Richard Whittall:

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


Middle East Eye: "

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

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


Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach: "James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport: “Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”
Play the Game: "Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal: "No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated: "Essential Reading"
Change FIFA: "A fantastic new blog'

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

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


Saturday, March 28, 2020

JMD on NBN: Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment

AHMET T. KURU
Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment
A Global and Historical Comparison
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS 2019
March 25, 2020 James M. Dorsey
Ahmet T. Kuru’s new book Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment, A Global and Historical Comparison (Cambridge University Press, 2019) is a ground-breaking history and analysis of the evolution of the state in Muslim countries. Thoroughly researched and accessibly written, Kuru’s work traces the template of the modern-day state in many Muslim-majority countries to fundamental political, social and economic changes in the 11th century. That was when Islamic scholars who until then had by and large refused to surrender their independence to the state were co-opted by Muslim rulers. It was a time when the merchant class lost its economic clout as the Muslim world moved from a mercantile to a feudal economy. Religious and other scholars were often themselves merchants or funded by merchants.
The transition coincided with the rise of the military state legitimized by religious scholars who had little choice but to go into its employ. They helped the state develop a forced Sunni Muslim orthodoxy based on text rather than reason- or tradition based interpretation of Islam with the founding of madrassahs or religious seminaries that were designed to counter the rise of Shiite states in North Africa and counter less or unorthodox strands of the faith. Kuru’s history could hardly be more relevant. It lays bare the roots of modern-day, illiberal, authoritarian or autocratic states in the Muslim world that are characterized by some form of often rent-driven state capitalism and frequently expansionary in their effort to ensure regime survival and increase rents.
These states feature education systems that fail to develop critical thinking and religious establishments that are subservient to their rulers. Kuru’s book also in effect describes one of the original sources of the civilizational state that has become a fixture in the struggle to shape a new world order. With his book, Kuru has made an invaluable contribution to the understanding of the stagnation as well as the turmoil that has swept the Middle East and North Africa as well as the wider Islamic world.

To listen to the podcast, please click on https://traffic.megaphone.fm/LIT3563987063.mp3

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

Thursday, March 26, 2020

China manoeuvres to protect its interests while keeping its hands clean



Written by James M. Dorsey.

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

The question is not if, but when the long-standing American defence umbrella in the Gulf, the world’s most militarised and volatile region, will be replaced by a multilateral security arrangement that would have to include China as well as Russia.

The United States’ perceived diminishing commitment to the Gulf and the broader Middle East and mounting doubts about the deterrence value of its defence umbrella leave the Gulf stuck between a rock and a hard place. The American umbrella is shrinking, but neither China nor Russia, despite their obvious interests, are capable or willing simply to shoulder the responsibility, political risk and cost of replacing it.

On balance, China’s interests seem self-evident. It needs to secure its mushrooming political and economic interests in the Gulf, which includes ensuring the flow of oil and gas and protecting its infrastructure investment and the expanding Chinese diaspora in the region. Nonetheless, China has so far refrained from putting its might where its money is, free-riding instead (in the words of US officials) on America’s regional military presence.

Indeed, for the longest time China has been able to outsource the protection of its interests to the United States at virtually no cost. For the US, guaranteeing security in the Gulf has been anchored in an American policy which accepted that maintaining security far beyond the borders of the United States was in America’s national interest, including the protection of Chinese assets. All China needed to do, therefore, was to make minimal gestures such as contributing to the multi-national effort in the Gulf and adjacent waters to counter Somali pirates.

In the meantime, China could pursue a long-term strategy to bolster its capabilities. This included infrastructure projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with dual-purpose potential (such as the strategic ports of Gwadar in Pakistan and Duqm in Oman as well as commercial investment in Dubai’s Jebel Ali), the creation of China’s first overseas military facility in Djibouti, and significant expenditure on upgrading the Chinese armed forces.

All that potentially changed with the rise of US President Donald J. Trump, who advocated an America First policy that attributed little value to past US commitments or to maintaining existing alliances. Hence Trump embarked on a trade war with China – viewed as a strategic competitor – and appeared to fuel rather than resolve regional stability by uncritically aligning American policy with that of Saudi Arabia and Israel and targeted Iran as the source of all evil.

This change has yet to translate into specific Chinese policy statements or actions. Nonetheless, the anticipated shift from a unipolar to a multilateral security architecture in the Gulf has cast a new light on the first-ever joint naval exercise involving Chinese, Russian and Iranian naval forces, as well as China’s seemingly lukewarm support for a Russian proposal for a multilateral security approach in the Gulf.

China was careful to signal that neither the joint exercise nor its closer military ties with a host of other Middle Eastern nations meant it was aspiring to a greater role in regional security any time soon. If anything, both the exercise and China’s notional support for Russia’s proposed restructuring of regional security suggest that China envisions a continued US lead in Gulf security, despite the mounting rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.

The Russian proposal in many ways fits China’s bill. Its calls for a multilateral structure involving Russia, China, the United States, Europe and India that would evolve out of a regional security conference along the lines of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

While backing Russia’s proposal in general terms, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stopped short of specifically endorsing it. Geng welcomed ‘all proposals and diplomatic efforts conducive to de-escalating the situation in the Gulf region’.

China’s reluctance to endorse the Russian proposal more wholeheartedly is rooted in differing approaches towards multilateralism in general and alliances in particular. China shies away from alliances, with their emphasis on geo-economics rather than geopolitics, while Russia still operates in terms of alliances. Despite favouring a continued American lead, China sees a broadening of security arrangements that would embed rather than replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf as a way to reduce regional tensions.

China also believes that a multilateral arrangement would allow it to continue to steer clear of being sucked into conflicts and disputes in the Middle East, particularly the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. A multilateral arrangement in which the US remained the key military player would further fit the pattern of China’s gradual projection of its growing military power beyond its borders.

With the exception of the facility in Djibouti, China’s projection becomes less hardcore the further one gets from the borders of the People’s Republic. More fundamentally, China’s approach is grounded in the belief that economics rather than geopolitics is the key to solving disputes, which so far has allowed it to remain detached from the Middle East’s multiple conflicts. It remains to be seen how sustainable this approach is in the long term.

Such an approach is unlikely to shield China forever from the Middle East’s penchant for ensuring it is at the heart of the major external parties’ concerns. And as Jiang Xudong, a Middle East scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, puts it: ‘Economic investment will not solve all other problems when there are religious and ethnic conflicts at play’.

Dr James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, and Co-Director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

This article was first published by Asia Dialogue

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Refugees and Shantytowns in MENA and Beyond Imperil Global Public Health



by James M. Dorsey | Mar 24, 2020

This article was first published on Inside Arabia

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

Syria’s announcement of its first COVID-19 case highlights the public health threat posed by war zones that produce millions of refugees and displaced persons living in sub-human and sub-standard health and hygienic conditions. The enforcement of international law governing wars and respect for human and minority rights is now critical.

Indiscriminate in targeting its victims, the latest coronavirus (COVID-19) casts a very different light on the need to enforce international law governing wars as well as human and minority rights. It exposes the needs of tens of millions of refugees and displaced persons in destitute camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Bangladesh and shantytowns across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

It also puts issues of basic rights, poverty, homelessness, and equitable income distribution in a different perspective. Refugees, displaced persons, and embattled minorities that have been for the longest time viewed as humanitarian or political problems that needed to be contained and kept beyond one’s borders now constitute a global public health hazard.

In Iran, one of the world’s hardest hit countries, and the Gaza Strip, that reported its first infections in recent days, the hazard is enhanced not only by corruption and mismanagement but also punitive and crippling sanctions and blockades designed to impose the will of one country on another with little measurable effect beyond economic degradation and making often weak health systems even more feeble.

It’s a hazard that raises the threat level not only in the current pandemic that has already wreaked havoc on lives, economies, and social life, but also in future ones.

“The storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world,” predicted historian Yuval Noah Harari.

“Pandemics are a part of biologic history . . . They reshape . . . economics, they reshape . . . sociology,” added Mike Leavitt, a former Republican US Secretary of Health and Human Services and Governor of Utah.

Writer and activist Susan Sontag noted some four decades ago that “illness as a metaphor for political disorder is one of the oldest notions of political philosophy.”

By implication Messrs. Harari and Leavitt and Ms. Sontag suggest that pandemics create opportunities to rethink political, economic, and social relations. That may be what is needed but the odds are against it.

More likely is that a different world will mostly be shaped by elements of reactive measures taken by governments across the globe who failed to initially take the coronavirus seriously on day one—Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan being notable exceptions.

Leaving aside the fundamental issues of striking a balance between privacy and surveillance, those reactive actions and procedures are likely to amount to band-aids rather than lessons learned. They will not lead to a fundamental rethinking of issues that pose a major threat to millions of lives far beyond the boundaries of refugee camps and shantytowns. And they are unlikely to result in the societal cohesion needed to confront the inevitable next crisis.

The coronavirus also spotlights the inherent threat posed by the lack of transparency and the politicization of a global health crisis by civilizationalist and illiberal, authoritarian or autocratic leaders. Such leaders, including US President Donald J. Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Egyptian General-turned-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who prioritize domestic political and geopolitical gain and economic preservation rather than timely public health policy and simple decency and humanity.

Even though senior government officials across the globe have been infected, it’s the hundreds of thousands of victims of the coronavirus and the hundreds of millions whose social and economic lives have been disrupted that pay the price of delayed and inadequate responses.

“Sanctions are the number one cause of Iran’s limited access to medicine and other basic resources. These pressures are severely compounded during this global health crisis and are felt acutely in the day-to-day lives of Iranian citizens . . . Just as outbound travel has been suspended, the import of aid coming into Iran is limited, if at all, furthering the sense that even when dealing with a concern that affects the whole world, Iranians are largely on their own,” reflected comparative literature PhD candidate Donna Honarpisheh from self-isolation during a family visit to Shiraz.

The fact that a contagious health hazard in one country potentially threatens public health worldwide, makes ensuring the universal existence of robust national healthcare systems a global rather than a national concern.

Prioritizing politics rather than common sense self-preservation that fails to strike a balance between humanity, global public health, and national security is likely to harden positions rather than create opportunities for conflict resolution.

As a result, Iran’s isolation and Gaza’s blockade by Israel and Egypt for the past 13 years are likely to be reflected in longer-term Iranian and Palestinian political wrath and other hostile attitudes towards the outside world.

The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar – the only countries to have come to Iran’s aid – were among the few in the international community to recognize that how the world handles the crisis has consequences that go far beyond healthcare.

That is true even if the UAE and Kuwait acted to ensure that they would not be targets in any future US-Iranian confrontation. Whereas Qatar honored its relations with Iran since Tehran provides crucial logistical support, enabling Doha to withstand the almost three-year-old UAE-Saudi-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.

Adding to the woes of Iran, like other countries with governments that are untransparent or at best economical with the truth, is the fact that the regime’s trust deficit complicates getting public compliance with extraordinary measures and raises the specter of protests at a time of quarantines and social distancing.

Egyptian authorities arrested four prominent women in recent days for protesting in demand of the release of prisoners as a healthcare measure. Hundreds of Egyptians reportedly attempted to storm public laboratories to obtain a coronavirus test.

The locked down Philippines capital of Manila is awash with rumors of food shortages and fears of rioting and looting.

It’s at best a matter of time before the human carnage hits camps for refugees and displaced persons across the Middle East and in Asia and Africa as well as countries like Venezuela that have failing health systems as a result of mismanagement and corruption. All failures which are compounded by sanctions.

“Millions of conflict-affected people are living in cramped refugee and displacement sites with desperately poor hygiene and sanitation facilities. There will . . . be carnage when the virus reaches parts of Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela where hospitals have been demolished and health systems have collapsed,” said Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Yemen already knows the consequences. It suffered in 2017 a dramatic surge of cholera, a disease that had been virtually eradicated from the planet.

The question is not only what happens when disease and death on a large scale or food shortages and/or famine hits the world’s most vulnerable holed up in inhuman conditions with nothing more to lose.

It is also whether governments and elites have the foresight and political will to build a new world order that is not only equitable but also creates the political, economic, and social conditions for management of future pandemics at a potentially lower social and economic cost for all.

That may be a tall order in a world dominated by civilizationalist and nationalist leaders whose primary concern are not ensuring robust structures capable of fighting indiscriminate global threats but short-term political gain, self-aggrandizement, the settling of political scores, and narrow visions of ethnic or religious supremacy.

It’s an approach that adds to already mounting threats of increased political instability and violence as well as migration in magnitudes that could dwarf the world’s current problem of coping with large-scale dislocation.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also 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 in Germany.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Playing for Higher Stakes: Saudi Arabia Gambles on Oil War with Russia


by James M. Dorsey | Mar 17, 2020

This article was first published on Inside Arabia

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

With stock markets crashing and economies grinding to a halt as the world struggles to get a grip on the Coronavirus, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could not have chosen a worse time to wreak havoc on energy markets by launching a price and production war against Russia.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. June 28, 2019 (AP Photo Susan Walsh, File)

Saudi Arabia’s oil spat with Russia throws a spanner into the works of the Kingdom’s long-standing effort to hedge its bets, a strategy that has taken on added significance as the Gulf comes to grips with the likelihood that the region’s security architecture will fundamentally change.
Saudi Arabia, despite a primary focus on close ties to the United States, has increasingly sought to put its eggs in multiple baskets by initially forging closer military and economic relations with Britain, France, and Germany, and more recently with Russia and China.
Saudi Arabia, has increasingly sought to put its eggs in multiple baskets, forging closer military and economic relations with Russia and China.
The Saudi strategy, stemming from mounting doubts about the reliability of the United States as an ally and protector of last resort, was showcased when China opened its first overseas defense production facility in Saudi Arabia for the manufacturing of the CH-4 Caihong, or Rainbow drone, as well as associated equipment.
The CH-4 is comparable to the US armed MQ-9 Reaper drone that Washington has refused to sell to the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s willingness to undermine its hedging strategy by challenging Russia’s refusal to continue to align its production levels with that of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) follows the Kingdom’s bowing to US pressure to acquire Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system rather than Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapon.
Mr. Putin made a last-ditch sales pitch last September after the Kingdom’s six battalions of US-made Patriot batteries failed to detect drone and missile attacks on two of the country’s key oil facilities that knocked out half of its production capacity.
The decision by Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MbS, to confront Russia stemmed from a stark choice confronting the Crown Prince: endanger relations with the only power to have put forward a regional security plan that would have allowed the Kingdom to hedge its bets while maintaining close ties to the United States, or drive oil prices down in a bid to force Russia to coordinate production levels that would ensure a higher price.
Ultimately, the Crown Prince’s choice was driven by economics rather than longer-term security.
Low oil prices have already forced the Kingdom to borrow from international financial markets. $80 USD per barrel is the price it needs to balance its budget. It is also the price MbS needs for his ambitious plans to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and turn it into a cutting edge 21st century knowledge hub.

MbS may in some respects have shot himself in the foot even if his assumption proves correct that the Kingdom could win a price and production war and that Russian President Vladimir Putin would see a longer term move from a unipolar to a multilateral security arrangement in the Gulf as too big a prize to lose.
Last year’s limited initial public offering (IPO) on the Saudi stock exchange by Aramco, the Kingdom’s national oil company, that constituted a crown jewel in MbS’ economic reform plans, failed to convincingly address fears that it was subject to the whims of the Kingdom’s ruling elite.
The oil war with Russia may have convinced investors’ worst fears with Aramco raising capacity and production to help MbS with his gamble.
The war with Russia may have convinced investors’ worst fears with Aramco raising capacity and production to help MbS with his gamble.
“This has proved to investors that their worst fears about Aramco were a reality. The company’s plans and its output decisions are based on MbS’ erratic behavior,” said a Saudi official familiar with Aramco’s offering.
MbS may not be the only one to suffer consequences of the oil war but his may be a tougher struggle because it involves restoration of trust.
The setback for US shale oil companies that need a relatively high oil price to break even, the reason Russia was willing to go to war with Saudi Arabia, is likely to be temporary as was evident in 2014 when Saudi Arabia gunned for market share rather than price to drive American producers out of business.
A protracted crude oil price war on the supply side, combined with the simultaneous demand shock caused by Covid-19’s impact on economic activity, will hurt oil producers everywhere.
“A protracted crude oil price war on the supply side, combined with the simultaneous demand shock caused by Covid-19’s impact on economic activity, will hurt oil producers everywhere,” said Tilak K. Doshi, an energy scholar at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
If the Crown Prince’s decision was driven by domestic considerations, so was Mr. Putin’s.
Yet, despite believing that OPEC had outlived its utility, Mr. Putin was taken aback by the ferocity of Saudi Arabia’s response to the Russian cancellation of its earlier production level agreement with OPEC, prompting Moscow to call for a return to the agreed levels for the first quarter of this year.
“OPEC is finished, so is any attempt to ‘manage’ the oil market. US shale (as a fully privately owned industry) operates on aggressive free market principals. The Russians understand that and so does Saudi. The energy game (including alternatives) is now a survival of the fittest,” tweeted Ali Shihabi, a banker-turned-pro-Saudi-political commentator.
In Russia, MbS is up against an opponent that could prove to have a longer breath.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also 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 in Germany.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Coronavirus: The Middle East’s lessons not learnt and missed opportunities



By James M. Dorsey

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

There is little indication that Middle Eastern rulers are learning the lessons of the Coronavirus’ devastating effect.

Nor is there any suggestion that they are willing to see the pandemic as an opportunity to negotiate new social contracts at a time that the virus has temporarily taken the sails out of mass anti-government protests in various countries and discontent continues to simmer in others.

On the contrary.

Iran has become the poster child of what happens when the public distrusts a government that has a track record of being untransparent from the outset of a crisis, limits freedom of expression that often creates early warning systems that could enable authorities to take timely, pre-emptive measures to avert or limit the damage, and is perceived as corrupt.

Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saw himself forced last week to bring in the military to clear the streets after Iranians, already struggling under the impact of harsh US economic sanctions, refused to adhere to public health warnings regarding large gatherings, social distancing. and advice to stay at home.

Mr. Khamenei assigned the task to the regular armed forces after the Revolutionary Guards Corps failed to persuade Iranians to heed government advice regarding the epidemic that as of this writing has infected some 14,000 people and caused 724 deaths and turned Iran into one of the world’s hardest hit countries.

The distrust has fuelled reports and rumours that casualties exceed by far government figures and that mass graves were being prepared to cope with a much higher than stated death toll.

The Coronavirus hit Iran, that was slow to acknowledge the severity of the crisis, only weeks after large numbers took to the streets of Iranian cities denouncing Mr. Khamenei and the Guards in protest against the government’s initial reluctance to live up to its responsibility for the mistaken downing of a Ukrainian airliner that killed 176 people.

Multiple Middle Eastern states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel have ordered closures of educational facilities, quarantines and taken steps to curtail, if not halt travel to and from Asian and European nations badly affected by the virus or temporarily interrupt all travel to their countries.

Nonetheless, an exponential spread of the virus could stress test the national health systems in both energy-rich countries that have invested in state-of-the-art medical facilities as well as war-ravaged nations like Syria, Yemen and Libya where hospitals have been prime targets of devastating air strikes.

Potential stress tests that fail could prove risky.

Countries like Iraq, which is particularly exposed with its close ties to neighbouring Iran, Algeria and Lebanon, where many like in Iran defy advice to stay at home, have witnessed months of sustained mass anti-government protests demanding a complete overhaul of a political system perceived as corrupt and incapable of delivering public goods such as jobs, proper healthcare and other services.

Governments have, however, shown little incentive to capitalize on the temporary dwindling of protests to forge new social contracts using the need to confront the virus threat nationally as a wedge.

Fear of the virus coupled with government repression have seen the numbers of protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators initially insisted that Iraq’s political elite was a virus worse than Corona, drop from the thousands to several hundred at best.

The same is true for Algeria and Lebanon, hit not only by the virus but also a financial crisis that is forcing it to default on its ballooning debt.

"You won't be of much help to Algeria if you're dead," quipped one person on Twitter.

Embattled governments see opportunity in the virus, just not one that will prevent the temporary lid on what is a boiling pot from exploding again once the crisis is over, possibly with greater vengeance if Corona exposes the authorities’ and the health system’s inability to cope.

"In Algeria, the government's calls for cancelling the protests are not motivated by sanitary concerns as it is the case in France, the US or elsewhere,” said Riad Kaced, a US-based activist who flew to Algiers almost every second week to take part in the protests.

“The Algerian regime wants to seize this opportunity to strangle the Hirak and kill it off," Mr. Kaced said, referring to the protest movement by its Arabic name.

In that mould, the virus, which has so far infected 62 people in Saudi Arabia  did not stop Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from rounding up potential opponents whom he suspected of plotting against him and launching an oil war with Russia that has wreaked havoc at a time that the global economy can least afford it.

Another clear indication that Middle Eastern autocrats and discredited elites see no reason to use the virus crisis as a monkey wrench to reduce regional tensions and create political and social structures that would make their societies more resilient is their failure to crackdown on opinionmakers, influencers and rumour mongers that seek to weaponize Corona on tightly controlled mainstream and new media.

The Saudi and United Arab Emirates governments remained silent while pro-government voices came to the defense of Saudi-based journalist Noura al-Moteari who tweeted that the virus and its spread had been funded by Qatar in order to undermine Prince Mohammed’s plans for social and economic reform and the UAE's upcoming Expo 2020.

They also looked the other way, despite a Saudi government warning that rumour mongers could face jail terms of up to five years and a fine of up to USD 800,000, after analyst Zayed al-Amri claimed on Saudi television that Turkey and Iran were using the virus to target Arab tourists and attack countries across the globe.

Said social media scholar Marc Owen Jones: ´Coronavirus is being opportunistically weaponised through disinformation and propaganda tactics aimed at demonising political opponents, while exposing latent prejudices.”

The Coronavirus crisis is taking its toll, including the lives of many that good and transparent governance possibly could have saved. Ultimately, authorities will get a grip on it.

However, Corona wasn’t the first such crisis and won’t be the last. The risk is that weaponization serves rulers’ short-term interests but contributes little to building the kind of national and regional resilience and cohesion needed to confront the next one.

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, March 11, 2020

Biden, Sanders, or Trump: US Policy Towards the Gulf Will Change Regardless



By James M. Dorsey

This story was first published on Inside Arabia.

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

The fight in this week’s Democratic primaries may have been about who confronts Donald J. Trump in November’s US presidential election, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. But irrespective of who wins the primaries and the election, one thing is certain: the next American leader will preside over fundamental changes in the US military commitment to the Gulf and what a new regional security architecture will look like.

No doubt, a President Sanders, based on his electoral campaign promises, would likely oversee the most fundamental shift in US policy towards the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East in decades.

Yet, even if Mr. Sanders fails to become the Democratic candidate in the November election, or loses to Mr. Trump, significant elements of his thinking are certain to be at the core of the next administration’s policy, reflecting a broader trend in US attitudes towards foreign engagements in general and the Middle East in particular.

It’s hard to think of anything that Messrs.Sanders and Trump would agree on. And even if there is something, like a reduced commitment to Gulf security, they would do everything to deny that there is any common ground.

Yet, that is perhaps the only thing they agree on.

However, the difference between the two men is that Mr. Trump, who lacks a policy vision that goes beyond slogans like “Make America Great Again” and “Why should the United States shoulder the responsibility of others?”, has no issue with repeatedly reversing himself and sees Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel as his guardrails.

Irrespective of whether one agrees with Mr. Sanders or not, or how realistic one thinks his vision is, it is beyond doubt that he has thought through a concept of what American policy towards the Middle East should be.

As a result, a Sanders presidency, viewed with apprehension by countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, whom the Democrats’ most left-wing hopeful has targeted, could prove to be either the most constructive US government in changing the region’s political landscape or the most divisive and destructive.

The changing landscape is likely to be driven by the US desire to reduce its military commitment and nagging Gulf doubts about US reliability. Doubts that began with US President Barak Obama’s support for the 2011 popular Arab revolts and his nuclear deal with Iran and were later reinforced by Mr. Trump’s unpredictability and refusal to respond forcefully to multiple Iranian provocations, including last September’s attack on two key Saudi oil facilities.

The killing in January by US drones of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was seen by Gulf states as the welcome taking out of a feared and wily opponent but also as an operation that risked dragging the region into a full-fledged war.

Mr. Trump has further raised questions with his insistence that his withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions-driven maximum pressure campaign are producing results.

As a result, a move towards a multilateral security architecture looks increasingly attractive given the regional uncertainty about the outcome of the US election and the fact that neither China nor Russia is willing or capable on their own of replacing the US as the Gulf’s security guarantor.

While Mr. Biden has ruffled few Middle Eastern feathers even though he is expected to hue closer to Mr. Obama’s approach, Mr. Sanders has raised alarms in Riyadh and Jerusalem with his campaign promise to re-join the nuclear agreement on the first day of his presidency even though, in theory, a return could facilitate achieving some kind of regional non-aggression understanding.

Such an understanding is at the core of Russian and Iranian proposals for a multilateral arrangement that would embed the current unipolar US defense umbrella that was designed to protect the conservative Gulf states against Iran.

The degree to which Mr. Sanders’ intention to revive the agreement with Iran facilitates a broader agreement or complicates a transition to a multilateral arrangement is nonetheless likely to depend on whether and how Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE respond to Mr. Sanders’ policy.

The glass is half full or half empty on that count.

The Saudis, Emiratis, and Israelis were opposed to the original agreement.

A sense in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that Saudi and UAE interests had been ignored during the negotiations with Iran and that the US could no longer be fully trusted prompted them to embark on a series of reckless policies. That perception of mistrust sparked the disastrous war in Yemen and persuaded them to forge close albeit informal ties with Israel, which views the regime in Tehran as an existential threat.

A Sanders administration that takes the Gulf states to task on human rights issues, and targets economic structures that enable the oil-rich states’ dollar diplomacy—even if it embraces Palestinian national rights—could convince them to do what it takes to counter the new president and thwart his initiatives.

By the same token, Mr. Trump’s perceived unreliability prompted the UAE and Saudi Arabia to reach out to Iran. The Emiratis appear to have made progress in lowering tensions while indirect Saudi-Iranian contacts broke down with the Soleimani killing.

A progressive US military disengagement from the Gulf and Iraq as well as a halt to support of the Saudi engagement in Yemen under Mr. Sanders could blow new life into regional efforts to create an environment conducive to a rejiggered security architecture.

Said international affairs scholar Dania Koleilat Khatib: “Though some might see a Sanders presidency as causing more turbulence in the region, as he will likely let Iran loose, the chances are that he will lead a more multilateral approach, giving more space for the UN to resolve the conflicts in the region.”

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