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


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Saudi Arabia’s Problems: Not Just a Pandemic and Economics, but Geopolitics Too


A Chinese security officer stands guard at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing where Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a meeting. Feb. 22, 20 (How Hwee Young Pool Photo via AP)

By James M. Dorsey

This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may feel that the global pandemic and its economic fallout are the more immediate of his problems as the kingdom gradually lifts restrictions put in place to stymie the spread of the coronavirus.

However, looming large on the horizon is a potential rift with the United States as a result of the kingdom’s price war with Russia that contributed to the collapse of oil markets and an existential crisis for America’s shale industry.

US President Donald J. Trump is believed to be weighing a ban on import of Saudi oil in a bid to force the kingdom to reroute tankers carrying some 40 million barrels of crude to the United States.

More fundamentally, Prince Mohammed has put the kingdom’s relationship with the United States at risk without having any real alternative options at a time that an agreement among oil producers to cut production amounts to at best a timeout in a price war that is all about market share.

The price war has further strained Saudi Arabia’s ties to the US Congress, already troubled by the war in Yemen, the kingdom’s record of human rights abuse, and the killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Saudi judiciary reforms in the past week, including abolishing flogging as a legal punishment and death sentences for people who committed crimes as minors, constituted an effort to respond to criticism but were unlikely to turn the tide.

Speaking for Congressmen representing US shale states, North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer warned that “Saudi Arabia’s next steps will determine whether our strategic partnership is salvageable.”

Salvaging Saudi-US relations may be Prince Mohammed’s only option.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to have taken kindly to a reported shouting match in a phone call with the crown prince at the outset of the price war.

Signaling that the production cuts are a ceasefire rather than an end to the war, Saudi Arabia and Russia continue to fight it out on oil markets with the kingdom undercutting Russia with discounts and special offers, according to a Reuters investigation.

Strained relations did not prevent the two countries from moving forward with an agreement on Russian wheat sales to the kingdom. A first Russian shipment of 60,000 tons set sail for Saudi Arabia earlier this month.

Irrespective of the state of Saudi-Russian relations, Russia’s call for replacing the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multi-lateral security arrangement that would involve the United States as well as China, Europe, and India is a skeleton with no flesh.

Russia has neither the wherewithal nor the will to shoulder responsibility for Gulf security. Nor do others, envisioned by Russia as a participant in a revised Gulf security arrangement.

The proposal, moreover, is a stillborn baby as long as Saudi Arabia refuses to engage with Iran with no pre-conditions. The kingdom has so far used the pandemic to harden fault lines with the Islamic Republic, casting aside opportunities to build bridges with goodwill gestures.

Similarly, China has no appetite for a major military role in the Middle East despite having established its first foreign military base in Djibouti and contributing to anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

Equally troubling for Prince Mohammed is the fact that he cannot be certain that China would be able to maintain its neutrality if US-Iranian tensions were to explode into an all-out war given that when the chips are down Iran may be of greater strategic significance to Beijing.

Iran’s geography, demography, and highly educated population give it a leg up in its competition with Saudi Arabia for Chinese favor. So does the fact that China and Iran see each other as bookends at both ends of Asia with a civilizational history that goes back thousands of years.

Iran, moreover, plays a pivotal role in Belt and Road-related efforts to link China to Europe by a rail that would traverse Central Asia and the Islamic Republic and end the expensive and time-consuming process of having to transfer goods to ships at one end of the Caspian Sea and loading them back onto a train on the Caspian’s opposite shore.

Prince Mohammed’s maneuvering to strike a balance in securing Saudi Arabia’s place in a world of contentious big power relationships is reflected in coverage by the kingdom’s tightly controlled media of Chinese and US efforts to combat the pandemic.

Andrew Leber, a student of Saudi policymaking, noted that “China’s mixed record in boosting its image in Riyadh is a reminder that soft-power competition is not a zero-sum game. Even as Saudi outlets have grown more willing to air criticisms of China, some have derided the efforts of President Donald Trump and his administration to blame COVID-19 on Beijing.”

Mr. Leber’s analysis of Saudi media coverage suggests that Prince Mohammed is seeking to keep all doors open.

It will, however, take a lot more than vacillating media coverage and reform of the kingdom’s penal code to polish Saudi Arabia’s tarnished image in the United States and level the playing field with Iran when it comes to China.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also 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 in Germany

Monday, April 27, 2020

Pandemic threatens to drive wedge into US-Gulf relations



James M. Dorsey

This article first appeared in Gulf Insight

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

It is early days, but first indications are that the global pandemic is entrenching long-drawn Middle Eastern geopolitical, political, ethnic, and sectarian battle lines rather than serving as a vehicle to build bridges and build confidence.

The coronavirus crisis is also changing the region’s political landscape as non-governmental organizations and militants in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon fill gaps where governments have failed to cater to social and health needs created by the pandemic.

The empowerment of NGOs and militant groups, particularly where they fill a gap without coordinating with government, potentially raises security issues as militants capitalize on their ability to show up the state’s lack of capability.

The expanded militants’ role takes on added significance as states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates use the pandemic to entrench as well as manage many of the Middle East’s fault lines, if not widen them to their advantage.

The pandemic has also not stopped the region’s foremost external power, the United States, from taking Iran’s bait in an escalating tit-for-tat that risks a larger military conflagration.

In a similar vein, the UAE has used the pandemic to solidify its limited outreach to Iran designed to shield the Gulf state from becoming a battlefield in any US-Iranian military confrontation.

While the United States reportedly blocked an Iranian request for US5 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fight the virus, the UAE was among the first nations to deliver medical aid to Iran and facilitate shipments by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The shipments led to a rare March 15 phone call between UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javid Zarif.

The UAE began reaching out to Iran last year when it sent a coast guard delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security in the wake of alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers off the coast of the Emirates.

The Trump administration remained silent when the UAE last October released US$700 million in frozen Iranian assets that ran counter to US efforts to strangle Iran economically with harsh sanctions.

The UAE’s moves amount to a lowering of the temperature. Officials insist that there will be no real breakthrough in Emirati-Iranian relations as long as Iran supports proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed made that clear when he phoned Syrian President Bashar -al-Assad in a bid to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran and complicate Turkish military interventions in Syria as well as Libya.

UAE support for Syria and Libyan rebel forces led by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar spotlight the contradictions in the Emirates’ projection of itself as a humanitarian actor. Neither Mr. Al-Assad or Mr. Haftar have shied away from targeting hospitals and medical facilities at a time functioning health infrastructure is a priority.

In cuddling up to Syria and reaching out to Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia may have common goals even if they pursue them in different ways that are dictated by the degree of risk they are willing to shoulder.

As a result, Saudi Arabia, in contrast to the UAE, has maintained a hard line towards Iran, casting aside opportunities to build bridges by, for example, offering Iran medical aid.

Instead, Saudi Arabia appeared to reinforce the divide by accusing Iran of “direct responsibility” for the spread of the virus. Government-controlled media charged that Iran’s allies, Qatar and Turkey, had deliberately mismanaged the crisis.

Moreover, the kingdom, backing a US refusal to ease sanctioning of Iran, prevented the Non-Aligned Movement from condemning the Trump administration’s hard line at the time of a pandemic.

Saudi Arabia’s failure to follow in the UAE’s footsteps could prove to be costlier than meets the eye.

The coronavirus coupled with the global economic breakdown and the collapse of the oil market has somewhat levelled the playing field with Iran with the undermining of the kingdom’s ability to manipulate oil prices as well as its diminished financial muscle.

Add to that the weakening of Saudi Arabia’s claim to leadership of the Islamic world as the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities, as a result of its efforts to combat the pandemic.

One has to go way back in history to find a precedent for the kingdom’s banning of the Umrah, Islam’s minor pilgrimage to Mecca; the likely cancelling of the haj, Islam’s major  pilgrimage that constitutes one of the faith’s five pillars; and the closing down of mosques to avoid congregational prayer.

Just to make things worse, Saudi Arabia has jeopardized its close ties to the United States with an oil price war against Russia that collapsed oil markets, drove oil prices to rock bottom, and significantly undermined the US shale industry with its ten million jobs.

Nonetheless, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a twist of irony given his record on human rights and rule of law, has emerged as a model in some Muslim countries like Pakistan that have been less forceful in imposing physical distancing and lockdowns on ultra-conservative religious communities.

“What if this year’s haj was under Imran Khan rather than Mohammad bin Salman? Would he have waffled there as indeed he has in Pakistan?” asked Pakistani nuclear scientist, political analyst and human rights activist Pervez Hoodbhoy referring to the Pakistan prime minister.

Saudi Arabia has so far carried the brunt of US criticism despite the fact that it remains more closely aligned with US policies than the UAE which to date has succeeded in flying under the radar.

That is a remarkable achievement given that the Emirates backed Saudi Arabia in its debilitating price war by announcing that it too would raise oil production.

The strategy has since been put on hold with an agreement to radically reduce production among members of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC), non-OPEC producers, including Russia, and the Group of Twenty that brings together the world’s largest economies.

In the same vein, the UAE’s outreach to Syria and Iran runs counter to US policy.

The policy contradictions stem from Gulf efforts to ensure that entrenched conflicts do not spiral out of control, particularly as they battle a pandemic and struggle to cope with the economic fallout.

That is also their core message to US President Donald J. Trump amid heightening tensions with Iran: “Don’t let this get out of hand. You live thousands of miles away. It will be us, not you who pays the price and you won’t be there to rush to our defense,” said a prominent Saudi.

About the author

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also 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 in Germany

About the Gulf Insights series:

The "Gulf Insights" series is published by the Gulf Studies Center on a weekly base with the aim to promote informed debate with academic depth. The Gulf Insights are commentaries on pressing regional issues written by the GSC/GSP faculty, staff PhD and MA students, as well as guest scholars, and they can be between 1,200 to 1,500 words.
All articles published under “Gulf Insight” series have been discussed internally but they reflect the opinion and views of the authors, and do not reflect the views of the Center, the College of Arts and Sciences or Qatar University.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Middle Eastern juxtapositions: The phone call that never came



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.

Populated by fluent Hebrew speakers, the Israel desk of Armenia’s foreign ministry waited back in 1991 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union for a phone call that never came.

The ministry was convinced that Israel, with whom Armenia shared an experience of genocide, were natural allies.

The ministry waited in vain. Israel never made the call.

The shared experience could not compete with Armenia’s Turkic nemesis, Azerbaijan, with which it was at war over Nagorno Karabagh, an Armenian enclave on Azerbaijani territory.

“The calculation was simple. Azerbaijan has three strategic assets that Israel is interested in: Muslims, oil and several thousand Jews. All Armenia has to offer is at best several hundred Jews,” said an Israeli official at the time.

Azerbaijan had one more asset: close ties to Turkey, which supported it in the war against Armenia.
As a result, Israel and Jewish organizations with long-standing ties to Turkey refrained for years from participating in annual commemorations of the 1915 mass murder of Armenians.

In a sign of the times, that may be changing.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strained relations with Israel and the West, his touting of implicitly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, hollowing out of Turkish democracy and offensive against Syrian Kurds who played a key role in defeating the Islamic State, appears to have turned the tide.

The US Congress as well as major American Jewish organizations have laid Turkish objections by the wayside and recognized the mass murder of Armenian as genocide.

“One thing is certain: Armenians and Jews, two groups whose similar history makes them natural allies, will improve their relationships,” said historian and political scientist Marc David Baer.

Mr. Baer may have spoken too early.

While relations with Turkey may no longer be a consideration, relations with Azerbaijan are.

To be sure, Azerbaijan’s human rights record is hardly better than that of Turkey.

Yet, predominantly Shiite Azerbaijan, like Armenia, borders on Iran.

With tension between the United States and Iran on the rise, that could be of significance.
President Donald J. Trump tweeted earlier this week that he had ordered the US Navy to destroy any vessels in the Gulf that harassed American navy ships.

Mr. Trump posted his tweet after Iranian Revolutionary Guard gun speedboats had made, according to the US, “dangerous and harassing approaches.”

The approaches were part of Iran’s strategy of gradual escalation that aims to bring the United States and the Islamic republic to the brink of war in a bid to force a return to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran.

The International Crisis Group, in an effort to pre-empt the tit-for-tat from escalating out of control, called this week for a US-Iranian military hotline. “A mechanism facilitated by a third party might contain the risk of conflict due to misread signals and miscalculation,” the group said.

Lurking in the background as the United States and Israel focus on getting a grip on the coronavirus and the pandemic’s economic fallout is the fact that Iran’s gradual breaching of the nuclear accord has put the Islamic republic within reach of the amount of enriched uranium needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

The breaches were part of Iran’s so far failed attempt to pressure the United States as well as an effort to force other signatories to compensate it for losses suffered by the US sanctions.

Iran has consistently denied that it aims to obtain a nuclear capability. It has breached the nuclear deal without abrogating the agreement that was also signed by China, France, Russia, Britain, Germany and the European Union.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned last month that Iran had nearly tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium and was refusing to answer questions about three possible undeclared nuclear sites.

Concern about Iran’s military capability was boosted this week with the Islamic republic’s successful launch of a satellite and unveiling of a full-blown space program managed by the Revolutionary Guards.

Add to that a just published study of the Iranian navy thar concludes “based on its doctrine of naval warfare, the Iranian revolutionary naval forces have embarked on a fast-paced rearmament and reequipment program during the past two decades, aimed at offsetting the U.S. Navy’s military presence in the Persian Gulf region.”

All of which, demonstrates the failure of the United States’ maximum pressure campaign against Iran and the country’s abilities despite sanctions and a pandemic.

Israel made clear in the years prior to the signing of the nuclear accord that it would not allow Iran to get within a year of being able to build a nuclear weapon.

At the time, Israel and Azerbaijan discussed the possibility of the Israeli air force using Azerbaijani airbases should it opt to take out the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities.

Talk of an Israeli strike has not yet been revived amidst the current escalating US-Iranian tension, but that does not mean it will not.

For Armenia’s Israel experts, this means that there is no point in once again waiting for an Israeli phone call. That call is not coming any time soon.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also 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 in Germany

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Dialogue of the Deaf Drives Escalating US-Iranian Tensions



by James M. Dorsey | Apr 21, 2020

This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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

The United States and Iran, acting on perceptions of one another that seem to be engraved in stone, are on a collision course that could have devastating consequences for Arab Gulf states and Iraq. The risk is magnified by each one’s adoption of policies and strategies that are based on faulty assessments of the other.

The United States and Iran have waged a contentious dialogue of the deaf for much of the past four decades.

It is a dialogue that seemingly brought the two countries to the brink of war in January following tit-for-tat attacks with potentially devastating consequences for Arab Gulf states.

The tit-for-tat culminated in the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani that initially was thought to have deterred Iran.

It did not, and the talking past one another heightens the risk of things getting, again, out of hand.

Successive US and Iranian governments are the culprits even if US President Barak Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, attempted to change the course of history with a 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The agreement failed to revise deep-seated distrust, including US perceptions that Iran seeks to destabilize the Middle East and sow regional mischief and Iran’s conviction that successive US administrations and their regional allies seek regime change in Tehran.

In a sign of the times, the global pandemic has become another Iranian-US battlefield in which both sides are driven by perceptions of one another rather than a will to create opportunities to break the logjam.

Perceptions have been reinforced not only by a US refusal to ease harsh sanctions, but also Saudi Arabia’s failure to follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates by shipping medical supplies to Iran and by Iran’s attempt to use the pandemic to pressure Washington and secure financial aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The divide is further magnified by the fact that misperceptions have filtered into the fabric of foreign policy communities of both countries that lead to policy recommendations potentially based on problematic analysis.

The killing of Mr. Soleimani did everything but send a message warning Iran that it was playing with fire.

It missed the point that Iranian strategy, after initially failing to pressure the Trump administration into reversing its 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear accord, is centred on playing with fire.

Iran last weekend stepped up Revolutionary Guard speed boat patrols in the Gulf after the United States warned that there had been “dangerous and harassing approaches.”

Rightly or wrongly, Iran is likely to believe that it is a strategy that may not have achieved its main goal so far but has produced results.

Iran appears to see forcing a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq as achievable and will interpret the recent concentration of US forces in a smaller number of Iraqi bases as a step in that direction.

The US says the redeployment was planned prior to President Donald J. Trump’s assertion that Iran was planning “a sneak attack” against American forces.

Iran last year opted for gradual escalation involving attacks on US targets in Iraq as well as critical national infrastructure in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in a bid to bring the region to the brink of war.

Convinced that neither the United States nor Iran wants a war, Iranian leaders hope that heightened tension will open the door to a return to the negotiating table.

If that were correct, it would throw into doubt recommendations that the United States should adopt a strategy of deterrence against Iran, similar for example to Israel’s successful bid to push Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria away from the Jewish state’s border.

Some 200 airstrikes against 1,000 targets “slowed Iran’s military build-up in Syria while avoiding a broader regional conflagration that would have been damaging to Israel’s interests,” the Center for a New American Security said in a report released last week.

The problem is that comparing Iranian policy towards the United States and Israel amounts to comparing apples and pears. Iran has no interest in pushing Israel towards a negotiation nor does it want to risk an all-out war.

In other words, Israel may find it far easier than the United States to deter Iran. Escalated US attacks on Iranian targets, unlike Israeli strikes, would probably serve Iran’s immediate purpose.

The lay of the land is complicated not only by the rejiggering of US forces in Iraq but also the country’s internal political dynamics.

The killing of Mr. Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi commander who died alongside the Iranian general, has brought to the surface differences among pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. The two men were pivotal figures in keeping the militias in line.

Some militias are demanding that they be integrated into the Iraqi military while others want to continue operating independently albeit in close association with the military and yet others have forged alliances with criminal networks.

All in all, little suggests that US-Iranian tensions can be reduced without the political will to revisit and puncture perceptions of one another. That may be a tall order given that the nuclear accord failed to create a real opening.

Yet, even without an opening, both the United States and Iran would do well to take a hard look at their perceptions in a bid to realistically assess their options.

“The United States and Iran are on a collision course . . . because [they] . . . hold very different interpretations of reality,” said strategist and Middle East scholar Ross Harrison. “The United States, which had built its doctrine around combatting a global threat from the Soviet Union, found itself flatfooted in dealing with a regional phenomenon like post-revolutionary Iran…. The United States can injure Iran, but it is unlikely to be able to compromise Iran’s regional influence.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also 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 in Germany

Friday, April 17, 2020

Saudi Arabia rolls the dice with bid for Newcastle United



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.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has rolled the dice with a US$ 374 million bid to acquire storied British soccer club Newcastle United.

If approved by Britain’s Premier League that nominally maintains a high bar for the qualification of aspiring club owners, Prince Mohammed would have demonstrated that he has put behind him an image tarnished by Saudi conduct of a five-year long war in Yemen, the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, systematic abuse of human rights and, more recently, the kingdom’s badly-timed oil price war with Russia.

A successful acquisition would send a message that the kingdom retains the kind of financial muscle that allows it to acquire trophies that enable it to project itself in a different light and garner soft power rather than financial gain at a time of a pandemic and global economic collapse.

The planned acquisition comes as Saudi Arabia is reportedly seeking to raise US$7 billion with an international bond sale to compensate for sharply reduced oil revenues.

Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, was reported to be talking to banks about a US$10 billion loan to help finance its acquisition of a 70% stake in Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC). The deal would pour money into the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.

The acquisition would mimic the 2017 purchase of celebrated soccer star Neymar by Qatar-owned Paris St. Germain for US$277 million intended to demonstrate that the Gulf state was unaffected by the then several months-old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott.

By the same token, a decision by the Premier League to reject the acquisition of Newcastle would be perceived as yet another of Prince Mohammed’s self-inflicted public relations fiascos that include multiple failed attempts to position the kingdom as a powerhouse in international soccer governance.

Prince Mohammed’s emphasis on soccer, symbolized by his presence at the kick-off of the 2018 World Cup in which Russia handily defeated Saudi Arabia, has as much to do with projection of the kingdom internationally as it is a pillar of his effort to develop the entertainment and sports sectors in his country and boost his attempt to position nationalism rather than religion as a core element of Saudi identity.

Prince Mohammed is betting that the Premier League at a time of economic crisis and with Britain needing to forge new trade relationships in the wake of its departure from the European Union may not want to slam the door on a wealthy investor and/or jeopardize British relations with the kingdom.

That could prove to be a relatively safe bet.

Premier League and British officials will have taken note that Prince Mohammed does not take kindly to criticism and rejection.

Saudi Arabia responded in 2018 to Canadian criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record by withdrawing its ambassador and freezing all new trade and investment transactions.

German criticism of a failed Saudi attempt to force the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister led that same year to a de facto downgrading of diplomatic relations and reduced trade.

Reports that Yasir al-Rumayyan, a close associate of Prince Mohammed and governor of the PIF, will become chairman of Newcastle raise the stakes for both Prince Mohammed and the Premier League.

The PIF will reportedly put up 80 percent of the funds needed for the acquisition through an investment vehicle created by a British financier even though a document filed with Companies House, Britain’s registrar of companies, made no mention of the fund.

The Premier League, nonetheless, may find itself, albeit only momentarily, in an uncomfortable position.

The League has tightened its criteria to test potential club owners on their integrity and reputation. The criteria include ensuring that a potential owner has not committed an act in a foreign jurisdiction that would be a criminal offence in Britain, even if not illegal in their own country.

That could put the Premier League in the position of, at least by implication, passing judgement on whether Prince Mohammed was implicated in any of a number of events that may have violated British law.

Supporters of the acquisition argue that it bolsters Prince Mohammed’s reforms in a soccer-crazy country and reaffirms his push to break with the kingdom’s austere, inward-looking past. They reason further that it will bolster investment in Newcastle and surroundings at a time of impending economic hardship.

Supporters only need to look at Manchester where the United Arab Emirates’ acquisition of Manchester City more than a decade ago has benefitted not only the club but the city too.

Like fans in Manchester who have manifested little interest in the UAE’s record of human rights abuse, supporters of Newcastle are likely to welcome the financial injection and departure of the club’s unpopular current owner, Mike Ashley, and ignore condemnation of the deal by human rights activists, including Amnesty International, as “sportswashing, plain and simple.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also 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 in Germany.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

JMD on Inside Arabia: US-Saudi Oil Clash Sets Stage for Future Epic Battle


by James M. Dorsey | Apr 14, 2020

This story was first published on Inside Arabia

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

The coronavirus pandemic and the global economic meltdown forced Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and Russia to call time out in a war that was less about prices and more about market share and survival of the fittest. The agreement among producers to cut production by 10 million barrels a day amounts to a ceasefire that will likely end once economies recover and can again sustain the cost of war.


Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud, Minister of Energy of Saudi Arabia, chairs a virtual summit of the Group of 20 energy ministers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 10, 2020 (Saudi Energy Ministry via AP)
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) risk jeopardizing their relationship with the United States as a result of diverging interests that became evident with the eruption of the recent oil price war. That remains true even if the war was unsustainable in the midst of a devastating pandemic.
So far Saudi Arabia has been the focus of US wrath at the kingdom’s perceived insensitivity and recklessness while the UAE has managed to fly under the radar despite it too declaring that it would increase production in support of the price war with Russia. The question is for how long the UAE can stay off the radar.
An immediate crisis has been averted with an agreement on Sunday, April 12 between members of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC producers to cut production by some 10 million barrels a day.
But 13 US Republican Congressmen from oil-producing states put Saudi Arabia on notice in a two-hour phone call with Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman a day after the agreement.
“The Saudis spent over a month waging war on American oil producers, all while our troops protected theirs.”
“While we appreciate them taking the first step toward fixing the problem they helped create, the Saudis spent over a month waging war on American oil producers, all while our troops protected theirs. That’s not how friends treat friends. Their actions were inexcusable and won’t be forgotten. Saudi Arabia’s next steps will determine whether our strategic partnership is salvageable,” said North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer

The Congressmen’s notice reflected a deterioration of the kingdom’s relations with Congress over the past two years as well as US President Donald J. Trump’s anger at the Saudi price war.
There is, however, a silver lining in the US-Saudi clash over oil prices even if it was suspended with the production cut agreement. The clash clarifies the parameters of the long-standing relationship between the two countries.
Eager to knock out the US shale industry, which accounts for some 10 million jobs, Saudi Arabia made clear that it would pursue its interests irrespective of US concerns or the fact that the world was in a massive economic downturn as the result of a pandemic.
“The Kingdom will . . . have to reduce its budgetary expenditures while wisely accessing its financial reserves for essential spending as it fights this potentially long-term battle of the fittest for market share in global energy,” said Ali Shihabi, a political analyst and former banker who often reflects Saudi thinking.

To accommodate sharply reduced revenues, the Saudi finance ministry has instructed government bodies to submit proposals to slash this year’s spending by up to 30 percent, the economic consultancy Nasser Saidi and Associates said in a research note.

The US-Saudi clash has laid bare the vulnerability of the US shale industry at a critical time.
The US-Saudi clash has also laid bare the vulnerability of the US shale industry at a critical time. The ability of the United States to project itself as the world’s largest producer and exporter takes on added significance against the backdrop of a decline in US credibility reinforced by America’s inability to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis.
The irony is that US anger could have just as well been directed at the UAE, which was quick to declare its support of the Saudi move to drive prices below US shale’s breakeven point by flooding the market.
There’s “ample production capacity that will be quickly brought online given the current circumstances,” UAE Energy Minister Suhail Al Mazrouei said on March 11.

By putting Saudi Arabia and by implication the UAE on notice, the Congressmen were drawing battle lines for a renewed clash in the future that may have become even more inevitable as a result of the pandemic and its economic fallout.

With a likely reduction of the value of oil reserves and limited new gas stockpiles in the coming decades because of the rise of shale and renewables, Saudi Arabia needs to secure market share by capitalizing on its low costs. Indeed, the kingdom has one of the world’s lowest costs of production of a barrel of oil.

The collapse in demand, low prices, and the global economic turndown increases the importance of market share. Saudi Arabia is likely to have to downsize its attention-grabbing big tickets like Neom – the futuristic city on the Red Sea, and focus on revenue and job-creating sectors.

“There’s a high likelihood (Neom) fades into nothingness. . . . The momentum will likely die out. And it will take a lot to rebuild that momentum,” said a Gulf-based economist.

In a sign of the times, JPMorgan was reportedly seeking to sell at a discount loans raised by the sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as banks brace for a borrowing spree in the Gulf due to low oil prices.
Saudi Arabia may seek to create jobs and markets for their petrochemicals by developing plastics processing and chemicals.
Some economists suggest that Saudi Arabia and other oil producers may seek to create jobs and domestic and regional markets for their petrochemicals by pushing the development of plastics processing and chemicals.
Saudi Arabia hinted at a return to a focus on energy derivatives with the acquisition by its sovereign wealth fund of stakes worth roughly $1 billion USD in four major European oil companies—Equinor, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and Eni.
“Managing heightened public expectations of the leadership will be crucial in maintaining public support for MbS when the pandemic subsides. The crisis is also a test for the progress made on Saudi Vision 2030, especially its programs to transform public services, reduce unemployment, and diversify the economy away from oil,” said Saudi Arabia scholar Yasmine Farouk.

Ms. Farouk was referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by his initials and his Vision 2030 plan to lessen the kingdom’s dependence on oil revenues by diversifying its economy.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also 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 in Germany.