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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Self-fulfilling prophecies: Chinese fear attacks by Uyghur jihadists



By James M. Dorsey

A seemingly obsessive fear of Uyghur nationalist and religious sentiment has prompted Chinese leaders to contemplate military involvement in Syria and Afghanistan and risk international condemnation for its massive repression in its north-western province of Xinjiang, involving the most frontal assault on Islam as a faith in recent history.

Chinese fears of Uyghur activism threaten to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its policies are likely to prompt jihadists, including Uyghur foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, some of whom are exploring new pastures in Central Asia closer to China’s borders, to put the People’s Republic further up their target list.

Up to 5,000 Uyghurs are believed to have joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq in recent years, including the Islamic State, whose leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, listed Xinjiang in 2014 at the top of his list of countries that violate Muslim rights.

Uyghur fighters speaking in videos distributed by the Islamic State have vowed to return home to “plant their flag in China.” One fighter, addressing evil Chinese Communist infidel lackeys,” threatened that “in retaliation for the tears that flow from the eyes of the oppressed, we will make your blood flow in rivers, by the will of God.”

Maps circulating on Twitter purporting to highlight the Islamic State’s expansion plans included substantial parts of Xinjiang. Al Qaeda echoed the Islamic State’s statements by condemning Chinese policy towards Xinjiang as “’occupied Muslim land’ to be “recovered (into) the shade of the Islamic Caliphate.”

China’s concerns of a jihadist backlash go beyond fears of political violence. They are driven to a large extent by the fact that Xinjiang is home to 15  percent of China’s proven oil reserves, 22  per cent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear arsenal,.

Yasheng Sidike, the mayor of the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi and city’s deputy Communist Party chief, in a signal of what re-education means in camps in which, according to the United Nations, up to one million Uyghurs, a Turkic minority, and other Muslims have been detained, recently argued that Uyghurs were “members of the Chinese family, not descendants of the Turks.”

Mr. Sidike went on to say that “the three evil forces, using the name of ethnics and religion, have been creating hatred between ethnic groups and the mania to conduct terrorist activities, which greatly damage the shared interests of Xinjiang people.” Mr. Sidike was referring to China’s portrayal of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism as three evils.

The Communist Party’s Global Times asserted earlier that the security situation in Xinjiang had been “turned around and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated. Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang… Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China's Syria’ or ‘China's Libya,’" the paper said.

Witness statements by former detainees of the re-education camps reported that they constituted an attempt to brainwash inmates into accepting loyalty to the Communist Party and China’s leadership above their religious beliefs.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan. China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged Uyghur jihadist assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets.

Five Chinese mining engineers were recently wounded in a suicide attack in the troubled Pakistan province of Balochistan, a key node in the US$ 50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to link the strategic port of Gwadar with Xinjiang and fuel economic development in the Chinese region. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) rather than Uyghurs.


Chinese fears of renewed jihadist attacks on Chinese targets in China and beyond are heightened by anti-Chinese sentiment in Central and South Asia fuelled by groups effected by the crackdown in Xinjiang as well as broader unease with the fallout of Chinese-funded projects related to China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative.

Major political parties and business organizations in the Pakistani province of Gilgit-Baltistan threatened earlier this year to shut down the Pakistan-China border if Beijing did not release some 50 Uighur women married to Pakistani men from the region, who have been detained in Xinjiang.

The province’s legislative assembly unanimously called on the government in Islamabad to take up the issue. The women, many of whom are practicing Muslims and don religious attire, are believed to have been detained in re-education camps.

Concern in Tajikistan is mounting that the country may not be able to service its increasing Belt and Road-related debt. Tajikistan was forced in April to hand over a gold mine to China as remuneration for $300 million in funding to build a power plant. Impoverished Turkmenistan may have no choice but to do the same with gas fields.

The emerging stories of Kazakhs released from re-education camps and the granting of asylum in Kazakhstan to a Chinese national of Kazakh descent spotlighted the government’s difficulty in balancing its need to be seen to be standing up for its people and accommodating Chinese ambitions in Central Asia.

In a sign of the times, Russian commentator Yaroslav Razumov noted that Kazakh youth recently thwarted the marriage of a Kazakh national to a Chinese woman by denouncing it on social media as unpatriotic. 

Concern that Uighur militants exiting Syria and Iraq will again target Xinjiang is one likely reason why Chinese officials suggested that despite their adherence to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others China might join the Syrian army in taking on militants in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.

Syrian forces have bombarded Idlib, a dumping ground for militants evacuated from other parts of the country captured by the Syrian military and the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in advance of an expected offensive.

Chinese participation in what likely would be a brutal and messy campaign in Idlib would be China’s first major engagement in foreign battle in decades.

China has similarly sought to mediate a reduction of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to get them to cooperate in the fight against militants and ensure that Uyghur jihadists are denied the ability to operate on China’s borders. It has also sought to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Chinese officials told a recent gathering in Beijing of the Afghan-Pakistan-China Trilateral Counter-Terrorism dialogue that militant cross-border mobility represented a major threat that needed to be countered by an integrated regional approach.

Meanwhile, China has reportedly started building a training camp for Afghan troops in a narrow corridor that connects the two countries that would be home to some 500 Chinese troops.

China agreed two years ago to fund and build 11 military outposts and a training facility to beef up Tajikistan’s defense capabilities along its border with Afghanistan that hosts a large part of the main highway connecting Tajikistan’s most populous regions to China.

China has since stepped up the sharing of intelligence with Tajikistan on issues related to political violence, religious extremism and drug trafficking.

The Chinese defense ministry, moreover, announced in April that China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan would perform joint counterterrorism and training and exercises that focus on real combat experiences.

China and Afghanistan also agreed last year to lay a cross-border fibre-optic cable that like in the case of Pakistan could pave the way to export China’s model of a surveillance state to Afghanistan.

Chinese counterterrorism cooperation with various Muslim nations could be put in jeopardy by an increasing number of media reports spotlighting the crackdown in Xinjiang. Muslim governments, who have remained conspicuously silent, are likely to be further embarrassed if Western criticism of the crackdown snowballs.

A bipartisan group of US members of Congress recently called on the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials and companies involved in the crackdown and mass detentions. The administration may have less compunction about confronting China as its trade war with the People’s Republic escalates.

“We believe that targeted sanctions will have an impact. At a time when the Chinese government is seeking to expand its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, the last thing China’s leaders want is international condemnation of their poor and abusive treatment of ethnic and religious minorities,” the members of Congress said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Playing politics with religion: Imran Khan puts himself between a rock and a hard place



By James M. Dorsey

Less than a week in office, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has made blasphemy one of his first issues, empowering militants and initiating international moves, long heralded by Saudi Arabia, that would restrict press freedom by pushing for a global ban.

Mr. Khan, in his first address as prime minister to the Pakistani Senate, said he intended to raise the blasphemy issue in the United Nations and would work to achieve a common stand within the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Mr. Khan spoke after the Senate adopted a resolution condemning a plan by Geert Wilders, a militantly Islamophobic, far-right Dutch opposition leader, who heads the second largest faction in parliament, to hold a competition for cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed. Many Muslims see visual depictions of the prophet as blasphemy.

The Pakistani campaign against the planned Dutch competition echoes a Muslim boycott more than a decade ago of Danish goods and protests across the Muslim world in response to publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper that depicted the Prophet Mohammed unfavourably.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte denounced Mr. Wilder’s plan as “not respectful” and “provocative” but provoked Pakistani ire by refusing to ban the competition on the grounds that he would not curtail freedom of speech.

Mr. Khan’s newly appointed human rights minister, Shireen Mazari, a controversial academic, who two decades ago advocated nuclear strikes against Indian population centres in the event of a war, set the tone by condemning on her first day in office Mr. Rutte’s decision.

Ms. Shirazi’s move bolstered plans by Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) to launch a "decisive march" from Lahore to Islamabad and "stay on the streets until either the publication of blasphemous cartoons in the Netherlands end or the government immediately ends diplomatic ties with the Dutch."

TLP also called on Mr. Khan to demand that Islamic nations together with Pakistan break off diplomatic relations with the Netherlands in protest against the planned cartoon competition.

The TLP propelled itself into prominence when it last year blocked key roads in Islamabad for weeks with seemingly tacit military approval in demand of the resignation of the then justice minister, claiming that he had weakened the principle of Khatam-i-Nabuwwat, or the finality of Mohammed’s prophethood, that resonates strongly among many Pakistanis.

TLP was instrumental in helping Mr. Khan win last month’s election. A Gallup Pakistan survey said anecdotal evidence showed that TLP votes pushed Mr. Khan’s main rival, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), into second place in many districts.

TLP, exploiting what governance expert Rashid Chaudhry dubbed “the politics of emotion,” emerged from the election as Pakistan’s fifth largest party even if it failed to win a seat in the country’s national assembly. The party campaigned on a platform calling for strict implementation of Islamic law as well as Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy law.

Mr. Khan, who has condemned killings in the name of religion, has echoed TLP’s insistence on the principle of Khatam-i-Nabuwwat and anti-blasphemy stance. “We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it,” Khan said referring to a clause in the constitution that mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Prophet Muhammad.

Mr. Khan’s backing of the blasphemy clause that has served as a ramming rod against minorities and a means to whip crowds into a frenzy and at times turn them into lynch mobs and inspired vigilante killings came as no surprise to South Asia scholar Ahsan I. Butt, who noted shortly after the election that “Khan’s ideology and beliefs on a host of dimensions are indistinguishable from the religious hard-right.”

By prioritizing blasphemy in his first week in office, Mr. Khan was catering to a widely held anti-blasphemy sentiment among Pakistanis as well as Saudi Arabia that has been quietly campaigning for more than decade for a global law that would punish blasphemy.

Mr. Khan’s move comes at a moment that Pakistan is walking a fine line in the bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran with whom Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Shiite Muslim minority, shares a border.

Pakistan reluctantly allowed retired Pakistani general Raheel Sharif to take command of the coalition in 2017. Pakistan has camouflaged its reluctance to be drawn into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry by repeatedly insisting that it would do what is needed to protect Islam’s most holy sites in the kingdom.

Diplomatic sources suggest that Saudi financial support for Pakistan, enmeshed in a financial crisis that is likely to force it to turn for the 13th time in three decades to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), could depend on the degree to which Mr. Khan bends to the kingdom’s will. The Saudi-backed Islamic Development Bank reportedly would be willing to lend Pakistan US$ 4 billion.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is believed to have raised the issue last week with Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who was last week in the kingdom to perform the haj.

Saudi efforts to exploit Pakistan’s precarious financial position early in Mr. Khan’s prime ministership stem not only from Pakistan’s urgent need for assistance but also uncertainty on what Saudi-Pakistani relations will be.

Unlike, ousted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who maintained close personal and commercial ties to the kingdom’s ruling family, Mr. Khan is less beholden to the Saudis even if he shares much of their ultra-conservatism.

Saudi Arabia arranged for Mr. Sharif and his family to go into exile in 1999 after his then government was toppled in a military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power.

Imran Khan doesn’t feel personally obliged towards the Saudis, who have long bought Pakistan and considered it their satellite state. If there’s anything that could push his hand it’s the economic support provided by Riyadh, given Pakistan’s fiscal needs,” said Shameem Akhtar, a veteran foreign policy analyst, columnist and former dean of International Relations at Karachi University.

If successful in his campaign for a global law banning blasphemy, Mr. Khan will put himself, Pakistan and Islamic countries that join him in his effort in a precarious position. It would likely open him his country and the Muslim world to criticism of their silence about China’s crackdown in the north-western province of Xinjiang on Uyghur Muslims that arguably amounts to one of the most concerted attacks on Islam in recent history.

"Many Middle Eastern states have a poor human rights record themselves — including when it comes to the treatment of religious minorities. Many exhibit a similar understanding of human rights to China's — that is, that social stability trumps individual rights. This is how the Chinese government has framed the presence of re-education camps and other repressive measures,” said Chinese politics scholar Simone van Nieuwenhuizen.

Many Muslim nations, targets of significant Chinese investment, beneficiaries of trade, and in some case heavily indebted to China, feel they cannot afford to put their economic ties to the People’s Republic in jeopardy.

Ultimately, that however could put Muslim leaders, including Mr. Khan, between a rock and a hard place. They often seek to bolster their domestic and international positions by burnishing their religious credentials. Doing so while turning a blind eye to developments in China eventually could catch up with them.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Crunch time in Pakistan



By James M. Dorsey

It’s crunch time in Pakistan. Resolving Pakistan’s financial crisis is likely to require newly appointed prime minister Imran Khan to not only accept an International Monetary Fund (IMF) straightjacket but tackle his and Pakistan’s convoluted relationship to militancy.

With the breeding ground for militancy built into the country’s DNA and Mr. Khan owing his electoral victory in part to the spoiler role played by militants in Pakistani elections, tackling militancy is a tall order. Add to that Mr. Khan’s ultra-conservative social attitudes as well as his abetting of militant concerns.

Mr. Khan, who was once dubbed Taliban Khan because of his support of the Afghan Taliban, advocacy for the opening in Pakistan of an official Taliban Pakistan office, allowing government funds to go to militant madrassas, and enabling Islamists to dictate the content of public school textbooks, is nonetheless likely to find that he has no choice.

To secure IMF support, Mr. Khan will have to avoid blacklisting by an international watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and ensure removal from the group’s grey list by not only reinforcing anti-money laundering and terrorism finance measures but also rigorously implementing them.

That would require both the acquiescence of Pakistan’s powerful military and a reversal of Mr. Khan’s publicly espoused positions. In many ways, Mr. Khan’s positions have been more in line with those of the military, including his assertion that militancy in Pakistan was the result of the United States’ ill-conceived war on terror rather than a history of support of militant proxies that goes back to Pakistan’s earliest days, than he has often been willing to acknowledge.

“If terrorism is not indigenous to Pakistan, and merely imported, then it follows that no larger reckoning of the state’s and society’s relationship with religion can or should take place — a convenient conclusion for religious hardliners,” said South Asia scholar Ahsan I. Butt.

Juggling the demands of multi-lateral agencies and Pakistan’s reality is likely to trap Mr. Khan in a Catch-22 of centrifugal forces that include the roots of militancy enhanced by what Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells termed “the rise of the networked society.”

The appeal of the militants’ intolerance and supremacism, rooted in a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the teachings the Prophet Mohammed, is reinforced by advances in information technology and proliferation of media that in Mr. Castells’ approach created “a world of uncontrolled, confusing change” that compelled people “to regroup around primary identities; religious, ethnic, territorial, (and) national.”

Mr. Khan’s harsh reality is nonetheless likely to be also shaped by Pakistan’s handling of men like Abdul Rehman al-Dakhil, a probable litmus test of the seriousness of its anti-terrorism measures.

An alleged operational leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group sanctioned by both the United Nations and the United States that openly operates through proxies despite being banned in Pakistan, Mr. Al-Dakhil together with two “financial facilitators” was last month identified by the US State Department as a globally designated terrorist.

“Today’s action notifies the U.S. public and the international community that Abdul Rehman al-Dakhil has committed, or poses a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism,” the State Department said.

Hafez Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba and its front organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, constitutes a similar litmus test as Mr. Khan seeks to demonstrate to FATF compliance with agreed measures to counter money-laundering and terrorism finance.

The fact that Mr. Saeed despite having been designated a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council and the State Department, which put a US$10 million bounty on his head, remains a free man and was able to field candidates in last month’s election figured prominently in FATF’s decision to put Pakistan on a grey list .

To demonstrate its sincerity, Pakistan in advance of the election passed the Anti-Terrorism Ordinance of 2018, which gave groups and individuals, including Mr. Saeed, designated by the UN as international terrorists the same status in Pakistan for the first time.

Pakistan also sought to curtail the ability of Mr Saeed’s organizations to perform social and charity work, a pillar of their popularity, by confiscating ambulances operated by his charity,  closing Jamaat-ud-Dawa offices and handing control of its madrassas to provincial governments.

The fact that Mr. Saeed’s candidates and other militants did not bag National Assembly seats in last month’s election would suggest at first glance that it would be easier for the military and Mr. Khan to radically alter their approach to militancy.

That, however, ignores the significance of the militants capturing almost ten percent of the vote and helping deprive Mr. Khan’s main rival, ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), of votes in crucial electoral districts, according to an analysis of the Pakistan Election Commission’s results by constituency as well as a Gallup Pakistan survey.

It also fails to take into account the extra-parliamentary influence militants garner from their role as spoilers as well as their societal roots.

“In Pakistan, parliamentary seats alone do not a victory make. The religious political parties, particularly the newcomer extremist variety, may not have won big, but they have much to celebrate. Primarily, they can revel in their successful hijacking of this election’s political narratives. Rather than moderate their positions in order to compete, they managed to radicalise part of the mainstream political discourse,” said journalist Huma Yusuf.

Exploiting what governance expert Rashid Chaudhry dubbed “the politics of emotion,” Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), campaigning on a platform calling for strict implementation of Islamic law as well as Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy law, emerged from the election as Pakistan’s fifth largest party.

TLP, headed by Islamic scholar Khadim Hussain Rizvi, garnered four percent of the vote even if it only won two seats in Sindh’s provincial assembly and one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Gallup survey said anecdotal evidence showed that TLP votes pushed PML-N to second position in many districts, “one reason for the loss of PML-N seats.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Khan has echoed TLP’s insistence on the principle of Khatam-i-Nabuwwat, or the finality of Mohammed’s prophethood, that pervades Pakistan’s body politic. “We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it,” Khan said referring to a clause in the constitution that mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Prophet Muhammad.

Mr. Khan’s newly appointed human rights minister, Shireen Mazari, a controversial academic, who two decades ago advocated nuclear strikes against Indian population centres in the event of a war, condemned on her first day in office a Dutch government decision to support an exhibition of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed by a member of parliament.

TLP supporters ransacked an Ahmadi mosque in the city of Faisalabad less than a week after Mr. Khan was sworn in, shooting and wounding six people. Supporters of TLP and Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) targeted an Ahmadi house of worship in Sialkot in May.

Mr. Khan’s backing of the blasphemy clause that has served as a ramming rod against minorities and a means to whip crowds into a frenzy and at times turn them into lynch mobs and inspired vigilante killings came as no surprise to Mr. Butt, the South Asia scholar, who noted shortly after the election that “Khan’s ideology and beliefs on a host of dimensions are indistinguishable from the religious hard-right.”

Yet, securing international support for inevitable structural reform of the Pakistani economy will have to involve breaking with militancy, implementing international standards in anti-money laundering and terrorism finance, and pushing concepts of pluralism and tolerance that are anathema to the religious hard-right. For Mr. Khan to succeed, that seemingly will amount to having to square a circle.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Regional players manoeuvre to reengineer the Israeli Palestinian landscape



By James M. Dorsey

A possible ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, is proving to be much more than an effort to end escalating violence that threatens to spark yet another Middle Eastern war.

United Arab Emirates-backed Egyptian and United Nations efforts to mediate an agreement, with the two countries’ nemesis, Qatar, in the background, are about not only preventing months-long weekly protests along the line that divides Gaza and Israel and repeated rocket and kite-mounted incendiary device attacks on Israel that provoke Israeli military strikes in response from spinning out of control.

They constitute yet another round in an Israeli-supported effort to politically, economically and militarily weaken Hamas and pave the road for a possible return to Palestine of Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief Mohmmed Dahlan as a future successor to ailing Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Ironically, Israeli discussions with representatives of Qatar that has long supported Gaza constitute recognition of the utility of Qatar’s long-standing relations with Islamists and militants that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain cited as the reason for their 15-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state.

Israel and Egypt have agreed that Qatar would pay the salaries of tens of thousands of government employees in Gaza. Mr. Abbas has refused to pay the salaries as part of an Israeli-UAE-Saudi-backed effort to undermine Hamas’ control of Gaza and give the Palestine Authority a key role in its administration. In response to a request by Mr. Abbas, Israel, moreover, reduced electricity supplies, leaving Gazans with only 3-4 hours of power a day.

Qatar has also been negotiating the return by Hamas of two Israeli nationals held captive as well as the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014 in Gaza.

Mr. Abbas’ economic warfare was the latest tightening of the noose in a more than a decade-long Israeli-Egyptian effort to strangle Gaza economically. Included in the moves to negotiate a long-term Israeli-Hamas ceasefire are proposals for significant steps to ease the blockade.

In a statement on Facebook, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel’s goal was to “remove the Hamas terror group from power, or force it to change its approach, i.e., recognize Israel’s right to exist and accept the principle of rebuilding in exchange for demilitarization.”

Mr Lieberman said he wanted to achieve that by “creating conditions in which the average resident of Gaza will take steps to replace the Hamas regime with a more pragmatic government” rather than through military force.

Ironically, involving Qatar in the efforts to prevent Gaza from escalating out of hand gives it a foot in the door as the UAE seeks to put a Palestinian leader in place more attuned to Emirati and Saudi willingness to accommodate the Trump administration’s controversial efforts to negotiate an overall Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Speaking in a series of interviews, Qatari Ambassador to the Palestinian territories Mohammed al-Emadi, insisted that “it is very difficult to fund the reconstruction of Gaza in an event of yet another destructive war.” He said he had “discussed a maximum of five- to 10-year cease-fire with Hamas.”

Mr. Abbas, like Hamas has rejected US mediation following President Donald J. Trump’s recognition earlier this year of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Mr. Trump startled Israelis and Palestinians this week by saying that Israel would pay a "higher price" for his recognition of Jerusalem and that Palestinians would "get something very good" in return  "because it's their turn next." Mr. Trump gave no indication of what he meant.

The effort to negotiate a lasting ceasefire is the latest round in a so far failed UAE-Egyptian effort to return Mr. Dahlan to Palestine as part of a reconciliation between Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement. Mr. Dahlan frequently does UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s bidding.

US President George W. Bush described Mr. Dahlan during an internecine Palestinian power struggle in 2007 as “our boy.” Mr. Dahlan is believed to have close ties to Mr. Lieberman.

Hamas has since late March backed weekly mass protests by Gazans demanding the right to return to homes in Israel proper that they lost with the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and in the 1967 Middle East war in an effort to force an end to the economic stranglehold. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said this week that “thanks to these marches and resistance” an end to Israel's decade-long blockade of Gaza was "around the corner.”

Some 170 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and 18,000 others wounded in Israel’s hard-handed response to the protests designed to prevent protesters from breeching the fence that divides Gaza from Israel.

Ironically, Mr. Abbas may prove to be the loser as Israel and Hamas inch towards a ceasefire arrangement that could ultimately give Mr. Dahlan a role in administering the Gaza Strip.

"Gaza has become a de facto state as it comprises a set area with a central body that governs the population, has an army and conducts foreign policy. So, in a way, countries have to be pragmatic and negotiate with Hamas. Israel's main interest is security—a period of complete calm in Gaza—and it is willing to do what is necessary to achieve this,” said Giora Eiland, former head of Israel's National Security Council.

"Until recently, Cairo insisted that Abbas re-assume control over Gaza, which Hamas would not accept, specifically the call for it to disarm. Now, Egypt understands that this is not realistic and is only demanding that Hamas prevent (the Islamic State's affiliate) in the Sinai from smuggling in weaponry. The only party that is unhappy with this arrangement is Abbas. who has been left behind. But this is his problem,” Mr., Eiland added.

A Hamas-Israel ceasefire and the possible return of Mr. Dahlan are likely to be but the first steps in a UAE-Egyptian-Israeli backed strategy to engineer the emergence of a Palestinian leadership more amenable to negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a geo-political environment that favours Israel.

Whether Mr. Trump’s remark that Israel would have to pay a price for his recognition of Jerusalem was a shot from the hip or part of a broader strategy is hard to discern. The White House has since sought to roll back Mr. Trump’s remarks.

With the jury still out Israelis, Palestinians and their regional allies have nonetheless been put on alert as they manoeuvre to ensure their place in whatever emerges from efforts to reengineer the political landscape.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Transition in the Middle East: Transition to What?



James M. Dorsey

National Security, Vol 1:1 August 2018, p. 84-108

The Middle East and North Africa are embroiled in multiple transitions, involving social, economic and political change at home, and struggles for power across the region dominated by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The often volatile and violent transitions amount to battles for survival of autocratic regimes and confrontations between either counterrevolutionary or autocratic forces, who oppose political change and see limited and controlled reform as a survival strategy, and forces seeking fundamental change of economic and political systems. The battles are overlaid by great power competition in a world in which the balance between the United States, China and Russia is in flux and regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel are flexing their muscles. While the name of the game is beyond doubt transition, the question remains: transition to what?

Read further:


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Turkey’s financial crisis raises questions about China’s debt-driven development model





By James M. Dorsey

Financial injections by Qatar and possibly China may resolve Turkey’s immediate economic crisis, aggravated by a politics-driven trade war with the United States, but are unlikely to resolve the country’s structural problems, fuelled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s counterintuitive interest rate theories.

The latest crisis in Turkey’s boom-bust economy raises questions about a development model in which countries like China and Turkey witness moves towards populist rule of one man who encourages massive borrowing to drive economic growth.

It’s a model minus the one-man rule that could be repeated in Pakistan as newly sworn-in prime minister Imran Khan, confronted with a financial crisis, decides whether to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or rely on China and Saudi Arabia for relief.

Pakistan, like Turkey, has over the years frequently knocked on the IMF’s doors, failing to have turned crisis into an opportunity for sustained restructuring and reform of the economy. Pakistan could in the next weeks be turning to the IMF for the 13th time, Turkey, another serial returnee, has been there 18 times.

In Turkey and China, the debt-driven approach sparked remarkable economic growth with living standards being significantly boosted and huge numbers of people being lifted out of poverty. Yet, both countries with Turkey more exposed, given its greater vulnerability to the swings and sensitivities of international financial markets, are witnessing the limitations of the approach.

So are, countries along China’s Belt and Road, including Pakistan, that leaped head over shoulder into the funding opportunities made available to them and now see themselves locked into debt traps that in the case of Sri Lanka and Djibouti have forced them to effectively turn over to China control of critical national infrastructure or like Laos that have become almost wholly dependent on China because it owns the bulk of their unsustainable debt.

The fact that China may be more prepared to deal with the downside of debt-driven development does little to make its model sustainable or for that matter one that other countries would want to emulate unabridged and has sent some like Malaysia and Myanmar scrambling to resolve or avert an economic crisis.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is in China after suspending US$20 billion worth of Beijing-linked infrastructure contracts, including a high-speed rail line to Singapore, concluded by his predecessor, Najib Razak, who is fighting corruption charges.

Mr. Mahathir won elections in May on a campaign that asserted that Mr. Razak had ceded sovereignty to China by agreeing to Chinese investments that failed to benefit the country and threaten to drown it in debt.

Myanmar is negotiating a significant scaling back of a Chinese-funded port project on the Bay of Bengal from one that would cost US$ 7.3 billion to a more modest development that would cost US$1.3 billion in a bid to avoid shouldering an unsustainable debt.

Debt-driven growth could also prove to be a double-edged sword for China itself even if it is far less dependent than others on imports, does not run a chronic trade deficit, and doesn’t have to borrow heavily in dollars.

With more than half the increase in global debt over the past decade having been issued as domestic loans in China, China’s risk, said Ruchir Sharma, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Global Strategist and head of Emerging Markets Equity, is capital fleeing to benefit from higher interest rates abroad.

“Right now Chinese can earn the same interest rates in the United States for a lot less risk, so the motivation to flee is high, and will grow more intense as the Fed raises rates further,” Mr. Sharma said referring to the US Federal Reserve.

Mr. Erdogan has charged that the United States abetted by traitors and foreigners are waging economic warfare against Turkey, using a strong dollar as ''the bullets, cannonballs and missiles.''

Rejecting economic theory and wisdom, Mr. Erdogan has sought for years to fight an alleged ‘interest rate lobby’ that includes an ever-expanding number of financiers and foreign powers seeking to drive Turkish interest rates artificially high to damage the economy by insisting that low interest rates and borrowing costs would contain price hikes.

In doing so, he is harking back to an approach that was popular in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s that may not be wholly wrong but similarly may also not be universally applicable.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) warned late last year that Turkey’s “gross external financing needs to cover the current account deficit and external debt repayments due within a year are estimated at around 25 per cent of GDP in 2017, leaving the country exposed to global liquidity conditions.”

With two international credit rating agencies reducing Turkish debt to junk status in the wake of Turkey’s economically fought disputes with the United States, the government risks its access to foreign credits being curtailed, which could force it to extract more money from ordinary Turks through increased taxes. That in turn would raise the spectre of recession.

“Turkey's troubles are homegrown, and the economic war against it is a figment of Mr. Erdogan's conspiratorial imagination. But he does have a point about the impact of a surging dollar, which has a long history of inflicting damage on developing nations,” Mr. Sharma said.

Nevertheless, as The Wall Street Journal concluded, the vulnerability of Turkey’s debt-driven growth  was such that it only took two tweets by US President Donald J. Trump announcing sanctions against two Turkish ministers and the doubling of some tariffs to accelerate the Turkish lira’s tailspin.

Mr. Erdogan may not immediately draw the same conclusion, but it is certainly one that is likely to serve as a cautionary note for countries that see debt, whether domestic or associated with China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative, as a main driver of growth.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Friday, August 17, 2018

Pakistan at a crossroads as Imran Khan is sworn in



By James M. Dorsey

Criticism of Pakistan’s anti-money laundering and terrorism finance regime by the Asia Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG) is likely to complicate incoming Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s efforts to tackle his country’s financial crisis.

Addressing the criticism of the 41-nation APG, which reports to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism watchdog that earlier this year put Pakistan on a grey list with the prospect of blacklisting it is key to a possible Pakistani request for a US$ 12 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout.

A US demand that any IMF package exclude funding for paying off Chinese loans coupled with the APG/FATF criticism, against a backdrop of the Pakistani military’s efforts to nudge militants into the mainstream of Pakistani politics and the incoming prime minister’s mixed statements on extremism, could push Mr. Khan to turn to China and Saudi Arabia for rescue, a move that would likely not put Pakistan in the kind of straightjacket it needs to reform and restructure its troubled economy.

The APG criticism followed Pakistani efforts to demonstrate its sincerity by passing in February the Anti-Terrorism Ordinance of 2018, which gave groups and individuals designated by the UN as international terrorists the same status in Pakistan for the first time.

Pakistan, however, has yet to implement the ordinance by for example acting against Hafez Saeed, a leader of the banned group Lashkar-e-Taiba and the alleged mastermind of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, who despite having been designated a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council and having a US$ 10 million US Treasury bounty on his head, fielded candidates in last month’s election.

The APG, which just ended talks with Pakistani officials, has scheduled follow-up visits to Pakistan in September and October to monitor Pakistani progress in addressing its concerns, which focus on legal provisions governing non-profit and charitable organisations, transparency in the country’s beneficial ownership regime and the handling of reports on suspicious financial transactions.

Those concerns go to the heart of the effort by the Pakistani military and intelligence to mainstream militants who garnered just under ten percent of the vote in last month’s election but have a far greater impact on Pakistani politics. The military and intelligence have in the past encouraged militants to form political organizations with which mainstream political parties have been willing to cooperate and establish charity operations that have had a substantial social impact.

Similarly, Mr. Khan, who earned the nickname Taliban Khan, is likely to have to counter his past record of allowing government funds to go to militant madrassas, his advocacy for the opening in Pakistan of an official Taliban Pakistan office, and his support of the Afghan Taliban. His Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-headed government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, gave in February US$2.5 million to Darul Aloom Haqqania, a militant religious seminary.


Those may be policies that, at least initially, may be less of an obstacle in assistance on offer from China and Saudi Arabia to replenish Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves that have plummeted over the past year to US$ 10.4 billion, enough to cover two months of imports at best. Pakistan’s currency, the rupee, has been devalued four times since December and lost almost a quarter of its value.

Chinese loans have so far kept Pakistan afloat with state-owned banks extending more than US$5 billion in loans in the past year. PTI officials said this week that China has promised the incoming government further loans to keep Pakistan afloat and enable it to avoid reverting to the IMF, which would demand transparency in the funding of projects related to China’s US$50 billion plus investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of its Belt and Road initiative.

And that is where the rub is. Despite Chinese officials reportedly urging Pakistan to reduce its deficit, neither China nor Saudi Arabia, which has offered to lend Pakistan US$4 billion are likely to impose the kind of regime that would put the country, which has turned to the IMF 12 times already for help, on a sustainable financial path.

Relying on China and Saudi Arabia would likely buy Pakistan time but ultimately not enable it to avoid the consequences of blacklisting by FATF, which would severely limit its access to financial markets, if it fails to put in place and implement a credible anti-money laundering and terrorism finance regime

Moreover, relying on China and Saudi Arabia, two of Pakistan’s closest allies could prove risky. Neither country shielded Pakistan from FATF grey listing in February. A Chinese official said at the time that China had not stood up for Pakistan because it did not want to “lose face by supporting a move that’s doomed to fail.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Amid ethnic protests, Iran warns of foreign meddling



By James M. Dorsey

Iran has raised the spectre of a US-Saudi effort to destabilize the country by exploiting economic grievances against the backdrop of circumstantial evidence that Washington and Riyadh are playing with scenarios for stirring unrest among the Islamic republic’s ethnic minorities.

Iran witnessed this weekend minority Azeri and Iranian Arab protests in soccer stadiums while the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reported clashes with Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

State-run television warned in a primetime broadcast that foreign agents could turn legitimate protests stemming from domestic anger at the government’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption into “incendiary calls for regime change” by inciting violence that would provoke a crackdown by security forces and give the United States fodder to tackle Iran.

“The ordinary protesting worker would be hapless in the face of such schemes, uncertain how to stop his protest from spiralling into something bigger, more radical, that he wasn’t calling for,” journalist Azadeh Moaveni quoted in a series of tweets the broadcast as saying.

The warning stroked with the Trump administration’s strategy to escalate the protests that have been continuing for months and generate the kind of domestic pressure that would force Iran to concede by squeezing it economically with the imposition of harsh sanctions.

US officials, including President Donald J. Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, a long-time proponent of Iranian regime change, have shied away from declaring that they were seeking a change of government, but have indicated that they hoped sanctions would fuel economic discontent.

The Trump administration, after withdrawing in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, this month targeted Iranian access to US dollars, trade in gold and other precious metals, and the sale to Iran of auto parts, commercial passenger aircraft, and related parts and services. A second round of sanctions in November is scheduled to restrict oil and petrochemical products.

"The pressure on the Iranian economy is significant... We continue to see demonstrations and riots in cities and towns all around Iran showing the dissatisfaction the people feel because of the strained economy." Mr. Bolton said as the first round of sanctions took effect.

Mr. Bolton insisted that US policy was to put "unprecedented pressure" on Iran to change its behaviour”, not change the regime.

The implication of his remarks resembled Israeli attitudes three decades ago when officials argued that if the Palestine Liberation Organization were to recognize Israel it would no longer be the PLO but the PPLO, Part of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In other words, the kind of policy changes the Trump administration is demanding, including an end to its ballistic program and support for regional proxies, by implication would have to involve regime change.

A string of recent, possibly unrelated incidents involving Iran’s ethnic minorities coupled with various other events could suggest that the United States and Saudi Arabia covertly are also playing with separate plans developed in Washington and Riyadh to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among non-Persian segments of the Islamic republic’s population.

Mr. Bolton last year before assuming office drafted at the request of Mr. Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, a plan that envisioned US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition,” “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and assistance for Baloch in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Balochistan province as well as Iranian Arabs in the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan.

A Saudi think tank, believed to be backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, called in 2017 in a study for Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran. Prince Mohammed vowed around the same time that “we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Pakistani militants have claimed that Saudi Arabia has stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian fighters.

The head of the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs met in Washington in June with Mustafa Hijri, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), before assuming his new post as counsel general in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said last weekend that they had killed ten militants near the Iranian border with Iraq. “A well-equipped terrorist group ... intending to infiltrate the country from the border area of Oshnavieh to foment insecurity and carry out acts of sabotage was ambushed and at least 10 terrorists were killed in a heavy clash,” the Guards said.

The KDPI has recently stepped up its attacks in Iranian Kurdistan, killing nine people weeks before Mr. Hijri’s meeting with Mr. Fagin. Other Kurdish groups have reported similar attacks. Several Iranian Kurdish groups are discussing ways to coordinate efforts to confront the Iranian regime.

Similarly, this weekend’s ethnic soccer protests are rooted in a history of football unrest in the Iranian provinces of East Azerbaijan and Khuzestan that reflect long-standing economic and environmental grievances but also at times at least in oil-rich Khuzestan potentially had Saudi fingerprints on them.

Video clips of Azeri supporters of Tabriz-based Traktor Sazi FC chanting ‘Death to the Dictator” in Tehran’s Azadi stadium during a match against Esteghlal FC went viral on social media after a live broadcast on state television was muted to drown the protest out. A sports commentator blamed the loss of sound on a network disruption.

A day earlier, Iranian Arab fans clashed with security forces in a stadium in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz during a match between local team Foolad Khuzestan FC and Tehran’s Persepolis FC. The fans reportedly shouted slogans reaffirming their Arab identity. 

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs have a long history of encouraging Iranian Arab opposition and troubling the minority’s relations with the government.

Iranian distrust of the country’s Arab minority has been further fuelled by the fact that the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), a controversial exiled opposition group that enjoys the support of prominent serving and former Western officials, including some in the Trump administration, has taken credit for a number of the protests in Khuzestan. The group advocates the violent overthrow of the regime in Tehran.

Two of Mr. Trump’s closest associates, Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, and former House speaker New Gingrich, attended in June a gathering in Paris of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq.

In past years, US participants, including Mr. Bolton, were joined by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of the kingdom’s intelligence service and past ambassador to Britain and the United States, who is believed to often echo views that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prefers not to voice himself.

“The mullahs must go, the ayatollah must go, and they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents. Freedom is right around the corner … Next year I want to have this convention in Tehran,” Mr. Giuliani told this year’s rally, referring to Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the Mujahedeen who is a cult figure to the group.  

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom