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Monday, July 17, 2017

The Gulf crisis: Fake news shines spotlight on psychological warfare

By James M. Dorsey

Revelations about two incidents of Gulf-related fake news shine a spotlight on a long-standing psychological war between the UAE and Qatar that preceded the Gulf crisis, as well as the two states’ seemingly repeated and competing interventionist efforts to shape the Middle East and North Africa in their mould.

In the latest incident, US intelligence officials asserted that the UAE had orchestrated the hacking in May of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes that were attributed to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia declared their six-week-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar on the basis of the hack despite Qatari denials of the quotes and an investigation involving the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). US intelligence reported that senior UAE officials had approved the hack on May 23, a day before it occurred. The UAE has denied the allegations.

The US allegations came less than 24 hours after Reuters was forced to withdraw a report that six members of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance had asked world soccer body FIFA to deprive Qatar of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights after it turned out to be fake. The story was widely carried by international media and news websites and constituted the basis of an analysis by this author. It was not immediately evident who was responsible for the false report.

The two incidents nevertheless highlight different strategies of the Gulf’s small states, buffeted by huge war chests garnered from energy exports, to project power and shape the world around them, including the current Gulf crisis.

At the core of the differences lie diametrically opposed visions of the future of a region wracked by debilitating power struggles; a convoluted, bloody and painful quest for political change; and a determined and ruthless counterrevolutionary effort to salvage the fundaments of the status quo ante.

The UAE together with Saudi Arabia views autocracy as the key to regional security and the survival of its autocratic regimes and has systematically sought to roll back achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that removed from power the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen who had been in office for decades.

As a result, the UAE has allegedly backed regime change in a number of countries, including Egypt and reportedly Turkey; supported anti-Islamist, anti- government rebels in Libya; joined Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen; and in the latest episode of its campaign, driven imposition of the boycott of Qatar.

In contrast to the UAE, Qatar has sought to position itself as the regional go-to go-between and mediator by maintaining relations not only with states but also a scala of Islamist, militant and rebel groups across the Middle East and northern Africa. It moreover embraced the 2011 revolts and supported Islamist forces, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead, that emerged as the most organized political force from the uprisings. 

Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood amounted to aligning itself with forces who were challenging autocratic Gulf regimes and that the UAE was seeking to suppress, prompting allegations that Qatar was supporting terrorism defined as anything opposed to autocratic rule.

The hacking of the Qatari websites in May and the fake soccer story were but the latest instalment in the psychological war between the two Gulf states. The UAE and Qatar have been waging a covert war in the media and through fake NGOs even before Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain first withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in 2014 in a failed bid to get Qatar to change its policies.

The UAE, the world’s largest spender on lobbying in the United States in 2013, sought to plant anti-Qatar stories in American media. To do so, it employed California-based Camstoll Group LLC that was operated by former high-ranking US Treasury officials who had been responsible for relations with Gulf state and Israel as well as countering funding of terrorism. 

Under the contract, Camstoll would consult on “issues pertaining to illicit financial networks, and developing and implementing strategies to combat illicit financial activity.”  In its registration as a foreign agent, Camstoll reported that it “has conducted outreach to think tanks, business interests, government officials, media, and other leaders in the United States regarding issues related to illicit financial activity.” 

Camstoll’s “public disclosure forms showed a pattern of conversations with journalists who subsequently wrote articles critical of Qatar’s role in terrorist fund-raising,” The New York Times reported.  Camstoll reported multiple conversations with reporters of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Dow Jones News Wires, Financial Times, Bloomberg News, CNN and the Washington Free Beacon.

In disclosing the UAE’s efforts to influence US media reporting on Qatar, Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for The Intercept, argued that “the point here is not that Qatar is innocent of supporting extremists… The point is that this coordinated media attack on Qatar – using highly paid former U.S. officials and their media allies – is simply a weapon used by the Emirates, Israel, the Saudis and others to advance their agendas… What’s misleading isn’t the claim that Qatar funds extremists but that they do so more than other U.S. allies in the region (a narrative implanted at exactly the time Qatar has become a key target of Israel and the Emirates). Indeed, some of Qatar’s accusers here do the same to at least the same extent, and in the case of the Saudis, far more so.”

Qatar’s response to the media campaign against it was illustrative of its ineptitude prior to the current Gulf crisis in fighting its public relations and public diplomacy battles, clumsiness in developing communication strategies, meek denials of various accusations, and failure to convincingly defend its controversial policies. In a bid to counter its World Cup critics, Qatar contracted Portland Communications founded by Tony Allen, a former adviser to Tony Blair when he was prime minister, according to Britain’s Channel 4 News

The television channel linked Portland to the creation by Alistair Campbell, Blair’s chief communications advisor at Downing Street Number Ten and a former member of Portland’s strategic council, of a soccer blog that attacked Qatar’s detractors. Britain’s Channel 4 reported that the blog projected itself as “truly independent” and claimed to represent “a random bunch of football fans, determined to spark debate.” The broadcaster said the blog amounted to “astro-turfing,” the creation of fake sites that project themselves as grassroots but in effect are operated by corporate interests. The blog stopped publishing after the television report.

Qatar also thought to undermine UAE efforts to tarnish its image with the arrest in 2014 of two British human rights investigators of Nepalese origin who were looking into the conditions of migrant labour. The investigators worked for a Norway-based NGO, the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), that was funded to the tune of €4.2 million a year by anonymous donors believed to be connected to the UAE.

Founded in 2008, GNRD was headed by Loai Mohammed Deeb, a Palestinian-born international lawyer who owned a UAE-based consultancy, and reportedly operated a fake university in Scandinavia, according to veteran Middle East author and journalist Brian Whitaker who took a lead in investigating the group.  GNRD said it aimed to “to enhance and support both human rights and development by adopting new strategies and policies for real change.”

In 2014, GNRD published a human rights index that ranked the UAE at number 14 in the world and Qatar at 97. Heavy criticism of the index persuaded the group to delete the index from its website. GNRD, moreover, consistently praised the UAE’s controversial human rights records with articles on its website on the role of women, the UAE’s “achievements in promoting and protecting the family, environmental efforts, care for the disabled and its protection of the rights of children.

GNRD was closed following police raids in 2015, the confiscation of $13 million in assets, and charges of money laundering that have yet to be heard in court.  Norwegian investigators said that UAE diplomats had fought hard to prevent the case going to court.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

CORRECTION: Calls for Stripping Qatar of World Cup suggests Gulf crisis at a stalemate

My story, Calls for Stripping Qatar of World Cup suggests Gulf crisis at a stalemate, was based on a Reuters story, that ran Sunday morning at 03:59 London time. I sent an email to the author of the Reuters story early Sunday morning asking for confirmation, but never received a reply. I decided to go with my analysis after the Reuters story had been picked up by major news organizations and websites across the globe. Reuters withdrew the story 16 hours later saying “the website on which the story was based said it did not publish the information attributed to it.” While the assertion based on the Reuters story that the Saudi-UAE-led alliance had written a letter to world soccer body FIFA appears to be false, my analysis of where the Gulf crisis and how FIFA is handling it stands. Nonetheless, I apologize for the mistake and any inconvenience.

By James M. Dorsey

A Saudi-UAE-led alliance has tabled a long-expected demand that world soccer body FIFA strip Qatar of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights.

With little chance of FIFA acting on the demand any time soon, the move suggests that the alliance, struggling to figure a way forward amid mounting international pressure for a face-saving way out of the six-week-old Gulf crisis, needs to be seen to be acting on its hitherto unfulfilled promise to tighten the screws on Qatar.

Amid mounting international pressure for a negotiated solution to the crisis and calls for the lifting of the alliance’s diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and its allies have so far shied away from promises to tighten the noose around Qatar’s neck if it failed to cave in to their demands centred on accusations of Qatari funding of terrorism.

Six weeks into the boycott, Qatar has been able to absorb the boycott, which involves a cut-off of almost all land, sea and air links with the Gulf state. It also has succeeded in standing its ground in a struggle for the moral high ground with its detractors, whose demands have failed to garner a groundswell of international support.

While few in the international community give Qatar a clean bill of health on funding of militancy and political violence, many suggest that its detractors are tainted by the same brush. The alliance has moreover struggled to come up with a set of demands that many in the international community have said need to be reasonable and actionable.

The Saudi-UAE-led alliance initially put forward a set of 13 non-negotiable demands that included cutting ties to a host of Islamist and militant groups and individuals, closing a Turkish military base in Qatar, lowering its relations with Iran, shuttering Qatar-sponsored media such as the controversial Al Jazeera television network, and putting Qatar under guardianship.

Qatar’s rejection of the demands and the alliance’s realization that its quest was being perceived by many in the international community as an attempt to undermine Qatari sovereignty and curb freedom of the media, prompted the alliance to adopt six principles that repackaged the demands and removed some of the sharp edges.

Much like the original demands, those principles also failed to garner the kind of international support the alliance needs to push forward with a tightening of the screws on Qatar.

The alliance also appears to have backed down on at least one of its demands, the shuttering of Al Jazeera. In an interview with The Times, UAE minister for the federal national council Noura al-Kaabi said the Emirates sought "fundamental change and restructuring" rather than closure of Al Jazeera. The Saudi-UAE-led alliance accuses the network of being a platform for militant groups.

"We need a diplomatic solution. We are not looking for an escalation," Ms. Al-Kaabi said, suggesting that the Saudi-UAE led alliance was looking for a face-saving end to a crisis in which parties have dug in their heels, reducing margins for a way out that would allow all to declare victory.

At the heart of the Gulf crisis, lies a fundamental divide in how Qatar and its main detractors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, envision the future of the Middle East and North Africa. Central to the dispute is the international community’s inability to define what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist.

It is a difference that is likely to weaken the demand to deprive Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights. It is also a difference that has given the Gulf crisis a-pot-blaming-the-kettle character.

While Qatar sees the survival of its autocratic regime in the support of political change everywhere but at home in a naïve belief that it can exempt itself, Saudi Arabia and the UAE opted for maintenance of the status quo ante by rolling back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A sub-text to the struggle is the existential battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The epic struggle has led to a military coup in Egypt that removed from office the country’s first and only democratically elected president, sparked devastating civil wars in Libya and Syria, aggravated conflict in Iraq, and prompted an ill-fated Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen that brought the country to the edge of the abyss.

With efforts to mediate a way out of the crisis in full swing, FIFA has little incentive to act on a letter by six of its members – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Mauritania – demanding that Qatar be deprived of its hosting rights because it is a “base of terrorism.”

Speaking to a European news website, The Local, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said that “the countries warned FIFA of the risks threatening fan and player security in a country that is ‘the base and the castle of terrorism’.”

Mr. Infantino said the six countries had threatened to boycott the tournament should their request not be acted upon.

While the six countries are unlikely to be under the illusion that FIFA will simply accept their demand, tabling it allows the Saudi-UAE-led alliance to assert that it is not backing down in the Gulf crisis and is increasing pressure on Qatar. The alliance also hopes to exploit widespread criticism within the global soccer community of FIFA’s 2010 decision to award Qatar hosting rights.

Nevertheless, FIFA is unlikely to want to take sides in the crisis or weigh in on the debate on definitions of terrorism. Struggling to shake off multiple scandals that have severely tarnished the world soccer body’s image, FIFA is also unlikely to take a decision in a dispute in which all parties are tainted.

Moreover, FIFA is under no real pressure to act. The Qatar World Cup is more than five years away. The Gulf crisis is certain to be resolved long before that, one way or the other. In the meantime, the boycott does not stop Qatar from moving ahead with construction of World Cup-related infrastructure, albeit at a higher cost of construction materials.

Ultimately, FIFA will want to take a decision on the merits of Qatar’s ability to deliver a safe, secure and well managed World Cup rather than based on political arguments, many of which have yet to be substantiated.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Gulf crisis: A coming out of small states

Source: The World Bank

By James M. Dorsey

Buried in the Gulf crisis are two major developments likely to shape future international relations as well as power dynamics in the Middle East: the coming out of small states capable of punching far above their weight with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, a driver of the crisis, battling it out; and a carefully managed rivalry between the UAE and Saudi Arabia that has weakened the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and aggravated suffering in war-wracked Yemen.

Underwriting the battle as well as the rivalry are different strategies of small states, buffeted by huge war chests garnered from energy exports, to project power and shape the world around them. Both Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies.

That, however, may be where the communality in approach ends. At the core of the different strategies as well as the six-week-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar by a Saudi-UAE-led alliance, lie opposed visions of the future of a region wracked by debilitating power struggles; a convoluted, bloody and painful quest for political change; and a determined and ruthless counterrevolutionary effort to salvage the fundaments of the status quo ante.

The varying visions and the two small states’ determination to act on them as a matter of a security and defence policy designed to ensure regime survival made confrontation inevitable.

It is an epic struggle in which Qatar and the UAE, governed by rulers who have a visceral dislike of one another, could in the short and middle term both emerge as winners even if it is at the expense of those on whose backs the battle is fought and considerable damage to their carefully groomed reputations.

Complicating the region’s lay of the land with its multiple rivalries is the fact that at times the interests of the main protagonists both coincide and exacerbate the crisis. For years, the Gulf’s major players supported Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, yet complicated the struggle by at times aiding rival groups.

Ultimately however, the rival strategies that involve the UAE working the corridors of power of the Gulf’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia, whose focus is its existential fight with Iran, and Qatar sponsoring opposition forces, has left the Middle East and North Africa in shambles.

Beyond Syria, Libya and Yemen are wracked by wars. Egypt is ruled by an autocrat more brutal than his autocratic predecessor who has made his country financially dependent on Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has been unable to fulfil promises of greater economic opportunity.

As a result, as small states, like Singapore, debate in the wake of the Gulf crisis their place in the international pecking order and their ability to chart an independent course of their own, Qatar’s brash and provocative embrace of change as opposed to the UAE’s subtler projection of power that shies away from openly challenging the powers that be, may be too risky an approach to emulate.

Nonetheless, the jury on the differing approaches is still out. Qatar has been able to defy the boycott and so far, convincingly reject demands of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance that would undermine its sovereignty and turn it into a vassal based on its financial muscle and an international refusal to endorse the approach of its detractors that many view as extreme, unrealistic and unreasonable.

Taking the long view on the assumption that change is inevitable, Qatar could emerge as having been on the right side of history even if the notion that it can promote change everywhere else except for at home is naive at best. A wave of nationalism with Qataris rallying around their emir in defiance of the Saudi-UAE-led boycott masks criticism of the ruler’s policies that Qataris in recent years vented on social media.

However the Gulf crisis ends, Qatar’s revolutionizing the Middle East and North Africa’s media landscape with the 1996 launch of Al Jazeera speaks to the ability of small states to shape their environment.

The television network’s free-wheeling reporting and debates that provided a platform for long suppressed voices, shattered taboos in a world of staid, state-run broadcasting characterized by endless coverage of the ruler’s every move. Al Jazeera, despite its adherence to the Qatari maxim of change for everyone but Qatar itself by exempting the Gulf state from its hard-hitting coverage, forced irreversible change of the region’s media landscape in advance of the advent of social media.

Qatar’s strategy by definition made the Gulf state a target, culminating in its current showdown with its detractors. The Saudi-UAE-led boycott crowns decades of failed efforts to get Qatar to halt its support of the region’s opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, that advocate alternative, more open systems of government, as well as more militant groups.

If Qatar’s strategy was confrontational, the UAE opted for an approach that granted it a measure of plausible deniability by influencing the policies of Big Brother Saudi Arabia, establishing close ties to key policy makers in Washington, acquisition of ports straddling the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and crafting a reputation as Little Sparta, a military power that despite its size and with the help of mercenaries could stand its ground and like the big boys on the block establish foreign military bases.

In doing so, the UAE successfully exploited margins in the corridors of power in Riyadh to get the kingdom to adopt policies like the banning of the Brotherhood, a group that has the effect of a red cloth on a bull on UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, but that the Saudis may not have pursued otherwise.

The UAE, moreover, by aligning itself with Saudi Arabia rather than antagonizing it, has been far defter in its ability to achieve its goals and project its power without flying too high above the radar.

The UAE’s approach has also allowed it to ensure that major policy differences with Saudi Arabia on issues such as the conduct and objectives of the Yemen war, a role for the Brotherhood in a Sunni Muslim alliance against Iran, the degree of economic integration within the GCC and the UAE’s thwarting of Saudi-led efforts to introduce a common currency, and Hamas’ place in Palestinian politics, did not get out of hand. Even more importantly, the approach ensured that the UAE’s policies were adopted or endorsed by bigger powers.

At first glance, the UAE’s approach dictated by its determination to resist change would appear to be more sensible for small states. Yet, like in the case of Qatar, the jury is still out.

If change in the Middle East and North Africa is ultimately inevitable, the UAE is no less vulnerable than Qatar. Crown Prince Mohammed’s obsession with the Brotherhood is rooted in the fact that the group at times enjoyed significant support among Emiratis as well as within the country’s armed forces.

While the rulers of the seven emirates that constitute the UAE under the leadership of Abu Dhabi’s Al-Nahayan family may well agree on the threat posed by the Brotherhood, it remains unclear whether they are equally enthusiastic about Crown Prince Mohammed’s aggressive policies towards Qatar.

“This is about Abu Dhabi asserting its dominance in foreign policy issues, because this is not in Dubai’s interest,” said former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir William Patey.

By implication, Sir Patey was suggesting that unease among the various emirates may be one reason why Abu Dhabi refrained from tightening the screws by closing a partially Abu Dhabi-owned pipeline from Qatar that supplies Dubai with up to 40 percent of its natural gas needs.

The Gulf crisis is not about to end any time soon. Yet, it has already established that small states need not surrender to larger neighbourhood bullies and can not only stand their ground but also shape the world around them.

The ability to do so is at the end of the day a function of vision, policy objectives, assets small states can leverage, appetite for risk, and the temperament of their leaders. Qatar and the UAE represent two very different approaches that offer lessons but are unlikely to serve as models.

In the final analysis, both Qatar and the UAE may pull off punching far above their weight even if they fail in achieving all their objectives. It comes however at a price paid in part by others that ultimately may come to haunt them.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Should small states act like small states? (JMD quoted in Straits Times)

Should small states act like small states?

The diplomatic crisis faced by Qatar shows that however savvy small states may be, their size puts them at a disadvantage should they not see eye to eye with bigger powers. Insight looks at what small states can and should do in such a situation, and whether there are lessons for Singapore.

Despite its population of 2.6 million, the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar punches above its weight on the global stage.
But over the years, Qatar's insistence on maintaining ties with Iran has ruffled the feathers of larger neighbours, which have also accused it of supporting terrorism - something Qatar roundly rejects.
Tensions came to a head last month as nine Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia severed ties with Qatar and closed borders and airspace to Qatari aircraft and ships.
Last week, the bloc issued Qatar a list of 13 demands that must be met for the blockade to end, including reducing diplomatic ties with Iran and restricting who it can grant citizenship to, which analysts say would undermine its sovereignty.

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The diplomatic crisis highlights that however savvy small states are, they are still at a disadvantage if big states decide to go from being allies to being against them.
The episode caught the attention of top former and current diplomats in Singapore, who drew parallels between Qatar and Singapore.
  • Small states, large networks

  • The world's powerhouses have the Group of 20 (G-20) forum to discuss global economic issues, and a number of its smaller nations have a club of their own: the Global Governance Group (3G).
    The informal group of 30 small and medium-sized countries from all continents was convened by Singapore in 2009. The G-20 had then been revived to tackle the global financial crisis, having been created as a forum for financial stability issues in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
    "Smaller but fairly robust economies like Singapore were concerned with the rather unilateral manner in which the G-20 was acting," recounted Singapore's then-Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vanu Gopala Menon in the book titled 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations.
    The 3G was thus formed to influence the G-20 to take into account the interests of smaller countries affected by its decisions. The group is why Singapore has regularly been invited to participate in G-20 meetings as an observer, including the latest G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
    As German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted at a joint press conference after meeting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday: "As the chair of the Global Governance Group, Singapore works very much to remind us of the interests of smaller countries and medium- sized countries."
    Singapore also founded the Forum of Small States at the UN in 1992 as a platform to band together on common interests like environmental concerns. Representatives of its 107 members meet a few times a year to discuss issues of concern to small states.
    The two groups show how Singapore amplifies its voice and advances its interests by banding together with other small states.
    In this way, larger players are more likely to sit up and take note of others' views on global issues.
    Says Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies: "We call ourselves small... but that does not mean we cannot talk to great powers as an equal. Because of the creative energies of our diplomats, we have become an outsized player."
    Charissa Yong
Some, such as former permanent representative to the United Nations Kishore Mahbubani, said Qatar's troubles showed that small states should always behave like small states and be wary of getting entangled in affairs beyond their borders.
But others, such as retired Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan publicly disagreed, backed by former foreign minister K. Shanmugam, who is now Home Affairs and Law Minister.
In newspaper commentaries and Facebook posts, they advocated the approach of not being reckless, but also not hesitating to stand up for cherished principles.
Insight examines the thorny question of what small states should do when bigger powers do not see eye to eye with them. And what if the demands of bigger countries hurt a small state's core interests?


The rare public debate within the establishment on small state diplomacy was not purely theoretical.
Closer to home, an international arbitration court ruled last year in favour of the Philippines, striking down China's claims to the South China Sea - almost all of which overlap with other countries'.
Singapore was careful to state that it did not take a position, but reiterated its support for the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law.
Amid some rumblings of disquiet from Chinese officials, local critics wondered - out loud - if Singapore should have just kept quiet.
Said Professor Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy: "In the jungle, no small animal would stand in front of a charging elephant, no matter who has the right of way, so long as the elephant is not charging over the small animal's home territory."
Such discretion is the lot of small states, he said, which others interpreted as advocating for laying low and staying out of trouble.
But to do so would be to surrender one's sovereignty and set a dangerous precedent, said Mr Bilahari.
He countered with an animal metaphor of his own, saying: "Singapore did not survive and prosper by being anybody's tame poodle." He added: "I don't think anyone respects a running dog."
Observers say the debate is about the amount of room for manoeuvrability that small states have.
Middle East expert James Dorsey from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) says: "The principle that international relations have developed to a degree in which size does not always matter, and that if you're small you can stand up to the big guy, is not necessarily true."
On the one hand, he says, there is the principle that all states irrespective of size are sovereign and have the right to chart their own course as long as they act within internationally accepted norms and laws.
On the other hand, they also have the ability to maintain relationships with other countries, he adds.
The idea that Singapore should trim its behaviour to something expected of small states goes against a key tenet of its foreign policy, says RSIS associate professor Alan Chong.
Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the first foreign minister S. Rajaratnam were of the view that Singapore could excel only if it was extraordinary and must try not to be just another small state.
Says Dr Chong: "We made waves disproportionate to the size of Singapore because we knew how to read the situation correctly and convert our vulnerability to strengths. This is something perhaps you cannot treat as analogous to Qatar."
How small states play their hand, and the neighbourhood they are in, both matter.
While Singapore and its neighbours are all part of Asean, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which Qatar is a part of, is a lot more fragmented along sectarian lines.
Says Dr Chong: "If we have a quarrel with one or two members of Asean, it's not likely that everyone else will agree with the other two."
He adds that another way Qatar did not play its cards right was in the leeway it gave Al Jazeera, its state-funded broadcaster.
The Saudi-led blockade is demanding that Al Jazeera be shut down, as part of its ultimatum to Qatar if the diplomatic crisis is to end.
While Singapore's broadcast media "will not go all out to stoke the emotions of the public in a foreign country, Al Jazeera is like all guns blazing on everybody in the Middle East", says Dr Chong.
But discretion should not preclude taking a public stand on issues that will rebound on Singapore, say observers and diplomats.
Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong stressed in a commentary in The Straits Times last week that Singapore has always adopted a friendly approach to friendly states, and has always been sensitive in managing foreign policy.
"We do not go around looking for trouble. But when necessary, Singapore has stood up to pressure from other states when its interests were at stake," said Mr Ong, who was Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia from 2011 to 2014.
Yielding would also set a dangerous precedent, both in bilateral relationships and international law.
As Mr Shanmugam said in a Facebook post last week, "once you allow yourself to be bullied, then you will continue to be bullied".
Dr Chong points out that international law is often advanced by court cases based on precedents.
He says: "If China claims the islands based on its history, and no one raises a hoot, what does it mean? Any great power can just move in and occupy all the coastal areas it wants.
"In this sense, it does not seem advantageous to be discreet. International law is such that you don't want bad precedents to be set."


When push comes to shove, small states should stand up for their core interests. But the idea is for push not to come to shove in the first place, say analysts.
"You should not be placed in a position where all the great powers, or all the regional powers, are arrayed against you," says Dr Chong.
"Qatar was trying to be an outsized player, but it didn't read the winds correctly. You cannot allow this nightmare combination to build up over time."
As part of its strategy, Singapore makes as many friends as it can and invests in international institutions.
Says Dr Dorsey: "Having friends is crucial. In times of need, having friends is even more important. Small states will want to bolster their position by having friends,"
Observers unanimously agree on the importance of Asean and the United Nations - including Prof Mahbubani who credited the UN Charter with the sharp drop in small states being invaded and occupied. "The UN is, therefore, the best friend of small states like Singapore," he wrote.
Such institutions also promote peace and security, which underpin economic growth and prosperity, a point noted by Mr Ong.
Contributions to these groups build up goodwill over time so that in the event of a crisis, countries are more likely to be sympathetic to Singapore, says Dr Chong.
But for small states, they may have no choice but to stand up to a larger power when it is 'charging over its home territory', or core interests.
Says Dr Dorsey: "The stakes are clear: whether or not small states are able to chart their own course. And if a state surrenders that right, then it has essentially surrendered its independence."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'Should small states act like small states?'. Print Edition | Subscribe

Sunday, July 9, 2017

All the UAE’s men: Gulf crisis opens door to power shift in Palestine

Mohammed Dahlan

By James M. Dorsey

With attention in the Middle East focussed on the Gulf crisis, the United Arab Emirates is elsewhere seeking to reshape the region in ways that could alter its power dynamics. The UAE’s latest effort concentrates on clipping the wings of Hamas and installing its own man in the Gaza Strip in a move that would likely strengthen cooperation with Israel, potentially facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and take the Jewish state’s increasingly close ties to the Gulf state out of the shadows.

The UAE effort involves a carrot and stick approach in which Israel and Palestine Authority (PA) President Mahmood Abbas play bad cop while Egypt is the good cop in a pincer move that is intended to weaken Hamas, the Qatar-backed Islamist group and Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that controls Gaza.

A lowering of public sector salaries in Gaza by Mr. Abbas and reduced electricity supplies by Israel at the Palestinian leader’s behest drove Hamas into the arms of the UAE and Egypt as the International Red Cross and other international agencies warned of an impending calamity.

Hamas was conspicuously absent from a list of demands presented to Qatar two weeks into the five-week-old Saudi-UAE-led campaign to force Qatar to halt its support of militants and Islamists. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir had initially included Hamas at the beginning of the Gulf crisis among the groups the campaign was targeting.

Hamas’ exemption coincided with a series of meetings in Cairo between Hamas, Egyptian intelligence and Mohammed Dahlan, a UAE-backed, Abu Dhabi-based controversial former Palestinian security chief and arch rival of Mr. Abbas who is manoeuvring to succeed the Palestinian leader.

Mr. Dahlan, who is believed to be close to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as well as Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is alleged to have played a role in other covert UAE operations, including a failed effort to boost the country’s human rights image at the expense of that of Qatar. Mr. Dahlan went into exile in the UAE in 2007 after Hamas defeated his US-backed efforts to thwart the group’s control in Gaza. Mr. Dahlan has since been indicted by the PA on corruption charges.

The deal being hammered out in Cairo would allow Mr. Dahlan to return to Gaza in a power sharing agreement with Hamas that would undermine the position of Mr. Abbas and loosen the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that has choked the impoverished strip.

Egypt and the UAE have already moved to alleviate the economic crisis in Gaza in a bid to sweeten the deal. Egypt has begun to send diesel fuel at market prices, but without taxes imposed by the PA, and has signalled that it would open the crucial Rafah border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai.

Associates of Mr. Dahlan were reported to be preparing the border station for re-opening with a $5 million donation from the UAE. Egypt reportedly is supplying barb wires, surveillance cameras and other equipment to enhance border security. The UAE, moreover, has earmarked $150 million to build a power station and has hinted that it would fund construction of a port.

“If the plan does come to fruition, it could make an Israeli-Egyptian dream come true… It will ensure a fine profit for all sides, except for Abbas and Palestinian aspirations to establish a state,” said prominent Israeli columnist Zvi Bar’el.

Mr. Bar’el argued that the deal would widen the gap between Gaza and the PA-controlled West Bank, halt ties between Hamas and Islamist insurgents in Sinai where an Islamic State-affiliate this week claimed responsibility for the killing of 23 Egyptian soldiers, allow Egypt to lift the blockade of Gaza and flood it with Egyptian goods, empower a Palestinian leader that Israel believes it can do business with, ease pressure on Israel that has repeatedly been condemned for the blockade, and roll back the influence of Qatar and Turkey, Hamas and Gaza’s main supporters.

The effort to weaken Hamas and return Mr. Dahlan to Palestine is part of a six-year, UAE-driven, Saudi-backed effort to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled autocratic leaders in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia and reshape the Middle East and North Africa in the two Gulf states’ mould.

The campaign included support for the 2013 military coup in Egypt that removed Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and the country’s first and only democratically elected president from office, and brought general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to power. It has culminated in the Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar that has so far failed to force the Gulf state onto its knees.

Along the way, the UAE has supported forces in Libya opposed to the internationally recognized Islamist government and joined Saudi Arabia in a disastrous military intervention in Yemen even though the kingdom and the emirates differ on what a future Yemen should like and what Yemeni forces the alliance should align itself with.

In the process, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel have found common ground in their opposition to Iran and Islamist forces. Pilots from Israel and the UAE flew side-by-side in March in an exercise with the air forces of the United States, Italy and Greece. The UAE has bought military equipment from Israel worth hundreds of millions of dollars and allowed Israel to open in 2015 a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi that is accredited to the International Renewable Energy Agency rather than the Emirates.

Turkey, which has backed Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has sent troops to the Gulf state, has suggested that the UAE funded last year’s failed coup aimed at overthrowing Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a watershed event in modern Turkish history.

Daily Sabah, a, a newspaper with close ties to the government of Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as anonymous Turkish foreign ministry sources accused the UAE of having pumped $3 billion into the failed coup that the president blames on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who lives in exile in the United States.

Hamas appeared in May to want include Gaza in efforts to rewrite the political map of the Middle East when it adopted a new statement of principles that for the first time accepted a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document endorsed “the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of June 4, 1967,” a reference to Israel’s borders on the eve of the war in which the Jewish state captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The UAE-driven, Saudi-backed effort to reshape the Middle East has so far had mixed success. Its main success story is Egypt. Military intervention has driven Yemen to the edge of the abyss; Libya is in the throes of a civil war and jihadist insurgency; Syria has been wracked by civil, jihadist and regional proxy wars; and Qatar has so far refused to bend to the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s will. A UAE-Egypt engineered power sharing agreement in Gaza between Hamas and Mr. Dahlan would constitute a welcome second success.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Left with no choice: Egypt allows fans to attend international soccer matches

By James M. Dorsey

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has agreed to allow thousands of fans to attend three international soccer matches despite mounting discontent and a growing number of spontaneous protests in defiance of the country’s draconic anti-protest law.

Concerned that soccer pitches could emerge as protest venues, successive Egyptian governments have barred fans from stadiums for much of the past six years since a popular revolt in 2011 forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. Militant, street battle-hardened soccer fans played a key role in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak and subsequent anti-government protests.

The government’s decision to allow fans this weekend to attend two African Champions League matches as well as a 2018 World Cup qualifier in September was intended to shield it from being blamed for having prevented Egyptian players from enjoying the vital support of their fans should any of the teams be defeated.

Successive Egyptian governments have repeatedly granted a limited number of fans access to international matches. A one-time government testing in February 2015 of whether stadiums could be opened for domestic league matches ended with clashes in which security forces killed 20 fans. More than 70 fans were killed three years earlier in a politically loaded soccer brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s concern was reflected in the government’s decision to allow far fewer fans into the stadium for the club matches than for the national team’s game. The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) said only 10,000 fans would be permitted to attend each of this weekend’s African Champions League matches that pit storied Cairo arch rivals Al Zamalek SC and Al Ahli FC against CAPS United of Zimbabwe and Cameroon's Coton Sport. By contrast, sports minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz said 70,000 fans would be granted access to the stadium for Egypt’s World Cup qualifier in September against Uganda.

Militant supporters of Zamalek and Ahli played key roles not only in the 2011 revolt but also in student protests against Mr. Al-Sisi’s military coup in 2013 that toppled President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

Mr. Al-Sisi has since banned and brutally suppressed the Brotherhood that is at the centre of the Gulf crisis that pits a Saudi-UAE led coalition, which includes Egypt, against Qatar. Brief hopes earlier this year that Mr. Al-Sisi would reach out to his opponents were dashed when the government  designated soccer icon Mohammed Aboutreika as a terrorist because of his alleged links to the Brotherhood and arrest of scores of militant fans.

Playing the soccer card, however, involves more than just the risk of protests erupting on the pitch. Mr. Al-Sisi’s move to include sports in his contribution to the Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar could lead to a sanctioning of the clubs as well as Egypt’s national team. That would defeat the purpose of opening the international matches to the public.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has warned that the clubs as well as the national team could be penalized for involving themselves in politics by announcing a boycott of BeIN Sports, the Middle East’s prime satellite sports channel that is part of the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television network. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt along with others have demanded that Al Jazeera be shuttered.

BeIN owns the Middle East broadcasting rights for the CAF Champions League in which Zamalek and Ahli are competing this weekend. It also has the Middle East rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

CAF advised the EFA and the clubs that neutrality and a separation of sports and politics was “part of the statutory missions of CAF and FIFA, as well as the obligations of member associations.” It said that it would be “particularly vigilant as regards respect for these principles of neutrality and independence in all future games played under its aegis.”

Mr. Al-Sisi’s fear of soccer fans is rooted in a history that goes far further back than the 2011 revolt. A nexus of students and soccer fans resurrected the Brotherhood in the 1970s at a time that it was also down and out because of a crackdown by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 60s who forced many of them to go into exile in the Gulf.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s worries are compounded by fears that widespread discontent could spark a repeat of the protests in 2013 that paved the way for his Saudi and UAE-backed military coup. The protests, partly engineered by the military, erupted on the back of fuel shortages that many believe were artificial.

Fuel is again at the centre of dissatisfaction as Egyptians against a backdrop of an inflation rate of 30 percent this month headed to the petrol pumps to fill up their tanks before subsidies were slashed as part of austerity measures. Belt tightening was a pre-condition for a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The government announced household electricity price hikes ranging from 18 to 42 percent a day before the first of the three matches.

Austerity has worked well for Egypt’s macro-economy with foreign reserves up and a floating Egyptian currency that has stabilized and performed well. The improvements came, however, at the expense of the vast majority of Egyptians, more than a quarter of which live below the poverty line, who have seen steep price increases.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s failure to offer them a prospect of a better life has over the last year sparked spontaneous protests and widespread grumbling. His iron grip bolstered by draconic laws and brutal repression have so far protected him from more organized dissent. Yet, three years into Mr. Al-Sisi’s rule, the notion of protest is again on people’s minds.

“I am so pessimistic about the future for my kids. I would support a strike of some sort or a large- scale disobedience because this is unsustainable,” said Sayed Shaaban, as he filled up the gas tank of his 12-seat Suzuki microbus for double the price he used to pay. Dozens of drivers had blocked Cairo’s October 6 Bridge a day earlier to protest the fuel price hikes.

Egyptian advances in the African and World Cup tournaments would allow Mr. Al-Sisi to associate himself with their success in the hope that it would help him polish his tarnished image. The risk is that discontent spontaneously boils over at any one of the matches. If so, Mr. Al-Sisi’s effort would have seriously backfired.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.