West Asia & North Africa Digest | January 2020

Political Developments 

Islamic Ummah:

A 4-day “Islamic Summit” hosted by Malaysia ended on Dec 21 without issuing any final statement and generating more heat than light. The event was attended by some 20 Muslim countries, prominent among them Iran, Turkey and Qatar. It was snubbed by Saudi Arabia which saw it as an attempt to challenge the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) based in Jeddah. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was among the initial promoters of the Kuala Lumpur summit; he was, however, persuaded after a Riyadh meeting (18/12) with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to shun it at all levels in the interest of Islamabad’s “neutrality”.  A quid pro quo emerged during Dec 29 Islamabad visit by Saudi Foreign Minister: a special OIC meeting to discuss “recent developments in Jammu and Kashmir” – a “jugular” issue for Pakistan. The details of the proposed meeting including its venue and level of participation were still unclear. 

The OIC:

On Dec 22, the Geneneral Secretariat of the Organisation of Islamic Conference issued a statement expressing concern at the recent developments affecting Muslim minority in India pertaining to both the issue of citizenship rights and the Babri Masjid case. It reiterates its call to ensure the safety of the Muslim minority and the protection of Islamic holy places in India citing various internationally accepted principles and obligations. It cautioned that any contrarian action “may lead to further tensions and may have serious implications on peace and security across the region.” The OIC statement did not elicit any response from India.

Comment: OIC’s first ever statement on Citizenship Amendment Act and Indian Supreme Court’s Babri Masjid verdict (https://www.oic-oci.org/topic/?t_id=23030&ref=13871&lan=en ) was aligned with its a longstanding partisan policy on India-specific issues. Nevertheless, it was conspicuous for both acts of omission and commission. It did not specifically condemn the two legal developments or asked for their withdrawal; it also avoided targeting the Indian authorities. It also did not include a reference to the Indian administrative measures concerning Jammu and Kashmir. It also did not deny persecution of the non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh( – all  of them OIC members) as mentioned in the CAA.  The statement appears to have been prompted not by the two measures taken few weeks ago, but by the demonstrations against the CAA.

Iraq:

Although anti-establishment demonstrations continued in various parts of the country, there were met by greater resistance by security forces and pro-Shia militias indulging allegedly in shootings, torture and disappearances.  In most serious confrontation so far, on Dec 6 night unidentified gunmen killed 22 demonstrators and 3 security personnel in Baghdad. By month end the figure of demonstrators killed had crossed 460.  On Dec 28, the protestors temporarily blocked exports from Nassiriyah oilfields producing nearly 90,000 bpd.

The National Parliament approved the new electoral law on Dec 24 paving the way for direct election of the candidates instead of the current system in which they are taken from the parties’ lists. This move met one of the major demand of the protests. This move followed a call on Dec 20 by Ayatollah Ali Shistani, highest Shia cleric in Iraq, for fresh elections.

The nomination of Basra Governor Assad al-Eidani by Sairoon on Dec 25, largest bloc in the parliament, was rejected by the protestors as he was part of the ruling establishment. Next day, Iraqi President Barham Salih threatened to resign instead of approving the nomination as it would not end the protests.

On Dec 27, a rocket attack on an Iraqi airbase near Kirkuk, killed a civilian US contractor and wounded four US servicemen. Two days later (29/12) the US retaliated by launching air-raids on Kataib Hezbollah militia at its three bases in Iraq and two in Syria, killing 25 fighters. In turn, their funeral marches next day turned violent and attacked the perimeter of the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone and partially occupied it. This prompted President Trump to call Iraqi PM Adel Abdul Mahdi to emphasis the “need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq,”  

Comment: During the month, the events moved towards their denouements along two convergent axes: the protests as well as the US – Iran confrontation through Shia militias.

 Iran:

 President Hassan Rouhani attended the 4-day alternate Islamic Summit held in Kuala Lumpur from Dec 14. He subsequently visited Japan on Dec 21.

 The navies of Iran, Russia and China held 4-day long manoeuvres from Dec 28 in the Gulf of Oman.

While European powers signatories of JCPOA express concern at Iranian rollback, they did not trigger move towards resuming the UN sanctions on Iran.

 In a rare move, Iran and the US exchanged one prisoner each on Dec 8.

 Amnesty International revised (16/12) upwards the number of deaths in crackdown on the protests against the fuel price rise in mid-November to 304.

 Iran approved its national budget for year 2020-21 which is set to begin in late March 2020. The $39 billion budget outlay was 10% higher than the previous budget and was aimed at “resisting the economic sanctions”. The IMF’s economic indicators for Iran pointed to a serious situation with 35% inflation and fiscal deficit  projected to rise to 5.1% of the GDP due to sharp fall in oil revenues. While the official rate was 45,000 rials to a US dollar, the open market rate was around 125,000 rials.     

Saudi Arabia:

On Dec 25, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait resolved their dispute about the two oilfields a Wafra and Khafji located in the neutral zone  along their border.  Before being shut down five years ago, these two oilfields produced half a million bpd.

A 22-year old radicalised Saudi airman under training at a US facility in Florida killed three of his colleagues, causing a temporary lockdown of 300 such training installations.

On Dec 23, a Saudi court sentenced five government agents to death for murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi exiled journalist and government critic at the Saudi consulate General in Istanbul on Oct 2 2018. Three others were sentenced 24 years in prison and two were acquitted.

The UN investigating team on missile and drone attacks on two Saudi oil installations on September 14 submitted its report on Dec 11. While it ruled out the attack having originated from Yemen as claimed by al-Houthis, it stated its inability to implicate Iran on the basis of the evidence.

Saudi Aramco IPO raised $25.6 billion, world’s highest. Within a week of its listing at Saudi bourse, Tadawul, Saudi Aramco’s market capitalisation crossed $2 trillion on Dec 7 – an ambitious target initially set by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That feat made it the world’s most valued company.

Oman:

Sultan Qaboos bin Saeed left on December 9 for Belgium for a medical check-up.  

Comment: Sultan Qaboos bin Saeed, 79, has ruled Oman since 1970 and is credited with country’s remarkable socio-economic transformation and a moderate foreign policy in a turbulent neighbourhood. In recent years, his prolonged absence from the country for unspecified treatment abroad have been a source of concern particularly as there is no designated successor.

Somalia:

A truck-bomb explosion at a busy crossing in Mogadishu on December 28 morning killed over 81 people including 17 security personnel. It was biggest of the 20 explosions that rocked Somali capital during 2019. While no one claimed responsibility for the attack, the needle of suspicion pointed to Al-Shebaab militant group which has defied attempts to curb it for over past quarter of a century.

In apparent retaliation, the US Africa Command carried out three airstrikes on December 30 at two locations claiming to kill 4 “terrorists”.

Palestine:

On Dec 14, the UN General Assembly extended the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) for three years. The voting was 169-2-9 with only the US and Israel in opposition.

GCC:

40th Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council was held in Riyadh on Dec 10 in a low-key manner. Qatar was represented by her Prime Minister showing that the efforts to end her two year old dispute with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain were still only partially successful. Qatari Foreign Minister later indicated that the recent talks have “broken the stalemate a bit” without providing any hint at return to normalcy.

 Nile Basin:

Second round of talks between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan on sharing of Nile river water were held in Cairo on Dec 2.

Syria:

Resumption of hostilities during the month in Idlib non-escalation enclave in north-western Syria caused miseries to estimated three million civilians and anti-regime groups. A UN report put the number of internally displaced persons at 235,000 many of whom were attempting to take refuge in neighbouring Turkey.

Comment: Russian backed Syrian military campaign to capture Idlib appears motivated by two considerations. Firstly, al-Assad government’s determination to have its writ run throughout the country. Secondly, to open up country’s strategic M5 highway connecting Damascus with Aleppo.    

Unspecified assets of Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and one of the richest persons in the country, were seized (24/12) by Syrian authorities for “customs violations” put at nearly 21 million dollars.

Comment: This highly unusual step was subject to varying interpretations ranging from being a sign of friction within the ruling nomenklatura to the ongoing sharp deterioration in national economy.

Turkey:

President Racep Tayyip Erdogan’s assertive politico-strategic outreach continued to cause friction generating more heat than light. He was peeved at some NATO partners’ criticism of Turkey’s military campaign in north-eastern Syria against YPG/SDF and threatened to veto alliance’s Baltic defence plan at its Summit (London; Dec 3-4).  His two overtures towards Libya’s beleaguered Government of National Accord (GNA) also caused contretemps. Signing of a maritime boundary agreement between Libya and Turkey raised objections from Greece, Cyprus and Egypt who believed it impinged upon their sovereignty. Similarly, signing of a bilateral military cooperation agreement and moves towards deployment of Turkish troops (or their Syrian proxies) in Libya were perceived as a potentially game-changing escalation in the civil war in the north African country. On Dec 31, Arab League issued a statement stressing the “necessity to prevent interference that could contribute to facilitating the arrival of foreign extremists in Libya”.

President Erdogan also paid an unscheduled visit to Tunisia on Dec 25 reportedly to discuss peace-making in Libya. 

Comment: Mr Erdogan, in power in Turkey since 2003, seems to be working under a number of impetuses, some of them mutually contradictory. Often rated as the most influential leader of Muslim world, he has sought to create a legacy of his own. At home, he has assiduously upended the long-established Kemalist agenda, but has suffered serious setback of loosing Istanbul and Ankara Municipal elections in 2019. In middle-east, he has taken on the mantle of republican Islamist, at a nuanced difference from the Saudi-led group. To this end, he has tried to find a force-multiplier’s role in various fault-lines, be it Syria or Libya or Qatar. However, this policy has often allied him to motley Sunni radicals with their own suspicious baggage.

Algeria:

The dynamic of domestic politics in Algeria recorded two far reaching developments.

Firstly, despite popular uprising (“Hirak”) against it in its 44th week, Presidential elections were held on Dec 12 among five candidates. The authorities claimed 40% participation and declared Abdelmadjid Tebboune, former Prime Minister, as elected with 58% votes cast for him. While protestors rejected his election as a charade, he was sworn in on Dec 19 and called for national reconciliation. In a concession to protestors demand for appointment of untainted technocrats, he named Adulaziz Djerad, former Secretary General in Presidency and Foreign Ministry, as the next Prime Minister.

Algeria’s Chief of Armed Forces Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah, 79, died on Dec 23 and was buried with full military honours two days later. President Tebboune swiftly appointed Said Chengriha, head of the land forces, as his successor.

Comment: Gen Salah’s death left a mixed legacy: on one hand, he was among the strongest figures in the FLN politico-military ruling elite called “Le Pouvoir” (The Power) who backed former President Abdulaziz Bouteflika for nearly two decades, before asking him to step down. On other hand, he firmly ruled out the demands of the popular demonstrators to remove all those involved with the previous power structure, thereby thwarting the political transformation they demanded. At the same time, he took steps against powerful and corrupt personalities including two former prime ministers and President Bouteflika’s brother. 

Beginning of the Tebboune Presidency and death of Gen Salah, its main sponsor four days later, left Algerian politics at a fork in an uncharted area. The fledgling president could possibly make a new beginning to go with the masses, or see anti-establishment forces seize the opportunity for a total break with the past order.

Libya:

On Dec 13, Gen Khalifa Haftar, head of the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA), launched “final battle” to wrest capital Tripoli from the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) under President Fayez al-Serraj. Subsequent intensified hostilities did not yield any breakthrough on the ground, but caused widespread destruction and refugees. At one point, GNA’s  sole Zawiya refinery, was threatened. Despite a UN embargo on military support to the warring parties, there were reports of LNA being aided by Egypt, UAE, Chad and Sudan as well as some European powers, notably Russia from where up to 800 Wagner Group mercenaries are alleged to have joined the LNA in the battle for Tripoli.

Comment: Following successful overthrow of Col Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has remained in turmoil with various tribal heads creating their respective fiefdoms. Control over country’s large oil resources has also been a lucrative consideration. With Turkey contemplating sending troops (- or allied Syrian fighters) to support GNA, the conflict may escalate further.  

Lebanon:

The stalemate precipitated by youth-led non-sectarian protests calling for a comprehensive political transformation entered its third month without any resolution. On Dec 19, President Aoun nominated former minister Hassan Diab as the next Prime Minister, which was rejected by the protestors. Beirut saw pitched street battles between protestors and Shia supporters of Hizbollah and Amal during Dec 14-18 which often necessitated intervention by security forces. This was the first time Shia partisans have confronted the protestors and was taken by many as an ominous escalation.

Carlos Ghosn arrived in Lebanon on Dec 30 after fleeing from a legal house arrest on fraud charges over his stewardship of Nissan car company. A Lebanese official statement the next day cryptically stated that Mr Ghosn, who has Lebanese, French and Brazilian nationalities, entered Lebanon legally.

Israel:

After Knesset failed to form a majority coalition, Israeli President called for unprecedented third parliamentary election.

On Dec 27, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu successfully staved off a challenge to his leadership of the Likud bloc with over 72% voting in his favour despite his indictment on the corruption and fraud charges. On Dec 31, PM Netanyahu, sought parliamentary immunity from prosecution over the corruption charges delaying a trial until after fresh elections next March.

Sudan:

The deposed president Oman Hassan al-Bashir, 75, was sentenced to two years imprisonment for money laundering and corruption. In view of his advanced age he was to serve the sentence in a “reform facility.” There are a number of accusations still pending against him, including one at the ICC for human-rights violations in Darfour conflict. 

Separately, on Dec 30 a Sudanese court sentenced 29 intelligence operatives to death for torturing and killing a teacher in February 2019 for participating in the anti-regime protests.

A devastating fire on Dec 3 in a tile-making factory in a Khartoum suburb caused many deaths, including 18 Indian employees.

Economic Developments

“OPEC+” group of over 20 oil exporters agreed on Dec 18 to extend their production cutting arrangement by three months till March 2020, but also to raise the collective ceiling upwards up to 2.1 mbpd. This was made possible by Saudi Arabia agreeing to reduce her production by 0.4 mbpd. Nigeria and Iraq were identified as over-producers.

On Dec 16, Israeli government approved plans to produce natural gas from an offshore field in Eastern Mediterranean Sea. A week later Egypt and Israel announced agreement to supply the gas to Egypt from mid-2020 onwards.

Turkish economy recorded 0.9% y/y growth in Q3/2019 after contraction of the GDP during previous three quarters. Ankara now project the GDP growth of 5% during 2020.

Lebanese economy continued to be in a freefall under disruptive impact of protests, political uncertainty, prolonged closure of banks, etc. Even before political maelstrom erupted in October, Lebanon’s economy was heading towards a crisis: Foreign Debt/GDP ratio was 150%, among the world’s highest, and fiscal deficit was 11% of GDP in 2018. The current account deficit (CAD) was also unsustainable leading to the Lebanese Pound losing a third of its official value against the dollar. The recent political uncertainty has affected Lebanese Diaspora’s remittances, which sustain the CAD. There was a real possibility of Lebanon defaulting on $10.9 billion of debts maturing through 2020. Moreover, Lebanon’s major donors, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE were unwilling to support a government with pro-Iran Hizbollah ministers.

Bilateral Developments

Dr S. Jaishankar, India’s Minister for External Affairs, visit Tehran on Dec 22. Apart from meeting his counterpart Mr Javad Zarif, he was also received by President Hassan Rouhani. The two sides agreed to expedite the Chahbahar port project.

EAM subsequently visited Oman.

Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, Indian Chief of Air Staff, paid a bilateral visit to Egypt on Dec 24-28.

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