Middle East

I CAN’T imagine it’s a trip US president Joe Biden was looking forward to. I mean talk about having to square the circle in political terms.?

Just take a glance at some of the issues Biden addressed on his first visit to the Middle East in his current role as US leader. Firstly, he had to keep America’s old ally in the region – Israel – sweet. Admittedly no problem there, given that US presidents irrespective of political stripe and best-intentioned promises to the Palestinians rarely if ever do anything else.

That said, Biden would like at least to be perceived as doing something for the Palestinians even if Palestinians themselves are sceptical that anything of the sort happened. Sure, Washington pledged a multi-year $100 million package of financial and technical help, but right now Palestinians need more than just a cash handout.

The diplomatic and political neglect of the plight they face which worsens daily and threatens to boil over again into widespread violence is nothing short of disgraceful from the international community. America, like it or not, is key in that diplomatic process.

Faced not only with trying to placate both these old Middle East adversaries – Israelis and Palestinians – Biden also set himself the task of trying to build on the so-called Abraham Accords supporting normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Arab states.

Symbolising this push for normalised relations Biden became the first US president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, even if it remains unclear how much closer the US president can contribute to bringing the two countries together.

But it’s here that we get to the real reason behind Biden’s visit to Riyadh and the thorniest of issues he faced on his “mission impossible” tour.

I’m taking about what the political scientist Professor Nader Hashemi writing recently in the London-based online news outlet Middle East Eye (MEE) referred to as Biden’s “rapprochement with the “Talented Mr Bone Saw” – Mohammed bin Salman – the Saudi crown prince.

Let’s not forget that it was bin Salman, often colloquially known as MBS who approved the grisly murder of exiled Saudi and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 after he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, where his body was cut up.

To say that Biden’s meeting with MBS was sensitive would be an understatement given that back during his US presidential election campaign he pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and teach dictators a lesson.

All that of course was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine played havoc with global oil and gas markets bringing Biden to Riyadh. During his awkward meeting with the Saudis, Biden’s aims were twofold.

First, convince the Saudis to pump more oil, especially to Europe and second, cap the price at which Russia can sell its crude. Achieving both will not be easy and some analysts say could even serve to further provoke Moscow into cutting its energy exports and pushing up prices.

But it wasn’t just oil and security interests that were on the table for discussion. As Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House the US government-funded advocacy and human rights organisation pointed out in an article last week, the issue of global democracy whether on the formal agenda or not was also on the table.

“The Saudi government’s murder of Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul was the most notorious recent example of what has become standard operating procedure for authoritarians around the world: transnational repression,” says Abramowitz, explaining the pernicious practice by autocratic governments’ of targeting, intimidating and harming critics beyond their own borders.

The National: Jamal Khashoggi

To give Biden his due, after a fist-bumping greeting with MBS on Friday, he did tell the Crown Prince that he held him responsible for Khashoggi’s (above) murder. For his part MBS still denied involvement and stuck to his explanation of it being “rogue agents” to blame.

Speaking afterwards Biden said that “for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am”.

But for many rights activists Biden’s meeting with MBS still smacks of inconsistency and is a far cry from making the desert kingdom a “pariah”. The coming weeks though will tell whether the oil will once again flow in the United States favour. That after all is what really matters.


The National:

IT’S been yet another bloody week in Ukraine. Russia’s indiscriminate bombardment continues to take a terrible toll on ordinary Ukrainian civilians.

The carnage in the wake of a Russian missile strike in the city of Vinnytsia southwest of Kyiv a few days ago in which at least 23 people died including three children, was just the latest attack designated a “war crime”.

Understandably, the calls to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression continue, including the supply of badly needed weapons and ammunition. But while concerns mount, especially among Ukrainian officials as to delays in getting weapons from outside the country to where they are needed most, others fear that criminal groups may be operating inside Ukraine smuggling them back outside and on to Europe’s black market.

Security analysts say the Ukraine experience is not unique, pointing to the wars in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001, when arms trafficking or smuggling occurred there.

Some however also warn that claims of organised criminal activity being involved need to be treated with a degree of scepticism. It serves Russia’s information war they say to discourage help from outside allies. This though has done little to quell unease.

“All these weapons land in southern Poland, get shipped to the border and then are just divided up into vehicles to cross: trucks, vans, sometimes private cars,” one western official told the Financial Times last week.

“And from that moment we go blank on their location and we have no idea where they go, where they are used or even if they stay in the country,” the official explained.

The source was one of two officials briefed on talks among Nato member states who are discussing with the Ukrainian government some form of tracking system or detailed inventory lists for weapons supplied.

While it might surprise many that such monitoring has not been in place from the outset, it’s worth bearing in mind that the conflict is only five months old and such was the initial pressure to halt the Russian advance that the key priority was to get arms and ammunition supplies into the country as fast as possible with minimal bureaucratic delays.

For its part the Ukrainian government while conceding that it was not “absolutely impossible” that firearms could be smuggled across Ukraine’s borders into the EU, has also been at pains to point out that the country’s survival is at stake.

Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov among others last week reassured its western allies that it was not in their country’s interests to allow any of the $10 billion worth of kit provided to disappear into the hands of organised criminal gangs.

For the moment the Ukrainians insist they need faster shipments of long-range artillery and other sophisticated weapons to blunt Russia’s advance. That request along with other arms supplies will almost certainly be met.

But concerns too over who ultimately constitutes the end users of such weapons are unlikely to go away. Striking a balance between rapid supply and ensuring safeguards is going to prove tricky indeed.


The National:

ITALIANS are no strangers to political volatility. But even such familiarity could not have prepared them for the dramatic events last Thursday that saw the 18-month-old government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi (above) thrown into turmoil by the populist 5-Star Movement, which boycotted a parliamentary confidence motion on Draghi’s plans to tackle the growing cost of living, arguing they did not go far enough.

Critics say the party, which was torn apart by a schism last month, was acting merely out of self-interest, anxious to raise its profile with voters following a slump in the opinion polls.

But tensions within Draghi’s national unity government have been rising ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While Draghi has been solid and consistent in his support for the Ukrainian government and a key architect of the tough sanctions against Moscow, some members of his coalition – including the Five Star and the League – have traditionally had close ties with Moscow and Vladimir Putin.

Those tensions have now come to a head and though still in office for now Draghi has said he is unwilling to govern unless all the large parties currently in the ruling coalition are willing to remain behind him. So, what now for the Italian political landscape?

The short answer is that if the political impasse drags on then Italy might be facing early elections in the autumn. Such a move say some Italian politicians, among them Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, would be music to the ears of the Kremlin keen to undermine any notion of European solidarity with Ukraine.

As is stands a national election in Italy is scheduled for the first half of 2023 and any bringing forward of the vote would give parties little time to draw up manifestos and prepare their lists of candidates.

For now, many of Draghi’s supporters, both in Italy and among his European allies, are keen for him to soldier on. He remains popular among ordinary Italians having brought a degree of economic improvement and political optimism to the country after years of despondency.

For now though on the immediate horizon lie behind-the-scenes consultations to see if Draghi could be persuaded to continue governing with a newly constituted majority which key parties seem to want.

Having immediately offered to resign last Thursday which President Sergio Mattarella rejected, Draghi is not out of the political woods yet. Anxious political times still lie ahead for Italy and Draghi’s European allies will be watching the outcome closely.


The National:

IMAGINE it, either get that happy face on at work or face a fine. That’s what a local mayor in the Philippines, Aristotle Aguirre, has introduced after being sworn into office in Mulanay town in Quezon province, on the main island of Luzon.

Aguirre brought in the mandatory “smile policy” on the basis he says of seeking to improve the level of service provided by the local government.

Aguirre justified his decision with the Philippines’ Code of Conduct law for public officials and employees, which states that workers “shall discharge their duties with utmost responsibility, integrity, competence and loyalty, act with patriotism and justice, lead modest lives, and uphold public interest over personal interest”.

Aguirre it would seem is not alone in his smile or else policy with another mayor in Silang to the south of Manila, even banning employees from frowning in the workplace.

Both men might have their work cut out though as ever since Ferdinand Marcos Jr was sworn in as president of the Philippines on June 30 many observers have warned that citizens might in the future have little to smile about.

Readers might recall that Marcos Jr’s father also Ferdinand Marcos ruled the country from 1965 to 1986 as a dictator and the years 1972 until 1981 under martial law. Today’s younger Marcos many regional analysts say is something of a chip off the old block.

Marcos Jr came to power last month in a landslide election victory after a campaign that presented his father’s years in power as a fictional “triumphant golden age” says Philippines investigative journalist Sheila Coronel writing in the New York Times.

According to Coronel and others there is more than a touch of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” dog whistle appeal about Marcos Jr who is still known by his childhood nickname, Bongbong.

Since coming to power Marcos Jr has said nothing of his father’s abuses during two decades in power when he plundered billions of dollars worth of state assets, according to Philippine officials who have tried to recover it after his 1986 ousting.

To this day the family has maintained that they obtained their wealth legitimately. With the Philippines political system dominated by family dynasties and a tradition of patronage there are fears that Marcos Jr as president may yet turn out to be his father’s son. Should that prove to be the case, then it will be sure to wipe the smile off everyone’s face, forced or not.