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Friday, November 9, 2018

The Khashoggi crisis: Saudi Arabia braces for tougher post-election US attitude



By James M. Dorsey

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

Saudi Arabia is bracing itself for a potentially more strained relationship with the United States in the wake of Democrats gaining control of the House of Representatives in this week’s mid-term elections and mounting Turkish efforts to corner the kingdom in the Khashoggi crisis.

To counter possible US pressure, the kingdom is exploring opportunities to diversify its arms suppliers and build a domestic defense industry. It is also rallying the wagons at home with financial handouts and new development projects in a bid to bolster domestic support for crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Democrats’ election victory has strengthened Saudi concerns that the Trump administration may pressure the kingdom to back down on key issues like the Yemen war that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two and the 17-month old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar.

US officials have argued that Saudi policies complicate their efforts to isolate and economically cripple Iran.

The officials assert that the boycott of Qatar and the fallout of the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul constitute obstacles to the creation of a Sunni Muslim alliance against the Islamic republic, dubbed an Arab NATO, as well as the achievement of other US goals in the Middle East, including countering political violence and ensuring the free flow of oil.

Going a step further, senior Israelis say they have given up on the notion of a Sunni Muslim alliance whose interests would be aligned with those of the Jewish state and see their budding relations with Gulf states increasingly in transactional terms.
The Trump administration signalled its concerns even before the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.

“Our regional partners are increasingly competing and, in the case of the Qatar rift, entering into outright competition to the detriment of American interests and to the benefit of Iran, Russia and China,” National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in a letter late summer, according to Reuters.

With the House expected to be tougher on arms sales to the kingdom and possibly go as far as imposing an arms embargo because of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen caused by Saudi and UAE military operations, Saudi Arabia has wasted no time in casting around for alternative weapons suppliers.

In apparent recognition that the Saudi military, reliant on US and European arms acquisitions, would find it difficult to quickly shift to Russian or Chinese systems, Saudi Arabia appears for now to be focussing on alternative Western suppliers.

That could prove to be risky with anti-Saudi sentiment because of the Yemen war also running high in European parliaments and countries like Spain and Germany either teetering on the brink of sanctions or having toyed with restrictions on weapons sales to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia, nonetheless, has in recent days contracted Spanish shipbuilder Navantia to jointly build five corvettes for the Saudi navy and offered South African state-owned defense group Denel $1 billion to help the kingdom build a domestic defense industry.

The partnership with Denel would involve Saudi Arabia taking a minority stake in German defense contractor Rheinmetall, which designs armoured fighting vehicles and howitzers.

With sale of the US-made precision-guided munitions bogged down in Congress, Spain has stepped in to address Saudi Arabia’s immediate need. The question is however whether Spain can fully meet Saudi demand.

A US refusal already before the Gulf crisis and the Khashoggi incident to share with Saudi Arabia its most advanced drone technology, paved the way for Chinese agreement to open its first overseas defense production facility in the kingdom.

State-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) will manufacture its CH-4 Caihong, or Rainbow drone, as well as associated equipment in Saudi Arabia. The CH-4 is comparable to the US armed MQ-9 Reaper drone.

Saudi Arabia also fears that Democratic control of the House could strengthen opposition to a nuclear energy agreement with the kingdom. Five Republican senators called on President Donald J. Trump days before the mid-term election to suspend talks with Saudi Arabia.

Development of a defense industry would over time serve Prince Mohammed’s efforts to diversify the Saudi economy and create jobs.

So would  King Salman’s inauguration this week of 259 development projects worth US$6.13 billion ranging from tourism, electricity, environment, water, agriculture, housing, and transport to energy. King Salman launched the projects during a curtailed visit to Saudi provinces designed to bolster support for his regime as well as his son, Prince Mohammed

On the other hand, the government’s most recent decision to restore annual bonuses and allowances for civil servants and military personnel without linking them to performance constitutes an attempt to curry public favour that runs contrary to Prince Mohammed’s intention to streamline the bureaucracy and stimulate competition.

Bonuses were cut in 2016 as part of austerity measures. They were restored last year and linked in May to job performance.

In a further populist move, King Salman also pardoned prisoners serving time on financial charges and promised to pay the debts up to US$267,000 of each one of them.

King Salman’s moves appear designed to lessen Saudi dependence on US arms sales and project a united front against any attempt to implicate Prince Mohammed in the death of Mr. Khashoggi.

The moves come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that the order to kill the journalist came “from the highest levels of the Saudi government” and the Trump administration demands Saudi action against the perpetrators and those responsible for the murder.

Failure to be seen to be taking credible action may not undermine King Salman’s rallying of the wagons at home but will do little to weaken calls in Washington as well as European capitals for tougher action in a bid to force Saudi Arabia to come clean on the Khashoggi case and adopt a more conciliatory approach towards ending the Yemen war and resolving the Gulf crisis.

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, November 8, 2018

Strange bedfellows: Ideology trumps defense of ethnic, religious and minority rights



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

By James M. Dorsey

A global rise of nationalist and populist tendencies has not only given anti-migrant, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and racist tendencies a new lease on life, but opened the door to alliances between groups that once would have had nothing to do with one another.

Developments in Israel, Indonesia and Germany suggest renewed nationalism and populism is in some cases redefining how states perceive concepts of national interest and purpose and how religious and ethnic communities seek to shield themselves against discrimination, persecution and/or extremism.

The redefinition was no more evident than when Israel, founded as a safe haven for Jews irrespective of creed, sect or political belief, sided against its own ambassador with authoritarian Hungarian President Victor Orban, a proponent of Christianity rather than multi-culturalism as the glue of European society, in denouncing billionaire left-wing philanthropist George Soros, a survivor of the Holocaust.

In doing so, Israel, founded on the belief that Jews needed a state to shield themselves against discrimination and persecution rooted in anti-Semitic prejudice and racism that has been endemic in Christian culture, sided not only with a Christian nationalist leader in Hungary but with a global right-wing trend that sees Mr. Soros as the mastermind of a globalist movement, determined to subvert the established order and dilute the white, Christian nature of societies through immigration.

Israel’s acknowledgement of the redefinition of its raison d’etre came in response to a Facebook posting by Yossi Amrani, the Jewish state’s representative in Hungary. Responding to anti-immigration billboards depicting a smiling Mr. Soros with the slogan, ‘Let's not let Soros have the last laugh,’ Mr. Amrani, backed by Hungarian Jewish leaders, warned that they evoked "sad memories, but also sow hatred and fear."

Israel’s foreign ministry, days before a visit to Hungary by prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, rather than taking a firm stand on rising anti-Semitism, effectively defined the Jewish state’s interest as joining Mr. Orban in denouncing a Jew.

As a result, Israel, despite seeing itself as the fulfilment of  the Biblical prophecies of the Ingathering of the Exiles and the protector of Jewish rights, opted for denouncing a Jew together with a leader whose policies prompted the European parliament to pursue unprecedented disciplinary action against Hungary over alleged breaches of the European Union's core values, including minority rights.

“In no way was the (ambassador’s) statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself,” the ministry said.

The implicit message, like Israel’s decision to bar entry to its Jewish critics despite its law of return that grants anyone who is Jewish a right to citizenship, was that Israel rather than being the potential home of all Jews was a home only to those who support the government’s policies.

Mr. Netanyahu’s alignment of Israel with right-wing nationalist and populist forces like his support for ultra-orthodox Jewish groups that deny equal rights for less stringent religious trends in Judaism on issues such as marriage, divorce, conversion and prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, are likely to drive a wedge between the Jewish state and world Jewry, particularly in the United States.

The wedge, that puts Israel at odds with the Jewish Diaspora, could be deepened by this week’s Democratic Party success in regaining a majority in the US House of Representatives. Jews historically tend to vote Democratic in the US, a stark contrast with Mr. Netanyahu’s growing alliance with right-wing evangelists who support Israel because they believe the Messiah will only return to a Holy Land controlled by Jews.

Many evangelists, however, also believe that Jews will not be saved on the Day of Judgement without first converting to Christianity.

Israel’s divisive approach to World Jewry is not without its supporters in the Jewish Diaspora. Anti-Muslim and anti-migration sentiments have prompted some Jews to form their own group within Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party.

The notion that bigotry and prejudice are the best defense against rising anti-Semitism has meant that AfD Jews have little compunction about joining a party whose members favour abandoning Germany’s culture of remembrance and atonement for its Nazi past.


To be fair, the issue of rising prejudice and bigotry is not the exclusive perch of right-wing nationalist and populists. Britain’s Labour Party, traditionally a home for Jewish voters and activists, has been plagued by charges of anti-Semitism and reluctance to put its own house in order.

Moreover, the emergence of strange bedfellows in a world in which ideological affinity replaces defense of a community’s minority rights is not uniquely Israeli or Jewish.

Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Islamic movements with some 94 million members in Indonesia, in a bid to reform Islam and counter all political expressions of the faith, risks being tainted by its potential tactical association with Islamophobes and Christian fundamentalists who would project their alliance as Muslim justification of their perception of the evils of Islam.

Nahdlatul Ulama is not alone in the Muslim world’s opportunistic engagement with the Christian right.

Saudi rulers, who long aligned themselves with a supremacist, intolerant interpretation of Islam that viewed Christians as swine and Jews as apes have discovered that they share with evangelists and fundamentalist Christians, a significant voting bloc in the United States and part of President Donald J. Trump’s support base, conservative family values as well as political interests.

In a first, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, last week met with a delegation of US evangelists that included Reverend Johnnie Moore, Israel-based evangelical political strategist-turned-novelist Joel Rosenberg, former congresswoman Michele Bachmann; and prominent religious broadcasters.

The jury is out on whether the fallout of the rise of nationalism, populism and extremism heralds a new world in which bigotry and prejudice are legitimized as a defense strategy against discrimination, racism and persecution and an anti-dote to radicalism – a world that would likely prove to be far more divided and polarized and likely increasingly unsafe for minorities on the receiving end.

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, November 4, 2018

The Khashoggi crisis: Putting Humpty Dumpty back together



By James M. Dorsey

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

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and potential Western sanctions against Saudi Arabia has sparked renewed debate about the value of the longstanding alliance between the United States and the kingdom.

The debate is not limited to the US or the kingdom, both of which are assessing the reliability of the other even if that is a debate that is waged in Saudi Arabia behind close doors. It is also being discussed In Europe where like in the United States commercial and strategic interests are pitted against values.

And it is on the minds of Israeli leaders who increasingly have concluded that they need to temper expectations that Saudi Arabia would be able to lead a Sunni Muslim alliance in the Middle East capable of confronting Iran and countries like Turkey and Qatar viewed as Islamists akin to the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel increasingly looks at its relationships with Gulf states in transactional rather than strategic terms.

No one is contemplating a full rupture in relations, yet leaders on all sides of the divide realize that the Khashoggi crisis is a watershed that at the very least has fundamentally changed perceptions. Tempered expectations did not stop Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu from travelling to Oman last month, the first such visit in more than two decades, or his culture and sports minister, Mir Regev, from going to Abu Dhabi.

The crisis has consequences even for powers like Russia and China that are unconcerned about rights and other Western concepts of universal values but worry about the threat posed by ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam to their soft underbellies in the Caucasus and Xinjiang.

It calls into question Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to make good on the pledge to steer the kingdom towards an undefined form of ‘moderate Islam’ by cowing the kingdom’s religious establishment into submission and shaving off of the sharp ends of Wahhabism with actions such as lifting the ban on women’s driving.

Much like the United States has in the past two decades had to cope with the fallout of Saudi Arabia’s embrace of an ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, Russia and China, with their own history of militant attacks, will increasingly confront similar risks.

That is particularly true for China that has framed its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang in what amounts to an almost unprecedented assault Islam as a fight against extremism and political violence.

At the core of the Western debate about Saudi Arabia’s viability as a reliable ally are several myths, including the belief that Saudi leaders over the decades were reformers who needed to tread slowly and cautiously in changing norms in a deeply conservative society as well as the notion that Saudi Arabia propagated an austere, ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that threatened US interests.

A critic of Prince Mohammed, Georgetown University historian Abdullah Al-Arian last year combed through 70 years of New York Times reporting that repeatedly depicted Saudi leaders as reformers rather than conservative leaders who over the decades made unavoidable accommodations with modernity to fulfil their part of a social contract and ensure their own survival as leaders.

For sure, Saudi Arabia and the United States certainly never did and do not see eye to eye when it comes to values, particularly with regard to human rights and basic freedoms.

Yet, Saudi global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism often served US purposes as an anti-dote to communism during the Cold War, no more so than in Afghanistan in the 1980s when ultra-conservative militants forced the departure of Soviet troops and set the stage for the demise of communism or when the kingdom helped the Reagan administration circumvent a Congressional embargo on the sale of arms to the Contras in Nicaragua.

That convergence of Saudi and US interests was severely dented by the 9/11 attacks with 15 of the 19 perpetrators hailing from the kingdom even if both sides realized that they were interdependent. The jury is out on whether the Khashoggi crisis constitutes a significant setback to Saudi Arabia’s US-backed regional ambitions, and if so to what degree.

The discovery by Saudi rulers that they share conservative family values as well as political interests when it comes to President Donald J. Trump and Israel with evangelists and fundamentalist Christians, a significant voting block in the United States and part of Mr. Trump’s support base, is emerging as one route to counter perceptions of the kingdom’s moral standing having been undermined.

Saudi Arabia, to fudge the growing perception of a lack of shared values with the United States reflected in Saudi actions, particularly since the rise in 2015 of the Salmans, King Salman and his son, Prince Mohammed, has poured tens of millions of dollars into public diplomacy and lobbying in the United States.

As part of the effort, the Salmans have sought to project the kingdom as a beacon of religious harmony despite its discrimination of Shiites and long-standing history of prejudice against Jews and Christians.

To that end, they have redirected vehicles the kingdom once used to promote its austere, intolerant interpretation of the faith such as the World Muslim League, to advocate inter-faith harmony.

Working through the kingdom’s various lobbying groups in Washington and contracted US public relations and lobbying firms, the league last month, as the Khashoggi crisis erupted, organized a conference in New York attended by Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to discuss a cultural rapprochement between the United States and the Islamic world and countering extremism.

The league’s general secretary, Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, who in the past in line with ultra-conservative precepts denounced witchcraft defined as including, among other things astrology, the use of plants for medicine, palm-reading, and animal calling, has emerged as the kingdom’s prime spokesman on religious tolerance.

Mr.  Al-Issa has advocated tolerance and moderation, promoted dialogue, denounced violence against Israel and recognized the Holocaust, major steps for a country that once tailored its visa requirements to bar Jews from entry.

Mr. Al-Issa was last week present in a meeting between Prince Mohammed and US evangelical leaders close to Mr. Trump, including Reverend Johnnie Moore, Israel-based evangelical political strategist-turned-novelist Joel Rosenberg, former congresswoman Michele Bachmann; and prominent religious broadcasters.

The visit, despite evangelical denials had as much to do with US politics as it was about shared values. Reverend Pat Robertson, a key figure in evangelical circles, made that clear on his influential Christian Broadcasting Network.

Closely following Mr. Trump’s statements on the Khashoggi killing, Mr. Patterson went from warning days after the journalist’s disappearance that “you don’t blow up an international alliance over one person” to denouncing Prince Mohammed.

The message was that politics rather than shared values is likely to determine whether the Khashoggi killing constitutes a watershed or merely a blip in history.

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, November 1, 2018

Saudi Arabia and Iran: When it comes to exiles, the pot calls the kettle black



By James M. Dorsey

If Saudi Arabia is under pressure to give chapter and verse on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul, Iran risks straining relations with Europe at a time that it needs European support the most by targeting ethnic rights activists.

Mr. Khashoggi’s murder has focused attention on Saudi harassment and intimidation of dissidents as part of the kingdom’s effort to silence critical voices. The Saudi campaign had little geopolitical significance until Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

By contrast, Iran’s long history of targeting ethnic rights activists, including Iranians of Arab descent and Kurds, has long been rooted in the Islamic republic’s belief that they enjoy the support of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel in a bid to destabilize the country.

If Saudi Arabia has suffered severe reputational damage with the killing of Mr. Khashoggi and could face sanctioning for the first time in its history, Iran, long struggling to polish its tarnished image, could face sanctioning by Europe at a moment that it needs the Europeans the most.

In the latest Iranian incident, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and intelligence chief Finn Borch Andersen are calling for European Union sanctions after they discovered a plot to kill Danish residents associated with the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), an Iranian Arab group.

The plot, together with at least two other incidents in Europe in the last year, complicates European efforts to salvage a 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program after the United States withdrew from the deal and imposed crippling sanctions on Iran despite Iran’s denials of involvement.

The alleged Danish plot came to a head when authorities in late September closed bridges into Copenhagen and suspended train operations in connection with the case. Mr. Andersen said that Norway had since extradited to Denmark a Norwegian national of Iranian descent who was seen taking pictures of a the Danish home of an ASMLA leader.

ASMLA strives for independence of Iran’s south-eastern oil-rich province of Khuzestan that is home to Iran’s ethnic Arab community and borders on Iraq at the head of the Gulf.

Two other groups, the Islamic State and the Ahvaz National Resistance, claimed responsibility in September for an attack on a Revolutionary Guards parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz in which 29 people were killed and 70 others wounded.

Iranian officials blamed the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel for the attack.

Iran at the time summoned the ambassadors of the Netherlands, Denmark and Britain to protest the three countries’ hosting of Iranian ethnic rights militants.

The Danish plot followed the killing by unidentified gunmen in the Netherlands in November 2017 of Ahmad Mola Nissi, another ASMLA leader. Shot dead on a street in The Hague, Mr. Mola Nissi died the violent life he was alleged to have lived.

A 52-year-old refugee living in the Netherlands since 2005, was believed to have been responsible for attacks in Khuzestan in 2005, 2006 and 2013 on oil facilities, the office of the Khuzestan governor, other government offices, and banks.

Together with Habib Jaber al-Ahvazi also known as Abo Naheth, another ASMLA activist, Mr. Mola Nissi focussed in recent years on media activities and fund raising, at times creating footage of alleged attacks involving gas cylinder explosions to attract Saudi funding, according to Iranian activists.

Mr. Mola Nissi was killed as he was preparing to establish a television station backed by Saudi-trained personnel and funding that would target Khuzestan.

The Netherlands has emerged in recent years as a hub for Iranian activists alongside Britain.

A group of exile Iranian academics and political activists, led by The Hague-based social scientist Damon Golriz, announced in September 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.

Compounding the fallout of Iran’s targeting of activists, is last month’s expulsion by France of an Iranian diplomat accused of being part of a plot to bomb a rally in Paris organized by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a Saudi-backed Iranian exile group that calls for regime change in Tehran. The diplomat was among six people arrested for allegedly plotting the bombing.

The Mujahedeen enjoy the support of prominent Western politicians like US President Donald J. Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal. Mr. Giuliani addressed the targeted rally.



The Guardian reported that Saud al-Qahtani, Prince Mohammed’s menacing information czar who was one of several senior Saudi officials removed from office in the wake of the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, was among the station’s main funders.

“I can say that Iran International TV has turned into a platform … for ethnic partisanship and sectarianism,” The Guardian quoted a source as saying.

The Danish, French and Dutch incidents suggest that Iran takes serious indications that Saudi Arabia is considering attempting to destabilize the Islamic republic by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities.

Mr. Bolton advocated a similar strategy before becoming Mr. Trump’s national security advisor.
Iran has been the target in the past year of various insurgent groups believed to have Saudi support, sparking repeated clashes with Iranian security forces and the interception of Kurdish, Baloch and other ethnic rebels.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Islamabad this week on an unscheduled visit to discuss the recent kidnapping of at least 12 Iranian border and Revolutionary Guards believed to have been abducted on the Iranian side of the Pakistani-Iranian border by Jaish al-Adl, a Pakistani group that often issues its statements in Arabic rather than Baloch, Urdu or Farsi.

As the United States prepared to next week impose a new round of sanctions against Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the Iranian attacks in Europe to weaken European rejection of the US move.

“For nearly 40 years, Europe has been the target of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks. We call on our allies and partners to confront the full range of Iran’s threats to peace and security,” Mr. Pompeo tweeted.

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