West Asia Review: January 2021
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Last few weeks of President Trump’s Adminstration were quite telling as was his tenure as far as West Asia isconcerned. However, with President Joe Biden taking over quite a few significant changes or reversals have taken place that could portend for the direction of Biden foreign policy in the region. As such , several countries in the region began to brace before the change in US leadership. One of these was the Saudi initiative to end the blockade of Qatar by the Quartet comprising of Saudi Arabia , UAE, Bahrain and Egypt , at the Al Ula GCC Summit despite the fact that UAE was not that very enthusiastic. While restablishment of individual diplomatic relations will take some time via the bilateral tracks the air, land and sea bloackade has been lifted by all four. Jared Kushner Senior Adviser to Trump was also instrumental in normalisation of ties between Sudan and Israel in pursuance of the Abraham Accords as well as in the lifting of Qatar blockade.

Before leaving office Trump had authorised sale of 50 F35s to UAE at US$ 23 bn and some missiles for the Saudis. These have been put under review by the Biden Administration as it looks to return to the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). The move, according to US State Department , is also aimed at "ensuring US arms sales meet our strategic objectives of building stronger, interoperable and more capable security partners." Moreover, Biden also made clear that war in Yemen should come to an end putting the Saudi’s on notice. Likewise, he has given hope to Palestinians as the aid to them and reopening of their offices in Washington will be restored which had been closed by trump. The European Union welcomed a promise by Palestinian leaders to hold their first elections in 15 years, urging Israel to facilitate the ballots. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas said elections would be held in May and July, as part of a warming of ties between his Fatah party and its Islamist rival Hamas.

Saudi and Jordanian Foreign Ministers held detailed discussion to cocordinate their position on bilateral and regional issues including Yemen, Libya, Syria and Lebanon. Safadi expressed gratitude for Riyadh's support for Jordan to face the economic challenges, stressing that Saudi Arabia’s security is an integral part of Jordan’s security adding “We agree on rejecting foreign interference in Arab affairs, whatever the source is. To end tension in the region, especially with regard to Iran, we must address all the reasons beyond this tension, including interference in Arab affairs,”. He underscored that Jordan is seeking a fair and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, saying that Riyadh and Amman are committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia condemned Israel’s approval of the construction of 800 new settlement units in the West Bank along with various European countries. Also the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, France and Germany met in Cairo in the latest push to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks stalled since 2014. The quartet discussed "potential steps to advance the Middle East Peace Process" and work towards "re-launching a credible peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis", as per the joint statement.

As the writing on the wall with regard to US-Iran entente becomes clearer Qatar and France offered to assist US in this regard. Qatar was also hosting and facilitating talks between Taliban and the US where US Administration might have to review the progress on the commintments undertaken by the Taliban before drawing down their forces. Meanwhile, Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia have indicated their desire to be part of any dialogue for resumption of JCPOA so that their concerns are addressed. Iran is not on board with this. However, to facilitate a genuine dialogue France, Britain and Germany, in a joint statement,warned Iran against starting work on uranium metal-based fuel for a research reactor, saying it contravened the 2015 nuclear deal and had serious military implications. “We strongly encourage Iran to end this activity, and return to full compliance with its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without delay, if it is serious about preserving this agreement,”.

Some visible momentum is being witnessed in Libyan Peace Process as the Libyan political dialogue arranged by the United Nations has made progress towards agreeing a new transitional government to oversee the run-up to elections in December. The United Nations Security Council also approved the appointment of veteran diplomat Jan Kubis as the UN Libya envoy, diplomats said, nearly a year after the last mediator Ghassan Salame stepped down.

Oman’s Sultan Haitham will be succeeded by his eldest son Dhi Yazan, according to a new basic law that creates a new position of crown prince and establishes succession from ruler to the eldest son. Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said announced plans for the constitutional change, a year after the death of his predecessor, Sultan Qaboos.

Prime Minister Modi spoke to Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi anddiscussed the impact of the COVID pandemic in the region, and expressed satisfaction that cooperation between India and UAE had not halted even during the health crisis apart from trade and investment initiatives. MOS(EA) V Muraleedharan also visited UAE to follow up on key developments and diaspora welfare while vaccine diplomacy continued with the region.

A meeting of the India-Oman Strategic Consultative Group (IOSCG)>/b. was held to discuss the entire spectrum of India-Oman relationship including in political, energy, trade, investment, defence, security, space, mining, S&T, culture and consular fields. It was agreed that the two sides will pursue various agreements and MOUs in these areas for a future-oriented relationship. They looked forward to trade and investment linkages regaining momentum once normalcy returns after Covid-19. They also discussed intensifying cooperation in the areas of health and food security. The two sides also exchanged views on recent regional developments as well as global issues of mutual interest.

More Details ;….
Gulf Detente

On 5 January, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Egypt signed declaration in Al-Ula to formally end the rift with Qatar. Saudi Arabia along with the UAE, Bahrain and Oman imposed blockade on Qatar in June 2017 charging the country with supporting terrorism. Saudi led coalition has been critical of Qatar’s friendly ties with Iran as well as its support for Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi decision coincided with the US’ maximum pressure strategy against Iran. The boycott however, failed to change Qatar’s stance and in fact the embargo pushed the state closer to Turkey and Iran. In the initial stage of the blockade, both Turkey and Iran came to Qatar’s rescue to replenish the medical and food supply shortages.

The change in Saudi policy in late 2020 has occurred in the background of the historic Abraham Accords normalising ties between few Arab states and Israel; geopolitical competition with Turkey; Joe Biden presidency and COVID-19 pandemic. Saudi Arabia after signing the declaration opened the airspace and border. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after welcoming the Qatari Emir stated that the region should unite to counter Iranian proxies and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif congratulated Qatar for successfully resisting pressure and extortion. Zarif while addressing Arab leaders stated that “Iran is neither an enemy nor threat...”

Besides Saudi Arabia, the UAE indicated thaw in ties with Qatar. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash mentioned that his government was keen to restore Gulf unity but cautioned that there are few hurdles to overcome. The UAE and Qatar are currently competing for influence in the Libyan civil war. The UAE following Saudi move reopened all land, sea and air entry points into Qatar.

From Egypt’s perspective, the detente with Qatar has broadened the investment prospects. Egyptian intelligence officers mentioned that their government has secured commitment from Qatar that it would desist from interfering with its internal affairs; change the orientation of Al Jazeera News channel and reduce support for Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has denied that any such meeting took place and ties were restored through written correspondence in A-Ula in early January. Moreover on 31 January, Qatari government pledged to provide US$ 360 million in assistance in Gaza strip in 2021. Qatar is crucial for both Egypt and Israel in managing Gaza and relieving the economic costs of sealing the coastal enclave. Qatar in the past has paid for Hamas government’s electricity costs as well as payment of salaries to public servants and US$ 100 monthly stipends to poor families.

Political Crisis in Kuwait

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah reappointed Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah as the Prime Minister on 24 January. The newly elected cabinet resigned in the previous week due to standoff with the parliament over its vote to question the Prime Minister on subjects including the choice of cabinet ministers. The parliamentary vote was supported by more than 30 MPs in the 50 seat National Assembly.

The current Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah came to power after the death of Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah in September 2020. The new Emir is facing his first big political challenge since taking over power.

Kuwait has a vibrant tradition of democratic consensus reflected in strong National Assembly capable of passing and blocking legislation and posing question to cabinet ministers. Senior government positions are largely occupied by members of the ruling Al Sabah family. The final authority lies with the Emir. The political process since Kuwait’s independence has suffered frequent deadlocks between cabinet and the elected National Assembly leading to government reshuffles and dissolutions of parliament.

Joe Biden Presidency and Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appealed to the new Joe Biden administration to re-join the 2015 nuclear agreement and withdraw economic sanctions that has severely affected the trade and economic situation in the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has unveiled an underground missile base at an undisclosed location in the Gulf region. Major General Hossein Salami claimed the new missile base is one of the several facilities that stores strategic missiles. Iran has reportedly built underground missile cities along the Gulf coastline as part of its deterrence policy.

The US while indicating its interest to return to the JCPOA is keen to incorporate subjects such as the ballistic missiles and regional activities. On the strategic level, the US would continue to consider Iran as a strategic rival. Joe Biden is however likely make tactical engagement with Iran in case of future escalation and de-escalation.

Joe Biden reopens ties with Palestinians

The Joe Biden Presidency on 26 January announced that the US would restore its relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and revive aid to Palestinian refugees. Acting US Ambassador to the UN, Richard Mills announcing the decision stated that the country is committed to ensuring Israel’s future as Jewish democratic state while upholding the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians to live in independent state with dignity and security. He also mentioned that it is not possible to impose peace on either side and called for direct deliberation. Both sides therefore should restrain from taking unilateral measures such as annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, incitement to violence and providing compensation for individuals in prison for acts of violence that may jeopardise the two state solution. Palestinians have rejected Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” initiative that largely envisions a fragmented Palestinian state with Israel maintaining control over parts of Jordan Valley and the city of Jerusalem.

US sanctions on Houthis

The US State Department on 19 January, one day prior to Joe Biden’s inauguration designated the Houthi Movement as a foreign terrorist organisation. The State Department exempted the UN, Red Cross to supply medicine and medical devices, agricultural commodities such as raw, processed, and packaged foods, live animals, vitamins and minerals, and bottled drinking water, medicine and medical devices. Subsequently, 22 aid groups working in Yemen requested the new administration to revise the decision that may risk the health and lives of millions of people in north Yemen. Joe Biden government in response suspended certain sanctions.

The country continues to be divided between the two sets of government. The access to aid in much better in parts of the southern region controlled by the internationally recognised Abdrabbuh Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council. The civilians in north Yemen during the course of the conflict have been subjected to air raids. The UN officials have warned about the possibility of a large famine and accused the Hadi government and the Houthis of corruption and money laundering

Sudan signs normalisation agreement

On 6 January, Sudan and the US signed an agreement to normalise ties with Israel in exchange for help in relieving the debt to the World Bank. The US delegation led by Trump administration Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the agreement has opened tremendous prospects for Israeli and Sudanese people to collaborate on cultural and economic opportunities. Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari said that his government would work to strengthen and expand interests of Sudan and other states in the region. Sudan has become the fourth Arab state to normalise with Israel. Earlier in December, Morocco signed the normalisation agreement with Israel.

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