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Food for thought: UAE ambassador’s hacked mails feed crucial policy debates

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The hacked email account of Yousef al-Otaiba, the influential United Arab Emirates ambassador in Washington, has provided unprecedented insight into the length to which the small Gulf state is willing to go in the pursuit of its regional ambitions.

Mr. Al-Otaiba is unlikely to acknowledge the contribution the insight has made to understanding the ten week-old Gulf crisis and diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar that was engineered by the UAE. The ambassador may, however, have greater appreciation for the contribution his private email exchanges have made to the theory and policy debate about the place of small states in an increasingly polarized international order.

Similarly, Mr. Al-Otaiba is unlikely to see merit in the fact that his email exchanges raise serious questions, including the role and purpose of offset arrangements that constitute part of agreements on arms sales by major defense companies as well as the relationship between influential, independent policy and academic institutions and their donors.

To be sure, Mr. Al-Otaiba is likely to be most concerned about the potential damage to the UAE’s reputation and disclosure of the Gulf state’s secrets caused by the hack. No doubt, the selective and drip-feed leaking of the ambassador’s mails by Global Leaks, a mysterious group that uses a Russian email address, is designed to embarrass the UAE and support Qatar in its dispute with an alliance of nations led by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Al-Otaiba as well as his interlocutors have not confirmed the authenticity of the mails. The UAE embassy did however tell The Hill that Hotmail address involved was that of the ambassador. Moreover, various of the leaks have been confirmed by multiple sources.

The UAE is hardly the only government that donates large sums to think tanks and academic institutions in a bid to enhance soft power; influence policy, particularly in Washington; and limit, independent and critical study and analysis. While Gulf states, with the UAE and Qatar in the lead, are among the largest financial contributors, donors also include European and Asian governments. Think tank executives have rejected allegations that the donations undermine their independence or persuade them to do their donor’s bidding.

The latest leaks, however, raise the debate about the funding of think tanks and academic institutions to a new level. Mails leaked to The Intercept, a muckraking online publication established by reporters who played a key role in publishing revelations by National Security Council whistle blower Edward Snowden, raise questions not only about funding of institutions, but also the nature and purpose of offset arrangements incorporated in arms deals. Those deals are intended to fuel economic development and job creation in purchasing countries and compensate them for using available funds for foreign arms acquisitions rather than the nurturing of an indigenous industry.

The mails disclosed by The Intercept as well as The Gulf Institute, a Washington-based dissident Saudi think tank, showed that a UAE donation of $20 million to the Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI) involved funds funnelled through Tawazun, a Abu Dhabi-based investment company, and The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) that is headed by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, that had been paid to the UAE in cash rather than projects by defense contractors as part of agreements to supply military equipment.

The US embassy in Abu Dhabi reported as far back as 2008 in a cable to the State Department published by Wikileaks that “reports as well as anecdotal evidence” suggested that “that defense contractors can sometimes satisfy their offset obligations through an up-front, lump-sum payment directly to the UAE Offsets Group” despite the fact that “the UAE’s offset program requires defense contractors that are awarded contracts valued at more than $10 million to establish commercially viable joint ventures with local business partners that yield profits equivalent to 60 percent of the contract value within a specified period (usually seven years).”

The cash arrangement raises questions about the integrity of offset arrangements as well as their purpose and use. In the case of MEI, it puts defense contractors in a position of funding third party efforts to influence US policy. In an email to Mr. Al-Otaiba, MEI president Wendy Chamberlain said the funding would allow the institute to “counter the more egregious misperceptions about the region, inform US government policy makers, and convene regional leaders for discreet dialogue on pressing issues.

The UAE has been a leader in rolling back achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of four countries, promoting autocratic rule in the region, and opposing opposition forces, particularly the controversial Muslim Brotherhood.

The donations by countries like the UAE and Qatar to multiple think tanks as well as the source of the funding links to the even larger issue of strategies adopted by small states to defend their independence and ensure their survival in a world in which power is more defuse and long-standing alliances are called into question.

The leaked emails provide insight into the UAE’s strategy that is based on being a power behind the throne. It is a strategy that may be uniquely Emirati and difficult to emulate by other small states, but that suggests that given resources small states have a significant ability to punch above their weight.

US intelligence officials concluded that the hacking of Qatari news websites to plant a false news report that sparked the Gulf crisis in early June had been engineered by the UAE. The UAE move was embedded in a far broader strategy of shaping the Middle East and North Africa in its mould by turning Saudi Arabia into its policy instrument.

Leaked email traffic between Mr. 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 documents what some analysts long believed but could not categorically prove. It also provided insight into the less than idyllic relationship between the UAE and Saudi Arabia that potentially could become problematic.

In the emails, Mr. Al-Otaiba, who promoted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington as Saudi Arabia’s future since he came to office in 2015, 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.

In another email, Mr. Al-Otaiba noted that now was the time when the Emiratis could get “the most results we can ever get out of Saudi.”

In a subsequent email dump, published by Middle East Eye, an online news site allegedly funded by persons close to Qatar, if not Qatar itself, and also sent to this writer, Mr. Al-Otaiba, makes no bones about his disdain for Saudi Arabia and his perception of the history of Emirati-Saudi relations. 

Writing to his wife, Abeer Shoukry, in 2008, Mr. Al-Otaiba describes the Saudi leadership as “f***in’ coo coo!” after the kingdom’s religious police banned red roses on Valentine’s Day. The powers of the police have been significantly curtailed since the rise of Prince Mohammed, who has taken steps to loosen the country’s tight social and moral controls.

In one email, Mr. Al-Otaiba asserts that Abu Dhabi has battled Saudi Arabia over its adherence to Wahhabism, a literal, intolerant and supremacist interpretation of Islam, for the past 200 years. The ambassador asserted that the Emirates had a more “bad history” with Saudi Arabia than anyone else.

Taken together, the leaked emails involving multiple other issues, including the UAE’s military relationship with North Korea as well as its competition with Qatar to host an office of the Afghan Taliban, serve not only as a source for understanding the dynamics of the Gulf crisis, but also as case studies for the development of more stringent guidelines for funding of policy and academic research; greater transparency of military sales and their offset arrangements; and the place of small states in the international order as well as the factors that determine their ability to maintain the independence and at times punch above their weight.

To be sure, that was not the primary purpose of the leaks. The leaks were designed to further Qatar’s cause and undermine the UAE’s arguments as well as embarrass it. The jury is still out on the degree to which the leakers may have succeeded. Nonetheless, one unintended consequence of the leaks is that they raise issues that go to the core of a broad swath of issues, including accountability, transparency, economic and social development, and international relations.

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

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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