Vladimir Putin’s disappearance is only strange if you’re used to the prying eyes of the Western media

My first article has just appeared in the Independent under the headline above:




Hidden Dragon: China quietly becomes a Major Player in the Middle East

The era of Western neo-colonial dominance in the Middle East may finally be drawing to a bloody close. The Western monopoly ended almost unnoticed in 2013 when China replaced the European Union as the region’s foremost trading partner, pushing the US into third place, with India breathing at America’s heels in fourth. The region was carved up between the victorious European powers in the aftermath of World War I after a long period of economic and social penetration in the 19th century. The United States replaced the European empires as hegemon after World War II, but otherwise little changed; the overriding concern of the Western powers remained securing energy supplies (a major reason for the original British-Saudi alliance signed in 1915).

The oil-rich Gulf states continue to set their economic focus on the United States and Europe well into the twenty-first century. Western states support autocratic Middle Eastern governments when these have backed their oil interests and intervened in the region’s wars whenever it looked as if these interests were threatened. 

The creation of a post-Cold War global marketplace under the American ageis helped broaden China’s economic horizons as it has bootstrapped its way up the global economic ladder. As the post-Iraq collapse of the Middle East’s fragile states has undermined any American comprehensive regional strategy, US policy increasingly seems to be done ‘on the hoof’. This has given China space to increase its political penetration of the Middle East to match its increasing economic clout.

Now China is an advanced economy it has the same need for energy supplies as other developed countries. Her Middle East strategy has already departed from its tradition of global non-intervention, starting in 2010 when it dispatched ships to patrol the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden. More recently it sent a shipment of arms to the Government of South Sudan in June 2014 as the civil war continued there. China had previously heavily invested in the northern Sudanese ‘Arab’ Islamist regime, but has moved quicklyto make new friends in the south as the trend of state disintegration in the greater Middle East gains ground. 

This higher Middle Eastern profile also reflects China’s own changing demographic conditions. Partially as a result of the controversial one-child policy its population has also begun to age, and a smaller generation is expected to follow the post-80s one that built the modern Chinese economy. Although China is likely to remain price-competitive in manufacturing labour costs for a number of years to come the ‘China price’ that allowed it to become a manufacturing giant has slowly begun to rise. Production is already being moved to other developing countries such as Vietnam.

A recent economic slowdown and a population that has rapidly modernized its lifestyles have made the Communist regime pay careful attention to the price and security of China’s oil supplies. Chinese oil demand has long since outstripped its own domestic supplies in the north-east and it has been a net oil importer since 1993. As the Communist central government has long preferred a Saudi-style approach to buying off its population with economic development over a brittle Soviet-style iron fist, reliable oil imports are now a vital prerequisite to curtailing internal dissent. The increased political importance of oil has in turn increased the amount of energy and attention China pays to its Middle Eastern policy.

So, what will a 21st century China policy towards the Middle East look like? Simply because it is a non-Western power one should not assume that the Chinese government’s influence in the Middle East would be selfless or benign.

But I for one highly doubt that China seeks to pursue a mercantilist foreign policy in the Middle East, or thinks of supplanting America as the regional security guarantor there as it wants to in East Asia. Rather I expect Beijing to free-ride on the back of America and try to copy the successful Chinese strategy in extracting commodities in Africa. China has greatly increased its share of the African market through the entrepreneurial energies of individual Chinese firms and by studiously avoiding taking positions on local issues. This strategy has its limits; unregulated Chinese firms’ willingness to bribe officials and to ignore industrial rights and environmental concerns has also sometimes caused a backlash in certain African countries. In the Middle East it will mean China avoidsentangling government to government alliances like the US-Saudi one, limiting its exposure in an unstable part of the world.

Since 2009 China has been the world’s second largest net importer of oil and petroleum products. Her energy dependence on fossil fuels is therefore overwhelming at present. The Chinese government’s main goal is therefore energy security through diversity of supply. In the longer term China will seek to reduce its dependence on foreign gas and oil supplies in favour of nuclear, solar and coal (primarily for its power generation), but for now it buys gas from Crimea-annexing Russia, conducts exploratory oil drills in its neighbours’ waters, and seeks oil contracts from whoever will sell drilling rights.

This does not make China a model international citizen but it allows it to avoid over reliance on Middle Eastern oil. It is an interesting fact that China has never sought to trade security guarantees for energy access in the region. The policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other states has kept it out of Middle Eastern disputes so far, officially even in cases like Sudan and South Sudan. Materially China may give aid to one regime or another, but it is careful never to get too close, or to become too publicly identified with a local ruler, as has been the case with successive British and American proxies. Perhaps that is the secret of its Middle Eastern success to date.

Neil Thompson is a freelance writer who has lived and travelled extensively through East Asia and the Middle East. He holds an MA in the International Relations of East Asia from Durham University, and is now based in London.

The article above is reprinted with kind permission from Juan Cole’s Informed Comment site. You can see the original here.

The BBC Follows Where I lead!

A very interesting BBC article that has many useful facts about the racketeering that funds the current top four most dangerous Sunni insurgent groups in Africa and the Middle East. However it leaves Lebanon’s Hezbollah and North Africa’s ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ off the list, as well as state entities such as the Syrian Shabbat militias. These criminal networks will not disappear at the end of the conflicts that spawned them.

Arab Spring a Windfall for Transnational Crime

Three years after the onset of the Arab Spring, headlines are still focused on the security threat of revolutionary Islamist militant groups. But we may be overlooking the rise of new social forces which are equally threatening to global security: Middle Eastern transnational criminal networks.

In many places, the revolution promised by the Arab Spring has failed or ended half-way. The resulting toxic combination of broken economic and political systems, geographical proximity to lucrative European black markets, and a youthful and often traumatized population is an open invitation for criminal groups to fill the vacuum of state authority. Similar circumstances produced generational crime waves of extraordinary virulence in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Latin America, which those areas are still coping with today. It is quite possible that the Middle East is poised to follow in their footsteps.

What factors expose the Middle East to a rise in the strength and power of organized transnational criminal networks?

There are two ominous sets of factors facilitating their growth: situational factors and recruiting factors. Situational factors are those encouraging the economic growth of organized crime groups, and recruiting factors are those facilitating individuals’ entry into criminal organizations.

Here are some situational factors currently present in the Middle East:

  1. Porous borders & geographical proximity to contraband markets. The Middle East is already a hub for human-trafficking operations to Europe. States such as Lebanon and Morocco have also been major sources of supply and smuggling routes for illegal drugs in the past. Not much has changed in this regard, except perhaps that today distracted regional governments perform an even weaker job of border security.
  2. Penetration/cooperation of existing central & local authorities. Aggravating the region’s unfortunate proximity to the lucrative contraband markets of Europe is a lack of effective governmental authority throughout the Middle East, which fuels the corruption that allows criminal groups to subvert the institutions meant to control them.
  3. A war economy/large black market sector. The prevalence of a large informal economy throughout the region, combined with a growing war economy in certain conflict zones, is a boon to black market operations. The hawala money changing system is one example of informal businesses that can facilitate criminal groups’ opportunities for growth.
  4. Lack of effective law enforcement. Law enforcement in the region, already in an abysmal state, is still politicized and too often focused on persecuting political dissidents or ‘anti-terrorist’ security operations.

And some recruiting factors:

  1. High youth unemployment. The Middle East has a youthful population and persistently low rates of economic growth. Given the low barriers to criminal economic growth outlined above, a flow of recruits to some of the few economic agents offering lucrative employment opportunities is guaranteed.
  2. High availability of military arms and trained individuals. From Russia to Columbia, the demobilization or disbandment of armed organizations has created a pool of individuals who may struggle to adapt to civilian life and who also possess skills useful in the criminal sector. As the Arab Spring fades we will start to see this process in the Middle East. The emergence of Algerian militants as major players in West Africa’s criminal underworld after the end of the Algerian civil war in 2002 is a case in point.
  3. Social and psychological trauma. A rootless and fragmented social situation prevails in parts of the Middle East, where conflict has created many alienated and disturbed individuals. Such dangerous and isolating conditions are fertile ground for the creation of criminal gangs, many of which have their beginnings in partisan groups formed for self-defense, which can provide their members with a sense of belonging.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list; other factors from around the region such as better communications technology and environmental stress (especially on water) could also be added.

The unsettled end of social upheavals are often marked with a crime wave as individuals turn skills learned during war to private use. Given poor economic prospects, a large black market economy and with large numbers of guerrillas, paramilitaries, soldiers and secret policemen looking for new opportunities as the Arab Spring dies down, the chances in the region for an explosive growth of organized crime groups are huge. Central authority in Libya, Iraq and Syria has already broken down; in Egypt, Algeria, and Lebanon it is compromised or weak. In a globalizing world, the networking impulses that have created transnational supply chains for contraband goods stretching thousands of miles are sure to blur the distinctions between state and non-state actor, law enforcer, rebel and criminal.

The persistence of tribal or clan-based identities in much of the region does geographically limit some present criminal operations to their group’s territory, for example the farming families involved in the drug trade in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Yet Lebanon has also produced the clandestine-organized, highly-structured and certainly international Hezbollah movement, one of the world’s most sophisticated and successful non-state actors. If modern Middle Eastern societies are able to create high functioning transnational militant networks, their criminal elements are clearly capable of doing the same. There is no reason to suppose the emergence of factors favorable to the growth of mafia-type groups in the region will not spread to impact on the West in the future. Globalization means that while our decisions still have a huge impact on conditions in the Middle East, that process is a two-way street today.

Alas, the present conflation of Middle Eastern criminal activity with Islamic terrorist networks hampers Westerners’ ability to recognize today’s preexisting regional organized crime rings as independent agents. Unlike their Latin American, Italian, Balkan and ‘Eurasian’ (FSU) cousins, Middle Eastern criminal enterprises attract little Western attention. They are often still the poor cousins of security threats, their illegal activities cloaked beneath the aegis of hostile regional governments or militant groups. But the day is coming when they will no longer need their sponsors and can form their own independent organizations. If the Western intelligence community is not to be taken by surprise as it was by Eurasian organized crime in the 1990s, it would do well to start preparing some hefty files now on Middle Eastern underworld figures. They may soon need them.

This article is a re-posting of the original article published at Geopolitical Monitor.

Future Foreign Policy Published My First Contribution!

I will be a member of the Future Foreign Policy (FFP) editorial team for the forseeable future. The kind folks over at have already put up a new article by me on their website. This may mean a break in regular blogging, but I won’t neglect the site entirely. Any new work will get a mention here, together with a link to where it is posted.

Pragmatic Disengagement and Islamic Democracy

When many Westerners think of the Middle East today they tend to see a region gripped by religious and sectarian violence. Within Sunni Islam there is a struggle over religious authenticity, while secular governments in places like Egypt, Algeria and Syria face armed opposition to their rule by Islamist extremists. Meanwhile, much of the violence in long-running civil wars has taken on a sectarian nature, both between different strands of Islam and against religious minorities. Sometimes this has been encouraged as a deliberate divide-and-rule strategy by embattled regimes and, as in the case of Syria, the categories often overlap. What all the conflicts are perceived to have in common is the participation of inflexible and fanatical groups of fighters dogmatically opposed to the further modernization and Westernization of their home countries.

Should any of these groups seize power, it is feared that they will impose a backwards-looking theocratic form of governance across the spaces that they dominate, and will trample on the human rights of vulnerable groups such as religious minorities or women. The panacea for this in the eyes of many Western citizens is to temper religious fervor by separating it from politics and implementing a secular and liberal democratic system of government. However, no Middle Eastern state has yet to obtain such a system by its own efforts, while Western attempts to enact nation-building have so far ended in failure. Consequently, Western policymakers have tended to back authoritarian governments as a bulwark against fundamentalist rule.

The chronic weakness of state authority in the Middle East, coupled with the flourishing of extremist movements, once helped to maintain this ‘strongman’ model of governance. Yet, even in the face of political Islam’s enduring appeal in Muslim societies, this strategy is now regarded at best as a stop-gap measure rather than a long-term solution to the region’s myriad problems. The default Western response to this double-sided problem has been to propose the transfer of functions performed by some religious organizations (for example healthcare) over to a stronger state. Under this scenario, religious groups would cease to perform political functions and the state would guarantee their freedom to practice their beliefs without interference. Islamic movements are thus seen as an obstacle to better state capability as well as challengers to its monopoly on force and violence. As a consequence, attempts by local rulers or outsiders, to modernize, secularize and centralize the Middle East have quite often resulted in a religious backlash.

Towards Religious Democracies

But what if the West’s secular state model is a merely a product of its own historically violent struggles with modernity in the 17th century? Up until this point in time, the very idea that religious authority should have no place in the political system of a European state would have been controversial to say the least – just as it is in parts of the modern day Middle East. But the creation of democratic systems in Indonesia and Turkey help to disprove the notion that Muslim or Middle Eastern cultures are incapable of living under systems of governance inextricably linked to the West.

For the likes of Turkey and Tunisia, democratic transformation occurred after decades of secularist dictatorship or military coups. The price for Islamist participation in the political process was the promise not to pursue a theocratic or one-party model of government once in power. Only then did both the secular and religious sections of these societies agree to be bound by the results of future elections. By contrast, when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood gambled that they could rule alone through electoral majoritarianism, they lost and a more familiar form of government returned.

These scenarios, in turn, suggest that while the Middle East’s secularists cannot keep the influence of Islamist organizations completely in check, Islamists are seemingly unable to monopolize power without resorting to the same type of oppression that discredited their republican or monarchical enemies. In this respect, democratic elections might offer a third path. However, developing organic and sustainable democratic processes undoubtedly takes time. Indeed, the collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing a dictator does not immediately create the conditions for political transformation. If anything, the ongoing travails within these countries helps to reinforce that the Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonization began a mere five or six decades ago – a predicament that bears some resemblance to the century of nation-building associated with German or Italian unification.

And when it comes to nation-building in Europe, it must also be remembered that political change in the West has quite often been violent and inconsistent. Even the most pacific Western democracies are less than a hundred years old. Indeed, at two hundred and thirty-eight years old, the United States could be viewed as a venerable patriarch. Accordingly, we should not distort the growth of groups like Islamic State as an inevitable consequence of political Islam’s rise to power once a secular dictatorship is removed. It should also be remembered that most Islamist movements remain locally-focused in their political objectives and have condemned violence as a political tool.

Stop Taking Sides

The emergence of democratic states in other parts of the Islamic world suggests that they can also emerge in Arab and Middle Eastern states. However, it is also highly likely that any indigenous political group that attains significant popularity under these systems will be influenced by Islam. This is in much the same way as many Western political parties are influenced by Christian frameworks and assumptions, such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. And just as Western politicians have to be in favor of ideals such as “freedom” or “democracy“, leaders in Muslim-majority countries also have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Invoking Islam is both a legitimizing measure and a short-cut to the communication of ideas. Even secular Middle Eastern political parties will have observant members.

Most Islamist movements also offer programs of action that do not necessarily threaten the West. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s determination to secure power via democratic processes diverges with the aims of groups like IS or Al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra. Consequently, the West’s ‘tolerance’ of the removal of elected Islamist political movements by force could be regarded as a strategic blunder that has helped to encourage jihadist narratives of victimization. The recent killing of al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is a case in point. While this Somali militant group’s profile has undoubtedly increased over the past few years, it could be argued that its rise to prominence was facilitated by the overthrow of its more locally-focused predecessor in a US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. By being seen to take sides in inter-Muslim disputes and colluding against fundamentalists with their local enemies, the West might have indirectly encouraged more extreme forms of Islamism.

Democratic Islamism Will Lead to Accountability

It might even have been wiser to leave these movements alone so that they can discredit themselves locally, much like the Iranian or Sudanese regimes have over the years. In this respect, have Tehran and Khartoum behaved any worse than the Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution-era China or today’s Gulf monarchies? It’s a question worth thinking about, given that the West managed to co-exist (or even aligned) with all these governments for decades. Indeed, China’s example shows that the need to tackle mounting social problems slowly brings out the pragmatism in the most extreme of movements. Even an Islamic movement in power inevitably leans to pragmatism as part of its bid to survive in government. Since 2002, the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated Turkey’s domestic politics not because of its iron grip on culture and society, but mainly because it delivered on solid economic growth. This, in turn, gave it the legitimacy to defang Turkey’s coup-prone army, a feat that no previous elected government had managed to achieve.

Indeed, elections offer a fresh source of legitimacy for groups that have become popular through religious advocacy or offering social services. They provide a future goal around which supporters can be mobilized. Revolutionary parties which have relied on battlefield victories for their legitimacy have to adapt or lose ground when elections start to become more important. Once Islamic parties have to focus on practical problems such as healthcare and economic growth, they either lose much of their crusading zeal or risk their political credibility and relevance. It’s even possible that Iran might go through such a transformation in the coming decades.

No Quick Fixes

The key to separating religion and government in the region, and therefore creating a stronger Middle Eastern state, might be to tolerate religion governing through the state. By exposing the shortcomings of this model, democracy might consolidate its status faster in the Middle East as its political elites lose another vehicle for mobilizing public support. Electorally successful Islamic parties will moderate and their methodologies will be copied elsewhere. Consequently, it might be better if the West practiced a policy of pragmatic disengagement towards those countries now electing Islamist political parties. If it neither helps nor hinders the process of change, it cannot be held responsible for the outcome. This strategy is not a quick fix for the problems of the Middle East today, but it might be among the most enduring.

Re-posted from the ISN Security Watch blog.