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Demise of Gulf wise men bodes ill for Middle East conflicts

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The death of two Gulf peacemakers this year augurs ill for the war-torn Middle East, where conflict has defined the decade that followed the Arab spring.

Sheikh Sabah, Kuwait’s emir from 2006 who died last month aged 91, sought to resolve regional conflicts over his half a century of shaping foreign policy in the most democratic state in the Gulf. 

When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led a trade and travel embargo over fellow Gulf state Qatar, accusing Doha of fostering extremism, the elder statesman Sheikh Sabah adopted his traditional mantle as mediator, shuttling between capitals seeking to restore unity within the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.

While the dispute outlasted his attempts for resolution, Sheikh Sabah claimed that mediation had at least prevented military conflict between Gulf neighbours who used to describe each other as “brotherly states” but now engage in virulent smear campaigns on social media.

The late Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who died in January, maintained good relations with Iran from within the GCC. He held out the hand of friendship to Israel long before the UAE and Bahrain signed normalisation deals with Israel brokered by the Trump administration, an eager backer of the younger generation of leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

 “The region has lost two longstanding mediators and the younger leaders already in place in other Gulf countries have often seemed more interested in asserting themselves, especially militarily, than in making peace,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Gulf analyst. “They’ve confused dialogue and compromise with weakness.”

The roots of this new era are the Arab spring. Fearing US ambivalence, conservative Gulf monarchies have over the past decade been flexing military and fiscal muscle as never before to counter the rising tide of political Islam, an existential threat to their tribal-based rule.

The powerful alliance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, most recently channelled through the meeting of minds between Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, and his young Saudi counterpart Mohammed bin Salman, accelerated regional adventurism in Libya and Yemen. In the other corner, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey and tiny Gulf ally Qatar, led by a millennial, supported Islamist movements seeking to capitalise on the wave of people power around the Middle East.

This confrontation pitting expanding Turkish influence against emboldened Gulf autocrats has emerged as a new great game for leadership of the Sunni world, adding another dimension to the traditional Gulf rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Shia-leader Iran, which has torn Yemen apart over five years of bloody civil war.

Ms Kinninmont argues that it is instead time for governments to utilise a wider cohort, including youths and women, who are already highly active in grassroots dialogue, but who are often excluded from official processes.

She sees hope in the women from Yemen, Syria and Libya who are demanding seats at UN peace talks more often focused on male leaders of armed groups. There is also a new generation of Gulf women assuming senior diplomatic roles, including the Saudi and Bahraini ambassadors in Washington DC, the UAE’s representative to the UN, Oman’s ambassador to Germany and Qatar’s assistant foreign minister.

This emerging talent could help develop coexistence in a region that has been so heavily dominated by royal men flitting between aggression and external arbitration via bodies such as the UN, she says.

As the Saudi Arabia and the UAE explore resolution for the wars in Yemen, Libya, and perhaps even the self-defeating dispute with Qatar, all eyes are on the November election in the US.

While a victory for Donald Trump would reinforce the status quo, there are nerves in some capitals about Joe Biden’s pledge to reassess Saudi relations on the second anniversary of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

Amid these shifts, the new leaders of Oman and Kuwait are expected to pursue the regional mediation roles of their predecessors, said Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“The question is whether the loss of these elder statesmen, with decades of experience and near universal respect, will weaken those efforts,” she said.



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'It’s more than sport – every day we are fighting for our rights to be equal’

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French pro basketball player and podcaster Diandra Tchatchouang on her role beyond the court



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Emily Dean on how allyship amplifies the female experience on film

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When I was six years old, I decided to be an artist. When I was 12, I decided to be a filmmaker. And instead of saying no, you can’t do that, or it’s not possible, my mum bought me a video camera.

After several years of working in the industry, I’m working with a female director for the first time. And it’s been such a gratifying experience. Women express leadership in different ways. Maybe you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room. But you can have great ideas.

And the best thing about being mentored by women and being a mentor to women is that make friends with women.

There’s something so powerful the women coming alongside other women, especially in a group setting. Because it means that you can and back each other up. You can support each other’s decisions, and you can amplify each other’s voices.

It’s about seeing yourself in your work. Seeing some part of yourself reflected is really gratifying. It’s also important that we speak up for female characters. I want to see girls and women on screen who have the whole cacophony of experience of what it’s like to be female.

I want to see their flaws. I want to feel their struggles. I want to see their joy. That is so important to making a character feel real. And it took me a little while to settle into myself and realise, if the characters I like to come up with are not your everyday run of the mill characters you see in animation, that’s fine. Because this is who I am.

When you walk into a story room, when you’re working on a film, you have to leave your ego at the door. I think that can be interpreted like keep your ego out of the work. But I’d also say for women who are maybe more shy that leaving your ego at the door means you walk in. And your job is to focus on what’s best for the story and for the film.

The story needs you. The film needs you, and it needs your best ideas. It won’t thrive unless you speak up.



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Crimea ‘water war’ opens new front in Russia-Ukraine conflict

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When a cyclone drenched Crimea in rainfall last month, rivers burst their banks and thousands of people in the Russia-annexed peninsula had to be evacuated from the floods.

The silver lining to the deluge was that the rains also filled Crimea’s depleted reservoirs, temporarily alleviating a crisis brought on by an extended drought and a Ukrainian blockade of the Soviet-built canal that previously provided up to 85 per cent of the peninsula’s water supplies.

Moscow’s struggle to supply Crimea’s 2.4m residents with fresh water has become a flashpoint in an undeclared war, seven years after Russian troops seized Crimea from Ukraine. An even longer conflict between Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 14,000 lives.

Russia has accused Ukraine of “genocide” over the building of a concrete dam across the North Crimean Canal, in addition to the existing sandbag and earth dam that was built in 2014. Kyiv fears that Moscow is plotting a military incursion to secure water flows from the nearby Dnipro river.

Coupled with surging food prices and international isolation because of western sanctions, the water shortages threaten to undermine President Vladimir Putin’s promise of a better life for Crimeans under Russian rule.

Though state-run pollsters claim Putin remains more popular in Crimea than on average across Russia, the patriotic fervour that sent his approval ratings to record levels after the 2014 annexation has long since subsided.

Map showing Ukraine and the North Crimean Canal, Crimea

“The water reserves and fields have dried up,” said Viktor, 47, a Crimean who regularly travels to Ukraine for work. “Each year it’s getting worse and worse. We didn’t have this problem before annexation,” he said, adding that most Crimeans blamed Ukraine for the crisis.

A $3.7bn bridge across the Kerch Strait linking Crimea with mainland Russia has become a conduit for trucks ferrying water for locals to take away in plastic containers. Popular Black Sea tourist resorts can turn on their taps for just a few hours a day during peak droughts, while the canal has filled with grass and weeds.

Crimea’s agricultural output has fallen owing to a lack of irrigation, making it all but impossible to grow water-intensive crops such as rice.

Construction of the canal began in 1957 after the Soviet Union transferred the arid peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to manage rebuilding after the second world war. The waterway allowed for the cultivation of arable land and helped transform Crimea into a haven for tourists.

“The canal symbolises the stupidity of the Kremlin in occupying Crimea. They didn’t weigh the consequences at a moment of electoral euphoria that was fed by their own propaganda,” said Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister in charge of reintegration policies for the occupied territories.

“Why didn’t you think about water?” he asked.

The North Crimean Canal is seen with a low level of water
The severely depleted North Crimean Canal previously provided up to 85% of the peninsula’s water supplies © Pierre Crom/Getty

Workers collect potatoes on the North Crimean Canal
Workers collect potatoes on the North Crimean Canal. Ukraine blocked the irrigation channel after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea © Pierre Crom/Getty

Russia, while pressing Ukraine to reopen the waterway, has launched a Rbs50bn ($680m) programme to bolster Crimea’s supplies, repairing crumbling infrastructure, drilling wells, adding storage and desalination capacity.

Russian prosecutors last week filed a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights accusing Ukraine of “flagrant violations” over the issue. Crimea’s governor plans to file a separate complaint demanding up to Rbs1.5tn in compensation.

“Kyiv has essentially used Crimea’s infrastructure dependence on Ukraine, which came about in the Soviet era, as a weapon of mass destruction against all Crimeans. The water blockade is an act of state terrorism and ecocide, but the international community is failing to notice the Kyiv regime’s crimes,” Sergei Aksyonov, the peninsula’s governor, said in written comments to the Financial Times.

Reznikov said Russia, as the occupation force, was responsible under the Geneva Conventions for securing water and other basic needs for local the population. Ukraine has filed its own multi-billion-dollar claims against Russia, citing losses caused by what it describes as an illegal land grab.

With tensions rising, Russia deployed tens of thousands of troops and advanced weapons to Crimea this spring, as well as to the border of the two breakaway eastern regions where Moscow-backed separatists have battled government troops into an eighth year.

Col Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s army intelligence unit, said Russia was looking to seize the canal as well as adjacent territory to connect Crimea with the breakaway regions. Russian troops could advance on Nova Kakhovka, the Dnipro river town where the canal begins.

Some Crimean Tatars, an indigenous ethnic group whose members largely opposed Russia’s annexation, have set up a makeshift camp near the dams to make sure the water flow does not resume.

A Crimean Tatar activist on the North Crimean Canal
A Crimean Tatar activist enters his base on the North Crimean Canal. Tatars have set up camp to make sure the water flow does not resume © Pierre Crom/Getty

A Ukraine military vehicle drives past a Soviet monument marking the entrance to Brylivka
A Ukraine military vehicle drives past a Soviet monument marking the entrance to Brylivka, a village on the North Crimean Canal © Pierre Crom/Getty

“It will be a full-scale war,” said a 55-year-old activist who gave his name as Alibaba. He said he and his fellow activists were willing to take up arms to defend the blockaded canal. “There will be nowhere to hide in these fields. Let them try,” he added.

At the Kalanchak border crossing near the new dam, Russian and Ukrainian troops have dug trench positions a few hundred meters apart.

Tensions have also flared in the Black Sea, not just with Ukraine but also with western navies. Russia fired warning shots in the path of a British destroyer sailing through contested waters off Crimea last month. Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city, is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

Moscow has insisted it would not go to war over Crimea’s water supplies, even as it conceded that Ukraine was unlikely to restore them. “All these hysterical statements from Ukrainian politicians are completely baseless — they’re just stupid, aggressive propaganda aimed at inciting hatred between the Russian and Ukrainian people. There won’t be any ‘water war’,” Crimea governor Aksyonov said.

Reznikov, the Ukrainian minister, said Kyiv was ready to provide Crimea with humanitarian assistance, including drinking water, which it already does for the separatist-run eastern territories, but no request had been made.

“For Russia to admit they’re weak is very difficult . . . it would amount to an admission that they made the wrong decision,” he said.



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