A faltering marriage – are Washington and Riyadh growing apart?

It’s the year of 2002. The US administration under President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Rumsfeld has ignored the widespread outrage from a vocal international community, bypassed the UN Security Council and unilaterally invaded Iraq, pre-emptively responding to the alleged threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein – and wrestling control of the third richest oil fields in the Middle East from the Baath socialists’ leader while at it. Up and coming legislator Barrack Obama voices his condemnation of Bush’s hawkish trigger-happiness in a thunderous speech. Referring to the coup as a ‘stupid war’, Obama challenges the commander in chief: “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure that our so-called allies in the Middle East – the Saudis and the Egyptians – stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality.”

It is one thing to condemn geopolitical kow-towing from a comfortable front row seat in the opposition. It is another completely to navigate the political and economic realities while pulling the strings oneself while attempting not to cut said strings on the razor-sharp complexities of the Middle East.

Reluctant Partnership – A marriage for mutual benefit

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It looked as if little were to change

Obama’s personal attitude to the Saudi Kingdom has not changed over the course of his presidency – when asked by Australian Prime Minister Turnbull in November whether he considered the Saudi administration friends, Obama replied “it’s complicated”. Complicated indeed. While still morally in-tune with his 2002 speech, the President Elect of 2008 had to accept his countries’ dependence on the Kingdom. In his first years, shale oil still sounded like Sci-Fi and American energy independence was a concept too foreign to imagine. Consequentially, Riyadh was a foreign policy ingredient Barrack Obama (though reluctantly) had to embrace – literally bowing down to King Abdullah in 2009. The gesture of respect went around the world, signalling another term of oil-induced partnership. It was a symbolic appeasement not only out of hunger for hydrocarbons: the relentless Saudi effort to establish economic and military dominance in the Arab world (whether through advisory, financial and military efforts in Yemen and Lebanon, developmental subsidies to the Gulf States or ideological teaching efforts in Egypt) had left the House of Saud as one of the two unchallenged powerbrokers in the region – Israel being the second. With Riyadh effectively ruling the Arab league, the governments under King Abdullah and King Salman were more useful a friend than they would be a foe.

 

 

The mutual benefit stagnates and the marriage turns rocky

These ties of mutual political benefit have been shaken by both economic and geopolitical realities. While seven years ago, Saudi oil monopolistically fuelled the ever-hungry US industry, game-changing shale oil procedures have allowed for a previously unimaginable degree of self-reliance in the United States. The resulting flux in trade deficit between the two countries plays out favourably for the States – and doesn’t look so pretty from a Saudi perspective. As demand for fossil fuel imports drops in the world’s largest economy, so does the price. Subsequently, Saudi export profits drop. Simultaneously, the rich resource havens of Iran (an estimate 150,000 Million untapped barrels of black gold) are accessible to the world again – increasing the available oil supply and additionally introducing further competition, both of which push prices down. With oil accounting for 80% of Saudi budget revenue and 90% of exports, the future doesn’t loopec_ref_price_0809ok all that rosy. The resulting concerns aren’t of purely economic nature, however. The fading energy reliance of the US had long silenced criticism out of Washington and given King Salman’s government a valuable bargaining chip. But this bargaining chip is falling victim to a frightening rate of inflation. The harshest of anti-Iran rhetoric did not deter Kerry, Obama and co. from implementing the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015 – a resounding confirmation that Saudi Arabia, while still influential in Washington, can no longer insist on demands from the White House and can, more importantly, not rely on unconditional US support in the eternal strife between Saudi Arabia and its regional competitor.

Politics and trust – how reliable an ally is the US?

Now Iran emerges with improving international relations and exponentially growing budget revenues, undercutting the Saudi claim to Arab dominance. But even the mere possibility for an Iran nuclear deal has worrying implications for Riyadh, irrevocably provoking uncertainty about the security of US alliances. Bush’s talk of a “reliable partnership” seems increasingly delusional if held against the light of 2016’s realities – and recent US foreign policy has not been very successful at establishing trust. In 2013, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s ‘red line’, allegedly utilising Sarin against civilians, the White House’s reconsideration of said red line sent shock waves through the Middle East. Is the word of the US administration worth as much as it should be? Hosni Mubarak, longstanding President of Egypt and established US ally, did not see stars-and-stripes banners come to his rescue when his government was at its breaking point – another uncomfortable truth for Riyadh to acknowledge. The Wahhabist monarchy is no longer (politically as well as economically) indispensable to the US, and it is highly unlikely that the Pentagon would rush to save the House of Saud if the situation became dire.

Has the US fallen out of love?

The Obama administration is flirting with Teheran and its mutual-benefit relationship with the Saudi Kingdom is becoming increasingly cold. For years, US and Saudi policies in the Middle East had aligned (with the exception of the foreign policy stances toward Washington’s true love in the region, Israel). Now, the United States have made it agenda item number one to destroy the ‘Islamic State’, but the fight against the terrorist group falls short of making it to the top of Riyadh’s priority list. Saudi Arabia sees the emergence of Iran as the predominant threat to stability in the Middle East (one can safely assume that a ‘stable’ Middle East, as seen by Saudi legislators, is one spearheaded by a dominant Saudi Kingdom). Consequentially, King Salman looks to depose of Bashar al-Assad, the unlikely secular friend and ally of Iran’s Khamenei, attempting to bypass all Iranian influence in the region. Meanwhile, the US considers cooperating with Iran to defeat both ISIL and Al-Nusra. While the White House favours a secular, democratic, religiously completely impartial, pro free-trade government in Syria, Saudi Arabia would certainly not say ‘no’ to a Sunni-based, Islamic-oriented rule.

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The 27 missing pages might place Saudi officials in a precarious position. Majority speaker Paul Ryan, among others, backs the release

Diplomatically, the Syrian civil keeps stirring up additional tension – several reports have alleged wealthy and influential Saudi individuals to be closely affiliated or financially supportive of IS. Presidential candidates on both the Republican and the Democratic side of the aisle (Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders, among others) see anti-Shiite rhetoric from leading Wahhabi clerics as one of the key factors in the ideological rise of Sunni extremism. Saudi Arabia categorically denies any financial or ideological involvement. And the coming elections do not offer any consolation for the Kingdom: there is no winning bet left among the pool of candidates. While the Republican contenders are no fans of the Iranian nuclear deal, looking to strengthen diplomatic ties with Riyadh and cutting those to Teheran, the Elephants simultaneously seek to boost domestic oil production and thereby diminish dependence on Saudi energy. The Democratic side is looking to curb fracking, which would drive the oil price back up – but favour strengthening ties with Iran.

The willingness to criticise the Saudi monarchy has skyrocketed, and accusations have flared up with reinvigorated heat, as the Pentagon is currently withholding, but might release, a 27-page document potentially implicating Saudi nationals in the planning and execution of the September-11 attacks. In response, the government in Riyadh has threatened to drop 750 billion dollars in US assets – a shock that would send stock markets spiralling.

Still tied together

A release of the papers followed by economic Saudi retaliation would be a hard hit for both states – the giants of foreign policy are still deeply entangled through trade and a multitude of aligned ambitions. For one, the Saudi oil supply is a cornerstone of the US industry. Then, Saudi Arabia has been a willing customer of military equiptment: the Pentagon and the State Department have sealed record arms deals under the Obama administration, up from 16 to 60 billion dollars. But further, fighting the ‘Islamic State’, reaching a peace deal in Yemen, stabilizing Libya, deposing of Bashar al-Assad and implementing necessary infrastructure to boost free trade and open up markets are integral elements of Washington’s and Riyadh’s foreign policies. And with the economic and military might of the two superpowers, collaboration is far more attractive than conflict.

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Mohammed bin Salman al Saud is seen as a highly competent reformer, in Saudi Arabia and abroad

Saudi Arabia and the United States still reap the benefits of their mutual strategic partnership. But it is a partnership that has become rocky – rocky enough for Riyadh to realise that it can no longer blindly rely on its reluctant ally by capitalising on the same, blunt but forceful economic bargaining chips. Prince Mohammed bin Salman – seen by many as the likely successor to King Salman despite being second in line – has been pushing an agenda of radical reform at an opportune time. His ambitious economic target is to build a Saudi Arabian economy that no longer depends on fossil fuels – a diversification that would in turn disentangle Saudi Arabia from its own dependence on the US and the high-risk oil industry. Furthermore, the targeted political reform (which encompasses granting women driving rights and easing the stranglehold of the religious police) seems tailored to boost the attractiveness of collaborating with the Kingdom.

 

Prospects for the House of Saud and its royal reserve of black gold

But despite this diversification, Riyadh is not about to yield its dominance on the crude oil market. Throughout 2015, the Kingdom has been drilling for oil at unprecendented rates, accepting the price dive while evoking despair amongst competitors. Saudi Arabia has the second largest oil reserves on the planet, second only to Vene1x-1zuela. With 270,000 Million barrels, Saudi wells hold almost twice that of the Iranian reserves – the Kingdom can keep up a competitive rate of production while competitors have to moderate draining their resources. Consequentially, the state-owned Saudi fossil fuel companies can grow their market share by simply outdrilling the rest of the world. The Kingdom’s officials proved their willingness to keep up this brutally unregulated, free market strategy last week in Doha, walking out of the production-freeze negotiations on the day of signing the treaty. Members of OPEC had been attempting to settle the all-or-nothing oil rush to maximise revenues across the board. Saudi Arabia’s powerplay sacrifices short term profits for market share and influence – a risk-seeking policy that could yield a high return in the long run.

Over all, Saudi Arabian policymakers have become increasingly vocal, proactive and assertive on the international stage in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal. Recent efforts include the formation of a 30+ country coalition to combat terrorism in Syria, negotiations with Israel to keep mutual adversary Iran at bay, pushing domestic reform and bullying competitors on the oil market. Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MbS) touted his countries’ capacity to raise the daily output of oil by another million, to 11.5 million barrels a day. The Saudi Kingdom has had decades to develop extensive drilling infrastructure, boosting the acessability of the already easily available crude oil. Neither Iran, which has had neither the time nor the galactic financial resources of its regional rival nor the United States, which have to apply sophisticated and complex procedures simply to access domestic oil wells can dream of keeping up.

And yet, the economic and geopolitical resurgence of Iran may have introduced some much needed competition to the effective Saudi monopoly as a powerbroker in the Middle East. As in any monopolistic market, Saudi Arabia has been able to dictate its terms – but in light of flourishing competition, the Kingdom is now forced to, beyond offering competitive oil prices, paint and prove itself as a beacon of stability and cooperation in the Middle East. The pressure may drive Riyadh precisely toward what Obama hoped to achieve in 2002 – the peaceful transition towards an increasingly ‘westernised’ Saudi Arabia. The ‘Arab spring’ lies mere years in the past, and its message still resonates – through Northern Africa, the Levant, the Gulf States: no matter how secure a God-given autocracy may seem, popular uprisings don’t lose traction with time, they gain it. And it is in the Kingdom’s interest to avoid such an uprising at all costs. It is more apparent than ever: a regime has to be utterly indispensable for Star-Spangled Banners to be seen rushing to its aid when worst comes to worst. And if Saudi Arabia is no longer economically indispensable to Washington, Riyadh will have to prove its worth politically.

The state of the Middle East – this week’s dose of proxy warfare

It is one of the eternal cornerstones of foreign policy doctrine. Whenever there is rapid change in the balance of power, wherever the geopolitical status quo is in flux, one spark may ignite the fires of international and intranational strife. Whether a new superpower emerges or another secedes – when scales shift, weights may fall, crushing those caught in the way. The economic resurgence of Germany pre WW2, the crumbling political stranglehold of the Soviet Union in the late 80s or the inception of defence juggernaut Israel after the Second World War – small changes in power, much like an avalanche, draw bigger changes in power.

This seemingly immutable law, the ever-present underlying danger of change had foreign policy hawks up in arms and international relations pundits scramble for pen and paper (or, more likely, a laptop and coffee) at the prospect of the Iranian nuclear deal being implemented. Saudi Arabia and Israel – the previously unchallenged regional leaders in all matters military and economy alike fiercely opposed the gamechanger. The prospect of reintegrating Iran into the global market was a blow especially to the Saudi Kingdom. Riyadh relies on its oil – accounting for 90% of exports and 80% of the budget revenue. The rich resource havens of Iran, now accessible to the global community, have the power to undermine the economic force of the Saudi Kingdom. Furthermore, as the icy relations with Teheran are thawing worldwide, King Salman and his government see political influence fade – Saudi Arabia is no longer the sole dominant powerbroker in the Arab world.

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The numbers say it all

Proxy wars, religious resentment and geopolitical ambition

The two countries proceeded to engage in a PR war – with high profile moves on the chessboard of the Middle East dominating the global media circus. But the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr in the Kingdom was only the tip to the mountain of hostilities. The measured verbal aggression and deliberate political provocation are both diplomatic continuations of clashing proxies: Last year, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels rose up in insurgency against the Yemeni government – King Salman’s leadership responded decisively and with a hard hand, lashing out with force and drawing criticism of rights groups for its alleged disdain for human rights. On March 15th, Human Rights Watch reports, a Saudi airstrike in the town of Mastaba targeted a crowded market, killing 97 civilians.

And yet, the conflict in Yemen is only one of many proxy wars – from a strategic point of view, both parties attempt to divide the Middle East along the Sunni-Shia line, placing themselves at the forefront of such a block. While geopolitically expedient especially for Saudi Arabia (aiming to spearhead the vastly larger Sunni population), the propagated religious polarisation has placed secular and fundamentalist governments alike in a fragile balance. Religious leaders in Iran and Saudi Arabia both promote the necessity of choosing – with Iran or against Iran, with Saudi Arabia or against Saudi Arabia. Attempting to align national identity with the political implications of Shia or Sunni faiths respectively, the two superpowers are fuelling religious resentment while pursuing purely political interests. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics condemn the multiple-prophet belief of the Shia faith as non-Islamic while Iranian religious leaders evoke hatred by blaming Sunni Muslims for the murder of who they consider the true successor to Mohammed – prophet (or not a prophet, according to the Sunni faith) Hussein. Any acts of violence across the religious rift are propagated as religiously motivated violence and said religious rift widens. Secular states, such as Syria, which are prone to the influence of both states, consequentially are shaken by violence between competing fundamentalist groups.

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Saudi Arabia itself is in a precarious position – having painted the Shia minority as an unbelieving sect for years, the Kingdom is partially paralysed in its ideological response to IS-affiliated terrorism in Saudi Arabia. The self-professed ‘Islamic State’ primarily targets Shia institutions and Mosques – any condemnation of such attacks seem hypocritical. But despite their mutual disdain for Shia Muslims, any claim of ISIL attempting to get cosy with Riyadh are pure fiction. Despite allegations of individual Saudi contributors fuelling the genocidal organisation, the terrorist group sees the monarchical person-cult of the Wahhabist monarchy as unislamic. With the growing danger posed by Daesh as well as growing pressure from international allies, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have adhered and agreed to the cessation of hostilities in Syria.

Syria – silence before the storm?

For the moment, the internationally brokered ceasefire seems to hold. But Syria is still in disarray. Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force stood and stand behind Assad’s Baath government – while the latter is reportedly withdrawing at least partially, Iranian military advisors have been augmenting the military adventures of Bashar al Assad. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia lobbied for an Arab Sunni coalition to oust and replace the president, an effort endorsed and backed by Erdogan’s Turkish leadership. Israel looks on with disapproval and discontent – Hezbollah’s mere presence in Syria is not viewed very favourably from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to put it lightly.

The ‘situation’ in the Syrian Arab Republic currently resembles somewhat of a mixture between gridlock and powder-keg. No party seems ready to grant the concessions demanded by the other side. Assad and the Alevite-dominated Baath party insist on their willingness to negotiate, but simultaneously do not express any wish to compromise with regards to the governance of Syria. The US-backed opposition stands by its aim to oust the President completely while the – once again, US-backed – Kurdish population demands autonomy in both Iraq and Syria, a call that has the Turkish government in a state of high alert. With no party garnering the political upper hand to make a power play and no intersection of interest beyond the destruction of ISIL and al-Nusra in sight, Syria hangs in a frail balance. The cessation of hostilities is one spark of light, a spark of hope in a state that has seen nearly 400,000 civilians killed and 10,000,000 displaced. But despite this ray of sunlight, a spark of more malign nature could reinvigorate the flames of the fractured, chaotic civil war.

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The territorial stalemate in the Syrian Game of Thrones – at this point, no party can seize an advantageous tide, but the smallest gust could tip the balance

But the spark that could realise the frightening potential of this barrel of gunpowder could come from outside the Syrian Arab Republic.

Lebanon – still on razor’s edge

A month ago, I outlined the history of Lebanon’s fragile political balance. The two party umbrella system, has been a source of alienation since its inception. In its present form established as Syrian troops left the country after decades of effective occupation, binary politics have caused violence on both the Saudi backed March 14 and the Hezbollah aligned March 8 group. The assassination of Rafik Hariri and the ongoing inefficiency of Saudi favoured governments slowly turned the tides toward March 8

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Lebanese tides turned toward Iran under President Ahmadinejad

Hezbollah and Iran. Under the current rule, however, little has changed for Lebanon’s citizens. The country – having been without a president for a year now – according to the World Economic Forum ranks in the bottom three of 144 countries with regard to public trust in the government, satisfaction with the government and public trust in politicians. This dissatisfaction flares up in Lebanon – a recent mass protest, with the memorable motto of “you stink” gained international traction. But to little avail. Beirut’s streets were blocked by rubbish for months. This is no metaphor. Lebanon’s government – literally- can’t take its own trash out, to the point of said garbage obstructing traffic. While this story excels in comedic value and striking symbolism, there is little to laugh at when considering the potentially very dark prospects of Lebanese politics. The country, while struggling with an inefficient leadersyrianrefugeesship, hosts more than 1.5 million refugees. Lebanon itself has 4.5 million citizens. The government itself has not taken any significant steps to organise, accommodate or register any of these one and a half million people – imaginably causing significant discontent amongst many displaced citizens of Syrian or Palestine.

A Saudi retreat – has Iran won in Lebanon?

From a purely Lebanese standpoint, the Arab League’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation comes at a terribly inopportune time. Government and the Iranian proxy are more closely interwoven than ever before. Any conflict with Hezbollah directly draws March 8 and therefore Lebanon’s leadership into the line of fire – a prospect that sounds eerily familiar to the setup of regional powers roughly a decade ago – when in 2006, a clash with Israel left 1,200 Lebanese civilians dead. Now however, Hezbollah exerts more influence over the leadership in Beirut than ever before. A fight between Hezbollah and Israel would be the first step on the way towards a war between Israel and Lebanon. And this threat is not fading away. Shortly after the Arab League made its unexpected decision, King Salman’s leadership inadvertently strengthened Iran’s influence over Lebanon. For years, Saudi Arabia had sent grants of 4 billion US dollars towards the small country, including significant subsidies for the Lebanese military. The army had long served as a counterbalance to Hezbollah’s own fighting force. Withdrawing founding in effect strengthened the foothold of March 14’s radical branches – not a favourable prospect for Israel, the ideological arch enemy of the Islamist group.

Along with its founding, the Kingdom seemingly is cutting all ties to its former proxy state on Syria’s doorstep. Al-Arabia is currently closing its Beirut office, yielding the remnants of the once dominant media machine. This comes as an anti-Saudi sentiment has increasingly not only taken hold of politics, but public opinion. Last week, protesters in Beirut raised a caricature of the Saudi Arabian flag, displaying a sword ready to decapitate a captive. The characteristic writing read “The deadly house of Saud”.

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The anti-Saudi sentiment is flaring up in Lebanon

Why has Saudi Arabia decided to yield its claim to Lebanon?

Lebanese politics are a quagmire and Lebanon itself is balancing on razor’s edge. By choosing to no further keep the Iranian influence in check, king Salman’s administration may be preparing for an anticipated escalation of disagreements in Lebanon. Citizens of the small state are not shy to voice discontent with political leadership – and historical precedent for impactful protest isn’t rare: it were such protests that put an end to decades of Syrian occupation and civil unrest led to the granting of veto rights to Hezbollah – the political move that started the rise to power of Iran’s proxy. By withdrawing all influence, Saudi Arabia may be looking to let Hezbollah and March 8th run the country into another state of mass demonstrations – which would backfire onto Iran, worsening the geopolitical standing of the rising regional power.

At the same time, yielding resistance to March 8th and indirectly weakening the state military strengthens Hezbollah’s standing, at a time when both the Islamist group and the state of Israel are upping their polarizing rhetoric. Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing leadership has not hidden its complete disdain for Hezbollah, and has made clear that the IDF and the Israeli military would not be hesitant to launch a counter-operation to aggression originating from Lebanese soil. Saudi Arabia is withdrawing influence before a potential clash, staying out of the (potential) fray and allowing for the further radicalisation of Lebanese politics. Whether intentionally steering towards conflict with Israel or not – any large-scale military involvement would, once again, backfire against Iran, alienating Khomeini’s leadership in the eyes of the international community.

The explosive barrel is laced in oil – and the political balance prone to fall apart at the slightest sign of conflict. Lebanon is overburdened with refugees (making up roughly 30% of all persons in the state), has been without a prime minister for a year, is severely indebted (over 140% of its own GDP) and its citizens, since the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation are severely restricted in their travel through the Arab world (as a consequence to ‘suspicion by association’). The prospects are not rosy, and it is unlikely that the government could bounce back if it is hit. King Salman and his advisors may have given up on tilting Beirut and Tripoli back into favourable conditions, hence doing away with the extensive founding. Four billion dollars annually are no small expense – especially for a nation that is facing new, unfavourable economic realities. Meanwhile, cutting this founding may have sealed the fate of socioeconomic stability (or the remnants thereof) in Lebanon. With a crushing debt, inefficient governance, plummeting international relations, growing tension with a powerful neighbour state and radicalised, polarised politics, Lebanon is unlikely to find its own way out of the mess.

Dear GOP: Trumpisms can’t trump Trump

Hobby politician, GOP frontrunner and rhetoric demolition expert Donald J. Trump won a sweeping victory on Super Tuesday. He took home 7 states compared to Cruz’s 3 and Rubio’s 1, securing a resounding confirmation: the Republican counter-Trump strategy has failed. When ignoring the Orange Elephant had no avail in the Autumn of 2015, candidates, conservative officials and media heavyweights took to ridicule – Lindsay Graham introduced this phase by calling the choice between Cruz and Trump one between being “shot or poisoned”. Recently, Rubio took up the mantle by attacking Trump on his business failures, his fingers and his foreign policy ignorance. With Mitt 150720192000-senator-lindsey-graham-donald-trump-bolduan-intv-erin-00001130-super-169Romney’s desperate policy ballistics on Wednesday, the anti-Trump movement has entered phase 3: parentative pleading. The 2012 Republican nominee seemed exasperated with Trump’s widespread support among all Republican Demographics – the impression he gave was that of an annoyed mother, fed up with a kid’s outlandish behaviour.

But despite exponentially increasing efforts (and increasingly sharp soundbites, in the style of “a vote for Trump is as worthless as a degree from Trump university”) the media-mogul is still riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment. It’s impossible to deny: ‘The Donald’ is leading a movement of the politically disenfranchised. Frustrated with economic stagnation and irritated by Washington’s inability to relieve the declining Middle Class, Trump’s supporters want to bring ‘change’ to the White House and “make America great again”. The grandiose image of wealth and power that is associated with the Trump-brand inspires their confidence that a Trumpian America will indeed be a ‘great’ one.

The Trumpian Appeal

Rhetorically, the anti-establishment (and apparently anti-policy) candidate has been able to fuel the mushrooming populist support by applying a form of reduced reasoning: he reduces an issue (illegal immigration, lack of economic growth, expensive healthcare) to a short, memorable, maximally 5-word battlecry, clearly identifying the predominant detrimental factor and an external scapegoat. Illegal immigration became ‘criminal Mexicans taking our work’, economic stagnation turned into ‘China is stealing our companies’, expensive healthcare metamorphosed into ‘they’re not competitive enough’. The scapegoat seems like a logically predominant variable causing the initial issue and Trump’s vehement insistence regarding the factuality of his claim catches on to other Right-wing pundits quickly. Mr Trump then promises, in the most simplistic and straightforward manner possible, to eliminate said detrimental variable – “We’re going to build a wall”, “We’ll bring our jobs back from China and Japan”, “We’ll get rid of the lines around the state”. Scapegoating an external force or party, Donald J. Trump manages to rally his angry following against Immigrants, China, Muslim terrorists, Iran, Obama & Obamacare. He does not need to talk policy – he attracts supporters with criticism. The frustration with gridlock and ineffective politics draws irritated Americans towards a political candidate who refuses to talk policy. With the Billionaire promising to smash the status quo, these irritated Americans make up the most loyal following of any of the presidential candidates. This is why, when the definition of a Republican establishment politician (in the form of Mitt Romney) came knocking at Trump’s rhetoric front door, the billionaire could just laugh it off. But just why didn’t any of the plentiful attacks hit home?

No soundbites, ridicule and condemnation have been able to curb this loyalty. But isn’t that only logical? Trump’s voters identify strongly with his campaign and its unforgettable slogan and motto – “Make America great again”.  They are united in their frustrations with DC and the political class. And because of this unity and this identification, an attack of ridicule against the Trump-campaign is an attack of ridicule against his followers. Calling his message ‘stupid’ or engaging in Graham-like insults only further alienates these followers. Imagine to have your intellectual validity questioned due to your political allegiance. Are you more likely to be swayed to vote for the harsh critic or identify more strongly with your initial position? This is a political truth that the GOP seems to have realised too late – Trump was ignored, brushed aside or, if anything, faced attempts at delegitimisation. And don’t misunderstand me: by no stretch of the imagination can Donald Trump be considered a legitimate politician. Regardless of that, the self-superior conduct of establishment politicians in the end fuelled the monstrosity that is the Trump campaign.

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Trump’s oversimplified ‘solutions’ are naught but hot air. But his followers are real.

Tackling Trump?

If anyone wants to stop ‘The Donald’ now, they will have to take him seriously. They have to – whether ideologically avert to their sentiment or not – accept the legitimacy of Trump’s followers. The billionaire’s presidential run is not simply fuelled, carried and perpetuated by myriads of headlines and a bloodthirsty media circus. His demographically diverse, loyal support carries the demagogue. To stop him, one will have to guide the anti-establishment sentiment away from the eccentric businessman. ‘Make America great again’ must in the minds of Trump’s supporters be disentangled from the Trump-brand. Only then can the poll numbers be eroded underneath the feet of the populist propagator. If any politician wants to sustainably abrade the foundation of Trumpian political success, they will have to praise the will of his grassroots movement.  Only then will the GOP be able to fire at will into the many critical structural weakspots in the bombastically pompous ship that is Trump’s candidacy. Only then will one be able to take on what should be a minute challenge: use reason, not resent to diplomatically highlight Donald J. Trump’s inability and unsuitability to serve in the oval office. Because one thing is for certain: Mr Trump is neither worthy nor ready to serve as the next president of the United States of America.

Understanding the Middle East: Lebanon – On Razor’s Edge

A country with less than 5 million legal residents – hosting nearly 2 million refugees, 1 million of those recently displaced by the brutal civil war in Syria. A government, which ranks 144th on a list of 144 countries with regards to public trust in politicians (ranked by the world economic forum). A state without a president, in which the two dominant political groups perpetuate two completely different geopolitical objectives. Lebanon – battleground for Iranian and Saudi Arabian proxies – is balancing on razor’s edge. The small country is easy to miss on a map – but understanding its history and plight is crucial to understanding the essence of modern conflict in the Middle East.

 

The root of diversity – religio-historical context

The region that’s sometimes referred to as the Levant or ‘Sham’ in the Arabic world (meaning north), has been a melting pot for religious and cultural diversity since the inception of Islam. While the medieval inquisition in Europe brutally eradicated religious sects and subgroups, the lords, caliphs and sultans reigning over parts of ‘Sham’ (which encompasses Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and parts of Iraq) realised that ruling over the theologically fractured land was far easier by tolerating diversity rather than quenching it. In the Middle East Christians of Catholic, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Orthodox and Maronite faiths could live relatively unperturbed. The Muslim lords (often conquerors) saw significantly less opposition from the conquered if their culture and faith were left to them. Consequentially, before the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, Damascus par exempla was home to Sunni, Shia, Alevite, Druze and Ismaili Muslims. This religious diversity, along with the historical prevalence of local rule was the reason foimage1r ‘Arabs’ not identifying as Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi or Palestinian, but as Muslim, Christian or Jew or as Sunni, Shia or Alevite; maybe even as resident of this town or that town. This mentality went undisturbed until and even beyond the Sikes-Picot agreement of 1916, when Britain and France divided up the conquered regions of the Ottoman Empire into mandates. Egypt and Iraq fell under British rule while Lebanon and Syria became French.

Even then, the artificial division did rather little to impact the social implications of being Muslim, Jew or Christian (or to which sect or group one belonged). ‘Nationality’ was still highly artificial – as opposed to the European model, where nations like France, England and Sweden can look back at a long, proud national narrative. And in spite of the absence of national unity, competing faiths were tolerated.

But tolerance does not imply acceptance. Since Islam’s early history, Muslim missionaries saw Jews and Christians as ‘people of the book’ – praying to the one and only God. The Bible and the Torah however, were (according to devout Muslims) inherently flawed due to being partially penned centuries after the teachings of God’s prophets had been heard. Islam sees Judaism and Christianity as an imperfect predecessor to Muhammed’s teachings – consequentially, Jews and Christians were tolerated as ‘protected people’ by Islamic governments and rulers. Still, these rulers insisted on Islam’s claim for superiority over all religions. Christians and Jews were required to pay higher taxes and were frequently barred from official posts.

 

The root of resentment – fuelling religious conflicts

Out of political expedience (or out of religious superiority complexes, who knows what the colonialists of old thought) the French imperialist leaders began to favour Maronite Christians in the newly founded province of ‘Mont Liban’ (a part of modern-day Lebanon, home to a Maronite majority). With a narrative of European and Christian supremacy, Maronite Christians were admitted to French schools, the best and brightest were educated in European metropoles like Paris. Maronite Christians were offered government posts – having been previously subjugated as ‘tolerated, but not accepted’, this aligned the Maronite Christians with the colonial lords. Similarly, France favoured the Alevite Muslim group in Syria (who tend to be more open to Christian ideas, embracing the idea of three manifestations of God as well as not being rigid with regard to prayer and symbolic religion). The French and the British were ‘dividing and conquering’.

By doing so, they had driven the biggest rift between the Muslims of Christians of the Middle East since the crusades. Even then, several Christian minorities had devotedly fought against the European crusaders. But the anger and resentment in the 19th century – initially targeted against western colonialism – culminated in an anger against the perceived new Christian crusade. In Damascus (before the Sykes-Picot agreement) this resentment became the death sentence for 3,000 Christians. As an angry mob wiped Churches clean off the map, the 9th of July 1860 showed how big the rift between religions was becoming. The French government saw itself reaffirmed in courting Maronite Christians – aiming to hand leadership in the Middle East to European-minded, more ‘civilised’ thinkers. In the following time, Lebanon flourished economically. Beirut overtook Damascus and Aleppo in terms of trade – and until the civil war of 1975, very little would change about that.

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Mont Liban in Red, Lebanon in Beige

With World War Two, ‘Mont Liban’ was expanded into ‘Grande Liban’ – today’s Lebanon. And the Maronite Christians led this province still. But ‘Grande Liban’ was home to more Muslims than Christians (in the smaller, old province, Maronite Christians had been a majority). Utilising this unrepresentative political inequality and capitalising on the absence of attention from French forces (being preoccupied in Europe) Arabic nationalists won one great victory – through mass unrest, France had to grudgingly grant independence in 1943. The state had received its constitution in 1926.

 

An explosive barrel

The colonial powers had left a volatile situation in Lebanon. In the revised constitution of 1943, Maronite Christians were still favoured. Only a Maronite could become president the spot of prime minister was reserved for a Sunni Muslim, the leader of parliament was to be Shia Muslim. But in the 60s, Shia Muslims became the largest demographic group – yet occupying the least political power and the least socioeconomic strength.article_image

The barrel exploded in 1975 – Sunni, Shia and Druze Muslims rebelled against the ruling
minority. However, in a turn reminiscent of the developments in the current Syrian civil war, tension between the rebel groups escalated and threw the country into complete chaos. Meanwhile, Lebanon had been a base for Palestinian attacks against Israel since the 1960s, drawing ire and retaliation from the south. This had destabilised the political body and added to the discontent of the Lebanese population. Later, the Middle Eastern superpowers of Saudi Arabia and Iran would prop up the Sunni and Shia fractions respectively – from 1975 onwards, these two major players in the Sunni – Shia conflict starting investing in their own proxy interests in Lebanon.

 

A new occupation

In 1976 – 8 months after the outbreak of the civil war, the Syrian army marched into Lebanon. With a mandate from the ‘Arab League’, Hafez Assad (whose
last name means ‘Lion’) had domestically channelled the sentiment of Arabic nationalism – a rare sight until the 19th century. Yearning to cut the shackles of western imperialism, pan-Arabic nationalists such as Egyptian dictator Nasser aimed to unite the north of the Arab world. Syrian nationalists – such as the followers of Assad’s Baath party, dreamed of ‘Sham’, too. Additionally to conquering Lebanon, nationalists propagated, Palestine and Israel should be recaptured to right historic wrongs. The western idea of a ‘nation state’ and ‘national pride’ had arrived in the Middle East.

From 1976 onward, Assad sent more and more troops – building on the peacekeeping mandate until 35,000 Syrian soldiers occupied Lebanon in 1980 (reminder: less than 5 million residents). On the international stage, Damascus was applauded for peacekeeping and repressing civil war. And after five years, fighting had ceased. But the tensions between the Sunni and Shia proxies were still glowing.  Meanwhile, the Syrian peacekeeping mission showed no signs of ending – in 1995, propaganda posters of Hafez Assad still greeted travellers at Beirut’s airport, Lebanese president (still a Maronite) Elias Hrawi could be found in a small hall at the back.

The Baath party made full use of its quasi-province, sending its own unemployed to Lebanon. Said state in 1995 housed 700,000 Syrian workers. That is roughly 12% of the Lebanese population. Additionally, 100,000 Palestinian refugees had fled after the Israeli war – and the number has not stagnated since.

Withdrawal and the death of a lion

In 2000, the full force of anti-imperial hatred turned against Assad and Baath. Hafez Assad had died in 2000 and left office to his son, Bashar. Then, in February 2005, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (as the constitution commands, a Sunni Muslim) was assassinated. A large proportion of the disenfranchised, but angry Lebanese citizens rallied to join the Cedar revolution’s protests against Assad and the Syrian army was ousted from the country under international pressure. While the Cedar revolution found a common enemy in the Syrian occupants, rebellious splinter groups did not put aside their mutual rivalry. And now that the autocratic constant had been removed, violence broke out between Iranian and Saudi proxies. The March 8 and March 14 groups (named after the protest movements as a result of which they were founded) aligned themselves with a political course. Domestically, March 8 takes a position similar to that of the Baath party in Syria: left-leaning with regards to social issues, nationalist rather than religious, with pan-Arabic elements. Geopolitically, the parties under the March 8 umbrella want to align themselves with the Syrian government and are strongly supported by imageHezbollah. The March 14 group is Lebanese-patriotic and opposes Syrian influence, consequentially aligning themselves with Saudi Arabia against Iran. The March 14 Alliance blamed Damascus for Hariri’s death while the March 8 Alliance saw the Israeli Mossad responsible. A chain of assassinations between the two groups followed, leaving prominent leaders on both sides dead. Much of the coordination in both fractions suffered, leading to further violence.

The disputes between the two groups create a fragile political climate in Lebanon, a country that is already battered by a series of conflicts.Having been a target of attacks by Palestinian extremists and later Hezbollah since the 60s, in 2006 Hezbollah airstrike that killed three Israelis was the metaphorical final drop in the bucket for the Israeli state. A military retaliation followed, leaving 1,200 Lebanese dead. In 2007, the Lebanese army clashed with the Palestinian Fatah, killing in excess of 400. In 2008, the then ruling March 14 alliance fought Hezbollah until granting the opposition voting rights ended 18 months of military activity from Teheran’s proxy. This was the beginning of a shift in political favour towards March 8: after five years of pro-Saudi Arabian rule, Najib Mikati – candidate of the March 8 alliance – was elected Prime Minister.

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The political polarisation between March 8 and 14 makes many Lebanese citizens wish back president Hariri’s time

The game of thrones between Riyadh and Teheran comes at a terrible time for the people of Lebanon – the ruling March 8 group is closely tied to Iran, but Lebanon has been receiving yearly grants of 4 billion US dollars from Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have threatened to cut this aid – not an advantageous thought for Lebanon, which is currently 70 billion US dollars in debt (that’s 145% of its GDP). And at this time, with Saudi influence in Lebanon dwindling, the Lebanese army stands behind Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – a man who King Salman wants to oust out of office, if necessary with military might. And the tsunami of refugees fleeing from ISIL and al-Nusra has completely overwhelmed the makeshift March 8/Hezbollah leadership – understandable, as the country hosts 30% of its own population in refugees. Without the substantial help from UNHCR and the international community, the situation would be even direr – not just for the residents of Lebanon. It’s not a question of whether a complete collapse of authority in Lebanon would reinvigorate the fires of brutality in Syria – it’s a question of how much fuel would be added to the raging flames.

US politics – why the two-party system is broken beyond repair

In most of the democratic world, choice is valued as an integral part of democracy. This does not only hold true for choosing a product on a free market. Political choice – the choice to vote for a party that especially represents ones’ own point of view – is the bedrock for political systems from Portugal to Japan, from Australia to Denmark.

Voting in Germany, I may not agree with every policy proposed by my favourite candidate. However, the sheer number of electable candidates, from an array of serious political parties (5-6), will ensure that I can choose one whose strategy is actually to my liking. Even if just two parties are realistically contending for the presidency, the concept of a coalition allows minor parties to contribute their ideas and policies to the leadership.

Political Choice

The United States of America on the contrary seem to pay no mind to this value of political choice. Democrats and Conservatives – only Democrats and Conservatives – are engaged in a never-ending war for the next presidency. Two parties battle for absolute control of the Senate. Millions of voters have to decide between two points on the political spectrum. Red or Blue, there is no middle ground.

Any and all variety is effectively eradicated the moment both the GOP and the Democrats have decided on their candidates.

Before that point in time, of course, viewpoints and policies do fall on a wider spectrum. In the current elective cycle, this can very well be seen in the central disagreements amongst Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. They have fundamentally different approaches to Healthcare, Campaign Financing and Wall Street Policy. But these disagreements are becoming sparse. While in his first presidential bid, Mitt Romney was able to contend for the Republican nomination while supporting abortion and gun control, this would incapacitate him in 2015.

The three would-be-presidents who dare to divert from the broad establishment line (Ted Cruz, media mogul Trump and Senator Sanders) are dubbed anti-establishment candidates. Their “insurgencies” used to be quite common (with the exception of Sander’s self-professed socialism), but have become political pariahs. Looking down the row of Republican politicians on the debate stage, figuring out their stances on several key concepts is very easy: gun control, healthcare, the Iran nuclear deal, abortion, progressive tax, immigration, Russia – they’re all the same! Granted, except Trump, no one wants to build a wall (is Cruz serious with that?). But in the rare case of a Trump-esque or Sanders-like insurgency, these candidates are never more moderate than the rest of the contenders. This is only logical – seeing as the party-dependent perception of the opposition is degrading rapidly. A moderate candidate is not very attractive. A PEW research centre study shows that during the last 20 years, the percentage of Republicans viewing the Democratic Party as “very unfavourably” has risen from 17% to 43%. Vice versa, the percentage of Democrats having very negative opinions about the Republican Party has also more than doubled – from 16% to 38%. The lack of moderates (and more importantly, moderators) does not help combat the mutual alienation.

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Consequentially – while not every politician adheres to one straightforward “party line” – the rift between left and right is widening.

The Consequence – Polarization

Here is what is inherently wrong with this oligopolistic shift:

American citizens are effectively forced to choose an absolute. In order to appeal to their target demographic, each party represents only one side of interests. This makes a mess in the elective cycle, but it doesn’t stop there: having completed his (or her) inauguration ceremony, the president will go on to push forward unilateral reform. Whether administering gun control through executive orders or proposing to repeal all healthcare plans, both parties are guilty of this. Likely, the next president will be guilty of this. Republican idol Ronald Reagan raised taxes, supported international amnesty programs and reached across the aisle to compromise with Tip O’Neil on social security. These characteristics would render him “unelectable” today.

The Democrats propose, the Republicans block, the Republicans propose, the Democrats block. Bipartisan policies, such as those that Jeb Bush passed on gun control in Florida, rarely meet the floor of the Senate and certainly don’t pass it if they do.

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In order to pass a legislative draft, total support from the own party is required. Said support is necessary to overcome the blockade the other wing of parliament is putting up. And in order to secure this support, alienating the opposition is unavoidable. In the end, the American people end up with unilateral legislation or none at all. The response to any administrative decision will, in essence, be the same: Due to the excessive exclusion of their own interests, one half of the population will hold reform in a very low regard.

Image Politics

With two major forces on opposite sides of a political rift, US politics are poised for conflict. Since only two electable organisations exist, each one benefits from bringing the pain to the opposition. In a competitive multiple-party system, one can not throw dirt at an adversary without getting dirt on oneself. Naturally it is in the interest of any party to cement a strong position, and usually, the backlash to aggressive attack ads and similar strategies forces politicians to focus on providing productive policies.

However, the American system of politics ensures that the damage done to the opponent will always outweigh the disadvantage of backlash. The two-way system ensures that the most effective manner of building power is to viciously attack the opponent.

This, along with the common practice of financially supporting favourable candidates, places a huge amount of power into the hands of rich investors. In a two party system, which allows for attack ads to be strikingly effective, financial donors may influence a campaign considerably by buying airtime for such a video. Special interest individuals, such as the Koch brothers, may approach candidates with demands or wishes in exchange for financial support or promotional help. The 2010 “Citizens United” bill legitimises any subsidy from individuals or corporations. No matter how large the sum, such subsidies do not constitute corruption.

The importance of image adds another barrier to the already barricaded bipartisanship road. After all, why acknowledge that there are viable ideas, policies and strategies on both sides of the ravine when you want as many people as possible to flock to your side? The people may benefit from inclusive decisions. The people may benefit from bipartisanship.  But the GOP does not. The Democrats do not.

Hence, the frighteningly large majority of US politicians indulge in the petty politics of image management. Solutions are not important. Only opinion is. Image is. And the more dirt you throw at your neighbour, the shinier you appear in comparison.

 

To sum it up, tie it together and send it home as a nice, prepared package: a two-way organisation of politics places more priority on harming the opposition than it does on effective progress. It alienates moderation from the political spectrum. It makes a pariah of compromise. And meanwhile, monetary support may sway a whole election.

Is that way to run a country – a country with the claim to be the sole leading force in the world?

The EU counter terrorism policy: fight terrorism (if you want to)

Less than two and a half months ago, affiliates of the ‘Islamic State’ murdered over 130 innocent civilians in the Bataclan and on the streets of Paris. In one evening, the world was reminded that there was no safehaven from terrorism – not even in the heart of Europe. The attack on the city of love left news and social media in a state of omnipresent solidarity and outrage that had not been seen since 9-11.

Apparently awoken by the brutal manifestation of terror on European soil, EU legislators began to make unprecedented progress in reforming the European counter-terrorism legislation.

Post-Paris progress

The SIS (Schengen Information Sharing) database was subsidised, optimised for cooperation with Europol and implemented by nigh on all Schengen member states. Several states (Spain, France, Germany) implemented the EU PNR plan (Passenger Name Record) which is looking to register all individuals entering supporting states via air travel and wants to thereby identify dangerous individuals travelling to Europe on planes. The sophisticated software innovation has been under luke-warm fire from a few Human Rights organisations, who criticise the complex data exchange and access to national records an invasion of the right to privacy. The international community (if in favour of the plan) meanwhile subsidises other nations implementing the technology – the United States pay nearly half of the Spanish expenses for the PNR system. To contribute to the international fight against ISIL, otherwise known as Daesh, and Al-Qaeda affiliates such as the al-Nusra front, an array of European nations joined the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Unsurprisingly, this is an effort to choke terrorist organisations off financial resources by freezing assets of foreign fighters and backtracking as well as inhibiting donations and other monetary inflow to the ‘Islamic State’. Meanwhile, criticism targets the lack of action against donations from within Sunni-ruled Gulf States. Foreign policy officials have alledgedly been handling the controversial topic like a raw egg – not eager on accusing any state officials of supporting and financing terrorism. The diverse and distinctive measures of both legislative and technological nature however, allow for a historically innovative multilateral counter-terror measures.

Keen, but unforceful

In short, the EU has not taken a step forward – it has leapt ahead in enabling all member states (as well as European non-EU nations) to collaborate in the continental fight against terrorism. In all that enthusiasm, said legislators seem to have forgotten that opportunity doesn’t mean enforcement. The SIS, Europol and Interpol allow the individual police forces to exchange information in an unprecedented, immediate manner and pool information on suspected terrorists. Hungary, Greece, Tukey and several of the further usual suspects simply in turn seem to ignore the existence of these international tools. Individual investigations are carried out against suspected radicals (potentially by several states simultaneously) but the possibly crucial information is not shared. A lack of legislative cross-country cooperation may not be an issue between Canada, the US and Mexico but in Europe, where hopping borders (whether inside or out of Schengen) consists of barely any more than a roadside sign, supplementary intelligence cooperation is integral. This of course, especially goes for the Schengen zone – border control and registration are virtually non-existent. Hence – to inhibit any influx and travel of dangerous individuals – the outer borders of Schengen should be especially secured. And with the harmonising EU PNR & SIS as well as Interpol and Europol, the EU and Schengen members have an excellent set of tools to engage in this registration and cooperation. And yet, EU PNR is not obligatory and several of the outer Schengen members do not utilise the new security technology (and don’t cooperate with Interpol in sharing their investigative data).

‘Keen, but unforceful’ seems to be the mantra of many a European legislator at the moment. The UK is home to the 10th highest number of ISIL propagators online and the average number of twitter followers of such radical promoters is in excess of 1000 (4 times the mean number of twitter followers in general). European countries however have been hesitant to introduce any obliging legislation. International bodies ‘call for the greater cooperation with social media platform providers’, but meanwhile the online activity of the radical promoters has been reduced by only 1.3% of the course of 2015.  While this reduction is certainly not good enough, it needs to be mentioned that the immediate freedom of speech and opinion can under no circumstances be tampered with in the eyes of the EU. Large scale government surveillance is an even bigger no-no (hence the huge European outrage and backlash against the NSA scandal). However, the trend of radicalisation in Europe should not be downplayed. Hate crime is on an explosive rise – over the last 3 years, one half! of the Jewish population in France were victims of anti-Semitic violence. Over 800 attacks were committed against refugee centres in the last year – in Germany alone. And up to 1000 French, German and British nationals (1000 each, that is), are estimated to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, alongside ISIL, al-Nusra and their affiliates. A constructive crackdown on the promotion of violent ideologies is evidently required.

An outlook – striking a balance

In my own, semi-educated, moderately informed opinion one potentially effective measure may be to require the providers of social media networks to establish anti-hate speech working groups, tasked with identifying and eliminating radical and most importantly radicalising content. Tech companies have all right to limit their customer service according to community guidelines – and hence no legislation is actively interfered with. As an additional incentive to participate in the political efforts, countries could consider subsidising the anti-radical content departments of cooperating companies specifically. That being said, a detailed framework defining such ‘radical’ and ‘radicalising’ content would have to be decided upon on a multilateral level. Stretching the definition of terrorism (as certain frequently criticised European governments like to do) to limit the freedom of opinion should not be justified by such a framework.

While writing this text, I violated one of my self-imposed rules of debate: clearly define the subject matter. I went ahead and wrote about the crackdown on terrorism without clarifying what terrorism refers to in this text. But I am (by far) not the only foreign policy enthusiast to have done so – all across Europe, the definitions of terrorism lie worlds apart. Turkey only considers an act of aggression against civilians ‘terrorism’ if it is committed on Turkish soil. The UK does not list Hamas on a list of terrorist organisations, while the Czech Republic even designates the Palestinian Authority as such. A racially motivated stabbing may be considered an act of terrorist violence in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, while it would not be in the Kingdom of Spain. Meanwhile, Erdogan’s government very generously uses the term to include any military or militant activity conducted against the elected government. While it is unrealistic and unreasonable to attempt to define the term ‘terrorism’ in the strict definition of the word ‘define’ (considering the rapidly changing face of terror with the equally rapid growth of technology) a continental agreement to consider several key acts of aggression as ‘acts of terrorism’ may simplify the chaotic counter-terror legislation process in the European political bodies.

An eternal dilemma?

The very principles of the European Union are: ‘respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights’. These rules are both the reason for having to combat radically racist ideologies and an origin position that severely complicates the response to the same radicalisation. The threat of terror’s promoters endangers the very values the EU was built on and disrespects them in their entirety. But it is hence justified to waive these ideals to some extent, in order to defend them in the long run? This somewhat philosophical dilemma gives rise to the predominant dilemma of EU policing.

Understanding Putin – An alternative perspective on Russian Foreign Policy

 

When in the 90s the Berlin wall came down and Germany was reunified, the world took it to mean the irreversible end of the Soviet Empire. As Gorbachev and Jelzin opened Russia to western commerce, the global community thought that the icy blockades of the Cold War had thawed for good. In the 2000s at the latest, globalisation had conquered all.

But after two decades of warming relations, the political climate is slowly reverting to its Siberian origin state. The United States and Russia are engaging in a winner-takes-all tug-of-war in Ukraine. Above and beyond, Vladimir Putin has made it his mission to, in his own words, oppose the US hegemony. In turn, US politicians colour Putin as no more than a power-hungry criminal, out for nothing but influence and personal power. John McCain called the Russian Prime Minister “the next Gaddafi”, Hillary Clinton alleged Putin had “no soul” and Republican presidential candidates love equating him to a ‘mobster’. And while cementing a position of power is certainly a key objective for the Kremlin, one needs to dig deeper to actually understand the Russian aversion to American influence abroad.

 

Domestic demands – What US influence means in Russia

The low popularity of US capitalism in Russia puzzles many westerners. How can such a huge part of the population oppose the opportunity brought by privatised businesses and competitive markets? The answer is that Russians do not forget easily. When the global community celebrated the ‘liberation’ of Russia in the 90s, Jelzin and Gorbachev spelled bad news for most residents of Russia. The nearly bankrupt government started auctioning state-owned businesses to the largest bidder, natural resources were privatised (leading to the further deprivation of state income) and a crumbling leadership failed to make the necessary legislative changes. The efficiency of law enforcement was essentially non-existent, especially with regards to the myriad of new possibilities for corruption. As the government was in dire need of resources, official posts, political favours or judicial goodwill could be bought without worry. Add a broke government and a broken justice system and the result is post-Soviet Russia. Pensions weren’t paid, no one persecuted employers who skipped an employee’s salary and there was no money to invest in schools, streets and sewage. And whenever state employees don’t receive their pay, corruption sprouts spectacularly well.

It should come as no surprise that a great majority of Russian citizens loyally follow the president who has brought oil and gas resources back under state control, rooted out businessman-politicians out of parliament and reinstated a functioning law-enforcement body. Under Putin’s rule, the average wage has tripled, pensions are paid 8 or 9 times out of 10 and the poverty level fell from 40% to 12%. Let that sink in. In 1999, 2 out of 5 Russian citizens had insufficient money to provide food for the day.

The domestic narrative of the Putin administration: as Americans led the charge, predatory capitalism threw almost half a country into poverty. Russia was robbed of all power on the world stage. The Russian Federation is a patriotic nation, and neither being preyed upon nor being made powerless is easily forgotten.

 

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A nation in turmoil – Loyalists of President Jezin attacked the Parliament in Octobre 1993, after Parliamentarians vehemently criticised of his policies as unconstitutional. Thousands were protesting on the streets of Moscow. The west praised Jelzin for his resolve.

 

Broken promises, western provocation

Please keep in mind that this article is not meant to detail my personal views and opinions. The next chapter will not delve into the manifestations of Russian foreign policy. Instead, I will take a stroll through the reasoning behind Russian foreign policy. Let us take a look at the Russian side of the story.

In 1990 US officials led by James Baker (Secretary of State at the time) and Jack Matlock assured President Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “as much as a thumb’s width” towards the east. Vladimir Putin calls the informality of said agreement ‘the biggest mistake made by Russian officials in those turbulent times’.  Eduard Shevardnadze, who was involved in the negotiations at the time said that the violation of the buffer zone was “beyond anyone’s imagination”.

The rhetoric mastermind he is, Putin takes it one step further. The transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 (conducted in the presence of 13 of the required 27 members of the supreme council) had been made under similar premises. Furthermore, the results of the Crimean referendum clearly pointed to the return of the peninsula to Russia. But while the legitimacy of NATO’s expansion is taken as granted, the secession of Crimea is quickly labelled as evil and imperialistic. And yet, it is not the criticism of said transfer in itself that angered Putin – it is the underlying double-standard. The USA may approach Russia’s borders with its NATO bases – but in return, the secession of Crimea from Ukraine is dismissed as evil. In both cases, the premise are old, semi-legitimate agreements. In both cases, the expansion east/west was made with the agreement of the general population in the region in question (the PEW research centre estimated public support of the Crimean secession to be at 93%-95%). In both cases, the transfer was done with little to no casualties. Such double standards make up a whole heap of ammunition for Russian officials to attack American foreign policy management.

For those who have been following foreign relations rather closely, the frequent airspace violations are one of the key symptoms of Russian aggression. But again, this is not a game that only the Russian Federation has been playing. As Putin pointed out at a press conference two years ago, in the 1990s Russia ceased all air force manoeuvres outside its own airspace. Military airplanes did not even enter the legal, international territory. Meanwhile, US aircraft continually infringed with Russian airspace. For twenty years, the Kremlin’s jets stayed within the own borders, and for twenty years, US fighter planes ignored that same set of rules. Then, five years ago (under Putin’s administration) Russia expanded the reach of its patrols and manoeuvres. Quickly, the Obama leadership called the violations a ‘blatant provocation’. Just this week, the Kremlin took a lot of heat for a Russian righter plane that buzzed by a US reconnaissance aircraft. The catch? All this happened in international airspace. By international law, the pilot did nothing to deserve the verbal attacks from the pentagon.

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Making a new age – Eduard Shevardnadze and James Baker reach an agreement while Gorbachev and Bush look on

Stomping on the Russian economy

Crimea and airspace-violations are relatively modern manifestations of an alienation-policy targeted at Moscow. But even twenty years ago, Russia was not given a chance. In the first chapter I covered the economic mess the Russian Federation was in, trying to pick up the political pieces of the Soviet Union. Under Soviet rule, agriculture had been regulated and production had been centrally controlled. Then, the country was suddenly expected to switch toward a completely new operational model for its primary sector. If the west had seen the Russian Federation as a potential partner for the future, development-help would have been appropriate. But rather than invest in the worn-out agricultural machinery, the IMF put a cap on the price the Russian government was allowed to pay for grain. The message: pay no more than 10,000 Rubel per ton of grain or receive no more loans. The IMF – known for its expertise in monetary matters – must have known that that let Russian farmers operate at a loss, no matter how great the yield. In protest, the rural producers threatened to burn their crop, unless prices were adjusted to a more reasonable level. The International Monetary Fund didn’t budge, and Russia lost near half its domestically produced grain. The deficit in an essential resource had to be compensated – and for a deeply indebted country, that meant more loans. The government ended up paying 40,000 Rubel per ton for American grain – financed by American loans. The IMF seemed to have done its best to ruin agriculture in a country with 2% of the world’s population but nearly one tenth of the world’s agricultural land.

Back in today’s world, the west sanctions Russian oil – once again shattering the economic power of the Russian Federation, to the dismay of Russian people. And yet, foreign policy pundits and international politics experts are confused by the prospect of the Kremlin looking to do business in Asia. As of 2012 the oil-and-gas sector accounted for 16% of the GDP, 52% of federal budget revenues and over 70% of total exports. Self-evidently, Moscow is absolutely dependant on its oil – and on selling said oil internationally. That is the explanation for the 400 billion dollar gas deal between the People’s Republic and the Russian Federation.

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The People’s Republic and the Federation have been eyeing each other for partnerships.

 

It also shines a light on Putin’s efforts to seal a pipeline deal with Germany. The flourishing central-European nation would make for an excellent trading partner. And while Russian oil does fuel a good lot of German cars already, most of the current pipelines run through – you guessed it – Ukraine. The oily relationship between Kiev and Moscow is a turbulent one. Neither country has forgotten how Julia Timoshenko, beneficiary of the ‘Orange Revolution’ and former champion of the west, decided to take a lion’s share of the Russian energy transit. Russia offered Kiev oil at less than a third of the global price, in exchange for unperturbed transit. Timoshenko saw an opportunity for personal profit and started diverting some of the black gold on its way to Europe into her own pocket. She made a fortune selling it at western prices. The former president is now hailed as an icon of freedom by the west, and at the same time her jail-time is perceived as political corruption, induced and championed by the Kremlin.

The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is too complex to be summarized in a single paragraph. Yes, Moscow wants to secure smooth and cheap transport for its natural resources. But the ties between the two nations (between which there is no Visa requirement for travel, Ukrainians/Russians may stay in the other country without any kind of registration for three months) go deep into social and historical themes. Half of the Ukrainian population favours (re-)introducing Russian as a formal language. In Crimea 97% of the population are natively Russian speaking, in Donetsk it’s 93%, in Luhansk 89%, in Odessa 85%. Russia accounts for a fourth of Ukrainian exports and imports. Around 720,000 people fled into the Russian Federation to escape the chaotic conflict in Ukraine. Completely freeing Ukraine of any Russian influence (a goal which John Kerry and Victory Nuland keep advertising) would be both impossible and illogical. Yes, a compromise between east and west will be necessary with regard to Ukraine. But excluding Russia, as the US foreign affairs officials propose, is not an option.

 

Feel free to criticise Putin. Feel free to criticise Russia. But do not, I beg you, paint the Russian Federation as the source of all evil, as an inherently villainous empire. I hope I was able to draw your attention to the possibility of another perspective today. By no means accept this text as the ultimate, unchallenged truth. Consider it critically. Criticism and disagreement (as long as they are respectful) are very welcome to me. But this respect is what is crucial. Do not paint Russia as the source of all evil before you understand Russia.

Noone seems to have grasped this verbal agression more accurately than an English musician:

There is no monopoly on common sense on either side of the political fence

– Sting, “Russians”

Barack Obama’s three way collision course in the Middle East

With Barrack Obama’s last year as US president, the end of an era has come: a new age has dawned for the Middle East policy of the United States. For decades, there were three key objectives to be considered when dealing with the Arab nations: securing longstanding allies, protecting the economic interests of the domestic market and fighting for freedom and democracy in ‘failed states’.

Three nations represent these three struggles strikingly well: Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And as US policymakers are experiencing a tectonic shift in orientation, the US-induced love triangle is in for some interesting times.

 

Economic Security

 

For decades, Saudi Arabian oil fuelled the machinery of the US industry. With 18 million barrels a day, the domestic oil usage trumped that of all other countries. China – the next biggest consumer – averaged at about 7 million. Despite the motion towards sustainable sources of energy, the hunger for petroleum has not slumped– but the United States have found a far more satisfying source. Offshore drilling and ‘fracking’ reinvigorated the North American petroleum production and relieved the nation from its dependence on Saudi oil.

At this conspicuously convenient time, another new variable enters the equation. The Islamic Republic of Iran is open to the world of commerce again. The lifting of international sanctions has already attracted plenty of possible trade partners: China and India view the emerging power as an alternative supplier of energy and a possible trade-transit region. Pakistan was one of the first nations to enter talks with Teheran: a friendship with Iran will allow a whole new degree of independence from Afghanistan and India. With all this talk of flourishing trade, it is not surprising that western businesses have flocked into the Shia-ruled republic by the dozens. And Iran is not too modest about its newfound freedom. The government recently placed an offer for 13 Boeing passenger jets and is looking to strike a deal for 80 more. With the lifting of the sanctions, the United States opened up another channel for energy imports. Above and beyond, the diplomatic solution to the Iranian situation is seen by the Democratic Party as one of the huge successes of the Obama administration. It is one of the (very rare) occasions in which ‘nation building’ might have actually worked out.

 

Israel – the historical ally

 

But while a new possible ally emerges, an old one is getting very nervous. Israel has been a supporter of the US leadership since its inception after World War Two. In turn, Israel has been able to count on US support for decades. But the government of both Barrack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been seeing that unconditional support slip away.

Led by the Prime Minister himself, Israeli officials have been vocal critics of Obama’s last foreign policy revolution. Most notably, the ex-Mossad agent brought forward a rhetoric masterpiece in the United Nations General Assembly, tearing through threats from the Iranian leadership (which had asserted that there would be no Israel 20 years from now) before giving the distinguished delegates 45 full seconds to reflect on their actions in the most intense rhetoric pause of UN history.

Under previous US presidents, the affirmative response from Washington wouldn’t have been far away. As a one of the main supporters and perpetrators of the deal however, the current US administration stayed silent.

Israel has been understandably critical of Teheran for a while now. Hezbollah – a group that is commonly agreed to be subsidized and armed by Iran – is considered major threat to national security in the Jewish state. Shin Bet considers the group a terrorist organisation. Consequentially, the Israeli air force has been targeting heavy arms supplies destined for Hezbollah. It should come as no surprise, that when Iran put up a ground to air defence artillery well within range of the previously mentioned supply routes, Netanyahu and co. steamed with anger (and likely a measure of worry).

All this is everyday politics between Israel and Iran, who have been fighting proxy wars in Syria for the last four years. But amongst the usual business, a US ambassador spooked the longest standing ally of the United States in the Middle East: Daniel Shapiro had some historically unusual ‘criticism’ for the Israeli government. There were a double standard in the Justice System regarding Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Israel should strive towards a fairer standard for its rule of law. The local government responded furiously, decrying Shapiro and accusing him of slander and antisemitism. The rest of the international community saw the comments as what they were: a message from DC – while the mutual alliance and friendship of the two countries would not be endangered, even Israel was not above criticism. This becomes quite apparent when reading the whole comment. Shapiros ‘attack’ was very politely phrased, measured in its criticism and over all optimistic for the future. The pledge to ‘stay friends’ was reaffirmed just this week. On Tuesday, John Kerry said: “the fight is over” between the Israeli government and the Obama leadership. Comically continuing with the relationship terminology, Kerry added the following: “we can move on”. Leaving these light spirited moments aside, the United States reassured their historic love with some tangible incentive to calm. Kerry put military subsidies on the table – 5 billion dollars’ worth of defence spending should sooth the Israeli government. Yet again, the message is clear: Obama found new love for American interests in Iran, but, in the words of John Kerry, “wants to stay friends still”.

 

Riyadh is very worried about Teheran

 

Isn’t it adorable? With all this mutual talk of peace and love, the aftermath of Iran’s economic rebirth almost looks like a cakewalk. Almost – Teheran still insists on calling the United States of America an “Empire of Evil”. But it is unlikely that the sharpened rhetoric has any meaning on the international stage. More likely, the Shia theocracy is attempting to retain a certain anti-American sentiment in the general population. Iran is not interested in a late ‘Arab spring’ revolution. Quenching pro-western ideologies is one way of suppressing a democratic uprising. Compared to the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan however, the Iranian solutions seems like an overall success for the USA.

But Saudi Arabia, third party to the US-induced love triangle, vehemently opposes Iranian influence in the Arab world. I covered the Saudi policy on Tehran in detail last week, but the general gist is this: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has established itself as a leader in the Arab world. Until the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal’, it was the undisputed economic force amongst the Arab countries. Yemen, Iraq, Sudan and the Emirates rely on Saudi energy. Energy trade makes up between 80 and 90% of the countries’ exports. King Salman felt threatened by the emerging economic and political power of Iran and acted quickly to bring out the “true colours” of his rivals in Teheran – executing the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The choice was a deliberate provocation. The Saudi leadership wanted to divide the Middle East along the fragile Sunni-Shia line. Politically, this is an expedient move – the Saudi-favoured Sunni interpretation of Islam is far more populous, and hence far better represented in national leadership on the international stage. In a further Sunni-Shia fallout, Saudi Arabia could count on support from the majority of the Arab nations. Furthermore, Riyadh attempted to incite Iran to violate the terms of the agreement while it still could. That may have meant the secure safekeeping of the cosy sanctions. Teheran intelligently displayed patience and resolve, and the sanctions were lifted. While the Saudi leadership is still critical of its longstanding rival, the tone has been tuned a little bit.

In the unlikely case of a war, Saudi Arabia would need the full support of all its western allies. The experienced, well-drilled Iranian army would find little to no resistance with the mostly decorative generals in Riyadhs military. Saudi Arabia may have the superior technology – but that advantage is fading rapidly with the removal of trade boycotts. Consequentially, it would be very unwise for King Salman to incite an all-out war at this point.

Jürgen Todenhöfer– the hero we deserve (and the one we need right now)

In the most daring, death-defying move of journalism the world has seen over the last five years, German author, politician, journalist and peace-advocate Jürgen Todenhöfer travelled the ‘Islamic State’ for a whole week. Now – having risked his life while reporting from the most murderous region of the world – Mr. Todenhöfer is being attacked by the German press. The man who was not satisfied with an outside view has to fend off some incredible accusations.

Spiegel magazine (German term for mirror) called the journalist an “IS-propagandist” in a recently published article. And as mirrors do, they twisted around right and left completely.

They dare attack a man, who defended the actual, peaceful message of the Quran to the faces of IS-fighters – while in the ‘Islamic State’. The dare refer to the man who showed his personal condemnation for IS-atrocities (while in the ‘Islamic State’), an “IS-propagandist”. In w91kwvubmselritten and video form, Todenhöfer documented his travels. His book “Inside IS – 10 Tage im Islamischen Staat” is one huge condemnation of the twisted IS ideology. But it is not just that. It details, in an impressively calm and collected tone, the organisation of daily life in the ‘caliphate’. It details with meticulous attention how Daesh fighters try to justify the ‘Islamic State’s’ inhumane practices of slavery, segregation and glorified murder. It gives us all an inside view into the army of terror. And in every single shocking and drenching chapter, Jürgen Todenhöfer formulates a massive attack on IS practices and ideologies. The author (who deserves more than just being called ‘journalist’) would later go on to pen a moving, rationally and emotionally unsettling open letter to the Caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

He made himself a target for Islamic terrorists by openly calling for their condemnation by all. How so? As opposed to almost all other criticism against ISIS (which is of course justified) he not only condemns the human rights infringements of a brutal terror-regime, but attacks the sickening ideology from multiple fronts. He calls out brutal practices (some of which were only brought to public attention through his reporting) tears apart the blatant religious hypocrisy and doesn’t rely on emotional assessment to create one of the strongest criticisms of ISIL to date. Jürgen Todenhöfer’s work against the Islamic State is the strongest argument to come out of the international community. It is, because he doesn’t just echo old arguments of moral superiority. He voices what no other person can voice, with the exception of his two admirable travelling companions. He voices the horror of actually living inside IS.

It was his book that convinced me that this new crusade against civilisation is the biggest threat to the world since the National Socialist party of Germany. It was also his book that shocked me and shook me – how can the global community stand by and watch, while 500,000 civilians lose their lives over just three years? How can the global community stand by and watch, while thousands are sold into slavery? How can The United States of America and the Russian Federation insist on haggling for the Syrian throne? How can we, as Europeans (and Germans in my case) just echo the US policy in this brutal war? Dropping 25,000 bombs over just one year will not solve anything. Alienating the people of the Middle East will not solve anything. Todenhöfer’s book brings up one essential fact:

The fear of Russian and US air raids allows ISIL to portray themselves as the saviour of the Sunni population. They paint themselves as the defenders of religion, fighting against Christian crusaders.

And there are thousands of Sunni Muslims who resist the straglehold of the brutal IS ideology. But without propaganda help from US, Russia and EU, ISIL would be robbed off a lot of influence. That is why, after the coup on Saddam Hussein, Al-Qaida following grew from 700 to 18,000 (that is a factor of 26) – Bush’s war on terror was a recruitment gift for terrorists. And the west is making the same mistakes all over again. Todenhöfer is ruthlessly attacked for pointing that out.

Dear Mr. Todenhöfer and team: I watched your TV appearance on Saturday. I still am very impressed. By your dedication. Your conviction. Your fearlessness. Your multilateral approach. Two of your insights will forever stay with me:

  1. We must talk to every and each side of each conflict. No matter how much we want to send one of the conflicting parties to hell. We need to understand the ideology of every party to fully understand a conflict.
  2. We can’t fight a conflict by using the reasons of this conflict. It was the invasion of Iraq that led to the creation of ISI (“Islamic State of Iraq”) in 2003. It was the fear of bombings that fuelled the IS propaganda machine. Don’t feed them more. Don’t give them the fuel they want, the fuel they need.

Dear Mr. Todenhöfer, Mr. F. Todenhöfer and Malcom: You are admired and looked up to. You’ve already made an impact and we are impressed because you continue to do so. Don’t give up! Every person reached, every voice awakened is a victory in itself. Even if I don’t agree with absolutely everything you have said to date, the policy of “talk to everyone” is necessary in times like these. ISIL is an abomination that needs to be destroyed – but dropping bombs in Syria won’t destroy it. Valid criticism should never be met with an image-destruction campaign such as the one “Spiegel” has launched against JT.

Want more information about one of the most selfless journalists, politicians and activists of our time? Check out his website!

Measured Verbal Aggression

 

The war of words between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not spiralling out of control.

It is a measured fencing contest to evoke sympathies in the Arab world and erode each other’s support in the international community. The Sunni-ruled Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been eyeing the Iran nuclear deal with suspicion and heavy criticism. And now that the United Nations are virtually weeks away from lifting the routine sanctions against the Islamic Republic, Saudi leadership is doing what it can to bring out the “true colours” of its long time Shia rival.

The execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on New Year’s morning was a first stepping stone of a polarisation-policy. Provocation was the goal, and provocation was achieved: the consequential attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran by Iranian extremists paints Iran as an integrally dangerous country. It placed the Iranian government in a precarious position – endorse the storm on an embassy and waive all international support or condemn the attacks as unjustified and risk losing support amongst the own people. The Saudi response, to sever diplomatic channels immediately, sent a clear message: you are with us or you are with them. And the economically leading Arab country can offer its allies far better deals than Iran at the moment. Hungry for and reliant on Saudi investment, Iran’s long-time ally Sudan quickly sided with the Kingdom.

The biggest gift for the Saudi leadership came shortly afterwards. Iranian proxies (as Saudi Arabian media channels were quick to determine) had launched a ballistic attack targeting Saudi government buildings in Sudan. Within the next hours, government-affiliated channels dropped the verbal bomb “state terrorism”. Mission accomplished, effect achieved.

As Barrack Obama, likely the most prominent perpetrator and supporter of the Iran nuclear deal is taking more and more heat at home, the Saudi Arabian pole position amongst Muslim countries is continually fortified. Firstly, many of the Kingdom’s Sunni allies had to follow suit in condemning Iran’s “meddling in Arab affairs” (Saudi foreign ministry). They have to line up on the Sunni side of the conflict. This was a resounding display of trans-national influence – possibly setting a standard for the future. Secondly, the reaffirmed rift between Sunni countries and the less populous Shia minority is being utilised as a reason to deprive any Shia-led states from constructively claiming the crown of Muslim leadership in the Middle East.

The primary reason for the importance of power-politics right now is, as previously mentioned, the nuclear deal in Iran and the consequential lifting of sanctions against energy and economy. This will leave Teheran open to new and revised energy plans – such as a close collaboration with Pakistan. Respective talks have long been initiated. The proposed pipeline would relieve Pakistan from its current energy woes and grant a whole new level of economic independence. But it is not only the export business that is calling to Iran. The People’s Republic of China and India are looking to strengthen their collaboration with the Islamic Republic, eyeing it as a transit country for imports. The prospect of economic growth on a liberated market amplifies the foreign enthusiasm for investment.

It is logical that Saudi Arabia must act now, attempt to avert as much of Iran’s comeback as possible. The sole leadership in terms of energy and trade is about to be taken from the Kingdom.

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“Help” however may come from an unlikely ally. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been very vocal in his criticism of Obama’s latest foreign policy reform. Most notably, the ex-Mossad agent brought forward a rhetoric masterpiece in the United Nations General Assembly, tearing through threats from the Iranian leadership (which had asserted that there would be no Israel 20 years from now) before giving the distinguished delegates 45 full seconds to reflect on their actions in the most intense rhetoric pause of UN history. If Israel can rally its’ western allies, King Salman may receive unexpected aid and see his personal looming Damocles sword of foreign policy safely removed.

Meanwhile, Iran has taken to promote Ghandi-worthy pacifism as a display of protest. When two boats of the US military lost their way – ending up in Iranian territory – Teheran promptly notified the US embassy and assured the well-being of all soldiers involved. The equipment-malfunction explanation was not questioned and the marines have already returned to their posts. Despite the questionable reaction from several Republican US-presidential candidates (who called for “punishments” against Iran for seizing the soldiers in the first place), letting go of soldiers who violated domestic territory restrictions is a very rare display of cooperation.

Self-evidently, the minds behind this game of chess are awake and wary, likely already anticipating the next shadowy move. Let us hope that Mohammed bin Salman, deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia meant what he said in one of his rare recent interviews:

He was asked, “Do you consider Iran to be your biggest enemy?”

He answered, “We hope not.”