Richard Whittall:

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


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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


Monday, May 27, 2019

Saudi religious moderation: How real is it?



By James M. Dorsey

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

Meet Mohammed bin Abdul-Karim Al-Issa, the public face of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s version of moderate Islam.

A 54-year old former justice minister, Mr. Al-Issa, one of a younger generation of Islamic scholars willing to do Prince Mohammed’s bidding, has been doing the rounds internationally and making all the right moves to project the de facto Saudi leader as the spearhead of efforts to counter ultra-conservatism at home, fight political and militant Islam across the globe and promote the crown prince as a tolerant leader bent on fostering inter-faith dialogue.

Mr. Al-Issa’s moves also serve to strengthen ties with US President Donald J. Trump’s Evangelist voter base and shape an environment that legitimizes Saudi Arabia’s close cooperation with Israel.

In his latest move, Mr. Al-Issa is this week convening a four day international conference on moderate Islam as  head of the Muslim World League, once a prime vehicle for the kingdom’s global promotion of anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian ultra-conservative strands of Islam, and a member of the Supreme Council of Ulema, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority.

Breaking with past Saudi religious and political tradition, Mr. Al-Issa has reached out to Jewish and Evangelist communities. He called during a speech in October at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, widely viewed as pro-Israeli, for a Muslim-Christian-Jewish interfaith delegation to travel to Jerusalem to promote the cause of peace despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal diplomatic relations.

Mr. Al-Issa has defended Prince Mohammed’s reforms such as the curbing of the powers of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of the ban on women’s driving and the nurturing of modern-day entertainment such as cinemas and concerts.

He has rejected the use of violence, including against Israel, acknowledged the Holocaust, denounced the efforts of Holocaust deniers, and announced that he would next January become the most senior 

Islamic cleric to visit Auschwitz on the 75th anniversary of its liberation.
Mr. Al-Issa laid out his approach in an interview with Le Monde two years ago. “All religious institutions must modernize their speech, to make it compatible with the times,” he said.

No doubt, Mr. Al-Issa’s moves help reshape an environment in which religious intolerance and prejudice was the norm and still is widespread. Yet, critics charge that his efforts to project Prince Mohammed as a religious reformer do not go beyond speech and symbolism and constitute a public relations effort rather than true change.

It, moreover, remains unclear, how effective Mr. Al-Issa’s efforts are. They certainly help the Trump administration defend its unconditional support for Prince Mohammed, including its willingness to shield the kingdom from accountability for its conduct of the war in Yemen and the killing last October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia insists Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by rogue operatives.

Yet, some of Mr. Al-Issa’s well-connected interlocutors during his visit to Washington said they came away from discussions with him not sure what to think. Likewise, a Saudi intellectual rhetorically asked Saudi Arabia scholar Stephane Lacroix during an interview: “How can one take Mohammed al Issa’s statements seriously when religious bookstores in Riyadh are full of books advocating the exact opposite?”

Malaysia, one of the kingdom’s associates in countering extremism has taken a similarly critical view of the its efforts. Malaysian defense minister Mohamad Sabu last year closed the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) in Kuala Lumpur following criticism that the kingdom with its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam may not be the right partner.

In a recent article discussing the limits of Prince Mohammed’s reforms, Mr. Lacroix, pointing to the arrests of Islamic thinkers critical of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi traditions and the suppression of all debate, concluded that “this makes MBS’s religious reforms look more like a public relations stunt than a genuine transformation.” Mr. Lacroix was referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Mr. Lacroix’s conclusion is enhanced by the fact that there is little that would suggest fundamental reform of religion involving tolerance at a practical rather than a talking heads level beyond the countering of extremism at home and abroad, a key Saudi interest, and the social changes Prince Mohammed has so far introduced to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and further his plan to diversify its oil-dependent economy and create badly needed jobs.

If anything, Prince Mohammed’s reforms appear to be designed to shave off Wahhabism’s rough edges, project a more moderate image, and promote at home and abroad in countries like Kazakhstan, Algeria and Libya an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler. Prince Mohammed’s crackdown on all forms of dissent enforces the principle.

By the same token, Prince Mohammed has done little to push reform since lifting the ban on women’s driving and enhancing their professional and sporting opportunities. The kingdom’s male guardianship of women has been softened at the edges but remains firmly in place.

Scores of young Saudi women have recently employed devious tactics to escape family abuse and leave the kingdom to seek asylum elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, rather than cracking down on domestic abuse and abolishing the guardianship system, has sought to prevent women from fleeing and force the return of those who made it abroad.

By the same token, the kingdom has yet to take steps that would put flesh at home on the skeleton of its notion of religious tolerance.

Christians, Jews, Buddhist and Hindus continue to be banned from building houses of worship despite the fact that archaeologists have found evidence of the existence in the time of the Prophet Mohammed of a 7th century synod near Jubail and the fact that older residents along the Saudi border with Yemen vividly recall interacting with a Jewish community.

After brutally cracking down on rebellious Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, Prince Mohammed has moved quickly to rebuild the levelled town of Awamiyah. Shiites, nonetheless, accounted for the majority of the 37 people beheaded in April in a mass execution.

Mr. Al-Issa’s Supreme Council of Ulema has no Shiite clerics among its members nor do Shiite judges sit on the benches of national courts or serve in the police force or as ambassadors.

The risk for Prince Mohammed is that religious moderation like economic reform that trickles down could become an issue on which his ability to deliver will be a litmus test of his reforms.

A recent poll of Arab, including Saudi youth, showed that two thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role while 79 percent argued that religious institutions needed to be reformed. Half said that religious values were holding the Arab world back.

Said Mr. Lacroix: “If religious reform is only a push from above and not the result of genuine social debate, it is easily reversible.”

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

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Pakistani woes likely to dominate Chinese vice president’s visit



By James M. Dorsey

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

Security and the viability of China’s massive investment is likely to top Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan’s agenda when he lands this weekend in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.


Mr. Qishan’s talks take place as China cautiously debates the viability of the People’s Republic’s US$45 billion plus investment in massive transportation, communication and other infrastructure projects dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC, a crown jewel of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.

CPEC, linking Pakistan’s volatile Balochistan province to China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang, is central to the Belt and Road and a key economic component in China’s brutal effort to reshape the cultural, social and political outlook of the region’s Turkic Muslim population.

China has reportedly detained at least one million Turkic Muslims in re-education camps, the largest faith-based internment since Nazi Germany hoarded Jews into concentration camps.

Mr. Qishan’s talks with Pakistani leaders also come on the heels of a threat by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) that the region would become a “graveyard for China’s expansionist motives, this month’s BLA attack on a highly secured luxury hotel frequented by Chinese nationals in the Baloch port city of Gwadar, attacks on both sides of the Baloch-populated Pakistan-Iranian border, and sectarian violence in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan.

The seemingly deteriorating security situation potentially has far-reaching economic consequences for Pakistan and could magnify the geopolitical fallout of a US military build-up in the Gulf sparked by alleged Iranian threats.

Pakistan is struggling to persuade the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism watchdog, to take it off its grey list at its next meeting in June.

Pakistan risks being blacklisted for its alleged poor enforcement, a move that could cost the cash-strapped South Asian state US$10 billion a year. Blacklisting could also negatively impact CPEC, making financial dealings with Pakistan more difficult.

Financial support by Arab Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia in the lead has alleviated Pakistan’s cash crunch in the short term. But together with pledges of some US$10 billion in Saudi investment in Balochistan, it has also raised the spectre of Pakistan being forced to compromise its effort to walk a tightrope between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported this week that Saudi Arabia starting July 1 would activate a deferred payment scheme for the sale of US$275 million a month or US$3.2 billion a year in petroleum products to Pakistan.

Chinese concerns that US Iranian tension could evolve into military action involve  fears that Pakistani neutrality in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry could be compromised by potentially stepped-up Baloch nationalist violence as well as possible efforts by allegedly Saudi-backed, Balochistan-based anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite militants to spur an insurgency on the Iranian side of the border.

Ironically, China, opposed to US sanctions on Iran and supportive of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, may have privately preferred inclusion of the Indian-backed Iranian port of Chabahar in the sanction regime.

The Trump administration has exempted Chabahar, a mere 70 kilometres down the Arabian Sea coast from Pakistan’s China-supported port of Gwadar, in an effort to facilitate reconstruction of Afghanistan, enhance Indian trade, and pre-empt Chinese dominance.

Chabahar has succeeded so far where Gwadar has failed. Afghanistan, according to prominent analyst Ahmed Rashid, has shifted its trade with India from Pakistan to Chabahar, sparking a drop in Afghan-Pakistani trade from US$5 billion a year to US$1.5 billion. “We have lost a captive market,” Mr. Rashid said.

Earlier, Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming questioned the wisdom of China’s investment in Gwadar. “Gwadar wants to be in the shipping business, but it has failed to do so. Pakistan’s economy is not very good, and this port has become very wasteful … under these circumstances, including with the hotel attack, how can China conduct its business? The roads and traffic cannot even be maintained,” Mr. Zhou said.

As a result, the stakes for Mr. Qishan’s talks in Islamabad high. They range from ensuring that Pakistan does not become an international financial pariah to ensuring the safety and security of Chinese investment, preventing it from becoming a domestic Chinese issue, pre-empting Pakistan being dragged into Middle Eastern disputes, and guaranteeing that Islamabad remains silent about the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Underlying the multiple issues confronting Mr. Qishan and his Pakistani interlocutors is uncertainty about CPEC that goes beyond Beijing’s chattering circles.

Said Sushant Sareen of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation: “While CPEC might actually be a game-changer for Pakistan, nobody seems quite sure what the game really is…. There appears to be a disconnect between what the Chinese expect from CPEC and what their ‘iron brother Pakistan makes of this grand scheme.”

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

US geopolitical interests offer Iran sanctions loophole amid mounting tension



By James M. Dorsey

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

The Indian-backed Iranian port of Chabahar has emerged as a major loophole in a tightening military and economic noose and ever harsher US sanctions that President Donald J. Trump, reluctant to be sucked into yet another war, sees as the best way to either force Tehran to its knees or achieve regime change.

Alice Wells, the State Department’s assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, said during a meeting with Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani that Chabahar had been exempted at Afghanistan’s request.

The State Department said earlier that the exemption was granted because it was related to “reconstruction assistance and economic development for Afghanistan, which includes the development and operation of Chabahar Port.”

US officials said privately that the exemption was also a nod to India that sees Chabahar as vital for the expansion of its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asian republics.

They said it was moreover an anti-dote to the Chinese backed port of Gwadar just 70 kilometres down the Arabian Sea coast in the troubled neighbouring Pakistani province of Balochistan.

That may be a long shot, certainly as long as India like much of the rest of the world is restricted by the US sanctions in its economic and commercial dealings with Iran.

The exemption comes however as Chinese security concerns in Balochistan as well as Pakistan at large are mounting.

China’s massive US$45 billion plus Belt and Road-related infrastructure investment in Pakistan with Gwadar and Balochistan at its core has become a prime target for nationalist insurgents that has officials in Beijing worried. It has also reinforced long-standing doubts in some circles in Beijing about the viability of the project.

Dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC, China sees the project, involving a network of roads, railways and pipelines that would link Gwadar to China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang as a key economic component of its brutal effort to Sincize the strategic region’s Turkic Muslim population.

“China, you came here (Balochistan) without our consent, supported our enemies, helped the Pakistani military in wiping our villages. But now it’s our time… Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) guarantees you that CPEC will fail miserably on the Baloch land. Balochistan will be a graveyard for your expansionist motives,” a commander of the BLA’s Majeed Brigade said in a video message released a week after militants stormed a hilltop, highly secured luxury hotel in Gwadar, killing five people.

The BLA claimed a month earlier responsibility for an attack on a convoy on a highway leading out of Gwadar in which 14 Pakistani military personnel died and an assault last year on the Chinese consulate in Karachi.

The attacks and threats have prompted Chinese sceptics of China’s massive investment in Pakistan to express their doubts more publicly.

“Gwadar wants to be in the shipping business, but it has failed to do so. Pakistan’s economy is not very good, and this port has become very wasteful … under these circumstances, including with the hotel attack, how can China conduct its business? The roads and traffic cannot even be maintained,” said Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming.

While many in Pakistan believe that the BLA enjoys Iranian support and Iranians are convinced that Pakistan enables shadowy Islamic militants who have claimed responsibility for a rare suicide bombing in December in Chabahar and attacks on Revolutionary Guards elsewhere in the Iranian province of Sistan and Balochistan, fact of the matter is that both countries are vulnerable to Baloch insurgents.

The situation on both sides of the Iranian-Pakistani border is complicated by suspicions that the violence also has links to the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and that the Baloch provinces of Pakistan and Iran could become a stage for a proxy war.

Amid reports that China has reached out to Baloch nationalist leaders in exile, Pakistani security analyst Muhammad Amir Rana cautioned that the exiles may no longer be in control.

“The new leadership of the Baloch insurgency largely hails from the educated middle class with urban backgrounds and is not hiding in Europe; therefore, it does not face the sort of constraints that exiled Baloch leaders do vis-à-vis Iran,” Mr. Rana said.

Mr. Rana noted that Iran’s influence in Pakistani Balochistan was visible in oil smuggled across the border, Iranian products in grocery shops and the supply of electricity to the coastal strip of Makran that includes Gwadar.

“For Pakistan, the security cost of CPEC is increasing which could frustrate the Chinese as well as foreign and local investors,” Mr. Rana warned.

For now, China confronts a more serious challenge in Gwadar, Balochistan as well as other parts of Pakistan that are struggling with un-related incidents of political violence compared to India and Chabahar.

That could change if the Saudi Iranian component of the low level Baloch insurgency spins out of control with the escalating stand-off between the United States and Iran.

Iran appears to have pinned its hopes that Chabahar will be shielded from the impact of regional tensions on the perceived US geopolitical need to protect India’s interest in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Said Pir Mohammad Mollazeh, an Iranian Afghanistan and Central Asia scholar: “US long-term geopolitical interests, due to the lack of relations with Iran, require India to maintain its position in the region and protect India as a partner in Central Asia… Chabahar port is considered to be a very important and strategic which is an opportunity for our country to enable Iran to reduce its sanctions by means of economic exchanges in Chabahar.”

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

Monday, May 20, 2019

A survey of Arab youth highlights gaps between policies and aspirations



By James M. Dorsey

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

Results of a recent annual survey of Arab youth concerns about their future suggest that Arab autocracies have yet to deliver expected public services and goods, explain autocratic efforts to promote nationalism, and indicate that jobs and social freedoms are more important than political rights.

The survey provides insights that should informs autocrats’ quest for social and economic reform. It also suggests, together with the intermittent eruption of anti-government protests in different parts of the Arab world, that Western and Middle Eastern interests would be better served by more nuanced US and European approaches towards the region’s regimes.

Western governments have so far uncritically supported social and economic reform efforts rather than more forcefully sought to ensure that they would bear fruit and have been lax in pressuring regimes to at least curb excesses of political repression.

Critics charge that the survey by Dubai-based public relations firm asda’a bcw focussed on the 18-24 age group was flawed because it gave a greater weighting to views in smaller Gulf states as opposed to the region’s more populous countries such as Egypt, used small samples of up to 300 people, and did not include Qatar, Syria and Sudan.

The results constitute a mixed bag for Arab autocrats and suggest that squaring the circle between the requirements of reform and youth expectations is easier said than done and could prove to be regimes’ Achilles’ heel.

A majority of youth, weened on decades of reliance on government for jobs and social services, say governments that are unilaterally rewriting social contracts and rolling back aspects of the cradle-to-grave welfare state, have so far failed to deliver.

Even more problematic, youth expect governments to be the provider at a time that reform requires streamlining of bureaucracies, reduced state control, and stimulation of the private sector.

A whopping 78 percent of those surveyed said it was the government’s responsibility to provide jobs. An equal number expected energy to be subsidized, 65 percent complained that governments were not doing enough to support young families while 60 percent expected government to supply housing.

By the same token, 78 percent expressed concern about the quality of education on offer, including 70 percent of those in the Gulf. Yet, 80 percent of those in the Gulf said local education systems prepared them for jobs of the future as opposed to a regional total of 49 percent that felt education was lagging. Nonetheless, only 38 percent of those surveyed in the Gulf said they would opt for a local higher education.

There appeared to be a similar gap between the foreign and regional policies of governments and youth aspirations.

Assertive policies, particularly by Gulf states, that have fuelled regional conflicts, including wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the Saudi Iranian rivalry and the two-year-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar run counter to a desire among a majority of those surveyed to see an end to the disputes. In favour of Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini rulers, 67% of young Arabs see Iran as an enemy.

The survey also suggests that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contrary to common wisdom, is an issue that resonates. With 79 percent of those surveyed saying they are concerned about the dispute, the question arises whether the Gulf’s rapprochement with Israel and support for US president Donald J. Trump’s peace plan that is widely believed to disadvantage the Palestinians enjoys popular support.

The suggestion that Gulf policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be wholeheartedly supported is bolstered by the fact that the number of people surveyed this year that viewed the United States as an enemy rose to 59 percent compared to 32 percent five years ago.

Similarly, Arab leaders’ reliance on religion as a regime legitimizer and efforts to steer Islam in the direction of apolitical quietism are proving to be a double-edged sword and one probable reason why men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman have sought to reduce the role of the religious establishment by promoting hyper-nationalism.

Some two thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role, up from 50% four years ago. Seventy-nine percent argued that religious institutions needed to be reformed while half said that religious values were holding the Arab world back.

Publication of the survey coincided with the release by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of its 2019 report. The report designated Saudi Arabia as one of the world's "worst violators" of religious freedoms, highlighting discrimination of Shia Muslims and Christians.

"Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary, and lack access to senior positions in the government and military,” the 234-page report said.

Leaders of the United Arab Emirates, accused by human rights groups of systematic violations, are likely to see a silver lining in the survey and a reconfirmation of their policy of economic and relative social liberalism coupled with absolute political control.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed named the UAE as their preferred country as opposed to less than 22 percent opting for Canada, the United States, Turkey or Britain.

In a white paper accompanying the survey, Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, concluded that the survey showed that “the demands and dreams of young Arabs are neither radical nor revolutionary” and that they were unlikely to “to fall for the false utopias or ‘charismatic’ leaders their parents fell for.”

In the words of Jihad Azour, the International Monetary Fund’s top Middle East person, “what is needed is a new social contract between MENA (Middle East and North Africa) governments and citizens that ensures accountability, transparency and a commitment to the principle that no one is left behind... The latest youth survey makes clear that we have a long way to go,” Mr. Azour said in his contribution to the white paper.

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

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions



By James M. Dorsey

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

A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.


The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs. 

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed ... was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that "as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction."

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

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

JMD on NBN: Andreas Krieg, Divided Gulf, Anatomy of a Crisis


ANDREAS KRIEG
Divided Gulf
The Anatomy of a Crisis
PALGRAVE 2019

May 13, 2019 
James M. Dorsey



Andreas Krieg’s edited volume, Divided Gulf: The Anatomy of a Crisis (Palgrave, 2019), brings together a group of prominent Gulf scholars to discuss the Gulf crisis that pits a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance against Qatar. The alliance’s economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar since 2017 has implications that go far beyond the regional dispute. The book highlights the fact that strategies of the opposed parties are to a significant extent shaped by the evolution of information and cyber warfare. It also highlights the rise of nationalism in Gulf states that fundamentally changes the role of tribes and the nature of the Gulf state in the 21st century. The book argues that at the core of the Gulf struggle are fundamentally different visions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand and Qatar on the other on how to ensure regime survival in an era of social and economic change in which autocratic governments increasingly have to efficiently deliver public goods and services. It projects the Gulf crisis as one more intractable Middle Eastern problem in which countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia see ensuring their survival in terms of security. In doing so, the book makes a significant contribution to the literature on a region that is key to global developments and increasingly plays a role in shaping a new world order.
To listen to the full podcast, click here

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.


Sunday, May 12, 2019

Walking a tightrope: Pakistan struggles to juggle multiple balls



By James M. Dorsey

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

Pakistan risks falling off the tightrope it walks as it attempts to balance its relations with rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Developments in recent days, including this weekend’s Baloch nationalist attack on a luxury hotel in the strategic port city of Gwadar and a legal dispute over completion of a gas pipeline against the backdrop of Saudi-Iranian-Qatari competition for the Pakistani gas market, suggest that Pakistan is caught between a rock and a hard place.

The South Asian nation’s seemingly unsustainable tightrope walk is likely to have consequences for the security of China’s massive US$45 billion investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative; an approximately US$10 billion planned Saudi investment in a refinery and a copper mine in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan; and Pakistani hopes of getting a grip on  political violence in a bid to attract further badly needed foreign investment and avoid sanctioning for inadequate counterterrorism measures.

The assault on the highly secured hilltop Zaver Pearl Continental Hotel Gwadar, part of Pakistan’s largest luxury hotel chain, in which four people, including three gunmen were killed, was the second incident since Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani last month agreed to step up security cooperation along their 959-kilometre long border.

Many Baloch, members of an ethnic minority on both sides of the border, feel economically disadvantaged and marginalized with a minority harbouring nationalist aspirations. Security-led repressive policies by both Iran and Pakistan have fuelled militancy and offer ample opportunity for manipulation by regional powers.

In an emailed statement claiming responsibility for the hotel attack, Baloch Liberation Army (BL) spokesman Jihand Baloch said this weekend’s attack targeted “Chinese and other investors who were staying at the PC hotel.” The hotel was believed to have few guests because of Ramadan.

In an earlier statement issued last week after an attack on a coal mine in which five people were killed, Mr. Baloch asserted that "Balochistan is a war-torn region and we will not allow any investments until the independence of Balochistan."

BLA operatives have in the past seven months hit various Chinese targets beyond the boundaries of Balochistan, including a convoy transporting Chinese engineers in Karachi and the People’s Republic’s consulate in the city.

Baloch nationalist militancy is not the only problem confronting Pakistani security forces in the strategic southwest of the country. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack last month on a market in the Baloch capital of Quetta frequented by Hazaras, a beleaguered Shiite minority, in which 19 people were killed and dozens injured.

Iran blamed allegedly Saudi and US-backed Balochistan-based Sunni Muslim militants for an assault in February on the Iranian side of the border that killed 27 Revolutionary Guards.

In an apparent bid to build confidence, Mr. Khan admitted during his visit to Tehran that militants operating from Pakistan had attacked targets in Iran but vowed to put an end to that.

Complicating Mr. Khan’s efforts to walk a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran and safeguard crucial Chinese and future Saudi investment is the fact that the Trump administration’s stepped up maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic republic is restricting the South Asian nation’s ability to live up to prior commitments to Iran and fuelling Iranian concern that Saudi Arabia is able to influence Pakistani policy.

Jeddah-based Arab News quoted Mobin Saulat, the managing director of Pakistan’s state-owned Inter State Gas Systems, as advising his Iranian counterparts that US sanctions were preventing it from completing the Pakistani leg of an agreed gas pipeline despite statements by Messrs. Khan and Rouhani that they were seeking to enhance connectivity between their two countries.

Iranian suspicion of Saudi covert activity in Balochistan as well as the kingdom’s ability to influence Pakistani policy stems from multiple factors that Tehran sees as indicators.

These include massive Saudi financial assistance to help Pakistan avert a financial crisis, question marks among international oil executives of the economic rationale for the kingdom’s  plan to build a refinery in Gwadar, a plan published by a Riyadh think tank calling for the fostering of an insurgency among Iran’s Baloch minority, reports by Pakistani militants of Saudi funding for anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim militants in Balochistan, and evidence of broader segments of the Pakistani population buying into Saudi-inspired ultraconservative interpretations of Islam as a result of the kingdom’s decades-long support of religious and cultural institutions as well as media.

Iran’s province of Sistan and Balochistan hosts the Indian-backed port of Chabahar, a mere 70 kilometres up the Arabian Sea coast from Gwadar. A shadowy militant Sunni Muslim group claimed responsibility for a rare suicide bombing in Chabahar in December.

Pakistan scholar Madiha Afzal noted in a just released Brookings report that “Saudi Arabia has succeeded in changing the character of Pakistan’s religiosity in a bid to expand its influence in the Muslim world, and in its mission to counter Iran.”

While US sanctions may have, at least for now, given the death knell to the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, Saudi influence appears to have failed in stopping Pakistan from entertaining a gas deal with Qatar, another of the kingdom’s nemeses, despite an almost two-year old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state.

Qatar recently lowered the price in a bid for a major Pakistani liquified natural gas (LNG) contract in an effort to outcompete Saudi Arabia, that last month sent a delegation to Islamabad to discuss the South Asian nation’s gas needs.

The competition is about more than commercial advantage. While Qatar sees its gas exports as part of its soft power strategy, Saudi Arabia views the Pakistani contract as part of an effort to establish the kingdom as a major trader and marketeer as it strives to position itself as a significant gas exporter over the next decade.

Pakistan’s ability to maintain its tightrope walk could be further endangered if it fails to convince the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watch dog, that it is doing sufficient to meet the group’s standards.

Pakistan was last year grey listed by the group and risks being blacklisted if it fails to convince FATF in talks later this month that it has substantially improved its controls. Blacklisting listing would significantly curtail its access to international finance at a time that it is seeking a bailout by the International Monetary Fund. (IMF).

Juggling multiple balls is proving to be an increasingly difficult act in which Pakistan may be the country out on a limb but many of its partners have a stake in ensuring that it maintains its tightrope walk.

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