[This is a monthly roundup of news articles and other materials related to other countries’ foreign policies toward the Middle East. It does not reflect the views of the Foreign Policies Roundup Editors of Jadaliyya.]
US sanctions Israeli firm NSO Group over spyware (3 November 2021) The US Department of Commerce unveiled sanctions against the Israeli NSO Group for selling spyware to governments targeting dissidents outside of their sovereign borders. In particular, the Pegasus spyware the NSO Group produces has come under scrutiny as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been accused of using it to monitor and intimidate journalists, and activists residing outside of their respective countries. While the Biden administration has largely abstained from publicly chastising Israel, the sanctions against the NSO group aim to reaffirm their position that human rights remain at the core of their foreign policy.
Biden administration approves $650m weapon sale to Saudi Arabia (4 November 2021) The Pentagon announced that the US State Department authorized a $650 million sale of air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia to support their defense systems. This would be the first major defense deal between the Biden administration and Riyadh, as Biden has been very critical of the Saudi led campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and vowed to end all relevant arm sales. The State Department clarified however that these missiles would ‘not be used to engage ground targets’ and were designed to intercept attacks from Houthi rebels that could endanger American and Saudi Arabian civilians as well as US military forces stationed there.
US raises Egypt’s rights record as ‘strategic dialogue’ begins (8 November 2021) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry began a strategic dialogue that will cover several regional issues, chief among them the military coup in Sudan and the status of nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Biden administration has faced pressure from rights groups to adopt a tougher stance with Egypt, which has been accused of holding thousands of political prisoners and suppressing political opposition to the el-Sisi regime. While Blinken lauded Egypt’s role in negotiating a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel following the outbreak of violence in May, the Biden administration has also withheld $130 million in military aid to Egypt until they commit to ending their persecution of human rights groups and civil society groups. Despite this dilemma, however, Blinken established that Egypt and the US share a mutual interest in restoring democracy in Sudan.
US, Israel, UAE, Bahrain launch joint naval drills in Red Sea (11 November 2021) The US, Israel, UAE, and Bahrain participated in a joint naval training exercise meant to ‘enhance interoperability between the navies of the four countries. As the Red Sea is situated between the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal, it is a vital shipping route for global trade. The region has also seen an escalation of maritime conflicts between the US and Iran, as Tehran has accused the US and Israel of interfering with their oil shipments, while the US and Saudi Arabia claim that Iran has been funneling weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
US envoy visiting Middle East allies ahead of Iran nuclear talks (11 November 2021) The US special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, will be traveling to the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain before resuming negotiations with Iran regarding their nuclear program. As the Biden administration looks to mediate a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Malley is seeking to coordinate a unified strategy with the Gulf nations who largely opposed the JCPOA. During the Trump administration, which abandoned the JCPOA, a maximum pressure sanctions campaign was put in place, and activist groups are now calling on Biden to lift these sanctions as a demonstration of the administration’s commitment to a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. The Biden administration has previously stated that they are exploring other options should the return to the JCPOA not come to fruition.
US defense chief pledges to counter Iran during Bahrain visit (20 November 2021) During his visit to Bahrain US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reiterated the Biden administration’s goal of ensuring that Iran will not obtain nuclear weapons. Many Gulf nations, and in particular Saudi Arabia, are skeptical of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal and are questioning the US’s engagement in the region following the hasty departure from Afghanistan. Secretary Austin was clear in his reassurance to regional allies that the US will continue to support its partners in the region.
Islamic State down but not out in Syria and Iraq: Pentagon report (26 November 2021) A report from Pentagon’s Inspector General on Operation Inherent Resolve has concluded that while the military operation to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been effective, ISIS continues to have an operational capacity in the region. In Iraq, the number of attacks has diminished, but the attacks that do occur demonstrate a high level of ‘operational maturity’, and in Syria ISIS is gathering forces to prepare for the next phase of insurgency.
France hosts Libya conference ahead of polls in war-torn nation (12 November 2021) French President Emmanuel Macron will be hosting an international conference in Paris concerning the situation in Libya. The primary goal of the gathering will be to ensure that elections in Libya planned for the 24th of December run smoothly and serve to bring together a nation that has been embroiled in a civil war. To that effect, the issue of foreign forces present in Libya remains a significant threat to the realization of elections, as the number of mercenaries from the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group, Sudan, Chad, and Syria sits at nearly 20,000 fighters. A notable absence from the conference will be Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune who took offense to comments made by Emmanuel Macron concerning the ‘political-military system’ in Algeria that in Macron’s view espouses anti-French sentiments.
France to probe whether Egypt used its intel to target civilians (23 November 2021) The French military announced they would be launching a formal investigation after an investigative website revealed documents suggesting that the Egyptian government used French intelligence to hunt civilians who were purportedly smuggling goods across the Libyan border. The covert military operation was intended to be an antiterrorism effort, which is unusual given that the highest incidence of terrorist activity in Egypt is in the Sinai peninsula, not on the western border with Libya. The investigative website Disclose claims that between 2016 and 2018 hundreds of civilians may have been killed in the mission and that French soldiers continue to be deployed in western Egypt.
Will UK's proscription of Hamas stop charity work in Gaza? (25 November 2021) After an amendment to the Terrorism Act 2000 to designate Hamas as a terrorist group passed in the lower house of the UK parliament, aid groups are concerned that their work in the occupied territories will be severely restricted. While the application of the law remains unclear, it could culminate in labeling Gaza as a region governed by a terrorist organization and therefore charities and aid groups working there would be complicit in aiding and promoting terrorism. Of particular concern is how the bank accounts of charities would be affected, as securing and delivering funds to Gaza, which currently has an unemployment rate of around 45%, could be jeopardized by the adoption of this amendment.
Moscow builds ties with Tripoli government before December vote (24 November 2021) A deputation of the Russian army was received by the chief of staff of the Libyan army controlled by the Presidential Council, a sign that Moscow is working to establish a stronger relationship with the military command in western Libya. This marks a significant change in Russia’s policy towards Libya. Russia previously coordinated all their security-sphere operations with Khalifa Hiftar who led the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) that were fighting the Libyan army in the west until a ceasefire was agreed to last year. Although Russian media has long vilified the military of western Libya, the overtures being made to the Government of National Accord demonstrate Moscow’s desire to establish relationships with other candidates in the race for Libya’s presidency, especially if Hiftar’s chances of being elected were to fall or if elections were to be pushed back. Additionally, Russian oil companies have resumed their oil production and exploration for oil fields in the region.
Russia criticises U.S. over threat of escalation with Iran at IAEA (26 November 2021) Russia's ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov chastised the US for raising tensions with Iran as negotiations for a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remain gridlocked. The US admonished Iran that unless they complied with IAEA demands, such as reinstalling video cameras in nuclear facilities, that they were ready to pursue other strategies to ensure they wouldn’t be able to develop nuclear weapons.
Is Saudi Arabia’s wealth fund tipping towards China? (4 November 2021) The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, valued at $450 billion, has applied for a Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor license in China that will allow them to trade renminbi stocks without using a third-party intermediary. While the Public Investment Fund has mostly invested in Europe and the US, China’s close relationship with Aramco, and the belief that their regulatory peak has passed, has made them an attractive market for foreign investment.
Other Countries/Middle East
Bahrain urges citizens in Lebanon to leave as rift widens (2 November 2021) The Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs has urged all of their citizens in Lebanon to leave as soon as possible as the rift between the Arab Gulf countries and Lebanon continues to worsen. After Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi was caught on tape criticizing the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait each expelled their Lebanese envoys, while the UAE recalled their diplomats from Lebanon. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) issued a statement denouncing Kordahi’s comments while the emir of Qatar confirmed he would send his Foreign Minister to Beirut to resolve the dispute.
Iran: Nuclear talks with world powers to resume on November 29 (3 November 2021) Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani and the European Union confirmed that an agreement to resume nuclear talks in Vienna on November 29th has been reached. The new round of talks will be chaired by EU diplomat Enrique Mora, as the US seeks a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Iran pushes for the cessation of sanctions that were enacted when the US left the JCPOA during the Trump administration. State Department spokesman Ned Price stated that a return to the JCPOA could happen quickly if Iran is committed to doing so, but the recently elected Raisi administration is likely to adopt a more obdurate position in negotiations than the previous Rouhani administration.
Lebanese PM urges minister to ‘take right decision’ over GCC rift (4 November 2021) Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati called on Information Minister George Kordahi to place the national interest before his own after the latter made remarks supporting the Houthi rebels’ right to defend themselves from the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. The comments were not received well by Gulf nations, as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Bahrain have all recalled diplomats from Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia announced a ban on all Lebanese Exports. Kordahi was selected for the position of Information Minister by the Marada Movement, which is backed by Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia has had an increasingly tense relationship with Lebanon as Hezbollah, which is aligned with Iran, has seen in their influence grow as the Lebanese economy continues to falter and political gridlock persists.
Morocco’s king says Western Sahara status not up for debate (7 November 2021) During a speech celebrating the 46th anniversary of the Green March, King Mohamed VI of Morocco reaffirmed his belief that the Western Sahara is Moroccan sovereign territory. The Western Sahara, which has long been a source of conflict between Morocco and Algeria, has come back to the forefront of Algerian-Moroccan relations after the ceasefire between Morocco and the separatist POLISARIO Front broke down in 2020, and the US formally recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the region in exchange for normalized relations with Israel. The UN has worked towards reviving the truce that was reached in 1991, but finding common ground will be challenging as Algeria ruptured diplomatic ties with Morocco in August and the POLISARIO Front has remained steadfast in its demand for a UN-supervised referendum for self-determination.
UAE foreign minister meets Syria’s Assad in Damascus (9 November 2021) UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and became the first Emirati official to visit Damascus since 2011. While the UAE initially backed rebel forces fighting Assad during the onset of the Syrian civil war, the visit from bin Zayed is in line with the regional turning of the tide that has seen Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon all reach out to Damascus this year. As Assad has gradually pushed rebel forces back and consolidated territory, many Arab nations are coming to accept that Assad’s grip on power will not be loosened, and are therefore moving towards reintegrating Syria back into the Arab region.
Qatar has no plan to normalise ties with Syria: Foreign minister (12 November 2021) In a press conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani declared that Qatar has no intention of normalizing relations with Syria. After several regional partners, namely the UAE, and Jordan, recently made overtures to Damascas, Al Thani made clear that Qatar will not be following suit. Secretary Blinken meanwhile, reiterated the US’s opposition to normalization with Syria and advised US allies to recall the crimes the Syrian regime had committed against their own people.
Iran, Turkey hope to sign ‘cooperation road map’ in Erdogan visit (15 November 2021) Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during his visit to Tehran, the first from a high-ranking Turkish official since Raisi took office earlier this year. The foremost topics of discussion were the situation in Afghanistan and the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Cavusoglu made the case that Iran’s return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could be the foundation for greater economic cooperation between the two nations and would bring stability to the region. While the conversations were overwhelmingly positive, the major point of contention between the two countries continues to be in the South Caucasus, where Turkey is aligned with Azerbaijan while Iran remains wary of Azerbaijan’s ties to Israel.
UAE crown prince to visit Turkey for first time in ten years (15 November 2021) UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) will be traveling to Turkey for the first time in ten years in what could be a turning point in Emirati-Turkish relations. Erdogan has kept the UAE at arm’s length after blaming them for supporting the failed coup against him in 2016, and for subverting Turkish interests in Libya. MBZ will be laying out investments worth an estimated $10 billion in Turkish defense, healthcare, and financial technology companies during his visit.
Turkey offers to support talks to resolve Lebanon-GCC crisis (16 November 2021) Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has met with his Lebanese counterpart Abdullah Bou Habib to mediate the ongoing conflict between Lebanon and the Arab Gulf states. After the Lebanese Information Minister criticized the Saudi-led war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, several Gulf countries recalled their diplomats from Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia banned all Lebanese imports. Saudi Arabia viewed the comments as a symbol of the increased influence that Hezbollah, and therefore Iran, is having in Lebanese politics. Meanwhile, Lebanon continues to weather the economic crisis that has seen their currency devalued by more than 90%. Turkey has sent food aid to the Lebanese army and offered financial support to rebuild the Beirut Port and bolster the Lebanese economy.
Egypt coordinates with Tanzania as Ethiopian dam negotiations paused (19 November 2021) Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hosted Tanzanian President Samia Hassan to consolidate their efforts in the negotiations for the Grand Ethiopian Resistance Dam (GERD). Egypt is an important economic partner for Tanzania and is financing the Julius Nyerere hydropower dam project to demonstrate that they are committed to help countries upstream of the Nile meet their development and water needs. Egypt and Sudan remain steadfastly opposed to signing the Entebbe Agreement, which would limit their water shares to 55.5 billion and 18.5 billion cubic meters respectively, as Egypt looks to revitalize bilateral relations with African nations in the Nile Basin to bolster their position ahead of the GERD negotiations. Those negotiations, hosted by the African Union, remain at a standstill as Ethiopia looks to postpone them until their domestic issues in the Tigray region no longer pose an existential threat to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.
Oman, Qatar sign agreements during sultan’s visit to Doha (22 November 2021) Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said of Oman signed a wide range of deals ranging from military cooperation to taxation during his visit to Doha, Qatar. The principal aim of these deals is to ameliorate Oman’s debt-burdened economy, which was hurt by the 2014 oil crash and then again by the COVID-19 pandemic. Oman is among the most financially fragile Gulf Arab states, despite the austerity measures and economic reforms Sultan Al Said has passed during his reign.
Libya’s elections could hinge on Turkey’s next move (24 November 2021) As Libya looks to hold elections in late December, Turkey’s involvement before and after the planned elections could be decisive in determining the country’s future. Turkey is backing Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, whose candidature is now in question following the passage of a new election law that bars Dbeibah from running while allowing Khalifa Haftar and Said Gaddafi to contend for the Libyan Presidency. Turkey’s interests in Libya are to maintain their military presence there, which they claim is in accordance with international law, and to ensure that the eventual winner will abide by a maritime law that establishes Turkey’s sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Prime Minister Dbeibah’s exclusion from the election has forced Turkey to consider other options, such as possibly supporting Gaddafi’s bid to prevent Hiftar from becoming president, even though Gaddafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. While a Hiftar presidency would certainly be at odds with Turkish interests in the region, there is a greater concern that his election could reignite the civil war in Libya, and Dbeibah would be best poised to ensure that would not happen if he were allowed to run.
Morocco, Israel sign first-ever defence agreement in Rabat (24 November 2021) Moroccan Defense Minister Abdellatif Loudiyi and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed a historic defense agreement in Rabat, the first-ever between Morocco and Israel. While Morocco has had informal relations with Israel for many years, the Abraham Accords ratified during the Trump administration saw Morocco normalize relations with Israel in exchange for US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
UAE in talks with Taliban to operate Kabul airport: Report (24 November 2021) The UAE has begun discussions with the Taliban as multiple countries vie for the opportunity to manage Kabul’s airport. Qatar has long been an important player in Afghanistan as they hosted the Taliban’s political bureau in Doha, and were instrumental in supporting the US evacuation, which they represent diplomatically in Afghanistan. The UAE and Qatar have long been at odds with each other, and while control of the Kabul airport will not bring significant economic benefits to either nation, it would provide them with intelligence on movement in and out of Afghanistan. The key outstanding issue concerns the security situation of the airport as the Taliban insist they do not want foreign forces in Afghanistan even though the airport remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Israel to bar Morocco, Saudi Arabia and UAE from importing its cyber tech, says report (25 November 2021) Calcalist, an Israeli financial newspaper, has reported that Israel has significantly reduced the list of countries that will be able to buy their cyber technologies. The NSO Group has come under particular scrutiny for their Pegasus software after various international media organizations revealed that journalists, politicians, and human rights organizations had their cell phones hacked using the spyware. Among the countries removed from the list were the UAE, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, all of whom were discovered to have used Pegasus to surveil politicians. The NSO Group is also embroiled in a lawsuit from Apple, which could render the spyware obsolete if Apple moves to prohibit them from using their software, services, and products.
Syria: People in Idlib rue adoption of plummeting Turkish lira (26 November 2021) In the rebel-held areas of Syria the Turkish lira, which has replaced the Syrian pound, no longer allows many families to meet their daily needs as the price of goods rise and wages fall. The value of the Turkish lira continues to drop precipitously and the Idlib region, which the UN estimates has 97% of the population living in extreme poverty, is also burdened with a protracted civil war and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Treaties, Agreements, United Nations, Statistics
Turkey’s President Erdogan to skip COP26 climate summit (1 November 2021) After attending the G20 summit in Rome Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to Ankara, opting to miss out on the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. While no specific reason was cited for his absence, Turkey’s Minister of Environment, Urbanisation, And Climate Change, Murat Kurum, will be attending the climate summit. Turkey became the last country to ratify the Paris climate agreement last month as they criticized the accord for classifying Turkey as a developed country rather than a developing country. In recent months they have also suffered several natural disasters such as a prolonged drought that is affecting farms and water resources and extreme winds that have injured several people in Istanbul.
Israel and Jordan to sign UAE-mediated deal exchanging water for solar energy (17 November 2021) Israel and Jordan are set to ratify a deal that will see a solar farm built in the Jordanian desert in exchange for Israel providing water to Jordan. The deal, mediated by the UAE and US special envoy for climate change John Kerry, will be one of the most important energy projects that Israel has ever carried out with one of its neighbors, and is set to produce 2% of Israel’s energy by 2050. Jordan on the other hand is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, and under the agreement will be doubling their water purchases from Israel. During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tenure in office, relations with Jordan were strained, but the new Israel government is demonstrating its commitment to maintaining its relationship with the Hashemite Kingdom.
UN Libya envoy quits weeks before planned election (23 November 2021) UN special envoy for Libya Jan Kubis has resigned from his position leaving the UN to fill a critical position before Libya’s election in December. Kubis’ resignation has come at a critical moment as the December elections were agreed to in the ceasefire agreement that ended Libya’s ten-year-long civil war between the internationally recognized government and Khalifa Hiftar’s Libyan National Army. Kubis’ eventual successor will have to be approved by the UN Security Council, which is working to fill the vacancy left by Mr. Kubis.