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Sunday, February 7, 2016

A litmus test for Iran on the world stage: sports and air transport


By James M. Dorsey

Sports and air transport are likely to serve as indicators of whether Iran has the flexibility to become a major node in an increasingly globalized world. At the core of Iranian efforts to become a global sports and airline hub will be its willingness to relax strict gender segregation, dress codes and its ban on alcohol.

How Iran deals with the issues of women’s sporting rights as well as likely demands for relaxed restrictions at its international airports and on board its airlines will also serve as an indicator of how flexible Iranian hardliners, the main benefactors of the lifting of international sanctions, will be in taking advantage of Iran’s return to the international fold as a result of an international agreement on the future of its nuclear program.

While the issue of gender segregation at sporting events has already arisen as a result of Iran’s hosting this year of two international volleyball tournaments, demands for relaxed restrictions in air transportation will emerge as Iran prepares to turn Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport and state-owned Iran Air into global hubs that compete with the airports of Istanbul, Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi and their airlines, Turkish Airways, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Ettihad.

Iranian responses to criticism of the banning of women by human rights groups holds out hope that Iran could prove more flexible than many expect it to be. Human Rights Watch quotes executives of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) as saying after a meeting with Iranian sports and youth minister Mahmoud Goudarzi, that progress was possible on the "key aim…of families being able to attend volleyball matches."

Similarly, FIVB general director Fabio Azevedo told Inside the Games that "discussions are still ongoing and we are hoping for a positive outcome ahead of the FIVB World Tour open event on (Iran’s) Kish Island,” which is scheduled to kick off on February 15.

Granting women the right to attend the Kish Island event would have greater symbolic significance given that volleyball was the last sports bastion that Iranian hardliners conquered when they pushed through the ban on women in 2012. Volleyball has until then been one of the few male sporting events accessible for women.

Based on past experience, Human Rights Watch however takes the prospects of a reversal of the ban with a grain of salt. “Hopeful? That is not enough. Iran promised last June that female fans could attend matches, only to renege and threaten them before the tournament, dashing the hopes of women waiting to return to stadiums,” said the group’s Minky Worden.

On the air transport front, Iran signalled its intention to become a major transportation hub with signing of a $27 billion agreement with Airbus for the purchase of 118 jets, one of the first major deals since the lifting of the sanctions, as well as contracts to expand Tehran’s international airport. The plane deal included Airbus A380s that are part of the Gulf airlines’ fleets.

"Certainly this is our historical position: we have always been a centre for communications in the region," Iranian transport minister Abbas Akhouni told Reuters. Iran Air chairman Farhad Parvaresh noted that “we used to be a very important airline in the region and globally, so of course we want to play our role fully once again."

To do so, Iran, despite a domestic passenger market that is expected to grow exponentially, will have to match Gulf and Turkish airlines in their willingness not to enforce Islamic law as it regards gender interaction, dress codes, and alcohol. The degree to which this is already a debate even among hardliners is reflected in the fact that some have criticized the Airbus deal for diverting cash from other social and economic priorities.

The outcome of the debate is likely to say much about Iran’s future course. Virtually all commercial agreements like the Iran Air deal signed since the lifting of the sanctions have been with state-owned conglomerates with close ties to pension funds and other government agencies such as the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is widely seen as a pillar of hard-line factions in Iran. The deals also include a $2 billion with an Italian steel producer and a $439 million agreement with Peugeot.

Both sports and Iran’s air transport ambitions will put to the test the Islamic republic’s strategy to 
make state-owned companies and state-controlled associations the primary beneficiary of the lifting of the sanctions in the belief that this will allow it to limit Western influences that could come with foreign investment.

“Investments through our big enterprises can be controlled,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, an analyst with close ties to the government, in an interview with The New York Times. Ruling out a complete opening of the Iranian market, Mr. Taraghi argued that “that would provide leverage to Western governments and investors, leverage they would use to influence our politics, culture and society.”

Ultimately, what is likely to determine the outcome of the debate, is what price Iran is willing to pay in terms of reigning in its ambitions to uphold its principles. Iran has demonstrated its ability to do so with its resilience during the years that it was subject to punitive sanctions. Nonetheless, it was ultimately willing to negotiate a nuclear deal, even if it drove a hard bargain.

Market forces and the choices Iran makes will determine whether it emerges as a competitive regional transportation hub. When it comes to sports, the onus will be on international sports federations if Iran does not take a first step by lifting the ban on women attending male volleyball matches. A failure by Iran to do so, would signal that the price for Iran for flouting international rules isn’t yet high enough.


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 and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Battle for Hegemony that the Kingdom Cannot Win (JMD Lecture)



RSIS SEMINAR
“Saudi Arabia and Iran:
The Battle for Hegemony that the Kingdom 
Cannot Win”


By

James M. Dorsey 

Senior Fellow, RSIS



Western government officials, former intelligence officers and pundits have long predicted the fall of the House of Saud. I am one of those. “This cannot last,” was my conclusion after my first visit to the kingdom in 1976. That prediction remains true even if I had a different timeline in mind when I first came to that conclusion. Former CIA operative Robert Baer warned almost 30 years later in a book in 2003 that “the country is run by an increasingly dysfunctional royal family that has been funding militant Islamic movements abroad in an attempt to protect itself from them at home… Today's Saudi Arabia can't last much longer—and the social and economic fallout of its demise could be calamitous.”

Operating on the principle of “progress without change” expounded by the government in the 1990s, the ruling Al Sauds have obviously maintained their grip on power longer than many analysts believed possible. They did so on the basis of a social contract that promised cradle-to-grave welfare in exchange for a surrender of political rights; a Faustian pact with the country’s Wahhabi clergy, proponents of an expansionist, puritan, discriminatory, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam; and repression.

The dawn of 2016 has brought a new round of doomsday predictions. Saudi Arabia appeared to be caught in a perfect storm. Arab popular protests in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen; sparked a brutal civil war in Syria and Saudi military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen; and a divergence of interests between the kingdom and the United States, its main protector. The beginning of the end of autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa appeared to be on the horizon. Saudi leaders demonstrated however their determination to turn the tide.

Tumbling commodity and energy prices are forcing the Saudi government to reform, diversify, streamline and rationalize the kingdom’s economy. To succeed, the government will have to introduce change, not just progress. The change is already obvious with the cutting of subsidies, the raising of prices for services, the search for alternative sources of revenues and moves towards a greater role for the private sector and for women. Cost cutting is occurring at a time that Saudi Arabia is spending effusively on efforts to counter winds of political change in the region with its stalled military intervention in Yemen, its support for anti-Bashar al Assad rebels in Syria and massive financial injections into a regime in Egypt that has yet to perform.

US officials for much of their country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia have insisted that the two countries do not share common values, that their relationship is based on common interests. 
Underlying the now cooler relations between Washington and Riyadh is the fact that those interests are diverging. The divergence became evident with the eruption of popular revolts in 2011 and particularly US criticism of the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to squash a rebellion and hesitant American support for the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It is also obvious in the US persistence in reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran that is returning the Islamic republic to the international fold despite deep-felt Saudi objections.

The result of all of this has been with the rise of the Salmans, King Salman and his powerful son, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman a far more assertive foreign and military policy. Make however no mistake, Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness is not a declaration of independence from the United States. On the contrary, Mohammed Bin Salman made that very clear in a recent Economist interview. It is designed to force the United States to reengage in the Middle East in the belief that it will constitute a return to the status ante quo: US support for the kingdom in the belief that it is the best guarantor for regional stability.

The problem with that assumption is that history is not static, it is a dynamic process of continuous change. Analysts suggest that Saudi Arabia is confronting the perfect storm: economic problems, social challenges, foreign policy crises. Saudi Arabia may be heading into a perfect storm but the two key drivers are likely to be far more existential. Those drivers have been interlinked ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the first time that an icon of US power in the region was toppled. One diver is the Al Saud’s increasingly problematic Faustian bargain with Wahhabism, the other is Iran.

Let me start with Iran. Saudi government leaders do not hate Shias so much as that they see them as a tool for countering Iran by motivating Sunnis in the region to fear and resist Iranian influence. Anti-
Shiite sectarianism helps Saudi Arabia motivate both Sunni and Shia Muslims to take up arms as part of the kingdom’s struggle with Iran for regional hegemony to defend their respective nations irrespective of sect wherever they are perceived to be under threat. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of fuelling sectarianism by backing Shia militias who have targeted Sunnis in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. The Saudi allegations notwithstanding, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded that anti-Shia rhetoric was much more common online than anti-Sunni rhetoric.

Fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia had legitimate concerns in the immediate wake of the Iranian revolution. The fall of the autocratic pro-US regime of the Shah made place for a regime that was revolutionary and keen on exporting its revolution to the Gulf. Iran made no bones about it. The headquarters, for example, of the Islamic Liberation Front of Bahrain was housed in the diwan of Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. Revolution not Shi’ism was what Iran hoped to export. It took however less than a year for nationalism to trump revolution in Iran. The process was accelerated by the Saudi-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran and the eight year-long bloody Iran-Iraq war.

The Saudi determination to counter the Iranian revolutionary threat by defeating rather than containing it has ever since shaped Saudi policy towards the Islamic republic and towards Shiites despite occasional thaws in relations. To be sure, Iran repeatedly took the bait with the creation of Hezbollah, political protests during the haj in Mecca, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to name just a few of the incidents.

Nonetheless, much like the Al Saud’s Faustian pact with Wahhabism the kingdom’s handling of relations with revolutionary Iran was certain to ultimately backfire and position the Islamic republic as an existential threat. Rather than embrace its Shiite minority by ensuring that its members had equal opportunity and a stake in society and countering discriminatory statements by the clergy and government institutions, the kingdom grew even more suspicious of Shias who populate the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province. In doing so, they provided Iran with a golden opportunity to forge closer ties to disgruntled Shia communities in the Gulf.

Middle East expert Suzanne Maloney predicted that "the most important variable in the stability of states with significant Shia minorities -- such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan will be the overall tenor of these states' domestic politics, particularly on minority rights issues."  A Kuwaiti Shiite businessman who visited Tehran shortly after the 1979 toppling of the Shah saw the revolution as opening the door to a new era. “We are citizens of Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia. We are Shiites, not Iranians. What happened in Iran is good for everyone. It will persuade our governments to treat us as equals,” the businessman said at the time.

The businessman’s words went unheeded. Instead of acknowledging legitimate grievances, the kingdom accused Iran of Interference in its internal affairs and those of its allies. It relied on autocratic minority Sunni leaders to keep a grip on majority Shia populations in Iraq and Bahrain. Saudi leaders further failed to recognize that Tehran's perception of itself as Shia Central was no less legitimate than Riyadh's insistence on being Sunni Central or Israel's claim that it is the centre of the Jewish world.

As a result, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that brought the Shiite majority for the first time to power left the Saudis incredulous. "To us, it seems out of this world that you do this. We fought a war together to keep Iran from occupying Iraq after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait (in 1991). Now we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason," Saudi Foreign. Minister Prince Saud al Faisal told an American audience in 2005.

Similarly, the perceived Iranian threat to Saudi dominance prompted Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, for decades a key player in the shaping of Saudi security policy and the kingdom’s relations with the United States, to warn Richard Dearlove, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, already more than a decade ago that: "the time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally 'God help the Shia'. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.  As recently as October 2015, Saudi TV Host Abdulellah Al-Dosari celebrated uncontested the death of some 300 Shiite Iranians, including Iranian diplomats, in a stampede during the haj in Mecca. “Praised be to Allah, who relieved Islam and the Muslims from their evil. We pray that Allah will usher them into hell for all eternities.”

Saudi policies, attitudes and perceptions accentuated historic rivalries between Persians and Arabs and Sunnis and Shiites that were never absent but were not primary drivers in contemporary relations. Saudi policy has consistently ignored the fact that some one million Iraqi Shiites died in the Iran-Iraq war defending their country against their Shia brethren.

The Saudi approach created the seeds for intermittent domestic unrest and repeated tit-for-tat attempts to weaken and undermine the legitimacy of the other, set the stage for a global effort to ensure that Muslim communities across the globe empathized with Saudi Wahhabism rather than revolutionary Iranian ideals, and with Saudi support for Saddam Hussein’s bloody eight-year long war against Iran poisoned relations despite occasional attempts by the two states to paper over their differences.

The poisoning was evident in the will of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose anti-monarchical views were rooted in the oppression of the imperial regime of the shah that he had toppled. "Muslims should curse tyrants, including the Saudi royal family, these traitors to God's great shrine, may God's curses and that of his prophets and angels be upon them," Khomeini ordained.

The execution of Nimr al Nimr was not simply designed as many analysts maintain to send a message to domestic opposition, nor was it simply intended to send a message to Iran. The message, ‘don’t mess with me,’ has long been loud and clear. The execution was part of a deliberate strategy to delay if not derail implementation of the nuclear agreement and Iran’s return to the international fold. Iranian hardliners played into Saudi hands with the storming of the Saudi embassy. It is the hardliners that Saudi Arabia wants to strengthen in advance of this month’s elections in Iran for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the council that eventually will elect Iran’s next spiritual leader. If the selection of candidates for both councils for is anything to go by, the Saudi strategy is working.

The strategy makes perfect sense. Saudi regional leadership amounts to exploitation of a window of opportunity rather than reliance on the assets and power needed to sustain it. Saudi Arabia’s interest is to extend its window of opportunity for as long as possible. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. Punitive international sanctions and international isolation long took care of Iran.

And that is what is changing. Iran may not be Arab and maintains a sense of Persian superiority but it has the assets Saud Arabia lacks: a large population base, an industrial base, resources, a battle hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete, and certainly not with Wahhabism in control.

Which brings me to the second driver of the perfect storm. The Al Sauds in my mind are inching ever closer to a fundamental change in their deal with the Wahhabis. Reform that enables the kingdom to become a competitive, 21st century knowledge economy is difficult if not impossible as long as it is held back by the strictures of a religious doctrine that looks backwards rather than forwards, whose ideal is the emulation of life as it was at the time of the prophet and his companions.

Saudi Arabia was shell shocked on September 11 2001 when it became evident that the majority of the perpetrators were Saudi nationals. Saudi society was put under the kind of scrutiny the kingdom had never experienced before. The same is happening again today in the wake of the execution of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr. The Saudis expected human rights criticism. The criticism goes in one ear and out the other. What they didn’t expect fuelled by the emergence of the Islamic State was that the focus would be on Wahhabism and Salafism itself.

Wahhabism was Saudi Arabia’s defense against the Islamic revolution that demonstrated that rulers can be toppled, that raised questions about a clergy that slavishly served the needs of an autocratic ruler and that recognized some degree of popular sovereignty. To be sure, Wahhabism has been an expansionary, proselytizing force from its inception. But the success of an Islamic revolution that potentially could inspire not only Shiites but also Sunnis persuaded the Al Sauds flush with oil dollars in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis to kick Wahhabi proselytization into high gear.

It may be hard to conceive of Wahhabism as soft power, but that was the Saudi government’s goal in launching the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history to establish Wahhabism and Salafism as a major force in the Muslim world that would be able to resist any appeal Iran might have. Estimates of Saudi expenditure on this campaign in the almost four decades since the Iranian revolution range from $75 to $100 billion.

The cost is however beginning to become perhaps too high. Saudi Arabia finds itself being increasingly compared to the Islamic State. Not unfairly. Wahhabism at the beginning of the 20th century and the creation in 1932 of the second Saudi state was what the Islamic State is today. Saudi Arabia is what the Islamic State will become should it survive. Saudi clerics despite their denunciations of IS as a deviation from Islam admit this.

Adel Kalbani, a former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was unequivocal. “Daesh (the Arabic reference to IS) has adopted Salafist thought. It’s not the Muslim Brotherhood’s thought, Qutubism, Sufism of Ash’ari thought. They draw their thoughts from what is written in our own books, from our own principles…. The ideological origin is Salafism. They exploited our own principles that can be found in our own books… We follow the same thought but apply it in a refined way,” Kalbani said. Mohammed Bin Salman summed up the Al Saud’s dilemma when he told The New York Times in November: “The terrorists are telling me that I am not a Muslim. And the world is telling me I am a terrorist.”

One can question the effectiveness of the Saudi soft power effort on multiple levels. True the, Islamic Conference Organization recently backed Saudi Arabia in its conflict with the Islamic republic. But only four countries broke off diplomatic relations with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy in Riyadh. All four – Bahrain, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia – were dependent on the kingdom. None of the other Gulf states did so although some lowered the level of their diplomatic representation in Tehran. To be sure, the move by Sudan had more than symbolic value. It disrupted Iranian logistics in the region.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia recently hastily announced the creation of a 34-nation, Sunni Muslim anti-terrorism military command to be headquartered in Riyadh. The command appeared to be a paper tiger from the moment it was declared in December 2015 by Mohammed Bin Salman. Various Muslim nations, including Malaysia, Pakistan, Lebanon and Indonesia were quick to state that they had not been consulted and had yet to decide whether they would be part of the Saudi initiative. Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein ruled out any military contribution to the command. So did senior Bangladeshi officials.  Pakistan’s parliament had months earlier rejected a Saudi request that it contribute troops to the war in Yemen. 

The alliance was likely to further struggle with definitions of what constitutes terrorism given that various of its potential members were likely to take issue with Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in its definition of everything ranging from adherence to atheism to the vaguest contact with any group deemed hostile to the kingdom.

On the level of Muslim communities and at the level of Saudi relations with a host of government agencies in Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the kingdom’s soft power strategy has paid off. It is proving however to be increasingly a pyrrhic victory. Societies particularly in countries with governments that play politics with religion have become more conservative. The result is greater intolerance towards minorities and greater social volatility. The payback is obvious in for example an intelligence chief who recently retired who believes even after the IS attack in Djakarta last month that Shiites not Wahhabis, Salafis or jihadists constitute the greatest domestic threat to Indonesian national security.

Two major political parties in the Dutch parliament recently asked the government whether there was a legal basis for outlawing Wahhabi and Salafi institutions, schools, academies, social services that are funded by Saudi and Kuwaiti institutions. The question arose as a result of graduates of those institutions increasingly refusing to interact with Dutch society and allegations that a minority had joined IS in Syria. The government has yet to respond to the questions. Nonetheless, imagine a scenario in which the government did move to a ban that would likely be challenged in the courts and imagine that the ban would be upheld in the courts. The next step would be the banning of Saudi funding and ultimately the expulsion of the Saudi embassy’s religious attaché. It’s not a development that the Saudi state can afford.

The Al Saud’s risk was also evident late last year when German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, in a rare attack on Saudi Arabia by a senior Western government official while in office, accused the kingdom of financing extremist mosques and communities in the West that constitute a security risk and warned that it must stop. “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over. Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia.  Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany,” he said.

Changing international attitudes towards Saudi sectarianism and the fighting of proxy wars against Iran are evident in a quiet conclusion in Western intelligence and policy circles that the crisis in Syria is in part a product of the international community’s indulgence of Saudi propagation of Wahhabism. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director John Brennan unsuccessfully tried in 2011 as peaceful anti-regime protests in Syria descended into violence to persuade Saudi Arabia at a meeting in Washington of Middle Eastern intelligence chiefs to stop supporting militant Sunni Muslim Islamist fighters in Syria. An advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff recounted that the Saudis ignored Brennan's request. They "went back home and increased their efforts with the extremists and asked us for more technical support. And we say OK, and so it turns out that we end up reinforcing the extremists," the advisor said

In sum, the complex relationship between the Al-Sauds and Wahhabism creates policy dilemmas for the Saudi government on multiple levels, complicates its relationship with the United States and its approach towards the multiple crises in the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria, IS and Yemen. Historian Richard Bulliet argues that Saudi “King Salman faces a difficult choice. Does he do what President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many Republican presidential hopefuls want him to do, namely, lead a Sunni alliance against the Islamic State? Or does he continue to ignore Syria, attack Shias in Yemen, and allow his subjects to volunteer money and lives to the ISIS caliph’s war against Shi‘ism? The former option risks intensifying unrest, possibly fatal unrest, in the Saudi kingdom. The latter contributes to a growing sense in the West that Saudi Arabia is insensitive to the crimes being carried out around the world in the name of Sunni Islam. Prediction: In five years’ time, Saudi Arabia will either help defeat the Islamic State, or become it.”

The Al Sauds problems are multiplied by the fact that Saudi Arabia’s clergy is tying itself into knots as a result of its sell-out to the regime and its close ideological affinity to more militant strands of Islam. Dissident Saudi scholar Madawi Al-Rasheed argues that the sectarianism that underwrites the anti-Iran campaign strengthens regime stability in the immediate term because it ensures “a divided society that is incapable of developing broad, grassroots solidarities to demand political reform… The divisions are enhanced by the regime’s promotion of an all-encompassing religious nationalism, anchored in Wahhabi teachings, which tend to be intolerant of religious diversity… Dissidence, therefore, centres on narrow regional, tribal and sectarian issues.”

The knots are also evident in approaches towards Syria. A Saudi royal decree banning Saudis from granting moral or material aid to groups including Islamic State and al Qaeda's official offshoot in Syria, the Al Nusra Front, was countered more than a year later by a statement of more than 50 clerics that called on Sunni Muslims to unite against Russia, Iran, and the regime of Bashar Al Assad. The statement described groups fighting the Assad regime as "holy warriors" in what was widely seen as an endorsement of jihadist groups. 

By the same token, Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen in a bid to defeat Houthi rebels, the only group to have challenged Al Qaeda advances in the country but that also threatened to undermine the kingdom’s dominant role in Yemeni politics, has effectively turned the Saudi air force into the jihadists’ air wing as Al Qaeda expands its reach in the country. 

Whether Bulliet is right or not in his prediction, Wahhabism is not what’s going to win Saudi Arabia lasting regional hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, as long as Wahhabism is a dominant player in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia is even less likely to win its battle for hegemony. At the end of the day, it is a perfect storm. The stakes for Saudi Arabia are existential and the kingdom may well be caught in a Catch-22.


Iran poses an existential threat, not because it’s still projects itself as a revolutionary state, but simply by what it is, the assets it can bring to bear and the intrinsic challenge it poses. But equally existential is the fact that Wahhabism is likely to increasingly become a domestic and external liability for the Al Sauds. Their future is clouded in uncertainty, no more so if and when they lose Wahhabism as the basis for the legitimacy of their absolute rule. 

Mired in problems: Egypt’s president reaches out to ultras



By James M. Dorsey

Best known for his brutal repression of critics, Egyptian-general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al Sisi has invited protesting militant anti-government soccer fans to investigate a 2012 politically loaded soccer brawl in which 72 supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC died.

Mr. Al Sisi’s invitation contrasted starkly with Al Ahli’s response to the protest on the fourth anniversary of the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history by Ultras Ahlawy, the club’s militant supporters who played a key role in the toppling in 2011 of president Hosni Mubarak and protests against Mr. Al Sisi after he came to power in a military coup in 2013.

Anticipating a harsh government response to the protest, Al Ahli denounced the ultras for using the commemoration of the incident on the club’s ground to demand that Mr. Al Sisi’s predecessor, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who led Egypt as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) immediately after the fall of Mr. Mubarak, be held accountable for the death of their comrades. The cub also banned fans from attending the club’s training sessions

The brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said occurred on Mr. Tantawi’s watch. The ultras believe that government-hired thugs caused a stampede in the stadium and beat Al Ahli supporters to death with security forces standing aside and the doors locked from the outside.

An appeals court has sentenced 11 people to death and more than a dozen others to lengthy prison terms on charges of having been responsible for the brawl.

Mr. Al Sisi issued his invitation in a phone call to a popular television program which he said he was making to address the ultras. He said the ultras should appoint ten of their members to form a committee that would be able to investigate the incident. The president did not elaborate on what kind of access the committee would have or on what ground rules it would operate.

It was also not clear what prompted Mr. Al Sisi’s invitation but state-owned Al Ahram newspaper noted in its coverage of the president’s remarks that “many disgruntled youths are unhappy with what they deem heavy-handed practices by security forces. Scores of Islamist, liberal and secular activists have been jailed since Sisi was elected as president in June 2014. Many fell foul of a restrictive protest law as Egypt’s interior ministry cracked down on dissent,” the newspaper said.

Mr. Al Sisi struck a conciliatory tone by admitting that “it’s us who are not able to properly communicate with them (disgruntled youths). We are the ones who are unable to find common ground. I’m exerting lots of efforts in this matter and I’m aware that I will need time. Finding the balance between security measures and human rights is a sensitive and delicate issue which needs lots of efforts,” he said.

Members of various ultras groups, including Ultras Ahlawy, formed the backbone of the student protests against Mr. Al Sisi that have petered out as a result of arrests, expulsions from universities and the turning of universities into security force-controlled fortresses.

A Cairo court last month sentenced 15 supporters of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of Al Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek SC, to five years in prison with hard labour for allegedly attempting to assassinate the club’s controversial president, Mortada Mansour.

Mr. Mansour’s already strained relations with his fan base deteriorated further when he as a newly elected member of parliament he last month changed the words of the official oath to swearing to respect “articles of the constitution” rather than the constitution itself because its pre-amble honoured the 2011 popular revolt.

“25 January brought the Muslim Brotherhood and 30 June brought Sisi – whose side are you on?” Mr. Mansour asked in a television interview after the incident. The 2011 popular revolt erupted on January 25; mass anti-Brotherhood protests on 13 June 2013 paved the way for Mr. Al Sisi’s coup.

While the ultras have yet to respond to Mr. Al Sisi’s invitation, they are unlikely to take him up on his offer without guarantees that any investigation will be fully independent and have full access. The ultras are likely to further use the invitation and Mr. Al Sisi’s lowering of his armour to press for a re-opening of stadia to the public.

Fans have largely been banned from attending league matches for much of the last five years. An attempt a year ago to partially lift the ban failed when security forces killed 20 supporters of Zamalek who had been trying to get into a stadium for which a limited number of tickets had been made available.

The ultras have insisted that their past attendance of training sessions and youth handball and soccer matches without incident proved that there was no basis for the closure of the stadia.

In his phone call to the television station, Mr. Al Sisi suggested the investigation because "In incidents involving huge masses, many facts get lost. It’s always difficult to determine the truth behind what happened…. I call on the Ultras to select 10 of their members whom they trust to be part of a committee to look into all the details concerning this case and determine what more can be done,” Mr. Al Sisi said.

Mr. Al Sisi’s invitation came at a time that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are considering reducing substantial funding because of the president’s poor performance economically, emerging differences in Saudi and Egyptian attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and differences over Syria.

The ultras-backed student groups have close ties to youth groups of the Brotherhood that Mr. Al Sisi sees as the source of all of Egypt’s problem. Saudi King Salman since coming to power has cautiously moved away from his predecessor’s crackdown on the Brotherhood.


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 and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Subtle policy changes could reinforce Qatari focus on sports


By James M. Dorsey

Subtle changes in the way Qatar projects itself on the international stage symbolized by a recent government reshuffle, economic reform as a result of reduced energy income, and cutbacks at global television network Al Jazeera, could accelerate Qatari compliance with demands for migrant labour reform, and prompt an even greater emphasis on sports. That is if Qatar can shake dogged allegations of wrongdoing in its various bids to host major sporting events.

The notion of progress towards labour reform after five years of promises is fuelled by suggestions from western diplomats and some academics that the reshuffle and the streamlining of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s cabinet is a first step towards political liberalization and transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

They argue that Sheikh Tamim, who took office after his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, stepped down in 2013, has begun with the reshuffle to move the old guard aside and pave the road for change.

Alongside the need to cut costs because of reduced energy income, “this is also about Sheikh Tamim's slow consolidation of power after 2-1/2 years in the job. He's still pushing out the old timers loyal to the former emir who were not necessarily that effective but couldn't be sacked all in one go,” a Doha-based western diplomat told Reuters.

While members of the old guard were indeed removed, the reshuffle at first glance involves mergers of ministries and signals an emphasis on defense at a time of conflict and growing uncertainty in the Gulf.

In the reshuffle, Sheikh Tamim took over the defense portfolio and appointed outgoing foreign minister Khalid Al Attiyah, whose father was the founder of Qatar's armed forces, minister of state for defence. Mr. Al Attiyah replaces Major General Hamad Bin Ali Al-Attiyah, who was appointed defense advisor to Sheikh Tamim with a rank equivalent to that of prime minister.

With up to 1,000 troops in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led invasion of that country, Qatar is involved in one of the largest military engagements in its history.

The notion of political and economic reform could prove to be a double-edged sword for labour reform, a demand by trade unions and human rights, which Qatar has had to take serious with its winning of the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup.

A greater Qatari say in the affairs of their country could highlight widespread public fear that labour reform could undermine Qatari control of their society and culture in a country in which the citizenry accounts for a mere 12 percent of the population.

The economic reforms and cost-cutting that involve the closure of Al Jazeera America, a $2 billion failed investment, the shelving or suspension of up to a quarter of Qatar’s ambitious construction and infrastructure projects, expatriate job cuts, the slashing of ministerial budgets and the possible roll-back of subsidies amount to a rewriting of Qatar’s social contract. That contract involved cradle-to-grave security for Qatari nationals in exchange for the surrender of their political rights.

Political liberalization as part of the forging of a new social contract would be the first fallout in terms of political change of tumbling world energy prices that is forcing Gulf states to revisit the concept of a rentier state.

In explaining the government reshuffle, Sheikh Tamim stressed that his new Cabinet needs to gain the trust of Qatar’s citizens. “Your responsibility in light of the falling oil prices is bigger, but serving the citizens and their lifestyle should not be affected by this situation,” Sheikh Tamim said. Sheikh Tamim warned his subjects in November that the state no longer could “provide for everything.”

While Mr. Al Attiyah as foreign minister was one of the few Qatari officials to engage with the media, his successor, 35-year old Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani is likely to be more sensitive to international demands given his former job as the ministry’s official in charge of international cooperation.

Sports will remain a pillar of Qatar’s soft power strategy that is designed to compensate for a lack of sustainable hard power despite the country’s greater military assertiveness. To make what has so far been at best a troubled soft power strategy bordering on failure, Qatar has its work cut out for it.

In addition to the Swiss judicial investigation into the propriety of Qatar’s World Cup bid, it needs to reckon with the possibility, if not likelihood that the US investigation of world soccer body FIFA will expand to include Qatar.

Qatar’s bids for the 2017 and 2019 World Athletics Championships are moreover under investigation by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) as a result of allegations of bribery.

This month’s announcement of Qatari sponsorship of German club Bayern Muenchen FC has sparked protests from fans and trade unions because of the Gulf state’s kafala or labour sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers. Qatar has so far introduced only minimal changes to the system.

In its 2016 annual report, Human Rights Watch criticized Qatar for not following through with promises of reform and leaving migrant workers “acutely vulnerable”.

The group’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, charged that “Qatar’s inadequate labour law reforms undermined its progressive ambitions. The Qatari government should understand that protecting the rights of migrant construction workers is a necessary part of hosting a 21st century football tournament.”

In an effort to demonstrate sincerity, Qatar has recently prosecuted companies for the separate deaths of five construction workers. The court convicted the companies on charges of manslaughter and negligence and imposed fines and compensation payments.

A key litmus test of the notion that Sheikh Tamim may be contemplating political change will be whether he releases from prison Qataris who opposed government policies, including poet Muhammad al-Ajami, who is serving a 15-year sentence for “criticizing the emir” in a poem that praised the 2011 Arab popular revolts.

“We do not want to topple the royal family. But we are calling for a constitutional monarchy where the legislation resides with an elected Parliament, not the emir,” Khalid al Halil, a reform-minded, London-based businessman, recently told The New York Times.


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 and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

China & the Middle East: Tilting Towards Iran?



RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views of the authors are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email: RSISPublications@ntu.edu.sg for feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentary, Yang Razali Kassim. 


No. 020/2016 dated 28 January 2016
China & the Middle East:
Tilting Towards Iran?
By James M. Dorsey

Synopsis

President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East, the first by a Chinese leader in seven years, saw the signing of billiions of dollars worth of agreements with Saudi Arabia and Egypt and a ten-fold expansion of trade with Iran over the next ten years. The significance may go far beyond commerce as Chinese interests align more with Iranian interests than those of Saudi Arabia.

Commentary

PRESIDENT XI Jinping went from Riyadh to Iran this month to become the first foreign leader to do so following the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. Saudi leaders could not have been pleased. To be sure, China and Saudi Arabia (and Egypt) signed US$55 billion worth of cooperation agreements during Xi’s visit, including a nuclear cooperation pact. Yet Xi’s determination to gain a first mover advantage in Iran at a time that Saudi Arabia is seeking to increase rather than reduce the Islamic republic’s international isolation suggests that more than commerce is at play here.

Xi’s visit to the kingdom was accompanied by talk of brotherly relations and strategic cooperation. The rhetoric however did little to mask serious differences on issues ranging from Syria to Saudi propagation of Wahhabism, a puritan interpretation of Islam that many fear breeds jihadism, and a relative decline in Chinese reliance on Saudi oil.   

At odds over Syria


Chinese officials worry that alleged Saudi funding of Islamic schools or madrasahs in Xinjiang may be encouraging Uighur militants who have staged several attacks in a low intensity campaign for equal rights and autonomy, if not independence. Saudi officials have assured their Chinese counterparts that they do not support the violence despite the fact that the Uighurs, some of whom have joined Islamic State (IS), are Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims.

Those assurances appear to have done little to put Chinese concerns to rest. “Our biggest worry in the Middle East isn’t oil – it’s Saudi Arabia,” a Chinese analyst told the Asia Times. Religious affinity is however not something China has to worry about with Shiite-majority Iran, which has long projected itself as a revolutionary rather than a sectarian power.

China supports the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and favours Russian intervention in Syria to prop up the Assad regime – a position that puts it at odds with Saudi Arabia that backs the rebels and has hinted at intervening militarily on their behalf.

Russian and US airstrikes against Saudi-backed Islamist rebels have allowed Syrian and Kurdish forces to gain increasing control of much of Syria’s borders, making it more difficult for Uighurs to find their way to Syria. Several hundred Uighurs are believed to have joined IS, which recently released its first Chinese-language recruitment video. This adds to China’s concerns about Xinjiang.

Redressing balances

In anticipation of the lifting of the sanctions, China has furthermore stepped up naval cooperation with Iran. A visit to Iran last October by Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo, who is widely seen as the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) next naval commander, produced a draft memorandum of understanding for closer cooperation in counterterrorism, cyberwarfare, and intelligence sharing.

Sun’s visit followed joint Chinese-Iranian search-and-rescue naval exercises and training exercises in 2014 in the Gulf. The exercises, involving two Chinese warships were held close to the base of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain at a time of tension between the United States and Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.

The visit built on a long-standing security and military relationship that China was forced to temporarily curtail as a result of the sanctions. Nonetheless, China sold Iran anti-riot gear and tracking technology in 2009 which were used to counter anti-government protests against the allegedly fraudulent election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The protests coincided with riots in Xinjiang.

Chinese-Iranian military relations date back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s when China was the Islamic republic’s main military hardware supplier. Those supplies caused tension with the United States when in 1987 Iran fired Chinese-made Silkworm missiles at Kuwaiti vessels in the Gulf.

Forced to halt the supply of sophisticated weaponry, China helped Iran kick start the development of an indigenous military-industrial sector evident in the design and technology of Iranian-made missiles.

Shifting oil relationships

Similarly with regard to Chinese oil purchasing, Iran is determined to win back Chinese market share with the lifting of the sanctions. Iran expects to boost oil exports by 500,000 barrels a day, much of which it hopes will go to China. Iran’s oil plans put it in direct competition with Saudi Arabia, which had long been one of China’s largest suppliers.

That picture has however begun to change with China apparently shifting its reliance on oil away from Saudi Arabia. Chinese oil imports from the kingdom rose a mere two percent last year while its purchase of Russian oil jumped almost 30 percent. The shift is likely to create an opening for Iran at Saudi Arabia’s expense.

The shift could not come at a worse moment with Saudi Arabia being forced to tighten its belt as a result of low commodity prices and high expenditure on wars in Yemen and Syria and the propping up of autocratic regimes like that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

All in all, President Xi returned to Beijing from his trip to the Middle East maintaining his emphasis on non-interference and harmony, with commerce, trade and infrastructure investment as part of his One Road, One Belt initiative. Reading the tea leaves however tells a different story.

China has increasingly significant interests in the Middle East that impact not only its energy security but also its efforts to pacify Xinjiang and patch together a Eurasian land mass that is linked through infrastructure. Iran’s geography bordering on the Caucasus, Central Asia, Turkey, and the Middle East makes it a far more important link than Saudi Arabia in China’s Silk Road plans.

As a result, Chinese interests are gradually forcing it to realign its policies and relationships in the region. To do so, China will ultimately realise that it no longer can remain aloof and will have to become a player in the Middle East and North Africa.


James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg, Germany.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

China tilts to Iran as Xi caps visit with 17 accords (JMD on CNBC)

China tilts to Iran as Xi caps visit with 17 accords

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COMMENTSJoin the Discussion
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China is deepening economic engagements with Iran just a week after international sanctions were lifted against the country but the closer ties risk infuriating Saudi Arabia, the mainland's largest oil supplier in the Middle East, analysts say.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first international leader to head to Iran after the trade restrictions were removed, capped his visit to Tehran with 17 agreements for cooperation in areas including energy, trade, and industry, reported Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency.
During Xi's visit, the two countries also agreed to increase bilateral trade more than 10-fold to $600 billion in the next decade as China pursues its One Belt One Road project, an ambitious network of road, rail and port routes that will connect China to Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
With Iran at the end of the Asian road before it heads into Turkey andEurope, China is likely targeting to build numerous infrastructure facilities in Iran, said Jean-Francois Seznec, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
But the warmer ties will irritate oil giant Saudi Arabia whose already fraught relationship with Iran has worsened after Saudi Arabiaexecuted a well-known Shiite cleric earlier this month. Xi visited Riyadh and Egypt before heading to Tehran.
"China loves Saudi Arabia as far as the oil is concerned because they love (state-owned oil producing company) Saudi Aramaco as a very reliable supplier, but otherwise from a political standpoint, Iran is going to be the favorite child of China in that region," added Seznec.
With Iran not a U.S. ally, China will secure energy security with the country as the Asian country is dependent upon the Middle East for its oil imports. 
"It's the only country in the region that is not allied with the United States for the most parts," said Michael Singh, managing director of think tank The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
James Dorsey, a senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies noted that Iran is also majority Shia rather than Sunni-dominated, as is the case with Saudi Arabia and China's troubled Xinjiang region in the northwest, home to the Muslim Uighur ethnic group. Chinese authorities have blamed separatist Uighurs for terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds of people in recent years.
As for Iran, various factions in the country are likely to be more united in accepting China over the U.S. or Europe as a partner, said Seznec.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Xi on Saturday where he expressed the country's distrust of the United States and Europe.
"The government and nation of Iran have always been and [still] are looking for the expansion of relations with independent and reliable countries like China and on this basis, the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China for [promotion of] 25-year strategic relations is totally correct and endowed with wisdom," Ali Khamenei 's website quoted him saying.
"The Western [governments] have never been able to win the Iranian nation's trust."
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 23: Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) meets with Supreme Leader of Iran Sayyed Ali Khamenei (R) in Tehran, Iran on January 23, 2016.
Supreme Leader Press Office | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 23: Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) meets with Supreme Leader of Iran Sayyed Ali Khamenei (R) in Tehran, Iran on January 23, 2016.
China is already Iran's largest trade partner with bilateral trade surpassing US$50 billion in 2014 – up 31.5 per cent from the year before.
While China traditionally maintained a stance on non-interference in domestic politics, harmony and economic corporation, this would likely change in the future as the Middle East regards China as a superpower and expects the country "to step up to the plate", said Dorsey.
"China has huge interest in the Middle East. It has huge investments; it has large number of Chinese nationals here and it will have to protect them," he added.