Speaking Of Asia

Mid-East sands shift amid coronavirus outbreak

As the winds of the Covid-19 pandemic's economic impact blow through the region, old friends and foes are having to adjust to the changes underpinning their relationships

About 9pm on Tuesday, a white-painted Airbus freighter aircraft with no markings landed at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport and taxied to a corner of the airfield, where it unloaded 16 tonnes of medical supplies, including protective equipment and ventilators.

The relief supplies were meant for the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel, which, along with the rest of the Middle East, is battling a Covid-19 outbreak.

But although the flight carried no passengers, it had enormous significance: It was the first time that Etihad, the state-owned carrier of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), had connected their two capitals, which have no formal diplomatic relations.

As the Times of Israel noted, neither the Gaza Strip nor the West Bank has its own airport, which means that any cargo bound for Palestinian territory must enter through Israel.

That likely required an airlift from the UAE, which hosts humanitarian stockpiles for the United Nations. Still, given that two years ago the UAE was the first Arab nation to play the Israeli national anthem at a sporting event, and it had hosted the Israeli Sports Minister, this surely must be seen as more movement in that direction.

The unprecedented air link between the two West Asian powers comes less than two weeks after the Iraqi Parliament approved a new prime minister in Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to succeed the recently departed Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

A former intelligence chief, Mr Kadhimi apparently clinched the job, thanks to a backstage deal between the United States and - believe it or not - Iran.

According to the London-based Middle East Eye, Teheran apparently got some of the Shi'ite factions it backs in Iraq to look the other way in order for the US to unfreeze some of its assets in Europe. In a nation where politics rests on an unstable tripod of Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish parties, Mr Kadhimi's nomination had initially been vehemently opposed by other pro-Iranian Shi'ite militia like Kataib Hizbollah.

The Kadhimi nomination puts the US back in the driver's seat in Baghdad and, not surprisingly, one of the first acts of the new Prime Minister was to recall from a desk job the popular military figure Abdul Wahab al-Saadi. General al-Saadi was named head of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, the unit that he led brilliantly to prevail over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a series of offensives between 2014 and 2016.

Meanwhile, the US is leaning on Israel ever more sharply to reduce its ties with China.

The Jerusalem Post reported this week that Washington is losing patience with Tel Aviv's "polite deflections" on the subject of China, a nation with which Israel has steadily expanded ties, including in vital technology sectors. The Post quoted a US official with knowledge of the discussions saying that the demand is for "reductions in entanglements overall (and) elimination in critical areas altogether".


Amid an economic meltdown caused by crashing oil prices and worsening geopolitical tussles between Washington and Beijing exacerbated by the pandemic, vast changes are sweeping West Asia. Nowhere are the sands so shifting perhaps as in Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of the Opec (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) cartel and the only Arab nation in the Group of 20 of major economic powers.

What happens in Saudi Arabia and its neighbours matters to the rest of Asia for several reasons, not least critical energy supplies. Dependence also comes in the form of income from migrant workers in the Gulf whose remittances are key to millions of households in the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Indian subcontinent. The web of links connecting militant groups in West Asia to other parts of the region are also of concern.

The seven-decade-old US-Saudi alliance has been under strain since March, when the Saudi Crown Prince risked his special ties to the White House by flooding the oil market in a gambit to force Russia to curb its production, thus helping to put a floor under slumping oil prices. The move backfired, partly because it coincided with the Covid-19 crisis, which had led demand to collapse anyway.


Further, it angered an American President whose claim to fame had partly been the strong economy, now laid waste by Covid-19. What's more, America's economic woes have been accentuated by large-scale layoffs in its energy industry as its shale oil producers buckle under from the pressure of record low oil prices.

The response has been near-catastrophic, considering the intimate nature of the ties Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had cultivated with President Donald Trump and the First Family.

Well-informed people speak of an April 2 Trump phone call with the prince where the US leader's tone was so apoplectic that Prince Mohammed ordered his people listening in on the call to leave the room, in order to save face.

Subsequently, Mr Trump threatened to withdraw American Patriot missiles that were installed last year after what is generally accepted as an Iranian drone attack on a key oil facility. Prince Mohammed swiftly stepped back from further angering Mr Trump, agreeing to curb Saudi oil production by June 1 to the lowest in 20 years.

Prince Mohammed's ascendancy in his father's court has been an unsettling one for the region. The war in Yemen in 2015 and the effort to isolate Qatar in 2017, which split the Gulf Cooperation Council - both of which he initiated - have been costly for all concerned, including himself.

The oil-rich kingdom's reserves have dropped from US$732 billion (S$1.04 trillion) at the end of 2014 to about US$500 billion last year. In the same period, external debt soared from US$12 billion to about US$185 billion. Strapped for revenue after oil prices collapsed, Riyadh has scaled back Prince Mohammed's Vision 2030 programme meant to reduce its dependence on oil. The regime has also risked unpopularity by announcing an impending trebling of the goods and services tax to 15 per cent.

As custodian of Islam's two holiest sites and the world's biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia's enormous global influence spans both spiritual and temporal realms. The monarchy has survived in wary coexistence with fundamentalist sects. Since 1979, when the Iranian Revolution provoked a religious revival in the Muslim world, Saudi rulers have been under enhanced pressure to keep on the right side of the clergy, fearful of being accused of moral decadence. For this reason, even tiny progressive steps such as last October's decision by Riyadh to allow foreign men and women to share a hotel room, even if the two are not related, made headlines around the world.


While "MBS", as the Crown Prince is called, is appreciated for some of the easing of these codes, which count a lot for how he is perceived in the West, it has come with other personality traits, including an intolerance of dissent, that have been the subject of nose-holding.

The fight with Qatar is essentially about Doha being perceived as too soft on Iran, the Muslim power Riyadh is most wary of, and its hosting of the Al Jazeera television network, which often has turned an unsparing eye on Arab regimes. The murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of noted Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was shocking in the extent of its brutality. It gave Turkey a handle on MBS, even as Ankara built up a strategic alliance with Doha. This week, Qatar expanded a currency swap line it had extended to Turkey from US$5 billion to US$15 billion, signalling there is more than one deep-pocketed nation in the neighbourhood.

Still, the US, China, India and several other nations that have tricky relationships with their Muslim minorities additionally value their friendship with MBS not just for the signals it sends in the Muslim world, but also for bilateral intelligence-sharing deals that seem to be productive for the most part, helping them curb extremism on their home soil.

Some of this could be at risk if MBS, and the Saudi regime, are weakened. On the religious front, conservatives he has angered are looking for an opportunity to regroup. Politically, there are signs that not all Arab leaders are prepared to fix their gaze on the floor when the Saudis stride by.

In a recent intelligence briefing, The Soufan Group noted that in late April, separatists in southern Yemen under the banner of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) had declared a state of emergency and decree of self-administration, blatantly violating the November peace deal signed in Riyadh.

The Saudi-backed Yemeni government called the declaration "dangerous and catastrophic" and even the UAE, which hosts leaders of the STC, said it opposed it.

"But few believe the STC would have made such a provocative move without at least the tacit approval of Abu Dhabi," the report said.


What should the rest of Asia make of these developments and should we worry?

Yes, and no.

An East Asian observer with expert knowledge of Saudi Arabia says as long as the ebbs and eddies stay within an Arab fratricidal context, the rest of the region perhaps need not worry so much.

Given his personality, any waning of the Crown Prince's influence that curbs his ability to bulldoze other Arab states is probably a "net positive" for West Asia, notes a seasoned Asian diplomat, adding: "What's good for West Asia cannot, hence, be adverse to our own interests."

That said, it is early days yet to call it a significant diminution of Saudi Arabia's profile. Even as science moves apace to develop alternate fuels, oil still rules as the primary source of global energy. Nor has the US-Saudi alliance weakened so much as to cause policy planners to rush to the drawing board to substantively relook their approach to the region.

Still, there's no gainsaying that there are shifts in the sand. Exactly how much is the question.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2020, with the headline Mid-East sands shift amid coronavirus outbreak. Subscribe