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


Monday, April 29, 2019

Saudi gas ambitions likely to have geopolitical impact



By James M. Dorsey

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

A Saudi push to become a major natural gas player is as much about diversifying the kingdom’s domestic consumption and export mix as it is about taking advantage of harsh US economic sanctions against Iran designed to force a change of the Islamic republic’s policy, if not its regime.

Saudi Arabia scored an initial success with the sale of its first Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) cargo in Singapore, the trading hub for Asia and the Pacific, the world’s largest LNG market.

The sale speaks to the ambitions of Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Aramco, that seeks to become a major gas player by partnering with producers across the globe, including in the Russian Artic, and developing its own reserves.

Aramco expects the partnerships to position it as major marketeer and trader, primarily in the spot and short-term markets.



Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said earlier this month that the kingdom was already in discussion with other Gulf states about building natural gas pipelines and would soon be commissioning feasibility studies.

Those discussions are certain not to include Qatar and Iran, two of the region and the world’s foremost producers and the kingdom’s primary regional bete noirs.

If anything, the Saudi move is not only part of its longer-term efforts to reduce its dependence on oil exports and diversify its economy but also an attempt to take advantage of the fact that Iran is severely hampered by the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against it.

The administration said earlier this month that it intended to reduce Iranian energy exports to zero by cancelling waivers it issued to eight buyers, including China, India, Turkey, Japan and South Korea.

The waivers granted the eight countries exemptions to sanctions imposed last year after the United States withdrew from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Similarly, with the development of Saudi gas exports and sales also intended to chip away at Qatar’s market share, the Gulf state is not an option.

Qatar’s diversification of its exports was a key factor in its ability to so far fend off a 23-month old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott that, like in the case of Iran, is designed to force it to change its policies.

The two sides’ entrenched positions offer no prospect of a resolution of the dispute any time soon.
Saudi long-term gas ambitions could have shorter term consequences for its regional policies, particularly with regard to Iran.

The kingdom, perceived to be a proponent of regime change in Tehran, may prefer  a substantial weakening of the Iranian government that keeps it contained and struggling to make ends meet, rather than the rise of a leadership acceptable to the West that would be allowed to quickly regain its place in global energy markets.

Striving for regime collapse rather than regime change would also allow Saudi Arabia to dampen prospects for Iran’s Indian-backed port of Chabahar, a mere 70 kilometres down the Arabian Sea coast from Gwadar, the Chinese-supported port in Pakistani Balochistan.

Saudi Arabia has pledged to build a US$10 billion refinery in Gwadar.

Saudi plans to develop its gas industry suggest that the kingdom needs a decade to realize them.

Aramco chief executive Amin Nasser said he expected US$150 billion to be invested in the Saudi gas sector over the next ten years. Mr. Nasser envisioned gas production increasing from 14 billion standard cubic feet to 23 billion by 2030.

“We are looking to shift from only satisfying our utility industry in the kingdom, which will happen especially with the increase in renewable and nuclear to be an exporter of gas and gas products,” Mr. Nasser said.

“Aramco’s international gas team has been given an open platform to look at gas acquisitions along the whole supply chain. They have been given significant financial firepower – in the billions of dollars,” he added.

The kingdom has expressed an interest in acquiring a 30 percent stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic LNG project.

Access to the project’s gas would allow Saudi Arabia to negotiate long-term deals and/or sell cargoes on the spot market or increase domestic supply.

Saudi Arabia is also looking to buy natural gas assets in the United States.

A Saudi-Russian deal in the Artic would likely not only enhance the kingdom’s position but also bring Saudi Arabia, a member of OPEC, and Russia, which is not formally part of the cartel, closer together in their joint management of global oil supplies.

In a world of rising economic nationalism, Saudi gas ambitions are not being universally welcomed.

While there is little doubt that the Trump administration will look favourably at Saudi investment, some analysts are raising red flags.

Said Jude Clemente of JTC Energy Research Associates: “We simply cannot hand the quickly globalizing (via LNG) gas market to more risky exporters that often have political goals that are contrary to ours (to put it politely).”

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, April 27, 2019

Arab power struggles: “The King is dead, long live the King”



By James M. Dorsey

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

Political transition in the Middle East and North Africa operates so far on the principle of ‘The King is dead, long live the King.’

Libya’s battle for Tripoli alongside ongoing mass anti-government demonstrations that toppled autocratic leaders of Algeria and Sudan demonstrate that both popular Arab protests that in 2011 forced four presidents out of office and the counterrevolution it provoked are alive and kicking.

Protesters in Algeria and Sudan are determined to prevent a repeat of Egypt where a United Arab Emirates and Saudi-backed military officer rolled back the achievements of their revolt to install a brutal dictatorship or of Yemen, Libya and Syria that have suffered civil wars aggravated by interference of foreign powers.

In Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, the UAE-Saudi-Egyptian-supported warlord, hopes that his assault on the capital Tripoli, the seat of the country’s United Nations-recognized government, will either end the conflict militarily or at the very least significantly increase his leverage in peace talks.

In all three countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two Gulf nations most determined to maintain the Middle East and North Africa’s autocratic structure at whatever cost, have sought to either bolster military resolve to remain a decisive political force or support the rise of forces that fit their agenda.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE last week pledged a US$3 billion aid package to Sudan, including a US$500 million cash injection and transfers of cheap food, fuel and medicine.

The aid package contributed to deepening divisions among the opposition that has vowed to continue street protests until full civilian rule has been achieved despite the ousting of president Omar al-Bashir, the resignation of senior military officers, including the intelligence chief, and the arrest of Mr. Al-Bashir’s brothers.

While some Sudanese demanded that the military council reject the aid, other opposition groups, including several armed factions, travelled to Abu Dhabi to discuss a UAE-Saudi backed military proposal for a military-led transition council that would include civilians.

The Saudis and Emiratis are also hoping that Taha Osman al-Hussein, who was widely viewed as one of the most influential people in Mr. Al-Bashir’s inner circle, will play a key role in safeguarding the military’s position.

Mr. Al-Hussein returned to Khartoum this month from two years in exile in the kingdom, where he served as an African affairs advisor to the Saudi court, after having been unceremoniously sacked in 2017 on suspicion that he was a Saudi intelligence asset.

Moreover, the head of Sudan’s military council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan and his deputy, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a paramilitary commander known as Hemeti, developed close ties to the Gulf states in their former roles as commanders of the Sudan contingent fighting in Yemen in support of the Saudi-UAE alliance.

A commander of feared Arab militias accused of genocide in Darfur, General Dagalo is widely viewed as ambitious and power hungry. His Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are deployed across Khartoum.

Western officials privately describe General Dagalo as “potentially Sudan’s Sisi,” a reference to Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who came to power in 2013 in a UAE-Saudi-supported military coup.

Mr. Al-Sisi has introduced one of the most repressive systems in recent Egyptian history. Western diplomats said General Dagalo’s ambitions virtually guaranteed that the military would not fully surrender power in any negotiated transition.

The military’s role in deposing president Hosni Mubarak as a result of a popular revolt in 2011 and subsequently restoring the military’s grip on power coupled with concern about General Dagalo inspired one of the Sudanese protesters’ chants: “It’s either victory or Egypt.”

Western and Arab diplomats also see Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the background of General Burhan’s decision not to meet with Qatari foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani days after receiving a Saudi-UAE delegation. Sudan has since said it was working out arrangements for a Qatari visit.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE together with Egypt and Bahrain have diplomatically and economically boycotted Qatar for the past 22 months in a bid to force the Gulf state to tow their geopolitical line.

For now, Mr. Haftar’s offensive has way laid a UN-sponsored peace conference that was expected to achieve an agreement that would have ensured that Islamists would continue to be part of the Libyan power structure.

Mr. Haftar, like his regional backers, accuses the Tripoli government of being dominated by Islamists, the bete noir of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

On a visit to Saudi Arabia days before launching his attack on Tripoli, Mr. Haftar reportedly was promised millions of dollars in support in talks with Saudi King Salman, and his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in defiance of a United Nations arms embargo.

The battle for Libya could prove to be Mr. Haftar’s most difficult military offensive. His Libyan National Army (LNA) already controls Libya’s second city of Benghazi and much of rest of the country where it met relatively little resistance.

The battle also serves as a warning to protesters in Sudan and Algeria whose demands for fundamental change risk upsetting the UAE, Saud Arabia and Egypt’s applecart.

With no swift victory in sight in the battle for Tripoli, Libya risks another round of protracted war that could be aggravated by the fact that it is as much a domestic fight as it is a multi-layered proxy war.

Unlike Sudan, Libya has passed the corner. Years of civil and proxy wars have devastated the country and laid the groundwork for further violence. Algeria and Sudan still have a chance of avoiding the fate of Libya, or for that matter Syria and Yemen.

As the battle in Tripoli unfolds, Libya looms large as a live example of what is at stake. Protesters are up against forces whose backers have proven that there is little they will shy away from to achieve their objectives. Libya is but the latest example.

The king’s fate is at stake in the fighting in streets of southern Tripoli. His fate hangs like a sword of Damocles in the balance in the streets of Algiers and Khartoum.

James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 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.
 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, April 23, 2019

Sudan puts Saudi-UAE religious and cheque book diplomacy to the test



By James M. Dorsey

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

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ chequebook diplomacy driven-soft power strategy is being put to the test in Sudan where a stand-off between protesters and the country’s ruling military council is at a decisive point.

With protesters refusing to tear down barricades in front of the military headquarters in the capital Khartoum and surrender the street, breaking off talks with the military council and demanding immediate instalment of a civilian government, the stand-off has become a battle of wills.

Like in Algeria, Sudanese protesters have learnt from the 2011 popular Arab revolts that initially securing their success in forcing a long-standing leader to step down depends on their ability to sustain mobilization and street pressure.

Both Sudan and Algeria have, in the wake of the toppling of presidents Omar al-Bashir and Abdulaziz Bouteflika, promised elections and arrested and/or detained officials and/or businessmen on corruption charges in a so far unsuccessful bid to pacify demonstrators and persuade them to end their protests.

With elections scheduled for July in Algeria while Sudan’s military is talking about one or more years of pre-election transition, Algerian protesters may have a leg up on their Sudanese brethren. 

Nonetheless, protesters have also learnt that pledges of support by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt potentially are a Trojan horse. The UAE and Saudi Arabia led the regional effort to roll back the achievements of the 2011 revolts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia.

Egypt joined the counterrevolution after general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president in a UAE-Saudi-supported coup in 2013.

As a result, protesters have also learnt that they are up against formidable opponents, who include not just the militaries and associated businessmen and politicians who have a vested interest in the ancien regime, but also their regional backers.

Saudi, UAE and Egyptian backing for renegade Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar in the battle for Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations-recognized government, serves as an immediate reminder of the obstacles and risks the protesters face.

It has prompted at least some Sudanese to demand that the ruling military council reject US$3 billion in aid offered in recent days by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

So far Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have paid lip service to the Sudanese and Algerian protesters while trying to bolster military efforts to be seen to be meeting their demands yet maintaining ultimate grip on their countries’ politics.

The removal of Mr, Al-Bashir in Sudan was of particular importance to the counterrevolutionary states because of the fact that he came to power with the support of Islamist forces, the Gulf states and Egypt’s bete noir.

Sudan moreover is geopolitically important because of its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, a battleground for rival camps in the Middle East, Mr. Al-Bashir’s playing of both sides of the Middle East divide against the middle, and the granting to Turkey of access to Suakin Island that faces the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah.

Initial indications are that protesters’ fears that Saudi and UAE cheque book diplomacy comes with strings attached are not unfounded. Anti-Saudi and UAE sentiment has also been fuelled by the two states’ acquisition of Sudanese agricultural land in recent years and opposition to the war in Yemen.

The head of Sudan’s military council, Lt. General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, developed close ties to the Gulf states in his former role as commander of Sudanese forces that are part of the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen.

Mr. Burhan, in apparent recognition of the 22-month old UAE-Saudi led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, refused to meet with Qatari foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani days after receiving a Saudi-UAE delegation. Sudan has since said it was working out arrangements for a Qatari visit.

Similarly, UAE and Saudi cheque book diplomacy has also bolstered Mauritanian support for their fight against Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.  

This week’s visit by Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan to Iran during which the two countries agreed to form a joint quick reaction force to combat militant activity on their shared border, increase Iranian electricity sales to Pakistan and build a railway linking Islamabad, Tehran and Istanbul, puts the effectiveness of Gulf cheque book diplomacy to the test.

Pakistan appeared to be tilting toward Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Iran after the kingdom and the UAE pulled the cash-strapped South Asian nation back from the brink with $US 10 billion in financial aid and pledges of another $10 billion in investment.

Saudi Arabia’s greater emphasis on cheque book diplomacy coincides with a substantial cutback in global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservativism to the tune of an estimated US$100 billion over the last four decades.

The cutback means that funding has been focused on regions that are of geopolitical importance to the kingdom such as the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders Iran and Yemen.

The cutback, however, does not mean that the fallout of the Saudi funding is no longer felt around the globe.

Some analysts believe that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman gives Saudi-backed ultra-conservative preachers a freer hand in Southeast Asia as opposed to Europe where he tries to project himself as an Islamic moderate. If so, its an approach that has produced at best mixed results.

Two Saudi-educated religious scholars, Bachtiar Nasir and Zaitun Rasmin, played a key role in ultra-conservative mass protests in 2016, the largest in Indonesian history, that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian and ally of Indonesian president Joko Widodo.

Both students in the 1990s at the Islamic University of Medina, a key Saudi vehicle for the promotion of ultra-conservatism, Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have since their return to Indonesia propagated a puritanical strand of Islam and built a substantial following among the middle class.

However, in contrast to the kingdom, that more recently has been pushing in countries like Algeria, Libya and Kazakhstan a quietist, loyalist interpretation of Islam, Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have advocated political activism similar to the kingdom’s Sahwa or Islamic Awakening movement that called for peaceful political reform.

The movement, believed to have been partly inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, lost ground with the banning of the Brothers in the kingdom and the arrest of many of its leaders after the rise of Prince Mohammed.

Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin have aligned themselves with the far-right Sunni Muslim Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI), whose leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, a charismatic preacher and one-time vigilante of Yemeni descent, fled in 2017 to Saudi Arabia, where he has been allowed to reside to escape sexual harassment charges.

The alliance provides Messrs. Nasir and Rasmin a mass base that they can mobilize. The two men, moreover, huge followings on social media. Mr. Nasir has 1.1 million followers on Instagram, 526,000 on Facebook, and 217,000 on Twitter.

Mr. Rizieq was briefly detained and questioned in November by Saudi police after he flew a black flag inscribed with the Muslim principle of tawhid or the oneness of God at the back of his Mecca residence. The flag resembled ones used by jihadists, including the Islamic State.

“Are you a criminal for installing the flag on your house? I don’t think so... I think Rizieq is not a threat to my country. If he had violated any laws, he would have undergone a legal process. Rizieq doesn’t have problems,” commented Usamah Muhammad Al-Syuaiby, the Saudi ambassador to Indonesia.

Despite the seeming differences with Saudi policy, Mr. Rasmin appeared to be doing the kingdom’s bidding when he travelled to Malaysia in advance of the 2018 elections to support those segments of the Sunni ultra-conservative community that wanted to ensure that scandal-tainted prime minister Najib Razak would be re-elected.

Saudi Arabia had sought to help Mr. Razak, who stood accused of defrauding Malaysia’s 1MDB state fund of billions of dollars, by publicly supporting some of his questionable assertions. The Saudi strategy failed with Mahathir Mohamed’s defeat of Mr. Razak and the souring of Saudi-Malaysian relations.

Ultra-conservatives toeing the Saudi line argued that a defeat of Mr. Razak would lead to chaos. They denounced those who voted against him as khawarij, literally ‘those who walk away’ but frequently defined as ‘the dogs of hellfire.’

In an interview with Utusan, the newspaper of Mr. Razak’s party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Mr. Rasmin backed the ultra-conservative argument that “it is prohibited to elect or let a non-Muslim be elected,“ a reference to the fact that Mr. Mahathir’s alliance included non-Muslims and liberals.

Taken together, developments in Sudan, Algeria, Pakistan and Southeast Asia, suggest that the effectiveness of Saudi and UAE religious and cheque book diplomacy hangs in the balance. The developments raise the question whether short-terms successes can be maintained long-term.

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, April 22, 2019

Destabilising Iran


11 Apr 2019
By James M. Dorsey
James M. Dorsey argues that the recent designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council as a “foreign terrorist organisation” by the United States – part of a pressure campaign against Tehran – is likely to be ineffective. Applying international regulations will have more success in getting the Islamic Republic to change course, he says.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Violence complicates Pakistan PM’s tightrope walk as he visits Iran and China



By James M. Dorsey

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

Two attacks in as many weeks in Pakistan’s troubled province of Balochistan shatter hopes that the country has gained the upper hand in efforts to reduce political violence. The attacks also raise questions about Pakistan’s ability to walk a geopolitical tightrope.

Coming days before Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan embarked on a two-day visit to Iran, the attacks highlight the fallout of the debilitating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Pakistan’s mixed success in insulating China’s massive US$45 billion plus Belt and Road-related investment from the dispute as well as Baloch nationalist aspirations.

An April 12 bombing targeted a predominantly Hazara market, not because of the group’s ethnicity but because they were Shiites who have been under siege for years as a result of their religious beliefs. Nineteen people were killed in the bombing and dozens of others wounded.

Six days later, Baloch nationalists killed 14 members of Pakistan's security forces on a coastal highway, raising renewed concern in Beijing about the safety of Chinese nationals and investment in Balochistan, a crown jewel of the Belt and Road.

Mr. Khan hopes that his talks in Tehran will help end mounting tensions in Balochistan and along the-960-kilometre-long Baloch-Iran border. He needs a lowering of tension in advance of meetings later this week with top Chinese officials on the side lines of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.

The heightened tension and Mr. Khan’s Tehran and Beijing talks come against the backdrop of heightened suspicion of US and Saudi intentions.

Many analysts saw this month’s Saudi-backed US designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as an escalation of tensions that risked military confrontation and would likely complicate any effort to steer parties towards the negotiating table.

Some Pakistani officials as well as Baloch activists suggested that the killing of the security forces was the result of predominantly Shiite Iran loosening its grip on the operations of Baloch nationalist groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) who are believed to have a presence in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan on the Iranian side of the Pakistani border.

Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Pakistan had evidence the "terrorist outfits" that carried out the attack had "training and logistic camps inside Iranian areas bordering Pakistan".

The Iranian move was believed to be a response to attacks by allegedly Saudi-backed Sunni militants based in Pakistani Balochistan. The attacks include a suicide bombing in Chabahar in December that targeted a Revolutionary Guards headquarters, killing two people and wounding 40.

Chabahar is home to an Indian-backed port a mere 70 kilometres up the Arabian Sea coast from the Chinese-funded, Pakistani Baloch port of Gwadar.

Iran asserts that Jaish ul-Adel (Army of Justice), an allegedly Saudi-backed group, operates from Pakistani Balochistan. The group claimed responsibility in February for the killing of 27 Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Iranian intelligence minister Mahmoud Alavi vowed at the time to take revenge for the killings on “the masterminds, perpetrators and their sponsors”.

Iran has watched with growing concern what it perceives to be an increasing tilt towards Saudi Arabia helped pull financially strapped Pakistan back from the brink with at least US$6 billion in financial aid and promises of another US$10 billion in investment in Balochistan.

It will not have gone unnoticed in Tehran that authorities two days before the Hazara bombing released from prison Ramzan Mengal, a top leader of a banned sectarian group and alleged conduit of funds originating in Saudi Arabia that have been flowing in recent years to anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian militants in Balochistan.

Mr. Mengal, a bearded militant Islamic scholar, had been detained for three months suspected of public order offences, said Quetta police chief Abdul Razzaq Cheema.

Mr. Mengal is believed to head the Balochistan chapter of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ), a banned successor to Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) or The Army of the Companions of the Prophet, an outlawed group responsible for the death of a large number of Shiites in the past three decades that is believed to have long enjoyed Saudi financial backing.

He is also seen as a leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sipah offshoot that has ties to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and has claimed responsibility for the death of more than 200 Hazara Shiites in recent years.

Gulf nationals of Baloch heritage have funnelled funds originating in the kingdom to Mr. Mengal and other militant scholars, according to one of the founders of Sipah and other militant sources. They said the money had been transferred through hawala agents or money exchangers operating in the Middle East and South Asia.

“Ramzan gets whatever he needs from the Saudis,” the co-founder said.

Dressed in traditional white garb, a waistcoat and black turban, Mr. Mengal was known to often march on the streets of the Baloch capital of Quetta shouting sectarian slogans.

A frequent suspect in the killings of Hazara Shiites, he led crowds chanting "Kafir, kafir, Shia kafir (Infidels, infidels, Shiites are infidels)," but has recently become more cautious not to violate Pakistani laws on hate speech.

Mr. Mengal’s release on the eve of Mr. Khan’s visit to Iran hardly sends the right signal.

Mr. Qureishi, the foreign minister, phoned his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, on the eve of Mr. Khan’s visit to express the “anger of the Pakistani nation” at the attack on the Pakistani guards.

Mr. Qureshi further said that Pakistan had decided to build a fence along its border with Iran. "The work has already started from the points that are frequently misused," Mr. Qureshi said.

The fence may enhance security on the porous border, but is unlikely to quell violence in Balochistan that, although exploited by Iran, is primarily driven by long-standing sectarian strife fuelled by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry; neglect of Baloch social and economic demands and political aspirations; and Baloch fears of becoming victims rather than beneficiaries of Chinese and Saudi investment.

Said columnist Naazir Mahmood: “Democracy means ensuring the rights to life, safety and security, the right to earn livelihood and the right to get an education without fear... A complete ban on, and disarming of, sectarian outfits, coupled with strengthening of democracy with all its rights respected by the state, may result in a curbing of violence in Balochistan.”

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.

Friday, April 19, 2019

War in Libya: A rare instance of US-Russian cooperation



By James M. Dorsey

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

There is little that Russia and the United States agree on these days. Renegade Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar may be a rare exception.

As Mr. Haftar’s mortars rained on the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli and fighting between his Libyan National Army (LNA) and the United Nations-recognized government expanded to the south of the country, both Russia and the United States stopped a call for a ceasefire from being formally tabled in the UN Security Council.

Russia, which has joined US allies that include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France, in supporting Mr. Haftar because of his grip on Libya’s oil resources and assertions that Islamists dominate the Tripoli government, objected to the British draft resolution because it blamed the rebel officer for the fighting.

The United States gave no reason for its objection. Yet, it shares Russia’s aversion to Islamists and clearly did not want to break ranks with some of its closest Middle Eastern allies, certainly not at a time that the UN was investigating allegations that the UAE had shipped weapons to Mr. Haftar in violation of an international arms embargo.

The significance of US-Russian agreement on Mr. Haftar’s geopolitical value goes far beyond Libya. 
It reveals much of how presidents Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin see the crafting of a new world order. It also says a great deal about Russian objectives in the Middle East and North Africa.

Messrs. Trump and Putin’s preference for a man with a questionable human rights record who, if successful, would likely rule Libya as an autocrat, reflects the two leaders’ belief that stability in the Middle East and North Africa is best guaranteed by autocratic rule or some democratic façade behind which men with military backgrounds control the levers of power.

It is a vision of the region promoted by representatives of UAE crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed who sees authoritarian stability as the best anti-dote to popular Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011 and more recently in Algeria and Sudan are proving to have a second lease on life.

Underlying the Trump-Putin understanding is a tacit agreement among the world’s illiberal, authoritarian and autocratic leaders on the values that would underwrite a new world order. It is an agreement that in cases like Libya reduces rivalry among world powers to a fight about the divvying up of the pie rather than the concepts such as human and minority rights that should undergird the new order.

Moscow’s support for Mr. Haftar serves Russia’s broader vision of the Middle East and North Africa as an arena in which Russia can successfully challenge the United States even if Messrs. Trump and Putin agree on what side to support in a Libyan civil war that is aggravated by the interference of foreign powers.

Russia national security scholar Stephen Blank argues that Mr. Putin’s strategy is rooted in the thinking of Yevgeny Primakov, a Russian Middle East expert, linguist and former spymaster, foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

Mr. Primakov saw the Middle East as a key arena for countering the United States that would enable Russia, weakened by the demise of the Soviet Union and economic problems, to regain its status as a global and regional power and ensure that it would be one pole in a multi-polar world.

“In order to reassert Russia’s greatness, Primakov and Putin aimed ultimately at strategic denial, denying Washington sole possession of a dominant role in the Middle East from where US influence could expand to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)” established in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union to group post-Soviet states, Mr. Blank said.

Messrs. Primakov and Putin believed that if Russia succeeded it would force the United States to concede multi-polarity and grant Russia the recognition it deserves. That, in turn, would allow Mr. Putin to demonstrate to the Russian elite his ability to restore great power status.

Syria offered Russia the opportunity to display its military prowess without the United States challenging the move. At the same time, Russia leveraged its political and economic clout to forge an alliance with Turkey and partner with Iran. The approach served to defang Turkish and Iranian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Mr. Blank argued.

Similarly, Russia after brutally repressing religiously inspired Chechen rebels in the 1990s and despite the lingering memory of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has in line with UAE precepts, proven to be far defter than either China or the United States at promoting politically pacifist or apolitical loyalist Islam in a complex game of playing both sides against the middle.

Russian engagement runs the gamut from engaging with militants to cooperating with Muslim autocrats to encouraging condemnation of activist strands of ultra-conservative Islam to hedging its bets by keeping its lines open to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

Even if Russia may be walking a tightrope in balancing its relationships with Mr. Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, like in Syria, it is positioning itself with the backing of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the potential mediator that maintains ties to both sides of the divide.

Said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: “We believe that Libya’s future must be determined by the Libyans themselves. We are convinced that there is no alternative to an inclusive intra-Libyan dialogue… Our work on this track proceeds in this spirit and the belief that there is no alternative to preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya.”

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0


Credit: Institute of Security Studies

By James M. Dorsey

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

Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.

So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.

What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.

The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.

If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.

Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.

The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.

With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.

Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.

In a telling sign, Sudan's interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.

Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.

The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.

Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.

Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.

Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.

The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”

Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”

Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.

The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.

Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.

Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.

The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.

As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.

What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.

All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.

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.