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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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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Suicide attack in Iran frames visit to Pakistan by Saudi crown prince


By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

This week’s suicide attack on Revolutionary Guards in Iran’s south-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, the second in two months, could not have come at a more awkward moment for Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan.

The assault on a bus carrying the guards back from patrols on the province’s border with the troubled Pakistani region of Balochistan killed 27 people and wounded 13 others. It occurred days before Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was scheduled to visit Pakistan as part of a tour of Asian countries.

While Baluchistan is set to figure prominently in Prince Mohammed’s talks with Mr. Khan, the attack also coincided with a US-sponsored conference in Warsaw, widely seen as an effort by the Trump administration to further isolate Iran economically and diplomatically.

Inside the conference, dubbed The Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that US policy was designed to force Iran to alter its regional and defense policies and not geared towards regime change in Tehran.

Yet, US President Donald J. Trump appeared to be sending mixed messages to the Iranians as well as sceptical European governments with his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, addressing a rally outside the conference organized by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Iranian exile group believed to enjoy Saudi backing.

Mr. Giuliani told the protesters who waved Iranian flags and giant yellow balloons emblazoned with the words, “Regime Change” that “we want to see a regime change in Iran.”

Mr. Trump appeared to fuel suspicion that Mr. Giuliani represented his true sentiment by tweeting on the eve of the Warsaw conference in a reference to the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution: “40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.”

In a statement, the Revolutionary Guards blamed the attack on "mercenaries of intelligence agencies of world arrogance and domination," a reference to Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel.
Jaish-al-Adl (the Army of Justice), a Pakistan-based splinter group that traces its roots to Saudi-backed anti-Shiite groups with a history of attacks on Iranian and Shiite targets, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The group says it is not seeking Baloch secession from Iran. Instead, it wants to "force the regime of the guardianship of jurisconsult (Iran) to respect the demands of the Muslim Baloch and Sunni society alongside the other compatriots of our country."

Militants targeted a Revolutionary Guards headquarters in December in a rare suicide bombing in Chabahar, home to Iran’s Indian-backed port on the Arabian Sea, a mere 70 kilometres from the Chinese supported port of Gwadar, a crown jewel in the Pakistani leg of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road initiative.

The attacks coupled with indications that Saudi Arabia and the United States may be contemplating covert action against Iran using Pakistani Balochistan as a launching pad, and heightened Saudi economic and commercial interest in the province, frame Prince Mohammed’s upcoming talks in Islamabad.

During his visit, Prince Mohammed is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding on a framework for US$10 billion in Saudi investments.  

The memorandum includes a plan by Saudi national oil company Aramco to build a refinery in Gwadar as well as Saudi investment in Baluchistan’s Reko Diq copper and gold mine.

The investments would further enhance Saudi influence in Pakistan as well as the kingdom’s foothold in Balochistan.

They would come on the back of significant Saudi aid to help Pakistan evade a financial crisis that included a US$3 billion deposit in Pakistan’s central bank to support the country’s balance of payments and another US$3 billion in deferred payments for oil imports.

Taken together, the refinery, a strategic oil reserve in Gwadar and the mine would also help Saudi Arabia in potential efforts to prevent Chabahar from emerging as a powerful Arabian Sea hub.
Saudi funds have been flowing for some time into the coffers of ultra-conservative anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim madrassahs or religious seminars in Balochistan. It remains unclear whether they originate with the Saudi government or Saudi nationals of Baloch descent and members of the two million-strong Pakistani Diaspora in the kingdom. 

The funds help put in place potential building blocks for possible covert action should the kingdom and/or the United States decide to act on proposals to support irredentist activity.

The flow started at about the time that the Riyadh-based  International Institute for Iranian Studies, formerly known as the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, an allegedly Saudi government-backed think tank, published  a study that argued that Chabahar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”

If executed, covert action could jeopardize Indian hopes to use Chabahar to bypass Pakistan, significantly enhance its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asian nations and create an anti-dote to Gwadar.

Pakistani analysts expect an estimated US$ 5 billion in Afghan trade to flow through Chabahar after India in December started handling the port’s operations.

Iranian concerns that the attacks represent a US and/or Saudi covert effort are grounded not only in more recent US and Saudi policies, including Mr. Trump’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program despite confirmation of its adherence to the accord and re-imposition of harsh economic sanctions against the Islamic republic.

They are also rooted in US and Saudi backing of Iraq in the 1980s Gulf war, US overtures in the last year to Iranian Kurdish insurgents, the long-standing broad spectrum of support of former and serving US officials for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and in recent years of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ex-ambassador to the United States and Britain.

Said Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst: “The concern was never that the Trump admin would avert its eyes from Iran, but rather that is in inflicted by an unhealthy obsession with it. In hyping the threat emanating from Iran, Trump is more likely than not to mishandle it and thus further destabilize the Middle East.”

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 and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, February 11, 2019

Harsh Turkish condemnation of Xinjiang cracks Muslim wall of silence



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr 

In perhaps the most significant condemnation to date of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang. Turkey’s foreign ministry demanded this weekend that Chinese authorities respect human rights of the Uighurs and close what it termed “concentration camps” in which up to one million people are believed to be imprisoned.

Calling the crackdown an “embarrassment to humanity,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the death of detained Uighur poet and musician Abdurehim Heyit had prompted the ministry to issue its statement.

Known as the Rooster of Xinjiang, Mr. Heyit symbolized the Uighurs’ cultural links to the Turkic world, according to Adrian Zenz, a European School of Culture and Theology researcher who has done pioneering work on the crackdown.

Turkish media asserted that Mr. Heyit, who was serving an eight-year prison sentence, had been tortured to death.  

Mr. Aksoy said Turkey was calling on other countries and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to take steps to end the “humanitarian tragedy” in Xinjiang.

The Chinese embassy in Ankara rejected the statement as a “violation of the facts,” insisting that China was fighting seperatism, extremism and terrorism, not seeking to “eliminate” the Uighurs’ ethnic, religious or cultural identity.

Mr. Aksoy’s statement contrastèd starkly with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s declaration six months earlier that China was Turkey’s economic partner of the future. At the time, Turkey had just secured a US$3.6 billion loan for its energy and telecommunications sector from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).

The Turkish statement constitutes the first major crack in the Muslim wall of silence that has enabled the Chinese crackdown, the most frontal assault on Islam in recent memory. The statement’s significance goes beyond developments in Xinjiang.

Like with Muslim condemnation of US President Donald J. Trump’s decision last year to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Turkey appears to be wanting to be seen as a spokesman of the Muslim world in its one-upmanship with Saudi Arabia and to a lesser degree Iran.

While neither the kingdom or Iran are likely to follow Turkey’s example any time soon, the statement raises the stakes and puts other contenders for leadership on the defensive.

The bulk of the Muslim world has remained conspicuously silent with only Malaysian leaders willing to speak out and set an example by last year rejecting Chinese demands that a group of Uighur asylum seekers be extradited to China. Malaysia instead allowed the group to go to Turkey.

The Turkish statement came days after four Islamist members of the Kuwaiti parliament organized the Arab world’s first public protest against the crackdown.

By contrast, Pakistani officials backed off initial criticism and protests in countries like Bangladesh and India have been at best sporadic.


Rejecting a call on the government to condemn the crackdown by the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top clerical body, Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla insisted that the government would not interfere in the internal affairs of others.

The council was one of the first, if not the first, major Muslim religious body to speak out on the issues of the Uighurs. Its non-active chairman and spiriitual leader of Nahdlaltul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, Ma’ruf Amin, is running as President Joko Widodo’s vice-presidential candidate in elections in April.

The Turkish statement could have its most immediate impact in Central Asia, which like Turkey has close ethnic and cultural ties to Xinjiang, and is struggling to balance relations with China with the need to be seen to be standing up for the rights of its citizens and ethnic kin.

In Kazakhstan, Turkey’s newly found assertiveness towards China could make it more difficult for the government to return to China Sayragul Sautbay, a Chinese national of ethnic Kazakh descent and a former re-education camp employee who fled illegally to Kazakhstan to join her husband and child.

Ms. Sautbay, who stood trial in Kazakhstan last year for illegal entry, is the only camp instructor to have worked in a reeducation camp in Xinjiang teaching inmates Mandarin and Communist Party propaganda and spoken publicly about it.

She has twice been refused asylum in Kazakhstan and is appealing the decision. China is believed to be demanding that she be handed back to the Xinjiang authorities.

Similarly, Turkey’s statement could impact the fate of Qalymbek Shahman, a Chinese businessman of Kazakh descent, who is being held at the airport in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent after being denied entry into Kazakhstan.

"I was born in Emin county in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to a farming family. I wanted to go to Kazakhstan, because China's human rights record was making life intolerable. I would have my ID checked every 50 to 100 meters when I was in Xinjiang, This made me extremely anxious, and I couldn't stand it anymore," Mr. Shahman said in a video clip sent to Radio Free Asia from Tashkent airport.

A guide for foreign businessmen, Mr. Shahman said he was put out of business by the continued checks that raised questions in the minds of his clients and persuaded local businessmen not to work with him.

Said Mr. Zenz, the Xinjiang scholar, commenting on the significance of the Turkish statement: “A major outcry among the Muslim world was a key missing piece in the global Xinjiang row. In my view, it seems that China’s actions in Xinjiang are finally crossing a red line among the world’s Muslim communities, at least in Turkey, but quite possibly elsewhere.”

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 and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Prince Mohammed’s Khashoggi bullet: An insight into Saudi strategic thinking



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

Continued, albeit slower-paced US and Turkish leaks potentially provide insight into far more than the circumstances of the October killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. They focus attention on crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s strategic thinking as well as his tightened control of the kingdom’s media.

In the latest disclosure, The New York Times, quoting anonymous US intelligence sources, reported that Prince Mohammed had threatened a year before the killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to take out Mr. Khashoggi with “a bullet” if he refused to return to the kingdom or continued to publicly criticise Saudi policies.

While significant in and of itself, equally interesting is the fact that the crown prince was speaking at the time to Turki Aldakhil, a prominent Saudi columnist and former general manager of the of Al Arabiya television nework.

Prince Mohammed is believed to have obtained a controlling share in satellite broadcaster Middle East Broadcasting Center, Al Arabiya’s mother company, when he detained scores of members of the kingdom’s ruling family, senior current and former officials and prominent businessmen in November 2017 in what amounted to a power and asset grab.

Disclosures this week by The Wall Street Journal and Amazon Inc. Founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos as well as earlier cooperation agreements with Bloomberg News and Britain’s online Independent newspaper suggest that Prince Mohammed’s media ambitions are global, not just limited to Saudi Arabia.

The Walll Street Journal reported that Prince Mohammed had in August of last year invited Vice Media Executive Chairman Shane Smith to his yacht moored off the Red Sea coast to discuss cooperation.  Vice had already been contracted to produce videos about Prince Mohammed’s social and economic reforms.

In a blog post, Mr. Bezos alleged National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc. had tried to blackmail him and potentially colluded with Saudi Arabia to damage his reputation. The National Enquirer last year published a front-page cover of Prince Mohammed and nearly 100 pages dedicated to his kingdom’s reform efforts.

In what was seen at the time as a reflection of his master’s voice, Mr. Aldakhil detailed two weeks after Mr. Khashoggi’s killing a laundry list of potential Saudi responses if the the United States were to sanction the kingdom and/or the crown prince for the murder.

The list included allowing oil prices to rise up to US$200 per barrel, which according to Mr. Aldhakhil, would lead to “the death” of the US economy, pricing Saudi oil in Chinese yuan instead of dollars, an end to intelligence sharing, and a military alliance with Russia that would involve a Russian military base in the kingdom.

It remained unclear whether Mr. Aldhakhil was reflecting serious discussions among secretive Saudi leaders or whether his article was intended either as a scare tactic and/or a trial balloon. Mr. Aldakhil’s claim that a Saudi response to Western sanctions could entail a reconciliation with the kingdom’s arch enemy, Iran, seemed to make his assertion more of a geopolitical and economic bluff.

Similarly, Mr. Aldakhil’s suggestion that Saudi Arabia still maintained the ability to singlehandedly manipulate world oil prices was called into question in December when the kingdom needed an agreement with non-OPEC member Russia on production levels as well as Russian assistance in managing Iranian resistance to achieve an understanding within the oil cartel.

Mr. Aldakhil’s column did, however, highlight the fact that uncertainty about US President Donald J. Trump’s reliability as an ally and mounting anti-Saudi sentiment in the US Congress has prompted Prince Mohammed to hedge his bets by forging closer ties to Russia despite Russia’s alliance with Iran and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Prince Mohammed has been in Moscow several times since first travelling there in March 2017 with his father, King Salman, the first Saudi monarch to visit Russia. Oil and weapons topped the agenda of Prince Mohammed, who doubles up as Saudi Arabia’s defense minister and oil czar.

Saudi Arabia is in advanced discussions for the purchase of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft defense missile system and is entertaining a Russian bid to build 16 nuclear reactors worth US$80 billion with far less restrictions on enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent fuel than the United States would likely impose.

Gulf analyst Theodore Karasik argues that Russia has been creating a ‘north-south’ economic corridor built on a web of commercial deals, monetray arrangements and soft power instruments such as business councils focused on the Gulf in general and Saudi Arabia in particular.

Russia’s sovereign wealth fund,  Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), is discussing with Saudi Arabia billions of dollars worth of deals in oil refining, petrochemicals, gas chemicals and oilfield services.

Saudi Arabia has pledged to invest up to US$10 billion in Russia’s economy, with Saudi companies interested in investing in Russian infrastructure, agriculture, hi-tech, energy and mining sectors, including US$5 billion in a liquefied natural gas project in the Russian Arctic.

Russia’s strategy of what Russian national security scholar Stephen Blank dubs ‘strategic denial,’ denying the United States the role of sole dominant power in the Middle East, serves Prince Mohammed’s hedging of his bets.

Prince Mohammed would like the Trump administration to believe that Russia’s strategy could work.

Now we know who our best friends are, and who our best enemies are,” the crown prince told Russian, Chinese, Japanese and French businessmen on the sidelines of an investment conference in Riyadh last October that was attended by a 40-man Russian delegation and boycotted by numerous Western CEOs and officials because of the Khashoggi killing.

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 and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, February 4, 2019

Papal visit boosts UAE effort to redefine concepts of tolerance



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

The United Arab Emirates is projecting itself as a leader of inter-communal and inter-faith harmony with the first ever visit by a Catholic pope to the Gulf and an inter-faith conference that is as much about dialogue as it is about absolute political control.

There is no doubt that the UAE is a leader in the Muslim world in promoting concepts of religious tolerance and prevention of religiously packages militancy.

The UAE has bolstered perceptions of its leadership by declaring February, the month of Pope Francis’s visit and the conference, a month of tolerance. The UAE is one of a few if not the only country that has a government ministry of tolerance.

The UAE, unlike its ally and more powerful neighbour, Saudi Arabia, increasingly allows adherents of other faiths like Jews, Christians and Hindus, to openly worship and practice their beliefs.

“Today, the UAE is home to 200 different nationalities, more than 40 churches and approximately 700 Christian ministries. Sikh and Buddhist temples welcome multinational congregations. Last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke ground for a new Hindu temple. Evangelical Christian ministries abound in the country. The Jewish community is vibrant and growing,” Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, noted in an op-ed in Politico.

In hosting the pope as the star of an inter-faith dialogue organized by the UAE-sponsored Council of Elders, entitled International Interfaith Meeting on Human Fraternity in the United Arab Emirates, the UAE hopes to cement its position as the icon of Muslim tolerance.

The council is a brainchild of Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

It groups Muslim scholars that in its words purportedly are “known for their wisdom, sense of justice, independence and moderateness…(to).,,to promote peace, to discourage infighting and to address the sources of conflict, divisiveness and fragmentation in Muslim communities”

The council is part of a broader UAE and Saudi effort that includes groups like the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies and the Sawab and Hedayah Centres that aim to counter the influence of controversial, Qatar-based Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and more political and militant Islamist forces.

The effort targets any political expression of Islam and promotes an interpretation of the faith that dictates absolute obedience to the ruler. It competes with Turkish efforts to globally promote a more activist form of Islam supportive of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarianism and Morocco’s projection of itself as a paradigm of Islamic moderation.

Timed to coincide with the council’s meeting, Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister and secretary general of Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League, once a major vehicle for the propagation of the kingdom’s intolerant ultra-conservative strand of Islam, highlighted his inter-faith outreach in an op-ed in Newsweek magazine.

“I have travelled to the Vatican to elevate interfaith understanding with His Holiness, Pope Francis. I visited the Grand Synagogue of Paris and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I welcomed the highest-level delegation of U.S. evangelical Christian leaders ever to visit Saudi Arabia… Among my proudest achievements (as justice minister) was licensing Saudi Arabia’s first women lawyers. I also reformed the Saudi judiciary system,” Mr. Al-Issa wrote.

While segments of the justice system were indeed reformed, it remains a system that equates atheism with terrorism, enables authorities to imprison people for the slightest expression of criticism and allows for an anti-corruption campaign that lacks transparency and accountability and has the appearance of a power and asset grab.

In line with ultra-conservative precepts, Mr. Al-Issa’s past track record includes denunciation of witchcraft defined as including, among other things astrology, the use of plants for medicine, palm-reading, and animal calling.

In a bid to deprive the council as well as the league of a monopoly on Muslim empathy with non-Muslim groups, Iranian-born Australian Shiite Muslim imam Mohamad Tawhid tweeted on Sunday about his visit to Auschwitz, one of Nazi Germany’s foremost extermination camps for Jews.

“I am proud to be the first ‘Shia’ Muslim Imam to pay his respects at Auschwitz,” Mr Tawhid said in a tweet hashtagged #NeverAgain and featuring a picture of himself sporting a black T-shirt with the slogan #WeRemember.

While there can be no doubt that the UAE’s example of tolerance of non-Muslim belief systems constitutes an important contribution to more harmonious inter-faith relations, there is also little question that it is part of an effort to fortify autocratic rule in the greater Middle East and cement an environment that is intolerant towards any form of criticism or dissent.

In doing so, the UAE’s advocacy of religious tolerance and political intolerance is part of a global struggle about values that underlies tectonic shifts shaping a new world order. That struggle involves a redefinition of concepts of tolerance designed to ensure autocratic regime survival and enhance ways of avoiding and/or resolving conflict without bolstering transparency, accountability and a free flow of ideas.

The dark side of the UAE’s concept of tolerance manifests itself in the country’s conduct together with Saudi Arabia of its four-year old war in Yemen, the 20-month old rift in the Gulf with Qatar, and its harsh repression of dissent and freedom of expression

In a letter to the pope, Human Rights Watch called on Pope Francis to use his visit to press the government to address “the serious human rights violations by its forces in Yemen and to end its repression of critics at home.”

The human rights group asserted that the Saudi-UAE military coalition in Yemen had “indiscriminately bombed homes, markets, and schools, impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid, and used widely banned cluster munitions. Domestically, UAE authorities have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association since 2011. And the many thousands of low-paid migrant workers in the country remain acutely vulnerable to forced labour.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East and North Africa director argued that the Pope was in a position to capitalize on the fact that the UAE is sensitive about its international image that is to a significant extent dependent on projecting itself as a cutting-edge proponent of tolerance in the Muslim world.

In a more hard-hitting comment, Islam scholar Usaama al-Azmi warned that “whether engaged in brutal wars like the one in Yemen with hundreds of thousands displaced and tens of thousands killed, or crushing dissent and political liberties at home, the UAE government is no better than its neighbour next door. Yet its savvy PR means that such matters frequently fall below the radar of international observers.”

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 and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, February 2, 2019

A struggle for rule of law: Detained Bahraini footballer catapults Thailand to centre stage



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

Mounting pressure on Thailand to release from detention soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi has not only refocussed international attention on alleged abuse of human rights and due course of law in Bahrain but also the apparent continued ability of autocratic and authoritarian regimes to enlist global police organization Interpol in efforts to silence critics.

The arrest by Thai authorities of Mr. Al-Araibi, acting on an Interpol red notice arrest warrant issued despite the fact that he had been granted political asylum in Australia, raises questions about the effectiveness of Interpol safeguards against exploitation of its powers.

It is also a reflection of a far broader global battle for continued rule of law that is being challenged by autocrats, authoritarians, populists and nationalists on multiple fronts.

“It’s really emblematic of this breakdown of multilateral institutions, particularly those premised on western liberal democratic values which in the wake of the cold war we saw come into ascendance. These institutions were not built with the internal safeguards and mechanisms to protect them against bad faith actors. Once you let them inside the gates, nothing prevents them from poisoning the well,” said Jonathan Reich, an attorney who has worked with Russian business people and anti-corruption dissidents targeted by Russia via Interpol.

Mr Al-Araibi’s case further highlights the incestuous and inextricable relationship between sports and politics that international sports associations strenuously deny.

Nowhere is that relationship increasingly more evident than in the Gulf with Mr. Al-Araibi’s arrest; the politicization of the Asian Cup as a result of the rift between Qatar and its boycotting detractors, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; Saudi and UAE efforts to substantially increase their influence in global soccer governance, and the Saudi-Qatar dispute over broadcasting rights.

Qatar’s winning of the Asian Cup on Friday was as much a sports achievement as it was a political statement of the country’s resilience and ability to host the 2022 World Cup that had been called into question from day one and was targeted by its Gulf detractors since they declared a diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state 18 months ago.

Mr. Al-Araibi has been kept in prison to allow Bahrain to formally request his extradition even though Interpol withdrew the non-binding red notice a week after issuing it. He was on Friday remanded for another 60 days in prison as a Thai court held hearings on the request.

The focus on Interpol safeguards as a result of Mr. Al-Araibi’s continued detention and the organization’s inability to ensure that its mistakes can be corrected was bolstered this week by documents leaked by dissident Turkish journalists in Europe that allege abuse of Interpol procedures by Turkish law enforcement and intelligence.

The documents allege that Turkey has obtained through Interpol information about dissidents in Belgium, Germany and Poland on the basis of purported false charges that nonetheless failed to result in the issuance of a red notice warrant.

Mr. Al-Araibi’s detention since November when he arrived with his wife in Bangkok for their honeymoon and the Turkish leak are but the two latest incidents that point fingers at Interpol procedures.

Fair Trials, an international criminal justice watchdog, has documented numerous cases of abuse of Interpol procedures, applauded the organization for efforts to avoid abuse, and called on it to introduce further safeguards.

In one prominent case, Interpol was put in an embarrassing position in October when its then president, Meng Hongwei, was arrested on a visit to his native China after the police organization had accepted a resignation letter purportedly signed by Mr Meng and tendered by the Chinese government, which said he was being probed over suspected corruption. Interpol said it had no choice but to comply with the request.

Mr. Al-Araibi’s case bolsters the call for further safeguards and focuses attention on the need for mechanisms to counter the fallout of abuse.

A player for Bahrain’s national team, Mr. Al-Araibi was arrested in November 2012 while walking to a cafe in Bahrain to watch a Real Madrid-Barcelona game and beaten in detention. He was accused of vandalizing a police station at a time when he had been playing in a match that had been aired on live television.

Mr Al-Araibi spent three months in detention and was sentenced to ten years in prison but managed to flee to Australia before the verdict was issued by a judge, who like Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president and world soccer body FIFA vice president, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, is a member of Bahrain’s ruling family.

Mr. Al-Araibi’s case erupted as Sheikh Salman is running for another term in AFC elections scheduled for April.

Mr. Al-Araibi asserted that Sheikh Salman, who at the time of his arrest in the Gulf state was head of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) and has long been accused of involvement in the arrest and abuse during mass anti-government protests in 2011 of some 150 Bahraini athletes and sports executives, had failed to respond to requests for help from the player’s family and lawyers.

Sheikh Salman has said he had not received a request for assistance. Sheikh Salman has consistently denied any association with the 2011 events despite the fact that Bahrain’s state-run news agency linked him to the arrests in several reports at the time.

Conspicuously, Sheikh Salman has remained silent about Mr. Al-Araibi’s case while the AFC only this week called for the first time for his return to Australia in a statement by its vice president, Praful Patel.

The AFC this week said Mr. Patel rather than Sheikh Salman was responsible for Middle Eastern affairs. It said Sheikh Salman had been recused from overseeing the region because of potential conflicts of interest. It was the first time that the AFC disclosed the recusal.

FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach have been calling for Mr. Al-Araibi’s release for several weeks.

For Bahraini exiles like S. Yousif Almuhafdah, a Berlin-based human rights activist, Mr. Al-Araibi’s case is one way of focusing attention on Bahrain and trying to ensure that others are spared the soccer player’s fate in a world in which the cards are stacked against them.

Says Mr. Almuhafdah, who was detained in the same cell as Mr. Al-Araibi before both men left Bahrain: “Nothing will change any time soon. But we have a responsibility to those who stayed behind and remain behind bars.”

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 and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Support for US Iran policy out of left field: China dramatically reduces trade with Tehran



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

China has dramatically reduced its trade with Iran in line with US sanctions, raising questions whether Iran will remain committed to an international agreement that puts severe limits on its nuclear endeavours.

Reduced Chinese trade also suggests that Iran is likely to face increased obstacles as it seeks to blunt the impact of the harsh US sanctions imposed last year in a bid to force the Islamic republic to change its regional and defense policy.

China’s apparent willingness to accommodate the sanctions is remarkable given Beijing’s declared efforts to salvage the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program as well as its escalating trade and technology dispute with the United States.

Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company operated by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum, disclosed China’s reduced trade on almost the same day that the US Justice Department filed criminal charges against Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

The Justice Department asserts that the company and Ms. Meng violated Iran sanctions in addition to stealing US robotic technology.

Based on a review of trade data from China’s General Customs Administration, Bourse & Bazaar concluded that Chinese trade with Iran had dropped by 70 percent in the first two months after the re-imposition of US sanctions.

In addition, China’s Bank of Kunlun, the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions, said in December that it would restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

China replaced Europe as Iran’s main trading partner in 2012 at a time that Iran was under United Nations sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted with the conclusion of the nuclear agreement in 2015.
Bourse & Bazaar said Chinese exports to Iran had dropped to US$400 million in the period from October to December of last year compared to US$1.2 billion in the same period in 2017.

“China may be abandoning the policy of sustaining trade with Iran in direct contravention of US sanctions, introducing both economic risks in regards to Iran’s continued industrialization and political risks in regards to Iran’s continued compliance with the JCPOA,” the report said, referring to the nuclear accord by the initials of its official designation, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The report said that Iran relies on China for the import of badly needed industrial machinery and technology funded by its oil exports.

Iranian oil exports to China rebounded after the US gave China and seven other countries a six-month waiver but that did not revive Chinese exports, the report said.

Chinese compliance with US sanctions, at least in terms of trade could put to the test Iran’s declared commitment to the nuclear agreement in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s withdrawal from the accord last May.

Iran has said its continued commitment would be determined by whether the accord remained in its interest, determined primarily by the ability and willingness of the other signatories to the agreement --China, the European Union, Britain, France, Germany and Russia – to help it blunt the impact of the US sanctions.

The signatories have so far maintained that Iran has complied with the agreement even if the European Union recently sanctioned Iran’s intelligence ministry for allegedly targeting Iranian dissidents in the Netherlands, Denmark and France.

Germany subsequently banned Mahan Air, an Iranian airline sanctioned by the United States, from landing at its airports, asserting that Mahan Air had ferried fighters and weapons to Iranian-backed forces in Syria. Mahan Air operated four flights a week to Duesseldorf and Munich.

The signatories’ position appeared to be supported by a Worldwide Threat Assessment by the US intelligence community that in effect concluded that the Trump administration’s Iran policy had so far failed.

"We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told the Senate Intelligence committee in a hearing on the 42-page report.

The report warned that US policy could empower Iranian hard-liners; had sparked at best only sporadic uncoordinated anti-government protests in the Islamic republic; had failed to persuade Iran to change its regional and defense policy; and could prompt it to pursue more aggressive policies to counter perceived US, Saudi and Israeli attempts to destabilize the regime in Tehran.

Disclosure of Chinese willingness to comply to some degree with US sanctions as well as the European sanctions come in advance of a conference in Warsaw next month convened by the United States to discuss peace and security in the Middle East.

The conference, to which Iran has not been invited, is widely seen as a US effort to bolster support for its Iran policy. Russia and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini have said that they would not be participating in the meeting.

An article in China’s state-owned Global Times discussing the Warsaw meeting under the headline, Poland is getting closer to US, but should China be worried? noted that Poland had arrested on espionage charges a former Chinese employee of Huawei and was considering banning the company.

The European Union, in a bid to blunt the impact of the US sanctions, is believed to be on the verge of launching a financial clearing house known as the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) that would allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran in accordance with EU law and could be open to other partners such as China.

The vehicle is being conceived as an alternative to the Brussels-based Society for the Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) international financial messaging system used by more than 10,000 banks worldwide.

The US has blacklisted tens of Iranian banks and pressured SWIFT into agreeing to steer clear of handling transactions of those banks.

The Bourse & Bazaar report warned that continued Chinese refusal to buck US sanctions and ensure Iran has the necessary industrial machinery and technology to keep its economy running would fuel unemployment in the country that could be “devastating and destabilizing.”

The report said Iran was more likely to withdraw from the nuclear agreement in a move that could significantly raise tensions in the Middle East as a result of Chinese rather than European compliance with US sanctions.

“If the nuclear deal collapses due to extraordinary economic pressures in Iran, China may be to blame,” the report said.

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 and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Black swans haunt Eurasia’s Great Game



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr.

The battle lines in the 21st century’s Great Game aimed at shaping the creation of a new Eurasia-centred world, built on the likely fusion of Europe and Asia into what former Portuguese Europe minister Bruno Macaes calls a “supercontinent,” are all but cast in cement.

For now, the Great Game pits China together with Russia, Turkey and Iran against the United States, India, Japan and Australia. The two camps compete for influence, if not dominance, in a swath of land that stretches from the China Sea to the Atlantic coast of Europe.

The flashpoints are multiple. They range from the China Sea to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Central European nations and, most recently, far beyond with Russia, China and Turkey supporting embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro.

The rivalry resembles Risk, a popular game of diplomacy, conflict and conquest played on a board depicting a political map of the earth, divided into forty-two territories, which are grouped into six continents. Multiple players commanding armies that seek to capture territories engage in a complex dance as they strive for advantage and seek to compensate for weaknesses. Players form opportunistic alliances that could change at any moment. Potential black swans threaten to disrupt.

The black swans in the Great Game are multiple and far more numerous than those developed in a just published report by the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). Nonetheless, the scenarios conceptualized in the report, ‘What If? Scanning the horizon: 12 scenarios for 2021,” are grounded in recent trends and could prove to be game changers that radically rejigger the Great Game’s current line-up.

The scenarios or grey swans in the report’s terminology, if they unfold in reality, suggest that alliances in Eurasia are opportunistic and transactional and like with Risk can turn players on their erstwhile allies as interests diverge and re-converge. Analysis of five of the scenarios suggests that fragility is greatest in the efforts of China, Russia, Turkey and Iran to rebalance global power in their favour.

They suggest that strains in the United States’ relations with Russia and Turkey are not immutable. Similarly, Russia’s effort to lock in former Soviet republics with its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) that groups Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Belarus, and Armenia could prove to be on shaky ground. Russia’s alliance with Turkey and China as well as Iran even if the report has not developed the latter possibility may be on thinner ice than meets the eye.

The same can be said for grey swans in the United States’ ties to its long-standing allies as is played out in the report’s scenario for a withdrawal of US troops from Europe as a result of President Donald J. Trump’s accentuation of diverging trans-Atlantic interests.

With a multi-polar world the likely outcome of the battle for Eurasia, the scenarios suggest that the perceived decline of the United States, despite Mr. Trump’s unilateralism, is not irreversible. Similarly, depending on how it plays its cards, Iran could emerge either as a winner or a loser.

The four scenarios involve a renewed round of popular protest in the Arab world following the reversal of successful revolts in 2011 in Egypt, Libya and Yemen and the embrace of brutal repression; political violence in the Caucasus that pits Turkey against Russia and could threaten key nodes along China’s Belt and Road; the dissolution of the Eurasian Economic Union in an approaching post-Vladimir Putin era; a rejiggering of the political map of south-eastern Europe and  a strengthening of European cohesion with the US troop withdrawal and resolution of tension between Serbia and Kosovo.

The notion of renewed popular Arab protests, including resistance to the influence of militias in Syria and Libya, that could rewrite the political map of the Middle East  is hardly far-fetched with mass anti-government demonstrations in Sudan persisting for more than a month; riots in Tunisia, the one relatively successful 2011 revolt; protests on the West Bank against a new social security law; and anti-government marches in Iraq.

If anything, the revolts highlight the risks that all players in the Great Game run by supporting autocratic regimes that have largely failed to sustainably deliver public goods and services and/or offer good governance and cater to the social, economic and political aspirations of young populations.

“Pressure for change across the Arab world is likely to continue to grow, keeping pace with the growth in populations, inequality and social injustice,” concluded journalist Simon Tisdall on the eighth anniversary of the uprising in Egypt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak but was ultimately defeated by a military coup two years later.

The European Union Institute’s report imagines a massive attack on the Baku Kars rail line, a vital node in the Belt and Road’s linking of China to Europe that rekindles dormant local animosities as well as competing Russian and Turkish economic and geostrategic interests, prompting both Moscow and Ankara to lobby Washington for US support.

Similarly, a scenario envisaging Kazakhstan and Belarus withdrawing from the Eurasian union because of its inability to live up to its ambition of furthering regional integration sparks fears in Moscow that the demise of the regional consortium could spark the collapse of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance that groups the five Eurasian union members as well as Tajikistan and hosts Afghanistan and Serbia as observers. The dissolution of the two organizations would significantly undermine Russia’s regional standing.

Likewise, a swap of land between Serbia and Kosovo that purifies two countries whose inter-communal relations have been poisoned by historic prejudices and recent wars opens a Pandora’s Box across south-eastern Europe but eases their accession to the European Union while a US troop withdrawal would force EU members to focus on collective security.

It would only take one of these scenarios to unfold and potentially spark a revisiting of the current line-up in the Great Game. Any one of the scenarios is a realistic possibility.

Said European Union Institute deputy director Florence Gaub in her introduction to the report: ”Grey Swans share with Black Swans a high level of strategic impact, but there is more evidence to support the idea that they are actually possible… The analogy with the 1985 film ‘Back to the Future’ is pure coincidence, of course – but just as in the film, we sometimes need to take a trip to the future to inform our decision-making today.”

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 and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom