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


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?



by James M. Dorsey | May 27, 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.

By and large, Gulf states garnered public trust with degrees of transparency in their handling of the pandemic and its associated economic crisis. Retaining that trust going forward will depend on Gulf rulers’ willingness to embrace transparency when it comes to policies designed to spark economic recovery and govern structural reform.

The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.
Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.
Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.
They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.
To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.
History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.
Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.
A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.
Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.
It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”
To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.
The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.
Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.
“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.
The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.
Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.
Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.
The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.
To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.
A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”
There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.
It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.
The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.
That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What do Donald Trump and ultra-conservative Pakistani imams have in common



By James M. Dorsey and Tehmina Qureshi

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

US President Donald J. Trump and ultra-conservative Pakistani religious scholars may have more in common than either would want to admit: a belief that congregation is an essential pillar of prayer irrespective of public health concerns.

Mr. Trump, however, may wish that he had the kind of less polarized and/or more compliant audience that Pakistani clerics address.

Scores of religious leaders and groups in the United States have sought to protect their communities by advocating virtual rather than physical congregation at the time of a pandemic in which the coronavirus has yet to be brought under control.

Religious authorities in much of the Muslim world, Pakistan being the exception that proves the rule, have heeded government instructions and medical and public health advice.

That advice ranged from the closure of mosques to bans on social gatherings that precluded traditional iftar meals breaking the Ramadan fast and celebrations of this week’s end of the holy month to Saudi Arabia’s suspension of the umrah, the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca and possibly the haj too.

Leaving aside the question whether he has the legal power to do so, Mr. Trump vowed to overrule governors who refused to open houses of worship, noting that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) had issued guidelines that included physical distancing.

The move designed to play to Mr. Trump’s Evangelist voter base received a mixed reception among American faith communities.

It appealed to those segments of the community with an unqualified belief in God’s ability and will to protect and that often are steeped in notions of Christian manhood that have deep roots in American Evangelism and were boosted by the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Towers and the Pentagon in Washington.

Mr. Trump’s recognition of prayer as an “essential” societal activity further drew a line intended to give houses of worship autonomy in an environment in which state intrusion into people’s lives has expanded greatly in a bid to fight the pandemic.

In that sense, the president was fighting a battle similar to that of Pakistani Sunni and Shia Muslim leaders who rejected a total closure of mosques but were willing to accept guidance on issues such as physical distancing.

The leaders see mosques “as spaces where you cultivate  and express a communal religious identity that is very central to…their vision of the Pakistani state,” said a Pakistani Islamic scholar.

The clerics’ determination to retain control of religious spaces was reinforced by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s flip flops that resembled Mr. Trump’s zig zags.

Mr. Khan initially sought to appeal to religious circles by meeting in the early days of the pandemic with Maulana Tariq Jameel, a leader of Tablighi Jamaat, who initially denied the contagious aspect of the virus.

Mr. Jameel reversed course and embraced physical distancing after his movement’s mass gatherings in Pakistan, Malaysia, India and Indonesia turned into super spreaders of the coronavirus. 

Mr. Khan’s government further complicated issues by initially agreeing with religious leaders on a division of labour that would have empowered the clerics to advise their followers to stay at home, avoid congregational prayer and maintain physical distancing and then jumping the gun to announce the measures without coordination.

Mosques in major Pakistani cities were packed in recent days, despite religious leaders paying lip service to physical distancing, in a reflection of the degree to which ultra-conservatism has woven itself into the fabric of Pakistani society and in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia’s pre-emptive response to the health crisis.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled against government lockdowns, suggesting that the coronavirus was not a pandemic. Religious leaders have since backed away from their acceptance of physical distancing, demanding that the advice be abandoned.

Mr. Trump’s recognition of prayer as essential aligned itself with notions of concepts of religious freedom promoted by his administration, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the lead, that in effect serve to legitimize discrimination against minorities of various stripes.

Few doubt that Mr. Trump made his move with an eye on the US presidential election in November. Mr. Trump was embarking on a road on which mainstream ultra-conservative Pakistani clerics were also travelling.

The clerics remained silent when Ahmadis, a sect viewed as heretic by mainstream Muslims, were excluded from a national commission created by the government earlier this month to promote religious tolerance and counter persecution of minorities.

Pakistan’s religious affairs ministry barred inclusion of Ahmadis, who are among Pakistan’s most discriminated minorities, on grounds that they did not qualify as a minority and refuse to recognize the country’s constitution.

A 1974 amendment of the constitution bars Ahmadis from identifying themselves as Muslims because they do not recognize Mohammed as the last prophet.

Compared to the polarising environment that Mr. Trump operates in and likes to entrench, Pakistani clerics have it a lot easier. Except for liberals and human rights activists, few in Pakistan are willing to stand up for Ahmadi rights.

Moreover, the government shied away from imposing its will on the religious establishment during the pandemic as did the military, which built quarantine centres in various cities and helped local authorities implement a lockdown.

Pakistan lacks truly influential, more liberal religious voices in the mould of for example Reverend Curtiss DeYoung, CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches that groups African-American denominations, the mainline church and the Greek Orthodox Church.

“We listen to communities of colour, and many of our congregations’ people are engaged in representing refugees and immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, even seniors, they're saying, why the urgency?” Mr. DeYoung said in response to Mr. Trump’s push.

“They're…directly affected. They're actually afraid in many cases to go into group gatherings...We feel that we need to make our decisions based on good science and the recommendations of our health department,” the reverend added.

Mr. DeYoung was joined by his Muslim counterparts in contrast to their Pakistani brethren.

"American Muslim scholars and community leaders have already determined that mosques will not be open in the near future because of the health concerns brought on by the pandemic. That's a determination for them to make not for the president to make,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American–Islamic Relations, the  largest US Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

To be sure, the United States and Pakistan are vastly different countries. Pakistan has been hard hit by the pandemic with 55,657 cases of infection to date and 1,155 deaths. Yet, that is  a far cry from the United States’ 1,613,324 cases and 96,659 deaths.

Pakistan, nonetheless, saw its number of cases quadruple during the month of Ramadan and the rate of new infections jump by 30 percent in the last week as the holy month neared its end .

Yet, when it comes to employing religion to entrench power at the cost of striking a balance between faith and science, Mr. Trump and Pakistani religious scholars share the kind of opportunism and worldview that serve their short-term interests irrespective of the cost to human life and potentially to already battered economies.

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.

Tehmina Qureshi is a multi-platform journalist and editorial writer at Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

UAE-Turkish Rivalry Wreaks Regional Havoc in Libya and Syria



by James M. Dorsey | May 22, 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 Arab Emirates and Turkey are locked into a regional power struggle that has fuelled conflict in Libya and could spark renewed fighting in Syria. It is a struggle, like that between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that threatens to keep the Middle East and North Africa on edge.

While Saudi Arabia may in some ways have a leg up on Iran, Turkey and the UAE are at a virtual draw.

In Libya, forces of the Turkish-backed, Tripoli-based internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) are pushing UAE-backed rebels led by renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar out of western Libya. Mr. Haftar further enjoys support from Saudi Arabia and Egypt with whom Turkey is also at odds.

In contrast to Libya, Turkey is discovering that in Syria the odds are stacked against it, even if its objectives in the country are more limited.

If in Libya, Turkish support for the GNA amounts to an effort to shape who controls the country as well as energy-rich waters in the Eastern Mediterranean; in Syria, Turkey is determined to prevent Syrian Kurdish nationalist forces from establishing a permanent and meaningful presence on its borders and control jihadist forces in Idlib, the last major Syrian rebel stronghold.

US abandonment of their alliance with the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State pushed the Kurds towards cooperation with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Kurds expect the cooperation to shield them from Turkish efforts to push them further out of border areas.

At the same time Turkey, already home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees – the single largest concentration of Syrians fleeing their war-torn and dilapidated homeland -- also wants to stymie a potential new influx of many more if and when Idlib falls to Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

The UAE-Turkish rivalry — rooted in a battle for dominance of global Muslim religious soft power; geopolitical competition across the Muslim world, including the Middle East and the Horn of Africa; and fundamentally opposed attitudes towards political Islam — has escalated military confrontations and complicated, if not disrupted, efforts to resolve conflicts in Libya and Syria.

The UAE-Turkey scorecard is 1:1

Turkey so far has a winning hand in Libya.

In Syria, however, few doubt that Turkey will struggle to secure its interests with Mr. Al-Assad, backed not only by Russia and Iran but also the UAE, firmly in the saddle.

UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) reportedly promised Mr. Al-Assad $3 billion USD in April; $250 million of which was paid upfront, to break a ceasefire in Idlib imposed on Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Russia appears to have successfully thwarted Prince Mohammed’s move.

The Emirati crown prince had hoped to tie Turkey up in fighting in Syria, which would complicate Turkish military support for the GNA in Libya. Mr. Al-Assad’s failure to take up the offer likely contributed to Turkey’s ability to successfully focus on Libya in recent weeks.

The UAE has, nonetheless, one strategic advantage. Turkey’s reputation in Washington DC, much like that of Saudi Arabia, is severely tarnished. The UAE has so far skilfully evaded a similar fate, enjoying not only close ties to the United States but also Russia.

Turkish-US relations are strained over multiple issues, including Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s acclaimed S-400 anti-missile defense system, its close cooperation with Russia and Iran, and the continued presence in the United States of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher whom Mr. Erdogan accuses of staging the failed 2016 military attempt to remove him from office.

The Trump administration has nevertheless offered Turkey ammunition to be used in military operations in north-eastern Syria as well as humanitarian assistance in a hopeless bid to persuade Ankara to push back Iranian forces in the country.

Mr. Erdogan, in a surprise move this week, demoted and then accepted the resignation of Rear Admiral Cihat Yayci, the popular architect of Turkey’s intervention in Libya and aggressive stance in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mr. Yayci is believed to be an anti-Western Eurasianist who advocates closer Turkish relations with Russia and China.

Turkey’s ties to Russia are equally complex.

While Turkey and Russia support opposing sides in Libya, they have so far been able to balance their interests in Syria that sometimes coincide and sometimes diverge, leading earlier this year to clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces.

In Libya, it was Turkish drones that allegedly destroyed a Russian-made Pantsir air defense system even as hundreds of Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner Group, with close ties to the Kremlin, reportedly support Mr. Haftar’s forces.

If support for Mr. Haftar is Russia capitalizing on an opportunity to stoke a fire, UAE backing is part of Prince Mohammed’s determination to confront political Islam across the Middle East and North Africa.

“Turkey and the UAE [are] engaged in a regional power struggle. They see it as a zero-sum game, in which there is no way for both sides to win. If one wins, the other one loses,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).

It is a zero-sum-game played on proxy battlefields that bodes ill for those unwillingly sucked into it.

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, May 19, 2020

Israel Shines in the Gulf Where Big Powers Falter, but That Could Prove Tricky


FIREFLY, a miniature tactical loitering weapon system which is part of the SPIKE missile family (Photo RAFAEL Defense Systems- Twitter)

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.

Israel is proving to Gulf states that it is a more reliable partner in some respects than big powers like the United States, China, or Russia. But the limits of cooperation with Israel could come to the forefront at a time of economic crisis in which Gulf states are likely to have to renegotiate long-standing social contracts.

The Firefly, an Israeli-built loitering kamikaze drone, part of the Spike family of missiles that the Jewish state has sold to various European nations, may be one reason why Gulf states, and particularly Saudi Arabia, have cozied up to Israel in a seeming reversal of their past support of Palestinian rights.

If there is one lesson that Gulf states have learned from the United States’ reduced commitment to the region and the strains in US-Saudi relations, it is that putting one’s eggs in one basket is risky business.

That has not prevented the United States from continuing to secure its place as the region’s foremost arms supplier as this month’s arms and related commercial deals prove.

The US Defense Department announced a $2.6 billion USD Saudi deal to acquire 1,000 air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles from Boeing. Within days, Saudi Arabia’s Al Tadrea Manufacturing Company tweeted that it had reached agreement with Oshkosh Defense to establish a joint venture to manufacture armed vehicles in the kingdom.

The Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, disclosed separately that it had recently taken a $ 713.7 million USD stake in Boeing at a time when the company, already suffering major setbacks because of its 737-Max fiasco, took a significant hit as a result of a collapse of the civilian aviation industry.

The continued Saudi arms focus on the United States has not deprived China of opportunities. China has stepped in to help Saudi Arabia produce unmanned military vehicles after the United States refused to sell its MQ-9 Reaper killer drone to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia expects production to start next year.

Like China, Russia has been urging Saudi Arabia to purchase its acclaimed S-400 anti-missile defense system. So far, the kingdom, having watched the United States cancel NATO-member Turkey’s purchase of US F-35 fighter jets and its co-production agreement of some of the plane’s components after it acquired the Russian system, has been reticent to take the Russians up on their offer.

The limitations of Saudi-Russian cooperation have since become obvious with April’s price war between the two major oil producers that sent oil markets into a tailspin from which they are unlikely to recover any time soon.

Israel, like China and Russia and unlike the United States, puts no problematic restrictions such as adherence to human rights and use of weaponry in accordance with international law on its arms sales.

But Israel has one leg up on its Chinese and Russian competitors who maintain close ties to Iran. Israel shares with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a perception of Iran as an existential threat and a destabilizing force in the Middle East that at the very least needs to be contained.

To be sure, that is a perception that Saudi Arabia and the UAE see reflected in the United States’ maximum pressure policy towards Iran which aims to force the Islamic Republic to “change its behavior,” if not change its regime.

The problem is that maximum pressure two years into the imposition of harsh US economic sanctions has produced little result.

Add to that the fact that the United States has proven to be an unreliable ally when the chips are down, persuading the UAE and other smaller Gulf states to reach out to Iran to ensure that their critical national infrastructure does not become a target in any future major US-Iranian military conflagration.

The watershed moment for the Gulf states was when the United States failed to respond forcefully last spring and summer to alleged Iranian attacks on key Saudi oil facilities as well as oil tankers off the coast of the UAE.

The Trump administration, in a bid to reassure Gulf states, weeks later sent troops and Patriot anti-missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia to help it protect its oil installations, although the United States withdrew two of those systems earlier this month.

It took the killing of a US military contractor in December 2019 for the United States to respond to tens of Iranian-backed attacks on American targets in Iraq. And when it did, with the killing in January of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Gulf states privately celebrated the demise of their nemesis, but also feared that it was overkill, bringing the Middle East to the brink of an all-out war.

Gulf states are likely to find that cooperation with Israel has its limits too. Israel may be eager to sell weaponry and have the capability to push back at Iran in Syria. If need be, Israel can also severely damage, if not take out, Iranian nuclear and missile facilities in military strikes that Gulf states would be unable to carry out.

But ties to Israel remain a sensitive issue in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. And Israel has so far restricted sales to non-lethal equipment and technology. That could change with a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations.

Public opinion, however, may be one reason Gulf states have refused to turn unofficial relations into diplomatic recognition, suggesting that there may be greater public empathy for Palestinians than Gulf rulers wish to admit.

That could count for more with Gulf rulers finding it increasingly difficult to provide public goods and services, among which first and foremost jobs, as a result of the global economic crisis and the collapse of oil prices.

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, May 18, 2020

The potential dark side of the militarization of Gulf societies



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.

The coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout calls into question Gulf states’ ability to fund a brewing, costly regional arms race. That in turn could not only reshape their geopolitical posture but also efforts to make the military a pillar of a new national identity at a time that they are forced to renegotiate outdated social contracts.

A significant drop in revenues, as a result of the collapse of oil and gas prices and vastly reduced global demand, raises the question whether countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, can maintain huge military expenditures that rank them among the world’s foremost arms buyers.

Saudi and UAE expenditure was driven by a perceived need to counter Iranian advances in the development of ballistic missiles and drones as well as a potential nuclear military capability and Iranian-backed Arab proxies. Qatar joined the race more recently in response to the three-year-old, Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.

The expenditure positioned the military as a driver of an identity grounded in nationalism rather than religion or tribal heritage and was intended to help lay the groundwork for eventual, potentially painful, transitions to more diversified and streamlined post-oil economies.

Male conscription introduced in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait and a Saudi decision to open volunteering for military service to women over the last decade served that purpose as well as government efforts to expand citizen participation in the workforce at the expense of migrant and expatriate labour, including in the armed forces.

The moves constituted a break with a past in which Arab rulers largely distrusted their militaries and employed multiple ways to shield themselves against feared military-backed attempts to remove them from power.

Saudi and Emirati rulers expected that their military intervention in Yemen and the UAE’s involvement in the Libyan war would boost the military’s prestige with quick and decisive victories.
Five years later, the ill-conceived intervention in Yemen has produced at best mixed results. So has the more recent effort to topple the internationally recognized, Islamist Libyan Government of National Accord.

The UAE, dubbed Little Sparta by former US defense secretary Jim Mattis, withdrew partially from Yemen in a bid to cut its losses. UAE forces, moreover, suffered the deaths of tens of Emirati citizens, a high number for a population of only 1.4 million nationals. As a result, the UAE relies increasingly on proxies and mercenaries.

Nonetheless, the UAE may have fared better than the Saudi military whose image, at least internationally, has been severely tarnished.

Recently, the kingdom appears to implicitly acknowledge that it cannot win the Yemen war militarily. Media reports suggested that the Saudi government was cutting back on funding of the internationally recognized, largely Saudi-based Yemeni government headed by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Saudi conduct of the war has involved multiple attacks on civilian targets, devastated the country’s economic and civilian infrastructure and turned it into one of the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophes.

Similarly, UAE-backed Libyan rebels led by self-appointed Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar have suffered a similar fate. Mr. Haftar’s promise more than a year ago to launch a blitz conquest of the Libyan capital Tripoli has not only proven to be an illusion. Turkish-backed government troops have put his rebels on the defensive.

Saudi and UAE rulers are betting that their emphasis on values associated with nationalism and armed forces such as patriotism, sacrifice, discipline, duty  and concepts of heroic model citizens will reinforce public appreciation of the military despite its chequered track record. For now, that appears to be a winning bet.

Saudi Arabia has successfully garnered popular support for the armed forces and the Yemen war, despite widespread international criticism, by eulogizing patriotic sacrifices of Saudi military casualties, generously compensating families of permanently disabled or fallen soldiers and creating multiple institutions to ensure veterans’ rights. The UAE has institutionalized the honouring of military martyrs.

Ultimately, however, the Saudi and UAE military’s mixed track record raises questions about the degree to which they can be unqualified standard bearers of new national identities.

It also begs the question whether populations in countries such as Saudi Arabia that were forced to introduce painful social spending cutbacks with no indication that elites are sharing the burden will continue to endorse massive military expenditure at a time of austerity.

If social media are anything to go by, many Saudis praise the government for ensuring the return to the kingdom of Saudi nationals abroad at the beginning of the pandemic, funding their quarantining to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, and subsidizing private sector salaries impacted by a lockdown for up to 60 percent.

A fair number, however, expressed concern that the middle and lower classes would shoulder the brunt of the economic fallout of the pandemic and questioned continued investment in trophies like English soccer club Newcastle United by the Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund. Military expenditure has so far not been called into question.

Potentially complicating issues is the fact that a majority of Emirati and Saudi casualties in Yemen hailed from less privileged emirates in the UAE and provinces in the kingdom, some of which are home to religious minorities with a history of feeling disadvantaged, As a result, it remains to be seen whether military service will ultimately narrow or broaden social gaps.

“Militarization bolsters regime security, thereby serving national security twice over… However, rising nationalist feelings are likely to enhance regional polarization,” warned Gulf scholar Eleonora Ardemagni.

Ms. Ardemagni’s caution focused on the risk of militarization entrenching differences among Gulf states. The question is whether militarization’s so far successful boosting of domestic cohesion could have a flip side that in more dire circumstances polarizes rather than unites.

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