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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Trading Jerusalem for Iran


By James M. Dorsey

US president Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem potentially sets the stage for a controversial American effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The United States and the two Gulf states see a US peace plan-in-the-making as a way of paving the way for more overt cooperation with Israel in confronting Iran, whom they accuse of destabilizing the Middle East.

In doing so, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are navigating a minefield. Protests against Mr. Trump’s move have so far underplayed the link between the fight against Iran and apparent Saudi and UAE willingness to compromise on minimal Palestinian demands for peace that include East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

That could change as US plans for an Israeli-Palestinian peace crystalize and the link to the Saudi-Iranian rivalry manifests itself. At the core of the US draft plan is reportedly the controversial suggestion that Abu Dis, a Palestinian village bordering on Jerusalem, rather than East Jerusalem, would be the capital of a future Palestinian state.  

Perceived Saudi and UAE backing for the proposal that is reportedly being drafted by Mr. Trump’s aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would bring anger at alleged Arab complicity to the forefront, fuel the persistent anti-US and anti-Israel protests, and complicate the campaign by the US and the two Gulf states against Iran.

The notion that Abu Dis could replace East Jerusalem has been around for almost two decades. It failed to garner support during the 2000 Camp David Israeli-Palestinian peace talks because Arab and Palestinian leaders rejected it. Saudi and UAE eagerness to work with Israel coupled with Mr. Trump’s seemingly unqualified support for the Jewish state has given the proposal a new lease on life.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite their official condemnation of Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, have signalled a willingness to be more flexible by continuing to support Mr. Kushner’s effort and playing a low-key, if not dampening, role in Arab and Muslim rejection of the president’s move.

Ironically, differences among Arab leaders about how to respond to Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision may have temporarily prevented Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, from adding Palestine to a string of failed foreign policy moves aimed at escalating the kingdom’s proxy war with Iran. Prince Mohammed’s devastating military intervention in Yemen, botched effort to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign, and hamstrung boycott of Qatar have backfired and only strengthened the Islamic republic’s regional influence.

Inadvertently, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah did Prince Mohammed a favour when they reportedly rejected pressure by Prince Mohammed not to participate in this week’s summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia was represented by a lower level Cabinet official. Mr. Abbas may have further shielded the Saudi leader when his refusal to further accept the United States as a mediator was adopted by the summit.

The two leaders’ stand coupled with the Islamic summit’s rejection of Mr. Trump’s move make it more difficult for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to endorse any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that does not recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. The problem is that Prince Mohammed and his UAE counterpart, Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, run the risk of misreading or underestimating public anger and frustration in significant parts of the Arab and Muslim world.

The link between Israeli-Palestinian peace making and Iran is likely to become undeniable when Mr. Trump next month must decide whether to uphold the 2015 international agreement with Iran that put severe restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

Under US law, Mr. Trump has to certify Iranian compliance every three months. In October, Mr. Trump refused to do so. He threatened to pull out of the agreement if Congress failed to address the agreement’s perceived shortcomings within 60 days. Congress has so far refrained from acting on Mr. Trump’s demand. Mr. Trump wants Congress to ensure that Iranian compliance involves accepting restrictions on its ballistic missile program and support of regional proxies.

It is anybody’s guess what Mr. Trump will do. At first glance, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s presentation of Iranian missile parts as evidence of Tehran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and Iranian destabilization of the Middle East would suggest that Mr. Trump is preparing to decertify Iran and possibly withdraw from the agreement.

It could however also be an effort to project a tougher US stance towards Iran while cooler heads in the administration prevail on Mr. Trump to keep the agreement in place.

In either case, Mr. Trump and his Gulf allies are walking a tightrope by fuelling suspicion that they are willing to compromise on minimal Palestinian demands for peace in a bid to cater to Israel, a natural ally in the fight against Iran.

In doing so, Mr. Trump and the Saudi and UAE crown princes risk misreading not only the public mood but also Iranian influence and intentions, particularly regarding the Islamic republic’s ability to control the Houthi rebels. Ms. Haley’s evidence that was supplied by Saudi Arabia and the UAE failed to convince many in the international community.

Ms. Haley’s missile parts display was prompted by the Iranian-backed Houthis firing of a ballistic missile at Riyadh on November 4. It remains unclear whether that missile was supplied by Iran, or possibly North Korea, and when it was given to the Houthis – key questions that need to be answered to determine possible Iranian culpability.

The Houthis, a fiercely independent actor who have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not take orders from Tehran and at times ignore its advice, could throw a monkey wrench into the fragile Middle East mix if they make good on a threat to target not only Saudi but also Emirati cities. A missile strike would no doubt provoke a harsh response, possibly involving a joint US-Saudi-UAE strike against Iran rather than against the Houthis in Yemen.

Anger already aroused by Mr. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem potentially could then turn against Arab leaders who would be seen to be cooperating with the United States and willing to sacrifice Palestinian rights to work with Israel.

In short, it could open a can of worms in which public anger is directed against multiple parties ranging from the United States to Israel to Arab leaders to Iran and the Houthis and/or prove to be a perfect storm.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

US-Saudi nuclear talks: A barometer for whither the Middle East?

Source: YourNewsWire.com

By James M. Dorsey

Talks aimed at transferring US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia serve as an indicator of where the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is heading as well as the strength of the informal Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran. The possible transfer could spark a new arms race in the Middle East and constitutes one explanation why Saudi responses to President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel were muted and limited to rhetorical statements.

Mr. Trump’s decision was perhaps most challenging for the Saudis, who as custodians of Islam’s two holiest cities, would have been expected to play a leading role in protecting the status of the city that is home to the faith’s third holiest site. Saudi Arabia was represented at this week’s summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul that recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine by its foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, rather than the king, crown prince or another senior member of the ruling family.

The difficulty for the Saudis is not only their close cooperation with Israel, willingness to increasingly publicly hint at what long was a secret relationship, and their position as the US’ closest friend in the Arab world, who reportedly was willing to endorse a US Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in the making that would fail to meet the minimum demanded by Palestinians and Arab public opinion.

With Mr. Trump backing Saudi efforts to counter Iranian influence in a swath of land stretching from Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa despite mounting US criticism of the kingdom’s conduct of its military intervention in Yemen, Riyadh has a vested interest in maintaining its close ties to Washington. While having been put in an awkward position, international condemnation of Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem move has also increased Saudi leverage.

Mr. Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia as well as his transactional approach to foreign policy that aims to further US business interests holds out the promise of tipping the Middle East’s military balance of power in favour of the kingdom.

In the president’s latest effort, his administration is weighing allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium as part of a deal that would ensure that bids by Westinghouse Electric Co. and other US companies to build nuclear reactors in the kingdom are successful. Past US reluctance to endorse Saudi enrichment and reprocessing of uranium has put purveyors of US nuclear technology at a disadvantage.

Saudi Arabia agreed with the US in 2008 not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing but has since backed away from that pledge. “They wouldn’t commit, and it was a sticking point,” said Max Bergmann, a former special assistant to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Testifying to Congress in November, Christopher Ford, the US National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, refused to commit the Trump administration to the US restrictions. The restrictions are “not a legal requirement. It is a desired outcome.” Mr. Ford said. He added that the 2015 international agreement with Iran that severely restricts the Islamic republic’s nuclear program for at least a decade, made it more difficult for the United States to insist on limiting other countries’ enrichment capabilities.

Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors by 2030 at a cost of an estimated $100 billion. Officially, Saudi Arabia sees nuclear power as a way of freeing up more oil for export in a country that has witnessed dramatic increases in domestic consumption and contributing to diversification of its economy. It would also enhance Saudi efforts to ensure parity with Iran in the kingdom’s ability to enrich uranium and its quest to be the Middle East’s long-term, dominant power.

Saudi Arabia has large uranium deposits of its own. In preparation of requesting bids for its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia in October asked the US, France, South Korea, Russia and China for preliminary information. In addition to the United States, the kingdom has in recent years concluded a  number of nuclear-related understandings with China as well as with France, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Argentina.

Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to ease US restrictions services his campaign promise to revive and revitalize America’s nuclear industry and meet competition from Russia and China. Saudi contracts are crucial for Westinghouse, a nuclear technology pioneer whose expertise is used in more than half of the world’s nuclear power plants. Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in March because of delays in two US projects.

A deal that would lift US restrictions in return for acquiring US technology could enmesh Saudi Arabia in bitter domestic political battles in Washington evolving around alleged Russian interference in the election that brought Mr. Trump to office. Controversial Trump campaign aide and short-lived national security advisor Michael Flynn sought to convince Israel to accept the kingdom’s nuclear program as part of his efforts to promote Russian nuclear interests in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump’s willingness, against the backdrop of uncertainty about his readiness to uphold US adherence to the 2015 agreement with Iran, could unleash an arms race in the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Trump recently refused to certify to Congress that Iran was compliant with the agreement.

Dropping restrictions on Saudi enrichment could not only fuel Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has wreaked havoc across the region, but also encourage other recipients of US nuclear technology to demand similar rights. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have accepted restrictions on enrichment in their nuclear deals with US companies as long as those limitations were imposed on all countries in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has long been suspected of having an interest in ensuring that it would have the ability to develop a military nuclear capability if ever deemed necessary. For decades, Saudi cooperation with nuclear power Pakistan has been a source of speculation about the kingdom’s ambition.

Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, asserted that Saudi Arabia’s close ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s gave the kingdom arms’ length access to his country’s nuclear capabilities.

“By the 1980s, the Saudi ambassador was a regular guest of A. Q. Khan” or Abdul Qadeer Khan, the controversial nuclear physicist and metallurgical engineer who fathered Pakistan's atomic bomb,” Mr. Haqqani said in an interview.

Similarly, retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, the author of a semi-official history of Pakistan’s nuclear program, has no doubt about the kingdom’s interest.

“Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear program to continue, especially when the country was under sanctions," Mr. Khan said in a separate interview. Mr. Khan was referring to US sanctions imposed in 1998 because of Pakistan’s development of a nuclear weapons capability. He noted that at a time of economic crisis, Pakistan was with Saudi help able “to pay premium prices for expensive technologies.”

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said in a report earlier this year that it had uncovered evidence that future Pakistani “assistance would not involve Pakistan supplying Saudi Arabia with a full nuclear weapon or weapons; however, Pakistan may assist in other important ways, such as supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing.”

The report said it was unclear whether “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may be cooperating on sensitive nuclear technologies in Pakistan. In an extreme case, Saudi Arabia may be financing, or will finance, an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment facility in Pakistan for later use, either in a civil or military program,” the report said.

The report concluded that the nuclear agreement with Iran dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had “not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons… There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the JCPOA’s major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails,” the report said.

Rather than embarking on a covert program, the report predicted that Saudi Arabia would, for now, focus on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure as well as a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce. This would allow the kingdom to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle at some point in the future.

“The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term,” the Washington Institute said.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Arab anger: Governments and protesters walk a fine line

Credit: The Black Iris

By James M. Dorsey

A little noticed subtext to furious protests across the Middle East and North Africa against US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is simmering anger at Arab governments.

The subtext demarcates a delicate balance between Arab youth frustrated with governments that are seemingly unwilling and unable to stand up for Arab rights and Arab leaders whose survival instincts persuade them to maintain failed policies

The anger is driven by a continued display of Arab inability to reverse Israeli occupation of territories occupied during the 1967 Middle East war, a readiness to overtly or covertly cooperate with Israel in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and, even worse, reports that Gulf states were willing to support a US peace plan that failed to meet minimal Palestinian demands for an independent state.

Underlying the anger is frustration that Arab regimes, six years after the 2011 popular Arab revolts and amid years of a brutal and violent United Arab Emirates and Saudi-led counterrevolution that has rolled back the achievements of the uprisings everywhere except for in Tunisia, still fail to deliver public services and goods.

The potentially explosive mix is highlighted by the Arab and Muslim world’s response to Mr. Trump’s move that amounts to little more than toothless statements and a glaring lack of diplomatic action.

Virtually no Arab government has summoned a US ambassador or charge d’affaires to protest the decision. Nor have Arab leaders sought to pin Mr. Trump down on what his statement. that is riddled with apparent internal contradictions and vague assertions, means. Only Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas drew a line by announcing that he would not meet with US Vice President Mike Pence when he visits the Middle East later this month.

The strategy of Arab leaders appears one designed to verbally condemn Mr. Trump’s move and hope that pro-longed protests will prove unsustainable. Arab leaders have good reason to believe that maintaining the degree of mobilization on the streets of Jerusalem, Palestinian cities and Arab capitals will prove difficult.

Their repressive policies and the Middle East’s dissent into chaos and violence as a result of the counterrevolution has dampened appetite for renewed mass anti-government protest despite calls for a third intifada or anti-Israeli uprising by groups like Hamas, the Islamist group in Gaza, and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon.

That may be a risky calculation in the medium rather than the short term. If the Arab revolts and the escalation of extremism proved anything, it is that Arab leaders ignore frustration and anger at their peril. Explosions of public anger are more often spontaneous than planned.

Gulf leaders are not wholly oblivious to the threat. Forced by lower oil prices, they have announced reform plans that aim to diversify and rationalize their rentier state economies, loosen social restrictions, and unilaterally rewrite social contracts while tightening political control. Yet, leaders like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have yet to deliver jobs and greater economic opportunity.

The question also is to what degree Gulf leaders have their ear to the ground. Bahrain, a Saudi ally that seldom moves without consulting Riyadh, allowed a 25-member interfaith group to make a rare visit to Israel despite Mr. Trump’s move.

The timing of Bahrain’s decision to violate a 2002 Saudi-driven Arab peace plan adopted by the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that calls for normalization of relations with Israel only when the Jewish state withdraws from territories conquered during the 1967 Middle East war, could not have been worse.

It reinforced a belief among protesters that Arab leaders attributed greater importance to strengthening informal ties with Israel, whom they view as an ally in their efforts to counter Iran, than to protecting Arab and Muslim rights.

While unwilling to risk their relationship with Washington despite deep-seated passions evoked by the controversy over Islam’s third most holy city, Arab leaders, paradoxically, have so far failed to exploit the wiggle room offered by Mr. Trump’s statement.

A careful reading of Mr. Trump’s statement leaves room for interpretation even if there is little doubt that the president intended to bolster Israel’s position. US officials, including United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, have struggled to explain how the statement furthers the peace process without alienating Mr. Trump’s domestic base that endorses the Israeli claim to all of Jerusalem.

Mr. Trump catered to his base by refraining from qualifying his recognition of Jerusalem with a reference to Palestinian claims. Yet, he asserted that he was not prejudging the outcome of peace negotiations.

The president insisted that the United States “continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders.”

Arab leaders could project themselves as getting in front of the cart by seeking clarification from Mr. Trump on whether and what limitations he may put on recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem in terms of what that means for the status of the city’s Palestinian population and Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem.

Former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to London and Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal appeared to allude to that when he warned in an open letter to Mr. Trump that “"your action has emboldened the most extreme elements in the Israeli society ... because they take your action as a license to evict the Palestinians from their lands and subject them to an apartheid state."

Amid the raw emotions, Arab leaders and protesters are both walking a fine line. Protesters’ anger is about more than fury with Mr. Trump. It is about their leaders’ multiple policy failures. Arab leaders need to be seen as being on the right side of public opinion while not rocking the boat.

If there is a silver lining in Mr. Trump’s move, it may be Arab leaders’ need to bridge the gap between public perception and their survival instinct. Leading the charge in pressuring the president to clarify his statement is an opportunity, Arab leaders have so far failed to capitalize on.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

China leverages Belt and Road investment to shape Pakistan’s political environment


By James M. Dorsey

A Chinese decision to redevelop criteria for the funding of infrastructure projects that are part of the $50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key pillar of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road Initiative, seemingly amounts to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time that the armed forces are flexing their political muscle.

The Chinese decision that has reportedly led to the suspension of funding for three major road projects valued at a total of $850 million – the upgrading of the Dera Ismail Khan-Zhob motorway and the Karakorum highway as well as construction of a 110-kilometre road linking Khuzdar and Basima – suggests that Beijing is not averse to exploiting its massive investment in the Belt and Road, an effort to link Eurasian infrastructure to China, to shape the political environment in key countries in its authoritarian mould.

Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves Chinese interest in keeping Asia’s other giant, India, off balance. Chinese personnel and assets have nonetheless been targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan.

The suspension of funding coincided with apparent efforts by the military to increase its political sway by supporting militant and hard-line Sunni Muslim groups opposed to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) headed by disgraced former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Former Pakistani strongman General Pervez Musharraf, in the latest manifestation of links between the circles close to the military and hardliners, announced earlier this month that he was discussing an alliance with Milli Muslim League (MML).

MML was recently established by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who was designated a terrorist by the United Nations and the US Justice Department that put a $10 million bounty on his head and stands accused of having masterminded the 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which 164 people were killed.

Mr. Saeed, the leader of Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), widely seen as a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe (LeT), one of the largest and most violent groups in South Asia, was last month freed by a court in Lahore from ten months of house arrest.

Speaking on Pakistani television, Mr. Musharraf pronounced himself “the greatest supporter of LeT.” Acknowledging that he had met with Mr. Saeed, Mr. Musharraf appeared to confirm long-standing suspicions that the military supported LeT as a proxy in Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir.

"Because I have always been in favour of action in Kashmir and I have always been in favour of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir. This is the biggest force and they have been declared terrorists by India and the US jointly," Mr. Musharraf said.

Parallel to Mr. Musharraf’s endorsement of LeT, the military displayed its political influence by mediating an end to a weeks-long blockade of a main artery leading into Islamabad to protest a perceived softening of the government’s adherence to Islam in a proposed piece of legislation.

Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TPL), the organizer of the protest, is a political front for Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLR), which glorifies Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of his opposition to Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy law,

The TPL is a political expression of the Barelvi strand of Sunni Islam that throughout the decades was long viewed as more moderate than the other dominant strand in Pakistan, the Saudi-supported Deobandis, whose militancy dates to the US-Saudi-backed Islamist insurgency in the 1980s that forced Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Suggestions that the protesters were supported by the military  were reinforced by video circulating on social media and the negotiation of an end to the blockade that involved the forced resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid and the dropping of all charges against protesters.

Chinese support for the military’s role has long been evident with its repeated veto in the UN Security Council of US, European and Indian efforts to get Masood Azhar, a prominent Pakistani militant designated as a global terrorist. Mr. Azhar is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military. Prior to the Mumbai attacks, China also blocked Mr. Saeed’s designation.

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 was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Criteria for the funding of the road projects, once redrafted, are expected to benefit the military’s engineering and construction company, Frontier Works Organization.

The suspension was projected as an effort to avoid corruption in CPEC in the wake of Mr. Sharif’s ousting as prime minister after documents leaked from a Panama law firm linked his children to offshore companies and assets. Long viewed as a nemesis of the military, Mr. Sharif demise served the interests of the armed forces.

The suggestion failed to stand up to scrutiny given that some Chinese companies have been granted CPEC contracts despite allegations of corruption. In one instance, the China Gezhouba Corporation (CGGC), was awarded the development of Pakistan’s $4.5 billion, 969 MW Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project, despite having been blacklisted by the World Bank.

Chinese backing for a more prominent role of the military in economic and political life comes amid increased Pakistani scrutiny of CPEC.

In a rare challenging of Chinese commercial terms Pakistan recently withdrew from a Chinese-funded dam-building project.

Pakistani Water and Power Development Authority chairman Muzammil Hussain charged that “Chinese conditions for financing the Diamer-Bhasha Dam were not doable and against our interests.” China and Pakistan were also at odds over ownership of the $14 billion, 4,500 megawatts (MW)-hydropower project on the Indus River in the country’s problematic region of Gilgit-Baltistan near disputed Kashmir.

Earlier, a State Bank of Pakistan study concluded that exports of marble to China, Pakistan’s foremost rough-hewn, freshly-excavated marble export market, and the re-export to Pakistan of Pakistani semi-processed marble was “hurting Pakistan’s marble industry to a significant extent.”

A report by the Pakistani Senate, that has repeatedly criticized CPEC’s lack of transparency and Chinese commercial policies, concluded that China would for the next four decades get 91 percent of the revenues generated by the port of Gwadar.

Greater military involvement in CPEC would weaken China’s critics and enhance Chinese confidence in Pakistan’s ability to tackle security concerns. The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned last week that militants were targeting the embassy and Chinese nationals.

“Beijing is keen to give the Pakistani Army the lead role in the CPEC projects as Pakistani ministries charged with carrying out the projects have incurred delays because of infighting. Concerns that the project bypasses Pakistan’s poorer regions and will mainly benefit the financially-strong province of Punjab has made politicians argue with regards to the benefits of CPEC… The Chinese are not used to such harsh disagreements,” the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) said in a commentary.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tackling Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism: A Pakistani-US collision in the making


By James M. Dorsey

A recent government surrender to militant demands for stricter adherence to Islam mediated by the military coupled with the release from house arrest of a militant leader designated by the United Nations and the United States as a terrorist sets the stage for a confrontation between Pakistan and the Trump administration.

The two incidents also point to the fact that decades of Saudi backing and Pakistani indulgence has embedded Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in key branches of the state and among significant segments of society, including ones long considered to be less conservative. They raise the question whether further punitive cutbacks in US aid and other potential retaliatory measures will exacerbate the problem rather than persuade authorities to tackle it.

Finally, the incidents suggest that the fallout of decades of Saudi support globally for ultra-conservatism to the tune of $100 billion is unlikely to be reversed overnight by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent pledge to return the kingdom to an undefined form of moderate Islam.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis became last week the latest in a succession of US officials representing a succession of US administrations to unsuccessfully complain on a visit to Islamabad about aspects of the fallout in Pakistan such as the country’s half-hearted crackdown on militants and continued support for radical groups that serve its geopolitical purposes vis a vis Afghanistan and India.

Days before Mr. Mattis winged his way to the Pakistani capital, CIA director Michael Pompeo warned that if Pakistan failed to act decisively against groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, the United States would. That would likely involve an expanded drone war against militants in the troubled provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as possible sanctions that go beyond existing cutbacks in aid.

Mr. Mattis visited Islamabad at a moment that ultra-conservatism’s sway was manifesting itself with the emergence of hard-line political parties that look set to do well in elections expected next year.
Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who was designated a terrorist by the United Nations and the US Justice Department that put a $10 million bounty on his head, announced that his recently formed party, Milli Muslim League (MML), would contest the election.

Running as an independent in September in a Punjabi by-election, MML candidate Yaqoob Sheikh came in fourth. Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi, a candidate for Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TPL), a political front for Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLR), which glorifies Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of his opposition to Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy law, came in third. Together, the two garnered 11 percent of the vote.

Mr. Saeed, the leader of Jamaat ud-Dawa, widely seen as a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe, one of the largest and most violent groups in South Asia, which he founded, has longstanding ties to Saudi Arabia as well as to Ahl-e-Hadith, an ultra-conservative, Saudi-backed religious group.

Mr. Saeed stands accused of having masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks during which 164 people were killed. He was last month released from ten months of house arrest by a Pakistani court. Graffiti on the walls in the corridors of the court building demand that blasphemers be beheaded.

The TPL’s electoral success; its recent, weeks-long blockade of a main artery leading into Islamabad to protest a perceived softening of the government’s adherence to Islam in a proposed piece of legislation that forced the justice minister to resign; and the military’s intervention to resolve the crisis, indicate not only the popular appeal of ultra-conservatism but also the state’s use of it as a political tool.

The TPL is a political expression of the Barelvi strand of Sunni Islam that throughout the decades was long viewed as more moderate than the other dominant strand in Pakistan, the Saudi-supported Deobandis, whose militancy dates to the US-Saudi-backed Islamist insurgency in the 1980s that forced Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Suggestions that the protesters were supported by the military for ideological reasons as well to undermine the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) of disgraced former prime minister Nawaz Sharif were reinforced by a video circulating on social media. The origin of the video was unclear.

The director-general of the Punjab Rangers, Major-General Azhar Navid Hayat, is seen in the video passing out envelopes containing 1,000-rupee ($9.50) notes to protesters.

"This is a gift from us to you," the general tells a bearded man. "Aren't we with you too?" Patting another protester on the cheek, Major-General Hayat says: "God willing, we'll get all of them released," in a seeming reference to arrested protesters. "This is all we had in one bag. There's some more (money) in the other," the officer added.

Pakistani Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa recently expressed support for religious seminaries or madrassas, many of which are run by militants, but insisted that they expand their curriculum to ensure that graduates become more productive.


With millions attending seminaries General Bajwa asked: “So what will they become: will they become Maulvis (clerics) or they will become terrorists?” He noted that Pakistan could not build enough mosques to employ the huge number of madrassas students.

General Bajwa went on to say that more religious seminaries than mainstream schools had been established in Balochistan in the past four decades. “Only religious education is being imparted to the students at all these seminaries and thus the students are left behind in the race for development,” the general cautioned.

Saudi-funded ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate Balochistan’s educational landscape, according to Pakistani militants.

“A majority of Baloch schoolchildren go to madrassas. They are in better condition than other schools in Balochistan. Most madrassas are operated by Deobandis and Ahl-i-Hadith,” said the co-founder of a virulently anti-Shiite group that is believed to enjoy Saudi and Pakistani support.

Saudi-backed Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab, a militant Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan origin, who was earlier this year named a named a specially designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was on a fund-raising tour of the Gulf, illustrates the degree to which ultra-conservatism permeates Pakistan and is linked to the state.

Mr. Abu Turab is a leader of Ahl-e-Hadith that operates a string of religious seminaries in Balochistan along the Pakistan-Afghan border, a region heavily controlled by the military. He is also a board member of Pakistan’s Saudi-backed Paigham TV and heads the Saudi-funded Movement for the Protection of the Two Holy Cities (Tehrike Tahafaz Haramain Sharifain), whose secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil too has been designated by the Treasury. Mr. Abu Turab serves on Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, a government-appointed advisory body of scholars and laymen established to assist in bringing laws in line with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Mohammed.

Against this backdrop, a probable US-Pakistani collision at best would lead to temporarily reduced Pakistani support for geopolitically convenient militants. Tackling Pakistan’s far more fundamental problem, resulting from a build-up of ultra-conservatism over decades, would require long-term engagement rather than confrontation – a policy prescription that likely runs counter to the Trump administration’s worldview.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Trump's recognition of Jerusalem: Letting a genie out of the bottle


By James M. Dorsey

US President Donald J. Trump has let a genie out of the bottle with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and intent to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In taking his decision, Mr. Trump was implementing long standing US policy dating back to the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barak Obama even if none of them were willing to put it into practice.

The key to judging Mr. Trump’s move is the politics behind it and the black swan embedded in it. Recognizing Jerusalem formally as the capital of Israel may well kill two birds at the same time: boost the president’s standing among evangelists and conservatives at home and give him leverage to negotiate what he has dubbed the ultimate deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

There is no doubt that the move will boost Mr. Trump’s popularity among his supporters and financial backers like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and allow him to assert that he has fulfilled a campaign promise.

Far less certain is whether, Mr. Trump will be willing or able to constructively leverage his move to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. His move moreover risks sparking an uncontrollable sequence of events.

US officials have been tight-lipped about peace plans being developed by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and chief Israeli-Palestinian negotiator.

Almost the only confirmed fact about Mr. Kushner’s strategy is that, based on his close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he is advocating what he describes as an outside-in approach. In this scenario, Saudi Arabia would ensure Arab backing for a peace plan put forward by Mr. Kushner.

Prince Mohammed’s United Arab Emirates counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, working through Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has helped put a key building block in place by facilitating reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions, Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Al Fatah movement and Hamas, the Islamist movement that controlled the Gaza Strip.

The problem with that scenario is that implicit in US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a rejection of the notion that any Israeli Palestinian peace deal would have to involve either West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital or shared control of Jerusalem as a whole that would serve as the capital of both states.

The rejection of that notion would stroke with readouts of a visit to Riyadh last month by Mr. Abbas in which the Saudi crown prince reportedly laid out the peace plan he had discussed with Mr. Kushner. According to that readout by Palestinian officials as well as European and Arab diplomats, East Jerusalem would not be the Palestinian capital.

Moreover, the future Palestinian state would consist of non-contiguous parts of the West Bank to ensure that Israeli settlements in the area remain under Israeli control. Finally, Palestinians would have to surrender their demand for recognition of the right of return for Palestinians who fled Israel/Palestine during the 1948 and 1967 wars.

Beyond the fact that it is hard to see how any Palestinian leader could sign up for the plan, it threatens, coupled with Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, to inflame passions that Prince Mohammed and other Arab autocrats may find difficult to control.

In a region that increasingly and brutally suppresses any form of dissent or protest, Prince Mohammed and other Arab leaders could risk fuelling the fire by seeking to suppress demonstrations against Mr. Trump’s decision and what Arab and Muslim public opinion would perceive as a sell-out of Palestinian rights.

The situation would become even more tricky if protests, as is likely, would first erupt in Palestine and be countered with force by the Israeli military. It is a scenario in which anti-US, anti-Israel protests in Arab capitals could quickly turn into ant-government manifestations.

Palestinian groups have already called for three days of rage. Protests would likely not be restricted to Middle Eastern capitals but would probably also erupt in Asian nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In some ways, protests may well be the purpose of the exercise. There is no way of confirming whether the readout provided to officials and diplomats by Mr. Abbas of his meeting with Prince Mohammed is accurate.

In what amounts to a dangerous game of poker, that readout could well serve multiple purposes, including an effort by Mr. Abbas to boost his position at home by projecting himself as resisting US and Saudi pressure.

Against a history of less than accurate media reporting and official statements often designed to maintain a façade rather than reality, Saudi media reported that King Salman warned Mr. Trump that any decision to move the US Embassy before a permanent peace settlement had been achieved would inflame the Muslim world.

While Prince Mohammed and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu see eye to eye in viewing Iran rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the region’s core issue, it’s hard to imagine that the crown prince, a man who has proven that he is not averse to unwarranted risks and gambles, would surrender demands for Muslim control of at least part of Islam’s third most holy city. It’s equally unfathomable that he would allow for a situation in which the kingdom’s position as the custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina could be called into question.

Public Saudi backing for Mr. Trump’s recognition and any plan to grant Israel full control of Jerusalem would see the genie turning on the kingdom and its ruling family. Not only with public protests but also with demands by Iran that Saudi Arabia be stripped of its custodianship and that Mecca and Medina be put under some kind of pan-Islamic administration.

In other words, Mr. Trump and potentially Prince Mohammed, are playing a game that could lead to a second phase of this decade’s popular revolts and a serious escalation of an already dangerous Saudi-Iranian rivalry that is wreaking havoc across the Middle East.

With his recognition of Jerusalem, Mr. Trump has likely closed the door on any public or Arab support for a peace plan that falls short of what is minimally acceptable to the Palestinians. Moreover, by allowing speculation to flourish over what he has in mind with his ultimate Israeli-Palestinian deal, Mr. Trump has potentially set a ball rolling that neither he nor Arab autocrats may be able to control.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Qatari Wahhabism vs. Saudi Wahhabism and the perils of top-down change

Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad inaugurates the Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab Mosque

By James M. Dorsey

A multi-domed, sand-coloured, architectural marvel, Doha’s biggest and national mosque, symbolizes Qatar’s complex and troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia. Its naming six years ago after an eighteenth century Islamic scholar, Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of one of Islam’s most puritan strands, raised eyebrows, sparked controversy, and has since become an episode in the latest Gulf crisis.

The naming of the mosque that overlooks the Qatar Sports Club in Doha’s Jubailat district was intended to pacify more traditional segments of Qatari society as well as Saudi Arabia, which sees the tiny Gulf state, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi, as a troublesome and dangerous gadfly on its doorstep. Qatar long challenged the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam, but now together with its other nemesis, the United Arab Emirates, offers an unacknowledged model for Saudi reforms envisioned by the kingdom’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

That doesn’t mean that Qatar no longer poses a challenge. If anything, it poses a greater challenge with its opposition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s counterrevolutionary strategy in the Middle East and North Africa even if its vision of a Gulf ruled by more forward-looking, socially less conservative autocrats is one it shares with Prince Mohammed and the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The challenge prompted the two princes to impose a six-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott on Qatar. The crisis is likely to figure prominently in the first meeting of Gulf leaders since the imposition of the boycott at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Kuwait on Tuesday.

By naming the mosque after Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Qatar reaffirmed its adherence to the Wahhabi creed that goes back to nineteenth century Saudi support for the rise to dominance of the Al Thani clan, the country’s hereditary ruling family, even if its social norms and foreign policy differed sharply from practices in the kingdom.

In fact, social change in Qatar in the last two decades contrasted starkly with efforts by King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah to maintain as much as possible of the status quo prior to the popular revolts that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 in demand of greater freedom, transparency and accountability. They also diverged radically from King Khalid and King Fahd’s earlier empowerment of the ultra-conservatives in response to the 1979 Iranian revolution and attack by Saudi militants on the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

A traditional Gulf state and a Wahhabi state to boot, Qatari conservatism was everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s long-standing puritan way of life. Qatar did not have a powerful religious establishment that could enforce ultra-conservative social norms, nor did it implement absolute gender segregation. Non-Muslims could practice their faith in their own houses of worship and were exempted from bans on alcohol and port. Qatar became a sponsor of the arts including a Doha version of the Tribeca Film Festival and host the state-owned Al Jazeera television network that revolutionized the region’s controlled media landscape and became one of the world’s foremost global broadcasters. The UAE boasts many of the same traits minus the history of an ultra-conservative strand of Islam having dominated its history.

Qatar’s projection of a different approach to Wahhabism is rooted in the DNA of the Qatari state that from its founding was a determined not to emulate the kingdom and reforms that were initiated two decades before Prince Mohammed appeared on the scene. Privately, Qataris distinguish between their “Wahhabism of the sea” as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabism of the land.”

Political scientists Birol Baskan and Steven Wright argue that on a political level, Qatar has a secular character similar to Turkey and in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia, which they attribute to Qatar’s lack of a class of Muslim legal scholars. The absence of scholars was in part a reflection of Qatari ambivalence towards Wahhabism that it viewed as both an opportunity and a threat: on the one hand it served as a tool to legitimise domestic rule, on the other it was a potential monkey wrench Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control. Opting to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on Saudi scholars to develop its own. That would have produced a religious establishment steeped in the kingdom’s austere theology and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have demanded a similar arrangement.

As a result, Qatar lacks the institutions that often held the kingdom back. Similarly, Qatar does not have families known for producing religious scholars. Qatari religious schools are run by the ministry of education not as in the Saudi kingdom by the religious affairs authority. They are staffed by expatriates rather than Qataris and attended by less than one per cent of the total student body and only ten per cent of those are Qatari nationals. By the same token, Qatari religious authority is not institutionally vested. Qatar has for example no Grand Mufti as does Saudi Arabia and various other Arab nations; it only created a ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments 22 years after achieving independence.

All of this should make Prince Mohammed and Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, both men in their thirties, natural allies were it not for their fundamentally different views of geopolitics and place in the world. Underlying the UAE-Saudi-led boycott was a shift in Saudi perceptions of the challenge posed by Qatar since 2011 revolts from one that was to a significant degree religious and social in nature to one that was exclusively political and geopolitical. That was  evident in the conditions Saudi Arabia and the UAE set for ending the crisis. The two Gulf states’ demands amounted to Qatar putting itself under Saudi and UAE tutelage.

Nonetheless, Prince Mohammed’s efforts to reform Saudi Arabia with his so far limited roll-back of puritan restrictions amounted in fact to a first step in adopting a more Qatari version of Wahhabism even if that is something he is unlikely to acknowledge. His initial measures – lifting the ban on women’s driving and attending male sporting events; rolling back the powers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or Mutaween, the religious police; and his introduction of long forbidden forms of modern entertainment – are as much in line with Qatar’s as well as the UAE’s social norms that are more liberal than those of the kingdom but not liberal by any stretch of the imagination as they were inspired by his Western-educated Saudi associates and army of Western consultants.

Qatar in particular, but in many ways the UAE as well, is what Mohammed would like Saudi Arabia to be. Qatar had the advantage that it projected to young Saudis and others the ability to change without completely dumping ultra-conservative religious precepts that have shaped culture and belief systems. It projected a vision of a less restrictive and less choking conservative Wahhabi society that grants individuals irrespective of gender greater opportunities.

Qatar today is a long way from the mid-1990s when Qatari women, like in Saudi Arabia until recently, were banned from driving, voting or holding government jobs. Qatari women occupy prominent positions in multiple sectors of society. With women accounting for 53 percent of the work force, Qatar outranks Middle Eastern and North African states by a large margin. Only Kuwait with 48 and the UAE with 42 percent come close. It’s a picture that long juxtaposed starkly with that of its Wahhabi big brother. In doing so, Qatar threw down a gauntlet for the kingdom’s interpretation of nominally shared religious and cultural beliefs – a challenge Prince Mohammed appears to have embraced.

"I consider myself a good Wahhabi and can still be modern, understanding Islam in an open way. We take into account the changes in the world and do not have the closed-minded mentality as they do in Saudi Arabia,” Abdelhameed Al Ansari, the dean of Qatar University's College of Sharia, a leader of the paradigm shift, told The Wall Street Journal in 2002. Twenty years earlier, Mr. Al Ansari was denounced as an "apostate" by Qatar's Saudi-trained chief religious judge for advocating women’s rights. "All those people who attacked me, most of them have died, and the rest keep quiet," Mr. Al Ansari said.

Qatar’s long-standing projection of an alternative was particularly sensitive as long as Saudi Arabia refused to openly embrace notions of social change even if things like allowing women to drive were long debated quietly. It was also potentially dangerous with the kingdom’s religious establishment worried that key members of the ruling family were toying with radical ideas like a separation of state and religion.

The religious establishment voiced its concern in the spring of 2013 in a meeting with King Abdullah two days after his son Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, declared that “religion (should) not enter into politics.” Responding to Prince Mutaib in a tweet, Grand Mufti ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh warned that “whoever says there is no relationship between religion and politics worships two gods, one in the heavens and one on earth.”

Prince Mutaib, the commander of the National Guard, the only military unit that was not controlled by Prince Mohammed, was among those swept up in the crown prince’s recent purge. He was reportedly last week allowed to leave his gilded cage in Riyadh’s posh Ritz Carlton Hotel after paying $1 billion to the government to settle allegations of corruption.

In a similar vein, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of intelligence and ambassador to the United States and Britain first hinted at a possible separation 11 years ago when he cited verse 4:59 of the Qur’an: “O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.” Turki suggested that the verse referred exclusively to temporal authority rather than both religious and political authority.

Prince Mohammed has brought the debate about whither Saudi Arabia into the open and signalled his intent to take the kingdom into the 21st century much along the lines of what Qatar and the UAE have done. He has left the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment no choice but to endorse his moves even if they likely reinforce the fears of an older generation of scholars resistant to change and over time may spark opposition from younger generations critical of his autocratic style of government, the bending over backwards of their elders to accommodate the prince, and the possibility that he will deprive religious figures of whatever political influence they have left.

Qatar’s model, like that of the UAE, strokes with Prince Mohammed’s vision in more than just the promotion of wider social margins. The Saudi crown prince. like Sheikh Tamim and the UAE’s Prince Mohammed, are engaged in an effort to upgrade autocracy and allow it to respond to 21st century social and economic demands while maintaining absolute political control and repressing all forms of dissent. With his arrests in September 2017 of Islamic scholars, judges, and activists and his purge of the ruling family, senior officials, and prominent businessmen in November of that year, Mohammed was following on a far grander scale in the footsteps of Qatar’s former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who silenced opposition to reforms.

In one instance, Sheikh Hamad arrested in 1998 Abdulrahman al Nuaimi, a religious scholar who criticized his advancement of women rights. Mr. Al Nuaimi was released three years later on condition that he no longer would speak out publicly. He has since been designated by the US Treasury as “a Qatar-based terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al-Qa'ida and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE included Mr. Al-Nuaimi on a list of 59 individuals Qatar would have to act against if it wanted to get the boycott lifted.

Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison and he was finally pardoned in 2016.

Mr. Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine”. It celebrated the overthrow in 2011 by a popular revolt of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that was dubbed the Jasmine Revolution.

More recently, Qatari authorities reportedly raided the home of Sheikh Sultan Bin Suhaim Al-Thani, a 33-year old nephew of former emir Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad Al-Thani, who was deposed by Sheikh Hamad in 1995. Sheikh Sultan had aligned himself with the Saudi and UAE demands and positioned himself in opposition to Sheikh Tamim.

Prince Mohammed’s unacknowledged embrace of the Qatari model did not stop him from employing Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment to fire a shot in the prelude to the Gulf crisis by demanding in May 2017 that the Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab Mosque in Doha be renamed. The demand, put forward in a statement by 200 descendants of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, came days after what US intelligence officials described as a UAE-engineered hack of Qatari state media involving fake news reports that put inflammatory foreign policy statements in the mouth of Sheikh Tamim, which in turn prompted the Saudi-UAE-led boycott. “We…demand that the name of the mosque be changed for it does not carry its true Salafi path,” the statement said.

Simmering religious anger at being manipulated and opposition from within the Saudi ruling family may however not be Prince Mohammed’s foremost problem. Alongside his autocratic style, Prince Mohammed is likely to discover, according to political scientist Calvert W. Jones, that a fundamental flaw in the Qatari and UAE development model is the fact that social engineering is easier said than done and that flashy projects like the creation of new, cutting edge 21st century cities, luring or building world-class universities and museums, and the promotion of tolerance won’t do it.

“The problem is that authoritarian modernizers cannot simply command a new attitude among their citizens. Opening cinemas and relaxing gender segregation may impress Saudi youth, but a new economy requires far more. Reformers in the UAE eventually realized — as Saudi rulers will discover, too — that they needed to adapt both the mind-sets and the skill sets of the rising generation. In countries where people see a government job as a right, that means reshaping the very nature of citizenship,” Ms. Jones wrote in The Washington Post.

Qatari and Emirati promotion of knowledge, culture and innovation in a bid to create globalized citizens have succeeded in developing civic attitudes including notions of tolerance and volunteerism but failed to alter economic perceptions of the rentier state rather than the private sector as the creator of jobs. Based on a survey of 2,000 Emirati students, Jones concluded that the government’s effort had made them even more convinced of a citizen’s right to a government job and less interested in entrepreneurship. The saw a high-level government job as a deserved reward for the improved education they had received. “Social liberalization does not necessarily mean increased economic productivity,” Ms Jones concluded.

Perhaps, Ms. Jones’ most fundamental finding is a flaw common to the Qatari and UAE as well as the Saudi formula for reform and that is top-down, government engineered change and unilateral rewriting of social contracts produces results that fall short of what is required. The missing element in that formula is exactly what Qatari, Emirati and Saudi leaders eschew: political change.

“Social engineers may need to allow wider political participation if they want pro-globalization social engineering to succeed in the long term. The Emirati kids I studied had grown significantly more interested in contributing to public decision-making compared with their anachronistically educated peers. In other words, top-down social engineering can take authoritarian modernizers only so far,” Ms. Jones said.

“To build truly development-friendly mind-sets prepared to compete under conditions of globalization, Saudi rulers are likely to find that they must renegotiate the social contract in more transparent and inclusive ways, going well beyond what government planning alone can accomplish,” she added.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.