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


Saturday, September 29, 2018

Fragility of Middle East alliances becomes ever more apparent



By James M. Dorsey

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

Three recent developments lay bare the fragility of Middle Eastern alliances and a rebalancing of their priorities: the Russian-Turkish compromise on an assault on the rebel-held Syrian region of Idlib, the fate of troubled Abu Dhabi airline Ettihad, and battles over reconstruction of Syria.

These developments highlight the fact that competition among Middle Eastern rivals and ultimate power within the region’s various alliances is increasingly as much economic and commercial as it is military and geopolitical. Battles are fought as much on geopolitical fronts as they are on economic and cultural battlefields such as soccer.

As a result, the fault lines of various alliances across the greater Middle East, a region that stretches from North Africa to north-western China, are coming to the fore.

The cracks may be most apparent in the Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance but lurk in the background of Gulf cooperation with Israel in confronting Iran as well as the unified front put forward by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Russia, prevented, at least for now, a rupture with Turkey, by delaying an all-out attack on Idlib despite Iranian advocacy of an offensive. Turkey, already home to three million Syrians, feared that a Syrian-Russian assault, would push hundreds of thousands, if not millions more across its border.

If Iran was the weakest link in the debate about Idlib, it stands stronger in its coming competition with Russia for the spoils of reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria.

Similarly, Russia appears to be ambivalent towards a continued Iranian military presence in post-war Syria, a potential flashpoint given Israel’s opposition and Israeli attacks that led earlier this month to the downing of a Russian aircraft.

By the same token, Turkey, despite its backing of Qatar in its 15-month-old dispute with a Saudi-UAE-led alliance that is boycotting the Gulf state diplomatically and economically, poses perhaps the greatest challenge to Qatari efforts to project itself globally by operating one of the world’s best airlines and positioning itself as a sports hub.

Turkey, despite its failure this week to win the right to host Euro 2024 and its lack of the Gulf’s financial muscle, competes favourably on every other front with Qatar as well as the UAE that too is seeking to project itself through soft as well as hard power and opposes Mr. Erdogan because of his Islamist leanings, ties to Iran, and support of Qatar. Turkey wins hands down against the small Gulf states when it comes to size, population, location, industrial base, military might, and sports performance.

That, coupled with a determination to undermine Qatar, was likely one reason, why the UAE’s major carriers, Emirates and Etihad that is troubled by a failed business model, have, despite official denials, been quietly discussing a potential merger that would create the world’s largest airline.

Countering competition from Turkish Airlines that outflanks both UAE carriers with 309 passenger planes that service 302 destinations in 120 countries may well have been another reason. Emirates, the larger of the two Emirati carriers, has, a fleet of 256 aircraft flying to 150 destinations in 80 countries.

These recent developments suggest that alliances, particularly the one that groups Russia, Turkey and Iran, are brittle and transactional, geared towards capitalizing on immediate common interests rather than shared long-term goals, let alone values.

That is true even if Russia and Turkey increasingly find common ground in concepts of Eurasianism. It also applies to Turkey and Qatar who both support Islamist groups as well as to Saudi Arabia and the UAE who closely coordinate policies but see their different goals put on display in Yemen.

The fragility of the alliances is further underwritten by Turkish, Russian and Iranian aspirations of resurrecting empire in a 21st century mould and a Saudi quest for regional dominance.

Notions of empire have informed policies long before realignment across Eurasia as a result of the focus of the United States shifting from the Middle East to Asia, the rise of China. increasingly strained relations between the West and Russia, and the greater assertiveness of Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran.

Then president Suleyman Demirel told this author already in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent, mostly ethnically Turkic Central Asian republics that “Turkey’s world stretches from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China.”

In a world in which globalization is shaped by geopolitical zones rather than individual countries, Russia’s imperative is to be a region by defining itself as an Asian rather than a European power that would be on par with China, the European Union, and a US zone of influence.

“Putin does not think along national lines. He thinks in terms of larger blocks, and, ultimately in terms of the world order,” said former Portuguese minister for Europe, Bruno Macaes in a recently published book, The Dawn of Eurasia.

In doing so, Russia is effectively turning its back on Europe as it reinvents itself as an Asian power on the basis of a Eurasianism, a century-old ideology that defines Russia as a Eurasian rather than a European power.

The Eurasian Economic Union, that groups Russia, Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia, is a vehicle that allows Russia to establish itself as a block in the borderland between Europe and Asia.

Similarly, Eurasianism has gained currency in Turkey with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who enabled by the demise of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of a Turkic world, projects his country as a crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia rather than a European bridge to Asia.

In that vein, Turkish columnist Sinan Baykent projected this week’s fence-mending visit to Germany by Mr. Erdogan and his proposal for a summit on Syria of Turkish, Russian, German and French leaders as a Eurasian approach to problem solving.

The meeting between Mr. Erdogan and German chancellor Angela Merkel was meant “to pave the way for a Eurasian solution for the region… There is a new axis forming today between Berlin, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran and maybe Paris… All of these countries are fed up with American unilateralism and excessive policies displayed by the Trump administration.,” Mr. Baykent said.

If Turkey and Russia’s vision of their place in the world is defined to a large extent by geography, Iran’s topology dictates a more inward-looking view despite accusations that it is seeking to establish itself as the Middle East’s hegemon.

Iran is a fortress. Surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the ocean, with a wasteland at its centre,” noted Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence platform. Gulf fears are rooted not only in deep-seated distrust of Iran’s Islamic regime, but also in the fact that the foundation of past Persian empire relied on control of plains in present-day Iraq.

As a result, the manoeuvring of Gulf states, in contrast to Turkey and Russia, is driven less by a conceptual framing of their place in the world and more by regional rivalry and regime survival. Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE walk a fine line focusing geopolitically on an increasingly unpredictable United States and economically on China and the rest of Asia, including Russia, Korea and Japan.

What the plight of Idlib, potential change in aviation and competition for reconstruction contracts highlight is the brittleness of Middle Eastern alliances that threatens to be reinforced by economics becoming an increasingly important factor alongside geopolitics.

“Stakes for all parties are starting to divert from each other in Syria and the prospects of cooperation with Russia and Iran are becoming more challenging,” said Turkish columnist Nuray Mert commenting on the situation in Idlib. Her analysis is as valid for Idlib as it for the prospects of many of the Middle East alliances.

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, September 27, 2018

China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom


JAMES M. DORSEY
China and the Middle East
Venturing into the Maelstrom
PALGRAVE MACMILLAN 2018

September 27, 2018 
By Ed Pulford




For all that China’s twenty-first-century ‘rise’ is a much-discussed notion both within the country and globally, it is an increasingly difficult concept to grasp or keep pace with. As a result, books which dissect and analyse developments from a regional perspective are of great value, particularly when they focus on widely-overlooked regions as James M. Dorsey‘s China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) does.
Exploring China’s growing and increasingly complex political, economic and security entanglements in the ‘Greater Middle East’ (a region whose extent and diversity is discussed in this podcast), Dorsey argues that this “key global crossroads” (p. 1) is already becoming an arena where Beijing is being forced to reappraise its international strategy and abandon long-cherished principles including ‘non-interference’. In a time of profound transition documented by Dorsey himself, such developments are likely to have implications of not just regional, but global significance.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Global watchdog takes Saudi Arabia to task for lax anti-terrorism finance measures



By James M. Dorsey


A Financial Action Task Force (FATF) report criticizing Saudi Arabia’s anti-money laundering and terrorism finance measures puts the kingdom on the spot 17 years after the 9/11 attacks and casts a shadow over its diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar on the grounds that the Gulf state supports militants.

In a nod to the kingdom, the international watchdog described as “understandable” the fact the kingdom’s “almost exclusive focus of authorities on domestic (terrorist financing) offences means the authorities are not prioritizing disruption of support for threats outside the kingdom.”

The 246-page report contrasted starkly with US President Donald J. Trump’s assessment expressed in his address to the United Nations general assembly. “Following my trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Gulf countries opened a new centre to target terrorist financing. They are enforcing new sanctions. They are working with us to identify and track terrorist networks and taking more responsibility for fighting terrorism and extremism in their own region, Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump, by design or default, did not take into account the flow of substantial amounts of Saudi money to militants in the Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders on Iran. Mounting indications suggest that the Islamic republic’s detractors may be moving to stir unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities in a bid to change the regime in Tehran.

The flow of funds leaves open the possibility that the kingdom’s laxity in cracking down on funds flowing to extremists beyond its frontiers may be deliberate.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia has been strengthening its anti-money laundering and terrorism finance regime ever since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in which the perpetrators were primarily Saudi nationals and Al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom itself in 2003 and 2004.

Writing in Forbes, journalist Dominic Dudley noted that the FATF report may not have taken into account new anti-money laundering and terrorism finance-related laws adopted last year by Saudi Arabia. “The new laws were coming in just as the FATF was conducting its research for this report and it is too soon to judge how effective they have been,” Mr. Dudley said.

Even so, it was only with the ascendancy to the throne of King Salman in 2015 and the rise of his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that the kingdom began to review its more than four decades long global funding of intolerant, anti-pluralistic, supremacist, ant-Shiite and anti-Iranian ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim groups and institutions.

While financing has been severely curtailed and funding vehicles like the Muslim World League have been refashioned to propagate moderation and inter-faith dialogue, the kingdom, as in the case of Balochistan, continues to support ultra-conservatives where it serves its geopolitical goals.

In what apparently reflected frustration with the kingdom’s progress in countering money laundering and terrorism, FATF did not mince its words in its report. “Saudi Arabia is not effectively investigating and prosecuting individuals involved in larger scale or professional (money laundering] activity” and is “not effectively confiscating the proceeds of crime,” the report said.

FATF suggested that the problem was the kingdom’s implementation of anti-money laundering and terrorism finance measures rather than its legal infrastructure.  “Saudi Arabia has a legal framework that provides it with an adequate basis to investigate and prosecute ML (money laundering) activities… Saudi Arabia is not effectively investigating and prosecuting individuals involved in larger scale or professional ML activity. Investigations are often reactive rather than proactive, and tend to be straightforward and single layered.,” the report said.

The report’s wording left the possibility open that poor implementation was the result of either a lack of political will or the fact that there is widespread criticism of Prince Mohammed’s reforms within the bureaucracy and the kingdom’s religious establishment despite a crackdown on any form of dissent.

That possibility gains currency given the fact that FATF acknowledges that “Saudi Arabia has demonstrated an ability to respond to the dynamic terrorism threat it faces in country. Saudi Arabian authorities have demonstrated that they have the training, experience and willingness to pursue TF (terrorism finance) investigations in conjunction with and alongside terrorism cases.”

The report noted that Saudi Arabia seldom convicted funders of political violence who were not directly involved in attacks.  “This includes TF cases in relation to funds raised in the Saudi Arabia for support of individuals affiliated with terrorist entities outside the kingdom, particularly outside the Middle-East region, which remains a risk. Saudi Arabia’s overall strategy for fighting terrorist financing mainly focuses on using law enforcement measures to disrupt terrorist threats directed at the kingdom and its immediate vicinity,” the report said.

FATF’s criticism is embarrassing for a country that ever since the 9/11 attacks has been attempting to shed its image of having fuelled militancy, position itself as a leader in the struggle against militancy and extremism, and project itself as a 21st century knowledge hub by liberalizing its strict social and cultural norms, including the recent lifting of the ban on women’s driving.

It is also awkward because the report puts Saudi Arabia in the position of the pot calling the kettle black when it comes to the 15-month-old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led boycott of Qatar because it allegedly funds and supports militancy. Saudi Arabia’s failure to garner widespread international support for its boycott or force Qatar to concede heightens the awkwardness.

That is even more the case given that Saudi Arabia together with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt is demanding among other things that Qatar “consent to monthly compliance audits in the first year after agreeing to the demands, followed by quarterly audits in the second year, and annual audits in the following 10 years” – something the kingdom would be unlikely to accept if hypothetically asked in the wake of the FATF report to submit to a similar regime.

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 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Battling it out at the UN: Potholes overshadow US-Iran confrontation



By James M. Dorsey


It’s easy to dismiss Iranian denunciations of the United States and its Middle Eastern allies as part of the Islamic republic's long-standing rhetoric. The rhetoric makes it equally easy to understand American distrust.

But as President J. Trump and Hassan Rouhani, his Iranian counterpart, gear up for two days of diplomatic sabre rattling at the United Nations in advance of next month's imposition of a second round of harsh US sanctions, both men risk fuelling a conflict that could escalate out of hand.

Both are scheduled to address the UN general assembly on Tuesday and Mr. Trump is slated to chair a meeting on Wednesday of the Security Council expected to focus on Iran.

Adding to the likely drama at the UN, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, snubbed Mr. Trump, by announcing the creation of a payment system that would allow oil companies and businesses to continue trading with Iran despite US sanctions.

The risk of escalation is enhanced by the fact that Messrs. Trump and Rouhani are sending mixed messages.

Mr. Trump's administration insists that its confrontational approach is designed to alter Iranian behaviour and curb its policies, not topple its regime.

Yet, the administration stepped up its engagement with exile groups associated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Saudi-backed organization that calls for the violent overthrow of the government in Tehran and enjoys support among current and former Western officials, as Messrs. Trump and Rouhani battle it out at the UN.

John Bolton, who has repeatedly advocated regime change before becoming Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, is scheduled to give a keynote address at the United Against Nuclear Iran’s (UANI) annual summit during the UN assembly. So is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another hardliner on Iran.

Mr. Pompeo and Mr, Bolton, who has spoken in the past at events related to the Mujahedeen, had so far since coming to office refrained from addressing gatherings associated with opposition groups.

The administration left that to Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, who last weekend told the Iran Uprising Summit organized by the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, a Washington-based group associated with the Mujahedeen and attended by the exile’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, that US. sanctions were causing economic pain and could lead to a “successful revolution” in Iran.

“I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen,” Mr. Giuliani, said speaking on the day of an attack on a military march in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz that killed 25 people and wounded at least 70 others.

Messrs. Bolton, Pompeo and Giuliani’s hardline stems from US suspicions rooted in anti-American and anti-Western attitudes that are grafted in the Islamic republic's DNA and produced the 444-day occupation in 1979 of the US Embassy in Tehran. They are reinforced by the humiliation of a failed US military operation to rescue 66 Americans held hostages during the occupation.

Iranian rhetoric; bombastic threats against Israel; denial of the Holocaust, support for anti-American insurgents in Iraq, the brutal regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas in the Gaza Strip; propagation of religiously inspired republican government as an alternative to conservative monarchy in the Gulf; and degrees of duplicity regarding its nuclear program, reaffirm America's suspicion.

Iran's seemingly mirror image of the United States traces its roots further back to the 1953 US-supported overthrow of the nationalist government of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and his replacement by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi whom Washington staunchly supported till his fall in 1979.

Iranian concerns were reinforced by American backing of Iraq in the 1980s Gulf war, US support for Kurdish and Baloch insurgents, the broad spectrum of support of former and serving US officials for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, unequivocal Saudi signals of support for ethnic strife as a strategy to destabilize Iran, and Mr. Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program despite confirmation of its adherence to the accord.

Responses by the US and its Gulf allies as well as a series of statements by militant Iranian Arab groups, including the Ahvaz Resistance Movement, suspected of being responsible for this weekend's attack, have only deepened Iranian distrust.

Those statements included one by the Arab Liberation Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz effusively praising Saudi Arabia on its national day that the kingdom celebrated a day after the attack.

Yadollah Javani, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the target of the attack, vowed revenge for what he termed years of conspiracies against the Iranian revolution by its enemies.

Mr. Javani was referring to past US attempts to destabilize Iran and a four-decade long global Saudi campaign that included backing of Iraq in the Gulf war during the 1980s and an estimated $100 billion investment in support of anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim groups.

All of this means that mounting hostility between the United States and Iran is muddied as much by fact as by perception – a combustible mix that is easily exploitable by parties on both sides of the divide seeking to raise the ante.

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, September 23, 2018

Attack in Iran raises spectre of a potentially far larger conflagration



By James M. Dorsey


An attack on a military parade in the southern Iranian city of Ahwaz is likely to prompt Iranian retaliation against opposition groups at home and abroad. It also deepens Iranian fears that the United States. Saudi Arabia and others may seek to destabilize the country by instigating unrest among its ethnic minorities.

With competing claims of responsibility by the Islamic State and the Ahvaz National Resistance for the attack that killed 29 people and wounded 70 others in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which borders on Iraq and is home to Iran’s ethnic Arab community, it is hard to determine with certainty the affiliation of the four perpetrators, all of whom were killed in the incident.

Statements by Iranian officials, however, accusing the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, suggest that they see the Ahvaz group rather than the Islamic State as responsible for the incident, the worst since the Islamic State attacked the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in 2017.

Iran’s summoning, in the wake of the attack, of the ambassadors of Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark, countries from which Iranian opposition groups operate, comes at an awkward moment for Tehran.

It complicates Iranian efforts to ensure that European measures effectively neutralize potentially crippling US sanctions that are being imposed as a result of the US withdrawal in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

Ahvaz-related violence last year spilled on to the street of The Hague when unidentified gunmen killed Ahwazi activist Ahmad Mola Nissi. Mr. Nissi was shot dead days before he was scheduled to launch a Saudi-funded television station staffed with Saudi-trained personnel that would target Khuzestan, according to Ahvazi activists.

This week, a group of exile Iranian academics and political activists, led by The Hague-based social scientist Damon Golriz, announced the creation of a group that intends to campaign for a liberal democracy in Iran under the auspices of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted Shah of Iran who lives in the United States.

While Iran appears to be targeting exile groups in the wake of the Ahvaz attack, Iran itself has witnessed in recent years stepped up activity by various insurgent groups amid indications of Saudi support, leading to repeated clashes and interception of Kurdish, Baloch and other ethnic insurgents.

Last month, Azeri and Iranian Arab protests erupted in soccer stadiums while the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reported clashes with Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

State-run television warned  at the time 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 People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), a controversial exiled opposition group that enjoys the support of serving and former Western officials, including some in the Trump administration, as well as prominent Saudis such as Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief, who is believed to be close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has taken credit for a number of the protests in Khuzestan.

The incidents fit an emerging pattern, prompting suggestions that if a Gulf-backed group was responsible for this weekend’s attack, it may have been designed to provoke a more direct confrontation between Iran and the United States.

“If the terrorist attack in Ahvaz was part of a larger Saudi and UAE escalation in Iran, their goal is likely to goad Iran to retaliate and then use Tehran’s reaction to spark a larger war and force the US to enter since Riyadh and Abu Dhabi likely cannot take on Iran militarily alone… If so, the terrorist attack is as much about trapping Iran into war as it is to trap the US into a war of choice,” said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

Iran appears with its response to the Ahvaz attack to be saying that its fears of US and Saudi destabilization efforts are becoming reality. The Iranian view is not wholly unfounded.

Speaking in a private capacity on the same day as the attack in Ahvaz, US President Donald J. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, declared that US. sanctions were causing economic pain that could lead to a “successful revolution” in Iran.

“I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen,” Mr. Giuliani told an audience gathered in New York for an Iran Uprising Summit organized by the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, a Washington-based group associated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.

Mr. Giuliani is together with John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, a long-standing supporter of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq that calls for the violent overthrow of the Iranian regime.

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 Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan and Baloch in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Balochistan province.

The Trump administration has officially shied away from formally endorsing the goal of toppling the regime in Tehran. Mr. Bolton, since becoming national security advisor, has insisted that US policy was to put "unprecedented pressure" on Iran to change its behaviour”, not its regime.

Messrs. Bolton and Giuliani’s inclination towards regime change is, however, shared by several US allies in the Middle East, and circumstantial evidence suggests that their views may be seeping into US policy moves without it being officially acknowledged.

Moreover, Saudi support for confrontation with Iran precedes Mr. Trump’s coming to office but has intensified since, in part as a result of King Salman’s ascendance to the Saudi throne in 2015 and the rise of his son, Prince Mohammed.

Already a decade ago, Saudi Arabia’s then King Abdullah urged the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.

Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, Amal Al-Hazzani, an academic, asserted in an op-ed entitled “The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz“ that Khuzestan “is an Arab territory... Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925... It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective.”

More recently, Prince Mohammed vowed that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent UAE scholar, who is believed to be close to Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, played into Iranian assertions of Gulf involvement in this weekend’s attack by tweeting that it wasn’t a terrorist incident.

Mr. Abdulla suggested that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option” and that the number of such attacks “will increase during the next phase”.

A Saudi think tank, believed to be backed by Prince Mohammed last year called 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 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, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) last year appointed a seasoned covert operations officer as head of its Iran operations.

Said Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Khalid bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother: President “Trump makes clear that we will not approach Iran with the sort of appeasement policies that failed so miserably to halt Nazi Germany’s rise to power, or avert the costliest war ever waged.”

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 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Middle Eastern Black Swans dot China’s Belt and Road



By James M. Dorsey

Edited remarks at the RSIS Book Launch of China and the Middle East; Venturing into the Maelstrom (Palgrave 2018), 20 September 2018


If any one part of the world has forced China to throw its long-standing foreign and defense policy principles out the window and increasingly adopt attitudes associated with a global power, it is the greater Middle East, a region that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to north-western China, a swath of land populated by the Arab, Turkic and Persian worlds.

It was a series of incidents in 2011 during the popular Arab revolts that drove home the fact that China would not be able to protect with its existing foreign and defence policy kit its mushrooming Diaspora and exponentially expanding foreign investments that within a matter of a few years would be grouped as the infrastructure and connectivity-driven Belt and Road initiative linking the Eurasian landmass to the People’s Republic.

Policy principles of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, an economically-driven win-win approach as a sort of magic wand for problem solution, and no foreign military interventions or bases needed reinterpretation if not being dumped on the dustbin of history.

The incidents included China’s approach to the revolt in Libya as it was happening when it deviated from its policy of non-interference by establishing parallel relations with the opposition National Council. The outreach to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Qadhafi’s opponents did not save it from being identified with the ancien regime once the opposition gained power. On the contrary, the Council made clear that China would be low on the totem pole because of its past support for the Qadhafi regime.

The price for supporting autocratic rule in the greater Middle East meant that overseas Chinese nationals and assets became potential targets. To ensure the safety and security of its nationals in Libya, China was forced to evacuate 35,000 people, its most major foreign rescue operation. The evacuation was the first of similar operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The evacuations didn’t stop militants in Egypt’s Sinai from kidnapping 25 Chinese nationals and radicals in South Sudan from taking several Chinese hostages. The kidnappings sparked significant criticism on Chinese social media of the government’s seeming inability to protects its nationals and investments.

With Uyghurs from China’s strategic north-western province of Xinjiang joining militant jihadists in Syria and two Uyghur knife attacks in Xinjiang itself in the cities of Hotam and Kashgar, the limits of China’s traditional foreign and defense policy meshed with its increasingly repressive domestic approach towards the ethnic Turkic people.

Finally, the greater Middle East’s expectations were driven home in a brutal encounter between Arab businessmen and ethnic Chinese scholars and former officials in which the Arabs took the Chinese to task for wanting to benefit from Middle Eastern resources and trade relations without taking on political and geopolitical responsibilities they associated with a rising superpower.

Add to all of this that in subsequent years it was becoming increasingly difficult for China to remain on the sidelines of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts and rivalries. This was particularly true with President Donald J. Trump’s coming to office. 

The greater Middle East’s problems escalated with Mr. Trump’s abandonment of any pretence of impartiality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; his heating up of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran by withdrawing from the 2015 international agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program; and his toying with attempting to change the regime in Tehran that encouraged Saudi Arabia to step up Saudi support for Pakistani militants in the province of Baluchistan; the likely return of Uyghur jihadists in Syria to Central and South Asia that has prompted the establishment of Chinese military outposts in Tajikistan and Afghanistan and consideration of direct military intervention in a possible Syrian-Russian assault on Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria; and finally the potential fallout of China’s brutal crackdown in Xinjiang.

Already, the events in 2011 and since coupled with the mushrooming of Belt and Road-related investments has led to the creation of the country’s first foreign military base in Djibouti and the likely establishment of similar facilities in its string of pearls, the network of ports in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

China’s potential policy dilemmas in the greater Middle East were enhanced by the fact that it doesn’t really have a Middle East policy that goes beyond its shaky, traditional foreign and defence policy principles and economics. That was evident when China in January 2016 on the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East, the first by a Chinese head of state in seven years, issued its first Middle East-related policy white paper that fundamentally contained no new thinking and amounted to a reiteration of a win-win-based approach to the region.

Moreover, with China dependent on the US security umbrella in the Gulf, Beijing sees itself as competitively cooperating with the United States in the Middle East. That is true despite the US-Chinese trade war; differences over the Iranian nuclear agreement which the United States has abandoned and China wants to salvage; and Mr. Trump’s partisan Middle East policy.

China shares with the United States in general and even more so with the Trump administration a fundamental policy principle: stability rather than equitable political reform. China’s principle of non-interference is little more than another label for the US equivalent of long-standing support of autocracy in the Middle East in a bid to maintain stability.

In some ways China is learning the lesson, despite recent developments in Xinjiang, that US President George W. Bush and Susan Rice, his national security advisor and subsequent secretary of state, learnt on 9/11. Within a matter of weeks after the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, Bush and Rice suggested that the United States was co-responsible for the attacks because of its support for autocracy that had fuelled anti-American and anti-Western sentiment. It was why Bush launched his ill-conceived democracy initiative.

China, as a result of its political, economic and commercial approach towards the Belt and Road, is starting to have a similar experience. Chinese overseas outposts and assets have become targets, particularly in Pakistan but also in Central Asia.

The kidnappings in 2011 in the Sinai and South Sudan were the beginning. Uyghurs joined groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda not because they were pan-Islamist jihadists but because they wanted to get experience they could later apply in militant struggle against the Chinese.

Beyond profiling themselves in fighting in Syria, Uyghurs have trained with Malhama Tactical, a jihadist for profit Blackwater, the private military company created by Erik Prince.
Anti-Chinese sentiment in countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan is on the rise.

Iranians are grateful for Chinese support not only in the current battle over the nuclear accord but also in the previous round of international and US sanctions. They feel however that last time round they were taken for a ride in terms of high Chinese interest rates for project finance, the quality of goods delivered, and a perceived Chinese laxity in adhering to deadlines.

Resentment of the fallout of the Belt and Road investment taps into the broader threat involved in supporting stability by backing autocratic regimes That is nowhere truer than in the greater Middle East, a region that is in a period of volatile, often bloody and brutal transition. It’s a transition that started with the 2011 Arab revolts and has been pro-longed by a powerful Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led counterrevolution. Transitions take anywhere from a quarter to half a century. In other words, the Middle East is just at the beginning.

China, like the United States did for decades, ignores the rumblings just below the surface even if the global trend is toward more authoritarian, more autocratic rule. 9/11 was the result of the United States and the West failing to put their ear to the ground and to take note of those rumblings.

Of course, current rumblings may never explode. But the lesson of the people’s power movement in the Philippines in 1986, the video in late 2010 of a fruit and vegetable vendor in Tunisia who set himself alight that sparked the Arab revolts, months of street and online protests in Morocco in the last year, the mass protests in Jordan earlier this year against a draft tax bill that have now restarted because of the legislation’s resurrection, and the current protests in the Iraqi city of Basra potentially are the writing on the wall.  All it takes is a black swan.

Said Financial Times columnist Jamil Anderlini:” China is at risk of inadvertently embarking on its own colonial adventure in Pakistan— the biggest recipient of BRI investment and once the East India Company’s old stamping ground… Pakistan is now virtually a client state of China. Many within the country worry openly that its reliance on Beijing is already turning it into a colony of its huge neighbour. The risks that the relationship could turn problematic are greatly increased by Beijing’s ignorance of how China is perceived abroad and its reluctance to study history through a non-ideological lens... It is easy to envisage a scenario in which militant attacks on Chinese projects overwhelm the Pakistani military and China decides to openly deploy the People’s Liberation Army to protect its people and assets. That is how ‘win-win’ investment projects can quickly become the foundations of empire.”

The Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang could just be a black swan on multiple fronts given the fact that its fallout is felt far beyond China’s borders. For starters, the wall of Western and Muslim silence is cracking with potentially serious consequences for China as well as the Islamic world.

What is happening in Xinjiang is fundamentally different from past incidents including protests against a novel by Salman Rushdie and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa ordering his killing; the 2006 Muslim boycott of Danish products because of controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, and the more recent protests sparked by the burning of a Qur’an by a Florida evangelist. The Chinese campaign in Xinjiang challenges fundamentals of the Islamic faith itself.

The earlier incidents were sparked by protests, primarily among South Asians in either Birmingham or Pakistan. This month has seen the first of Xinjiang-related anti-Chinese protests in Bangladesh and India. The first critical article on Xinjiang in the Pakistani press was published this week.

Malaysia is the first Muslim country to speak out with condemnations by a senior figure in Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s political party as well as the country’s likely next head of government, Anwar Ibrahim. 

Consideration in Washington of Xinjiang-related sanctions by the Trump administration, coupled with United Nations reporting on the crackdown and a German and Swedish ban on deportations of Uyghurs, puts the issue on the map and increases pressure on Muslim nations, particularly those like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan that claim to speak on behalf of Islam.

This together with the fact that Chinese support for autocratic or authoritarian rule creates a potential opportunity to export its model of the surveillance state, the most extreme example of which is on display in Xinjiang, constitutes risks and involves potential black swans. To be sure, Pakistan can hardly be described as a liberal society, but it is also not exactly an authoritarian state, yet Pakistan is China’s first export target. And others closer to home could follow.

If all of this is more than enough to digest, factor in the geopolitics of Eurasia, certainly as they relate to the greater Middle East. The Chinese-backed Russian-Iranian-Turkish alliance is brittle at best, witness differences over the possible battle for Idlib and the post-war presence of Iran in Syria.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, and to a lesser degree Israel are players in what is a 21st century Great Game. That is particularly true in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as Pakistan and as it relates to port diplomacy in Pakistan’s Gwadar and the Indian-backed Iranian port of Chabahar.

Add to this the fact that if Saudi Arabia is the world’s swing oil producer, Iran is Eurasia’s swing gas producer with the potential to co-shape the supercontinent’s future energy architecture.

And finally, there are multiple ways that China risks being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry not least if the United States and Saudi Arabia decide to take plans off the drawing board and initiate a campaign to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its Baloch, Kurdish, Iranian Arab and Azeri minorities.

The long and short of this is that the Great Game in Eurasia remains largely undecided and that change in China’s foreign and defense policy is already a fact. The question is how all of this will affect China and how potential obstacles on the Belt and Road will play out.

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, September 19, 2018

The Two-Trillion Bubble: What Aramco IPO reveals about MBS’s 2030 Vision


The Two-Trillion Bubble: What Aramco IPO reveals about MBS’s 2030 Vision

The disconnect between Saudi imperatives and the expectations of Western governments and financial markets who repeatedly focussed on unmet Saudi time indications of the Aramco IPO rather than broader policy statements fit a pattern of misperceptions.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018 08:26 GMT


A Saudi decision to indefinitely delay an initial public offering (IPO) of five percent of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company or Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, has further dented investor confidence and fuelled debate about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to push economic reform. It has even prompted speculation that his assertive policies, including the Kingdom’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen, harsh response to Canadian human rights criticism and failed Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, could dampen his prospects of eventually ascending the throne.


Read further on: http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2018/09/trillion-bubble-aramco-ipo-reveals-mbss-2030-vision-180918075517829.html

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

JMD on NBN: Saudi Inc. by Ellen R. Wald


ELLEN R. WALD
Saudi Inc.
The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Power and Profit
PEGASUS BOOKS 2018
September 17, 2018 James M. Dorsey



Ellen R. Wald’s timely, well-written history of the Saudi national oil company, Saudi Inc. The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Power and Profit (Pegasus Books, 2018), is as much the story of the Saudi oil industry as it is of the ruling Al Saud family’s reliance on black gold to ensure the survival of its regime. In painting a picture of the Al Saud’s long-term strategy to build up over decades the know-how and expertise needed to run an oil industry and their determination to ultimately after almost half a century take over ownership in a legal, orderly, commercial transaction, Wald contrasts the kingdom’s approach in colourful and painstaking detail with nationalisations as they occurred in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. It is also the story of a US government that increasingly saw Saudi oil as crucial to its post-World War Two global military operations and was determined to ensure that American oilmen, despite their arrogant underestimation of Saudis whom they saw as Bedouins and willingness to bend the truth to enhance their profit margins, were sufficiently accommodating to avoid British mistakes in Iran that resulted in nationalisation and a US-British backed coup to roll back the Iranian takeover. Wald’s book provides essential background for the role that the Saudi Arabian Oil Company better known as Aramco plays in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to ween the kingdom off its dependency on oil revenues and diversify its economy. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the kingdom’s future as one of the world’s foremost oil producers at a time of significant economic change.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies