Ways forward for Britain and Pakistan

Last month, the Association of British Muslims and the Next Century Foundation hosted a joint meeting discussing issues of importance to both Pakistan and the UK. The aim was to consider ways of improving relations, both between the two nations, as well as between Pakistan’s diaspora in the UK and the rest of the British population. The meeting included senior politicians, journalists and activists from both nations. The discussion highlighted differences including a variety of views ranging from positivity about the future to prickly comments on racial stereotypes – all of which bear further consideration. The meeting served to emphasise the lack of consensus over UK-Pakistan issues, accentuating the need for continued dialogue to bridge these divided opinions. Nonetheless, this preliminary meeting offered useful conclusions and outcomes.

The Education Issue

This meeting highlighted the importance of both proper mainstream education and religious education to act as a catalyst for positive social change in both the UK and Pakistan. There was a consensus view that both nations’ education systems need to become more tolerant and inclusive in order to overcome differences. The importance of this was highlighted as participants emphasised the way education systems in both countries have failed to foster inclusivity and tolerance, particularly in regard to the intra Muslim issue of the Sunni – Shia divide. Improving school education systems in order to encourage inclusivity is a priority for both both Pakistan and the UK.

Religious education was also highlighted as being important, with views that current religious education is distorted and represents the true teachings neither Islam nor Christianity. Achieving better standards of education is seen as a key step in bringing positive change. Improved religious education is not only important within schooling. Adults also need to learn what it is to be tolerant. This is where continued meetings or similar events are important. It is also important that authorities in both the UK and Pakistan continue to engage religious leaders to promote better standards of religious education and tolerance.

There is also the need for education to tackle generalisations about the Pakistan diaspora in the UK. This meeting raised concerns about large sections of the British population believing in dangerous stereotypes. These stereotypes related to both extremism and a lack of integration in regard to Islam, as well as to grooming scandals across England and a perceived lack of adequate education for Muslim communities relative to other diaspora communities. Having such stereotypes circulate unchallenged creates tension between those of Pakistan heritage and British communities native to the UK. Having educational outreach initiatives that tackle such generalisations is therefore important as it prevents dangerous views becoming embedded in sections of the population. It also prevents dangerous narratives in certain media sources being seen as legitimate. Education about the realities of the Pakistan diaspora in the UK can debunk the credibility of harmful views. For example highlighting the fact that white males are responsible for the vast majority of the abuse of underage girls in Britain. Education is vital to counter views expressed by both individuals and media outlets that generalise and stereotype large communities, which in turn breeds antipathy between different communities. If these views are allowed to circulate unchallenged then it can create animosity and tension between the Pakistan diaspora and the native British population, and so challenging these views through education is a crucial next step.

Honest and Open dialogue

The discussion stressed the need for honest and open dialogue to enhance processes of integration and understanding. Participants discussed how dialogue with Muslims has helped them counter misconceptions they had about Islam which had fuelled anger and animosity towards Islamic communities. It is important to have real, honest and respectful dialogue between the native British and Pakistan diaspora communities as this can be an incredibly useful way to educate people.

The need for interaction and dialogue relates to cosmopolitanism, a subject which the Next Century Foundation hopes to host a meeting on in early 2021. Cosmopolitanism is a political ideology that is powerful when discussing how different cultures and communities can live together. In contrast to the British multicultural approach and Pakistan’s integrationist approach, Cosmopolitanism emphasises the idea that for different cultures to live harmoniously and equally within a shared society, consistent dialogue and interactions between those with differences are needed. This is a sentiment that was echoed from the participants of this meeting. Moving forwards there needs to be a focus on ways in which honest dialogue and interactions can be achieved between members of the Pakistan diaspora and native British communities.

The meeting similarly highlighted the need to achieve such interactions between Pakistan diaspora and native British parliamentarians, a lack of which has resulted in detachment. People recognised there is a direct lack of access to mainstream politics in both countries, where it is important that dialogue occurs. Moving forward, parliamentarians on both sides need to become more accessible to facilitate greater dialogue and discussion. This was seen as important because many Britons of Pakistan heritage are more politically connected with Pakistan than with Britain. Bringing together politicians in both countries can help achieve solidarity and address issues such as the rise in sectarian division within Islamic communities.

Extremism

The complex issue of extremism was extensively discussed, particularly the issue of extremism being attributed to the Pakistan diaspora community and Islam more generally. It was recognised that extremism has given rise to global Islamaphobic narratives, but what emerged from the meeting was recognising that terrorism issues should focus on humanity not religion. The debate needs to shift understanding to an emphasis on the fact that human beings suffer whenever terrorist attacks occur, irrespective of race or religion. Both Islamic and Christian religious teachings are the antithesis of terrorism, focusing on peace and humanity. This again emphasises the need for proper religious education regarding the nature of Islam. A key outcome of this meeting was that after terrorist attacks the focus should be the humanitarian tragedy and not religious blame. 

It was also recognised that terrorist attacks are committed by individuals who choose to act this way, and are not the actions of religious communities. This meeting proposed moving forwards that there should be a focus on the root causes of terrorism, deliberating on why individuals become radicalised. The discussion needs to move towards understanding the social and political factors that facilitate conversion to extremism, especially related to the upbringing of individuals. One such issue that was raised was that of identity, that terrorist attacks committed previously by British Muslims had been to do with issues of their personal identity within Islam and wider society. Moving forward the discussion therefore needs to understand how and why individuals slip into extremist views. It is vital to focus on the individual and humanitarian crimes committed by the terrorist rather than seeing everything as a religious crime. Reframing debates about extremism through these lenses is useful.

Focusing on similarities

Progress can best be achieved if there is an honest and open recognition of the divisions that currently exist between the UK and Pakistan. This involves addressing stereotypes that might be prickly and racially sensitive, rather than ignoring them. There was a sense of a growing detachment between the UK and Pakistan on honest discussions about issues mentioned earlier such as radicalisation, and that although there exist contentious opinions about these issues, these opinions do represent portions of the British community and should therefore not be ignored. There is a need for an honest appreciation of the existing differences and detachments between native British and Pakistan diaspora people. Only then can truthful dialogue towards reconciliation begin to be achieved. Such divisions are beginning to permeate all other areas of the wider British society, especially since the Brexit vote. As as a consequence inclusivity is an issue throughout Britain, and not unique to the Pakistan diaspora. What is needed to address this is a direct engagement on differences. Further work in facilitating dialogue and discussion is important and needs to overcome the widening differences and divisions in British society.

But the meeting demonstrated that people from all walks of life were willing to engage in a non-partisan approach in order to build bridges. There is also a lot of cultural engagement between the Pakistan diaspora in the UK and the native British population. Individuals in the meeting also mentioned the wide range of their experiences in Pakistan or with Pakistanis, spanning the spectrum between open hospitality and friendliness. What this points to is that a focus on positives and similarities between each other is uplifting and beneficial. Whilst it is vital that discussions continue about how differences can be overcome, simultaneously there needs to be a recognition of the similarities already shared between different cultures and groups. By emphasising the similarities we can begin to recognise each other’s basic humanity and help curb animosities based on cultural differences. As a way forward it is therefore vital that while discussions recognise and consider differences, they simultaneously do not lose sight of the common human traits that are shared between individuals of different communities.

Turkey’s Dexterous Juggling Act

Turkey’s involvement in multiple wars from Syria to the Caucuses may initially have been down to external circumstance, a reaction to short term need for internal security and territorial integrity, rather than down to its own long term planning; but as the situation develops, its list of adversaries grows.  With the multiple balls it needs to juggle, Ankara may need to follow Dwight Eisenhower’s advice that “planning is everything, the plan is nothing”.

At the end of October President Erdoğan threatened to launch a new military operation in northern Syria if Kurdish armed groups were not cleared from areas along its border with Syria. To be fair, this was a day after a Kurdish fighter blew himself up in a town in the border province of Hatay. 

However, President Erdoğan’s more recent response to the deadliest Russian air strike since the Turkish-Russian truce in March, on the face of it was relatively passive. President Erdoğan announced that Moscow was “not looking for peace in the region”.  The Russian strike targeted a military training camp for Failaq al-Sham, one of the largest Turkey-backed armed groups in the area, in the Jabal al-Dweila area northwest Idlib province killing 35 people.  This indicates both Turkey’s strained relations with Russia, but more importantly that the main priority for Ankara remains the Kurdish issue. 

Turkey and Russia are fighting not just on many fronts but many fronts in multiple wars.  Syria, Libya and more recently the Caucasus.  Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in its fight against Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is looked upon with disdain by Russia.  Both countries remain at loggerheads, supporting opposing sides with both hoping to expand their military presence and political reach in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  This aspiration for hegemony helps explain their shared in interest in Syria – Syria being the geographically artery between East and West.  However, their interest in Libya, where both countries support opposing forces, is more obviously based on the prospect of lucrative rewards.  Over the past year, thousands of Syrian fighters have been sent to Libya by Turkey to fight on behalf of the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, against the Russian-backed forces of Libya’s National Army, under General Khalifa Haftar.  Turkey aligned itself with the GNA in January 2020, as a counter to the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF) which is made up of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Turkey wanted to have a say in energy transfer across the Med to Europe from Asia.  This military intervention was two months after the Turkish government signed an agreement with the Government of National Accord on maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean.

As the fairly recent strike on Turkey backed militias demonstrates, Russia will continue to prowl the Turkey-Syria border and be a thorn in Turkey’s side when it comes to its perceived long term interest in suppressing aspirations for autonomy by the Kurds on its border with Syria. Russia can also use its clout as leverage against Turkey’s involvement in the battle on Russia’s doorstep in the Caucuses. However Libya’s war provides the high income stakes for both parties. 

That said Turkey is losing a key supporter for their cause. Up until the 2020 US elections President President Erdoğan had an ally in President Trump.  This support was much needed given the scrutiny being given to two decisions by Ankara.  The first was the purchase of a Russian made S-400 anti-aircraft system, at a reported cost of Euro 2.1 billion in 2019.  Second, was the case against the Turkey’s state-owned Halbank, for violating Iran sanctions, in charges brought in October 2019.  The bank is accused of aiding a Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab in a “multi-billion dollar scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran”, its executives standing accused of illicitly transferring “approximately $20 billion worth of otherwise restricted Iranian funds”.

The Trump administration have so far postponed sanctions, known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), over Turkey’s purchase of its Russian anti-aircraft missile system.  President Trump’s reluctance has been explained as him correcting the mistake of the Obama administration for not providing Turkey with the US-manufactured Patriot missile defence systems.  However, incoming President Joseph Biden, doesn’t bode as well for Ankara as his predecessor. Biden may be more swift in applying sanctions, which have proved to have a severe impact on the Turkish Lira on two previous occasions that the country was reprimanded by the US.  In August 2018 the Lira crashed following the doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium imports, over the imprisonment of an American pastor, and similar response to a Turkish military operation in Syria in 2019, had the same impact on Turkish markets. 

Biden’s choice of sanction could be more severe and could include anything from excluding Turkey from the US banking system to export licence limitations.  This is not only because Biden’s outlook on Middle East and Mediterranean issues are incongruent with President Erdoğan’s. It also enables Biden to curry favour in a Republican-led Senate on a bipartisan issue.

The Turkish President claims to be a filling the void left at the time when Biden was Vice-President and the US made its decision to withdraw US boots from the ground in Iraq.  This decision by the Obama Administration led to a change in policy in Ankara, from one of “zero problems with neighbours” to one of “prioritising internal stability and territorial integrity; a perceived threat of regional rivals filling the vacuum left behind by the United States in the Middle East; and energy independence.”

There are a number of points of contention between the incoming president and his Turkish counterpart, the first being the situation with the Kurds.  Biden has demonstrated his support for the Kurds, for over three decades: denouncing President George H W Bush for allowing Saddam Hussein’s forces to recapture liberated Kurdish areas in 1991.  Biden also addressed the KRI parliament in 2002, reinstating the US support for the Kurds.  In 2003 Biden showed support for a federal system for Kurds, Sunni’s and Shia’s following the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, he criticised Trumps policy of permitting Turkey to attack Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in North East Syria.  However, his pressure on the Kurds to follow a line in favour of US interests in Iraq, demonstrate Biden’s US interests will be prioritised above ethical considerations in regard to the Kurds.  Secondly Turkey’s closer ties with President Putin further sidelines President Erdoğan as far as the US is concerned.  Finally the America’s perceived aggressive Turkish policy on Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean will make the decision on sanctions far easier, a means to control some of these policies from across the Atlantic.  Turkey however, has not been shy in refusing to play ball in the past. Turkey’s actions have ranged from declining permission to US troops to cross the Turkish-Iraq border in 2003, to bilateral disagreements over Syria during Biden’s term as vice-President, to its acquisition of Russian air-defence systems.  The short term love affair with the US under Trump was always going to be an exception rather than the norm.

However Turkey’s list of adversaries does not end there.  The United Arab Emirates were allegedly complicit in the 2016 Turkish coup, that was quashed by Turkish civilians coming on to the streets to face the tanks that a section of the Turkish military used to launch the coordinated operation across several major cities.  The UAE allegedly funnelled funds to the coup plotters. 

The failed coup turned the UAE’s attention to Qatar, urging Saudi Arabia and other allies to cut links to their small neighbour, after Doha showed support for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2017.   Turkey intervened and defended Qatar as it became isolated, ratifying a military agreement with Doha after which Turkish troops were deployed to Qatar soil.

The relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia remain hostile, despite Turkey being UAE’s largest trading partner.  This partnership was put in jeopardy again in August this year, when the UAE followed Jordan and Egypt’s decision and announced they would normalise relations with Israel, a point of contention amongst Arab countries who see this could undermine any chance of Palestinian peace.  Turkey threatened to suspend UAE ties over a deal with Israel.  These relations are under continued pressure as the UAE and Saudi-Arabia align with Turkey’s rival Russia, on Libyan soil.  UAE and Saudi Arabia’s interest in the Libyan quagmire lean towards both acquiring billion dollar reconstruction contracts, as well as hampering the advance of democracy in the region, indeed only slightly different from the interests of these two agents in the Yemen proxy war. President Erdoğan may forgive, but is unlikely to forget the UAE’s alleged involvement in the coup that was to oust him. President Erdoğan has shown in Azerbaijan, that he can get involved in a war that lies near the borders of his adversaries, and he has close ties to Yemen.  However entering another war may stretch Turkey, and getting involved in the complex web of actors, could see her on the wrong side of the Houthis, a state that has shared interests with Ankara. 

As Turkey’s President Erdoğan continues to juggle these balls, what would make it more difficult would be internal instability caused by economic sanctions, which are in arms reach of the US.  However, with the president-elect Biden’s inauguration not until 20th January, and domestic issues of Covid-19 waiting in the in-tray to deal with, President Erdoğan may have a little more time for planning.

Fakhrizadeh’s Assassination and the nuclear deal

Just at the beginning of 2020 the headlines were dominated by the assassination of a prominent Iranian figure and the resultant escalating tensions, it seems that the year will draw to a close in a similar fashion. While Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was not quite the talisman that Qasem Soleimani was, he was a senior officer in the IRGC and undoubtedly a key part of Iran’s nuclear program, and it is therefore no surprise that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed a retaliation against those responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s martyrdom. Although Israel has not publicly taken responsibility for the assassination, Mossad are the most likely culprits. And if Israel is to blame, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would almost certainly have had to get clearance from President Trump. With this in mind, then, it is worth examining the possible outcomes of this escalating situation, particularly with regard to how it affects US-Iran relations and the likelihood of a nuclear deal.

Iran’s response

Naturally, attention is focussed on what Iran will do in response to the assassination. While it is probably beyond their current capability to respond directly in kind by assassinating an Israeli of similar stature, there are other measures that Iran could take. For instance, Iran is known to have allies across the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah who could act on their behalf. It seems more likely, however, that for the time being Iran will instead respond by further accelerating its nuclear program.

The Iranian government has just passed a law, approved by the Guardian Council, to enrich its uranium up to 20% and stop allowing inspections of its nuclear plants. The IAEA reported last month that Iran was already stockpiling up to 12 times more uranium than it was permitted under the JCPOA, as well as enriching it up to 4.5% purity, significantly above the 3.67% agreed upon. This decision to step-up the nuclear operation could act as both an attempt to play hardball in anticipation of what will likely be lengthy negotiations next year with the new US administration over re-entering a nuclear deal and a message to the international community that the sanctions imposed on Iran are not limiting the nuclear program.

 It should be stated that the final decision on whether or not Iran does accelerate its nuclear program remains with Ayatollah Khamenei, who has not publicly clarified his intentions: indeed, President Rouhani has openly opposed taking these steps.

What this means for the incoming US administration

The fact that President Trump almost certainly gave the green light for the assassination is not a huge shock. It seems Mr Trump is going to make it his mission in his last few weeks in office to continue exerting maximum pressure on Iran through any means possible short of starting a war. He has continued to impose new sanctions on the Iranian oil and financial sectors, as well as even allegedly discussing options to attack an Iranian nuclear site with senior security aides shortly after the presidential election.

It seems that within the current administration there are several different reasons for wanting to keep this pressure on Iran. One public line given by Elliott Abrams, Special US Envoy for Iran, is that it is an attempt to come into future negotiations from a position of strength, such that Iran will have little choice but to agree to a nuclear deal on US terms. Mike Pompeo, however, sees these sanctions as an ongoing preventative measure to limit the funds that the Iranian government can use for malign activities. The fact of the matter is that President Trump’s decision to continue applying pressure on Iran is having negative effects on the civilian population, regardless of how effective it is at containing Iran’s nuclear program.

This is part of the reason the Democrats tend to believe diplomacy is the preferable tool for dealing with Iran. A return to some sort of cooperative agreement in which sanctions were lifted would be far less harsh on normal Iranian people, and even though there is evidence that the Iranian nuclear program was continuing before the US pulled out of the JCPOA, it can’t be denied that the reimposition of sanctions only seems to have accelerated the program. This assassination could act as a stumbling block for the incoming administration, though, because it only increases the possibility that next year’s Iranian presidential election will result in a hardliner winning the presidency, and this will make negotiations even more difficult. Further, depending on how Iran reacts to this assassination, the US may be forced to abandon plans for diplomacy and use more extreme measures.

Israel’s role

A final perspective to consider is that of Israel. Israel has known about Mohsen Fakhrizadeh for years and Prime Minister Netanyahu identified him specifically as the leader of the allegedly ongoing AMAD nuclear project in 2018. The decision to assassinate him now, then, is probably more to do with politics than the state of the Iranian nuclear project. Firstly, Netanyahu’s personal political situation is under some threat, with his approval ratings slumping and corruption charges threatening his situation, and the decision to assassinate what will be seen as a national security threat may help to remedy his standing. Crucially, though, this assassination comes at a time where the prospect of diplomacy between Iran and the US seems very likely in the near future, whereas the prospect of Iran producing a nuclear weapon does not.

Should Joe Biden’s government lift many or all of the sanctions on Iran next year, the influence that Iran could have in the Middle East will surely increase. Ayatollah Khamenei has made his opposition to the state of Israel quite clear, and it seems that Israel is understandably more concerned right now with denying Iran a path to Washington than it is with denying Iran a nuclear program. As the situation develops it will become clear whether this assassination was successful in fulfilling this purpose.

Prosperity 2020: Now you See it – Now you Don’t

The Legatum Institute’s 2020 Prosperity Index measures the prosperity over the last decade of 167 nations that together contain 99.4% of the global population.

Global prosperity reached its highest ever level in 2020. However, only 61% of the global population lived in countries experiencing prosperity in 2020, a substantial decline from 86% in just 2018. Falling prosperity rates pre-COVID raise serious concerns about the capacity of nations to recover from the crises brought about by the current pandemic. It is estimated that COVID could increase poverty rates by up to 10%, setting back reductions in this area by 20 years. This is a particularly grave threat to the Sub-Saharan Africa and MENA regions that have seen a deterioration in economic quality over the last decade. The fact that MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa have fallen further away from the average global prosperity increases have similarly demonstrated the critical need for development assistance today, particularly in these areas.

This kind of assistance is something that the British government has begun to disregard. The merger of the Department for International Development (DfID) into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) earlier this year signalled a lack of will within the British government to continue critical development work. This could impact the least prosperous nations heavily, with DfID having spent £280m over the last two years in South Sudan. Having a well-resourced and independent development department like DfID was largely unique among wealthier nations, and turned the UK into a vital development provider. Recently, chancellor Rishi Sunak has also outlined his intentions to breach a manifesto pledge by reducing the development and aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%, in the hopes of saving nearly £4bn.

This is a disastrous decision for a number of reasons. As outlined by Andrew Mitchell, a conservative MP and former international development secretary, this could have tragic impacts and could lead to: 1m fewer girls receiving an education; 3.8m left without access to clean water; 5.6m fewer vaccinations and 100,000 preventable deaths, mainly among children. The impact of reducing the UKs development commitments to the least prosperous nations will thus be devastating, particularly in the midst of a COVID crisis. Due to the pandemic the World Bank estimates that 2020 will bring the first increase in extreme poverty in two decades. This demonstrates that now more than ever development commitments from countries like the UK are needed, particularly to the least prosperous nations and regions. Although the government argues this cut has been forced due to the pandemic, a cut comprising 0.2% of GDP is going to have an extremely minimal impact on overall government finances. The UK government has also committed to a £16.5bn increase in defence spending over the next four years. Britain’s contemporary safety depends in part on the stability of places thousands of miles away, and particularly in regions such as MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa. This is where the Prosperity Index has indicated safety and security, particularly relating to terrorism, has been substantially declining. Reducing investment in these areas could therefore pose a security risk to the UK, and it would represent a much shrewder use of money to invest in the long term development of these areas, as opposed to an increase in the defence budget. Whilst there is a need to have a debate about the aid budget, in light of the COVID crisis and the findings of the Prosperity Index it is clear that many regions and nations are currently facing critical challenges in their development. The potential removal of capital and expertise from development in these regions by the UK government should be seen as a major concern.

Taking the problem apart

The Legatum Institute’s 2020 Prosperity Index works by grouping together almost 300 country-level indicators into 66 elements of prosperity. These elements have been further categorised into 12 ‘pillars’ of prosperity which divide evenly into three domains (illustrated in Figure 1 below).

Figure 1 – A visual summary of the elements, pillars and domains that constitute overall prosperity.

Each of the 66 elements of prosperity have been designed to be recognisable and discrete areas of domestic policy. The elements of prosperity are measured using a combination of publicly available and verifiable data sources, which enables a cross-country comparison of prosperity over the last decade. Within the last decade, all seven regions and 147 out of 167 countries saw an overall increase in prosperity, with global prosperity being at its highest ever level in 2020.

Figure 2 – A summary of the increases in global and regional prosperity between 2010 and 2020.

This near-universal increase in prosperity can be attributed to a multitude of factors. There have been significant improvements almost universally in healthcare, education and social capital. This has resulted in an improved lived experience and living conditions, in particular reducing poverty, improving digital connectedness and access to water and sanitation services. Key facts outlining these improvements are:

  • Health improved in all but 12 countries (including the United States) over the past decade.
  • 150 countries have improved their education over the last decade. Enrolment has increased globally in all levels of education, but particularly tertiary education in which global enrolment has risen from 31% in 2010 to 42% in 2020.
  • Global 2G, 3G and 4G coverage has risen to cover 89% of the global population in 2020, compared to 62% in 2010.
  • Half of the world’s population now use the internet in 2020, compared to 23% in 2010.
  • Since 2010, 152 countries have improved living conditions for their citizens. This has led to the global population on less than $3.20 a day falling from almost 50% in 2010 to less than 10% currently. The percentage of those who survive on less than $5.50 a day has been reduced from nearly 80% of the population in 2010 to less than 25% in 2020.

Despite these global improvements, 15 countries have seen a deterioration in their living conditions. In addition to this, stagnating governance and personal freedom around the world is preventing further improvements in prosperity. Political accountability and executive constraints have weakened in many countries, and particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Rather shockingly, more than 100 countries have seen a decline in Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly in the past decade. 87 countries now have weaker governance now than in 2010, and 74 have weaker personal freedoms. The focus of this article will be on the MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa regions, due to these areas being the primary concern of the Next Century Foundation (NCF). This is particularly poignant given that the least prosperous ten nations all fall within these regions. The NCF is also currently engaged in projects involving five out of the bottom ten nations which include: Afghanistan, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The fact that these nations rank so lowly in the prosperity index emphasises the importance of conducting work regarding these nations.

Figure 3 – The 10 least prosperous nations in 2020.

Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa

Figure 4 – Overall regional rankings of prosperity.

Figure 4 demonstrates that the MENA region is the sixth most prosperous global region, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa. This makes them the two least prosperous regions in the world, and they always rank within the bottom three regions for each pillar of prosperity. This indicates these regions fall behind the rest of the globe across a holistic range of factors that constitute prosperity, which points to the importance of work that aims to improve prosperity in these areas. Figure 5 highlights the regional changes in each pillar of prosperity and overall prosperity in the past decade. It highlights that although the overall prosperity for both MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa has increased over the last decade, the gap between their regional prosperity average and the global prosperity average has widened, making these regions relatively less prosperous. As the decade has progressed, these regions have fallen behind in achieving the benefits from global prosperity. It is critical that work is done to help bring these regions prosperity in line with global improvements, to prevent continued regional underdevelopment.

Figure 5 – Overall Prosperity and Prosperity Pillar performance of the MENA (left) and Sub-Saharan Africa (right) regions.

Figure 5 demonstrates a remarkably similar trend in performance over the last decade within each of the prosperity pillars. Within the ‘Empowered People’ domain, both regions have seen relatively large prosperity improvements in living conditions, health and education but with a slight decrease in their natural environments. Similarly, both regions have seen vast improvements in the ‘Open Economies’ domain, but within that have experienced deteriorations of their economic quality. Where both these regions have struggled the most over the last decade is within the ‘Inclusive Societies’ domain, particularly the MENA region. Although both regions have improved their social capital, there has been an alarming decline in governance and particularly in safety and security. Where these regions differ is there has been a small increase in personal freedoms within Sub-Saharan Africa, but a substantial decline within the MENA region. This points to the critical need for the continuation of work carried out by the NCF and similar organisations whose principal work is to find resolutions to conflict, security and governance issues that have deteriorated in these regions over the last decade.

The MENA region has performed slowly in prosperity due to sustained instability over the region, with protracted conflicts in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Libya continuing to destabilise the region. The number of deaths due to terrorism across the region has more than doubled since 2010, and the number from two-sided conflicts has increased ten-fold to 90 deaths per million people. This highlights the extent that safety and security has deteriorated for many nations in this region, emphasising the critical need for swift peace to bring stability and security. The MENA region has also experienced a considerable decline in the quality of its governance, with 13 out of 19 countries seeing a weaker performance than in 2010 as democracy and democratic values are being challenged across the region.

Although Sub-Saharan Africa is the third most improved region for prosperity since 2010, it remains the weakest overall. There have been big regional improvements in healthcare systems and telecommunications infrastructure. However Sub-Saharan Africa has seen, after the MENA region, the biggest regional decline in safety and security that can principally be attributed to terrorism. Economic quality has also deteriorated in the two least prosperous regions. It is important to recognise the advances in prosperity that these regions have made, but for organisations similar to the NCF that specialise in peacebuilding, the declines in economic quality, safety and security, personal Freedoms and governance are extremely alarming and merit greater focus. This is especially important considering these issues have caused both regions to fall behind the rate of global prosperity improvements.

Inclusive Societies 

Inclusive societies are essential for prosperity, a society can only prosper and attract investment in an environment of safety and security for all its citizens. Nations also benefit from higher levels of national income when citizens’ personal liberties are protected. The rule of law, strong institutions and regulatory quality also significantly contribute to economic growth. Particularly poorly performing countries in this domain overall include: Libya (rank 159), Sudan (163), Afghanistan (164), Yemen (165), South Sudan (166) and Syria (167). These nations are in particular need of resolutions to their conflict and governance issues within the MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa regions. Below is a break-down of the worst performing countries in these regions for pillars that have experienced decline and are relevant to the work of the NCF, to highlight the most pressing areas where resolutions are needed.

Safety and Security

Safety and Security is an integral component of prosperity. Nations can only prosper in an environment of safety and security for all their citizens. Measures within this pillar of prosperity include issues relating to crime, terrorism and war. Figure 6 demonstrates the alarming decrease in Safety and Security across the Sub-Saharan Africa and MENA region. It also highlights an alarming increase in terrorism that has caused declines in regional Safety and Security. The weakest 7 performing global countries for this pillar are contained within these regions: Sudan (161), Libya (162), Iraq (163), Yemen (164), Syria (165), Afghanistan (166), South Sudan (167). This highlights the critical need for conflict resolution strategies in these regions and nations in particular.

Figure 6 – Regional and Element changes in Safety and Security between 2010 and 2020.

Personal Freedom

The Personal Freedom pillar measures the extent to which the population of a country is free to determine the course of their lives. This includes freedom from coercion and discrimination, as well as freedoms of movement, speech and assembly. Although the Sub-Saharan Africa region overall saw a small increase in this pillar over the last decade, many nations within this region perform extremely poorly. The MENA region also saw a considerable decrease in Personal Freedom over the last decades. It is also important to recognise that there are big discrepancies within this pillar. There have been substantial improvements in social tolerance over the last decade, but the declines in Personal Freedom have been brought about by an alarming and significant deterioration in Freedom of Speech and Access to Information, as well as Freedom of Assembly and Association. This emphasises the urgent need for work that rebuilds individual freedoms, and states that allow these freedoms within nations that perform poorly in the Personal Freedom domain. Particularly this includes: Sudan (158), South Sudan (163), Yemen (164), Iran (165) and Syria (167) who find themselves within the bottom 10 nations for this domain.

Figure 7 – Regional and Element changes in Personal Freedom between 2010 and 2020.

Governance

The governance pillar measures the extent to which there are restraints on political and executive power, and whether states can operate effectively and without corruption. It also includes issues relating to political accountability, and the effectiveness of the rule of law and regulations. Good governance is important in driving a strong economy. Of the 80 nations seeing an improvement in their governance in the 2020 Prosperity Index, 77 also saw an improvement in the openness of their economy. The Sub-Saharan Africa region has seen small regional decline in governance, but there has been a large decline in the MENA region. This particularly concerns executive constraints, political accountability and the rule of law. This identifies the need for particular focus to be paid in this region to ways forward for governance that successfully delivers accountability and responsibility to both citizens and the law. Although Sub-Saharan Africa overall was not the worst performing region, within the bottom 10 nations there is Sudan (162) and South Sudan (165) showing certain countries in this region still require considerable governance improvements.

Figure 8 – Regional and Element changes in Governance between 2010 and 2020.

Economic Quality 

Both the Sub-Saharan Africa and MENA region also saw a decrease in prosperity regarding economic quality. This measures how robust an economy is, as well as how stable and sustainable these economies are. Economic quality is therefore an essential component in delivering prolonged prosperity. There has been a particular decline in the areas of fiscal sustainability and macroeconomic stability of national economies within both regions. This is particularly the case for South Sudan (164), Sudan (166) and Yemen (167) who rank as three of the bottom four nations for economic quality.

Figure 9 – Regional and Element  changes in Economic Quality between 2010 and 2020.

South Sudan

As the overall least prosperous nation, South Sudan is in an alarming situation. What is further damaging for the nation is that it is performing much below the regional average of Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the ‘Empowered People’ domain which includes key issues such as living conditions, health and education. This is important because national development entails far more than GDP growth, it requires the right socio-economic conditions that allow populations to flourish.

South Sudan is the weakest overall nation in the ‘Empowered People’ domain. It is the weakest global nation for education, the second weakest for living conditions and the third weakest for health. This is despite the Sub-Saharan Africa region seeing large increases in prosperity across all of these factors, particularly in regional health where it was the best performing region in the 2020 Index. This exemplifies that while regional trends in prosperity are useful indicators, there exists key national level anomalies within these regional trends. The example of South Sudan highlights the critical need for targeted assistance to be attentive to specific national contexts.

Iraq: Passing the Electoral Budget is now Imperative

We are rapidly approaching the seven-month mark since Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi acceded to office, somewhat of an accomplishment after the two previous prime-minister-designates failed to form a government. During these seven months, he presided over a number of tentative advances, countered with the continued, oftentimes violent, pro-Sadrist rallies and anti-government protests unsettling many regions.

One of these advances include a controversial election law passing in the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s parliament, ratified by President Barham Salih on the 3rd of November 2020. This election law would shift Iraq’s electoral process with the aim of allowing more independents to run; whilst at one time Iraq was a singular electoral constituency, Iraq’s 18 provinces will now be divided into 83 constituencies using the Single Non-Transferable Vote electoral system. Previously, Iraqi political parties could run on unified lists (which had allowed parties to sweep all the seats in a province), now parties will be prevented from running on unified lists, meaning that voters will vote for individual candidates. Moreover, each constituency will have between 3 to 5 parliamentary seats, one of which will be reserved for female parliamentarians, making up 25% of the parliament in total, as per Iraq’s constitution.

Although push for the drafting of the electoral law came from the hundreds of thousands of protesters in the street demanding Iraq give citizens a greater voice, feedback on the electoral law has been mixed. Whilst in theory the new electoral law provides a greater platform for independents to run, therefore lessening the influence of political parties deemed by many as corrupt, a number of legal experts, intellectuals, and protesters claimed the law would not work as intended.

Indeed, once representatives are elected, they will have to form political parties to choose a prime minister. Analysts such as Mr. Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, suggest that parties will send candidates across Iraq to run as individuals, supporting them financially and otherwise, but that they will regroup when elections are over. Nonetheless, legislators, and in particular the Saairun coalition, made up mostly of Sadrists (followers of Muqtada al-Sadr), supported the new electoral law. Many argue that the law will benefit the Sadrists.

Another advance included Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s announcement in July that the next parliamentary elections would be pushed forwards a year to the 6th June 2021, ceding to demands from protesters. Nonetheless, protesters continue to take to the streets, now more than a year since the beginning of the protests, as many continue to face economic hardship, only worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic causing international oil prices to drop, and the connected energy, health, and public service crisis. This is backed by a collective anger at the endemic corruption and nepotism plaguing the country. In the backdrop, attacks by fighters loyal to the Islamic State have stepped up in recent months, especially in the provinces of northern Kirkuk, Saladin, and eastern Diyala.

Despite the electoral law being passed in the Council of Representatives, a major roadblock continued to obstruct the advancement of elections, the passing of the electoral budget. Indeed, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has yet to receive the funds needed from the government to organise the elections, despite IHEC having prepared and submitted their budget as part of the government’s overall 2020-2021 budget process Parliamentarians appear to be stalling the process, in fear of the new electoral law giving an overwhelming benefit to the Sadrists. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has been encouraging parliamentarians to pass the budget, and claimed the electoral budget was at the top of the agenda, however, he does not appear to be having the cooperation he needs in this regard.

The work of IHEC has been hampered by this lack of funding. Much remains to be finalised, including biometric voter registration, an audit of electoral IT and result management systems, political party registration, and election security. However, without visibility in terms of a budget, IHEC’s preparation for the upcoming elections are impeded. It is imperative that Iraq’s parliamentarians work together and demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process by passing the budget so IHEC can finally begin finalising the preparations for the upcoming elections.

The State of Latin America

If 2020 has taught us anything about Latin America, it’s that it cannot easily shake off the fetters of its history. Despite all attempts to the contrary, it is a continent that remains firmly ensconced within the parameters of its past. Whether it’s the growing spectre of authoritarianism, staggering levels of inequality, assaults on the dignity of indigenous people, or demonstrations against inept leaders, the patterns that have defined this year are mere shadows of long, sweeping historical processes that have accompanied Latin America since the very beginning. Lockdowns managed to briefly quell the roaring fires that swept across Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia during the previous year, but this always was to be an ephemeral phenomenon. As this year progressed, these fires roared back to life. The question now is: what is the state of Latin America? And what happens next?

History’s presence is perhaps no more strongly felt than in Peru and Chile, who spent this year struggling to come to terms with their authoritarian past. Both countries spent years under the grip of despotic leaders – with Alberto Fujimori ruling Peru between 1990 and 2000 and Augusto Pinochet ruling Chile between 1973 and 1990. Both leaders produced new constitutions – granting more power to the President and, in the case of Chile, enshrining a doctrine of free-markets and privatization. The consequence has been an utter hollowing out of democracy and escalating cronyism in both nations. Last year, acquiescence turned to revolt in Chile, with massive protests rocking the country and a chorus of voices demanding economic justice. Sparked initially by a rise in transportation fees, demonstrations escalated quickly from secondary school students evading metro fares in Santiago to confrontations with the Chilean army and what some have described as the worst civil unrest since the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Demands for better wages, welfare reforms, a new government and a new constitution continued into 2020. Seeing no other choice, President Piñera yielded to the masses and agreed to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution. Two months ago, that referendum passed. Chileans are now waiting for April to arrive, where another vote will take place, allowing citizens to select the drafters of the new constitution. An air of optimism has finally descended on the coastal country, coming as a relief after decades of ineffectual governance and rising inequality. 

Although Peru faces its unique challenges, deep parallels can still be drawn between Lima and Santiago. The spirit of Fujimori looms large in Peru, who curtailed the independence of the judiciary, breached the law, and set a precedent for corruption in the country during his rule in the 1990s. Today, nearly 70 of the 130 members of Congress are under investigation for bribery, money laundering, and other criminal activity. It was in response to this scandalous set of affairs that Martin Vizcarra defined his Presidency when he assumed power in 2018, promising to act within the law and stamp out the corruption that was so endemic in Peru. Although impeded at every turn, Vizcarra managed to make good on some of his promises, and for this he remained popular among Peruvian citizens (indeed his approval rating remained high even during the worst months of the pandemic – which struck Peru with especial voracity). But this all changed last month. President Martin Vizcarra was ousted as President by Peru’s Congress, in an impeachment vote that accused the President of corruption and mishandling of the pandemic. Although Vizcarra immediately resigned, outsiders saw the situation for what it was: a flagrant power grab that amounted to nothing short of a congressional coup. Like the action of fare-evading in Chile last year, this move lit a spark. Several cities burst into protests, with Peruvians targeting their anger at corruption in the country. It quickly became the largest set of demonstrations the nation had seen in over two decades. Although Vizcarra’s replacement, the much-loathed far-right Manuel Merino, has resigned – this does little to combat the institutional problems plaguing the country. The situation is still unstable, and it will be for the foreseeable future. This is exacerbated by an absence of stable political parties in the country. In every Presidential election since 2001, the winner belonged to a party that either did not exist or was marginal. Parties often change names, change identities or dissolve altogether. This often leaves politicians campaigning on what they are against (usually the previous administration) as opposed to what they are for. It also leaves voters bewildered and, ultimately, disenchanted with the political process. One can hope that Peruvians will use their momentous wave of anger and objection to support a new, more rejuvenated political system for Peru, one that engenders a new constitution, an end to corruption, and contends with inequality and poverty. 

The legacy of despotism also informs much of Brazilian politics today. Bolsonaro’s success emerged from a harkening back to Brazil’s era of military rule – which he describes with halcyon language as a time of law and order. In a nation as rife with violence as Brazil, this message was convincing. But, contrary to the opinion of many, Bolsonaro did not overthrow democracy. Although he speaks like an old school proto-fascist from the 20th century (frequently conjuring the phantom of communism as an existential enemy), he has largely remained hemmed in by Brazil’s democratic institutions. However, this is little consolation, as Bolsonaro’s real nefariousness arises from the subtle, day to day function of governing; from the slow erosion of environmental regulation, to the creeping encroachment on indigenous sovereignty. Most notably, he has completely failed at dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to innumerable deaths across the vast country. Recent municipal elections appeared to provide a sharp rejoinder to his leadership – with Bolsonaro’s candidates facing major setbacks, and Brazil’s so-called “Big Centre” seeing considerable gains (which, despite their misleading moniker, is a loose coalition of conservative forces). Yet all is not what it seems. Municipal and federal elections are two different species, and President Bolsonaro’s approval rating is currently the highest it’s been since he first took office. Indeed, he is so popular that over 70 election candidates registered their nicknames as “Bolsonaro” on municipal ballots. Why is this? The answer is simple: money talks. His emergency relief program comes as a substantial form of aid to poorer Brazilians. This, of course, is a contrast to Bolsonaro’s typical economic agenda, which has long been dogmatically free-market in its orientation (it’s important to recognize that Bolsonaro originally wanted emergency aid to be 1/3 of what it was, only being pushed to increase the amount by Congress). If Bolsonaro continues to earn support from the poor and working class, which he is likely to do with his upcoming “Citizens Income” initiative to disperse further emergency funds,  it is entirely possible he could win the 2022 general election. 

Brazil is an exception, in that it is one of a very few countries in the region with a popular right-wing government. Chile’s leader is embattled from years of protests, and likely to lose his next election. Argentina’s right-wing government was voted out last year for fomenting poverty and inequality. Then there is the case of Ecuador, Colombia and Guatemala, all three of whom share right-wing leaders who have had to face immense surges of opposition to their rule. We can begin with Ecuador, which is a somewhat odd case given that it’s leader Lenín Moreno ran as a left-wing candidate and was a disciple of the popular leftist leader Rafael Correa. President Moreno’s decisive neoliberal turn came as a betrayal to those who voted him into power, and by 2019, fostered enormous protests and riots against his decision to cancel fuel subsidies, along with a litany of other austerity measures. Like in Chile, outrage culminated in something tangible: the measures were reversed. Things have since calmed in the country. How long this relative tranquility will remain undisturbed is another question. Given that President Moreno recently approved a $6.5 billion IMF loan, one can only wonder how much time will pass before a new round of austerity is implemented and protestors re-emerge. The fact that he has recently announced his intention to postpone elections will only exacerbate the chances of a revolt.

Like Ecuador, neighbouring Colombia’s streets were teeming with demonstrators in 2019. The basis for these protests was more amorphous than in Ecuador, with voices being raised against a whole host of issues from income inequality, to police brutality, to corruption. Nonetheless, what buoyed the mass demonstrations was a general sentiment of dissatisfaction with President Ivan Duque, who saw his approval ratings plummet. Like in Ecuador, neoliberal economic reforms had a large part to play in this. But that is merely scratching the surface. What has defined President Duque’s tenure has been increased violence towards unarmed civilians, ex-guerrilla fighters, union leaders, and community activists. 261 indigenous leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered in 2020 alone. The trend is disturbing but hardly foreign to the people of Colombia, who suffered through the infamous “false positives” scandal – where the military lured poor or disabled civilians into remote parts of the country, murdered them, and dressed them up as guerrilla fighters to increase the body count against the FARC and ELN. Recent estimates claim the number of victims to be nearly 10,000. To mitigate further violence, President Duque must respect the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC and ensure that the government maintains its commitments under the peace deal – especially with regards to protecting ex-rebels from violence. His decision to engage in talks with ex-FARC leaders last month is an encouraging sign, but much has to be done to move forward towards peace.

Finally, there is the small nation of Guatemala, who elected the right-wing President Alejandro Giammattei in January of this year. Only a few months into his term, he already confronts a major national crisis. After the passing of a controversial budget, which favoured private interests at the expense of aid to the impoverished, citizens took to the streets in opposition. Poverty is incredibly high in Guatemala, and has only been augmented by the arrival of Covid-19. The passing of a budget that cuts funding for healthcare and education thus appears tone-deaf to the needs of Guatemalans. Indeed, tension fulminated in the capital last month when protestors set fire to the congressional building. The Vice-President has since called on Giammattei to resign. As the nation heads into 2021, it will certainly be plagued by a familiar uncertainty that trails the whole continent. 

But there are glimmers of hope. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, in an effort to revitalize his base, has begun enacting a range of progressive policies – including the expansion of access to medical marijuana and a wealth tax. A bill that would allow women to receive abortions until 14 weeks is also on the table, accompanied by a welfare program supporting pregnant women and young mothers. In Mexico, President Lopez Obrador, although fumbling his Covid-19 response, introduced a bill to provide free healthcare to tens of millions of Mexicans, and managed to depart from almost a century of PRI party rule (which the author Mario Vargas Llosa notably called ‘the perfect dictatorship’). In Bolivia too, there is cause for celebration. After being ousted in what could only be described as a coup in 2019, the MAS party emerged victorious this year, winning the much-delayed election do-over, and putting an end to a year of instability and human rights violations perpetrated by the Añez administration. Finally, even Venezuela exhibits promise for the next year, as upcoming elections are purported to be competitive and feature 14,000 candidates from 107 political organizations (98 of which are identified as opposition parties).

Where is Latin America headed? For one, we will continue to see tension mounting across the region as egregious levels of inequality and poverty remain stubbornly entrenched in their place. The economic situation looked promising at the dawn of the century, thanks to a commodity boom and leaders like Lula de Silva, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa allocating financial benefits across all stratas of society – drastically lowering inequality and poverty. But the situation has changed, and leaders have failed to adapt to them. Policies that continue to ignore the poor will continue to elicit protests and riots. In fact, the current situation largely resembles what the continent endured during its era of “economic restructuring” in the 1980s and 90s, when governments fell into debt and implemented harsh austerity to dig their way out, inspiring large waves of protests in response. To restore stability, governments must restore the economy.

The other worrying trend is a steady deterioration of democracy, something that is inherently fragile to begin with. The continent has long been ruled by strongmen and wealthy landowning families. In the 20th century, nearly every attempt at forging a democracy was strangled in its crib (in which the U.S. played a decisive role). Exacerbating this is a deeply rooted corruption of the political sphere, something that has been inherited from its colonial history. The only way to avoid military rule and despotic leaders is to replenish the public arena of politics. Citizens must feel like they are indeed citizens, and have a role in guiding the political process. A dejected populace is more likely to accept a shuttering of democracy, bedevilled by indifference. On the other hand, when citizens feel like they have a stake in the system, they are more likely to engage in politics and society at large. But this cannot occur with a series of top-down technocratic tweaks, through simple electoral reforms or anti-corruption policy endeavours. To bind the masses back to politics, to suffuse their lives with meaning, to grant them a place in society, means providing them with a life of economic wellbeing. It was Aristotle who said “When there is no middle class, and the poor greatly exceed in number, troubles arise, and the state soon comes to an end.” Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world. If its leaders cannot reckon with this reality, then can hardly be surprised when anger and violence permeate the streets, and when democracy slips into obscurity.

Neil Partrick on the UAE’s normalisation deal with Israel

Dr. Neil Partrick, Senior Fellow at the Next Century Foundation, has written about the UAE’s normalisation with Israel, and what this may mean for outside interests vested in Jerusalem’s famous Islamic sites. His perspective is that the UAE had strategic calculations in mind when they made the deal. It wanted to be an example for other Arab states who are unwilling to normalise their relations with Israel because of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and thereby to dampen Turkey’s domineering interests in Jerusalem, as they strive to take center stage as leader of the Sunni Muslim world.

By contrast to the ‘sound of silence’ that has ensued from many Arab states following the normalisation deal, Palestinians have been vocal about the UAE’s stance particularly in relation to Jerusalem, all the more so after a UAE delegation visited Al-Aqsa Mosque under the protection of an Israeli guard. After co-signing the ‘joint agreement’ with Israel and the USA, the UAE paid no attention to the attitude of the local Islamic authorities in the form of the Awqaf that operates in Jerusalem under the leadership of the Mufti. Neil Partrick argues that this move by the UAE may be motivated by the desire to compete with Turkey’s presence in Haram Al-Shareef, regardless of how it undermines key Palestinian and Jordanian interests (Haram Al-Shareef meaning the “Noble Sanctuary” is the Arabic name for the sacred shrine known as the Dome of the Rock next to which the Al-Aqsa Mosque is built – the complex being under Jordan’s custodianship).  

At this year’s Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate organised by Emirates Policy Center last month, there was no word spoken about the implications of the normalisation deal for Jerusalem, but rather, the emphasis was on Turkey’s role in the region. Ömer Taşpınar argued that Turkey had taken on the role of defending the Palestinians that Arab states are no longer willing to. He added that this resurgence of Turkey’s involvement in the Palestinian issue is due to its declining economy and loss of primacy in Europe, a stance that Taşpınar envisages will outlast Turkey’s President Erdogan. Consequences of the deal for Iran were elaborated on by Alex Vatanka at the conference, who views it as a partial loss for Iran’s interests. However he perceived the possibility that the UAE would sanction any significant Israeli action against Iran from Emirati soil as negligible.

To read Dr. Partrick’s commentary in full, please click here: https://neilpartrick.com/blog/the-uae-s-normalisation-with-israeli-sovereignty-over-jerusalem

Picture shows Palestinians demonstrating in Ramallah against the UAE’s ‘normalisation’ with Israel, © Anadolu Agency, 2020

Muslim leaders still put self interest above the lives of the Uighurs

Notoriously, and arguably quite shamefully, last year, over thirty Muslim-majority countries signed a letter commending China on its human rights record, whilst innocent Uighurs in the Xinjiang region were being detained in modern day concentration camps for engaging in anything that was deemed Islamic: whether that is mandatory acts of worship, bearing the name ‘Muhammad’, or owning a compass (to determine the direction of prayer). Global Muslim leaders have turned their back on the Muslim minority that they should be caring about most right now, in a bid to preserve their economic interests with China.

Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, were among the first to step forward to sign the 2019 letter of support for China’s behaviour towards the Uighurs. Since then their ranks have been joined by the Government of Palestine who all applaud China’s ‘counter terrorism and anti-extremism’ measures. A phrase which has been used by China to justify its maltreatment of some one and a half million Muslims, including upwards of one million Uighurs who are being subjugated by enslavement as forced labour, and the systematic sterilization of their female population.

The region of Xinjiang where the Uighurs reside was briefly independent between 1944 and 1949 until its re-annexation led by Mao Zedong. In 1955 the People’s Republic of China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region as a concession to the non-Han population and in parallel with similar arrangements for Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Since then, the communist government has been trying to shape the Uighur culture to reflect their own by infiltrating more and more Han people into the territory. This policy has been only intensifying over the years, with its biggest impact being felt in the early 2000s, whilst the world was distracted by the international ‘war on terror’ led by President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The legitimisation of events in Xinjiang by the world’s Muslim political leaders is not just harmful for Uighurs, but potentially for other Muslim minorities around the world. It sends a sign of approval to other global leaders that it is lawful to exercise similar anti-Muslim policies in their respective countries under the banner of dealing with ‘Islamic terrorism’. The likes of such can already be seen in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi who introduced a citizenship law last year allowing non-Muslims who entered the country before 2015 to become legal citizens – and by default denying Muslims the same privilege. Research shows that terror attacks carried out by people of a Muslim background already receive on average 357 percent more media coverage than acts committed by any other group. To remain silent in the face of blatant discriminatory practices against Muslim minorities is to perpetuate the dangerous concept that Muslims pose a security threat everywhere and that they deserve to be repressed.

The complacency that global Muslim leaders have shown on this issue does not align with Islamic principles. These are leaders who proudly defend Islam within their own borders but have nothing to show for it in the international arena by limiting their own agency in response to the Uighur cause. The recent boycott of French products within the Middle East gives a glimpse of the action that could be taken against Chinese imported goods if Muslims were to mobilise on the issue. However, this depends on momentum garnered by Muslim leaders in response to China’s activities, which has failed to materialise. Economic insecurity coupled with weak diplomatic relations of most Muslim-majority countries means they are wilfully succumbing to global powers like China for investment and foreign aid, rendering them powerless, overly dependent, and in denial of the Uighur issue. The Western countries that have condemned China’s policies at the UN this year have once again shown themselves to be more considerate of human rights, and ironically, more in line with true Islamic values than an overwhelming number of Muslim leaders.

Perhaps, this isn’t a question of benevolence on behalf of global leaders, but rather a question of who has the capacity to challenge China, a country that is growing in wealth every year and has expanded its outreach in the world by investing in places like the Western Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East, regions that all share a degree of economic instability. Western economies can be crowned the champions in this regard. But it also serves as a gloomy reminder that one’s material conditions are to be put first before much needed action is taken in solving issues elsewhere. One thing is for sure: global Muslim leaders must be reminded of the duty specified in the Qur’an upon all Muslims to be upholders of justice even if it may entail going against their own self-interests and those of their kinsmen. This includes economic and political gain; a reminder that now holds stronger than ever for Muslim leaders in response to China’s treatment of the Uighurs.

Image above from Ürümqi (Chinese: 乌市, Wūshì), formerly known as Tihwa, the capital of the Xinjiang is by andy chung from Pixabay

Women in War: empowerment or burden?

Pictured above is the Representative of Generations Without QAT, a women-led charity, addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

There is a well-known phrase in Yemen, almar’a nesf almujtama, which translates as ‘women are half of society’. However, since the conflict began in 2015, around 76% of internally displaced people are women and children. And as the conflict drags on, the conditions for women and children continue to worsen. 

Neglected and forgotten, with an estimated four million displaced (three-quarters of whom are women and children), and half the country in starvation, and now with Covid-19 ravaging through the country, Yemen remains one of the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disasters to date. Record-breaking statistics fill up our timeline, and the world stands still as Yemen continues to break apart. What was supposed to be an intervention against the Houthi insurgency, the conflict resulted in the current political quagmire accompanied by famine, with no end date in sight six years later. 

Over the course of these six years, the war has changed the internal dynamics of Yemen’s society, particularly in its effects on women. The discourse surrounding gender in Yemen showcases two polarising scenes: on one hand, we see ‘empowering’ narratives such as the growing number of peace-building efforts and conflict resolution initiatives led by women, and women fighting in the front lines against extremists, women rising above the conflict and their traditional conservative roles. On the other hand, we see women and children being used as commodities of war: girls as young as only eight years old forced to marry in order to feed their families as a harmful economic coping strategy, and the gender-based violence which has increased by 63% since the war broke out. The latter is a result of the exacerbation and the intensification of pre-existing discrimination patterns.

Narratives of ‘women empowerment’ in Yemen started prior to the conflict. In fact, it was during the 2011 uprising that women’s voices were heard as they played an active role in ousting then-president Saleh. Furthermore, the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference also included relatively strong female voices, in which almost 30% of its participants were women. These nation-wide talks in 2013-14 were a positive step towards change. However, since then women’s voices were rarely included in high-level meetings concerning peace talks and conflict resolution. Progress was put in the backseat and the deteriorating situation in Yemen meant that any progress towards gender equality stalled on the path to regression. Despite UN Resolution 1325 which emphasises women’s role in peace and security, the international community has failed to ensure a long-term solution including Yemeni women in shaping future governance of Yemen. For instance, Council of Foreign Relations reported that ‘no women participated’ during the 2019 Riyadh Agreement negotiations.

Despite their exclusion from the roundtable, Yemeni women continue to be on the frontline of community-based peace-building efforts. They are at the forefront of negotiating peace. Muna Luqman, Yemeni activist and founder of Food4Humanity, a women-led charity that has provided emergency relief in Yemen since its establishment in 2015, instigated a mediation process involving 16 community representatives over a water-related conflict in Al-Haymatain, Taiz. As a result, a local council was established in order to prevent future water-related conflicts. The story of Muna Luqman is just one of many that showcases the strength and ability of Yemen’s women in local peacekeeping efforts.

As women like Muna Luqman take on the role of mediating local peacekeeping efforts, fitting into the model of ‘empowerment’, Nadia Al-Sakkaf, Yemen’s first woman Minister of Information, believes that there is an important caveat to these narratives. She argues that these ‘empowering’ narratives of women’s role in the conflict is a disguise for burdening them with more responsibilities. She writes that women, managing their community, women as mediators and peacekeepers at the community level may look empowering at face value, but as women are expected to maintain these roles without basic resources, without adequate support and simultaneously still largely excluded from crucial decisions e.g., peace negotiations and aid distribution, Al-Sakkaf argues that women are being given more responsibilities and being burdened at an extreme degree and at the same time still bearing the biggest brunt of the war. 

Context also matters, as the situation for Yemen’s women differs depending on which area and which side of war they are on. In her CNN Op-ed piece, Al-Sakkaf writes that while Zaidi women in the North find themselves in an ‘ideological battle’, Houthi women are tasked to recruit soldiers to fight in the frontlines of war. Whichever side they happen to be on, freedom is limited for these women. Women are either risking their lives in battle or they are burdened by the lack of support in instigating local/community-based peace-building efforts.

Women should be equipped and supported in order for them to adequately manage their communities, act as mediators and peacekeepers. They should be afforded seats at the table in vital negotiations and decision-making, and this is not a matter of tomorrow but a crucial matter of today as women and children continue to bear the brunt of the conflict in Yemen. Responsibility without support is not empowering, it is just burden.

This article was written by the NCF Research Officer Fara Maruf and does not necessarily represent the views of the Next Century Foundation.

Cosmopolitanism: An ideology for 2021?

Cosmopolitanism is a political ideology stipulating that all human beings are members of a single global community. In the thought of cosmopolitanism there are many different views about what constitutes this community. This article will focus on the work of Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who suggests the possibility of a cosmopolitan community in which individuals from various physical, economic and social locations enter relationships of mutual respect despite holding different religious, political and cultural beliefs.

This school of cosmopolitan thought has two main aspects. The first is the universal nature of cosmopolitanism, where everybody is part of a single global community. This postulates that we have responsibility for everybody, and that the boundaries of states should not be the boundary of our moral concern. This creates a universal morality where everybody is entitled to be treated with respect and dignity. However, this concept is not unique to cosmopolitanism. What distinguishes cosmopolitanism is the second aspect, which combines this respect for universality with a recognition that there are forms of difference that should be allowed to exist within communities. People do not have to ascribe to the same values and life principles or be within the same social order for the world to exist harmoniously. Cosmopolitanism recognises that all people, who are entitled to equal respect and dignity, are going to be making different choices and living different lives. They will have different interests and faiths, and will choose to organise themselves and societies differently. In this way cosmopolitanism suggests that whilst we are all a single community, there are forms of difference that are a part of human existence in society. What is important is that these differences do not stop people from connecting with each other and existing in the same communities.

Cosmopolitanism differs from current approaches because of its focus on regular interaction between different groups and cultures in the same space. The UK takes a multiculturalist approach, in which different faiths are celebrated but also segregated, for example through single faith schools. A different approach taken in France is an integrationist approach that aims to minimise cultural differences. This approach requires everybody in France to uphold national cultural values, exemplified by the banning of full face coverings in 2011 and the requirement of secularism in its third sector. Conversely, cosmopolitanism argues that unless many of us subscribe to engaging with each other’s differences to promote living with a shared democratic responsibility, it will be difficult to overcome the issues of living together in a multi-religious and multiracial society. In this way cosmopolitanism is fundamentally different from multiculturalist and integrationist approaches, as it recognises conversation and interaction between different groups and cultures as being fundamental to overcoming differences. Regular interaction between people has a substantial impact because it makes prejudice and stereotypes difficult to uphold. Conversely, if people are siphoned off into separate subcommunities and fail to interact, as can happen in a multiculturalist approach, it becomes harder for individuals to counter prejudice. Similarly, cosmopolitanism gives the right of people to make their own lives, not just as societies but individuals. By maintaining regular interaction and dialogue between these different groups people can work together and share responsibility in building equal states. In this way, cosmopolitanism is fundamentally different from an integrationist approach, as it does not encourage a universal sharing of moral codes and ways of living. Instead, it states in order to build better societies our different ways of life and life choices need to be equally understood, acknowledged and treated as legitimate. Cosmopolitanism therefore promotes the idea of conversation, as well as regular intercultural and interfaith interactions as being essential to build societies that are free from prejudice and bias. These kinds of interactions are not fully facilitated through the multiculturalist and integrationist approaches to structuring society, and so cosmopolitanism represents a progressive alternative.

This is a powerful and useful perspective to consider when discussing current racial issues that exist in our societies, particularly relating to the Black Lives Matter movement. A recent Joint Commission report highlighted in the UK that there are clear racial injustices regarding human rights in healthcare, criminal justice, immigration, nationality and democracy. The report highlights shocking statistics, for example that the death rate for black women in childbirth in British state hospitals is five times higher than for white women. Similarly with regard to higher education, the Higher Education Statistics Authority found that black students are underrepresented in the top universities. In 2016, on average 8% of first-year undergraduates across the UK were black, however this average fell to less than 4% in Russell Group universities. This was even lower for Cambridge and Oxford, whose intakes in the same year were 1.5% and 1.2% respectively. This is by no means the full extent of racial injustice present within our current system, but a small illustration of the ways in which the state and state institutions currently perpetuate racial bias and injustice.

The extremely low intakes of black students in Oxford and Cambridge is an issue in many ways, not least because these two universities produce 90% of the country’s politicians. As a result, black voices are heavily marginalised within the core power of the state and its policy decisions, which to a limited extent explains the prejudice and racial injustice that black people face from the state today. This demonstrates the need to adopt better approaches to understanding different cultures in order to begin to eliminate these injustices. Cosmopolitanism offers a useful path forward in this sense because it proposes that interaction between all cultures is needed in order to transform society into a fairer environment, particularly related to state institutions that lead democratic governance. The lack of diversity in the voices of those currently running the country means that prejudices and biases cannot be properly addressed within state infrastructures. If the intercultural engagement proposed by cosmopolitanism is created, it can change the attitudes of individuals involved in both operating within or speaking to the state system. If this fundamental change is introduced it can help to restructure the state system which currency proliferates bias on racial and cultural identities.

As a political ideology cosmopolitanism clearly possesses a lot of merits in overcoming difference and establishing harmonious and multicultural communities. However, as the example of the UK has shown there is still much work to be done. Although this will undoubtedly be a lengthy process, a long and permanent change is needed from the injustices that permeate so strongly in our society. Cosmopolitanism should be considered, along with many other things, a useful tool in assisting this change into a fairer and equal society. On a conscious level cosmopolitanism is therefore extremely beneficial. The issue is how to build societies that support cosmopolitanism and its values of dialogue and interaction between different faiths and values. How difficult will it be in practice to ensure our societies and communities are organised in ways that sufficient conversation and interaction occurs between all the cultures, religions and values that exist within them? Only by achieving this will societies ensure there is a level of cosmopolitan understanding that reduces bias and allows for an equal appreciation and legitimacy of all values present within that society. This is a valuable question and one which is difficult to answer, but if we are to live in completely equal multiracial and multicultural societies it is a question that ultimately will need to be addressed.

Things go from Bad to Worse in China

Next Century Foundation Secretary General William Morris explores how we can all take action in response to China’s atrocious treatment of the Uighurs and behaviour over Hong Kong in his weekly podcast: Issues of the Week

China’s treatment of the Uighurs and its behaviour over Hong Kong demands a response. Governments do nothing but we can take action. We could start by boycotting Chinese goods. Not easy. Amazon fails to put countries of origin on the goods it markets. A little campaign to force Amazon to do so would do no harm – and for those environmentally inclined would enable us to buy goods without so many air miles (should Amazon comply). One way to twist Amazon’s arm would be to buy our books elsewhere. Here are a few alternative book platforms listed by country:

U.K.

Bookshop – supporting local bookshops; Hive – books, eBooks; Biblio – rare, special, and used books; Alibris – books, textbooks, movies, music; Big Green Bookshop; Eurospan Bookstore; AbeBooks.co.uk

U.S.

Bookshop – supporting local bookshops; Biblio – rare, special, and used books; Alibris – books, textbooks, movies, music; Indie Bound – independent bookshops in U.S.; Thrift Books – second hand books; Book Outlet; Libro – Audiobooks through local bookstores; Overdrive – audiobooks through your local library; Hoopla – borrow movies, eBooks, music with your library card

Anglo-American

World of Books

European

Eurospan Bookstore; Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware

France

Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware; Recyclivre – secondhand books; Label Emmaus – secondhand books and other items; La Librarie – books from local bookshops; Place des Libraries – books from local bookshops; Libraries Independentes – books from local bookshops

Canada

Indigo – books, toys, wellness, homeware, fashion, electronics; AbeBooks.com; mcnallyrobinson.com

Worldwide

Better World Books; Book Depository; Book Mooch – book exchange; Wordery; eBooks

Australia & New Zealand

Biblio New Zealand – rare, special, and used books; Biblio Australia – rare, special, and used books; AbeBooks.com; Boomerang Books – independent bookstore; QBD Books; Dymocks

Non-Book Platforms

France

Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware; Pres de chez nous – supporting independent ethical stores; Label Emmaus – second hand books and other items

Europe

Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware; Pres de chez nous – supporting independent ethical stores

Canada

Indigo – books, toys, wellness, homeware, fashion, electronics

Worldwide

Bonanza – various products available; Etsy – independent sellers; Pres de chez nous – supporting independent ethical stores

What does a Biden administration mean for the Middle East?

The Next Century Foundation congratulates Joseph Biden Jr. on his victory in the U.S. elections, and we wish him luck during this time of great uncertainty. As a new administration is set to take charge of the White House, we felt it was appropriate to examine President elect Biden’s presumed foreign policy stance on the Middle East. How does he fare in comparison to Trump? Will we witness a radical departure from the Obama era? What does a Biden administration mean for the people of the Middle East?

From Bush to Trump

Much of America’s Middle East policy over the past decade has been a response to the actions of the Bush administration, the consequences of which still reverberate across the region today. Barack Obama campaigned on a message of peace and diplomacy, articulating a desire to withdraw troops from Iraq and rebuild shattered alliances. A few months into his term, he visited Cairo to deliver an enthralling speech aimed at the Islamic world, proposing a new beginning between the U.S. and Muslims globally, based on mutual interest and respect. It’s easy to forget now, but the President’s speech appeared, at the time, to be an extraordinary break from the past. Candid and forthright, and with his usual oratory flair, President Obama signalled a new sense of hope that was so diminished under the Bush administration. The Middle East, for a brief moment, felt inspired. Perhaps the stage had been set for a new America.

But hopes were quickly dashed when it became apparent that President Obama would not prove drastically different in his foreign policy outlook. Granted, he was a more judicious and cultivated presence than the more provincial George W. Bush. But this mattered little when he assisted Europe in toppling Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, leading to a devastating civil war. Obama’s lofty rhetoric also rang hollow when it came to the sheer brutality of his escalated drone strikes policy. Correspondingly, he failed to close Guantanamo and bring the troops home like promised.

The Trump candidacy was likewise a response to the George W. Bush era. The Apprentice star continually admonished Hillary Clinton, perceived as a politician with hawkish instincts who would continue the Bush/Obama doctrine, for voting in favour of the Iraq War. Instead, Trump rallied voters behind a message of ceasing America’s “forever” wars and diminishing its troop presence abroad. After two administrations worth of foreign policy blunders, the message clearly resonated. Donald Trump took home the election, and Washington trembled in its boots. This was someone whose reckless rhetoric and bellicose behaviour indicated a man of uncertain instincts. Would President Trump spell catastrophe for the Middle East?

It turns out: not really. President Trump’s role in the region was a typical exercise in Republican leadership. Although he was initially labelled an ‘isolationist’, this proved questionable as his time passed. Undoubtedly, he often spurned a path of multilateralism and was heavily critical of organizations like the U.N. and the World Health Organisation. But to equate this with a detachment from the world stage would be erroneous. President Trump’s primary goal was, like the Presidents that preceded him, to maintain America’s power globally. He employed an actively hostile posture towards Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, imposed sanctions on countries like Lebanon and Syria, initiated a trade war with China, developed military alliances, and made a concerted effort to embolden the USA’s ally Israel. Altogether, it was not the vast overhaul of foreign policy that pundits expected, much of the speculated fears over Trump’s finger on the nuclear button did not materialize either. But what did change?

For one thing, President Trump certainly appeared more congenial towards authoritarian leaders like Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (even calling the Egyptian President his “favourite dictator”). Boisterous comments like this are indicative of President Trump’s unvarnished populist aesthetic, meant to cast himself as some sort of dramatic rupture in U.S. leadership. But as president, Donald Trump merely vocalized sentiments that always lingered, but were never espoused publicly – dispensing with the pleasantries that usually veil America’s realpolitik agenda. Yes, President Trump extolled President el-Sisi, but the coup that hoisted the Egyptian leader to power occurred on President Obama’s watch, who refused to use the word “coup” and continued to sell F-16s to the Egyptian government. President Obama’s top diplomat John Kerry even described the event as a ‘restoration of democracy’. Yes, President Trump was outwardly more amicable towards the Saudis, but Obama sold billions in arms to the same government (even whilst it was engaged in a deadly war with Yemen) and did little to mitigate its authoritarian tendencies. Iran and Israel were the only significant examples of any major divergence by President Trump, who bowed out of the JCPOA and enforced onerous sanctions on the former, while tightening relationships with the latter by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, along with mustering a peace plan that endowed Israel with large swaths of territory. Aside from these examples, President Trump navigated through the Middle East largely without initiating conflict.

President Biden

Advisors to Biden have claimed that the new leader will spend 80% of his time dedicated to domestic policy, his acceptance speech mentioning little with regards to international affairs. This is hardly unexpected, given the engulfing crisis that is the Covid-19 pandemic. But even within the domain of foreign policy, the U.S. has seen a drift away from an interest in the Middle East. Washington insiders are now absorbed with developments in China, which poses the largest threat in terms of rivalling America’s hegemony. But Joseph Biden will still have a role to play in the Middle East. He will most certainly work towards restoring many of President Obama’s policies – including returning the U.S. to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and to the World Health Organisation. He will rebuild the state department and attempt to restore American diplomacy. Yet what is crucial is how this will translate to concrete action. Joseph Biden is often perceived as another iteration of President Obama – a little more unpolished, granted, but someone who seeks to return to the status quo under the Democrats. But when the Arab world was interviewed, 58% declared that President elect Biden should distance himself from the Obama administration’s policies. It’s evident then, that harkening back to the status quo will not necessarily ensure a fruitful Middle East policy. To come to grips with what a Biden presidency would mean for the region, we can examine a few select countries that might experience the most perceptible changes.

Turkey

Biden has not remained quiet with regards to his enmity for autocratic leadership around the world. He has openly chastised the behaviour of nations like Hungary and China. Turkey also finds itself on this list. Indeed, out of all the leaders in the Middle East, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is perhaps most troubled by the prospects of a Biden presidency. Trump and Erdogan got along cordially, with the former rarely indicating any resistance to the latter’s increasing disdain for human rights and democracy. The same cannot be said about Biden, who has called out Erdogan more explicitly on issues like his aggression towards the Kurds and even partly blamed him for the ascendancy of ISIS in the region. As Vice President, he would often speak openly about Erdogan’s increasing contempt for the public press and free speech in his country. His administration also helped shelter Fethullah Gulen, the man who Erdogan accused of engendering the 2016 coup against him. Biden was perhaps most frank when interviewed by the New York Times editorial board, where he asserted forthrightly that Erdogan was an autocrat and that America should get behind the Turkish opposition in order to remove him from power through the ballot box. Leadership in Turkey worries that Biden will taint the recently strengthened bilateral relationship between the two NATO allies with his human rights rhetoric, and more seriously, threaten their interests in Libya, Syria and the Mediterranean. Questions also remain as to whether Biden will impose sanctions on the country for deciding to purchase Russian S-400s. On the other hand, Biden might tow a similar line to Trump for fear that Turkey could stray from NATO’s orbit. A game of balance will undoubtedly need to be played.

Erdogan has lent Turkey a more assertive role in the region, something that Biden will be forced to address

Iran

Though they maintained an outward ambivalence towards the Biden victory, Iran quietly breathed a collective sigh of relief. The nation has suffered immensely under the Trump administration, which pulled out of the JCPOA and sought to curb the growing regional influence of a then vitalized Iran. The tactic Trump chose was coercion. He did this by strangling Iran’s economy. Oppressive sanctions prevented the country from dealing effectively with Covid-19, taking its mightiest toll on the country’s citizens. In retaliation, Iran abandoned many of their nuclear commitments and hastened its production of enriched uranium. This complicates the situation. Much will have to be done before the two nations can sit down at the table. Biden’s desire is for Tehran to first return to its prior nuclear commitments, while a growingly suspicious Iran might wish to continue its enrichment project if the U.S. does not provide reparations for the betrayal and harm it caused the country over the last four years. Complicating things further is the role of Europe, which has grown wearier of Iran, and will likely demand more concessions from the country before resuscitating the nuclear deal. What is certain is that if Obama’s nuclear deal is re-established, it will likely be followed by echoes of disenchantment across much of the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel perceive Iran to be a threat, and any strengthening of its hand will be considered disconcerting.

Israel and Palestine

It was the night before the 2016 election when leaders of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank gathered in Hebron to pray for a victorious Donald Trump. Their wishes were granted. Israel enjoyed a felicitous relationship with the Trump administration, one that yielded the country a litany of triumphs. In the last four years, Netanyahu witnessed a weakened Iran, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and a Middle East plan that would have permitted the annexation of huge swaths of Palestinian land. Biden will certainly not be as cozy with Netanyahu as Trump was – who shared a special, symbiotic relationship with the Israeli leader. A two-state solution will be back on the table, and Israel will have to navigate with more caution and deliberation moving forward, as Biden is more likely to scrutinize certain Israeli actions, including any steps toward the annexation of Palestinian territory. The potential for a strengthened Iran (if Biden is to ease sanctions) also frightens Netanyahu. But Biden, an avid supporter of Israel, will not attempt to reverse any of Trump’s actions. Jerusalem and the Golan Heights will continue to be recognized as part of Israel. The U.S. embassy will not be moved back to Tel Aviv. Military aid will continue to pour into the country. In all likelihood, the President will preside over an era of continued recognition of Israel by its Arab neighbours. This, to the detriment of the Palestinians, who have suffered egregiously over the last four years. Mahmoud Abbas, along with Palestinians generally, will certainly be relieved to see Biden take the helm of America’s foreign policy. But relief should not be confused with jubilation. Indeed, Biden has indicated he will reverse some of Trump’s more draconian policies against Palestine, by restoring humanitarian support to the country and reopening the PLO mission in Washington. But with Israel so emboldened over the last few years, possibilities for a peace deal remain dim. While Biden has opposed Trump’s methods in dealing with the Israel-Palestine issue (i.e. mostly manoeuvring unilaterally), he has not questioned its outcomes.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Like Israel, Saudi Arabia will not be celebrating on inauguration day. The opposite is true for Yemen. Biden pronouncing a desire to end American support for the Saudi war in Yemen, a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and wreaked havoc on an already penurious nation, has something to do with this. How likely this will manifest into something palpable is another question. The fact that one third of the Pentagon transition team hails from organizations financed by the weapons industry is not the most promising sign. As Vice President, Biden supported the selling of billions worth in arms to Saudi Arabia. What is irrefutable, however, is that Saudi Arabia’s autocratic ambitions will likely be tempered during the next four years, when compared to Trump, who emphatically supported the oil-rich nation. Indeed, it’s safe to say that Biden’s first diplomatic destination won’t be Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohamed Bin Salman will therefore have to practise more restraint when it comes to stamping out dissent in his country, and he will be more reluctant to pull another horrific incident like the Khashoggi affair, which Biden decried, professing that he would “defend the right of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence”. MBS will also express disquiet over Biden’s likely decision to reengage in discussions with Iran – a country that Saudi Arabia and many of its neighbours view as an existential threat. But all this must be taken with a grain of salt. If Biden’s tenure will resemble anything like Obama’s, it is likely that the Saudi Monarchy will still receive the generous support of their American allies. Historically, it has mattered little which party has been in charge. The relationship between the two countries has remained almost unassailable.

Syria

Trump will leave a mixed legacy in Syria. On the one hand, he deviated from Obama’s policy of aiming to overthrow Bashar al-Assad by ceasing America’s support for the armed opposition. On the other, he launched (largely symbolic) missiles on President Assad’s forces and imposed his draconian ‘Caesar’ sanctions on Damascus. He expressed disdain for Syrian ally Iran but was warmer to its ally Russia. Likewise, he threw support towards the Kurds for most of his reign, only to abandon them last year, upon swiftly withdrawing most of his troops from the region. Despite this seeming disarray, President Biden is likely to preserve Trump’s policies in the country. Financial pressure will continue. Troops will remain. And the potential for further intervention is unlikely. Because so many interests are entangled in Syria, much of what occurs in the country will also rest on how Biden gets along with countries like Israel, Turkey, Russia and Iran. Syria will welcome a Biden presidency, as his umbrage towards Turkey will prove helpful in reducing their inimical influence – namely in regard to their promotion of division and extremism in Syria. His less affectionate ties to Netanyahu may also prove useful to Syria, which has continually been pummelled by Israeli rockets from next door. Not to mention that President Assad still recalls Obama’s reluctance to attack the country, permitting Iran to enter and rescue his government, along with Biden’s comments arguing against arming the opposition in Syria. Nonetheless, Biden’s Syria policy remains shrouded in ambiguity. Any mention of the country was scant during his campaign. As other theatres of conflict heat up across the region, Biden will leave Syria on the backburner for the time being.

President Assad’s Syria is a tangled web of interests. How Biden approaches the country depends on his relationship with other regional powers.

Libya and Egypt

Libya is a focal point in North Africa. Nations across the region and beyond endeavour to shift the tides of war in their preferred direction. Despite this, America has been relatively apathetic towards the conflict. Biden himself apparently never wished to enter the country in the first place. American strategy is not likely to shift substantially – although unlike his predecessor, Biden might be more inclined to take advantage of multilateralism and work with the U.N. to foster a peaceful solution to the conflict. When it comes to Egypt, however, there might be a more decisive shift. Trump was a faithful ally of Sisi, pumping funds to the country’s military and security apparatus. Biden has chastised Trump for his chumminess with the repressive leader and regularly spoken out against the human rights violations that have occurred under President Sisi’s rule. If this behaviour continues, it would not be entirely unfathomable for Biden to decrease some of America’s expenditure towards Egypt.

Conclusion

Joseph Biden never attained the enthusiasm that Presidents Obama or Trump received when they ascended to power. Most votes cast for the former Vice President were directed against his opponent. The tremendous hope that tailed Biden’s predecessors is notably absent this time around. Ultimately, this works in Biden’s favour. With little expectation, there is little room to disappoint. But the President-to-be should not take this as an opportunity to play idle. He must summon the political will to do what his predecessors failed at doing and work multilaterally to ease tensions in the Middle East, instigate some degree of peace. The region has confronted enough war. It has sustained enough carnage. Biden must ensure that he ameliorates, rather than exacerbates, these profound problems.