Biden administration seeking greater Mideast engagement, influence: Experts

Biden administration seeking greater Mideast engagement, influence: Experts
US saw it needed to change its policies after perceiving China to have developed closer ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia (AFP)
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Updated 27 September 2023
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Biden administration seeking greater Mideast engagement, influence: Experts

Biden administration seeking greater Mideast engagement, influence: Experts
  • China’s growing power, Russia-Ukraine war forced US policy turnaround, say panelists at Washington D.C. forum
  • Saudi Arabia considered a key partner in America’s new foreign policy approach

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden’s administration is seeking increased engagement with Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries — a marked shift from its previous policy position — because of China’s and Russia’s growing influence in the region, and their military and economic expansionist ambitions. 

This was the consensus reached by experts evaluating US foreign policy at a forum convened on Monday by the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. 

The event titled “Assessing Biden’s Middle East Policy Approach, 2021–2023,” saw panelists analyze why the administration, which took office in 2021, initially had little desire to engage with what the US perceived as the declining geopolitical importance of Middle East nations. 

The experts argued that there were two main reasons for the White House’s subsequent change of heart — the first being Russia’s war in Ukraine launched in February 2021, and the second China’s rising regional influence which saw Beijing score a coup of sorts by brokering a rapprochement deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year. 

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and the vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, said the Biden administration came into office with the mantra of the “Three Cs” — COVID-19, China and climate change. 

Katulis argued that Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s increased footprint in the Middle East triggered an alarm in Biden’s White House. 

“Last spring there was a steady realization in Washington that traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia might be leaning toward China,” he said.  

“China’s brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this year was a seismic moment and a wake-up call for many in the White House,” he added. 

Dennis Ross, a former advisor on the Middle East to several Democrat and Republican administrations and currently a fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Biden administration did not care about the Middle East when it took office in 2021. 

Ross said the conflict in Ukraine changed the dynamics and it was not just oil and energy — the revenue from which Russia needs to finance its war — that drove the administration to reengage in the Middle East.  

Ross said Biden’s world view also played a role, which was that there was a global ideological struggle at play between democracy and totalitarianism.     

He said the administration wanted to establish a liberal, rules-based international order to counter perceived threats from China and Russia. But it soon realized that it needed what it viewed as non-democratic nations to be part of the coalition. 

 “It turns out that you need non-democracies who have assets to be part of your coalition or at least ensure they are not part of the other coalition,” he said. 

“Biden said we are not going to withdraw from the Middle East and leave a vacuum that the Russians and the Chinese are going to fill,” he added. 

Ross argued that Biden’s policy toward the Middle East was more about China than Russia, arguing that the latter was likely to be much weaker because of the war in Ukraine. 

The US was also seeking to be the architect of an agreement to establish formal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as part of its vision to prevent powerful competitors from establishing footholds in the oil-rich region.  

Ross said the recent visits to Saudi Arabia by Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, were part of the efforts to reengage with the Kingdom’s leadership. 

Agreeing with Ross’ main arguments, Middle East expert and academic Vali Nasr pointed to the manner in which the Biden administration attempted to construct a Middle East coalition to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

Nasr, who is professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said that Biden had traveled to Saudi Arabia in July 2022 after a visit to Israel, in order to sell them the idea of an “Arab NATO,” a proposed US-sponsored Middle East military coalition designed to counter Iran. 

“But Biden was completely rebuffed by the Saudis who told him that they are going on the path of reengagement with Iran,” he said. 

Nasr added that the US saw it needed to change its policies after perceiving China to have developed closer ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 


Indonesia, Malaysia call on international community to ensure Israel’s compliance with ICJ ruling

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi meets with Arab envoys in Indonesia on April 2, 2024 to discuss the situation in Gaza.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi meets with Arab envoys in Indonesia on April 2, 2024 to discuss the situation in Gaza.
Updated 26 May 2024
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Indonesia, Malaysia call on international community to ensure Israel’s compliance with ICJ ruling

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi meets with Arab envoys in Indonesia on April 2, 2024 to discuss the situation in Gaza.
  • Southeast Asian nations have been critical of Israel and vocal supporters of Palestine
  • ICJ also ordered Tel Aviv to allow clear access for investigations of genocide allegations

JAKARTA: Indonesia and Malaysia said on Sunday that the international community must ensure Israel’s compliance with an order by the UN’s top court to stop its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. 

The International Court of Justice ruled on Friday that Israel must “immediately halt its military offensive and any other action in the Rafah Governorate.” Judges at the ICJ also said the humanitarian situation there was “disastrous” and called on Tel Aviv to allow unimpeded access to any mission investigating allegations of genocide. 

Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which have been critical of Israel and vocal supporters of Palestine, have welcomed the ICJ order. 

“Indonesia supports the ICJ’s ruling ordering Israel to immediately halt its military offensive in Rafah, and to ensure the unimpeded access to the Gaza Strip of any commission of inquiry, fact-finding mission or other investigative body to investigate the allegation of genocide,” the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

“Indonesia urges Israel to immediately comply with the measures ordered by the Court without reservation, and underlines the critical role of the Security Council in ensuring its implementation.”

Neighboring Malaysia is also calling on the international community to take action in ensuring Israel’s compliance.  

“Malaysia strongly urges the international community to intensify pressure on Israel to comply with the (ICJ ruling), as failing to do so will only make a mockery of the sanctity of international law,” the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry said. 

Israeli airstrikes and ground offensives in Gaza have since October killed 36,000 Palestinians and wounded over 80,000 people, the vast majority children and women. 

The emergency ruling comes a week after it was requested by South Africa as part of a wider case accusing Israel of genocide. The decision marked the third time this year that the 15-judge panel has issued preliminary orders seeking to alleviate the death toll and humanitarian suffering in Gaza. 

Israel launched its assault on Rafah earlier this month, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee a city that had become a refuge to around half of the region’s 2.3 million people.

Rafah, on Gaza’s southern edge, has also been the main entry route for aid, and international organizations have said the Israeli operation has cut off the enclave and raised the risk of famine.

While the ICJ is the highest UN body for hearing disputes between states and its rulings are final and binding, without enforcement powers, the court’s orders have been ignored in the past. 

Israel has repeatedly dismissed South Africa’s case accusing it of genocide as baseless, arguing in court that its operations in Gaza are self-defense and targeted at Hamas militants who attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

But the situation in the Palestinian enclave had deteriorated since the court last ordered Israel to take steps to improve it, and conditions had been met for a new emergency order.


Philippines boosts halal certification to cater to more Muslim tourists 

Exhibitors pose with a love sign at the Mindanao Tourism Expo in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.
Exhibitors pose with a love sign at the Mindanao Tourism Expo in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.
Updated 26 May 2024
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Philippines boosts halal certification to cater to more Muslim tourists 

Exhibitors pose with a love sign at the Mindanao Tourism Expo in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.
  • Tourism is key sector for the Southeast Asian country, comprising 13 percent of GDP
  • Philippines wants to double its halal-certified products and services by 2028

MANILA: The Philippines is working to cater more to Muslim tourists, officials have said, with efforts underway to increase halal accreditation of hotels and restaurants in the country. 

Tourism is a key sector for the archipelago known for its white sandy beaches, diving spots and diverse culture, having contributed nearly 13 percent, or about $44 billion, to the Philippines’ gross domestic product in 2019. 

The Department of Tourism has lately been trying to attract more Muslim tourists from around the world, particularly by ensuring halal certification in restaurants.  

“All the regions (in the Philippines) are working … to be Muslim-friendly … Throughout the country, we are doing the same … We continue to encourage our restaurant-owners to be Muslim-friendly and eventually put up their own halal kitchen,” DOT Undersecretary Myra Paz Abubakar told Arab News over the weekend. 

The predominantly Catholic Philippines — where Muslims constitute about 10 percent of the nearly 120 million population — has also been working to develop its overall domestic halal industry by 2028, with plans to double the number of its halal-certified products and services. 

Earlier this month, the tourism department led a delegation to the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, where they promoted the country’s best tourism to the international market at a time when tourist arrivals have been increasing from the Middle East. 

The Philippines welcomed more than 2 million international travelers since the beginning of the year, according to official data, including a 10 percent increase in visitors arriving from Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has been among the Philippine government’s key emerging-market targets.

But the Southeast Asian country is also eager to attract international Muslim visitors beyond the Gulf, Abubakar said. 

“DOT is not only targeting the Middle East market but our neighboring countries as well such as Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia,” she said, citing Muslim-majority countries in the region. 

The Philippines was recognized with the Emerging Muslim-friendly Destination of the Year award last year at the Halal in Travel Global Summit held in Singapore. 

Since then, the Muslim market has been a priority for the country’s tourism sector.  

“We’re preparing to certify Muslim-friendly hotels and restaurants … We’re trying to be ready especially with the food because we know that the food, the halal certification, is very important,” DOT regional director Marie Elaine Unchuan told Arab News. 

The Philippines, which has Southeast Asia’s third-largest Muslim population, is preparing itself to be as halal-friendly as possible, as during international tourism fairs Philippine officials often get asked about the country’s readiness to host Muslim travelers, she said.  

“That was one of the questions … Do we have halal-certified restaurants, and do we have Muslim-friendly hotels? So, we’re really working on it. We’d rather be very prepared so that we can market more.” 


Zelensky urges Biden, Xi to join peace summit

Zelensky urges Biden, Xi to join peace summit
Updated 26 May 2024
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Zelensky urges Biden, Xi to join peace summit

Zelensky urges Biden, Xi to join peace summit
  • Moscow’s forces have in recent weeks advanced on the battlefield and stepped up air strikes on cities
  • Kyiv hopes the June meeting in Switzerland will help pile international pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin

KYIV: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Sunday to join an upcoming peace summit as his country struggles to stave off unrelenting attacks by Russia in its 27-month-old invasion.
Moscow’s forces have in recent weeks advanced on the battlefield and stepped up air strikes on cities, and Kyiv hopes the June meeting in Switzerland will help pile international pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In English-language video recorded inside the charred remains of a printing press destroyed on Thursday in a Russian air strike, Zelensky said the summit would “show who in the world really wants to end the war.”
“I am appealing to the leaders of the world who are still aside from the global efforts of the Global Peace Summit – to President Biden, the leader of the United States, and to President Xi, the leader of China,” he said.
“Please, show your leadership in advancing the peace – the real peace and not just a pause between the strikes.
Russia has said it sees no point in the conference to which Moscow is not currently invited.
Zelensky’s comments came two days after Russian sources told Reuters that Putin was ready to halt the war in Ukraine with a negotiated ceasefire that recognizes the current battlefield lines.
Zelensky and Ukraine’s supporters say a ceasefire will only help Russia rearm and regroup.
Russia has in recent months made slow but steady gains along several parts of the sprawling eastern front and is attempting to push deeper into the northeastern Kharkiv region after a ground incursion launched earlier this month.
In an interview with Reuters last week, Zelensky said it was crucial to get as many countries around the table at the peace talks as possible. Putin has said he believes the talks may convert Ukrainian demands for a Russian withdrawal into an ultimatum for Russia.


Taiwan’s president says open to working with China on ‘peace’

Taiwan’s president says open to working with China on ‘peace’
Updated 26 May 2024
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Taiwan’s president says open to working with China on ‘peace’

Taiwan’s president says open to working with China on ‘peace’
  • China launched military games around the island three day last week
  • President Lai Ching-te made overtures to Beijing before his inauguration to resume communications

TAIPEI: Taiwan’s president said Sunday he was still open to working with China on building “mutual understanding and reconciliation,” days after Beijing launched military drills around the self-ruled island in response to his inauguration speech.
President Lai Ching-te was sworn into office on Monday, and China — which claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and regards Lai as a “dangerous separatist” — launched military games around the island three days later.
Fighter jets, naval vessels and coast guard ships encircled Taiwan until Friday night, which Chinese military analysts said was to practice seizing it.
On Sunday, Lai said his May 20 inaugural speech highlighted that “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is a necessary element for global security and prosperity.”
“I also called on China to jointly shoulder the important responsibility of regional stability with Taiwan,” he said during an event with his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in southern Tainan.
“I also look forward to enhancing mutual understanding and reconciliation through exchanges and cooperation with China... and moving toward a position of peace and common prosperity.”
He added that “any country making waves in the Taiwan Strait and affecting regional stability will not be accepted by the international community.”
Lai made overtures to Beijing before his inauguration to resume communications — severed since 2016 after former president Tsai Ing-wen took office.
Like Lai, Tsai is also part of the DPP, which holds a stance of defending Taiwan’s sovereignty.
In response, Beijing has upped military and political pressures on Taiwan, and its naval vessels, drones and warplanes maintain a near-daily presence around the island.
On Sunday, two days after the drills ended, Taiwan’s defense ministry reported that seven Chinese aircraft, 14 naval vessels and four coast guard ships were “operating around” the island in a 24-hour period ending at 06:00 a.m. (2200 GMT Saturday).


Moldova turns to Russia to seek extradition of convicted politician

Moldova turns to Russia to seek extradition of convicted politician
Updated 26 May 2024
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Moldova turns to Russia to seek extradition of convicted politician

Moldova turns to Russia to seek extradition of convicted politician
  • The Victory bloc, made up of four parties, campaigns with the slogan “No to the EU” and calls for Moldova instead to join the Eurasian Economic Union — a Russian-led regional grouping

CHISINAU: Moldova is now seeking extradition from Russia of an opposition politician convicted of mass fraud after he moved there from exile in Israel, the country’s justice minister said on Saturday.
Ilan Shor, a pro-Russian business magnate, was sentenced last year in absentia to 15 years in prison in connection with the disappearance from the banking system of $1 billion in 2014, dubbed Moldova’s “theft of the century.”
Shor has organized noisy street demonstrations against pro-European President Maia Sandu and urged Moldovans to vote “no” in a referendum authorities have called for October on joining the European Union by 2030.
Justice Minister Veronica-Mihailov Moraru said Moldova would redirect its extradition appeals to Moscow after Shor said he had moved to Russia and announced he had been granted Russian citizenship.
“The justice ministry has not been informed of this by the Russian authorities,” she told TVR Moldova television.
“If we are advised officially that he holds Russian citizenship, we will analyze the circumstances and consider how to act in procedural terms.”
Moldova, an ex-Soviet state lying between Ukraine and Romania, had repeatedly sought Shor’s extradition from Israel.
After his conviction, a party bearing Shor’s name was banned by the Constitutional Court and a new party, called “Chance,” was formed in its place.
Shor is the driving force behind the “Victory” electoral bloc launched last month — in Moscow — to oppose the EU referendum and Sandu’s bid for re-election at a poll to be held on the same date.
He said last week he wanted to become prime minister if a president favorable to his views would nominate him.
Sandu denounces Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and describes Russia and corruption as the biggest threats to her country.
The Victory bloc, made up of four parties, campaigns with the slogan “No to the EU” and calls for Moldova instead to join the Eurasian Economic Union — a Russian-led regional grouping.
It has not yet decided on a candidate to run against Sandu. The opposition Socialists and Communists, also friendly to Moscow, oppose the pro-EU referendum but have shown little inclination to cooperate with Shor and the Victory bloc.