Geopolitics

Twisted Saudi Humor: When A Terror Sponsor Vows To Fight Terrorists

Saudi Arabia, long a direct and indirect financier of religious fanatics, has declared war on Islamist extremism! It has 34 countries on board, some of which aren't even aware that they've joined. The punchline? It's not really abo

Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President al-Sisi last month in Riyadh.
Fehim Tastekin

RIYADH â€" Saudi Arabia has declared the creation of an Islamic front against terrorism, along with 33 other countries. Defense Minister Prince Muhammad bin Selman, who made the announcement, said the coalition will be called the Islamic Alliance Against Terror, and it fight not only ISIS but also other terror groups. The Riyadh-based coalition will provide intelligence, training and coordination support, and will first target Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.

Praise be!

Saudi Arabia is many things. Among them: chief financier of the countless jihadist groups who tore apart Syria, piece by piece; manipulator of the pro-al Qaeda wave against the Shia in Iraq; and supporter of the jihadist Salafists in dozens of countries. But from this point on, it is leading the fight against terrorism! Don't hold back those tears of joy!

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), reacted to the announcement by telling the Saudis that they were a few months early for an April Fool's joke.

Before we get to the absurdity of it all, let me first underline one fact: al-Qaeda, its successor ISIS and similar counterparts have been useful tools for Saudi Arabia in the dirty wars they wage against their enemies. Saudi financing played a big part in supporting the presence of both al-Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq. But just as al-Qaeda bit the hand that fed it in the 2000s with attacks on Riyadh and Jeddah â€" when ISIS crossed the line and said "I am a state, too" â€" the House of Saud panicked that their territory might be the next target.

Saudi Arabia found itself squeezed by Washington after 15 of the 19 attackers who hit the United States on 9/11 happened to be Saudi citizens, and it had to take certain precautions. The operations to feed jihadist elements became more sophisticated. Instead of offering direct support, the country channeled it through individuals and institutions in "front" countries such as Kuwait.

So let's get back to exploring Saudi Arabia's unique sense of humor with the latest announcement.

First question: Has this coalition actually been founded? How did so many countries suddenly line up behind the Saudis? At which summit did they make these decisions? It's all a mystery.

It's certain that they're employing the "make-it-up-as-we-go" method we know so well in Turkey. But this is a new standard for improvisation, as apparently some countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Lebanon didn't even know they were part of the coalition. For the delicate nature of politics in Lebanon, it's dicey to take part in a sectarian coalition while Hezbollah is part of the government.

Paying for our sins

It's also odd that Turkey happened to be the first country to declare support for the coalition. Prime Minister Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu embraced it as the "best answer to give to those who want to identify terrorism with Islam."

Second question: Is this really about combating terror?

Yes, there is a consensus that ISIS is a terror organization. What about the others? Everybody has their own terrorists. For example, Turkey puts the Kurds with the PKK, YPG and PYD in that basket, but like the Saudis, it finds certain Salafist groups to be reasonable. For Egypt, the terrorists are the Muslim Brotherhood, which is praised by the Turkish government, while Hezbollah tops the Saudi enemy list. Some groups that Turkey supports in Libya are considered terrorists by the Saudis. Who are the terrorists? Who will declare war on whom? Dark humor, to say the least.

Mohamed Morsi, democratically elected president or terrorist? Photo: Hamada Elrasam

Don't even get me started on Saudi definition of terrorists: Atheists, those who target the royal family and those who cooperate with foreigners against the king, are considered terrorists. But the oil money that has supported Wahhabi sectarian violence has immunity among the partners of this coalition.

So what's the point? Saudi Arabia's priority has always been founding a Sunni alliance against Iran and its allies, not combating terrorism.

You may recall that the new King Salman attacked Yemen in order to consolidate power domestically and secure the country's status as regional leader and settle a score with Iran over Syria. He tried to form a Sunni coalition in the process, with Ankara always the most enthusiastic partner. Ultimately, the Saudis waged the war in Yemen at the cost of clearing a path for al-Qaeda and ISIS on the Arab Peninsula.

In this light, Saudi Arabia posing as anti-terror is utterly unconvincing.

The Saudis persistently say that the coalition isn't sectarian. Okay, are Iran, Iraq and Syria, which are all fighting ISIS, in the coalition? No. Another crucial question: Can this coalition ever have operational capacity or become a position of power? Almost certainly not.

In short, ISIS and similar organizations are the ugly fruits of the sins of the Saudi-U.S. partnership that was duly followed by many other countries. This is the harsh truth. Syria has turned into hell on earth, but Saudi Arabia still persists in supplying bullets for jihadist guns to force President Bashar al-Assad out at all costs.

Saudi Arabia has no real interest in combatting terrorism. What it wants is a sectarian Sunni coalition. That's about it. The joke's on us.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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