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Will Italy leave the European Union

Following a decrease of 0.1% in the third quarter of 2018, Italy’s economy contracted of 0.2% in the final quarter of the same year. As such, Italy is now officially in technical recession; just when it seemed to be recovering from the effects of the debt crisis. This has sparked an intense political debate and has cast doubts over its economic prospects. But what does this actually mean for Italy and the EU?

Technical recession: the domestic debate

The news that Italy has entered into technical recession have immediately triggered a mutual-blaming quarrel between political forces. The governing coalition formed by the Five Star Movement and the League attributed the fault to the former ruler, the Democratic Party; who, on its part, accuses the economic policies of the current executive.

In reality, the situation is way more complex, and the responsibility cannot be ascribed to a single reason. As in all economic issues, there are multiple factors in place whose interplay determines the growth on a given period; therefore, it is difficult to clearly find out who or what is responsible. Economic performance is a long-term issue. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos once said that “if we have a good quarter it’s because of the work we did three, four, and five years ago. It’s not because we did a good job this quarter”. His sentence does also apply to states. So, part of the responsibility can be imputed to the previous governments who, in spite of having managed to reassure the markets and bring Italy back on the path to a limited growth, failed to reduce the country’s huge debt. But it is equally true that the current executive, in power since June 2018, has raised the concerns of investors with the economic policies it has implemented or proposed.

First, it attempted to adopt an expansionary fiscal policy to boost growth by increasing public expenditures. However, this alarmed the EU Commission: even though Italy’s budgetary plan did not break the Union’s rules, it was still considered too risky as it would have caused a fiscal deficit and increased the already enormous public debt. This resulted in a standoff that was ultimately solved when the Italian government partially backed down and reduced the planned spending. Yet, the episode caused stress on the financial markets and harmed trust among investors. Another controversial topic in the economic policy of the incumbent government is the introduction of a basic income for unemployed people: it would increase public spending, but its future benefits are dubious.

Technical recession: the external factors

Apart from the policies of this government or the previous ones, there are many other external factors that the executive cannot control and that probably have had a more important impact on Italy’s economic performance. The country’s GDP contractions comes amid a global slowdown. The growth of the EU as a whole has been limited to 0.3% in the final quarter of 2018. There are some issues on trade as well. China, the world’s second-largest economy and a non-negligible export destination for Italy, is also growing at a slower pace than before. Problems exist also with another and more important trading partner: the United States. President Trump’s protectionist policies have surely had a negative impact on the EU and on Italy. At the end of May 2018 the US imposed 25% tariffs on steel and 10% ones on aluminium. In 2016, Italian metal exports to the US were worth almost 2 billion dollars. This is not an impressive figure, but more important industries could soon be hit and this eventuality could have had an impact. Trump is threatening to put tariffs on cars, that always in 2016 represented 9.5% of total Italian exports to America for a total value of more than four billion dollars. Again, this is not an extraordinary amount, but the spill-over effects on related industries should also be considered. The EU is trying to reach a deal on trade with the Trump administration, also by menacing to impose counter-tariffs wort 23 billion dollars on US products, but in case it fails Italy will surely be negatively affected. The looming possibility of a no-deal Brexit in recent months might also have had a role. The UK is a more important destination for Italian export than China and the US, and the prospect of a no-deal scenario may have had an impact, even though it is still too early to evaluate this. But the most important point probably concerns energy supplies. Italy is dependent on petroleum imports, and the price of oil surged in 2018 to reach the climax at the beginning of October, thus covering much of the period in which the Italian economy has contracted. The price went down since then, and the effects will probably be felt in the coming months.

These are only some of the numerous factors that may have determined Italy’s recession in the second half of 2018. What is important to understand is that the issue is very complex and easy explanations are not effective indicators of the reasons behind the GDP contraction. But what about the future prospects for Italy? Will it leave the Eurozone?

A prelude to leaving the Euro?

Since the debt crisis of 2011 and the subsequent austerity policies, Euroscepticism has become common in Italy’s political discourse. EU institutions were criticized and perceived as technocrats at the service of financial interests, and some even advocated for Italy to abandon the EU or at least the Euro. The most recent recession, albeit marginal by now, might reopen the debate, especially if it were to continue. After all, the two ruling parties were among the most vocal anti-Euro political forces, even though they took more moderate positions later on.

This is a political choice that Italy will have to make, but it will have of course major economic implications. According to the optimum currency area theory, it is economically beneficial to have a single currency in case the region is strongly integrated by intense trade exchanges and a great mobility of production factors. So, a country evaluating whether to enter or leave a common currency area should assess its degree of economic integration with other participants. As a matter of fact, the higher the level of integration, the greater are the benefit and the lowest are the costs of renouncing to monetary sovereignty to have a single currency. For what concerns the benefits, the main advantage of a common currency is to eliminate transaction costs due to exchange and interest rates and their variation. If the economies are closely intertwined with an elevated trade volume and a strong mobility of workers and productive factors, having different currencies brings very high costs that partly eliminate the gains of trade; and adopting a single currency removes these costs. But having a common currency also brings its own costs, because it makes it impossible for states to use monetary policy to counter asymmetric economic shocks, namely recessions that hit only that country but not others. If it has its own currency whose value can freely float, its automatic depreciation will boost export and counter the economic slowdown. But if it has renounced to its monetary sovereignty by adopting a common currency like the Euro, this mechanism is impossible. However, a high degree of economic integration minimizes this inconvenience, as it also allows to reduce the recession’s effects. If the country’s economy is closely intertwined with that of its fellow partners, the diminution of the price of its products will encourage others to buy them, thus increasing its exports. Similarly, if there is a high mobility of workers, then jobless people will be able to emigrate to other countries thus re-equilibrating the domestic labour market. In short, if the economies are strongly integrated, the benefits of having a single currency are high and the costs are low; so, it is wise to adopt the common currency. Now, is it the case of Italy?

For what concerns trade, in 2016 Italy’s exports to Eurozone alone was worth 192 billion dollars, over a total amounting to 450 billion. In the same year, its imports from other Eurozone countries amounted to 207 billion on a total of 397. This shows the importance of its exchanges with the other countries using the Euro. Moreover, its economy is also integrated with the Eurozone via mutual investments, expats, joint-ventures, services and others. If it abandoned the Euro, then it would lose all the advantages of having the same currency as its main economic partners. In addition, if it came back to the lira it would have to face the short-term shock. The currency would rapidly depreciate, and while it is true that this would boost export, it would also bring back consistent transaction costs. Moreover, inflation would erode the people’s purchasing power and there would be deep consequences on its debt with soaring spread and strong difficulties to obtain new loans. The situation would surely stabilize with time, but all in all, this does not seem to be an economically-convenient move for Italy.

Conclusion

The fact that Italy has entered in technical recession is surely no good news for it and the EU. Blaming each other at the political level will not solve the issue, also because there are many factors at play and responsibility cannot be fully attributed to anyone. Much will depend on future economic developments; but the contraction is limited by now and, in spite of the Eurosceptic positions of the current government, there is nothing that indicates that Italy will leave the Eurozone anytime soon.

Is China the new tiger of Bangladesh?

Bangladesh and China have maintained good relations for much of history. Today the two countries share a strong strategic relationship, with China playing a vital role mainly in terms of economic and infrastructure development of Bangladesh. However things weren’t so good especially during the time when Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan and the subsequent years until around the mid 1970s.

During Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971, there was a outbreak of complex geopolitical rivalries. India had allied with Bangladesh due to their long-term conflicts with Pakistan, and more so because Bangladesh was actually a part of Pakistan after the end of the British empire since 1947. China had been allied with Pakistan for most of history, and the ties strengthened especially around the time of the Sino-Indian war in 1962. As a result China opposed Bangladesh’s independence and vetoed their UN membership until 1974.[1]

It was only after the military coup in Bangladesh in 1975 that relations between Bangladesh and China started to improve. Prime Minister of Bangladesh since their independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had close ties with India, and only months after the military takeover, China eventually recognised Bangladesh as an independent state as diplomatic relations were secured.[2] This dramatic transformation was fascinating, but it did not come as a surprise as the military rule led by President Ziaur Rahman distanced Bangladesh from India and the Soviets[3], which can possibly be regarded as one of the most significant reasons for their improved relationships. Ziaur Rahman helped restore free market economy in Bangladesh[4] and made a visit to China in 1977 which is regarded as a crucial step in laying groundwork for bilateral cooperation, which was followed by Chinese visits to Bangladesh in the late 1970s. Since then state visits between the two countries have been regular most of which have resulted in positive discussions and signings of agreements on political, economic and security issues.

Current relations

Bangladesh and China share a very strong relationship that ranges from the spheres of the economy, politics, development to defence and security. Today, Bangladesh considers China an “all-weather friend and a trusted ally”[5]. The cooperation dates back to Bangladesh’s  military rule in the mid-70s, however the democratically elected governments since 1991 have been able to keep up the good relations. In a 2010 visit to Bangladesh by then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, he stated that Sino-Bangladesh relations would remain strong regardless of any change in the domestic or international situation.[6] Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the other hand reiterated the importance of the country’s bilateral relations with China considering them a major ally of the highest significance.[7]

Economic ties

One of the most important aspects of the Sino-Bangla bilateral relations is the economic cooperation. China are by far the largest trading partner of Bangladesh with the latest World Bank figures revealing that Chinese exports to Bangladesh to be worth over US$ 10 billion (in 2015)[8]. On the other hand Bangladesh is China’s third largest trade partner. Majority of Bangladesh’s imports from china consist of raw materials for clothing and textile.[9] However the balance of trade between the countries is significant with Bangladesh having a deficit of approximately US$ 9 billion.[10] Reduction in trade deficit has been a primary concern for Bangladesh over the years, and following negotiations China agreed to provide duty-free access to around 5000 Bangladeshi products to the Chinese market under the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA) which has so far resulted in a slight decline in the ratio of trade deficit[11].

Possible Free Trade Agreement?

Talks have been in progress for several years about Bangladesh seeking a zero-tariff access of 99 percent items including Ready-made garments products in order to improve balance of trade. China’s meteoric rise in becoming the 2nd largest economy in the world only behind the United States by toppling Japan was possible largely due to its diversified economy, while having 14 FTA’s with developed as well as developing countries around the globe.

However there are some challenges of the FTA, mainly with regard to China’s ‘Made in China 2015’ industrial policy plan. There are significant restrictions on investing in China, and also preference is given to state-owned enterprises that control 38 percent of industrial assets in China, skewing competition in the market in favour of those.[12] Also another concern for foreign investors is the ‘Chinese ways’ of implementation and enforcement of laws and regulations which tend to be ambiguous and lax.

A major geopolitical challenge concerning the FTA would come from the United States and India, especially with India also having a strong alliance with Bangladesh. Chances are that India may take the Chinese assertion in its backyard as a means of increasing influence in India’s sphere, while the United States may consider an FTA as a geostrategic obstacle in containing China at the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region. However, if Bangladesh wants to achieve a fairly unrestricted access to Chinese markets it needs to keep pushing further on the negotiation table, while asserting to their other major allies, India and the United States that the actions are for their own best interests mainly in terms of economic development.

Will the US-China trade war have an impact on Bangladesh?

The recent trade war instigated by Donald Trump with his protectionist approach, with Chinese retaliations following by, has had impacts in the Bangladeshi economy. There has been a rise in steel prices (mainly rods) in the domestic market threatening both the major public infrastructure projects and the real estate market due to the US imposing tariff on US$ 34 billion worth of exports from China, while the latter imposed tariff on American cotton, and while China plan on importing cotton from India, the prices had already increased by 10-12 percent. It must be noted that more than half of Bangladesh’s cotton imports are from India  [13]. Soaring cotton prices would significantly hurt Bangladesh’s economy as they would affect the readymade garment sector.

Despite having strong economic ties there have been disagreements; a significant one is Bangladesh’s refusal of agreeing to China’s terms and conditions for the construction of the Sonadia deep-sea port in 2014.

Defence and Security Cooperation

Defence cooperation has been one of the major strengths in the bilateral relations between the two countries. China happens to be the only country that Bangladesh has signed a defence agreement with, which was done in 2002. Since then China had been the largest supplier of weapons and military equipment to Bangladesh, with latter being the 2nd largest recipient of Chinese arms in the world between 2011 and 2015[14]. Between 2013 and 2017 China has provided Bangladesh with 71 percent of all their arms purchases[15]. Bangladesh also recently purchased their first submarines to add to their naval fleet causing concerns in India. The Bangladeshi armed forces have acquired large numbers of tanks, large-calibre artillery, armoured personnel carriers, small arms and light weapons (SALW) as Chinese arms are the Bangladeshi Army’s weapon of choice while the Navy use Chinese frigates with missiles, missile boats, torpedo boats among others. China have also been supplying fighter jets and training aircraft to the Bangladeshi Air Force since 1977[16].

Very recently China and Bangladesh made crucial developments in security cooperation. The bilateral relations between the two countries have been elevated to ”Strategic Partnership of Cooperation”. The deal is aimed at intelligence sharing and counterterrorism activities, although other important matters such as cybercrime, militancy, transnational crimes, narcotics, fire service, and visa issues were also discussed during the signing of this major agreement[17].

Development cooperation/ Infrastructure development

Development cooperation is an integral part of the bilateral relations between China and Bangladesh. China has played a crucial role in the infrastructure development of Bangladesh over the years. It has assisted Bangladesh in building bridges, roads and railway tracks and power plants. The development assistance from China to Bangladesh and other developing countries mostly come as LOC’s. During a recent Bangladesh visit in 2016, President Xi Jingping promised US$24 billion in economic assistance to Bangladesh mainly as LOCs related to 24 projects[18].

China assisted Bangladesh in the construction of six bridges commonly known as the ““China- Bangladesh Friendship” bridges[19]. China also helped Bangladesh in constructing the Barapukuria coal-fired power plant located in Dinajpur in the North West of Bangladesh and was commissioned in 2006[20]. During Jingpin’s visit to Bangladesh in 2016, the countries signed agreements for two 1320 MW coal-fired power plants- one Payra, Patuakhali and the other in Banshkhali, Chittagong- making China the largest energy partner to Bangladesh overtaking India[21].

China has also provided economic assistance to Bangladesh in terms of free aid and token gifts. Two major agreements were signed in 2010 for establishing a fertiliser factory, and telecommunications network systems in Bangladesh- that were to be set up with a US$ 770 million LOC from China with a two percent interest rate payable within 20 years[22]. There had been discussions for several years on potential road and railway connections linking Chittagong with Kunming that would boost the economies of both the countries however that has not materialised as of yet[23]. Currently China is developing a 750-acre industrial park in Chittagong which will take five years to become fully operational and it will largely be used by Chinese manufacturing firms[24].

Conclusion

The good relations shared between China and Bangladesh have always been of mutual interests and both countries benefit from that. Although the growing relations between China and Bangladesh raise geopolitical tensions in the South Asia region and the Bay of Bengal, there should not be much doubt that China’s primary interest lies in the booming economy of Bangladesh, which has been ever so dependent on their bilateral trade relations. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has recently said that there is nothing to be concerned about for India while not explicitly mentioning China or any other country, and that Bangladesh need funds for the sole purpose of development and that she would welcome any country that is willing to invest in the country; she also urged India to maintain cordial relationship with all its neighbours[25]. Keeping close ties with Bangladesh will no doubt be hugely beneficial for China as the demand for oil and gas have risen largely owing to its growing industries, and having a strong geopolitical presence in the Bay of Bengal and the littoral countries could give them an advantage in terms of accessibility to various ports. On the other hand Bangladesh can only benefit from the cooperation with a major economic power as it has done so in terms of their diplomatic, economic and security affairs and would be keenly anticipating further developments in their bilateral cooperation.

[1] http://countrystudies.us/bangladesh/108.htm

[2] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320546820_SINO-BANGLADESH_RELATIONS_AN_APPRAISAL

[3] http://countrystudies.us/bangladesh/108.htm

[4] http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTPREMNET/Resources/489960-1338997241035/Growth_Commission_Working_Paper_22_Economic_Reforms_Growth_Governance_Political_Economy_Aspects_Bangladesh_Development_Surprise.pdf

[5] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/41935-decoding-china-bangladesh-relationship/

[6] Xinhua, 16 June 2010.

[7] “China pledges free market access”, The Daily Star, 19 March 2010.

[8] https://wits.worldbank.org/CountrySnapshot/en/BGD

[9] https://www.thedailystar.net/op-ed/politics/expanding-the-bangladesh-china-trade-frontier-1296583

[10] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/41935-decoding-china-bangladesh-relationship/

[11] https://www.thedailystar.net/op-ed/politics/expanding-the-bangladesh-china-trade-frontier-1296583

[12] https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2018/05/18/free-trade-agreement-with-china-a-necessity

[13] https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/more-just-facts/what-does-the-us-china-trade-war-mean-bangladesh-1604986

[14] https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/why-chinas-submarine-deal-with-bangladesh-matters/

[15] https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2018-03/fssipri_at2017_0.pdf

[16] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320546820_SINO-BANGLADESH_RELATIONS_AN_APPRAISAL

[17] https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2018/10/26/bangladesh-china-sign-3-agreements-on-security-cooperation

[18] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/41935-decoding-china-bangladesh-relationship/

[19] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320546820_SINO-BANGLADESH_RELATIONS_AN_APPRAISAL

[20] https://china.aiddata.org/projects/33957

[21] https://www.thethirdpole.net/en/2016/10/18/china-becomes-bangladeshs-largest-energy-partner/

[22] Rezaul Karim Byron, “$ 770 million Chinese loan tied with conditions”, The Daily Star, 28 September 2010.

[23] https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-259521

[24] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bagnladesh-china/china-to-develop-bangladesh-industrial-zone-as-part-of-south-asia-push-idUSKCN1HB1M2

[25] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-need-not-worry-about-bangladesh-china-ties-sheikh-hasina/articleshow/63037906.cms

Why is Israel cultivating ties with Oman?

In late October the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman, the sleepy Sultanate on the south-eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. Whilst the visit is consistent with Israel’s thawing relationship with a number of Arab countries, including Egypt and the Gulf states, nevertheless the visit to Muscat took observes by surprise.

That is mainly because Oman has been traditionally close to Iran, a deep-rooted relationship which tends to get stronger when Iran comes under severe pressure, as it is now with the re-imposition of tough and far-reaching US sanctions.

Therefore, by embracing Israel, Oman is risking its strong and fruitful ties to Iran, a political and strategic risk which Oman can ill afford in the long term.

The Geopolitics of Oman

Unlike some of her Gulf neighbours Oman has a long and proud history. Back in the 18th century the Sultanate of Oman successfully competed with Britain, Portugal and Iran for influence in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. The country has been more or less independent since the middle of the 16th century.

From a political point of view, the country is distinctive by the fact that it was ruled for a long time by an Imamate system based on the al-Ibadiyyah school of Islam. A derivative of the original Khawarij tendency, the al-Ibadiyyah survives only in Oman and small pockets in North Africa, notably Algeria.

Oman’s Ibadi identity is central to the country’s geopolitical profile. It sets Oman firmly apart from her Gulf neighbours which to varying degrees, and at an official level, follow a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. It also sets it apart from Yemen and the Iranian Shia giant across the Gulf.

The Ibadi faith has also had a profound impact on Oman’s domestic politics and associated socio-economic and cultural institutions. In the popular imagination Oman is often characterised as a sleepy, benign and insular society. Regular travellers to Oman would likely attest to this description of the Sultanate.

Oman’s Foreign Policy

The guiding principles of Oman’s foreign policy was set down firmly in the 1970s. Up to that point and for much of the 20th century Oman was too consumed by internal division and strife to formulate and implement an effective foreign policy. This was a far cry from Oman’s role in previous centuries as a small empire on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula.

The turning point in the late 20th century came in the form of the so-called Dhofar rebellion (referencing the Omani province by that name) spearheaded by Marxist-Leninist rebels. The embattled Omani state finally managed to defeat this determined rebellion primarily with the help of British and more importantly Iranian military support (more on this later).

The most important point about the Dhofar conflict and its aftermath is that it forced the Omani ruling system to undertake deep and far-reaching structural and institutional reforms to elevate it to a level consistent with 20th century standards. For the first six decades of the 20th century Oman was essentially stuck in the past and barely functioning under the burden of obsolete institutions and associated policies.

The defeat of the rebellion in 1976 heralded the emergence of a unified and coherent Omani state which had both the confidence and the means to play an important role in its immediate external environment.

At that point Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said chose to adopt a balancing and mediatory role in regional and foreign policy. By all credible accounts, Sultan Qaboos is a wise and far-sighted leader who has expertly mobilised the resources of his small country to exert maximum influence in the regional environment, notably in relation to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the wider Gulf region and Iran.

Broadly speaking, there are three important strands to Oman’s foreign policy, namely its membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), relationship with Iran and enduring ties to the United Kingdom. To understand Muscat’s place in the world it is vital that we undertake an in-depth examination of these three important dimensions of Omani foreign policy.

Oman and GCC: a reluctant member?

Oman joined the GCC at its inception in 1981 and has been an active member of its various branches and committees since. But this active participation does not necessarily mean full acquiescence to the general thrust of GCC policies. As it is now widely known the GCC has been reduced to essentially a vehicle for the promotion of Saudi Arabia’s, and to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates’, positions and interests in the Persian Gulf region.

But Oman dissents from this Saudi-UAE driven agenda in three important respects. Foremost, Oman is opposed to Saudi’s hostile policy on Iran and does not want the GCC to be used as a forum to push this agenda.

Second, Oman is officially neutral in the spat between the GCC (plus Egypt) and Qatar. But privately Oman harbours sympathy for Doha’s position and supports its balancing role vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Just like Qatar, Oman has much to lose if Saudi Arabia achieves its goal of establishing primacy in the Gulf region.

Third, Oman is opposed to the Saudi-UAE led war on Yemen both on humanitarian and geopolitical grounds. Oman shares a border with Yemen and stands to be deeply affected if Yemen disintegrates altogether. In order to blunt the effectiveness of the Saudi-Yemeni led war, Oman has reportedly gone to the extent of facilitating arms transfers to the Ansarullah movement, also known as the Houthis.

Oman and Iran: A Special Relationship

As stated earlier, Iran intervened militarily in the early and mid-1970s to help Oman defeat the Marxist-Leninist rebellion in Dhofar. This intervention was made by the former Shah of Iran whose goal was to act as the policeman of the Persian Gulf at the behest of America.

The Shah was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian revolution but the Omani ruler, Sultan Qaboos, never forgot Iran’s decisive military intervention in the Dhofar conflict. The Sultan knew very well that absent that intervention Oman would have likely disintegrated as a cohesive state and he would have lost his crown.

For this reason, Oman continued to maintain warm ties with revolutionary Iran thus qualifying as the only regional state whose relations with Iran were not upset or altered as a result of the Iranian revolution.

Oman’s simultaneously good ties with Iran and the West has enabled it to play a mediating role, particularly between Iran and the United States. For instance, Oman hosted secret talks between Iran and the US in 2013 on Iran’s nuclear programme. These talks sowed the seeds which eventually bloomed into the landmark nuclear accord of 2015.

Oman’s deep links with Britain  

In the modern period British influence in Oman was consolidated by the Treaty of Seeb (1920) which formalised Oman’s partition into two distinct regions, a coastal state and an autonomous interior.

The British continued to maintain influence in the latter part of the 20th century as demonstrated by the UK military intervention in the Dhofar conflict. At that point the British army struck up an enduring partnership with its Omani counterpart. This is foremost embodied by the “Swift Sword” series of manoeuvres, with the latest held in October 2018.

The British influence over Oman’s armed forces is the clearest indicator that ultimately Oman looks to the West for safety, security and survival.

Oman’s ties with Israel

Whilst Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat caught observers by surprise, it is important to note that Oman has had important contacts with Israel for more than two decades. The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman in late 1994, setting off a diplomatic engagement which produced an “agreement” just over a year later.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s visit was preceded by Israeli officials’ visit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, leading the BBC to celebrate the “warming up” of Israeli-Arab ties after a “long deep freeze”.

Whilst the symbolism of Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat is important – in so far as it further erodes the taboo surrounding Israel in the Muslim world – in practical terms the Israeli Prime Minister was pursuing a narrow agenda during his eight-hour stop in the Omani capital. Most likely much of the content of his meeting with Sultan Qaboos revolved around Israel’s arch-foe Iran.

Israel is agitating for a full-frontal diplomatic, political, economic and potentially military assault on Iran. Israeli pressure played a decisive role in the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the landmark nuclear accord and by extension to re-impose harsh sanctions on Iran.

Beyond the US-led sanctions regime, Israel is trying to align more and more with Saudi Arabia with a view to creating a regional block against Iran. Oman stands in the way of that potential coalition.

Whilst Netanyahu cannot hope to turn Oman against Iran, but at minimum he aspires to enlist Oman’s help in thwarting Iran’s sanctions busting activities. As sanctions begin to bite Iran traditionally turns to friendly countries to help it evade certain sanctions or act as intermediaries with countries and entities who cannot afford to be seen to be doing direct business with the Islamic Republic.

Oman’s geographic position at the mouth of the Arabian Peninsula and the gateway to the Persian Gulf makes it critical to Iranian sanctions-busting activities, particularly in relation to the sale of oil and other petroleum products.

Conclusion: will Oman cave into Israeli pressure?

The Omani ruler and his inner circle probably view their outreach to Israel as part of their balancing and mediation role in the region. These are the guiding principles of Oman’s foreign policy. Based on these principles, Oman strives to be on good terms with all regional powers.

But the Omani leadership also places a premium on loyalty and longevity. Oman’s special relationship with Iran is nearly fifty years old and as stated earlier the Omani ruler continues to feel deeply indebted to Iran for that country’s decisive role in safeguarding Oman’s territorial integrity and sovereignty back in the 1970s.

Furthermore, the Omani ruler is known to take the long view, a feature cemented by his nearly 50-year rule. It is plausible that he thinks that eventually Iran and the United States are going to strike a “grand bargain” to begin the process of normalisation. In view of its established role as a mediator Oman hopes to play a big role in that reconciliation process.

In the final analysis, leaving Iran aside, there is no getting away from the symbolic importance of Netanyahu’s visit. The symbolism assumes even greater significance when set against the backdrop of Rabin’s visit to Muscat twenty-four years ago. On current trajectory Oman is on course to develop full-fledged ties with the Jewish state.  

Will the EU Collapse and lead to a Civil War?

The last decade has been a difficult one for the European Union. In the wake of the 2009 debt crisis, much debate has arisen around its nature, its powers, its governance and its policies.

The situation got only worse when the migrant inflow boomed in 2015, triggering a EU-level crisis.

In this strained socio-economic context, diverging views on the EU as a polity have emerged at the political level both inside the single member states and inside the organization’s institutions.

Recently, two events have revived once more the debate. The first is the re-election of Viktor Orbán, a prominent conservative and Eurosceptic politician, as Prime Minister of Hungary.

The second is the statement by France’s President Emmanuel Macron that the EU is facing a “civil war” on its fundamental values resulting from different opinions between its Western and Central-Eastern members.

This affirmation seems exaggerated, at least at a first glance. But in such a turbulent political context, it raises a legitimate question: is the EU on the edge of a civil war?

The Conditions of a Civil War

To answer this question, the first thing to do is determining in which conditions a civil war does start. Essentially, this happens when two or more socio-political groups belonging to the same political entity disagree on the existing and/or future institutional order; and, being unable or unwilling to peacefully find a compromise through the existing institutional mechanisms, opt for armed conflict to impose their view and determine who will (re)shape the existing order by the use of coercion. Usually, a civil war opposes one group fighting to preserve the standing institutional framework (along with the prerogatives it enjoys thanks to it) and another group who wants to dismantle it (and set up a new order more favourable to its interests).

That said, history is full of examples of civil wars; from those which paved the way to the end of the Roman Republic centuries ago to the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen. But one is particularly significant due to its similarities with the situation the EU is facing today: the American Civil War.

The American Civil War

The US Civil War, also known as War of Secession, was an armed conflict that split the United States between 1861 and 1865.

The contenders where two: one was the Union (the North), formed by states that remained loyal to the government of the United States;

and the other was the Confederacy (the South), made up of states which seceded from the US and form a separate political entity known as the Confederate States of America (CSA).

Usually, this war is portrayed as a fight over the issue of slavery, with the Union supporting its abolishment and the Confederacy favourable to its preservation.

But even though slavery was indeed a central issue in sparking the conflict, the situation was far more complex than a clear-cut black-vs-white clash between conservative and progressist ideals. As a matter of fact, there were also major political, juridical-institutional and economic factors linked to the debate over slavery and human rights.

To understand this, it is necessary to perform a rapid historical overview on the prelude to the conflict. After being recognized as a sovereign polity by the Paris Treaty that officially ended the War of Independence in 1783, the United States began developing and expanding to the West. Rapidly, new states were founded and admitted to the Union.

But the economic outlook of the member states started diverging: those located in the North embraced industrialization, whereas the states in the South remained essentially agricultural.

There, rich landlords owned vast plantations, and exploited a large workforce of black slaves to work them. With time, this North-South gap became more and more marked, and it ultimately assumed a political dimension as well.

As a matter of fact, the Northern states needed cheap manpower to sustain their rapid industrialization. The mass of black slaves living in the South was the ideal solution, but it was impossible to hire them since they were a private property of the Southern landowners.

Consequently, the North states started calling for slavery to be abolished, provoking the firm opposition of the Southerners who needed slaves to cultivate the plantations that were the base of their local economy.

Besides, the two sides also diverged over trade policies: the North wanted protectionist measures to shelter its developing industry, while the South supported free trade as a mean to continue exporting its agricultural products abroad.

This led to an intense constitutional debate over slavery, and ultimately over the power of the federal government to introduce and enforce legislation on the matter all over the US territory.

Again, the opinion diverged between the North and the South: essentially, the former claimed the central government had this authority, whereas the latter considered this as a violation of the constitutional limitations on the powers of the federal institutions.

So, the debate took a dimension that went beyond the issue of slavery and focused on the nature of the US as a polity. The Union favored a strong central government having large powers,while the Confederates defended the rights and prerogatives of the single member states. The combination of all these factors finally led them to secede from the US in 1861 and form an alternative polity, the Confederate States of America (CSA).

The name itself is significant, as it reveals the different way these states interpreted the Constitution and conceived America as a political entity: they wanted a Confederation, so a polity granting more powers to the member states; in contrast to a Federation where the central authorities have larger constitutional competences.

Striking Similarities

Now, there are striking similarities between the situation of the US before the Civil War and that of the EU today.

The latter has also expanded during the previous decades by admitting new member states, with the most important “enlargement wave” taking place in 2004 with Central and Eastern European countries; and the most recent new member being Croatia, which joined the organization in 2013.

Again, similarly to America at the eve of the Civil War, the EU is also facing an intense debate over human rights that has greater economic, political and “constitutional” implications (there is not a proper EU Constitution, but the general sense of the term is still applicable to the Treaties at the base of the EU). In this context, two camps are identifiable, the complexity of reality notwithstanding.

Differences

As I argued in another article, one is formed by the original (or at least more ancient) members of the EU, concentrated in Western Europe; while the other includes the more recent ones, located in the Central-Eastern part of the continent and whose core is made of the four countries forming the Visegrád Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia; known also as V4).

The starting point to understand the divergence between these two “factions” is the migration crisis. As a matter of fact, the former group is demanding the Central-Eastern partners to accept a larger share of migrants. But the Visegrád states oppose these requests. As in the 1850s America, the issue is not merely humanitarian, since there are economic and political reasons behind the respective positions.

Countries like Italy, Greece and others (including France and Germany to some degree) worry that the migrant flow will put their socio-economic order under stress and that it may hamper the sluggish recovery from the recent debt crisis.

In contrast, the V4 and other states oppose such policies of migrant redistribution because they may slow down their ongoing economic development. But the divergence is also a matter of past experiences. Western countries have a long tradition of immigration from abroad (often as a consequences of their colonial past) and their societies are more used to the presence of foreigners; thus explaining their softer stance on immigration. This is not the case of Central-Eastern European states, that therefore prefer stricter measures in regard to immigration.

Finally, similarly to America before the civil war, the current debate in the EU also has a prominent institutional dimension. This can be explained from a historical perspective. Countries from the Western part of the continent took their current form as a result of a centralization process, which makes them more willing to accept devolving parts of their sovereignty to a supranational entity like the EU. That is why (in spite of mounting Eurosceptic forces) they remain favorable to further European integration; especially in the case of France, that appears willing to become the driver of deeper integration through devolving more powers to supranational institutions and by crating a true fiscal union (even though this met resistance from Germany).

On the contrary, the Visegrád states and those aligned with them oppose strengthening the powers of the EU institutions and want to preserve their fundamental sovereign rights. The reason lies in their past: these countries arose after the collapse of larger multinational polities affected by severe institutional deficiencies, and also had a long history of foreign domination and meddling which ended only in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result, they see the EU as another cumbersome supranational entity that will put them in a subordinate position and are therefore unwilling to devolve more powers to it.

Can they Compromise?

This underlying contrast over the powers of European institutions is the most important aspect in the current debate, because it will have direct repercussion over the future of the EU. Now, the problem is that, while opinions are discordant among the member states; the complex institutional mechanisms of the EU do not facilitate the search for a compromise

Introducing deep changes (both in the sense of increased integration and of more protection of the states’ sovereignty) requires a revision of the Treaties that form the bloc’s “constitution”; but this demands in turn a long and multi-stage procedure where reaching a consensus is hard and where a single “wrong” step can block the entire process (think of the French and Dutch referenda that sunk the proposed Constitutional Treaty in 2005).

Considering that the divergences are growing, finding a common agreement over the EU, its powers and its values may be impossible; and this could lead to an institutional stalemate.

Is a Civil War Inevitable?

And what then? Will the EU plunge into civil war as the US did in the past? Not necessarily. Modern-day European states and their societies are strongly averse to war, which is already a huge safeguard against extreme solutions.

And if it is true that European powers have been fighting themselves for centuries, it is also true that the EU was established after the trauma of WWII also as a mean to put a definitive end to that continuous bloodshed.

Moreover, in spite of its slowness and difficulties, the EU proved capable to adapt and preserve itself during the past. In more cynic terms, since the EU is not a state, even if one or more of its members decided to unilaterally “secede”, it would not have its own military means to enforce its rule and re-bring them in as the Union eventually did with the Confederates in 1865. Finally, this scenario is unlikely for the simple fact that the Treaty on the European Union (Art. 50) contains provisions allowing a member state to withdraw; as the United Kingdom decided to do after the 2016 vote on Brexit

But it is exactly a mass Brexit-like scenario what can raise concerns over the long-term tenure of the EU.

A full-scale civil war seems unlikely (unless the international situation becomes so severely deteriorated in economic and political terms to bring states to the point of using war to secure their interests); but if the existing divergences continue to mount and no solution is reached, then it is still possible that some member states (most likely the V4 ones) will decide to leave the EU.

The consequences are difficult to predict, ranging from an easier path to greater integration between the remaining like-minded members to a dissolution of the organization. In any case, the EU would be weakened at the international level, possibly leaving room for alternative blocs. All this would bring uncertainty in political and economic terms, and (especially if the EU were dismantled), it would certainly be a turning point in European History, as the Civil War was in America’s.

Bangladesh-India relations: towards a stronger alliance?

Bangladesh and India have been allied more or less since their inception despite having minor disputes on certain issues. The current Bangladeshi ruling party have taken Indo-Bangladeshi relations to the next level since they came to power in 2009 (who are now serving their second term with elections in a couple of months), reaching major milestones in security cooperation as well a massive upsurge in bilateral trade.

History

Bangladesh is surrounded by India from the North, West and much of the East with the Bay of Bengal in the South and Myanmar in the South-East. The border between Bangladesh and India covers a staggering 4,095 kilometres with West Bengal having the largest share of 2217 kilometres[1].

Both countries have close cultural ties, most significant of which perhaps would be language- i.e. Bengali. The main official language of India’s West Bengal is Bengali, spoken by over a 100 million people, which also happens to be the only official language of Bangladesh. On the other hand, Hindi and Bengali have same roots in the Sanskrit language which causes them to have many similarities and enables ease of learning.

Bangladesh had been part of British India until 1947, after which it was annexed as part of Pakistan (Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan, the West Pakistan was the Pakistan of today). However, after a 9-month long war of liberation Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 and subsequently joined the Commonwealth of nations in 1972[2], and the United Nations in 1974.[3] India had been an independent state since the end of the British Empire, with a history of complex and largely hostile relations with Pakistan due to a number of historical and political events.

Bangladesh have had friendly relations with India throughout much of their history. India has provided significant assistance to Bangladesh in their War of Liberation against Pakistan in 1971 in terms of military support and firepower. However, it must be noted that ever since the British left in 1947, India have always had a volatile relationship with Pakistan and they acted in their own best interests as they felt threatened with the geographical presence of Pakistan from the East and the West. Consequently, India was the first country to recognise Bangladesh as an independent state immediately afterwards.

Bangladesh has a moderate foreign policy that places multilateral diplomacy as one of its core initiatives. Ambassador of Bangladesh to the U.S., Mohammad Ziauddin stated in 2009 that Bangladesh’s foreign policy is based on the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dictum, “Friendship with all and malice towards none”, with the ruling party leader Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister of Bangladesh being the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.[4]

Trade

The first trade agreement between the two countries was signed in 1972 and trade volume is staggering as of today. According to the some of the most recent available figures, Indian exports to Bangladesh totalled $4.5 billion between July 2016-March 2017 while Bangladesh exports to India was worth $672.40 million during the Fiscal Year 2016-17. India have also extended three Lines of Credits (LOCs) between 2010-2017 worth up to US$ 8 billion, making Bangladesh the largest recipient of Indian LOC’s.[5]

Today, Bangladesh is home to the fastest growing megacity in the world- Dhaka; while the country also boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with a GDP growth rate averaging over six percent annually over the past ten years or so.[6] On the other hand, India is the most populous democracy boasting the sixth largest economy in the world by nominal GDP.[7]

Major Disputes in Bangladesh-India Relations

Despite good relations there have been disputes over borders throughout history, and it was not until June 2015 that many of the long-lasting disputes were largely settled.[8] Other significant disputes include maritime claims over seawater at the Bay of Bengal.

Border Dispute: One of the most discussed topics in their recent bilateral relations had been the border killings of Bangladeshi citizens along the Indo-Bangladesh border by India’s Border Security Forces (BSF) with their apparent “shoot-to-kill” policy in which the Human Rights Watch claimed had killed nearly 1,000 people (Bangladeshi citizens) between 2001-2011.[9] Indian officials have argued that the reason for the attacks were largely due to increasing illegal migration of Bangladeshis into India as well as persistent misuse of borders by illicit traders.[10]

River Dispute: Another major dispute concerns the sharing of the River Teesta. Teesta is one of the 54 rivers shared by Bangladesh and India[11]. This river originates in Sikkim and flows through the North of West Bengal and meets Brahmaputra river in Bangladesh[12]. The countries reached agreement on sharing the river for the first time in 1983 according to which the share of water was (as follows): India- 39%, Bangladesh- 36%, Unallocated -25%. However in recent years Bangladeshi has been asking for an equitable share. Water disputes between the two countries have existed for quite a long time throughout history. Notably it took 20 years to end the Ganges river dispute in 1996. In 2011 an interim deal that was supposed to last the 15 following years increased the share of India to 42.5 per cent and that of Bangladesh to 37.5 per cent. But to the disappointment of Bangladesh as well as India, it never materialised, largely due to the government of West Bengal refusing to sign due to concerns of the northern region drying out[13]. Despite planning failure being regarded as one of the main reasons for not having reached an agreement as of yet, there are other underlying reasons why things haven’t materialised. There is no denying that Bangladesh do need their share of water, with the Asian Foundation reporting in 2013 that Teesta’s flood plain covers 14 per cent of the total cropped area of Bangladesh provides direct livelihood opportunities to approximately 73% of its population[14]. On the other hand, the River Teesta plays a major role in the Northern Bengal while nearly half a dozen districts in the entire West Bengal state are dependent on it.[15]

Government stance:

The previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government did not have strong alliance with India and thus were not quite receptive to India’s concerns. They had also garnered opposition from India due to providing refuge to  leaders and members of some of the North Eastern nonstate actors/militias. However due to their close relations, the current ruling party have largely followed India-friendly policies while taking India’s side on their fight against North Eastern separatists.[16] In spite of all these, Delhi closely anticipates an agreement for the sharing of River Teesta which they believe would give them political leverage over the apparent rising influence of China in the Bay of Bengal.[17]

Awami League/Ruling party relations with India

The current ruling party led by Sheikh Hasina has had a strong alliance with India ever since they came to power in 2009, with major acts of cooperation taking place in the subsequent years. Bilateral relations of the two countries had never been better as it has been over the past decade or so. Prior to 2017, there were no formal mechanisms in place for any significant security cooperation, but that changed in 2017. As Sheikh Hasina made a special visit to India in 2018 which resulted in the signing of a MoU on the framework for defence cooperation. That paved way for improved cooperation between the armed forces of both the countries, with MoU’s signed for cooperation ranging from joint military exercises, sharing of strategical operations studies for the Defence Services Command and Staff colleges, coast-guard cooperation between the two countries to an extension of line of credit worth US$500 million for the purchase of defence equipment from India.[18]

One of the major deals was the Rampal Power Plant which is a proposed 1320 Megawatt coal-fired power station in Khulna region, Bangladesh which is a joint-venture between the Bangladesh Power Development Board and India’s National Thermal Power Corporation.[19] However the signing of the deal was subject to much controversy due to the proposed site being only 14 kilometres North of the worlds largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans which happens to be a UNESCO world heritage site.[20] It received attention in the local as well as the international arena because the project violates the environmental impact assessment guidelines for coal-based thermal power plants.[21] Environmental experts have expressed major concerns due to the close its proximity to the Sundarbans, while there have been campaigns by The National Committee on Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, and Power-Port, and environmentalists against the proposed project. Despite all the protests, the Bangladeshi government have consistently denied all claims and allegations about the negative environmental impacts of the Rampal project. The project has been under way for a while now however little progress have been made.[22]

Conclusion

In September 2018 Bangladesh signed a MoU with India which would let the latter use two of Bangladesh’s major ports– Chittagong and Mongla[23]. Bangladesh and India are two of the major economies of South Asia and their relationship will have a lasting impact on the region’s development. While India has the potential to emerge as a major world power competing with the likes of China and the U.S, Bangladesh may also have a role to play in their development. With the Bangladeshi general elections coming up, the Awami League are favourites to get re-elected, while it is the same for BJP, with PM Narendra Modi expected to remain PM should they win again, the relations between India and Bangladesh are likely to get better and better, with the only worry for India being China’s increasing cooperation with Bangladesh.

References

[1] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/5-things-to-know-about-india-bangladesh-ties-from-trade-to-security/story-qgVND0mAQ4S1DpmYpzd5lJ.html

[2] “Bangladesh Joins Commonwealth”. Edmonton Journal. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. 19 April 1972 – via Google News.

[3] “United Nations: Palestinian Position Becomes Critical Issue”. The Citizen. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. 18 September 1974 – via Google News.

[4] https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/south-asia-week-bangladeshs-policy-priorities-and-its-relationship-united-states-and

[5] https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Bangladesh_September_2017_en.pdf

[6] Trading Economics, 2018, Bangladesh GDP Growth Rate. <https://tradingeconomics.com/bangladesh/gdp-growth>

[7] “India becomes world’s sixth largest economy, muscles past France”. Archived from the original on 9 August 2018

[8] Serajul Quadir (6 June 2015). “India, Bangladesh sign historic land boundary agreement”. Reuters India.

[9] “India/Bangladesh: Indiscriminate Killings, Abuse by Border Officers”. Human Rights Watch. December 9, 2010; “India’s shoot-to-kill policy on the Bangladesh border”. The Guardian. 23 January 2011; “Khaleda Zia assures counter-terror co-operation to India”. Yahoo News. Indo Asian News Service. 2012-10-29

[10] “Khaleda Zia assures counter-terror co-operation to India”. Yahoo News. Indo Asian News Service. 2012-10-29

[11] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/5-things-to-know-about-india-bangladesh-ties-from-trade-to-security/story-qgVND0mAQ4S1DpmYpzd5lJ.html

[12] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/the-teesta-river-dispute-explained-in-10-points/articleshow/58091320.cms

[13] https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/teesta-has-one-sixteenth-of-water-needed-for-agriculture-117041500257_1.html

[14] https://www.clearias.com/teesta-river-dispute/

[15] https://www.clearias.com/teesta-river-dispute/

[16] https://www.clearias.com/teesta-river-dispute/

[17] https://www.clearias.com/one-belt-one-road-obor/

[18] https://www.orfonline.org/research/india-bangladesh-defence-cooperation-coming-of-age-at-last/#_edn2

[19] “Indo-Bangla joint company for power import”. The Independent. Dhaka. 8 March 2011.

[20] Rahman, Khalilur (24 February 2013). “Demand for Rampal power plant relocation”. Financial Express. Dhaka.

[21] Kumar, Chaitanya (24 September 2013). “Bangladesh Power Plant Struggle Calls for International Solidarity”. The Huffington Post.

[22] https://thewire.in/south-asia/rampal-power-project-sundarbans-india-bangladesh; https://www.dhakatribune.com/business/2018/01/21/little-progress-large-coal-fired-power-plant-projects

[23] “Transporting Goods to 7 Sisters: Dhaka to let Delhi use Ctg, Mongla ports”. The Daily Star. Dhaka, Bangladesh. 18 September 2018. < https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/news/carrying-goods-7-sisters-dhaka-let-delhi-use-ctg-mongla-ports-1635397>

The Geopolitics of Climate Change

Climate change is set to profoundly alter the world in the decades to come. Its will deeply affect the entire planet’s ecosystem, as well as the global economy and the lives of hundreds of millions of people. But it will also have, and in practice already has, a notable geopolitical impact; with the potential of radically modifying the existing international order.

Climate change and the Anthropocene

“Climate change” is a broad term encompassing various phenomena, but the most important of them is surely global warming, largely imputed to the boom in CO2 emissions caused by the massive consumption of fossil fuels, animal breeding and deforestation. The rise of the world’s average temperatures, even of a few degrees, can have tremendous consequences on the planet and on mankind. It will alter the existing climatological dynamics, resulting in more frequent and intense cases of extreme weather like droughts, violent storms, floods and blizzards. Desertification will extend to large swathes of territory. These factors will cause a dramatic drop in agricultural output, also due to the spread of pests, therefore threatening food security across the globe. Warmer temperatures will also favour the diffusion of disease, and will increase energy consumption and therefore create competition over energy sources. Whole ecosystems will be seriously harmed both on land and at sea, causing severe losses in terms of biodiversity. This will in turn result into subsequent chain damages for agriculture and fishing, that already suffer from overexploitation. The ocean level will rise, putting at risk the living conditions of millions of people who reside along the coasts. All this bears huge economic and social costs, both in the form of losses and of expenditures to repair or prevent its effects; and is to be considered along with other phenomena caused by human activity, notably pollution and overexploitation of water and soil.

The combination of these factors has led some experts to label our current geological epoch as “Anthropocene”: a period marked by the humans’ capacity to affect the environment to the point of derailing its dynamics out of the natural order. While the term remains debated among scientists, what is certain is that climate change has taken a considerable political relevance in the past few decades with the appearance of ecologist movements and parties all over the world. This is also true at the international level, with states making efforts to tackle its effects, as in the case of the 2015 COP21 agreement and other eco-friendly initiatives. But climate change will also alter the global geopolitical and geoeconomic environment, with tremendous consequences for power distribution and for international security.

The global effects of climate change

In general terms, the whole of mankind is set to be harmed by climate change. Apart from the direct economic loss in the form of reduced agricultural output, poorer fishing zones and damages to costal areas caused by rising sea levels; it will also have huge social and human costs due to environmental degradation, sanitary problems and migratory flows, which in turn will bring other expenses to repair and prevent its harmful effects.

Yet, there are areas where its impact will be more marked than in others, namely Equatorial Africa and South Asia. Both are extremely vulnerable due to their geographic position, and moreover are highly-populated zones whose economy is still underdeveloped. As a result, they will have to bear all of its negative consequences: GDP loss, food insecurity, water scarcity, violent weather, epidemics and so on; and the consequences will be felt outside these regions.

In South Asia, the costs of global warming may slow down and even stop India’s rise. Population displacements may result in a humanitarian crisis and social tensions. This is notably the case of Bangladesh, a very poor and densely-populated country extremely exposed to the negative effects of climate change. Existing divergences over the control and the use of water basins may get more serious; for example between India, Pakistan and China over Kashmir (the cornerstone of the Indus river basin) or between India, China and Bangladesh over the Ganges and Brahmaputra.

The situation is dramatically similar in Equatorial Africa. The deleterious consequences of climate change may compromise any hope of economic development, condemning the continent to poverty and perpetual conflict. As a matter of fact, fighting will result from increasing resource scarcity; notably of food and water; thus making the situation along the “Conflict Belt” that crosses it from Somalia to Nigeria even more troublesome. This is what could soon happen in Ethiopia, where the effects of climate change exacerbate economic and ethnic divides. War could also take a state-to-state dimension, as it may break out over the control of rivers like the Niger, the Congo or the Nile. In regard to the latter, some tension already exists between Egypt and Ethiopia over its use; and a future “water war” is a real possibility. Finally, this catastrophic situation will push more and more people to displace, thus amplifying an already serious humanitarian crisis. Many will try to reach Europe; perpetrating and worsening the migratory crisis that the continent is facing, with all the social and political consequences this will have on the European Union and its member states.

Still, there are also some parts of the world that are set to benefit from higher global temperatures; like those state whose development was historically hampered by a rigid climate. A first example is that of Canada or Scandinavian countries, whose agricultural output could be boosted. Russia is a similar case. Already a major wheat producer, thanks to a warmer climate it could increase its export share, even though this is debated; and it is also true that it may face migratory pressures from other countries suffering from declining production. Moreover, access to the rich resources of Siberia would become easier. Lastly, it is poised to earn from another geopolitical consequence of climate change: the melting of the Arctic ice cap.

Climate change and Arctic geopolitics

Of all the regions of the world, the Arctic appears the one where the geopolitical impact of global warming will be more marked. The reason is twofold. First, as the Arctic ice melts, accessing its considerable energy resources will become easier, and this is already attracting the attention of various countries and firms. Second, the gradual disappearance of the ice cap is opening the Northern Sea Route, or NSR; a maritime course linking Asia and Europe via the Arctic. Shipping via the NSR is already a reality, but by now the trade volume is only a tiny fraction of the one along the traditional sea lines of communication (SLOC) crossing the Pacific and Indian Ocean via Malacca, Bab-el-Mandeb and Suez. But as the ice melts and the necessary infrastructures are built, more and more ships will use the NSR due to the advantages it presents: it is way shorter than the ordinary maritime routes and is not exposed to piracy.

Due to its geopolitical prominence in the Arctic, Russia is the best-placed state to benefit from the exploitation of hydrocarbon from the region and from developing the NSR. But apart from it, the other power that is showing a great interest in the region is China. In principle, the Arctic’s energy resources and the NSR could solve its strategic problems of being almost completely reliant on the traditional SLOC for its trade with Europe and for oil imports from the Middle East, which is also a politically unstable area. This is why the Chinese are so keen on developing the region in cooperation with Russia. But for the same reasons, other states like Japan and South Korea have also showed their interest in the Arctic.

As a result of all this, competition may arise in the region, and its gateway (the Bering Strait) will gain greater geostrategic importance; potentially becoming a hotspot for international conflict, notably between Russia and the United States.

China and climate change

As an emerging great power with global-scale ambitions, China is also attentive to the effects of climate change; which offers a unique combination of opportunities and challenges for it.

Apart from the prospects of accessing the Arctic’s resources and of trading via the NSR, China could benefit in other ways of the effects of a warming planet. The combined effects of higher temperatures, economic development and population growth across the world will result into a boom in energy demand. Renewable sources of energy will be particularly regarded; as a way to reduce pollution, decrease the dependency on imported fossil fuels and minimize climate change and its detrimental consequences. But generating clean energy require technologies that use rare earths, a group of minerals whose particular characteristic are particularly valuable for industrial manufacturing. Today, China holds a virtual monopoly over their production; and even though new suppliers will enter in the market, the PRC will remain a major producer. As a consequence, its rare earths exports will be favoured by climate change.

Yet China is mostly poised to suffer from it. One reason is that its vast population is concentrated along the coasts and is vulnerable to extreme weather, rising sea level and damages to agriculture and the like. This could hamper its economic growth and consequently its social stability. For this reason, the PRC is investing enormously in developing renewable energy sources. Moreover, it could easily find itself involved in disputes with other states over water: some of the most important rivers flowing through South Asia, most notably the Brahmaputra, originate in Chinese-controlled Tibet. Similarly, Indochina’s most important rivers (namely the Mekong, the Red River and the Irrawaddy) all have their source in China.

Similar conflicts over water, agricultural lands and fishing areas may arise all over the world, taking the shape of both inter-state war or that of insurgencies and piracy. Several practical cases can be examined to understand the interplay between climate change and emerging security threats.

Climate change and security

The first one example is the surge in piracy around the Horn of Africa a few years ago. It can be imputed to a combination of the effects of domestic conflict in Somalia, fishing overexploitation and collapsing agricultural output due to drought; which left no choice to many Somalis but to attack tankers sailing close to their shores. Other countries may follow a similar path in the coming years, like Vietnam. Being an agricultural country located in an area already subject to violent tropical storms and whose population is concentrated on its very long coasts, Vietnam is considered one of the states most exposed to climate change. It is possible that the effects of higher temperatures like extreme weather and rising sea levels combined with overfishing and pollution will stop its economic growth, spark a migratory crisis and push many Vietnamese to become pirates; thus worsening the already complex scenario in the contested waters of the South China Sea. As seen before, the Bering Strait may also become an area of tension with Russia; and other conflicts may emerge in the Middle East, Africa and Asia as a consequence of rising temperatures combined with other factors; notably over the control of river basins or cultivable land.

Global warming can therefore be a powerful driver in the emergence of new security threats across the globe. And while this is often neglected, for this reason it poses a considerable challenge to the world’s leading superpower: the United States.

The US and climate change

As the core of the international system with interests at stake in any area of the globe, and as a major polluter itself, the US must be attentive to the geopolitical and security consequences of global warming. Diplomatically, the US has usually sustained the thesis of other developed countries that the cost of curbing CO2 emissions should fall on emerging economies like China, that today are the main polluters. Under the Trump administration, the US has now openly adopted a climatosceptic policy: he favours traditional fossil fuels over renewable energy sources and has left the COP21 Paris agreement.

Yet, the US is also threatened by climate change. As temperatures rise, drought and extreme weather like hurricane and snowstorms are becoming more common; causing considerable damage to agriculture, infrastructures and ultimately to the foundations of America’s strength. But as a superpower with interests in practically any region, the US will also need to face the security threats that will emerge as a consequence of climate change. Because of this, there is an institution that is particularly active in studying the effects of global warming and that calls for efforts to prevent its effects. Surprisingly, it is not some ecologist lobby, but the military.

As a 2015 report demonstrates, the Department of Defense openly expressed its concerns about the consequences of climate change over the ability of the US armed forces to operate overseas and over the multiplication of security threats that may require armed interventions. The US military is therefore adopting a preventive logic: tackling climate change today to avoid complicated campaigns in the future. Now that Trump is in power, it seems that the Pentagon is de-emphasizing the risks linked with global warming, but there have been calls from lawmakers to continue taking them into account.

Coping with climate change

As seen, global warming is having global-scale consequences that will affect virtually any domain of human life. But in general, it can be said that it puts our security at risk – be it economic, alimentary, sanitary, physical or of another type. Scientists have repeatedly raised the alarm over its deleterious effects, but up to now the actual efforts to counter it are insufficient. Since it appears that avoiding its impact is impossible and that we can at best limit its consequences, the best thing we can do is to foresee and understand them and prepare ourselves for the world that will inevitably emerge from climate change.

Why is Japan Rearming?

The gradual but firm shift in Japan’s defence posture is among the most notable developments characterizing the Asia-Pacific’s international dynamics in the past few years. Its efforts to increase its military power, accompanied by attempts to change the Constitution to expand the means and the duties of its military forces are to be interpreted in a broader context of growing security challenges. But what exactly are the drivers behind Japan’s re-arm?

Japan’s defence policy after WWII

Japan’s past is the first element to consider to understand the importance of its changing defence posture.

After being defeated in WWII, Japan abandoned its pre-war militarism to embrace pacifism and rejection of the use of armed force. This principle was enshrined in Article 9 of its Constitution, which entered into force 1947 with US support. According to its terms, Japan denied its own right to belligerency, rejected war as a mean to solve international disputes, and renounced to develop any war potential. This meant that it could not possess its own armed forces and could not participate in any conflict abroad, not even for collective self-defence. Initially, the US had favoured this constitutional provisions as a guarantee that Japan would never try again to conquer the Asia-Pacific region has it had done in the past. Moreover, immediately after the war it seemed that the area would become a hub of peace and stability.

But the situation changed soon. In 1949 the communists took power in mainland China, thus radically changing the region’s geopolitical landscape. Only one year later, the pro-Soviet North Korea attacked its southern counterpart, triggering the three-years-long Korean War. Following the emergence of these threats, Washington applied the containment policy to counter the assertiveness of Moscow and its allies in Asia as in Europe. In this logic, the US started pressuring Japan to adopt a larger security role. However, this achieved very limited success. In 1951, America and Japan signed a Peace Treaty, and along with it a separate Security Treaty (later revised in 1960) that committed Washington to defend its ally. But under the Premiership of Yoshida Shigeru, Japan preferred to minimize its military expenditures in order to focus on reconstruction and economic growth, all while relying on its powerful American ally for protection. This approach, later named “Yoshida Doctrine” after its inspirer, became the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy for decades, and it was an extraordinary success. Thanks to it, Japan managed to avoid international conflicts and to achieve an impressive GDP growth, rapidly turning into one of the world’s leading economic powers. As of today, Japan is still the third largest economy in terms of nominal GDP.

Yet, this does not mean that Japan did not have its own military. The terms of Article 9 notwithstanding, the country still had to make concessions. In 1954, it established its armed forces, which took the name of Japanese Self-Defense Forces (or JSDF). But as their name suggests, they were not comparable to the full-fledged militaries that other states had. The JSDF could not field any equipment considered to be “offensive” such as strategic bombers or aircraft carriers, and their role was strictly limited to defending Japan’s territory from an external (most likely Soviet) invasion. They could not participate to collective self-defence operations, as this would imply fighting abroad to protect an ally, and not even to peacekeeping missions. In 1976, the practice of limiting the defence expenditures to no more than 1% of its GDP became official. All this deeply influenced Japan’s role in overseas conflicts, even those occurring very close to its territory and whose outcome could affect its own national security. The first case is the Korean War: in spite of the geographical proximity and of their anti-communist stance, the Japanese limited their contribution to providing bases and equipment for the US-guided coalition. Still, with time new events pushed Japan to slowly change its stance.

The first one was the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991. Since Japan was (and still is) largely dependent on Middle Eastern oil for its energy supplies, the US expected that it would give a sensible contribution to the conflict. But on the basis of its constitutional limitations, Japan refused to do so, limiting its participation to providing financial aid to the international coalition. This form of “checkbook diplomacy” was largely criticized by the US, and as a result Japan adopted a new legislation allowing it to take part to peacekeeping missions with strictly non-combat roles. A few years later, North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 increased Japan’s fear of being involved in a regional conflict. Then, the test of the DPRK’s first ballistic missile in 1998 shocked Japan, thus prompting it to start cooperating with the US on anti-missile defence. Another change occurred in the aftermath of 9/11. As America begun its “War on Terror” under the Bush administration, it asked Japan to contribute to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tokyo was again reticent, but in the end it accepted to deploy its forces to provide non-combat support. In 2004 it also adopted a new national defence document that called for an increase of its military capabilities, and most importantly Article 9 was reinterpreted to allow self-defence in case of attack on American forces defending Japan or even abroad, provided this represented a threat to Japan itself.

In spite of all this, strong restrictions remain on Japan’s military. Still, it maintains a well-trained and well-equipped military. As a matter of fact, despite the 1% GDP gap on defence expenditures, the sheer size of its economy means that its budget is one of the world’s largest in absolute terms. Nevertheless, until recently it has kept a low-profile defence posture. But with the emergence of new challenges, Japan is gradually moving out from its traditional policy to take a more important role in regional security, which also implies increasing its military capabilities and re-interpreting (if not changing) its Constitution.

The drivers of Japan’s re-arm

As seen, the earliest driver of Japan’s efforts to empower its military came from the need to give a greater contribution to international operations. This was the answer to its American ally, which criticized it for being a free-rider who takes benefit from US protection without giving much support to American-led actions. Gradually, Japan started participating more actively in international missions, dispatching its forces for peacekeeping, disaster relief, or maritime law enforcement.

But there are two other factors to be considered, the first of which is North Korea. Its ballistic missiles and the possibility of a new war in the Peninsula are considered serious threats by Japan. This explains both its diplomatic efforts to favour a negotiated settlement of the issue, but also its commitment to deploy anti-missile systems like Patriot Advanced Capability 3 batteries (PAC-3) or AEGIS-equipped destroyers.

Yet, this is only one part of the story. Coping with a potential conflict in Korea does not reveal why Japan is increasing its maritime and air power, nor why it is acquiring Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) systems and practicing amphibious operations. To understand this, the third factor should be considered, which is by far the main driver of Japan’s military build-up: the rise of China.

After it started its economic boom in the 90s, the PRC soon initiated a military modernization programme. Combined with its increasing assertiveness, this has resulted in heightening tensions with the US. While much remains to be done for China’s armed forces to match America’s military on an equal level, this has turned Beijing into Washington’s near-peer competitor, at least in the Asia-Pacific. In this context, Japan has started feeling concerned about China’s rise as well, something that clearly emerges from its official documents.

The reasons are double fold. First, its relations with China are problematic, and sometimes even tense. There is much animosity between the two about Japan’s invasion of China in the 30s and the war crimes it committed during that period. There is also a territorial dispute between them over the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands. Maritime security is another major issue: Japan’s economic prosperity and energy security depends on the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) connecting it with Europe and the Middle East; therefore, it is afraid that China may cut these maritime routes, thus posing an existential threat to its survival. Then, China does not appreciate Japan’s status as an American ally; which brings to the second aspect to consider: the role of the US.

As noted before, Washington has been asking Tokyo for a greater contribution to regional security. For decades, Japan has resisted these demands, but now that China is emerging as a military power capable of damaging the interests of both Japan and the US, Tokyo is more willing to expand the roles and the capabilities of its military; also because it understands that not doing so would alienate Washington and may ultimately result in the loss of its main ally, which remains essential for its national security.

This was also the main justification behind the reinterpretation of the Article 9 of the Constitution. The text of the Article has not been changed, as that would require a complex procedure including a referendum that would likely fail given the popular attachment to the pacifist principles of the Chart. But in 2014 Abe’s government introduced a new interpretation, which was approved by the National Diet the following year. According to it, Japan will be able to use the military even to protect a foreign country, provided that Japan’s survival is at stake, that there are no other means, and always by limiting its action to the minimum necessary measures. This move was strongly criticized by Japan’s neighbours, first and foremost China.

The axes of Japan’s re-arm

The central importance of China as the main driver of Japan’s re-arm is evident when examining the specific nature of its military reorganization. Its defence expenditures have been growing constantly in recent years, reaching around 4.94 trillion yen.

The land component of the JSDF is being reduced in favour of the air and naval forces. This is because in the case of an open conflict with China, the best defence for Japan would be to achieve the aero-naval superiority over its surrounding seas (in cooperation with the US) so to keep the Chinese forces away from its territory. In this context, Japan is deploying to the south more air squadrons equipped with F-15J fighters, as well as support aircraft like tankers and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) planes. Recon drones like the RQ-4 Global Hawk could be adopted as well. A total of 42 F-35A fighters are also scheduled to be fielded, the first of which has been deployed at the beginning of 2018.

But it is the maritime part of the JSDF that is being developed the most. There are five notable trends in this. First, surface ships are being modernized and new ones are entering into service to bring the total from 47 to 54. These include new guided missile destroyers equipped with the AEGIS system, whose task is to patrol and protect the SLOC and the seas around Japan, contribute to air and naval superiority, and intercept incoming missiles. Second, the number of attack submarines is to increase from 16 to 22. Their mission is to counter the subs that the PRC is also fielding in larger numbers, to have assets that are not threatened by its anti-ship missiles, and finally to threaten the SLOC that are vital for China as well. Third, in a similar logic Japan is procuring more antisom aircraft for its naval forces. Fourth, it is enhancing its mine warfare capabilities, both in the form of deploying and removing naval mines. But the fifth and most notable development is the introduction of helicopter destroyers, which has also caused controversy. Currently, Japan has four ships of this kind: two belong to the Hyuga class while the other two are more recent Izumo-class units. They are the largest ships in Japan’s maritime force and, in spite of being smaller than their US counterparts, they are often described as de facto aircraft carriers. However, this is misleading. Currently these ships do not operate any fighter jet, but only helicopters; mainly because their deck cannot resist the extremely high temperatures generated by jet engines. Still, while it is a complex endeavour, it is technically possible to modify the deck of the two Izumo units to enable fighter operations, and there have been rumors that Japan is actually considering this option so to allow the ships to operate up to 10 F-35B fighters; something that has caused criticism from the PRC. Moreover, the number of planes they could carry is relatively limited, as their autonomy. As such, rather than for sustaining large-scale naval battles or as power projection means, these ships are more suitable for antisom missions thanks to their helicopters or for supporting amphibious operations along with dedicated landing ships, as they can carry 400 marines and around 50 light vehicles.

This brings us to the role of the land forces, which also have an important role that reflects Japan’s new strategic needs. The marines units are being expanded, a sign that Japan wants its military to be able to defend and if necessary retake remote islands to the south like the Senkaku or the Ryukyu. Also, radars and five regiments armed with anti-ship cruise missile (consisting in the Type 88 and the more recent Type 12) are being deployed on these islands along with anti-aircraft missile units. The aim is to create A2/AD zones over the East China Sea both for protecting the SLOC and for denying the access to the open ocean to China’s aero-naval forces; in the logic of keeping them at bay until the US Navy arrives. New missiles are also under development, among which the most notable is the HVGP (Hyper Velocity Gliding Projectile), a hypersonic missile explicitly designed to defend remote islands and a sign that Japan wants to enter in the race to develop such systems.

What next?

Considering all these aspects, it is clear that Japan is taking a greater role in regional security and that appears more determined to protect its interests in a challenging international environment. Yet, it seems unlikely that it will opt for full militarization. The large majority of Japanese oppose a change in the Constitution and even the recently-approved reinterpretation was met with resistance. Japan remains more willing to solve international issues by diplomacy and economic assistance rather than by the use of force. Yet, to ensure its vital interests and to preserve the alliance with the US, which remains essential for its national security, Japan will likely continue on this course and increase its military capabilities. But this is something that is not only up to Japan: much depends on its American ally; and much, if not the most, on its Chinese rival.

Are Saudi-Turkish relations deteriorating?

The relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are now becoming a subject of mediatic interest following the alleged killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khoshoggi, a critic of Riyadh’s current government, in his country’s consulate in Istanbul. To better understand this event and its consequences, it is necessary to put it in the broader context of the bilateral relations between the two states, which dates back to the 1920s.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its aftermath.

Once the main power in the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in both political and territorial terms in the wake of its defeat in WWI; thus reshaping the region’s geopolitical order. Many of its former lands became de facto colonies under the rule of either Great Britain or France (on the basis of the Sykes-Picot agreement), but two cases stand out as exceptions: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Turkey.

During the Great War, Britain was fighting against the Ottoman Empire, who was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. In this context, the British were actively supporting an Arab uprising to weaken the Ottomans and extend their influence on the Middle East. This led to a deal with the Saud family: in exchange of aid against the Ottomans, the House of Saud would rule an independent kingdom after the end of the war.  This resulted into the establishment of Saudi Arabia (which takes its name from the ruling al-Saud dynasty) in 1932.  An important aspect of the newborns state was its affiliation to Wahhabism, a juridical and religious doctrine of Islam known for its conservatism and that became the basis of the Saudi political system. This made the Kingdom the champion of Sunni Islam, even though its adherence to Wahhabism has recently become less marked under the influence of Crown Prince bin Salman. After the discovery of huge oil reserves in the 1930s, Saudi Arabia gradually became a major producer and started accumulating wealth. During the Cold War, it forged an alliance with the United States, thus becoming (in spite of occasional divergences, like the 1973 oil crisis) one of its main allies in the Middle East. As of today, the House of Saud is still in power and its cooperation with the US remains a central element of its foreign policy.

On its part, the Ottoman Empire was weakened by war, politically delegitimized and in social unrest; and had to face the consequences of defeat. With the nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk gaining more and more influence, the imperial rule did not last. The last Sultan (and Caliph) was deposed, and a Republic was proclaimed. But its territory was much smaller than the pre-war Empire. Other than Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Arabia, it even lost some lands in mainland Anatolia; which it recovered after a war with Greece in 1919-22 that gave the country its current shape. Atatürk promoted westernization in the newly-born Republic, notably to transform it into a secular state after centuries of religious-based Ottoman rule.  This is a major difference from Saudi Arabia, which instead based its polity upon religious conservatism.  But like the KSA, Turkey decided to side with America after WWII, joining NATO in 1952. During the decades, the country experienced several coups, the last of which occurred in 2016 as an attempt to overthrow President Erdogan, who has held the office since 2014 after serving eleven years as Prime Minister.

The history of Turkey – Saudi Arabia relations

Official relations between the two countries were established in 1932, when the KSA was founded. During the pre-WWII era, when the Middle East was still largely influenced by European powers, their bilateral relations were stable and no major issue emerged. During the late ‘40s following the withdrawal of colonial forces, new states appeared in the region and started pursuing their own geopolitical objectives, thus complicating the regional dynamics.

A first factor of disagreement was the Palestinian issue and the creation of Israel. Turkey recognized the Jewish state and adopted a moderate stance towards it during the Arab-Israeli wars, whereas Saudi Arabia refused to establish official relation with it and actively supported the cause of Palestinians as well as that of Arab states fighting against Israel.

Relations with Iran would soon become another problematic issue. Before the 1979 Revolution that overthrew the Shah and established the Islamic Republic, Ankara maintained good relations with Teheran. The instauration of the new Iranian regime resulted into colder relations for some time (due to Turkey’s friendly ties with the US and Israel, the arch-nemesis of Iran) but then they gradually improved. Prior to the Islamic Revolution, Riyadh also enjoyed generally positive relations with Teheran, with the two main points of disagreement being religious divides (Sunni vs Shia respectively) and the recognition of Israel by the former. But this dramatically changed after 1979: the difference in faith combined with the Saudi’s amity with the US turned their mutual relations into strong hostility.

The Iran-Iraq war that raged between 1980 and 1988 saw the KSA and Turkey taking a different stance. Riyadh, in spite of strained relations with Baghdad, considered Teheran’s revolutionary regime to be the main threat to its security and therefore supported the former with financial aid. In contrast, Turkey was more conciliatory with Iran: keeping a neutralist policy, it maintained economic ties with both belligerents, thus refusing to implement the US-led embargo on Iran. The outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991 following Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait saw both Saudi Arabia and Turkey joining the US-guided coalition against Iraq.

Ankara and Riyadh also took different postures after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by US forces. The fact that most of the terrorist that had hijacked the planes used to strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Saudi nationals caused some strain between Riyadh and Washington, but in general the Saudis cooperated with the US in the War on Terror the latter launched after 9/11. On its part, Turkey supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but opposed that of Iraq in 2003 out of fears that the instability that would follow the end of Saddam’s regime would allow the Iraqi Kurds to obtain an independent state.

Saudi-Turkish relations in recent years

The year 2011 can be seen as a turning point in the history of contemporary Middle East, and the events that took place since then had a profound effect on Turkey-KSA relations. In 2011, the “Arab Spring” shook the region, leading to the outbreak of a bloody and still-unsolved civil war in Syria. The US withdrew its last combat forces from Iraq and reduced its direct involvement in the Middle East in accordance with President’s Obama “Leading from Behind” policy. Since then, the region’s geopolitical landscape has significantly changed and local actors have become more active.

Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have supported the rebels trying to topple the al-Assad regime in Syria. The two also found some common ground in the fight against the auto-proclaimed “Islamic State”. In 2014, this Sunni extremist group rapidly seized control of considerable swathes of territory in the northern parts of Iraq and Syria. An international coalition started hitting its position with airstrikes to support the local forces on the ground. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have condemned the group, even though there have been allegations that wealthy Saudi nationals founded the group and that Turkey has secretly traded oil with it. The struggle against the IS also explains why both have sustained the Iraqi state, even though their involvement responds to a slightly different logic. Ankara did so to avoid that a Kurdish state may emerge from the fragmentation of Iraq, plus to prevent that Teheran may complete a pipeline that would allow it to export its hydrocarbons without having to pass via the Turkish territory; while Riyadh acted to limit Teheran’s influence in the area, given that Iraq’s population is mainly Shia. Also, in the frame of the Iran-KSA proxy war in Yemen, the two powers are both helping the government forces to defeat the Houthi rebels sustained by Iran. Finally, the Saudis promptly expressed their support for Erdogan’s government during the 2016 coup attempt.

Yet, in the broader struggle for influence over the Middle East, the divergences between Riyadh and Ankara have multiplied. First, there is some form of ideological divergence. Since Erdogan became President in 2014, he promoted a reintroduction of religious-based norms in Turkey; and many consider this as being contrary to the secular spirit that the Republic has had since its foundation by Atatürk. At the same time, Saudi Arabia moved in the opposite direction under the leadership of Prince bin Salman. Even though he centralized power (similarly to Erdogan), he lifted many of the traditional Islamic limitations in many aspects of Saudi society. But beyond that, there is much realpolitik underneath.

The two support opposing factions in Egypt: the Saudis favor the government led by General al-Sisi; whereas the Turks support the opposition forces, notably the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not a factor to neglect, because having a friendly government in Cairo makes easier the access to the Red Sea and its shipping lanes, an objective that Ankara is pursuing. In regard to Iran, the KSA maintains its longstanding hostile stance, while Turkey (in spite of the differences) has shown more willingness to cooperate with it (and Russia) in regard to Iraq and Syria. In turn, this is linked to their relations with Israel. Riyadh, considering that Teheran is the main regional rival of Tel Aviv, is unofficially but concretely establishing closer ties with the latter; all with Washington’s patronage. The Trump administration has clearly shown its willingness to support both Saudi Arabia and Israel, so this come with no surprise. At the same time, Turkey’s ties with the Jewish State have been deteriorating during the past decade, notably since Erdogan became President in 2014. Israel does not appreciate Turkey’s support for Islamic movements and for the Palestinian cause, something which recently led to a verbal escalation between Erdogan and Netanyahu. Plus, Tel Aviv does not see positively Ankara’s closer ties with Teheran. The access to offshore gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean is another factor that is straining their bilateral relations. Israel is collaborating with Cyprus and Egypt to exploit these energy resources, whereas Turkey is asserting its rights in a quite aggressive manner against other players. In this context, Tel Aviv is also fostering closer ties with Athens, whose relations with Ankara are historically problematic. Lastly, there is the Qatar issue. In 2017, the KSA and other countries (including Egypt) initiated a blockade on the small Gulf state, because of its friendly ties with Iran and for allegedly sponsoring terrorism; a move that Israel approved. Soon, Turkey showed its support to Qatar by providing economic aid and even by dispatching its troops.

The result is that an informal yet tangible entente is forming between Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US and other powers to counter Turkey, which in turn is creating closer ties with Iran (and Russia). The most recent events are to be interpreted in this context.

The current crisis: the alleged killing of Jamal Khashoggi

The Saudi-Turkish standoff that is making the headlines these days is just the latest episode of the deteriorating ties between the two countries, but relations with other powers should be factored in as well.

The Turkish authorities accuse the Saudis to have assassinated Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist known for its critic position towards the government in Riyadh, at the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. This has sparked a crisis between the two countries and has attracted much mediatic attention. One interesting thing to note is that Turkey has decided to exploit this occasion to free US pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been detained for two years over accusation of being involved in the failed 2016 coup attempt to overthrow Erdogan. It appears that Turkey is trying to exploit the Khashoggi affaire to restore its ties with the US, which have been damaged in recent years due to various issues. First, this is due to Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and Iran combined with its growing enmity toward Saudi Arabia and Israel. Second, the US refuse to extradite Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric that Ankara blames to be responsible for the 2016 coup attempt. This leads to the third factor, namely the imposition of US sanctions on Turkey, something that caused a considerable depreciation of its currency (the lira), putting the country’s economy under stress and forcing it to take restrictive economic measures in the form of higher interest rates; a measure necessary to stop the fall of the lira’s value but that will damage Turkey’s economy by adding pressure on its negative trade balance and on its external debt.

As such, the timing Andrew Brunson’s liberation now appears both as a conciliatory act towards the US in the hope of having sanctions lifted and to restore better political ties, as well as an attempt to improve its international image all while damaging Saudi Arabia’s. It is another application of Turkey’s traditional policy of tilting alternatively towards the US and then towards Russia and Iran so to keep viable relations with all and maximize its own benefit. After a period where it built its ties with Washington’s adversaries, it is therefore to be expected that Ankara will now seek a reconciliation; but this will likely be only partial. Still, the US-Saudi ties are indeed becoming more strained following the episode, but in the long term it is likely that mutual interests will prevail. What will happen next is yet to be seen, but it is certain that the complex power interplay in the Middle East will not end here.

Will Germany and Russia create an alliance?

Germany’s relations with Moscow have always been, and remain, one of its central strategic challenges. Yet views on how to deal with the country have historically remained split. To temper Russia’s advancement in Europe, pressures Germany feel now have led to both an alliance and conflict with Russia in the past. Are we seeing the return of a German-Russian Alliance?

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