Monday, 30 May 2016

Dawn of an optimistic change or escalation of a warfare?

       Final six months of his Presidency and President Barack Obama is on a mission to showcase, establish and promote his legacy. Since a long time now, legacy certainly has been a major work-item for the US Presidents during the last days of their Presidential tenure. And with the international geo-politics changing rapidly, the volatility of this generational shift can be treated any way but ignored. With this thought and to hand-over a stable balance of allies and adversaries to his successor, President Barack Obama visited Saudi Arabia for the fourth and probably the last time as a US President. A state visit to Saudi Arabia was the first leg of his three-nation tour followed by Great Britain and Germany. All three countries, the US allies, planned strategically for an important and final visit would provide a solid foundation in difficult times, which considering the present situation seems unavoidable.

The US-Saudi partnership has been an indispensable chunk of the global politics for last 60+ years. The United States depended heavily on Saudi Arabia for oil and the dominance it brings as its by-product. Saudi has in-turn been indebted to the United States for the massive amount of foreign currency it draws from the oil’s trade. Their alliance has been a major player for past decades that have turned the equations of international relations and diplomacy upside-down. Political pundits have framed this alliance as a business relationship. The US has also been a known catalyst for Saudi’s dominance in the Middle-East. The kingdom has been a prime customer for US weapons and with US’s defense support, it has tried to establish its clout over the entire region. Saudi has been a bed-partner of the United State’s foreign policy’s Middle-East version. May it be al-Qaeda or the Iran-Iraq war, this duo has been hand-in-glove. The amount of US money and willingness Saudi has funneled via Pakistan for uplifting Afghan forces against the Soviet army in Afghanistan way back in late 1980’s cannot be sidelined. To cut it short, Saudi has been a power-booster for the United States considering the Middle-East. But this relation has been through some dark-phases for last few years. What once was a merry state-of-affair has now been a play of suspicion, political and business deals.

The Iran nuclear deal has spelled trouble for Saudi Arabia. Iran agreeing to shut-off its controversial nuclear facilities and allowing the UN inspectors to inspect the nuclear sites gave Iran a cushion in terms of economic growth and stability. The back-channeling by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Affairs minister Javed Zarif is vital to the Middle-East. With the deal sealed by the United States, it gave Iran access to its frozen assets in the foreign banks and allowed them to get their oil in the free market. Iran’s economy taking up a shape, its oil in the global market is not a good sign for Saudi Arabia who has been a top-dominant player in the oil market. The plummeting oil prices have been a headache for the kingdom since last two years and this problem has worsened with Iran’s oil. On the other hand, Iran free from the economic restrictions has pulled out its oil like never before. It also plans to increase its oil production by double in a year. Amid such a tensed phase, Air Force One landed on the tarmac of Riyadh’s King Khalid International airport. Unlike the representatives and the heads of Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain who were welcomed by the Royal family members and their arrival was telecasted live on the Saudi national television channel, President Obama was greeted and welcomed with a lukewarm enthusiasm by the Governor of Riyadh and his arrival was not telecasted!

President Obama met Salman bin Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud the King of Saudi Arabia for about two hours. Not a single deal or new agreement was announced despite this meeting of two powerful leaders. Obama also met with the heads or representatives of Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain during a Gulf Countries Council (GCC) meeting at Riyadh. These countries with a Sunni dominance (except Oman) voiced their concerns about the rising supremacy of Iran in Middle-East. Saudi is at the epicenter of this issue. The entire lifestyle of the royal kingdom floats on oil. Saudi is world’s top oil producer and oil certainly is the major and sole bread-winner for the kingdom. The oil prices which once rose up to $110 per barrel now land in a bracket of $45-$50 per barrel. This cost reduction has hit the kingdom hard. Its official debt of last financial year is $100 billion. Global economists have predicted somewhat similar situation for this financial year. The on-going proxy wars in Yemen and Syria are costing too much for Iran and Saudi. Both countries have been regular suppliers of money and weapons in Yemen and Syria. The race for this regional dominance has compelled them to buy weapons of worth $33 billion in last 11 months. And with a prestige that is involved in these proxy-wars, it is impossible for both Saudi and Iran to back-out now. For this very reason, ignoring the requests from OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) Iran and Saudi have denied to cut-down their oil production. This oil-fight, down-the-line will cost the entire region badly. This complete situation has been directly proportional to their economies and common livelihood which is reflected in the score of refugees who are crossing the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe for a better life. Obama was shrewd enough to convey a message that these countries need to resolve their conflicts among themselves.

A peep into the Saudi kingdom tells a story that is not as glorifying as the facade the kingdom carries. King Salman is 80 now. And midst of this turmoil of ‘Arab Uprising’, Saudi has been a stable nation. But things are not as easy as they meet our eyes. Subsidiaries enforced on fuel and cooking gas for the Saudi citizens is a past now. The unemployment rate is rising and the per month income gradually going down. The country that is heavily dependent on oil as its major income source now needs to look out-of-the-box if it needs to survive. Considering a worse future situation, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) who is the Saudi Defense minister is taking bold steps to get his country out of this doom. MbS aged 30 is the son of King Salman and is the youngest Defense Minister of the world. He is also chief of the House of Saud royal court and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs. He is considered to be the driving force of his father. He is also the deputy Crown Prince of the kingdom and inline to the succession after Mohammad bin Nayef. (MbN) In a recent interview, MbS said that he is planning to sell out shares of ‘Aramco’ – the oil company of the Saudi royal family with an estimated worth of $380 billion. He also has plans to offer public investment in the private sector of the country. With his influence, he has appointed new Oil minister and is calling for fresh helm throughout the government. The newly appointed Oil minister has been asked to take appropriate measures and to produce new jobs and revenue from alternative sources of energy. MbS is considered to be a dark-horse and his actions depict so. His ‘Reformation 2030 – taking economy beyond oil’ vision is an ambitious plan. He is not much a favored figure in the west. And being too young to be in global politics, he is less preferred over MbN. MbN is considered to be stable by temperament, visionary and ‘darling’ among the western powers. After King Salman, the power will be transferred to the second generation for the first time in the country’s history which will also shed some light on the Saudi ‘Game of throne’!

The US Congress has passed a bill that allows the families of victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi kingdom as traitors. President Obama has said that he will veto this bill. But, if not so, Saudi has threatened to liquidate its investments of $750 in the USA. Saudi no matter what happens has to understand that it cannot dominate, call for a proxy or a direct war and influence the Middle-East without the USA standing beside. This being also one of the many reasons, President Obama visited Saudi Arabia. The country’s importance in international relations is beyond oil. Midst the rapidly changing politics of Middle-East, the foreign agenda of Saudi cannot be ignored. And with the power shift that we are about to witness, the equation of this entire region revolves around this new, young, fresh and aggressive leadership of the royal kingdom. This blended with the situation on the ground will define the fate of the region and eventually the diplomacy around the world. Saudi is at the right center of this global hot-spot. A slight margin of error reading its moves and we are into amass danger!

                                                                                                                                                         - Vazir

The Marathi version of this article was published in the Editorial section (page 6) of 'Sakal' dated Friday, 29th April 2016.

बदलांची नांदी की अराजकतेची चाहूल ?

       गेल्या आठवड्यात अमेरिकी अध्यक्ष बराक ओबामा यांनी सौदी अरेबिया, ब्रिटन आणि जर्मनी या तीन देशांचा दौरा केला. या दौऱ्यातील पहिला टप्पा सौदी होता. ओबामा प्रशासनाचे अखेरचे काही महिने शिल्लक राहिले असताना प्राध्यान्यक्रमावर हाती घेतलेल्या या दौऱ्याला आपसूकच महत्त्व होते. गेल्या ६०हून अधिक वर्षांमध्ये अमेरिका-सौदीने जागतिक पटलावर आपल्या व्यवहारिक बांधिलकीने अनेकांच्या नाकी नऊ आणले. मात्र, वस्तुस्थिती पाहता अमेरिकीने आपला तेलाचा स्वार्थ आणि तेलाच्या बदल्यात अमेरिकेकडून सौदी राजघराण्याला मिळणारी राक्षसी संपत्ती या धंदेवाईक बांधिलकीच्या समझोत्यावर हे संबंध टिकले.
(L-R) US President Barack Obama,
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef,
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman
Image credit - Google
जगभरातील सर्वात मोठा तेलसाठा असलेल्या सौदीतून तेल उपसत असताना अमेरिकेने सौदीला मुबलक शस्त्र विकून मध्य-पूर्वेच नेतृत्व करण्याबाबत कान फुंकले. सुमारे २६ वर्षांपूर्वी अफगाणिस्तानात जोर वाढवू पाहणाऱ्या सोव्हियत फौजांना धूळ चारण्यासाठी सौदी, पाकिस्तानमार्गे जन्माला घातलेली अल-कायदा ते आत्ता हिंसेचा कळस गाठणारी 'इस्लामिक स्टेट', या संपूर्ण दहशतवादी प्रवासात अमेरिकेच्या धोरणांना बळ देणारा सौदी हा सोबती आहे. या सर्व घटनांवर मग या दोन्ही देशांनी मित्रत्वाचा मुलामा दिला आहे. मात्र, गेल्या काही वर्षात हे संबंध ताणले गेले आहेत. मित्रत्वाची जागा आता संशयाने घेतली आहे. 

मध्य-पूर्वेबाबत फसलेल पर-राष्ट्रीय धोरण आणि कमी वेळ राहिला असताना आपल्या राष्ट्राध्यक्ष प्रतिमेची छबी प्रस्थापित करण्यासाठी ओबामा रियाधमध्ये चौथ्यांदा आणि कदाचित अखेरच्या भेटीसाठी डेरेदाखल झाले. सौदीचे राजे सलमान बिन अब्दुल अजीज इब्न सौद यांच्याशी सुमारे २ तास चर्चा आणि बहरीन, कुवेत, कतार, ओमान, संयुक्त अरब अमिराती, सौदी या ६ देशांच्या प्रतिनिधींसोबत ओबामांनी बैठक घेतली. या भेटीच्या तपशीलाचा अभ्यास करता त्यातून कुठलीही नवी घोषणा झाल्याचे दिसत नाही. गेल्या वर्षी शियाबहुल इराणवरील आर्थिक निर्बंध उठवत अमेरिकेने इराणला तेलाच्या मुक्त बाजारात पुन्हा प्रवेश दिला आणि इराणेतर सर्व सुन्नी देशांचे पित्त खवळले. या बैठकीत ओमान सोडता हे सर्व सुन्नीबहुल देश होते. त्यात सौदी या सर्वांचा कैवारी. त्यांनी ओबामांसमोर आखतात हालचाल वाढवलेल्या इराणविरोधात गळा काढायला सुरुवात केली. मात्र, 'आयसीस' ला चेपण्याच्या उद्देशाने आलेल्या ओबामांनी बैठकीचा सूर ओळखत इराण-सौदी हा देशपातळीवरचा आणि शिया-सुन्नी हा पंथाभेदातला वाद चर्चेतून सोडवावा हा डोस पाजून काढता पाय घेतला. यातील सौदीला होत असलेला त्रास स्वाभाविक आहे. सर्व सौदी साम्राज्य आणि त्याचा थाट तेलावर तरंगतो. ११० डॉलर प्रती बॅरल वरून आज तेलाचे दर सुमारे ४० डॉलरवर आले आहेत. यात इराणचे तेल जागतिक बाजारपेठेत येउन हे भाव अजून खाली जात आहेत. या तेलउत्पादक देशांनी तेलाच्या नळांना आवळण्याचे शहाणपण न दाखवल्यामुळे हे तेल-युद्ध येत्या काळात पेटण्याची शक्यता आहे. थेट युद्ध नाही करण्याचे धोरण अवलंबत इराण आणि सौदीने, येमेन, सीरिया आणि लिबियामधील आपापल्या समर्थक गटांना रसद पुरवून छुप युद्धतंत्र हाती घेतल आहे. या उद्योगामुळे गेल्या अकरा महिन्यात ३३ अब्ज अमेरिकी डॉलर एवढ्या चक्रावणाऱ्या किंमतींची शस्त्र आखतात विकली गेली आहेत. त्यामुळे 'आयसीस'ला ठेचणे बाजूला, पण वर्चस्वाच्या लढाईत हे देश जास्त पैसा ओतत आहेत. याचा थेट परिणाम त्यांच्या अर्थव्यवस्थेला आणि जनजीवनाला बसतोय.
US President Barack Obama with the leaders of
Gulf Countries Council (GCC) at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Image credit - Google
युरोपकडे वाढलेलं स्थलांतर हे याच दुष्परिणामाचे परिमाण आहे. तेलाच्या गडगडलेल्या भावामुळे अंगोलासारखे तुलनेने छोटे तेलउत्पादक देश आता कर्जासाठी आंतरराष्ट्रीय नाणेनिधीचे दार वाजवत आहेत. सौदीची २०१५मधील आर्थिक तूट सुमारे १०० अब्ज डॉलर होती. यंदादेखील तीच परिस्थिती असेल असे आर्थिक विश्लेषक सांगतात. हजारो कोटी डॉलरचे प्रकल्प हाती घेतले असताना आणि प्रजेला तेल सोडून इतर मोठे उत्पन्नाचे साधन नसताना सौदीच्या पायाखालची वाळू सरकली आहे. सौदीचे राजे सलमान यांचे पुत्र आणि संरक्षण मंत्री मोहम्मद बिन सलमान यांनी आता सौदी राजघराण्याची कुबेर-श्रीमंत कंपनी 'अराम्को'चे काही शेअर विकण्याचा मनसुबा बोलून दाखवला आहे. ३० वर्षीय मोहम्मद बिन सलमान आता आपल्या ८० वर्षीय पित्याऐवजी मोठे निर्णय घेत आहेत. इराणला जवळ करून सौदीला चुचकारणे आणि येमेनमधील सौदी हवाई हल्ल्यांना मदत करणे अशी दुहेरी खेळी अमेरिका सौदीसोबत खेळत आहे. या कात्रीत आणि अंतर्गत पेचात सौदी अडकला आहे. सीरियात बशर अल-असद यांच सरकार जाऊन लोकशाही स्थापन व्हावी अशी आग्रहाची मागणी करणारा सौदी आपल्या देशात कधी लोकशाही स्थापन करणार असा प्रश्न जाणकार विचारत आहेत. त्यात अमेरिकी काँग्रेसने ९/११च्या पीडितांच्या नातेवाईकांना थेट सौदी राजघराण्याला न्यायालयात खेचण्याचे बिल आणले आहे. तसे झाल्यास आपली ७५० अब्ज डॉलरची अमेरिकेतील गुंतवणूक काढून घेऊ असे सौदीने ठणकावले आहे. यावरून देखील अमेरिका-सौदी संबंध बिघडले आहेत. मात्र असे केल्यास त्यांचाच तोटा असल्याचे दिसते. अमेरिकेचा पाठिंबा नसता सौदी आखतात कोणाशीच उघड वैर घेऊ शकणार नाही, हे सत्य म्हणावे लागेल. 

सौदी अरेबियाचा एकंदर आवाका लक्षात घेता हा देश नुसता तेलापुरता मर्यादित नाही याची व्यवहारिक जाणीव ओबामांना आहे. याच विचाराच्या अनुषंगाने त्यांनी सौदी भेटीची आखणी केली होती.
US President Barack Obama with Saudi King Salman
bin Abdul Aziz Ibn SaudImage credit - Google
एका विस्फोटक व्यवस्थेचे बीज रोवणाऱ्या अख्ख्या मध्य-पूर्वेच भविष्यकालीन पर-राष्ट्रीय धोरण सौदी राजघराण्याच्या नव्या नेतृत्वावर, आक्रमक तडजोडींवर आणि प्रासंगिक निर्णयांना केंद्रस्थानी ठेऊन पिंगा घालेल असे स्पष्टपणे दिसते. ही समोर येउन ठेपलेली अशी अवघडलेली वेळ त्या संपूर्ण प्रदेशामधील नव्या समीकरणांची प्रसवती वेळ असण्याची दाट शक्यता आहे. आणि म्हणूनच अश्या शक्यतेला शिरसावंद ठेवत तुम्हाला-आम्हाला या आखाती पट्ट्यामुळे झपाट्याने बदलणाऱ्या आंतरराष्ट्रीय राजकारणावर बारीक लक्ष ठेवावे लागेल. 

                                                                                                                                                     - वज़ीर

हा लेख शुक्रवार, २९ एप्रिल २०१६च्या 'सकाळ' मध्ये संपादकीय पानावर (पान ६) छापण्यात आला.

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