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Covid-19: How today’s macho leaders are losing friends and alienating people

The Saudi-Russian antagonism may be the first major geopolitical rift engendered by the pandemic, but it won’t be the last

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 14, 2019. Photo: AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 14, 2019. Photo: AFP

Social distancing is necessary during the coronavirus pandemic, but political togetherness would help as well. Sadly, the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been driven by individual nations, with minimal coordination between countries. Donald Trump’s ban on travel to the US from Europe, for instance, took European heads of government completely by surprise. The disjointed reaction across the globe offers an insight into a world that is more fractured than at any time in recent history, with multilateral organizations weakened and alliances falling apart.

The Union government long ago turned its back on the Non-Aligned Movement, probably with good reason since the organization is moribund, while hostility between India and Pakistan has hobbled the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). No Saarc summit has been held since 2014, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan skipped last week’s video conference called by Modi to create a Saarc-wide response to the Covid-19 crisis, delegating a bureaucrat instead.

India’s international image took a hit after the promulgation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) that led to protests and violence. Unusual criticism came from Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, sought to file an intervention application in the Supreme Court in a case against the CAA on the ground that it violated India’s commitments under international human rights laws.

The Indian prime minister could take consolation in the fact that Mahathir Mohamad has since been toppled, and both Erdoğan and Khamenei face greater crises than he does. To consider the Ayatollah’s predicament first, Iran’s economy has been in recession since Trump unilaterally revoked an international agreement stewarded by his predecessor Barack Obama that had lifted sanctions in return for Iran curbing its nuclear programme. Iran took to harrying its adversaries in a bid to keep the world’s attention on the issue. It was suspected of attacking oil tankers near Fujairah in May 2019 and near the Strait of Hormuz the following month.

After pro-Iranian attackers breached the US embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s eve 2019, the Trump administration responded by assassinating Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, which handles Iran’s extraterritorial operations. Since Soleimani was by far Iran’s most popular public figure, the regime stood to benefit from the public’s anger being directed at its old foe, the US. However, during an air strike aimed at avenging the assassination, Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner carrying mainly Iranian and Iranian-Canadian passengers, and tried to cover up its error. The wrath of common Iranians now focused on their rulers, who have always insisted that the accidental downing of an Iran Air Airbus A300 by a US missile in 1988 was a deliberate act.

The alienation felt by Iranians has been accentuated by the government’s shambolic Covid-19 response. The current collapse of oil prices will exacerbate the nation’s economic pain, imperilling its support for Houthi insurgents in Yemen and for Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria.

Turkey’s Erdoğan, on the opposite side in the Syrian war, faces a reckoning of his own. Having forged an unexpected bond with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Assad’s strongest supporter, Erdoğan thought he could negotiate a truce that addressed Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish insurgents attacking its territory from Syrian havens. He risked his country’s position in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) by choosing the Russian S-400 over the American MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system because the Americans would not provide the technology transfer he desired.

Turkey tried creating a stable buffer zone within Syria, but fighting escalated. In late February, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike by Russia-backed Syrian forces. Turkey retaliated effectively with drone-borne bombs, but the Erdoğan-Putin bromance was at an end. When a Turkish delegation travelled to Russia to seal a new truce, Erdoğan was humiliated by being kept standing in an anteroom for long minutes before being ushered into Putin’s presence. The two leaders sat before a mantelpiece that carried a sculpture of Catherine the Great, who had defeated the Ottoman army in the 18th century Russo-Turkish war. The symbolic one-upmanship signalled how much relations between the two powers had shifted.

A few days later, Putin had a spectacular falling out with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. Their connection has centred around the price of oil. Back in 2014, Ali Al-Naimi, the respected oil minister of Saudi Arabia, son of a pearl diver father and a Bedouin mother, had launched a price war aimed at high-cost US shale oil. The consequent drop in revenue took such a toll on the Saudi economy that the new quasi-ruler of the nation, MBS, removed Naimi in 2016. MBS also sidelined the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) in favour of negotiating output cuts directly with Russia. When MBS was under pressure after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post and critic of the Riyadh regime, Putin helped him out by making a public show of their friendship.

The partnership bolstered oil prices, but also created space for shale production to keep climbing. Worried about losing market share continually, and smarting from American penalties on Rosneft Trading, a Geneva-based subsidiary of the Russian oil giant Rosneft Oil Company, which had been charged with helping Venezuela skirt US sanctions, Putin rejected new output cuts proposed by MBS to counter slackening demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic. MBS responded by increasing Saudi output by a massive 26% and offering sweet deals to Moscow’s prime European clients. These shocking moves made clear that the failure of negotiations was no ordinary disagreement between friends. MBS was going to the mattresses, undercutting Russia while Russia sought to undercut US shale.

Saudi Arabia may be the world’s lowest-cost oil producer but needs elevated prices to fund its generous welfare measures and enormous arms purchases, particularly since Covid-19 threatens its lucrative pilgrimage industry. MBS has reactivated Ali Al-Naimi’s 2014 strategy, but it remains to be seen how long he can bear the pain that comes with it.

The Saudi-Russian antagonism is the first major geopolitical rift engendered by the pandemic. Other fissures are bound to open up if the virus endures in a scenario where cool-headed leadership has given way to macho posturing in many parts of the world.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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