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The Globalist's Top Ten Books in 2016: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

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Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach: "James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport: “Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”
Play the Game: "Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal: "No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
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Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Tension in the Gulf: Not just maritime powder kegs

By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

A recent interview in which Baloch National Movement chairman Khalil Baloch legitimized recent militant attacks on Iranian, Chinese and Pakistani targets is remarkable less for what he said and more for the fact that his remarks were published by a Saudi newspaper.

Speaking to Riyadh Daily, the English language sister of one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost newspapers, Al Riyadh, Mr. Baloch’s legitimization in the kingdom’s tightly controlled media constituted one more suggestion that Saudi Arabia may be tacitly supporting militants in Balochistan, a troubled Pakistani province that borders on Iran and is a crown jewel of China’s infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road initiative.

Riyadh Daily interviewed Mr. Baloch against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran that many fear could escalate into military conflict, past indications of Saudi support for religious militants in Balochistan, and suggestions that countries like the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are united in their opposition to Iran but differ on what outcome they want maximum pressure on the Islamic republic to produce.

The interview followed publication in 2017 by a Riyadh-based think tank with ties to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of a call by a Baloch nationalist for support for an insurgency in the Baloch-populated Iranian province that borders Pakistan and is home to the crucial Indian-backed port of Chabahar on the Arabian Sea.

It also juxtaposes with Pakistani anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian militants who operate madrassahs along the Iranian-Pakistani border reporting stepped up Saudi funding. The monies are believed to come in part from Saudi nationals of Baloch descent, but the militants suggest the funding has at least tacit government approval.

Balochistan has witnessed multiple attacks on its Hazara Shiite minority as well as in May on a highly secured luxury hotel frequented by Chinese nationals in the Chinese-backed Baloch port city of Gwadar and a convoy of Chinese engineers as well as the Chinese consulate in Karachi. Militants killed 14 people in April in an  assault on an Iranian revolutionary guards convoy and exploded in December a car bomb in Chabahar.

Saudi Arabia is also suspected of supporting the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Iranian exile group that seeks the fall of the Iranian regime and enjoys support of senior Western politicians and former officials as well as US national security advisor John Bolton prior to his appointment and ex-Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.

For now, tacit Saudi support for Baloch militants is likely to be more about putting potential building blocks in place rather than the result of a firm decision to wage a low-intensity proxy war.

“The recent escalation in militant attacks is a direct reaction to Pakistan army’s growing atrocities in Balochistan and China’s relentless plunder of Baloch resources,” Mr. Baloch said.

Asserting that the Pakistani part of Balochistan has been occupied by Pakistan since 1948, Mr. Baloch insisted that the “Baloch nation is resisting against this forced accession. This insurgency is the continuation of that.”

The alleged Saudi support coupled with plans for a US$10 billion Saudi investment in a refinery in Gwadar and a Baloch mine has sparked discussion in Beijing about the viability of China’s US$45 billion plus stake in the region’s security and stability.

Iranian officials see a pattern of foreign support for insurgents not only in Balochistan but also among Iran’s Kurdish, Arab and Azeri minorities. Their suspicions are fuelled by statements by Mr. Bolton prior to his appointment calling for support of insurgencies and Prince Mohammed’s vow that any battle between the Middle East’s two major rivals would be fought in Iran rather than Saudi Arabia.

Complicating the situation along Iran’s borders is the fact that like in the waters of the Gulf where naval assets are eyeing one another, it doesn’t take much for the situation to escalate out of control. That is particularly the case with Iran having shifted tactics from strategic patience to responding to perceived escalation with an escalation of its own.

Iran moreover has been preparing for a potential covert war waged by Saudi Arabia and possibly US-backed ethnic insurgent groups as well as the possibility of a direct military confrontation with the United States by building a network of underground military facilities along its borders with Pakistan and Iraq, according to Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian academic who frequently argues the Tehran government’s position in international media.

Iran recently released a video showcasing an underground bunker that houses its missile arsenal.

In a further heightening of tension, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards attacked on Friday Iranian armed opposition groups in the Kurdistan region of Iraq with drones and missiles. Iranian artillery separately shelled villages in a region populated not only by armed anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish Kurdish groups but also smugglers.

The strikes followed the killing of three Iranian revolutionary guards. A spokesman for the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) denied responsibility for their deaths.

The risk of escalation is enhanced by the fact that while the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel agree on the principle of maximum pressure, they do not necessarily see eye to eye on what the end goal is.

While US President Donald J. Trump appears to want to force Iran back to the negotiating table, Israel and Mr. Bolton are believed to advocate gunning for regime change ignoring the risk that the effort could produce a government that is even less palatable to them.

That outcome would suit Saudi Arabia that does not want to see a regime emerge that would be embraced by Western nations and allowed to return to the international fold unfettered by sanctions.

A palatable government would turn Iran into a Middle Eastern powerhouse with a competitive edge vis a vis Saudi Arabia and complicate the kingdom’s ambition to become a major natural gas player and sustain its regional leadership role.

Writing in the Pakistan Security Report 2018, journalist Muhammad Akbar Notezai warned: “The more Pakistan slips into the Saudi orbit, the more its relations with Iran will worsen… If their borders remain troubled, anyone can fish in the troubled water.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

African Cup of Nations: A PR fiasco for Egyptian hosts

By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Former coach and player Farouk Gaafar put his finger on Egyptian soccer’s fundamental problem even if his call for the military to take over and run the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) with an “iron fist” amounted to inviting the fox into the chicken pen.

Mr. Gaafar issued his call after Egypt, once the undisputed king of African soccer, was knocked out of the African Cup of Nations that it is hosting in a bid to bolster its international image tarnished by systematic violations of human rights. Egypt’s government is headed by general-turned-president 

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who initially came to power in a military coup.
Egypt’s bid has been marred by multiple events besides its poor performance in the tournament. 

Fans exploited matches to honour legendary but controversial retired player Mohamed Aboutreika as well as the deaths of 94 fans in two separate politically charged incidents in 2012 and 2015.

As if all of this were not enough, Egyptian midfielder Amr Warda was initially banned early in the tournament from further participation amid mounting allegations of online sexual harassment, but then under pressure from his team mates reinstated.

Like many fans and some executives, Mr. Gaafar, who managed the military’s Talaee el Geish (Army’s Vanguards) Sports Club for seven years, blamed Egypt’s poor performance in the African tournament as well as last year’s World Cup in Russia on the EFA’s lack of accountability.

EFA president Hany Abo Rida sacked Mexican national team coach Javier Aguirre and resigned together with the majority of the group’s board members hours after the Egyptian national team’s crucial defeat at the hands of South Africa.

“The state has done everything, but the football federation and the players have done nothing. There is nothing better than the discipline of the armed forces… football needs to be run with an iron fist,” Mr. Gaafar said on a pro-government television show.

There is no doubt that Egyptian soccer desperately needs deep structural reform. The problem is that the state of the sport reflects Egypt’s broader structural problems. The country’s military is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution.

Add to this the fact that a military takeover of soccer would deepen problems because it would violate FIFA’s insistence on a fictional separation of sports and politics and likely lead to a suspension of the EFA’s membership of the world soccer body.

Alaa Sadek, a Qatar-based Egyptian critic of Mr. Al-Sisi, moreover, noted that Egypt had failed to qualify for the World Cup in the 31 years between 1936 and 1967 that it was headed by a military officer.

Mr. Sadek charged that Egyptian soccer had recently failed domestically and internationally  because Mr. Al-Sisi since coming to office in 2013 had turned the EFA into an “army camp.”

Newspaper editor Gamal Sultan noted that the government and the military’s recent assault on the EFA ocurred only after Egypt lost its decisive match against South Africa.

“Only last week, the EFA was clean, acceptable and patriotic. They were received by Sisi and the minister of defence and celebrated only when their victories served the image of the regime. One week later, the EFA has become corrupt and wanted for investigations. These are the standards of justice in today’s Egypt,” Mr. Sultan said.

In a rare broad-based lifting of an eight-year old ban on unfettered attendance of soccer matches by fans, Egypt’s defeat in the African Cup was witnessed by 75,000 mostly Egyptian spectators, many of whom have long accused the EFA of mismanagement and corruption.

Egypt has with brief exceptions banned fans from stadia since the first day of the January 2011 popular revolt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in a bid to stop soccer from being a venue for the release of pent-up popular anger and frustration as well as anti-government protest.

The government has made exemptions for international matches so that it could not be blamed for weak national team performance and to avoid putting the ban on international display.

More recently, small groups of fans have been admitted to domestic matches but only after identifying themselves with their IDs and with approval of their club.

Fans, nonetheless, defied bans on political slogans and jerseys during the African tournament by chanting Mr. Aboutreika’s name in the stadium and in online videos that went viral.

A legendary player, Mr. Aboutreika, who was consistently public about his politics, retired in 2013 after helping Egypt clinch three African Cups.

He has since been forced into exile in Qatar after being accused of having been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political group that Mr. Al-Sisi has brutally tried to crush.

Mr. Aboutreika was sentenced to a jail in absentia last November for tax evasion in what many view as trumped-up charges.

Fans also ignored rules imposed to prevent political expression by lighting up the stadium with their mobile phone flashlights during the South Africa match in commemoration of the 72 supporters that died in 2012 in a stampede and 22 others in another stampede three years later.

Many fans believe the incidents were instigated in an effort to intimidate fans and cut the most militant among them down to size.

Militant soccer fans played a key role in the 2011 uprising as well as subsequent protests, including against Mr. Al-Sisi’s coup that overthrew Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and the country’s first and only democratically elected leader.

The role of the fans highlighted the threats and opportunities posed to autocrats by soccer, the only thing that evokes the kind of deep-seated passion associated with religion.

As a result, stadiums as a public space that were contested and difficult to control threatened autocratic leaders’ grip on power. Yet, soccer’s popularity offered autocrats an opportunity to shore up their tarnished image by associating themselves with something that had immense public acceptance.

If anything, Egypt’s African Cup of Nations demonstrates that exploiting soccer for political purposes is a tricky business.

Tweeted journalist Karim Zidan under the trending hashtag ‘Team of sexual harassers:’ "Egypt's national team is…its national embarrassment ... Plenty of Egyptians are basking in the team's loss today."

Much like in the latter part of toppled Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Mr. Zidan was inferring that fans see the national team as Mr. Al-Sisi’s squad rather than Egypt’s.

In a country in which all expressions of dissent are brutally repressed, that is as clear a rejection of Mr. Al-Sisi’s effort to polish his and Egypt’s severely tarnished image as it gets.

A version of this article first ran on Africa is a Country

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

A risky gamble: Official Turkish delegation to inspect troubled Xinjiang

By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

An official Turkish visit to the troubled north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang to assess reports of a brutal crackdown on the region’s Turkic Muslims could shape Turkey’s challenge to conservative Gulf states’ leadership of the Islamic world and complicate Muslim silence about the most frontal assault on their faith in recent history.

The visit to assess the situation in Xinjiang was agreed in talks with Chinese leaders when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the issue during a recent visit to Beijing.

Mr. Erdogan appeared to set the tone for the visit by declaring that it was possible to "find a solution to this issue that takes into consideration the sensitivities on both sides."

Walking a fine line, Mr. Erdogan went on to say that "those who exploit the issue…by acting emotionally without thinking of the relationship that Turkey has with another country, unfortunately end up costing both the Turkish republic and their kinsman."

For its part, China seemingly sought to frame the Turkish visit with state-run China Daily newspaper quoting Mr. Erdogan as telling Chinese leaders that "it is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China's development and prosperity."

Turkey has in the past sought unsuccessfully to mediate tensions in Xinjiang in part by agreeing with Beijing on an investment program in the Chinese region.

For Turkey, the visit amounts to a risky gamble.

A Turkish confirmation of the extent of the crackdown would position Mr. Erdogan as a leader willing to defend Muslim causes that other leaders have chosen to ignore much like he attempted last year to take the lead on denouncing US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Turkey earlier this year briefly appeared to be willing to take on the Xinjiang issue when its foreign ministry harshly condemned Chinese policy, but has largely remained silent since.

In response to the criticism, China temporarily closed its consulate in the Mediterranean port city of Izmir, warned Chinese residents and travellers to Turkey to “be wary and pay attention to their personal safety,” and threatened further economic retaliation.

If Turkey, on the basis of the visit, were to endorse China’s assertion that it is countering extremism by offering voluntary vocational training to Turkic Muslims, it would be granting a significant victory to China given Turkey’s ethnic and cultural ties to the Xinjiang Muslim community.

It would project Mr. Erdogan as just one more Muslim leader who for economic and commercial reasons was willing to cold-shoulder co-religionists in a time of need.

An endorsement would group Mr. Erdogan with men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who earlier this year during a visit to Beijing recognized China’s right to undertake "anti-terrorism" and "de-extremism" measures and Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and Indonesian president Joko Widodo who professed to be unaware of the situation in Xinjiang.

Trying to balance Turkey’s position as a safe haven for Turkic Muslims while maintaining close ties to China, Turkey last month said it had granted 146,000 residence permits to members of various Turkic communities, including an estimated 35,000 Uyghurs.

“You don’t need to worry. I want you to know that we will use every chance in favour of you to provide that you will reach tomorrow as citizens of the Republic of Turkey, brotherly and sisterly,” interior minister Suleyman Soylu told a breaking of the Ramadan fast dinner.

China’s past attempts to convince foreign diplomats even if they remained publicly silent and journalists of its version of events by taking them on guided tours of Xinjiang have largely produced moderate results at best.

How Turkey handles the visit to Xinjiang is likely to resonate in major parts of the Islamic world.

The delegation’s conclusion is likely to come as pressure plays out on the Sudanese military by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to revisit several Turkish contracts concluded with ousted president Omar al-Bashir, including the development of Khartoum airport and a port on Suakin Island.

The port project would put Turkey too close for comfort to the Saudi Red Sea coast and challenge the UAE’s effort to dominate East African ports.

Turkish criticism of China could also complicate efforts by Central Asian governments to ignore Xinjiang even if ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and other Central Asians are among the detainees in the Chinese region, sparking anti-Chinese sentiment in former Soviet republics.

Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping a day before leaders of the eight Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries gathered in Bishkek last month, described the situation in Xinjiang as an “internal (Chinese) matter.”

The SCO groups Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan.

A critical Turkish stance could further aggravate problems, at least in Kyrgyzstan, stemming from China’s promotion of a non-competitive Xinjiang-based company competing for a major infrastructure project.

China’s insistence that TBEA, a little-known contractor with at best modest experience in building and repairing power stations, be granted a US$386 million contract to refurbish Bishkek’s aging plant has landed former Kyrgyz prime minister Sapar Isakov in court on corruption charges.

TBEA was awarded the contract despite lower bids by a competing Chinese company and a Russian company with an established track record.

It was not clear to what degree the push for TBEA was driven by an effort to line the pockets of corrupt officials and/or geopolitical objectives. China sees Central Asia and Pakistan as key drivers of economic development in Xinjiang.

Said Yang Shu, head of the Institute for Central Asia Studies at Lanzhou University in north-western China, commenting on Chinese strategy: “For countries that have good relations with China and have similar problems, it is easy for both to reach consensus on the Xinjiang issue. For other countries, explanations will not have much effect… But overall, it’s better to do it than not to do it.”

After vacillating between silence and criticism, the Turkish visit is likely to determine where Turkey really stands.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Crisis in Georgia: Russians challenge Putin’s civilizationalist ambition

By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

A political crisis in the former Soviet republic of Georgia challenges the fundament of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s civilizationalist effort to project Russia as a major power whose defense of the Russian Diaspora allows it to redefine the country’s borders.

The challenge emerged as protesters demanded the resignation of interior minister Giorgi Gakharia  for violently breaking up demonstrations against the Georgian parliament’s invitation to Russian communist lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov and Russia’s de facto occupation of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

More than 240 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets and water cannons to turn back crowds trying to enter parliament on June 20.

Georgia fought a five-day war in 2008 against Russia that resulted in Russian forces leaving behind large contingents of troops in the two Georgian breakaway regions.

A 2018 survey by the Center for Insights in Survey Research concluded that 85 percent of Georgians consider Russia a “political threat.”

Mr. Putin’s spokesman Dimitry Peskov and state-run media described the protests that have entered their third week as “Russophobic hysteria.”

In response, the government sought to disrupt tourism and trade and squeeze Georgia economically by stopping Russian airlines from flying to Georgia as of July 8 citing their debts and safety issues and advising tour operators to drop the country as a destination.

Mr. Peskov said the flight ban was to protect the safety of Russian tourists.

An estimated 1.4 million Russians visited Georgia in 2018. Tourism last year accounted for almost eight percent of Georgia’s GDP.

Russian trading standards body Rospotrebnadzo warned about a “decline in quality” of Georgian wine in a signal that the government could increase pressure by banning one of Georgia’s major exports. Georgia exports 70 percent of its wine to Russia.

“The issue is simply for Georgia to return to a non-Russophobic path. As soon as we see that, then we can think about re-examining the decisions that have been taken,” Mr. Peskov said.

Members of Georgia’s ethnic Russian community and Russian journalists, however, rejected Moscow’s assertions that they were threatened by the protests or widespread anti-Russian sentiment.

“Nothing near the horrors that Russian television has been broadcasting…is happening here. I’m walking around with my perfectly Russian physiognomy, asking questions in Russian and do not encounter a shred of anything even remotely reminiscent of hostility.” said Russian journalist Aleksey Romanov on YouTube.

Russians are not being chased down with “torches and pitchforks,” Anna Trofimenko, a 31-year old Russian web designed in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi told Eurasianet. Ms. Trofimenko added that Georgians had good reason to be critical of Russia.

Some Russian analysts suggested that Mr. Putin was turning a mouse into an elephant to demonstrate Russian power and the government’s commitment to a state that defines its borders in civilizational rather than national terms.

Mr. Putin alluded to his civilizationalist aspirations in an interview with the Financial Times as he was leaving for last month’s Group of 20 summit in Japan.

Mr. Putin bemoaned the fact that “25m ethnic Russians found themselves living outside the Russian Federation. Listen, is this not a tragedy? A huge one! And family relations? Jobs? Travel? It was nothing but a disaster.” Mr. Putin was referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin’s remarks loom larger than a moan against the backdrop of his endorsement in 2013 of a civilizationalist foreign policy whose objectives included “ensuring comprehensive protection of rights and legitimate interests of Russian citizens and compatriots residing abroad.”

That year, Mr. Putin illustrated the flexibility of his notion of compatriots when he noted that Russia and Ukraine had “common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture. We have very similar languages. In that respect, I want to repeat again, we are one people.”

Unmarked Russian forces entered Crimea a year later. Russia subsequently annexed Crimea following a referendum in which Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation.

Russia also intervened in support of pro-Russian groups in the Donbass area of Ukraine as well as the self-declared regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

At the core of Mr. Putin’s philosophy is Eurasia’s 21st century Great Game that aims to shape a new world order in an environment in which a critical mass of world leaders, including US President Donald J. Trump, Chinese president Xi Jinping, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines, effectively agree on illiberal principles of governance.

That tacit understanding reduces the Great Game to a power struggle in which players jockey for their share of the pie.

Far-right anti-Semitic ideologues associated with the Moscow-based Izborsk Club, who influenced Mr. Putin’s thinking, describe their country’s stake in the game as “restoring Russia as a Eurasian empire.”

The club was , named after a 16th century Muscovite fortress that protected Russia’s north-western border.

“The Western overseers are prepared to close their eyes to the excesses of nationalists, to Russophobia, even if it severs all ties of the Georgian people with our country. We are soberly assessing the role of the United States and its allies in the world arena,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

UAE withdraws from Yemen: Managing alliances and reputational threats

By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

A United Arab Emirates decision to withdraw the bulk of its forces from Yemen shines a spotlight on hard realities underlying Middle Eastern geopolitics.

The pullback suggests that the UAE is preparing for the possibility of a US military confrontation with Iran in which the UAE and Saudi Arabia could emerge as prime battlegrounds.

It also reflects long-standing subtle differences in the approaches of Saudi Arabia and the UAE towards Yemen.

It further highlights the UAE’s long-standing concern for its international standing amid mounting criticism of the civilian toll of the war as well as a recognition that the Trump administration’s unquestioning support may not be enough to shield its allies from significant reputational damage.

The withdrawal constitutes a finetuning rather than a reversal of the UAE’s determination to contain Iran and thwart political Islam witness the Emirates’ involvement in the Libyan civil war and support for renegade field marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar as well as its support for the embattled Sudanese military and autocrats like Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

While the UAE may have withdrawn the bulk of its troops from key regions of Yemen, it leaves behind Emirati-trained local forces that will continue to do its bidding. The withdrawal, moreover, is not 100 percent with the UAE maintaining its Al-Mukalla base for counterterrorism operations.

The UAE’s commitment to assertive policies designed to ensure that the small state can continue to punch above its weight are also evident in its maintenance of a string of military and commercial port facilities in Yemen, on the African shore of the Red Sea, and in the Horn of Africa as well its hard-line towards Qatar and rivalry with Turkey.

As part of its regional and international projection, the UAE is keen to maintain its status as a model for Arab youth and preferred country of residence.

The UAE’s image contrasts starkly with that of Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, including the clampdown on domestic critics and the Yemen war, have prompted embarrassing calls by prominent Islamic scholars for a boycott of the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the withdrawal leaves Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, the instigator of the more than four-year long war that has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, exposed.

Nonetheless, despite differing objectives in Yemen, the UAE too suffered from the reputational fallout of bombings of civilian targets that were largely carried out by the Saudi rather than the Emirati air force.

Operating primarily in the north, Saudi Arabia focussed on countering Iranian-backed Houthi rebels whose stronghold borders on the kingdom while the UAE backed South Yemeni separatists and targeted Muslim-Brotherhood related groups.

With the withdrawal, the UAE may allow differences with Saudi Arabia to become more visible but will not put its alliance with the kingdom at risk.

If past differences are anything to go by, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are able to manage them.

The differences were evident in recent weeks with the UAE, unlike Saudi Arabia, refraining from blaming Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Leaked emails written by Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador in Washington, laid bare the Emirates’ strategy of working through the Saudi court to achieve its regional objectives despite viewing the kingdom as “coo coo.”

Similarly, differences in the two countries’ concept of Islam failed to rock their alliance despite the effective excommunication in 2016 of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism at a UAE-sponsored conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny.

The alliance is key to the two countries’ counterrevolution aimed at maintaining the region’s autocratic status quo in the face of almost a decade of popular revolts, public protests and civil wars.

The UAE-Saudi-led counterrevolution is driven by Prince Mohammed and his UAE counterpart, crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s desire to shape the Middle East in their mould.

The UAE rather than the kingdom was the driver behind the Qatar boycott with Saudi King Mohammed and Prince Mohammed initially reaching out to the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood when they came to power in 2015.

Four years later Saudi Arabia, is unlikely to radically shift gears but could prove less intransigent towards the group than the UAE.

While preparing for possible conflict with Iran may be the main driver for the withdrawal, it is unlikely to protect the UAE from damage to its reputation as a result of its involvement in Libya and Sudan as well as its draconic clampdown on dissent at home.

Mr. Haftar’s UAE-armed forces are believed to be responsible for this week’s bombing of a detention center for African migrants in the Libyan capital Tripoli that killed 40 people and wounded 80 others.

The bombing came of the heels of a discovery of US-made missiles on one of Mr. Haftar’s military bases packed in shipping containers stating they belonged to the "UAE Armed Forces.” The UAE has denied ownership.

The UAE’s withdrawal from Yemen will likely help it evade calls for Yemen-related arms embargoes.

Libya, however, could prove to be the UAE’s Achilles heel.

Said Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: "You are surely aware that if these allegations prove true you may be obligated by law to terminate all arms sales to the UAE.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Vladimir Putin vs Liberalism 1:0

By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Certain that Western and liberal democratic leaders would limit themselves to verbal denials, Russian president Vladimir Putin knew he was kicking into an open goal when he declared on the eve of the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Osaka that liberalism had “outlived its purpose.”

He may even have anticipated that US president Donald J. Trump would go further and in his own way endorse the Russian president’s assertion.

When asked at a news conference to respond to Mr. Putin’s remarks, Mr. Trump opted to denounce America’s liberals by focusing on American municipal leaders who oppose his policies, including his clampdown on migration.

Mr. Putin “sees what’s going on. If you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles…and San Francisco and a couple of other cities which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people, I don’t know what they are thinking, but he does see things that are happening in the United States that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is. I’m very embarrassed by what I see,” Mr. Trump said.

In a nod to illiberal governance, Mr. Trump went on to say that “you don’t want it to spread and at a certain point, I think the federal government may have to get involved. We can’t let that continue to happen.”

Mr. Trump’s response was not a one-off remark. His empathy with illiberalism was also evident in his refusal to seriously take Mr. Putin to task for alleged Russian interference in US elections despite the conclusion by US intelligence and special counsel Robert Mueller that there had been extensive meddling.

Similarly, during a breakfast meeting at the G-20 with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Mr. Trump praised the Saudi leader for doing a “spectacular job.”

He praised Prince Mohammed as “a man who has really done things in the last five years in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia” and described the prince’s enhancement of some women’s rights as a “a revolution in a very positive way.”

Mr. Trump made no mention of the fact that Prince Mohammed had imprisoned activists who had campaigned for things like the lifting of a ban on women’s driving as well as scores of critics and dissidents.

The activists, some of whom have asserted that they have been tortured, are standing trial on charges of undertaking “coordinated and organized activities… that aim to undermine the Kingdom’s security, stability, and national unity.”

Like virtually all Western and liberal democratic leaders at the G20, Mr. Trump played down Saudi Arabia’s lack of transparent accountability for last October’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as well as the conduct of the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led war in Yemen.

The leaders made sure that Prince Mohammed, the host of next year’s G20, was not isolated as he was at their gathering last year in Buenos Aires.

A senior official tempered outgoing British prime minister Teresa May’s call for accountability in a one-on-one with Prince Mohammed by noting that the two leaders had “concluded by agreeing on the importance of the relationship” and of “regional stability” with no apparent qualification.

Perhaps because the targeting in 2018 of two Russians with a nerve agent occurred on British soil, Ms. May took a tougher stand than most in a frosty meeting with Mr. Putin.

“The prime minister underlined that we remain open to a different relationship, but for that to happen the Russian government must choose a different path. The prime minister said the UK would continue to unequivocally defend liberal democracy and protect the human rights and equality of all groups, including LGBT people,” a spokesperson for Ms. May said.

By and large, however, Western and liberal democratic leaders seemed to lend credibility to Mr. Putin’s assertion on liberalism by failing to put their money where their mouth is.

They were equally soft gloved in their interactions with Chinese president Xi Jinping when it came to liberal values such as human rights.

There was no apparent mention, at least no public mention, of China’s brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

The incarceration in re-education camps of an estimated one million Uyghurs amounts to the most frontal assault on a faith group since World War Two’s Nazi assault on Jews.

Likewise, there was overall little that went beyond strong verbiage in the response by liberal democratic leaders to Mr. Putin’s attempt to fuel polarisation in the West by asserting that liberalism “presupposes that…migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights… have to be protected.”

As a result, European Council president Donald Tusk’s retort put little, if any meat, on the response of liberal democratic leaders and seemed more like paying sharp-tongued lip service to values such as human rights

“For us in Europe, these are and will remain essential and vibrant values. What I find really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs. Even if sometimes they may seem effective,” Mr. Tusk said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.