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Testing the waters: Saudi women get one-time access to a stadium

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia’s 85th birthday could prove to be historic — one that could put to the test opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform plans, even if he has cracked down on potential critics in recent weeks.

Saudi women, barred from stadia, are being allowed into Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium for the first time. Granted not to watch a soccer match from which they remain banned, but to attend national day celebrations. The move comes six weeks after Saudi Arabia announced that physical education for girls would for the first time be included in school curricula.

To accommodate the kingdom’s strict gender segregation, sections of the stadium are being delineated into sections for men and for families, much like what happens in other public spaces. The notion that if women can attend national day celebrations, they can also watch soccer matches will strengthen the hand of long-time proponents like the head of the Saudi Arabian Football Association (SAFF), Ahmed Eid Al-Harbi, of a lifting of the ban.

The move knocks down a psychological barrier even if it is primarily designed to project the kingdom in a more favourable light amid fierce criticism of its human rights record and conduct of the war in Yemen and to promote Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform agenda of greater economic diversification and greater social freedom.

Granting women access to the stadium also constitutes a testing of the waters. Prince Mohammed’s proposed reforms, articulated in his Vision 2030 plan, have largely been welcomed by Saudi youth, who account for more than 50 percent of the population, but criticized by religious hardliners.

Prince Mohammed’s popularity rides on expectations that his reforms will produce jobs and loosen social restrictions that he has yet to fulfil. His reforms involve a unilateral rewriting of Saudi Arabia’s social contract that amounted to a cradle-to-grave welfare state in exchange for surrender of all political rights and acceptance of Wahhabism’s strict moral codes.

Many Saudis have vented their frustration and anger on social media, the one space in which the kingdom until recently tolerated a limited degree of criticism. In one instance, Saudi writer Turki Al Shalhoub, who has 70,000 followers on Twitter, tweeted in April a cartoon showing Saudis being crushed under newly imposed taxes. He referred to prince Mohammed’s plan as “the vision of poverty.”

Grumbling and online protests persuaded the government in April to roll back some of its austerity measures and restore most of the perks enjoyed by government employees.

“The problem is that Vision 2030 has become synonymous with cutting salaries, taxing people and stop-ping benefits,” said Mark C. Thompson, a Middle East scholar at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, who conducted a survey of young Saudi men.

Ultra-conservative backlash has pockmarked every bend of Prince Mohammed’s path. Saudi Arabia’s Middle East Broadcasting Center Group (MBC Group), owned by Waleed bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, scion of a family with close ties to the Al Sauds, was forced to revoke and apologize for a campaign aimed at empowering women. Some viewers called for a boycott of MBC.

A crackdown in recent weeks on the prince’s potential critics, involving the arrest of scores of popular Islamic scholars, academics, intellectuals and judges, and the dismissal of university staff believed to support the Muslim Brotherhood, makes it easier for Prince Mohammed to test the waters.

To maintain support for his agenda, which is as much designed to initiate badly needed economic and social change as it is intended to prevent any form of political liberalization, Prince Mohammed has in recent weeks employed two strategies: using soccer to boost his image in a football-crazy country, and building an entertainment industry in a kingdom in which concepts of fun were long frowned upon, if not banned.

Sports is a key pillar of Vision 2030 as part of a bid to improve health in a country that has some of the world’s highest obesity and diabetes rates.

In line with a long-standing practice of Arab autocrats to hitch their popularity to their country’s soccer success, Prince Mohammed earlier this month granted fans, men only, free access to the stadium to attend a World Cup qualifier against Japan. Prince Mohammed made sure that he was in the stadium to witness the national team’s success.

The sensitivity involved in granting women access to the stadium for the national day celebrations became evident when a imam was criticized for describing Saudi Arabia’s defeat of Japan that paved the way for the kingdom’s participation in the 2018 World Cup as a blessing from God.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly in the last five tears floated the notion of granting women access to stadiums, only to drop the idea because of hard-line religious opposition. In bowing to pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow women to compete in Olympic games, the kingdom fielded women athletes for the first time in 2012. It has since said that women would only be allowed to compete in disciplines mentioned in the Qur’an.

Saudi Arabia’s Shura or Advisory Council earlier this year rejected a proposal to establish sports colleges for women.

In a bid to cater to aspirations of Saudi youth, the government announced that it was investing $2.7 billion in the creation of an entertainment industry in a country that bans cinemas and theatres. As part of the initiative, the government plans to build beach resorts, hotels and residential units on about 160 kilometres of sandy coastline on the Red Sea. It was not clear whether the region would adopt more liberal social codes on issues such as women’s dress.

“By the end of 2030, the company’s projects aim to serve more than 50 million visitors annually and create more than 22,000 jobs in the Kingdom, which will contribute around 8 billion Saudi Riyals ($2 billion) to the GDP,” the state-owned Saudi Press Agency said.

The kingdom’s religious establishment has repeatedly criticised Prince Mohammed’s social liberalization effort, including introduction of modern forms entertainment, but largely endorsed his economic plans.

A 24-year-old speaking earlier this year to The Guardian, noted that ultra-conservatism maintain a hold on significant numbers of young people. “You know that the top 11 Twitter handles here are Salafi clerics, right? We are talking more than 20 million people who hang on their every word. They will not accept this sort of change. Never,” the youth said

Prince Mohammed’s crackdown is likely to pre-empt any criticism of women entering the stadium for national day. That, however, simply pushes criticism out of the public eye. If anything, the crackdown suggests that Prince Mohammed feels less confident and reverts to Arab autocratic tradition: repress rather than engage.

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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