Richard Whittall:

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


“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, August 22, 2017

Trump draws geopolitical battle lines in South Asia


By James M. Dorsey

President Donald J. Trump has drawn battle lines in South Asia that are likely to have a ripple effect across Eurasia: a stepped-up war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a tougher approach towards Pakistan’s selective support of militancy, and closer cooperation with India – moves that are likely to push Pakistan closer to China and Russia.

There is little doubt that Mr. Trump had few good choices 16 years into an Afghanistan war in which the Taliban and other militant groups are holding their ground, if not making advances, buffeted by Pakistani policies that are rooted in the fabric of the country’s military and society. Similarly, there is little doubt that Pakistan’s convoluted relationship to militancy poses serious challenges to US policy in South Asia as well as a global effort to contain political violence.

Nonetheless, Mr. Trump could find that his newly announced South Asia policy will fail to achieve his goal of an “honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices” made by the United States. The silver lining is that Pakistan may temporarily engineer a stay of execution but ultimately will find itself in a cul de sac from which there is no escape.

Mr. Trump, despite refusing to disclose details of his strategy in Afghanistan, made clear in a speech outlining his South Asia policy, that he hopes that an increased US military presence will force the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. Yet, achieving that would require the kind of military and political engagement in Afghanistan that Mr. Trump seems unwilling to embrace.

US media reported that Mr. Trump envisioned only a modest increase of several thousand troops in a country wracked by corruption whose military is largely incapable of standing its ground on its own. Various military and political analysts suggest that it would take a far greater commitment to militarily turn the tables on the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Moreover, Mr. Trump’s exclusive focus on defeating militants militarily or bombing them into submission ignores the broader economic, social and political problems that fuel militancy in Afghanistan and drive Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and a selection of other groups. “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists,” Mr. Trump said.

Announcing a tougher approach towards Pakistan, Mr. Trump insisted that the South Asian nation’s partnership with the United States would not survive if it continued to harbour and support groups that target the United States.

Adding fuel to the fire, the president emphasized the US’ strategic partnership with India, calling on it to support his administration’s policy with increased Indian economic assistance to Afghanistan. In doing so, Mr. Trump challenged a pillar of Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan: limiting Indian influence in the country at whatever price.

Mr. Trump’s approach to South Asia puts to the test two assumptions: that Pakistan will want to preserve its partnership with the United States at whatever cost and that it has few alternatives. Mr. Trump could well find that at least in the short term those assumptions are incorrect.

Pakistan’s relationship to militancy is engrained in a deeply-rooted zero-sum-game approach towards India within the military as well as an empathy for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that is woven into the fabric of the security forces, parts of the government bureaucracy, and significant segments of society.

Pakistan’s use of militant groups to counter India in Afghanistan and Kashmir as well as an anti-dote to nationalist insurgents in the restive province of Balochistan is moreover tacitly endorsed by China’s repeated vetoing of the designation of Masood Azhar, an anti-Indian militant, former fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, that is the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants.

Moreover, China, with an investment of more than $50 billion in Pakistani infrastructure and energy that would turn the country into a key node, if not the crown jewel of its One Belt, One Road initiative, is a logical escape for a government and a military that lacks the political will to confront its own demons. Similarly, Russia, long eager to gain access to warm water ports and expand its influence in Central and South Asia, is certain to see opportunity in further estrangement between Pakistan and the United States.

Closer ties to China and Russia may offer Pakistan a temporary escape from dealing with structural problems. Ultimately, however, Pakistan’s relationship to militancy is likely to also complicate its relations with Beijing and Moscow amid escalating violence in Balochistan and no end in sight to the militant insurgency in Afghanistan.

A series of devastating attacks in Balochistan over the last year that have targeted Pakistani cadets, decimated the legal profession in the capital Quetta, and targeted Chinese nationals as well kidnappings and drive-by shootings pose a serious obstacle to China’s strategic ambition to extend its maritime power across the Indian Ocean and turn the sleepy Baloch fishing port of Gwadar into a gateway to its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Pakistan has, moreover, in the past year turned a blind eye to Saudi funding of anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian militants in Balochistan, including a Pakistani cleric who remains a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, a government advisory body tasked with ensuring that legislation does not contradict Islamic law, despite having been designated a global terrorist by the US Treasury.

China has too much invested in for Pakistan’s selective support of militancy or the advantages of needling India by protecting Mr. Azhar to ultimately get in the way of achieving its geopolitical goals vested in its One Belt, One Road initiative.

As a result, Pakistan’s refusal to confront its demons could in the final analysis leave it out in the cold: its relationship with the United States severely damaged, India strengthened by closer cooperation with the US, and China and Russia demanding that it do what Washington wanted in the first place. Pakistan is likely to have fewer, if any, options and no escape routes once China and Russia come to the conclusion Mr. Trump has already articulated.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Football: Second religion of the Middle East (MEE Book Review)



How the world’s most popular sport has huge impact on politics and society
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is one of the weightiest, most revelatory, original and important books written about sport. Through it the author, James Dorsey, provides a thorough and unflinching examination of how football has impacted political, social and religious control in the Middle East and North Africa.
Dorsey presents football as a complex cultural tool that can enforce repression yet equally be a means of challenging authority.
He brilliantly exemplifies the game’s application as a tyrannical device by focusing on the improbable story of Al Saadi Qaddafi, the son of Libya’s longtime ruler.
Al Saadi owned, managed and captained popular club Al Ahly Tripoli, while also acting as head of the Libyan Football Federation. He allegedly murdered a national player and coach who criticised his influence, engineered rival club Al Ahly Benghazi’s relegation from the top flight of Libyan football and razed its stadium to the ground when fans protested against him.
Yet, by juxtaposing Al Saadi’s actions with instances where the game has served to disrupt structures of authority, Dorsey dissuades readers from drawing simple conclusions.
He positions the founding of Cairo team Al Ahly SC in 1907 as a response to sports clubs set up by the British occupying forces which excluded locals, illustrating how the club quickly became a “anti-colonial, anti-monarchist, nationalist rallying point”.
Similarly, he shows that the decision of 10 Algerian players to abscond from France in 1958 - and embark upon a world tour to promote the National Liberation Front (FLN) - gave Algeria’s independence drive considerable momentum. Ultimately, football emerges as a chaotic force, a (largely) metaphorical warzone in a region blighted by genuine conflict.
Accordingly, the stadium becomes a crucial space for Dorsey; a battleground for control between rulers looking to enforce order and fans who want to bring about change.
All too often stadiums are used as theatres of terror; sites where oppressive regimes carry out demonstrative punishments to promote a culture of fear
All too often stadiums are used as theatres of terror; sites where oppressive regimes carry out demonstrative punishments to promote a culture of fear.
In Iraq, Uday Hussein would humiliate the national team in Baghdad’s Stadium of the People if they failed to qualify for the World Cup, an action reflective of the relationship between success on the pitch and political control.
Under the Taliban, stadiums in Afghanistan were routinely used to carry out ritual punishments, burn contraband materials and murder dissidents.
Yet, while Afghans still fear entering Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium after dark, Dorsey reminds the reader that, in other states, the football ground is central in the fight to transform oppressive regimes into more open, democratic societies.
Indeed, in much of the region, it has become the only public space which exists outside the sphere of autocracy. Dorsey draws parallels between the stadium and the university campus - long a breeding ground for revolution - presenting the former as an ideal “incubator for protest”.
As he notes, not only does its layout simplify the dissemination of ideas, it also offers protesters “strength in numbers” and, in cases where games are being broadcast live, threatens to publicly expose the regime’s repression.

Contradictions between football and Islam

At the heart of Dorsey’s study is the fascinating story of the Egyptian Ultras, the fanatical supporters who played such a crucial role in the Tahrir Square protests in 2011 which toppled then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. By illustrating how these fans - through extended clashes with security forces inside stadiums - were pivotal in breaking the cycle of fear that had enveloped society, he provides readers with a startling perspective through which the Arab Spring can be explored.
A finger clamp found at al-Shaab Stadium Baghdad in July 2004, reportedly used by Uday Hussein to punish footballers (AFP)
The Ultras showed that “the security forces were not invincible”, and in doing so, opened the door for change. Moreover, these stadium clashes were vital when it came to the protests themselves. The Ultras’ experience “forced them to develop skills that were alien to the middle class”. Without their militancy and organisation, the toppling of Mubarak may have proved impossible.
By mapping the assimilation of the word “Ultra" into other spheres of Egyptian society, Dorsey demonstrates the monumental impact of the group. Ultras Nahdawi, for example, are militant fans tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, rather than any specific football club.

The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer also allows Dorsey to investigate the complicated relationship between football and Islam. Here, he unearths another striking paradox: that although many Islamists have long disapproved of the game, it has often been used as a lure to radicalise Muslim youth.
Conservative clerics have denounced football on the grounds that it is un-Islamic, that it distracts from Western evils, and that its rules challenge the supremacy of Islamic law. Former grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim al-Sheikh cautioned that football can lead to "the emergence of hate and malice", claiming that the game contravenes the Islamic notions of "tolerance, brotherhood, rectification and purification of hearts".
Osama Bin Laden developed a deep love affair with the game: as a child he would organise matches in Jeddah, using them as a 'platform to preach his conservative views of Islam'
When Al-Shabaab controlled large swathes of Somalia, watching the World Cup was outlawed altogether. Homes were raided, and those caught watching the game flogged or executed. Yet, “Al-Shabaab mentor” Osama bin Laden developed a deep love affair with the game: notoriously a fan of Arsenal FC, as a child he would organise matches in Jeddah, using them as a “platform to preach his conservative views of Islam”.
Furthermore, a childhood friend of Bin Laden recalls how they were encouraged to attend extra-curricular Quran classes with the promise of football. The games were always badly organised, while the sermons became increasingly violent. And Dorsey illustrates that just as stadiums can be an ideal “incubator for protest” so football teams can act as an incubator for jihad.
In many cases, a background in the game “encouraged camaraderie and reinforced militancy”; recruiting from football teams also enables the creation of “strong and cohesive jihadist groups’; tight-knit cells that communicate face-to-face and are difficult to break down.
Dorsey rightly concludes that the condemnation of football is primarily due to its “potential threat to political and social control” rather than any moralistic concerns. Throughout, he demonstrates that football is a complex instrument, one that becomes threatening to authority structures when it transcends their control.

How football affects fabric of society

The book also explores the game’s impact as an identity shaper within the Middle East and North Africa, illustrating at length how football can provide women with the opportunity to defy regimes that often demote them to the status of second-class citizens.
After Iran qualified for the 1998 World Cup, “celebrations turned into a demonstrative rejection of Iran’s strict restrictions on mixing of genders, women’s public appearance and the consumption of alcohol”.
And in 2012, two Iranian women disguised themselves as men to gain entry to the World Cup qualifier against South Korea, publicly revealing their identity after the game. Both incidents illustrate that football opens the door to “feminine defiance”.
A Palestinian boy shows a red card to an Israeli soldier during a rally to back the Palestinian bid to vote Israel out of FIFA in May 2015 (AFP)
Likewise, by encouraging FIFA to impose sanctions on nations without women’s teams, Egyptian Sahar al-Hawari – the "outspoken daughter of an international soccer referee" - forced Arab nations to reform. The women’s game has been a source of much controversy, but Dorsey adeptly illustrates that the backlash is as much due to conservatism as religiosity.
Dorsey demonstrates that football can prove vital in the establishment of national identity. In the case of Palestine, FIFA’s recognition has legitimised “national aspirations”; in post-Saddam Iraq, triumph in the 2007 Asian Cup briefly united a nation on the brink of civil war. An Iraqi education ministry employee is quoted as saying that “[n]one of our politicians could bring us under this flag like our national football team did”. Dorsey repeatedly proves that football truly can generate change within society.
If any criticism can be levelled at The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, then it is that the focus is so broad, that football’s impact within the region is so far reaching and seemingly contradictory. As a result, Dorsey is unable to consolidate his findings into a singular, clear narrative.
In particular, the final chapter - where Dorsey explores the Gulf states’ drive for initiation into the global soccer elite - feels somewhat separate from the rest of the study, almost like the starting point of another book.
Yet this is a remarkable work, the result of meticulous research, through which Dorsey establishes football as a formidable cultural institute, a game that can arouse deep-seated passions, that can and will continue to disrupt authority structures.
It deserves to be seen as a classic and inspire many similar studies, establishing football as a hugely important practice within the region in the 21st century, perhaps only second to Islam itself
Along the way, he rewards readers with a wealth of extraordinary stories: we learn that players in Libya were referred to only by number to prevent them from becoming too popular; that long-time Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser would regularly discuss Al Ahly results in cabinet meetings, despite having no real interest in the game; and that studies in Egypt have established a clear link between divorce rates and football fandom.
While The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer has received praise from the likes of Change FIFA, it has been relatively neglected since its publication last year. Perhaps this is because this pioneering volume covers so much ground that it seems to oscillate between a number of separate categories. The chapters are distinct, yet feel as if they could exist as separate essays in their own right.
But it deserves to be seen as a classic and inspire many similar studies, establishing football as a hugely important practice within the region in the 21st century, perhaps only second to Islam itself.
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, by James M Dorsey is published by Hurst & Company, London. 
Peter Oborne was named freelancer of the year 2016 by the Online Media Awards for an article he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

Nicholas Brookes is an independent writer and journalist from London. He has contributed to a number of publications in the UK and is currently working on his first book.

Little-Known Qatari Sheikh Embraced by Saudi in Sudden Move (JMD quoted on Bloomberg

By 
Zainab Fattah
August 20, 2017, 10:59 PM GMT+8 August 21, 2017, 5:43 PM GMT+8
·        Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al-Thani met Saudi king, crown prince
·        Royal is seen as pressure card on Qatari rulers: analysts
The 10-week Gulf standoff has seen Saudi Arabia opening its border with Qatar allowing pilgrims to travel to Mecca. That's thrust a little-known Qatari sheikh into the limelight. Bloomberg's Zainab Fattah reports on 'Bloomberg Markets: Middle East.' (Source: Bloomberg)
A little-known Qatari sheikh has been thrust into the limelight as a Saudi Arabia-led bloc tries to wring concessions from his nation to end the political feud dividing the Persian Gulf.
Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al-Thani, a descendant of Qatar’s founder, was welcomed warmly in Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then jetted off to Morocco, where Saudi King Salman hosted him at his vacation spot in Tangier. And while the Qatari government said the sheikh was on a personal visit, some media outlets close to the alliance portrayed his meetings as a triumphant diplomatic effort.
Sheikh Abdullah said King Salman and his son agreed to open Qatar’s only land border, snapped shut on June 5, to allow Muslim pilgrims to travel to the holy city of Mecca. The king even offered to dispatch planes at his own expense to fly in others and set up an operations center under the sheikh’s command to help Qataris entangled in the crisis.
Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al-Thani of Qatar meets with Saudi King Salman in Tangier, Morocco.

Source: Saudi Press Agency
Saudi Arabia and allies that severed diplomatic and transport links with Qatar in June have denied seeking regime change in Doha, making the emergence and front-page treatment of the sheikh a surprising development. Promoting him is probably part of a plan to add pressure on Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, who has refused to capitulate to the bloc’s 13 conditions for ending the feud, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political analyst in the United Arab Emirates.
Qatari Policy
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt accuse Qatar of destabilizing the Middle East by supporting Islamist groups. Qatar rejects the charges and says Saudi Arabia is using the spat as a pretext to try to impose its policies on the entire region.
“Saudi Arabia has many pressure tools that it hasn’t used until now and this is one of them,” Abdulla said, adding that he doesn’t believe the alliance is currently pursuing a policy to change the Qatari leadership. Yet should Saudi Arabia decide that is needed, it can mobilize a support network within Qatari society and the ruling family “to spur a palace coup,” he said.
Al Bayan, a Dubai-owned daily, described Sheikh Abdullah on its front page as “the voice of reason to whom the hearts of Qataris have opened.” It also said that he’s known for being “widely accepted within the Al Thani family in particular, and Qataris in general.”
Ruling Family
The sheikh is a scion of a ruling family branch that was in power for decades until 1972. His brother, Ahmad, was deposed in 1972 by Sheikh Tamim’s grandfather, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news network said.
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The sheikh’s diplomatic exploits have turned him into an instant social media celebrity. Within three days of joining Twitter, his account has attracted more than 250,000 followers. He gave out contact details of the operations center. Underscoring his reach, he said he also spoke with the Saudi central bank governor, who denied that banks in the kingdom had stopped “giving out Qatari riyals to Qatari citizens.”
“The king has honored me by accepting my mediation on behalf of my people in Qatar,” he wrote.
The sheikh, who is married to a Saudi and spends time in the kingdom, doesn’t represent a serious challenge to Emir Tamim, said James Dorsey, a senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“One would hope that the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia are not entertaining any serious consideration of attempting to change the regime in Qatar,” Dorsey said. “Absent that, it’s an ineffectual way of needling the Qataris that may be as much for domestic as it is for Qatari consumption.”
Resisting Resolution
Other mediation efforts by Kuwait’s emir and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who visited the region last month, have failed to resolve the dispute.
Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in the department of defense studies at King’s College in London, said the sheikh is a London-based businessman with commercial interests in the Gulf, but lacks public support that would help propel him to power. His emergence, however, serves as a way of telling Qatari leaders and global powers that the crisis is far from over, he said.
“The past couple of weeks we were thinking we will see a de-escalation of the crisis as the Americans were focusing on the Saudis to make some concessions to come to an agreement,” Krieg said.
— With assistance by Glen Carey


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Food for thought: UAE ambassador’s hacked mails feed crucial policy debates


By James M. Dorsey

The hacked email account of Yousef al-Otaiba, the influential United Arab Emirates ambassador in Washington, has provided unprecedented insight into the length to which the small Gulf state is willing to go in the pursuit of its regional ambitions.

Mr. Al-Otaiba is unlikely to acknowledge the contribution the insight has made to understanding the ten week-old Gulf crisis and diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar that was engineered by the UAE. The ambassador may, however, have greater appreciation for the contribution his private email exchanges have made to the theory and policy debate about the place of small states in an increasingly polarized international order.

Similarly, Mr. Al-Otaiba is unlikely to see merit in the fact that his email exchanges raise serious questions, including the role and purpose of offset arrangements that constitute part of agreements on arms sales by major defense companies as well as the relationship between influential, independent policy and academic institutions and their donors.

To be sure, Mr. Al-Otaiba is likely to be most concerned about the potential damage to the UAE’s reputation and disclosure of the Gulf state’s secrets caused by the hack. No doubt, the selective and drip-feed leaking of the ambassador’s mails by Global Leaks, a mysterious group that uses a Russian email address, is designed to embarrass the UAE and support Qatar in its dispute with an alliance of nations led by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Al-Otaiba as well as his interlocutors have not confirmed the authenticity of the mails. The UAE embassy did however tell The Hill that Hotmail address involved was that of the ambassador. Moreover, various of the leaks have been confirmed by multiple sources.

The UAE is hardly the only government that donates large sums to think tanks and academic institutions in a bid to enhance soft power; influence policy, particularly in Washington; and limit, independent and critical study and analysis. While Gulf states, with the UAE and Qatar in the lead, are among the largest financial contributors, donors also include European and Asian governments. Think tank executives have rejected allegations that the donations undermine their independence or persuade them to do their donor’s bidding.

The latest leaks, however, raise the debate about the funding of think tanks and academic institutions to a new level. Mails leaked to The Intercept, a muckraking online publication established by reporters who played a key role in publishing revelations by National Security Council whistle blower Edward Snowden, raise questions not only about funding of institutions, but also the nature and purpose of offset arrangements incorporated in arms deals. Those deals are intended to fuel economic development and job creation in purchasing countries and compensate them for using available funds for foreign arms acquisitions rather than the nurturing of an indigenous industry.

The mails disclosed by The Intercept as well as The Gulf Institute, a Washington-based dissident Saudi think tank, showed that a UAE donation of $20 million to the Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI) involved funds funnelled through Tawazun, a Abu Dhabi-based investment company, and The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) that is headed by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, that had been paid to the UAE in cash rather than projects by defense contractors as part of agreements to supply military equipment.

The US embassy in Abu Dhabi reported as far back as 2008 in a cable to the State Department published by Wikileaks that “reports as well as anecdotal evidence” suggested that “that defense contractors can sometimes satisfy their offset obligations through an up-front, lump-sum payment directly to the UAE Offsets Group” despite the fact that “the UAE's offset program requires defense contractors that are awarded contracts valued at more than $10 million to establish commercially viable joint ventures with local business partners that yield profits equivalent to 60 percent of the contract value within a specified period (usually seven years).”

The cash arrangement raises questions about the integrity of offset arrangements as well as their purpose and use. In the case of MEI, it puts defense contractors in a position of funding third party efforts to influence US policy. In an email to Mr. Al-Otaiba, MEI president Wendy Chamberlain said the funding would allow the institute to “counter the more egregious misperceptions about the region, inform US government policy makers, and convene regional leaders for discreet dialogue on pressing issues.

The UAE has been a leader in rolling back achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of four countries, promoting autocratic rule in the region, and opposing opposition forces, particularly the controversial Muslim Brotherhood.

The donations by countries like the UAE and Qatar to multiple think tanks as well as the source of the funding links to the even larger issue of strategies adopted by small states to defend their independence and ensure their survival in a world in which power is more defuse and long-standing alliances are called into question.

The leaked emails provide insight into the UAE’s strategy that is based on being a power behind the throne. It is a strategy that may be uniquely Emirati and difficult to emulate by other small states, but that suggests that given resources small states have a significant ability to punch above their weight.
US intelligence officials concluded that the hacking of Qatari news websites to plant a false news report that sparked the Gulf crisis in early June had been engineered by the UAE. The UAE move was embedded in a far broader strategy of shaping the Middle East and North Africa in its mould by turning Saudi Arabia into its policy instrument.

Leaked email traffic between Mr. Al Otaiba and three former US officials, Martin Indyk, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, and Elliott Abrams who advised Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan, as well as with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius documents what some analysts long believed but could not categorically prove. It also provided insight into the less than idyllic relationship between the UAE and Saudi Arabia that potentially could become problematic.

In the emails, Mr. Al-Otaiba, who promoted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington as Saudi Arabia’s future since he came to office in 2015, was unequivocal about UAE backing of the likely future king as an agent of change who would adopt policies advocated by the UAE.

“I think MBS is far more pragmatic than what we hear is Saudi public positions,” Mr. Al-Otaiba said in one of the mails, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.  I don’t think we’ll ever see a more pragmatic leader in that country. Which is why engaging with them is so important and will yield the most results we can ever get out of Saudi,” the ambassador said. “Change in attitude, change in style, change in approach,” Mr. Al-Otaiba wrote to Mr. Ignatius.

In another email, Mr. Al-Otaiba noted that now was the time when the Emiratis could get "the most results we can ever get out of Saudi.”

In a subsequent email dump, published by Middle East Eye, an online news site allegedly funded by persons close to Qatar, if not Qatar itself, and also sent to this writer, Mr. Al-Otaiba, makes no bones about his disdain for Saudi Arabia and his perception of the history of Emirati-Saudi relations.  

Writing to his wife, Abeer Shoukry, in 2008, Mr. Al-Otaiba describes the Saudi leadership as "f***in' coo coo!" after the kingdom’s religious police banned red roses on Valentine’s Day. The powers of the police have been significantly curtailed since the rise of Prince Mohammed, who has taken steps to loosen the country’s tight social and moral controls.

In one email, Mr. Al-Otaiba asserts that Abu Dhabi has battled Saudi Arabia over its adherence to Wahhabism, a literal, intolerant and supremacist interpretation of Islam, for the past 200 years. The ambassador asserted that the Emirates had a more "bad history" with Saudi Arabia than anyone else.

Taken together, the leaked emails involving multiple other issues, including the UAE’s military relationship with North Korea as well as its competition with Qatar to host an office of the Afghan Taliban, serve not only as a source for understanding the dynamics of the Gulf crisis, but also as case studies for the development of more stringent guidelines for funding of policy and academic research; greater transparency of military sales and their offset arrangements; and the place of small states in the international order as well as the factors that determine their ability to maintain the independence and at times punch above their weight.

To be sure, that was not the primary purpose of the leaks. The leaks were designed to further Qatar’s cause and undermine the UAE’s arguments as well as embarrass it. The jury is still out on the degree to which the leakers may have succeeded. Nonetheless, one unintended consequence of the leaks is that they raise issues that go to the core of a broad swath of issues, including accountability, transparency, economic and social development, and international relations.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reducing Middle East tensions? Saudi-UAE moves hint at willingness to engage with Iran

Source: Shahriyar Gourgi / LinkedIn

By James M. Dorsey

Recent moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suggest that the two Gulf states may be looking for ways to reduce tensions with Iran that permeate multiple conflicts wracking the Middle East and North Africa.

The moves, including a rapprochement with Iraq and a powerful Iraqi Shiite religious and political leader as well as prosecution of a militant Saudi cleric on charges of hate speech, and leaked emails, point towards a possible willingness to engage with Iran more constructively. A dialling down of Saudi-Iranian tensions could contribute to a reduction of tensions across the Middle East and North Africa.

At the same time, however, a series of statements and developments call into question how serious Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be about a potential rapprochement with Iran. Further complicating matters, is the fact it is unclear who is driving a potential overture to Iran, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or his UAE counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

The UAE, although much smaller in size and population than Saudi Arabia, has been a, if not the driver, of recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, including the ill-fated two-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar and developments in the war in Yemen.

Leaked email traffic between the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, and three former US officials, Martin Indyk, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, and Elliott Abrams who advised Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan, as well as with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius lay bare the UAE strategy of working through Saudi Arabia to achieve its regional goals.

Mr. Abrams quipped about the UAE’s newly-found assertiveness in a mail to Mr. Al-Otaiba: "Jeez, the new hegemon! Emirati imperialism! Well if the US won't do it, someone has to hold things together for a while.” Mr. Al-Otaiba responded: "Yes, how dare we! In all honesty, there was not much of a choice. We stepped up only after your country chose to step down," a reference to perceptions that President Barak Obama had been disengaging from the Middle East.

Discussing the UAE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Otaiba went on to tell Mr. Abrams that "I think in the long term we might be a good influence on KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), at least with certain people there. Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests, and most importantly the hope that we could influence them. Not the other way around." 

In his exchange with Mr. Indyk as well as Mr. Ignatius, Mr. Al-Otaiba, who had been promoting the Saudi prince in Washington for the past two years, was unequivocal about UAE backing of the likely future king as an agent of change who would adopt policies advocated by the UAE.

“I think MBS is far more pragmatic than what we hear is Saudi public positions,” Mr. Al-Otaiba said in one of the mails, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.  I don’t think we’ll ever see a more pragmatic leader in that country. Which is why engaging with them is so important and will yield the most results we can ever get out of Saudi,” the ambassador said. “Change in attitude, change in style, change in approach,” Mr. Al-Otaiba wrote to Mr. Ignatius.

The exchanges gave credence to suggestions that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be seeking a reduction of tension with Iran. Yet, they occurred before the Gulf crisis erupted in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE demanded, among other things, that Qatar reduce its relations with Iran.

Describing a meeting with Saudi Prince Mohammed in an email to Mr. Al-Otaiba dated April 20, Mr. Indyk recounted that the prince “was quite clear with Steve Hadley and me that he wants out of Yemen and that he’s ok with the US engaging Iran as long as it’s coordinated in advance and the objectives are clear.”

At first glance, Prince Mohammed’s position, expressed prior to US President Donald J. Trump’s landmark visit to the kingdom in May and the Gulf crisis, clashes with Mr. Trump’s efforts to find a reason not to certify Iranian compliance with the two-year old nuclear agreement that led to the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. Under the agreement, Mr. Trump must certify to the US Congress Iranian compliance every three months and is next due to do so in October.

The devil being in the details, the key phrase in Prince Mohammed’s remarks is the demand that “the objectives are clear.” The emails did not spell out what the prince met. Senior Saudi officials have repeatedly demanded that Iran halt its intervention in Syria and Iraq as well as its support for groups such as Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen – demands Iran is unlikely to accept. 

Mr. Indyk’s description of Prince Mohammed’s endorsement of US engagement with Iran also contrasted with the Saudi official’s framing of his country's rivalry with Iran in sectarian terms in an interview on Saudi television in May. Prince Mohammed asserted in the interview that there could be no dialogue with Iran because it was promoting messianic Shiite doctrine.

Alghadeer, an Iraqi Shiite satellite television station broadcasting from the holy city of Najaf, earlier this month added to the confusion about Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s intentions with a report that the kingdom had asked Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to mediate between Iran and the kingdom. Alghadeer quoted Iraqi interior minister Qasim al-Araji as saying that Iran had responded positively.

Saudi Arabia’s official Saudi Press Agency denied the Alghadeer report and reiterated the kingdom’s hard line position that there could be no rapprochement with an Iran that propagates terrorism and extremism.

With the Islamic State on the ropes, Saudi Arabia’s reaching out to Iraqi and Iraqi Shiites amounted to a bid to counter Iranian influence and help Mr. Al-Abadi give the Sunni minority confidence that it has a place in a new Iraq.

The Saudi overtures also appeared designed to strengthen Shiite forces that seek to limit Iran’s influence. They also aimed to exploit the fact that a growing number of Shiite politicians and religious figures in Iraq were distancing themselves from Iran and could emerge strengthened from elections scheduled for next year.

The Saudi moves that also include the creation of a joint trade council and the opening of a border crossing that was closed for 27 years, could prove to be either a blessing or a curse for Iraq. They could turn Iraq into an area where Saudi Arabia and Iran find grounds for accommodation or they could exacerbate the situation with the rivalry between the two Middle Eastern powers spilling more forcefully into Iraqi politics.

Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a Shiite paramilitary commander and one of Iran’s closest Iraqi allies who has been designated by the US Treasury as a terrorist, suggested recently that Iran intended to stand its ground in Iraq. Mr. Ibrahimi warned that Iranian-backed Shite militias would not simply vanish once the fight against the Islamic State was over, even if the government ordered them to disband.

In a further move that could cut both ways, Saudi Arabia has asked Iraq for permission to open a consulate in Najaf. The Saudi request as well as visits to the kingdom and the UAE by controversial Iraqi Shiite scholar and politician Muqtada al-Sadr for talks with the two countries crown princes signalled not only a willingness to forge relations with Iraqi Shiites but also a desire to play a role in Shiite politics.

Saudi Arabia would be opening its consulate at a time that Najaf’s foremost resident, Sayyed Ali Hosseini Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s most prominent leaders and a proponent of an Iraqi civil rather than a religious state, is, like his counterpart in the Islamic republic, Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, growing in age. Najaf and Iran’s holy city of Qom compete as Shiite Islam’s two most important seats of learning.

Mr. Al-Sadr, long a critic of Saudi Arabia’s hard line towards its own Shiite minority, has also sought to counter the rise of sectarianism and criticized the Iranian-sponsored militias fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army as well as Iran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Al-Sadr’s insistence that his discussions in Saudi Arabia and the UAE focused on Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Syria rather than the plight of Saudi Shiites was validated by the fact that his visit coincided with a three months-long, brutal crackdown on Shiite insurgents in the town of Awamiyah in the kingdom’s Eastern Province and the razing of its 400-year old Musawara neighbourhood, a hotbed of anti-government protest. The visit also came as Saudi Arabia planned to execute 14 Shiites accused of attacking security forces in 2011 and 2012.

Saudi Arabia, in a further gesture to Shiites, referred a popular cleric, Ali Al Rabieei, to the copyright infractions committee for “violating the press and publications law” as part of a crackdown on hate speech. Mr. Al-Rabieei was summoned for describing Shiites as “rejectionists” because they allegedly reject the first three successors to the Prophet Mohammed, and denying that Shiites were Muslims – concepts that enjoy currency among Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives.

Amid the fog of contradictory moves, Iraq is emerging as a bell weather of the next phase in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has complicated, if not exacerbated, the Middle East’s multiple conflicts. It could prove to be the chink in a covert and overt proxy war that has so far offered few, if any, openings for a reduction of tensions. By the same token, Iraq could emerge yet another battlefield that perpetuates debilitating sectarianism and seemingly endless bloodshed across the Middle East and North Africa.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

China contributes to doubts about Pakistani crackdown on militants


By James M. Dorsey

China, at the behest of Pakistan, has for the second time this year prevented the United Nations from listing a prominent Pakistani militant as a globally designated terrorist. China’s protection of Masood Azhar, who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military, comes days after another militant group, whose leader is under house arrest in Pakistan, announced the formation of a political party.

The two developments cast doubt on the sincerity of Pakistan’s crackdown on militants a day after a suicide bomber killed 15 people when he rammed a motorcycle into a military truck in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. Balochistan, a troubled province in which the military has supported religious militants an anti-dote to nationalist insurgents, has suffered a series of devastating attacks in the last year.

Taken together, the developments are unlikely to help Pakistan as the Trump administration weighs a tougher approach towards the South Asian country as part of deliberations about how to proceed in Afghanistan where US troops are fighting the Pakistani-backed Taliban.

US National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster warned a week before the Chinese veto and the announcement of the new party, Milli Muslim League (MML), by Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), a charity that is widely viewed as a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe (LeT), a group designated as terrorist by the UN, that President Donald Trump wanted Pakistan to change its ‘paradoxical’ policy of supporting the militants.

“The president has also made clear that we need to see a change in behaviour of those in the region, which includes those who are providing safe haven and support bases for the Taliban, Haqqani Network and others,” Mr McMaster said.

Mr. McMaster said that the US wanted “to really see a change in and a reduction of their support for these groups…. They have fought very hard against these groups, but they’ve done so really only selectively,” he added.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence have used militant groups to maintain influence in Afghanistan and to support protests as well as an insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir. China’s repeated veto of a UN designation of Mr. Azhar, whose group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been proscribed by the international body as well as Pakistan, is not only bowing to Pakistani wishes but also a way of keeping India on its toes at a time of heightened Chinese-Indian tension.

Mr. Azhar, a fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for an attack last year on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station. The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed.

Mr. Azhar, a portly bespectacled son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher and author of a four-volume treatise on jihad as well as books with titles like Forty Diseases of the Jews, was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Freed from Indian prison in 1999 in exchange for the release of passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines flight, Mr. Azhar is also believed to be responsible for an attack in 2001 on the Indian parliament in New Delhi that brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war. JeM despite being banned continues to publicly raise funds and recruit fighters in mosques.

JuD sources said the charity’s transition to a political party was in part designed to stop cadres from joining the Islamic State (IS). They said some 500 JuD activists had left the group to join more militant organizations, including IS. They said the defections often occurred after the Pakistani military launched operations against militants in areas like South Waziristan.

Pakistan listed LeT as a terrorist organization in 2002, but has only put JuD "under observation." Pakistan's media regulator in 2015 banned all coverage of the group's humanitarian activities by the country's news media.

JuD’s head, Muhammad Hafez Saeed, a UN and US-designated terrorist and one of the world’s most wanted men, has been under house arrest in Pakistan since early this year. Mr. Saeed is believed to be among others responsible for the 2008 attacks on 12 targets in Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, a train station, a café and a Jewish centre. Some 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. The US government has a bounty of $10 million on Mr. Saeed who was once a LeT leader. He has since disassociated himself from the group and denied any link between JuD and LeT.

"What role (Saeed) will play in the Milli Muslim League or in Pakistan's ongoing politics will be seen after Allah ensures his release. (Once he is released) we will meet him and ask him what role he would like to play. He is the leader of Pakistan," MML leader Saifullah Khalid told a news conference. Mr. Khalid added that Mr. Saeed’s release was high on the MML's agenda.

Mr. Saeed was not present at the conference, which was attended by Yahya Mujahid, a close aide of his, who is also subject to UN terrorism sanctions.

Treating men like Mr. Azhar and Mr. Saeed with kid gloves is unlikely to earn Pakistan any goodwill in Mr. Trump’s Washington. China’s protection of Mr. Azhar, moreover, undermines its sincerity in claiming that it is cracking down on militancy despite its harsh policy in the restive province of Xinjiang. If anything, it could put Beijing in Mr. Trump’s crosshairs too.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.