Europe has ‘new understanding’ of Middle East, says Arab League spokesman

Mahmoud Afifi League of Arab States spokesman. (Supplied)
Updated 26 February 2019
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Europe has ‘new understanding’ of Middle East, says Arab League spokesman

  • Summit was first leadership-level meeting between two regions
  • Migration, terrorism and Palestine were discussed

CAIRO: There is a new understanding between European leaders and their Middle Eastern counterparts following an historic summit, the Arab League spokesman said.

The two-day meeting took place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and it was the first ever summit between the two regions.

European Council President Donald Tusk co-chaired it with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Tusk represented the European Union (EU), along with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. 

Terrorism and migration were among the issues discussed, said League of Arab States (LAS) spokesman Mahmoud Afifi.

“This is the first summit between the two sides on a leadership scale. We look at it as the cornerstone for establishing a new institution of values between the Europeans and Arabs,” Afifi told Arab News. “We have been in contact with the Europeans for years in different forums at the ministerial level, senior official levels, but to take it to the highest level – the level of leadership.  

“It was the frank discussions between people from both sides during the bilateral meetings, in addition to the high commitment and solidarity shown between Arab leaders while explaining the real situation in the region and defending Arab interests vis-a-vis the Europeans.”

The most significant summit outcome, he said, was not in the final communique although everyone was aware of it. “(It) is this new understanding for how things really work in the Arab region and Middle East. Because eight years ago, many European countries were in support of what happened there. It wasn’t an Arab Spring at all, but a destruction.” 

He said that Europeans at the time thought it was nice, assuming that the countries would turn into Switzerland. The opposite proved to be true, he added.

“The EU understands and the most important thing for the two sides is to maintain the concept of a nation state. Because, without having stability inside a country, that would lead to a major catastrophe like what we have witnessed in the past years, which lead to terrorism and the massive flows of migration.”

Burden sharing was discussed at the summit, he said, although it attracted little media attention. It could be in the form of politics or humanitarian assistance. Europeans came from wealthy countries with ageing populations and complaining about illegal immigrants led to terrorism. “Now, however, they have a better understanding  of the situation,” he added.

Afifi said that some Arab states told the Europeans they had to “open their doors” for a more orderly migration and that Arab countries were discriminated against. Arab delegates said Europe could benefit from young people, according to the LAS spokesman.

While the ideas were taken on board, he said, they needed to be implemented.

“The Arabs, from their side, have shown flexibility and good intentions. For example, in 2018, there were zero illegal immigrants (and) that shows that the Egyptian government is a responsible government.”  

The summit also looked at foreign policy issues, including the crucial issue of Palestine.

“It’s no secret, that for a year and a half, the Palestinians, their authority and leadership have been facing major pressures from the current American administration and Israel of course.

“The EU as a group, supports the two-state solution and the rights of the Palestinian people to have their independence and space. We were looking to have this support explicitly at this time coming from the EU and, as the Arab side, we got that.”  

Iran, another pressing area of concern for the Arab region, was not discussed directly at the summit. But Afifi said the Arab side was “very expressive” about the threat nearby, not only from Iran, but from other neighbors such as Turkey, and the way these countries had been acting in recent years.

“For Iran, it’s not only about Yemen, they’ve been sowing their seeds in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Turkey is the same but especially in northern Syria, because there is a presence of the Turkish roots over there. We have problems with those neighbors.”

News came while the summit was ongoing that the UK parliament is set to pass new rules classifying Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was at the summit but did not comment on the matter.

“As a new prime minister of Lebanon, I think it was politically wise that he doesn’t come and openly speak about it, but I’m sure in one way or another it was talked about behind closed doors,” said Afifi.

The next EU-LAS summit is to take place in Brussels in 2022.


Iranians brace for harder times as US oil sanctions close in

Updated 24 April 2019
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Iranians brace for harder times as US oil sanctions close in

  • When the 2015 nuclear deal was struck, hopes were high that it would end the country’s years of crippling economic isolation
  • Hopes were shattered when President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord last year and reimposed sanctions

TEHRAN: Iranians, already hard hit by punishing US economic sanctions, are bracing for more pain after Washington abolished waivers for some countries which had allowed them to buy oil from Iran.
“In the end the pressure (America) is putting out is on the people,” said a 28-year-old technical instructor in Iran.
“Some have crumbled, and those still standing will probably give up when things worsen,” he added, asking not to be named.
In 2015 when Iran struck a landmark nuclear deal with world powers, hopes were high that it would end the country’s years of crippling economic isolation.
Thousands even flooded the streets of the capital, Tehran, to celebrate and hail Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as he arrived back from tough negotiations in Vienna.
But those hopes were shattered when President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord last year and reimposed sanctions.
Pressure has piled up ever since, with Washington saying Monday it would sanction all countries that buy Iranian oil, in a move meant to squeeze Iran’s main source of revenue down to zero.
Iran’s economy has been battered. Inflation has shot up, the country’s currency has plummeted and imports are now vastly more expensive.
“The country’s revenues will naturally reduce and maybe the rial will drop further,” the instructor told AFP.
Analysts have put Iran’s oil exports in March at around 1.9 million barrels a day, while the Central Bank had forecast revenue from oil sales in 2019 at around $10.57 billion.
Many of the country’s woes pre-date Trump and the sanctions, however, as it has struggled with a troubled banking system, a stifled private sector and the lack of foreign investment.

Yet life continues at Tehran’s Tajrish Bazaar, located north of the city.
On Tuesday people thronged the tight alleyways, drawn in by the tantalising smells of fresh vegetables and fruit as stall-owners shouted out prices, haggled with customers and hurriedly packed their goods.
But other parts of the bazaar selling non-essential goods such as pots, perfume and clothing were noticeably less busy.
“Have sanctions affected me? Which rock have you been hiding under all these years?” asked one irritated stall-owner, keeping an eye out for potential customers among the window-shoppers.
A 55-year-old housewife agreed.
“We have a limited wage, you see. (When sanctions came back) we were forced to spend what was meant for food and meat on the rent that went up,” she said.
Most people questioned by AFP asked to remain anonymous, and complained bitterly about inflation, saying they were especially pressured by growing housing and food prices.
According to the Statistical Center of Iran, overall inflation for the Iranian month of Farvardin (March 21-April 20) rose to 51.4 percent compared to the same month last year.
Food and services prices shot up by by 85 and 37 percent respectively over the same month.
This has caused “the class gap to really widen. There is only rich and poor now, nothing is left in between,” said the housewife.
“It will get worse. As ordinary citizens, we already expect prices to rise further” if oil exports reach zero, she added.
Iranians have also been forced to cut back on traveling, a tradition during the Nowruz, the Iranian new year which started on March 21, as prices grew out of many people’s reach.
“The situation is shocking,” the head of Tehran’s travel agencies association, Amir Pooyan Rafishad recently told ISNA news agency.
“Demand for trips, whether abroad or in Iran has dropped significantly.”

For Zarif, the US move to sanction Iran’s oil sales is another instance of what the Islamic Republic has repeatedly called “economic terrorism.”
“Escalating #EconomicTERRORISM against Iranians exposes panic & desperation of US regime,” he wrote Tuesday on Twitter.
The foreign ministry denounced the sanctions as “illegal” and said Iran was in “constant talks with its international partners including the Europeans.”
Russia on Tuesday called the US tightening of sanctions an “aggressive and reckless” policy.
Other major sources of income for the Iranian economy are minerals, about $8 billion annually, and agricultural exports, at about $5 billion — but it also imports large quantities of both, offsetting much of that income.
Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, however, has said he believes the US will not be able to block Iran from selling its oil.
“America’s dream for bringing Iran’s oil exports to zero will not be realized,” he told lawmakers on Tuesday, ISNA reported.
“America and its allies have made a big mistake by politicizing oil and using it as a weapon,” he added. “Given the market’s circumstances, (it) will backfire on many.”