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The Gulf crisis: A lesson in reputation management

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Lurking below the surface of the Gulf crisis, are rival, yet troubled, attempts by Qatar and its detractors to use sports to boost soft power and/or launder tarnished images of their autocracies.

Ironically, the crisis threatens to have levelled the playing field in a bitter media and public diplomacy war that was covert prior to the seven-week-old Saudi-UAE-Bahraini-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. If anything, the Gulf crisis has emerged as a case study of the pitfalls of reputation management in which sports is an important tool. On balance, it so far has had different effects on the reputations of three of the key protagonists.

It has also served to highlight the pot-blames-the-kettle-character of the Gulf crisis, most recently with the disclosure that North Koreans were employed not only in Qatar on World Cup-related projects, but also on a UAE military base that hosts US forces. The disclosure of relations with North Korea is awkward at a time of increased tension between North Korea and the United States over the pariah state’s ballistic missile and nuclear program.

A Washington-based Saudi dissident group, the Institute for Gulf Affairs, recently published a memo reportedly from the State Department as well as emails from the hacked account of Yousef al-Otaiba, the high-profile UAE ambassador to the United States, that asserted that a UAE company, Al-Mutlaq Technologies, had bought $100 million worth of weapons from North Korea for use in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

Qatar, plagued by allegations that its successful bid for the 2022 World Cup hosting rights lacked integrity and that its migrant labour regime amounted to slavery, has scored reputational gains in the Gulf crisis despite the recent revelations related to North Korea. While the revelations reinforced concerns about Qatar’s policies and labour regime, they also suggested that issues at stake in the Gulf crisis constituted regional problems rather than exclusive concern about just one of the Gulf states.

The UAE, a driving force in the anti-Qatar campaign that uses the hosting of international sporting events to boost its image, has suffered because of its failure and that of its alliance partners to garner widespread international support for its tactics and demands that were perceived as unreasonable, unactionable, and designed to undermine Qatari sovereignty and independence. The UAE’s North Korea link as well as allegations by human rights groups,  denied by the government in Abu Dhabi, that the UAE was backing the abuse of prisoners in Yemen has done little to enhance the Gulf state’s reputation.

Qatar and the UAE’s North Korean links could put the two Gulf states in the Trump administration’s firing line as it considers how to respond the Pyongyang’s most recent ballistic missile test that the pariah state claims would allow it to target any US city. Pressuring countries to back away from economic relations with North Korea, the Trump administration recently extended sanctioning of Sudan for among other things not being fully committed to implementing United Nations sanctions on the country.

Saudi Arabia promised Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, during a visit earlier this month to the kingdom as well as the UAE, that it would continue to see improvement of relations between Sudan and the United States despite the African country’s refusal to join the Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar.

Neither the Gulf crisis nor sports has done much for Bahrain, its image tarnished by its brutal suppression in 2011 of a popular revolt with the help of Saudi and UAE forces, and its subsequent repression of opposition forces and continuous violations of basic human rights. Worse even, the Gulf crisis has focussed attention on Bahrain’s failed effort to use sports to polish its tarnished image and put it in the spotlight as an example of the degree to which smaller Gulf states risk losing their ability to chart an independent course.

As the quarrelling Gulf states pour millions of dollars into hiring public relations and lobbying firms in Washington and elsewhere with the UAE as the largest spender, Qatar can shrug off in both reputational and financial terms a $51,000 fine by world soccer body FIFA. Qatar was fined because its national team wore jerseys in a World Cup qualifier against South Korea that featured a drawing of Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The drawing has come to symbolize a wave of Qatari nationalism sparked by the Gulf crisis.

The public diplomacy war has expanded beyond a constant diet of allegations against one another in state-controlled media of the Gulf protagonists into Saudi-sponsored tv spots on US television and rival advertisements on London’s famous black cabs, alternatively featuring a pro-Qatari message, a Saudi soccer match, and the UAE’s Emirates and Ettihad airlines.

Qatar, in the latest move in the public diplomacy war, hired a Washington lobby firm originally established by former Trump election campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Mr. Lewandowski has since left the firm over a dispute with his partners, who include Barry Bennett, a Trump campaign adviser and others with ties to the president as well as George Birnbaum, an American-born former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who has close relations with the Republican Party establishment.

Qatar separately contracted the services of a company, Information Management Services, that specializes in digging up dirt on U.S. politicians.

For its part, the UAE in the years running up to the Gulf crisis hired a US firm established by former Treasury Department officials to influence US media reporting on Qatar.

The media war potentially could enter a new phase with the acquisition by a relatively unknown Saudi businessman, Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, of an up to 50 percent stake in Independent Digital News and Media, the holding company that publishes Britain’s left-wing The Independent daily. The Independent has consistently been critical of the kingdom. Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian owner of the Independent’s parent company, ESI Media, recently saw his shareholding fall below 50 percent.

At the bottom line, the escalating media and public diplomacy war between Qatar and its Gulf detractors is as likely, as is evident with the revelations about North Korea, to put on public display the protagonists’ hidden skeletons, as it is likely to contribute to attempts to polish tarnished reputations and influence attitudes and policies in Western capitals.

A key tool in the protagonists’ quivers, sports is proving to be a double-edged sword as it too has the potential of shining the light on practices and policies Gulf states would prefer to keep out of the public domain.

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

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Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?

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In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.

In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.

Tensions for decades

Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.

With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.

Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.

But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.

What happened?

Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.

It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.

The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.

In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!

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Middle East

Breaking The Line of the Israel-Palestine Conflict

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The conflict between Israel-Palestine is a prolonged conflict and has become a major problem, especially in the Middle East region.

A series of ceasefires and peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine that occurred repeatedly did not really “normalize” the relationship between the two parties.

In order to end the conflict, a number of parties consider that the two-state solution is the best approach to create two independent and coexistent states. Although a number of other parties disagreed with the proposal, and instead proposed a one-state solution, combining Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip into one big state.

Throughout the period of stalemate reaching an ideal solution, the construction and expansion of settlements carried out illegally by Israel in the Palestinian territories, especially the West Bank and East Jerusalem, also continued without stopping and actually made the prospect of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis increasingly eroded, and this could jeopardize any solutions.

The attempted forced eviction in the Sheikh Jarrah district, which became one of the sources of the conflict in May 2021, for example, is an example of how Israel has designed a system to be able to change the demographics of its territory by continuing to annex or “occupy” extensively in the East Jerusalem area. This is also done in other areas, including the West Bank.

In fact, Israel’s “occupation” of the eastern part of Jerusalem which began at the end of the 1967 war, is an act that has never received international recognition.

This is also confirmed in a number of resolutions issued by the UN Security Council Numbers 242, 252, 267, 298, 476, 478, 672, 681, 692, 726, 799, 2334 and also United Nations General Assembly Resolutions Number 2253, 55/130, 60/104, 70/89, 71/96, A/72/L.11 and A/ES-10/L.22 and supported by the Advisory Opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004 on Legal Consequences of The Construction of A Wall in The Occupied Palestine Territory which states that East Jerusalem is part of the Palestinian territories under Israeli “occupation”.

1 or 2 country solution

Back to the issue of the two-state solution or the one-state solution that the author mentioned earlier. The author considers that the one-state solution does not seem to be the right choice.

Facts on the ground show how Israel has implemented a policy of “apartheid” that is so harsh against Palestinians. so that the one-state solution will further legitimize the policy and make Israel more dominant. In addition, there is another consideration that cannot be ignored that Israel and Palestine are 2 parties with very different and conflicting political and cultural identities that are difficult to reconcile.

Meanwhile, the idea of ​​a two-state solution is an idea that is also difficult to implement. Because the idea still seems too abstract, especially on one thing that is very fundamental and becomes the core of the Israel-Palestine conflict, namely the “division” of territory between Israel and Palestine.

This is also what makes it difficult for Israel-Palestine to be able to break the line of conflict between them and repeatedly put them back into the status quo which is not a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The status quo, is in fact a way for Israel to continue to “annex” more Palestinian territories by establishing widespread and systematic illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Today, more than 600,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In fact, a number of resolutions issued by the UN Security Council have explicitly and explicitly called for Israel to end the expansion of Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territory and require recognition of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the region.

Thus, all efforts and actions of Israel both legislatively and administratively that can cause changes in the status and demographic composition in East Jerusalem and the West Bank must continue to be condemned. Because this is a violation of the provisions of international law.

Fundamental thing

To find a solution to the conflict, it is necessary to look back at the core of the conflict that the author has mentioned earlier, and the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to encourage Israel to immediately end the “occupation” that it began in 1967, and return the settlements to the pre-Islamic borders 1967 In accordance with UN Security Council resolution No. 242.

But the question is, who can stop the illegal Israeli settlements in the East Jerusalem and West Bank areas that violate the Palestinian territories?

In this condition, international political will is needed from countries in the world, to continue to urge Israel to comply with the provisions of international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law and also the UN Security Council Resolutions.

At the same time, the international community must be able to encourage the United Nations, especially the United Nations Security Council, as the organ that has the main responsibility for maintaining and creating world peace and security based on Article 24 of the United Nations Charter to take constructive and effective steps in order to enforce all United Nations Resolutions, and dare to sanction violations committed by Israel, and also ensure that Palestinian rights are important to protect.

So, do not let this weak enforcement of international law become an external factor that also “perpetuates” the cycle of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It will demonstrate that John Austin was correct when he stated that international law is only positive morality and not real law.

And in the end, the most fundamental thing is that the blockade, illegal development, violence, and violations of international law must end. Because the ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine conflict is only a temporary solution to the conflict.

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