2021 ended on a promising note for the region as rapprochement and reconciliation among major rivals was achieved to some extent with high level exchanges, raising hope for some kind of a modus vivendi, despite the history and concerns of prevailing volatility which is so very intrinsic to the West Asian region. It was evident from the meetings and efforts of Turkey with UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; that of between Saudi Arabia and Iran; UAE and Syria; and that between UAE and Iran even as conflicts and diplomatic rifts between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and Algeria and Morocco and ongoing hotspots in Yemen and elsewhere kept on casting shadows. Moreover, despite mistrust and glitches the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) nuclear talks went into the 8th round as Iran kept on flexing its muscles. Gulf countries through the two Summits tried to patch up differences and began moving forward keeping the acrimony with Doha behind. Qatar continued to reap dividends of its external outreach more in the context of its gas supplies to Europe and as a ‘Go to’ country in the context of Afghanistan and Taliban. Even Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine had a high level meeting with Defence Minister Benny Gantz accruing some movement even if in small steps. To take a bit of revenge from the AUKUS deal France tried to sell its Rafael aircrafts to UAE that felt slighted by the American reluctance to sell F35s when Macron visited the region.
Although the region kept on suffering from the Covid pandemic and recorded Omicron cases in several countries their efforts to fight the pandemic and oil price fluctuations, the IMF in its report especially on the Gulf economies, appreciated their efforts to efficiently cope up with the twin crises. It urged them to continue with inclusive macroeconomic policies, ensure financial stability to sustain economic growth and diversification and accelerate the ongoing reforms to drive productivity and diversification as they confront the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Gulf Summit – During 2021 there were two Gulf Summits one in the beginning of the year (Jan 5) and the other at the end (Dec 14) aimed at bringing about consolidation and solidarity among the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) who visited all the capitals to secure the participation and to resolve and address any likely irritants. Iran and its nuclear quest remained on the agenda, but King Salman preferred the constructive dialogue as they hoped for Iranian cooperation in resolving the Yemen conflict politically. In his speech to the Shura Council King Salman sought Gulf integration and development as he reiterated the historical support for the Palestinian cause which was highly appreciated by the Palestinian President Abbas.
OIC FM’s Meet
Islamabad hosted the Foreign Minister’s Meet on Afghanistan who although expressed concern on developing humanitarian crisis in the country and assured their commitment in principle to help, the actual assistance was not outlined. It may be recalled that the GCC countries have already been providing humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Besides not all of the 57 member country Foreign Ministers were present and were represented at lower levels. In fact, the Central Asian Foreign Ministers visited India to meet Indian External Affairs Minister at the same time where also they discussed situation with Taliban and Afghanistan and routing of India’s humanitarian assistance.
Iran: Continues to maintain that “The most important issue for us is to reach a point where, firstly, Iranian oil can be sold easily and without hindrance” according to Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian before the 8th round of JCPOA talks resumed. Iran’s position is that all US sanctions must be lifted before steps are taken on the nuclear side, while Western negotiators say nuclear and sanctions steps must be balanced. Meanwhile Iran continued to conduct several military exercises and tried to launch 3 research payloads into the orbit using its Simorgh rocket even though unsuccessfully.
In a first high level contact in recent times, UAE’s National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al-Nahyan visited (Dec 6) Tehran to discuss range of bilateral and regional issues and invited President Ibrahim Raisi to visit UAE . The Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad visited Tehran on Dec 5-6 perhaps to assure Iran that its primary interests will not be undermined with resumption of contacts with Arab and Gulf countries. UAE and Syria have intensified their contacts since the November visit of UAE FM Abdullah bin Zayed bin Al Nayahan to Damascus and meeting with President Assad.
Syria: Following UAE and Oman, a Bahraini Ambassador was appointed to Damascus in a bid to welcome the Syrians back into the Arab League fold. Earlier Jordan’s King Abdullah II had spoken to the Syrian President to normalise ties. However, despite allowing some relaxation in the Caesar’s Act and possibly a nudge or overlooking the actions of its allies in the region, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the US does not support the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the Al-Assad regime. “We will never lift the sanctions or support the rebuilding of Syria unless there is an irreversible progress towards a political solution,” the spokesperson reported Blinken saying while asking the countries that plan to deal with the Al-Assad regime to look at: “The atrocities he committed against the Syrians during the past decade, in addition to its efforts to prevent delivering humanitarian aid to many parts of the country.”
Libya: The Election Commission in Libya had expressed inability to conduct the elections due to the prevailing ground realities as scheduled on December 24 and hence recommended these be held on January 24, 2022. However, the Parliament failed to take any decision and a committee set up by it recommended laying out “a new, realistic and applicable roadmap, with defined stages, rather than fixing new dates and repeating the same errors”. Its President Al-Haid al-Sghayer, also suggested setting up a committee to draft a new constitution to replace the one scrapped by dictator Gadhafi in 1969. It also called for a reshuffle of the interim government of Abdulhamid Dbeibah, whose mandate was meant to end with Friday’s elections. Parliament, based out of eastern Libya was yet to discuss these proposals.
Meanwhile the status of PM Dbeibah and his continuity became a major part of the acrimonious debates in the country. UK also got caught into this controversy as its embassy issued a statement stating that the UK will continue to recognise the current Government of National Unity (GNU) as “the authority tasked with leading Libya to elections and does not endorse the establishment of parallel” authority. This led to public furore amounting to interference in the internal affairs and the Libyan Parliament on Dec 27 unusually announced and declared the UK ambassador, Caroline Hurndall, “persona non grata”. Although unlikely to be implemented but has created enough confusion in an already unstable situation. The US, France, Britain, Germany and Italy also reiterated the current unity government should stay in place until election results are announced.
UAE: French President Macron visited Abdu Dhabi and signed the largest ever deal for 80 Rafale fighter jets and 12 Caracal military helicopters, worth $19.23 bn. Some other economic agreements were signed including $5.2 bn and $1.4 bn investments by ADQ and Mubadala respectively with the French Ministry of Economy and Finance, a $1.58 bn deal between Borouge and Technip to set up a polyolefin manufacturing plant at el-Ruwais on EPC basis. France also maintains a base in UAE.
Israeli PM Naftali Bennet was in UAE on his first ever official visit as the outcomes of the year old Abraham Accords and the recently agreed new Quartet (with UAE, US, India and Israel) continue to harness synergies for mutual benefit. Although worried about the Iranian nuclear deal and keeping their options open, Bennet reportedly said to the Israeli Radio that he was not opposed to a good nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. However, “Is that, at the moment, under the current dynamic, expected to happen? No, because a much harder stance is needed” he added.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Egypt (Dec 9) to converse with his counterpart Sameh Shoukry and called on President Sisi and discussed bilateral and regional issues especially the situation in Palestine and the Mediterranean.
Turkey: President Erdogan hosted the Turkey-Africa Summit as it seeks to expand its footprint (Dec 16-18) on the continent. The main theme appeared to be enhanced defence cooperation as Turkey’s credibility in Libya and Nagorno conflicts got enhanced and it is indulging in its ‘Drone Diplomacy’ and comparatively cheaper yet effective equipment as the Leaders and top ministers from 39 countries, including 13 presidents, met in Istanbul with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to set an agenda for military cooperation. However, focus was also on economic engagement as the bilateral trade clocked nearly $ 39 bn.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia has been a dominant player in the African arms market with 49 per cent of the continent’s imports level between 2015 and 2019. Although Russia has a huge weapon sales capacity in the region, the interest in Turkish weaponry is growing.
President Erdogan visited Doha for the 7th annual strategic dialogue with his counterpart Qatari Emir Sheik Tamim. Turkey has stood by Doha during the Saudi -UAE blockade and even revived its military base there as Qatar continued to provide investments in Turkey. 15 bilateral agreements/MoUs were signed. Qatar remains the second-largest investor in Turkey with FDI worth $33.2 bn and $15 bn in currency swap arrangements.
Following UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s visit to Ankara , the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Dubai( Dec 15 ). He was received by the UAE Vice President and PM Mohammed bin Rashed Al-Maktoum. They discussed follow up measures to implement the decisions taken during Ankara Summit in November.
Finally, Iraqi Supreme Court ratified the recently held parliamentary elections on Dec 27 discarding all the appeals against it. This will enable the Iraqi President to have the government formed.
Kuwait also installed a new government /cabinet under Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid was formed on Dec 28.