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Geopolitics

 

 

In a whirlwind of global news, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has fallen out of the spotlight, if it was ever there to begin with. Not only is the conflict devastating for those in the conflict zone—it also has large implications for the European, Central Asian, and Middle East politics.

 

The majority ethnic Armenian autonomous region within Azerbaijan has long been a flashpoint for conflict between ethnic groups in the Soviet and post-Soviet era. Both the Azeri and Armenian governments have claimed the other side started the most recent conflict, which began on 27 September.

 

Since then, fighting has increased and again both countries have accused the other of targeting cities and endangering civilians. Viral footage has shown the capital of Stepanakert allegedly being shelled by Azeri cluster bombs.

 

As tensions ratchet up, Western powers have mostly remained mum on the topic, but Turkey threw their military weight behind their Azeri allies quickly. The forceful military support from Turkey marks a departure from previous conflicts over the region which were primarily of Russian interest.

 

The latest iteration of conflict leaves regional powers scrambling as Russia, Iran, and Turkey all share borders with the two nations in the Caucuses.

 

The Nagorno-Karabakh fighting has also roped in the Syrian National Army fighting on behalf of Turkey. The Turkish-backed force is fighting in opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, while Russia has been one of the Syrian leader’s biggest backers.

 

Russia-Turkey relations threaten to worsen as the Nagorno-Karabakh situation makes the third armed conflict in which the two countries are on opposing sides, with Libya and Syria as the others. Russia has been an ally of Armenia, but thus far it has not supplied Armenia the same military support as Turkey has given Azerbaijan.

 

Turkey Flexes Power

 

Turkey’s latest moves to support Azerbaijan are part of a much larger increase in the country’s military presence in the last decade under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

 

Turkey’s military expansion has extended beyond Syria and Libya, as Erdoğan has increased tensions with Greece and Cyprus over Mediterranean gas reserves, much to the dismay of Egypt and other regional players. Greece has drawn support in the form of military exercises from Italy and France as other European Union members attempt to solve the crisis diplomatically.

 

The increasing military exploits in Syria, the Mediterranean, and Nagorno-Karabakh come as the Turkish lira is in freefall against the US dollar and the Euro. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the fall of the lira which has been trending down against other currencies for years.

 

As the Turkish economy has stuttered and domestic crises run amok, Erdoğan has run a tight ship at home and attempted to both appease voters and business interests by flexing Turkish military might in the region. An attempt to secure gas rights in the Mediterranean is a business calculation, nevertheless one that threatens relations with European counterparts.

 

And much like Mediterranean gas, Turkey’s interest in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict lies further than the historic, ethnic, and cultural ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Recently, Azerbaijan became Turkey’s top gas supplier, as part of Erdoğan’s diversification from Russian gas dependence.

 

Russia and Europe

 

While Armenia does not enjoy a level of support from any country equivalent to Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan, it can count several ‘allies’ on its side.

 

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke most forcefully of Western leaders and called for a ceasefire in the region. Macron also called the deployed of Turkish-backed Syrian forces a “jihadist” deployment. In recent days, Macron has been outspoken against “Islamist radicalism”, drawing ire from Muslims in France and around the world.

 

Russia and the United States have also called for a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, but no foreign power has rushed to their aid and offered direct military support. NATO also joined the calls to cease fighting.

 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was very critical of the international community’s call for a diplomatic solution after ten days of fighting. While visiting Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, Cavusoglu said, “we look at the calls coming from around the world, and it’s ‘immediate ceasefire’. What then? There was a ceasefire until now, but what happened?”

 

While international leaders duke it out on the international stage, deaths are mounting. And, Azerbaijan and Armenia have both been adamant that a ceasefire cannot occur.

 

On the Ground

 

For Azerbaijan and Armenia, the fighting seems to be intractable, with both sides taking hardline stances.

 

Armenia is particularly wary of Turkey’s involvement in the fight considering the Ottoman Empire committed a genocide against ethnic Armenians, a fact Turkey still denies over 100 years later.

 

The Armenian diaspora and government officials have linked the current battles as a continuation of the genocide which spanned from 1914-1923. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Turkey is “once again advancing on a genocidal path.”

 

Armenia seems to want nothing less than the removal of Azeri and foreign troops from the autonomous region.

 

For Azerbaijan, they have a similar request, the removal of all Armenian troops from Azeri territory (Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan).

 

So, the two sides have hardened stances with Armenia arguing they cannot leave the region as Azeri-Turkish control is a threat of genocide in the region, and Azerbaijan insists that the territory is under their control.

 

And thus far, the international community has been unable to broker a diplomatic solution, with Turkey the only major power to take a commanding role. With regional and global powers from the European Union, Iran, Russia, and the United States attempting to play a balancing act between interests in the region, Armenia finds itself up against a more populous Azerbaijan with the military backing of Turkey.

 

Without a diplomatic answer on the horizon, the conflict threatens to grow out of control and spill into conflicts in other arenas.

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Economy, Geopolitics

With a historic peace deal announced between the United Arab Emirates and Israel in mid-August, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East in search of more peace deals with Israel.

 

The normalizing of relations between UAE and Israel was met with fanfare from the Trump administration, with President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner on the first direct flight from Israel to the UAE.

 

The next step for the United States government was to send Pompeo to the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and Sudan in search of more good news for the administration. But Pompeo was unable to secure any further declarations and the Secretary of State went back to Washington empty-handed.

 

Each state has relations with the United States beyond Israel, and some viewed them as a roadblock to further negotiations. For example, the Sudanese Prime Minister said the issue of normalization of ties with Israel should not be linked with the country’s removal from the US state sponsors of terrorism list.

 

The best news Pompeo received was from Oman, whose leader Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said praised the UAE-Israel deal but did not comment on his own country’s relations with Israel.

 

Ahead of Pompeo’s visit to the region, Israel announced it expected Bahrain and Oman to follow in the UAE’s footsteps, but hopes have been tempered slightly after no new big announcements.

 

Before Pompeo’s visit, Israel said it also expected to normalize relations with several Muslim-majority African countries.

 

With some expectations that the UAE-Israel peace deal might cause some diplomatic issues in the Arab world for the UAE, it has been Palestinians who have voiced the biggest concerns.

 

Palestine

 

The peace deal is a great concern for many Palestinians considering the decades-long agreement between countries in the Arab world to put pressure on Israel to return annexed land. 

 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he “rejects and denounces the surprising announcement by Israel, the United States and the UAE,” and called it a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause.”

 

Palestinian officials also insist they were not consulted about the UAE deal before it was announced.

 

The UAE has billed the normalization as a measure to stop further annexation in the West Bank. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said annexation was “still on the table” after the UAE deal.

 

Furthermore, a discrepancy in the English and Arabic versions peace deal has triggered skepticism among Palestinians. The Arabic version of the deal released by UAE state media, said, “the agreement … has led to Israel’s plans to annex Palestinian lands being stopped.” But in English, the agreement was only said to “led to the suspension of Israel’s plans to extend its sovereignty”.

 

This small detail is of immense importance as Palestinians fear Israel could continue annexation at a later date after a suspension of its plans.

 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, among other leaders of Arab countries, spoke in support of the deal while calling on Israel to drop plans to further annex portions of the West Bank.

 

The United States, while always an ally of Israel, has become a very vocal and outward supporter of Israel and has sought to shift the state of regional politics in Israel’s favor. The UAE deal was a huge win in this direction, and with other countries supporting the deal, other leaders may follow suit.

 

What has been hailed as a huge win for the Israelis has been met with condemnation and worry from many Palestinians. The New York Times characterized the deal as swapping one nightmare for another, instead of annexation, the Palestinians now have to fight for their struggle to be viewed as relevant with unanimous support faltering. 

 

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem resigned from a UAE forum promoting peace after he called the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel, “a stab in the back of Palestinians and Muslims, and a betrayal for Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.”

 

However, whether the Trump administration has permanently realigned the geopolitical situation in the region remains to be seen.

 

Pompeo, Trump Use Israel as Foreign Policy Victory

 

Pompeo was not only busy with diplomatic events; the Secretary of State also spoke to the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem to tout the President’s foreign policy credentials.

 

Pompeo called the UAE-Israel peace deal “a deal our grandchildren will read about in their history books.” He also held up the Trump Administration’s decision to move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem.

 

Domestically, there was more concern about potential violation of the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits civil service employees in the federal government from engaging in some forms of political activity, than the contents of the speech. Pompeo has denied any legal wrongdoing, but Democrats in the House have said they intend to pursue an investigation.

 

This episode sheds some light on the limitations of viewing the Trump administration’s policy as a blip.

 

With Trump facing reelection in two months, according to polls his days in the Oval Office may be numbered. Despite this reality, the UAE plowed ahead with the Israel peace deal, and some comments from other Arab states may suggest a more permanent realignment in the region.

 

With that said, Pompeo and Kushner have been yet unsuccessful in securing further public affirmations that point in the direction of similar deals.

 

The reluctance on some states to join in can be chalked up to multiple reasons, including domestic politics, regional relations, American relations, and the uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration.

 

However, Pompeo’s trip to the region and the UAE-Israel peace deal show that Israel is currently able to achieve a deal with an Arab country with favorable terms. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, Arab solidarity is shakier than ever before in modern memory.

 

While current events spell out more potential peace in the region, what it means for peace within Israel is up in the air.

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Economy, Geopolitics, Investment

A Saudi-led consortium’s bid to purchase Newcastle United failed after months of controversy surrounding the planned takeover.

 

The biggest sticking point was the Premier League viewing the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the group behind the bid, as a proxy for the Saudi state.  Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the chairman of the Saudi Public Investment Fund.

 

But the group cited “this difficult phase marked by the many real challenges facing us all from Covid-19,” as a chief reason for the deal falling apart.

 

The deal falling through was a surprise to many as the deal was in its final stages. Newcastle’s current owner Mike Ashley, CEO of Sports Direct, will keep the £17 million deposit put down by the Saudi-group. The final deal would have seen the club sold for £300 million.

 

The collapse of the deal is a major setback for Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund, as the purchase of a Premier League club could have been a huge public relations coup. Saudi Arabia has struggled in the public eye of the West after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

 

Some recent investments from the fund have also decreased massively in valuation. In May, Softbank announced its Vision Fund, in which the Saudi sovereign fund invested $45 billion, lost $17 billion in the last fiscal year after it wrote down the value of WeWork and Uber.

 

Despite the setbacks, the Saudi Public Investment Fund announced it was still keen to continue the takeover if the Premier League gave the deal the green light. Newcastle United fans have also petitioned the Premier League to provide more details as to why the takeover deal was abandoned after four months of negotiations.

 

While the deal might not be completely dead, the prolonged process and massive money put up shows the PIF and the Saudi state are still keen on further diversifying their economy and wealth. However, that process may come at a higher price due to strained diplomatic relations and poor public relations.

 

Economic Diversification

 

The Saudi state and the PIF have long been pushing for more diversification in order to lessen the country’s dependency on oil. The push has been spearheaded by Crown Prince bin Salman, who has deployed a charm offensive on Western companies and politicians.

 

But in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, the business relations between foreign companies and the Saudi state have become more difficult.

 

Shortly after the incident in 2018, an array of businesses, media companies, politicians, and international organizations pulled out of business deals or refused to attend business forums in Riyadh.

 

The private ventures most supportive of the Saudi state also found themselves in hot water in the wake of the scandal. Uber, who received a $3.5 billion cash injection from the PIF in 2016, stepped into the scandal when its CEO Dara Khosrowshahi dismissed the murder as a “mistake”.

 

Not only has the push for economic diversification come with diplomatic headaches, but some of its most high-profile investments have resulted in massive losses that predate the coronavirus economic crisis. As of late 2019, the PIF had lost $1 billion due to its investment in Uber.

 

Spending Big in the Crisis

 

But big losses and the current economic crisis have not scared off the sovereign wealth fund. The PIF has been pouring money into many ventures as the worldwide economic impact was beginning to hit, attempting to snap up shares in deflating industries.

 

According to the Financial Times, Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, said at a virtual investment conference in April, “you don’t want to waste a crisis . . . So, for us, definitely we are looking into any opportunities.”

 

The PIF invested in a wide range of industries including the hardest hit, acquiring a 5.7% in Live Nation, an American events promoter, and a 7.3% stake in Carnival, the American cruise line.

The Saudis have also been snapping up shares in blue-chip companies with household names like Disney, Facebook, BP, Boeing, and Citigroup.

 

But critics abroad and domestically are beginning to criticize the tactic of splashing cash in foreign companies as it simultaneously funds proxy wars and potentially ignores economic damage at home.

 

The Footprint of Saudi Wealth Domestically and Abroad

 

The PIF’s expanding international investments and its interest in purchasing an 80% stake in a top-flight English football club have drawn attention to the Saudi’s aggressive strategy during uncertain times.

 

The coronavirus crisis has been a devastating period for the Middle East, at first for economic reasons, and now due to a rise in infections for public health reasons. The world economy was brought to a standstill for several months, and it is still far from reaching its pre-pandemic levels.

 

Oil prices have picked up in recent days and weeks, but they are still far off of pre-pandemic levels.

 

And while oil prices were slowly recovering, the rate of coronavirus infections took off in Saudi Arabia. The number of cases is currently stabilizing at over 1,000 a day after peaks of over 4,000 daily confirmed coronavirus cases.

 

$1 billion was pumped into Saudi businesses to keep them afloat during the crisis, but the near-term, as in many countries, still looks grim.

 

The economic developments may put a damper on some of Saudi Arabia and MBS’s more ambitious goals, including Neom, a $500 billion futuristic city planned to be built in the country’s barren northwest.

 

Saudi Arabia’s international engagements may also serve as a thorn in their side. While the Khashoggi murder has proven to be a much worse diplomatic hit, the Kingdom’s involvement in worsening the humanitarian crisis in Yemen through war still draws harsh criticism from many corners.

 

With an aggressive and risky strategy during an unprecedented economic standstill globally, the PIF and Saudi Arabia may pay for its bet against the house. But with growing economic sway in many Western institutions, MBS and Saudi Arabia could be playing a long game that will see them sheltered from their gravest sins.     

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In mid-April, Turkey was in the thick of the coronavirus crisis averaging over 4,000 new cases a day, but three weeks ago President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared “mission accomplished”, and government spokespeople said the virus has been contained. At the start of June, the country opened up most public places with the government eager to wake the economy out of its lockdown slumber.

 

Europe’s tampering of the coronavirus spread, along with Turkey and other countries’ proclaimed containment, has been viewed positively. However, there are still many questions left to be answered about how society moves forward.

 

Even leaving aside the chequered past of the ‘mission accomplished’ claim, Turkey may have the virus contained, but the world economy is entering a great period of uncertainty. The country has flattened the curve, yet it is still averaging 900 coronavirus cases a day and the next one to two months will be telling for Ankara.

 

Turkey’s response has received plaudits from some circles, including the WHO, for its quick response and high-capacity, quick-turnaround testing. But the Turkish Medical Association has been critical of Erdogan’s response, and chairman Sinan Adiyaman said the June 1 reopening of the economy is “too early”.

 

Erdogan has shown that he is particularly sensitive to the short-term economic impact of sustained coronavirus measures after he scrapped a sudden curfew and weekend lockdown in 15 municipalities. Turkey was seeing a slight uptick in cases heading into the weekend of June 6th, but the president said the measures “would lead to some social and economic consequences.”

 

 

Circuit Breakers

 

The original sudden announcement of new measures less than a week after announcing a large-scale reopening of the economy looked like a less severe version of Singapore’s ‘circuit breaker’ measures. Singapore, a densely populated city-state, originally received widespread praise for their handling of the coronavirus, but in early April they had to introduce and reintroduce various measures to quell a large uptick in cases.

 

Turkey’s original plan to put Ankara, Istanbul, and 13 other municipalities under a weekend lockdown looked like an admission that the virus spread had the potential to once again grow out of control.

 

The WHO said on June 8 that there was “no time to take (the) foot off (the) pedal” considering the high numbers of coronavirus cases around the globe. The United States, Brazil, Mexico, and India are all seeing continued increases in new cases. South Korea, the country with perhaps the best virus response, is still working to stamp out hotspots with economic disruption.

 

Some political commentators have floated the idea of on-off lockdown measures in the event of a new wave of coronavirus measures. Thus far, Erdogan has remained particularly aware of the economic consequences of widespread lockdowns, but this strategy still leaves the country like many other vulnerable to a second wave considering new cases remain high and most of the populations can still catch the virus.

 

As the pandemic continues countries will also have to be prepared to adapt to changes with how the virus acts. Turkey expanded the symptoms list for people to receive a coronavirus test.

 

But while Turkey, one of the most important economies in the region, declared mission accomplished in its fight against coronavirus for publicity reasons, the fight against the virus and economic fallout will continue in the long-term.

 

 

Tourism

 

Turkey has a booming tourism industry that grossed $34.5 billion in 2019, and some estimates have tourism contribution to the country’s GDP at 12%. The opening of the massive Istanbul Airport in 2018 sent a clear message that Turkey has hedged its bet on its growth as a tourism and transportation hub.

 

It has been no secret that tourism has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in the world economy with international travel coming to a near standstill over the last three months. As early as May, the Turkish government began announcing measures in an attempt to assuage travelers’ fears and ensure tourist dollars continue to flow into the country.

 

Even with international travel slowly restarting, it is unclear whether high-dollar tourists will resume international travel en masse over the summer. As European countries incentivize their citizens to take holidays in their own country to boost low tourism numbers, a much slower summer should be expected.

 

This second wave of economic impact could wreak havoc on the tourism sector and adjacent businesses such as shops and restaurants.

 

While some are trying to keep up hope, Erkan Yagci, chairman of the Mediterranean Touristic Hoteliers and Investors Association told Reuters, “We have to be realistic, this will be a slow process. The opening of 50% (of hotels) in July would be a big success in my opinion.” He also added that foreign currency earnings resulting from tourism could drop 60-70% with domestic tourism also decreasing by 50%.

 

 

Foreign Affairs

 

With the tourism industry in store for a difficult summer, Turkey still finds itself involved in several potential conflicts that could pop off at any moment.

 

Turkey’s intervention in Libya received a new wrinkle as Erdogan announced ‘agreements’ with American President Donald Trump who sits on the opposite side of the conflict. The Americans have yet to release exactly what the talks were about, but some sources reported Erdogan linked Kurdish rebels to Antifa, the loosely organized antifascist movement drawing ire from Trump as nationwide protests rock America.

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As the world comes to grips coping with the deadly spread of coronavirus, familiar conflicts and security issues have persisted in the Middle East. While much of the world has been put on hold, Yemen, a country approaching five years in armed conflict, is still racked by internal conflict and foreign proxy war.

 

In early April, the Saudi-backed coalition declared a two-week ceasefire at the peak of coronavirus concern worldwide. But within days fighting resumed and skirmishes between Saudi-backed forces and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have continued.

 

Now, the conflict has taken a new geopolitical and domestic turn as UAE-back separatists exchanged fire with Saudi-backed forces and declared self-rule over areas it controls in the south of the country. UAE and Saudi Arabia, along with the sides they backed in this conflict, were previously allies in the fight against Houthi rebels, but with that relationship now frayed the conflict has taken on a new and even more uncertain dimension.

 

And amidst war, medical professionals are concerned about the lack of preparation and capability to respond to a coronavirus outbreak. Thus far Yemen has been spared from a widespread coronavirus outbreak with 12 confirmed cases; but with little border control and an already overtaxed health system, the country is acutely at risk.

 

Mohammed Alsamaa of Save the Children told the BBC, “there is still tension everywhere. It is more urgent than ever that the conflict stops. No-one can go to hospital or a clinic if there’s war going on and this outbreak – when it comes – could be unspeakable.”

 

 

State of Conflict

 

In a conflict that has devastated Yemen, leaving over 100,000 dead, millions displaced and the country pushed to the brink of famine, patience wore thin within the Saudi coalition of forces fighting Houthi rebels.

 

The southern separatists have refused overtures from the Saudis for some temporary ceasefire, and in a conflict that looks to have no end, the Saudis have shown wariness themselves.

 

Before declaring the ceasefire in April, Saudi Arabia was in daily talks with the Houthi rebels about a resolution to the conflict. Saudi Arabia wanted to hold peace talks between the rebels and the Saudi-supported, internationally-recognized government of Yemen.

 

But the rebels dampened hopes of a resolution to the conflict by ignoring the Saudis’ attempt at a ceasefire in April, claiming it was an insincere offer.

 

The Saudi-led coalition has been repeatedly accused of war crimes in Yemen and evidence has been brought forward by human rights lawyers of unlawful attacks against civilians. Saudi allies including the United States and the United Kingdom have been accused of turning a blind eye to these crimes and funneling arms to Saudi-backed combatants.

 

The viciousness and immense human loss in Yemen have done little to move the needle on an end to the fighting, but with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the world economy and Saudi Arabia putting resources into an oil war with Russia, the international community’s distaste for the Houthi rebels and their own war crimes could precipitate a further retraction of foreign activity in Yemen.

 

 

Humanitarian Disaster

 

The long-standing conflict has thrown Yemen into a horrendous humanitarian disaster. Not only have lives been lost due to the conflict itself, but the fighting has caused immense displacement and a four-year famine.

 

In 2019, the United Nations reported that 70% of Yemenis, 20 million people, are food insecure and 10 million of those only one step away from famine.

 

Before coronavirus, Yemen was already dealing with a massive public health crisis. Since January 2020, the country has recorded 110,000 cholera cases, and according to UNICEF, 5 million Yemeni children are at a heightened risk of contracting cholera. Cholera had already claimed the lives of 3,886 people from October 2016 to November 2019.

 

In April of this year, the north of Yemen has been rocked by flash floods, further adding to the country’s despair and increasing the region’s risk to cholera. The floods have disrupted the nation’s water supply and diminished access to clean drinking water in the country’s north.

 

Since fighting started in 2015, Yemen’s healthcare system has been under immense pressure and reports have warned it is on the brink of collapse. Only half of Yemen’s health facilities have been functional since the war broke out, and many have been destroyed in bombing campaigns.

 

A temporary ceasefire or resolution to the foreign intervention in the conflict will relieve much strain on Yemen, but without adequate investment in health services and a great push to prevent the spread of coronavirus and other health emergencies the country will continue to be a humanitarian disaster.

 

 

Relief?

 

Thus far, no major foreign power in the conflict has made adequate assurances to the health and well-being of Yemen.

 

Crucially, the United States cut tens of millions in aid to Yemen after arguing the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been getting their hands on the funds. The United Nations warned 31 of its 41 programs in Yemen could be shut due to the lack of American funding.

 

The World Health Organization also announced it is preparing to cut 80% of its funding to Yemen after the United States announced it would unilaterally pull funding from the health organization.

 

The American strategy of isolationism and anti-Iran antagonism has been a hallmark of the Trump administration, and the White House has doubled down on these efforts despite the spread of coronavirus in Iran and domestically.

 

With President Trump renewing tensions with China and doubling down on Iranian sanctions, the United States has clearly chosen antagonism over collaboration in the face of its own domestic public health crisis.

 

Other important foreign actors in Yemen’s crisis are also looking inward to solve immense crises, so Yemen and other foreign conflicts may fall to the wayside. Without any resolution, that could mean more hunger and health crises for Yemen, while the biggest culprits of the violence escape without punishment.

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With the world struggling to combat the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, G20 countries met virtually to discuss the impacts on the global economy and health. Saudi Arabia is the current chair of the G20, and the country organized the virtual meeting at the end of March ahead of the planned G20 summit this November in Riyadh.

The world economy has been tossed upside down by the lethal spread of COVID-19 which has touched every major economy and brought many regions and industries to a standstill.

It has also thrown foreign diplomacy, with many politicians, ministers, and even world leaders testing positive for the virus. The airline industry is almost entirely shut for business with many countries closing borders or rejecting planes from coronavirus hotspots.

In the Middle East, Iran has been the biggest hotspot for confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths, but it has impacted all nations. According to Johns Hopkins University, Iran has nearly 50,000 cases with 3,000 deaths, Israel and Saudi Arabia also have 6,211 cases and 1,720 cases, respectively (as of 2 April).

In their virtual meeting, trade ministers from the G20 countries agreed to keep their markets open for essential goods and vowed to inject $5 trillion into the world economy.

In a joint press statement, G20 leaders said, “we reiterate our goal to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.”

However, with global economic uncertainty and an uneven response to the crisis around the world, many are still left with questions after G20 leaders’ assurances.

 

Will G20 Members Meet Face-to-Face?

Japan waited as long as they possibly could to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics, and while the G20 does not create the same stream of tourists, it is still a massive event requiring international travel.

There is no consensus on what the world will look like in November, but many governments are already preparing their populations for COVID-19 to come back in the winter months even if the world manages to get it under control.

Cop26, a UN climate conference, was set to take place in November in Glasgow, but it has already been postponed until 2021 by organizers. The UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, said “the world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting COVID-19. That is why we have decided to reschedule Cop26.”

Thus far, only preliminary G20 meetings have moved online, and there has been no indication as to whether the November meeting in Riyadh will continue as planned.

Due to the 2012 MERS outbreak, Saudi Arabia was better positioned than many other countries to handle the wave of COVID-19. The Saudi government has put in stringent rules including suspending access to pilgrimage sites, but the region’s response has not gone as smoothly as South Korea, another country prepared due to recent outbreaks.

While Saudi Arabia may be able to take control of COVID-19 faster than Europe or North America, major economies are preparing for a sustained period of economic inactivity and social distancing. From where we sit now it’s hard to imagine many diplomatic meetings between foreign leaders will take place in-person for the rest of 2020.

 

Rippling Effect on Foreign Diplomacy

With governments scrambling to limit damage to public health and pump money into their national economies, much of coronavirus coverage has been focused on domestic politics. But the virus also has a clear and direct impact on foreign relations that extends to all geopolitical calculations.

In some cases countries look to, at least temporarily, mend strained relations to combat the spread of the virus, but others are hardening stances. The US-Iran relationship is perhaps the starkest example of the latter scenario.

The United States has doubled down on sanctions against Iran after calls for sanctions to be relaxed so Iran can respond to its devastating spread of coronavirus. In the midst of COVID-19 ravaging America, President Trump tweeted, “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!”

The Saudi-Iranian proxy war ripping apart Yemen is also continuing unabated by the threat of coronavirus. While a ceasefire has been agreed to, conflicting reports detail continued airstrikes.

The United Nations also called for a complete nationwide ceasefire in Syria. Despite peace talks in the northeast of Syria, the UN is still worried and said, “the current arrangements are far from ideal for the front-line response demanded by the COVID-19 outbreak.”

G20 leaders have asserted that they are committed to fighting the pandemic and helping “especially the most vulnerable.” But, with diplomatic conflicts and war still raging, much more needs to be done to ensure that all people in the Middle East and the world are better protected.

Whatever form the G20 takes in November, whether it be held virtually, with smaller travelling parties or postponed altogether, its focus clearly will shift to coronavirus response. The choices individual leaders make can have a great impact, but more coordination is needed to achieve the best outcomes.

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COVID-19, commonly referred to as the coronavirus, has panicked global economic markets and precipitated a health crisis that is on the verge of going global.

What started in China in late 2019 has rapidly impacted the world economy, taken over 3,000 lives and struck fear in many citizens across the globe.

China remains the epicentre of the outbreak, but South Korea, Italy and Iran have also had to contend with swelling numbers of cases.

Iran has been particularly hard hit and has suffered the highest amount of deaths outside of China.

While the world scrambles to fight against the spread of the novel influenza strain, shocks have been felt globally, illuminating the precarity of the interconnected economy.

On February 27, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its biggest one-day point drop and fell nearly 4.5%. It has since recovered, but with the number of cases and deaths likely to climb in the United States and across the globe, global health and the world economy are not out of the woods yet.

There have been positive signs, China has seen a decline in new cases, and as a result, they closed the first of 16 hospitals specifically constructed to fight the virus in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus.

But the World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world is in “uncharted territory. We have never before seen a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission, but which can also be contained with the right measures.”

 

Iran: The Middle East Epicentre

Iran’s outbreak was identified February 19, but it has already rocked the country. Even an adviser to the Supreme Leader fell ill and died, and it has called the effectiveness of the government into question. Although there was a slow response, the Iranian government has now taken several drastic measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Iran shut down its parliament in what many citizens believed to be a delayed response that has fuelled public panic. Despite the measure, 8% of Iranian Parliament members were infected with the virus, and the country released an astonishing 54,000 prisoners to prevent the virus from spreading in prison populations.

“The more the officials are scared of scaring people, the more the virus will spread and the country will be further paralysed,” an Iranian doctor told the Financial Times.

Iran is also not positioned well in geopolitics to handle such an outbreak, considering heavy American economic sanctions and strained ties with regional partners.

Many countries have closed their border with Iran and restricted travel from the country, causing a large economic impact that will not be solved quickly.

While the Iranian economy looked to be rebounding after a poor 2019, early signs point to a devastating long-term impact on Iran.

“The virus outbreak will keep people from making unnecessary trips, purchases, and transactions, aggravating the downturn in the Iranian economy,” said Zahra Karimi to Bloomberg News.

Similar restrictions on air travel in the Middle East and across the globe will hurt the entire region, with economies built on air travel and oil.

 

Air Travel

Perhaps the biggest threat to multiple economies in the region is not the virus itself, but the fear it has raised in many travellers across the globe.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced COVID-19 has already resulted in a $100 million loss to airlines in the Middle East.

The United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries have cancelled all flights to Iran, and many countries have limited commercial travel to China.

Various airports across the Middle East serve as a key connection for travellers between East and West and with uncertainty in many different countries and announcements from airlines about cancelled flights, the loss could grow much larger.

Travel to Asia has been severely restricted which has had a big knock-on effect, impacting routes between countries with no virus outbreak.

Several weeks ago, the IATA released a report that projected a loss of $30 billion in revenue for the airline industry, but a spokesman told The Guardian that the projection was outdated and likely to get much higher.

Oil prices have also rubber-banded with both bleak and positive reports. Oil prices dropped heavily in mid-February, but they have been recovering after positive reports out of China.

OPEC has hinted at cutting output in order not to flood the market at a time of uncertainty and less demand for oil.

The outbreak may be a temporary blip for the oil and air travel market, but it does reveal the precarity of economies reliant on the industries.

 

Beyond Iran

While Iran remains one of the hardest-hit and the country most in need of containment, the virus has spread across the region.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco recently announced their first COVID-19 cases, and Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Qatar said they have additional cases.

Extensive precautions have already been taken including Saudi Arabia taking the unprecedented step to forbid foreigners from going to the holy city of Mecca ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

Other major events across the Middle East have also been cancelled in fear of the spread of the virus, signalling that other industries will feel the ripple effects of cancellations.

The airline and tourism industry will be hit hard by Saudi Arabia restricting foreign travel to Mecca, and other smaller business and entertainment events will start to add up.

Countries in the Middle East have displayed a willingness to shut down events and businesses in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. These precautions mixed with global economic impacts will have a large knock-on effect that could potentially damage the regional economy in the short-term.

But due to the extreme measures, other countries may be able to contain the virus better than Iran and be better positioned when the world gets a handle on the global health crisis. Regardless of the outcome, the health crisis has shined a light on many of the risks built into the global economy, some of which disproportionately impact the Middle East.

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Geopolitics

President Donald Trump announced his long-awaited peace plan between Israel and Palestine last week alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In terms of a functioning peace deal, it was dead on arrival with the Palestinians noticeably absent from any negotiations or planning.

 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the deal a conspiracy after the plan was announced and said in a televised address, “I say to Trump and Netanyahu: Jerusalem is not for sale, all our rights are not for sale and are not for bargain. And your deal, the conspiracy, will not pass.”

 

Further than just rejecting the deal, the Palestinians cut ties with both Israel and the United States, including all security ties.

 

Likely the Americans and Israelis knew this peace deal was never about getting an actual workable solution on the table. For the Trump White House, it reconfirms their ardent support for Israel, and likewise, for Israel, it secures the United States as a strong supporter.

 

Furthermore, it allows both the Americans and Israelis to push the boat out a bit further and see how America’s regional partners in the Middle East react to a provocation against Palestine.

 

Divided and Slow Response

 

While the Palestinians were quick to reject the deal, many of its traditional defenders were slow to respond.

 

Even worse in the eyes of the Palestinians than a slow response, ambassadors from Bahrain, the UAE, and Oman were all present at the unveiling of the peace deal.

 

Israel has been re-establishing relations with several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, in recent years in what many view as a concession on the part of both sides in order to tackle the perceived threat of Iran. Netanyahu also made Israel’s first official state visit in decades to Oman to meet the former Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said.

 

Palestine’s allies in the region have increasingly adopted a more delicate balancing act between protecting the rights of the Palestinian people and appeasing America for economic benefits.

 

Egypt, both and American ally and staunch defender of Palestine, offered a muted response directly after the announcement calling for “a careful and thorough examination of the US vision” rather than a full-throated defence of Palestine.

 

Jordan, a country with 2 million Palestinian refugees, also is largely dependent on American aid and closed a deal with Israel at the beginning of 2020 that will supply the country with Israeli gas.

 

While many in Jordan protested the gas deal and the proposed Israel-Palestine peace plan, prior to the announcement of the deal Jordanian King Abdullah II said, “I’ve had numerous discussions with President Trump on this issue. I think he understands what is needed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.”

 

Palestine is increasingly being squeezed out as its Arab defenders opt to forgo staunch defence in favour of keeping their economy going aided by American and Israeli business.

 

The silver lining for the Palestinians is that while the support from allies was slow, it has finally come on this deal as the Arab League called to reject the deal. But, thanks to economic incentives and the hawkish stance of many in the region against Iran, the peace deal is another chink in the armour of the Palestinian people, and one that sets the table for future struggles.

 

Palestinian Defence

 

While Palestine might not be too pleased with the speed, both the Arab League and The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) called on all its members to soundly reject the American deal.

 

The Arab League met in Cairo, Egypt at the behest of the Palestinians, and it announced it rejected the deal as it “does not meet the minimum rights and aspirations of Palestinian people.”

 

Later, the 57-member OIC held a summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and said in a statement that all member states should not engage in or cooperate with the American administration in regards to the plan.

 

The OIC spans much more than just the Arab region and includes several non-majority Muslim countries. Noticeably absent from the summit was Iran, who claimed its officials were barred from entry to the meetings.

 

Despite the multiple rejections of the deal, key players have given credit to the Americans, including Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry.

 

In a press release directly after the peace deal was announced, the Saudi foreign ministry said, “the Kingdom appreciates the efforts of President Trump’s administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan… and encourages the start of direct peace negotiation between the Palestinian and Israeli sides, under the auspices of the United States.”

 

The press release does clarify that all negotiations should achieve the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” but the mixed messaging, followed only later by a rejection of the deal, spells trouble for the future of Palestine.

 

Reports said Saudi King Salman called the Palestinians to reassure their commitment to Palestinian rights, but the public acceptance of the Americans’ work tells us much about the current triangulation of the Saudi government.

 

Trump’s peace deal may have never got off the ground, but it has exposed weaknesses in the Arab alliance in regards to protecting Palestine, and it shifted the conversation to its side.  While much of the world has condemned the deal, Palestine does appear to be in an increasingly difficult position in which its allies have to choose between the protection of their rights and the pursuit of more business ties.  At this stage, it looks like its Arab partners are willing to sacrifice increasingly more for short-term economic benefits.

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Geopolitics

The United States and President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, on January 3 sent shockwaves through the international community.  The brazen political assassination of Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force and second most important political figure in Iran, has massive implications for both world politics, the Middle East region, and Iran.

 

President Trump’s predictably unpredictable foreign policy decisions persist, making any predictions about the United States’ short-term actions on Iran immensely difficult. 

 

Before Iran responded with force to Soleimani’s assassination, Trump tweeted, “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites… at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”  However, after Iran’s formal response in the form of two ballistic missile attacks against American military bases in Iraq, Trump responded with further economic sanctions in favour of further military action.

 

This historical incident has left pundits, analysts, politicians, and citizens flat-footed, and it serves as the perfect example in the difficulty of precisely predicting current American foreign movements.  Trump’s unpredictability is his most reliable trait, and while it seems he was persuaded by the extremely hawkish and warmongering action of killing a foreign country’s top military commander at the international airport of an American ally, he has also in the past spouted the rhetoric of anti-war American isolationism.

 

Surprisingly, what is perhaps easier to read into is what Iran’s plans and next moves may be.  The increased economic sanctions and American military blustering throw the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement Trump already left, for all intents and purposes in the bin.

 

European allies insist that they remain committed to the deal, but it is hard to imagine Iran will be too happy considering NATO’s and many European leader’s responses.

 

Iran not pursuing nuclear arms would seem counterintuitive at this point.  Iranian officials supportive of developing nuclear weapons will feel galvanized, and those against will likely either be convinced or sidelined.

 

Of course, Iran still has a delicate game to play when it comes to domestic, regional, and global politics.

 

Internal Iran

 

With the Iranian military on high alert after responding to the Soleimani killing, Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane and killed 176 civilians including 82 Iranians.

 

Iran’s initial denial and the action itself will damage its reputation internationally, and perhaps more importantly, it increased civil unrest around the regime.  Media across the globe reported that thousands of protestors took to the streets to protest the Supreme Leader and the downing of the passenger plane.

 

Add the unrest to another potential economic downturn at the hands of further American sanctions, and the Iranian government faces a difficult short-term future.

 

Iran initially reported that its missile attack against the United States caused deadly damage, likely to shore up support.  However, the United States and its allies later reported that no injuries or deaths were suffered.

 

Domestic unrest may pull Iran to make different calculations about regional partners and what economic and military possibilities exist in the Middle East.

 

Deepening of Regional Conflicts?

 

Leading up to the Soleimani’s assassination, Saudi-Iranian tensions had been changing course.  Saudi Arabia was showing more openness to exploring diplomatic channels to reduce hostility between the two most powerful countries in the region.

 

Saudi Arabia has been enjoying strong ties with America under a Trump White House, and the Saudis have played a pivotal role in America’s strategy vis-à-vis Iran.  Proxy wars between the Saudis and Iranians have devastated neighbouring countries and generally destabilized the Middle East.

 

A thawing of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran should have been a welcome opportunity to bring more stability and peace to the region.  However, America’s actions will change triangulations from both sides.

 

In fact, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said Soleimani was on a diplomatic mission in Iraq when he was killed.  Abdul-Mahdi, serving as the mediator between the two regional powers, said Soleimani was delivering a message for the Saudis.  American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected the idea that Soleimani could have been serving diplomatic ends.

 

Iranian officials may now be extremely wary of Saudi Arabia and any further diplomatic option.   And while Iran’s military response to America was measured, Iran will likely view American allies in the region as a more attainable target for retribution if they are so inclined.

 

Increasing tensions may spell profits for arms dealers, but further proxy wars and conflicts between the two regional powers could damage Saudi Arabia’s economy, along with wreaking havoc on wherever the conflict may take place.

 

This instability is occurring against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s immense push to diversify its economy by throwing money into the tourism sector.  Any disruptions in the region have the potential to tank Saudi Arabia’s most important economic move in decades.

 

The Global Future

 

While Soleimani’s assassination further restricts Iran’s options on ways to proceed, the United States and its allies, namely Saudi Arabia, can still try to change course and limit any further marching towards war.

 

This is certainly a difficult proposition considering the United States under President Trump tore up the agreement that sought to limit Iran’s access to nuclear weapons in return for opening up Iran economically to the West.

 

But the rhetoric pronouncing an inevitable march towards war was immediately proven wrong by both the relatively measured immediate military response by Iran, and Trump’s relative de-escalation of tensions after threatening to commit war crimes against Iran.

 

America’s decision to assassinate Soleimani should be viewed as a major misstep, one that derails potential diplomatic gains and heats up tensions in an undeniable manner.

 

However, diplomatic solutions are not off the table and both sides stand to gain if they set aside their immense differences.  Recent events have cast Iran-Saudi relations in doubt, but a close eye on future decisions by both sides is
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Economy, Geopolitics

On 15 November, the Iranian government announced a 50% hike in petrol prices, and angry Iranians took to the streets to air their grievances.  Protestors blocked roads, disrupted traffic and businesses, and marched against the current government.

 

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard responded with brutal force and killed an estimated 180 protestors, with some estimates going all the way up 450 civilian deaths.  The government also responded by shutting off the internet for the majority of the country, resulting in a disruption of the Iranian economy and many people’s daily lives.

 

The unrest comes at the end of a particularly difficult 2019 for the Iranian government, a year marked by increasing international and regional tensions that have damaged the economy and the well-being of its citizens.

 

Iran continues to face challenges from Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, and the shift in American policy has thrown the Iranian economy into uncertainty.  These factors have collided with the stagnating price of oil and the difficulty Iran has had in diversifying its economy away from oil dependence.

 

Protests

 

One of the biggest questions for those observing the region will be: are the protests a bigger sign of change within the country?

 

Hawkish Western foreign policy analysts have long been hoping and praying for and often predicting that Iran is ripe for regime change, but the immense power behind the Islamic Revolutionary Guard has been able to stamp out any unrest over the years.

 

The recent protests were characterised by the New York Times as the deadliest political unrest in the country since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago.  Also, worth noting about the recent unrest is that much of it is targeted at the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

 

However, with the concentration of power in the state and military, it is hard to imagine an organic people’s revolution rising up without massive bloodshed.  Iran has time and again shown it is willing to forcefully suppress political dissent and the step to shut down the internet indicates the government is prepared to withstand considerable economic collateral damage to consolidate power.

 

But Iran’s economy will continue to limp under American sanctions, and an inflation rate of above 40% is preventing many Iranians from saving or conducting any meaningful economic activity.

 

Europe’s Response

 

The European Union has taken quite a different line to that of the Americans in their foreign policy approach to Iran.  After President Trump unilaterally left the Iran nuclear deal, the European Union has become the staunchest supporter of the multilateral agreement that seeks to prevent Iran from making a nuclear weapon.

 

Despite misgivings about Iran’s activities with its nuclear developments, the European Union has remained committed to the deal.  Of course, this entails facilitating economic trade within the country, the greatest incentive Iran has to abide by the deal.

 

The United States’ decision to abandon the deal deeply hurt Iran’s economic forecasts and the slack has had to be picked up by the EU.  In turn, the EU has had to be more lenient in the eyes of some.

 

Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took umbrage with the Union’s unwavering support of the Iran deal in the face of the recent crackdown of Iranian protestors.  Israel and the United States have been the biggest detractors of Iran, along with the Saudis.

 

It does place the Europeans in a difficult spot, one in which their relative lack of military force is made up for by their promise of economic improvement.  However, the European market may only be able to prop up Iran’s economy for so long, and Iranian citizens will be likely to take to the streets again if conditions don’t improve.

 

Furthermore, despite the European Union being one of the most important proponents of the nuclear deal, Iran is still not always thrilled about their actions.  In fact, Iran has threatened to abandon the deal if the Union triggers deeper economic sanctions.

 

Some European leaders have also expressed misgivings with the deal largely due to domestic political pressure due to what many argue has been an overreach by the Iranian government in terms of the safety of Iranian expatriates.

 

Iraq

 

Iran’s neighbour Iraq has also been plunged into civil unrest in recent weeks, with some protesters specifically targeting what they see as an outsized Iranian presence in their country. 

 

While the Iraqi government has drawn much of the attention, many protestors have been calling for not only an ousting of the current political ruling elite but also of what they view as Iranian interference.

 

Anti-Iranian protestors went so far as to storm the Iranian consulate in Baghdad and replace the Iranian flag with an Iraqi one.

 

Iran has long been a supporter of the Iraqi regime, and in its recent downfall, protestors have pointed to Iran as part of the larger political problem within Iraq.

 

The Iraqi Parliament officially accepted Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation on 1 December, but protestors have pledged to continue their fight until all of their demands are met.

 

Iraqi unrest does not bode well for Iran in its hopes to quell unrest within Iranian borders, and while the Iranian state has more resources at its disposal to use violence against protestors, outside factors could limit the stomach the supreme leader has for killing his own civilians.

 

With the EU potentially reconsidering its nearly unconditional commitment to the Iran deal due to internal politics, Iran may have to think twice about how much violence it deploys.  On the other hand, with the United States out of the picture diplomatically, Iran could make the calculation that any negative attention it gets from the unrest outweighs losing power since American economic support or diplomacy is an impossibility.

 

Whatever choice it makes, it is fairly safe to assess the situation in Iran as deeply unstable, and as a result the government will be desperate to get the economy
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