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Middle East Press On Israeli-Saudi Relations, Turkish-Saudi Relations and Rohingya: New Age Islam's Selection, 9 December 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Desk

 9 December 2020

• A New Page in Israeli-Saudi Relations? Not So Fast

By Ben Caspit

• Saudi Arabia: Time to Face the Music

By Marwan Bishara

• Are There Signs Of Thaw In Turkish-Saudi Relations?

By Pinar Tremblay

• If Rohingya Must Be Moved, Bangladesh Has To Allay Fears

By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

• OPEC Rises Above Global Oil Media Speculation

By Faisal Faeq


A New Page In Israeli-Saudi Relations? Not So Fast

By Ben Caspit

Dec 8, 2020

What's going on between Israel and Saudi Arabia? The recent ups and downs in relations between these two regional powers are even more dizzying and surprising than President Donald Trump’s mood swings. On Oct. 6, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s veteran former ambassador to the United States, issued an unusual broadside against the Palestinians, perceived in Jerusalem as a further step in Riyadh’s gradual rapprochement with Israel.

“What I heard from Palestinian leadership in recent days was truly painful to hear,” Bandar told Saudi Al-Arabiya TV, referring to the Palestinian condemnation of Israel’s normalization agreements with the Emirates and Bahrain. “Their transgression against the Gulf states' leadership with this reprehensible discourse is entirely unacceptable. … It is not surprising to see how quick these leaders are to use terms like 'treason,' 'betrayal' and 'backstabbing,' because these are their ways in dealing with each other.” In the lengthy interview, as transcribed by Al-Arabiya, the royal went on to say that the Palestinian cause has been “robbed… both by Israel and Palestinian leaders equally. … The Palestinian cause is a just cause, but its advocates are failures. … Successive Palestinian leaders … always bet on the losing side, and that comes at a price.”

Israeli officials rubbed their hands in glee. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not have phrased it better. However, exactly two months later, another influential Saudi royal dumped ice water on the winds of normalization blowing between Jerusalem and Riyadh. In a Dec. 5 CNN interview, the former longtime head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, denied widespread reports of Netanyahu’s secret meeting last month with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "The Saudi foreign minister … completely denied the allegations. … I believe that the kingdom's credibility is highly estimated more than the allegations made by someone like Netanyahu, who is accused in his country of lying to the Israeli people, so how can they believe a liar?”

Asked about normalization with Israel, he said, "There is no preparation of such kind. … The Palestinian cause is the kingdom's priority and the kingdom is committed to the Arab Peace Initiative."

Even as stunned officials in Jerusalem were trying to understand what had prompted the fiery attack, Faisal launched another broadside at Israel during the Dec. 6 Manama Dialogue regional security conference. The conference was also attended online by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and by former Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold, a Netanyahu associate.

Addressing the event, Faisal rejected Israel’s contention that it protects human rights and is the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel, he said, “humbly depicts itself as a small, existentially threatened country, surrounded by bloodthirsty killers who want to eradicate her from existence” when, in fact, it has “incarcerated [Palestinians] in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations — young and old, women and men, who are rotting there without recourse to justice. They are demolishing homes as they wish and they assassinate whomever they want.” He called Israel “the last of the Western colonizing powers of the Middle East."

After Gold spoke, Faisal addressed him directly. He said that Gold was the last person who could talk about past attitudes given his 2003 book “Hatred’s Kingdom” on Saudi sponsorship of terrorism, accusing Gold of having “denigrated the king and used the vilest descriptions.”

“We are witnessing an internal struggle within the kingdom,” a senior Israeli source deeply involved in contacts between the sides told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “There’s the MBS [Prince Mohammed] camp that is flirting with the idea of normalization with Israel and conducting close ties with Netanyahu and his people. Bandar bin Sultan is part of this group. On the other side is the king himself and the veteran establishment, the old guard, which includes radical clerics who regard normalization with Israel as a necessary evil but one whose time has not come.”

According to the source, these two camps were evenly matched until recently, allowing Mohammed room to maneuver vis-a-vis Israel. “Make no mistake, the Bahrainis would not have gone ahead with Israel without coordinating with Mohammed bin Salman,” the source said. “But then Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia.”

According to several Israeli sources, the leaked reports of Netanyahu’s Nov. 22 meeting in Saudi Arabia with Mohammed in the presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prompted fury in Riyadh, which had until then been willing to continue with its double game vis-a-vis Israel. The leak forced Mohammed to take a few steps back, making room for the radicals to move forward. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, initially known as the Saudi Peace Initiative, was restored to center stage, the long-dormant Palestinian issue was resuscitated, and the Saudis are careful to deny the meeting with Netanyahu in order to intensify his humiliation.

Netanyahu’s people have also abandoned their initial celebrations of the historic meeting in Saudi Arabia. When asked about it this week in an interview with Kan Radio, Israel’s public broadcaster, Gold played dumb and said he was not familiar with such an event.

Israeli officials are aware of the heavy price Israel is paying for Netanyahu’s reckless leak of the clandestine meeting, which appears to set aside the national interest in the service of his personal one. Nonetheless, the pressure gauge in Jerusalem is not registering unusual activity. “The basic conditions remain the same,” a Netanyahu confidant told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The Saudis are the same Saudis, the Iranians are the same Iranians and Israel is still the preferred power in the Middle East. They [the Saudis] apparently prefer to play it cool and wait for [President-elect Joe] Biden. That is understandable.”

Israel is busy, meanwhile, trying to intensify pressure on the outgoing Trump administration in order to solidify its gains. Sudan has threatened to revoke its normalization move with Israel unless the United States removes it from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, while pro-Israel senators are demanding congressional approval of the US sale of F-35 fighters to the Emirates in order to ascertain that the deal does not undermine Israel’s military edge in the region. Even Netanyahu’s man in Washington, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, was forced to step up and declare Dec. 7 that Israel has no problem with the Stealth deal. Israel’s overriding concern is a possible US return to the nuclear agreement with Iran by the Biden administration.

All sides are thus busy preparing for the new US administration. The deck will soon be reshuffled, but meanwhile not much is known about Biden’s plans for the region. As the Jan. 20 inauguration draws nearer, the pressure level in many Middle Eastern capitals will likely rise. Netanyahu’s Golden Age in Washington is about to expire. Even if Biden turns out to differ from President Barack Obama in terms of Middle East policy, no one doubts that he will not be Trump.


Saudi Arabia: Time to Face the Music

By Marwan Bishara

8 Dec 2020

Participants at a regional security conference in Manama over the weekend must have been surprised to see former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal shoot in all directions, considering that no Saudi is allowed to shoot from the hip nowadays – not even a prince.

Indeed, some may have been quite indignant when the seasoned former ambassador to the United Kingdom and the United States, lectured neighbouring Oman on foreign interference and dubbed Israel a “Western colonising” power that incarcerates Palestinians in concentration camps.

Regardless of whether Prince Turki was wrong on Oman or right on Israel, the tone and timing of his rebuke provoked the foreign ministers of Oman and Israel who were in attendance and invoked some question and exclamation marks about the coherence and consistency of Saudi foreign policy.

After all, only a week earlier, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the new Red Sea coastal city of Neom.

And it was only a month before that the other former Saudi intelligence chief and former ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, slammed the Palestinian leadership for condemning Gulf states which decided to normalise ties with Israel!

To add to the confusion, both princes and their children are or remain privileged royalty when many of their cousins have fallen from grace. Big time.

If, as reported, Prince Turki is indeed close to King Salman and echoes his sentiments, does it mean – as some claim – that the monarch is in disagreement with his crown prince?

Or, are the father and son in agreement, but take on different roles, with the king and his entourage expressing the official policy, and the crown prince and his clique working from behind the scenes?

I find the latter more plausible.

That is because it is difficult to believe the king and his crown prince are actually in disagreement about anything major, and that they deliberately and openly display their discord for their friends and foes to see.

If anything, the past six testing years made their relationship stronger in the face of mounting challenges, like the fiascos of the war in Yemen, the Gulf crisis, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and many others.

As the Beirut Bureau Chief for the New York Times, Ben Hubbard, chronicles in his book, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, the king has been his son’s greatest fan and supporter from the start, enabling him to become the de facto ruler of the kingdom. It helped that MBS, on his mother’s advice, shadowed his father since he was 16 years old, especially after the unexpected deaths of two of his older half-brothers.

My guess is that both men were angered by Netanyahu for leaking the news of his secret trip to Saudi Arabia in his last-ditch effort to force the kingdom to come out about their warming relations and to thus improve his standing at home and abroad.

Netanyahu’s smug phoniness must have been especially irritating and embarrassing to the monarchy, which reportedly moved to cancel an upcoming secret visit by the Israeli intelligence chief.

Make no mistake, Saudi Arabia remains keen on improving security ties with Israel to contain Iran, but without openly normalising relations, as such a move could cause a backlash within the kingdom and part of the Islamic world.

Unlike its smaller neighbours, the kingdom has much to lose from openly betraying the Palestinian cause.

With President Donald Trump’s defeat in the US elections, Riyadh lost its staunchest ally at the White House. The monarchy is now obliged to tread carefully, walk back some of its mistakes and avoid any new risky moves before a less friendly administration takes over next month.

Biden has already made it clear that he will reverse much of Trump’s appeasement of Saudi Arabia and his hostile policies towards Iran.

This explains Riyadh’s recent overtures toward Turkey, after more than two years of hostility, and its keener attempts at resolving the Gulf crisis with Qatar, which may lead to relations being restored at the GCC summit later this month.

The same goes for alleged attempts at ending the disastrous war in Yemen. Reports about Riyadh trying to expedite a settlement of the war, that includes a “joint declaration” by the two warring Yemeni parties will, if serious, prove a step in the right direction.

And the same applies to Saudi Arabia’s recent engagement with Iraq. After years of snubbing Baghdad, Riyadh sent a top-level delegation to the Iraqi capital earlier this week. And last month, Riyadh opened the Arar border crossing for trade with Iraq for the first time in 30 years.

By taking these and other steps, Saudi Arabia seems keen to show willingness and ability to act independently and without foreign interference, when in reality, it is eager to move quickly to preempt and placate potential future American pressure.

After shrewdly getting away with almost everything he wanted from the Trump administration, thanks in no small part to the gullibility of its emissary, Jared Kushner, MBS must now face the new reality, both in Washington and the region.

The honeymoon is over. It is time to face the music and deal with the consequences.


Bishara was previously a professor of International Relations at the American University of Paris. An author who writes extensively on global politics, he is widely regarded as a leading authority on the Middle East and international affairs.


Are There Signs Of Thaw In Turkish-Saudi Relations?

By Pinar Tremblay

Dec 8, 2020

As the unofficial Saudi-led boycott of Turkish goods in multiple Arab states is hurting the Turkish sphere of influence, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a phone conversation on Nov 20. A day later, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told Reuters that the kingdom's relations with Turkey are "good and amicable."

Indeed, Saudi Arabia sent humanitarian aid following the earthquake in Izmir in early November. When asked why this aid was not covered in Turkish media, a senior Turkish diplomat speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said, “The aid offered came six days after the earthquake, and right around the time Biden was elected [in the United States]. We did not think much of it.”

Another senior bureaucrat told Al-Monitor, “Erdogan called Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa Nov. 12 to offer his condolences for the late Bahraini prime minister, but the real reason was to send a message to Riyadh that we are ready to talk.” These friendly gestures and phone calls right before the G-20 meeting in Saudi Arabia was interpreted as a first step for thawing relations.

The growing rivalry with Saudi-led Arab states and its political and economic implications are rarely published in Turkish prime-time news. Therefore, discussions of a possible thaw in relations is not a public issue for Erdogan. However, it seems Ankara was pleased to see a significant decrease in anti-Turkey social media posts. “We observed a drastic fall in the pace of media campaigns directed against Turkey since the Saudi king’s phone call. The ruling family and well-known figures on Twitter affiliated with Riyadh have curtailed their attacks,” a prominent pro-Justice and Development Party media observer told Al-Monitor.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute, told Al-Monitor, “My view is that the relationship with Turkey is one issue the Saudi leadership feels that it can act to improve ahead of the Biden administration taking office in January — in part to lessen the potential isolation of the kingdom should Saudi fears about a hostile  incoming White House be realized.”

The timing of attempts to thaw relations can be attributed to the Biden presidency. Despite bitter rivalry among Riyadh and Ankara, both countries enjoyed significant benefits from the Trump administration. In the last four years, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been engaged in a competition for the leadership of the region. The secretary-general of the Arab League has recently denounced Turkish interventions in the region as reckless and raised a red flag for the Biden administration about Ankara as a source of instability in the region.

The Trump administration's harsh sanctions have helped contain Iranian expansion in the region. With Trump out of the picture, Iran can only improve its economic and political standing and its role will gain more prominence. This possibility will increase Saudi vulnerabilities significantly.

Ankara also sees that the 2017 Saudi-led boycott against its staunch ally Qatar has utterly failed. Efforts to end the diplomatic rift among Gulf Cooperation Council countries have been intensified. Ankara’s goal has been to isolate the United Arab Emirates and to make amends with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. “The breakdown in relations with Turkey seems to have been more of an issue for the UAE than for Saudi Arabia, the close Riyadh-Abu Dhabi relationship notwithstanding. So Saudi-Turkey relations may have been identified as one issue that can be addressed fairly quickly and relatively painlessly from Riyadh's point of view,” Ulrichsen said.

Turkey may have one leverage over Riyadh. That is the 2018 murder case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After seeing Trump’s unwillingness to confront Saudi officials, particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Erdogan has softened his rhetoric about the matter. However, “just as a win-win scenario for us, we can bring it back up now that Biden is in charge. It will be a good test for the incoming administration’s democratic credentials as well as a good bargaining chip against Riyadh,” commented a senior Turkish bureaucrat.

As the Turkish economy sags, Erdogan is eager to contain the Saudi sphere of influence in the region to ensure the enmity does not cause further damage to Turkish interests. The news that Turkey’s competition authority has approved investment rights to Saudi Aramco raised eyebrows among the Turkish opposition in late November. The economic concerns and changing global politics may not be sufficient to reset the relations between Riyadh and Ankara. There are two main impediments.

Erdogan, who considers his Gulf rival to be Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, rather than Crown Prince Mohammed, is hoping to divide the Gulf leaders on relations with Turkey. This is more complicated than it sounds. Ankara is determined to fight for the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. This means providing refuge for exiled members of the movement, but also coordinating mosques and networks all around the region and even in Europe.

Saudi Arabia has shown no indication that it will soften its tone or battles against the movement. Indeed, just on Nov. 11, the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia published an announcement criticizing the "disruptive" behavior of the movement and calling it a terrorist organization. In the days to follow, Emirati Fatwa Council declared the outlawed group a terrorist organization.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a red line for both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It has been a major obstacle to repair relations with Cairo. Although Ankara’s suits frequently talk about compartmentalization of foreign affairs, they have an easier time bargaining about the organization with Tel Aviv than Cairo. Ankara may understand the Israeli dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood, but when it comes to other Muslim majority countries, they cannot tolerate an anti-Brotherhood mindset.

Assuming either Riyadh or Ankara will alter their stand concerning the Muslim Brotherhood is arduous. And the next obstacle to returning to a 2015 level of friendship between the two is how widespread the impact of this tug-of-war has become. The Saudi-led coalition clashes with Turkey and Qatar not only in the Gulf, but also in the Maghreb and Europe. Even the issue of Kashmir is prone to becoming another battleground for rivalry of influence among these two blocs. Ending all these individual areas of conflict would require significant diplomatic rigor, and neither side seems interested.

Ankara is back on its heels with economic challenges. However, it believes that perseverance will pay off in a few years. It is convinced that Saudi Arabia has started to see its alliance with the UAE is more costly now that Iran is likely to gain more power. Ankara believes Saudi Arabia needs its support more now than ever. In its most pragmatic and opportunistic manner, Erdogan is likely to watch Riyadh scale down its antagonism on several fronts before committing to a process of rapprochement.


If Rohingya Must Be Moved, Bangladesh Has To Allay Fears

By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

December 08, 2020

The government of Bangladesh has begun moving thousands of Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar, near the border with Myanmar, to Bhasan Char, a silt island in the Bay of Bengal. This is deeply regrettable.

We must understand why the government of Bangladesh feels it needs to do this. Cox’s Bazar is struggling under the weight of more than 1 million refugees and the humanitarian infrastructure in the area is hopelessly overwhelmed, even after three years of development. Between those concerns, and extra concerns about the geological stability of the site (the government refers to a high risk of landslides), it does seem unlikely that the area around Cox’s Bazar can sustain 1 million-plus people on a long-term basis.

And now the government of Bangladesh is expecting that it will need to manage the Rohingya refugee situation on a long-term basis. For three years, it chose to hope against hope that some sort of settlement could be struck with Myanmar, whereby the Rohingya could return to their native lands relatively soon. But, in recent months, Dhaka finally seems to have acknowledged the reality that Myanmar has not been negotiating in good faith. This change in stance was signaled last month, when Bangladesh donated to the legal effort against Myanmar on behalf of the Rohingya, which is being led by The Gambia at the International Court of Justice.

Moreover, Bangladesh has been looking to ease the pressure on Cox’s Bazar for some time and has invested more than $300 million into building facilities on Bhasan Char that are of a far higher quality than anything that can be found in Cox’s Bazar. The notion that the Rohingya will need to be settled in other areas is not problematic in and of itself.

However, what has been problematic from the very beginning has been the choice of Bhasan Char. The island is very isolated, some 20 miles from the mainland. It is unsuitable for agriculture overall, and can scarcely sustain more than 300,000 in the most extreme scenario. This raises two huge concerns: Firstly, it means that the Rohingya refugee community will be split up, which may deal a deadly blow to their identity as a people; and, secondly, those who end up living on the island will likely remain permanently economically dependent on Bangladesh and/or international aid for food and other essentials.

But Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The government struggled to find more suitable locations and, unfortunately but somewhat understandably, did not want to take the political risks involved in settling large numbers of foreign aid-dependent Rohingya refugees among native Bangladeshis, who themselves are among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. The choice to keep the refugee population separate is deeply sad, but it may well be the correct one if, in the long term, it protects the Rohingya from a backlash from local people who think they are crowded out by an external group with more international support than they themselves receive.

There are no good choices here. But, now that the relocations have begun, Bangladesh needs to do certain things to allay the fears of the Rohingya and of the international community about the possible consequences. It must ensure that international nongovernmental organizations and UN humanitarian agencies have full access to the island, and that those living there are provided with full education, health, and other facilities. Moreover, constant and reliable contact and movement of people between the island and Cox’s Bazar must be provided, so that the two communities are not permanently separated.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, DC.


OPEC Rises Above Global Oil Media Speculation

By Faisal Faeq

December 09, 2020

Despite media rumors to the contrary, last week’s OPEC+ meeting ended with full consensus showing the world that the organization continues to be defined more by shared goals than differences.

In advance of the gathering, some global oil media outlets had peddled negative speculation about the possible outcome, but OPEC and OPEC+ producers came out victorious.

Member states agreed to gradually increase production based on a monthly review and monitoring of market conditions and recovery in demand for oil.

The unanimous consensus from the 23 producers somewhat deviated from the strategy agreed to in April, but the group remained consistent in its commitment to adjust output in line with changing market needs.

Media claims of a dispute between OPEC members which was reportedly threatening to destroy the historic accord in the midst of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and resulting fragile global economic situation, came to nothing.

The fears spread by the oil media only served to stir up more uncertainty in an already nervous sector. A number alleged that some energy officials had intended to withdraw from OPEC in the event of an output cuts extension.

There were suggestions that some of the media speculation may have been driven by trading companies hoping to generate revenues on futures markets by sowing unrest.

The OPEC+ output cuts agreement reached in April was a medium-term strategy aimed at balancing global oil markets and stabilizing the world economy and was a triumph of diplomacy in securing the compliance of oil producers all with different circumstances and agendas.

Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman said: “If that (holding monthly meetings) may cause more (price) fluctuations, I would not have agreed to such a decision.

“The market understands that we do not gamble with decisions that extend for three months. On the contrary, there is satisfaction in the markets that we control what the market needs.”


Faisal Faeq is an energy and oil marketing adviser. He was formerly with OPEC and Saudi Aramco.



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