Is sabotaging international agreements the “art of the deal?”
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would not “recertify” the Iran Nuclear Deal — fancy lingo for the U.S. government undercutting an international contract. Trump further designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist” group and authorized new sanctionsagainst them. Somewhere in the middle of this, the U.S. Congress is to decide the fate of the now-damaged deal with Iran.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is an Obama era policy limiting Iran’s nuclear program from ever including nuclear weapons, in exchange for much needed sanctions relief. Since the deal first took effect in July 2015, Iran has kept its end of the bargain and complied with the terms. One year into the deal, in 2016, analysts at the Brookings Institution concluded the JCPOA to be a “net positive” among supporters or a “new normal” compromise among detractors.
The U.S. missile strikes against an airport military facility near Homs, Syria, has opened a new chapter in Syria’s bloody six-year civil war. A key question, even as the political and military fallout is still settling, is how dangerous this escalation will become.
The war already has claimed as many as 500,000 lives, and more than 12 million Syrians have lost their homes. The refugee crisis continues, along with the rise of terrorism and populism worldwide.
President Donald Trump ordered the airstrikes in retaliation for a chemical attack on April 3, an attack which claimed almost 100 lives, many of them children, and in which the Assad government and its Russian allies are implicated. Other reports, including from within the United Nations, claim it is likely opposition fighters in Idlib committed the atrocity, and so the blame game goes on as it has since the start of this conflict.
A number of concerns arise from these new developments. First, after six years of carnage, the Syrian people are increasingly the target of local and foreign governments in their own country. There seems to be no diplomatic or military solution that favors the Syrian people. Public discussion and analysis of the airstrikes and chemical attack are almost exclusively about assessing the merits or faults of Trump’s intervention, what Putin’s response will be, or to what extent the Assad government will be weakened.
At no point has there been substantive discussion or debate on how to throw all our weight behind diplomacy, twisting arms and non-lethal economic retaliation.
Second, how dangerous is this escalation? Will Putin tell Assad to take one for the team and bring down the conflict a couple of notches? Or will Russia come into direct conflict with the United States? The latter looms larger as the Russians have suspended the 2015 agreement “de-conflicting” Russian and Syrian airstrikes in Syria (whose originally stated enemy was ISIS).
Third, how much of this is a distraction from the altogether unstable Trump administration? With the sacking of Michael Flynn and the removal of chief advisor Steve Bannon from a coveted seat on the National Security Council and chief of staff Reince Priebus on apparently shaky ground, Trump can benefit from less attention on his unsteady first months in office. Or is this a distraction from the death toll in Mosul, where U.S. air strikes killed as many as 200 Iraqi civilians on March 24?
The GOP are, as expected, eager for war, as they were under George W. Bush and the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Also, much of the media is spending its time juxtaposing the “action” of Trump’s airstrikes, versus the “inaction” of Obama’s attempt to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons. History teaches that either path – direct military engagement of Assad, or turning a blind eye – has large human and material costs.
The airstrikes come a week after Trump said removing Assad was no longer a priority. Supporters of the Syrian government claim the chemical was an act of sabotage by the opposition to frame Assad. The opposition claims that Assad was emboldened to get away with murder after Trump’s statements.
That doesn’t necessarily hold. Assad has been massacring the civilian population for years, before world’s own eyes. He could have been assassinated numerous times, but he was not. As in the chemical attack of 2013, it seems unclear to me why a brutal dictator already getting away with murder would need to switch from conventional weapons to chemical weapons. However, the fog of war is thick, and the patience of men has worn thin.
A last-ditch effort at diplomacy after the Syrian government and the Russians re-conquered Aleppo from opposition fighters in 2016 (and Homs in 2015) was squandered. This new round of airstrikes pushes the dream of a diplomatic solution even further afield. The U.S. is getting dragged into perpetual war in the Middle East once again, with no military strategy or intent for diplomacy.
My fear is that we as citizens of the most powerful country in the world are becoming inculcated in or addicted to war. Despite most Americans losing any desire for war after Iraq renewed threats of global terrorism and the rise of populism are once again feeding the Narrative of War. In this respect, the Trump Administration is merely following the unofficial handbook of American foreign policy, namely airstrikes and – if the political will permits – ground invasion. The Trump Administration does not appear to possess sophistication or imaginative capability to bring about a diplomatic solution.
Does this mean the only way to effect change on the world stage is through brute force? If we buy into this outmoded narrative – again – then the spread of global warfare and terrorism will become stronger and more inevitable.
Let us not forget one final mantra, perpetual war is good for perpetual business. Raytheon, producer of the Tomahawk missiles used to attack Syria, has seen its stock soar on the market. This is good for Trump, who owns Raytheon stocks, and all the other and other wealthy movers and shakers in the business of making war. This is to say nothing of energy and development contracts–the ‘spoils of war.’
In recent years, instability in the Middle East and deteriorating relations between Putin and Obama have made conflicts around the world a zero sum game. In the end, the U.S. or Russia and their so called allies will need to give up influence, cede territory and stop destroying sovereign nations if Syria is to have a future and the world a chance to stabilize. The sooner we all learn this the better.
“How did renewed autocracy in Egypt and civil war in Syria impact liberals differently? What lessons can be learned about the nature of liberalism in the greater Arab context from this comparative survey? This chapter seeks to answer these questions, first by following the reaction of liberals to the so-called Arab Spring, comparing a handful of intellectuals and academics in Egypt as well as Syria. The chapter goes on to focus on two of the most prominent liberals in each context, namely Gaber Asfour and Burhan Ghalioun. In each case, the role played by the armed forces vis-à-vis the public was critical to their rapid accession to power, and equally rapid fall….”
“We have a case of oil addiction in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which is dangerous.” So says Muhammad ibn Salman Al-Saud, deputy crown prince and minister of defense in his highly publicized April 25, 2015 interview with Al-Arabiyya. He continued, “We should treat oil as an investment, not a primary or absolute commodity.”
This is precisely the impulse behind the “Saudi Vision 2030.” The plan was crafted by Prince Muhammad – a young but shrewd visionary in his own right – and its aim is to wean the world’s largest oil exporter of its ‘dangerous addiction’ by 2030.
The 15-year plan comes at a time of historic economic and political instability. Since June 2014 oil prices that typically had been over $100 per barrel fell to below $50 and have not recovered. Going from “hero to zero” cut over 350 thousand energy sector jobs in just one year – 120,000 jobs in the U.S. alone – and starved the Venezuelan economy, literally. Meanwhile much of the Middle East still suffers from war, popular demonstrations and renewed government crackdowns since the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2010/2011.
The Impact of Oil on MENA Societies
Studying the Saudi 2030 Oil Plan, its political context in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and the global energy market became part of my mission as a researcher and educator at the University of Houston. I piloted an interdisciplinary course last summer for UH Energy and the C.T. Bauer College of Business on “Oil, Religion and the Middle East.” In this course, students of engineering, political science and the humanities came together to discuss the impact of oil on MENA societies. We examined in detail:
1. The “oil curse” and the phenomenon of the “rentier state”
2. How the oil and gas sector shapes cultural and social norms
3. Initiatives promoting transparency, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental sustainability.
And what does religion have to do with oil in this region? Everything. Or as Prince Muhammad summarizes, “Our constitution has become scripture, tradition and oil!”
King Salman Al-Saud remains the “custodian of the two holy mosques.” His Kingdom is simultaneously the most powerful member state of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
In other words, Saudi Arabia controls global oil as much as it does modern Islam. Therein lies the gravity of this economic plan.
Vision 2030: Growth, Diversification and Investment
Currently Saudi Arabia remains the largest global exporter of oil at about 360 million barrels per year; it is home to the largest proven oil reserves at almost 260-270 billion barrels (18 percent of global reserves). So how does the leader of the pack quit at the top of his game? Among the plan’s details are three sweeping economic changes:
Selling 5 percent of government-run Saudi Aramco in the largest IPO in history
Reducing government subsidies and introducing taxes for the first time
Establishing a $2 trillion national investment fund
Valued at several trillion dollars Saudi Aramco remains the largest corporate entity in the world – state-run or otherwise. Aramco’s precise value is a state secret, which is a problem for any investor. So the plan calls for increased transparency. The size and importance of the company mean the Saudis are unlikely to give up the strategic value of oil itself. They might instead turn over logistics or petrochemicals to the private sector.
For an investment deal this big there are skeptics as well as optimists– and justifiably so. In sum, a successful IPO is critical to the plan’s execution … and its credibility.
Reducing government subsidies is a must. Since its founding almost a century ago the Saudi welfare state has given generous lifelong subsidies to its citizens. There are no taxes to speak of, and immigrant workers make up 30 percent of the general population. Government hand outs and foreign labor are part of Saudi culture. This might explain why the government has begun to tax immigrant workers but not Saudi citizens – a highly problematic start. How will imposing income, property or utility taxes affect the demographics of the kingdom? What ripple effects will this have on GDP, labor laws, political reform? Only time will tell.
When it comes to his investment, Prince Muhammad is on more solid ground. He claims the “Saudi mindset is a financial mindset” – and he is right. The Saudi central bank holds $117 Billion in US treasury bonds – surprisingly low given its sheer wealth. On the private sector front, the billionaire Al-Waleed ibn Talal, a member of the Al-Saud royal family, has bailed out everyone from CitiGroup to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. This is to say nothing of domestic Saudi investment in infrastructure, healthcare and retail – which are all state of the art. In this vein a $2 trillion investment fund may have a chance of diverting resources from oil towards realizing the prince’s dream to make Saudi Arabia a “global investment powerhouse.”
The plan also calls for diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy – currently 90 percent oil driven. What other industries can flourish in the desert? The plan aims to spur growth in natural gas, real estate, mining, tourism and other sectors. The plan also calls for creating jobs for both men and women, improving people’s quality of life and – given the government’s religious mandate – improving the country’s morals while empowering its global Islamic prestige. Overall, the stated goals of Vision 2030 are ambitious bordering on inconceivable. But they are steps in the right direction.
For energy economists and historians – even the skeptics among them – the 2030 Saudi Oil Plan is long overdue. It represents a milestone in global energy and geopolitics: using oil wealth to divest from oil. It also comes in the wake of the Kyoto Protocol of 2005, Paris Agreement of 2015, China’s “five year plan” to reduce air pollution and other concrete efforts by the world’s largest economies to cut emissions in response to climate change. By framing the plan as a “vision” and underscoring large government projects, the Saudis are doing business the “Arab way.” President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s “New Suez Canal” has been the region’s most recent marvel, although revenues have been too low to help Egypt’s struggling economy. But the Saudis are thinking much bigger than the Egyptians anyway. It was Prince Muhammad ibn Rashid Al-Maktoum’s 2004 economic development plan, “My Vision,” that transformed Dubai into the opulent global city-state it is today. (The Saudis and Emiratis are also competing for who can build the tallest building in the world – an entirely different matter!)
Saudi Arabia is also fighting a number of foreign as well as domestic battles. Quarrels over succession within the Al-Saud family have persisted for years; Saudi women are increasingly active in their fight for equality and the nation’s youth are increasingly marginalized and open to radical influences. The kingdom is mired in wars in both Yemen and Syria, draining a record $100 billion out of the Saudi economy between 2015 and 2016 alone.
In both wars its arch nemesis is Iran, with whom U.S. president Barack Obama has made a deal. To complicate matters further, today’s record low oil prices are the result of economic warfare between Saudi crude and U.S. shale. In this context, Vision 2030 means the Saudis are desperately getting rid of a depreciating commodity – some analysts say bursting the “oil bubble” – and adjusting their economy for a future where oil may be overtaken by alternative fuel sources. That, however, is a subject for another day.
Dr. Emran El-Badawi is Program Director and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, University of Houston. His research examines liberalism, Islamism and the impact of oil and gas on MENA societies. His work includes advising government, legal and business communities on Middle East related projects.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.
The Old Souk in 2007 (top) and 2013 (bottom) in Aleppo, Syria. (Guardian.com)
Religious Violence in the Middle East: Military Intervention, Salafi-Jihadism and the Dream of a Caliphate
By Emran El-Badawi, University of Houston, Houston, USA
The so-called “Islamic State” (IS, ISIS, ISIL), by virtue of its name, forcibly imposed upon the world a religious as well as political agenda. Notorious for its gruesome execution videos, and sophisticated use of media propaganda IS killed over 9 thousand civilians in 2014 alone, the majority of which were Muslims. Yet IS asserts itself as the sole authentic carrier of Islam—an otherwise diverse religious body of 1.6 billion people, boasting fourteen hundred years of history. Its political agenda is realized with every city, province and territory it conquers from the all but collapsed governments of Iraq and Syria. Its signature claim and most salient undertaking has been the return of the Islamic Caliphate, fusing classical Islamic tradition with modern political warfare. However, as a state it is unrecognized by all its neighbors in the Middle East; and as an embodiment of Islam, it has been completely rejected by Islamic clergy and the public faithful.
One should, therefore, ask the question, from where does IS obtain its legitimacy for its approximately 30 thousand plus fighters? How Islamic is the so-called “Islamic State?” Why does IS justify barbaric violence against Sunnis, Shi‘ites, Christians and Yazidis is in the name of Islam? The fact that such minorities and still other more ancient as well as obscure groups have called greater Iraq and Syria home for two millennia is a living testament to the inherent tolerance and pluralism of traditional forms of Islam. So what are the “root causes” for the sprouting of IS’s poisonous ideology and how can we eliminate them? The answers to such questions are complex and hotly debated, among academics and policymakers alike. In order for us to get a complete understanding of IS we first need to examine the social, political and economic struggles that lead to the rise and menacing grip of violent religious fundamentalism in the name of Islam. This examination will take us through the Wahabi ideology of oil rich Arab gulf states, to the Salafi school which rose in the political and socio-economic turmoil of Egypt and greater Syria, and the spread of Salafi-Jihadism as a direct result of US military intervention.
Despite vociferous opposition from British MPs and the clamoring protest of British protesters outside the parliament Prime Minister David Cameron has pulled it off — another vote by another western nation to make war and bring ruin to the Middle East that is. Its nothing new and this vote went forward before the world knowing, more than ever before, that bombing ISIS/ISIL targets in Raqqa, Syria irrevocably means killing civilians, and cannot ISIS anyway. The sheer criminality and foolish enterprise inherent in bombing Syria and Iraq has already costed over 4,000 civilians lives since the US and other wester nations started bombing there in 2011. After the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Russia has been joined by France, and now the UK as the latest heroes of the “civilized world.”
And yet this does not tell the whole story. One hundred years ago (beginning 1915) it was Britain, France and the USSR who were bombing Syria and dismantling the Ottoman Empire into the highly volatile Middle Eastern states we have today. The trio was known as the “Triple Entene.” 1915 and the aftermath of World War I set the precedent for so many of the conflicts re-awoken in the region today: disenfranchising Sunni Arabs (by abolishing the caliphate), suppressing Kurdish independence and creating artificial borders now refashioned by ISIS.
History compels us to ask, what really are the trio doing in Syria? Bombing ISIS (and civilians) — sure. But, this new round of aerial bombardment in 2015 is part of a much larger context, one in which the UK, France and Russia are forcibly, violently — desperately — trying to put their century old Humpty Dumpty back together again. They scarcely notice, or care, that their belligerence in the region has created Frankenstein’s monster instead. What part of Frankenstein’s monster do we hazard to replace now? What border in Syria and Iraq does the New Triple Entente seek to erase and re-create? The game is doomed to fail.
Syria was lost years ago, when every single one of its neighbors penetrated her borders to make war. The questions now — from a historical perspective — is, what will the next Sykes-Picot (1916) looks like? When is the next Treat of Versailles (1919)? At what point will dividing and conquering the Middle East truly become the stuff of un-harming history text books, and not the most dangerous series of global military blunders in the 21st century?
By summer 2015 the US, along with its Arab and European allies — including France — killed at least 459 Syrian civilians–men women and children–as part of their war against the so called Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL. The ISIS “stronghold” of al-Raqqa is actually a city of over 200,000 people. And “we” are killing civilians there all the time. This is to say nothing about the US coalition — including France — which utterly smashed the Iraq state in 2003-2013, resulting in 190,000 Iraqi lives lost (including 134,000 civilians) and $2.2 trillion in damage. In preparation for its illegal war in Iraq the US and Co. starved an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children to death during the 1990s alone.
On September 29, 2015 Saudi Arabia, along with its coalition –including the US — killed 131 Yemeni civilians attending a wedding party. They did it again on October 8, killing 15 more.
This is merely a taste of “what we do to them”–how the “civilized world” systematically massacres civilian populations in the greater Middle East, for 25 years and on a nearly daily basis. And in each case there is little to no global outcry or calls for solidarity with “humanity.”
What “they” do to the world
At no point over the past 25 years did the governments of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or any of the several other countries bombed to into dust ever invade, sanction or attack the “civilized world.” However, the destabilization of the greater Middle East–including the killing of large numbers of civilians–gave rise to a popular form Islamist military opposition–Jihad–or “terrorism” as the “civilized world” has labelled it. Jihadists or terrorists in the form of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab operate largely out of the power vacuum left by razing countries through bombs, and they overwhelmingly target Muslims. This month alone (November, 2015) ISIS killed 224 Russian civilians by downing a plane in Egypt, 43 Lebanese civilians in coordinated blasts in Beirut and 129 French civilians in Paris in coordinated attacks there. Following every single one of these attacks ISIS claimed to be acting in retaliation for airstrikes or ground warfare in Syria–namely by Russia, Hezbollah and France. ISIS claimed to be retaliating against US airstrikes in Iraq when it beheaded James Foley and a series of western journalists in 2014. All this is to say nothing about the ceaseless terrorism and civil war claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan since 2011–the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim.
– In sum the so called civilized world bombs the living daylights out of the Middle East; Jihadists retaliate by committing huge acts of terrorism around the world –
In War there is profit…lots of it
US defense contractors are making record profits by flooding the region with weapons and maintaining a “perpetual war” in the Middle East. Those who profit from killing civilians in large numbers are precisely the corporate interests (defense, aerospace, media..), right wing neo-conservatives and wealthy policy makers in Washington, fueling “terrorism,” and creating as well as selling an enemy to the public. The truth is that we, the “civilized world,” have been killing civilians, destroying countries and bringing long term ruin as a matter of policy in that part of the world since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. “We” are not the solution. We are one of the greatest reasons for the destruction of human life in the region. The proof is in the endless cycle of violence between western governments on one side and Jihadists on the other–tearing our world apart. “We” created an enemy in our image. Just look at the orange Guantanamo / ISIS detainee uniforms.
The only option on the table
Instead of advancing so much as a new strategy against ISIS, or even pulling out of Syria and Iraq because it is not in their people’s interest, France and the US are simply bombing Syria summore, and summore, and summore…a rather idiotic and unsophisticated policy given its failure over the past two and half decades–no? (What the hell was France doing bombing Syria in the first place? –Think about it!) Following the Al-Qaeda’s attack in Madrid, Spain pulled out of Iraq in 2004 to save itself from war and terrorism. Say what you want about the giving in to terrorism, this strategy actually worked!
Un-bombing the Middle East–i.e. no longer killing civilians in that part of the world–is not going to all of a sudden create “peace.” (That kind of talk is for warmongers). However, it is the minimum requirement to get rid of the Jihadist terrorism we have spawned. There is no other way.