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Watershed Ahead

By Andrew Levine / Counterpunch.

Photo by kellybdc | CC BY 2.0

It has looked for a while as if hardcore Trump supporters would, like the poor, always be with us  (Matthew 26:11) – some because they remain bamboozled by the huckster’s spiel and bluster, some because they think (not too unreasonably) that even Trump is better than a Clintonite Democrat (as if there is any other kind), and some because they still think (not unreasonably at all) that there is some percentage in it for them.

The latter group is comprised of members in good standing of “the donor class.” Trump’s donors are among the most venal in creation.

The Donald cares about the bamboozled ones and the ones who hate Hillary above all because they feed his vanity, but only the rich ones really matter.

Because rational deliberation and debate have come to count for almost nothing in the real world of American politics, it is their money that talks, and therefore their support that he cares about.

When they finally realize that the man they have been backing is more trouble than he is worth, Trump will be toast.  It was their money, more than his own, that put Trump in the White House; and it is their money now that keeps hardcore Trump supporters on board and that helps sustain support for the GOP, the party Trump nominally leads.

This is not to say that, when they start defecting in substantial numbers that Trump’s days in office will be over.  Because our electoral system is “exceptionally” undemocratic, even by the standards of other liberal democracies, it is extremely difficult to remove a president from office.  An utterly hobbled Donald Trump could still hang on by the skin of his teeth.

Neither is it to say that the Trump nightmare is likely soon to become less horrifying.    A more hobbled Trump could well constitute a clearer and more present danger than a less hobbled one.

My point is that if and when the donors go, the Age of Trump will enter a new phase – one that would have momentous consequences for the future, if any, of the Republican Party, and for the Democratic Party as well.  The effects on the GOP will be more dramatic and immediate, but, if all goes well, the consequences for Democrats could turn out to be at least as momentous.

Notwithstanding the cheerier impression its corporate media propagandists convey, the Democratic Party, and the duopolistic party system it helps to sustain, has long been an obstacle in the way not only of progressive social change, but also of efforts to maintain advances achieved under its aegis before the Clintons and others like them set the party on its present course.

Thanks to Trump, there is an opportunity now to begin to change that – by transforming the party beyond recognition or, better still, by abandoning it altogether.

Our semi-established duopoly party system gives the idea of abandoning it altogether a utopian flavor.  But times are changing.   In theory, though probably not in practice, the Greens could play a significant role welcoming progressive refugees fleeing the Democratic Party.  More likely, a real resistance, arising both from within and outside Democratic Party circles, could spawn new political departures.

Most likely, though, the best we can hope for, in the foreseeable future, are a few changes for the better from the base up.  Much more is desperately needed, but even small steps in a better direction are not to be despised.

Now is a time to double down on that — because December is shaping up to be a watershed month.

All the talk these days is about the Senate race in Alabama.  It is easy to see why.  If Roy Moore, the theocratic child molester, pedophile and all-around reactionary running on the GOP line, loses to Democrat Doug Jones December 12, flipping a seemingly impregnable Republican seat, it would be a major blow to the Republican Party and to Donald Trump.

But there are more momentous happenings afoot.  Unless the leaders of the Democratic and Republican Parties in the House and Senate cut a deal by December 8, when money to run the federal government runs out, the government will shut down.  This will make Trump and the party he leads look bad.

With unified control of both the House and the Senate, the GOP surely ought to be able at least to keep the government running.  If it cannot, how pathetic is that!

Or if, after harping on about it for so long, Republicans cannot even get a tax cut for the rich through Congress, then what self-respecting donor would turn over a cent of ill-gotten gains to them?

To be sure, Year One of the Age of Trump has not left them completely high and dry.

Trump and his minions have been doing all kinds of harm to the judiciary.  Ironically, for that, they have mainstream Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell, a man Trump’s hardcore supporters despise almost as much as they loathe Hillary Clinton, to thank.

And, by appointing retrogrades to lead government agencies that benighted capitalists want gone, they have been severely damaging the material wellbeing of all but the stinking rich.

This is not nothing, but will it be enough to satisfy Republican donors?

The short answer is: probably not.  The reason is not just that that their greed exceeds anything that Trump can deliver.   A more important factor is that, even as he tries to give them what they want, Trump is exacerbating an intraparty civil war that has been raging for some time — and that slipped into full throttle mode the moment that he emerged as a serious candidate.

It is a war that pits benighted evangelicals and traditional reactions against that bizarre amalgam of white supremacists, nativists, and far right nihilists that we nowadays call “the altright.”

Trump himself is, and is perceived to be, on the altright side, unlike most of the donors.  But even if he were not, a Republican Party divided against itself is the last thing the donors want.

After all, the GOP was their “thing,” their Cosa Nostra.  Damaging, and perhaps even destroying it, would be a stiff price to pay for lowering taxes that most of them don’t pay anyway.

Some of them may also cavil at the harm Trump is doing to many of the socially useful things the government does – supporting higher education, for example, and keeping national parks and monuments more or less unspoiled.  Even with their limited insight and self-interested points of view, some of them must surely realize, at some level, that giving in to the capitalist impulse to privatize everything can sometimes be a bad idea.

Those wretched donors may care as little about the wellbeing of the public as they do about justice or equality, but when the demise of public goods diminishes their wellbeing along with everyone else’s, they become concerned.

The conventional wisdom has it that Trump needs at least one major legislative success to show for his first year in office.  Congressional Republicans seem on board with that.  But this is only because they don’t have the sense they were born with.   If they did, even if all they care about is themselves and their donors, they would realize that what they manage to legislate successfully matters more than the mere fact of having legislated something successfully.

And if they weren’t, “fucking morons” like Trump (according to his Secretary of State), they would also realize that tax reforms that are idiotic on their face, that will exacerbate poverty and inequality, harm workers and others in the so-called “middle class,” and that will damage the public sphere while leaving only the rich better off, are not likely to put them in good stead with the voting public.

But then, House and Senate Republicans are not, as they say this time of year, the brightest bulbs on the tree.

***

Hegel got it right: to make sense of the past, we need to assess it from suitable vantage points that become accessible only when the events in question are over, when the past truly is past. “The owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun.”

Events in process can never be entirely clear; the situation is even murkier with events that seem likely but that have not happened yet.

Global warming is sure to wreak havoc in countless ways between now and the end of the Trump era — or the Trump-Pence era, if we somehow manage to rid ourselves of the Donald before Inauguration Day 2021.  But it is extremely unlikely that anything will happen by then that humankind will be unable to survive or that will throw the owl of Minerva seriously off course.

Therefore, if Trump does not unleash or stumble into a nuclear holocaust, it should be possible to look back upon his presidency in ways that make more sense of it than is possible while the nightmare is still unfolding.

It is impossible now to foresee what future, if any, the GOP will have.  It is very likely to remain the more odious of our two neoliberal parties, but it is impossible to say just how Republican odiousness will manifest itself in the years ahead.

What will happen to the Democratic Party is also unclear, though it is already plain that unless they break free from their Clintonite past – from servility to Wall Street the military-industrial-national security state complex, and the liberal imperialist cum neoconservative view of world affairs to which Democrats are wedded – their odiousness will continue to give the Republicans’ stiff competition.

Perhaps some day, unreconstructed Bernie Sanders supporters, and others involved with the so-called “resistance,” will succeed in setting in motion a process for rebuilding the party from the bottom up.  However, at best, that will be a protracted process, lasting well beyond the Trump or Trump-Pence era.

Mainstream Democrats cannot now even bring themselves to call unabashedly for a twenty-first century version of mid-twentieth century liberalism, the way that Bernie Sanders did.  They are even less disposed to break free from their party’s imperialist and war-mongering traditions – in order to deal in a constructive way with an empire in decline and a military that has grown far too big for its britches.

Unlike Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Sanders never even broached those concerns, and there are no prominent voices in the Democratic Party broaching them now.

The actually existing Democratic Party is feckless.  It is also inept.  In 2016, Clinton had the entire “power structure” on her side, corporate media especially; and she and her party had more willing and able “donors” than they knew what to do with.  Nevertheless, she managed to lose.  That took some doing.

Now Hillary is gone – let’s hope that she and Bill stay that way! – and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the hapless chair of the Democratic National Committee is out of the picture too.  Their spirit lives on however – in “the Chuck (Schumer) and Nancy (Pelosi) show” and in the hearts and minds of nearly every nationally prominent mainstream Democrat.

Could the Democrats therefore lose a sure thing again?  It is not impossible; they are that bad.

It is unlikely, however.  For one thing, Trump’s manifest unsuitability for the office he holds is more widely appreciated than it was a year ago.  It has become hard to remember a time when each new day’s batch of tweets didn’t make it harder for anyone who is neither certifiably deluded nor utterly loathsome to be fooled by Trump or to remain in denial about how awful he is.

For another, because some measure of Democratic support is necessary for getting a spending bill that would avert a government shutdown through, Trump needs to make deals with Chuck and Nancy.

The beauty is that unless those two blunder spectacularly, spurred on by their own ineptitude or by rightwing Democrats and shillyshallying liberals, Trump loses whether he makes a deal or not.

At least for now, many Democrats  — with Schumer and Pelosi in tow – seem to be holding out for three pieces of “bipartisan” legislation in exchange for cooperation in avoiding a government shutdown.  They are demanding a bill to “fix” Obamacare, a bill to restore the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, and a bill to extend the now expired health care program for children, SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program).

Public opinion and common decency are on their side, but there are Republicans in the House and Senate – and in the nether regions of the Trump base — who could care less about such niceties.  If Trump concedes anything to the Democrats, they will see to it that he will have a rebellion on his hands.  Therefore, deal or not, Trump loses.

He lost last May too; the deal he struck with Schumer and Pelosi then to fund the government, arguably the most important piece of legislation passed during Trump’s first year, included no funding for his border wall and enough “discretionary spending” to rattle a lot of Republican cages.

By any measure, that deal amounted to a defeat for Trump, one that he could hardly deny.  It set in motion a series of angry, mindless tweets that boiled down to the claim that a government shutdown might be just what the doctor ordered.  Even Trump could hardly believe that; and neither could he fail to notice that the stakes this time are even higher than they were back then.

If the Republican tax bill dies or is delayed, as it may well be, Trump will be under extreme pressure to strike a deal with his Democratic foes.

Of course, he wants to keep his base on board.  But, even more, he wants to avoid completing his first year in office with a reckoning that would warrant a grade of F for House and Senate Republicans, and F- for himself.  Even he understands that, no matter what he promises his class brothers and sisters, neither he nor his indispensable allies in Congress can raise money with grades like those.

To get his stalwarts to defect, all Chuck and Nancy have to do is stick to their guns.   Unlike liberals who are disposed to remain affixed to the Democratic Party come what may, Trump supporters are not shy about taking their own sides in arguments.  There is woefully little about them that is admirable, but credit where credit is due: their obduracy is sublime.

Nevertheless, Chuck and Nancy don’t need to play chess to win this one.  Lucky for them; that would probably be more than they could handle, even with Republicans for opponents.  But, for this, minimal competency in checkers should more than suffice.

And once Republican donors start deserting Trump’s sinking ship like the rats they are, the Age of Trump will enter its terminal stage.

How long that stage will last, and what will come of it, remains to be seen.

If December does indeed turn out to be the watershed moment it is shaping up to be, we will know better soon enough.

It will be a while before when the owl of Minerva is able to make sense of the Trump era as such.  But the sun is already setting on the most recent of its stages.

Anti-Trump resisters worthy of the name will therefore have plenty to deal with in the weeks and months ahead, as Democrats and Republicans, the duopoly’s lesser and greater evils, struggle to remain afloat in the Trumpian maelstrom.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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US-Saudi nuclear talks: A barometer for whither the Middle East?

By James M. Dorsey / YourNewsWire.com

 

Talks aimed at transferring US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia serve as an indicator of where the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is heading as well as the strength of the informal Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran. The possible transfer could spark a new arms race in the Middle East and constitutes one explanation why Saudi responses to President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel were muted and limited to rhetorical statements.

Mr. Trump’s decision was perhaps most challenging for the Saudis, who as custodians of Islam’s two holiest cities, would have been expected to play a leading role in protecting the status of the city that is home to the faith’s third holiest site. Saudi Arabia was represented at this week’s summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul that recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine by its foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, rather than the king, crown prince or another senior member of the ruling family.

The difficulty for the Saudis is not only their close cooperation with Israel, willingness to increasingly publicly hint at what long was a secret relationship, and their position as the US’ closest friend in the Arab world, who reportedly was willing to endorse a US Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in the making that would fail to meet the minimum demanded by Palestinians and Arab public opinion.

With Mr. Trump backing Saudi efforts to counter Iranian influence in a swath of land stretching from Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa despite mounting US criticism of the kingdom’s conduct of its military intervention in Yemen, Riyadh has a vested interest in maintaining its close ties to Washington. While having been put in an awkward position, international condemnation of Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem move has also increased Saudi leverage.

Mr. Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia as well as his transactional approach to foreign policy that aims to further US business interests holds out the promise of tipping the Middle East’s military balance of power in favour of the kingdom.

In the president’s latest effort, his administration is weighing allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium as part of a deal that would ensure that bids by Westinghouse Electric Co. and other US companies to build nuclear reactors in the kingdom are successful. Past US reluctance to endorse Saudi enrichment and reprocessing of uranium has put purveyors of US nuclear technology at a disadvantage.

Saudi Arabia agreed with the US in 2008 not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing but has since backed away from that pledge. “They wouldn’t commit, and it was a sticking point,” said Max Bergmann, a former special assistant to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Testifying to Congress in November, Christopher Ford, the US National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, refused to commit the Trump administration to the US restrictions. The restrictions are “not a legal requirement. It is a desired outcome.” Mr. Ford said. He added that the 2015 international agreement with Iran that severely restricts the Islamic republic’s nuclear program for at least a decade, made it more difficult for the United States to insist on limiting other countries’ enrichment capabilities.

Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors by 2030 at a cost of an estimated $100 billion. Officially, Saudi Arabia sees nuclear power as a way of freeing up more oil for export in a country that has witnessed dramatic increases in domestic consumption and contributing to diversification of its economy. It would also enhance Saudi efforts to ensure parity with Iran in the kingdom’s ability to enrich uranium and its quest to be the Middle East’s long-term, dominant power.

Saudi Arabia has large uranium deposits of its own. In preparation of requesting bids for its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia in October asked the US, France, South Korea, Russia and China for preliminary information. In addition to the United States, the kingdom has in recent years concluded a number of nuclear-related understandings with China as well as with France, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Argentina.

Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to ease US restrictions services his campaign promise to revive and revitalize America’s nuclear industry and meet competition from Russia and China. Saudi contracts are crucial for Westinghouse, a nuclear technology pioneer whose expertise is used in more than half of the world’s nuclear power plants. Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in March because of delays in two US projects.

A deal that would lift US restrictions in return for acquiring US technology could enmesh Saudi Arabia in bitter domestic political battles in Washington evolving around alleged Russian interference in the election that brought Mr. Trump to office. Controversial Trump campaign aide and short-lived national security advisor Michael Flynn sought to convince Israel to accept the kingdom’s nuclear program as part of his efforts to promote Russian nuclear interests in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump’s willingness, against the backdrop of uncertainty about his readiness to uphold US adherence to the 2015 agreement with Iran, could unleash an arms race in the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Trump recently refused to certify to Congress that Iran was compliant with the agreement.

Dropping restrictions on Saudi enrichment could not only fuel Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has wreaked havoc across the region, but also encourage other recipients of US nuclear technology to demand similar rights. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have accepted restrictions on enrichment in their nuclear deals with US companies as long as those limitations were imposed on all countries in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has long been suspected of having an interest in ensuring that it would have the ability to develop a military nuclear capability if ever deemed necessary. For decades, Saudi cooperation with nuclear power Pakistan has been a source of speculation about the kingdom’s ambition.

Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, asserted that Saudi Arabia’s close ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s gave the kingdom arms’ length access to his country’s nuclear capabilities.

“By the 1980s, the Saudi ambassador was a regular guest of A. Q. Khan” or Abdul Qadeer Khan, the controversial nuclear physicist and metallurgical engineer who fathered Pakistan's atomic bomb,” Mr. Haqqani said in an interview.

Similarly, retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, the author of a semi-official history of Pakistan’s nuclear program, has no doubt about the kingdom’s interest.

“Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear program to continue, especially when the country was under sanctions," Mr. Khan said in a separate interview. Mr. Khan was referring to US sanctions imposed in 1998 because of Pakistan’s development of a nuclear weapons capability. He noted that at a time of economic crisis, Pakistan was with Saudi help able “to pay premium prices for expensive technologies.”

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said in a report earlier this year that it had uncovered evidence that future Pakistani “assistance would not involve Pakistan supplying Saudi Arabia with a full nuclear weapon or weapons; however, Pakistan may assist in other important ways, such as supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing.”

The report said it was unclear whether “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may be cooperating on sensitive nuclear technologies in Pakistan. In an extreme case, Saudi Arabia may be financing, or will finance, an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment facility in Pakistan for later use, either in a civil or military program,” the report said.

The report concluded that the nuclear agreement with Iran dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had “not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons… There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the JCPOA’s major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails,” the report said.

Rather than embarking on a covert program, the report predicted that Saudi Arabia would, for now, focus on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure as well as a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce. This would allow the kingdom to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle at some point in the future.

“The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term,” the Washington Institute said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Gulf Crisis Creates Opportunity for Asian Nations

By James M Dorsey / Pragati.

The rift between the Gulf countries and Qatar has created a space for Asian countries to step in to engage with the small peninsular state.

There’s a silver lining for Asian countries in the six-month old crisis in the Gulf that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar. That is as long as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates shy away from attempting to harness their financial muscle to shore up lagging international support for their diplomatic and economic boycott of the idiosyncratic Gulf state.

Asian nations, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, whose nationals populate the Gulf’s labour force, have already reaped initial benefits with Qatar, eager to put its best foot forward, significantly reforming its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship regime.

Qatar recently became the first Gulf state to introduce a minimum wage, albeit criticized by human rights groups for being at $200 below earning levels in many of the labour-supplying states. It has also sought to improve workers’ rights and committed to improving their living conditions.

Qatar was under pressure to reform the kafala system long before the Gulf crisis erupted, but the dispute with its Gulf neighbours strengthened its interest in being seen to be doing the right thing. Its moves are over time likely to persuade other Gulf states to follow suit.

The boycott as a result of its refusal to accept UAE-Saudi demands that would curtail its independence has forced Qatar to restructure trade relationships, diversify sources for goods and services, creative alternative port alliances, and recalibrate the strategy of its national carrier, Qatar Airways.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and their allies insist that Qatar unconditionally break its ties to various political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, adhere to Saudi and UAE foreign policy, reduce relations with Iran, shutter the Al Jazeera television network, and accept monitoring of its compliance. Qatar has rejected any infringement of its sovereignty and called for a negotiated solution.

The two countries have so far shown no willingness to compromise on their insistence on unconditional Qatari acceptance, but have also shied away from escalating the dispute, by among others pressuring third parties to choose sides.

The dispute has further divided the Arab world with some countries like Egypt and Bahrain siding with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, others like Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia,and Algeria sitting on the side lines and calling for a negotiated solutions, and finally nations like Oman and Algeria who have stepped in to help Qatar offset the impact of the boycott.

The fracturing of the Arab world was on display at a meeting in Cairo in mid-November of Arab foreign ministers. Saudi Arabia was able to wrest a statement condemning Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, but failed to achieve a consensus as Lebanon teetered on the balance because of Saudi pressure.

Without breaking the stalemate and the initiation of negotiations that at best would achieve a face saving formula that falls short of a fundamental resolution, the dispute is likely to settle in as a fact of life and further undermine the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups the six Gulf states. Saudi Arabia and its allies have said they were not contemplating military intervention even if they have sought to foster tribal opposition to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani led by lesser known members of the ruling family.

The UAE’s articulate ambassador to Russia, Omar Ghobash, suggested in June that “there are certain economic sanctions that we can take which are being considered right now. One possibility would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and say you want to work with us then you have got to make a commercial choice.”

Six months later, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have yet to act on their threat, creating business opportunities as Qatar settles in for the long haul and structurally ensures that it will no longer depend primarily on its Gulf neighbours.

Food is one key area, making food security a Qatari priority. Turkey and Iran were quick to step in to fill the gap created by the Saudi ban on export to Qatar of dairy and other products. With the import of some 4,000 cows, Qatar has sought to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency with domestic production within a matter of months accounting for approximately 30 percent of consumption. Nonetheless, with a minimal food processing industry, Qatar will seek to diversify its sources, creating opportunity for Asian producers.

With the loss of some 20 Gulf destinations as a result of the boycott, state-owned Qatar Airways, the region’s second largest airline, may be the Qatari entity most affected by the crisis. Against the backdrop of a likely annual loss, Qatar Airways is looking to expand its route network elsewhere and weighing stakes in other airlines.

Asia is an obvious target. Qatar is scheduled to initiate flights to Canberra in Australia, Chiang Mai and Utapao in Thailand, and Chittagong in Bangladesh in the next year. The airline has rejected proposals that it bid for Air India, but plans to move ahead with plans for the launch of a domestic Indian airline. Elsewhere, Qatar Airways acquired a 9.61 percent stake in troubled Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific for $662 million.

Similarly, Qatar has had to compensate for its loss of port facilities, primarily in the UAE by diverting to Salalah in Oman and Singapore. While that solved the Gulf state’s immediate bottlenecks, it is probable that Qatar will take an interest in other Asian ports in competition with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Given Saudi interest in China-backed ventures such as Pakistan’s Gwadar and the Maldives, Qatar could well look at Indian alternatives, including the Indian-supported Iranian port of Chabahar, a mere 75 kilometres further up the coat from Gwadar. Singapore port has stepped in with Qatar availing itself of shipping and logistical services. Vietnam and India see opportunities in the sale of food and construction materials.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Asian countries like India, in a bid to ensure the security of their energy supplies, are looking at diversifying their sources and increasing the non-Middle Eastern portion from producers like the United States. Indian Oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan adopted a tough stand in recent talks with OPEC Secretary General Sanusi Mohammad Barkindo, advising him that India was looking at alternative sourcing. India recently cut crude oil imports from Iran because of stalled negotiations over the development of an offshore gas deposit in the Gulf, forcing Iran to look for alternative buyers in Europe.

The Gulf, irrespective of if and how the crisis may be resolved, is unlikely to return to the status quo ante. As a result, the crisis is certain to influence political, economic and commercial relationships for decades to come. That creates opportunity that Asian nations potentially can capitalize on.

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Saudi Arabia’s Lebanon gamble may pay off

By James M. Dorsey / Mid-East Soccer.

Time will tell, but Saudi Arabia’s gamble to pressure Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Lebanese Shiite militia, by forcing Saad Hariri, the country’s prime minister, to resign, may be paying off despite widespread perceptions that the manoeuvre backfired.

Broad international support for Mr. Hariri following his announcement from Riyadh in a speech in which he denounced Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy that was wreaking havoc in the Middle East and the prime minister’s decision to put his resignation on hold once he returned to Beirut to a rock star’s welcome reinforced the belief that Saudi Arabia had overplayed his hand.

Mr. Hariri’s decision has, however, opened the door to backroom negotiations in which Hezbollah, a major Lebanese political force, is finding that it may have to compromise to avoid a political breakdown in Lebanon and secure achievement of its most immediate goals.
Mr. Hariri is believed to be demanding that Hezbollah halt its support to Houthi rebels in Yemen and withdraw from Syria where its fighters supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in line with Lebanese government policy not to become involved in conflicts raging elsewhere in the region.

Hezbollah signalled a willingness to compromise by urging Mr. Hariri to withdraw his resignation, calling for calm, advising its supporters not to take to the streets, and announcing that it was withdrawing some of its units from Syria and Iraq, where they supported Shiite militias in their fight against the Islamic State.

Mr. Hariri, who signalled this week that he may withdraw his resignation, put it earlier on hold at the request of Lebanese President of Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, who allowed the militia in recent years to outmanoeuvre the prime minister. At the same time, Hezbollah charged that Mr. Hariri had not announced his resignation of his own free will but had been forced to do so by Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Hariri, who blames Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, his father and prime minister at the time of his death, agreed to Mr. Aoun’s election as president and to become head of a government that was dominated by Hezbollah in the false belief that Mr. Aoun would ensure that the militia would not endanger Lebanon’s effort to avoid being sucked into the civil war raging in neighbouring Syria.

Bruised by his inability to force Hezbollah’s hand, Mr. Hariri appears to have reversed his slide in popularity with his threat to resign and enhanced his prospects in forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Mr. Hariri’s newly found popularity and leverage, despite Saudi Arabia’s zero-sum-game approach to its proxy wars with Iran in Lebanon and elsewhere, may enable him to cut a deal that would allow Hezbollah to focus on its all-important goal of securing Lebanese-Syrian relations at the expense of the Houthis in Yemen.

To be fair, Hezbollah and Iran view the Houthis as an opportunity to complicate life for Saudi Arabia in the kingdom’s backyard rather than as a strategic priority. Far more crucial is ensuring that Lebanon maintains close ties to the government of Mr. Al-Assad. Curbing the Houthis, who recently fired a ballistic missile at the international airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh, is at the top of the kingdom’s agenda.

Hezbollah, Syria and Iran need Lebanon to have normal, if not close ties to an-Al Assad government once the guns fall silent given that international and US sanctions against Syria as well as Mr, Al-Assad and his associates are likely to remain in place. Lebanon has long been Syria’s vehicle to circumvent the sanctions.

That becomes even more important against the backdrop of China suggesting that it would contribute to post-war Syrian reconstruction and could see Syria becoming an important node in its Belt and Road initiative that intends to enmesh Eurasia in a web of infrastructure, transportation and telecommunication links that would link Europe and much of Asia to China.

Like so often in recent years, Saudi Arabia could prove to be its own worst enemy in its effort to curb Iranian influence and win tactical victories in what amounts to a dangerous regional chess games in which Saudi players have not always thought their moves through.
A wild card in Mr. Hariri’s efforts to cut a deal that would weaken Iranian influence in Yemen and force Hezbollah to act more as a Lebanese rather than a regional player while at the same time allowing it to protect Syrian interests is staunchly anti-Iranian Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan, a major influence on Crown Prince Mohammed’s regional strategy.

A former military attaché in Lebanon and the kingdom’s first ambassador to Iraq since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Iraq, who was asked by the Iraqi government to leave after only nine months in Baghdad, Mr. Al-Sabhan has successfully advised Prince Mohammed to adopt an uncompromising approach towards Hezbollah.

US officials, according to Associated Press, accused Mr. Al-Sabhan when he visited Washington earlier this month of undermining US policy in Lebanon that involves strengthening the Lebanese armed forces to enable it to match Hezbollah’s military power and supporting Lebanon’s hosting of more than a million Syrian refugees.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged Mr. Al-Sabhan’s influence by denouncing him in a recent speech as a “hairy monkey” and “man acting like a child.”

In response, Mr. Al-Sabhan tweeted that “if an incompetent man criticizes me, this is proof that I am a whole man.”

A deal between Mr. Hariri and Hezbollah is unlikely to make the likes of Mr. A-Sabhan happy because it would continue to legitimize the Iranian ally. Nonetheless, it could help the kingdom with its ill-fated intervention in Yemen that has sparked a massive humanitarian crisis and cost Saudi Arabia enormous reputational capital.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

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