West Asia, during the month, witnessed enhanced intra regional interactions and efforts for rapprochement. UAE took the lead as its Foreign Minister visited Damascus to upgrade the ties and to bring Syria back into the Arab fold. UAE FM also spoke to his Iranian counterpart and welcomed the Iranian Dy. FM and negotiator on nuclear talks in Abu Dhabi. More interactions to follow as UAE agreed to build some power plants and other infra developments in Iran. USA is somewhat miffed as both Syria and Iran fall in the ambit of its sanctions. However, in Bahrain Secretary of Defence tried to assuage the concerns of Arab allies and to assure them that for the US, security of the region was paramount. As for Afghanistan, Washington decided to open its mission in Qatar embassy in Kabul as Saudi Arabia opened its consulate and UAE expressed interest to help run the Kabul airport as all of them continued to provide humanitarian assistance to alleviate the civil strife. Turkey’s FM visited Tehran to work on a visit of President Erdogan. Importantly, UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan made his first high level visit to Ankara and held discussions with President Erdogan creating scope for cooperation sidestepping the rivalry and competition. A $ 10 billion investment fund was also announced for strategic investments in Turkey. Carrying on with its political, socio-legal and economic reforms UAE decided to introduce Civil law over Muslim personal law for the foreigners and expatriates giving a big relief. UAE has also been designated to host COP 28 in 2023. Omani Sultan visited Doha and met Qatari Emir to strengthen bilateral and regional mechanisms. Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz visited Rabat and signed a security cooperation agreement as Morocco and Algeria remain in a state of conflict.
In Sudan after the military coup and under the international pressure PM Hamdok was reinstalled but the public protests continued.
Indirect JCPOA talks between Iran and the US were resumed on Nov 29 amidst threatening statements on both sides the Europeans and Americans warning Tehran that time was running out as Iranians wanted all sanctions to be lifted and guarantees be given for the continuity of the deal even if there was a change in political dispensation in Washington which is a non starter. Russia and China maintained that the two sides should return to the existing JCPOA agreement.
External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar held talks with H.E. Dr. Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf, Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who was on his first official visit to India on November 10-11. They exchanged views on regional and international issues of mutual concern. EAM congratulated Secretary General for the constructive role played by GCC in promoting stability and prosperity in the region. Both sides decided to convene the next India-GCC Troika Political Dialogue at an early date. The last round of the Dialogue was held virtually in November 2020. Both sides also agreed to further institutionalize the annual meetings between EAM and GCC Troika by signing an MOU in the coming months.
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Protests in Iraq
Iraq witnessed weeks of demonstrations against the result of the parliamentary election held in October 2021. The election witnessed one of the lowest turnouts. Prominent Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s political bloc, the Sairoon alliance won 73 seats in the 329 member parliament. Pro-Iranian groups that suffered heavy losses in the election called the polls fraudulent. They threw stones that were responded with tear gas and fire in the air. Fateh Alliance, the political arm of Hashd al-Shaabi won only 15 seats as compared to 48 seats in the last election. The domestic situation continued to remain unstable including small scale clashes throughout the month.
On 7 November, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt after a drone filled with explosives struck his residence in the high-security green zone in Baghdad. Iraqi officials and military sources have speculated on the involvement of pro-Iranian groups behind the attack. It is however unlikely that Iran is directly involved in the attack that could adversely affect its trade and political ties with Iraq as well as intensify violence on its western border. Iraqis fear that the tension within the Shiite groups that dominate government, number of state institutions and paramilitary branches could escalate into a broader civil conflict in the near future.
New Political Agreement to Overturn the Coup in Sudan
Sudan’s military chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan signed a political agreement with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to restore civilian control of the government. The military leaders were facing intense domestic and international pressure after the government was dissolved and cabinet members were arrested on 25 October.
Sudanese public after months of protest succeeded in pressurising the military to oust the long time autocrat, Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019. The military with support from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt intended to retain political power. However, protests against military control forced General Al-Burhan to accommodate the civilian coalition facilitating the formation of a technocratic government during the transition period until 2023. The dynamics between the military and civilian component in the government has been uneasy. The military after the national election and appointment of a democratically elected government is supposed to leave political office in 2023. The military, therefore, is unwilling to concede political power. It has blamed the civilian government for domestic protests, economic shortages and disrupting the path of the revolution etc and therefore justified the October coup. The coup led to widespread criticism eventually forcing the military to undertake political agreement. The 14 point deal entails the release of all political prisoners. Civil groups have however expressed their displeasure about the peace deal that continues to place the military in the dominant position. In the recent future, the political battle is likely to continue between the military committed to preserving its predominant status and increasingly assertive civilian government.
UAE’s Rapprochement with Syria
The UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited Damascus and met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on 9 November. It indicates a thaw in relations since 2011 protests in Syria that quickly engulfed into a civil war. The UAE sided with Syrian rebels to topple the Assad regime and remained a vocal opponent of the actions of the government forces. The Assad regime through help from Russia and Iran has managed to stabilise the state. The civil war has killed thousands of people and displaced millions living as refugees in West Asia and Europe. The economic challenges for the Syrian government have been aggravated. In a major departure from the UAE’s previous stance, the Foreign Minister expressed his government’s interest in preserving the security, stability and unity of Syria.
The visit is seen as an indication of regional efforts to overturn Syria’s diplomatic isolation that could help the country to overcome economic despair. Both leaders reportedly discussed boosting joint investments in key sectors. The UAE earlier in December 2018 reopened its embassy in Damascus and in March called for Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League.
Notably, the US has expressed its reservation against re-engaging with the Assad regime by the UAE. The US State Department Ned Price said that it would not support other states to normalise or upgrade their relations and rehabilitate Assad calling him a brutal dictator. Syria is one of the four states under the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. The US could therefore continue to hinder Syria’s efforts to re-integrate with the international trade network and comity of states.
UAE’s Dialogue with Iran
The UAE has adapted its foreign policy to the changing realities at the regional level. In the recent period, it has opened diplomatic engagement with Syria as well as reached out to regional rivals including Qatar, Turkey and Iran. The UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir Abdollahian held a telephonic conversation on 11 November. Both states called their relations traditional and positive. The Iranian leader called for resolving existing problems between both states. Iran has welcomed UAE’s reconciliation with Syria calling it a positive step in regional cooperation. Both sides agreed that global and regional cooperation should be established to solve environmental problems.
Following the phone call, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani visited the UAE on 23 November and met with the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khalifa Shaheen and the diplomatic advisor to the Emirati President, Anwar Gargash. Both states talked about opening a new chapter. The UAE has called for collective diplomacy between Gulf States and Iran by taking measures to de-escalate tensions.
US Approves US$ 650 million Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
President Joe Biden in early November approved US$ 650 million worth sale of 280 air-to-air missiles and 596 LAU-128 Missile Rail Launchers (MRLs). The US weapons firm, Raytheon is the principal contractor for the sale of AIM-120C-7/C-8 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air missiles and related equipment. Saudi Arabia has purchased a US$ 500 million helicopter maintenance deal in September. The US justified the sale suggesting that it would support US foreign policy and national security and help improve the security of a friendly state. Pentagon called Saudi Arabia an important force for political and economic progress in the region. The US-made missile deployed from Saudi aircraft has been crucial to intercept missiles and rockets and protect over 70,000 US citizens living in the kingdom.
The arms deal is the first sale to Saudi Arabia under Joe Biden. Biden as a presidential candidate was critical of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The new administration has eventually adopted the policy of selling only defensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. Raytheon Technologies called the sale consistent with the government’s policy to lead with diplomacy to end conflict in Yemen. The sale does not require approval from the US Congress; however, lawmakers can block the deal by passing a disapproval bill in both houses. Critics within the US has dismissed Joe Biden administration’s claim to improve security. The deal has only benefitted the US defence industry.
Qatar to act as Diplomatic Proxy for the US
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on 12 November announced that its Gulf ally, Qatar will represent US interests in Afghanistan and help to process visas for people trying to flee Taliban control. Qatar under the new agreement would carry out a few diplomatic responsibilities including consular services and providing security of abandoned US facilities. Qatar for years has served as mediating ground for dialogue between the US and Taliban including the Doha Peace agreement. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani stated that his country would continue to remain an instrument of peace and stability in the region. He mentioned engagement is the only way forward and abandoning Afghanistan is a big mistake. It has to be been what role Qatar would play provided that US officials have regularly met with Taliban figures post-August 2021 takeover.
CEO Designate of NSO firm Resigns
The CEO designate of Israeli spyware firm NSO, Isaac Benbenisti who joined the firm in August 2021 has offered his resignation on 11 November after the group was blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce. On 31 October, Benbenisti was named as the future replacement for Shalev Hulio, the co-founder and CEO of the NSO Group. Hulio has announced that he would remain in the current position due to the need for stability and continuity during the current period.
The firm’s spyware, Pegasus has been sold to foreign governments to spy on dissidents, journalists, diplomats etc. The company reportedly works after the approval of the Israeli Defence Ministry. The US placed NSO Group on the US blacklist in the first week of November after determining that the Israeli spyware has acted contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US. The sanctions are intended to block NSO’s business operations in the US The firm has defended its spyware arguing that it is sold only to governments to target terrorists and other serious criminals.