West Asia & North Africa Digest by Ambassador Mahesh Sachdev | March 2020

I) Political Developments 
 
Regional Impact of COVID-19:
By February end, most of the region had been afflicted with incidence of Novel Corona Virus disease (COVID-19). First death from the diseased in the region was reported on Feb 19 in Iran – and the country soon earned the dubious distinction of being world’s most afflicted after China. The disease was reportedly brought into the country by Chinese Shia Muslim students studying at Iranian seminaries. Thanks to initial equivocation by Iranian health authorities on its containment, the cases quickly flared up and by Feb 28, 34 deaths were officially reported, even as the BBC Persian Service put the number at 210. Iranian deputy minister of health was himself infected with the virus.

Africa’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was reported in Egypt which had 19 cases by month-end. By Feb 25, 220 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in 9 Middle Eastern countries, including the UAE, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Israel. Many of these countries announced increasingly severe measures to contain the disease.

Iran:
Islamic Republic held the general elections for the 290-seat Majlis (Parliament) on Feb 22. In a statement, the Ministry of Interior put the voter turnout at 42%. The election results were decisively in favour of the conservatives who won 219 seats, leaving the reformists (20 seats) and Independents (35 seats) far behind. 11 seats are to be contested later.

Comment: The elections and its results were conspicuous for the following reasons:

(a)The voter turnout was the lowest since creation of Islamic Republic in 1979; In fact, it was the first time that the turnout was below 50% level. While the authorities  sought to blame the spread of COVID-19 for low turnout, many observers also saw it as a manifestation of popular alienation with the ruling elite which was blamed for the socio-economic difficulties faced by the masses;

(b) The pronounced pro-conservative tilt indicated sullen and hard-line electorate that had four years ago given similar decisive mandate to the reformists to reward them for signing the JCPOA. For instance, the conservatives won all 30 seats in Tehran, reversing the 2016 election results when all seats of the capital had gone to the reformists. It also showed the popular disenchantment with the continuing economic sanctions by the United States.

(c)The outcome was seen to be an endorsement of the tough anti-West line pursued by the conservatives led by the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Republican Guards Corps. It made the position of the reformist President Hassan Rouhani more precarious.  Presidential elections are scheduled for 2021.

(d)Given the fluidity of Iranian polity and a large measure of consensus among the religio-political elite on national issues, the putative divide between Conservative and Reformist is an over-simplification. Moreover, there are other factors which also affect the political discourse. Put together, the outcome of the Majlis elections was a mixed bag: While low turnout could give comfort to the US and Israel who have pursued a “maximum pressure” tactics against Iranian government, the outcome hands over the reins to precisely the people least inclined to make concessions on crunch issues of the nuclear option and Iran’s regional engagements. 

(e)On balance, Islamic Republic’s success in holding relatively free parliamentary elections regularly for past four decades, albeit within its peculiar theocratically circumscribed democracy, stood at sharp contrast with the norms in its neighbourhood. It also showed resilience of the political order in face of various external and internal stresses.

On Feb 10, an Iranian attempt to put a domestically built satellite in an orbit by its own rocket failed due to unspecified technical reasons.

Syria:
During the month, the Syrian government forces pressed on their offensive against various rebel militias defending their last bastion of Idlib governorate in north-centre of the country bordering Turkey. On Feb 9, government forces managed to capture town of Saraqeb thereby gaining the full control of the strategic M5 highway connecting capital Damascus with Aleppo, country’s second largest city, for the first time in 7 years. The intense fighting and aerial bombardment caused widespread collateral damage displacing nearly a million Syrian civilians, who had Hobson’s choice of seeking shelter in neighbouring Turkey. During the month, the Syrian offensive also led to the death of nearly 55 Turkish troops deployed at 12 observation posts inside Syrian territory. These developments on ground and prospect of new wave of Syrian refugees entering Turkey, alarmed Ankara and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued increasingly strident warnings to Syria. In his teleconversation with President Vladimir Putin on Feb 28, he asked Russia to “step aside” for Turkish forces to retaliate against Syria. Next day, Turkish forces acted making extensive use of airpower and attacking drones against Syrian units claiming to have killed 299 Syrian troops and hit 200 targets.

On Feb 27, Turkey also decided to open her borders for nearly 3.7 million Syrian refugees on its soil to cross-over into neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria, two EU member states. President Erdogan alleged that the EU was delaying the payments to Turkey promised for holding the refugees under a 2015-16 deal. As Syrian and other refugees tried to enter the two bordering countries, the European Commission express indignation at the perceived Turkish attempt to blackmail it.  The UN Security Council met in an emergency session on Feb 28 to consider the escalating situation. Earlier on Feb 17, the UN Undersecretary for Refugees issued a warning about the emerging “biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century” from fighting in Idlib governorate.

Comment:  With the endgame approaching in the Idlib, Syrian imbroglio’s remaining four players – Syrian government, the motley rebels, Turkey and Russia – are all locked into their respective past momentum. Damascus and Moscow are looking for a quick end while the Rebels and their Turkish sponsors are desperate to avoid losing their last toehold in Syria. Moscow’s hand is also held back to avoid losing a promising geo-strategic breakthrough in relations with Turkey – an influential, albeit mercurial, NATO member and a potentially useful regional asset. 

Israel-Palestine Developments:
Palestine Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN Security Council on Feb 11 to express PA’s opposition to US President Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan. While a draft resolution against the Plan was reportedly proposed by Tunisia and Indonesia, it was not put to vote.  Under apparent US pressure, Tunisian President dismissed their Permanent Representative for “exceeding his brief” on this issue.

On Feb 1, after an extra-ordinary session of Arab Foreign Ministers in Cairo sought by Palestine, Arab League issued a statement emphasising that no peace was possible without recognition of the Palestinian right to establish at state within pre-1967 borders. In his address to the session, President Abbas announced snapping of all ties, including those on security, with Israel and the US.

In a meeting on Feb 3 in Jeddah, the Organisation of Islamic Countries also rejected the Trump Plan. Iran criticised Saudi Arabia for not allowing her delegation to attend this meeting.

In a statement on Feb 23, Pope disfavoured “inequitable solutions” in the Middle East; the expression was taken as a hint against Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan.

There were violent clashes in Gaza involving Israeli security forces and Palestinian Islamic Jihad on Feb 6 and Feb 23/24. In both cases, the flare ups were short lived after Israeli retaliation.

Iraq:
On Feb 1, Iraqi President named Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as the country’s next prime minister. He has 30 days to obtain Iraqi parliament’s approval for his cabinet. His appointment came after four months of the street protests by Iraqi youth against incompetent and corrupt governance. In his first comment on social media, Mr Allawi praised the protests and urged their continuation.

Nile Water Talks:
Foreign Ministers of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan concluded their 4-day meeting on Jan 29 in Washington on sharing the Nile river waters in light of near completion of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. Ethiopia wants to start filling GERD reservoir from this year onwards for next four years; Egypt which depends on downstream Nile water, has warned that too fast filling up of GERD would affect her vital interests. Cairo has sought US mediation in this matter, Ethiopia declared her inability to attend the next round of talks scheduled on Feb 27 amidst reports that it was unhappy at the US bias in Egypt’s favour.   The $4.6 billion GERD – being  built since 2011 – is nearly 70% complete. Once operationalised, it would be Africa’s largest hydroelectric project generating 6 GW of power.

Egypt:
Former President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, 91, died in a Cairo hospital on Feb 25. He was in power for three decades (1981-2011) as the fourth President of Egypt. He was deposed by the “Arab Spring” popular movement alleging corruption and indifference to widespread penury. His rule left a mixed legacy including stifling stability at home, peace with Israel and cordial ties with the West and the GCC states. 

Egypt’s population crossed 100 million mark, having nearly doubled from 57 million in 1990.

Sudan:
Sudanese government reportedly agreed to pay approximately $30 million as compensation to the families of 17 US Navy sailors killed in an Al-Qaeda terrorist attack on USN Cole in 2000 in a Yemeni port. The two suicide bombers involved in the attack were trained and launched from Sudan. The US has insisted on this compensation as a pre-condition for removing Sudan from list of the countries sponsoring terrorism.

Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Kampala on Feb 3 during latter’s visit to Uganda. During this first-ever bilateral Summit, the two sides reportedly agreed to normalise their ties.            

Israel:
The country’s weary electorate showed little enthusiasm for third general elections in less than an year scheduled for March 2. The previous two elections failed to produce a majority coalition.

Qatar:
The State of Qatar gained a few brownie points by successfully hosting the signing ceremony on Feb 29 at Doha of the final agreement between the United States and Taliban movement facilitating withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan provided a number of tough pre-conditions were met. The ceremony was attended by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

Though a close ally of Qatar, Iran strongly criticised the agreement as “a pretext for continued US occupation of Afghanistan.

Tunisia:
On Feb 27, Tunisian parliament expressed confidence in Elyes Fakhfakh as the country’s next prime minister, thus ending a three month old hiatus since last parliamentary elections. 

Saudi Arabia:
On Feb 26, a Saudi court sentenced one person to death and seven others to prison for treason and spying for Iran.

Lebanon:
On Feb 11, the incipient government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab won the parliamentary vote of confidence for his cabinet and the Financial Rescue Plan. The comfortable win (63/20 : 1) was indicative of strong support from the Hezbollah despite four month old street protests clamouring for a technocratic government.

In a statement on Feb 26, the Hezbollah expressed its opposition to the IMF managing Lebanon’s financial crisis; it, however, did not object to Diab government seeking IMF’s advice.

The UAE:
On Feb 13, the European Football Association (UEFA) banned Manchester City Football Club (owned by a member of Al-Nahyyans, the ruling family of Abu Dhabi emirate) from playing in European Leagues’ matches for the next two seasons. The ban was imposed after investigation of a whistle-blowing complaint about violation of UEFA’s Financial Fairplay Guidelines by overstating the sponsorship revenues during 2012-16 period. The club was also fined 30 million Euros for failing to cooperate with the investigators. The UEFA ruling was a body blow to the UAE owners of this prestigious club, which intended to appeal it.

A Reuters report on Feb 19 said that the UAE Central Bank was to investigate the local branch of the Habib Bank, Pakistan’s largest private lender, about violation of its Anti-Money Laundering and Combating of Financing Terrorism (AML/CFT) laws and procedures. These irregularities were found by the banking regulator of Pakistan. Habib Bank management had admitted to such lapses, adding that corrective actions have since been made.

Comments: Appearance of such reports while Pakistan was being considered for FATF blacklisting was something Islamabad would have preferred to do without.

Yemen:
The Saudi Air Force admitted losing one of its Tornado fighter jet over Yemen on Feb 14 without specifying the cause; Al-Houthi militia claimed to have shot it down.

Al-Houthi’s attempt to tax the UN Humanitarian Relief caused disruption in its distribution from Feb 19 onwards for a brief period.

On Feb 8, US President Donald Trump announced targeted killing in Yemen of Qassim al-Raymi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) without specifying the date of the operation. AQAP subsequently admitted to his “martyrdom.”

From Feb 3, ICRC organised the medical flights from Sana’a to Amman, ferrying patients requiring treatment outside Yemen, which has been described as the biggest humanitarian disaster zone at present.

Libya:
There was no progress during the month in the UN-sponsored peace talks at Geneva between the two warring sides in Libya.

The Turkish military involvement on the side of Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) grew during the month. On Feb 25, Ankara admitted to death of two of her soldiers in Libya, first such casualties. Earlier on Feb 21, President Erdogan also confirmed having sent Syrian rebels to fight on the GNA side.

II) Economic Developments

OPEC:
A Technical Panel of Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) submitted its report on Feb 8 assessing the average demand for the member states’ crude during 2020 at 29.30 mbpd or 200,000 bpd lower due to early impact of COVID-19.   It recommended lowering the collective production ceiling accordingly. On other hand, OPEC secretariat data also showed that its collective production in January 2020 was 0.5 mbpd lower than its collective ceiling due to the blockade on Libya oil exports and lower Saudi production.

IMF Study on GCC Countries:
In a critical study published on Feb 6, International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states about precarious nature of their long-term finances which depended heavily on their hydrocarbon exports.   According to the study, over the last four years of low oil prices, net financial assets held by the six Gulf monarchies fell by around half a trillion dollars, to around $2 trillion,. According to the IMF study, even if peak oil demand doesn’t hit until 2040, that remaining sum could be depleted by 2034. Oil at $20 a barrel would run it down even faster, emptying the coffers as soon as 2027. While noting the economic reforms undertaken by these countries, the study pressed them to go further as the oil market was undergoing a long-term transformation on both supply and demand side.

The UAE:
A major gas field with estimated reserves of 80 TCF straddling Dubai and Abu Dhabi emirates was announced during the month. Once fully operational, the Jabel Ali field could help reduce the UAE’s reliance on gas supplies from Qatar and release more crude for exports.

On Feb 17, the national nuclear power regulator issued an operating licence for country’s first nuclear power reactor at the Barakah complex which is to eventually have four such reactors with total capacity of 5,600 MW. This would enable the commencement of power generation before end of 2020. The Barakah complex, the first nuclear power plant in the Arab world, is being built by a South Korean consortium. It was initially expected to be ready by 2017, but has been repeatedly delayed.  

Libya:
GNA President Fayez al-Serraj warned that continued oil blockade by LNA forces led by Gen Khalifa Haftar since Jan 18 was causing a “catastrophic crisis.” He put the lost oil revenue at $1.4 billion.

Saudi Arabia:
On Feb 23, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting of G20 Finance Ministers in Riyadh.

III) Bilateral Developments

Nearly 300 Indian students at Iran’s Islamic seminaries were stuck due to airport closure due to COVID-19 prevalence.

India summoned Turkish Ambassador to lodge a strong protest at President Erdogan’s comments on the situation in Kashmir during his Feb 14 speech at the Pakistani parliament.  He was warned that such uncalled for references into India’s internal affairs would have consequences on the bilateral relations. During his Islamabad stay, President Erdogan had also publically assured Pakistan of Turkey’s help in warding off FATF blacklisting.

On Feb 28, the Jeddah-based General Secretariat of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) condemned “the recent violence against Muslims and acts of vandalism against Mosques and Muslim-owned properties in Delhi.”

  (The views expressed are personal)

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