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Friday, May 31, 2019

Saudi Arabia banking on Muslim and Arab summits to strengthen its hand. Don’t believe the hype

Asian Angle by James M. Dorsey
Saudi Arabia banking on Muslim and Arab summits to strengthen its hand. Don’t believe the hype

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

·        Strongly worded statements are the most likely outcome given the divisions in the region after eight years of war in Syria and inaction over Yemen’s humanitarian crisis
·        Riyadh hopes three high-level gatherings in two days will bolster its position as a leader of the Islamic and Arab world

Published: 5:49pm, 31 May, 2019

Saudi King Salman opened the Arab summit with a call for a “decisive and repelling stand” that would stop alleged Iranian aggression. Photo: AP

Three back-to-back, high-level Muslim and Arab summits  held over the past two days are likely to yield very little despite the hype surrounding them.

Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the meetings against the backdrop of mounting tension between the 
United States and Iran, expects the gatherings to back its campaign to force the Islamic Republic to halt its support for regional proxies, including the Houthis in Yemen  and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It is banking on the site and timing of the summits – Mecca, as Ramadan  nears its end – to strengthen its standing as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities and facilitate its ability to project its stand on Iran and other issues as one representing the Islamic and Arab world.

That could prove easier said than done. The three organisations involved – the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the 22-member Arab League and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – are deeply divided over Iran, how to restore regional security, and a host of other issues.

The Iranian flag. Tensions with the republic are a topic of discussion at the summits. Photo: Reuters

Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco, Oman and Qatar have adopted less strident positions towards Tehran. Some are believed to be backchannelling between the US and Iran.

Behind the scenes, various Muslim and Arab leaders, including some of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies, are likely to urge Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to prevent tensions with Iran from escalating into military conflict.

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Officials from the United Arab Emirates, in a bid to dial down tensions, have so far refrained from apportioning blame for the sabotage of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman  and a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline, pending the outcome of an investigation.

Some leaders are likely to advise Salman to entertain Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s proposal that Iran and the Gulf states sign a non-aggression pact.

First indications are that the advice is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. Photo: EPA

Saudi King Salman opened the Arab summit with a call for a “decisive and repelling stand” that would stop alleged Iranian aggression. He accused Iran of developing nuclear and ballistic missiles, ignoring the denials coming out of Tehran.

The belligerent Saudi tone was set before the summit, when the country’s foreign minister, Ibrahim al-Assaf, urged an OIC foreign ministers gathering before the Mecca meeting to confront with “force and firmness” the oil tanker sabotage and drone attack. Arab News, a newspaper owned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s brother, Turki bin Salman al-Saud, called for the US to carry out “surgical strikes” against Iran.

But despite King Salman’s call, Iraq has deflected the attack, reflecting the division among Arab states. Its president, Barham Salih, told leaders at the summit that the security and stability of Iran is “in the interest of Muslim and Arab states”, adding that he hopes Tehran’s “security is not targeted”.

A boy looks at destroyed houses in Sanaa, Yemen, where residents are suffering through the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Photo: EPA

The prospects for concrete results from the three summits are further clouded by the fact that Iran is but one of a host of issues discussed – and Muslim and Arab leaders are deeply divided on most of them. These include US proposals to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, relations with Israel, the war in Yemen, the rift in the Gulf between Qatar and the Saudi-UAE-led alliance, the conflict in Libya, and the popular revolts in Algeria and Sudan.

The US peace plan, in particular, is likely to be rejected in starker terms than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would like. The prince and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, as well as Bahraini leaders, have privately supported the American effort, despite the widespread perception that it favours Israel and ignores Palestinian aspirations.

Similarly, the presence at the Arab and GCC summits of Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani has raised hopes that a resolution to the two-year-old blockade of his country may be at hand. This is unfounded.

Sheikh Abdullah’s presence in Mecca constitutes the highest-level contact between Qatar and its detractors since the blockade was imposed, but he is only there because the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, decided not to attend. This suggests a breakthrough or loosening of the embargo is a remote possibility, at best.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: AFP

Finally, one major reason to expect little will come from the summits is the track record of the three organisations involved: they have no history of shaping policy and translating it into effective action.

Given these factors, one would be wise to temper expectations. Strongly worded statements are the most likely outcome. Given the entrenched, opposing positions of Muslim and Arab countries after eight years of war in Syria and inaction as Yemenis suffer the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, that might be deemed a success. The bar has indeed been set low.

Indeed, the final communique of the GCC summit, the group in which Saudi Arabia has perhaps the most leverage, was a harbinger of things to come: it made no apparent mention of the sabotage of oil tankers, but condemned attacks by Houthi militias on oil pipelines and insisted that Iran halt its support of the rebels.

The best the Saudis can hope for is that they will walk away from the summits bolstered by a blanket condemnation of “terrorism”. Riyadh will then be free to interpret this – and trumpet it – as a reference to Iran and its ambitions.

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Eyeing UK soccer clubs: Gulf buyers come with baggage

By James M. Dorsey

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

The bitter Gulf rift between Qatar and its Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led detractors could spill on to the pitches of English soccer.

A flurry of reports suggest that the Gulf rivals are seeking to buy big name English clubs.

Abu Dhabi billionaire Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nahayan, a member of the emirate’s ruling family, said this week that he had agreed terms with Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley to buy the Premier League club.

Meanwhile, Qatar reportedly was in talks to purchase Leeds United while Saudi Arabia has been rumoured to be circling Manchester United.

Stepped-up Gulf interest could take the region’s rivalry from the European level, where the UAE’s acquisition more than a decade ago of Manchester City and Qatar’s buying of Paris Saint-Germain set examples, into a national competition.

While both acquisitions have on balance contributed to the UAE and Qatar’s soft power despite hiccups, Manchester City’s owner, City Football Group, has created a template for commercial exploitation of what are some of the Gulf states’ most valuable brands by acquiring stakes in clubs in the United States, Australia, Japan, Spain, Uruguay and China.

The rush to buy British clubs is at least in part the latest round in the Gulf dispute that erupted two years ago with an alliance led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia declaring an economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar.

Qatar has so far emerged on top with its unexpected winning of the Asian Cup early this year in of all places Abu Dhabi and its successful thwarting earlier this month of UAE-Saudi-backed efforts by world soccer body FIFA to force it to expand the 2022 World Cup from 32 to 48 teams.

Qatar’s victories came on the back of a series of failed or at best partially successful Saudi and UAE efforts to enhance their influence in global soccer governance that would have enabled them to pressure the Gulf state.

The rush also suggests that the soft power gains of Gulf states seeking to project themselves in ways that contrast starkly with their image as autocratic and often brutal violators of human rights, including widely criticised migrant labour systems, outweigh the associated reputational risks.

That assessment is borne out by Manchester City fans’ enthusiastic embrace of the club’s Emirati owners and willingness to ignore the country’s human rights record.

Singing to the tune of African American 1920s classic Kum Ba Ya (Come by Here), fans chant “Sheikh Mansour m’lord, Sheikh Mansour, oh lord, Sheikh Mansour,” a reference to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Manchester City’s owner, UAE minister of presidential affairs and half-brother of UAE president Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Like Sheikh Mansour, Newcastle’s buyer Sheikh Khaled, whose business ties appear to be more with Dubai than Abu Dhabi, is likely to project his acquisition as personal even if the Emirates’ de factor ruler, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, keeps a tight lid on government as well as family affairs.

The Gulf states, responding differently to criticism, have nevertheless not had an easy ride in seeking to garner soft power and polish tarnished images.

In contrast to the UAE and Saudi Arabia who seldom respond to their critics, Qatar has reacted to an avalanche of criticism since its winning of the 2022 World Cup hosting rights by engaging with its detractors.

Although too little too late for its more strident critics, Qatar has made substantial changes to its kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers. To be fair, so has the UAE even if it did so less because of pressure by human rights and labour groups and more as part of an effort to project itself as a model, cutting edge 21st century state.

Nonetheless, both the UAE and Qatar could see their reputational gains undermined if legal proceedings involving their soccer business practices go against them.

Manchester City has reacted angrily to an investigation by European soccer body UEFA into allegations of financial fair play irregularities, which could lead to a Champions League ban.

The chairman and chief investigator of UEFA’s club financial control body investigatory chamber, Yves Leterme, has referred the allegations to the group’s adjudicatory chamber to issue a ruling.

Similarly, Paris Saint-Germain president, UEFA executive committee member and chairman of Qatar’s television network beIN Sports Nasser Al-Khelaifi was last week charged in France with corruption in connection with the bidding process for this year's world athletics championships in Qatar.

In an argument that could spread to Britain, Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, Spain’s top soccer league, denounced Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain as “state-run clubs, one off petrol money, one off gas” that should be expelled from European competitions as threats to the sport.

Echoing Manchester City fans’ rejection of criticism of the UAE as “racist,” the club’s chairman, Khaldoon al Mubarak, dismissed Mr. Tebas’ assertions as ethnic slurs.

That’s a tactic that likely will work as long as fans such as Howard Hockin concede that they may be “hypocrites" who “don't care about human rights in the Middle East.”

A Manchester City podcaster, Mr. Hockin adds: "Abu Dhabi is an up-and-coming country, and it wanted to boost its profile. It's a PR thing, and we're fine with that… I should care but I don't. I should care about where my shoes come from – if they've been made by slave labour – but I don't. I don't look to football for my moral code. I don't think I've sold my soul to support Man City."

The question is whether Mr. Hockin would stick to his position if the business practices of his club’s owner or the politics of the UAE become a liability rather than an asset. With Mr. Al-Khelaifi’s legal issues, the same question could confront Paris Saint-Germain fans.

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.