February turned out to be a testing time for the Middle eastern countries as Russia’s so called ‘military operation’ against Ukraine was launched and the two break away parts were declared as Independent Republics by President Putin. Having witnessed the US perceived withdrawal from the region and its occasional insensitivity to their core concerns the regional powers ventured to diversify their risks and relationships. Russia, which is also an OPEC+ partner country as well as that of Gas Exporting Countries Forum, also began to regain its influence after its successful intervention in Syria. This year UAE is in the UNSC and on the US resolution to condemn Russian aggression it abstained along with India and China. Except Kuwait in the GCC other countries waited and watched and did not want to be a part of this ‘big boys’ war’ even as they felt the pinch due to rising food and fuel prices. Even Qatar a non-NATO ally wanted the path of dialogue and diplomacy and walked a thin line. Reports indicated that Saudi and UAE Crown Princes were not inclined to take President Biden’s calls to enhance their oil production to meet the increased demand due to Russia under sanctions. They are not inclined to get caught while they can fill their coffers. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel and UAE offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine and spoke to both President Putin and President Zelensky .
Earlier several regional leaders visited China for the Beijing Winter Olympics after the China -Middle East Forum. They also conducted the discussions among themselves apart from the Chinese leadership. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi held talks with several world leaders on the side-lines of the luncheon hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping in honour of the heads of state and government participating in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games.
Sisi met with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and with Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
President Sisi also held talks with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he spoke with US President Joe Biden and discussed ways to halt Iran’s nuclear programme. However, the negotiations are continuing and the US decided to lift partially some sanctions which the Iranians called ‘a goodwill gesture but inadequate’. Bennett also said he had congratulated Biden on the US raid that led to the death of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi
Russia -Ukraine conflict and consequent gas crisis in Europe could expedite conclusion of the JCPOA, if Moscow stays on board.
The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iraq discussed the reasons for the delay in holding the fifth round of Saudi-Iranian talks in Baghdad, the Iraqi foreign ministry said in a statement. “Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein spoke on the phone with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal Bin Farhan, and discussed bilateral relations as well as delays in holding the talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” The statement added that the Iraqi foreign minister stressed during the phone call that “the Iraqi government will make every effort and invest all its relations to create an appropriate opportunity for the understanding between Tehran and Riyadh.”According to the statement, the two ministers stressed the need to continue communication during this sensitive period.
In a record time, India and UAE signed the historic Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) aimed at boosting the merchandise trade between the two countries to US$ 100 billion over next five years. The deal was signed during the virtual summit meeting between Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi and H.E. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
Addressing the joint press conference with Mr. Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri, Minister of Economy (UAE) and Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of State for Foreign Trade, Shri Piyush Goyal said that India, celebrating its 75 years of independence and UAE, celebrating 50 years of its foundation were at an appropriate time to reset the relationship between two nations and take it to greater heights than ever before.
India supplied medical assistance to Iran consisting of anti-Tuberculosis as part of ongoing humanitarian help.
PM Modi spoke to Bahraini Prime Minister Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa as the two countries celebrated golden jubilee of the bilateral relations. He also thanked the Bahraini govt for providing all assistance to Indians during the Covid period.
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Iranian President’s visit to Qatar
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Qatar in Late February and met with Qatari Emir. Both states signed 14 agreements covering trade, economy, energy, investments, tourism, education, sports and youth, cultural cooperation including television and radio cooperation. The Free trade zone authorities and the Institute of Standards and Industrial Research between both states signed agreements. In terms of ports and maritime affairs, three agreements i.e. maritime transport, port authorities and underwater tunnel were signed. Both states signed agreements encompassing visa waivers for diplomatic trips; political consultations between foreign ministers on issues of joint interest and foreign policy research centres focused on political education and research. Iranian President also met with Qatari businesspersons, investors and both states agreed to establish joint business centre in Doha facilitating investments. Iranian President was accompanied by Energy Minister Javad Owji and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian. The Iranian leaders also participated in the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) summit in Doha.
Gas Exporting Countries Forum Meeting in Doha
Qatar in the background of Russia- Ukraine tensions hosted two day forum of 11 members Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF). Notably, the forum also includes Russia. The member states discussed the progress about negotiations over the 2015 JCPOA. The US asked Qatar to prepare emergency supplies to supply gas to Europe in case of escalation. Qatar and other gas producing states however insisted that they would not be able to provide gas in case sanctions against Russia do affect Western Europe. The gas exporting states have suggested the need for significant investment in gas infrastructure and long-term contracts to guarantee supplies to European states. Qatar during the meeting talked about ensuring credible and reliable supply of natural gas to global markets that preserves market and supply stability. Russia while ignoring tensions with Ukraine only mentioned that their gas firms are committed to existing contracts for gas supplies. For the UAE, the oil price rally is not an issue of supply and demand but driven by geopolitics.
Iran talked about its high capacity for gas production not only for domestic consumption but also exports. President Ebrahim Raisi appealed to the forum to ignore international sanctions against their oil and gas industries which are ineffective. Iran blamed the US for continuing with gruelling sanctions affecting the state. Iraq hinted its interest to shift its investment policy from oil sector to gas as well as increase production of LNG and distillates.
Turkish President’s visit to African states
Turkey is seeking to extend its foray into African states. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February visited Senegal and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Kinshasa, President Erdogan was received by Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula Apala Pen’Apala and Turkish Ambassador Murat Ulku. Erdogan also met with DRC President Felix Tshisekedi. In Senegal, Turkish President Erdogan met with his counterpart Macky Sall. Both leaders talked about increasing ties between Turkey and African states on the basis of sincerity and solidarity. The volume of bilateral trade between Turkey and Senegal has steadily increased to US$ 540 million in 2021. Both states have agreed to increase trade to US$ 1 billion. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) has completed 186 projects since 2007 valuing US$ 12 million. Erdogan was forced to postpone his trip to Guinea-Bissau to attend emergency NATO’s Leaders’ Summit on Ukraine in light of Russia’s move to recognise breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Houthi drone attacks on Saudi Arabia
Houthi fighters continued its drone attacks on Saudi civilian assets. On 10 February, Qasef 2 drone attacked civilians near Abha International airport injuring around 12 people including citizens from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Philippines and Sri Lanka. The US condemned the attack and expressed support towards defending Saudi people and their territory.
The Saudi led military coalition retaliated by destroying a telecommunication system required for controlling drones in Sanaa on 14 February. The attack destroyed ground station for satellites close to telecommunication ministry in North Sanaa. The Houthi fighters have been utilizing the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology for attacks against Saudi and coalition targets.
Houthi fighters in a drone attack on 22 February at King Abdullah Airport in Jizan province injured 16 people including foreign nationals. The US on 23 February issued new sanctions on key Houthis members who are allegedly part of illicit financial network. According to the US, the network has transferred millions of dollars to Yemen through complex international network of intermediaries to support the group. The sanctions are also aimed at targeting front companies and ships linked to Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. (IRGC) smuggling oil and gas to fund the Yemeni rebel group.
Street protest in Sudan
Street protest in Sudan has continued in February demanding restoration of civilian rule and calling for release of prisoners. Sudan’s military chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has dismantled the transitional government and removed the civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok in late October. The military due to domestic pressure and international condemnation was forced to restore the military-civilian arrangement. The restoration of Hamdok failed to satisfy Sudanese public who are demanding civilian rule and accountability for actions by the military. Al Jazeera has estimated that around 82 people have been killed by the military since street protest began in October 2021. Moreover around 200 people including political figures and anti-coup activists have been detained.
Israeli Airstrikes in Syria
Israel has carried out number of missile strikes inside Syrian territory in February. On 9 February, Israeli attack using surface to air missile and radar and anti-aircraft batteries killed one Syrian soldier and five others near Damascus. Israel stated that the attack was conducted in response to anti-aircraft missile strike towards northern Israel. Israel repeated its missile attack on 17 February that hit military targets south of Damascus near the town of Zakiya. On 23 February, Israel launched missiles at the province of Quneitra causing substantial damage. Israel has targeted government positions and Iran backed forces and Hezbollah.
US Navy announces plan to launch Middle East drone force
The US Navy in February announced its plan to launch a new joint fleet of unmanned drones in the West Asian region with its allies to patrol the maritime routes. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper that leads the 5th Fleet expressed hope that 100 unmanned drones will multiply surveillance capacities of the US Navy and allow it to monitor the sea routes critical for flow of global oil and shipping. The drones would utilise artificial intelligence which will be operational by mid-2023. The drone force is aimed at limiting Iran’s naval activities.
Iran returns US made vaccines
Iranian government returned 820,000 doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines donated by Poland since they were manufactured in the US. Iranian Health Minister, Bahram Einollahi writing letter to customs authority has claimed that the vaccines were sent from unauthorized source. The suppliers in Poland have assured that it would replace the vaccines. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei in 2020 had forbidden the supply of British and US made vaccines from entering the state. Notably, Iran only imports vaccines from other states provided they are not manufactured in the US or UK.
Iran has the highest deal toll due to COVID-19 and it has relied on Sinopharm as well as Covaxin, Sputnik V, Astra Zeneca and home grown COVIran Barekat to vaccine its citizens.