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The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is one of the weightiest, most revelatory, original and important books written about sport"

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James Corbett, Inside World Football


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ex-Pakistani Prime Minister puts Pakistani military and China on the spot



By James M. Dorsey

Ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif kicked up a storm when he earlier this month seemingly admitted that Pakistan had supported militants who attacked multiple targets in Mumbai in 2008,  killing 166 people.

Mr. Sharif’s admission, which he has since tried to walk back, put a finger on Pakistan’s controversial policy of selective support of militant groups at a sensitive time. Pakistan is gearing up for elections that would secure its third consecutive handover of civilian political power.

Mr. Sharif’s remarks, moreover, stirred up a hornet’s nest because Pakistan is likely to next month be put on a watch list by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global financial watchdog that monitors the funding of political violence and money laundering worldwide.

The remarks also put China in a difficult position. China has been pressuring Pakistan to crack down on militants, particularly in the troubled province of Balochistan, the crown jewel in its Belt and Road-related $50 billion plus infrastructure investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Yet, at the same time, China has at Pakistan’s behest prevented the United Nations Security Council from declaring Masood Azhar, believed to have been responsible for an attack in 2016 on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station, as a globally designated terrorist.

The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed. Mr. Azhar was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Mr. Sharif’s made his remarks as China was building up its military infrastructure in Pakistan. The build-up is occurring against the backdrop of Pakistan risking being involuntarily sucked into potential attempts to destabilize Iran if Saudi Arabia/and or the United States were to use Balochistan as a staging ground.

In line with a standard practice in Pakistan that has repeatedly seen groups that are outlawed resurrecting themselves under new names, Lashkar-e-Taibe (LeT), the banned group believed to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks, and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be an LeT front, are  rebranding under a new name and as a political party, Milli Muslim League, that would compete in the forthcoming election.

The League is headed by Hafez Saaed, a former LeT leader, who was last year released from house arrest despite having been declared a designated global terrorist by the Security Council and the US Treasury, which put a $10 billion bounty on his head. China vetoed Mr. Saeed’s designation by the UN prior to the Mumbai attacks.

Activists, even though the party was last month designated by the US Treasury, are likely to run as independents in the election if the government maintains its rejection of the party’s registration.

So are operatives of Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, a front for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned, virulently anti-Shiite group that long enjoyed support from Saudi Arabia and operates multiple militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that have witnessed an injection of funds from the kingdom in the last two years.

“Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial? It’s absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it. We could have already been at seven per cent growth (in GDP), but we are not,” Mr. Sharif said, referring to stalled Mumbai attacks-related trials in a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.

Taking Mr. Sharif’s comments a step further, prominent journalist and author Ahmed Rashid asserted that “the deep state of Pakistan is supporting the banned outfits as it has done in the past. This game should be stopped, and the government should show its commitment and sincerity in disarming these groups and not to allow them to enter into politics.”

Former Pakistani strongman General Pervez Musharraf, in an apparent manifestation of links between the circles close to the military and hardliners, said prior to the designation by the US announced that he was discussing an alliance with Mr. Saeed’s league.

Speaking on Pakistani television, Mr. Musharraf pronounced himself “the greatest supporter of LeT… Because I have always been in favour of action in Kashmir and I have always been in favour of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir," Mr. Musharraf said.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence service are believed to favour integration of militants into the political process as a way of reducing violence and militancy in a country in which religious ultra-conservatism and intolerance has been woven into the fabric of branches of the state and significant segments of society.

Critics charge that integration is likely to fail in Pakistan. “Incorporating radical Islamist movements into formal political systems may have some benefits in theory… But the structural limitations in some Muslim countries with prominent radical groups make it unlikely that these groups will adopt such reforms, at least not anytime soon… While Islamabad wants to combat jihadist insurgents in Pakistan, it also wants to maintain influence over groups that are engaged in India and Afghanistan,” said Kamran Bokhari, a well-known scholar of violent extremism.

Citing the example of a militant Egyptian group that formed a political party to participate in elections, Mr. Bokhari argued that “though such groups remain opposed to democracy in theory, they are willing to participate in electoral politics to enhance their influence over the state. Extremist groups thus become incorporated into existing institutions and try to push radical changes from within the system.”

Chinese ambiguity about Pakistani policy goes beyond shielding Mr. Azhar from being designated. A Chinese-Pakistani draft plan last year identified as risks to CPEC “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

Security has since improved substantially in significant parts of Pakistan. The question, however, is whether integration of militants into the political process would stabilize Pakistani politics in the absence of a concerted effort to counter mounting ultra-conservative religious fervour in the country. It may be too early to judge, but so far the answer has to be no.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, May 14, 2018

Trump’s abrogation of Iran deal may put his America First policy to the test


Credit: Iran Front Page

By James M. Dorsey

President Donald J. Trump’s abrogation of the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran is likely to put his America First policy to the test.

Mr. Trump’s decision to walk away from the agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program risks fuelling a nuclear race in the Middle East, particularly if Iran decides that the US withdrawal has rendered the deal unbeneficial.

Competition for a slice of the Middle East’s nuclear pie is already in full swing with Saudi Arabia emerging as one of the world’s largest and most immediate export markets.

To ensure that the United States remains competitive, Mr. Trump is likely to have to compromise on strict US conditions that have governed US nuclear exports until now.

Failure to do so could deprive America’s nuclear industry of its best option for recovery from the fallout of overregulation, foreign competition and the rise of rival energy sources, including gas and renewables.

Raising the spectre of a nuclear race, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir last week reiterated the kingdom’s warning that it would develop a nuclear weapon if Iran were to pursue military aspects of its program.

Mr. Al-Jubeir as well as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have not defined what they would consider Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon if Iran too decides to walk away from the 2015 agreement and revitalize its nuclear effort unfettered by the deal’s restrictions.

Saudi distrust of Iranian intentions has been reinforced by Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s recent disclosure that the Jewish state’s intelligence service had laid hands on 100,000 Iranian files that document Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon prior to the 2015 agreement.

Iran has consistently denied that it wanted to develop a nuclear weapon. The Islamic republic has also said it would remain committed to the nuclear agreement despite the US withdrawal and re-imposition of sanctions if the other signatories – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – fulfilled their obligations and ensured that Iran would benefit economically.

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif is visiting Beijing, Moscow and Brussels to ascertain whether the signatories are committed to defying Mr. Trump by doing business with and investing in Iran despite the risk of their companies suffering the wrath of the US Treasury.  

US Energy Secretary Rick Perry is meanwhile hoping that Saudi Arabia’s ambitious civil nuclear program will create opportunity for American companies. The program entails building 16 reactors by 2032 with a capacity of 17.6 gigawatts (GW).

Mr. al-Jubeir said In March that the kingdom was engaged in talks with ten nations about its nuclear program, including Russia and China, countries that likely would be more amenable than the United States to reduced safeguards and broader arrangements.

Saudi Arabia has demanded in discussions with the Trump administration the right to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel into plutonium, potential building blocks for nuclear weapons, as part of any agreement with a US company. The Saudis argue that Iran has that right under the 2015 agreement.

Mr. Perry, in a first step to ensure that Westinghouse, the US company most immediately concerned, would have a fighting chance, persuaded Saudi Arabia to include American firms in a bid for its first two reactors. The kingdom had initially invited only Chinese, French, Russian and South Korean bidders.

The energy secretary is at the same time negotiating a non-proliferation trade or 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia that is required by US law as a pre-condition for participation of American companies. A sticking point in the negotiations is the fact that the United Arab Emirates set a high benchmark when it accepted to foreswear enrichment and reprocessing as part of its 123 agreement.

The UAE this year completed construction of the Arab world’s first commercial nuclear reactor. UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba warned in 2015 after the conclusion of the Iran deal that it may want to amend its agreement to have the same right as Iran to enrich uranium.

“Your worst enemy has achieved this right to enrich. It's a right to enrich now that your friends are going to want, too, and we won't be the only country,” Mr. Al-Otaiba was quoted as saying at the time.

The UAE has not publicly raised the issue since but could well do so if the Iran nuclear deal is definitively cancelled or Saudi Arabia is given the right to enrich.

Arguing in favour of boosting US nuclear exports to the Middle East, Katie Tubb, an analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation that prides itself on two-thirds of its recommendations having been adopted by the Trump administration, noted that US support has helped “dissuade Saudi Arabia from extremism, boost its ability to defend itself against a rogue Iran, and enable it to fulfil its commitment to quell terrorism.”

Ms. Tubb went on to say that “contributing to Saudi Arabia’s economic growth can be another powerful and persuasive answer to extremism by offering opportunity, greater freedom, education and jobs, social mobility, stability, and a dynamic, innovative future. Engaging with Saudi Arabia’s new nuclear power industry through a 123 Agreement can play a big role in making that happen.”

Saudi demands for the right to enrich and a potential UAE backtracking on its arrangements that have been declared the gold standard for nuclear exports potentially leave Mr. Trump with a stark choice, Ms. Tubb’s reasoning notwithstanding.

He either lowers the bar and risks fuelling a nuclear race in the Middle East or sticks to the high ground at the expense of opportunity for America’s nuclear industry.

If Mr. Trump’s record is anything to go by, his choice would seem a foregone conclusion.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Middle Eastern rivalry spills onto Asian soccer pitches



By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia’s bitter rivalry with Iran has spilled onto Asian soccer pitches with the newly created South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) reflecting the kingdom’s bid for regional hegemony, including domination of soccer.

Saudi Arabia’s most recent victory on the pitch was evident in the absence in SWAFF, formed by a merger of the West Asian and South Asian football federations, of almost half of the members of the West Asian grouping, including Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. Also, not included were South Asia’s Nepal and Bhutan.

The absence of Jordan and Palestine speaks volumes about the depth of polarization in the Middle East and the willingness of some states to quietly but firmly resist Saudi aspirations. 

So does the fact that Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family that is closely associated with Saudi Arabia, did not attend SWAFF’s founding in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. SWAFF will be initially headed by Adel Ezzat, the president of the Saudi football federation.

Mr. Al-Khalifa’s absence fuelled speculation that SWAFF seeks to create a Saudi-dominated governing body in Asia in competition with the AFC and launch Asian soccer championships that would compete with AFC tournaments.

The AFC groups all Asian soccer federations, including Iran and other countries at odds with Saudi Arabia’s regional power-grabbing efforts.

“The South West Asian Association aims to develop the sport in Asia and hold many tournaments and events on an annual basis,” SWAFF said in a news release that also announced Saudi sports czar Turki al-Sheikh, a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as its honorary president.

Pakistani news reports suggested that the Saudi effort to impose its will on Asian soccer may not be smooth sailing. Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) officials refused to confirm membership in SWAFF despite the participation of two its representatives in the Jeddah meeting.

The PFF has close ties to Mr. Al-Khalifa and its Bahrain counterpart which funds the salary of the Pakistani national team’s coach.

SWAFF has been tight-lipped about its ambitions with members reluctant to discuss the federation’s purpose in public. "I am not authorised to talk about it," said All India Football Federation general secretary Kushal Das.

There was also no explanation for the exclusion of Nepal and Bhutan. Sources said the founding meeting of SAFF had been so hastily arranged that Nepal and Bhutan were unable to attend. They said the two countries were likely to join at a later stage.

With Saudi Arabia and the UAE, its closest regionally ally, heavily invested in Central Asian nations, SWAFF is likely to want to expand to include former Soviet members of the Central Asian Football Federation (CAFF).

Mr. Al-Khalifa recognized Central Asia as a separate region within the AFC after CAFF was established in 2014 at the initiative of Iran. Iran swapped its membership in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) for association with CAFF, a grouping in which it expected to be able to wield greater influence.

“Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are seeking a political return on their investment in Central Asia” said Gulf expert Theodore Karasik in an article discussing the Gulf states’ Central Asia strategy.

Central Asia is likely to emerge as an ever more important Saudi-Iranian battlefield in the wake of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program given plans for multiple pipelines, some of which include Iran.

A potential inclusion in SWAFF of Central Asian soccer federations at the expense of Iran would tally with Saudi Arabia’s reversal of its attitude toward the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Once one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban when the group controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia today is pressuring the group to engage in negotiations with the government of President Ashraf Ghani in a bid to ensure that a Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative force shares power in a country that borders on Iran.

To achieve that, Saudi Arabia has moved from supporting the Taliban to trying to isolate it. Saudi Arabia has endorsed US allegations of Iranian support for the Taliban and is seeking to force the group or dissident elements within it to come to the negotiating table.

The Saudi pressure is also intended to thwart plans for a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.

Saudi Arabia initiated the creation of SWAFF after Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, the head of the WAFF, a former FIFA presidential candidate, and advocate of reform of soccer governance that has been wracked by multiple corruption scandals, reportedly resisted Saudi pressure to move the headquarters of the West Asian group from Jordan to Saudi Arabia.

The refusal amounted to a rejection of Saudi efforts to create one more building block for regional dominance.

Relations between Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been strained over Amman’s refusal to back the 11-month-old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led boycott of Qatar and Jordan’s refusal earlier this year to succumb to Saudi pressure regarding its participation earlier this year in a summit of Islamic leaders in Istanbul called to confront US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Palestine’s exclusion from SAFF suggests Saudi irritation with Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to accept the United States as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision and protests by soccer fans against a Saudi effort to impose a coach on the Palestinian national team who has close ties to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s bid for regional soccer hegemony runs parallel to Mr. Trump’s vow to sanction non-American companies that do business with Iran in the wake of the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement. It suggests that Saudi Arabia intends to expand its battle with Iran into areas beyond the Middle East and sectors that claim to be aloof of politics.

In doing so, the Saudi move challenges international sports governance’s insistence on a separation of sports and politics and is likely to put pressure on East Asian nations who are influential soccer powerhouses within the AFC and maintain close economic and diplomatic ties to the kingdom but have studiously remained on the side lines of its battles.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Friday, May 11, 2018

SPACE SCIENCE AND THE ARAB WORLD Astronauts, Observatories, and Nationalism in the Middle East

NEW BOOKS NETWORK INTERVIEW WITH:

JÖRG MATTHIAS DETERMANN, aUTHOR OF:
Space Science and the Arab World
Astronauts, Observatories, and Nationalism in the Middle East
I. B. TAURIS 2018
May 11, 2018 BY James M. Dorsey
Space Science and the Arab World, Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris, 2018) a recently published history of Arab exploration of space, offers a fascinating insight into fundamental issues shaping the contemporary Middle East, including efforts to turn Arab societies into twenty first-century knowledge-based economies and  the role of the religion and its relationship to science. Assistant Professor Jörg Matthias Determann takes the reader on a highly readable and well-documented tour of the struggle of Arab scientists to contribute to the development on space studies and how scientific research contributes to reform and change in the Arab world. It is a process that often meant that scientists were forced to pursue their studies and explorations outside of the region and in doing so contributed to concepts of cosmopolitanism in the region.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
lISTEN TO THE PODCAST AT:
http://newbooksnetwork.com/jorg-matthias-determann-space-science-and-the-arab-world-astronauts-observatories-and-nationalism-in-the-middle-east-i-b-tauris-2018/

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Playing US sanctions: China walks a fine line in Iran



By James M. Dorsey

Chinese businessman Sheng Kuan Li didn’t worry about sanctions when he decided in 2010 to invest $200 million in a steel mill in Iran that started producing ingots and billet within months of the lifting of punitive measures against the Islamic republic as part of 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

With no operations in the United States, Mr. Li was not concerned about being targeted by the US Treasury. Mr. Li, moreover, circumvented financial restrictions on Iran by funding his investment through what he called a “private transfer,” a money swap that was based on trust and avoided regular banking channels.

In doing so, Mr. Li was following standard Chinese practice of evading the sanctions regime by using alternative routes or establishing alternative institutions that were in effect immune.

To be able to continue to purchase Iranian oil while sanctions were in place, China, for example, established the Bank of Kunlun to handle Chinese payments.

The Chinese experience in circumventing the earlier sanctions will come in handy with Beijing rejecting US President Donald J. Trump’s renewed effort to isolate Iran and force it to make further concessions on its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs as well as the Islamic republic’s regional role in the Middle East by walking away from the 2015 agreement and reintroducing punitive economic measures.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in response to Mr. Trump’s announcement that the People’s Republic was committed to the deal and would “maintain communication with all parties and continue to protect and execute the agreement fully.”

China’s likely willingness to circumvent US sanctions is one factor that will influence Iran’s decision on whether it will stick to the agreement. Iran’s decision depends on the readiness and ability of the other signatories - Britain, France, Germany and Russia – to also stand up to the United States.

China’s experience in circumventing sanctions could come in handy as Europe, that like China has rejected Mr. Trump’s move and vowed to ignore the sanctions, weighs ways of putting its money where its mouth is by attempting to shield European companies from potential US punitive action. One possibility would be to use alternative Chinese financial networks.

Nonetheless, this time round, rejecting and violating US sanctions may prove for China as well as the other signatories to be a trickier undertaking. Last time round, China and the other signatories were part of an international consensus that aimed to force Iran to accept restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program even if they at times circumvented the sanctions.

China and other signatories are in the wake of the re-imposition of US sanctions likely to be operating in a far more confrontational environment in which the subtext of Mr. Trump’s decision as well the positions of Saudi Arabia and Israel appears to be a policy that seeks to achieve regime change in Tehran.

Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates have suggested in recent months in their 11-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar that they are willing to quietly sanction those who fail to support them.

There is little reason to doubt that they would do the same in their confrontation with Iran with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman describing the dispute with Qatar as “trivial’ in comparison to the kingdom’s existential battle with Iran.

Saudi Arabia demonstrated its greater assertiveness by forcing major multi-national financial institutions to choose sides in the Gulf spat. In response to Saudi pressure, JP Morgan and HSBC last month walked away from participating in a $12 billion bond sale.

Earlier, Doha Bank, Qatar’s fifth-biggest lender, was forced to reduce the size of a two-year, $575 million bank loan that it had raised in December 2015 to $400 million, when it sought a one-year extension of the facility because Chinese, Hong Kong and Japanese banks opted not to participate.

In the utmost consequence, China’s concerted effort to remain aloof of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts could be severely compromised if it were forced to take sides in a conflict between Iran, a country with which China feels that it has much in common and that it in the past has helped develop its ballistic and nuclear programs, and Saudi Arabia, a more recently found friend that is economically important to the People’s Republic.

To be sure, greater Saudi assertiveness does not mean that the kingdom does not have to tread carefully in potentially seeking to penalize China and others for their potential refusal to go along with Mr. Trump’s confronting of Iran.

Saudi Arabia desperately needs foreign investment to implement Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030, a far-reaching plan for social and economic reform that aims to diversify the kingdom’s conservative society and oil-dependent economy and turn it into a 21st century, knowledge-based state.

China, moreover, is one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost oil export markets. While the Saudi military remains focussed on US and European arms purchases, China, at a time that a military confrontation with Iran is not beyond the realm of the possible, is a source of weaponry the United States has been so far unwilling to sell to the kingdom.

With the United States refusing to share its most advanced drone technology, China agreed last year to open its first overseas defense production facility in Saudi Arabia. State-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) will manufacture its CH-4 Caihong, or Rainbow drone as well as associated equipment in Saudi Arabia. The CH-4 is comparable to the US armed MQ-9 Reaper drone.

The stakes in the battle to save the Iranian nuclear deal in the wake of Mr. Trump’s decision go however far beyond a belief that the nuclear deal is serving its purpose in curbing potential Iranian nuclear ambitions and economic opportunity.

Leveraging its experience, an effort by China together with Russia and Europe that keeps the Iranian nuclear deal in place and thwarts US sanctions would deliver one of the heaviest body blows to US credibility and perceptions of US power since Mr. Trump came to office in January of last year.

Said a Middle Eastern diplomat: “A successful countering of US sanctions would demonstrate beyond doubt limits to America’s ability to impose its will. That would have wide-reaching consequences, not in the least question marks in Saudi Arabia and Israel on the degree to which they can risk continuing putting most of their eggs in Washington’s basket.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, May 7, 2018

Saudi Moroccan soccer spat symbolizes the Arab world’s new politics


Saudi sports czar Turki Al-Sheikh

By James M. Dorsey

A Saudi Moroccan soccer spat speaks volumes about the depth of change in the Arab world.

The spat over Saudi Arabia’s refusal to support a Moroccan bid for the hosting rights of the 2026 World Cup tells the tale of the rise of individual country nationalism at the expense of Arab solidarity, Saudi determination to safeguard its alliance with the United States at whatever cost, and creeping Saudi and UAE efforts to strongarm countries into supporting their 11-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In the latest round of the spat, Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority and a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, broke with the decades-old, often farcical, principle of Arab solidarity, by suggesting that the kingdom would support a US-led rather than a Moroccan bid for the 2026 World Cup.

Adopting a Saudi Arabia First approach, Mr. Al-Sheikh noted that the United States “is our biggest and strongest ally.” He recalled that when the World Cup was played in 1994 in nine American cities, the US “was one of our favourites. The fans were numerous, and the Saudi team achieved good results.”

In an earlier tweet, Mr. Al-Sheikh, noting that none of the contenders for the 2026 bid had sought Saudi support, said that “if someone ever asks, we will look for Saudi Arabia’s interests first.”

Mr. Al-Sheikh’s Saudi Arabia First stance reflected Prince Mohammed’s efforts to emphasize Saudi nationalism as a compliment, if not replacement of religion as his regime’s legitimizing ideology.

Applying the principle to soccer, takes on added significance given the fact that few other things parallel the depth of emotion that religion evokes in what is a soccer-crazy part of the world.

Underscoring the importance of soccer, Saudi businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, in one of his first public acts after being released from three months of detention in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel and in a demonstration of fealty to Prince Mohammed, donated in February $533,000 to Saudi soccer club Al Hilal FC.

Prince Alwaleed, who was among the more recalcitrant of the hundreds of members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, senior officials, and prominent businessmen detained last November in what amounted to a power and asset grab under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign, said the donation was in response to a call by the government.

Mr. Al-Sheikh’s apparent support for a joint US-Canadian-Mexican bid to co-host the 2026 World Cup followed a veiled threat by President Donald J. Trump, in violation of guidelines regarding political influence of world soccer body FIFA, against nations that may oppose the US-led proposition.

Morocco is the US-led bid’s only competitor. FIFA is scheduled to choose the 2026 host on June 13.

“The U.S. has put together a STRONG bid w/ Canada & Mexico for the 2026 World Cup. It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid. Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?” Mr. Trump said on Twitter.

“We will be watching very closely, and any help they can give us in that bid we would appreciate,” Mr. Trump added, implicitly linking support for the US-led bid to trade issues.

In his own tweets, Mr. Al-Sheikh made clear that Saudi support for the US-led bid was about more than preserving the kingdom’s alliance with the United States.

He suggested that it was yet another indication of an attempt to strongarm countries into supporting the boycott of Qatar that has failed to garner international support and punish those who opposed it.

Morocco, despite close security, military and economic ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has refused to take sides in the Gulf conflict and has offered to mediate. As Qatar was scrambling last June to ensure food imports in the days that immediately followed the declaration of the boycott and the cutting of land, air and sea links, Morocco sent several plane loads of supplies to the Gulf state.

“Some people went astray. If you want support, you should seek it in Riyadh. What you are doing is wasting your time. Now ask the pseud-state to help you. A message from the Gulf to the Ocean,” Mr. Al-Sheikh tweeted several weeks ago, referring to Qatar in derogatory terms and the fact that Morocco’s shores are on the Atlantic Ocean.

Adding insult to injury, Mr. Al-Sheikh posted his tweet at the very moment that his aide and namesake, Talal Al Sheikh, was meeting in the Moroccan capital of Rabat with the president of the Moroccan Football Federation, Faouzi Lekjaa.

The linking of Saudi Arabia’s position on the World Cup came on the heels of the kingdom’s efforts to force prominent, multi-national financial institutions to take sides in the Gulf dispute. The Saudi push persuaded JP Morgan and HSBC to refrain from participating last month in a $12 billion Qatari bond sale.

The Saudi-Moroccan spat is the latest incident in which the World Cup has become a battleground in the Gulf crisis.

In an indication of the importance Gulf leaders attribute to Qatar’s ability to garner soft power with its hosting of the 2022 World Cup, Dubai security chief Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan suggested in October that the UAE-Saudi-led boycott would be lifted if the Gulf state surrendered its hosting rights.

That may have been an overstatement by the notoriously bombastic law enforcement official, but nonetheless reflected thinking about the political importance of sports in Qatar and among its detractors.

The Saudi-Moroccan spat goes, however, beyond the political significance of soccer in the Gulf. It symbolizes the end of a post-colonial era in the Middle East in which Arab states look out for their individual interests rather than perceive themselves as a true bloc in anything but name. That may be a healthy development, albeit one that promises even greater fracturing in an already deeply divided part of the world.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Friday, May 4, 2018

May 12: A potentially future-shaping day for the Middle East


Credit: Newsrescue.com

By James M. Dorsey

With US President Donald J. Trump scheduled to announce whether he will uphold the international community’s nuclear agreement on Iran and Iraqi elections slated for the same day, May 12 is gearing up to be a day that could shape the future of the Middle East.

May 12’s significance lies in what it will mean for the immediate course of the debilitating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has played out in proxy wars across the region and played politics with the differences that divide Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Underlying the drama of May 12 is a more fundamental shift in the approach of both Saudi Sunni Muslim leaders and Iraqi Shiite and Sunni politicians towards the region’s sectarian divide that may provide a first sign of light at the end of the Middle East’s tunnel of violence, civil war, and ethnic and religious strife.

Moreover, reduced sectarian tension lays bare the core struggle for regional power between Saudi Arabia by lifting the veil of religious dispute in which it was often shrouded. That struggle could intensify if Mr. Trump decides to increase pressure on Iran to compromise on issues like its ballistic missile program and regional proxies.

In a sign of the times, Iraqi politicians campaigning for the parliamentary election have been forging cross-sectarian alliances and wooing votes across the country irrespective of past history and religious allegiance.

Iraq’s largest Sunni Islamist political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a driving force behind the Sunni protest movement in 2013 that was hijacked by the Islamic State, has built an alliance with Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Last week, Mr. Abadi became the first Shiite leader to campaign in a wholly Sunni Muslim part of Iraq when he travelled to Anbar province, 110 kilometres west of Baghdad.

People must feel part of this country and like they are citizens of this country. At the end of the day, we must deliver to the people,” Mr. Abadi said earlier, insisting that Iraq needs to forge an identity that is inclusive in terms of nationhood as well as religious and tribal affinity.

The effort to break down sectarian fault lines that have dominated Iraq since the 2003 US invasion that toppled the Sunni minority regime of Saddam Hussein purveys the walk-up to the election.

Shiite-led electoral groupings are hopeful that they will see record-breaking gains in Sunni areas. Sunni politicians who fled the country because of sectarian violence have returned to compete in the poll.

Putting deep-seated distrust definitively to bed is likely to be a lengthy process, but the initial building of bridges was helped by Saudi efforts to forge close diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with Iraq after refusing to engage with the Shiite-majority country for more than a decade.

Saudi government moves to improve relations with the kingdom’s own long discriminated Shiite minority served, moreover, as evidence that Sunni Muslim attitudes may be changing.

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Iraqi charm offensive as well as his moves to turn a page with his own Shiites is as much an effort to project himself as a reformer as it is a bid to counter Iran and its regional influence.

Trends in Iraq and Saudi Arabia are in some ways mirror images of one another. Leaders in both countries are pushing nationalism rather than sectarianism.

The rapprochement between Iraq and Syria and the Saudi government’s overtures to Shiites who populate its oil-rich Eastern Province “mark a turn away from the years of pervasive anti-Shia sentiment in both domestic and regional politics and toward a more assertive nationalism,” said Gulf scholar Kristin Smith Diwan.

So far, Prince Mohammed’s moves and overtures by Mr. Abadi and Iraqi politicians appear to be producing results. Iraqi Sunni Muslim leaders are reconciling themselves to the fact that the days of sectarian minority rule are over and that they will have to carve out a space for themselves in a political landscape that is dominated by fractured Shiite political forces.

Similarly, Saudi Shiite voices have welcomed Prince Mohammed’s insistence in an interview with The Atlantic in which he acknowledged that Saudi Arabia was home to both Sunnis and Shiites and efforts to include Shiites in his top-down reforms.

“You will find a Shiite in the cabinet, you will find Shiites in government, the most important university in Saudi Arabia is headed by a Shiite. So we believe that we are a mix of Muslim schools and sects, Prince Mohammed said.

To be sure, Saudi overtures are built on the brutal crushing of Shiite protests in the Eastern Province and the destruction of large parts of the town of Awamiyah, that was home to Nimr al-Nimr, the opposition Shiite religious scholar who was executed in early 2016.

While they are designed to eliminate the adversarial tone in relations between the sects and increase social and economic opportunity, change does not involve giving Shiites a political say of their own as much as Sunnis are not being granted the option of political participation.

Yet, a growing number of Saudi Shiites, like many Iraqi Sunnis, are coming to grips with the fact that their best hope is to row with the oars that they have; in other words, in Saudi Arabia make the best of opportunities granted by an absolute monarch and in Iraq accept a minority role.

Taken together, the developments in Saudi Arabia and Iraq as well as in relations between the two countries not only help reduce sectarian tension but also challenge Shiite Iran’s projection of itself as a revolutionary force that represents all Muslims rather than just a sect.

No doubt, both Saudi Arabia and Iraq have a long way to go in rebuilding confidence between sectarian communities and ensuring that minorities truly feel that they have a stake in their nation.

Nevertheless, efforts to reduce the sectarian sting take on added significance as Mr. Trump could fuel the fires of controversy, if not conflict, by walking away from the Iran nuclear agreement on May 12.

Depending on what Mr. Trump does, May 12 could prove to be a watershed in the history of the Middle East. If he walks away, the question is whether he simply caters to his domestic base by refusing to certify to the US Congress Iranian compliance with the agreement or seeks to escalate confrontation with the Islamic republic by re-imposing sanctions on Iran.

An Iraqi election on May 12 from which Sunni Muslims emerge with a sense of being part of Iraq’s political process and future would be no less historic. How historic will depend on continued Shiite political efforts to give Sunni Muslims a stake. The same is true, for Prince Mohammed’s reforms, including his inclusionary gestures towards Shiites as part of an absolute monarchy that adheres to what he terms ‘moderate Islam.’

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom