By Zeenat Adam
The recent visit by US President Joe Biden to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Saudi Arabia was underwhelming, but cast a spotlight on the unprecedented rapprochement underway between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In what appears to have been an entrenchment of the “deal of the century” and the Abraham Accords initiated by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, the visit not only reinforced the “normalisation” of relations between various Arab states and Israel, but also took additional steps towards concretising an anti-Iran alliance, and endorsing closer security and military cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s occupation of Palestine was a marginal issue on the agenda, and Biden’s statement about a “two-state solution” and his assertion that “the ground is not ripe” for negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians reinforced the notion that he had no political will to end Israel’s colonialism, and that, in fact, he was content with a perpetual Israeli military occupation. Meanwhile, Arab states continue to abandon the Palestinians to a fate of apartheid and slow genocide.
In the context of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden had passionately asserted that Saudi Arabia was a pariah state, but his visit has exposed him as a geriatric figurehead for the US political machinery that has not deviated from its pro-Zionist positions, despite heightened expectations that emerging Democratic Party leaders such as congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar might shift US policies to a more balanced position in addressing human rights atrocities in the Middle East.
Biden’s statements indicated that journalists like Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh, who were both vehement advocates for human rights, and who exposed the Saudi and Israeli regimes for their atrocities, are dispensable in the interests of US strategic considerations. The Biden administration makes no apologies or excuses for its hypocritical stance in relation to Khashoggi (who, at the time of his murder, was a resident of the US), despite a US intelligence assessment blaming the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), of possibly having authorised the killing. In preparation for his visit, his administration backtracked on its previous position on Saudi Arabia, including the 2021 freezing of sales of “offensive weapons” to the kingdom. The new soundbite of Biden’s team was “reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years”. It is therefore unsurprising that Biden has shied away from raising matters of human rights concern with Saudi Arabia, praising that country for cosmetic changes, while MBS’s draconian policies continue with the unlawful and extrajudicial incarceration and execution of dissidents who he views as a threat to his authoritarian rule.
Saudi Arabia has refrained from any commitment to normalising relations with Israel, and has maintained that peace with the Palestinians would be a prerequisite, based on the Arab Peace Initiative that Saudi Arabia had championed. Biden’s visit has highlighted that the Arab Peace Initiative is dead, and the skies are clear for deepening relations with Israel.
Before Biden’s visit, MBS had embarked on a tour of the region that included cosying up to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ushering in a “new era of cooperation” that would include billions of dollars of Saudi investments into the struggling Turkish economy, and Saudi’s possible purchase of drone technology from Türkiye. Ahead of the visit, Erdogan controversially transferred the Khashoggi case to Riyadh, ending any possibility of justice and accountability for the journalist’s murder. These moves are largely seen in the context of Türkiye’s internal politics that will likely see Erdogan fighting for political legitimacy in next year’s election, in the face of growing opposition.
Türkiye’s relations with Israel have also transformed after Israeli the visit of the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog to Ankara in March 2022 – the first visit of its kind in more than a decade. Although Erdogan and Herzog announced a turning point in relations between their countries, they agreed that there was a divergence of views regarding Israel’s occupation and Türkiye’s support for Palestinian resistance movements. Nevertheless, it is clear that Türkiye has moved on from Israel’s attack on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, off the Gaza coast in 2010.
More significant cooperation in the context of regional relations was evident in June 2022 when Turkish authorities foiled a plan for Iranian attacks on Israelis ahead of the visit to Istanbul by Yair Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister (now prime minister). The arrests of Iranian agents happened as Iran-Israel tensions heightened, after the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) office, Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, in his Tehran home on 22 May; Iran blamed Israel for the killing. The arrests also followed Israeli air raids on Iranian military installations in Syria. The Türkiye-Qatar-Iran entente concretised during the four-year-long blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain, appears to be mutating amidst the changing landscape of the region. The trilateral alliance hinged on common cause regarding Palestine, and deterring the prospect of war with Iran.
Qatar paid the price then for not toeing the Saudi-led line on an anti-Iran alliance, being determined, instead, to craft its own foreign policy. It appears now that Qatar has been artful in its mediation, balancing along fragile fault lines and craftily supporting a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal. Its shuttle diplomacy and hosting indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in Doha seeks to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf, where Qatar shares a lucrative and strategic gas field, the South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate field, with Iran. But these diplomatic manoeuvres are unlikely to steer too far from the trajectory that has been cast by larger powers in the region, including Saudi Arabia; the recent mending of Gulf relations with Qatar is still too fragile for the Qataris to rock the boat.
While Qatar’s efforts to mediate between the USA and Iran on a return to the JCPOA has not yet produced the desired results, Doha has proposed hosting a regional dialogue between Iran and the GCC+ nations (the six GCC members – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – together with Egypt, Iraq and Jordan), for which Iran has shown enthusiasm.
Concurrently, while Qatar may continue to be a firm critic of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine, and it repeatedly claims that it will not entertain the notion of normalisation with Israel while Palestine remains occupied, it does, however, maintain a “working relationship” with Israel in the context of negotiating aid for the besieged Gaza Strip. Publicly, though, tensions appear to have deepened after the murder of Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, and previous attacks by Israel on Qatari assets in Gaza, including Al Jazeera offices and the Hamad Bin Khalifa hospital. Interestingly, earlier in July 2022, Israeli military officials were surreptitiously dispatched to Qatar’s Al-Udeid base, headquarters of the US Central Command (Centcom). Israel was included in Centcom in 2021, in line with plans for normalisation. In addition, it was recently reported that senior Qatari officials attended a secret meeting convened by US military officials in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in March 2022, purportedly organised to explore coordination against the “Iranian threat” of improving missile and drone capabilities.
The Emiratis proudly boast of their love affair with Israel in the past two years. Emirati leader, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), has paraded Israeli delegations before the world’s cameras and has cultivated strong military ties with the Zionist state.
Although Biden’s visit is considered the first open acknowledgement of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two states have maintained in covert cooperation for many years, and steps towards overt diplomatic and intelligence ties were in the pipeline for at least two years. In 2019, the former Saudi intelligence chief, Turki Al Faisal, disclosed that clandestine relations between Israel and most Gulf States had been ongoing for at least 25 years. In November 2020 it was widely reported that Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, secretly travelled to Neom, Saudi Arabia, for the first known meeting between MBS and a senior Israeli official, signalling a potential breakthrough for Israel as it strives for acceptance in the region. Although the Saudis denied the encounter, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu spent many hours with MBS, and the two were joined by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Mossad director Yossi Cohen. MBS has even gone as far as calling Israel a “potential ally”.
MBS has used soft diplomacy tactics, welcoming Israeli visitors as tourists, businesspersons, and, more recently, military personnel. Through his modernisation drive and Vision 2030, he also touts Saudi Arabia as a futuristic destination that has transformed from its previous image as a conservative religious nation. His critics argue that MBS has abandoned core Islamic values by redesigning school curricula, promoting international music concerts, supporting Saudi social media influencers to praise Israel, appointing a pro-Zionist imam to lead the Hajj prayer in Arafat, and describing Palestinians as ungrateful.
Saudi defence expenditure since MBS’s rise has been superfluous. Had Saudi Arabia taken a different course and not proceeded to entertain relations with Israel, it could have provided some form of deterrence to the Zionist state, considering its prolific shopping spree of military hardware in the past five years. Under MBS’s leadership and ambition, Saudi Arabia’s defence expenditure reached an all-time high in 2015 at the apex of the war on Yemen. While there has been a considerable effort to decrease defence spending in recent years, the kingdom remains one of the largest arms’ importers globally. With new goals on the horizon, Saudi Arabia is now building its local military production capability. The military might has, however, not deterred drone attacks on Aramco oil infrastructure, allegedly by Iranian proxies. Israel has punted the notion of a Middle East Air Defence Alliance to act as an early-warning mechanism against potential Iranian threats. In addition, Israel is campaigning to sell its laser-powered air defence system to Arab states aligned against Iran. Israel’s other defence equipment is marketed as “battle-tested” or “combat-tested”, meaning that these sophisticated weapons have been tested against Palestinian civilians – in clear violation of international law, but this humanitarian tenet does not seem to bear any weight with megalomaniacs in the Gulf. Meanwhile, Iraq continues its efforts to bridge relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since April 2021, the Iraqis have facilitated five sessions of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with a public meeting expected soon.
In the early 2000s, following the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent growth of Iranian influence in Iraq, Jordanian King Abdullah II raised an alarm for what he termed the “Shi’a crescent” of influence by Iran that needed to be counter-balanced by an Arab alliance. Almost 20 years since he coined the phrase, the perceived threat of Iranian hegemony in the region continues to dominate the political psyche. King Abdullah recently said that he would support the notion of a Middle East alliance, similar to NATO. The perceived Iranian threat seems to be a unifying force for some Arab States that fear growing Iranian influence through proxies and partners in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Israel has already concluded military cooperation deals with Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain (where a military attaché has been deployed).
The Russia-Ukraine war has not only impacted on the exorbitant oil prices but is ushering in global polarity similar to that during the Cold War. Saudi Arabia was cautious in playing its cards and, stopped short of severing ties with Russia under duress from the USA. Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East has strengthened. In 2021, the Saudis signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia. Interestingly though, Iran has now applied for membership of BRICS, suggesting that a dramatic shift in the balance of power in the region might be expected. A key outcome of the GCC+ meeting with Biden was an agreement to incrementally increase oil production to allay fears of a global energy crisis as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war. But this development is parallel to a Saudi-Russian deal in terms of which Saudi Arabia will import Russian oil and gas for local consumption while exporting its own oil produced by its Aramco corporation. This confirms that the Saudis will not sever ties with Russia despite considerable pressure from NATO, while also enabling Russia to break the sanctions on it.
Biden’s visit to the region, and the Saudi-Israel rapprochement, has not heralded any prospects for peace. Instead, it has entrenched polarities and ushered in an atmospheric shift toward tensions with Iran that serve to reinforce shadow and proxy wars. In the meanwhile, the Palestinian quest for self-determination, freedom and justice is more difficult than it has ever been, as these deals with the colonial occupier translate into impunity for war crimes and a perpetuation of apartheid.
* Zeenat Adam is the Deputy Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, a former diplomat, independent international relations strategist, political opinion writer and human rights activist
By Giorgio Cafiero
On 7 November, Haaretz reported that Saddam Haftar, the son of Khalifa Haftar, flew on a private French-made Dassault Falcon jet out of the United Arab Emirates and landed in Israel for a 90-minute visit before flying to Libya. The purpose was for Haftar and his son to pursue ‘military and diplomatic assistance from Israel’, according to the report.
With Libya’s elections scheduled for 24 December, this brief landing at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was part of Haftar’s electoral campaign. The eastern commander, who led the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) during Libya’s civil war, wants to differentiate himself from other Libyans seeking to become the country’s head of state.
‘It’s a way of distinguishing Haftar from the rest of the candidates and promising something that is supposed to have value in the eyes of the United States, but also in the eyes of other countries that embrace whatever the UAE – the main sponsor of Haftar – has been doing through its activism in the region, which means Egypt, France, Morocco, and you can go down the list,’ said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at Global Initiative, in an interview with The New Arab. ‘It’s a way of Haftar saying “If you support me becoming president, here’s one tangible thing that I can deliver for you and no one else can.”’
The relationship between Haftar and the Israelis is not a new partnership; it dates back to 1987. ‘Contacts between Libyans and Israelis have been underway for some time – probably through the Mossad and other organisations – and it is not surprising that they have intensified lately, given the proximity of the elections in Libya,’ explained Dr Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.
What made Saddam Haftar’s brief visit to Tel Aviv significant was not the substance of the relationship between his father and Israel, but rather the decision to make it known to the whole world rather than concealing it.
Libya’s fractures and divisions
Politically speaking, eastern and western Libya have major differences that are relevant to any discussion of the North African country entering the Abraham Accords, the agreement brokered by the former US president, Donald Trump, between Israel and a number of Arab states. In Libya’s east, political Islam does not exist; n western Libya, political Islam might not necessarily be extremely popular, but it exists. Whereas eastern Libya is somewhat reflective of the UAE and Egypt’s political systems, the west has much more in common with Tunisia and Algeria, where the Palestinian cause is considered ‘sacred’, as Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune put it. Also, the Turkish influence in western Libya matters too, particularly considering Ankara’s efforts to position itself as a defender of the Palestinian struggle.
Within this context, Haftar being the head of state and deciding to bring the country into the Abraham Accords risks reigniting major tensions in Libya. ‘If you broach a topic like normalisation with Israel, you’re going to intensify what differentiates the eastern part of Libya from the western part,’ according to Harchaoui. The implications could be toxic from the standpoint of bringing Libyans together in a post-conflict era. ‘The western part of Libya is the most populous part, containing more than two-thirds of the population,’ said the Europe-based Libya expert. ‘When you look at that part of the population and you say, “I hereby declare normalisation with Israel”, you go [against] all the [UN-led] efforts…to try to avoid a partition of the nation, try to promote unification, reconciliation, and integration.’
US foreign policy implications
Like his predecessor, President Joe Biden and those in his administration believe that adding more Arab countries to the Abraham Accords must be a US foreign policy objective. A bipartisan consensus behind this stance exists among American lawmakers. Hence it is fair to conclude that Haftar promising to bring Libya into the Abraham Accords could help him a fair amount in Washington despite condemnations which the eastern commander has received from certain American officials over the years as well as lawsuits filed against him in US courts.
‘There are many decision-makers [in the USA] who don’t really care about the reality of Libya,’ according to Harchaoui. ‘They say, “If we could have a high-profile leader that embraces Israel, I don’t really care about the details of what happens on the ground. It’s still one step forward.” It’s basically the same reasoning that led Trump to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Like you disregard the consequences of the actual stability on the ground, and you say, “It’s a very nice victory from the point of view of acceptance of Israel, and I don’t care what happens on the ground.” You have a whole faction in Washington, DC that thinks in those terms.’
Indeed, among US officials there has been a total lack of concern for how the Abraham Accords have played out on the ground in the Arab region. In a Machiavellian manner, many policymakers in Washington believe in encouraging more Arab countries to normalise with Israel, regardless of the consequences. The fact that the transactional nature of Morocco entering the Abraham Accords in exchange for US recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara has revived decades-old tensions between Morocco and Algeria doesn’t matter much to Washington. The same can be said about the tensions which the Abraham Accords have heightened in Bahrain between the government and opposition groups, as well as how the Trump administration’s extortion of Sudan severely harmed the country’s fragile democratic transition.
Israel becoming more and more accepted in the Middle East and North Africa’s diplomatic fold is what matters to officials in Washington and Abu Dhabi. ‘You have this complacency that leads the Biden administration to support the UAE worldview,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘The UAE worldview, acceptance of Israel – all of these philosophies require you to ignore what goes on in the real world.’
Israeli stakes in Libya
Libya-Israel ties would not only serve the interests of Haftar. Benefits could go both ways. Israel has many interests in Libya, from the North African country’s ‘highly strategic geographical position to unlimited energy’, explained Dr Fasanotti. ‘In this chess game, we must not forget the consistent presence of Turkey in Tripolitania which, given the tense relations with Israel and other countries over the issue of offshore gas in the eastern Mediterranean, certainly plays a primary strategic role.’
In eastern Libya, which is the part of the country closest to Palestine, there is a security architecture and political order that suits Israeli interests. The absence of any Islamist political opposition or pro-Palestinian/pro-Hamas groups in Libya’s east is satisfactory to Tel Aviv. It’s safe to bet that the Israelis would take steps to help this Egypt-like order survive over the years by strongly supporting Haftar if he becomes the next Libyan head of state. When asked if Haftar is the ‘Israeli horse in the [Libyan election] race’, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, replied, ‘Yes, he’s in the race and it’s a track that has been well run.’
By having his son land on Israeli soil, shake hands, and signal a determination to normalise with Israel, Haftar is giving Israel a vested interest in his becoming Libya’s leader. As Marco Carnelos, a former Italian diplomat, noted, considering Haftar’s health issues he may be looking to establish a family dynasty in Libya that could put his son at the helm down the line. Therefore, having Saddam Haftar land in Israel could be about making a powerful statement about how much Haftar would like to invest in a partnership with Israel for the long haul if he is to win the 24 December elections.
At stake for Tel Aviv are also ‘the prestige and this impression of momentum with more Arab centres of power that one by one decide to embrace Israel,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘If Israel could actually maintain that narrative of a persistent momentum in that direction of more acceptability, it’s a form of a win.’
Impact on the Arab region’s geopolitical order
Libya entering the Abraham Accords would further signal success on the part of Emirati activism in Africa following Sudan and Morocco’s normalisation with Israel last year in deals that the UAE helped push through, plus Tunisia’s 25 July 2021 autogolpe which constituted another win for Abu Dhabi. A Haftar-led Libya formalising relations with Tel Aviv would serve the interests of the UAE, USA and, obviously, Israel too. But not all states in the Maghreb would see Libya’s entry into the Abraham Accords as good news.
From the perspective of Algiers, the expansion of Emirati influence in North Africa and the trend to normalise with Israel both threaten Algeria’s national interests. A concern among officialdom in Algiers is that Emirati activism in North Africa, specifically Abu Dhabi’s efforts to bring countries in the Maghreb and Sahel into the Abraham Accords, is leaving Algeria in a weaker and more vulnerable position. For example, after Rabat normalised with Israel in exchange for Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the Algerian Prime Minister said that there was a ‘real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity’.
‘Algeria would see any normalisation of ties with Israel by Haftar as evidence of the general’s designs on its stability and a grave escalation on his part,’ Sami Hamdi, the Managing Director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, told The New Arab. Indeed, there would be a concern that with both Morocco and Libya locked into diplomatic agreements with Israel, such relations with Tel Aviv could be weaponised against Algeria down the line.
* Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
** This article was first published by The New Arab
By Ramzy Baroud
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has largely become an alliance in name alone. Recent events notwithstanding, the conflict brewing over territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean suggests that the military union between mostly western countries is faltering. The current Turkish-Greek tension is only one facet of a much larger conflict involving – aside from these two Mediterranean countries – Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, France, Libya and other Mediterranean and European countries. Notably absent from the list are the United States and Russia; the latter, in particular, stands to gain or lose much economic leverage, depending on the outcome of the conflict.
Conflicts of this nature tend to have historic roots; in this case, it is important to consider that Turkey and Greece fought a brief but consequential war in 1974. Also of relevance to the current conflagration is an agreement signed by the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Nicos Anastasiades, respectively, on 2 January. It envisages the establishment of the EastMed pipeline that is projected, once finalised, to flood Europe with Israeli natural gas, pumped mostly from the Leviathan Basin. Several European countries are keen on being part of, and profiting from, the project. However, Europe’s gain is not just economic; it is also geostrategic. Cheap Israeli gas will reduce Europe’s reliance on Russia’s natural gas, which arrives in Europe through two pipelines: Nord Stream and Gazprom, the latter extending through Turkey.
Gazprom alone supplies Europe with an estimated forty per cent of its natural gas needs, thus giving Russia significant economic and political leverage in Europe. Some European countries, especially France, have laboured hard to liberate themselves from what they see as a Russian economic chokehold on their economies because of the gas supply. Indeed, the French and Italian rivalry currently under way in Libya is tantamount to colonial expeditions aimed at balancing out the over-reliance on Russian and Turkish supplies of gas and other sources of energy.
Fully aware of France’s and Italy’s intentions in Libya, the Russians and Turks are wholly involved in Libya’s military showdown between the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and those from the East, loyal to Khalifa Haftar, and organised under the militia called the Libyan National Army. The conflict in Libya has been under way for a decade, but the issue of the EastMed pipeline that will supply Israeli gas has added fuel to the fire: it has infuriated Turkey, which is excluded from the agreement; worried Russia, whose gas arrives in Europe partially via Turkey; and empowered Israel, which will likely use this as an opportunity to cement its economic integration with the European continent.
Anticipating the Israel-led alliance, Turkey and Libya signed a Maritime Boundary Treaty on 28 November 2019 that gave Ankara access to Libya’s territorial waters. The bold manoeuvre now allows Turkey to claim territorial rights for gas exploration in a massive region that extends from the Turkish southern coast to Libya’s north-east coast. Europe finds this ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ (EEZ) unacceptable because, if it is used effectively by Turkey, it could nullify the importance of the ambitious EastMed project, and fundamentally alter the currently geopolitical situation in the region, which is largely dictated by Europe and guaranteed by NATO.
However, NATO is no longer the formidable and unified power it once was. Since its inception in 1949, NATO rose dramatically; NATO members fought major wars in the name of defending the interests of member states, and to protect ‘the West’ from the ‘Soviet menace’. NATO remained strong and relatively unified even after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the abrupt collapse, in 1991, of its Warsaw Pact. NATO managed to sustain a degree of unity, despite its raison d’être – defeating the Soviets – being no longer being a factor. This was mainly because Washington wished to maintain its global military hegemony, especially in the Middle East.
The Iraq war of 1991 was the first powerful expression of NATO’s new mission, but the Iraq war of 2003 signalled NATO’s undoing. After failing to achieve any of its goals in Iraq, the USA adopted an ‘exit strategy’ that foresaw a gradual American retreat from Iraq while, simultaneously, ‘pivoting to Asia’ in the desperate hope of slowing down China’s military encroachment in the Pacific. The best expression of the American decision to divest militarily from the Middle East was NATO’s war on Libya launched in March 2011. Military strategists had to devise a bewildering new term, ‘leading from behind’, to describe the role that the USA played in the assault on Libya. For the first time since the establishment of NATO, the USA was part of a conflict that was largely controlled by comparatively smaller and weaker NATO members – Italy, France, Britain and others. While the former US president, Barack Obama, insisted on the centrality of NATO in US military strategies, it was evident that the once-powerful alliance had outlived its usefulness for Washington.
France, in particular, continues to fight for NATO with the same ferocity it fought to keep the European Union intact. It is this French faith in European and western ideals that has compelled Paris to fill the gap left by the gradual American withdrawal. France is currently playing the role of the military hegemon and political leader in many of the Middle East’s ongoing crises (and a few in Africa), including the flaring east Mediterranean conflict. On 3 December 2019, France’s Emmanuel Macron stood up to the US president, Donald Trump, at the NATO summit in London. There, Trump had chastised NATO for its reliance on American defence, and had threatened to pull out of the alliance altogether if NATO members did not compensate Washington for its protection.
It is a strange and unprecedented spectacle when countries such as Israel, Greece, Egypt, Libya, Turkey and others lay claims over the Mediterranean, while NATO scrambles to stave off an outright war among its own members. It is even stranger to see France and Germany taking over the leadership of NATO while the USA remains almost completely absent. It is difficult to imagine the reinvention of NATO into a body that no longer caters to Washington’s interests and diktats. Judging by France’s recent behaviour, the future may hold irreversible paradigm shifts for the alliance. In November 2018, Macron made what seemed a baffling proposal at the time when he called for the establishment of a ‘true, European army’. Considering the rapid regional developments and the incremental collapse of NATO, Macron may one day get his army, after all.
* Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle, and the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons
Ethiopia’s announcement on 21 July that it had already filled its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to its first year’s target has temporarily quelled tensions between it, Egypt and Sudan. The GERD, which will be the largest dam in Africa when completed, has been a source of great tension between these three states since it was initially announced in April 2011. Sudan and Egypt, downstream from Ethiopia on the Nile River, regard the dam as a threat to their water security and dominance over the Nile. But the current easing of tensions is temporary. The three countries will return to talks, under the auspices of the African Union (AU), to negotiate future filling of the GERD and the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement. This will be no easy task, especially since Cairo stubbornly insists that it is entitled to the bulk of the Nile water, and should have a veto over upstream dam construction or other developments. This attitude, which originates in the British colonial era, is, however, incompatible with the changing balance of power in the Nile Basin and with international norms regarding water-sharing.
The two tributaries of the Nile flow through eleven countries, and are relied upon by over forty per cent of the African continent’s population. Its small capacity (eighty-four billion cubic metres relative to other large rivers, such as the Amazon River (5 500 billion cubic meters), Congo River (1 250 billion cubic meters), and even the Niger River (180 billion cubic meters), and large number of dependent people and countries means that it has often been seen as having the potential to create conflict. This is especially since two downstream states, Egypt and Sudan, individually receive less than twenty-five millimetres of rain annually, thus contributing little to nothing to the river, but consuming more of its water than any of the other Nile riparian states. Egypt, particularly, is dependent on the Nile for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water and irrigation needs.
The Nile River originates through two main sources, Lake Victoria (bordered by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya) giving rise to the White Nile, and Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, with feeder tributaries from Rwanda and Burundi. The White Nile comprises around fifteen per cent of the river, and the other eighty-five per cent is the Blue Nile. Both tributaries meet in Khartoum, Sudan, and then flow into Egypt. Egypt, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia are very highly dependent on the Nile; Uganda is highly dependent; Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi are moderately dependent on it; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a low dependence on it.
Although the Nile has, for thousands of years, played a critical role in the lives of communities through which it flows, two more recent factors have influenced its current water usage: British colonisation of most of the area comprising the basin, and, thereafter, Egyptian attempts to ‘secure’ the river for itself. In relation to British colonialism, two main treaties regarding the Nile were agreed upon, one between Egypt and Britain, which, at the time, ruled many of the upstream states such as Tanzania and Uganda, and the other between Egypt and the Sudan. Egypt continues to cite these colonial-era treaties as its justification to deflect attempts to make Nile usage more equitable. The 1929 treaty recognised Egypt’s ‘natural’ and ‘historic’ rights to the river, and affording it the major share of the water. The treaty also tasked Egypt with monitoring the river, and gave it a veto vote over any Nile projects in upstream states.
The second treaty, signed in 1959 by Egypt and the Sudan, renewed the 1929 treaty, granting Sudan the use of four billion cubic metres of water, and Egypt 48 billion. This second treaty hinted at the possibility of other states sharing the water, but Sudan and Egypt would first have to agree to such usage. The water allocation to Sudan and Egypt has since been revised upwards as a result of the construction of the High Aswan Dam in Egypt, and the Roseires Dam in Sudan. Sudan is now allotted 18.5 billion cubic meters, and Egypt 55 billion. The two countries have historically negotiated between themselves regarding the building of dams in either of their territories, and regarding water allocations, and they have generally adopted a common stance in negotiations with upstream states. In light of the clean slate and Nyerere Doctrines on treaty succession, both of which assert that newly-independent states can choose which colonial era treaties to remain bound by, the legitimacy of the 1929 and 1959 treaties is questionable.
Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile, especially since ninety-seven per cent of its population resides in the Nile valley; it is reliant on the river for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water needs. The Egyptian state therefore threatened to use force to secure the river’s flow through its territory. In order to do so, both Egypt and Sudan even supported Ethiopian rebel groups, including the Eritrean and Tikrayan liberation movements, to weaken the country. This ultimately led to the 1993 secession of Eritrea. Egypt also pressured financial institutions to refrain from funding dam construction projects in upper riparian states. Thus, even if they had wanted to, it was no financially not possible for most Nile basin states to carry out construction on the river.
Political and power balance alterations
Since the mid-1990s, the power balance in the region has been shifting. Ethiopia has strengthened politically, economically and militarily, while Egypt and Sudan have weakened. Sudan split into two entities in 2011, with the Republic of Sudan losing much of its oil and agricultural resources to the new South Sudan state. Funding difficulties were alleviated for some states with the entry of China into the continent; it funded a number of dam projects, including the Tana Belez and Tekez dams in Ethiopia and the Marowe Dam in Sudan. Furthermore, the global discourse around water usage has changed. Whereas treaties and hard power had previously been the norm, human security and equity are now increasingly being promoted. The Helsinki and Berlin rules on water usage developed by the international law association, and the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, emphasise equity in water usage allowances.
A combination of these factors resulted in the 1999 creation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), between the ten countries through which the Nile traversed. The NBI’s aim was to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilisation of the Nile. A new water-sharing framework, the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA or Entebbe agreement) was conceptualised to replace the outdated 1959 treaty. Although Egyptian and Sudanese opposition stalled the process, it was adopted since upstream states had a majority of members The CFA provided for Nile water to be shared equitably among all Nile Basin countries while causing as little harm to downstream counties as possible. It also stipulated that upstream countries would no longer require Egypt’s consent for water projects. Water security rather than ‘historical rights’ would be the criterion for water usage, according to Article 14B of the CFA, resulting in it being vehemently opposed by Egypt and Sudan. They claimed this had crossed a ‘red line’, and Egypt predicted that it lead to the NBI’s collapse. Six states – Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia – have signed the agreement, making it legally enforceable.
GERD and its consequences
Following the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Ethiopia saw an opportunity to assert itself in the matter of the Nile. In April 2011, it announced the creation of the Millennium Dam, now known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The idea had previously been touted by the US National Bureau of Reclamation in 1966, in response to Soviet funding of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, as part of the US-Soviet proxy war in Africa. The proposed dam was conceived as a strong source of hydroelectrical power for the country, which could supply over 6 000 megawatts annually. Sixty-five million of Ethiopia’s 110-million population could receive energy from it. Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also asserted that it would be used to irrigate 500 000 hectares of land. However, Addis Ababa subsequently asserted that it would used solely for electricity generation.
Funding for the dam was generated through a variety of measures, including the issuance of bonds to Ethiopian citizens and businesses, and public servants being docked a month’s salary. Wealthy Ethiopian businesspeople such as Mohammed Al-Amoudi also invested in the project, but this was minimal compared to the amount raised through public funding. Ethiopia thus did not require foreign funding, a factor Egypt had initially hoped would prevent the project going ahead. Costing around five billion dollars, the dam is being built in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, about twenty kilometres away from the Sudanese border. It will be the largest dam on the continent, the tenth largest in the world, and its reservoir will hold around seventy-four-billion cubic metres of water once completed. Originally planned to be completed in 2017, delays and the suicide of its chief engineer meant that it is currently only seventy per cent complete. The current level of completion did, however, allow filling to begin in 2020.
Egypt and Sudan have opposed the dam from the planning stages, arguing for their ‘historical right’ to determine the Nile’s usage. Egypt insisted it would impair the Nile’s flow, and the electricity generation capacity of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. Some studies, which were confirmed by Ethiopian officials during negotiations, put the losses at between eight and twenty billion cubic metres annually, accounting for between twenty and forty per cent of the Blue Nile’s flow to Sudan and then Egypt, which could drastically impact fresh water access for Egypt’s ninety million people. Further, the Aswan High Dam’s electricity generation capacity will drop by between twenty-five and forty per cent. However, this risk will be realised only if Ethiopia fills the dam in four years. Although this was the original intention, Ethiopia subsequently agreed to fill it in seven to nine years. Tensions came to a head in May 2013, when Ethiopia diverted the river’s course to facilitate the dam construction. Egyptian politicians in a parliamentary meeting, accidentally livestreamed by Egyptian television, called for the bombing of the dam and Egyptian support to rebel groups to destabilise Ethiopia. Both Ethiopia and Sudan condemned the calls.
Sudan subsequently dropped its opposition to the GERD in December 2013, mainly because it would also benefit with increased electricity supply through its connection to Ethiopia’s electricity grid. The dam would also regulate the flow of the river to South Sudan and Sudan, thus reducing floods during the rainy seasons and enabling Sudan to increase crop rotations to three times annually from the current once a year. It would also reduce sediment flow; currently, Sudan is able to use only half the water capacity of the Saddar and Roseires dams because of sediment. Sudan uses only around twelve billion of its eighteen billion cubic metre water allocation from the Nile, even though it is a water scarce country; the Sudanese are less dependent on Nile waters than Egypt. Sudan is also less dependent on the Blue Nile, whose flow Ethiopia will impede, because the White Nile, unaffected by the GERD also flows through it.
Sudan’s changed position, together with Ethiopia’s obduracy, forced Egypt to also alter its position. I August 2014, Cairo acquiesced to the GERD’s construction, insisting on an expert panel’s technical analysis of the dam’s impact, but dropping its demand that construction be halted until the completion of the analysis. This paved the way for a March 2015 agreement, the ‘Agreement on Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the GERDP’ The agreement recognised that Sudan and Egypt would be impacted by the dam’s construction, but stipulated water sharing among the three states. Principle four of the ten-principle declaration also acknowledged usage rights based on river drainage; Ethiopia has the third largest land drainage of the whole river, including its Blue and White branches, after Sudan and South Sudan. The agreement further clarified that the dam would only be used for electricity generation and not irrigation, which was a victory for Egypt. However, it implicitly excluded the International Court of Justice from adjudicating on the dam’s legality, instead proposing for mediation and negotiations in the case of differences. Egyptian politicians had touted the ICJ as a means of delaying and halting the GERD’s construction. By endorsing the agreement, Cairo acquiesced to the validity of the GERD’s construction, and, since then, has sought only to ensure that the filling period is extended as much as possible.
Following the election of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister of Ethiopia in April 2018, relations further warmed between Cairo and Addis Ababa, especially since Abiy has been, in general, critical of dam projects. He argued that such projects were used for ‘political expediency’. At a 2018 summit between him and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, Abiy told Sisi that he would never harm Egyptians, a comment seen by Egyptians as an acknowledgement of his opposition to the GERD.
Despite Ethiopia’s assertion that it has already filled the dam to its first year carrying capacity, agreement on its ongoing filling has not yet been concluded. Taking advantage of the heavy rains, Addis Ababa rapidly filled the dam unilaterally in about two weeks, causing much consternation in Sudan, which saw its dam levels drop, and Egypt.
In November 2019, Egypt had roped in Washington and the World Bank to mediate. The US Trump administration continues to see Cairo as an important ally, and thus supported its position during negotiations. A draft ‘agreement’ on the filling process, signed only by Egypt in February 2020, was criticised by Addis Ababa. Abiy’s mind seems to have changed on both his previous willingness to negotiate, and his previous opposition to dams, especially after Cairo’s attempts to involve the USA in negotiations, and because of his loss of domestic support.
There remain a number of contentious issues regarding the dam. One of them is about the period of the filling of the dam. Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia agree that it should be phased, with the first phase spread over two years and the dam being filled to a depth of 595 metres, thus allowing for small-scale electricity generation and testing. Egypt, however, insists that Ethiopia releases over forty billion cubic metres of water each year, while Ethiopia wants to release thirty-billion cubic metres. Egypt currently receives forty-seven to forty-nine billion cubic metres of water from the Blue Nile annually. Ethiopia has conceded to providing a maximum of thirty-seven billion cubic metres annually, an amount Egypt will probably have to reluctantly accept. Addis Ababa is concerned that Cairo also wants it to empty the GERD’s reservoir to supplement the river’s flow in times of drought.
The parties have also not yet agreed on a monitoring and dispute resolution mechanism to ensure compliance. The UN asserts that the legality and binding nature of a possible agreement has not yet been agreed upon by all parties. Egypt and Sudan want the agreement to be legally binding and enforceable, while Ethiopia is wary that this may constrain it in the future, especially since it has a growing economy and because the GERD provides only one-fifth of the possible energy it could generate from the Nile.
Negotiations are being made more difficult by Egypt and Ethiopia both viewing the dam as an existential matter for their regimes. Article Forty-Four of Egypt’s constitution tasks the state with protecting the country’s ‘historic right’ to the Nile. Sisi already received much backlash for handing over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in June 2017, including from Egyptian nationalists and military officials who saw his act as a betrayal of Egypt’s territorial claims. He would be careful about creating another such scandal. With Egypt’s population predicted to rise to 150 million by 2050, the country will become even more dependent on the Nile for its survival. Egypt’s annual water capacity per capita is already predicted to be forced to diminish from 570 cubic metres per person annually to 500 cubic metres in the coming years as a result of climate change.
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, the fact that many Ethiopians purchased GERD bonds to fund the building of the dam means that the regime has minimal wiggle room. Popular songs have been written in support of the dam, with some likening its construction to the 1896 battle of Adwa, when Ethiopians united to defeat Italian colonisers. The current domestic political context worsens the situation. Abiy’s popularity is waning, and the decision to postpone elections to 2021 has been criticised. Further, in recent weeks, the assassination of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa sparked riots in Oromia, with the Oromo people, who comprise a third of the country’s population, arguing that the prime minister was not benefiting them. Abiy thus sanctioned the filling of the dam unilaterally, without obtaining consent from Sudan and Egypt as the two countries had expected, partly in an attempt to deflect from his domestic travails. His unstable position will likely influence any negotiations regarding the second year’s filling process, and will likely be deployed in electoral campaigns, making compromise less likely.
Sudan, on the other hand, has adopted a more balanced approach, siding with Ethiopia and refusing to agree to a March 2020 Arab League resolution condemning the GERD. Although largely agreeing with Egypt regarding the GERD’s filling and the need for a binding agreement, Khartoum has recently indicated a further willingness to compromise. It has conceded that Ethiopia will have to have flexibility regarding releasing water from the reservoir during drought, and also accepted that Addis Ababa might want to build more dams on the Nile in the future. However, it wants an agreement between the three states to be binding and enforceable. Moreover, consistent with the emphasis on ‘historic rights’, Sudan wants Ethiopia to notify it and Egypt before any dam construction.
Ethiopia and Sudan requested the AU, in June, to mediate between the three states. This was after the failures of trilateral negotiations between the states themselves, and after Ethiopia accused the USA of being biased towards Egypt. Before this, the AU had been relatively uninvolved in the GERD issue, calling on the states to negotiate among themselves. Some commentators argue that the continental body did not want to be involved in mediating a conflict between two powerful member states, especially since this would inevitably be perceived as it siding with one side if an agreement was not concluded. Following a failed first round of AU mediation at the end of June, which was to result in an agreement within two weeks thereafter, the three countries again announced, on 22 July, their willingness to accept AU mediation. The issues under mediation are especially contentious since they may be precedent-setting, and upsetting either Egypt or Ethiopia is not what the AU would want. However, successfully dealing with the Nile matter can position the AU as a serious continental structure that can resolve conflicts even between its strongest members, especially after external structures and foreign states were unable to bring the matter to conclusion.
The AU’s involvement in the Nile dispute has the potential to both resolve the matter, and enhance the reputation of the body. However, while on many substantive issues the parties have come closer, there remains much ground still to be covered and many disputes still requiring compromises. Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam and its announcement that the first year filling process has completed has deescalated the situation temporarily, giving the AU some breathing space to address the more with cooler heads. However, a few of the serious issues will continue to make negotiations difficult. Whether the agreement should be legally enforceable, and whether Ethiopia should accept Cairo’s demand to release large water reserves during droughts are among those thorny issues.
It is highly unlikely that differences over the GERD issue could result in military conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, despite the rhetoric from both sides. Cairo is involved in a seemingly-unwinnable conflict against the Islamic State group’s ‘Sinai province’, and is getting itself mired in Libya. It is unlikely that it will want to open up a third front. Moreover, the balance of power in the Nile is shifting, with Ethiopia gaining influence regionally and continentally. Addis Ababa’s confidentially filling up the dam unilaterally in the past few months, without any consequences, clearly indicates this shift.
A comprehensive solution will need to be based on the Entebbe agreement if it is to have a chance of long-term success. Egypt will need to give up on its insistence that it has a ‘historic right’ to the Nile waters, and on its demand that upstream states obtain its approval before undertaking construction projects on the river. Climate change, coupled with the increasing growth of countries such as Tanzania and Ethiopia, will result in these states seek to use the river’s water much more than previously to sustain their growing populations.
Egypt is reportedly furious at Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh after he and a delegation from Gaza attended the funeral of slain Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. Haniyeh headed a Hamas delegation out of the besieged Gaza Strip on 2 December 2019, the first time that Egypt allowed him to leave the enclave since his election as leader of Hamas in 2017. He was meant to visit a number of countries as part of an international relations tour. Egypt approved the countries he would visit; Iran was not on the list. Haniyeh, however, attended Soleimani’s funeral and was the only non-Iranian to speak at the event, where he referred to the Iranian general as ‘the martyr of Jerusalem’. The Egyptians have allowed other members of the delegation to return to Gaza, but it is unclear whether Egypt will allow Haniyeh to leave again, when he returns. Hamas is also cagey about when its leader will make his way back or whether he will visit other countries not approved of by the Egyptians.
Egypt and Hamas relations become stronger after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime during the 2011 uprisings. The one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, from June 2012 to July 2013, saw flourishing relations between the Egyptian government and the authority in Gaza. Morsi had ordered the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Palestinians from Gaza were thus able to travel in and out of the territory without hindrance, and there was also an increase in trade, after years of prohibition. In a July 2013 coup, General Abdel Fattah El Sisi overthrew Morsi and accused Hamas of being a co-conspirator against the security and the stability of the Egyptian people. Reversing Morsi’s decision, he tightened the blockade on Gaza.
Relations improved in 2017 when Hamas elected a new leadership mostly based in Gaza, unlike the previous leadership that was based mostly in Qatar and headed by Khaled Mesha'al. Haniyeh quickly started talks with Egypt after he election. Hamas delegations frequently visited Cairo for reconciliation talks with other Palestinian factions, notably Fatah, facilitated by Egypt. Egyptian officials have also frequented Gaza for negotiations with Hamas over ceasefires with Israel and to discuss blockade restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. Relations further strengthened when Egypt agreed to a buffer zone between Gaza and the Sinai to prevent Islamic State (IS) group militants retreating into Gaza.
A critical aspect of Egypt’s relations with Hamas is the former’s strong ties to Israel and to the USA. In 2018, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, discussed with Egypt the creation of a trade zone and industrial projects in the northern Sinai and in Gaza as part of Trump’s touted ‘deal of the century’. To realise this plan, Egypt agreed that it would coordinate economic projects with Hamas. In 2019, Qatar announced that it would begin distributing funds to families in Gaza and pay for fuel for electricity generation as part of its National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza project. This followed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, which brought relief to 2 million besieged Gazans. This agreement had been concluded during a twenty-four day trip to Cairo by a Hamas delegation headed by Haniyeh in February 2019. It became clear that Egypt was willing to allow Haniyeh to travel out of Gaza but only for meetings in Cairo; he swiftly returned to the strip after every trip.
For his current trip, Haniyeh left Gaza on 2 December 2019 for Cairo, where he attended a number of meetings with Egyptian officials to negotiate a longterm ceasefire with Israel. This followed an exchange of fire between groups in Gaza and Israel, after Israel assassinated one Islamic Jihad (Bahaa Abu Al-Ata) leader in Gaza. After these meetings, Haniyeh’s delegation departed for his first international trip as Hamas leader. The trip’s schedule was agreed upon with Egypt, and included Qatar, where many former and current Hamas leaders are based, as well as Turkey and Malaysia.
The Egyptians told Haniyeh not to attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Malaysia on 18 December, following Saudi Arabia’s insistence. The Saudis viewed the Summit as Malaysia’s attempt to set up an alternative to the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which Saudi Arabia currently heads. Haniyeh obliged and sent a high-level delegation instead. Unimpressed, Egypt nonetheless conceded that Haniyeh had not violated the agreement. Egypt’s conditions included Haniyeh’s not visiting Iran.
When the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani, was killed by an American airstrike on 3 January, Egypt further warned Haniyeh not to attend his funeral. Haniyeh, however, defied the order. He also met with the newly-appointed Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani, and, together with Islamic Jihad leader for an international relations trip, visited Soleimani’s home to express condolences.
Haniyeh’s trip to Iran angered the Egyptians to such an extent that they may not let him back into Gaza after he completes his trip, or prevent him leaving the territory again. Egypt also, in retaliation for Haniyeh’s insubordination, temporarily blocked the transfer of gas into Gaza. This resumed only after talks on 9 February. After these talks, little was mentioned about what the Egyptians had said about Haniyeh, who is still in Doha.
Although Hamas has denied that Egypt had been furious over the Iran visit, it is clear that relations between the two parties have been shaken. Egypt believes that since 2013 it has largely managed to exercise control over Hamas, in line with the wishes of Israel and Egyptian allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Haniyeh’s Iran visit was, thus, an embarrassment for Egypt. Although Haniyeh’s trip to Iran might have been strategic from a Hamas point of view, it, however, throws the existing relationship with Egypt into murky waters. Egypt might further restrict the movement of goods and people through the Rafah crossing, in a form of collective punishments against Gaza’s residents.