West Asia Roundup-December 2022


For West Asia, 2022 ended with a hectic diplomatic activity. Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia visited several countries in the region to ensure the presence of West Asian leaders at the ensuing China -Gulf and China -Arab Summits during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Kingdom from December 6-8. The statements issued were quite significant as China tried to retrieve and reinforce its regional influence and sync its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) projects with the Vision 2030 and developmental paradigms of various regional powers. President Xi has been successfully able to wade through the regional rivalries especially between the Sunni Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the Shia Islamist regime in Iran as well as the Israeli dynamic while underscoring the support to the Palestinian cause. Several agreements were signed. MBS stressed that the historical relationship between the Arab countries and China is based on mutual respect, friendship, and cooperation in many fields reiterating that “Our countries attach utmost importance to supporting the development process to develop their economies and the well-being of their peoples”. He lauded the role of China in putting forward several valuable initiatives, notably the Friends of Global Development Initiative, which matches many aspects of Saudi Arabia’s priorities towards supporting sustainable development and promoting food security.

On the other end of the spectrum, Israel witnessed the onset of an ultra-rightist government led by PM Benjamin Netanyahu which created deep concern in the region as well as in the US. Biden Administration said that they will hold PM Netanyahu personally responsible for the acts of his far right cabinet members including Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who have called for leveling the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and denying citizenship to non-Jews. In any case most observers feel that situation between Israel and Palestine might worsen.

Tunisia was said to be bright spot of the Arab Spring but in recent times the democracy dividend appears to have been decimated by the subsequent governments. President Kais Saied since 2021 is being accused of further undermining it. The December Parliamentary elections witnessed the citizens’ apathy and the lowest voter turnout.

As Qatar finally hosted the FIFA 2022 successfully, the controversies not only regarding the inhumane treatment of labourers continued in the western media but the influence peddling accusations by Qatar also surfaced. Members of the European Parliament voted to suspend access to the hemicycle’s premises to Qatari representatives as it was suspected of having offered “large sums of money” and “substantial gifts” to MEPs and assistants in a bid to influence European decision-making. Greek MEP Eva Kaili, together with three other suspects, has been charged with participation in a criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering.

Qatar and Germany signed a 15 year LNG deal following similar deal with China.

Saudi Arabia and UK signed a defence cooperation plan.

An estimated 10-20,000 registered Israelis bought tickets for the World Cup in Qatar, the Jerusalem Post reported, but only 3,500 registered as Israelis. However, it was not easy for Israel to find any private airline to initiate direct flights between Israel and Qatar, according to National Public Diplomacy Directorate head at Israeli Foreign Minister, Lior Haiat.

Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, flew to the UAE to meet with President, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Herzog reassured Bin Zayed that “the Abraham Accords are a national consensus in Israel.”Herzog, told Bin Zayed: “Now, we have to reach cruising altitude. That is, to upgrade ties between us even more, to strengthen them and to bring more nations into the Abraham Accords.”

President Herzog also visited Bahrain, where he addressed the Bahrainis, saying: “You are at the forefront of making history in the region, where Jews and Muslims can dwell together, the sons of Abraham, and move forward in peace.”

Following Herzog’s visit to the two Gulf States, and to consolidate economic ties, the Israeli delegation met with Moroccan officials in Rabat and signed a gas and oil exploration deal. Israeli New Med Energy said that it had signed agreements with Adarco Energy Limited and Morocco’s National Office of Hydrocarbons and Mines.

Iran condemned the recent sanctions imposed by the EU against 20 individuals and one entity linked to the violent crackdown on demonstrations over the death of young Mahsa Amini as the protests and even executions leading to more protests have continued as tenor of their demands switched more against the regime and its removal. Meanwhile, United States claimed that the relationship between Russia and Iran has become a complete defence partnership. US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Russia and Iran are giving each other an unprecedented level of military support. Kirby said a defence partnership between Iran and Russia where both will jointly produce drones will harm Ukraine and disturb peace in West Asia.

UAE and Saudi Arabia led mediation efforts saw the release of US basketball star Brittney Griner in a prisoner exchange between Russia and the US. In a joint statement, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, announced the success of the mediation led by President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown for the release and exchange of two prisoners between the United States of America and the Russian Federation. It also highlighted the important role played by the leaderships of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in promoting dialogue between all parties.

The second edition of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership supported by France was held on December 20 in Amman, Jordan. At the summit, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and several more Arab nations were present apart from representatives from the European Union, United Nations, Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, and Organization of Islamic Cooperation. President Macron also paid the bilateral visit to deliberate with King Abdullah II of Jordan preceding the conference. Amman invested a great deal of political capital in promoting Kadhimi, and a number of multilateral forums were established during his tenure, from the Baghdad Conference to the kingdom’s ongoing high-level meetings with Iraq and Egypt. This conference indicated the continuation of relations and their importance under new Iraqi PM Sudani between Jordan and Iraq.

Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar visited UAE to attend the 5th Indo-Ocean conference and to discuss and bolster bilateral cooperation. He called on the President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, who has also been invited by India for the G20 Summit as the special invitee. UAE Minister Noura Bint Mohammed said, speaking on India’s Presidency and tenure at the UNSC said “Congratulate you and the Indian mission at very successful 8th term on the Security Council. Your voice at this chamber is necessary and UAE reiterates its endorsement of India’s bid for permanent membership of the reformed UNSC.”

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Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia between 6 and 8 December. Saudi Arabia is keen to expand its global alliances beyond its strategic partnership with the US. Xi Jinping’s last visit to Saudi Arabia was in 2016. Both states signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement and 20 bilateral deals worth US$ 29.26 billion. China and Saudi Arabia also signed 34 investment agreements in sectors such as green hydrogen, IT, transport and construction. Riyadh signed deal involving tech giant, Huawei Technologies to develop cloud computing, data centers and high tech complexes in Saudi cities. Jinping also attended the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh. The US warned that China’s attempt to expand its global influence is not conducive to the international order. The US security officials cautioned that equipment from Huawei could be used to interfere with fifth generation (5G) wireless networks and collect sensitive information.

New Government in Israel

In Israel’s latest election in November, the right-wing parties i.e. Likud with 32 seats; Religious Zionist party with 14 seats; Shas with 11 seats; United Torah Judaism with 7 seats secured a majority of 64 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. The new grouping has been called as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history that could further worsen the status of Palestinians living in the occupied territories. The Israeli Prime Minister has called the settlement expansion in occupied West Bank as the top priority of his government. Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet officially took oath of office on 29 December after Knesset passed a vote of confidence in the new government. Among the 120 members, 63 voted in favour of the government and 54 voted against. US President Joe Biden mentioned that his government is looking forward to working with Netanyahu calling him “friend for decades”. The US President talked about jointly addressing challenges in the region including threat from Iran. Russian President Vladimir Putin also welcomed Netanyahu’s return to power and called for strengthening cooperation in all areas and ensuring peace and security in the region.

IS attack in Iraq, Syria and Egypt

The Islamic State (IS) on 18 December carried out bomb blast in Kirkuk killing nine federal police officers. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has ordered a clamp down to dismantle IS hideouts and suggested the security forces to maintain vigilance. In Syria’s Raqqa, IS on 26 December killed six Kurdish fighters in a targeted attack on security and military buildings. Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) subsequently launched offensive dubbed as Operation al-Jazeera Thunderbolt. On 30 December attacked Al-Taim oil field in Syria’s Deir Zor province. IS in December carried out 14 attacks in Deir Az Zor area, Hasakah and the al-Hol camp killing 55 people.

On 31 December, the terrorist group attacked a police checkpoint in the Egyptian city of Ismailia killing at least four people and injuring 12 others. The IS fighters after setbacks in Syria and Iraq have re-grouped in the security scarce Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian forces have been fighting against IS in the northern part of Sinai Peninsula. Earlier in 2018, Egyptian security forces launched campaign to dismantle IS hideouts in Sinai, parts of Nile Delta and border region close to Libya killing around 1000 terrorists. In May 2022, IS had killed 11 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai region.

Italian Prime Minister’s visit to Iraq

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during her first bilateral trip outside Europe visited Iraq and met with Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and President Abdul Latif Rashid. Italy is pushing for close economic and energy ties with the oil-rich Arab state. The Italian Prime Minister identified economic cooperation with Iraq in agriculture, water and health. Moreover, security and cultural cooperation are crucial drivers in the growing bilateral relationship. Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Sudani invited Italian firms specialized in infrastructure and gas exploration to help in the state’s rebuilding process. Iraq is the second largest crude oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) producing more than 3.3 million barrels per day.

Low Turnout in Tunisia Election

Tunisian parliamentary election held on 17 December witnessed a low 11.2 percent turnout. The low turnout reflects the anguish by Tunisians against President Kais Saied’s efforts to consolidate power and diluting the progress in democratization in the post 2011 Arab Spring period. Saied dissolved the government in July 2021 and suspended the parliament. The President has stripped the powers of the parliament. The latest election was boycotted by all major political parties. Earlier on 10 December, hundreds of Tunisians organized protest with banners and chants saying “Saied get out”. It indicates frustration with Saied’s power grab. The protestors demanded a return to democracy.

Protest in Jordan

Public demonstrations have erupted in Jordan in December to criticize the high fuel prices that occurred due to limits on subsidies imposed by the IMF. The state is facing enormous debt and the unemployment level has reached at 23 percent. The government has taken measures such as cap on fuel prices, however inflation has continued. In Maan, one police official was killed during violent protest on 15 December. On 19 December, three more police officers were killed during a raid to arrest the suspected killers of the police officer killed on 15 December. The government has promised to take tough steps and deploy more anti-riot police to prevent violent protests.

Sanctions against Iran

The US and Canada on 9 December announced new round of sanctions against Iranian officials accused of human rights violations during the ongoing protest in Iran. The US has claimed that that the three officials have carried out illegal detentions and violence against protestors. The US also drafted a resolution to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women for applying systematic violations of women’s rights. The 54 member UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted the resolution passed by 29 for and 8 against votes. 16 states abstained from voting. Iran condemned the move that could create an “unwelcome precedent”. The ministers of the European Union of Foreign Affairs imposed new sanctions on 20 individuals including Iranian clerics, senior officials and state media executives and one entity i.e. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting due to their role in suppressing protestors as well as for supplying drones to Russia

Iran in a tit for tat response imposed sanctions on 23 individuals and nine entities in the European Union (EU) and the UK. The sanctions include media institutions, military base and current and former politicians. Tehran blacklisted Radio Farda and French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo; two German firms i.e. Water Engineering Trading GmbH and Gidlemeister Projekta GmbH. Iran also sanctioned Tony Blair Institute of Global Change, British Institute of Human Rights Chair, Geoffrey Bindman and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) co-founder, Bernard Kouchner.

On 20 December, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian held meeting with European Union’s Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell in Amman on the sidelines of the second meeting of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership hosted by Jordanian King Abdullah. The meeting was aimed at identifying measures to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. The EU foreign policy chief emphasized on curbing military support to Russia and stopping internal repression in Iran.