UN General Assembly
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Two Weeks At The United Nations: A New Regional Order Taking Shape
By Raghida Dergham in New York
Over the past two weeks, the UN General Assembly witnessed a historic event that soon became the focus of diplomats and the media equally. The event was none other than the address by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the international community, demanding full membership for Palestine at the United Nations, in what has proven to be a stand for pride and one that has changed the balance of power at numerous levels, both regionally and internationally. Yet the Palestinian episode did not alone engross the heads of state and ministers. The bilateral meetings also reflected tremendous interest in what is taking place, in terms of the birth of a new regional order in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Awakening and the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, in addition to the events in Bahrain.
Turkey and Iran are also both essential when it comes to determining the fate of the new regional order, but this does not mean that Arab countries, and in particular the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are absent in this vein either. Lebanon, too, is important for the genesis of this new order, inasmuch as it is affected by the Syrian regime surviving or collapsing. This is not to mention the impact such a collapse would have on Damascus’s main ally, i.e. the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will in turn decide the fate of Lebanon through its intimate ties with Hezbollah.
While Palestine is the shining star at the United Nations these days, the issue of Syria is returning strongly to the Security Council this week, and will reveal the nature of the developments taking place in terms of the relations among major powers and key regional powers in the Middle East. Such new developments carry important implications, especially as Syria is the crucial part, or the linchpin, of the new regional order in the Middle East.
But first, a few important moments from the day Mahmoud Abbas addressed the General Assembly, on September 23: That day, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in a semi-secret location, disclosed only in the 11th hour, anticipating the press to rally to his annual press conference. But Ahmadinejad was compelled to postpone his event, as the international press was not preoccupied with him this time, but rather with the Palestinian President. Ahmadinejad had been the star of past General Assembly sessions, and had enjoyed the limelight, but his stardom has been seriously undermined at the 66th session, and this shows two things: One, that Iran influence and role at the regional and international levels are on the decline, and two, that international focus on Iran’s nuclear program is waning.
On that day, an unfortunate incident also took place in the General Assembly Hall, while Mahmoud Abbas was giving his historic speech, and almost ended up with shots being fired there, something that has never happened before. What happened was that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was rushing from a bilateral meeting on the fourth floor of the General Assembly building to the General Assembly Hall, accompanied as usual by a massive number of private guards, in order to listen to the Palestinian President who had just begun his speech. It happened that the UN guards blocked the way for Erdoğan and his guards, advising them to head to the second floor, since there isn’t an entrance leading from the fourth to the first floor, where the heads of delegations were seated. However, Erdoğan’s guards thought that their UN counterparts were trying to prevent the Prime Minister of Turkey from entering the hall, and the situation escalated to a standoff. An altercation ensued, prompting some speculation that anti-Palestinian elements were trying to disrupt the Palestinian President’s speech from the fourth floor, a floor reserved for guests, not official delegations. Turkish arrogance thus resulted in three UN guards, including a woman, being hospitalized. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who wished to avoid a diplomatic crisis, rushed to apologize before finding out the truth about what happened, prompting reservations and criticism, especially as he had acted before investigating the incident.
The Turkish delegation also attracted attention during this session when Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu asked the Secretary-General for the Turkish language to be adopted as one of the UN’s official languages. This is while bearing in mind that Arabic is an official language at the UN alongside English, French, Russian and Chinese. In short, what took place in the General Assembly Hall while the Palestinian President was giving his historic speech came close to ruining Palestine’s day, if a shot had been fired.
Before delving into an analysis of the roles played by Turkey and the stardom of its Prime Minister at the 66th session, let us return to what took place on September 23 outside the UN, when surprisingly, the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he was undergoing treatment, and returned unexpectedly to Yemen.
The prevailing belief among various official parties, in the region and beyond, was that Saleh had been under near house arrest in Saudi Arabia, with a view to avert the bloodshed his return to Yemen could result in, and also as a way of forcing him to implement the Gulf initiative. The latter requires him to step down and his Deputy Abd Al-Rab Mansur Al-Hadi to take charge of running the transitional period and overseeing the elections.
The account given by one major leader of the regime, who is from the diplomatic corps, is that Ali Abdullah Saleh has returned to Yemen in order to prevent his two sons from harassing his Deputy. His son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guard, succeeded in excluding Al-Hadi from the Presidential Palace, forcing him to work from his home, so as to make it clear to all those concerned who is truly in charge in the country. The story is that Ali Abdullah Saleh has returned to stop his sons from harassing the Vice President, before returning to the KSA to continue his treatment.
There are numerous holes in this story, yet that is not what is most important. What is most important is the Saudi role in Saleh’s return to Yemen. It is said that the values of hospitality made Saleh’s departure a decision he was free to make, but the fact of the matter is that there are political factors that contributed to the decision of allowing him to return. Some of the most prominent of these include: First, increased fears from Al-Qaeda in Yemen and the belief that Saleh’s return would keep Al-Qaeda in check at the military level; second, fear of the Vice President’s weakness and inability to control the situation at this delicate stage, which could lead to frightening chaos; third, the fragmented state of the opposition and fears of the repercussions of such fragmentation. All of this does not negate the possibility that the story might be true, which would mean for the Yemeni President the major achievement of reining in his sons, then returning to the KSA for treatment, and later implementing the Gulf initiative. Yet today, it seems most plausible that Saleh is still stalling and that his stay in Yemen is aimed at reducing the pressures being put on him. This begs the following question: did the US Administration sanction in advance the Saudi decision to allow Saleh to leave, for the same reasons, or was Washington truly shocked by this development?
On the issue of Libya, the difficult hour has come, after the celebrations of the victory of the opposition and the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) over the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The time for the big test has come. The Libyan experiment will not be completed successfully as long as mechanisms of monitoring and accountability have not been put in place, mechanisms that would ensure that corruption will not return, especially in oil and construction contracts. There is also the element of foreign– including Arab – interference in shaping the nature of government in the new Libya. Some want it to be Islamic and others want it to be secular. Yet there are complaints of the “heavy-handedness” of some Gulf countries, which have helped and contributed to getting rid of the Gaddafi regime in a greater, more profound and more prominent way. Qatar denies having interfered to such an extent, yet it must be aware that there are complaints of its “heavy-handedness” in managing Libya.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, a major Gulf country is working on helping Palestine avoid being embarrassed, if it truly emerges that it will not obtain the nine votes necessary for the Security Council to adopt the resolution granting it full membership in the United Nations, as requested by the Palestinian President. At the outset of the Palestinian bid, it was clear that the United States would use its veto to preclude the Security Council adopting such a resolution. Yet today, there is an increasing belief that the Palestinian application will not even obtain the nine votes needed, sparing the United States the need to cast its veto. And this, in the opinion of several countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will represent an insult and a setback for Palestine.
Efforts are therefore underway to convince the Palestinian President of accepting to postpone a draft resolution requesting Palestine’s membership at the level of the Security Council, until the General Assembly votes on a resolution with a secured outcome, granting Palestine “non-member observer status” at the United Nations.
It should be pointed out here that Mahmoud Abbas is not limiting the scope of his entire strategy to obtaining membership or “observer” status for Palestine at the UN. He in fact has a much broader political horizon, and he has placed the US Administration, European governments, Russia and the UN before difficult challenges.
As for the Syrian issue, it has engrossed a large part of the movement of Gulf countries in bilateral and multilateral meetings, on the sidelines of the General Assembly at the United Nations, including the meeting that brought together Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Foreign Minister of the UAE Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The latter is an expert diplomat who is difficult to deal with and who is forceful in his opinions and stances. Among his most prominent complaints about how the Syrian issue is being dealt with, is that European governments had not taken his opinion into account and did not inform him of the bilateral sanctions imposed by the European Union against Syria. He also wants the Security Council to place equal responsibility on the government and on the opposition for the violence.
Turkey for its part is stepping up its rhetoric as well as its actions on the ground, and there is increasing talk of taking tangible steps to support the opposition across the Turkish-Syrian border with weapons and equipment. The Turkish leadership, though Erdoğan himself, has warned Iran of the consequences of its support for the Syrian authorities and their crackdown on the protesters.
The new regional order is taking shape at several levels and in different milestones. It could take six months or a year, but there is no going back to what the old regional order was in the Middle East.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 30/09/2011