Abstract: 2023 began with greater tensions in the region. Israel -Palestine conflict and high levels of violence and protests in Israel against the efforts of Netanyahu’s ultra-right government to compromise the powers of the Judiciary as well as the worsening plight and concerns of the Palestinians. Blinken visits Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine and supports two state solution amidst spirally violence urging both sides to calm down. While Blinken’s visit did little to actually defuse or deescalate the violent situation he asked his ME office Barbara leaf and Hady Amr Special Envoy for Palestine to stay back and to help defuse the situation. He reiterated that US will oppose any efforts to undermine the two state solution as well as new settlements, outposts or demolition of Palestinian homes. Even Netanyahu was mainly concerned with Iran and his ultra rightist partner Ben Gvir vowed to continue with demolishing Palestinian homes and distribute arms among Israelis to defend themselves. Another one Orit Strock Minister was not happy with Blinken’s comments on the government’s plans to dilute the judiciary.
The coalition of nationalist parties in Jordan strongly criticised a statement by the Jordanian Foreign Ministry which “condemned” the shooting of seven Israeli settlers ‘in an illegal settlement’ in occupied East Jerusalem. UAE and several other countries also condemned the response to these attacks led to IDF killing 10 Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp.
PM Netanyahu also visited Jordan to meet King Abdullah and to defuse the ensuing crisis pertaining to Al Aqsa Mosque for which King Abdullah remains a custodian. Israeli National Security Minister, much against the advice of his colleagues, entered Al Aqsa flaring up tensions.
US and Israel also conducted the largest ever exercise in view of threats being perceived from Iran. Head of CIA Mark Burns also visited just before the targeted drone attacks on military facilities in Iran and Tehran accused Tel Aviv who maintained a stoic silence as always while vowing that Islamic Republic cannot be allowed to have the nuclear weapons. “Such actions cannot impact the determination and intent of our experts for peaceful nuclear progress,” insisted Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. He called the attack a “cowardly strike.”
Meanwhile Qatar FM also tried to revive the almost abandoned JCPOA apparently carrying some message from the Americans. Iranian confrontation both domestically with ongoing anti hijab female protesters and the West became further accentuated with its close partnership and military deals in drones and SU35 with Russia.
Iran’s former Deputy Defene Minister, Alireza Akbari, was executed days after being sentenced to death on charges of spying for Britain
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for holding meetings between Ankara, Russia, Syria and Iran with the aim of achieving stability in northern Syria. Erdogan said Ankara’s relations with Russia are based on mutual respect and his relationship with President Vladimir Putin is based on honesty. Turkish president added that while his country has not been able to obtain the result it desires regarding developments in northern Syria, it is calling for holding tripartite meetings between Turkiye, Russia and Syria.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, at the Zugulba Presidential Palace in Baku to discuss strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries. Both presidents oversaw the signing of a number of joint memoranda of understanding relating to various fields including tourism, culture and water resources in addition to agreements between the Egyptian Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Azerbaijani Ministry of Economy.
Due to an attack on its embassy Baku had withdrawn its mission staff from Tehran. President Ebrahim Raisi during a telephone conversation with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev expressed his condolences after the attack. “The governments of Iran and Azerbaijan will not allow the relations between them to be influenced by the insinuations of the ill-wishers of the two nations”. On the other hand a statement issued by Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said that a “recent anti-Azerbaijani campaign against our country in Iran has encouraged such attacks against our diplomatic mission.”
Calls are growing for Tunisian President Kais Saied to step down in the wake of another very low turnout in the legislative election. The figure has been put at 11 per cent, according to some media reports. Just 8.8 per cent of eligible voters turned out in the first leg of the election in December. But Kais Saied remains unperturbed.
UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed visited Pakistan (January 26-27) as the country suffered its worst economic crisis mainly to assure them of some support and in response to several visits from Pakistani leadership to the Emirates. Earlier bilateral ties were discussed during Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s interaction with the UAE leadership when he paid an official visit to the Emirates at the invitation of President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on January 12-13.
Tearing and burning of Quran in Sweden led to condemnation by the Muslim world. Turkey even cancelled the visit of Swedish Defence Minister stating that “We regretfully witnessed that no measures were taken as a result of these vile and heinous acts against Turkiye [including the recent acts of PKK leaders there]. Therefore, at this point, the visit of Swedish Defence Minister Jonson to Turkiye on January 27 has become meaningless. “So, we cancelled the visit,” announced Turkish National Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.
Saudi Arabia and Morocco signed a CT agreement on security and intelligence cooperation.
Britain and Saudi Arabia have reached an agreement to strengthen cooperation on diversifying sources of critical minerals, including graphite and lithium, the British government said in a statement. This came during the British Business Secretary, Grant Shapps’s visit to Riyadh for the Future Metals forum.
According to some reports, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince and Prime Minister, ordered that that Saudi Arabia’s investments in Pakistan be reviewed so that they could be increased to $10 billion. Earlier the new Army Chief of Pakistan visited Saudi Arabia and called on MBS while requesting more assistance to an embattled Pakistan.
The Saudi government welcomed the launch of the final stage of the political process in Sudan. King Salman bin Abdulaziz underscored Riyadh’s continued support to Sudan and international partners in the Quartet and Friends of Sudan Group to achieve the country’s stability and prosperity.
President Yoon Suk Yeol of the Republic of South Korea visited UAE. During the visit, the Korean President conferred with President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to discuss the friendly ties between the two countries and the means to further develop bilateral cooperation in light of the strategic partnership that binds the two countries together.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi was the Chief Guest on 74th Republic Day of India which is a distinct honour. It was his third visit. During the visit the relationship was upgraded to Strategic Partnership and several agreements were signed. He had close interactions with PM Modi and President of India among others. Egypt is also invited as a special guest during India’s G20 presidency. India and Egypt are celebrating 75 years of establishment of diplomatic relations this year.
MOS (EA) shri V Muraleedharan visited UAE and conferred with several Ministers and also raised issues pertaining to the welfare of Indian expatriates there.
Anthony Blinken’s Tour to Egypt, Israel and West Bank
The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during the first leg of his regional tour visited Cairo on 29 January and met with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Both leaders discussed about enhancing the strategic partnership and promoting peace and security including support for elections in Libya and ongoing Sudanese led political process. Egypt continues to play a central role in US’ strategic calculations. Blinken also mentioned that the US will continue to encourage Cairo to take action on human rights. Notably, CIA Director William Burns after his trip to Ukraine and Libya visited Egypt on 24 January and met with the President El-Sisi and head of General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel and talked about efforts to boost security and intelligence cooperation. Burns emphasized on the role of bilateral cooperation to promote stability in the region.
Following the Egypt trip, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel and the West Bank. He called for de-escalation between Israelis and Palestinians while reiterating the US’ ironclad commitment to the Jewish state and its security. Blinken during the news conference stated that the US is committed to Israel’s full integration with the region by pushing for normalization efforts with Arab states. During the press statement, he mentioned about the US support for two states solution which is essential for Israel’s long term security. Blinken also met with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and mentioned that Israeli policies especially settlement expansion and home demolitions as detrimental to the two state solution. Blinken’s visit did not lead to any breakthrough in subsiding the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians mentioning that it was “fundamentally up to them” to end the ongoing violence.
Israel in January witnessed large scale protest to oppose the political changes initiated by the right-wing government. The protesters in Tel Aviv gathered in large numbers throughout the month chanting slogans such as “No to dictatorship” and “Democracy”. The government has proposed changes under which the Knesset could pass legislation through simple majority even if it violates the Basic Law. It would lead to weakening the judiciary. The Netanyahu government has accused the Supreme Court of excessive interference in political decisions. Besides the changes in Supreme Court, the government has hinted amendments in laws allowing unlimited detention for immigrants and asylum seekers; twisting anti-discrimination laws permitting right to refuse service based on religious beliefs affecting equal rights of LGBTQ community and minority groups. The government also wants changes in election laws that would restrict political participation for individuals expressing criticism towards Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. The changes in election laws in directed to shrink the political space for Arab parties that uphold a more sympathetic attitude towards the Palestinians.
The month of January was highly violent in Israel and the occupied territories leading to number of deaths of Palestinians and Israelis. Israeli forces killed two Palestinians including a minor on 25 January in East Jerusalem and West Bank during raids. Israel since March 2021 has carried out frequent raids under Operation Break the Wave causing fatal clashes. Israeli forces during these raids have killed bystanders as well as fighters in targeted assassinations and armed clashes.
Israeli forces raided a refugee camp in Jenin on 26 January and killed 10 Palestinians. The killing by Israeli forces led to rocket attacks by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) based in Gaza. Israel retaliated by carrying out air attacks on several locations in Gaza. Hamas in its statement noted that the group will continue to carry out “duty” to protect Palestinians and their sanctities. A day after the deaths of Palestinians in Jenin, a gunman on 27 January stormed inside a synagogue in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem killing seven people. Benjamin Netanyahu government in response to the recent violence announced plans to provide easier access for Israeli citizens to procure firearms. The move is seen as “collective punishment” and it is likely to increase the level of violence by allowing Israeli civilians to kill Palestinians with impunity.
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir on 3 January entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex ignoring warnings from Israeli politicians. The PA called it as deliberate provocation to change the status quo at the mosque complex. Netanyahu on 24 January visited Amman and met with Jordanian King Abdullah in midst of diplomatic tensions over the Al Aqsa Mosque. Earlier on 17 January, Jordanian Ambassador to Israel, Ghassan Majali was stopped from entering the mosque. King Abdullah during the meeting with Netanyahu stressed the importance of respecting the historical and legal status quo in Al Aqsa Mosque.
Pakistan-UAE Bilateral Visits
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif visited the UAE on 12 January. He received warm welcome from UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Both sides reviewed a number of regional and international issues. The two leaders signed three agreements related to diplomatic academy training, combating human trafficking and state news agency cooperation. The UAE assured support for development and stability in Pakistan and offered US$ 1 billion loan and also agreed to roll over an existing loan worth US$ 2 billion. Both states agreed to promote bilateral economic and trade ties and enable investment integration opportunities. The UAE President on 25 January paid a brief visit to Rahim Yar Khan City for in-depth discussions on economy, trade, development and issues related to the diaspora.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Visit to Sudan
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Sudan on 26 January. Prime Minister Ahmed met with Sudanese military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to discuss on regional issues. The relations between Ethiopia and Sudan have been tense due to border dispute and refugee crisis following the two year conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Both states are keen to embolden and promote bilateral relations. Sudan also assured support for Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In 2020, Ethiopia’s decision to start filling the dam’s reservoir without prior agreement with downstream states was heavily criticized by Sudan and Egypt. The tensions between both states also escalated following the conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) triggering a humanitarian crisis and flow of refugees to Sudan. Both sides also differ over Al-Fashaqa, a fertile border strip cultivated by Ethiopian farmers but claimed by Sudan. Sudan in June 2021 recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia to protest about killing of Sudanese soldiers.
Attack on Azerbaijan’s Embassy in Iran
An attack inside Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran on 27 January led to death of one security guard and two injuries prompting Baku to evacuate its diplomatic staff. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called the assault on the embassy as a “terrorist act” and requested swift investigation. Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan have witnessed tension for months. Azerbaijani government in a strongly worded statement mentioned that recent “anti-Azerbaijan campaign” encouraged the gun incident and accused Iranian authorities of ignoring Baku’s appeal to increase security at the embassy. Iranian Foreign Ministry condemned the attack and assured thorough investigation. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has tried to calm the situation and mentioned that bilateral relations should not be affected after the attack. Top officials in Tehran has dismissed the attack as a “terrorist act” and speculated that it could be driven by “personal issues”.
Drone Strike at Military Facility in Iran
On 28 January, military facility in Isfahan suffered minor damage from drone strikes. Iranian Defence Ministry stated that three drones were launched out of which one was destroyed by air defence systems and two were incepted by “defence traps” causing minor damage to one building. Reportedly, the attack was conducted by Israel to disrupt missile production. Iranian authorities did not clarify about the activities at the site calling it a workshop. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called it a “cowardly” attack aimed at destabilizing the state.
Gas Deal between Italy and Libya
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during her visit to Tripoli on 28 January oversaw US$ 8 billion gas production deal between Eni and National Oil Corporation (NOC) aimed at increasing gas output for the Libyan domestic market and exports through the development of two offshore gas fields. According to the deal, the output will begin in 2016 producing 21 million cubic meters per day. Eni Chief Executive Claudio Descalzi has hoped that the agreement will facilitate crucial investments in Libya’s energy sector contributing to local development and job creation while allowing Eni to play a leading role in Libya’s energy market.
Prime Minister Meloni met with Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah, head of the internationally recognized Government of National Unity (GNU) and the discussion focussed on migration across the Mediterranean Sea. In the background of the Russia-Ukraine war, European states since last year have sought to diversify its energy imports. Italy signed energy cooperation with Algeria in 2022.
Turkey’s Diplomatic Row with Sweden and Denmark
Turkey’s diplomatic row with Sweden and Denmark has escalated after reports of Quran burning incidents in Stockholm on 21 January and Copenhagen on 27 January, in front of the Turkish embassy by a far-right activist, Rasmus Paludan. Turkey summoned the envoys of the two European states and expressed strong condemnation for providing permission that constitutes a hate crime. Ankara’s diplomatic relations with Stockholm has remained tense due to its opposition to Stockholm’s entry in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Sweden and Finland fearing aggression from Russia has expressed their intention to join NATO. The accession process however requires the approval of all NATO members. Turkey has hinted that its consent is conditional upon Sweden as well as Finland’s efforts to crack down on Kurdish armed groups, activists and other groups. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the Quran burning warned Sweden not to expect support for its NATO bid.
Kuwaiti Cabinet Resigns
Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf al-Sabah submitted his resignation to the Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Sabah on 24 January after dispute with parliament. During the September 2022 parliamentary election, the opposition figures increased their share leading to standoff with the government. The new government formed in October 2022 collapsed only after two months. The government and the parliament reached an impasse over a debt relief bill allowing the state to buy Kuwaiti citizen’s personal loans. The tussle between the executive and the legislature has impeded reforms and affected investments in the Gulf state.