New Age Islam Edit Bureau
06 February 2018
The Painful Reality of Ruins of Lebanon
By Hussein Shobokshi
Change in Saudi Arabia Is a Fact and Not Just Wishes
By Hassan Al Mustafa
Rise of Kingdoms and the Collapse of States
By Mohammed Al Shaikh
Ordinary Syrians Paying the Price as Peace Process Drags On
By Yasar Yakis
IMF And the Great Arab Frustration
By Christian Chesnot
Will 2018 Be The Year Of Return To Syria?
By Jan Egeland
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
5 February 2018
In the last few days I have “suddenly” received many calls from Lebanese media and various public figures, inquiring about the future of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. I sighed as I recalled my memories of Lebanon and compared to what was happening then and what is happening today on the ground.
I went to Al-Murooj and Barmana School, where I learned about the science, methods and personalities that left an important impact on my life. In the suburb of Beirut, our neighbour was Hussein el-Husseini, the former speaker of the Lebanese parliament, a renowned political personality and one of the most important members of the Taif agreement, which put an end to the bloody civil war in Lebanon.
I have known him as a paragon of good manners, reverence, respect and noble politics. I knew Ghassan Al-Tueni, the late media icon. In his days the press was free and independent. He was the editor and publisher of An Nahar, one of the Arab world’s leading newspapers. Icons and legends of science, literature and business did not allow their country to be hijacked irrespective of the cruelty of the virtual occupation in its various ugly forms.
The visit to Baalbek is considered the key to the passage to another civilization where the most important cultural festival will be held in which the world will follow the Fayrouz and the great artists from around the world, where they enjoy a plate of literally original Baalbekia with a good taste.
Hotbed of Terrorism
Today this beautiful spot of Lebanon history is a hotbed of terrorism and extremism, a weapon-ridden area where the worst types of drugs are cultivated and the worst forms of crime are committed, such as kidnapping, robbery, murder, extortion and smuggling under the eyes of the state, which is unable to stop this tragic situation.
This scene, which is in my mind, depicts the change of situation in Lebanon, a country where the “senior” and the “Khawajat” are absent. Therefore, if we fully recognize that Lebanon today is unlike Lebanon of yesterday, and therefore Saudi Arabia today with Lebanon will be very different from what it was yesterday.
Saudi Arabia wants a friendly, fair and respectful relationship with Lebanon, and the most important question remains whether Lebanon wants the same kind of relationship with it.
There are many indications and evidence which point out that the things are going toward an uncomfortable direction and that signs of reassurance, confidence building and improvement of the atmosphere are completely nil.
The same reasons exist, as Hezbollah continues to send mercenaries to Yemen for technical assistance in training the Houthi terrorists and launching Iranian ballistic missiles toward Saudi Arabia. The current situation between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon is never reassuring.
The Voice of Justice and Lebanon the Free Master is absent in favor of voices threatened by the militias of death. The reality is painful and sad and we only see the ruins of Lebanon that we loved.
Saudi Arabia is experiencing a real social, cultural and economic change, which has become a part of the daily lives of its citizens and residents. As it directly impacts people, sometimes they sense it with hope and joy and on other times related to financial and other concerns which they have not been used to for years.
Usually, any change from one lifestyle to another in not easy; because it is related to human behaviour and way of living which had been there for years and have become part of the person as a result of upbringing, habits, and concepts that prompt actions.
If change was easy; it would have happened whenever a government decision was taken. Humanity would have experienced all successes, failures and wars. It is a long and tough path, but is the only way to protect any society from future disasters. This is the only way to emerge out of the state of weakness and underdevelopment a state experiences.
American economist Thomas Swell points out that social changes include “a very wide range of factors, from language to war, from emotional issues to economic systems.” This is because these changes are meant to be profound and effective, real and not just a temporary process.
That is why it will impact even areas and realities considered by people as sacred or untouchable as they have been raised with for decades.
Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos Princess Rima bint Bandar bin Sultan spoke clearly about the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia. She has become part of this change through her sports portal that is not limited to sports as purely physical exercise but as a means for greater cultural and social change.
Rima bint Bandar highlighted an important issue, related to doubts raised outside Saudi Arabia about the reality of reforms process taking place in the country. She said that she surprised at this behaviour, especially that many of the sceptics were journalists and politicians who are supposed to be knowledgeable and aware that the transitional stages take time and effort, and usually faced with reluctance.
Moreover, this is not about Saudi Arabia alone but all nations that have moved from one phase to another. The highlight of Rima bint Bandar’s speech was the following statement: “We are not working for anyone outside this nation; we are working for this nation.”
The change taking place in Saudi Arabia is aimed at building a modern civil state that believes in the rule of the law, citizenship and equal opportunities for the people. It us meant for those directly concerned with the strength and development of their country, and to protect it from terrorism, fundamentalism or underdevelopment.
Change is a fact and is not just a romantic dream that cannot be achieved. The country is heading for the future with an open mind based on scientific and constructive criticism, without paying attention to the voices of extremists, the frustrated or the prejudiced.
The revolutions, protests and bloody conflicts that swept through the Arab world since 2011 have managed to overthrow some Arab republics, while all the monarchies, or the kingdoms of the Gulf States, remained untouched. The question is: Why?
Most Arab leftists believes this is due to “oil” and make it the sole and main reason for the stability of the Arab kingdoms, as they say in their writings. Oil wealth may have contributed to this stability, and to resist these turbulences, but this is not the case for Arab royal states, which suffer from poor natural resources, such as oil, but the turbulences passed by quietly in countries such as Jordan and Morocco.
Iraq and Libya are oil-rich countries, yet their regimes have fallen, making this justification unacceptable as a single reason for the Kingdoms’ ability to resist the turbulences that the supporters called it the “Arab Spring”, although it has nothing to do with spring.
I see that this phenomenon has multiple motives and reasons, it is complicated; in the sense that it is due to several reasons; the most important one in my opinion, which comes as a (cornerstone) is the (legitimacy) in the social contract between the ruler and the people.
For example, Saudi Arabia set up its social contract nearly 300 years ago. This state was based on legitimate basis, which the Saudi individual accepted, was convinced of and defended it; thus it became rooted and prevailed in the Saudi culture.
The Military Superiority
When the Ottomans invaded it, they were able to overthrow the regime as they had the military superiority and destroyed the first capital Diriyah; but because the legitimacy of this country was strong and rooted, it revived again represented in the (second Saudi state).
There were then disputes between those who inherited the legality, which fell but the legitimacy did not. King Abdul Aziz then arrived on the scene and revived it for the third time, his sons and grandchildren are still ruling till today.
Legality and the legitimacy of its rulers is the most important reasons and the basis of the social contract between the ruler and the people, which is always the legitimate ground for stability.
On the other hand, the Arab republics, with no exception, are the result of an adventure that was carried out secretly by a military person, who imposes himself and steals the authority.
All that I want to say is that political phenomena cannot happen by coincidence, without motives or reasons, and what I have tackled in this short article, confirms that the most important reasons behind the survival of kingdoms and the fall of republics was that the republics lacked political legitimacy; or that its social contract was based solely on the legitimacy of the gun.
The Syrian National Dialogue Congress was held last week in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi and ended with modest results, mainly because of the absence of the main opposition groups. The meeting was convened thanks to Russia’s persistent efforts. The US, France and the UK are cool to the Astana and Sochi processes and did not participate. They believe that the focus should remain on the Geneva process under the UN’s auspices.
Turkey was also ambivalent, for it is one of the guarantors of the Astana and Sochi processes but was reluctant to participate in the Sochi meeting because of the participation of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Russia made an effort to dispel Turkey’s concerns by changing the name of the delegation. Instead of the PYD, the hosts proposed “The List of Participants from the Autonomous Administration and Political Entities (of northern Syria).” This list was going to include the representatives of Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Chechens and Circassians. There would be no mention of the PYD, and the Kurds took care not to put on the list any names that would be opposed by Turkey. Eventually, however, the Kurds did not participate because of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin.
The Syrian opposition groups backed by Turkey traveled to Russia but refused to go to the conference center because Syrian flags and pro-regime symbols were displayed in the airport building. Turkey’s efforts to persuade them to participate in the meeting failed and they were flown back to Ankara.
For the first time, both the opposition that was present at the meeting and the government demonstrated a genuine eagerness to include in their future agenda the discussion of substantive subjects such as the role of the army, the degree of federalism, the methods of future presidential and parliamentary elections, and the role of parliament and the president.
The three sponsor countries of the Sochi meeting — Russia, Turkey and Iran — will now put forward a list of 50 people each and UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will use these lists to pick out names for the constitution drafting committee. No country will have veto power on the names to be included in, or excluded from, the committee.
The results of the meeting may be modest, but other meetings in a similar vein failed to obtain even such modest results.
There are also hurdles in the road ahead, the main ones being the conflicts of interest among the major actors. The US does not want to lose to Russia the strategic advantage it used to enjoy in the region, while the expansion of Iran’s influence and the security of Israel are also important factors in its policies. These are among the reasons why it relies on the Kurdish card. France and the UK, meanwhile, do not want to lose the colonial advantages they benefitted from for decades.
Russia needs in Syria a government that will contribute to the consolidation of its presence in the country, while it possibly wants to establish a presence in other Middle Eastern countries. Moscow’s approach stands on more solid ground because its presence in Syria has more legitimacy than the other foreign actors, except Iran. Second, its approach is more inclusive. It does not have as many links to the Kurds as the US has, but Russia has always been a continuous supporter of the Kurdish cause and it does not want to lose this.
The absence of the Syrian Negotiations Commission, recognized as the opposition’s legitimate negotiating body by the UN, is a major shortcoming for successful progress of the normalization process in Syria.
The absence of the Kurds is also important for three reasons: First, they have already established some sort of local administration in their region; second, they are strongly supported by the US; and third, they control one-third of the Syrian territory and almost all of the oil and gas reserves.
The tasks that Turkey is expected to fulfil are also complicated. It will be faced with a difficult dilemma between its own interests, its position in the Euro-Atlantic community and nascent good relations with Russia. It is unclear whether the opposition supported by Turkey will be willing to take part in the UN-sponsored process after they refused to participate in Sochi for a trivial excuse such as the Syrian flags in Sochi airport. Ankara now has a daunting task: To persuade the opposition fighters to participate in the Geneva process, while it will do the opposite for the Kurds.
The most deplorable aspect of the question is that, while the interests of the major actors will be clashing in Syria, the Syrian people will have to pay the price.
In most countries around the world, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has often received bad press. It must be said that this organization has often advocated drastic remedies for failing or moribund economies, particularly in Latin America.
This week (on January 29-30) the IMF organized a major conference in Marrakech on the economies of Arab countries. “The lack of employment opportunities and access to affordable and quality public services is causing great frustration”, the Arab world IMF note said.
Taking stock of the situation doesn’t require major economic and social studies. The Arab world seems to be hitting a sort of development curse, while some African countries, which are indeed catching up. Yet the Arabs have all the assets to succeed: a young population, an abundance of energy sources (oil, gas, solar), breathtaking tourist destinations, an exceptional geographical location at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, etc.
The great tragedy is first of all the conflicts that create tension and political insecurity in both the Maghreb and the Mashriq. But this does not explain everything. Take Lebanon for example, the country experienced a nightmare during the civil war (1975-1990). Once the guns went silent, Beirut was rebuilt and real estate boomed.
And yet, what do we see today? More than 25 years after the end of the civil war, the Lebanese have dilapidated infrastructure, electricity is intermittent, running water is poorly distributed; garbage cannot be processed properly, low internet coverage. Let’s stop here, because there is more on that list.
The Great Despair
This observation could be made in many Arab countries. And it is first of all what feeds this “great despair” in people who basically aspire like everywhere on the planet to a decent and dignified life. But in his daily life, the citizen feels racketed and exploited. And yet, the Arab world is rich, but the hydra of corruption seems invincible.
Where are the billions of dollars that should have provided the Lebanese with water, electricity, garbage treatment, etc.? Corruption and nepotism (the famous “wasta” in Arabic) have destructive and demobilizing effects. We could say the same thing for Iraq.
The Tunisian example is also interesting. Recent protests in several cities have once again proved that democracy is an important condition of development but not the only one. Tunisians have got rid of Ben Ali but young people still cannot find jobs. A Tunisian minister once told me that much had been accomplished since the 2011 revolution.
Significant investments have been made on the ground. He then said: “Once you have built the roads, the bridges and the electricity grid, you have to give people jobs. In Tunisia, we urgently need productive investments.”
To produce and invent rather than live on the rent of the state is the challenge of the Gulf countries. They too face enormous corruption problems – at the level of their fortunes – as shown by the “clean hand” operation launched in Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
In this kick on the anthill, there is undoubtedly a sense of urgency: Saudi Arabia can no longer continue to see its wealth squander while youth seek jobs. Building the post-oil economy is no longer just an option; it is a burning obligation.
Young people under 30 are a majority in the Arab world. They represent the future of the region. As such, they must be the priority of governments. Otherwise, the “great frustration” diagnosed by the IMF will be passed on to new generations with all the risks of a social explosion.
Today, in government buildings across Europe and the Middle East, officials debate policies that would return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-ravaged land. Displaced families sit in refugee tents weighing up the risk of returning home, too; the burden weighing heavier on their shoulders.
Government officials would be unwise to make hasty or reckless decisions from the safety and detachment of their faraway offices, without consulting the very people who endanger their lives by returning. Not doing so would risk another series of misguided policies that will lead to more suffering and conflict for Syria.
The brutal seven-year war has taken a colossal toll on human lives. It has displaced half the country's prewar population. More than six million people are displaced inside Syria. Another five million are refugees in neighbouring nations, a million of which have fled to Europe.
When my organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaks with refugees, a clear majority tell us they don't want to go to Europe or the US. Nor do they wish to stay in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey - countries who generously opened their borders to host them. They want to go home. This year, many of them likely will.
However, many parts of Syria continue to be torn apart by conflict. Fierce fighting in the north-western province of Idlib recently forced a quarter of a million people to flee. This is on top of a million people already displaced inside the province. Further south, in the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta, the misery of 400,000 starved Syrians has spiked to an unimaginable level.
Both warzones are among four "de-escalation areas" that were meant to see less violence, more aid and the eventual return of displaced communities. Instead, they have witnessed only death and destruction.
Elsewhere in Syria, suffering is taking place with less global attention. In regions retaken from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2017, civilians returning home are killed by explosives on a daily basis. On top of that, the movement of these civilians, and that of aid organisations, is often curtailed and restricted.
While many Syrians did return home last year, a far greater number fled. For every internally displaced Syrian who returned, three were newly displaced. The figures for refugees are equally stark. Some 66,000 refugees returned to Syria in 2017, but neighbouring countries closed their borders to about 300,000 people trying to escape the war. Among those who did return, evidence indicates some degree of force was involved. Other families returned after losing hope that their deteriorating existence as refugees would ever improve.
Much of the Syria that refugees fled, has since been reduced to rubble. About one-third of all homes and schools, and about half of all medical facilities, have been damaged or destroyed in the conflict. The cost of rebuilding will be as high as $180bn, according to the World Bank. Before any money can be spent, however, complicated political agreements first need to be made between conflict parties and between external donors, to provide the security and investment conditions needed.
Preparing the ground for Syrians to return home must be done carefully. This is where aid organisations can help. For example, many children born during the war do not have legal papers to prove their nationality and risk becoming stateless. In addition, many families who lost deeds to land and property cannot prove they own the homes they want to return to. We can provide legal aid to Syrians who lost, or do not have these civil documents as a result of the conflict, which affects their ability to return.
This year, 2018, can be the year that parties to this conflict finally agree on a better future for Syria. But until they do, equal attention should be given to refugees wishing to stay and wait for peace, as to those who will return. Donors and powers have committed to improving the situation for refugees in neighbouring countries - it is high time they honoured those promises. Excessive focus on returning Syrians home cannot justify the rigid closed-door refugee policy of wealthy countries.
A basic principle of international law is that refugees should only return home in a voluntary, safe and dignified way. As humanitarians, we pledge to listen, assist and monitor such voluntary return. We also pledge to the civilians we serve, to fight any decisions that will lead to rushed and involuntary returns.
We need to sit down with politicians and diplomats in Europe and the Middle East before it is too late and agree on how best to assist and protect Syrians. Too many fatal decisions have been made over their heads by others, but ultimately suffered by them.