West Asia especially Qatar came into global focus as the FIFA world cup took off. Kudos and criticism and conspiracy theories, labour exploitation in the run up liberal traditions of west and conservative traditions of the Arab world came into play as the players and their supporters descended on Doha. But by all counts Qatar has pulled it off beautifully with several major leaders from the region and outside visiting the country. Sports diplomacy was also at its best.
On 21 November ,Qatar Energy signed a deal with China’s Sinopec to supply LNG for 27 years leading to further intensification of energy cooperation. The oil and gas rich Gulf states are critical component in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. In December the visit of President Xi Jinping to the region was being talked about when China and GCC and Arab Summits were being planned in Riyadh.
Iranian protests continued to grow as a result of Mahsa Amini. Divisions in political dispensation also became apparent. Threats and timelines by the security authorities as well as IRGC against the protesters were ignored and challenged by mostly women protesters. The Iranian celebrities including sports icons stood in support of the protesters. Even at the FIFA games Iranian team did not sing the national anthem.
Although, Turkish airstrikes against the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq , declined significantly after a brief surge following the launch of Operation ‘Claw-Sword’ in northern Syria and northern Iraq , in Turkey itself , three PKK militants, one Turkish soldier, and one police officer were reportedly killed in separate violent events and blasts . In Syria, Russian airstrikes and regime shelling killed nine displaced civilians in Idleb province. In Iraq, suspected pro-Iran militants killed an American teacher in Baghdad.
On 30 November, Islamic State (IS) announced that its leader, Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al- Qurashi was killed during “combat” . Pentagon said he was killed in October.
Amidst dampening global macroeconomic trends, the Middle East’s capital markets continue to shine supported amply by high oil prices, strong demand and investor inflows. A very strong push has come from the region’s strongly placed sovereign wealth funds (‘SWF’). Of the $11.2 trillion in assets that SWFs are estimated to manage worldwide, more than a third hails from the Middle East region. The Gulf alone houses 18 sovereign investors that manage $3.7tn.
In the north of the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Oman, an Iranian-made Shahed drone hit an oil tanker operated by an Israeli-affiliated company on 15 November. Western reports indicated that the strike took place hours after the United States Navy announced that it had seized explosive material in the Gulf of Oman from a ship en route from Iran to Yemen. Officials said that the chemicals would be “enough to fuel more than a dozen medium-range ballistic missiles”.
As per various reports largest number of Palestinians, over 200, were killed by Israeli security forces in violent confrontations.
Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar represented India during the World Cup inaugural ceremony in Doha and acknowledged the role of the Indian diaspora.
Amb Dr Ausaf Sayeed, Secretary MEA, visited Morocco and held 5th round of India-Morocco foreign Office consultations. He also represented India at the 9th Global Forum of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) held in Fez on 22-23 November 2022.
At the invitation of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, H.E. Mr. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, will be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations on January 26, 2023. This is the first time that President of the Arab Republic of Egypt will be the Chief Guest at our Republic Day. Egypt has also been invited as a Guest country during India’s G20 presidency. This is indicative of India and Egypt relationship moving in a much higher orbit.
Foreign Office Consultations were held between India and Iran on 24 November 2022 in New Delhi. The Iranian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs H.E. Dr. Ali Bagheri Kani. The India delegation was led by Foreign Secretary Shri Vinay Mohan Kwatra. Both sides took stock of the bilateral, regional and international developments as the Iranian side updated their Indian counterparts on the JCPOA (Nuclear deal) negotiations. Dr Kani also called on External Affairs Minister of India.
External Affairs Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar met Foreign Minister of UAE, His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in New Delhi. The meeting was also attended by UAE MOS for International Cooperation, Ms. Reem Al Hashimy and Foreign Secretary, Shri Vinay Kwatra. A comprehensive review of all aspects of relations was undertaken especially as positive results were evident post signing of the CEPA Agreement, including energy, healthcare, defence, space, climate change, skills, fin-tech and startups. Commerce and Industries Minister and ADIA Chairman held a successful meeting of the High Level Task Force on Investments in October 2022 in which the entire range of trade and investment cooperation was discussed. Both Ministers also exchanged views on the global situation and various regional hotspots as well as the cooperation between the two countries in UN Security Council as India takes over the Chair of the UNSC effective December 1.
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World Cup in Qatar
Qatar by hosting the 2022 Football World Cup has brought the prestigious tournament to Arab world and West Asia. Qatar in order to deter criticism over the treatment of foreign workers, it has introduced set of reforms over the years to provide better legal protection and improve their standards of living. The critical attitudes from western media houses have continued during the tournament over treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ community. Qatar in response has called the criticism as racist, hypocritical and displays “orientalist bias”. FIFA President Gianni Infantino accused the western states of hypocrisy for questioning Qatar’s credibility to host the event and noted that “For what we Europeans have been doing around the world in the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people”. For Arabs from around the region, the World Cup has been seen as a matter of pride.
Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar represented India during the World Cup inaugural ceremony in Doha. During the visit, he met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and discussed about bilateral relations. The Vice President’s visit acknowledged the role played by the Indian diaspora in the World Cup. Dhankar met with the Indian community living in the Gulf state.
The tournament provided an international platform to raise political concerns especially with regard to protests in Iran and the situation in Palestine. The slogan such as “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi” meaning Women, Life and Freedom was widely visible. The Palestinian issue and call for freedom of Palestine was also raised by Arab as well as non-Arab fans and the Palestinian flag has been widely displayed during the matches.
Qatar has allowed direct commercial flight between Tel Aviv and Qatar and welcomed Israeli fans to watch the matches. Qatari government however asserted that the flight arrangement is temporary and it does not have any intention to normalise relations with the Jewish state. Israeli fans and journalists have reported sporadic cases of unfriendly behavior from Arab as well as non-Arab visitors. Israeli government has urged its citizens visiting Doha to keep low profile, hide any Israeli symbols and refrain from speaking Hebrew in public for the sake of personal safety. The support of Palestinian cause among the Arab governments has dwindled over the years; however, public solidarity has remained intact.
COP Summit in Egypt
Egypt hosted the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change between 6 and 18 November 2022. The key agenda of the summit was to strengthen and implement the pledges made in 2021 COP Summit in Scotland and maintain global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The conference was attended by more than 92 heads of state and around 35,000 delegates from 190 states. The Sharm Al-Sheikh is the second ever summit to be held in African continent since 2016 Marrakesh summit. Critics have accused the Egyptian government of imposing restrictions on funding, research and registration for local environment groups. Egypt’s poor human rights record was also highlighted by civil society members. Several Nobel Prize winners reached out to the UN, the European Council and heads of state in the US, Britain, France etc to push Egypt to release political prisoners.
Death of IS Chief
The terrorist group, Islamic State (IS) on 30 November announced that its leader, Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al- Qurashi has been killed during “combat” without elaborating on the date and circumstances of his death. The US’ CENTCOM mentioned that the IS leader was killed in mid-October. CENTCOM spokesperson Col. Joe Buccino noted that AL-Qurashi was killed during operation by the Free Syrian Army in Deraa province. Reportedly, the IS leader along with his subordinates were discovered in a secret hideout. Al-Qurashi had blown himself up after his fighters were surrounded by Free Syrian Army fighters in Jasem town. IS has named Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al Qurashi as the new leader.
Deraa region is currently under the control of the Syrian government following the 2018 reconciliation deal with opposition forces that allowed them to continue carrying light weapons.
On 26 November, CENTCOM reported two rocket attacks targeting its patrol base in Al-Shaddadi base in northeastern Syria. The situation in northern Syria escalated following tensions due to air raids by Turkish forces on Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Situation in Iran
The 47 member UN Human Rights Council in mid-November voted in favour of establishing a fact-finding mission to investigate potential abuses by the Iranian government during the ongoing protest. It urged Iran to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur on Iran including access to protest sites and locations where people have been arrested. Tehran refused to cooperate with the UN fact finding mission on its response to the protests. The Foreign Ministry called the investigation as political in nature. Iran has formed a local fact-finding mission comprising of representatives from the government, judiciary and parliament to investigate “events, riots and unrest” since September 2022.
Meanwhile, Iranian judiciary issued the first death sentence on 14 November to one person on charges of setting fire to a government center, disturbing public order, collusion for committing crimes against national security and “Moharebeh” i.e. waging war against God and corruption on earth. Five others were described as rioters and sentenced between five to 10 years in prison on national security related charges. The judiciary also sentenced death penalty to four individuals namely, Hossein Ordoukhanzadeh, Shahin Imani Mahmoudabad, Milad Ashrafi Atbatan and Manouchehr Shahbandi Bojandi for working with Israeli intelligence services and kidnappings. The court added that the four individuals with the guidance from the “Zionist” intelligence service are involved in stealing and destroying private and public property, kidnapping people and obtaining fake confessions. Moreover, three other people were sentenced to between five and 10 years in prison for crimes against national security, complicity in kidnapping and possession of weapons. The accused individuals were arrested by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. and the Ministry of Intelligence. Iranian government has accused Tel Aviv of carrying out covert operations on its territory including sabotage attacks against its nuclear sites, assassinations etc.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. (IRGC) on 14 November launched rocket attacks in the Iraqi city of Koye, near Erbil killing one person and injuring 10 others. On 21 November, IRGC again attacked three positions of Kurdish groups in northern Iraq with missiles and drones. The Iranian assault has occurred in the background of the ongoing protest following the death of Mahsa Amini in September. Tehran has accused the Kurdish groups of instigating the protest and colluding with foreign forces to increase instability. Reportedly, around 26 members of Komala and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan were killed during the attacks. Notably, the attack occurred following the visit by IRGC Quds Force commander, Esmail Qaani to Baghdad calling to disarm or relocate the groups.
The US called the Iranian action as violation of Iraqi sovereignty that could jeopardize the security and stability of Iraq and the region. Washington DC on 16 November imposed sanctions on six senior members of state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) that produced and broadcasted interviews of individuals after forcing them to confess that their relatives were not killed by Iranian authorities. The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken mentioned that IRIB is not an objective media outlet. It in fact is a tool of the government to carry out mass suppression and impose censorship campaign against its own people.
On the nuclear issue, Iran has increased Uranium enrichment level to 60 percent. It also accelerated the use of advanced centrifuges at two nuclear sites in response to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution censuring insufficient cooperation from Tehran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi held telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 12 November. Both leaders are facing international pressure due to domestic protest in Iran and Russia’s war on Ukraine. Both states are also facing the impact of western sanctions. Therefore, the recent discussion is aimed at deepening political, trade and economic cooperation, transport and logistics etc. Both sides also agreed to increase institutional level contact. Iran and Russia’s interests coincide especially with regard to developing transport lines in the Eurasian region. Earlier on 9 November 2022, the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev visited Tehran and met with the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Ali Shamkhani.
Notably, the Iranian President opined that his country remains opposed to the war as a fundamental policy. He feared that the extent and expansion of the scale of war is a cause of concern for all states. At the same time, Raisi called for upgrading the relations to a strategic level.
Qatar’s gas deals with China and Germany
Qatar Energy on 21 November signed deal with China’s Sinopec to supply LNG for 27 years leading to further intensification of energy cooperation. The oil and gas rich Gulf states are critical component in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has forced European states to diversify their energy channels heightening the engagement with the Gulf States, Libya and Algeria.
Qatar Energy signed two sales and purchase agreements with Conoco Phillips on 29 November to export LNG to Germany for at least 15 years starting 2026. It is the first such deal to supply from North Field expansion project to Europe. The North Field is part of the biggest gas field shared between Qatar and Iran. The deal is likely to provide Germany with two million tons of LNG annually from Ras Laffan in Qatar to Germany’s northern terminal at Brunsbuettel. The deal has occurred in the background of Russia-Ukraine war and efforts by European states to reduce their dependence of Russian gas supplies.
According to the deal with Qatar Energy, a ConocoPhillips wholly-owned subsidiary will purchase the agreed quantities and deliver to German receiving terminal by ship. German Economy Minister Robert Habeck hinted that due to Germany’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2045, there is possibility of limiting the quantities of gas from Qatar.
Bomb Blast in Istanbul
On 14 November, at least six people were killed and 80 injured after an explosion hit Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it a “vile attack” and said “the smell of terror” was in the air. Erdogan assured that the perpetrators would be punished. Turkish authorities following the attack arrested one Syrian woman. Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag accused the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the attack. PKK however has denied any role claiming that it is opposed to directly targeting civilians. PKK recognised as a terrorist group by Turkey, the EU and the US has been fighting against Ankara government demanding self-rule in south-east Turkey. The US, France, Pakistan, Italy, Greece and other states have expressed their sympathy and assured support in the fight against terrorism. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky writing on Twitter in Turkish called, “the pain of the friendly Turkish people is our pain”.
Turkey in response to the bomb blast launched air raids dubbed as “Operation Claw Sword” on 20 November targeting Kurdish bases belonging to PKK and Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria and northern Iraq destroying 89 targets including shelters, tunnels, ammunition depots etc. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has reported that Turkish forces have killed 11 civilians, one SDF fighter and two guards and destroyed grain silos, power station and hospital. President Erdogan also hinted on the possibility of land operation to secure its southern border.
New Government in Israel
In Israel’s latest election, 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. Skeptics have raised concern especially about the entry of controversial far-right politician, Itamar Ben-Gvir from Otzma Yehudit party that contested the election as part of Joint List with Religious Zionist party. Prime Minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party on 25 November signed its first coalition deal with Itamar Ben-Gvir offering him the Police Ministry and seat in the security cabinet. Ben-Gvir will also control Israel Border Police’s division in the occupied West Bank. He will likely also control newly formed portfolios including development of Negev desert; deputy Minister in the Ministry of Economy; chair of the Public Security Committee of Israeli Ben-Gvir called it a big step towards forming a fully right-wing government.
Ben-Gvir in order to join Netanyahu government has secured approval to establish a national guard, expand reserve troop mobilization in the Border Police and relaxation of laws permitting opening fire against “thieves caught stealing weapons from military bases” around the southern border. Netanyahu has also pledged that his government will legalize number of illegal settler outposts located in occupied West Bank within 60 days of the government sworn in.
On 23 November, two separate explosions in Jerusalem killed at least one person and injured 12 others. The first explosion occurred near an Israeli bus station along the highway on the western entrance into Jerusalem. The second explosion happened less than half an hour later at the Ramot junction in northern Jerusalem. The explosion occurred hours after one Palestinian teenager was killed by Israeli security forces in Nablus. Israeli authorities have intensified raids in West bank in November leading to number of deaths of civilians including minors.
Thaw in Egypt-Turkey relations
On the sidelines of Football World Cup in Doha, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 20 November indicating thaw in relations. The meeting has been called as a new beginning between Egypt and Turkey. President Erdogan called the meeting with Al-Sisi as the first step to launch a new path in relations. In the post-Arab Spring Egypt, Turkey and Qatar backed the political consolidation by Muslim Brotherhood. The military coup led by Al-Sisi managed to depose the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohammed Morsi. Turkey heavily criticized the coup that soured the relations. During the Libyan civil war, Turkey has supported the Tripoli based government and Egypt has backed Khalifa Haftar’s government based in Tobruk. Turkey also supported Qatar following the economic boycott in 2017 by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and other states.