The 74th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations opened Tuesday, 24 September, amidst rising tensions in the Middle East and the Gulf. Two dates preceded the inauguration of this session that would have an impact on future developments in these two regions.
On 14 September, Saudi oil installations came under direct attack in a brazen escalation of an already tense security situation in the Gulf.
On 17 September, Israel held its second general election in less than six months — a first in the history of the Hebrew state — that saw the Blue and White Party garnering 34 seats while the Likud gained 32. It was political gridlock at a time when the world is awaiting the announcement by the White House of its “Deal of the Century” to reach a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Compared to last year, the two regions were still mired in conflicts without any political solution on the horizon. This year and one day before the start of the 74th Session, the UN secretary general announced the good and encouraging news that the Syrian government and other Syrian stakeholders in Syria had finally agreed on the establishment of the Constitutional Commission that would be tasked with supervising the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015. In this respect, the foreign ministers of the Small Group on Syria (Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States) met 26 September and welcomed the establishment of the said commission. They reaffirmed that there can be no military solution to the conflict in Syria — only a political one. They expressed their support for the efforts of the secretary general’s special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, to implement UNSC Resolution 2254.
Otherwise, things have remained the same, save in Libya where a dangerous military stalemate has persisted since April. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, France and Germany (the E3) released a statement in New York in which the three powers blamed Iran for the attacks of 14 September in Saudi Arabia. The United States already singled out Iran. It vowed to continue its strategy of maximum pressure against Tehran till the day Iran ceases what the US administration has called “its destabilising behaviour” that threatens the Middle East, as well as freedom of navigation in the Gulf and global energy supplies. The US administration even turned down a peace proposal by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before the General Assembly convened. These positions vis-à-vis Iran went hand-in-hand with the deployment of more American forces to the Gulf and the deployment of additional American-made Patriot anti-missile systems to provide deterrence against Iran and defend Saudi Arabia against further attacks.
In this regard, US President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met on the sidelines of the 74th Session with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and highlighted the importance of regional coordination to confront challenges in the region, including Iran.
In parallel, the ongoing war in Yemen was one of the questions that galvanised the attention of the world body. After four years of destruction and mayhem that have caused one of the worst humanitarian disasters after World War II, United Nations efforts have yet to bear fruit. Yemen has become a quagmire for all sides in the war. No one side has the military capacity to impose its will on the battlefield. The key to the peaceful resolution of the conflict lies probably outside Yemen itself. If the Americans, the Saudis and the Iranians could agree, at least, in principle, as a first step, on a modus vivendi in the Gulf and in Arabia, the chances are that this war could come to an end.
However, the political will to reach this understanding has not materialised yet. The Yemen donors met in New York to review the level of funding necessary to continue providing humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people.
The situation in Libya, which has worsened since the 73rd General Assembly, was the subject of intense discussions and figured prominently in the remarks of some heads of state who delivered remarks before the General Assembly. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, for instance, reaffirmed Egypt’s support for the efforts of Ghassan Salame, the UN special envoy to Libya, and criticised regional intervention in Libya. He said that the Security Council had approved in a special meeting in September 2017 a plan for a political solution in Libya. He stressed that Egypt had adhered to this plan while insisting on the need to fight terrorism and terrorist groups within Libya.
The US administration has insisted that all actors in the Libyan conflict should respect the arms embargo in Libya and warned that terrorism, sooner or later, will end up being exported beyond Libyan borders. It has renewed its call for a ceasefire, stressing that the only way forward is the implementation of the UN plan for the reunification of Libyan state institutions.
American officials welcomed the meeting that Germany will host in a very short time in an attempt to push Libyan leaders to sincerely implement the UN plan for Libya.
Needless to say, Arab countries, including Egypt, have stressed the importance of reaching peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, emphasising that peace between the two sides would unlock opportunities for regional cooperation across the Middle East. The Egyptian president was more emphatic in this regard when he made a clear and an unambiguous linkage between the establishment of an independent Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the creation of what he termed as a “security and an economic system” in the Middle East. It is interesting to note, in this context, that this is the first time that Egypt has made such a linkage.
On the other hand, and as far as Egypt is concerned, the 74th General Assembly saw the Egyptian president bring up differences between Ethiopia and Egypt concerning the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. He stressed — and emphatically at that — that Nile waters for Egypt are a question of “survival” and a matter of right.
The internationalisation of the Egyptian-Ethiopian water crisis has added another sensitive question before the UN General Assembly, in addition to the host of complex conflicts above. How Middle Eastern allies of Egypt will deal with it is another question.
It is difficult to predict how the Middle East will look one year from now when the next ordinary session of the UN General Assembly convenes. Judging from the meetings that took place in New York in the last two weeks and the positions expressed, we should entertain a guarded optimism that, maybe, the political will necessary among great and regional powers to carry out UN resolutions pertaining to regional conflicts will grow stronger and irreversible, so that peace and security becomes the norm across the region.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.