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Reducing Middle East tensions? Saudi-UAE moves hint at willingness to engage with Iran

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Recent moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suggest that the two Gulf states may be looking for ways to reduce tensions with Iran that permeate multiple conflicts wracking the Middle East and North Africa.

The moves, including a rapprochement with Iraq and a powerful Iraqi Shiite religious and political leader as well as prosecution of a militant Saudi cleric on charges of hate speech, and leaked emails, point towards a possible willingness to engage with Iran more constructively. A dialling down of Saudi-Iranian tensions could contribute to a reduction of tensions across the Middle East and North Africa.

At the same time, however, a series of statements and developments call into question how serious Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be about a potential rapprochement with Iran. Further complicating matters, is the fact it is unclear who is driving a potential overture to Iran, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or his UAE counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

The UAE, although much smaller in size and population than Saudi Arabia, has been a, if not the driver, of recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, including the ill-fated two-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar and developments in the war in Yemen.

Leaked email traffic between the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, and three former US officials, Martin Indyk, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, and Elliott Abrams who advised Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan, as well as with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius lay bare the UAE strategy of working through Saudi Arabia to achieve its regional goals.

Mr. Abrams quipped about the UAE’s newly-found assertiveness in a mail to Mr. Al-Otaiba: “Jeez, the new hegemon! Emirati imperialism! Well if the US won’t do it, someone has to hold things together for a while.” Mr. Al-Otaiba responded: “Yes, how dare we! In all honesty, there was not much of a choice. We stepped up only after your country chose to step down,” a reference to perceptions that President Barak Obama had been disengaging from the Middle East.

Discussing the UAE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Otaiba went on to tell Mr. Abrams that “I think in the long term we might be a good influence on KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), at least with certain people there. Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests, and most importantly the hope that we could influence them. Not the other way around.”

In his exchange with Mr. Indyk as well as Mr. Ignatius, Mr. Al-Otaiba, who had been promoting the Saudi prince in Washington for the past two years, was unequivocal about UAE backing of the likely future king as an agent of change who would adopt policies advocated by the UAE.

“I think MBS is far more pragmatic than what we hear is Saudi public positions,” Mr. Al-Otaiba said in one of the mails, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.  I don’t think we’ll ever see a more pragmatic leader in that country. Which is why engaging with them is so important and will yield the most results we can ever get out of Saudi,” the ambassador said. “Change in attitude, change in style, change in approach,” Mr. Al-Otaiba wrote to Mr. Ignatius.

The exchanges gave credence to suggestions that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be seeking a reduction of tension with Iran. Yet, they occurred before the Gulf crisis erupted in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE demanded, among other things, that Qatar reduce its relations with Iran.

Describing a meeting with Saudi Prince Mohammed in an email to Mr. Al-Otaiba dated April 20, Mr. Indyk recounted that the prince “was quite clear with Steve Hadley and me that he wants out of Yemen and that he’s ok with the US engaging Iran as long as it’s coordinated in advance and the objectives are clear.”

At first glance, Prince Mohammed’s position, expressed prior to US President Donald J. Trump’s landmark visit to the kingdom in May and the Gulf crisis, clashes with Mr. Trump’s efforts to find a reason not to certify Iranian compliance with the two-year old nuclear agreement that led to the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. Under the agreement, Mr. Trump must certify to the US Congress Iranian compliance every three months and is next due to do so in October.

The devil being in the details, the key phrase in Prince Mohammed’s remarks is the demand that “the objectives are clear.” The emails did not spell out what the prince met. Senior Saudi officials have repeatedly demanded that Iran halt its intervention in Syria and Iraq as well as its support for groups such as Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen – demands Iran is unlikely to accept.

Mr. Indyk’s description of Prince Mohammed’s endorsement of US engagement with Iran also contrasted with the Saudi official’s framing of his country’s rivalry with Iran in sectarian terms in an interview on Saudi television in May. Prince Mohammed asserted in the interview that there could be no dialogue with Iran because it was promoting messianic Shiite doctrine.

Alghadeer, an Iraqi Shiite satellite television station broadcasting from the holy city of Najaf, earlier this month added to the confusion about Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s intentions with a report that the kingdom had asked Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to mediate between Iran and the kingdom. Alghadeer quoted Iraqi interior minister Qasim al-Araji as saying that Iran had responded positively.

Saudi Arabia’s official Saudi Press Agency denied the Alghadeer report and reiterated the kingdom’s hard line position that there could be no rapprochement with an Iran that propagates terrorism and extremism.

With the Islamic State on the ropes, Saudi Arabia’s reaching out to Iraqi and Iraqi Shiites amounted to a bid to counter Iranian influence and help Mr. Al-Abadi give the Sunni minority confidence that it has a place in a new Iraq.

The Saudi overtures also appeared designed to strengthen Shiite forces that seek to limit Iran’s influence. They also aimed to exploit the fact that a growing number of Shiite politicians and religious figures in Iraq were distancing themselves from Iran and could emerge strengthened from elections scheduled for next year.

The Saudi moves that also include the creation of a joint trade council and the opening of a border crossing that was closed for 27 years, could prove to be either a blessing or a curse for Iraq. They could turn Iraq into an area where Saudi Arabia and Iran find grounds for accommodation or they could exacerbate the situation with the rivalry between the two Middle Eastern powers spilling more forcefully into Iraqi politics.

Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a Shiite paramilitary commander and one of Iran’s closest Iraqi allies who has been designated by the US Treasury as a terrorist, suggested recently that Iran intended to stand its ground in Iraq. Mr. Ibrahimi warned that Iranian-backed Shite militias would not simply vanish once the fight against the Islamic State was over, even if the government ordered them to disband.

In a further move that could cut both ways, Saudi Arabia has asked Iraq for permission to open a consulate in Najaf. The Saudi request as well as visits to the kingdom and the UAE by controversial Iraqi Shiite scholar and politician Muqtada al-Sadr for talks with the two countries crown princes signalled not only a willingness to forge relations with Iraqi Shiites but also a desire to play a role in Shiite politics.

Saudi Arabia would be opening its consulate at a time that Najaf’s foremost resident, Sayyed Ali Hosseini Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s most prominent leaders and a proponent of an Iraqi civil rather than a religious state, is, like his counterpart in the Islamic republic, Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, growing in age. Najaf and Iran’s holy city of Qom compete as Shiite Islam’s two most important seats of learning.

Mr. Al-Sadr, long a critic of Saudi Arabia’s hard line towards its own Shiite minority, has also sought to counter the rise of sectarianism and criticized the Iranian-sponsored militias fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army as well as Iran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Al-Sadr’s insistence that his discussions in Saudi Arabia and the UAE focused on Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Syria rather than the plight of Saudi Shiites was validated by the fact that his visit coincided with a three months-long, brutal crackdown on Shiite insurgents in the town of Awamiyah in the kingdom’s Eastern Province and the razing of its 400-year old Musawara neighbourhood, a hotbed of anti-government protest. The visit also came as Saudi Arabia planned to execute 14 Shiites accused of attacking security forces in 2011 and 2012.

Saudi Arabia, in a further gesture to Shiites, referred a popular cleric, Ali Al Rabieei, to the copyright infractions committee for “violating the press and publications law” as part of a crackdown on hate speech. Mr. Al-Rabieei was summoned for describing Shiites as “rejectionists” because they allegedly reject the first three successors to the Prophet Mohammed, and denying that Shiites were Muslims – concepts that enjoy currency among Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives.

Amid the fog of contradictory moves, Iraq is emerging as a bell weather of the next phase in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has complicated, if not exacerbated, the Middle East’s multiple conflicts. It could prove to be the chink in a covert and overt proxy war that has so far offered few, if any, openings for a reduction of tensions. By the same token, Iraq could emerge yet another battlefield that perpetuates debilitating sectarianism and seemingly endless bloodshed across the Middle East and North Africa.

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

Saudi Arabia’s Entertainment Plans: Soft Power at Work?

Dr. Theodore Karasik

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Saudi Arabia recently broke ground on its ambitious “entertainment city” known as Qiddiya, near Riyadh. The splashy launch, attended by 300 dignitaries from around the world, highlights a frequently overlooked aspect of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan: the entertainment industry as a growing economic sector. As the kingdom diversifies its economy away from reliance on petro fuels, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been keen to showcase the increasing openness of his country, promoting festivals, concerts and sports events and ending the country’s 35-year ban on cinemas.

These projects are partially intended to bolster the economy and attract FDI—but not only. Saudi Arabia is also playing catch-up with other regional actors, such as Qatar and the UAE, in terms of cultural output and cultural participation. With Qiddiya and the other cultural projects in the works, Saudi is now carving out a road for itself to become a regional culture hub.

Thefirst phase of Qiddiya, which includes high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area, is expected to be completed in 2022.  Saudi officials hope the park will draw in foreign investment and attract 17 million visitors by 2030; the final phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2035, by which point the entertainment resort will be the largest in the world, dwarfing Florida’s Walt Disney World.

Beyond these financial incentives, however, the Qiddiya project is Saudi Arabia’s answer to events like the Dubai Expo 2020 or the Qatar World Cup 2022 and suggests that the kingdom is trying to position itself as the next big destination for lucrative events – which also add to the idea that entertainment, culture, and innovation are key to Saudi Arabia’s economic vision and success.

Vision 2030’s emphasis on entertainment raises a key question: is Riyadh attempting to increase its soft power across the region in a constructive and proactive way?  The answer to that question is yes.

In the immediate future, Qatar and the UAE will remain the region’s foremost entertainment and cultural hubs.  From Qatar’s Islamic Museum of Art, which famous architect I.M. Pei came out of retirement to design, to Dubai’s theme parks, including a $1 billion behemoth which is the world’s largest indoor theme park, these two Gulf states are demonstrating their prowess to develop an arts and culture scene.  In Doha, Qatar is exemplifying its unique outlook towards world affairs by emphasizing humanitarianism and fourteen centuries of history.  Qatar is also hosting the World Cup in 2022, intended to bring Doha center-stage in the sports world. Abu Dhabi’s Louvre has been referred to as “one of the world’s most ambitious cultural projects”, while advertisements throughout the emirate insist that the museum will cause its visitors to “see humanity in a new light”.

Despite these Gulf states’ head start on developing vibrant entertainment sectors, there is still room for Saudi Arabia to offer something new. For one thing, some of its neighbors are dealing with trouble in paradise: Qatar’s once-strong economy is under increasing strain as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt boycott it; meanwhile, the company which owns many of Dubai’s largest theme parks lost $302 million in 2017.

The Qiddiya project also represents a particular vision that’s distinct from neighboring countries’ cultural programs. Qiddiya is designed to mix desert heritage and the ethos of the past with the technological advances of the future. The intended result is to be a fusion between aspirations and building on those achievements from desert to post-modernity, on a colossal scale.

The project is crafted both to satisfy domestic demand—it includes plans to build 11,000 homes to serve as vacation homes for Riyadh residents— and to compete directly against Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the Gulf. With two-thirds of the Saudi population under the age of 35, building a thriving entertainment sector is particularly important.

The kingdom is hoping to use its idea of mixing the past with the future in Qiddiya to significantly alter the flow of tourist revenues in the Gulf. The UAE, Qatar and Bahrain rely on tourists from the Gulf and beyond for essential cash inflows—including the $30 billion a year Saudis spend on tourism abroad every year. By providing new entertainment options in-country for Saudi Arabia’s citizens and residents, who pay more than any other country’s citizens while on vacation, Riyadh aims to redirect some of this overseas tourism spending back into the kingdom. It’s set up concrete goals to this effect, hoping to increase domestic spending on culture and entertainment from about three percent of household income to six percent. Saudi Arabia also likely hopes that Qiddiya will attract significant international tourism as well—one senior official tied the park’s creation to the goal of making Riyadh one of the top 100 cities in the world to live.

Of course, it is likely to be a long wait before the kingdom itself starts producing the cultural output that will make it a real entertainment hub; after all, Saudi public schools still do not teach music, dance and theater, and the kingdom lacks music and film academies. But by taking the first steps of embracing the vast economic potential of the entertainment sector, the kingdom may well be on its way there.

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Israel, Ukraine, and U.S. Crack Down Against Press

Eric Zuesse

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On Wednesday, May 16th, Russian Television reported recent crackdowns against the press, on the part of both Ukraine’s Government and Israel’s Government. One headline story, “9 journalists injured by Israeli gunfire in Gaza ‘massacre’, total now over 20”, reported that Israel had shot dead two journalists:

“Yaser Murtaja, 31, a cameraman for Palestinian Ain Media agency, died on April 7 after he was shot by Israeli forces the previous day while covering a protest south of the Gaza Strip. He wore a blue protective vest marked ‘PRESS’.”

And:

“Ahmad Abu Hussein, 24, was shot by Israeli forces during a protest in the Gaza strip on April 13. He died from his injuries on April 25. He was also wearing a protective vest marked ‘PRESS’ at the time.”

The other 18 instances were only injuries, not murders, but Israel has now made clear that any journalist who reports from the Palestinian side is fair game for Israel’s army snipers — that when Palestinians demonstrate against their being blockaded into the vast Gaza prison, and journalists then report from amongst the demonstrators instead of from the side of the snipers, those journalists are fair game by the snipers, along with those demonstrators.

Some of the surviving 18 journalists are still in critical condition and could die from Israel’s bullets, so the deaths to journalists might be higher than just those two.

Later in the day, RT bannered “Fist-size gunshot wounds, pulverized bones, inadmissible use of force by Israel in Gaza – HRW to RT” and presented a damning interview with the Israel & Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch.

The other crackdown has been by Ukraine. After the U.S. Obama Administration perpetrated a very bloody coup in Ukraine during February of 2014, that country has plunged by every numerical measure, and has carried out raids against newsmedia that have reported unfavorably on the installed regime. The latest such incident was reported on May 16th by Russian Television, under the headline, “US endorses Kiev’s raid on Russian news agency amid international condemnation”. An official of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) stated there: “I reiterate my call on the authorities to refrain from imposing unnecessary limitations on the work of foreign journalists, which affects the free flow of information and freedom of the media.” An official of the CPJ (Committee to Protect journalists) stated: “We call on Ukrainian authorities to disclose the charges and evidence they have against Vyshinsky or release him without delay. … We also call on Ukrainian authorities to stop harassing and obstructing Russian media operating in Ukraine. The criminalization of alternative news and views has no place in a democratic Ukraine.” However, as reported by RT, Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General called the editorial policy of the anti-regime RIA Ukraine “anti-Ukrainian” in nature, amounting to “state treason.” So, the prosecutor is threatening to categorize and prosecute critical press under Ukraine’s treason law.

The U.S. regime is not condemning either of its client-regimes for their crackdowns. (It cites Ukraine’s supposed victimhood from “Russian propaganda” as having caused Ukraine’s action, and justifies Israel’s gunning-down of demonstrators and of journalists as having beeen necessary for Israel’s self-defense against terrorism.) In neither instance is the U.S. dictatorship saying that this is unacceptable behavior for a government that receives large U.S. taxpayers funds. Of course, in the U.S., the mainstream press aren’t allowed to report that either Israel or today’s Ukraine is a dictatorship, so they don’t report this, though Israel clearly is an apartheid racist-fascist (or ideologically nazi, but in their case not against Jews) regime, and Ukraine is clearly also a racist-fascist, or nazi, regime, which engages in ethnic cleansing to get rid of voters for the previous — the pre-coup — Ukrainian government. People who are selected individually by the installed regime, get driven to a big ditch, shot, with the corpses piling up there, and then the whole thing gets covered over. This is America’s client-‘democracy’ in Ukraine, not its client-‘democracy’ in Israel.

May 16th also was the day when the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee voted 10 to 5 to approve as the next CIA Director, Gina Haspel, the person who had headed torture at the CIA’s black site in Thailand where Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and blinded in one eye in order to get him to say that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks; and, since then, Zubaydah, who has never been in court, has been held incommunicado at Guantanamo, so that he can’t testify in court or communicate with the press in any way. “The U.S. Government has never charged Zubaydah with any crime.” And the person who had ordered and overseen his torture will soon head the agency for which she worked, the CIA.

Whether the U.S. regime will soon start similarly to treat its own critical press as “traitors” isn’t clear, except that ever since at least the Obama Administration, and continuing now under Trump, the U.S. Government has made clear that it wants to seize and prosecute both Edward Snowden and Julian Assange for their journalistic whistleblowing, violations of “state secrets,” those being anything that the regime wants to hide from the public — including things that are simply extremely embarrassing for the existing rulers. Therefore, the journalistic-lockdown step, from either Israel, or Ukraine, to U.S., would be small, for the United States itself to take, if it hasn’t yet already been taken in perhaps secret ways. But at least, the Senate Intelligence Committee is strongly supportive of what the U.S. Government has been doing, and wants more of it to be done.

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JCPOA in Post-US Exit: Consequences and Repercussions

Nisar Ahmed Khan

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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal signed by the P 5+1 in 2015 was widely hailed as a landmark achievement made possible by sincere dialogue and diplomacy. Indeed, the agreement is to a greater extent an achievement of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that helped checked the increasingly disturbing power symmetry in the Middle East which in return has managed to contain the transformation of low intensity conflicts into all out wars. A relative stability is the hallmark which resulted from JCPOA in the Middle East which is extremely volatile region of the world. A vital question is: how these achievements are going to be affected by the US withdrawal from it?

The US withdrawal from JCPOA will adversely affect the aforementioned three areas of its accumulative achievement with variant degree. First, it has negative consequences for the norm that negotiated settlements in international arenas has the potential and lasting credibility to minimize violence or other coercive means led by war. The momentum and confidence the diplomatic means have garnered in post- JCPOA scenario will come to the crushing halt. The sealed and mutually agreed upon agreements in international arena especially in which the US is the potential party, will come under extreme scrutiny leading to an environment of gross trust deficit. Therefore, on the first instance this withdrawal has negative lasting consequences for the diplomatic norms in itself.

Secondly, US exist from the deal does not augur well for the nascent nuclear non-proliferation regime. This regime has a dearth of good precedents like the JCPOA which has deterred a nation from acquiring and operationalizing nuclear weapons as is the case with Iran. Keeping in view this backdrop of this institution, JCPOA has been its glaring example wherein it has managed to successfully convince a nation to not pursue the path which leads towards the nuclear weapons. Therefore, the US withdrawal has shaken the confidence of the non-proliferation regime to its core. It has engendered a split among the leading nations who were acting as sort of de facto executive to enforce the agreements on the nuclear ambitious states. Therefore, this US withdrawal has undoubtedly far reaching repercussions for the non-proliferation as an institution. This development may affect the nature and its future development as an institutional mechanism to deter the recalcitrant states to change their course regarding the nuclear weapons.

Thirdly, in relation to the above mentioned negative consequences on diplomacy and nuclear non-proliferation regime, the US withdrawal from the deal has far serious security ramifications for the volatile and conflict ridden Middle East. It has multiplied the prospects of all-out war between Iran and its regional rivals on one hand and Iran and Israel on the other hand. Just tonight the announcement of Trump exiting JCPOA and the Israeli aggression on Syrian military bases substantiates the assertion that there exists a correlation between this US withdrawal and the Zionist regime`s regional hegemonic designs. It has extremely positive message for the Saudi Arabia. The impulsive and overambitious Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) went on extended tours in the US and Europe to convince Western leadership that Iran should be contained.  Therefore, element of stability in the region – contained low intensity conflicts – got serious motivation to turn into all-out-wars  with non-exclusion of nuclear options at the disposal of Zionist regime in the Middle East. The Middle Eastern region with this exit of the US is going to observe substantial turmoil in the months to come which will have some extra regional ramifications.

As a conclusion it could be argued that the US exit has some far reaching repercussions for the diplomatic norms, non-proliferation regime and above all for the volatile Middle Eastern region. All these ramifications resulted from the US withdrawal will also in return have some serious consequences internally and externally. The status of the US as the sole super power of the world will be diminished with this decision. It will create an unbridgeable gap in the West. Henceforth, the EU foreign will be more autonomous, integrated and autonomous in her conduct.

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