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Papal visit to Iraq: Breaking historic ground pockmarked by religious and political minefields

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  Credit: YouTube/The National By James M. Dorsey When Pope Francis sets foot in Iraq on Friday, he will be breaking historic ground while manoeuvring religious and political minefields. So will his foremost religious counterpart, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the Shia Muslim world’s foremost scholars and leaders. The three-day visit contrasts starkly with past papal trips to the Middle East that included Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, states that, unlike neighbouring Iran, are more accustomed to inter-faith interactions because of their Sunni Muslim history and colonial experience or in the case of Shia-majority Azerbaijan a modern history of secular and communist rule. Unlike in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis is venturing in Iraq into a Shia-majority country that has been wracked by sectarian violence in which neighbouring Iran wields significant religious and political influence and that is home to religious scholars that

China in the Middle East: Stepping up to the plate

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  By James M. Dorsey By defining Chinese characteristics as “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution, Messrs. Sun and Wu were suggesting that China was seeking to prepare the ground for greater Chinese engagement in efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a volatile region that repeatedly threatens to spin out of control. The scholars defined China’s goal as building an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences. By implication, Messrs. Sun and Wu’s vision reflected a growing realization in China that it no longer can protect its mushrooming interests exclusively through economic cooperation, trade, and investment. It also signalled an understanding that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through an inclusive, comprehensive, and multilateral reconstructed sec

US intelligence report leaves Saudi Arabia with no good geopolitical choices

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  By James M. Dorsey The Biden administration’s publication of a US intelligence report that holds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi creates a fundamental challenge to the kingdom’s geopolitical ambitions. The challenge lies in whether and how Saudi Arabia will seek to further diversify its alliances with other world powers in response to the report and US human rights pressure. Saudi and United Arab Emirates options are limited by that fact that they cannot fully replace the United States as a mainstay of their defence as well as their quest for regional hegemony, even if the report revives perceptions of the US as unreliable and at odds with their policies. As Saudi King Salman and Prince Mohammed contemplate their options, including strengthening relations with external players such as China and Russia, they may find that reliance on these forces could prove riskier than the pitfalls of the kingdom’s ties with t

A little acknowledged clause may be main obstacle to revival of Iran nuclear accord

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A little acknowledged provision of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program explains jockeying by the United States and the Islamic republic over the modalities of a US return to the deal from which President Donald J. Trump withdrew. The provision’s magic date is 2023, when the Biden administration if it returns to the agreement, would have to seek Congressional approval for the lifting or modification of all US nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. Both the administration and Iran recognize that Congressional approval is likely to be a tall order, if not impossible, given bi-partisan US distrust, animosity, and suspicion of the Islamic republic. As a result, the United States and Iran have different objectives in negotiating a US return to the accord. The Biden administration is attempting to engineer a process that would allow it to sidestep the 2023 hurdle as well as ensure a negotiation that would update the six-year-old deal, limit   Iran’s c

Myanmar: Exploiting lessons learnt in the Middle East

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  By James M. Dorsey Demonstrating for the third week their determination to force the country’s military to return to its barracks, protesters in Myanmar appear to be learning lessons from a decade of protest in the Middle East and North Africa. By the same token, Myanmar’s protesters, in stark contrast to public silence about the military’s brutal repression of the Rohingya minority in recent years, seem to want to forge a national identity that supersedes past emphasis on ethnicity and/or religion. In doing so, they, like their counterparts in Lebanon and Iraq, reject sectarian policies that allowed elites to divide and rule and distract attention from economic and social grievances held by all segments of the population. As they resist the military’s February 1 coup that nullified a democratic election won in November in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) because of alleged electoral fraud, protesters confront many of the same obstacles th

Turkey signals sweeping regional ambitions

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  By James M. Dorsey A nationalist Turkish television station with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dug up a 12-year-old map that projects Turkey’s sphere of influence in 2050 as stretching from South-eastern Europe on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and Libya on its southern shore across North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant into the Caucasus and Central Asia. Buoyed by last year’s Azerbaijani defeat of Armenia, TGRT, a subsidiary of Ihlas Holding, a media and construction conglomerate that has won major government tenders, used the map to advance a policy that has long constituted the agenda of some of Mr. Erdogan’s closest advisors. The broadcasting of the map, first published in a book authored by George Freidman , the founder of Stratfor, an influential American corporate intelligence group, followed calls by pan-Turkic daily Turkiye , Ihlas’ daily newspaper that has the fourth-largest circulation in Turkey, to leverage the Azerbaijani victory to cre

Saudi schoolbooks: What does it take to recontextualize Islam?

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  By James M. Dorsey Two decades of snail pace revisions of Saudi schoolbooks aimed at removing supremacist references to Jews, Christians, and Shiites suggest a willingness to delete offensive language while keeping in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam. In a break with the past, Human Rights Watch and Impact-se , an education-focused Israeli research group, reported for the first time in two decades of post-9/11 pressure on Saudi Arabia that the kingdom had made significant progress in revising textbooks. The reports focussed on explicit references to other religions but noted that further revisions were needed to eliminate language that disparages practices associated with religious minorities, particularly Shiite Muslims and Sufis, sects viewed as heretic by ultra-conservatives. “As long as the texts continue to disparage religious beliefs and practices of minority groups, including those of fellow S