Richard Whittall:

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


Middle East Eye: "

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

“The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer has helped me immensely with great information and perspective.”


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"
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated: "Essential Reading"
Change FIFA: "A fantastic new blog'

Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life:
"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"

Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Amid ethnic protests, Iran warns of foreign meddling



By James M. Dorsey

Iran has raised the spectre of a US-Saudi effort to destabilize the country by exploiting economic grievances against the backdrop of circumstantial evidence that Washington and Riyadh are playing with scenarios for stirring unrest among the Islamic republic’s ethnic minorities.

Iran witnessed this weekend minority Azeri and Iranian Arab protests in soccer stadiums while the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reported clashes with Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

State-run television warned in a primetime broadcast that foreign agents could turn legitimate protests stemming from domestic anger at the government’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption into “incendiary calls for regime change” by inciting violence that would provoke a crackdown by security forces and give the United States fodder to tackle Iran.

“The ordinary protesting worker would be hapless in the face of such schemes, uncertain how to stop his protest from spiralling into something bigger, more radical, that he wasn’t calling for,” journalist Azadeh Moaveni quoted in a series of tweets the broadcast as saying.

The warning stroked with the Trump administration’s strategy to escalate the protests that have been continuing for months and generate the kind of domestic pressure that would force Iran to concede by squeezing it economically with the imposition of harsh sanctions.

US officials, including President Donald J. Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, a long-time proponent of Iranian regime change, have shied away from declaring that they were seeking a change of government, but have indicated that they hoped sanctions would fuel economic discontent.

The Trump administration, after withdrawing in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, this month targeted Iranian access to US dollars, trade in gold and other precious metals, and the sale to Iran of auto parts, commercial passenger aircraft, and related parts and services. A second round of sanctions in November is scheduled to restrict oil and petrochemical products.

"The pressure on the Iranian economy is significant... We continue to see demonstrations and riots in cities and towns all around Iran showing the dissatisfaction the people feel because of the strained economy." Mr. Bolton said as the first round of sanctions took effect.

Mr. Bolton insisted that US policy was to put "unprecedented pressure" on Iran to change its behaviour”, not change the regime.

The implication of his remarks resembled Israeli attitudes three decades ago when officials argued that if the Palestine Liberation Organization were to recognize Israel it would no longer be the PLO but the PPLO, Part of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In other words, the kind of policy changes the Trump administration is demanding, including an end to its ballistic program and support for regional proxies, by implication would have to involve regime change.

A string of recent, possibly unrelated incidents involving Iran’s ethnic minorities coupled with various other events could suggest that the United States and Saudi Arabia covertly are also playing with separate plans developed in Washington and Riyadh to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among non-Persian segments of the Islamic republic’s population.

Mr. 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,” “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and assistance for Baloch in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Balochistan province as well as Iranian Arabs in the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan.

A Saudi think tank, believed to be backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, called in 2017 in a study for Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran. Prince Mohammed vowed around the same time that “we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Pakistani militants have claimed that Saudi Arabia has stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian fighters.

The head of the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs met in Washington in June with Mustafa Hijri, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), before assuming his new post as counsel general in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said last weekend that they had killed ten militants near the Iranian border with Iraq. “A well-equipped terrorist group ... intending to infiltrate the country from the border area of Oshnavieh to foment insecurity and carry out acts of sabotage was ambushed and at least 10 terrorists were killed in a heavy clash,” the Guards said.

The KDPI has recently stepped up its attacks in Iranian Kurdistan, killing nine people weeks before Mr. Hijri’s meeting with Mr. Fagin. Other Kurdish groups have reported similar attacks. Several Iranian Kurdish groups are discussing ways to coordinate efforts to confront the Iranian regime.

Similarly, this weekend’s ethnic soccer protests are rooted in a history of football unrest in the Iranian provinces of East Azerbaijan and Khuzestan that reflect long-standing economic and environmental grievances but also at times at least in oil-rich Khuzestan potentially had Saudi fingerprints on them.

Video clips of Azeri supporters of Tabriz-based Traktor Sazi FC chanting ‘Death to the Dictator” in Tehran’s Azadi stadium during a match against Esteghlal FC went viral on social media after a live broadcast on state television was muted to drown the protest out. A sports commentator blamed the loss of sound on a network disruption.

A day earlier, Iranian Arab fans clashed with security forces in a stadium in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz during a match between local team Foolad Khuzestan FC and Tehran’s Persepolis FC. The fans reportedly shouted slogans reaffirming their Arab identity. 

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs have a long history of encouraging Iranian Arab opposition and troubling the minority’s relations with the government.

Iranian distrust of the country’s Arab minority has been further fuelled by the fact that the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), a controversial exiled opposition group that enjoys the support of prominent serving and former Western officials, including some in the Trump administration, has taken credit for a number of the protests in Khuzestan. The group advocates the violent overthrow of the regime in Tehran.

Two of Mr. Trump’s closest associates, Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, and former House speaker New Gingrich, attended in June a gathering in Paris of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq.

In past years, US participants, including Mr. Bolton, were joined by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of the kingdom’s intelligence service and past ambassador to Britain and the United States, who is believed to often echo views that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prefers not to voice himself.

“The mullahs must go, the ayatollah must go, and they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents. Freedom is right around the corner … Next year I want to have this convention in Tehran,” Mr. Giuliani told this year’s rally, referring to Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the Mujahedeen who is a cult figure to the group.  

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Uyghur militant threat: China cracks down and mulls policy changes



By James M. Dorsey

China, responding to United Nations criticism, academic and media reports, and an embarrassing court case in Kazakhstan, has come closer to admitting that it has brutally cracked down on the strategic north-western province of Xinjiang in what it asserts is a bid to prevent the kind of mayhem that has wracked countries like Syria and Libya.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times charged in its Chinese and English editions that the criticism and reports were aimed at stirring trouble and destroying hard-earned stability in Xinjiang, China’s gateway to Central Asia and home to its Turkic Uyghur and ethnic minority Central Asian Muslim communities.

The crackdown, involving introduction of the world’s most intrusive surveillance state and the indefinite internment of large numbers of Muslims in re-education camps, is designed to quell potential Uyghur nationalist and religious sentiment and prevent blowback from militants moving to Central Asia’s borders with China after the Islamic State and other jihadist groups lost most of their territorial base in Iraq and Syria.

Concern that national and religious sentiment and/or militancy could challenge China’s grip on Xinjiang, home to 15  percent of its proven oil reserves, 22  per cent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear arsenal, has prompted Beijing to consider a more interventionist policy in the Middle East and Central and South Asia in contradiction to its principle of non-interference in the affairs of others.

The Global Times asserted that the security situation in Xinjiang had been “turned around and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated. Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang… Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China's Syria’ or ‘China's Libya,’" the paper said.

Five Chinese mining engineers were wounded last week in a suicide attack in the troubled Pakistan province of Balochistan, a key node in the US$ 50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to link the strategic port of Gwadar with Xinjiang and fuel economic development in the Chinese region. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) rather than Uyghurs.

The Global Times admitted that the Chinese effort to ensure security had “come at a price that is being shouldered by people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”

China has not acknowledged the existence of re-education camps but the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said last week that it had credible reports that one million Uyghurs, were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”

The UN assertion of the existence of the camps is corroborated by academic research and media reports based on interviews with former camp inmates and relatives of prisoners, testimony to a US Congressional committee, and recent testimony in a Kazakh court by a former employee in one of the camps.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the chair of the congressional committee, called for the sanctioning of Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Quanguo and “all government officials and business entities assisting the mass detentions and surveillance”. He also demanded that Chinese security agencies be added “to a restricted end-user list to ensure that American companies don’t aid Chinese human-rights abuses.”
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Stymying the international criticism and demands for action before they gain further momentum is imperative if China wants to ensure that the Muslim world continues to remain silent about what amounts to a Chinese effort, partly through indoctrination in its re-education camps, to encourage the emergence of what it would call an Islam with Chinese characteristics. China is pushing other faiths to adopt a similar approach.

Concern that Uighur militants exiting Syria and Iraq will again target Xinjiang is likely one reason why Chinese officials suggested that despite their adherence to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others China might join the Syrian army in taking on militants in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.

Syrian forces have bombarded Idlib, a dumping ground for militants evacuated from other parts of the country captured by the Syrian military and the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in advance of an expected offensive.

Speaking to Syrian pro-government daily Al-Watan, China’s ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, said that China was 'following the situation in Syria, in particular after the victory in southern (Syria), and its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.”

Chinese participation in a campaign in Idlib would be China’s first major engagement in foreign battle in decades.

China has similarly sought to mediate a reduction of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to get them to cooperate in the fight against militants and ensure that Uyghur jihadists are denied the ability to operate on China’s borders. It has also sought to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Chinese officials told a recent gathering in Beijing of the Afghan-Pakistan-China Trilateral Counter-Terrorism dialogue that militant cross-border mobility represented a major threat that needed to be countered by an integrated regional approach.

Potentially, there’s a significant economic upside to facilitating regional cooperation in South Asia and military intervention in Syria. Post-conflict, both countries offer enormous reconstruction opportunities.

Said Middle East scholar Randa Slim discussing possible Chinese involvement in the clearing of Idlib:
“You have to think about this in terms of the larger negotiations over Chinese assistance to reconstruction. Syria doesn’t have the money, Russia doesn’t have the money. China has a stake in the fighting.” It also has the money.

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, August 12, 2018

Yemen war challenges Saudi moral authority



By James M. Dorsey

Saudi conduct of its ill-fated war in Yemen coupled with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alignment with the Trump administration and Israel, and his often coercive approach to diplomatic relations, has opened the door to challenges of the kingdom’s moral leadership of the Sunni Muslim world, a legitimizing pillar of the ruling Al Saud family’s grip on power.

The cracks in Saudi legitimacy are being fuelled by the escalating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, described by the United Nations and aid organizations as the world’s worst since World War Two; shocking civilian deaths as the result of attacks by the Saudi-led coalition; electoral successes by populist leaders in countries like Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan; and the kingdom’s inability to impose its will on countries like Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Oman.

An attack this week on a bus in the heartland of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that killed at least 43 people, including 29 children returning from a summer camp, dealt a significant body blow to Saudi moral authority.

The coalition said it would investigate the attack that has sparked international outrage.

The attack was but the latest of multiple incidents in which weddings, funerals and hospitals have been hit by coalition forces in a war that has gone badly wrong and demonstrates Saudi military ineptitude despite the fact that the kingdom’s armed forces operate some of the world’s most sophisticated weaponry, according to military sources.

Mr. Trump reversed a decision by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to halt the sale of air-dropped and precision-guided munitions until it had better trained Saudi forces in their targeting and use of the weapons. An Obama official said at the time that there were “systemic, endemic” problems in Saudi targeting.

“Malaysia and other Muslim nations can no longer look up to the Saudis like we used to. They can no longer command our respect and provide leadership. The Saudis have abandoned the Palestinians, just like the Egyptians. The Saudis have moved much closer to Israel who are suppressing and killing the Palestinians,” said Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah Raja Ahmad, a member of Malaysia’s upper house of parliament and the head of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition in the Malaysian state of Terengganu.

“Perhaps Malaysia under the leadership of Dr Mahathir Mohamad should take the lead again in speaking up for the oppressed Muslims of the world. It is about time Malaysia again show the leadership that was once so much admired and respected worldwide,” Mr. Bahrin added.

Malaysia has sought to distance itself from Saudi Arabia since the return to power in May of Mr. Mahathir, whose past Islamist rhetoric and stark anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish statements propelled him to prominence in the Islamic world.

Malaysia has in recent weeks withdrawn troops from the 41-nation, Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) and closed the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) in Kuala Lumpur. Mr. Mahathir’s defense minister, Mohamad Sabu, long before taking office this year, was already highly critical of Saudi Arabia.

In anticipation of investigations into allegations of corruption against former prime minister Najib Razak and his recent indictment, Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull, Mr. Mahathir’s newly appointed anti-corruption czar, noted barely a week after the May election that “we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, (and the) UAE.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera last month, Mr. Mahathir said that “we are disappointed that Saudi Arabia has not denied that the money was given by Saudi,” referring to $681 million in Saudi funds that were allegedly gifted to Mr. Razak.

Malaysia is but the latest Sunni Muslim nation to either challenge Saudi Arabia or at least refuse to kowtow to the kingdom’s foreign policy as it relates to its bitter rivalry with Iran; Prince Mohammed’s tacit backing of US President Donald J. Trump’s staunch support of Israel and pressure on Palestinians; its 14-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar; and the war in Yemen.

Like Mr. Mahathir in the past, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite his evolving autocracy, has emerged as an Islamist populist counter pole, his credibility enhanced by his escalating disputes with the United States, his often emotional support for the Palestinians, and opposition to moves by Mr. Trump like his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey this week became the latest target of Mr. Trump’s wielding of trade and economic sanctions as a means of bullying countries into submitting to his demands. Mr. Trump doubled metals tariffs on Turkey after earlier sanctioning two senior Turkish ministers in an effort to force Mr. Erdogan to release American evangelist Andrew Brunson.

Mr. Brunson has been detained in Turkey for the past two years on charges of having been involved in the failed 2016 military coup against Mr. Erdogan and seeking to convert Turkish Kurds to Christianity.

Mr. Erdogan has in recent years consistently thought to thwart Saudi policy in the region by positioning himself as the leader of a Muslim world opposed to Mr. Trump’s Israel-Palestine approach and a de facto Arab alliance with Israel, maintaining close ties to Iran and defying US sanctions against the Islamic republic, supporting Qatar, and expanding Turkish influence in the Horn of Africa in competition with the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s closest regional ally.

Mr. Erdogan has portrayed Prince Mohammed’s vow to return Saudi Arabia to an unidentified form of ‘moderate Islam’ as adopting a Western concept.

“Islam cannot be either ‘moderate’ or ‘not moderate.’ Islam can only be one thing. Recently the concept of ‘moderate Islam’ has received attention. But the patent of this concept originated in the West. Perhaps, the person voicing this concept thinks it belongs to him. No, it does not belong to you. They are now trying to pump up this idea again. What they really want to do is weaken Islam ... We don’t want people to learn about religion from foreign facts,” Mr. Erdogan said.

Echoing former US president George W. Bush’s assertion of an axis of evil, Prince Mohammed charged in March that Turkey was part of a triangle of evil that included Iran and Islamist groups. The crown prince accused Turkey of trying to reinstate the Islamic Caliphate, abolished nearly a century ago when the Ottoman empire collapsed.

Similarly, Pakistan’s prime minister-in-waiting appeared to be charting his own course by saying that he wants to improve relations with Iran and mediate an end to the debilitating Saudi-Iranian rivalry despite the fact that the kingdom has so far ruled out a negotiated resolution and backs US efforts to isolate the Islamic republic.

In a bow to Saudi Arabia, Jordan has backed the kingdom in its row with Canada over criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record and refrained from appointing a new ambassador to Iran, but has stood its ground in supporting Palestinian rejection of US peace efforts.

Similarly, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri has reversed his resignation initially announced in Riyadh last year under alleged duress while Oman and Kuwait, alarmed by the Saudi-UAE campaign against Qatar, have sought to chart a middle course that keeps them out of the firing line of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

For the time being, Saudi Arabia is likely to successfully fend off challenges to its leadership of the Muslim world.

However, responding viscerally to criticism like in the case of non-Muslim Canada or, more importantly, two years ago to Muslim leaders who excluded Wahhabism and Salafism, the religious worldview that underpins the Al Sauds’ rule, from their definition of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah or the Sunni people, is unlikely to cut ice in the longer term.

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

Saturday, August 11, 2018

NBN Book Review Podcast of With Us and Against Us by Stephen Tankel

STEPHEN TANKEL
With Us and Against Us
How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS 2018

new books network podcast by james m. dorsey

10 August 2018


With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror (Columbia University Press, 2018) offers readers a fresh, insightful and new perspective on US counterterrorism cooperation with complex countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen and Mali. These US partners work with the United States to defeat militant groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Yet, they often are both firefighters and arsonists because they frequently simultaneously support groups that engage in political violence and/or pursue policies likely to produce a new generation of militants. US partners, moreover, at times adhere to worldviews that potentially create breeding grounds for extremism. Drawing on his extensive scholarship as well as his experience as a senior advisor to the US Department of Defense during the Obama administration, assistant professor Stephen Tankel takes the reader on a well-written, highly readable tour of the complexities and pitfalls of cooperation on counterterrorism in a post-Cold War world. Tankel unravels a minefield populated by unrealistic US expectations, an over-reliance on military tools, and lack of understanding of threat perceptions among America’s partners as well as the differing priorities that US partners have. In doing so, Tankel contributes to both the study of political violence and the far broader contexts that nourish it and the continuous debate among policymakers and pundits on how to counter it.



James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.


Friday, August 10, 2018

Saudi Arabia and Iran woo incoming Pakistani prime minister


Credit: MPC Journal

By James M. Dorsey

An offer by a Saudi-backed bank to lend financially strapped Pakistan US$4 billion is likely intended to bolster Saudi influence when former international cricket player Imran Khan is sworn in in the coming week as the South Asian country’s next prime minister.

The offer was most immediately related to a statement by Asad Umar, Pakistan’s new finance minister-in-waiting, that Pakistan would decide on whether to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or friendly nations such as China and Saudi Arabia by the end of September.

Pakistan reportedly is looking to possibly ask the IMF for a US$12 billion bailout package. The country’s foreign exchange reserves have plummeted over the past year. Chinese loans have so far kept Pakistan afloat.  Pakistan’s currency, the rupee, has been devalued four times since December and lost almost a quarter of its value.

It was unclear whether the loan by the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank (IDB) would be in addition to IDB’s activation in late July of a three-year US$4.5-billion oil financing facility for Pakistan intended to stabilize the rupee-dollar exchange rate in the interbank market that has largely remained under pressure. The International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC), an IDB subsidiary, at the same time rolled over a loan to Pakistan of $100 million.

Nonetheless, the offer even before Mr. Khan takes office, is also related to Saudi uncertainty over what his rise to power means geopolitically for the kingdom’s bitter rivalry with Iran, Pakistan’s neighbour.

A populist, Mr. Khan appears to be something of an enigma when it comes to Saudi Arabia, a close ally, and Iran. Saudi Arabia likely takes heart from the fact that Mr. Khan appears to be socially a conservative.

But in terms of Iran, Mr. Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the most votes in July 25 elections, has suggested that he may adopt a more independent course.

In a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Mr. Khan this week accepted an invitation to visit Tehran. Mehdi Honardoost, Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan, was among the first diplomats Mr. Khan met after his election victory.

Mr. Khan met days earlier separately with Saudi ambassador to Pakistan Nawaf bin Said Al-Malki. Mr. Al-Malki said Saudi Crown Prince intended to visit Pakistan soon in a bid to strengthen bilateral relationship.

In a post-election televised speech Mr. Khan made a point of discussing his country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“We want to improve ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia is a friend who has always stood by us in difficult times. Our aim will be that whatever we can do for conciliation in the Middle East, we want to play that role. Those tensions, that fight, between neighbours, we will try to bring them together," Mr. Khan said.

The prime minister noted in separate remarks that “if any country needs peace right now, then it is Pakistan… (Saudi Arabia) has stood by us in our toughest times. We would like to be a reconciliatory state and help them resolve their inner tensions.”

Saudi Arabia has so far given no indication that it is interested in mediated efforts or a negotiated resolution of its dispute with Iran. If anything, Saudi Arabia has welcomed US President Donald J. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme and his efforts to economically strangle the Islamic republic with harsh sanctions.

Saudi Arabia has also created building blocks in Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province to stir unrest among Iran’s ethnic groups should it opt for a more aggressive anti-Iranian strategy

In a sign that Mr. Khan’s room to manoeuvre may be limited, Pakistan’s military earlier this year agreed to send troops to Saudi Arabia on a “training and advise mission” that would according to a military statement, not expand beyond the kingdom’s borders. Pakistan’s parliament rejected in 2015 a Saudi request that it authorize Pakistani troops to participate in its troubled military campaign in Yemen.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is likely to be concerned about the possible appointment as defense minister of Shirin Mazari, a controversial academic, who last year criticized in a series of tweets the fact that Pakistani general Raheel Sharif commands the 41-nation, Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).

Earlier, Ms. Mazari asserted that Pakistan should not cooperate in Saudi Arabia’s alleged pursuit of a US agenda and should instead forge ties to Iran and India.

“US always speak about promoting democracy but it supports an entirely different policy in the Middle East. We should review our foreign policy as Saudi Arabia is acting on a specific agenda. Pakistan should not become party in this agenda and we should establish cordial relations with all neighbours like India, Iran and Afghanistan,” Ms. Mazari said.

Ironically, controversy about Ms. Mazari focused on her advocacy two decades ago of nuclear strikes on Indian population centres in the event of a war between the two countries. Mr. Khan has suggested that he was willing to go the extra mile to improve relations with India.

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


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Multiple diplomatic spats raise questions about Saudi concept of sovereignty



By James M. Dorsey

The failure of Western allies to rally around Canada in its dispute with Saudi Arabia risks luring the kingdom into a false belief that economic sanctions will shield it from, if not reverse mounting criticism of its human rights record and conduct of the war in Yemen. It also risks convincing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that acting with impunity will not impinge on his efforts to attract badly needed foreign investment.

In a sign of the times, Canada was this week not the only country to take a critical approach towards Saudi Arabia. Weeks after announcing the withdrawal of Malaysian troops from the 41-nation, Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), Malaysian defense minister Mohamad Sabu ordered the immediate closure of the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP).

The Saudi-funded centre was established during a visit to Malaysia last year by King Salman to project the kingdom as a leader in the fight against political violence and the promotion of peace. The establishment of the centre constituted a shift in Saudi Arabia’s soft power strategy that for decades was premised on generous global funding of ultra-conservative strands of Sunni Muslim Islam.

The centre would have also helped extend Saudi influence in Southeast Asia by bringing together Islamic scholars and intelligence agencies in an effort to counter extremist interpretations of Islam in cooperation with the Saudi-funded Islamic Science University of Malaysia, and the Muslim World League, a Saudi governmental non-governmental organization that long served as a vehicle for global propagation of ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi-Canadian spat erupted after Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom, Dennis Horak, called on Saudi Arabia to release detained women activists, including Samar Badawi, the sister-in-law of a recently naturalized Canadian citizen, Ensaf Haidar. Ms. Haidar is married to Ms. Badawi’s brother, Raif Badawi, who was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for promoting freedom of expression and women’s rights.

The spat follows similar incidents with Sweden in 2015 and Germany in November of last year and is not dissimilar to approaches adopted by other autocracies like China which has responded similarly on issues such as Taiwan, the South China Sea and the deployment of a US anti-missile system on the Korean peninsula.

Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Sweden after Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström criticized the kingdom’s human rights record, including the sentencing and flogging of Mr. Badawi, and cancelled an arms agreement.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador in response to German criticism of the kingdom’s attempt to interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs by putting Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri under house arrest and forcing him to resign. The Saudi attempt backfired, and Mr. Hariri later withdrew his resignation.

In an indication that Saudi Arabia’s intimidation tactics may be boomeranging, Germany in January said it was "immediately" stopping approving arms exports to anyone participating in the war in Yemen, including Saudi Arabia.

The Hariri incident as well as Saudi lobbying against US President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, President Donald J. Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and what veteran Middle East journalist Brian Whitaker described as “hurling abuse at Qatar” puts Saudi complaints about interference in its internal affairs on thin ice.

In an editorial, The New York Times noted that the Saudi measures against Canada were “the kind of move that, in the past, would have immediately elicited a firm, unified opposition from the West. So far, there’s hardly been even a whimper of protest.”

The paper went on to say that “it’s not unusual for countries to balk at external criticism. But this Saudi retribution is unnecessarily aggressive and clearly intended to intimidate critics into silence… The Saudis claim that the Canadian statement is ‘an overt and blatant interference’ in its internal affairs, but that argument is specious… Under Prince Mohammed, the Saudis have…not been shy about speaking out about, or directly intervening in, the affairs of other countries, including Yemen, Bahrain and Qatar.”

In effect, the Saudi attempt to bully governments into refraining from criticism constitutes an attempt to curtail the sovereignty of others by dictating to them what they can and cannot say.

To the kingdom’s detriment, it also blows incidents out of proportion that otherwise would have likely gone unnoticed. Few would have taken note of Mr. Horak’s comment on Twitter had Saudi Arabia not put a glaring spotlight on them.

As a result, Saudi Arabia’s harsh Saudi response to the Canadian ambassador’s remarks, like earlier arbitrary arrests in the last year of hundreds of activists, religious figures, and prominent businessmen and senior members of the ruling Al Saud family on a host of charges ranging from treason to corruption and apostasy, threatens to further undermine investor confidence in the kingdom’s adherence to the rule of law.

The Saudi assertion that Canada had interfered in its internal affairs ignores the kingdom’s legal obligations as a signatory to various international human rights treaties that override national sovereignty as well as its role in the United Nations Human Rights Council that operates on the principle of governments monitoring and criticizing each other’s human rights record.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who last year went into voluntary exile in the United States despite being critically supportive of Prince Mohammed’s social and economic reforms and having close, long-standing ties to the Al Saud family, warned that Saudi Arabia was in effect cutting off its nose to spite itself.

“Saudi Arabia simply cannot afford to alienate any other sections of the global community in the midst of its unpopular military engagement in Yemen… Most importantly, Saudi Arabia's economic transformation requires more friends than enemies. For MBS to achieve the economic and transformative vision that he espoused on his foreign tour, he needs to use ways and means that investors are accustomed to. If business executives fear a backlash over any possible criticism regarding their investment, the new vision of Saudi Arabia would be in serious jeopardy,” Mr. Khashoggi said referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

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

Monday, August 6, 2018

Trouble in Sport Paradise: Can Qatar Overcome the Diplomatic Crisis?



By James M. Dorsey The crisis in the Gulf pitting a United Arab Emirates -Saudi -led alliance against Qatar is the least of the country’s problems as it prepares for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Indeed, Gulf States, primarily the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have long sought to discredit Qatar as a host prior to the UAE/Saudi Arabian declaration of a diplomatic and economic boycott in June 2017, yet Qatar has proven capable of addressing potential disruptions. However, the closer we come to the start of the tournament with the boycott still in place, the more difficult it will become for the boycotting states to include the World Cup in their embargo without provoking the ire of fans, attracting negative media coverage, and feeling pressured to concede.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Can the US make Iran sanctions stick?


Credit: Faezeh Foroutan

By James M. Dorsey

Recent Iranian trade figures suggest that the United Arab Emirates, a strong backer of US efforts to squeeze Iran economically, could emerge alongside China as the Islamic republic’s foremost lifeline in seeking to blunt the impact of harsh sanctions. Russia and Oman rather than Europe are emerging as runners-up in possibly enabling Iran to circumvent sanctions.

Casting further doubt on Europe’s ability and will to stand-up to US secondary sanctions, despite its vocal support for the embattled 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, are new German financial rules scheduled to take effect this month. The rules could delay or prevent crisis-ridden Iran from repatriating Euros 300 million (US$347 million) deposited in an Iranian-controlled bank in Hamburg.

Figures for Iranian trade in the period from 21 March to 22 July of this year, compiled by Iranian energy and economics analyst Faezeh Foroutan, show China and the UAE jointly accounting for 39.8 percent of Iranian imports and 37.8 percent of its exports. By comparison, nine members of the European Union, including heavyweights Germany, France and Britain shouldered only 15.5 percent of imports and 7.93 percent of exports.

Iranian leaders have said that the future of the nuclear agreement, officially dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in the wake of the US withdrawal would depend on the ability of Europe, China and Russia to ensure that the impact of US sanctions would be substantially blunted.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insisted earlier this week that China’s role was key. "The role of China in the implementation of JCPOA, in achieving JCPOA, and now in sustaining JCPOA, will be pivotal," Mr. Zarif said.

China, a signatory to the nuclear agreement alongside Europe, Russia and the United States that withdrew from the accord in May, has rejected US requests to cut Iranian oil exports even it reportedly promised not to increase them. China is Iran’s top energy export market.

China’s refusal to cut back on Iranian oil purchases threatens to render the Trump administration’s goal of reducing Iranian exports to zero unachievable and means that its November 4 deadline to do so is unrealistic.

Acting out of self-interest, China, moreover, appeared to be willing to strengthen the Islamic republic in other ways, including by supporting militarily the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in its quest to gain control of Syria’s last major rebel stronghold in the northern region of Idlib.

Speaking to Syrian pro-government daily Al-Watan, China’s ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, said that China was 'following the situation in Syria, in particular after the victory in southern (Syria), and its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.” The ambassador was referring to recent Syrian victories against rebel forces in southern Syria and on the Golan Heights.

Chinese participation in a campaign in Idlib, the dumping ground for rebels evacuated from elsewhere in Syria, including Uyghur fighters from the north-western province of Xinjiang, would be China’s fist major engagement in foreign battle in decades. China worries that Uyghur fighters may want to return to Xinjiang.

The UAE’s potential role in helping Iran deflect US sanctions may not be surprising given the fact that Dubai has long functioned as a key transhipment point for Iran with trade in the year ending at the end of March topping US$16.8 billion but is notable given Emirati backing for the US sanctions.

Iran, nonetheless, in response to a series of UAE measures against Iranian financial networks, has sought to shift its export hubs to Qatar and Oman and strengthen economic ties  with Russia.

The UAE “has been Iran’s no. 1 trade partners for years. The point is the growing role of Russia and Oman,” Ms. Foroutan said, expressing doubt that Oman could replace the UAE in the short term.

Russia advised Iran during a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that his country was willing to invest US$ 50 billion in the Islamic republic’s oil and gas sector. The two men met days before Mr. Putin’s summit last month in Helsinki with president Donald J, Trump.

Mr. Velayati said a Russian oil company had already signed a US$4 billion deal with Iran that “will be implemented soon” and that “two other major Russian oil companies, Rosneft and Gazprom, have started talks with Iran’s oil ministry to sign contracts worth up to US$10 billion.”

Iran and Russia signed preliminary agreements for up to US$30 billion in investments in Iran’s oil industry months before the Trump administration said it would re-impose sanctions.

Europe’s ability and willingness to play its part in salvaging the nuclear deal was called into question by the new German financial rules and could depend on whether the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) bows to US threats if it fails to exclude by November Iranian banks from its global financial transfer system.

European officials suggest that a SWIFT concurrence with US sanctions would put to bed any hope of salvaging the nuclear deal. Europe appears, however, to be banking on the fact that the US may not follow through on its threats, at least not against the society as such, because that would undermine the global financial system that empowers it.

However, the new German central bank rules that create additional powers to block transactions if their execution could threaten “to end important relationships with central banks and financial institutions of third countries” appear to constitute a nod towards the US sanctions.

Coming into effect on August 25, the rules could allow the bank to reject an Iranian request that it authorize the withdrawal of U$S300 million from the Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank AG, a Hamburg-based financial institution owned by Iranian banks, including state-owned Bank of Industry and Mine. Iran wants to physically ship the money to Tehran to evade potential US efforts to block a transfer.

Iranian officials told the German government that the foreign currency was needed to enable Iranians who travel abroad but don’t have acceptable credit cards because of sanctions to be able to pay their travel expenses.

US and Israeli officials pressured Germany to block the withdrawal, arguing that Iran might use the funds to finance operations in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan. Said controversial US ambassador to Germany Richard A. Grenell: “We are very concerned about the reports that the Iranian regime is trying to move hundreds of millions of euros to Iran from a German bank.”

It’s a concern Germany seemingly shares. A German decision to block the transfer of the funds would however influence Iranian perceptions of Europe’s resolve. That in turn would focus attention on Iran’s major trading partners. China and Russia have been relatively clear where they stand while the UAE may find it more difficult to evade measures that would severely curb what has long been a lucrative business.

An oped in the Khaleej Times, the UAE’s oldest English-language newspaper that was co-founded the UAE government, published days before the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement argued nonetheless that the UAE would gain whether or not sanctions were re-imposed.

“The UAE could gain from sanctions because it has previously served as a valuable intermediary during similar periods. Goods that could not be sold to Iran directly due to sanctions were routed through the UAE,” the oped said.

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

Friday, August 3, 2018

Big power competition in the Eastern Mediterranean: Is Trump missing the point?



By James M. Dorsey

A Trump administration decision to sanction two key Turkish officials in retaliation for the continued detention of an American cleric coupled with unqualified support for Israel and the adoption of a backseat in Syria threatens to further undermine US influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, a key part of the world in which Russia, Iran, China and an increasingly anti-American, Eurasia-focused Turkey are gaining the upper hand.

Crisis in Europe, spurred in part by the Eastern Mediterranean’s export of millions fleeing civil war in Syria, highlights the risks inherent to US abandonment of the region and single-minded focus on support of Israel.

The risks are magnified by the fact that the region remains a jihadist heartland and a playground in the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional hegemony. Potential instability is enhanced by Israel’s determination to deprive Iran of a permanent military presence in Syria and unresolved Palestinian and Kurdish national aspirations.

“The United States needs a holistic and integrated approach towards the Eastern Mediterranean that will stabilize Europe and shift the regional balance in the Middle East back towards the United States. Resolving the Syrian conflict is essential for Eastern Mediterranean stabilization, and developing an appropriate policy approach toward an increasingly antagonistic and anti-democratic Turkey is the key to solving the Syria puzzle and re-anchoring the region toward the Euro-Atlantic community,” said a report published this week by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

If the sanctioning of the Turkish ministers of justice and interior in response to the two year-long detention of pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of supporting Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, whom Turkey holds responsible for the failed 2016 military coup, is any indication, the Trump administration is in no mood to engage constructively in a bid to reverse its diminished influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The administration, adding insult to injury, announced the sanctions on the same day that the Senate approved a defense bill that prohibits the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey until the Pentagon reports on the state of Turkish-US relations, including the impact of Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system.

Spinning the US actions as part of a conspiracy to undermine Turkey’s economy at a time that the Turkish lira has dropped dramatically against the dollar, pro-government media pronounced Turkey’s alliance with the United States dead and called for an end to US access to the Incerlik air base in the southeast of the country.

Vowing to take retaliatory action, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish foreign ministry adopted both a defiant and hurt tone in their response to the US sanctions imposed at a time that Turkish-Russian relations face an uncertain future.

In the short term, the sanctions and increasingly strained relationship with the United States make Turkey more dependent on Russia.

They also constitute an obstacle to the United States’ ability to exploit potential opportunities to shift the balance of power in the region in its favour.

Russian-Turkish interests are likely to diverge once Syria moves to regain control, of Idlib, the dumping ground for rebels and jihadists, including those that hail from the Caucasus and Central Asia, evacuated from areas elsewhere retaken by Syrian military forces.

Russia has been seeking to stave off a Syrian military offensive that would create yet another humanitarian crisis by attempting to negotiate a solution with Turkey and rebel groups.

Idlib is but one potential flashpoint in Turkish-Russian relations. Both Russia and Syria see the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a militia viewed by Turkey as a terrorist extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as important to resolving Idlib. YPG representatives have been travelling to Moscow, where the grouo was allowed to open an office in 2016.

Syrian Kurdish representatives have met in recent weeks with the government of president Bashar al-Assad to negotiate the future of Kurdish areas that Turkey wants to wrest from Kurdish nationalist control. They reportedly reached agreement on sharing oil revenues from two Kurdish-operated oil fields.

Recent remarks by Russia’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, did little to ease Turkish concerns.

“The Kurds will take part in the Syrian Constitutional Committee anyway. Their representatives will be included in every faction: opposition groups, the government’s delegation and civil society. We ask everyone to abstain from dividing the Kurds into pro-Turkish, pro-Russian or PYD and YPG categories, the latter of which is viewed negatively in Ankara,” Mr. Lavrentiev said referring to the political wing of the YPG, the Democratic Union Party, by its initials PYD.

A Russian-backed resolution of a three-decade-old dispute over the rights of Caspian Sea littoral states – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- set to be signed on August 12 paves the way for construction of an oil pipeline to Europe that could undermine Turkish hopes of becoming an alternative energy corridor that bypasses Russia.

Moreover, Russia this month began delivering arms to Armenia, whose borders with Turkey and Iran are guarded by Russian troops against the backdrop of reports that Turkey was planning to establish a military base in Nakhichevan, a landlocked autonomous region that is separated from Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenian territory.

Russian officials fear that Turkish and Azerbaijani military moves in Nakhichevan could fuel Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In its report, CSIS argued that the United States has a strategic interest in reasserting itself in the Eastern Mediterranean as a means of preserving European unity and security; stabilizing the Middle East; countering projection of power by Russia, Iran and China, and confronting challenges by numerous non-state actors.

Describing the Eastern Mediterranean as a theatre of big power competition that threatens US and trans-Atlantic interests, the report, maps out a detailed strategy for US re-engagement.

The United States, “must make hard choices and embrace realistic goals, however unattractive, to reinvigorate US diplomatic, economic and security engagement in the region. This will involve addressing and reconciling seemingly incompatible US policies towards Syria and Turkey that can only be bridged through active created and sustained diplomacy backed by ongoing military engagement,” the report said.

The US sanctioning of the Turkish ministers suggests that the mood in the Trump administration is a far cry from the kind of approach the report envisions.

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