Richard Whittall:

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


Middle East Eye: "

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

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


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

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

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


Sunday, December 29, 2019

A symptom of fragile anti-US alliances: Russia accuses China of technology theft



By James M. Dorsey

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

Chinese Russian military and geopolitical cooperation is flourishing – for now.

If, however, the weapons industry is anything to go by, a fraying at the edges of close ties between the two Asian powers may be on the horizon.

To be sure, Russia remains by far China’s foremost arms supplier even if China has no scruples about stealing Russian military technology, much like it allegedly does in the West.

So far, Russia, with a weak economy desperately in need of the revenues of weapons sales that undergird Moscow’s geopolitical heft, has been willing to look the other way.

The question is for how long.

By the same token, it’s a question that also applies to various other opportunistic alliances such as relationships between Russia, Turkey and Iran that are driven by short-term interests, first and foremost a desire to institutionalize a multi-polar world in which US power would be counterbalanced by others.

These alliances, adopting pragmatic approaches, have so far worked by focussing on immediate interests while carefully managing significant differences.

Those differences, nonetheless, surface regularly. Recently, alleged Chinese intellectual property theft as well as diametrically opposed Turkish, Russian and Iranian policies towards conflicts in Syria and/or Libya that have figured prominently in media reports.

Russian state defense conglomerate Rostec this month, in a rare public display of friction that echoed long-standing US allegations of Chinese technology theft, accused China of illegally copying Russian military hardware and weapons.

“Unauthorized copying of our equipment abroad is a huge problem. There have been 500 such cases over the past 17 years. China alone has copied aircraft engines, Sukhoi planes, deck jets, air defense systems, portable air defense missiles, and analogues of the Pantsir medium-range surface-to-air systems,” said Yevgeny Livadny, Rostec’s chief of intellectual property projects.

Mr. Livadny appeared to be referring among other things to alleged Chinese intellectual property theft after Russia sold to China in 2015 six S-400 anti-aircraft systems and 24 Su-35 fighter jets for US$5 billion.

China is thought to have benefitted from Russian technology when it in 2017 rolled out its fifth generation Chengdu J-20 fighter that is believed to be technologically superior to Russia’s SU-57E.


Chinese technology theft is unlikely to persuade Russia any time soon to forego the strategic advantages of its geopolitical cooperation with China.

But with China’s defense industry significantly improving its technological capabilities, Russia  needs to ensure that it remains crucial to the People’s Republic’s military development for economic reasons as well as in a bid to maintain a balance in an alliance that is based on pursuing short-term common interests while kicking potential friction points down the road.

When it comes to arms, Russia is pressuring China to engage in joint weapons development while seeking to maintain a technological edge.

Russia last week sought to press its technological advantage by announcing that its new Avangard hypersonic intercontinental glide vehicle that can fly 27 times the speed of sound had become operational.

Positioning Russia as the first country to have hypersonic weapons, the Avangard is launched atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, but unlike a regular missile warhead that follows a predictable path after separation it can make sharp manoeuvres in the atmosphere en route to target, making it much harder to intercept.

In geopolitical terms, the Avangard may give Russia a first-starter advantage but at best is yet another band aid to work around the fragility of not only the Russian Chinese alliance but also alliances like that of Turkey with Russia and with Iran.

The fragility of those alliances is evident in Turkish and Russian attempts to balance their competing interests in Syria and Libya. Turkey has criticized the ongoing Syrian-Russian assault on Idlib, the last Syrian rebel stronghold, and called for an immediate ceasefire.

Turkey and Russia are also at odds when it comes to Russian interference in Ukraine, the exploitation of natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict in the Caucasus over Nagorno-Karabagh and they compete for influence in the Balkans and Central Asia.


“We believe that foreign interference will hardly help,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in response to reports that Turkey would deploy its navy to protect the Libyan capital of Tripoli, the seat of Mr. Al Sarraj’s government which has been under attack by Mr. Haftar’s Russian, Egyptian, United Arab Emirates and French-backed forces for the past eight months.

Mr. Peskov conveniently ignored the presence of hundreds of Russian mercenaries and snipers that are supporting Mr. Haftar’s insurgents.

To be sure, Turkey and Russia’s alliances tap into long-standing anti-Western civilizationalist ideologies adopted by men like prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and president Vladimir Putin who envision a Turkish and a Russian world that serve as spheres of influence.

In discussing the fragility of the Turkish Russian alliance scholars Gonul Tol and Omer Taspinar could in varying degrees have just as well as been talking about relationships between Russia and China, Russia and Iran or Turkey and Iran.

“Moscow and Ankara disagree on almost all issues of regional and strategic significance. In other words, a Eurasianist Turkey may very well be frustrated with both Washington and Brussels, but its military arrangement with Moscow does not automatically translate into harmony based on shared national interests in relations with Russia,” the two scholars wrote.

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


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Sports: A battlefield for freedom of expression and political change



By James M. Dorsey

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

Athletes, executives and fans are turning sports in an era of defiance and dissent into a battleground for freedom of expression and political change, putting national and international sports associations that nominally adhere to human rights on the spot.

Denunciations of repression in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang and support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong by soccer celebrity Mesut Ozil, Houston Rockets basketball general manager Darryl Morey, and rugby superstar Sonny Bill Williams alongside soccer fans in regions like Morocco and Hong Kong, highlight the willingness of sports associations to sacrifice the values attributed to sports for commercial gain in their dealings with autocratic nations.

They also by implication puncture the fiction of a separation of sports and politics that sports associations have long employed to justify their often-close ties to government and dealings with countries irrespective of their records in upholding basic rights.

By distancing themselves from statements of Messrs. Morey and Ozil, despite the latter’s ties to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, English Premier League club Arsenal and the US National Basketball Association (NBA) have served to highlight the discrepancy between sports associations’ declared principles and their policies.

So has China with its penalizing of the NBA and Mr. Ozil for their critical statements.

The gap between professed principles and practice is even more yawning with the awarding of the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup to China despite Chinese president Xi Jinping’s crackdown in Xinjiang and his moves to turn the People’s Republic into a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state.


In a letter to Human Rights Watch, FIFA justified its decision by insisting that the Chinese football association as well as China had committed “to respect human rights in their activities associated with the tournament in accordance with internationally recognised human rights standards and FIFA’s own Human Rights Policy.”

It was not clear how human rights associated with the Club World Cup could be separated from the overall crackdown in China. Nnor was it clear why FIFA would help Mr. Xi take a step towards fulfilling his dream of China first qualifying for the World Cup, then winning the World Cup and ultimately hosting the tournament.

The awarding casts doubt on FIFA’s campaign against racism in stadiums given that the crackdown in Xinjiang aims to force Turkic Muslims to violate principles of their faith and adopt Xi Jinping though as superseding Islam.

The re-emergence of sports as a battleground is not limited to the plight of Xinjiang.

Hong Kong fans recently took their struggle for greater democracy to a match in South Korea.

Chinese and Hong Kong broadcasters refrained from showing the playing of the national anthems when China and Hong Kong played each other earlier this month in an East Asia Football Federation (EAFF) Championship match.

Hong Kong fans booed China’s anthem, chanted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” and displayed Hong Kong’s British-era flag.

Support for national teams in autocracies like Egypt and Syria has dropped with fans demanding reforms of regime-controlled football federations that are widely viewed as corrupt,

"Egypt's national team is also its national embarrassment ... Plenty of Egyptians are basking in the team's loss today," tweeted journalist Karim Zidan in July after host Egypt crashed out of the African Cup of Nations.

Privately, many fans assert that the team represents the repressive regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi rather than its historically huge fan base.

Sentiments in war-torn Syria are no different.

“Anyone who knows Syria well knows that in Syria there are no independent institutions, and that includes sporting institutions… Considering this (national) team as one that is above politics and a national team that unites people is a big lie and part of a certain propaganda,” said Syrian journalist Hala Droubi.

In Morocco, fans, dressed in black, last year booed the national anthem during a match in the northern city of Tetouan that was being broadcast live on television in protest against the killing by the Moroccan navy of a 20-year old student as she tried to illegally cross into Spain.

“These days, the national anthem feels like a way to force patriotism onto us, so our reaction has been to boo,” said Zakaria Kamal, a PhD student in sociology and supporter of Raja Athletic Club of Casablanca (RCA).

Fbladi Dalmouni, a song chanted by RCA fans, that refers to suffering one’s own home, has gone viral and become the anthem of disaffected Moroccan youth. It has garnered millions of hits on YouTube.

“Oh Oh Oh Oh My country has wronged me…

We live in a cloud in this country

They have rendered us orphans to be judged on Judgement Day…

You stole the wealth of our country and shared it with strangers…

Oh Oh Oh Oh Somebody understand me…

This is my last word,

I write it from my heart.

Tears fall from my eyes,” the song’s lyrics read.

In a tweet to journalist Aida Alami, Gruppo Aquile, the composers of the song, said it expressed a feeling among Moroccan youth that they were insignificant and that it did not matter whether they were dead or alive.

“Behind the title ‘Fbladi Dalmouni’ hides the difficulty of living, the feeling of being a foreigner in your own country… We are Moroccan citizens. We live in a dying society, and the youth is asphyxiated,” the group said.


It is a sentiment shared by anti-government protesters across the globe from Latin America to Asia.

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, December 23, 2019

Israeli soccer club’s anti-racism echoes Israel’s political divide



By James M. Dorsey

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

Storied and crowned soccer club Beitar Jerusalem was for decades a pillar of the Israeli right-wing and an often-extreme symbol of Israel’s lurch towards the right as well as its`` ever more uncompromising attitude towards an equitable peace with the Palestinians and approach towards its Israeli Palestinian minority.

Today, in an anti-cyclical development, Beitar Jerusalem, with its acquisition by technology entrepreneur Moshe Hogeg, is at the forefront of the fight against racism, including anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia.

Beitar Jerusalem and La Familia, the mostly working-class militant segment of the club’s fan base, long prided themselves on the fact that the club has never hired a Palestinian player even though Palestinians have long been among Israeli soccer’s top performers.

La Familia still does. Raucous, fiercely loyal and menacingly racist, La Familia fans, dressed in the yellow and black colours of Beitar Jerusalem with the words La Familia stitched on their shirts, were clearly visible and vocally audible at matches in Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek stadium.

Their anti-Arab and anti-Muslim chants accompanied by drums resonated throughout the stadium. 

Typical of La Familia chants, supporters often sang:

“Witnesses are stars in the sky,

For racism that is like a dream.
The whole world will testify

There will be no Arabs in the team!

I don’t care how many and how they are killed,

Eliminating Arabs thrills me.

Boy, girl or old,

We’ll bury every Arab deep in the ground.”

However, in the words of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin’.

I have zero tolerance for racism. Absolutely zero. And my reaction towards racism is not proportional. You shout one racist comment and I will sue you for a million dollars," Mr. Hogeg, the club’s new owner, said in a recent BBC interview.

Mr. Hogeg has backed up his threats with deeds. The club has accused fans who expressed racist or discriminatory sentiments in the stadium of damaging its reputation and threatened them in letters with lawsuits that would force them to pay large sums to lawyers hired to defend them.

For Mr. Hogeg, reforming Beitar is not just about the image of his newly acquired trophy.

It’s about Israel that under prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, boosted by US President Donald J. Trump’s support for annexationist policies, has steered a course that increasingly precludes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and risks either compromising the Jewish character of the state or turning it into a civilizationalist entity whose democracy is undermined by the need to repress the other.

"I'm not trying to ruin anyone's life, I'm not trying to be their father and their mother, I'm not trying to educate them - it's not my job. But when you bring it to the stadium and you act in that way it reflects badly on all of the crowd and on our nation, so I can't take this," Mr. Hogeg said who has in the past suggested that he supports Israel’s right wing.

Mr. Hogeg’s uncompromising approach is producing results as it taps into a desire among Beitar’s broader fan base for a politically and racially less charged atmosphere in the stadium.

A majority of Beitar fans, who long were uncomfortable with La Familia’s aggressive support for the club, have voted with their feet. Families that stayed away from matches have returned and sponsors are expressing new interest.

The number of racist incidents has dwindled. There were only two incidents during the last season and none so far in the current season.

“It’s amazing. Hogeg has turned the club around. La Familia is lying low and has turned silent,” said a supporter of Beitar’s Jerusalem upcoming rival, Hapoel Katamon.

Mr. Hogeg further drove his point home with the acquisition in November of Ali Mohammed, a Nigerian Christian who quickly became one of the club’s top, if not its top player.

La Familia initially demanded that he change his Muslim name yet has since joined the chorus in celebrating him after he scored his first goal – a huge step for a group that long insisted in keeping the club “pure forever.”

Israeli soccer scholars acknowledge Mr. Hogeg’s success but doubt that La Familia will back off permanently.

"There's no doubt Moshe Hogeg has made a difference. But the fans at Beitar are unpredictable. It's like a ceasefire which is helped because the team are doing well,” said sociologist Yair Galily.

Added Mati Suleimani, an 18 year-old member of La Familia: “Moshe Hogeg thinks he can come in and tell us how to live our lives, like he knows better than us because he makes more money… He is mistaken.

The litmus test of Mr. Hogeg’s effort will be if, and when he decides to hire an Israeli Palestinian player, defying a core La Familia slogan, Death to the Arabs.

Mr. Hogeg’s moves are about reputation management and inter-communal relations, not big political issues like Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Yet, they are significant as a statement against the backdrop of a discourse that has become progressively more discriminatory and racist.

The significance is enhanced as deadlocked Israeli politics move towards an election in March, the third in a year, in which the main contenders, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud and hawkish Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, differ more in tone and language than in policy.

Said former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, a potential kingmaker in the post-election formation of a new government: “In my opinion it can be Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz. There is no essential difference between them.”

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

Friday, December 20, 2019

Gulf security: China envisions continued US military lead



By James M. Dorsey

Based on remarks at The Belt and Road Initiative: China-Middle East Cooperation in an Age of Geopolitical Turbulence workshop organized by Brookings Doha Center and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

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

A first-ever joint Chinese-Russian-Iranian naval exercise signals that closer Chinese military ties with a host of Middle Eastern nations does not translate into Chinese aspirations for a greater role in regional security any time soon.

If anything, the exercise, coupled with notional Chinese support for proposals for a multilateral security approach in the Gulf, suggests that China envisions a continued US lead in Gulf security despite mounting rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.

That is the message China is sending by playing down the significance of the exercise and hinting that it would only contribute non-combat forces.

China’s participation is expected to involve its anti-piracy fleet that is already in Somali waters to protect commercial vessels as well as peacekeeping and humanitarian relief personnel rather than specially dispatched units of the People’s Liberation Army.

China’s preference for a continued US lead in maintaining Gulf security, even if it favours a more multilateral approach, was evident earlier this year in its willingness to consider participating in the US-led maritime alliance that escorts commercial vessels in the Gulf and seeks to secure shipping lanes and was created in response to several attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

So far, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Britain and Australia have joined the alliance that started operations last month.

Despite favouring a continued US lead, China sees a broadening of security arrangements that would embed rather than replace the US defense umbrella in the Gulf as a way to reduce regional tensions.

China also believes that a multilateral arrangement would allow it to continue steering clear of being sucked into conflicts and disputes in the Middle East, particularly the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

A multilateral arrangement in which the US would remain the key military player would fit the pattern of China’s gradual projection beyond its borders of its growing military power.

With the exception of a military facility in Djibouti, China’s projection becomes less hard core the further away one gets from the People’s Republic borders.

Proposals for a multilateral security architecture could also cater to US President Donald J. Trump’s transactionalism as well as his insistence on burden sharing.

Getting from A to B is however easier said than done.

If the US security umbrella was geared towards defense again Iran, a multi-lateral approach would have to involve Iran.

Such involvement could be based on some kind of agreement on non-aggression, a proposal put forward by Iran and implicit in Russia’s call for a regional security conference along the lines of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE.

To get there however the United States and Saudi Arabia would have to reduce tensions with Iran, credibly signal that they have no intention of toppling or destabilizing the Iranian regime, and resolve the crisis stemming from the US withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

That would seem a tall order even if Saudi Arabia and Iran have not closed the door on stalled contacts aimed at dialling down tensions.

Chinese support has, moreover, so far lacked enthusiasm for a Russian proposal that calls the United States, Russia, China and India to be involved in a multilateral approach.

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

China’s refraining to more wholeheartedly endorse the Russian proposal is rooted in differing approaches towards multilateralism in general and alliances in particular. China shies away from alliances emphasizing geo-economics rather than geopolitics while Russia still operates in terms of alliances.

Looming in the background is the fact that in the ultimate analysis China is likely to view security in South and Central Asia as interlinked with security in the Gulf, which in turn raises questions about the sustainability of the Chinese security approach.

The geographic layering of China’s approach is evident not only in China’s robust posture in the South China Sea, but also in countries like Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

China has recently made progress on the construction of a road through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. The road serves multiple geo-political goals.

It will facilitate the movement of troops, together with a military base in Tajikistan and Chinese cross border operations in the corridor.

The question is whether the Chinese moves will jeopardize the presumed division of labour between Russia and China under which Russia shoulders responsibility for security in Central Asia while China concentrates on economic development and if it does what impact that would have on Chinese reliance on a potential Russian role in the Gulf.

There is little doubt that the Gulf is gradually moving from a unilateral security arrangement to a multilateral one driven by Gulf concerns following the September attacks on Saudi oil facilities and a US response that has reinforced nagging doubts about the reliability of US security guarantees.

The doubts are further fed by the direction of US policy starting with the Obama administration and now with the Trump administration that suggests a re-evaluation of US national security interests in the Middle East.

China’s belief that economics rather than geopolitics is the key to solving disputes has so far allowed it to remain above the breach but has yet to prove its sustainability.

China’s approach is unlikely to shield it from the Middle East’s penchant of ensuring that it is at the heart of concerns of major external parties.

Said Jiang Xudong, a Middle East scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences: “Economic investment will not solve all other problems when there are religious and ethnic conflicts.”

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

Thursday, December 12, 2019

China struggles to fend off allegations of debt trap diplomacy



By James M. Dorsey

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

Desperate for cash, Tajikistan is about to sell yet another vital asset to China at a time that countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives are demanding renegotiation of debt settlements that either forced them to surrender control of critical infrastructure or left them with unsustainable repayments.

The pending Chinese acquisition of  a stake in Tajikistan’s aluminium smelter, coupled with earlier tax concessions to Chinese companies that would substantially reduce the trickle down effect of investments for the troubled Tajik economy, suggest that China has yet to fully take account  of frequent criticism of its commercial approach to Belt and Road-related projects.


The centre said eight countries — Tajikistan, the Maldives, Pakistan, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, and Montenegro — were particularly at risk.

“There is…concern that debt problems will create an unfavourable degree of dependency on China as a creditor. Increasing debt, and China’s role in managing bilateral debt problems, has already exacerbated internal and bilateral tensions in some BRI countries,” the report said.

Progress on the construction of a road in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip in the east of the country that touches the Chinese border and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, may explain China’s seeming insensitivity to the concerns of beneficiaries of the People’s Republic’s largesse.

The road would link the corridor to Central Asia in the north and Pakistan’s Chinese-built Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in the south, a crown jewel in China’s infrastructure- and energy driven Belt and Road initiative.

To be sure, the road has local rather than geopolitical significance for workers building the road and the region’s shepherds as documented by anthropologists Tobias Marschall and Till Mostowlansky.

The road creates temporary employment for labourers. For shepherds, it facilitates access to mountain pastures.

For China, the stakes are geopolitical and economic.

The road would not only facilitate commerce with Central Asia as well as traffic from Gwadar but also construction of shorter pipelines as well as a fibre optic cable.

Perhaps more importantly, it would together with a military base in Tajikistan and Chinese cross border operations in the corridor itself, facilitate the movement of troops in China’s gradual projection of military power beyond its borders, particularly in regions adjacent to its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

The road’s potential military significance raises questions about the sustainability of a presumed division of labour between Russia and China under which Russia shoulders responsibility for security in Central Asia while China concentrates on economic development.

Ironically, if the examples of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan and Malaysia coupled with anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia, fuelled in part by the brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, are anything to go by, China’s approach to Belt and Road-related development could turn out to be a threat to its broader geopolitical ambitions and regional security policy.


Sri Lanka became the poster child of allegations that China was pursuing debt trap diplomacy when it two years ago surrendered to China control of the port as part of a deal to reduce the country’s debt payments.

China lent Sri Lanka US$5 billion between 2010 and 2015 for infrastructure projects that included development of Hambantota at interest rates of up to 6.3 percent.

By comparison, World Bank and Asian Development Bank rates on soft loans range from 0.25 to three percent.

“The perfect circumstance is a return to the norm. We pay back the loan in due course in the way that we had originally agreed without any disturbance at all,” said newly appointed Sri Lankan prime minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal.


“Borrowings by the previous government were unreasonable and put us in difficulty. But we can solve this mess through diplomatic means,” said foreign minister Abdulla Shahid.

Last month, former president Abdulla Yameen was jailed for five years and fined US$5 million for corruption during his term that ended late last year. Mr. Shahid’s government has accused China of land grabs during Mr. Yameen’s reign.

In a rare success, Malaysia earlier this year negotiated a one third reduction in the cost of a US$15.7 billion Belt and Road-related rail project.  In a further concession, China agreed that 70 percent of the workforce would be Malaysian and that Malaysian contractors would get 40% of the civil works.

China has repeatedly been accused of employing Chinese rather than local labour for Chinese-funded projects along the Belt and Road and importing materials from China rather than sourcing them locally.

The government of Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has been less successful than its Malaysian counterpart.

It recently bowed to Chinese pressure to revive hundreds of projects initially suspended after it came to office in 2018.

The appointment of a retired lieutenant general as head of a new authority overseeing the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that groups Belt and Road-related projects reflected China’s wariness towards messy Pakistani politics and preference for dealing with the country’s military.

With Sri Lanka as the anti-thesis, analysts suggest that China is determined to make Pakistan a success story.

“The big battle at the moment is about CPEC’s reputation, and Beijing cares about salvaging that. They need to show BRI has been a success, that it hasn’t put Pakistan’s economy in trouble and that there isn’t a backlash. If they can’t do it in a context like this, it suggests that there is something flawed in the model,” said Pakistan and China scholar Andrew Small.

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

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Ending the Gulf crisis: Natural gas frames future Gulf relations



By James M. Dorsey

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

Natural gas could well emerge as the litmus test of how relations among the Gulf’s energy-rich monarchies evolve if and when a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance and Qatar bury their hatchet.

It could also position Gulf states as key players in shaping the future of the energy architecture of Eurasia.

This week’s summit in Riyadh of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain is likely to determine how close the kingdom and its allies are to lifting a 2.5-year-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani suggested that secret Saudi-Qatari talks in recent weeks had “moved from a deadlock in the Gulf crisis to talks about a future vision regarding ties.” It was not immediately clear whether the UAE was equally willing to find a way out of the Gulf crisis.

The bellwether of how much progress has been made will be the level of Qatari representation at the Riyadh summit. Qatar emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has refrained from attending GCC summits since the boycott was imposed in June 2017 in a bid to force Qatar to fall in line with Saudi and UAE regional policies and effectively accept the two Gulf states’ tutelage.

An end to the boycott potentially could open the door to the creation of a regional gas network at a time that Qatar plans to increase its annual Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) production by a whopping 64 percent to 126 million tons by 2027 and Saudi Arabia is investing up to USD$ 150 billion in becoming a major gas player.

The network would facilitate Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to streamline and diversify the kingdom’s economy. It would further enable Saudi Arabia to capitalize on the fact that Iran is hobbled by crippling US sanctions in its efforts to maintain its status as a key swing producer serving Eurasian markets.

Building a regional network may be easier said than done even if the Gulf states succeed in putting their debilitating dispute behind them. Healing the scars of the dispute that impacted people’s lives on both sides of the divide to the point where countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar would be willing to become dependent on one another is likely to take time.

That kind of trust didn’t exist even before the Gulf crisis. Saudi Arabia initially opposed the construction of the Dolphin gas pipeline, the region’s first cross-border gas project that links Qatar to the UAE and Oman.

Qatar continued to supply the UAE with two billion cubic feet of gas a day despite the boycott, which the Emirates would have found difficult to fully replace.

An end to the boycott would significantly enhance Saudi plans announced in early 2019 to establish a natural gas network with the UAE and Oman that eventually would extend to Kuwait, Bahrain Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and possibly Palestine.

Potential moves to enhance gas cooperation in the Gulf come as the eastern Mediterranean emerges as a potential competitor, particularly in future exports to Europe, Asia and China.

Huge gas finds in Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian waters have seen industry eyes swivel to the Levant Basin, which, according to a 2010 estimate by the US Geological Survey, could hold as much as 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the equivalent of Iraq’s reserves.

Energy experts argue that Qatari gas could significantly help Prince Mohammed rationalize Saudi Arabia’s energy market at a time that climate change is casting doubts on the sustainability of oil.

The King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center estimated that Saudi Arabia burned some 900,000 barrels per day of liquid fuels for industrial use and power generation in 2017.

“Replacing this oil with natural gas could generate more than U$10 billion of additional export revenue at current market prices… Qatar is one of the cheapest ways for the kingdom to remove oil entirely from power generation,” said Andy Critchlow, head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa at S&P Global Platts.

While Qatar may be willing to assist Saudi Arabia once the boycott is lifted, its is certain to ensure that it does not become dependent on gas exports to the kingdom.

Diversification of its gas exports is a pillar of Qatar’s soft power strategy that helped shield it from the effects of the boycott.

Some Qatari officials have long believed that gaining control of Qatari gas reserves was a main objective of the Saudi-UAE boycott.

As a result, Qatar is likely to be weary of plans by Saudi Arabia to become a global gas player. The kingdom holds the world’s fourth largest gas reserves that it so far has been unable to develop.

Amin H. Nasser, CEO of Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, said earlier this year that he expected the kingdom to massively invest in the Saudi gas sector over the next ten years. Mr. Nasser envisioned gas production increasing from 14 billion standard cubic feet to 23 billion by 2030.

“We are looking to shift from only satisfying our utility industry in the kingdom, which will happen especially with the increase in renewable and nuclear to be an exporter of gas and gas products,” Mr. Nasser said.

Qatar laid down its marker a year ago when it decided to leave OPEC, the cartel of oil exporting countries, to focus on its gas exports.

Speaking at the time, Qatari energy minister Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, articulated what is likely to shape the Gulf state’s policy even if the boycott is lifted.

“We are not saying we are going to get out of the oil business, but it is controlled by an organization managed by a country,” Mr. Al-Kaabi said.

Qatar, he said, was unwilling “to put efforts and resources and time in an organization that we are a very small player in, and I don’t have a say in what happens.”

Thank you for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed the podcast. A written version of this podcast is on my blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer at mideastsoccer.blogspot.com. Please join me for my next podcast in the coming days. All the best and take care

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