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Monday, October 15, 2018

MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?



By James M. Dorsey

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

A stalemate in efforts to determine what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is threatening to escalate into a crisis that could usher in a new era in relations between the United States and some of its closest Arab allies as well as in the region’s energy politics.

In response to US President Donald J. Trump’s threat of “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is proven to have been responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia is threatening to potentially upset the region’s energy and security architecture.

A tweet by Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy thanking the United States for not jumping to conclusions did little to offset the words of an unnamed Saudi official quoted by the state-run news agency stressing  the kingdom’s “total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations.”

The official was referring to the kingdom’s insistence that it was not responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and assertion that it is confronting a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it is (targeted by) any action, it will respond with greater action,” the official said noting that Saudi Arabia “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy.”

Turki Aldhakhil, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and general manager of the kingdom’s state-controlled Al Arabiya news network, claimed in an online article that Saudi leaders were discussing 30 ways of responding to possible US sanctions.

They allegedly 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 remains unclear whether Mr. Aldhakhil was reflecting serious discussions among secretive Saudi leaders or whether his article was intended either as a scare tactic 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, would make his assertion seem more like geopolitical and economic bluff.

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be a coordinated response aimed at demonstrating that Saudi Arabia was not isolated, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt rushed to express solidarity with the kingdom. Like Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE have a track record of suppressing independent journalism and freedom of the press.

Ironically, Turkey may be the kingdom’s best friend in the Khashoggi crisis if its claims to have incontrovertible proof of what happened in the consulate prove to be true. Turkey has so far refrained from making that evidence public, giving Saudi Arabia the opportunity to come up with a credible explanation.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip “Erdogan wants to give Saudis an exit out of #Khashoggi case, hoping the Saudi king/crown prince will blame ‘rogue elements’ for the alleged murder, then throwing someone important under the bus. This would let Erdogan walk away looking good & prevent rupture in Turkey-Saudi ties,” tweeted Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

The Saudi news agency report and Mr. Aldakhil’s article suggest that Prince Mohammed believes that Saudi Arabia either retains the clout to impose its will on much of the international community or believes that it rather than its Western critics would emerge on top from any bruising confrontation.

Prince Mohammed no doubt is reinforced in his belief by Mr. Trump’s reluctance to include an arms embargo in his concept of severe punishment. He may also feel that Western support for the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and reluctance to credibly take the kingdom to task for its conduct of the war was an indication that he was free to do as he pleased.

Prince Mohammed may have been further strengthened in his belief by the initial course of events 28 years ago, the last time that the fate of a journalist was at the centre of a crisis between a Western power and an Arab country.

At the time, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, similar to Mr. Trump’s inclination, refused to impose economic sanctions after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the arrest, torture and execution of Farhad Barzoft, a young London-based Iranian journalist who reported for The Observer.

Since declassified British government documents disclosed that Mrs. Thatcher’s government did not want to jeopardize commercial relations despite its view of the Iraqi government as a “ruthless and disagreeable regime.”

The comparison between the Khashoggi crisis and the case of Mr. Barzoft goes beyond Western governments’ reluctance to jeopardize commercial relationships.

Mr Barzoft was executed months before Mr. Hussein’s military invaded Kuwait prompting US-led military action that forced his troops to withdraw from the Gulf state, crippling economic sanctions, and ultimately the 2003 Gulf War that, no matter how ill-advised, led to the Iraqi leader’s downfall and ultimate execution.

Prince Mohammed’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen, of which Mr. Khashoggi was critical in one of his last Washington Post columns, has tarnished the kingdom’s international prestige and sparked calls in the US Congress and European parliaments for an embargo on arms sales that have gained momentum with the disappearance of the Saudi journalist.

To be sure Saudi Arabia enjoys greater leverage than Iraq did in 1990. By the same token, 2018 is not 1973, the first and only time the kingdom ever wielded oil as a weapon against the United States. At the time, the US was dependent on Middle Eastern oil, today it is one of, if not the world’s largest producer.

More fundamentally, Prince Mohammed appears to show some of the traits Mr. Hussein put on display, including a seeming lack of understanding of the limits of power and best ways to wield it, a tendency towards impetuousness, a willingness to take risks and gamble without having a credible exit strategy, a refusal to tolerate any form of criticism, and a streak of ruthlessness.

"We're discovering what this 'new king' is all about, and it's getting worrisome. The dark side is getting darker," said David Ottaway, a journalist and scholar who has covered Saudi Arabia for decades.

Mr. Hussein was public and transparent about Mr. Barzoft’s fate even if his assertion that the journalist was a spy lacked credibility and the journalist’s confession and trial were a mockery of justice.

Prince Mohammed flatly denies any involvement in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi and appears to believe that he can bully himself out of the crisis in the absence of any evidence that the journalist left the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate of his own volition.

Mr. Hussein miscalculated with his invasion of Kuwait shortly after getting away with the killing of Mr. Barzoft.

Prince Mohammed too may well have miscalculated if the kingdom is proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Mr. Hussein’s reputation and international goodwill was irreparably damaged by his execution of Mr. Barzoft and invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance has dealt a body blow to Saudi Arabia’s prestige irrespective of whether the journalist emerges from the current crisis alive or dead.

King Salman and the kingdom appear for now to be rallying the wagons around the crown prince.
At the same time, the king has stepped into the fray publicly for the first time by phoning Turkish president Erdogan to reaffirm Saudi cooperation with an investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

It remains unclear whether that phone call will pave the way for Turkish investigators to enter the Istanbul consulate as well as the Saudi consul general’s home and whether they will be allowed to carry out forensics.

The longer the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate stalls, the more Saudi Arabia will come under pressure to put forth a credible explanation and the harder Western leaders will be pressed by public opinion and lawmakers to take credible action if Saudi Arabia is proven to be responsible.

A Saudi decision to act on its threats to rejigger its security arrangements and energy policy, even if overstated by Mr. Aldhakhil, in response to steps by Western nations to penalize the kingdom,  could prove to have not only far-reaching international consequences but, in the final analysis, also equally momentous domestic ones.

“Looks like #Saudi royal family is coming together to protect the family business. Eventually there will be internal reckoning with what transpired. Not now. Now is the time to save the family reign,” tweeted Middle East scholar Randa Slim.

Said former US State Department and White House official Elliott Abrams: “Jamal Khashoggi lost control of his fate when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed bin Salman must act quickly to regain control of his own.”

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 just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Kazakh court case tests Chinese power



By James M. Dorsey

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

A Kazakh court is set to put to the test China’s ability to impose its will and strongarm Muslim nations into remaining silent about its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

The court will hear an appeal by a former worker in one of Xinjiang’s multiple re-education camps against the rejection of her request for asylum. The appeal illustrates the political quagmire faced by Central Asian nations and Turkey given their ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to China’s estimated 11 million Turkic Muslims that include 1.5 million people of Kazakh descent.

It also highlights China’s risky bet on being able to leverage its economic power to ensure the Muslim world’s silence about what amounts to the most concerted effort in recent history to reshape Muslim religious practice.

Up to one million Turkic Muslims have, according to the United Nations, been detained in a network of re-education camps in which they are being forced to accept the superiority of Chinese Communist Party beliefs and the leadership of President Xi Jinping above the precepts of Islam.

Beyond the camps, Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, a strategic minerals-rich province bordering on eight Central and South Asian nations that China has turned into a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state, are forced to refrain from religious practice and custom in public.

After denying the existing of the camps for the longest period of time, China last month felt obliged to acknowledge them and give them legal cover.

Authorities in Xinjiang amended their anti-extremism regulations “to allow local governments to set up institutions to provide people affected by extremist thoughts with vocational skills training and psychological counselling.” China asserts that the crackdown is intended to counter extremism, separatism and terrorism.

China’s acknowledgement was designed to counter the UN report, threats of US sanctions against officials and companies involved in the Xinjiang crackdown, and revelations by 41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay testified in an open Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for Kazakhs only that had 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more such camps reserved for Kazakhs.

Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for entering Kazakhstan illegally after having been detained at China’s request.

She told the court that she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being advised by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a six-month suspended sentence and released from prison to join her recently naturalized husband and children.

Since then, Ms. Sauytbay’s application for asylum has been rejected and she has until the end of October to leave Kazakhstan. She hopes that an appeal court will reverse the rejection.

Ms. Sauytbay’s case puts the Kazakh government between a rock and a hard place and is but one of a string of recent cracks in the Muslim wall of silence.

Kazakh authorities have to balance a desire to kowtow to Chinese demands with a growing anti-Chinese sentiment that demands that the government stand up for its nationals as well as Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay’s revelations that ethnic Kazakhs were also targeted in the Chinese crackdown sparked angry denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament.

“There should be talks taking place with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing this topic up… The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.

In a further crack, Malaysia this week released 11 Uyghurs who were detained after having escaped detention in Thailand.

The Uyghurs were allowed to leave the country for Turkey. The move, coming in the wake of a decision by Germany and Sweden to suspend deportations of Uyghurs to China, puts on the spot countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where Uyghurs risk extradition.

Malaysia’s release of the Uyghurs occurred days before Anwar Ibrahim took the first hurdle in becoming the country’s next prime minister by this weekend winning a parliamentary by election.
Mr. Ibrahim last month became the Muslim world’s most prominent politician to speak out about the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Earlier, Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party and head of its Policy and Strategy Bureau, cautioned that “that geographical proximity cannot be taken advantage by China to ride roughshod over everything that Malaysia holds dear, such as Islam, democracy, freedom of worship and deep respect for every country's sovereignty… On its mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang almost en masse, Malaysia must speak up, and defend the most basic human rights of all.”

Pakistan’s Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony minister, Noorul Haq Qadri, was forced to raise the issue of Turkic Muslims with Chinese ambassador Yao Xing under pressure from Pakistanis whose spouses and relatives had been detained in the Xinjiang crackdown.

Ms. Sauytbay’s appeal for asylum is likely to refocus public opinion in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations on the plight of their Turkic brethren.

"She will not be deported, we will not allow it," said Ms. Sauytbay’s lawyer, Abzal Kuspanov.

Mr. Kuspanov’s defense of Ms. Sauytbay is about far more than the fate of a former Chinese re-education camp employee. It will serve as a barometer of China’s ability to impose its will. If China succeeds, it will raise the question at what price. The answer to that is likely to only become apparent over time.

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 just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Jamal Khashoggi rejiggers the Middle East at potentially horribly cost



By James M. Dorsey

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

The fate of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, assuming that his disappearance was the work of Saudi security and military officials, threatens to upend the fundaments of fault lines in the Middle East.

At stake is not only the fate of a widely respected journalist and the future of Turkish-Saudi relations.

Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, whether he was kidnapped by Saudi agents during a visit to the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain proof of his divorce or murdered on its premises, threatens to severely disrupt the US-Saudi alliance that underwrites much of the Middle East’s fault lines.

A US investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate mandated by members of the US Congress and an expected meeting between President Donald J. Trump, and the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, could result in a US and European embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and impact the kingdom’s brutal proxy war with Iran in Yemen.

It also would project Saudi Arabia as a rogue state and call into question US and Saudi allegations that Iran is the Middle East’s main state supporter of terrorism.

The allegations formed a key reason for the United States’ withdrawal with Saudi, United Arab Emirates and Israeli backing from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and the re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions.

They also would undermine Saudi and UAE justification of their 15-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar that the two Gulf states, alongside Egypt and Bahrain, accuse of supporting terrorism.

Condemnation and sanctioning of Saudi Arabia by the international community would complicate Chinese and Russian efforts to walk a fine line in their attempts to ensure that they are not sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Russia and China would be at a crossroads if Saudi Arabia were proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and the issue of sanctions would be brought to the United Nations Security Council.

Both Russia and China have so far been able to maintain close ties to Saudi Arabia despite their efforts to defeat US sanctions against Iran and Russia’s alliance with the Islamic republic in their support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

A significantly weakened Saudi Arabia would furthermore undermine Arab cover provided by the kingdom for Mr. Trump’s efforts to impose a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would favour Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

Finally, a conclusive determination that Saudi Arabia was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s fate would likely spark renewed debate about the wisdom of the international community’s support for Arab autocracy that has proven to be unashamedly brutal in its violation of human rights and disregard for international law and conventions.

Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has suffered significant reputational damage irrespective of Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, raising the question of his viability if Saudi Arabia were condemned internationally and stability in the kingdom, a key tenant of US, Chinese and Russian Middle East policy, were to be at risk.



Saudi reluctance to cooperate as well as the US investigation and Ms. Cengiz’s expected meeting with Mr. Trump complicate apparent Turkish efforts to find a resolution of the escalating crisis that would allow Saudi Arabia to save face and salvage Turkey’s economic relationship with the kingdom.

Turkey, despite deep policy differences with Saudi Arabia over Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refrained from statements that go beyond demanding that Saudi Arabia prove its assertion that Mr. Khashoggi left the Istanbul consulate at his own volition and fully cooperate with the Turkish investigation.

Reports by anonymous Turkish officials detailing gruesome details of Mr. Khashoggi’s alleged murder by Saudi agents appear designed to pressure Saudi Arabia to comply with the Turkish demands and efforts to manage the crisis.

Widely acclaimed, Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, irrespective of whether he as yet emerges alive or is proven to have been brutally murdered, is reshaping the political map of the Middle East. The possibility, if not likelihood is that he paid a horrendous price for sparking the earthquake that is already rumbling across the region. 

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 just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Remodelling the Belt and Road: Pakistan picks up the torch



By James M. Dorsey

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

Pakistan, following in the footsteps of Malaysia and Myanmar, is the latest country to balk at the China and infrastructure focus of Beijing’s Belt and Road-related investments.

Preparing for his first visit to China as Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan is insisting that the focus of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$60 billion plus crown jewel of the Belt and Road, shift from infrastructure to agriculture, job creation and foreign investment.

“Earlier, the CPEC was only aimed at construction of motorways and highways, but now the prime  minister decided that it will be used to support the agriculture sector, create more jobs and attract other foreign countries like Saudi Arabia to invest in the country,” said information minister Fawad Chaudhry.

Mr. Khan’s determination to ensure that more benefits accrue to Pakistan from Chinese investment comes at a time that various Asian and African countries worry that Belt and Road-related investments in infrastructure risk trapping them in debt and forcing them to surrender control of critical national infrastructure, and in some cases media assets.

Preceding Mr. Khan’s move, protests against the forced resettlement of eight Nepali villages persuaded CWE Investment Corporation, a subsidiary of China Three Gorges, to consider pulling out of a 750MW hydropower project.

Malaysia has suspended or cancelled US$26 billion in Chinese-funded projects while Myanmar is negotiating a significant scaling back of a Chinese-funded port project on the Bay of Bengal from one that would cost US$ 7.3 billion to a more modest development that would cost US$1.3 billion in a bid to avoid shouldering an unsustainable debt.

Fears of a debt trap started late last year when unsustainable debt forced Sri Lanka to hand China an 80% stake in Hambantota port.

Mr. Khan’s move takes on added significance given that Pakistan appears to have decided to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help it avert a financial crisis with a loan of up to US$12 billion and discussions with Saudi Arabia that could produce up to US$10 billion in investments that would be separate but associated with CPEC.

Pakistani finance minister Asad Umar is expected later this week to initiate discussions with the IMF during the fund’s annual meeting in Bali. The decision was taken after Saudi Arabia refused to delay Pakistani payments for oil imports, opting instead to build a refinery and strategic oil reserve in the CPEC port of Gwadar.

Pakistani officials see investment by Saudi Arabia as one possible way of facilitating a Pakistani request to the IMF for help. They hope that even an informal association with CPEC of Saudi Arabia, one of the United States’ closest allies in the greater Middle East, may alleviate Washington’s concern that IMF money could be used to repay Chinese debt.

Yet, even that is unlikely to prevent the IMF, backed by the United States, from demanding that the veil of secrecy be lifted that shrouds the commercial and financial terms of many CPEC-related, Chinese-funded projects, as a pre-condition for assistance from the fund.

Apparently concerned about Pakistan’s intentions, China’s deputy chief of mission in Islamabad, Lijian Zhao, insisted in an interview as well as a series of tweets that China welcomed Saudi investment and “always supported & stood behind @ Pakistan, helping #develop it’s #infrastructure & raise #living standards while creating #job.”

Mr. Lijian’s comments followed a statement last month by Chinese foreign minister Wang Ji after talks with Mr. Khan in Islamabad that appeared to indicate that China, while acknowledging Pakistani demands, would not address them immediately. Mr. Wang suggested that CPEC would only “gradually shift to industrial cooperation."

Indications suggest further that China may be looking to Pakistan’s military to shave off the rough ends of the government’s determination to effectively renegotiate CPEC.

Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Beijing in August days after commerce minister Abdul Razak Dawood suggested that the government may suspend CPEC projects for a year.

Making his comments shortly after Mr. Wang’s departure from Islamabad, Mr. Dawood also asserted that the previous government had negotiated terms that were favourable to China rather than Pakistan.

China this week, in a move likely designed as much to strengthen Pakistani counter-terrorism capabilities as a gesture towards the country’s politically influential armed forces, made Pakistan the second country after Saudi Arabia to receive killer drones and the associated technology.

The US has refused to sell its more advanced killer drones to either Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

The Khan government’s desire to refocus CPEC tackles key issues raised by critics of the project that potentially could impact China’s plan to pacify its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang through a combination of economic development and brutal repression and re-education of its Turkic Muslim population.

The initial plan for CPEC appeared to position Pakistan as a raw materials supplier for China, an export market for Chinese products and labour, and an experimental ground for the export of the surveillance state China is rolling out in Xinjiang.

The plan envisioned Chinese state-owned companies leasing thousands of hectares of agricultural land to set up “demonstration projects” in areas ranging from seed varieties to irrigation technology. Chinese agricultural companies would be offered “free capital and loans” from various Chinese ministries as well as the China Development Bank.

The plan envisaged the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps introducing mechanization as well as new technologies in Pakistani livestock breeding, development of hybrid varieties, and precision irrigation. Pakistan effectively would become a raw materials supplier rather than an added-value producer, a prerequisite for a sustainable textiles industry.

The plan saw the Pakistani textile sector as a supplier of materials such as yarn and coarse cloth to textile manufacturers in Xinjiang. “China can make the most of the Pakistani market in cheap raw materials to develop the textiles & garments industry and help soak up surplus labour forces in (Xinjiang’s) Kashgar,” the plan said. Chinese companies would be offered preferential treatment with regard to “land, tax, logistics and services” as well as “enterprise income tax, tariff reduction and exemption and sales tax rate” incentives.

For Mr. Khan to ensure that Pakistani agriculture benefits, the very concept of Chinese investment in Pakistani agriculture would have to renegotiated.

Similarly, Mr. Khan has yet to express an opinion on the plan’s incorporation of a full system of monitoring and surveillance that would be built in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order. The system would involve deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”

The surveillance aspect of the plan that identifies Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security as the greatest risk to CPEC could, if unaddressed, transform Pakistani society in ways that go far beyond economic and infrastructure development.

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 just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Pakistani poker: Playing Saudi Arabia against China


Credit: Gwadar Real Estate

By James M. Dorsey

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

Desperate for funding to fend off a financial crisis fuelled in part by mounting debt to China, Pakistan is playing a complicated game of poker that could hand Saudi Arabia a strategic victory in its bitter feud with Iran at the People’s Republic’s expense.

The Pakistani moves threaten a key leg of the USD60 billion plus Chinese investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative.

They also could jeopardize Chinese hopes to create a second overland route to Iran, a key node in China’s transportation links to Europe. Finally, they grant Saudi Arabia a prominent place in the Chinese-funded port of Gwadar that would significantly weaken Iran’s ability to compete with its Indian-backed seaport of Chabahar.

Taken together, the moves risk dragging not only Pakistan but also China into the all but open war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Pakistan’s first move became evident in early September with the government’s failure to authorise disbursements for road projects, already hit by delays in Chinese approvals, that are part of CPEC’s Western route, linking the province of Balochistan with the troubled region of Xinjiang in north-western China.

In doing so, Pakistan implicitly targeted a key Chinese driver for CPEC: the pacification of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslim population through a combination of economic development enhanced by trade and economic activity flowing through CPEC as well as brutal repression and mass re-education.

The combination of Pakistani and Chinese delays “has virtually brought progress work on the Western route to a standstill,” a Western diplomat in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad said.

Pakistani Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid, in a further bid to bring Pakistani government expenditure under control that at current rates could force the country to seek a $US 12 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has cut $2 billion dollars from the US$8.2 billion budget to upgrade and expand Pakistan’s railway network, a key pillar of CPEC. Mr. Rashid plans to slash a further two billion dollars.

“Pakistan is a poor country that cannot afford (the) huge burden of the loans…. CPEC is like the backbone for Pakistan, but our eyes and ears are open,” Mr. Rashid said.

The budget cuts came on the back of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party projecting CPEC prior to the July 25 election that swept him to power to as a modern-day equivalent of the British East India Company, which dominated the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century.

PTI criticism included denouncing Chinese-funded mass transit projects in three cities in Punjab as a squandering of funds that could have better been invested in social spending. PTI activists suggested that the projects had involved corrupt practices.

Pakistan’s final move was to invite Saudi Arabia to build a refinery in Gwadar and invest in Balochistan mining. Chinese questioning of Pakistan’s move was evident when the Pakistani government backed off suggestions that Saudi Arabia would become part of CPEC.

Senior Saudi officials this week visited Islamabad and Gwadar to discuss the deal that would also involve deferred payments on Saudi oil supplies to Pakistan and create a strategic oil reserve close to Iran’s border.

"The incumbent government is bringing Saudi Arabia closer to Gwadar. In other words, the hardline Sunni-Wahhabi state would be closer than ever to the Iranian border. This is likely to infuriate Tehran," said Baloch politician and former Pakistani ports and shipping minister Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo.

Pakistan’s game of poker amounts to a risky gamble that serves Pakistani and Saudi purposes, puts China whose prestige and treasure are on the line in a difficult spot, could perilously spark tension along the Pakistan-Iran border, and is likely to provoke Iranian counter moves. It also risks putting Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who depend on China economically in different ways, in an awkward position.


A refinery and strategic oil reserve in Gwadar would serve Saudi Arabia’s goal of preventing Chabahar, the Indian-backed Iranian port, from emerging as a powerful Arabian Sea hub at a time that the United States is imposing sanctions designed to choke off Iranian oil exports.

A Saudi think tank, the International Institute for Iranian Studies, previously known as the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies (AGCIS) that is believed to be backed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, argued last year in a study that Chabahar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”

Written by Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, an Iranian political researcher of Baloch origin, the study warned that Chabahar would enable Iran to increase its oil market share in India at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic republic, increase government revenues, and allow Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Husseinbor suggested that Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran could serve as a countermeasure. “Saudis could persuade Pakistan to soften its opposition to any potential Saudi support for the Iranian Baluch... The Arab-Baluch alliance is deeply rooted in the history of the Gulf region and their opposition to Persian domination,” Mr. Husseinbor said.

Noting the vast expanses of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province, Mr. Husseinbor went on to say that “it would be a formidable challenge, if not impossible, for the Iranian government to protect such long distances and secure Chabahar in the face of widespread Baluch opposition, particularly if this opposition is supported by Iran’s regional adversaries and world powers.”

Saudi militants reported at the time the study was published that funds from the kingdom were flowing into anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan.

US President Donald J. Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, last year before assuming office, drafted at the request of Mr. Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, a plan that envisioned US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition,” including in Balochistan and Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan province.

All of this does not bode well for CPEC. China may be able to accommodate Pakistan by improving commercial terms for CPEC-related projects and Pakistani debt as well as easing Pakistani access to the Chinese market. China, however, is likely to find it far more difficult to prevent the Saudi-Iranian rivalry from spinning out of control in its backyard.

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 just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom 

Friday, October 5, 2018

Achieving religious harmony in a world of fear and populism



By James M. Dorsey

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

Edited version of remarks made at the Inter-Religious Organization Singapore, 1 October 2018

This is a tough time for men and women of the cloth, at least those whose message is one of peace, tolerance, mutual respect, equality and inter-faith dialogue.

Underlying the rise of populism, nationalism, protectionism, fear of the other, anti-migrant and anti-foreigner sentiment, and hate speech is an erosion of the norms of debate. Articulation of hate speech has become permissible, if not fashionable. Often blunt and crude language employed by leaders, politicians and some people of the cloth help shape an environment in which civility has been lost.

Intolerant, racist and supremacist have risen in significance even in democratic societies that project themselves as open, tolerant guarantors of equal rights irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, religion, colour or sexuality. Suppressing those voices through laws and bans drives hate speech and racism underground, it doesn’t erase or eradicate it. Countering it with a message of tolerance and mutual respect won’t erase it either but can help shape an environment in which those principles become dominant again.

Let’s face it, prejudice is a fact of life. Its inbred in whatever culture each of us adheres to and whatever education at home and in schools that we have enjoyed, irrespective of how conservative or liberal our family and societal backgrounds are. We all were raised on implicit or more explicit notions that our culture is best or by implication other cultures are not as good.

In other words, prejudice is not the issue, its how we deal with it, how we manage it. The problem arises when we lose our sense of relativity, when we adopt an absolutist approach, the high way or no way. It arises when pluralism is thrown out the window and we abandon the notion that our world is populated by a multitude of equally valid faiths, worldviews and belief systems.

To quote Mahatma Gandhi, a deeply religious Hindu, who said in 1942: “I believe with my soul that the God of the Qur’an is also the God of Gita and that we are all, no matter by what name designated, children of the same God. My whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures… To ascent to such a doctrine is for me a denial of God.”

In the battles in the late 1940s and 1950s over a proposed national ban in India on the slaughter of cows, Gandhi declared himself a worshipper of cows whom he regarded with the same veneration as he viewed his mother. Yet, Gandhi, went on to say that “the Hindu religion prohibits cow slaughter for the Hindus, not for the world. The religious prohibition comes from within. Any imposition from without means compulsion. Such compulsion is repugnant to religion.”

On a visit in 1942 to a German camp populated by Indian prisoners of war captured from the British during fighting in North Africa, Subhas Chandra Bose, a deeply religious leader of the Indian independence movement, reportedly warned inmates that “if you use religion to unite yourself today, you leave the door open for someone to divide you later using the same sentiments.”

Recent history validates Bose’s warning, not only in India and Pakistan, but across the globe expressed in Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Shiism, just to name a few, as well as in conflicts, wars and brutal repression in places like Syria, Yemen and the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Many of you represent faiths with multiple sects, legal schools and interpretations – proof that your belief system in the narrow context of that system is open to multiple interpretation. Some of those interpretations may be intolerant, anti-pluralistic, supremacist. They too are a fact of life, like it or not. Countering them depends on the social environment one creates, a sphere within which men and women of the cloth have an important role to play as well. It is also a function of the social and economic policies implemented by governments.

Indeed, the key is not suppression, what is suppressed doesn’t go away, at best it goes into hibernation, only to re-emerge at some point in the future. The key is containment, communities and societies that make discriminatory, racist, supremacist expressions socially taboo. That key is not enforcement by force of law but by social custom and an environment in which those expressions are continuously challenged in public debate, social settings and individual encounters. I am not talking about political correctness that stifles debate.

Leaving aside those whose beliefs are absolute and intolerant of any other view, a majority of people gravitate towards the middle. It’s what some call moral shock or what former trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb dubbed black swans coupled with economic, social and societal uncertainty and political manipulation that drives people towards more literal, absolutist, intolerant beliefs.

It is those circumstances in which normally tolerant communities and societies become more amenable to those beliefs. It’s what allows men like Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad to turn societies where inter-communal relations and inter-marriage were the norm into wastelands in which one community tries to exterminate the other.

Think of Bosnia Herzegovina in the 1990s that seemingly transformed overnight from a beacon of harmony into a hell or the tensions in multiple countries ranging from Bahrain to Nigeria or the tenth parallel that journalist Elizabeth Rush aptly described as the fault line cutting across Africa and Asia between more strident forms of Islam and Christianity.

The last two decades have witnessed a renewed hardening of fault lines, not just ones between strands of Islam and Christianity, but across the board. This latest round started in 2001 with the moral shock of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington and subsequent attacks across Europe as well as in Asia and Africa that continue until today. 9/11 was the death knell of multi-culturalism and the cradle of the latest wave of Islamophobia and rising anti-Semitism.

The economic financial crisis of 2008/2009 with its decimating effect on the lower and middle classes, the flourishing of jihadism, the impact of heinous attacks close to home and the fear, a human being’s most irrational emotion, that generated the breeding ground for populism, nationalism, protectionism and the return to primordial, absolutist beliefs propagated by multiple sources, including men and women of the cloth.

To be sure, the groundwork for this pre-date 9/11, fuelled by some strands of Christianity, massive Saudi funding across the globe of ultra-conservative strains of Islam, and the use of religious intolerance by leaders and governments because it served a political purpose.

Pakistan illustrates what this can produce. The tolerant and live-let-live types live in a bubble, primarily in Pakistan’s three foremost cities, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. The gravity of society has shifted towards intolerance, anti-pluralism and supremacism. Ultra-conservatism has been woven into the texture of segments of society and the culture of some institutions of the state. It is a world in which absolute truth rules supreme, discrimination based on an absolute truth is anchored into law, competence is determined not exclusively on the basis of merit but on what faith one adheres to, democratic freedoms are curtailed. Mob lynching becomes acceptable, violence against minorities the norm, and anti-blasphemy the tool.

It’s a trend that is not unique to Pakistan and not unique to the Muslim world. It is a trend that is nurtured by the rise of populism, nationalism, authoritarianism and autocracy visible across Western societies, the Muslim world and Israel, in other words irrespective of cultural-religious roots.

In most, if not all of these countries, significant segments of the population have no real stake in society. Intolerance, anti-pluralism, racism and supremacism fuel the perception of disenfranchisement and marginalization that often produces a sense of not having anything to lose. It is some combination of religious ultra-conservatism, exclusivist ethnic and nationalist sentiment, and lack of a stake that creates breeding grounds for militancy and extremism.
                              
Men and women of the cloth working in Singapore are in many ways privileged. While Singapore regulates hate speech or expressions it believes would undermine harmony, it has been successful in ensuring that all segments of the population have a stake in society – perhaps the most important factor in combatting discrimination, racism and supremacism as well as militancy and extremism.

Singapore demonstrates messages of tolerance and inter-ethnic and inter-faith harmony can and will be heard in a political and social environment that fosters mutual respect and dialogue.

There is however one caveat. Peace and harmony in society requires peace and harmony at home. The divisions and animosity between different religions and ethnicities at large are reflected in divisions and animosity within faith groups.

Tolerance, mutual respect and dialogue starts in one’s own community and its message is as credible as one practices it without exception. That probably requires a redefinition of the concept of absolute truth. That’s a tough order, but no one claims that ensuring that a peaceful and harmonious existence and future would be easy. It also is a litmus test of one’s sincerity.

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 just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Journalist’s disappearance challenges fragile Middle Eastern pragmatism



By James M. Dorsey

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

Saudi Arabia and Turkey, despite being on opposite sides of Middle Eastern divides, are cooperating in Syria to enable youth and women to acquire skills that would either allow them to compete in the job market or turn them into entrepreneurs.

The Saudi-funded, Turkish-executed projects potentially highlight a newly found degree of pragmatism and fluidity among seemingly entrenched alliances in the Middle East that largely pitch Turkey, Iran and Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey differ on some of the Middle East’s most important divides. Turkey backs Qatar in its 15-month-old dispute with a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance that is boycotting the Gulf state economically and diplomatically and is competing with Saudi Arabia, and even more so with its closest ally, the UAE, for influence in the Horn of Africa.

While Turkey and Saudi Arabia are closer in their approach towards Syria, Turkey hosts members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has been banned in the kingdom and is at the centre of its conflict with Qatar. It also opposes US sanctioning of Iran that has been embraced by Saudi Arabia.

Turkey further has exploited Saudi reluctance to aggressively oppose US President Donald J. Trump’s pro-Israel policy to position itself as the leader of the Islamic world in supporting the Palestinians. Turkish officials have suggested that the UAE had funded a failed 2016 military coup.

The projects are but one indication of the seeming emergence of a degree of pragmatism on the part of parties on all sides of the Middle Eastern divide. Other indications include differences between Turkey, Russia and Iran over how to handle Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria; Bahraini trial balloons suggesting a softening of the boycott of Qatar; and Turkish-German efforts to mend fences with one another.

The signs of flexibility are as fragile as the alliances themselves. They are being put to a test with the disappearance in Istanbul of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who disappeared this week during a visit to the Saudi consulate.

Mr. Khashoggi, known for his close ties to the ruling family, went a year ago into self-exile in Washington, after being banned from publishing, which he feared was a prelude to arrest.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey have so far commented on Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. A Saudi Press Agency report said an unidentified Saudi national accused of having signed cheques that bounced had been deported to the kingdom on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Interpol. The agency gave no further details.

While it is unknown whether the agency was referring to Mr. Khashoggi, many fear that he may have been kidnapped. It would not be the first time that Saudi Arabia has forcibly repatriated its critics.

A Saudi detention or nabbing of Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul without at least tacit Turkish cooperation would embarrass Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and likely spark a further deterioration of Turkish-Saudi relations. If Turkey was complicit, it would bear testimony to increasing pragmatism.

Meanwhile, Saudi-Turkish cooperation in Syria goes beyond relief and development aid. It helps Turkey create a sphere of influence in areas of Syria near Turkey’s border that are controlled by Turkish troops and administered by Turkey.

In a bid to compliment Turkish hard power in Syria with soft power and counter Kurdish influence, Mr. Erdogan’s Religious Affairs Directorate or Diyanet has trained Syrian religious personnel, according to a 104-page report published by the directorate.

The report said that the directorate had spent a total of US$34.1 million dollars in Syria on thing like repairing mosques, distributing Kurdish-language Qur’ans, and educating 11,250 students.

Journalist Amed Dicle said that Diyanet had recruited 5,686 teachers from the ranks of rebels opposed to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad whose curriculum emphasized Turkey’s synthesis between Islam and nationalism and included anti-Kurdish teachings. “Kurds are portrayed as atheists, and the PKK, YPG and other Kurdish fighters are infidels,” Mr. Dicle said, referring to the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party and its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units.

A Syrian imam told Al-Monitor that “we're getting paid by the Turkish government. We're grateful to them and we see that the local population here are happy to be under Turkish rule. For Turkey, religious and national allegiance are one and the same. But our interpretation of Islam may not always be the same. Turkey keeps Kurds under control and that's good for us. Plus, one day Syrians in Turkey may come and settle in these areas.”

Saudi cooperation with Turkey and its anti-Kurdish agenda in Syria has not prevented the kingdom from establishing ties to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region that borders on Iran with the opening of a consulate in Erbil, initiation of Saudia flights from Jeddah to Erbil, and a visit by Saudi businessmen.

Bahrain reportedly hinted last month that the Gulf states boycotting Qatar may re-open airspace to flights bound from and to Doha. The continued closure has forced Qatar Airways to fly longer routes to circumvent Saudi, UAE and Bahraini airspace at considerable cost to the airline. The report was widely seen as a trial balloon.

Similarly, Mr. Erdogan travelled last week to Germany with which it has had strained relations in a bid to increase his options following a summit with Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, the presidents of Russia and Iran, in which he for now delayed a Syrian-Russian assault on Idlib that would have sent hundreds of thousands, if not millions fleeing towards the Turkish border.

The limitations of the notion, apparently shared by German chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr. Erdogan, that deep differences can easily be put aside to pragmatically focus on issues of common interest, a key pillar of Middle Eastern alliances, were on display with the European Parliament this week voting to withhold 70 million euros in pre-accession funding because Turkey had failed to reverse its moves towards authoritarianism.

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 just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom