Richard Whittall:

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


Middle East Eye: "

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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.”
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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


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Saudi Iranian rivalry polarises Nigerian Muslims



By James M. Dorsey

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

A recent ban on a militant, Iranian-backed Shiite group raised the spectre of the Saudi Iranian rivalry spilling onto Nigerian streets as security forces launched a manhunt to find the alleged Boko Haram operatives who killed 65 people attending a funeral.

Nigeria, Africa’s foremost oil producer, banned the Iranian-backed Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) this weekend after demonstrations in the capital Abuja to free its leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky turned violent. At least six people were killed.

“The Saudis watching the Iranians trying to break into northern Nigeria is almost like watching someone else try to befriend your best friend,” said Ini Dele-Adedeji, a Nigerian academic at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, referring to the region’s religious elites that have aligned themselves with the kingdom.

Saudi cables released in 2015 by WikiLeaks reveal concern about Iranian-funded Shiite expansion in West African and Sahel nations including Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

Mr. Dele-Adedji said Saudi and Iranian funding was “on the surface…about these countries helping out with ‘charitable work’ activities. But beyond that it’s also a way for those countries to almost create extensions of themselves.”

Mr. El-Zakzaky, a Sunni Muslim student activist inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, initially agitated for a repeat in his native Nigeria. When that didn’t work, Mr. El-Zakzaky went to Iran, converted to Shiism, and started wearing the white turban of a Shiite cleric.

Returning home in the 1990s, he became the leader of the Islamic Movement and turned it into a vehicle for proselytizing and gaining followers.

Things got out of hand when Nigerian troops killed hundreds of Shiites in the ancient university town of Zaria in December 2015 and arrested Mr. El-Zakzaky and hundreds of his followers. The army accused the Shiite group of attempting to kill Nigeria’s army chief-of-staff, a charge the movement denies.

Iran has been funding Mr. El-Zakzaky for years and the area of Zaria he worked in became the “mecca for the dispossessed in Nigeria,” according to Matthew Page, a former U.S. State Department specialist on Nigeria. The Islamic Movement has been receiving about $10,000 a month from Iran, he estimated.

Mr. El-Zakzaky used the money to fund soup kitchens and homeless shelters, Mr. Page said. “This was a very inexpensive way for Iran to have a toehold in Nigeria,” he said.

Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consultants Cornerstone Global Associates estimated that Mr. El-Zakzaky’s organization operates more than 300 schools, Islamic centres, a newspaper, guards and a “martyrs’ foundation.” The network is similar to welfare systems established elsewhere by Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups.

The Nigerian government first declared the Islamic Movement a security threat in 2017, comparing it with the Boko Haram insurgency, according to Nigerian diplomats.

Peregrino Brimah, a trained medical doctor who teaches biology, anatomy and physiology at colleges in New York never gave much thought while growing up in Nigeria to the fact that clerics increasingly were developing links to Saudi Arabia.

“You could see the money, the big ones were leading the good life, they ran scholarship programs. In fact, I was offered a scholarship to study at King Fahd University in Riyadh. I never thought about it until December 2015 when up to a 1,000 Shiites were killed by the military in northern Nigeria. Since I started looking at it, I’ve realized how successful, how extraordinarily successful the Wahhabis have been.” Mr. Brimah said.

He decided to stand up for Shiite rights after the incident in which the military arrested Mr. El-Zakzaky.

The Nigerian military said that it had attacked sites in Zaria after hundreds of Shia demonstrators had blocked a convoy of Nigeria's army chief General Tukur Yusuf Buratai in an effort to kill him.

Military police said Shiites had crawled through tall grass towards General Buratai’s convoy "with the intent to attack the vehicle with [a] petrol bomb" while others "suddenly resorted to firing gunshots from the direction of the mosque.”

A phone call to Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari in which King Salman expressed his support for the government’s fight against terrorist groups was widely seen as Saudi endorsement of the military’s crackdown on the country’s Shiite minority.

The state-owned Saudi Press Agency quoted King Salman as saying that Islam condemned such “criminal acts” and that the kingdom in a reference to Iran opposed foreign interference in Nigeria.

Mr. Brimah’s defense of the Shiites has cost him dearly, illustrating the degree to which Saudi-funded ultra-conservatism and Iranian agitation has altered Nigerian society.

“I lost everything I had built on social media the minute I stood up for the Shiites. I had thousands of fans. Suddenly, I was losing 2-300 followers a day. My brother hasn’t spoken to me since. The last thing he said to me is: ‘how can you adopt Shiite ideology?’ I raised the issue in a Sunni chat forum. 

It became quickly clear that these attitudes were not accidental. They are the product of Saudi-sponsored teachings of serious hatred. People don’t understand what they are being taught. They rejoice when a thousand Shiites are killed. Even worse is the fact that they hate people like me who stand up for the Shiites even more than they hate the Shiite themselves,” Mr. Brimah said.

In response to Mr. Brimah’s writing about the clash, General Buratai invited him for a chat. Mr. Brimah politely declined. When Mr. Brimah reiterated his accusation, General Buratai’s spokesman, Colonel SK Usman, adopting the Saudi line of Shiites being Iranian stooges, accused the scientist of being on the Islamic republic’s payroll.

“Several of us hold you in high esteem based on perceived honesty, intellectual prowess and ability to speak your mind. That was before, but the recent incident…and subsequent events and actions by some groups and individuals such as you made one to have a rethink. I was quite aware of your concerted effort to smear the good name and reputation of the Chief of Army Staff to the extent of calling for his resignation,” Colonel Usman said in an email to Mr. Brimah that the activist shared with this writer.

General Buratai “went out of his way to write to you and even invited you for constructive engagement. But because you have dubious intents, you cleverly refused…. God indeed is very merciful for exposing you. Let me make it abundantly clear to you that your acts are not directed to the person of the Chief of Army Staff, they have far reaching implication on our national security. Please think about it and mend your ways and refund whatever funds you coveted for the campaign of calumny,” Colonel Usman said.

Mr. Brimah’s inbox has since then been inundated with anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian writings in what he believes is a military-inspired campaign.

Mr. Brimah’s predicament reflects the fallout of the Saudi Iranian rivalry in West Africa as a result of Saudi and Iranian funding that has let the genie of intolerance, discrimination and bigotry out of the bottle.

Issoufou Yahaya, in the Sahel state of Niger, recalls his student days in the 1980s when there wasn’t a single mosque on his campus. “Today, we have more mosques here than we have lecture rooms. So much has changed in such a short time,” he said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Monday, July 29, 2019

Kashmir: A battleground for Middle Eastern rivals



By James M. Dorsey

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

Thought that sectarianism was a pillar of the Saud Iranian rivalry? Think again, think Kashmir where the two countries’ geopolitical rivalry and Turkish ambitions cross sectarian lines.

With Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey competing for Indian Kashmiri hearts and minds, Iran and Turkey’s embrace of Kashmiri nationalism is winning them sympathy among both Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

The two countries’ perception of Kashmiri aspirations as nationalist rather than religious gives them a fighting chance to counter long-standing Saudi influence in the troubled South Asian region.

The Kashmiri competition, like Kazakhstan where a Saudi-inspired apolitical and loyalist strand of ultra-conservative Islam has gained popularity, suggests that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has not given up on religion as a soft power too despite who seeking to root his legitimacy in newly found Saudi nationalism rather than the kingdom’s ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

Prince Mohammed, since coming to office in 2015, has significantly cut back on funding and converted the kingdom’s major funding vehicle, the World Muslim League, into a group that sings his praises and propagates tolerance and inter-faith dialogue.

Nevertheless, the crown prince  views the promotion of Madkhalism, a particular Saudi strand of ultra-conservatism that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and sees the kingdom as the model of Islamic governance as a way of countering Iranian activism and the notion of an Islamic republic that recognizes a degree of popular sovereignty.

Saudi Arabia invested an estimated US$100 billion in funding of religious seminaries, cultural and higher educational institutions, media organizations and in a handful of countries militant groups as part of a more than 40-year religiously cloaked, globally waged covert war with Iran.

More recently, Turkey has sought to lay claim to leadership of the Muslim world by funding mosques and other institutions across the globe and seizing up Islamic causes like Jerusalem.

The funding, coupled with diplomatic pressure, also aims to counter the far-flung, embattled empire of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and whom Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of having staged a 2016 failed military coup.

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s identification of Kashmir as a battleground points to the increased importance they attribute to South and by extension Central Asia.

In a twist of irony, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be embracing the Sufi Menzil sect, one of the largest and most powerful Sufi orders in Turkey, that is far more liberal than Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservatism but shares with Madkhalism a rejection of politics.

Menzil Sufis have filled vacancies in the government bureaucracy and security services created by Mr. Erdogan’s mass purge in the wake of the failed coup of alleged followers of Mr. Gulen, according to journalist Timur Soykan, who recently published a book on a more controversial Sufi order.

Like Madkhalis, Menzils, with a history of support for the Turkish state and its military, potentially could serve as anti-dotes to Iranian Shiites’ activism in places like Kashmir where Iran is targeting the Shiite minority who account for 15 percent of the region’s population.

Iran and Turkey’s emphasis on nationalism rather than religion compensates to some degree for Saudi Arabia’s first starter advantage, allowing Iran in particular to make significant inroads in Kashmir.

Portraits of Iran’s late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, loom large on billboards in Shiite neighbourhoods whose streets are named after Shiite martyrs. Saudi Arabia’s execution in 2016 of a prominent Shiite cleric sparked anti-Saudi protests in Kashmir.

Unlike Iran, Turkey, eager to expand economic cooperation with India, has restricted its focus in Kashmir to verbal support in international fora rather than the funding of mosques and/or schools. That has not stopped separatist groups from embracing Mr. Erdogan even if that doesn’t challenge Saudi influence on the ground.


Ahl-e-Hadith, South Asia’s oldest Saudi-backed religious group, is believed to have funded some 150 schools, colleges, orphanages, clinics and medical diagnostic centres in Kashmir.

“Practically every village along the picturesque, poplar-lined, 60-km stretch northwest of Srinagar towards Gulmarg has one or more Ahl-e-Hadith-funded mosques. The new mosques and their attendant madrassas make for a contrasting picture with the hundreds of dilapidated mosques built over centuries in the age-old Sufi tradition,” Mr Jolly reported.

"The Wahhabi influence is not new to Kashmir as followers of this Islamic practice have been there since the last 100 years. But the phenomenal growth in their influence and their far and wide reach now can be attributed only to the funding the local 'Ahle Hadith' have got from Saudi Arabia in the last 30 years," said an Indian intelligence official more recently.

Added analyst Abhinav Pandya: “Kashmir is becoming the ground zero for a new geopolitical race for influence: Iran and Turkey have deep, sometimes overlapping interests, Saudi Arabia wants to ensure a return on its financial and ideological investment… The question is whether these states…will weaponize those supporters in a future proxy conflict between themselves, or between separatists and India itself.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Shifting Sands: Chinese encroachment in Central Asia and challenges to US supremacy in the Gulf



By James M. Dorsey

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

China and Russia are as much allies as they are rivals.

A joint Tajik-Chinese military exercise in a Tajik region bordering on China’s troubled north-western region of Xinjiang suggests that increased Chinese-Russian military cooperation has not eroded gradually mounting rivalry in Central Asia, long viewed by Moscow as its backyard.

The exercise, the second in three years, coupled with the building by China of border guard posts and a training centre as well as the creation of a Chinese security facility along the 1,300 kilometre long Tajik Afghan Border, Chinese dominance of the Tajik economy, and the hand over of  Tajik territory almost two decades ago, challenges Russian-Chinese arrangements in the region.

The informal arrangement involved a division of labour under which China would expand economically in Central Asia while Russia would guarantee the region’s security.


The “exercise represents a next step in China’s overall encroachment upon Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘sphere of influence’ in Central Asia,” said Russia expert Stephen Blank.

“Moscow has given remarkably little consideration to the possibility that China will build on its soft power in Central Asia to establish security relationships or even bases and thus accelerate the decline of Russian influence there,” added Eurasia scholar Paul Goble.

The perceived encroachment is but the latest sign that Russia is seeking to balance its determination to ally itself with China in trying to limit US power with the fact the Chinese and Russian interests may be diverging.

The limitations of Russian Chinese cooperation have long been evident.

China, for example, has refrained from recognizing Russian-inspired declarations of independence in 2008 of two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia that recently sparked anti-government protests in Tbilisi.

China similarly abstained in a 2014 United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution that condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Meanwhile, Chinese dependence on Russian military technology is diminishing, potentially threatening a key Russian export market. China in 2017 rolled out its fifth generation Chengdu J-20 fighter that is believed to be technologically superior to Russia SU-57E.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Chinese president Xi Jinping opted in 2013 to unveil his Belt and Road initiative in the Kazakh capital of Astana rather than Moscow.

By doing so and by so far refusing to invest in railroads and roads that would turn Russia into a transportation hub, Mr. Xi effectively relegated Russia to the status of second fiddle, at least as far as the Belt and Road’s core transportation infrastructure pillar is concerned.

China’s recently published latest defense white paper nonetheless praised the continued development of a “high level” military relationship with Russia that is “enriching the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and playing a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability.”

In a bid to ensure Russia remains a key player on the international stage and exploit mounting tension in the Gulf, Russian deputy foreign minister and special representative to the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov this week proposed a collective security concept that would replace the Gulf’s US defense umbrella and position Russia as a power broker alongside the United States.

The concept would entail creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolution of conflicts across the region and promote mutual security guarantees. It would involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British and French forces and bases.

Mr. Bogdanov’s proposal called for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions” and ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance.

The coalition to include the Gulf states, Russia, China, the US, the European Union and India as well as other stakeholders, a likely reference to Iran, would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.

It was not clear how feuding Gulf states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arb Emirates and Iran would be persuaded to sit at one table. The proposal suggested that Russia’s advantage was that it maintained good relations with all parties.

“Russia’s contributions to the fight against  Islamic terrorist  networks  and  the  liberation  of  parts  of  Syria  and Iraq  can  be  regarded  as  a  kind  of  test  for  the  role  of  sheriff  in  a  Greater Eurasia” that would include the Middle East, said political scientist Dmitry Yefremenko.

Mr. Putin this week  asserted himself as sheriff by signalling his support for embattled former Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev, a Putin crony who has been charged with corruption. Following a meeting in Moscow, Mr. Putin urged Mr Atembayev’s nemesis. president Sooronbai Jeenbekov, not to press charges.

At the same time, Mr. Putin, building on his visit to Kyrgyzstan in March, offered Mr. Jeenbekov a carrot.

Kyrgyzstan “needs political stability. Everybody needs to unite around the current president and to help him develop the state. We have many plans for cooperation with Kyrgyzstan and we are absolutely determined to work together with the current leadership to fulfill these plans,” Mr. Putin said.

Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement during the visit to expand by 60 hectares the Kant Air Base 20 kilometres east of the capital Bishkek that is used by the Russian Air Force and increase the rent Russia pays.

Mr. Putin further lavished his Kyrgyz hosts with US$6 billion in deals ranging from power, mineral resources and hydrocarbons to industry and agriculture.

Mr. Putin also allocated US$200 million for the upgrading of customs infrastructure and border equipment to put an end to the back-up of dozens of trucks on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border because Kyrgyzstan has so far been unable to comply with the technical requirements of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyaev last month gave the EEU, that groups Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Belarus, and Armenia,  a boost by declaring that Uzbekistan would need to join the trade bloc to ensure access to its export markets.

EEU members account for 70 percent of Uzbek exports.

Said Russia and Eurasia scholar Paul Stronski: “China’s deft diplomacy towards Russia — along with both states’ desires to keep the West out of their common backyard — has kept tensions behind closed doors. But with China now recognising it may need to strengthen its security posture in the region, it is unclear how long this stability will last.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

China’s risky bets




By James M. Dorsey

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

China’s infrastructure and energy driven US$1 trillion Belt and Road initiative involves risky bets across a swath of land populated by often illiberal or autocratic governments exercising power without independent checks and balances.

Seeking to reduce risk, China is bumping up against the limits of its own long-standing foreign and defence policy principles, foremost among which its insistence on non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, the equivalent of the United States’ preference for stability rather than political change.

If popular revolts in Algeria and Sudan as well as smaller, issues-oriented protests elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa are anything to go by, China appears to be betting against the odds.

Anti-corruption sentiment fuelled the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and are at the root of current anti-government protests across the globe in countries as far flung as Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Russia, Zambia, the Czech Republic, Albania and Romania

China’s risks were evident in the wake of the fall in 2011 of Col. Moammar Gaddafi when the post-revolt Libyan authorities advised China that it would be low on the totem pole as a result of its support of the ancien regime.

The risks are also evident with Baloch militants targeting Chinese assets and personnel in Pakistan.

To minimize the risk and expand its aggressive domestic anti-graft campaign, China’s top anti-corruption body, the Communist party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), is embedding inspectors in Belt and Road projects, who will be based in recipient countries.

The move helps China counter allegations that it exploits corruption in recipient Belt and Road countries to further its objectives.

Anti-corruption is a signature policy of president Xi Jinping and has allowed him to purge senior Chinese leaders as well as tens of thousands of low-level bureaucrats.

The CCDI is building on the success of a pilot project in Laos where it embedded in late 2017 inspectors in a US$6 billion railway project being built by state-owned China Railway Group. The anti-graft officials, working with the Chinese company, established a joint inspection team with their Laotian counterpart.

The question is whether the anti-corruption effort in countries like Laos or Central Asian nations that consistently rank in the bottom half of Transparency International’s corruption index will bump up against China’s non-interference principle.

Or in other words, can China successfully guard against corruption in Belt and Road projects without pressuring recipient countries to adopt broader transparency and anti-corruption measures?

How can you strike hard on corruption here at home and give a free hand to Chinese people and business groups [that are] reckless abroad?” CCDI’s director-general for international co-operation La Yifan asked in a Financial Times interview.

Mr. La said China had organized seminars with more than 30 countries to link up anti-corruption regulators. “That is my dream, that we create a network of law enforcement of all these Belt and Road countries,” he said.

Imposing transparency and anti-corruption in Belt and Road partners would be the equivalent of all kinds of environmental, safety and human rights criteria that the United States haphazardly and opportunistically maintains in dealings with foreign countries that have been severely criticized by China.

China has long prided itself on what it terms win-win economic situations in which it imposes commercial terms that often primarily benefit the People’s Republic.

The terms, coupled with the clampdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s province of Xinjiang, has fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Turkey and Central Asia with their close ethnic and cultural ties to the troubled Chinese region.

Turkish officials highlighted these sensitivities by denying Chinese media reports that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had praised the success of Beijing’s brutal approach in Xinjiang during a recent visit to China.

Muslim nations have largely remained silent about the clampdown that amounts to the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history or in some instances even tacitly endorsed it.

In the absence of democracy, “governments can manage their pro-Beijing stance without informing their public, but a pro-Beijing policy over the Uyghur issue can barely be sustained in Turkey. Turkey is still a functioning democracy and total control of the public is not possible. Besides, there is a very strong Uyghur lobby and public sentiment towards the Uyghurs in Turkey,” said Turkish Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies director Selcuk Colakoglu.

Taking its anti-corruption campaign global, raises the broader question of whether it would threaten a pillar of autocracy that China’s non-interference principle has de facto sought to perpetuate.

Political scientists Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw argue that what they call the instruments of global authoritarianism -- an army of largely Western bankers, lawyers, brokers and intermediaries that park illicitly gained monies in off-shore accounts and manage the investment of those funds – help keep autocrats in power.

The success of the globalization of China’s anti-corruption effort as well as its campaign to significantly reduce graft at home, would establish autocrats’ ability to satisfactorily deliver public goods and services alongside brute power as the cornerstone of their sustainability.

In doing so, it would give greater meaning to China’s assertion that it does not want to fundamentally alter the established multi-lateral world order but rather make it more equitable and more a reflection of a world that is multi- not unipolar.

It would also cement China’s model of economic reform and state capitalism without political liberalization as the example autocratic and authoritarian regimes want to emulate even if the jury is out on whether autocrats can remain relatively clean without a system of independent checks and balances.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture


Monday, July 22, 2019

Climate change: UAE and Russia eye geopolitical and commercial mileage



By James M. Dorsey

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

Climate change, much like war, could prove to be a geopolitical and commercial gold mine. At least, that is the take of DP World, Dubai’s global port operator, and Russia’s sovereign wealth fund.

DP World is partnering with the fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) to create an all-year round maritime sea route from Europe to Asia through the Arctic.

“Time is money in business and the route could cut travel time substantially more than traditional trade arteries for cargo owners in the Far East wanting to connect with Europe, coupled with benefits to the Russian economy,” DP World chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem told the Arab News.

In partnering with DP World, RFID brings to the table Rosatom, Russia’s atomic energy agency, which operates nuclear-powered ships that could ply the route, and Norilsk Nickel, a mining and commodities company.

Dubai and Russia are betting that climate change, which has dramatically shrunk the Arctic ice sheet in the past two decades, has made possible what eluded Europeans for centuries: ensuring that the Northeast Passage linking the Northern Atlantic with the Pacific is accessible all year round even if rail remains faster than carrying cargo by ship.

The commercial and geopolitical implications of all year-round passage are significant.

Beyond challenging the status of the Suez Canal as the foremost link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Artic route would grant Russia the one thing it has so far failed to achieve in its partnership with China: a key role in the transportation linkages between Europe and Asia that the People’s Republic is seeking to create with massive investment in its Belt and Road initiative.

That role would be bolstered by the fact that the Arctic route would cut the maritime journey from Northeast Asia from somewhere between 34 and 45 days through the Suez Canal to 23 days via the Northeast Passage.

“Because of global warming, there are some things happening that open some opportunities. Russia has this frozen coast all of the seasons. Now it’s opening up and it’s possible to navigate for nine months. When you have special ships, you can actually have 12 months navigation,” RFID CEO Kirill Dmitriev told the Saudi paper.

The partnership with Dubai gives a new laese on life to Russian aspirations to become a key node in Belt and Road linkages after Russia failed to persuade China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEC) to invest in converting the Trans-Siberian Railway into a high-speed link that would connect St. Petersburg with the Far East.

CREEC  last year definitively dashed Russian hopes, declaring that the “the high-speed rail through Russia will never pay off.

In a further setback, China simultaneously opted for an east-west road link through Kazakhstan after efforts to complete a Moscow-St. Petersburg highway as well as a ring road around the Russian capital and a Volga-Kazakhstan road stalled.

Frustrated with the lack of Chinese interest, state-run Russian Railways is itself investing heavily and reaching out to Japan to significantly increase freight traffic on the almost 9,300-kilometre-long trans-Siberian route.

The rail company aims to increase by a factor of 100 the number of containers transported from Japan to Europe from 3.000 last year to 300,000 and tonnage by 50 percent from less than 90 million to 180 million, according to Russian Railways first vice president Alexander Misharin.

Mr. Misharin told Nikkei that the investment, including US$745 million last year, involves laying double tracks, linking the railroad to seaports and automating the system.

Mr. Misharin was hoping to cooperate with Japan Railways Group to create a door-to-door cargo transportation system between Japan and Europe that would reduce transportation time to at most 19 days. He said the Russian rail company was looking at building logistics centres with Japanese trading firm Sojitz.

Upgrading the Trans-Siberian Railway would significantly bolster Russia’s geography as a key bridge in the emergence of Eurasia, the gradual integration of Europe and Asia that ultimately would erase the seemingly artificial division of one landmass into two continents.

It would also significantly facilitate linking the railway to the Belt and Road by making it financially feasible.

That is less far-fetched with China Railway International Group lending Russia US$6.2 billion for the construction of a 790-kilometre long Moscow-Kazan high speed rail line, envisioned as the first phase of a link between the Russian capital and Beijing that would cut travel between the two cities to two days.

To secure the loan, Russia agreed to use Chinese technology and construction equipment.
Russia has also expressed interest in linking its Trans-Siberian Railway to the Chinese-controlled Pakistani port of Gwadar, a Belt and Road crown jewel.

Russia is betting that the combination of the Northeast Passage and upgraded Trans-Siberian rail links would make its positioning as a transit hub significantly more attractive.

That is true even though the Northeast Passage is too shallow for giant box ships that traverse the Suez Canal and lacks the kind of ports capable of accommodating those vessels. The Passage is likely to see primarily smaller container ships.

One way or the other, DP World, expecting to operate ports that Russia plans to build along an Arctic route, would emerge a winner by expanding its global footprint. “We were always missing Russia. Russia is a link,” DP World’s Mr. Sulayem said.

Said Russian shipping giant Sovcomflot CEO Sergey Frank: “Trade is growing and there is space for everybody. If the cargo originates in the south part of China, it will go through the Suez. If it originates in Northern China, the NSR (Northern Sea Route) will be seriously considered. Cargo will always find the fastest way to move.”

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.