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The Gulf crisis: Fighting it out down and dirty

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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In the three-month old Gulf crisis, nothing is too expensive or too down and dirty when it comes to buying influence, garnering soft power, and trying to win hearts and minds.

It is a battle fought primarily by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the Gulf’s two megalomaniac states, on European soccer pitches, in the board rooms of Western think tanks and universities, and in the media. Character assignation is fair game.

Qatar and the UAE stunned European soccer as the window closed this week for the buying and selling of players by driving prices through the roof and calling into question European soccer body UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules.

Qatar-owned French club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) spent $476 million on two players: FC Barcelona’s Neymar and Monaco’s Kylian Sanmi Mbappé. No mean feat for a country of 300,000 citizens locked into an existential battle with a UAE-Saudi led alliance of African and Indian Ocean surrogates that seeks through a diplomatic and economic boycott to impose its will on Qatar. Expenditure of $203 million by Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City was similarly stratospheric, but paled in comparison.

The Qatari-UAE competition for jaw-dropping headlines is however about far more than trophy acquisitions and performance on the soccer pitch. By driving the price of soccer players into the stratosphere, Qatar was showing a finger to its Gulf detractors, saying it could shake off their boycott like it would swat a fly. That is priceless in an environment in which the UAE-Saudi-led alliance has failed to garner widespread support for its boycott in both the Muslim world and the broader international community.

It is also priceless in an environment in which Qatar and the UAE have been spending beyond sports humongous amounts on influencing research at influential think tanks and prestigious Western universities, some of whom have been lured to establish lucrative campuses in Doha and Abu Dhabi at the expense of compromising principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression.

It is also priceless as the two countries spend on hackers that in the case of the UAE created the pretext for the Gulf crisis and in the case of Qatar targeted the UAE with embarrassing disclosures.

That is no truer than by leaking not only emails from the account of Yousef al-Otaiba, the influential UAE ambassador to Washington, that are designed to chart the extent of his efforts to shape US policy and public perception, but also details of his private life that amount to an attempt at character assassination.

Although aware for months of the salacious emails distributed by a mysterious group that identifies itself as Global Leaks and uses a Russian-registered email address, this reporter has refrained from publishing materials that are not material to the power struggle between the Gulf states. The salacious mails were finally published this week by The Intercept. While there is no formal link between the leaks and Qatar, there is little doubt that they serve the Gulf state in its battle with the UAE.

Qatar has scored points with the leaks and the record-breaking soccer acquisitions. It has benefitted from the fact that while most Muslim and non-Muslim countries have shied away from taking sides in the Gulf crisis, their calls for a negotiated end to the solution in effect is more aligned with the Qatari position than that of the alliance that demands Qatar’s unconditional acceptance of its demands.

For Qatar, the soccer acquisitions are part of a far broader soft power strategy that in many ways might be the most strategic and thought through approach in the Gulf. It envisions sports as much as a pillar of national identity as it is a key leg of its effort to amass soft power. The 2022 World Cup the strategy’s crown jewel.

Yet, the strategy has produced only mixed results. Performance on the pitch has not offered the Qatari government the kind of success that various other Arab autocrats have been able to exploit in their bid to boost their image. Qatar is the first World Cup host in almost a century not to qualify for the World Cup on its own merit.

In the most recent example of political exploitation of the beautiful game, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salam this weekend sought to curry popular favour by declaring that attendance of this week’s World Cup qualifier against Japan would be free. The match will decide whether the kingdom qualifies for next year’s World Cup in Russia. Prince Mohammed’s gesture came days after the UAE defeated the Saudis in another World Cup qualifier that put Saudi participation in the World Cup at risk.

Prince Mohammed enjoys significant popularity in the expectation that his push for economic reform and a limited degree of greater social and cultural freedom will create jobs and cater to the aspiration of soccer-crazy Saudis, a majority of whom are under the age of 30. Gestures like free attendance of a match serve to manage expectations that have yet to be met.

Qatar, to its surprise, found that rather than being celebrated for its achievement as a small country in becoming the first Arab country ever to host a World Cup, it was mired in controversy over the integrity of its bid and pilloried for the living and working conditions of migrant workers, who constitute a majority of the Gulf state’s population. Instead of putting Qatar on a pedestal, winning the World Cup put it in the firing line with a wave of criticism of its kafala or labour sponsorship system labour regime that is not uniquely Qatari, but common to the Gulf.

To its credit, Qatar has responded positively to the criticism and in stark contrast to other Gulf states engaged with its critics. A series of legal reforms have sought to address criticism of the system by streamlining rather than abolishing a scheme that puts workers at the mercy of their employers.

The degree to which Qatar may have succeeded in responding to its critics will be put to the test in November when the International Labour Organization (ILO) reviews the Gulf state’s reforms. The ILO last year warned that it would establish a Commission of Inquiry if Qatar failed to bring its regime in line with international standards.

Such commissions are among the ILO’s most powerful tools to ensure compliance with international treaties. The UN body has only established 13 such commissions in its century-long history. The last such commission was created in 2010 to force Zimbabwe to live up to its obligations.

At the bottom line, the limited benefit both Qatar and the UAE have reaped from massive investment in soft power and public diplomacy suggests that money alone does not buy autocracies empathy or legitimacy. For that, the images they attempt to project need to be backed up by policies at home and abroad that are aligned and bear witness to claims cleverly crafted by politicians, lobbyists, and public relations experts. Both Qatar and the UAE find that requirement to meet.

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

US-Iran Tension: Avert any big disaster to humanity

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US-Iran tension is growing to a dangerous level. Irrespective of who is right and who is wrong, but everyone agrees that it is leading toward a big disaster. Human life and natural resources are at stake. Irrespective, who will suffer more and who will suffer less, but it is human life, which is the most precious thing in this world, is at stake.

Middle-East is an oil and gas-rich area and meets the major portion of world energy demand. Any disturbance in this region will have a severe impact on the global economy. Whether one is right or wrong, will be the victim of this crisis directly or indirectly.

This war will be not like the Iraq war or the Libya War. As at that time, there was only one superpower and the world was unipolar. There was no resistance from any corner of the world. US and allies, without any resistance, conducted the war and achieved their desired results. But a lot of resistance was witnessed in case of Syrian War. The whole scenario has been changed, the calculated results were not achieved yet. Finally, the US has decided to pull back its troops. Similarly, Afghanistan case is not ideal, after spending trillion dollars, and fighting for 17 years, not gains on the ground and finally has to pull back.

It may not be limited to only US-Iran but may engulf the whole region. As traditional rivals are waiting for an appropriate opportunity to settle their old disputes. Whether, it is Arab-Iran, or Israel-Iran, or Arab-Israel enmity, may it spread to a much wider sphere than expected. It is in control of a few countries to start or refrain the escalation, but once it has been broken, it may be beyond the control of either country.

Especially, Russia and China are not sleeping at this time. They are in a strong position to offer resistance. It should not be taken an easy task like Iraq or Libya war. It is difficult to predict the exact reaction of Russia or China, but anticipated resistance.

If we expect, US or Iran to avert this foreseeable war will be not a realistic approach. As if they were to avoid any disaster, they should not have created so hype and should not have moved to this stage. They may not accept total hegemony of the US in this part of the world. They have heavy stakes in the middle-East and cannot be spectators only.

Geopolitics has been changed, regional alliances have emerged, and nations have re-aligned themselves. Much more complex changes have been witnessed after the war on terror. Public awareness has been enhanced, maybe some of the governments in this region have a different outlook, but public opinion is much more realistic and may play a vital role in the days to come. Old time’s friends may stand on the other side of the table. Some radical changes may be visible on grounds.

UN role was ineffective in the past and a little is expected in the future. In fact, the UN has been hijacked and curtailed to a very limited role practically. While one of its major mandates was to resolve the disputes among nations and avoid wars or war-like situations.

Under this serious scenario, there is a hope that all peace-loving nations and individuals, may peruse the UN and International Community do something to avert this bid human disaster.  We all share one world, we have the responsibility to save this world. Any loss of human life in any part of the world is considered the loss to the whole of humanity. And the destruction of natural resources may be considered a loss to humanity. Any damage to Environment or ecology or biodiversity may be a net loss to humanity. We all are son and daughter of ADAM and share a common world, common environment, common resources. We need to protect humanity, environment and natural resources.

It is strongly appealed to the UN, International Community and all individuals who believe in Peace, must act, and must act now, and must act strongly, to avert any bid disaster to humanity.

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Middle East

Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.

A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”

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Middle East

The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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