The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has almost but disappeared from headlines. Only a bloody war in Gaza or a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv grabs the world’s attention. Supporters of a peace-deal have grown frustrated at the lack of diplomatic progress, both on the ground and internationally.
Since the spectacularly failed effort of U.S. Secretary Kerry in 2013, a somber mood hangs over the conflict. In Israel a surreal status-quo has settled in: life goes on as normal, as if one of the most intractable conflicts was not happening right in their midst. Indeed, peace in the region has never seemed so out of reach.
But this week, Al-Monitor reported that unnamed European officials where busy with a policy review that planned for an eventual E.U. diplomatic push for peace. This would be a first for the Union, who until now has never dared to venture in the region’s politics. One explanation was its utter lack of leverage over Israel, creating an utterly irrelevant mediating position. In the coming weeks, the E.U. will vote on imposing an embargo on Israeli goods coming from settlements, showing a more assertive approach to the Palestinian conflict. But invariably, while creating some sort of leverage, it is a position that chooses sides as well. Meanwhile, expect some diplomatic initiatives coming from the External Action Service. Should and can the E.U. achieve peace? Is it a Mission Impossible doomed from the start? Let us investigate the obstacles to peace the E.U. will face, and how to overcome them.
Assessing Positions of Strength, the Kissinger Way
Henry Kissinger, writing in his seminal ‘Diplomacy’, offers a lucid insight into what makes negotiations fail or succeed: bringing North Vietnam to the negotiating table proved impossible for years as the North Vietnamese had the upper hand on the battlefield, creating a formidable position of strength, which in effect meant that a diplomatic deal for them was utterly meaningless. The ensuing strategy of president Nixon and secretary Nixon was to significantly weaken Hanoi, until the parties were somewhat more equal. Only then could a negotiation work. As Kissinger taught, positions of strength need to be assessed if one does not want a diplomatic effort spectacularly failed from the start.
That is something Mr. Kerry could have taken note of when he started his diplomatic Middle East shuttle in 2012. Israel’s militarily superiority is clear, which is one obvious position of strength: the Palestinians do not pose a credible conventional threat. However, a more important position of strength for Israel is its economic blockade it imposed on Gaza and the West Bank, creating a stranglehold on the Palestinian economy. The Palestinian economy stands or falls with Israel’s approval. There is nothing to balance this position of strength.
And while the state of Israel is a fully functioning one, Palestine is mired in severe underdevelopment, corruption, and nepotism, according to international reports. Israel’s superior infrastructure, its sound economy, its institutional strength, its military superiority and its veto over the Palestinian economy make for the most unequal of state relationships. Israel has strong positions of strength. Another core strength is its political leverage in the United States. No U.S. president has been capable of withstanding the pressures of a powerful pro-Israel lobby excelling in the art of influencing Congress. (As a result, the U.S. can and is not a neutral mediator, even if it is desperate to present itself as such.)
We can be very short on Palestine’s positions of strength. Apart from terrorist threats and rocket attacks, there is no single position of strength. The sole leverage that remains for Palestinians is the framing of the conflict in human rights: their right to self-determination, dignity, an end to occupation. Although largely a successful strategy in Europe, it has only created the occasional PR headache for Israel. Nothing more. It is a framing strategy that has no impact on the ground. As long as Israel feels strong, the argument that a situation is unjust will by itself change nothing.
What does this all mean to the E.U.’s External Action Service? If you want an genuine peace deal that holds, make sure the parties become more equal, or any talks will prove meaningless.
Search For Internal Incentives
However positive or negative the strength assessment, the critical driver for any negotiation is an incentive for both parties to reach a settlement. Let this be clear: we are talking about internal incentives, not a stick-and-carrot approach. Do the parties possess internal incentives that drive them towards finding a solution? Is a deal less costly than the current situation? If so, good news for the E.U.’s mediator: it will not be too difficult to get talks started.
When one visits Israel, one notices how ordinary, calm and efficient everything goes. It could be Switzerland, only hotter. Indeed, today’s status-quo is perfectly livable for Israelis. The Palestinian issue does not hamper its functions as a state; its citizens are able to build a decent life; the economy is doing pretty fine. Best of all for the right-wing government, the Palestinian issue does not figure prominently in the Israeli media. Housing shortages and internal government squabbles do. A recent Al-Monitor report cited a survey that showed Israelis had never been happier. Costs of maintaining the status-quo? Nil, apart from the occasional international condemnation. Political costs of a peace-deal for Israel? Considerable, given the concessions needed. Incentives to answer an invitation for a round of peace talks? None, except courtesy.
For Palestine, incentives are high: official recognition of a state; a stronger economy; a future for the young; an end to sometimes devastating hostilities. However, the political costs of a peace-deal are high for its leadership: the concessions reached at the table might be too much for a suffering, poor population to bear. What about the right of return for the refugees, a demand certainly to be watered down significantly in viable negotiations? The economy will not boom overnight. Only the next generation of leaders will bear the fruits peace, creating a paradox: while there is every incentive for the Palestinian people to reach a peace deal, there are high costs for its political leadership. Convincing Mr. Abbas that he will enter the history books might be difficult, even for a sympathetic E.U. mediator. Thus, rule number 2 explains Israel’s current inertia. For the E.U. it will be key to raise the cost of a status-quo. A limited economic embargo might create such an internal driver in Israel, although a creative approach will be needed in finding additional drivers.
The Core: At the table, finally
Expect some nice photo-op’s at this stage, with smiling delegates and a beaming E.U. mediator. The though work is finally there: delving into the core issues.
For a starter, negotiators and mediators will need to distinguish between symbolical issues such as the refugee question, and on-the-ground issues such as the territorial definition of a state and of Jerusalem. But a first pitfall presents itself in the guise of a time-table. Should the parties commit to a deadline? The recent Iran negotiations proved that a deadline is self-defeating: parties can use it to exert pressure on the opponent and on the mediator, who does not want to loose his or her face. With other words: drop the timetable.
If the negotiations get serious, expect a good dose of shouting matches, bruised ego’s, threats and manipulations. It will take a seasoned team to wade through one of the most difficult conflicts of modern history, fraught with historical and cultural sensibilities. To the External Action Service: assemble a team of diplomatic wolfs, genre Richard Holbrooke.
A two-layered approach will work best: first design a constitutional framework; secondly, build on that to resolve the real issues such as territory and population.
Easier said than done, of course. First up is the military aspect. Israel will insist, as it has done in the past, that any future state does not have a standing army that can threaten it. As one might imagine, not only a practical but also a symbolical issue for Palestine. A state with no military is in effect at the mercy of its neighbors, or with other words: a surrogate state. A compromise is possible here, one were Israel receives security guarantees, such as a buffer zone between the West Bank and Jordan, patrolled by an international force. There would be limits on what material Palestine can acquire. A most importantly, an explicit and detailed security guarantee from Jordan should be a cornerstone in this approach; Israel needs a defensible Western flank. It is crucial that Jordan participates rather than obstructs this demand. An insightful diplomatic approach will have a team shuttling back and forth between Amman.
The more difficult layer now needs to be applied: the territorial demarcation and application of this new constitutional entity. A phenomenal hurdle exists in the form of the settlements scattered around the West Bank. Currently, these zones are administered by the Israeli authorities, as are its main roads. Israeli law applies here, ordered in three zones (A,B,C). A look at the map makes it clear: if all settlements remain part of Israel, there would not be much left for a Palestinian state, less than 50 percent of the West Bank. That is unacceptable for Palestinians. Land swaps alone will not be sufficient, as the remaining patch-work would make any state unworkable.
A starting point should be roads an entry-points. Free movement should be crucial. While Israel could retain control over the highway bordering the Jordan Valley, it should cede control of all the other highways in the West Bank. It is highly improbable that Israel is willing to cede large settlements such as Ariel – which even has its own university – to the Palestinian Authority. Ehud Olmert’s land-swap proposal of 2011 will be the road to follow: the large settlements along the Green Line (sometimes, as Ariel, a little bit further away from it) would be absorbed by Israel; the smaller settlements in the heart of the West Bank evacuated. That would mean the evacuation of 56.000 settlers; 413.000 could stay in the larger settlements, in 2015 numbers. To make up for the lost territory, there are land swaps, mostly desert. Although politically painful for both leaders – Israeli media will be awash with images of settlers being forcefully evicted, something that almost toppled former PM Sharon when he did just that in Gaza, on a far smaller scale – it is the only way out. It is crucial that the E.U. possesses the same realism and does not press purely legalistic, historical or moral convictions. An absolute impartial mediation is certainly at this point crucial.
Expect endless nightly sessions to be the new norm by now. Next issue up: Jerusalem. No other issue mixes all controversial ingredients of the conflict as the old capital. Territory, religion, right to exist, statehood and history all come together. Enough to overwhelm any mediator. The essentials: have in mind how Israelis feel about Jerusalem. That is, apart from the Western Wall, not very special (‘To see the past, you go to Jerusalem; to see the future, you go to Tel Aviv’ as once an Israeli remarked to the author). Then, new Jerusalem, built by Israel, is not the same as the Old City, which since ancient times has always been shared, and is not East Jerusalem either, which is mainly Arab. Designating the latter as the capital of Palestine should not be too difficult, with compromise in the wording. The Old City will be neither from Israel or Palestine; it will have a special statute. Joint patrols, assisted by an international peacekeeping force, are the only way out here. The current situation in which Israeli soldiers rule the Old City is unworkable in any peace agreement. The mediator will have to take care of constructing a thorough statute for Jerusalem, with a good conflict-resolution mechanism. (Note that Israel will have to cede sovereignty here; diplomatic leverage will be essential).
Two thorny issues remain, each on its own formidable, but certainly not unexpected. Does a Palestinian state have to state explicitly Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state? Every right-wing government has insisted on it; only a left-wing government will be able to drop the ‘Jewish’ before ‘state’ thus avoiding an explicit betrayal by Palestine of its Arab co-citizens who possess Israeli nationality. Don’t expect Netanyahu to make a concession on this; and neither expect the Palestine leadership to be able to swallow such a bitter bill. A mediator who would insist on just that would be creating a catastrophic failure. Therefore, the mediator needs a very clear picture of Israeli politics: it is up to them to concede on this point, political timing (read: a left-wing government) will be the main guide in this effort.
Next concession up, this time for the Palestinian leadership: the right of refugees to return. There are according to UNWRA around 5 million Palestinian refugees, displaced in 1948 and 1967. The majority live in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Two million live in the West Bank and Gaza. Letting 3 million refugees return to homes that are now in Israel will be impossible. A compromise will need to be worked out: refugees can return back to the state of Palestine, but not to Israel. All of them would receive a financial compensation from Israel. Those who left behind property receive extra compensation. That is a deal that makes sense; but one that for the Palestinian leadership will be a though sell, as it goes to the heart of the Palestinian struggle. It will be essential that Palestinian refugees in third countries do not feel betrayed by this compromise; they should be encouraged to return, enjoy full citizenship, and be able to count on support. (note that the plight of these refugees has been a very sad one: for over 50 years they have been in essence stateless, as the host-countries do not award them any nationality, and as a result, often cannot find employment).
Yes, now is the time to finally uncork that bottle of Champagne, if it hasn’t yet been emptied in a previous, despairing moment. Celebrations ensue, with signing ceremonies in Brussels.
The last act: implementation
While the External Action Service heaves a sigh of relief and Europe has scored a diplomatic triumph, now the real work starts: implementation. The good news first: media attention will fade, bringing some much-needed respite. The bad news: left to each other, the parties are wholly incapable of implementing a deal; tension would immediately rise, as neither party would move first.
International oversight will be crucial, with a peacekeeping force. A large troop commitment by nations is not needed; rather, a small, capable, understanding force that can navigate subtle cultural sensibilities. They would jointly patrol buffer zones such as the security zone in the Jordan valley; they would assist in keeping the calm in the Old City of Jerusalem; in the first years the force would man the border crossings between Israel and Palestine; and provide for accessible roads throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The OESO could have a role in overseeing democratic elections in Palestine, while the World Bank and the U.N. would assist in strengthening principles of good governance in the new state. An international oversight committee would meet on a regular basis, with a special representative submitting yearly reports on progress. A note of caution though: it should not become a second Bosnia and Herzegovina: there should be a clear date when the international oversight would end. Political elites in Palestine would then need to take full ownership. That will be the primary task of the international community. Donor aid should be in proportion to GDP, so as not to inflate the Palestine economy and create an unsustainable dependency.
Europe’s Finest Hour
It is doubtful that the European Union has the capacity to lead one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations imaginable. The External Action Service has too often seemed to be the External Inaction Service. A united diplomatic front amongst all E.U. leaders will be difficult to maintain. And for the time being, it does not look as if the European Council is ready to give the High Representative a broad, authoritative mandate. Too many times, history has judged the E.U. harshly for inertia, and for a lack of vision and courage. The Balkan Wars are tragic examples; the current response to the refugee crisis does not give much hope. If the E.U. can achieve a Israeli-Palestinian deal, it will be truly Europe’s finest hour and worthy of a Noble Prize. Let’s hope Brussels knows what it is getting into. Peace is both urgent; arduous; and possible.
Stepped up US military posture in the Gulf threatens Indian hopes for Iran’s Chabahar port
The arrival of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group in the Gulf to deter Iran from further testing ballistic missiles is likely to dampen Indian hopes that the Trump administration’s exemption of the port of Chabahar from sanctions against the Islamic republic would help it tighten economic relations with Central Asia and further regional integration.
The group’s presence in the Gulf, the first by a US aircraft carrier in eight months, came amid mounting tension between the United States and Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and the imposition of harsh sanctions against the Islamic republic. It raised the spectre of a potential military conflagration.
The deployment for a period of two months coincided with a suicide attack on a Revolutionary Guards headquarters in Chabahar that killed two people and wounded 40 others.
Saudi and Iranian media reported that Ansar al-Furqan, a shadowy Iranian Sunni jihadi group that Iran claims is supported by the kingdom as well as the United States and Israel, had claimed responsibility for the attack.
Saudi pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat asserted that the attack “reflects the anger harboured by the (city’s Baloch) minority against the government.” The paper said the Iranian government had expelled thousands of Baloch families from Chabahar and replaced them with Persians in a bid to change its demography. It asserted that Iran was granting nationality to Afghan Shiites who had fought in Syria and Iraq and was moving them to Chabahar.
The paper went on to say that “anti-regime Baloch movements have recently intensified their operations against Tehran in an attempt to deter it from carrying out its plan to expel and marginalize the Baloch from their ancestral regions.”
Saudi Arabia, a staunch supporter of the US’s confrontational approach towards Iran, has pumped large amounts of money into militant, ultraconservative Sunni Muslim anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian religious seminaries along the border between the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan that is home to Chabahar, according to militants.
The funding was designed to create the building blocks for a potential covert effort to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities.
The deployment was, according to US officials in response to Iran’s test-firing of a ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads. The US sanctions are in part designed to force Iran to drop its development of ballistic missiles. Iranian officials insist the missiles program is defensive in nature.
“We are accumulating risk of escalation in the region if we fail to restore deterrence,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The spectre of increased military tension in the Gulf with the arrival of the aircraft carrier group and of potentially Saudi and US-backed political violence in Iran, and a troubling security situation in Afghanistan threatened to diminish the impact of Washington’s granting Indian investment in Chabahar an exemption from its economic sanctions against Iran.
Indian and Iranian officials fear that the United States’ stepped up military posture and heightened tensions could undermine their efforts to turn Chabahar, which sits at the top of the Arabian Sea, into a hub for trade between India and Central Asia rendering the US waiver worthless.
The officials have their hopes pinned on efforts to engineer a peace process in Afghanistan. US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad alongside representatives of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan met this week with the Taliban. The talks are intended to negotiate an end to Afghanistan’s 17-year old war.
An Afghan government delegation, in what diplomats saw as a sign of progress, hovered in the corridors but did not take part in the meeting because of the Taliban’s insistence that it will only talk to the United States. Talks with the Taliban have so far stalled because of the group’s insistence on a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.
US officials said the aircraft carrier group, beyond seeking to deter Iran, would also support the US war effort in Afghanistan where the United States has ramped up airstrikes in an effort to press the Taliban into peace talks.
The talks were an opportunity, particularly for Saudi Arabia, whose utility as an ally is being questioned by the US Congress in the wake of the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Pakistan, which the United States accuses of supporting the Taliban, to demonstrate their utility.
While Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have an interest in using their close ties to the Taliban to help forge an end to the Afghan war, its not immediately clear that they want to see reduced tensions facilitate the emergence of Chabahar as an Indian-backed hub.
A Saudi think tank, the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies (AGCIS) renamed the International Institute of Iranian Studies that is believed to be backed by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, argued in a study last year that Chabahar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”
Written by Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, identified as an Iranian political researcher, the study warned that Chabahar posed a threat because it would enable Iran to increase greater market share in India for its oil exports at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic republic, increase government revenues, and allow Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
Noting the vast expanses of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province, Mr. Husseinbor went on to say that “it would be a formidable challenge, if not impossible, for the Iranian government to protect such long distances and secure Chabahar in the face of widespread Baluch opposition, particularly if this opposition is supported by Iran’s regional adversaries and world powers.”
Similarly, Pakistan is heavily invested in Gwadar, the Chinese-backed port in Balochistan that is a crown jewel of the US$45 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a pillar of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road initiative. Gwadar is a mere 70 kilometres up the coast from Chabahar.
“Pakistan sees India as an existential threat and the idea of India being in any way present on Pakistan’s western flank in Afghanistan will always raise alarm bells in Islamabad,” said South Asia scholar Michael Kugelman.
If the arrival of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group in the Gulf heralds heightened tension, Pakistan may have less reason to worry.
Gulf rivalries spill onto the soccer pitch
With the 2018 World Cup in Russia behind it, the soccer world’s focus shifts to the 2022 tournament in Qatar. Politics and the Gulf’s internecine political and legal battles have already shaped debate about FIFA’s controversial awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Qatar. The battles highlight not only the sport’s dominance in the Middle East by autocratic leaders but also the incestuous relationship between politics and sports that is at the root of multiple scandals that have rocked the sports world for much of this decade and compromised good governance in international sports.
Three men symbolize the importance of soccer to Gulf autocrats who see the sport as a way to project their countries in a positive light on the international stage, harness its popular appeal in their cultural and public diplomacy campaigns, and leverage it as a pillar of their efforts to garner soft power: Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his nemeses, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi sports czar, Turki al-Sheikh, one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s closest associates.
To be sure, tension between Qatar and its Gulf detractors was spilling onto the soccer pitch long before the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt took their opposition to Qatari policies to a new level with the imposition in June 2017 of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. Since then, debate about the Qatari World Cup has been further politicized with the Gulf crisis driving efforts to deprive Qatar of economic and soft power benefits it derives from its hosting of the tournament, if not of the right to host the mega-sports event.
The UAE-Saudi efforts took on added significance as Qatar and its detractors settled in for the long haul. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt will likely face difficult choices if the Gulf crisis persists when the World Cup, the first such mega-tournament to be held in the Middle East, kicks off in Doha in late 2022.
The choice would involve potential political risk. It would be between maintaining the boycott that has cut off all air, sea and land links between Qatar and its detractors at the expense of fans in a soccer-crazy part of the world in which little evokes the deep-seated emotions associated with religion and football or effectively breaching the embargo to evade political backlash and ensure that supporters have access to a sports milestone in the region’s history. The starkness of the boycotting states’ dilemma would be magnified if any one of them were to qualify for the Qatar World Cup and would be enhanced if they were to play the host country or, for example, Iran.
The issue of ability to attend is magnified by expectations that the demography of fans attending the World Cup in Qatar may very well be a different from that at past tournaments. Qatar is likely to attract a far greater number of fans from the Middle East as well as Africa and Asia. The Asian Football Confederation’s Competition Committee has already urged governments to exempt football teams from travel bans and would almost certainly do the same for fans.
As a result, the UAE-Saudi effort to undermine the Qatar World Cup is about more than seeking to deliver a body blow to Qatar. It is also about avoiding being further tied up into knots in an anti-Qatari campaign that has so far failed to break the Gulf state’s resolve, force it to concede, and garner international support. The campaign is multi-pronged and doesn’t shy away from violating laws as is evident in Saudi bootlegging to deprive beIN, the sports franchise of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network, of the fruits of acquired rights to broadcast World Cup tournaments and European competitions at the risk of being penalized and/or taken to court by the likes of FIFA and the English Premier League. Saudi media reports that the government has launched an anti-piracy campaign, confiscating more than 4,000 illegal receivers that hacked beIN failed to put an end to the bootlegging.
Signalling the political importance that men like the crown princes and Sheikh Tamim attribute to sports, a former top UAE security official, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, suggested that the only way to resolve the Gulf crisis would be for Qatar to surrender its World Cup hosting rights. “If the World Cup leaves Qatar, Qatar’s crisis will be over … because the crisis is created to get away from it,” Mr. Khalfan said.
Mr. Khalfan spoke at a time that leaked documents from the email account of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington and a close associate of the country’s crown prince, revealed a UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency by manipulating the value of bonds and derivatives. If successfully executed, the plan would have allowed Qatar’s distractors to argue that the Gulf state’s financial problems called into question its ability to organize the World Cup.
Serving national interests
Mr. Al-Sheikh, the chairman of the kingdom’s General Sport Authority, makes no bones about harnessing sports to serve the kingdom’s interests. With a career in security rather than sports, he was unequivocal in his assertion on the eve of Saudi Arabia’s debut in the 2018 World Cup in Russia that he made decisions based on what he deemed “Saudi Arabia’s best interest,” reaffirming the inextricable relationship between sports and politics.
Barely 24 hours before the World Cup’s opening match, Saudi Arabia made good on Mr. Al-Sheikh’s assertion that the kingdom’s international sports policy would be driven by former US President George W. Bush’s post 9/11 principle of “you are either with us or against us.”
With Morocco’s bid for the 2026 World Cup in mind, Mr. Al-Sheikh had warned that “to be in the grey area is no longer acceptable to us. There are those who were mistaken in their direction … If you want support, it’ll be in Riyadh. What you’re doing is a waste of time…,” Mr. Al-Sheikh said. Mr. Al-Sheikh was referring to Morocco’s refusal to join the anti-Qatari campaign. Adopting a Saudi Arabia First approach, Mr. Al-Sheikh noted that the United States “is our biggest and strongest ally.” He recalled that when the World Cup was played in 1994 in nine American cities, the US “was one of our favourites. The fans were numerous, and the Saudi team achieved good results.”
Mr. Al-Sheikh was manoeuvring at the same time to ensure that the kingdom has greater say in international soccer governance, including issues such as the fate of the Qatari World Cup and a push to extend international isolation of Iran to the realm of sports. To do so, Saudi Arabia backed a proposal to speed up the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 32, which is scheduled to kick off in 2026, by making it already applicable to the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia hopes that the expansion would significantly complicate Qatari preparations for the event. Implementing the expansion in 2022 would strengthen UAE and Saudi efforts to petition FIFA to force Qatar to agree to co-hosting of the World Cup by other Gulf states, a proposal that was incorporated in the UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency.
In an indication of things to come, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in early 2018 thwarted a UAE-Saudi attempt to get Asian tournament matches that were scheduled to be hosted by Qatar moved to a neutral venue. The AFC warned the two countries that they would be penalized if they failed to play in Doha or host Qatari teams.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s moves were part of a two-pronged Saudi-UAE effort. Global tech investor Softbank, which counts Saudi Arabia and the UAE among its largest investors, is believed to be behind a $25 billion proposal embraced by FIFA president Gianni Infantino to revamp the FIFA Club World Cup and launch of a Global Nations League tournament. If approved, the proposal would give Saudi Arabia a significant voice in global soccer governance.
Complimenting the Saudi FIFA bid is an effort to expand the kingdom’s influence in the 47-nation AFC, the largest of the world soccer body’s constituent regional elements. To do so, Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully tried to create a new regional bloc, the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), a potential violation of FIFA and AFC rules. The federation would have been made up of members of both the AFC and the Amman-based West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups all Middle Eastern nations except for Israel and is headed by Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a prominent advocate of soccer governance reform.
The initiative fell apart when the Asian members of SWAFF walked out in October 2018 in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The killing could also jeopardize Saudi efforts to gain control of the AFC with the Al-Sheikh-backed candidacy of Saudi Football Federation chief Adel Ezzat, who resigned in August 2018 to run for the office..
Benefits outstrip reputational risk
Mr. Al-Sheikh and his boss, Prince Mohammed, share with the crown prince’s UAE counterpart and namesake, a belief that the public diplomacy and soft power fruits of harnessing sports outstrip reputational risks. Simon Pearce, Abu Dhabi’s director of strategic communications and a director of Manchester City, the British club bought by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed’s brother but controlled by the de facto Emirati ruler’s men, said as much in leaked emails to Mr. Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington.
The emails discussed the UAE’s registration of a new soccer club, New York City Football Club, as the United States’ Major League Soccer newest franchise. Mr. Pearce argued that Abu Dhabi’s interests in the US political environment are best served by associating New York City FC with City Football Group, the Abu Dhabi government’s soccer investment vehicle, rather than the government itself to evade criticism stemming from the Emirates’ criminalization of homosexuality, its less than stellar record on women’s rights and its refusal to formally recognize Israel despite maintaining close security and commercial relations with the Jewish state.
The UAE’s sports-related investments, guided by the crown prince, much like the acquisition of important Qatari sports stakes on the behest of Sheikh Tamim also give Gulf states political leverage and create additional commercial opportunity. The investments constitute the flip side of large amounts of Gulf money being channelled to influential think tanks, particularly in Washington. In a series of notes in 2012, Mr. Pearce advised Prince Mohammed, a man obsessed with perceived threats posed by any form of political Islam and a driving force in the campaign against Qatar, to tempt than British prime minister David Cameron to counter what he described as Islamist infiltration of the BBC’s Arabic service in exchange for lucrative arms and oil deals.
To illustrate the UAE and Qatar’s sway in European soccer, Nicholas McGeehan, an independent researcher and former Human Rights Watch executive focussed on the region, looked at recent bookies odds for the Champions League. Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City was the favourite followed by Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain. Third up was Bayern Munich, whose shirts are sponsored by Qatar, fourth was Barcelona, which recently ended a seven-year sponsorship deal with Qatar, and fifth Real Madrid that sold the naming rights to its new stadium to Abu Dhabi.
Saudi and UAE public relations efforts to generate public pressure for a deprival of Qatari hosting rights were at times mired in controversy. The launch in May of the Foundation for Sports Integrity by Jamie Fuller, a prominent Australian campaigner for a clean-up of global soccer governance, backfired amid allegations of Saudi and UAE financial backing and Mr. Fuller’s refusal to disclose his source of funding.
Saudi and UAE media together with UK tabloid The Sun heralded the launch in a poche London hotel that involved a reiteration of assertions of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful World Cup bid. Media like Abu Dhabi’s The National and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya projected the launch as pressure on FIFA to deprive Qatar of its hosting rights. “It is no secret that football’s governing body is rotten to the core. (FIFA) will rightly come under renewed pressure to strip Qatar of the competition and carry out an internal investigation in the wake of the most recent allegations. The millions of fans eagerly anticipating 2022’s festival of football deserve better,” The National said. Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al Awsat newspaper reported that a June 2018 FIFA Congress would hold a re-vote of the Qatari hosting. The Congress didn’t.
Qatar remains vulnerable
Despite so far successfully having defeated efforts to deprive it of its hosting rights, Qatar remains vulnerable when it comes to the integrity of its winning bid. The bid’s integrity and Sheikh Tamim’s emphasis on sports as a pillar of Qatari soft power is at stake in legal proceedings in New York and Zurich involving corruption in FIFA and potential wrongdoing in the awarding of past World Cups. Qatar has suffered reputational damage as a result of the question marks even if the Gulf crisis has allowed it to enhance its image as an underdog being bullied by the big boys on the block.
To Qatar’s credit, it has introduced reforms of its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship system that could become a model for the region. In doing so, it cemented the 2022 World Cup as one of the few mega-events with a real potential of leaving a legacy of change. Qatar started laying the foundations for that change by early on becoming the first and only Gulf state to engage with its critics, international human rights groups and trade unions.
Even so, Qatar initially suffered reputational damage on the labour front because it was relatively slow in embracing and implementing the reforms. Qatar’s handling of the Gulf crisis suggests that it has learnt from the failure of its initial response to criticism of its winning 2022 bid when it acted like an ostrich that puts its head in the sand, hoping that the storm will pass only to find that by the time it rears its head the wound has festered, and it has lost strategic advantage.
The integrity issue remains Qatar’s weak point. For activist critics of the awarding of hosting rights to Qatar, there are two questions. One is, who do they want to get in bed with? Qatar’s detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia hardly have stellar human and labour rights records. If anything, their records are worse than that of Qatar, which admittedly does not glow.
The second question critics have to ask themselves is how best to leverage the World Cup, irrespective of whether the Qatari bid was compromised or not. On the assumption that it may have been compromised, the question is less how to exact retribution for a wrong doing that was common practice in global football governance. Leveraging should focus on how to achieve a fundamental reform of global sports governance that has yet to emerge eight years into a crisis that was in part sparked by the Qatar World Cup. This goes to the heart of the fact that untouched in efforts to address the governance crisis is the corrupting, ungoverned, and incestuous relationship between sports and politics.
Siamese twins: sports and politics
The future of the Qatar World Cup and the Gulf crisis speaks to the pervasiveness of politics in sports. The World Cup is political by definition. Retaining Qatar’s hosting rights or depriving the Gulf state of the right to host the tournament is ultimately a choice with political consequences. As long as the crisis continues, retaining rights is a testimony to Qatar’s resilience, deprival would be a victory for its detractors.
As a result, the real yardstick in the debate about the Qatari World Cup should be how the sport and the integrity of the sport benefit most. And even then, politics is never far from what the outcome of that debate is. Obviously, instinctively, the optics of no retribution raises the question of how that benefits integrity. The answer is that the potential legacy of social and economic change that is already evident with the Qatar World Cup is more important than the feel-good effect of having done the right thing with retribution or the notion of setting an example. Add to that the fact that in current circumstances, a withdrawal of hosting rights would likely be interpreted as a victory of one side over the other, further divide the Arab and Muslim world, and enhance a sense among many Muslims of being on the defensive and under attack.
The silver lining in the Gulf crisis may be the fact that it has showed up the fiction of a separation of sports and politics. FIFA, the AFC, and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), seeking to police the ban on a mixing of sports and politics, have discovered that it amounts to banging their heads against a wall. Despite their attempts to halt politics from subverting Asian tournaments, domestic and regional politics seeped into the game via different avenues.
As a result, FIFA and its regional confederations have been tying themselves up in knots. In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events at the outset of the Gulf crisis, FIFA president Infantino rejected involving the group in the dispute by saying that “the essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics.” Yet, on the same day that he made his statement, Mr. Infantino waded into the crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the request of the UAE. FIFA, beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” appeared to be saying by implication that a Qatari by definition of his nationality could not be an honest arbiter of a soccer match involving one of his country’s detractors. In FIFA’s decision, politics trumped professionalism, no pun intended.
Similarly, the AFC was less principled in its stand towards matches pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against one another. Iranian club Traktor Sazi was forced in February to play its home match against Al Ahli of Jeddah in Oman. It wasn’t clear why the AFC did not uphold the principle it imposed on Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the case of Iran. “Saudi teams have been able to select host stadiums and cities, and Saudi teams will host two Iranian football representatives in the UAE and Kuwait. In return, Iranian football representatives should be able to use their own rights to choose neutral venues,” said Mohammad Reza Saket, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Football Federation in a letter to the AFC.
Soccer governance bodies have long struggled to maintain the fiction of a separation in a trade-off that gave regulators greater autonomy and created the breeding ground for widespread corruption while allowing governments and politicians to manipulate the sport to their advantage as long as they were not too blatant about it. The limits of that deal are currently being defined in the Middle East, a region wracked by conflict where virtually everything is politicized.
The Success of Iranian Activism Shows the Way to Correct European Policies
Western policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran would almost certainly be more assertive and ambitious if the international community was more broadly aware of the power and organization of Iranian activism both inside the country and throughout the global expatriate community.
Fortunately, a growing number of Western policymakers do recognize the influence wielded by Iran’s pro-democratic resistance movement, as led by Maryam Rajavi the President elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its main constituent group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK). Dozens of high-profile political figures and experts in Middle Eastern affairs have taken to participating in the NCRI’s Free Iran rally, which is held near Paris each summer and attended by tens of thousands of ethnic Iranians from throughout the world.
This past June, those participants put their lives on the line by attending at a time when Iran’s domestic affairs are increasingly explosive, with growing consequences for the world at large. On the day of the Free Iran gathering, European authorities arrested two would-be bombers as they attempted to gain access to the event on the orders of a high-ranking Iranian diplomat based in Vienna.
The foiled plot underscored the Iranian regime’s flailing attempts to undermine the Iranian opposition. And it was not the only one of its kind. Months earlier, Iranian operatives were caught plotting an attack on the residence of over 2,000 MEK activists who had relocated to Albania from their former headquarters in Iraq. At the same time, federal investigators in the United States were monitoring two agents of the Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. The subsequent criminal indictment noted that their spying would have surely resulted in attacks on US-based opposition activists if they had been left unchecked.
Finally, in October, another Iranian operative was arrested in Denmark for plotting the assassination of Iranian dissidents. This finally sparked a serious push for collective measures to confront and contain Iranian terror treats. A call to action had already emerged from France following an investigation that concluded there was no doubt about Tehran’s responsibility for the Paris plot. But in the wake of the Danish arrest and a subsequent meeting of European Union foreign ministers, the stage was seemingly set for the entire EU to adopt economic sanctions that France had already imposed on the Ministry of Intelligence and its agents.
This is, of course, an appropriate response to serious Iranian terror threats. It is made all the more sensible and potentially effective because those threats and their underlying causes are still apparent, and because it follows upon a shift toward much more assertive policies by the US government. But the EU has been notably cautious about making that shift.
The desire for continued access to Iranian markets is surely part of the reason for this. But it might also be said that the US administration is much more aware of the existence of powerful allies inside Iranian society and the expatriate population. After all, some White House officials and close confidants of the US president have been regular attendees at NCRI rallies, including the one that was nearly bombed in June.
European hesitancy is fading now that such threats have come to light and have been shown to not be isolated incidents. That hesitancy might evaporate altogether if more European policymakers were made aware of the organizational capabilities of the MEK, including its contribution to the nationwide uprising that began last December and spawned countless other protests featuring the same anti-government slogans.
Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged the MEK’s role in January, when the uprising was still in full swing. In a speech to his officials, he declared that the resistance group had spent months planning for the rapid spread of protests and the promotion of a clear message of regime change. This was a significant break from the regime’s decades-long policy of downplaying the strength and social influence of the MEK and its affiliates.
In case this is not reason enough for global policymakers to conclude that regime change is actually within reach for Iran’s pro-democratic population, the Iranian opposition foreign supporters all throughout the world are working tirelessly to highlight the success of recent and ongoing protests. As one example, Iranian communities in 50 locations throughout Europe, North America, and Australia will be hosting simultaneous conferences on Saturday 15 December to demonstrate both the threats and the opportunities that support adoption of a firm, collective Iran strategy by all Western powers.
As well as keeping a spotlight trained squarely on Iran’s recent foreign terror threats, this global teleconference will provide details about many of the protests and labor strikes that have sprung up and, in some cases, continued for months at a time, in the wake of last year’s nationwide uprising. The persistence of those demonstrations is a clear sign of the activist community’s strength and the very real prospects for the popular overthrow of the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.
The Iranian terror threat is reason enough for the international community to abandon the conciliatory policies that have been prevalent for so long. Proper recognition of the Iranian democratic opposition will prove once and for all that a firm alternative is not only justified but imperative for the triumph of democracy in the Middle East.
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