Interview with Zuhal Sultan

Zuhal Sultan, an Iraqi student who turns seventeen this year, is a talented young pianist who has played with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and at musical events across the region. She lost both her parents over the past four years, one to illness and one to violence. She tells John H. Silva of New Society what it is like to travel across Baghdad to attend musical rehearsals and how she hopes music will bring change to her country—especially to the lives of its children and young people.

New Society: How did you get involved in music?

MS. Zuhal Sultan:
I was born in 1991 to a very scientific family of four children. My parents both obtained Ph.D. degrees in medical sciences from the United Kingdom and my three older siblings all attend graduate school.

My parents discovered my fondness for music when I was very young. According to my sister, I’ve been sleeping to the sound of music since I was a baby. As I grew a little older, I started to play the theme songs of Arabic soap operas by ear on an electric keyboard.

Believing I might have a hidden talent, my mother bought me a piano and found a teacher for me. After a year, I was ready to study with the best teacher in Iraq, an old Czech lady who is very selective in choosing her students. She was very impressed with my ability and told my mother that I was a ‘miracle child.’ She recommended that I apply to the Iraqi Music and Ballet School. I studied there from fourth grade through senior year.

NS: Since then, you have performed across the world. Tell us about your travels.

ZS: My first opportunity to travel abroad as a musician came in April 2004. I was selected with eighteen other musicians and dancers to participate in the International Children’s Festival in Turkey.

Two years later, I attended a summer school program at the Performing Arts Centre in Amman, which was held under the patronage of Jordan’s Princess Basma with sponsorship from the U.S. Embassy. The program consisted of three weeks of intensive courses in music followed by final concerts in Madaba and Amman. I was very proud to perform a very difficult piece, despite not having received any tutoring during the three years prior to the event.

The experience in Jordan was eye-opening. I was able to rise above my troubled everyday life in Baghdad and see how much I could achieve even without the pedagogy of a teacher. The experience led me to join the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.

NS: How did you come to perform with the INSO?

ZS: In May 2007, I received a phone call from the librarian of the INSO inviting me to attend a summer music and dance academy organized by the American Voices Association and sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Master classes were held in a variety of musical traditions: classical, jazz, ballet, Broadway and hip-hop.

It was a wonderful experience. I met my piano teacher, John Ferguson, who is also the director of the American Voices Association. I was also exposed to jazz for the first time by Dr. Gene Aitken.

I also had the pleasure to meet Conductor Demetrius Fuller of Sinfonia Gulf Coast in Florida and Ms. Allegra Klein who conducted the youth orchestra and gave lectures about the Suzuki method of teaching music. Thanks to her instruction, Iraq will be the first country in the Arab world to start applying the Suzuki method.

I had a chance to perform with the Unity Youth Orchestra, which consisted of young musicians in the INSO and from Northern Iraq. I also had the chance to perform with the National Unity Orchestra, which consisted of all orchestras in Iraq. Performing on one stage with my country’s best talent at the age of sixteen was an overwhelming experience.

Two weeks after the summer academy, I was invited to attend the summer school in Amman for a second time. After struggling with flight delays and passport troubles, I was finally able to attend the event. After great intensive courses, the final concert was another success for me, I had many people congratulating me of my achievement.

Two months after the event, I received a phone call telling me that I’d been invited by UNESCO to perform in the Iraqi Cultural Week at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris. I didn’t believe what was happening to me until my airplane actually landed and Charles de Gaulle airport. The whole time I felt like I was living a fairy tale. I performed in the hall of one of the most important culture and education organizations, before an audience of about 1300 including people from the media.

It was quite frightening to me to be the one to start the one-week event and to be the youngest performer there. After the concert, I had press interviews and a lot of people complimenting my performance. The Iraqi Ambassador invited me to stay for extra few days, along with Agnes Bashir, the director of the “healing through music” summer school, who also performed with me.

I was eventually invited to join the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and I have since been able to live my dream of performing in it.

NS: What is the orchestra like? And how has the orchestra coped through the war?

ZS: The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra began as the Baghdad Philharmonic in 1948. It became known as the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in the late 1950s, and started to receive government funding, but in 1962, the Iraqi Minister of Culture closed it down. Fortunately, the musicians kept rehearsing secretly until the orchestra was reopened in 1970.

Since then, the orchestra has toured many countries. The U.S. government even sponsored an INSO concert in Washington D.C. in 2003 and Yo Yo Ma performed. Still today, though, the orchestra faces many challenges. One is brain drain. Economic crises and political instability have led many musicians to leave Iraq and find positions elsewhere.

The orchestra is currently conducted by Mohamed Amen Ezzat and directed by Karim Wasfi. It performs once or twice each month at the Iraqi Hunting Club in Baghdad.

It is very diverse ethnically and there are members from every part of Iraq. I feel like I am part of a large family. We all have a great love and respect for each other and our music. There has never been conflict between members of the INSO due to their different backgrounds. The orchestra’s role in Iraq is great. Listening to live music gives Iraqis hope for a better tomorrow.

We all understand the risks we are taking by performing in public in Iraq. Many of us do not dare to speak publicly about our connection with the performing arts. And we do not carry instruments on the streets because we fear for our lives.

Quite often foreigners can barely believe there is a performing symphony in Iraq. But there is, and it makes me very happy to contribute to it and to the joy of Iraqis. I sincerely hope the international media would focus more on the bright side of affairs in Iraq.

I think all Iraqis who go to work daily are heroes regardless of their profession. The same goes for every student seeking knowledge under the circumstances in Iraq at this time. Musicians in the INSO have a uniquely difficult mission as a diverse group of Iraqi citizens. We must set an example of unity and cooperation for the rest of Iraq.

NS: How did he Iraq War affect the orchestra?

ZS: During the fighting in 2003, the orchestra’s headquarters were looted and the music library was burnt. Despite the violence and many challenges, the INSO performed in Iraq in 2003 and since then it has performed in the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Northern Iraq.

NS: Where do you plan to go from here?

ZS: I am about to complete my senior year in high school. I am very unsure about my future, especially about whether I will be able to pursue my musical studies further. Music has been more than a hobby for me until now. It has been a true companion when I have been happy, sad, unsure or just lonely. It has given me a reason to live and wake up every day. I feel so privileged to have my music and my piano.

I am currently applying to college in the U.S and doing my best to find a program that suits me. Due to the conflict in Iraq since 2003, I have had no regular teacher, but I have tried my best to perform and practice everyday despite the many challenges. Until December 2007, I was involved in a mentorship program by the Musicians for Harmony Organization through the internet. I am currently getting instruction from the renowned pianist Rieko Aizawa who agreed to help me for nothing in return just out of the goodness of her heart. I hope you will soon see me on a college campus in the U.S. or perhaps on stage somewhere, performing to the best of my ability.

Before we end our conversation, I’d like to encourage your readers to join our facebook group, Save the Iraqi Children—Through Music, and to make a donation to Musicians for Harmony. A $10 contribution will enable an Iraqi child to buy a webcam and start taking music lessons over the internet, the way I did. The donation will also go towards bringing students from the Baghdad Music and Ballet School to the U.S. for a national tour.

— Zuhal Sultan was interviewed by contributing editor, John H. Silva. Silva, a U.S. Marine veteran, is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University in Social Entrepreneurship. He frequently works on social enterprise projects in the Middle East.


By Danielle R. Sassoon

Danielle R. Sassoon ’08, a History concentrator from Leverett House, graduates from Harvard College this year.

NOAH FELDMAN, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008.

In The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Noah Feldman laments that “much analysis of the Muslim world insists on an artificial distinction between the historical past, the preserve of a professional guild of historians, and forward-looking political analysis”. Feldman seeks to transcend this divide in his new book by examining the recent rise of Islamism, and its potential for political success, in light of the way concepts of law and justice functioned and succeeded in the original Islamic states. “In essence then,” he writes, “the call for an Islamic state is the call for the establishment of Islamic law”. A Harvard Law professor, Feldman examines how sharia was implemented into governing law under the Ottoman Empire and why its authority ultimately collapsed. Through this historical exploration, Feldman hopes to illuminate the obstacles facing Islamism today in its current quest for legal authority.

Feldman focuses on the class of scholars within the Ottoman Empire and its role as legal authority and counterweight to the caliph. According to Feldman, the scholars exercised control over sharia’s meaning, interpreting the divine law and acting as a restraint on the caliph’s power. The caliph relied on the scholars for legitimacy and divine sanction, which created an institutional balance of power that gave stability and longevity to the Islamic state. Feldman argues that this institutional balance of power is what ensured justice in the Ottoman Empire, and that it is also exactly what is lacking in today’s Islamism.

Downplaying the importance of colonialism in eroding the legitimacy of the Islamic state, Feldman attributes the collapse of the Islamic state to codifications that preceded World War I. These new arrangements displaced the scholar class without substituting a correspondent institution in its place. Feldman attributes the current lack of legal justice within Islamic states to the continued absence of legitimate institutions to validate the sharia and restrain the leaders. He highlights a crisis of authority facing Islamism in the absence of a scholar class: without an institutional legal authority endowed with divine right, Islamic leaders have difficulty legitimating an interpretation and application of God’s law.

Drawing on examples beyond the Ottoman Empire, and looking at the legal development of Saudi Arabia in particular, Feldman demonstrates the need for an institutional balance of power within Islamism. Looking at the continued influence of the scholar class in Iran, Feldman acknowledges that a scholar class will not necessarily be suited to serve the current structural needs of Islamism. He emphasizes that what is needed are institutions, but that the institutions demanded by today’s Islamism may be different from those that succeeded in the past.

Feldman’s history and analysis is accessible, clearly argued, and politically relevant. Frequently drawing analogies to American and European legal development, he emphasizes that Islamism’s potential to succeed rests in its ability to find its modern day equivalent to a scholar class, which will bring increased stability and balance of power to the rising Islamic state. The reader, however, cannot help but wonder whether Feldman’s legal and academic background has led him to focus on abstract concepts at the expense of acknowledging the practical problems—such as discrimination—that are still a fundamental aspect of sharia. While it is fruitful to examine the present through the lens of the past, Feldman fails to address how the inequalities perpetuated through sharia are to be accepted in today’s world. I, for one, am unwilling to share Feldman’s optimism, when he fails to address how sharia’s systematic intolerance toward nonbelievers, homosexuals, and many women’s lifestyles can be made to cohere with modern, democratic values and human rights.

By Elizabeth K. Brook

Elizabeth K. Brook ’10 attends Harvard College and is a Literature concentrator in Adams House.

BENAZIR BHUTTO, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West
, New York: Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

When Benazir Bhutto, the famous Radcliffe College graduate who twice served as Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated last December, she left behind a recently written book about the main sources of conflict in the Islamic world. The book, Reconciliation, was published posthumously early this year. It will no doubt interest many New Society readers for its riveting accounts of Ms. Bhutto’s first-hand experiences and its bold discussion of a timely and controversial topic. The book does not fail the reader’s expectations.

Throughout the work, Bhutto presents historical examples, analysis, and opinion. She also offers a brave solution for breaking down the barriers to peaceful relations between Muslims, and between Muslims and the West. In the first chapter, Bhutto focuses on what she believes are the two main sources of tension in the Islamic world. The first is the internal conflict between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist Muslims. The second is the anger many Muslims feel toward the West based, in part, on its perceived inconsistency, unfairness, and meddling.

In the first chapter, Bhutto introduces the reader to her own life and in sharing several anecdotes and reflections, creates an intimate atmosphere and establishes a persuasive, authoritative voice. The fifth chapter is similarly impressive. It draws a clear and concise distinction between ‘clashers’ and ‘reconciliators’—people who think that a clash between Islamic and Western culture is inevitable, and those who think that the two must be reconciled. Bhutto then leads into her plan for the future in the sixth chapter, which I believe is the climax of the book. It presents a detailed outline for a step-by-step reconciliation between the East and the West. Bhutto first calls for the reconciliation of the internal tensions within Islamic culture and then outlines a plan to modernize the Islamic world. Her ambitious plan is superbly constructed and effectively articulated. It is certainly the highlight of her work, and this section alone makes the book a must-read for people who are interested in bringing equality, justice and harmony to the Islamic world.

The second, third, and fourth chapters are weaker, simply due to the volume of the material concerned, and the complexity of the issues she addresses. She attempts to offer a single, complete and correct reading of the Qur’an in Chapter Two, and Chapter Three tells the history of the intersection of Islamic culture and democratic governance across twenty-four countries in less than 80 pages. Chapter Four is devoted to an explanation of the political situation in Pakistan over the past 40 years. While these “fact-based” sections of the book are informative, they often appear over-simplified and are peppered with statistics that are un-referenced and evidently carefully selected. The reader cannot but question the partiality of the “facts” offered.

Worse, perhaps, than merely simplifying complicated historical episodes, Bhutto sometimes makes contradictory arguments. In Chapter Two Bhutto calls for relativism, while simultaneously presenting her reading of the passages of the Qur’an as authoritatively correct. The brevity of the discussion of the political climate of each country in Chapter Three lends those sections an anecdotal tone. Ironically these “summations” of historical events are, by their inherent nature, incomplete. Chapter Four provides a detailed, and purportedly distanced, account of the political situation in Pakistan, which is inevitably colored by loyalty to her family and defense of her own governance.

For all their flaws, however, these historical sections serve to ground Bhutto’s vision for a united, peaceful Middle East on an understanding of past failures. For the most part, these attempts are persuasive and ultimately, the book provides an interesting historical and political analysis of many of the tensions in the Islamic world. Bhutto comes across as heroic and unwavering in her belief in freedom and human rights. The after-word, written by her family, proclaims: “This book is about everything that those who killed her could never understand: democracy, tolerance, rationality, hope and above all, the true message of Islam…We commit our lives into making the message of this book into her legacy and the future of a democratic Pakistan. And ultimately we know we will succeed because, in her own words, ‘Time, justice and the forces of history are on our side.’”

Alas, as one reviewer, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, reminds us, “the idea of Benazir Bhutto has always been more powerful than the reality.” Bhutto presents herself as brave and committed democrat and liberal. But, as Zakaria notes, her leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party was profoundly undemocratic and plagued by charges of corruption. She allowed no internal party elections and bequeathed her party to her 19-year-old son, Bilawal—in keeping with the traditions of her feudal and exceedingly wealthy family. Bhutto herself inherited the leadership of the Party from her father and, as Zakaria uncompromisingly puts it, ran it “like a personal fiefdom.” The gap between the book’s bold message and Bhutto’s own political legacy will no doubt trouble the critical reader.

By Julia I. Bertelsmann

Julia I. Bertelsmann ’09 attends Harvard College and is an Economics Concentrator in Eliot House.

The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007 was the latest, most dramatic manifestation of the crisis facing the idea of liberal democracy in the Islamic world. Political violence is not unique to Muslim countries, of course, but political Islam poses a unique challenge by asserting that God, not man, is the source of law, and that (male) religious leaders are the sole bearers of political legitimacy.

Everywhere in the Islamic Middle East, the democratic gains of the past few years are being reversed or threatened, and hostility towards democratic institutions is palpable. As Palestinian human rights activist, Bassem Eid, puts it in this issue, “Creating a human rights organization under an Arab regime is like committing suicide.”

Despite sometimes affecting the appearance of democracy, as Cindy D. Tan ’08 describes in this issue, Iran continues to persecute dissidents. The Iranian government recently detained and brutally tortured a group of students in the notorious Evin Prison. Not content with attacking domestic critics, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime has detained Iranian-American academics as well. Like the earlier arrests of British sailors in the Shatt-al-Arab and their staged appearances in traditional garb before television cameras, the most recent political arrests remind the world that Iran’s democratic institutions are a pretense.

Hezbollah continues to menace the Lebanese government, which recently faced down a threat from Al-Qaeda but still cowers in the shadow of resurgent Syrian power. And Iraq has become more stable in the past several months but still remains as fragile and fragmented as ever before. In this issue, Jonathan S. Greenstein ’10 argues that rentier states, Iran and Syria, have learnt how to profit from provoking unrest in Iraq and Lebanon without being held responsible.

Khartoum continues to foment genocide in southern Sudan and Egypt adds to the suffering of Darfur refugees through violent, racial persecution, as Abigail R. Fradkin ’09 reports. Blocked by China and the Arab world, however, international institutions are struggling to hold Khartoum accountable.
Across the Muslim world, and most particularly in Islamic states, rampant misogyny manifests itself in “honor killings,” lashings, and other forms of brutal oppression, as the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby detailed last month.

In this issue, Palestinian intellectual, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, reminds us that politics is the art of the possible. Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, among others, have argued persuasively that there is nothing inherent in Islam that prevents Muslim countries from achieving stable democracies. And, indeed, there are several examples of success. Indonesia has made the transition from authoritarian rule; Turkey remains an example of success in the Islamic world.

Yet Turkey’s stability has rested on a strict separation of religion and the state, enforced by the courts and, occasionally, the army. The election in September of Abdullah Gül as Turkey’s first Islamic presi-dent raised fears that political Islam may yet undo the achievements of the past eighty years. As these debates have raged, American foreign policy has struggled to face up to the new challenges.

Pakistan represents the clash of two often-contradictory U.S. for-eign policy goals, which are themselves the product of a clash between U.S. institutions. The Pentagon strategy is exemplified by President Pervez Musharraf, who broke his pledges on democracy but is an ally in the war on terror. The State Department strategy was carried by Bhutto, who pursued democratic reform despite the risks.

Both security and democracy are essential to the future of the Mid-dle East. But the U.S. has been uncertain about how to balance these two priorities, to make them reinforce rather than harm each other. In contrast, China’s economically-oriented approach to the Middle East has been far simpler. As Gabriel M. Scheinmann ’08 writes in this issue, China’s goals may conflict directly with American concerns.

The potential for conflict has been realized in Sudan, where China, through its oil-based ties to the Khartoum regime, has contributed indirectly to the atrocities in Darfur. The U.S. is one of the few nations to have condemned the genocide as such, but has not intervened, partly because Khartoum has assisted the War on Terror and because of the delicate peace between north and south Sudan, among other causes.

What the U.S. is suffering from is a lack of clarity about whether (and where, and when) democracy and human rights are more impor-tant than security and stability. Backing away from the region, an option some Americans seem inclined towards, is neither realistic nor responsible. Clear, visionary leadership is needed—both in the Middle East, and in the West—to define the region’s goals, and fight for them.

By Madeline H.G. Haas, Junior Editor
and Gabriel M. Scheinmann, Associate Editor

Syro-Palestinian Pottery. The Muslim Mediterranean City. Jewish-Arab Encounters: The Classical Age. The Imperial System: Byzantine Society and Civilization. The Female Body and Islam: Religious Doctrines in Changing Societies. These are the “Middle East Related Courses” recommended to Harvard undergraduates by the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies. They may all be very good, but they hardly constitute a curriculum that could produce scholars of the contemporary Middle East. Today’s students, who are taking up the study of Arabic in droves, want to understand Sunni-Shia conflict, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the complexities of Middle Eastern societies and governments. They should be offered courses that provide them with the necessary knowledge and insight.

We therefore call on Harvard College to expand the Committee on Middle East Studies into a body that offers degrees to undergraduate students, to hire more Middle East Studies professors, and to provide a wider selection of classes on the modern Middle East. Harvard has the resources and capacity to lead the academic world in tackling the critical problems of our time and should respond to the rising interest of students in a region of vital importance.

Harvard offers dismally few classes on the contemporary Middle East. Only four were offered by the Government, History, and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) departments combined this fall. Two of those were taught in the Government Department by a visiting professor from the American University in Cairo. Harvard seldom offers classes concerning modern Israel. Next semester is the exception: two classes on Israel will be offered, again in the Govern-ment Department, this time by a visiting Kennedy School of Govern-ment senior fellow. The History Department seems to believe that Middle Eastern history ended in World War I. It offers only one class concerning Middle Eastern history in the 20th Century.

If the Committee on Middle East Studies (MES) were to expand and become like other area-studies committees, such as the Committee on African Studies or the Committee on South Asian Studies, it would become the go-to place for students who are passionate about study-ing the region. In addition to listing all relevant classes in other de-partments, MES should offer create small, in-depth junior tutorials on the key issues that students want to understand today: Arab politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict, democracy and human rights, the role of U.S. foreign policy, and the challenges posed by Non-State actors. MES concentrations should require students to achieve proficiency in one or two commonly spoken regional languages (such as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Hebrew).

Harvard should also do more to attract and nurture first-rate pro-fessors of contemporary Middle East Studies. Although the field is excessively politicized, Harvard must make the effort to recruit pro-fessors devoted to balanced research and teaching. Today, the Gov-ernment Department offers most of the relevant courses in the field, but it does not have a single tenured professor in any subject con-nected to the Middle East. It should be commended for consistently attracting visiting professors and fellows of a high caliber, but in future Harvard should aim to become a hub rather than a spoke of Middle Eastern scholarship.

The exponential growth of student enrollment in Arabic language courses since September 11, 2001 forcefully demonstrates rising student interest in the region. While the Institute of Politics and Weatherhead Center have done much to spur debate across campus, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has remained stuck in antiquity. In the midst of a Curricular Review, FAS has a historic opportunity to bring Harvard to the forefront of national scholarship in a field of crucial international importance.

By Abigail R. Fradkin

Abigail R. Fradkin ’09 attends Harvard College and is a Classics and Government concentrator in Lowell House.

On the night of the first of August 2007, Egyptian soldiers at the Egypt-Israel border killed four Sudanese refugees attempting to flee to refuge in Israel. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers witnessed the event, which was also captured on surveillance tapes. According to an IDF soldier’s account on Israel’s Channel 10 News, Israeli soldiers discovered the Sudanese refugees just as Egyptian troops arrived. The Egyptians immediately fired upon the refugees, killing two and wounding another. The fourth refugee ran toward the Israeli border, but an Egyptian soldier caught hold of him. After an IDF soldier intervened, a ‘tug of war’ [1] over the man ensued. Fearing that the Egyptians would shoot both him and the refugee, the IDF solider eventually loosened his grip. Several meters from the border fence, Egyptian guards beat the third and fourth refugees to death with stones and clubs. The Jerusalem Post quoted one soldier who witnessed the event: “What happened there yesterday was a lynch [sic]. These are not men, they’re animals. They killed him without even using firearms. We just heard screams of pain and the sounds of beating. Then the screams stopped.” [2]

This well-publicized atrocity, combined with the recent exponential increase in the number of Sudanese crossing the border into Israel, has made the issue of the beleaguered refugees from the both the Darfur region of western Sudan and southern Sudan particularly pressing. During the whole of 2006, only several refugees entered Israel, but by the summer of 2007, that number had increased to 50 or 60 each day. [3] Advocacy groups estimate that there are approximately 2,400 African asylum-seekers in Israel, including about 1,700 Sudanese, 300 to 500 of whom come from Darfur. [4] Twelve hundred of those Sudanese arrived in Israel in the past half-year after having successfully crossed the Egyptian border. [5] Many of the other asylum-seekers come from Eritrea, Ghana, and Kenya.

Israel is currently planning to set a quota for the number of refugees it can absorb. Referring to the 300 Vietnamese boatpeople whom Israel welcomed in 1977, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit pledged that Israel will absorb the African asylum-seekers “with the same compassion” with which it “absorbed the Vietnamese refugees.” [6] The government is now working with the UN to determine which asylum-seekers qualify for refugee status. UN representatives are in the process of interviewing the Sudanese refugees and will publish their recommendations upon completing their research. Considering the ongoing influx of refugees, this may take a long time.

The representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, Michael Bavli, asserts that ultimately “the decision on the quota will not be dictated by numbers, but on a personal, case-by-case basis.” [7] It seems most likely that the Darfurian refugees will be given priority because they are unable to safely return to their homes and are considered to have suffered the most; the future of the southern Sudanese refugees will likely remain less secure. On September 4, Sheetrit announced that Israel intended to grant citizenship to several hundred refugees from Darfur. The decision was widely praised in Israel, including by 63 Members of the Knesset (the 120-member Israeli parliament) who crossed party lines to sign a petition demanding that the Darfurians not be deported. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) affirmed that it has long believed that “it is the moral duty of the Jewish nation to do all it can to alleviate the human suffering caused by genocide wherever it arises.” [8]

This focus on Darfur reflects the fact that the situation in Darfur is even more dire than conditions in southern Sudan. In Darfur, ongoing and systematic terrorization, rape, mutilation, and murder have escalated into full-scale genocide. The current conflict began in February 2003 when a new opposition group, the Sudanese Liberation Army, embarked on an armed campaign against the government to protest the lack of government protection for, and development in, the marginalized region. The government, with its capital in Khartoum, responded by unleashing the Janjaweed (“guns on horseback”), or Arab militias, who proceeded to attack villages in Darfur, killing, raping and abducting villagers and destroying property and resources. Government troops have also been involved in the Janjaweed attacks, both on the ground and through bombing coordinated with subsequent ground assaults. [9]

In his February 2006 review of Julie Flint and Alex de Waal’s Darfur: A Short History of a Long War and Gérard Prunier’s Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Nicholas Kristof describes the bases of the conflict: “While shorthand descriptions are simplistic, they’re also essentially right. In Darfur, the cleavages between the Janjaweed and their victims tend to be threefold. First, the Janjaweed and Sudanese government leaders are Arab and their victims in Darfur are members of several non-Arab African tribes, particularly the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit. Second, the killers are frequently lighter-skinned, and they routinely use racial epithets about the ‘blacks’ they are killing and raping. Third, the Janjaweed are often nomadic herdsman, and the tribes they attack are usually settled farmers, so the conflict also reflects the age-old tensions between herders and farmers.” [10] According to UN estimates, the fighting that began in Darfur in 2003 has killed between 200,000 and 400,000 people and displaced about 2.5 million. [11]

However, despite the greater urgency of the situation in Darfur, some Israeli and international organizations worry about the distinction made between refugees from Darfur and those from elsewhere in Sudan, primarily the south, whom both the UN and the Israeli government have tended to place in the economic refugee category. Eitan Schwartz, speaking on behalf of the Coalition for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur (CARD), urged the government “to go the extra mile and to offer citizenship to all the Sudanese refugees in Israel.” [12] During the Second Sudanese Civil War, which began in 1983 and ended in January 2005 with the treaty between the Islamic government in the north and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in the largely Christian south, 1.9 million southern Sudanese civilians were killed and more than four million were internally displaced. [13] Although the UN is effectively focused on repatriating people in the south, it has not found long-term solutions to the continuing problems in the region. The southern Sudanese still face serious difficulties, including the continued presence of government troops and associated militias in defiance of the accord, child slavery, terrorization of the population, and religious persecution, as well as extreme poverty. Alex de Waal, in a talk at Harvard University on his most recent book, War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, repeatedly stressed the importance of “Sudan as a whole,” and of making any peace talks in Darfur a part of the larger goal of implementing the procedures set forth by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. [14]

The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as amended by its 1967 protocol, defines a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” [15] Refugees from the nightmarish conditions of fear and persecution in southern Sudan fit this definition, making a compassionate international response to the plight of all Sudanese asylum-seekers, not just those from Darfur, the only humane one.

The refugees face yet another complication: because the Sudanese government has consistently refused any diplomatic relations with Israel, it automatically charges with high treason any Sudanese national who sets foot in Israel, including refugees seeking asylum there. [16] According to a report by Israel Radio, Sudanese Interior Minister Bashir Taha accused Israel of encouraging Sudanese emigration to Israel in an effort to damage Khartoum’s international image. He also declared that Sudan would prosecute any refugees who returned. [17] It is therefore imperative that both UN interviewers in Israel and the Israeli government give serious consideration to asylum requests by all Sudanese, regardless of their regional origin.

Moreover, the Egyptian government, in its treatment of these refugees, makes no distinction between those from Darfur and those from southern Sudan. Indeed, by the time they reach the Israeli border, the Sudanese refugees have not only encountered unimaginable horror in Sudan, but brutal mistreatment in Egypt as well. A candid article in the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly asserts, “Excessively harsh socio-economic conditions and racist attitudes in Egypt seem to be the main reason why Sudanese refugees want to relocate to Israel. Of the Sudanese refugees now resident in Israel 71 per cent report verbal and physical abuse as the main reason for their fleeing Egypt.” [18] The article also mentions the December 2005 Mustafa Mahmoud mosque incident in which Egyptian police fired on a crowd of Sudanese refugee protestors, killing at least 27. [19] Since that incident, the number of Sudanese refugees fleeing to Israel has risen considerably.

After conducting several interviews with refugees in their temporary home on the grounds of Israel’s Ketziot Prison, where food, clothing, housing, medical care, other amenities and various courses have been provided, Sheera Claire Frenkel reports that “for many of the refugees, it is still difficult to talk about their lives in Egypt. Many of the men point to scars and burn marks as physical evidence of the abuse they say they endured at the hands of Egyptian gangs. The women point to new offspring, lighter skinned than the rest of their brood.” Atoi Magit, a 27-year-old mother of four, pregnant with her fifth child, declared that “her worst fear” was that Israel would return her family to Egypt. “Anywhere but there,” she said. [20]

To cross the Sinai Desert between Egypt and Israel, refugees pay Bedouin smugglers hundreds of dollars and risk being caught by the Egyptian border patrol. If they make it to Israel safely, they are sheltered in the temporary caravan park at Ketziot, where a more permanent camp is being constructed, or they are taken in by Israeli families or kibbutzim. Due to the initial lack of sufficient official aid or clear government policy on the issue, the task of refugee care has largely fallen to Israeli organizations and individual volunteers. Israeli families and businesses have donated food and clothing, doctors have volunteered their medical services, students have set up educational programs for children, and volunteers have provided general care for traumatized refugees.

Nevertheless, despite these efforts on behalf of the refugees, the Israeli government has yet to settle upon a clear and comprehensive official policy. On August 18 Israel deported 48 Africans—many reportedly from Darfur—back across the Egyptian border. [21] At the same time, David Baker, a government spokesman, announced that Israel would absorb the approximately 500 Darfurian refugees already in Israel. Two weeks later, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert granted citizenship to several hundred refugees. [22]

However, Baker also declared that any further crossing of the border would be considered illegal and that all migrants would be sent back to Egypt under the terms of an agreement with Egyptian authorities. [23] The deportation of refugees is officially contingent upon Egypt’s assurances that it will treat refugees well, but Egypt itself has denied making such a guarantee. On August 12, the Jerusalem Post quoted the Egyptian Foreign Ministry as saying, “Egypt has informed Israel—officially—that it is not obligated to receive any non-Egyptian citizen who illegally crosses the border into Israel.” [24] This statement appears to contradict Olmert’s July 1 announcement that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed to take back the refugees and guarantee their safety, a pledge Mubarak has never publicly acknowledged. Indeed, the killing of the four refugees on August 1, the discovery of the bound and bloodied body of a 30-year-old refugee in the northern Sinai and continued shootings by Egyptian forces belie the value of that supposed guarantee. Moreover, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry condoned the August 1 killings and responded to news of the incidents with the following statement: “If those crossing refuse to heed the orders of authorities to stop, then authorities are forced to deal with them in such a manner to ensure respect for the law.” [25]

It is almost certain that refugees who are forced to return to Egypt will be met with harsh, even brutal, treatment. With this likelihood in mind, the spokesman for the Israeli Hotline for Migrant Workers, Romm Lewkowicz, charged Israel with violating the provision of the Geneva Conventions concerning a government’s obligation toward refugees from an enemy state. Moreover, Lewkowicz pointed out that it was Israel that promoted the provision after the Second World War, mindful of the shelter German Jewish refugees had received in Britain. [26] Echoes of the historical experience of many Israelis make the plight of the Sudanese refugees that much more poignant for them. As Liat Collins declared in the Jerusalem Post, “Look at them and see us…Even many of those opposed to granting them permanent asylum in Israel can easily imagine them as Jewish refugees struggling to cross borders or board boats to take them away from the Nazi hell.” [27]

Compassion alone is not an adequate solution to the problem, however. While countless acts of generosity have aided and comforted the refugees in their temporary home and occasioned sweet stories like that of the Sudanese girl Miyati thrilled with her all-pink clothes, [28] much more has to be done to meet the needs of these most needy of people. Though Israel has an unusually comprehensive system for immigrant absorption, the persistent social problems experienced by the approximately 85,000 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants are perhaps a good indication of the difficulty that the Sudanese are likely to face. Two decades after the first large influx of Ethiopian Jews, 62% of Ethiopian families have no income at all, 72% of children live below the poverty line and more than 90% of employed Ethiopians have low-paying, manual jobs. [29] These obstacles are also reflected in the population’s poor educational performance, with 32% of Ethiopian students, as opposed to 50% of the general population, eligible for higher education matriculation exams. [30]

Based on Israel’s difficulties in integrating its Ethiopian immigrants, it is clear that absorption of the Sudanese, with their experience of terror and their unfamiliarity with the developed world, will be no easy task. Various possible plans have been suggested, including a (gradual) replacement of some of Israel’s 100,000 legal foreign workers and 100,000 illegal workers with refugees. [31] Most Sudanese were involved in farming at home and there are now 29,000 legal foreign workers in agriculture. The kibbutzim have already taken in many refugees, who will be allowed to stay to live and work. An additional pilot program to employ Sudanese refugees in Eilat hotels has proven successful.

While the great powers of the world hem and haw over what to do about the genocide in Darfur, as well as the possibility of intensified conflict in southern Sudan, Israel has been forced to look into the eyes of Sudan’s suffering people and grapple seriously with the practical and moral implications of these conflicts. Two recent developments have so far done little to reduce the suffering or improve the prospects for a cessation of the ongoing genocide in Darfur. First, on July 31, 2007, over four years after the beginning of the current fighting in Darfur, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to deploy a joint African Union and UN peacekeeping force of up to 26,000 troops in an attempt to bring an end to the violence in the region. Though initially slated to begin in October, deployment of this greatly expanded force was delayed by disagreement over its composition. On January 1, after months of bureaucratic wrangling and particular intransigence on the part of the Sudanese government, formal authority was finally transferred from the current African Union force to the joint mission. However, what was to have been the largest peacekeeping effort in the world now consists of only 9,000 troops, a number which experts worry can do little to seriously affect change. [32] Second, the opening on October 27 in Libya of the latest round of peace talks was marred by a boycott by major rebel figures and disputes among the rebel groups present. [33] Furthermore, while Sudan called for an immediate cease-fire, it fired seven missiles at a target in Darfur that very day [34] and, while delegates are now involved in private talks, [35] no progress has been made. In the meantime, and as the would-be forces attempt to establish peace, the people of Darfur and southern Sudan will continue to face unspeakable daily horror and to seek refuge wherever possible.

In the Western World, only the United States, with 28,123 accepted refugees, Australia, with 21,241, and Canada, with 6,258, have given asylum to large numbers of Sudanese. The other major countries offering asylum are, in descending order, Chad, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [36] Alex de Waal described this international response as “mean, measly, unethical and even illegal.” [37] Beyond a doubt, the world has yet to fulfill its moral and legal obligation to shelter the beleaguered refugees of Sudan. Other countries must not only exert concerted pressure on Egypt to treat these refugees well, but must finally, themselves, pursue a serious campaign of refugee assistance and give practical consideration to a resolution of the conflict. This should not be Israel’s problem alone.


[1] “Egyptians killed 4 Sudanese on border,” Jerusalem Post, 2 August 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sheera Claire Frenkel, “Israel, UN to stem tide of Sudanese refugees. Officials seek countries to absorb Africans,” Jerusalem Post, 9 August 2007.

[4] Refugee estimates vary.

[5] Ilene R. Prusher, “Israel to grant Darfur refugees citizenship,” The Christian Science Monitor, 6 September 2007.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mazel Mualem, “Israel to grant citizenship to hundreds of Darfur refugees,” Haaretz, 5 September 2007.

[9] Amnesty International: Appeals for Action, “Sudan Crisis – Background,” Amnesty International, 16 September 2007, <http://web.amnesty.org/pages/sdn-background-eng&gt;

[10] Nicholas Kristof, “Genocide in Slow Motion,” The New York Review of Books, 9 February 2006.

[11] Mazal Mualem, “Israel to grant citizenship to hundreds of Darfur refugees,” Haaretz, 5 September 2007.

[12] Ibid.

[13] UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, “South Sudan Operation,” UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/southsudan?page=intro (accessed 19 September 2007).

[14] Alex de Waal, Book forum on War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, Harvard University, Cambridge, 27 September 2007.

[15] OHCHR: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights , “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,” adopted 28 July 1951, United Nations OHCHR, http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/o_c_ref.htm.

[16] Gamal Nkrumah, “Here today, gone tomorrow,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 16 September 2007.

[17] Sheera Claire Frenkel, Ilana Diamond, and Staff, “Sudan: Israel encouraging emigration,” Jerusalem Post, 9 July 2007.

[18] Gmal Nkrumah, “Here today, gone tomorrow,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 2-8 August 2007

[19] Amnesty International Library, “Egypt: Amnesty International calls for inquiry into killings and opposes threatened collective expulsions of Sudanese protesters,” Amnesty International, 6 January 2006, <http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGMDE120022006?open&of=ENG-2AF&gt;.

[20] Sheera Claire Frenkel, “‘We knew it would be safe here’”, Jerusalem Post, Pg. 1, 31 July 2007.

[21] Isabel Kershner, “Israel Returns Illegal Migrants to Egypt,” The New York Times, 20 August 2007.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Sheera Claire Frenkel, “Cairo warns it won’t take back refugees who sneak into Israel,” Jerusalem Post, 12 August 2007.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Liat Collins, “The Sudanese Dilemma,” Jerusalem Post, 17 July 2007.

[28] Sheera Claire Frenkel, “A Sudanese refugee with her child at her temporary home at Ketziot Prison,” Jerusalem Post, 31 July 2007.

[29] Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), “IAEJ Employment Initiative,” http://www.iaej.org.il/pages/our_projects.htm (accessed 6 October 2007).

[30] Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), “IAEJ Education Initiative,” http://www.iaej.org.il/pages/our_projects.htm (accessed 6 October 2007).

[31] Evelyn Gordon, “Why a ‘genuine refugees only’ policy makes sense,” Jerusalem Post, 23 August 2007.

[32] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Bush Signs Bill Allowing Sudan Divestment,” The New York Times, 1 January 2008.

[33] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Rebels Split at Talks on Darfur, The New York Times, 27 October 2007.

[34] Warren Hoge, “U.N. Objects to Expulsion of Aid Official from Darfur,” The New York Times, 8 November 2007.

[35] Gettleman.

[36] UNHCR Statistics, “2006 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons,” UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, http://www.unhcr.org/statistics.html (accessed 7 October 2007).

[37] De Waal.


By Gabriel M. Scheinmann

Gabriel M. Scheinmann ’08 attends Harvard College and is a Government concentrator in Eliot House.

The People’s Republic of China has extended its footprint in the Middle East, even as the United States has grappled with myriad regional messes. Beijing is building political relationships with key oil-producing states in the region, based on its briskly growing need for energy, particularly crude oil and natural gas. Communist China has also become involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and UN peacekeeping, spheres that have traditionally been American territory.

Since 9/11, many Arab states, pressed by the U.S. for democratic reforms and human rights improvements, have warmed to the prag-matic and business-friendly Chinese approach that ignores the authoritarian nature of their regimes. Washington has been late in recognizing China’s new initiatives in the Middle East. Instead, the U.S. has been preoccupied with the chaos in Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan, as well as the threat from terrorist groups and Iran. The U.S. has also traditionally assumed that if conflict with China did erupt, it would be triggered by acknowledged flashpoints such as Taiwan or North Korea. As a result, the U.S. has neglected the possibility that a return to a bipolar world may actually arrive via the Middle East. Though direct military conflict is unlikely in the near future, recent economic trends, Chinese strategic decisions, and American preoccu-pations with short-term goals have signaled the beginning of the Cold War of the Twenty-First century.

China’s Middle East Policy

Beijing’s Middle East policy has four basic components. First, China has pursued extensive political ties in the region consistent with its energy needs. Second, China has reached out to isolated Middle East states in order to minimize criticism of its brutal repression of a rapidly growing, separatist-leaning, and violent Muslim population in its western autonomous region. Third, China has developed a series of naval bases, known as a “string of pearls”, across the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean as part of a gradual expansion of its naval capability. Finally, China has sought to gain geopolitical leverage by turning the Middle East into America’s renegade province, diverting U.S. energy and resources away from East Asia.

At this stage, China is unwilling and unable to directly challenge American primacy and is keenly aware of Washington’s red lines in the region. Thus China has been supportive of American and UN efforts to create an international tribunal to prosecute the (Syrian) killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and has paid lip service to American efforts to bar Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. [1] Chinese Premier Wen Jibao has reiterated that “Resolution 1737 adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council members reflects the concerns of the international community about the Iranian nuclear issue.” [2] China is also keenly aware of and has avoided challenging the new U.S.-sponsored Sunni-Israeli regional realignment against Iran. It has demonstrated its commitment to greater stability in the region and has avoided opposing the American initiatives in Lebanon, Pakistan, or in the Palestinian territories.

The sole exception, Chinese opposition to the Iraq War, was rooted in China’s firm belief that national sovereignty is inviolable, an atti-tude that pleases its Arab trade partners and deflects international criticism of its own domestic policies. Additionally, Beijing was concerned that its growing energy interests would be supplanted by a stronger and more physical American presence in the region. Many Chinese strategists are suspicious of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf, believing that the invasion of Iraq and American threats to attack Iran are part of a plan to monopolize regional oil supplies. [3]

Meanwhile, China has begun flexing its own muscles. In early 2006, Beijing sent a 182-member engineering battalion to Lebanon under UNIFIL—its first peacekeeping contingent sent to the Middle East. [4] It has since increased its contribution to 354 soldiers following the end of the Second Lebanon War, and reports suggest it will double that number in the near future. Increased Chinese confidence in its ability to direct events in the Middle East led Beijing to appoint its first special envoy for Middle Eastern affairs in 2002. [5] Though both the first envoy, Wang Shijie, a veteran diplomat who had served as ambassa-dor to Bahrain, Jordan, and Iran, and his successor, Sun Bigan, have had little to show for their time and efforts, their appointments and Chinese troop deployments mark a volte-face from China’s previous ignorance of, abstention from, and powerlessness in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

China also currently enjoys far greater positive standing in the Middle East than the U.S. Unencumbered by historical records of colonialism or current accusations of imperialism that beset Europe and the U.S., China is seen as a benign power in the region. It has neither publicly laid out a specific vision or policy for the region, nor has it announced that it intends to transform the regimes and institu-tions of the region’s countries. Having never participated in large military or diplomatic endeavors in the region, Communist China is a relative unknown to many Arabs. Ruling elites in Iran and the Arab world appreciate China’s willingness to conduct business uncondi-tionally, disregarding their country’s record on human rights or democracy. In Egypt, a recent government poll showed that China was the most favorably viewed non-Arab country, with 73 percent of Egyptians seeing it as “friendly”. [6]

Energy: Sine Qua Non

Chinese ambitions in the Middle East are primarily driven by the energy needs of its rapidly growing and industrializing economy. In addition to meeting the needs of its expanding power sector, Chinese energy imports are also needed to satisfy its transportation needs, which are primarily driven by the automobile market. [7] Some estimates suggest that China will have more cars on the road than the U.S. as early as 2030. Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once told the Chinese that “Israeli know-how is more valuable than Arab oil,” Chinese actions suggest otherwise. [8]

After becoming a net oil importer in 1993, China is now the second largest importer of crude oil after the U.S. and could surpass it by 2025. In April 2007, Beijing imported nearly 50 percent of its oil needs, quickly approaching the U.S. level of 61.9 percent. [9] In August 2006, Chinese oil imports from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Oman alone amounted to 43 percent of total oil imports. [10] Led by its three major state-owned energy companies, the China National Petroleum Corpo-ration (CNPC), the China National Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec), and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), 75 percent of Beijing’s oil imports will be from the Middle East by 2015. [11] As Washington slowly diversifies its energy sources, Beijing is becoming increasingly dependent on the Persian Gulf. In 2005, trade between China and members of the Arab League totaled $51.3 billion. Estimates suggest that this could double by 2010. [12]

The Dragon’s Fire: A Minor Factor

China has never been a major player in the Middle East arms market, though it has been somewhat involved in the region’s weapons trade. In 1985, the Middle East was the recipient of all Chinese arms sales, with Iran and Iraq absorbing 91 percent of these. [13] However, after 1988, that percentage dropped into the teens. Even at its peak in 1987, Chinese arm transfers amounted only to 12 percent of total arms sales to the region. The Chinese delivered around 60 to 75 anti-ship missiles known as C-802s (designated Yingji-8 in China) to Iran by 1997. China also sought to sell M-9 ballistic missiles to Libya and Syria before shelving the deal due to American pressure. [14] Overall, however, China has remained a marginal player in the Middle Eastern arms market since the end of the Cold War.

That may change. In the recent past, China has sold Saudi Arabia CSS-2 “East Wind” intermediate range ballistic missiles. [15] Sudan, currently murdering civilians in Darfur and potentially engaged in a reignited civil war, is the greatest recipient of Chinese arms, including small arms, anti-personnel mines, howitzers, tanks, helicopters, and ammunition. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah fired a C-802, at an Israeli anti-aircraft warfare ship, killing four Israeli soldiers. [16] Recent reports suggest that China has agreed to sell two dozen J-10 fighter planes, a jet based on Israeli components and technology, to Iran at a time when Iran is facing a third round of international sanctions over its nuclear program. [17]

Axis of Cooperation

Beijing has established warmer ties with Syria, Iran, and Sudan, all declared American enemies. Syrian President Bashar Assad was quoted in 2004 as saying that “China is now a superpower and is very important after the absence of the Soviet Union.” [18] Trade between China and Syria surged 55 percent to $1.4 billion in 2006. [19] By the end of last year, Chinese companies had signed project contracts in Syria worth $819 million. CNPC will begin construction on a $1 billion refinery in Deir al-Zor, the same site of a purported Israeli air attack on possible nuclear installations in September, in 2008. [20]

Beijing has also sought to fill the void created by American and European sanctions against Iran and Syria, undermining American efforts to isolate both regimes. The new Sino-Syrian relationship was summarized by Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdallah al-Dardari: “Our strategy is to stop exporting crude in three years and refine every drop of oil Syria produces. . . . Syria has had strong and historic political ties with China and it is natural for the economic relationship to strengthen.” [21]

Though it has stood by EU and UN-led efforts to curb Iran’s nu-clear program, Beijing has gone out of its way to reach out to Amer-ica’s most serious adversary. In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin and then-Premier Zhu Rongji visited Iran and Libya, labeling the two U.S.-defined state sponsors of terrorism as “friendly countries.” [22] President Jiang’s trip to Iran marked the first by a Chinese head of state since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. In December 2002, when Iranian Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi visited Beijing, President Jiang declared that “both states share almost similar stances on most issues.” In return, Iran has come to expect support from Tehran. Alae’ddin Broujerdi, head of the Majlis National Security and Policy Committee, announced that Iran expects “Moscow and Beijing to show more strength, power and independence . . .We expect them to use their veto power as a show of their independence and political strength, as the U.S. invariably does in instances involving the Zionist regime.” [23]

Chinese trade with Iran was estimated at $10 billion in 2006. [24] In 1994, Tehran accounted for just 1 percent of Beijing’s oil imports; today the proportion is nearly 13 percent. [25] At the end of 2004, Iran’s oil minister said that he expected China to eventually replace Japan as Iran’s largest oil market. Sinopec recently signed a $100 billion deal with Iran to import 10 million tons of liquefied natural gas over a 25-year period in exchange for a Chinese stake of 50 percent in the devel-opment of the Yadavaran oil field in Iran. [26]

China has also sold Iran anti-ship cruise missiles such as the Silkworm (HY-2), the C-801, and the aforementioned C-802. [27] In November 2003, the CIA issued a report stating that China was one of the leading providers of assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile programs. [28] China had planned to supply Tehran with a uranium conversion facility and nuclear power reactors, but public disclosure of the deal in 1995 and heavy American diplomatic pressure led to its cancellation. [29] In 1997, China pledged to stop selling cruise missiles to Iran, but in January 2005 the U.S. imposed penalties on eight Chinese companies for transferring ballistic missile technology to Iran. [30]

The same pattern has been repeated elsewhere. Since 1995, China, led by CNPC and Sinopec, has heavily invested in Sudan’s energy sector. [31] In addition to selling a variety of weapons and transport vehicles to the Sudanese regime, China has also established three arms factories in Sudan, leading to the proliferation of AK-47s across the country. [32] Today, Beijing is Khartoum’s leading oil partner, importing 64 percent of all Sudanese oil. Here, too, China has established energy and political relationships with a regime hostile to the U.S.

Operation Iraqi Freedom: A Chinese Boon

Anticipating American troubles in Iraq, China swiftly positioned itself to be one of Baghdad’s largest trading partners and political friends. The Chinese embassy in Baghdad opened less than two weeks after the transfer of authority from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim Iraqi government in June 2004. China also offered material assistance for the subsequent January 2005 elections and has provided fellowships for Iraqi students, technicians, and diplomats to travel to China and train in their respective fields. Last year, trade between China and Iraq topped $1.1 billion. [33]

A Chinese oil exploration and development contract has recently been the subject of two groundbreaking Iraqi gestures. First, the Iraqi government agreed to honor a CNPC deal signed with former leader Saddam Hussein in 1997 to develop the al-Ahdab oil field, valued at the time at $1.2 billion. [34] The field had an estimated pre-war capacity of 90,000 barrels/day and has been prioritized by the Iraqi government because of its proximity to new power stations and refineries. The deal was also the first to be offered to a foreign company by the new Iraqi government. [35] Additionally, China has cancelled $8 billion of Saddam-era debt, an important gesture of friendship and a symbol of closer political ties. [36] The Iraqi ambassador to China has remarked that friendship between China and Iraq dates back 2,000 years, blur-ring the historical truth but implying the intimacy of the new relationship.

The GCC and China

Beijing has also sought to establish economic ties with Gulf Cooperation Council states. Trade between China and the GCC topped $32 billion in 2005 and a free trade agreement is due to be completed by the end of 2007. [37] The overseas construction arm of CNPC moved into the Kuwaiti market in 1983 and embarked on a major business expansion in 1995 when the group won an oil storage reconstruction project. [38] China initially developed oil relationships with Oman and Yemen, rather than Saudi Arabia, because they both produced a light, sweet crude oil that Chinese refineries could easily handle. [39] By 2001, China had signed almost 3,000 contracts with the six GCC states for labor services worth $2.7 billion. [40] In 2002, the GCC had no major investments in new company facilities in China, but by 2006 they had thirteen, seven of which were bankrolled by the UAE. [41] Bilateral trade between China and Yemen reached $3.2 billion in 2005 and, in 2006, China became Yemen’s largest trading partner. [42] In December 2006, OPEC and China jointly announced that they had established a future cooperation framework on energy issues, “in particular, the security of supply and demand, in order to enhance market stability.” [43]

A New Pillar? Beijing and Riyadh

The emerging Sino-Saudi special relationship is crucial to Beijing’s Middle East policy and perhaps its biggest coup in the region. Overcoming the deep-rooted ideological polarity between the birth-place of Islam and an atheist Chinese communism, Riyadh has partly embraced Beijing in order to offset new strains in the U.S.-Saudi relationship after 9/11. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in 2004 that Saudi Arabia would reduce its dependence on U.S.-dominated security arrangements in the future. When King Abdullah made his first overseas trip as the new Saudi king in January 2006, he notoriously skipped Washington and became the first Saudi monarch ever to visit China. [44] In January 2007, a delegation from a Shanghai political think-tank was told in Dubai that a bigger Chinese role in the Gulf would be welcomed, especially if Beijing backed Arab positions in the UN Security Council.

Diplomats from both countries have worked furiously to construct a strategic energy relationship that will permanently ensconce a Sino-Saudi partnership. In 1999, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Riyadh and inaugurated a “strategic oil partnership” between the two countries. [45] Saudi Arabian oil exports represent a greater share of Chinese oil imports (17 percent) than American oil imports (14 percent). [46]

Sinopec has partnered with Aramco to build oil refineries capable of handling Saudi high-sulfur crude oil in China’s Fujian and Qingdao provinces—a development that will ease and increase Saudi oil exports to China. [47] China has also been a major investor and partner in the Saudi oil industry. The China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau and the China Petroleum Engineering and Construction Group recently announced that they will lay down a 225-mile pipeline, as a section of the Abu Dhabi Pipeline, and will transmit oil from Saudi Arabia’s Habshan Oil Field to Fujairah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE. [48] Sinopec received a contract to explore and produce natural gas in the Rub al-Khali Basin, the first time Riyadh has opened the area up for investment in nearly 30 years. [49] In February 2007, Sinopec partnered with ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco to set up an oil refining, chemical products, and finished oil marketing venture in China’s Fujian Province. [50] While many believe that the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship is based on energy supplies, applying the same calculus to the rapidly emerging Sino-Saudi relationship would imply a similar conclusion.

Playing Both Sides: Arabs and Israelis

Beijing’s relationship with Israel, Washington’s greatest ally in the region, has been rather warm in order to avoid any discord with the U.S. Though Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize Communist China, the two did not exchange ambassadors until 1992. [51] Additionally, Israel is one of only a handful of countries to have never granted diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. [52] During Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s January 2007 visit to Beijing, the band at the banquet in his honor played “Jerusalem of Gold”, a striking change from a time when Chinese diplomats refused to even mention the word “Jerusalem” in deference to Palestinian sensitivity. [53]

Chinese weapons purchases from Israel have often been a major irritant in U.S.-Israel relations. Israel remains China’s second largest arms provider, including of “Harpy” anti-radar drones and Python-3 air-to-air missiles. [54] Twice in recent times, Israel has been forced to cancel arms deals with China after heavy American pressure. Israel’s 1999 agreement with China to upgrade China’s Harpy Killer UAVs greatly angered the U.S. defense establishment. [55] In 2004, China tested the upgraded UAVs over the Taiwan Strait. In 2003, under heavy American pressure, Israel cancelled the sale of one $250 million Airborne Early Warning Command and Control radar system to China. [56] The U.S. is concerned that Israeli-supplied weapons could be used against the United States in the event conflict over Taiwan erupts.

The Chinese “War on Terror”

China has forged strong ties with Muslim states in order to quiet criticism over its ruthless tactics of suppression directed against a Muslim separatist movement in the Uighur region of its western, autonomous Xinjiang province. While estimates put the overall Mus-lim population in China around 20-30 million, the distinctly non-ethnically Chinese Uighurs concentrated in Xinjiang account for 7.2 million of that population.

China is a strong supporter of Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government, with which it shares a 20-mile border. It, moreover, backed U.S.-led efforts to eliminate the Taliban because the Taliban had supported the East Turkistan terrorist forces that threatened the stability of the Uighur region. [57] Between 1990 and 2001, East Turkistan terrorist forces staged more than 200 attacks in Xinjiang, killing 162 people and wounding many more. Then-Chinese Minister of Religious Affairs Zhou Guohai announced that harsh measures against Muslims were needed because the Chinese “deeply fear Islamic extremism” and “deeply distrust the Koran and what it teaches.” He also went on to declare, “We will make sure that Islam is practiced in a way that is in line with Chinese culture and tradition.” [58] In December 2002, in a concession to the Chinese, the State Department agreed to put one obscure Uighur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Move-ment, on the list of global terrorist organizations. For Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, energy and diplomatic relations trump the plight of Chinese Muslims.

Patience and Protection

China’s unwillingness openly to confront the U.S. in the Middle East is due to its self-perceived Achilles’ heel: its inability to protect energy supplies in American-controlled seaways. At present, 60 percent of Chinese oil imports arrive on tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. Securing deliveries therefore means safeguarding sea lanes from piracy, terrorist attacks, and hostile powers. An American naval blockade of Chinese tankers in the Strait of Hormuz or the Straits of Malacca would paralyze the Chinese economy. That, in turn, could catalyze domestic popular uprisings, which is China’s biggest fear. In 2006, Chinese naval forces conducted exercises simulating the rescue of a threatened tanker, a clear symbol of defensive preparatory measures. [59]

China is also helping Pakistan build a new and major deep-water port and electronic eavesdropping station at Gwadar, a mere 100 miles from the Iranian border and along the direct path of oil imports. Though ostensibly for Pakistani commercial use, the level of Chinese investment and Gwadar’s lack of usefulness as a feeder port in the Baluchistan deserts suggest that Beijing also has strategic interests in the development. [60] The basing of a Chinese fleet, even a token force, would be a clear signal of Chinese intentions to defend its oil investments from superior naval powers. [61] A February 2007 visit by President Hu to the Seychelles also suggested that China may hope to take advantage of the archipelago’s strategic position to construct a naval base. [62] China has also finalized a deal to build a naval base in the Maldives, due to be operational by 2010, as well as a naval bunker facility on Sri Lanka, much to the displeasure of the Indian government. [63] By assembling a “String of Pearls”, an image describing China’s expanding geopolitical strategy of acquiring a chain of small naval bases along its most vulnerable oil routes, Beijing is investing in protecting its energy supplies from possible U.S. threats in the not-too-distant future. China’s willingness to upgrade Iran’s anti-ship cruise missile capability is another attempt to erode U.S. naval superiority. [64]

When the Time is Right

Careful not to invite conflict with the U.S. before it has adequately protected itself against a potentially crippling American naval blockade, China has also embraced regional American allies, such as Israel. By supporting Israel’s right to security—a position unthinkable ten years ago—and following the Western lead on sanctions for Tehran, Beijing has sought to portray itself as benign to American hegemony. As long as America still controls the game, China is willing to abide by the rules the U.S. establishes.

Nevertheless, China has reached deep into the Middle East, creat-ing robust economic and political relationships with American pariah states such as Syria, Iran, and Sudan. Furthermore, it has developed its own “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia, Washington’s other ally in the region. As Sino-Saudi trade, energy investment, and diplomatic cooperation continue to increase, the Saudi royal family will have to balance its various American and Chinese interests against each other.

Chinese leaders have been emboldened by what is perceived as an American retreat from strong positions in East Asia. U.S. troop deployments in South Korea and Japan have dropped by nearly 13,000 since 9/11. [65] The Bush Administration’s willingness to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program signals a softening in attitude on the Korean Peninsula. The War on Terror, the Iraq War, and the recent destabilization of several countries in the Middle East have shifted Washington’s attention away from the Asian rim—a development welcomed by Beijing. The Bush Administration has also exhibited a marked rhetorical shift on Taiwanese issues since 9/11. Initially announcing that the U.S. would do “whatever it takes” to defend the island, President Bush has explicitly opposed Taiwanese independence in recent statements in a major backtracking from his former position. [66] As China recognizes U.S. softening of its positions on and presence in Japan, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula, it has cautiously entered a traditional American sphere: the Middle East.

As Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern oil deepens, it can be expected that Beijing will vociferously back the interests of oil-producing Middle East states at the UN Security Council and in relations with the U.S. and EU. Forced to choose between a rising power that promises investment without conditions about democracy or human rights, and an established power whose stated goal is to democratize all authoritarian regimes, states will likely choose the former. The Middle East could easily become the Twenty-First Cen-tury’s Africa—a Cold War battlefield laden with natural resources but scarred by proxy wars and backward economic development. While careful to continue being a responsible stakeholder in the international system, China has begun to battle the U.S. for supremacy and re-sources in the opening stages of the next Cold War.

[1] This has also meant soothing the fears of America’s most important regional ally, Israel. Following his January 2007 trip to Beijing, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he heard “many surprising and positive things” from Chinese Premier Wen and that Wen “made it absolutely clear” that Beijing opposed an “Iran with a nuclear bomb.” Haaretz, January 10, 2007.

[2] M. K. Bhadrakumar, “China’s Middle Easy Journey via Jerusalem,” Asia Times, January 13, 2007.

[3] Zhong Wu, “China Aims to Diversify Oil Sources,” Asia Times, February 28, 2007.

[4] Shichor, Yitzhak, “Silent Partner: China and the Lebanon Crisis,” The Jamestown Foundation, Volume 6, Issue 17, August 16, 2006, http://www.jamestownfoundation.org

[5] Yufeng Mao, “Beijing’s Two-Pronged Iraq Policy,” The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, Volume 5, Issue 12, May 24, 2005, http://www.jamestownfoundation.org

[6] Alistair Lyon, “Energy-Hungry China Breaks Ground in the Middle East,” Reuters News, November 27, 2006.

[7] Leverett, Flynt and Bader, Jeffrey, “Managing China-U.S. Energy Competition in the Middle East,” The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2005-06.

[8] Rubin, Barry, “China’s Middle East Strategy,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 3, Number 1, March 1999.

[9] Shai Oster, “Iraq Turns to China for Help in Reviving Oil Industry,” The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2007.

[10] David Winning, “China Taps Middle East for Crude as Demand Surges,” Dow Jones Interna-tional News, September 24, 2006.

[11] Lyon, Ibid.

[12] “China Seeks to Expand Trade, Energy Ties with Arab World,” Agence France Presse, May 31, 2006.

[13] Shichor, Yitzhak, “Mountains out of Molehills: Arms Transfers in Sino-Middle Eastern Relations,” Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, September 2000.

[14] Eisenstadt, Michael, “U.S. Policy and Chinese Proliferation to Iran: A Small Leap Forward?,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 31, 1997 <www.washingtoninstitute.org>

[15] Henderson, Simon, “China and Oil: The Middle East Dimension,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 15, 2004 <www.washingtoninstitute.org>

[16] Shichor, Ibid.

[17] Yossi Melman, “Iran to Buy 24 Jet Fighters from China”. Haaretz, October 23, 2007.

[18] Lyon, Ibid.

[19] “Syria Open to More Chinese Investment in Energy, Infrastructure,” Xinhua News Agency, July 10, 2007.

[20] Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Syria, China Edge Closer to Oil Refinery Deal,” Reuters News, July 9, 2007.

[21] Oweis, Ibid.

[22] Blumenthal, Dan, “Providing Arms: China and the Middle East,” The Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume XII, Number 2.

[23] Bhadrakumar, Ibid.

[24] Bhadrakumar, Ibid.

[25] Jin Liangxiang, “Energy First: China and the Middle East,” The Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume XII, Number 2.

[26] Chietigj Bajpaee, “China Becomes Increasingly Involved in the Middle East,” Power and Interest News Report, March 10, 2006 <www.pinr.com>

[27] Bajpaee, Ibid.

[28] Blumenthal, Ibid.

[29] Rubin, Ibid.

[30] Calabrese, John, “The Risks and Rewards of China’s Deepening Ties with the Middle East,” The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, Volume 5, Issue 12, May 24, 2005 <www.jamestownfoundation.org>

[31] Calabrese, Ibid.

[32] Nicholas Kristof, “China and Sudan, Blood and Oil,” The New York Times, April 23, 2006.

[33] “China Welcome to Explore Iraqi Oil Resources,” China Daily, June 19, 2007.

[34] Frank Gaffney Jr., “China’s Double Standard,” The Washington Times, June 26, 2007.

[35] Jamil Anderlini and Steve Negus, “Iraq Revives Saddam Oil Deal with China,” Financial Times, June 23, 2007.

[36] “Beijing Cancels Part of $8 billion Iraq Owes,” International Herald Tribune, June 23, 2007.

[37] Emma Graham-Harrison and Chris Buckley, “Oil-hungry China Courts Saudi King,” Reuters, January 22, 2006.

[38] Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.

[39] Leverett, Ibid.

[40] Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.

[41] Jim Krane, “Warm Relations between China and the Gulf Arab Countries,” AP, April 11, 2007.

[42] “China, Yemen discuss Middle East, Gulf; Sign Eight Deals,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, April 6, 2006.

[43] “China and OPEC Start Energy Dialogue,” China Daily, December 23, 2006.

[44] Krane, Ibid.

[45] Leverett, Ibid.

[46] Energy Information Administration <http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/Saudi_Arabia/OilExports.html&gt;

[47] “Big Deals in Gulf-China Trade Boom,” AP, April 11, 2007.

[48] “PetroChina to Lay Oil Pipe in Saudi Arabia,” Xinhua News Agency, June 5, 2007.

[49] Calabrese, Ibid.

[50] “Sinopec in Talks with Companies from Middle East,” Sinocast China Business Daily News, May 29, 2007.

[51] Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.

[52] Bajpaee, Ibid.

[53] Bhadrakumar, Ibid.

[54] Bajpaee, Ibid.

[55] Migdalovitz, Carol, “Israel: Background and Relations with the United States,” CRS Report for Congress February 13, 2006.

[56] Mark, Clyde R. “Israeli-United States Relations.” CRS Report for Congress April 28, 2005.

[57] Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.

[58] Blumenthal, Ibid.

[59] Liu, Melinda, “The Merchant Marine,” Newsweek International, March 28, 2007 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7243349/site/newsweek&gt;

[60] Masood Anwar, “Real Significance of Gwadar Port,” The International News, March 29, 2007 <www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=47664>

[61] Haider, Ziad, “Baluchis, Beijing, and Pakistan’s Gwadar Port,” Georgetown Journal of Interna-tional Affairs, February 2005, 98, www,stimson.org/southasia/pdf/GWADAR.pdf

[62] Chellaney, Brahma, “China Covets A Pearl Necklace,” Asian Age, April 7, 2007 <www.asianage.com>

[63] Kumar, Amit, “A New Balance of Power Game in the Indian Ocean,” Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, November 24, 2006

[64] Blumenthal, Ibid.

[65] Kane, Tim, “Global U.S. Troop Deployment 1950-2003,” The Heritage Foundation, Center for Data Analysis Report #04-11, October 27, 2004

[66] Kan, Shirley, “China/Taiwan: Evolution of the ‘One China’ Policy—Key Statements from Washington, Beijing, and Taipei,” CRS Report for Congress, September 7, 2006