Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘united nations’

Saudi Arabia: Going Rogue

We haven’t heard much about rogue states since George W Bush’s tenure in the White House ended, but maybe the term should be revived and applied to one of America’s closest allies – Saudi Arabia.

The talks on Syria in Vienna have finally got all the relevant international players around the table with Iran taking part along with the Saudis. Following the deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme, the US no longer had a good reason to refuse to talk to the Iranians and as Assad’s main backers they are crucial to making any progress.

So far so good.

But Saudi Arabia seems to have been doing its upmost to provoke the Iranians into walking out.

Ahead of the talks, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, gave media interviews saying Iran had to accept Syrian President Assad’s removal – interesting, given how Saudi diplomats are usually pretty media shy.

Then when the talks started it appears al Jubeir went out of his way to provoke his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, and there was a blazing row.

Under King Salman’s predecessors, Saudi Arabia pursued a cautious foreign policy and shunned the limelight.

No longer.

Although King Abdullah did send troops into neighbouring Bahrain in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring to put down unrest among the country’s Shia majority, since his successor ascended to the throne in January this year he has taken this regional activism to a different level.

Salman appointed his favourite son, the young and inexperienced, Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, Defence Minister. The Saudis promptly launched a direct military intervention in the civil war over the country’s southern border in Yemen. With air and some ground forces, the Saudis are leading an alliance of Sunni states trying to crush the Shi’ite Houthi rebels the Saudis accuse of being Iranian proxies.

Many of the more than 4,500 civilians killed so far in the fighting have died in air strikes and recently – in a gruesome rerun of what happened last month in Afghanistan – a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital was hit. The UN says 39 medical facilities have been struck – and possible war crimes committed – in Yemen since the intervention started, although the Saudis deny they are responsible.

Saudi-led forces have imposed a blockade on Yemen though and according to the UN, this is causing a humanitarian crisis as almost 13 million people – half the population – are now short of food, medicine and fuel.

Credible reports indicate the new Saudi government also escalated support – in arms and money – for Syrian rebel groups, including those allied to the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front. This is thought to have been crucial to the rebel advance which led to Russia’s intervention to prop up President Assad in September.

The new Saudi leadership, unnerved by the prospect of US rapprochement with Iran following the nuclear deal and angered by President Obama’s sudden U-turn in 2013 when he called off American military strikes on Assad’s forces at the last minute, has become markedly less pliant to US wishes.

Like Washington’s other close ally in the region, Israel, Saudi Arabia is doing its own thing and Obama, faced with a determined friend, seems largely content to let the tail wag the dog.

The Americans have turned a blind eye to Saudi links to rebels Washington doesn’t consider “moderate” enough to merit its own backing. The US has also supplied arms and intelligence to support Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen.

While Washington says Assad’s use of indiscriminate force against civilians has put him beyond the pale, the moral and diplomatic credibility of its position is undermined by its failure to oppose what the Saudis are up to around the region.

Try a little exercise. Imagine what President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry would have said and done if it were Iran launching air strikes on Yemen and blockading its ports.

If the US is serious about restoring stability to the Middle East and protecting the rights of civilians there, it should be reining in the Saudis in Yemen, not aiding and abetting them.

On Syria, the Americans should take the Saudis to one side and make it clear to them they should play nice at the talks so as not to extinguish the glimmer of hope for political progress that’s appeared since Russia intervened directly in the conflict.

Britain’s China Debate: Does It Have To Be So Binary?

It was hard to miss that President Xi Jinping of China was in Britain this week being given the full red carpet treatment including dinner at Buckingham Palace and addressing parliament at Westminster.

Of course the visit was accompanied by a lot of discussion and analysis of the relationship between the two countries. It’s a debate that is welcome and necessary, but does it have to be so binary?

Rather than coming to us in glorious 3D, it’s been in limited 2D: in one corner it’s business and in the other human rights.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne – who recently toured China himself – clearly have a business agenda. They gave Xi the pomp of a sate visit, which will help his image back home, because they want cash-rich Beijing to invest in modernising Britain’s infrastructure.

The need to raise money means they are even prepared to brave American disapproval and put security concerns to one side (even if the technology is actually French) and sign a deal for a Chinese state firm to invest in new nuclear power stations.

They also want to boost trade and get China to use the City as the main centre for the growing international trade in its Renminbi currency.

The government’s critics, including one of Cameron’s former advisers, had a field day with accusations that it had gone soft on human rights and was kowtowing to China.

Human rights groups understandably were critical on this front. It’s their raison d’etre after all.

But in the extensive press and online commentary a more nuanced approach has been relatively hard to find, although as you might expect, the leading think tank, Chatham House, produced some of the more sophisticated analysis.

No doubt, President Xi could be forgiven quiet satisfaction that the country that started what the Chinese call the century of humiliation of foreign invasion by forcing its way into China in the 1839-42 Opium War, is now coming to them cap in hand.

Xi also dealt comfortably with human rights issues when they were raised, for instance in his meeting with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. In a press conference, the Chinese leader gave what is now Beijing’s boilerplate response that human rights in his country are in need of improvement but this will be done in line with “Chinese conditions”.

China’s human rights record is undoubtedly poor, but then no country’s, including Britain’s, is pristine.

Reading much of the commentary calling on London to be more forceful on human rights brought to mind the biblical quote “he that is without sin … let him first cast a stone …”

Western criticism of China’s record is also often selective, failing to encompass the full panoply of rights, which include economic and social rights, as well as the individual political and civil rights emphasised in the West. This leads to China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty being discounted.

An alternative approach would be to frame pressure on China – or any country for that matter – to improve its record by trying to hold its leaders to their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they themselves are signed up to.

But the relationship between Britain and China should be about more than either business or human rights.

There are a host of issues Britain and China need to engage on.

The two countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the World is in dire need of more international cooperation to try to end conflicts and prevent others breaking out.

Britain was right to defy American pressure and be the first western country to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The West has long been telling China its new-found wealth and power mean it has to do more for the international community and shunning the AIIB would have sent the message that Beijing is only really welcome as a follower rather than a leader.

Climate change is another pressing concern where the two countries play a crucial international role. Despite the recent backsliding by London, Britain is a centre of research, technology and advocacy for cutting carbon emissions and China has invested billions in clean energy and is now committed to reducing the greenhouse gases it produces.

Where the critics of Cameron and Osborne have a point is in the naiveté of their approach.

On his recent trip to China, Osborne chose to visit the western region of Xinjiang – a controversial choice given the China’s ongoing crackdown on protest and violence by the local Uighur population. The Chancellor ended up being praised by the official press for his pragmatism and criticised by Uighur groups.

So why is London willing to risk offending its main ally in Washington and appear craven in its attempt to win favour in Beijing? After all, both the US and Germany have strong economic links and broad diplomatic engagement with China, including on human rights.

The answer lies in the failure to establish a stable and consistent relationship with Beijing.

Since the return of Hong Kong to China, Britain has had a fitful approach and the present government seems to believe London has lost out to Berlin and others in capturing a share of the Chinese market.

In their very haste to catch up and the urgency they attach to attracting investment, Cameron and Osborne are prepared to ignore criticism – and I suspect the advice of their diplomats – and downplay human rights and wider foreign policy considerations to put their emphasis on the purely pecuniary dimension of relations with the Chinese.

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