Category Archives: Qatar

Justin Trudeau strengthens Canada’s Ties with the Repressive United Arab Emirates

Given his personal history perhaps it is no surprise that Justin Trudeau is fond of monarchies.

The United Arab Emirates is a repressive monarchy that pursues violent, anti-democratic, policies in its region. Despite this — or maybe because of it —Trudeau’s Liberal government has strengthened ties to the federation of seven Emirates. And unlike Canada’s claims to be promoting democracy in Venezuela or the Ukraine, there has been little mention of this in the media or scrutiny in Parliament.

The UAE has propped up the Transitional Military Council in Sudan that has faced massive protests calling for civilian rule. Two months ago the oil rich country put up half of a $3 billion package (with Saudi Arabia) to support Sudan’s military rulers and the head of the military council visited powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi in late May. Many pro-democracy activists believe the UAE and Saudi Arabia pushed Sudan’s military to destroy a major protest site that left dozens dead at the start of June.

Abu Dhabi fears democracy in Sudan for various reasons. One immediate concern is the likelihood that a government in Khartoum representing the popular will would withdraw the 10,000 Sudanese soldiers in Yemen. The UAE has played a key role in the war in Yemen, which has left 100,000 dead, millions hungry and sparked a terrible cholera epidemic.

In Libya the UAE was recently caught delivering weapons to warlord Khalifa Haftar in violation of UN sanctions. Abu Dhabi has financed and supported Haftar’s bid to seize the Libyan capital by force. The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord said a UAE F-16 fighter jet was responsible for bombing a migrant detention centre that left some 50 people dead last week.

Elsewhere in the region the UAE has engaged in a two year blockade of Qatar designed to force Doha to heed their and close ally Saudi Arabia’s belligerent, anti-democratic, position towards Iran, Egypt and elsewhere. In recent years UAE helped crush Bahrain’s 2011 uprising, dispatched forces to Libya to support the NATO war and financed the return of military rule to Egypt in 2013. Abu Dhabi also plowed hundreds of millions of dollars of weaponry and other forms of support to Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria.

Domestically, the UAE is a repressive monarchy that outlaws labour unions and hangs/stones individuals to death. The country heavily restricts religious freedoms and women’s rights. Recently, the wife (one of six) of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum sought asylum in the UK fearing for her life.

From what I could find the Trudeau government has stayed mum on Abu Dhabi’s efforts to derail democracy in Sudan. Nor have they made any comment on its violation of UN sanctions in Libya. Over four years they’ve barely made a peep about the UAE’s bombing and troops in Yemen. Instead of challenging the monarchy’s egregious policies, the Liberals have deepened ties to the Gulf Kingdom.

On July 1 officials from the two countries highlighted “the bond between Canada and the United Arab Emirates” by raising a Canadian flag-inspired display on Abu Dhabi’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Ten days ago, the government announced that Canada would participate in Expo 2020 Dubai. International trade minister Jim Carr declared, “our presence at Expo 2020 affirms the vitality of Canada-UAE relations.”

A UAE delegation led by Minister of Energy and Industry Suhail bin Mohammed Faraj Faris Al Mazrouei attended the International Economic Forum of the Americas in mid-June. At the Montréal conference Al Mazrouei met economic development minister Navdeep Bains and trade minister Jim Carr. During the opening of the last UN General Assembly session Trudeau met UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed and he visited foreign minister Chrystia Freeland in Ottawa last May.

Despite their violence in Yemen, the Trudeau government has deepened military ties to the UAE. There are a small number of Canadian troops in the UAE and Royal Canadian Navy vessels in the region regularly coordinate with their Emirates counterparts. Last week Canada’s ambassador in Abu Dhabi, Masud Husain, met defence minister Mohammed bin Ahmed Al Bowardi. Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also met Al Bowardi there in April. According to Emirates News Agency, Canadian and UAE officials discussed “cooperation  in the military and defence sectors” and “current regional and international developments.” In December 2017 Sajan traveled to the Gulf State to sign the Canada-UAE Defence Cooperation Arrangement.

According to Radio Canada International, the Canada–UAE defence accord “will make it easier for the Canadian defence industry to access one of the world’s most lucrative arms markets.” During the last four years the Trudeau government has promoted arm sales at the Abu Dhabi-based International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX). With support from “15 trade commissioners and representatives from the Government of Ontario, National Defence, Global Affairs Canada, and the Canadian Commercial Corporation”, 50 Canadian arms companies flogged their wares at IDEX in February. To help the arms companies move their products, commander of the Bahrain-based Combined Task Force 150, Commodore Darren Garnier, led a Canadian military delegation to IDEX.

In February of last year Parliamentary Secretary to minister Bains, David Lametti, who is now Justice Minister, promoted Bombardier’s delivery of surveillance planes to the UAE. Montreal-based flight simulator company CAE trains UAE Air Force pilots at a facility in Abu Dhabi. Some UAE pilots bombing Yemen also likely trained at NATO’s Flying Training in Canada, which is run by CAE and the Canadian Forces.

As Anthony Fenton has documented in detail on his fantastic Canada-Gulf focused Twitter handle, armoured vehicles made by Canada’s Streit Group in the UAE have been repeatedly videoed in Yemen. At IDEX 2019 Streit Group officials were photographed pitching their Sherp All-terrain military vehicle to UAE officials.

After a high profile diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia last August Canadian officials privately worried it would negatively impact relations with UAE. That didn’t happen, of course. In fact, the spat may have spurred closer ties to Saudi Arabia’s main regional ally.

It’s time for some mainstream journalists and parliamentarians to devote a little attention to the Trudeau’s government hypocritical embrace of the UAE monarchy.

Canada Gets Cozy with Repressive Middle East Monarchies

While Justin Trudeau’s government embraces repressive Middle East monarchies, they want us to believe their campaign to oust Venezuela’s government is motivated by support for democracy and human rights.

On a tour of the Middle East last week Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan met his United Arab Emirates counterpart Mohammed bin Ahmed Al Bowardi in Abu Dhabi. According to Emirates News Agency, Canadian and UAE officials discussed “cooperation in the military and defence sectors” at a time when the oil rich nation plays a key role in the horrendous violence in Yemen.

The Trudeau government is promoting arm sales to the UAE and other regional monarchies. With support from “15 trade commissioners and representatives from the Government of Ontario, National Defence, Global Affairs Canada, and the Canadian Commercial Corporation”, 50 Canadian arms companies flogged their wares at the Abu Dhabi-based International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in February. To help the arms companies move their wares, Commander of the Bahrain-based Combined Task Force 150, Commodore Darren Garnier, led a Canadian military delegation to IDEX.

During his recent tour Sajjan met King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein in Jordan. He discussed military cooperation with a monarch known for prosecuting individuals for “extending one’s tongue” (having a big mouth) against the King. At the end of March, Trudeau phoned King Abdullah II.

On April 9 the Canadian and Jordanian armed forces broke ground on a road project along the Jordanian-Syrian border. During a ceremony for the Canadian-funded initiative Commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command, Lieutenant General Michael Rouleau, said: “this important road rehabilitation project is a tangible example of the close relationship between Jordan and Canada. It will help keep the people of Jordan safe by allowing the Jordanian armed forces to deter, monitor and interdict incursions along the northern border with Syria, which will help to enhance security in Jordan and in the region.”

On his Middle East tour Sajjan also met Kuwait’s Prime Minister and Defence Minister Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah who is part of a family that has ruled for 250 years. According to the Kuwait News Agency, Canada’s defence minister “stressed deep relations between Kuwait and Canada and pointed out mutual willingness to bolster and consolidate bilateral ties.”

Earlier in the month finance minister Bill Morneau and Parliamentary Secretary Omar Alghabra participated in the inaugural Kuwait and Canada Investment Forum. At the time Alghabra wrote, “let’s celebrate and continue our efforts to grow the relationship between Canada and Kuwait in investments, trade and defence.”

Military ties with Kuwait are important because the Canadian forces have a small base there. In December the Canadian Navy took command of Combined Task Force 150 from their Saudi counterparts. Canada also has a small number of troops in the monarchies of Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar.

Last month Canada’s Ambassador to Qatar Stefanie McCollum boasted of growing relations between the countries, claiming “our values structures are very similar.” In an interview with Al Bawaba the Canadian diplomat also said Ottawa is seeking to deepen business ties with the natural gas rich monarchy and that the two countries are in the final stage of signing a defence cooperation agreement.

Notwithstanding the diplomatic spat last summer, the Trudeau government has mostly continued business as usual with the most powerful and repressive monarchy in the region. Recently foreign minister Chrystia Freeland looked the other way when Saudi student Mohammed Zuraibi Alzoabi fled Canada — presumably with help from the embassy — to avoid sexual assault charges in Cape Breton. While Freeland told reporters that Global Affairs was investigating the matter, Halifax Chronicle Herald journalist Aaron Beswick’s Access to Information request suggests they didn’t even bother contacting the Saudi embassy concerning the matter.

According to an access request by PhD researcher Anthony Fenton, Freeland phoned new Saudi foreign minister Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al-Assaf in January. In briefing notes for the (unannounced) discussion Freeland was encouraged to tell her counterpart (under the headline “points to register” regarding Yemen): “Appreciate the hard work and heavy lifting by the Saudis and encourage ongoing efforts in this regard.”

Despite their devastating war in Yemen and dismembering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia continues to receive large shipments of Canadian weaponry. 2018 was a record year for Canadian rifle and armoured vehicle sales to the Saudis. $17.64 million in rifles were exported to the kingdom last year and another $1.896 million worth of guns were delivered in February. In the first month of this year Canada exported $367 million worth of “tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles” to the Saudis.

As Fenton has documented in detail on his highly informative Twitter handle, armoured vehicles made by Canadian company Streit Group in the UAE have been repeatedly videoed in Yemen. Equipment from three other Canadian armoured vehicle makers – Terradyne, IAG Guardian and General Dynamics – was found with Saudi-backed forces in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition used Canadian-made rifles as well.

On Tuesday the Saudis beheaded 37 mostly minority Shiites. Ottawa waited 48 hours — after many other countries criticized the mass execution — to release a “muted” statement. The Trudeau government has stayed mum on the Saudi’s recent effort to derail pro-democracy demonstrations in Sudan and Algeria as well as Riyadh’s funding for Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar’s bid to seize Tripoli by force.

The close and friendly relationships between the Trudeau government and repressive Middle East monarchies demonstrates how little the Liberals care about democracy abroad and illustrates the hypocrisy of Canada’s claims that its efforts to oust Venezuela’s government is all about supporting democracy.

Idlib: Reportage from the Last Front in Syria

For a while, all the guns have fallen silent.

I am near Idlib, the last stronghold of the terrorists in Syria. The area where the deadliest anti-government fighters, most of them injected into Syria from Turkey, with Saudi, Qatari and Western ‘help’, are literally holed up, ready for the final showdown.

Just yesterday, mortars were falling on villages near the invisible frontline, separating government troops and the terrorist forces of Al Nusra Front. The day before yesterday, two explosions rocked the earth, only a couple of meters from where we are now standing.

They call it a ceasefire. But it’s not. It is one-sided. To be more precise: the Syrian army is waiting, patiently. Its cannons are pointing towards the positions of the enemy, but the orders from Damascus are clear: do not fire.

The enemy has no scruples. It provokes, endlessly. It fires and bombs, indiscriminately. It kills. Along the frontline, thousands of houses are already ruined. Nothing gets spared: residential districts, sport gymnasiums, even bakeries. There is an established routine: assaults by the terrorists, rescue operations organized by Syrian armed forces (SAA – Syrian Arab Army) and Syrian National Defense Forces, then immediate rebuilding of the damage.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian people have lost their lives in this war. Millions had to leave their homeland. Millions have been internally displaced. For many, the conflict became a routine. Rescue operations became routine. Rebuilding tasks became routine, too.

Now, it is clear that the final victory is near. Syria survived the worse. It is still bleeding, but most of its territories are beginning to heal. People are slowly returning home, from Lebanon and Turkey, from Germany and elsewhere. They go through rubble – their former homes. They sit down and cry. Then, they get up and start rebuilding. That’s in other parts of the country: Duma, Homs, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zur.

But in the villages and towns north of Hama and towards Idlib, the war is far from being over.

In the town of Squalbiah, Commander Nabel Al-Abdallah of the National Defense Forces (NDF) explained to me:

SAA could easily use force and win militarily; it could take Idlib. But the SAA operates under command of President Assad, who believes in negotiations. If we take the city now, there would be huge casualties.

*****

The situation is not as simple, as we would like it to be. Victory may be near, but the West is not giving up, nor is Turkey. There are still pockets that are held by the US and French troops, and around Idlib (including Manbij), a large area is still controlled by the terrorists, who were transported here from all corners of Syria, under the Russian-sponsored agreement.

And there is more to it: My sources in Syria shared the latest:

Some 4 months ago, the ’new ISIS’ appeared in the south of Idlib, not far from where we are right now. They were injected into Syria by the Turks. They were wearing brand new uniforms, white long dresses. Before, they were recognizable by black or gray outfits – ‘Afghan-style’. They now call themselves ‘Hurras Aldeen’, or ‘The Guardians of Religion’. Why? In order for the United States, and the West in general, to continue to support them. The ISIS are officially on the list of the terrorist organizations’, but this new ‘brand’ is not.

I ask Commander Nabel Al-Abdallah, what the West really wants? He replies, immediately:

The West wants terrorism to spread to Russia and China. Many terrorists work and fight directly for the interests of the United States.

We need to take care of the innocent civilians. But we also have to find the solution, very quickly. If we fail, terrorism will spread all around the world.

We sit in the Commander’s provisory headquarters, having a quick cup of tea, before moving to the frontline.

He wants to say something. He thinks, how. It is not easy. Nothing is easy under the circumstances, but he tries, and what he utters makes sense:

If we don’t have solution, soon, terrorists will damage the world. Our problems are not just the ISIS, but above all, the ideology that they represent. They use Islam, they say that they fight in the name of Islam, but they are backed by the United States. And here, the SAA, our military and our defense forces, are fighting for the world, not just for Syria.

We embrace and I go. His men drive me in a military vehicle to the outskirts of As Suqaylabiyah (also known as Squalbiah). From there, I photograph a hospital and the positions of Al Nusra Front. They are there, right in front of me, just a couple of hundreds of meters.

Territory held by Al Nusrah Front including their military hospital (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

I am told that I am like a sitting duck, exposed. I work fast. Luckily, today the terrorists are not in the mood for shooting.

Before returning to the vehicle, I try to imagine how life must be there, under Al Nusra Front or the ISIS occupation.

From the hill where I stand, the entire area looks green, fertile and immensely beautiful. But I know, I clearly understand that it is hell on earth for those who live in those houses down below; in the villages and towns controlled by some of the most brutal terrorists on earth.

I also know that these terrorist monsters are here on foreign orders, trying to destroy Syria, simply because its government and people have been refusing to succumb to the Western imperialist dictates.

Here, it is not only about theory. The lives of millions have been already destroyed. Here it is all concrete and practical – it is reality.

We can hear explosions in a distance. The war may be over in Damascus, but not here. Not here, yet.

*****

My friend Yamen is from the city of Salamiyah, some 50 kilometers from Hama. Only recently the area around his home town was liberated from the extremist groups.

Twenty kilometers west from Salamiyah lies the predominantly Ismaili village of Al Kafat, which used to be surrounded by both Al-Nusra Front and the ISIS.

Mr. Abdullah, President of local Ismaili Council, recalls the horrors which his fellow citizens had to endure:

In the past, we had two car bomb explosions here. In January 2014, 19 people were killed, 40 houses totally destroyed and 300 damaged. Fighting was only 200 meters away from here. Both Al-Nusra Front and ISIS surrounded the village, and were cooperating. We are very close to one of the main roads, so for the terrorists, it was an extremely important strategic position. This entire area was finally liberated only in January 2018.

Whom do they blame?

Mr. Abdullah does not hesitate:

Saudis, Turks, the USA, Europe, Qatar…

We walk through the village. Some homes are still lying in ruins, but most of them have at least been partially restored. On the walls and above several shops, I can see the portrait of a beautiful young woman, who was killed during one of the terrorist assaults. 65 villagers were slaughtered, in total. Before the war, the population of the village was 3,500, but traumatized and impoverished by war, many decided to leave and now only 2,500 inhabitants live here, cultivating olive trees, herding sheep and cows.

Before my visit here, I was told that education played an extremely important role in defending this place, and in keeping morale high during the darkest days of combat and crises. Mr. Abdullah readily confirmed it:

The human brain has the capacity to solve problems, and to defuse crises. During a war like this, education is extremely important. Or more precisely, it is mainly about learning, not only about education. Al-Nusra and ISIS – they are synonymous with ignorance. If your brain is strong, it easily defeats ignorance. I think we succeeded here. And look now: this poor village has at this moment 103 students attending universities, all over Syria.

As we drive on, east, large portraits of a brother of my friend Yamen decorate many military posts. He was one of the legendary commanders here, but was killed in 2017.

Then I see a castle: monstrous, more than two millennia old, overlooking the city of Salamiyah. There are green fields all around, so much beauty, in all the corners of Syria.

“Come back and visit all these marvels when the war is over,” someone around me jokes.

I don’t see it as a joke.

“I will,” I think. “I definitely will”. But we have to win, and win very soon, as soon as possible! To make sure that nothing else goes up in flames.

*****

I drop my bag in at a local inn in Salamiyah, and ask my comrades to drive me on, further east. I want to see, to feel how life was under ISIS, and how it is now.

There are ruins, all around us. I saw plenty of terrible urban ruins during my previous visit: all around Homs and the outskirts of Damascus.

Here I see rural ruins, in their own way as horrifying as those scarring all the major cities of Syria.

This entire area had recently been a frontline. Or it was screaming in the hands of the terrorist groups, mainly ISIS.

Now it is a minefield. The road is cleared, but not the fields; not the remains of the villages.

I photograph a tank that used to belong to the ISIS; burned and badly damaged. It is an old Soviet tank, which used to belong to the Syrian army. It was captured by the ISIS, and then destroyed by either the SAA or a Russian airplane. Next to the tank – a chicken farm burned to the ground.

The Lieutenant, who is accompanying me, goes on, monotonously, with his grizzly account:

Today, outside Salamiyeh, 8 people were killed by the landmines.

We leave the vehicle, and walk slowly down the road, which is full of craters.

Suddenly, the Lieutenant stops without any warning:

And here, my cousin was killed by another mine.

*****

We reach Hardaneh Village, but almost no one is left here. There are ruins everywhere. Before – 500 people lived here, now only 30. This is where heavy fighting against the ISIS took place. 13 local people were killed, 21 soldiers ‘martyred’. Other civilians were forced to leave.

Mr. Mohammad Ahmad Jobur is the local administrator (el muchtar), 80 years old:

First, we fought ISIS, but they overwhelmed us. Most of us had to leave. Now some of us returned, but only few…Yes, now we have electricity; at least 3 hours a day, and our children can go to school. The old school was destroyed by the ISIS, so kids are now collected and taken to a bigger town for education. Every villager wants to come back, but most of the families have no money to rebuild their houses and farms. The government made a list of the people whose dwellings were destroyed. They will get help, but help will be distributed gradually, stage by stage.

Naturally: almost the entire country lies in ruins.

Are villagers optimistic about the future?

“Yes, very optimistic,” declares the village chief. “If we get help, if we can rebuild, we will all come back.”

But then, they show me the water wells, destroyed by the ISIS.

It is all smiles through tears. So far only 30 have come back. How many will come home this year?

I asked the chief what the main aim of the ISIS was?

No aim, no logic. ISIS was created by the West. They tried to destroy everything, this village, this area, this entire country. They made no sense… they do not think like us… they only brought destruction.

*****

Soha, a village even further east, a place where men, women and children were forced to live under the ISIS.

These women survived life under ISIS (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

I am invited into a traditional house. People sit in a circle. Several younger women are hiding their faces, not wanting to be photographed. I can only guess why. Others don’t care. What happened here; what horrors took place? Nobody will pronounce it all.

This is a traditional village inhabited by a local tribe; very conservative.

Testimonies begin to flow:

First, they banned us from smoking, and shaving. Women had to cover their faces and feet; they had to wear black… Strict rules were imposed… education was banned. The ISIS created terrible prisons… They were often beating us with rubber hoses, in public. Some people were beheaded. Severed heads were exhibited above the main square.

When ISIS arrived, they brought with them their slaves – kidnapped people from Raqqah. Some women got stoned in public, alive. Other women were thrown to their death from the roofs and from other high places. They were amputating hands… Various women were forced to marry ISIS fighters…

An uncomfortable silence followed, before the topic got changed.

They killed 2 men from this village…

Some say more, many more.

Several youngsters joined the ISIS. 3 or 4… ISIS would pay $200 to each new combatant who subscribed. And, of course, they were promising heaven…

ISIS cage for infidels and sinners (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

In one of the villages, I am shown a big rusty cage for ‘infidels’ and “sinners”. People were locked in there like wild animals, and kept exposed, in the open.

I see the destroyed ‘police’ building of the ISIS. At one point I am offered some papers – documents – which are just scattered all over the floor. I don’t want to take any with me, not even as a ‘souvenir’.

Testimonies continue to flow:

They were beheading people for being in possession of mobile phones… Local villagers were disappearing… they were kidnapped…

At some point, I have to halt this flow of testimonies. I can hardly process all that is being said. People are shouting over each other. One day, someone should take it all down, to record it, to file it. I do what I can, but I realize that it is not enough. It is never enough. The scale of the tragedy is too great.

By now it is getting dark… and then it is dark. I have to return to Salamiyeh, to rest a bit; to sleep for a few hours, and then to return to the frontline, where both the Syrian and Russian soldiers are bravely facing the enemy. Where they are doing all that is humanly possible to prevent those gangsters sponsored by the West and their allies, from returning to the already liberated areas of the country.

She saw decapitations by ISIS (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

But before I fall asleep, I recall; I am haunted by the image of a little girl who survived the occupation of her village by the ISIS. She stood resting her back against the wall. She looked at me for a while, then lifted her hands and moved her fingers quickly across her throat.

*****

The next day, the Commander of the National Defense Forces in Muhradah, Simon Al Wakel, drives me all around the city and the outskirts, Kalashnikov resting next to his seat. It is a quick and matter-of-fact ‘tour’:

This is where the mortars landed two days ago, there is a power plant which was liberated from the terrorists, and this is a huge gymnasium attacked by the terrorists simply because they hate that our girls excel in volleyball and basketball.

We talk to locals. Commander Simon gets stopped in the middle of the streets, embraced by total strangers, kissed on both cheeks.

Driving to the front with Commander Simon (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

“I have been targeted more than 60 times,” he tells me. One of his former cars is rotting at a remote parking lot, after it was hit and burned by the terrorists.

He shrugs his shoulders:

Russians and Turks negotiated the ceasefire, but obviously, terrorists do not respect any agreements.

We return to the frontline. I am shown the Syrian cannons pointing towards the positions of Al Nusra Front. The local headquarters of the terrorists is clearly visible, not too far from the magnificent ruins of the Sheizar Citadel.

First, I see the Syrian soldiers, operating slightly outdated Soviet as well as newer Russian equipment: armed vehicles, tanks, “Katyushas”. Then I spot several Russian boys settling down in two houses with a commanding view of the valley and the enemy territory.

Both the Syrian and Russian armies, shoulder to shoulder, are now facing the last enclave of the terrorists.

I wave at the Russians, and they wave back at me.

Everyone seems to be in a good mood. We are winning. We are ‘almost there’.

We all also know that it is still too early to celebrate. Terrorists from all over the world are hoarded in the area in and around the city of Idlib. The US, UK and French “Special Forces” are operating in several parts of the country. The Turkish military keeps holding big chunk of the Syrian land.

The weather is clear. The green fields are fertile and beautiful. The nearby citadel is imposing. Just a little bit more of determination and endurance, and this wonderful country will be fully liberated.

Our artillery facing Al Nusdrah Front (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

We all realize it, but no one is celebrating, yet. Nobody is smiling. The facial expressions of the Syrian and Russian comrades are serious. Men are looking down towards the valley, weapons ready. They are fully concentrated. Anything may happen; anytime.

I know why there are no smiles; we all know: Soon, we may defeat the enemy. Soon, the war may end. But hundreds of thousands of Syrian people have already died.

• First published at New Eastern Outlook (NEO)

The Denial of Taxes to the PA is an Ominous Sign of Netanyahu’s Grand Plan

Israel’s decision to withhold part of the taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and plunge it deeper into crisis starkly illustrates the hypocrisies and deceptions at the core of the two governments’ relationship.

Under the terms of what are now the quarter century-old Oslo accords, Israel is responsible for collecting about $200 million each month in taxes, which it is supposed to pass on to the PA, the Palestinian government-in-waiting in the West Bank.

The money belongs to the Palestinians but Israel has temporarily withheld it on several occasions in the past as a stick with which to beat the Palestinian leadership into line.

On this occasion, however, the stakes are far higher.

Last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu belatedly implemented a law passed last summer that requires his officials to retain part of the taxes owed to the Palestinians – those that the PA transfers to political prisoners’ families as a monthly stipend.

It echoes the Taylor Force Act, a law passed by the US Congress in 2016, that denies American economic aid to the PA until it stops sending those same stipends to 35,000 families of prisoners and those killed and maimed by the Israeli army.

The PA has tried to avert that threat by channelling the payments through a separate body, the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Israel and Washington regard the prisoners simply as terrorists. But most Palestinians view them as heroes, those who have paid the highest price in the struggle for national liberation.

The Palestinian public no more believes the families should be abandoned for their sacrifices than Irish republicans turned their backs on those who fought British rule or black South Africans forsook those who battled apartheid.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called Israel’s actions “robbery” and said he would rather cut funding for health and education than for the prisoners and their families. “They are the most respected and appreciated part of the Palestinian people,” he declared.

Then he played his ace card. He said he would refuse all tax money from Israel until the full sum was reinstated.

That risks plunging the PA into financial meltdown and – most importantly for Israel – might ultimately lead to the disbanding of the Palestinian security services. Their job has long been to act as a security contractor, keeping order on Israel’s behalf in the West Bank.

The security forces hoovered up a massive 20 per cent of the PA’s $5.8 billion state budget last year.

The PA is already reeling from a series of hammer blows to the Palestinian economy. They include Donald Trump’s decision to cut all funding to UNRWA, the refugee agency for Palestinians, and to hospitals in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

In addition, Mr Abbas reportedly declined $60m in annual US aid for his security services last month for fear of exposing the PA to legal action. A new congressional measure makes aid recipients like the PA subject to American anti-terrorism laws.

But the current stand-off between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas lays bare the duplicity of the situation for all to see.

The PA leader may say the prisoners are the most cherished Palestinian constituency but he also describes his security services’ co-ordination with Israel as “sacred”.

The security services’ role is to assist the Israeli army in foiling Palestinian attacks and in arresting the very Palestinians he extols. Mr Abbas cannot realistically hold true to both positions at the same time.

Mr Netanyahu, on the other hand, has nothing to gain from harming the Palestinian security services, which the Israeli army relies on.

The decision to withhold taxes was taken chiefly to boost his popularity as rival right-wing parties compete for who appears the most hawkish before April’s general election.

Paradoxically, in withholding the PA’s tax money, Mr Netanyahu is punishing Mr Abbas, his supposed peace partner, while showing a preference for Hamas, Mr Abbas’s arch rival in Gaza.

Although Israel categorises Hamas as a terror organisation, Mr Netanyahu has been allowing extra funds into Gaza from Qatar to alleviate the enclave’s dire conditions.

Further, there is something richly ironic about Mr Netanyahu rebuking the PA for rewarding Palestinian “terrorists” in the same week he negotiated a deal to assist bringing Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power party, into the Israeli parliament.

The party is Israel’s version of the Ku Klux Klan, disciples of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, whose virulently anti-Arab Kach party was outlawed 25 years ago as a terror organisation.

So appalling is the prospect of this unholy alliance that even pro-Israel lobbies like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Committee felt compelled to issue statements condemning Jewish Power as “racist and reprehensible”.

Mr Netanyahu believes the extra votes Jewish Power will attract to the right in the election will ensure he has the support necessary to build a coalition that can keep him in power.

But there is another glaring flaw in Mr Netanyahu’s tax grab.

If Mr Abbas’s coffers run low, he will simply send even less money to Gaza, which is already being choked by Israel’s lengthy blockade.

That would intensify the unrest in Gaza, which could lead to rocket attacks into Israel and even larger mass protests by Palestinians at the perimeter fence encaging them.

At the same time, if things remain unresolved, an already fragile PA will move closer to collapse and Hamas might then be poised to fill the void left in the West Bank.

Loss of power for Mr Abbas, combined with loss of a security contractor for Mr Netanyahu, appear to make this confrontation mutually self-destructive – unless Mr Netanyahu and the right have another card up their sleeve.

Hani Al Masri, a Palestinian policy analyst, has wondered whether Mr Netanyahu is setting the stage for US President Donald Trump to introduce his long-awaited “peace deal” after the election.

Much of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition is keen to annex Palestinian areas outside the main West Bank cities, destroying any hope of a Palestinian state ever emerging. Mr Trump might be amenable.

In this scenario, argues Mr Al Masri, Israel would aim to “end what remains of the PA’s political role, preserving only its administrative and security role”. It would be reduced to bin collections and law enforcement.

Should the PA reject the process of being hollowed out, Israel and the US would then look for an alternative, such as rule by local warlords in each Palestinian city and expanded powers for Israeli military rulers in the West Bank.

The denial of taxes to the PA may not yet presage its demise. But it points to a future in which Palestinian self-rule is likely to become an ever-more distant prospect.

• First published at The National, Abu Dhabi

Netanyahu’s Ceasefire is Meant to Keep Gaza Imprisoned

Palestinians in Gaza should have been able to breathe a sigh of relief last week, as precarious ceasefire talks survived a two-day-long, heavy exchange of strikes that threatened to unleash yet another large-scale military assault by Israel.

Late on Tuesday, after the most intense bout of violence in four years, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas, the Islamic movement that rules Gaza, approved a long-term truce brokered by Egypt.

Both are keen to avoid triggering an explosion of popular anger in Gaza, the consequences of which would be difficult to predict or contain.

The tiny enclave is on life support, having endured three devastating and sustained attacks by Israel, as well as a suffocating blockade, over the past decade. Thousands of homes are in ruins, the water supply is nearly undrinkable, electricity in short supply, and unemployment sky-high.

But as is so often the case, the enclave’s immediate fate rests in the hands of Israeli politicians desperate to cast themselves as Israel’s warmonger-in-chief and thereby reap an electoral dividend.

Elections now loom large after Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish defence minister, resigned on Wednesday in the wake of the clashes. He accused Netanyahu of “capitulating to terror” in agreeing to the ceasefire.

Lieberman takes with him a handful of legislators, leaving the governing coalition with a razor-thin majority of one parliamentary seat. Rumours were rife over the weekend that another party, the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home, was on the brink of quitting the coalition.

In fact, Netanyahu recklessly triggered these events. He had smoothed the path to a truce earlier this month by easing the blockade. Fuel had been allowed into the enclave, as had $15 million in cash from Qatar to cover salaries owed to Gaza’s public-sector workers.

At this critical moment, Netanyahu agreed to a covert incursion by the Israeli army, deep into Gaza. When the soldiers were exposed, the ensuing firefight left seven Palestinians and an Israeli commander dead.

The two sides then upped the stakes: Hamas launched hundreds of rockets into Israel, while the Israeli military bombarded the enclave. The air strikes killed more than a dozen Palestinians.

Lieberman had reportedly expressed outrage over the transfer of Qatari money to Gaza, claiming it would be impossible to track how it was spent. The ceasefire proved the final straw.

Hamas leaders boasted that they had created a “political earthquake” with Lieberman’s resignation. But the shock waves may not be so easily confined to Israel.

Strangely, Netanyahu now sounds like the most moderate voice in his cabinet. Fellow politicians are demanding Israel “restore its deterrence” – a euphemism for again laying waste to Gaza.

Naftali Bennett, the head of the settler Jewish Home party, denounced the ceasefire as “unacceptable” and demanded the vacant defence post.

There was flak, too, from Israel’s so-called left. The opposition Labour party leader Avi Gabbay called Netanyahu “weak”, while former prime minister Ehud Barak said he had “surrendered to Hamas under fire”.

Similar sentiments are shared by the public. Polls indicate 74 per cent of Israelis favour a tougher approach.

Sderot, close to Gaza and targeted by rockets, erupted into angry protests. Placards bearing the slogan “Bibi Go Home” – using Netanyahu’s nickname – were evident for the first time in his party’s heartland.

With this kind of goading, an election in the offing, and corruption indictments hanging over his head, Netanyahu may find it difficult to resist raising the temperature in Gaza once again.

But he also has strong incentives to calm things down and shore up Hamas’s rule.

The suggestion by some commentators that Netanyahu has turned a new leaf as a “man of peace” could not be more misguided. What distinguishes Netanyahu from his cabinet is not his moderation, but that he has a cooler head than his far-right rivals.

He believes there are better ways than lashing out to achieve his core political aim: the undermining of the Palestinian national project. This was what he meant on Wednesday when he attacked critics for missing “the overall picture of Israel’s security”.

On a practical level, Netanyahu has listened to his generals, who warn that, if Israel provokes war with Hamas, it may find itself ill-equipped to cope with the fallout on two other fronts, in Lebanon and Syria.

But Netanyahu has still deeper concerns. As veteran Israeli military analyst Ben Caspit observed: “The only thing more dangerous to Netanyahu than getting tangled up in war is getting tangled up in peace.”

The Israeli army has responded to months of largely non-violent mass protests at Gaza’s perimeter fence by killing more than 170 Palestinian demonstrators and maiming thousands more.

The protests could turn into an uprising. Palestinians storming the fence that imprisons them is an eventuality the Israeli army is entirely unprepared for. Its only response would be to slaughter Palestinians en masse, or reoccupy Gaza directly.

Netanyahu would rather bolster Hamas, so it can keep a lid on the protests than face an international backlash and demands that he negotiate with the Palestinians.

Further, a ceasefire that keeps Hamas in power in Gaza also ensures that Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, can be kept out.

That was in part why Netanyahu, against his normal instincts, allowed the transfer of the Qatari money, which had been opposed by the Palestinian Authority. It is not just a fillip for Hamas, it is a slap in the face to Abbas.

A disunited Palestine, divided territorially and ideologically, is in no position to exert pressure on Netanyahu – either through Europe or the United Nations – to begin peace talks or concede Palestinian statehood.

That is all the more pressing, given that the White House insists that President Trump’s long-delayed peace plan will be unveiled within the next two months.

Leaks suggest that the US may propose a separate “entity” in Gaza under Egyptian supervision and financed by Qatar. The ceasefire should be seen as a first step towards creating a pseudo-Palestinian state in Gaza along these lines.

Palestinians there are now caught between a rock and a hard place. Between vengeful hotheads such as Lieberman, who want more carnage in Gaza, and Netanyahu, who prefers to keep the Palestinians quiet and largely forgotten in their tiny prison.

• A version of this article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi.

Saudi Arabia has to be stopped and this time it may get stopped

It appears that the KSA has crossed all lines of decency, if there were ever any.

In the eyes of many in the West, it crossed them not because it has been brutally killing tens of thousands of innocent people in Yemen, not even because it keeps sponsoring terrorists in Syria, (and, in fact, all over the world), often on behalf of the West. And not even because it is trying to turn its neighboring country, Qatar, from a peninsula into an island.

The crimes against humanity committed by Saudi Arabia are piling up, but the hermit kingdom (it is so hermit that it does not even issue tourist visas, in order to avoid scrutiny) is not facing any sanctions or embargos, with some exceptions like Germany. These are some of the most barbaric crimes committed in modern history, anywhere and by anyone. Executing and then quartering people, amputating their limbs, torturing, bombing civilians.

But for years and decades, all this mattered nothing. Saudi Arabia served faithfully both big business and the political interests of the United Kingdom first, and of the West in general later. That, of course, includes Israel, with which the House of Saud shares almost a grotesque hatred towards Shi’a Islam.

And so, no atrocities have been publicly discussed, at least not in the Western mass media or by the European and the US governments, while weapons, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, have been arriving into the KSA, and the oil, that dark sticky curse, kept flowing out.

Was Riyadh enjoying total impunity? Definitely!

But all this may soon stop, because of a one single man, Mr. Jamal Khashoggi or more precisely, because of his alleged tragic, terrifying death behind the walls of the Saudi Consulate in the city of Istanbul.

According to the Turkish authorities, quoted by The New York Times on October 11, 2018:

Fifteen Saudi agents arrived on two charter flights on Oct. 2, the day Mr. Khashoggi disappeared.

Supposedly, they brutally murdered Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen, and then they used sawmills to severe his legs and arms from the body.

All this, while Mr. Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, was waiting for him on a bench, in front of the consulate. He went in, in order to take care of the paperwork required to marry her. But he never came back.

Now the Turkish nation is indignant.

Ten years ago, even one year ago, everything would have been, most likely, hushed up. As all mass murders committed by the Saudis all over the world were always hushed up. As was hushed up the information about the Saudi royal family smuggling drugs from Lebanon, using their private jets – narcotics that are clouding senses and are therefore used in combat zones and during terrorist attacks.

But now, this is the end of 2018. And Turkey is not ready to tolerate an atrocity by an increasingly hostile country; an atrocity committed in the middle of its largest city. For quite some time, Turkey and the KSA are not chums anymore. Turkish military forces were already deployed to Qatar several months ago, in order to face the Saudi army and to protect the small (although also not benign) Gulf State from possible attack and imminent destruction. In the meantime, Turkey is getting closer and closer to Iran, an archenemy of Saudi Arabia, Israel and US.

It has to be pointed out that Mr. Khashoggi is not just some common Saudi citizen – he is a prominent critic of the Saudi regime, but most importantly, in the eyes of the empire, a correspondent for The Washington Post. Critic but not an ‘outsider’. And some say, he was perhaps too close to some Western intelligence agencies.

Therefore, his death, if it is, after all, death, could not be ignored, no matter how much the West would like the story to disappear from the headlines.

President Trump remained silent for some time, then he became “concerned”, and finally Washington began indicating that it could even take some actions against its second closest ally in the Middle East. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been ‘cultivated’ both by Washington and other Western powers, but now he may actually fall from grace. Is he going to end up as Shah Pahlavi of Iran? Not now, but soon, or at least ‘at some point’? Are the days of the House of Saud numbered? Perhaps not yet. But Washington has a track record of getting rid of its ‘uncomfortable allies.

*****

The Washington Post, in its editorial “Trump’s embrace emboldened Saudi Crown Prince’, snapped at both the ‘Saudi regime’ (finally that derogatory word, ‘regime’ has been used against the House of Saud) and the US administration:

Two years ago it would have been inconceivable that the rulers of Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, would be suspected of abducting or killing a critic who lived in Washington and regularly wrote for the Post – or that they would dare to stage such operation in Turkey, another US ally and a NATO member. That the regime now stands accused by Turkish government sources of murdering Jamal Khashoggi, one of the foremost Saudi journalists, in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate could be attributed in part to the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 33-year-old de facto ruler, who has proved as ruthless as he is ambitious. But it also may reflect the influence President Donald Trump, who has encouraged the Crown Prince to believe – wrongly, we trust – that even his most lawless ventures will have the support of the United States.

“Wrongly, we trust?” But Saudi Arabia and its might are almost exclusively based on its collaboration with the global Western ‘regime’ imposed on the Middle East and on the entire world, first by Europe and the UK in particular, and lately by the United States.

All terror that the KSA has been spreading all over the region, but also Central Asia, Asia Pacific, and parts of Africa, has been encouraged, sponsored or at least approved in Washington, London, even Tel Aviv.

The Saudis helped to destroy the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and then the socialist and progressive Afghanistan itself. They fought Communism and all left-wing governments in the Muslim world, on behalf of the West. They still do.

Now both the West and the KSA are inter-dependent. The Saudis are selling oil and buying weapons, signing ‘monumental’ defense contracts with the US companies, such as Lockheed Martin. They are also ‘investing’ into various political figures in Washington.

The current alleged murder of a journalist triggered an unusual wave of soul-searching in the Western media. It is half-hearted soul searching, but it is there, nevertheless. On October 2018, the Huffington Post wrote:

By directing billions of dollars of Saudi money into the U.S. for decades, Riyadh’s ruling family has won the support of small but powerful circles of influential Americans and courted wider public acceptance through corporate ties and philanthropy. It’s been a solid investment for a regime that relies heavily on Washington for its security but can’t make the same claims to shared values or history as other American allies like Britain. For years, spending in ways beneficial to the U.S. ― both stateside and abroad, such as its funding Islamist fighters in Afghanistan to combat the Soviet Union ― has effectively been an insurance policy for Saudi Arabia.

It means that the White House will most likely do its best not to sever relationships with Riyadh. There may be, and most likely will be, some heated exchange of words, but hardly some robust reaction, unless all this tense situation ‘provokes’ yet another ‘irrational’ move on the part of the Saudis.

The report by Huffington Post pointed out that:

One of the few traditions in American diplomacy that Trump has embraced wholeheartedly is describing weapons sales as jobs programs. The president has repeatedly said Khashoggi’s fate should not disturb the $110 billion package of arms that Trump says he got the Saudis to buy to support American industry. (Many of the deals were actually struck under Obama, and a large part of the total he’s describing is still in the form of vague statements of intent.)

Keen to keep things on track with the Saudis, arms producers often work in concert with Saudi Arabia’s army of Washington lobbyists, congressional sources say.

This is where the Western reporting stops short of telling the whole truth, and from putting things into perspective. Nobody from the mainstream media shouts: ‘There is basically no independent foreign policy of Riyadh!’

Yes, oil buys weapons that are ‘giving jobs to men and women working in the US and UK factories’, and then these weapons are used to murder men, women and children in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere; they threaten Iran, Qatar and several other countries. Oil and Western support also help to recruit terrorists for the perpetual wars desired by the West, and they also help to build thousands of lavish mosques and to convert tens of millions of people in Southeast Asia, Africa and elsewhere to Wahhabism, which is an extreme, Saudi-UK religious dogma. (My book Exposing Lies of the Empire. contains important chapter on this topic – “The West Manufacturing Muslim Monsters: Who Should Be Blamed for Muslim Terrorism”).

*****

Despite what many in the West think, there is hardly any love for Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. The KSA is sometimes supported, out of ignorance, commercial interests, or religious zeal, by such far-away Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, but as a rule, not by those who live ‘in the region’.

Many, if not most, in the Arab countries have already had enough of Saudi arrogance and bullying, by such monstrous acts like the war against Yemen, or implanting/supporting terrorists in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere, or by recent the de facto kidnapping of the Lebanese Head of State, by moral hypocrisy and by turning holy Muslim sites into business ventures with vulgar commercialism all around them, and the clear segregation of the rich and poor.

Many Arabs hold Saudi Arabia responsible for turning an essentially socialist and egalitarian religion into what it has become now, of course, with the determined support from the West, which desires to have an obedient and rituals-oriented population all over the Muslim world, in order to control it better, while plundering, without any opposition, its natural resources. Saudi Arabia is a country with some of the greatest disparities on earth: with some of the richest elites on one hand, and widespread misery all around the entire territory. It is an ‘unloved country’, but until now, it has been ‘respected’. Mainly out of fear.

Now, the entire world is watching. Those who were indignant in silence are beginning to speak out.

Few days ago, an Indonesian maid was mercilessly executed in the KSA. Years ago, she killed her tormentor, her old ‘a patron’ who was attempting to rape her, on many occasions. But that was not reported on the front pages. After all, she was ‘just a maid’; a poor woman from a poor country.

All of us, writers and journalists all over the world, are hoping that Mr. Khashoggi (no matter what his track record was so far) is alive, somewhere, and that one day soon he will be freed. However, with each new day, the chances that it will happen are slimmer and slimmer. Now even Saudi officials admit that he was murdered.

If he was killed by Saudi agents, Mr. Khashoggi’s death may soon fully change both his country and the rest of the Middle East. He always hoped for at least some changes in his country. But most likely, he never imagined that he would have to pay the ultimate price for them.

This time, the Saudi rulers hoped for a breeze, which would disperse the smell of blood. They may now inherit the tempest.

Why China will win the Artificial Intelligence Race

Two Artificial Intelligence-driven Internet paradigms may emerge in the near future. One will be based on logic, smart enterprises and human merit while the other may morph into an Orwellian control tool. Even former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has foreseen a bifurcation of the Internet by 2028 and China’s eventual triumph in the AI race by 2030.

In the meantime, the US seems more interested in deflecting the smart questions of today than in building the smart factories of tomorrow.  Nothing embodies this better than the recent attempt by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) to create an AI-based filter to “stamp out fake-news outlets before the stories spread too widely.”

But what exactly constitutes fake news? Does it include media-colluded lies over Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction in 2002? Or the egregiously fraudulent Nurse Nayirah testimony a decade earlier? Will the binary logic of “either you are with us or against us” be used to certify news sources?

According to US President Donald J. Trump, fake news is a 24/7 specialty of the CNN, Washington Post and just about every other US mainstream media. The author agrees with Trump on this note. As a futurist, he relies heavily on credible news sources.  The CNN and WaPo therefore rarely feature on the trusted list. At the same time, the author squarely blames Trump for the ongoing US-China trade war. This raises several questions: How will MIT’s AI filtration system treat editorial divergences in the same publication? Will they all be feathered and tarred as “fake news” once a threshold – 150 articles according to the new system – is crossed? How will it evaluate analytical gems in the unregulated alternative media and open source fora? Will social media evidences, planted and generated by a critical mass of trolls, be machine-aggregated to determine true news?

It is also disturbing to note that this digital commissariat is being partly developed by Qatar – a nation that has been routinely singled out for its human rights abuses, use of slave labour, rampant anti-Semitism, runaway fake news and support of jihadi terrorism.  While Qatar and the US media have incessantly accused Syria of wielding chemical weapons, experts from MIT and the UN have adduced otherwise. How will such contradictory reports be treated in the future as more Gulf Arab money pour into MIT and its cohort research institutions?

Not Made-in-America

The future of US artificial intelligence and its emerging technologies is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign talent drawn from Asia and Eastern Europe.  This is unsurprising as 44 million US citizens are currently saddled with a staggering $1.53 trillion in student loans – with a projected 40 percent default rate by 2023.

The US student loan bubble is expanding in tandem with the rising un-employability of young Americans. Fake news overload naturally leads to pervasive intellectual stupefaction.  US policy-makers will ignore this ominous trend, just as they ignore the perennial national slide in global indices that measure the quality of life, education and human capital yields. Can the human mind – incessantly subjected to politicized fairy tales and violent belief systems – be capable of continual innovation?  It is, of course, easier to blame an external bogeyman over a purely internal malaise. Herein lies the utility of fake news; one that will be filtered by a digital nanny and policed by thousands of ideologically-biased fact-checkers.  Funded, of course, by the US deep state!

Somehow no known form of intelligence – artificial or otherwise – has impressed US policy-makers on the national security dimensions of the immigrant-citizen digital divide. High-achieving immigrant communities, for example, may be targeted by irate citizens during a period of intense economic distress, precipitating a reverse brain-drain to their countries of origin.

Even otherwise, the children of highly-skilled naturalized immigrants face a variety of discriminatory practices when they come of age. The most notorious of this is the “Asia fail” intake regimen at vaunted US universities where smart second-generation Asian Americans are routinely sacrificed on the altars of artificial diversity and multiculturalism.  In future, a digital panopticon may selectively reject meritorious applicants based on “inappropriate” social media posts made a lifetime ago.  Any litigation-unearthed bias in the admissions process can be blamed on a technical glitch. Or on the Russians!

Forget about merit! The prevalent imperative is to develop next generation rubber-stampers for the privileged 0.1%.

Divergent Futures

Just like the Internet, the middle classes of a rump US-led Greater Eurabia and a China-led world may have separate trajectories by 2030.  With China experiencing a middle class boom and record numbers of STEM graduates, AI is poised to boost the quantity and quality of a new generation of digital scientists.

At the same time, the search algorithms of Google, YouTube, Facebook and its cohorts are making it harder for individuals to access critical open source data and analyses.  The convenient pretext here is “fake news” and the need to protect society from misleading information.  Why think… when a state-led AI Commissar can do the thinking for you? Ironically, the West routinely charges China for this very practice. How is it possible then for China to develop rapidly and become a leader in AI?  In the core Asian societies, the art of “constructive criticism” incentivises erudition, knowledge and a face-saving approach.  Knowledge is also unfettered by ideology or provenance.

The US, on the other hand, is hopelessly trying to find a balance between its ideological dictates, visceral populism and next-generation knowledge. Talent and AI are sacrificed in the process. According to Google’s Eric Schmidt, “Iran… produces some of the smartest and top computer scientists in the world. I want them here. I want them working for Alphabet and Google. It’s crazy not to let these people in.”

It is even crazier to think that a smart society can be moulded by AI-mediated claptrap and news filters.  This is why China will win the AI race, and Asia will prevail in the Internet of Ideas (IoI).

Remarks by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly, by Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani

In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate Your Excellency the President of the General Assembly, Your Excellency the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ladies and Gentlemen, At the outset, I am pleased to extend congratulations to Mrs. Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces on assuming the presidency of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly, wishing her success. I express also our appreciation to His Excellency Mr. Miroslav Lajcak for his valuable efforts in (...)

Sisi holds Key to Trump’s Sinai Plan for Palestinians

Israel and the US are in a race against time with Gaza. The conundrum is stark: how to continue isolating the tiny coastal enclave from the outside world and from the West Bank – to sabotage any danger of a Palestinian state emerging – without stoking a mass revolt from Gaza’s two million Palestinians?

In Gaza, Israel does not have the luxury of time it enjoys in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the two additional Palestinian territories it occupies. In those areas, it can keep chipping away at the Palestinian presence, using the Israeli army, Jewish settlers and tight restrictions on Palestinian movement to take over key resources like land and water.

Gaza: A death camp

While Israel is engaged in a war of attrition with the West Bank’s population, a similar, gradualist approach in Gaza is rapidly becoming untenable. The United Nations has warned that the enclave may be only two years away from becoming “uninhabitable”, its economy in ruins and its water supplies unpotable.

More than a decade of a severe Israeli blockade as well as a series of military assaults have plunged much of Gaza into the dark ages. Israel desperately needs a solution, before Gaza’s prison turns into a death camp. And now, under cover of Donald Trump’s “ultimate peace plan”, Israel appears to be on the brink of an answer.

Recent weeks have been rife with reports in the Israeli and Arab media of moves by Washington and Israel to pressure Egypt into turning over a swath of territory in northern Sinai, next to Gaza, for infrastructure projects designed to alleviate the enclave’s “humanitarian crisis”.

Late last month Hamas, which rules Gaza, sent a delegation to Cairo to discuss the measures. This followed hot on the heels of a visit to Egypt by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law who is overseeing the Middle East peace plan.

Exploiting Egyptian fears

According to reports, Trump hopes soon to unveil a package – associated with his “deal of the century” peace-making – that will commit to the construction of a solar-power grid, desalination plant, seaport and airport in Sinai, as well as a free trade zone with five industrial areas. Most of the financing will come from the oil-rich Gulf states.

Egyptian diplomatic sources appear to have confirmed the reports. The programme has the potential to help relieve the immense suffering in Gaza, where electricity, clean water and freedom of movement are in short supply. Palestinians and Egyptians would jointly work on these projects, providing desperately needed jobs. In Gaza, youth unemployment stands at over 60 per cent.

It has been left unclear whether Palestinians from Gaza would be encouraged to live close to the Sinai projects in migrant workers’ towns. Israel will doubtless hope that Palestinian workers would gradually make Sinai their permanent home.

Egypt, meanwhile, will benefit both from the huge injection of capital in an economy currently in crisis, as well as from new infrastructure that can be used for its own population in the restive Sinai peninsula.

It is worth noting that for two years an Israeli cabinet minister has been proposing similar infrastructure projects for Gaza located on an artificial island to be established in Palestinian territorial waters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly balked at the proposal.

Locating the scheme instead in Egypt, under Cairo’s control, will tie Egyptian security concerns about Gaza to Israel’s, and serve to kill the Palestinian national cause of statehood.

A decade of arm-twisting

It is important to understand that the Sinai plan is not simply evidence of wishful thinking by an inexperienced or deluded Trump administration. All the signs are that it has enjoyed vigorous support from the Washington policy establishment for more than a decade.

In fact, four years ago, when Barack Obama was firmly ensconced in the White House, Middle East Eye charted the course of attempts by Israel and the US to arm-twist a succession of Egyptian leaders into opening Sinai to Gaza’s Palestinians.

This has been a key Israeli ambition since it pulled several thousand settlers out of Gaza in the so-called disengagement of 2005 and claimed afterwards – falsely – that the enclave’s occupation was over.

Washington has reportedly been on board since 2007, when the Islamist faction Hamas took control of Gaza, ousting the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It was then that Israel, backed by the US, intensified a blockade that has destroyed Gaza’s economy and prevented key goods from entering.

A Palestinian statelet

The advantages of the Sinai plan are self-evident to Israel and the US. It would:

  • make permanent the territorial division between Gaza and the West Bank, and the ideological split between the rival factions of Fatah and Hamas;
  • downgrade Gaza from a diplomatic issue to a humanitarian one;
  • gradually lead to the establishment of a de facto Palestinian statelet in Sinai and Gaza, mostly outside the borders of historic Palestine;
  • encourage the eventual settlement of potentially millions of Palestinian refugees in Egyptian territory, stripping them of their right in international law to return to their homes, now in Israel;
  • weaken the claims of Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, located in the West Bank, to represent the Palestinian cause and undermine their moves to win recognition of statehood at the United Nations;
  • and lift opprobrium from Israel by shifting responsibility for repressing Gaza’s Palestinians to Egypt and the wider Arab world.

‘Greater Gaza’ plan

In summer 2014, Israel’s media reported that, with Washington’s blessing, Israeli officials had been working on a plan dubbed “Greater Gaza” that would attach the enclave to a large slice of northern Sinai. The reports suggested that Israel had made headway with Cairo on the idea.

Egyptian and Palestinians officials publicly responded to the leaks by denouncing the plan as “fabricated”. But, whether Cairo was privately receptive or not, it provided yet further confirmation of a decade-long Israeli strategy in Gaza.

At around the same time, an Arab newspaper interviewed a former anonymous official close to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president ousted in 2011. He said Egypt had come under concerted pressure from 2007 onwards to annex Gaza to northern Sinai, after Hamas took control of the enclave following Palestinian elections.

Five years later, according to the same source, Mohamed Morsi, who led a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, sent a delegation to Washington where the Americans proposed that “Egypt cede a third of the Sinai to Gaza in a two-stage process spanning four to five years”.

And since 2014, it appears, Morsi’s successor, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, has faced similar lobbying.

Carrots and sticks

Suspicions that Sisi might have been close to capitulating four years ago were fuelled at that time by Abbas himself. In an interview on Egyptian TV, he said Israel’s Sinai plan had been “unfortunately accepted by some here [in Egypt]. Don’t ask me more about that. We abolished it.”

Israel’s neoconservative cheerleaders in Washington who reportedly leant on Mubarak in 2007, during George W Bush’s presidency, are now influencing Middle East policy again in the Trump administration.

And although Sisi appears to have stood his ground in 2014, subsequent dramatic changes in the region are likely to have weakened his hand.

Both Abbas and Hamas are more isolated than ever, and the situation in Gaza more desperate. Israel has cultivated much closer ties to the Gulf states as they fashion joint opposition to Iran. And the Trump administration has dropped even the pretence of neutrality in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In fact, Trump’s Middle East team led by Kushner adopted from the outset Israel’s so-called “outside-in” paradigm for arriving at a peace agreement.

The idea is to use a carrot-and-stick approach – a mix of financial inducements and punitive sanctions – to bully Abbas and Hamas into making yet more major concessions to Israel that would void any meaningful moves towards Palestinian statehood. Key to this idea is that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can be recruited to help Israel in its efforts to force the Palestinian leadership’s hand.

Egypt, current reports indicate, has come under similar pressure from the Gulf to concede territory in Sinai to help Trump with his long-delayed “deal of the century”.

Muslim Brotherhood threat

Sisi and his generals have good reason to be reluctant to help. After they grabbed power from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, they have done everything possible to crush homegrown Islamist movements, but have faced a backlash in Sinai.

Hamas, which rules Gaza, is the sister organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s generals have worried that opening the Rafah border crossing between Sinai and Gaza could bolster Islamist attacks that Egypt has struggled to contain. There are fears too in Cairo that the Sinai option would shift the burden of Gaza onto Egypt’s shoulders.

This is where Trump and Kushner may hope their skills at wheeler-dealing can achieve a breakthrough.

Egypt’s susceptibility to financial inducements from the Gulf were on display last year when Sisi’s government agreed effectively to sell off to Saudi Arabia two strategic Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir. They guard the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez canal.

In return, Egypt received billions of dollars in loans and investments from the kingdom, including large-scale infrastructure projects in Sinai. Israel reportedly approved the deal.

Analysts have suggested that the handover of the islands to Saudi Arabia was intended to strengthen security and intelligence cooperation between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in dealing with Islamic militants in Sinai.

This now looks suspiciously like the prelude to Trump’s reported Sinai plan.

Over the Palestinians’ heads

In March, the White House hosted 19 countries in a conference to consider new ideas for dealing with Gaza’s mounting crisis. As well as Israel, participants included representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The Palestinians boycotted the meeting.

Much favoured by the Trump team was a paper delivered by Yoav Mordechai, an Israeli general and key official overseeing Israel’s strategy in the occupied territories. Many of his proposals – for a free trade zone and infrastructure projects in Sinai – are now being advanced.

Last month Kushner visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Jordan to drum up support. According to interviews in the Israel Hayom daily, all four Arab states are on board with the peace plan, even if it means bypassing Abbas.

Jackie Khoury, a Palestinian analyst for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, summed up the plan’s Gaza elements: “Egypt, which has a vital interest in calming Gaza down because of the territory’s impact on Sinai, will play the policeman who restrains Hamas. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and perhaps the United Arab Emirates will pay for the projects, which will be under United Nations auspices.”

Israel’s efforts to secure compliance from Hamas may be indicated by recent threats to invade Gaza and dissect it in two, reported through veteran Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai. The US has also moved to deepen the crisis in Gaza by withholding payments to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. A majority of Gaza’s population are refugees dependent on UN handouts.

An advantage for Hamas in agreeing to the Sinai plan is that it would finally be freed of Israeli and Palestinian Authority controls over Gaza. It would be in a better able to sustain its rule, as long as it did not provoke Egyptian ire.

Oslo’s pacification model

Israel and Washington’s plans for Gaza have strong echoes of the “economic pacification” model that was the framework for the Oslo peace process of the late 1990s.

For Israel, Oslo represented a cynical chance to destroy the largely rural economy of the West Bank that Palestinians have depended on for centuries. Israel has long coveted the territory both for its economic potential and its Biblical associations.

Hundreds of Palestinian communities in the West Bank rely on these lands for agriculture, rooting them to historic locations through economic need and tradition. But uprooting the villagers – forcing them into a handful of Palestinian cities, and clearing the land for Jewish settlers – required an alternative economic model.

As part of the the Oslo process, Israel began establishing a series of industrial areas – paid for by international donors – on the so-called “seam zone” between Israel and the West Bank.

Israeli and international companies were to open factories there, employing cheap Palestinian labour with minimal safeguards. Palestinians would be transformed from farmers with a strong attachment to their lands into a casual labour force concentrated in the cities.

An additional advantage for Israel was that it would make the Palestinians the ultimate “precariat”. Should they start demanding a state or even protest for rights, Israel could simply block entry to the industrial areas, allowing hunger to pacify the population.

New prison wardens

There is every reason to believe that is now the goal of an Israeli-Trump initiative to gradually relocate Palestinians to Sinai through investment in infrastructure projects.

With the two countries’ security interests safely aligned, Israel can then rely on Egypt to pacify the Palestinians of Gaza on its behalf. Under such a scheme, Cairo will have many ways to teach its new workforce of migrant labourers a lesson.

It can temporarily shut down the infrastructure projects, laying off the workforce, until there is quiet. It can close off the sole Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai. It can shutter the electricity and desalination plants, depriving Gaza of power and clean water.

This way Gaza can be kept under Israel’s thumb without Israel sharing any blame. Egypt will become Gaza’s visible prison wardens, just as Abbas and his Palestinian Authority have shouldered the burden of serving as jailers in much of the West Bank.

This is Israel’s model for Gaza. We may soon find out whether it is shared by Egypt and the Gulf states.

• First published in Middle East Eye

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