It looks strange that an Islamic Turkey and essentially an anti-Islamic America have worked for years now notwithstanding serious differences even conflict between them. The fact that USA is not just a veto member and super power but also the strongest power that controls entire world by using most of the powers in the world, including Russia and China.
Turkey as a strong NATO member has been a useful asset for USA as well as all NATO and other anti-Islamic nations while United States and Israel have used the Islamist nation to their own advantages.
On positive side, USA and Turkey have maintained a closely knit relations for years since the Second World War and operated jointly to upset the Soviet efforts to make entire Europe and elsewhere anti-communist. They did achieve a great deal of success and by being the corner stone of NATO. However, that deep relationship looks shaking its foundations now.
In fact, the USA sought Turkey’s assistance for NATO and went on to sponsor Turkey’s successful bid for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The two countries then officially became allies. The alliance provided real political and security advantages to both parties, but it was certainly not to be free of frictions and tensions. The first occurred at the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
Events of the past few weeks have precipitated a new crisis in American-Turkish relations, but it is certainly not the first one. In fact, it builds on a long history of bouts of mutual suspicion and antagonism over a period of more than 60 years. Last month, newspapers around the world featured pictures of US Vice-President Joe Biden shaking hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential palace in Ankara. The facial expressions of the two men eloquently illustrated the state of relations between their countries. Both seemed extremely wary of the other and this for good reason.
The relationship between the USA and Turkey began to take shape in the years immediately following the Second World War. At the time, Turkey was coming under serious political and diplomatic pressure from the Soviet Union, which wanted to gain control of the Turkish Straits. Turkey appealed for help to the USA, which provided it with certain security guarantees under the terms of the Truman Doctrine. The United States went on to sponsor Turkey’s successful bid for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The two countries then officially became allies.
The NATO alliance provided real political and security advantages to both parties, but it was certainly not to be free of frictions and tensions. The first occurred at the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Although strongly denied at the time by the United States government, it was widely believed that the USA had concluded a deal with the Soviet Union whereby in exchange for its withdrawal of missiles from Cuba, the United States would withdraw the Jupiter missiles it had recently deployed in Turkey. When the Jupiter missiles were indeed removed in April 1963, it was generally believed in Turkey that this was a case of the United States protecting its own security interests at the expense of Turkey’s.
Even while employing Turkey for a collective “capitalist” response to Soviet threat, Washington also played havoc in containing Turkey. The long-running Cyprus issue was to create more frictions in the alliance. When the Turkish government was contemplating military action in Cyprus in 1963-64, it was the object of a blistering response by President Lyndon Johnson. When Turkey did, in fact, invade and occupy northern Cyprus in 1974, it was soundly condemned in Washington and the US Congress voted an embargo on all military assistance to Turkey.
Comprehending US hidden agenda, the Turkish government retaliated by suspending all American operations at military facilities in Turkey. These events convinced many Turks that the US government and Pentagon-CIA duo had little interest in protecting Turkey’s vital interests and that it was operating under the influence of the Greek-American community.
As super powers, USA and Soviet Russia had maintained secret deals and this concealed relationship continues even today and did not reveal that to Turkey which even was made to fear an attack by Moscow. For instance, although strongly denied at the time by the US government, it was widely believed that the USA had concluded a deal with the Soviet Union whereby in exchange for its withdrawal of missiles from Cuba, the USA would withdraw the Jupiter missiles it had recently deployed in Turkey, accelerating fears in Istanbul. When the Jupiter missiles were indeed removed in April 1963, it was generally believed in Turkey that this was a case of the US protecting its own security interests at the expense of Turkey’s.
Many other events also contributed to cooling the bilateral relationship. The three military coups that occurred in Turkey between 1960 and 1980 were greeted with dismay in Washington, giving the strategic community in Turkey speculation that USA systematically promotes troubles in Turkey which then had to revise its anti-Soviet policy towards a neutral one.
USA insists every NATO member and ally must do exactly what Washington tell them. Turkey’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, therefore, was also the cause of serious concern. By the end of the decade, Turkey was receiving generous economic assistance from the Soviet Union, which created a major crisis in NATO. Turkey was benefitting enormously from its friendship with the one country the USA and NATO were dedicated to opposing and resisting.
Another significant irritant was to emerge in the 1990s: Turkey’s policies and actions regarding its Kurdish minority that sought independence with US backing. Successive In order keep Turkey under its control, Turkish governments mounted campaigns to repress secessionist movements among the Kurds. In the course of those campaigns, Turkish security forces committed massive human rights abuses, including the wholesale destruction of villages and the displacement of populations.
Along with the governments of many western European countries pursuing fake democracy and imperialism, the USA, seeking to control Turkish government, became increasingly critical of the ‘human rights violations’ and voted to block the sale of military equipment to Turkey. These criticisms and actions gave rise to profound resentment among Turks for whom the Kurdish question is a matter of national unity and territorial integrity. Those resentments were intensified when the USA gave its support to the Kurds of northern Iraq following the first Gulf War of 1991.
There was a further falling out between the USA and Turkey at the start of the new century when hawkish CIA boss turned US president George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq to remove President Saddam Hussein, destabilize Iraq and squander its vast energy resources and it did accomplish all with Turkey’s help. In the run-up to that war, the Bush regime put heavy pressure on the Turkish government to allow it to station forces in Turkey so as to be able to create a second front for the assault on Iraq (with a threat rider that if Turkey does not oblige, it would use Russia to create problems for Turkey).
However, despite offers of billions of dollars in American economic assistance, the Turkish parliament, reflecting Turkish public opinion, turned down the American request cum indirect threat. This forced the USA to make major last-minute changes to its military planning for the war and engendered considerable bitterness in Washington.
USA and Israel have every effectively used Turkey, for too long, to stop Moscow from coming into close contact with Arab world, Islamic nations. But that trend is facing rupture. USA, its Neocons strategists are now deeply disturbed by the emerging scenario of Russia and Turkey cementing their ties – seen as a devastating step that could harm US interests across the globe
In fact, as the EU opposes an Islamic Turkey from entering the essentially Christian European structures, USA feared Turkey if left out of EU would eventually join hands with Russia, eagerly wanting to take Istanbul into its own global fold. USA is eager to keep Turkey in perpetual tensions- neither within Europe nor inside West Asia. Now Russia is fast becoming a top ally of Turkey.
In recent times, especially after the Israeli-Turkish tensions over Gaza Strip, in which USA as usual took a pro-Israeli stand and later tensions with Russia over shooting down of a Russia war plane believable on US instructions and very recent anti-Islamist coup by the pro-US section of Turkish military Turkey got annoyed as USA refused to support the Turkish government or sympathize with President Erdogan, and indirectly supported the coup plotters hoping to dismantle the Erdogan government and replace it with a bogus democratic regime to promote US and Israeli interests blindly. However, the coup plot was put down and USA and Germany stood fully exposed of their anti-Islamic agenda for Turkey and Mideast.
To complicate matters, strong disagreements have emerged over the fate of a Muslim cleric by the name of Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in the United States for more than 15 years. From his base in Pennsylvania, Gulen runs a network of schools and charitable organizations in a number of Muslim countries, including Turkey. Once an ally of President Erdogan, they had a falling out in 2013, and since that time, Erdogan has accused Gulen of having infiltrated his supporters into the Turkish police, army and judiciary. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan claimed that Gulen had masterminded it and demanded his extradition from the United States to face justice in Turkey. The American government has taken a cautious approach to this demand of a NATO member for years, citing the doctrine of the separation of powers in the USA. It has said that it is willing to extradite Gulen if and when the Turkish government provided sufficient evidence to satisfy an American court that extradition is warranted. This response has generated yet more conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism in Turkey.
Two things are clear now. USA is basically anti-Islamic and it has fielded Gulen, among others in Turkey, to work for USA and NATO. Another important reality in this regard that harms Turkey’s genuine interests is joint operations by USA and Israel against Islamic world, including Turkey.
A major US ally Israel, on its part, manipulated US-Turkish relations to its own advantages against Arab nations.
USA uses Turkey only for advancing hidden agendas
As the most dreadful state terror nation whose military-intelligence networks are spread across the globe, USA could be instrumental in creating problems for the Erdogan government for its “disobedience” and terror attacks took place in cities, forcing the Turkish government to finally change its tune. It decided to allow the United States to use a major air base in Turkey for operations against the ISIS and to join in the aerial campaign against the ISIS, making Washington happy. This, however, proved to be a mixed blessing from the American perspective. Turkish air strikes were directed equally against ISIS targets and against Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Now these Kurdish forces are among America’s’ most valued allies in the war against the ISIS and Islam, and the Americans had invested heavily in training and equipping them. The United States and Turkey were once again operating at cross-purposes, to the dismay and annoyance of the Obama regime.
Matters have only gone from bad to worse in recent months. In mid-July, Turkey was the scene of a failed military coup, presumably ignited by USA, Germany and Israel, in the course of which some 300 people were killed and many more wounded. With vast displays of popular support, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to crush the coup attempt and reassert his authority. Erdogan then took advantage of the event to strengthen the nation by launching an overdue purge of all of anti-Islamist operators backed by USA. He arrested or dismissed approximately 80,000 policemen, judges, civil servants, teachers, academics and journalists, and closed down a number of media outlets that had been critical of his government and Islamic system. The coup forced Erdogan to put on full display his authoritarian tendencies.
Turkish aidship and coup have exposed anti-Islamic mindset of Turkey’s western Washington allies as Obama was fairly slow to condemn the coup attempt and express its support for the democratically elected government. In fact, within two days of the event, John Kerry was issuing warnings to the Turkish government to respect the human rights of its citizens. This infuriated the Turkish government and wide swaths of the Turkish population.
Western powers and Israel as its agent for many tasks, including arms sale to third world, have caused authoritarian tendencies in Turkey. The US-Germany move to destabilize the Islamist government and nation by enacting a coup has clearly spoiled the ties very badly.
However, US strategists think Turkey could be brought back to US obit by using Israel and Arab nations.
Being a party to destabilization move in Turkey, Washington was fairly slow to condemn the coup attempt or express its support for the democratically elected government. In fact, within two days of the event, John Kerry exposed the US complicity in the coup attempt, by issuing warnings to the Turkish government to “respect” the human rights of its citizens. This infuriated the Turkish government and wide swaths of the Turkish population. Public opinion polls suggest that a majority of Turks believe that the United States had something to do with it. Anti-American sentiment is now rife in Turkey.
When the Turkish government was contemplating military action in Cyprus in 1963-64, it was the object of a blistering response by the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. When Turkey did, in fact, invade and occupy northern Cyprus in 1974, it was soundly condemned in Washington and the US Congress voted an embargo on all military assistance to Turkey. The Turkish government retaliated by suspending all American operations at military facilities in Turkey. These events convinced many Turks that the United States government had little interest in protecting Turkey’s vital interests and that it was operating under the influence of the Greek-American community.
Other events also contributed to cooling the bilateral relationship. The three military coups that occurred in Turkey between 1960 and 1980 were greeted with dismay in Washington. Turkey’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union in the 1970s was also the cause of serious concern. By the end of the decade, Turkey was receiving generous economic assistance from the Soviet Union, which created a major anomaly in NATO. Turkey was benefitting enormously from its friendship with the one country the United States and NATO were dedicated to opposing and resisting.
Another significant irritant was to emerge in the 1990s: Turkey’s policies and actions regarding its Kurdish minority. Successive Turkish governments mounted campaigns to repress secessionist movements among the Kurds. Along with the governments of many western European countries, the US Congress became increasingly critical of these human rights violations and voted to block the sale of military equipment to Turkey. These criticisms and actions gave rise to profound resentment among Turks for whom the Kurdish question is a matter of national unity and territorial integrity.
Those resentments were intensified when the United States gave its support to the Kurds of northern Iraq following the first Gulf War of 1991.
There was a further falling out between the United States and Turkey at the start of the new century when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq. In the run-up to that war, the Bush administration put heavy pressure on the Turkish government to allow it to station forces in Turkey so as to be able to create a second front for the assault on Iraq. Despite offers of billions of dollars in American economic assistance, the Turkish parliament, reflecting Turkish public opinion, turned down the American request. This forced the United States to make major last-minute changes to its military planning for the war and engendered considerable bitterness in Washington.
US double speak
US double speak does not require any elaboration and explanations as it has been hallmark of US practice in dealing with nations across the globe. Anything that suits Washington is good and other things are too bad for USA.
USA always seeks get its “wanted “people from foreign nations but it does not oblige Turkey by extraditing Gulen. Once an ally of President Erdogan, they had a falling out in 2013, and since that time, Erdogan has accused Gulen of having infiltrated his supporters into the Turkish police, army and judiciary. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan claimed that Gulen had masterminded it and demanded his extradition from the United States to face justice in Turkey.
Strong disagreements have emerged over the fate of a Muslim cleric by the name of Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in the United States for more than 15 years. From his base in Pennsylvania, Gulen runs a network of schools and charitable organizations in a number of Muslim countries, including Turkey. The American government has taken deliberately a cautious approach to this demand, citing the doctrine of the “separation of powers” in the USA. It has said that it would extradite Gulen if and when the Turkish government provided “sufficient evidence” to satisfy an American court that extradition is warranted.
This response has generated yet more conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism in Turkey. Starting in 2014, the Obama regime, advancing the Neocons “regime change” agenda to generate puppet governments in Asia, especially in West Asia (Mideast), except in Israel, began to display ever more impatience with the Turkish government’s attitude toward the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. South Asia not a problem for USA as India and Pakistan are promoting US interests. The Turkish authorities initially saw the IS as a useful Sunni Muslim adversary of the Shia/Alawite Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad, whose overthrow had become a priority in Turkish policy. Not only did Turkey refuse to join the United States-led coalition fighting the IS, but it also allowed foreign fighters to transit its territory en route to join the ISIS extremists. This led the Obama administration to exert increasing pressure on Ankara to change its policy, but to no avail.
US leaders play chess with international affairs and get what they want form Turkey by promoting terror attacks. It was only when the IS began mounting terrorist attacks on Turkish cities and towns that the Turkish government finally changed its tune. It decided to allow the USA to use a major air base in Turkey for operations against the IS and to join in the aerial campaign against the IS. This, however, proved to be a mixed blessing from the American perspective. Turkish air strikes were directed equally against IS targets and against Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Now these Kurdish forces were among the USA most valued allies in the campaign against the ISIS, and the Americans had invested heavily in training and equipping them.
The United States and Turkey were once again operating at cross-purposes, to the dismay and annoyance of the Obama government. Starting in 2014, the Obama government began to display ever more “impatience” with the Turkish government’s independent attitude toward the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish authorities initially saw the ISIS as a useful Sunni Muslim adversary of the Shia/Alawite Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad, whose overthrow had become a priority in Turkish policy.
The Obama team exerted increasing pressure on Ankara to change its policy by toeing the US line of state terrorist action, but to no avail.
Relations between the USA and Turkey are now at very low ebb. The historical record suggests that the two countries have in the past been able to overcome and reconcile their differences. They should seek to do so again in their mutual interest. However, whether or not they will be able to reconcile this time is an open question with profound implications for these two countries, as well as for Europe and the Middle East.
USA does not allow equal status in NATO any nation, including UK. This obviously creates tensions. USA always used Muslim nations, including Arab nations and never come to defend or support them in any manner and Turkey is no different.
Turkey, like today’s UK which refused to cooperate with USA and Israel over UN vote on Palestine’s defacto statehood, has shown it can withstand pressure tactics of USA and other western powers operating under the NATO terror organization and take a firm decision with regard to its national interest without spoiling the relations badly.
Unfortunately, America is eager to see an anti-Islamic Turkey emerging by throwing away the Islamist Brotherhood government and when his predecessors failed, Obama also tried it but also failed. The Islamist government in Turkey is not what USA wants in Europe and is trying to dismantle that.
American leaders have never been totally reliable partners of Turkey and so Turkey is not happy that USA stood by Israel when the Zionist military attacked Turkey aidship bound for Gaza to breach Israeli-Egyptian terror blockades. USA has succeeded, however, in dividing Islamic world as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
It is against this background of frequently troubled relations that the current tensions can best be understood. They represent little more than another chapter in a history largely characterized by episodes of mutual distrust and antagonism. Many in USA would think their destabilization move for Turkey would only harm President Erdogan and his Islamist program, but America would too feel the pinch once Turkey chooses to leave American orbit and US company.
As usual, USA can exert pressure on Russia to let Turkey, a close ally of USA and NATO, take its own decisions and force Turkey to undertake the tasks assigned by the big boss- Uncle Sam. The former Ottoman Empire would be very cautious.
Even though Turkey has been an ally of USA and NATO, It has been the target of these entire anti-Islamic nations. Even while using Turkey for NATO operations against Islam and Islamic nations, the USA has been working against Islamist government to destabilize it and replace it with a puppet regime like in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. But turkey has woken up the western challenge but that alone won’t end hostility of its sworn enemies in democracy uniform.
Of course USA and Turkey now each other as allies for several decades of joint military operations, but the latest development shows the former needs the latter more than the opposite scenario.
America is bent upon advancing terror wars in Islamic world. US concern for peace is not genuine. Hence the tensions with Turkey!
USA cannot exploit Turkey for advancing its own national interest and also create tension and destabilization in Turkey.
An honest ally won’t do that! Dishonesty can destroy any US sponsored international alliance.
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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