi “fundraisers for the Taliban … are believed to extensively exploit networks and use old mechanisms dating back to the times of Saudi cooperation with mujahedeen and Taliban functionaries.”

    When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to officially recognize their government; Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were the other two. This was not because the Saudis supported the Taliban regime, but rather because they were looking for a way to grease the wheels for an approach by Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi intelligence, to persuade the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden, the Saudi leader of al-Qaeda.

    The Saudis calculated that by recognizing the Taliban government, they could win influence as they had done in the past with other factions and warlords. But in 1998, when Prince Turki traveled to Afghanistan with a delegation of Muslim figures, the former Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, turned him down.

    The Saudi View of the Taliban

    The House of Saud now faces a disconcerting moment over Afghanistan, not least because like the former Afghan government, the royal family depends on the US for protection against external enemies and internal threats.

    In a report by Wikistrat about the implications of the Taliban takeover on Saudi Arabia, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, comments: “Questions are likely to be mounting in Riyadh about the sincerity and the reliability of US security guarantees which themselves have been a matter of considerable uncertainty since the September 2019 attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.” He adds that the “sudden abandonment of Afghan partners, spelled out clinically and coldly in [Joe] Biden’s televised address, may resonate strongly among US regional partners for whom President [Barack] Obama’s perceived abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 set in motion a questioning of US motivations that then continued into the Trump era.”

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    Neil Quilliam, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House, continues in the same Wikistrat report: “The Taliban leadership will likely begin a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the Al Saud and appeal directly to the Saudi population to challenge the ruling family’s authority.” He adds that the “nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a cause for concern in Saudi Arabia. President Biden’s speech about the withdrawal, wherein he noted that remaining in Afghanistan no longer constitutes a vital interest, has also sent shockwaves through the Saudi leadership.”

    The Taliban may turn on Saudi Arabia in the media war. Transnational jihadist groups like al-Qaeda could also threaten the Saudis from Afghanistan again. But as Sami Hamdi explained in the Arab Digest podcast, there are reasons why Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might benefit from the situation in Afghanistan in terms of finding a renewed utility toward the US. A foreign diplomat in Riyadh, quoted by Reuters, predicted that the kingdom will take a pragmatic approach. “The Saudis have a historical relationship with Afghanistan and will eventually have to accept the Taliban [again] … They have no other option,” he said.

    In 2019, Jalaluddin Shinwari, the former Taliban deputy minister of justice, told the New York Times: “What [we] are saying to Americans is this: You have accepted Saudi Arabia, and we won’t do more than their basic code — retribution for murder, chop off the hand for robbing. If you have accepted Saudi, what’s wrong with us being another? The rest will be your priorities: aid, friendship, economic relations.”

    The US Would Never Pull Out of Saudi Arabia

    The Taliban can dream of a relationship with the US akin to that which the Saudis enjoy. Yet that relationship is completely different from whatever ties the US has with Afghanistan. The United States would never pull out of Saudi Arabia the way it did from Afghanistan, not only because of hydrocarbons — although with the Middle East still providing around 31% of world oil production and 16% of global natural gas supply, this remains an important factor. Nor is American support just about Israel’s security — although the US and its Western allies certainly wish to ensure this, and they are ready to work with any Arab regime, particularly Saudi Arabia, that is ready to officially recognize Israel on US terms.

    The main reason the US can never pull out of Saudi Arabia is because of the unthinkable consequences of losing Saudi control of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina to al-Qaeda or another jihadist movement. That is why US support for the Saudis remains solid despite misgivings on both sides.

    *[This article was originally published by Arab Digest, a partner organization of Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    The War on Terror Was Never Turkey’s Fight

    Do you know where you were on August 14, 2001? Perhaps not, since it isn’t a defining day in world history in quite the same way as September 11, 2001, or 9/11, as it’s become known. Yet in the Turkish political landscape, August 14, 2001, can now be seen as something of a watershed moment.

    It was on this day that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was founded. One of its founding members was a man named Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was the latest in a long list of parties catering to a religiously devout and socially conservative constituency in Turkey. All the previous ones had been banned.

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    What makes August 14, 2001, so significant is the simple fact that the AKP was never banned. Despite the party’s daring to tread on secularist principles that few others had dared, this time, the country, with strong European Union support, had no appetite for military-backed bans.

    Turkey Says No

    Just as September 11 didn’t really come out of a clear blue sky for anyone observing the tide of Islamist militancy, so too the success of the AKP in Turkey did not come unannounced. It was a long time in the making, but its assumption of power, so soon after 9/11, has been defining for the country.

    By 2003, when George W. Bush’s war on terror was swinging into action in Iraq, the AKP took control of Turkey‘s government. Despite repeated attempts to shutter the party and even a failed 2016 coup, the AKP remains in power. As perhaps the most successful Islamist party in the Middle East, its relationship to both the events of 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror has always been a strained one. The Turkey of the 20th century would have been an unquestioning supporter of US policy. The new Turkey was not.

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    I was in Turkey on 9/11 and I saw the immediate reaction of ordinary people to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the hours after the towers fell, there were wild, yet in retrospect on-the-mark rumors that the US was about to bomb Afghanistan. The mood among ordinary Turks was not one of support.

    Visceral anger and anti-American sentiment were clearly palpable. While not outright cheering al-Qaeda, it was obvious that most people wouldn’t take the US side in a fight. This mood was reflected when Washington eventually went to war with Iraq and hoped to use the airbase at Incirlik in southeastern Turkey.

    The parliamentary vote that vetoed the use of the base for flights into Iraq was a pivotal one. It was the first strong sign of demonstrable national action in reflection of a national mood. In the post-Cold War world, Turkey’s Islamist government was ready to plow its own furrow.

    Who Defines Terrorism?

    The years that have followed have seen an ambiguous and often highly contorted relationship with the war on terror. Sometimes, Turkey has used the anti-terrorism concept to its own ends, as have many other US allies. At other times, it has turned a blind eye to activity that surely fell under the banner of terrorism.

    The Arab Spring of 2010 offered Islamists across the Middle East their big moment. Secular autocrats, long propped up by the West, tottered. Turkey’s Islamist government was one of the most vocal and active in attempting to ride this wave that they hoped would bring Islamist governments to a swathe of countries.

    Initially, the signs were good. The Muslim Brotherhood won the first free and fair elections in Egypt. Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, the long-suppressed Islamist movement threatened to overwhelm the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. For a time, Turkey became a beacon of hope and a model for how the rest of the Middle East might evolve.

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    Turkish flags were being waved by demonstrators in Syria, and President Erdogan became the most popular leader in the region, loved by people far beyond his own nation. Then the Egyptian coup destroyed the Brotherhood, and Russia and Iran stepped in to save Assad’s regime in Syria. The mood soured for Turkey.

    In an attempt to rescue something in the Syrian conflict and in response to the collapse of domestic peace talks between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Turkey’s border became a very porous route for jihadists entering into Syria. In time, these jihadists named themselves the Islamic State and declared a caliphate. This audacious move severely upped the stakes on al-Qaeda’s attempts of 2001, with an even more brutal brand of terrorism. Turkey’s ambiguous attitude to these developments was hardly a war on terror.

    Yet by this stage, the concept behind the war on terror had become so nebulous and the AKP’s relations to the US so strained by Washington’s support for the Kurds in Syria, that it was a case of realpolitik all the way. To any accusation of soft-handedness toward terrorists, Turkey pointed to US attitudes vis-à-vis Kurdish militants.

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    President Erdogan has, over time, began to carve a space for himself as an anti-Western champion, a leader of some kind of latter-day non-aligned movement, a spokesman for Muslim rights worldwide. This political and cultural position has made Turkey’s place in a liberal, democratic world order highly questionable.

    What seems clear in retrospect is that both 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror were never Turkey’s fights. Due to the longstanding Turkish alliance with the US and NATO, these have been constantly recurring themes in Turkish politics. But the events that have been so central to US policymaking for the past two decades have generally been used to advance Ankara’s own strategic goals in light of the assumption of power and entrenched hegemony of the Islamist movement in Turkey’s contemporary politics.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    How 9/11 and the War on Terror Shaped the World

    On September 11, 2001, 19 militants associated with the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked four planes and launched suicide attacks on iconic symbols of America, first striking the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and then the Pentagon. It would be the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil, claiming nearly 3,000 lives.

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    The attacks not only shocked the world, but the images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center came to define a generation. In a speech on October 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush spoke of “an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world” and declared “war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.” This was the start of the global war on terror.

    The Story of the 9/11 Attacks and Retaliation

    Osama bin Laden, the Saudi leader of al-Qaeda, inspired the 9/11 attacks. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani Islamist terrorist and the nephew of the truck driver convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, masterminded the operation. The 9/11 Commission Report described al-Qaeda as “sophisticated, patient, disciplined and lethal.” It held that the enemy rallied “broad support in the Arab and Muslim world.” The report concluded that al-Qaeda’s hostility to the US and its values was limitless.

    The report went on to say that the enemy aimed “to rid the world of religious and political pluralism, the plebiscite, and equal rights for women,” and observed that it made no distinction between military and civilian targets. The goal going forward was “to attack terrorists and prevent their ranks from swelling while at the same time protecting [the US] against future attacks.”

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    To prosecute the war on terror, the US built a worldwide coalition: 136 countries offered military assistance, and 46 multilateral organizations declared support. Washington began by launching a financial war on terror, freezing assets and disrupting fundraising pipelines. In the first 100 days, the Bush administration set aside $20 billion for homeland security.

    On October 7, 2001, the US inaugurated the war on terror with Operation Enduring Freedom. An international coalition that included Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the UK and other countries, with the help of the Northern Alliance comprising various mujahedeen militias, overthrew the Taliban, which was sheltering al-Qaeda fighters, and took over Afghanistan.

    The war on terror that began in Afghanistan soon took on a global focus. In 2003, the Bush administration invaded Iraq despite the lack of a UN mandate. Washington made the argument that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, represented a threat to world peace, and harbored and succored al-Qaeda and other Islamic jihadists. None of this proved to be true. Hussein’s regime fell as speedily as Mullah Omar’s Taliban.

    Victory, however, was short-lived. Soon, insurgency returned. In Afghanistan, suicide attacks quintupled from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006. Globally, the war on terror saw a “stunning” rise in jihadist activity, with just over 32,000 fighters split among 13 Islamist groups in 2001 burgeoning to 100,000 across 44 outfits in 2015. Terrorist attacks went up from an estimated 1,880 in 2001 to 14,806 in 2015, claiming 38,422 lives that year alone — a 397% increase on 2001.

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    Boosted by the US invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda spawned affiliates across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, a decentralized structure that remained intact even after the US assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 dealt al-Qaeda a severe blow. One of its Iraqi offshoots morphed into what became the Islamic State (IS) group following the withdrawal of most US from Iraq under President Barack Obama in 2011.

    After declaring a caliphate in 2014, IS launched a global terrorist campaign that, within a year, conducted and inspired over 140 attacks in 29 countries beyond Syria and Iraq, according to one estimate. Islamic State acolytes went on to claim nearly 30,000 lives across the Middle East, Europe, the United States, Asia and Africa, controlling vast amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, before suffering defeat by internationally-backed local forces in 2019.

    In Afghanistan, despite the war’s estimated trillion-dollar price tag, on August 15 the Taliban have taken control of the capital Kabul amid a chaotic US withdrawal, raising fears of al-Qaeda’s comeback. Last year, the Global Terrorism Index concluded that deaths from terrorism were still double the number recorded in 2001, with Afghanistan claiming a disproportionately large share of over 40% in 2019.

    Why Do 9/11 and the War on Terror Matter?

    While the failures and successes of the war on terror will remain subject to heated debate for years to come, what remains uncontested is the fact that the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing war on terror have forged the world we live in today.

    First, they have caused tremendous loss of blood and treasure. Brown University’s Costs of War project places an $8-trillion price tag on the US war on terror. It estimates that about 900,000 people “were killed as a direct result of war, whether by bombs, bullets or fire,” a number that does not include indirect deaths “caused by way of disease, displacement and loss of access to food or clean drinking water.”

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    Second, numerous countries, including liberal democracies such as the US and the UK, have eroded their own civil liberties and democratic institutions with the avowed goal of improving security. Boarding airplanes or entering public buildings now invariably involves elaborate security checks. Mass surveillance has become par for the course. The US continues to keep alleged terror suspects in indefinite detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay.

    Third, many analysts argue that the attacks and the response have coarsened the US. After World War II, Americans drew a line in the sand against torture. They put Germans and Japanese on trial for war crimes that included waterboarding. In the post-9/11 world, torture became part of the American toolkit. Airstrikes and drone strikes have caused high collateral casualties, killing a disputed number of innocents and losing the battle for the hearts and minds of local populations.

    These strikes raise significant issues of legality and the changing nature of warfare. There is a question as to the standing of “counterterrorism” operations in international and national law. However, such issues have garnered relatively little public attention. 

    Fourth, the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing war on terror have coincided with the spectacular rise of China. On December 11, 2001, the Middle Kingdom joined the World Trade Organization, which enabled the Chinese economy to grow at a speed and scale unprecedented in history. Analysts believe that distraction with the war on terror hindered the US response to the revolution occurring in global international relations and power dynamics. 

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    Under Barack Obama, the US initiated an explicit pivot to Asia policy that sought to shift focus from the war on terror and manage the rise of China. Under Donald Trump, Washington unleashed a trade war on Beijing and concluded a peace deal with the Taliban. Joe Biden has believed that, since the early days of the war on terror, US priorities have been too skewed toward terrorism and that Afghanistan is a secondary strategic issue, leading to a decision to withdraw troops to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

    Biden has argued that the US has degraded al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and eliminated bin Laden. Despite worrying echoes of George W. Bush declaring the “mission accomplished” in Iraq in 2003, from now on, Biden wants the US to remain “narrowly focused on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency or nation building.”

    While the terrorist threat still consumes US resources, Washington is now shifting its strategic attention and resources to China, Russia and Iran. The Biden administration has deemed these three authoritarian powers to be the biggest challenge for the postwar liberal and democratic order. The 20-year war on terror seems to be over — at least for now.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    It’s Back to Square One in Libya

    Six years ago, Libya’s political process fell apart almost as soon as it started. The country was forcibly divided as politicians got buyers’ remorse over their agreement and realized that competition was considerably more profitable than cooperation. Libya’s revolutionary transition stalled while rifts deepened, the state degraded and quality of life collapsed.

    Worse still, the moribund process was the perfect environment for a renegade military officer, Khalifa Haftar, to transform a counterterror operation into a Libyan forever war that saw him promoted to general — then field marshal — in a five-year journey of over 2,000 kilometers from eastern Libya to the gates of Tripoli.

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    It was an internationally-driven campaign that ended with Libya’s domestic bifurcation replicating itself internationally. By June 2020, with Haftar’s campaign and army in tatters, Turkey dominated western Libya, whilst Russia adeptly controlled the east and all that the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France had once hopefully built for their marshal. Yet this war, and the international dynamics around it, had supercharged Libya’s drivers of destabilization and the largely clandestine proxy war threatened to explode into direct regional conflict.

    The Political Process in Libya

    So, when the United Nations returned to pick up Libya’s much-abused political process once more, there was relief from many. However, the UN failed to learn from its mistakes of just five years ago and so built a process that may not be an exact repeat of what came before but which certainly rhymed with it.

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    It was a process that promised elections in December 2021 and relied upon the same politicians who had divided the country in 2015 to first reunify it and then prepare the elections that would remove themselves from office. In an extension of that same wisdom, the process also re-empowered Haftar — the defeated megalomaniac who had attacked Libya’s capital in 2019 — and gave him a driver’s seat for building a unified national military. Overseeing it all was a man, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who had gamed the UN process by paying millions of euros in bribes to those Libyans taking part in it to become the prime minister of Libya’s new government of national unity (GNU).

    Given the framing of this process, it is perhaps not such a surprise that, eight months later, there is little substantive progress toward elections, while each of the main actors are more firmly rooted in their positions.

    Aguila Saleh, the speaker of Libya’s parliament and perhaps the most influential of the remaining political class, has given everything to block progress toward elections, whilst working to reverse what little unification took place after the formation of Dbeibah’s unity government. He has used his role as speaker to continuously postpone what were necessary and urgent discussions on the constitutional basis for elections — i.e., what the Libyan people would exactly be voting for at the end of the year.

    This forced the discussion out from parliament to the UN convened body, which had first authorized this new process. However, with all political players having significant influence over that body and the newest UN special envoy, Jan Kubis, being notable only for his anonymity in the role, these discussions were quickly sidetracked to irrelevance.

    Instead, Saleh worked on extorting the GNU to guarantee a swollen budget for him to build out a patronage network across eastern Libya and develop bilateral relations with countries like Greece and Egypt, providing them access to public tenders in the east. As such, despite the presence of a unity government, Libya is perhaps more divided today than it was 12 months ago when parallel governments existed — as Saleh acts as a de-facto prime minister of the east.

    However, during a recent interview with Reuters, Saleh shirked all responsibility for the failure to make progress on elections. Instead, he publicly blamed the GNU, claiming that Prime Minister Dbeibah had betrayed the UN process and, as a result, he would be forced to reappoint an eastern government. This is a convenient outcome for Saleh, who has used the process to grab further power and funding for himself, which he will now lock-in by refreezing the political transition and any political process with western Libya and its actual government.

    The Field Marshall

    Haftar has supported him toward that end. The UN process brought the warlord time and space to reconstitute what he could of his forces, while Russia and the UAE provided him with mercenaries to buttress his position and allow him to repair his branding. His new-look army still claims to be Libya’s national military and claims parliamentary support for that distinction. However, the groups responsible for local security across east and south Libya no longer follow his orders and unilaterally pursue their own interests, rendering his control nominal.

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    Instead, Haftar has focused on maintaining political credentials and growing his economic activity. His “military investment authority” has started their own construction projects using Emirati companies to allegedly break ground on three new cities in eastern Libya with a promised capacity of 12 million people — a real boon to the tired and impoverished country of 6 million. His sons continue to dominate smuggling operations throughout Libya even as their father postures as he prepares to run for president.

    Haftar and the media machines provided by his foreign backers have focused on a narrative that Libya’s UN-promised elections are only to be presidential elections, and any attempts to create a more complex electoral process or constitutional framing than that would be to violate the people’s freedom of choice. Saleh has supported this, posturing as a democrat, knowing that a president would not affect his parliament.

    Moreover, both men know that this gambit is a sure winner. Elections will either be forced, with Haftar using armed groups to fix the vote to become an all-powerful president or, more likely, a majority of the country will refute the notion of allowing someone who bears significant command responsibility for war crimes and the killings of thousands of Libyans over the past five years. Then he can leverage his position supporting elections to regain international legitimacy, put the blame on western Libya and work with Saleh toward an eastern government he controls.

    Such is the disingenuity of Saleh and Haftar that Dbeibah never even had to try to postpone elections, although most of Libya knew his intention is to be there for the long haul. He has played off the stalling tactics of the other two and their direct hostility to try to build a policy around gathering international support to help his government settle, rebuild and return essential services, plan a proper constitutional basis, unify the military and only then — sometime in the future — allow for elections. The financial promise of this rebuilding enterprise has brought him the support of key players in addition to just Turkey, with whom he remains close.

    Libya’s Future

    As Libya’s process hurtles toward its expected collapse, the shape of its future will look familiar to anyone watching the country: re-division, disingenuous political bickering between those who never had an interest in governing, quiet cooperation between those bickering when it comes to corruption, and the ever-worrying threat of renewed conflict as Haftar awaits a new opportunity to seize power and other armed groups contest the depleted legitimacy of those in charge and look for a route of their own into the government coffers.

    Meanwhile, it is the Libyan people, as always, who suffer as their essential services continue to collapse, their wealth disappears and the soaring temperatures of a warming world begin to make everything that bit more volatile.

    *[This article was originally published by Arab Digest, a partner organization of Fair Observer.]

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    For Saudi Arabia, Iran Looms, Israel Beckons and the Taliban Cause Goosebumps

    Prince Khalid bin Salman may not have planned it that way, but the timing of his trip to Moscow last week and message to Washington resounded loud and clear. By not postponing the visit, the Saudi deputy defense minister signaled that he was trying to hedge his kingdom’s bets by signing a defense cooperation agreement with Russia. This took place just as the United States fumbled to evacuate thousands of people from Afghanistan after that country was captured by Taliban militants.

    Saudi Arabia would have wanted to be seen as hedging its bets with or without the US debacle. The kingdom realizes that Russia will exploit opportunities created by the fiasco in Afghanistan but is neither willing nor capable of replacing the US as the Gulf’s security guarantor.

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    Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia likely wants to capitalize on jitters in the US as Washington tries to get a grip on what went wrong and come to terms with the fact that Afghanistan will once again be governed by the Taliban. In 2001, the US ousted the ultraconservative militants from power because they harbored al-Qaeda terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan.

    Al-Qaeda, alongside various other militant groups, still has a presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban insist that no one will be allowed to operate cross-border or plan and/or launch attacks on other countries from Afghan soil.

    Jitters in the Gulf

    Yet the willingness to exploit US discomfort may also signal jitters in Saudi Arabia. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions for Riyadh. First, is the US still reliable when it comes to the defense of the kingdom and the Arabian Peninsula? Second, does the US move undermine confidence in Washington’s ability to negotiate a potential revival of the Iranian nuclear deal if and when talks start again? Third, could Afghanistan become a battlefield in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite both sides seeking to dial down tensions?

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    Neil Quilliam, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House, argues that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has increased its influence among the Taliban at the expense of the Saudis, who backed away from the group in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The kingdom and the Taliban’s paths further diverged with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman liberalizing the once-shared ultra-conservative social mores while Afghanistan appears set to reintroduce them.

    “The Taliban leadership will likely begin a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the Al Saud and appeal directly to the Saudi population to challenge the ruling family’s authority. At the same time, the Saudi leadership will be keen to align policy with the US and its Western partners and will follow their lead in establishing diplomatic relations with the new Afghan government and providing aid to the country’s population,” Quilliam predicted.

    His analysis assumes that reduced Saudi interaction and closer Iranian ties with the Taliban mean that the group’s inclinations would lean more toward Tehran than Riyadh.

    In a similar vein, some analysts have noted that Saudi Arabia was absent among the Gulf states that helped the US and European countries with evacuations from Afghanistan. Instead, it sent its deputy defense minister to Moscow.

    Others suggested that Saudi Arabia chose to remain on the sidelines and hedge its bets, given its history with the Taliban. Until 2001, Saudi Arabia was a major influence among Afghan jihadists, whom it funded during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. It was also one of three countries to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan when it first gained power in 1996. Fifteen of the 19 perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals. By then, Saudi influence had already waned, as was evident in the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden before the attacks took place. 

    If proven correct, Quilliam’s prediction would amount to a break with the Taliban record of not operating beyond Afghanistan’s borders except in Pakistan, even though it tolerates al-Qaeda militants and others on territory it controls. Moreover, despite being strange bedfellows, the need to accommodate one another is unlikely to persuade the Taliban to do Iran’s bidding. “Iran has tried to increase its influence within the group by getting closer to certain factions, but it is still suspicious of the Taliban as a whole,” said Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

    Iran and Israel

    Moreover, the Taliban may want to steer clear of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. This is particularly if those who believe that US unreliability, as demonstrated in Afghanistan, leaves Saudi Arabia no choice but to escalate the war in Yemen and confront Iran more forcefully get their way.

    “We should take a lesson from the events in Afghanistan, and especially from the mistakes [that were made there], regarding Yemen. This is the time to crush the Houthis without considering the international forces,” said Saudi columnist Safouq al-Shammari, echoing other commentators in Saudi media. “Giving Israel a free hand regarding the Iranian nuclear issue has become a reasonable [option] … It seems like [Israel’s] extremist [former prime minister] Netanyahu, was right to avoid coordinating with the [Biden] administration, which he considered weak and failing.”

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    Shammari’s notions fit into Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to replace the religious core of Saudi identity with hyper-nationalism. They also stroke with thinking among more conservative Israeli analysts and retired military officers. In Shammari’s vein, retired Major General Gershon Hacohen of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) walked away from the US debacle in Afghanistan, warning that “for all its overwhelming material and technological superiority, the IDF stands no chance of defeating Israel’s Islamist enemies unless its soldiers are driven by a relentless belief in the national cause.”

    By the same token, Major General Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser and head of military intelligence research, argued that the US withdrawal would drive home to the Gulf states the proposition that an “open relationship with Israel is vitally important for their ability to defend themselves.” He added that Israel could not replace the US as the region’s security guarantor, “but together with Israel these countries will be able to build a regional scheme that will make it easier for them to contend with various threats.”

    By implication, Amidror was urging the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which last year established diplomatic relations with Israel, to forge closer security cooperation with the Jewish state. He suggested that Saudi Arabia may, in the wake of the events in Afghanistan, be more inclined to build formal ties with Israel. Yet while there is little doubt that Mohammed bin Salman would like to have an open relationship with Israel, it is equally possible that the victory of religious militants in Afghanistan will reinforce Saudi hesitancy to cross the Rubicon at the risk of sparking widespread criticism in the Muslim world.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    US Media Amplifies Afghan Chaos

    The Daily Devil’s Dictionary appears today in its final August weekly edition containing multiple items taken from a variety of contexts. The daily format returns next Monday.

    The Fading Horizon of US Middle East Politics

    US foreign policy has always sought effective metaphors intended to express the nation’s exceptional virtues, often framed in terms of vision, resolution, industriousness or simply noble intentions. The Afghan war was baptized, “Operation Enduring Freedom.” The war in Iraq gave us “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Operation New Dawn.” 

    Ever since Woodrow Wilson’s promise to “make the world safe for democracy” expressed America’s aptitude for entering wars, securing privileged access to resources, engaging in economic colonialism and intimidating uncooperative nations, slogans have served to clarify the direction of US policy. In recent years, the public has periodically learned about a “reset,” a “rebalance” or a “pivot” that announces a creative shift of perspective or intent.

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    Faced with the quandary of military withdrawal from the “forever wars” inherited from the three previous administrations, the Biden team has crafted a new metaphor intended to reassure a concerned public. Following the definitive overthrow of the US-supported Afghan government and the definitive withdrawal of foreign troops, President Joe Biden made the solemn promise “to retain an over-the-horizon capacity” as the appropriate response to any attempts by the Taliban government to threaten US interests. Biden defines this as the capacity “to take them out, surgically.”

    Over the horizon:

    Belonging to an imaginary domain where everything is perfectly coordinated and clearly efficient, an update of the “over the rainbow” capacity of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz

    The Context

    As Oliver Knox pointed out in The Washington Post, that “phrase has been a staple of Biden’s rhetoric on the troop withdrawal.” If all human efforts fail, whether with soldiers or diplomats, Americans tend to believe that their superior technology will respond to every need. The same reasoning has been consistently applied to the climate crisis, which, in the interest of economic growth, will continue to worsen because at the end of the day a technology fix will miraculously ride into the frame of the movie from over the horizon to save the enterprising pioneers in the wagon train.

    What if the Taliban Were to Keep Their Promises?

    With the sudden collapse of the Afghan government, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem declared that the war that began 20 years ago was now “over.” In its initial reaction, The New York Times agreed, summing up the event with the headline: “Kabul’s Sudden Fall to Taliban Ends U.S. Era in Afghanistan.” This calm description more appropriate to a report on a thrilling chess match made it sound as if a noble chapter of history has now been closed.

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    The drama that ensued led even The Times to change its tone. For the Afghans or at least the Taliban, the invader has finally been defeated. For the US, a dolorous reckoning is taking place. And while, among the confusion, the level of fear and anguish has never been higher, especially for those Afghans who cooperated with the US and the fallen government, coldly reasoning Americans (if such creatures exist) should take comfort from the promises the Taliban have made to “allow Afghans to resume daily activities and do nothing to scare civilians.”

    Naeem sought to reassure the US about Taliban 2.0. Even members of the 2001 Bush administration should be impressed, those who justified the war against Afghanistan on the grounds that the country was “harboring terrorists.” “We will not allow anyone,” Naeem insisted, “to use our lands to target anyone, and we do not want to harm others.”

    Target:

    In the domain of foreign relations, a polite synonym of kill, torture, injure and oppress with a sense of total impunity

    The Context

    What more could Americans ask for? Mission finally accomplished. If the Afghans no longer allow anyone to use their lands to target anyone else (for example, tall buildings in New York), all will be well with the world. Lower Manhattan’s traders can carry on their business in total tranquility. The Taliban leaders have even promised to improve the lives of Afghan women, as well as hinting they will tone down at least some of their traditional fanaticism. So, why is everyone so upset?

    Could it be that Americans feel destabilized by the realization, nearly half a century after the fall of Saigon, of the utter futility of building such a powerful military machine that, no matter where it is deployed, will accomplish nothing other than intimidate its own allies while producing monumental profits for the defense industry? Who doesn’t remember George W. Bush boasting about the most powerful military in the history of mankind that was “supported by the collective will of the world?”  

    Now, it is the Taliban who have seized the pen that writes the rules in Afghanistan. Despite the official promise to go easy on collaborators, US media have expressed “growing doubts about that pledge.” It leaves the impression that critics of the US withdrawal would be disappointed if no spectacular reprisals were to occur. Americans need their enemies to live up to the image they have created of them. The Times predicts that the “Taliban may indeed engage in reprisal killings, as they did when they took over in Afghanistan more than 20 years ago.” If the US defined the rules of the game through its own violence, ineptness and prevarication over two decades, the Taliban could at least demonstrate their own ability to play by those rules. Stick to the script, guys! We need your cooperation.

    There are legitimate reasons to fear the worst from a group defined by its religious fundamentalism seeking control of a chaotically divided nation of warlords and competing ethnic groups in which the idea of getting revenge on the invader and occupier motivates a lot of people. But the message today, as expressed by Abdul Qahar Balkhi from the Taliban’s Cultural Commission, is clearly different from the Taliban’s historical past. 

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    In another article, The Times mocks the very idea of the Taliban’s effort to “make nice.” This too reads like a case of futuristic schadenfreude sending the implicit message: Let’s hope they don’t succeed in making nice because our nation and its people need to remain convinced that the Taliban are evil enough to make our 20-year war on them appear justified.

    The State Department’s Philosophy of Trickle-down Sharing

    In February, Biden made a point of reassuring the nation’s European allies, who during the four years of Donald Trump’s tragicomic reign had begun to have doubts about the solidity of promises made by an American president. “Let me erase any lingering doubt,” Biden insisted, “the United States will work closely with our European Union partners and capitals across the continent, from Rome to Riga, to meet the shared challenges we face.”

    It didn’t take long for the first of such challenges to appear.

    Shared challenge:

    A crisis created by a powerful nation such as the United States, who generously offers other friendly nations the opportunity to accompany it in the experience of responding to the crisis, which will last as long as it serves the initiator’s interests, while at the same time avoiding bothering the partners with the annoyance of trying to work out collegially an appropriate and honorable solution

    The Context

    Since the end of World War II, the United States has assumed the noble responsibility of managing the foreign affairs of its largely docile allies, while at the same time finding multiple ways of disrupting the foreign affairs of rogue nations that irresponsibly refuse to have their affairs managed from Washington. In the intervening decades, this has worked quite well. It has enabled an enduring system called a “rules-based order,” whose efficiency depended on one nation having the exclusive right not just to define the rules, but also to enforce them.

    With the chaos surrounding the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the first signs are appearing that the vaunted efficiency of the rules-based order has become counterproductive. Yahoo cites Dave Keating, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, who explains that Europeans are angry “that they weren’t consulted about the withdrawal plan and were treated as an afterthought even though this was supposed to be a NATO joint endeavor.” Everyone — Americans and Europeans alike — has suddenly become aware of “the tremendous loss of money and lives spent on the NATO mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades that now seems very difficult to justify.”

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    Some observers pointed out in late 2001 that waging an open and easily extendible war to counter a specific crime by a small group of people might be “difficult to justify.” But in the rule-based order, at a time of exaggerated emotions, a firm and resolute decision by the drafter of the rules was as good as formal law and much better than moral law in redefining the rules and having everyone abide by them.

    Credibility Ratings Are the Diplomatic Equivalent of Credit Ratings

    The Washington Post understands the imperatives associated with the task of maintaining the image of an imperial power and the sacrifices it requires. Last week, following the debacle of Kabul, The Post’s editorial board explained how feasible it would have been for the US not to shamelessly abandon Afghanistan: “A small U.S. and allied military presence — capable of working with Afghan forces to deny power to the Taliban and its al-Qaeda terrorist allies, while diplomats and nongovernmental organizations nurtured a fledgling civil society — not only would have been affordable but also could have paid for itself in U.S. security and global credibility.”

    Global credibility:

    The impression retained by other nations and peoples that a superpower is ready, willing and able to subjugate any other group of people through the use of military might, technology, economic sanctions and any other appropriate means it possesses that sets it apart from the rest of humanity

    The Context

    The Post routinely supports establishment Democrats such as Biden, especially in opposition to dangerous progressives within the same party. But in this case, Jeff Bezos’ paper dared not only to criticize its hero, but even to accuse him of relying on clichés to support his reasoning. “Contrary to his and others’ cliches about ‘endless war,’ though, U.S. troops had not been in major ground operations, and had endured very modest casualties, since 2014,” The Post reports.

    The Trojan War left traumatic traces on ancient Greek civilization because it lasted what felt to its contemporaries like an eternity: 10 years. To expiate the guilt associated with that enduring drama, Odysseus was condemned to another 10 years of wandering. At least, that’s how the editorial board that produced the Iliad and Odyssey seemed to see things. For the Greeks, 20 years of testing their manliness in war and Odysseus’ forced peregrination provided the matter that would define who they were as a civilization. A few centuries later, they offered the world the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the drama of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and the Aphrodite of Praxiteles, as well as the radically unarmed Venus de Milo.

    The key to the liberating Greek civilization from what Homer consistently described as a permanent manipulation of human heroes by capricious, undisciplined gods was the fact that a seemingly endless war did end. Once Odysseus, after a decade of wandering, had cleared his home of the crowd of suitors that had assembled coveting his neglected wife, the nation as a whole could settle down to producing a civilization in which art and intellect flourished (punctuated by an occasional war against Persians or even civil war between rival cities, just to keep everyone alert).

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    The Greeks understood that some seemingly endless things actually do need to end. The Washington Post — but more fundamentally, the deeply militarized economy of the US that The Post is wont to defend and promote — haven’t yet learned that lesson.

    With Global Warming Confirmed, Israeli Settlers Need Their Ice Cream More Than Ever

    Like Lebron James and the late Kobe Bryant, two basketball legends, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are so famous that only their first names are needed to identify them. This is true, in any case, so long as the two names are paired together, since the first names Ben and Jerry lack the uniqueness of Lebron and Kobe. The two men from Merrick, New York, launched what became the most famous ice cream brand in the United States more than 30 years ago. They became celebrities thanks to the quality of their products but even more so to their marketing skills, which included a dose of sincere social concern and political awareness, something most successful businesses usually seek to avoid. Unlike the many brands that suddenly discovered their love for Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, their commitment to causes never reflected pure marketing opportunism.

    The two Jewish boys no longer run the business, but they have imprinted on it its dimension of social awareness. Consistently with the company’s moral conscience, the company Ben & Jerry’s decided to stop sales in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories. Consistently with a certain style of propaganda designed to legitimate policies and actions even more openly racist and oppressive than police brutality in the United States against blacks, the state of Israel itself and numerous organizations have accused Ben and Jerry’s of anti-Semitism.

    The Times of Israel reports on demonstrations in front of a Ben & Jerry’s in New York by militant Zionists who “led chants of ‘Shame on you, Ben & Jerry’s,’ ‘Everyone deserves ice cream’ and ‘From the river to the sea, Israel will always be.’”

    Deserve:

    Enjoy one of the rights essential to one’s well-being within a human community, a category that includes abstract notions such as the right to vote in a democracy and, more recently, following the logic of the consumer society, the right to purchase any commercial commodity

    The Context

    In the latest news, according to The Hill, Florida Senator Rick Scott is “calling for a federal investigation into Ben & Jerry’s over its decision to stop selling ice cream in occupied Palestinian territory.” This moment may appear as the most telling sign of the irreversible decline of a great democracy that once at least pretended to set standards for the rest of the world.

    In its famous 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court pushed the idea of freedom of speech to the point of authorizing corporations to undermine democratic processes by calling their use of money to influence elections “free speech.” Now, the idea that American citizens and corporations might use the feeble force of their refusal to consume products originating in a foreign country deemed virulently anti-democratic for its treatment of the populations living within its borders has already been condemned as unpatriotic and anti-Semitic. Florida and many other states have passed anti-BDS laws punishing efforts to boycott Israel, a country that practices policies similar to South Africa’s notorious apartheid system.

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    Ben & Jerry’s isn’t even proposing a boycott, which is the refusal to buy goods from a particular source. Ben & Jerry’s sell; they don’t buy. They aren’t even aiming at Israel as a nation, but will only refuse to sell in those parts that have been identified by the United Nations as illegally colonized. Scott, a Republican senator, wants the company investigated, condemned and presumably sanctioned for failing to blindly endorse an apartheid-style occupation conducted by a foreign country. He appears to think that the US Constitution’s First Amendment protects the right of Americans to speak out against the policies of one’s own country but not those of Israel.

    The key word is of course anti-Semitism, now considered to be identical with any form of criticism of Israel and a shortcut for letting original forms of white supremacy off the hook. The word has become a magic wand of the right in many Western countries. A conservative or even a liberal establishment politician can wave it in the air with appropriate gestures to shame anyone who dares to spout progressive themes about oppressed peoples and expect the media to respond.

    It’s curious that so few people who follow the media will stop to think about how paradoxical it may appear that a company founded by two Jewish guys, who remain the source of the firm’s social conscience, are labeled anti-Semitic by a US senator defending the right of another nation to practice an aggressive form of apartheid, one of the most extreme historical examples of white supremacy.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Securing the Flow of Aid in Yemen

    As the war in Yemen splinters, the distribution of humanitarian assistance becomes increasingly difficult. The situation throughout northern Yemen — territory under the control of Houthi rebels — is wrapped into the conflict over restricted access to Hodeida seaport under UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (2015) and very limited access to Sanaa International Airport by humanitarian agencies.

    In southern provinces, political rivalries present major obstacles to the coordination and delivery of aid. Another problem has been a failure by the international community to meet funding requests, often falling short by up to 50%. Where available, the more direct, government-driven humanitarian funding might prove to be a more effective approach, especially when it comes to long-term solutions.

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    Nearly seven years into the Yemeni conflict, no party is closer to a military victory, and the main tactic by all sides has been to dilute local authority to foment chaos. The current situation along southern provinces is clear evidence of these tactics — from Abyan to Mahra. Economic development remains stagnant, while infighting and turf wars obstruct operations by humanitarian agencies.

    In Aden, for example, UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are constrained by conflict over access to ports and collection of tariffs, checkpoints, corruption and fighting at the village level outside the province. Abyan is now divided into three spheres as a result of fighting among the Southern Transitional Council (STC), pro-Islah forces and elements loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The conflict in Shebwa has carved space for aid agencies from Turkey and Qatar working through al-Islah affiliates. Yet failure to stabilize these local environments has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, while some profit from the war economy.

    Stabilization of local environments, eliminating obstacles such as checkpoints and corruption have proved key to the effective delivery of aid and social cohesion. While political rivalries prolong conflict across Yemen, instances of political victory over rivals provide isolated models of stability.

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    In the case of the Soqotra archipelago off the coast of Yemen, the end of the political conflict between al-Islah affiliates and southern elements has led to an increase in the flow of aid, the absence of political strife and a gradual restart of economic activity. International organizations have had limited access to the island, but direct government assistance from coalition members has bolstered the pace of development.

    A Direct Model

    During the conflict, donors have failed to meet funding requests from humanitarian agencies. As demand has increased, donor contributions have dropped. It is estimated that over 3.5 million civilians have been displaced from their homes, while over 24 million “are in need of humanitarian assistance.” The funding gap has grown between 40% and 60% from 2019 to the present. The capture of humanitarian assistance by Houthis since 2019, amounting to an estimated $1.8 billion, has also created problems for UN agencies and NGOs when donors have lost confidence and perceive their contributions will end up funding the war.

    Direct funding of small projects — in the health sector or for economic actors — by donor governments could relieve political tension and contribute to local stability. The case of Soqotra again allows for potential modeling under current circumstances. Since 2015, as the armed conflict expanded, the Yemeni island in the Indian Ocean has received direct humanitarian assistance from the United Arab Emirates. Soon after cyclone Chapala struck Soqotra in 2015, the UAE delivered life-saving aid. It also supported the population after the Makunu cyclone in 2018.

    Over the past six years, the UAE has delivered over $110 million in assistance to the population on Soqotra and neighboring islands. The aid has reached areas of social and health services, transport and storage, fishing sector, construction, public education, energy and potable water.

    While millions have been displaced by the war on the mainland, rapid response assistance following Chapala and Makunu prevented the displacement of hundreds of families. With help from the UAE military, organizations such as the Abu Dhabi Development Fund (ADFD), the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation and the Emirates Red Crescent (ERC) helped build 161 residential units in Zayed City, 21 in Dafarh, 51 in Arshani, and other units in Zaheq and Dixam since the cyclones hit the islands. Assistance has also provided four power plants, a distribution network for more than 30 sites, installed solar-powered street lighting and established two solar power plants in Hadibo with a capacity of 2.2 megawatts and Qalansiya at 800 kilowatts.

    Direct aid from the UAE has also reached Soqotra’s health sector. By specifically targeting the needs of the local population, after natural disasters or ordinary health requirements, the assistance has fully equipped one emergency facility and two surgery rooms. It has also added 13 beds and an intensive-care unit (ICU) in line with international standards and expanded the Sheikh Khalifa Hospital. The facility’s bed capacity has increased to 42, including four at the ICU unit, and 16 CT scan machines have been installed.

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    Assistance for economic actors has also focused on the Fishing Cooperative Union and 27 fishermen’s associations, helped renovate a fish market and built a fish factory with a production capacity of 500 tons per month, employing 500 local people. Financial assistance has also reached farmers, converting over 31 hectares into farmland.

    Stability as a Model

    Civilian organizations continue to face challenges while delivering aid in remote areas of Yemen. Obstacles include funding gaps, import logistics and costs, and access to ports and roads. In the case of Soqotra, NGOs have been unable to respond to natural disasters and growing needs in the health and energy sectors.

    The end of the armed conflict may be further than expected at this time, but where possible, the extinguishing of political rivalries has produced wider access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Soqotra stands as a potential model, at the micro-level, in hands of a party within the government coalition prescribed by the Riyadh Agreement, a power-sharing deal for Yemen.

    As a legitimate party representing the southern people according to the Riyadh Agreement, the STC is a partner in Yemen’s internationally recognized government under President Hadi. The progress achieved in securing order and promoting social cohesion could provide a model for other areas throughout liberated provinces. An essential component of success remains direct access to sustainable funding from donors.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Can Saudi Arabia Balance Social and Economic Change?

    The World Bank issued a stark warning in its 2018 outlook for the Saudi economy: “The Kingdom likely faces a looming poverty problem.” The bank has since noted in its 2019 and 2020 outlooks that “while no official information is available on poverty, identifying and supporting low-income households is challenging.” Dependent on world oil prices, the curve of gross domestic product (GPD) per capita in Saudi Arabia was never a straight line upward. Instead, it ebbed and flowed.

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    In one example, Saudi GDP per capita dropped by almost half from a peak of $17,872 in 1981 to $8,685 in 2001, the year in which 15 Saudi middle-class nationals constituted the majority of jihadists who flew airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington. It was also the year in which many Saudis struggled to make ends meet amid depressed oil prices and then-King Abdullah’s efforts to introduce a measure of Saudi fiscal restraint. Many people held two to three jobs.

    “Prior to the Gulf War, we didn’t pay rent in student dormitories — now we do,” a Saudi student enrolled in Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Fahd Petroleum and Minerals University told this writer at the time. “In the past, it didn’t matter if you didn’t complete your studies in five years. Now you lose your scholarship if you don’t. Soon we’ll be asked to pay for tuition. Before the Gulf War, you had 10 job offers when you graduated. Now you’re lucky if you get one,” the student said referring to the US-led reversal of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

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    “There’s nothing to do here but sit around, watch television and smoke shisha,” added Abdulaziz, one of the student’s friends. “There’s nothing we can do to change things. That’s why we get married early, only to discover that it was a mistake.”

    Saudi GDP per capita has dropped again, although less dramatically, from $23,337 in the year that the World Bank warned about looming poverty to $20,110 in 2020. On a positive note, the bank reports that while “poverty information and access to survey data to measure welfare conditions have been limited,” Saudi Arabia has seen “gains in administrative capacity to identify and support low-income households.” It warned, however, that the middle class could be most exposed to the pains of austerity and fiscal restraint.

    A Different Saudi Arabia

    To be sure, the Saudi Arabia at the turn of the century is not the same kingdom as today. Saudis made up one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters in the Islamic State group that seized territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Despite this, Saudi citizens are unlikely to respond to a unilateral rewriting of a social contract that promised cradle-to-grave-welfare and potential economic hardship by drifting toward militancy and extremism at a time that a young crown prince has promised massive change and delivered some.

    Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has liberalized social mores, rolled back the influence of ultra-conservative clerics, created greater leisure and entertainment offerings, and enhanced women’s rights and professional opportunities. This forms part of his plan to wean Saudi Arabia off its dependency on oil exports and diversify the economy. He has simultaneously tightened the political aspect of the kingdom’s social contract involving the public’s absolute surrender of all political rights, including freedom of expression, media and assembly.

    In exchange, Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan promises, according to the World Bank, to protect citizens from the pain of economic change by “modernizing the social welfare system, redirecting price subsidies toward those in need, preparing and training those unable to find employment, and providing tailored care and support to the most vulnerable citizen.” In doing so, the government has sought to soften the impact of higher energy prices and the tripling of value-added tax and expatriate levy.

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    More than social protections, Vision 2030 is about creating jobs for Saudis in a country where unemployment was 11.7% in the first quarter of this year. In the last three years, the Saudi private sector reportedly created a third of the 1.2 million jobs the kingdom needs to generate by 2022 to meet its unemployment target. The country’s statistics agency said the first-quarter unemployment was Saudi Arabia’s lowest in nearly five years. But the decline was partly driven by people dropping out of the labor force rather than new job creation.

    Jobs for Saudis

    In May, Mohammed bin Salman asserted in a wide-ranging interview that “we have 200,000 to 250,000 people getting into the job market each year and public sector jobs are limited.” Taking tourism as an example, he said the development of the industry would create 3 million jobs, 1 million of which would be for Saudis who, over time, could replace expats who would initially fill two-thirds of the openings.

    “Once we create three million jobs, we can Saudize them in the future. There are also jobs in the industrial sector and so on,” Prince Mohammed said. He predicted at the same time that the percentage of foreigners in the kingdom could increase from a third of the population today to half in the next decade or two.

    Writing about the changing social contract in Saudi Arabia, Mira al-Hussein and Eman Alhussein cautioned that the government needs to manage rapid economic and social change, in part by providing clearer information to the public. The scholars identified issues involving rights of foreigners versus rights accorded children of mixed Saudi and non-Saudi marriages, the rollback of religion in public life and austerity measures as potential points of friction in the kingdom. “The ramifications of existing grievances and the increasing polarization within Gulf societies … as well as the extensive social engineering programs have pitted conservatives against liberals. Arab Gulf States’ ability to redefine their social contracts without turbulence will depend on their tactful avoidance of creating new grievances and on solving existing ones,” the authors wrote.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More