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One of the main disputes behind tensions between the Iraqi federal government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) includes disagreement over budget allocation. This month, the Iraqi government approved the proposed budget for 2018 and sent it to the parliament for debate in the coming weeks. The draft budget, strongly criticized by the KRG, is the latest episode in the contention between Baghdad’s vision of a strong center and KRG’s preference of strong regions. It also highlights a fundamental problem: the actual meaning of Iraqi federalism, which still lacks a clear institutional framework.

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Following a recent controversy where a British journalist at a conference in Egypt casually implied that the peoples of the Arab world were more culturally inured towards restrictions on press freedom, we discussed the issue of democracy and Arab culture with Atlantic Council’s senior non-resident fellow, Dr. H.A. Hellyer.

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Qatar is one of Tunisia’s most important trade partners. It has invested, loaned, or assisted Tunisia with more than 1.5 billion USD since 2011, and has directed its media, think-tanks, and PR empire to acclaim the country’s transition to democracy. Thousands of Tunisians work in Qatar, and the current Gulf crisis has allowed a number of Tunisian businessmen to profit from the besieged peninsula by exporting industrial products, and even establishing factories there.

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Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) made headlines again as Saudi announced the arrest of eleven high ranking princes and ministers. The announcement, made via the Saudi-owned Arabic-language broadcaster Al Arabiya, sent shock waves throughout Saudi and the financial world.

The removal of princes and ministers is part of an anti-corruption campaign meant to show Saudi Arabia's intent to reform and modernize, but many sources believe it is more likely a move by the Crown Prince to consolidate power. Among those arrested were billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was the head of the National Guard. In detaining Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, MbS effectively removed all challenges to his ascension. Indeed, such a public arrest of members of the monarchy is especially surprising in a Kingdom which is known for quietly sidelining ministers and officials. A senior Arab official speaking to the BBC said that "it was a message that no one is above the law, or more precisely above his law.”

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In the wake of the Security Council’s renewal of the United Nations (UN) mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in September, a sequel to UN-led mediation efforts directed by a new Special Representative of the Secretary General is underway in Libya. It once again hopes to reach an agreement among the main actors of the Libyan crisis while guaranteeing the will of the Libyan people to reject authoritarianism and realize a pluralistic political system respectful of human rights and individual liberties. The script follows a familiar pattern: a UN roadmap that paves the way for a grand elections finale. But the deadlock in Libya and the dynamics since the onset of the political crisis may require more unorthodox thinking and counterintuitive solutions.

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In early July, Syrian regime forces backed by Russian air force and Iranian militias seized the entire desert area between Khanasir, Ithriya and al-Rasafah, split administratively between Aleppo, Raqqa, and Hama. In mid-August, the regime launched a campaign against the Islamic State group in eastern Hama province, east of Salamyeh city. It attacked from two directions—firstly from Ithriyah and al-Rasafah, which it had secured in a previous offensive towards the south, and secondly from the Palmyra—T4 Airport road towards the north. The two pincers met on August 19, when the regime announced it had imposed a siege around the Uqayribat pocket of Hama province, east of Salamyeh. The area covers some 3,000 square kilometres and is home to 10,000 civilians and around 350 Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) fighters. The attack lost ISIS an entire desert region encompassing eastern Hama and the southeastern Aleppo countryside as well as parts of western Raqqa, a large area that links up geographically with the Badia (Syrian desert) regions of Homs and al-Hamad.

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The current fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, IS, Daesh) and Salafi jihadis in Libya should not distract from other Salafi groups in Benghazi and Tripoli that are spreading and enforcing anti-democractic and illiberal views and practices. The Madkhali Salafist-inspired groups are slowly gaining ground via both the al-Tawhid Brigades in the east under Field Marshal Hafter’s umbrella, and the Rada forces in the west that support the UN-sponsored Presidential Council. Both strands adopt an ideology that grants the ruler unquestioned authority, is intolerable to opposing views, and encourages the use of force against opponents. Such negative stances on elections and separation of power put Libya’s political process at risk. 

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The Turkish government, along with Iran and Russia, met this week in Astana, Kazakhstan to discuss events in Syria and the enforcement of four-de-escalation zones spread across Syria. In the previous Astana meeting in September 2017, the three sides agreed on a plan to send up to 500 Turkish troops into Idlib to man checkpoints, as part of a broader effort to monitor a de-escalation of hostilities of most of the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime in the area. Turkey has assumed responsibility for the bulk of the opposition, presumably as part of a broader effort to protect these groups from regime bombardment and to establish a credible and united movement to negotiate with the regime.

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The Saudi Arabian Crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, recently declared that the kingdom sought a ‘return’ to the ‘moderate Islam’ of pre-1979. The international media understandably paid a great deal of attention—but how significant is this? Martin Chulov, the Guardian’s Middle East Correspondent, asked our non-resident senior fellow, Dr HA Hellyer, some questions about it—the Center is pleased to provided an edited transcript of their conversation below.

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Although Tunisia is still seen favorably in Washington, the US is unlikely to be its savior. No matter how much Washington reflects on Tunisia as a successful democratic transition, the mood in the US capital will not lead to large amounts of aid to magically fix Tunisia’s security and economic woes. Only by looking to itself can Tunisia complete its democratic transition.

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