West Asia Round up-March 2022

As the Ukraine -Russia war raged on, the countries in the region tried to assess their affiliations and predilections since these disconcerting developments would likely change the ongoing transitional global world order in unanticipated format and dimensions as they continued to also look at USA’s depleting influence and interest in the region. Votes at the UNSC and UNGA indicated their predicament as their relations with Russia and China have significantly deepened and they would prefer not to rock them despite coming under tremendous pressure from the West. PM Naftali Bennet, Qatar Foreign Minister, Saudi MBS and Turkey tried their best to diffuse the crisis and became interlocutors and hosts for the talks between warring sides.

Several regional and sub regional meetings were held including the Negev Foreign Ministers from Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, UAE and US met at the initiative of the Yair Lapid , the Israeli Foreign Minister. Iran and the revival of JCPOA and creation of some regional architecture were discussed. Abraham Accords + will become a regular consultative Forum. Of course, Palestine- Israel issues were the mainstay for some Arab nations even though not much would have come out of it. Later, Egypt also hosted UAE Crown Prince and PM Naftali Bennet. While US is still keen to revive the JCPOA and significant progress has been made, despite standard public posturing by both sides, Israel and several Gulf countries remain vigilant and somewhat dissatisfied of not being included in the talks knowing too well that it could only be the signatories if the talks had to go forward.

King Abdullah II of Jordan is trying his diplomatic skills with Israel to ensure that the Ramadan period passes off peacefully in Jerusalem. He is the custodian of Al Aqsa -3rd holiest mosque in Jerusalem after Mecca and Media.

In a separate development, Jordan’s King Abdullah II hosted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in the southern Jordanian city of Aqaba. The palace read out said that the meeting, which was also attended by a senior Saudi official, “covered means to advance ties between Jordan and these countries,” without elaborating. However, a statement from the Iraqi leader’s office said they discussed the global economic crisis and ways to confront food security challenges.

President Bashar al Assad was in the UAE, marking his first visit to an Arab country since the Syrian uprising began in 2011. It was also being seen as another marker of UAE’s independent foreign policy since US had imposed Caesar’s Act against Syria which also covers other countries dealing with Damascus.

Saudi Arabia executed 81 people convicted of crimes ranging from killings to ties to militant groups, a group that activists believe included over three dozen Shiites. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh sharply condemned the executions as “a violation of basic principles of human rights and international law.” The talks between Riyadh and Tehran have also been held up. However, Houthis agreed to the ceasefire for three months pursuant to halt of attacks by Saudi led coalition and UN negotiations.

Qatar has finally been designated as the non-NATO ally by the US for its role in Afghanistan and largely supportive to US ventures in the region and elsewhere.

Israeli PM Naftali Bennet and Defence Minister Benny Gantz were slated to visit India to mark the 30th anniversary celebrations of establishment of full diplomatic relations. However, as PM Bennet suffered from Covid, the visit was rescheduled. PM Modi called Bennet to enquire about his health and wished him speedy recovery and early visit to India.

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Negev Summit

On 28 March, the Negev Summit was attended by Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The Foreign Ministers of the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco condemned the recent attack on Israelis. The Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid during the press release called for erecting new architecture with shared capabilities that intimidates and deters common enemies i.e. Iran and its proxies. Lapid announced that following the meeting, it will be turned into a permanent forum. The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken called on the participating states to work together to confront common security challenges and threats including those arising from Iran and its proxies. Blinken also mentioned about the US effort to work on a vision for the Palestinians and Israelis to enjoy equal measures if freedom, opportunity, security and dignity. The Emirati Foreign Minister stressed on the UAE’s support for efforts aimed at achieving peace, security, stability and development in the region.

The Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry noted that Egypt’s participation in the summit is aimed at strengthening the Israel-Palestine peace process. During the negotiations with Israeli side, the Egyptian leaders pushed for resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians and continue peace efforts. Egypt is also keen to intensify cooperation to face common challenges related to terrorism and extremism and achieve stability.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned the summit calling such gatherings as free reward to Israel and Arab normalisation meetings without ending the occupation were just illusion and mirage.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

In March, there were series of shooting, stabbing and car ramming attacks in Israeli cities and Jerusalem. The attacks occurred in the backdrop on Negev Summit attended by top diplomats from the UAE; Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, Israel and the US to interact on security issues. The recent attacks have raised the fear of violence during the month of Ramadan. The Jewish holiday of Passover and Christian holiday of Easter were also falling around the same time.

On 6 March, one Palestinian teenager stabbed two officers in Old City in occupied East Jerusalem. On 19 March, one Jewish jogger was stabbed and injured in West Jerusalem. On 22 March, four Israelis were killed in a knife and car ramming attack in Beersheba. Beersheba is not usually at the centre of Israeli-Palestine conflict. In recent years, tensions have increased in the Negev region over the ownership of land owned by Bedouins. The land disputes for many Palestinians are emblematic of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The attacker was a teacher in a close by Bedouin town reportedly pledged support for the Islamic State. The Islamic State (IS) operatives on 28 March killed two people and injured six in shooting attack in Hadera. The attack coincided with the Negev Summit. On 30 March, five Israelis were shot dead near Tel Aviv. The attack occurred in the ultra-orthodox city of Bnei Brak. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade took responsibility for the attack and called the attack as “a clear message written in blood in response to the Negev summit”.

In West Bank, there have been number of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces in March. On 1 March, three Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in Beit Fajar and Jenin. ON 31 March, Israeli forces killed two Palestinians and injured seven others in a refugee camp in Jenin. On same day, one Palestinian man stabbed on Israeli bus near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Israeli Defence Minister’s Visit to Amman

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz visited Amman on 29 March and met with Jordanian King Abdullah. The meeting was seen as joint effort to reduce tensions between Israelis and Palestinians during the Ramadan period. The King appealed to Israel to respect Islamic rights to the Al Aqsa mosque compound which was crucial for maintaining the comprehensive calm. Gantz briefed about the measures taken by Israel to ensure freedom of prayer in Jerusalem and West Bank. The statement however did not elaborate on steps taken to carry out worship in Al-Aqsa Mosque. Notably, King Abdullah on 28 March visited the West Bank and met with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

Egypt hosts Israeli Prime Minister and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi hosted Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on 21 March. The Egyptian and the Emirati leaders agreed to expand bilateral talks on multiple issues including economic investments, Gulf security etc. The official Emirati news agency WAM mentioned that the visit was aimed at advancing cooperation in all fronts to benefit both states and their peoples. Both leaders discussed about recent regional and international issues and highlighted the necessity of emboldening Arab solidarity facing common challenges.

Notably, there is no official comment about Israeli Prime Minister’s meeting with Abdel Fatah Al Sisi. According to the Israeli media outlets, the three leaders shared concern about the possibility of revival of nuclear deal between Iran and the western states. The Gulf States have expressed unhappiness for excluding from talks to revive the nuclear pact as well as failing to address Iran’s missile programme and regional proxies.

Bashar Al Assad’s historic trip to the UAE

Syrian President on 18 March visited the UAE and met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. It was Assad’s first visit abroad since the 2011 civil war. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince expressed hope that the visit could promote peace and stability for Syria and the entire region. The discussion between Assad and the Dubai ruler focussed on expanding circle of bilateral cooperation in terms of economy, commerce and investments. Both leaders also shared their views on areas of shared concern about Syria’s territorial integrity and withdrawal of foreign forces.

The UAE has been one of the harshest critics of Bashar Al Assad since the 2011 civil war. The UAE backed Syrian opposition groups to topple Assad regime. Syria was expelled from the Arab League in November 2011 and faced years of isolation. Assad however managed to retain his political position due to backing from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The neighbouring states over the years have gradually re-engaged with Assad government. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018. Jordan and Lebanon has requested the US to ease sanctions of Syria to facilitate bilateral trade. The US criticised Assad’s visit to the UAE saying it was profoundly disappointed.

Saudi Arabia- Houthi Conflict

Houthis in last week of March carried out drone strikes attacking oil depot in Jeddah and other facilities in Riyadh. Houthi spokesperson Yahya Sarea acknowledged the attack on Saudi Aramco’s facilities in Jeddah with missiles and Ras Tanura and Rabigh refineries with drones. Saudi Arabia destroyed two explosive laden drones heading towards Najran. The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken condemned “reckless terrorist attacks striking civilian infrastructure” and called for immediate de-escalation. The attack in Jeddah endangered the planned Formula One race. The Saudi Motorsport Co. assured that race weekend schedule would continue as planned.

Saudi Arabia in response conducted air raids in Sanaa and Hodeida killing seven people. The Saudi coalition attacked one power plant; one fuel supply station and state run insurance office in Sanaa. In Hodeidah, oil facilities were targeted by Saudi forces. Houthis following the attack announced a three day truce and hinted the possibility of permanent ceasefire. The Saudi led coalition on 30 March eventually halted military operations after call from the UN for truce during the month of Ramadan.

Qatar commits to invest US$ 5 billion in Egypt

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani visited Cairo and met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Qatari Foreign Minister visited Egypt in May 2021. The Qatari Foreign Minister promised to invest US$ 5 billion in Egypt to strengthen economic and investment cooperation between both states. The visit by the Qatari Foreign Minister indicates warming of ties with Al-Sisi government. Egypt joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE to boycott Qatar in 2017. Qatar is a strong supporter of Muslim Brotherhood and it has been critical of the heavy handed approach by the military and security forces. Qatar’s investment is likely to help Egypt which is facing high inflation triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The US officially designated Qatar as a major non-NATO ally on 10 March. The move has officially upgraded the partnership between both states. The designation would provide special economic and military privileges. Qatar is the third state in the Persian Gulf region after Kuwait and Bahrain to become a US major non-NATO ally.