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Playing with Fire: Israel and its problematic friends solidify ties

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Remarks at United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore, 3 October 2017

There are no nice guys in the Middle East, a region that is in the sixth year of transition. It’s a transition that is likely to take up to a quarter of a century. It’s a transition that is being exacerbated by states that are battling either one another for regional hegemony or to maintain an unsustainable status quo or to shape the region in their mould. There are no good or bad guys in this battle, at best there are bad and worse ones.

That is the playing field on which long existing relations between Israel and status quo powers, primarily in the Gulf, as well as in Jordan and Egypt, have grown far closer and more overt. Closer relations are primarily based on perceived common interests in stymying Iran as well as political change. It’s an alliance in emergence, particularly with the Gulf, that irrespective whether it results in formal diplomatic relations as already is the case with Egypt and Jordan or may soon occur with Bahrain, is likely to be fragile, not because the parties view it that way, but because far-reaching change on the Arab side is inevitable.

The parameters and dynamics of what the Middle East is experiencing and the risks Israel runs with the alliances it is cementing centre on five fundamental developments or disputes:

  • The impact of the 2011 popular Arab revolts
  • The Gulf crisis
  • The Saudi-Iranian rivalry
  • Transition in the Gulf
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The roll back of the 2011 popular revolts by a UAE-Saudi led counterrevolution has prompted many to write off the chance for democratic change in the Middle East and to refer to the uprisings as the Arab winter. That may prove to be a short-lived analysis. For one, it’s a mistake to see the revolts as a quest for Western-style democracy. Rather, they were a quest for dignity, greater freedoms and liberation from corrupt, nepotistic regimes that, with few exceptions, had failed to deliver in terms of public goods and services. Those revolts may or may not have succeeded in the longer term but ultimately, they were prematurely defeated by domestic status quo forces backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, whether it is the 2013 military coup in Egypt, Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen, or UAE and Egyptian backing of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. To be clear, Qatar was a player in this too.

The legacy of the revolts is far greater than simply defeat or failure. It has changed mentality and attitudes. The quest for change is alive and kicking. That is not to say that masses of people are about to take to the streets again – despite recent months long protests in the Rif in northern Morocco. Events in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen may by and large have for now chilled the quest for revolutionary change. So has severe repression across the Middle East. The desire for change is however alive and kicking in social media.

It is also alive in kicking in the radicalization of Arab youth, who make up the bulk of jihadists in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic States is on the verge of territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, but that only means that political violence will no longer have a central address; it will be more decentralised, more amorphous, more spread out, and probably more lethal. Political violence has been a fixture of human history, but blunting its current phase will take a lot more than military might and law enforcement. It will take economic and social policies as well as forms of governance that are inclusive rather than exclusive.

Which leads to the third legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts: the future of Middle Eastern nation states as they were known until now.  Neither Iraq nor Syria will return as nation states in the borders prior to 2011 in Syria or 2003 in Iraq when the United States invaded and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. The independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is part of a global battle whose outcome will determine the ability of small states to chart their own course in the shadow of a regional behemoth, whether that is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East or China in Asia. It parallels the efforts by peoples like the Catalans in Spain, the Kurds in Syria, or Ambazonians in Cameroon to secede and form independent small states of their own. It also parallels the dispute in the Gulf between Qatar and various other Gulf states.

Most conflicts in the Middle East have a pot blames the kettle quality, but no one dispute more so than that between Qatar and a UAE-Saudi-led alliance of financially and politically dependent states. At the heart of the crisis are four issues: the ability of small states to chart their own, independent course; diametrically opposed perceptions of national security threats; fundamentally different strategies for regime survival; and radically differing definitions of what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist.

Also at the heart of both the Gulf crisis and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry are opposing approaches to political or activist forms of Islam. We can go in question and answers into greater detail about the Gulf crisis. Qatar has the naïve belief that it can support political change anywhere in the Middle East while at the same time ringfencing itself as well as other Gulf states from the fallout. Qatari support as well as its soft power strategy has meant that it has maintained contact and/or supported a host of militant groups, in some cases with the approval of the United States, as well as Islamists. It was a policy that clashed with that of the UAE, first and foremost, which sees any form of political Islam as a threat and under the influence of the UAE with Saudi Arabia’s evolving threat perception.

Fact of the matter is that all the Gulf states have maintained and/or supported militants and Islamists; no country more so than Saudi Arabia, not only in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been involved in a covert war for the past 40 years. It is a war that explains much of Iranian actions today. Yet, Saudi Arabia is fighting an uphill battle. Its future in the Middle East is that of a second fiddle state. There are three major powers in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Egypt, and Israel, in certain regards. Turkey, Iran and, Egypt have what Saudi Arabia does not: large populations, huge domestic markets, industrial bases, highly educated populations, and deep-seated identities grounded in histories of empire. Iran, moreover, has resources. Saudi Arabia has oil and Mecca, not enough to compete. Saudi Arabia is a regional power because of past containment policies towards Iran. Once Iran is unfettered, it will unlikely be able to compete for long.

A major aspect of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is the ideological and religious battle that Saudi Arabia has waged for the past four decades, the fallout of which is being felt across the globe. Saudi Arabia has invested an estimated $100 billion to promote Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. To be clear, the bulk of that money did not go to militants, it went to religious, cultural and educational facilities that Saudi Arabia largely did not micro-manage or control. There are only a handful of countries where the Saudis funded violence: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Syria. Also to be clear, ultra-conservatism does not by definition breed militancy but it does create an enabling environment in conjunction with other factors, first and foremost lack of social and economic opportunity.

The blowback of ultra-conservatism is felt in the kingdom as is evident in the economic and social transition Gulf states are embarking on. To put the transition in perspective, keep in mind that every person born in the Gulf today is likely to witness the end of oil in his or her lifetime. Economic streamlining and diversification was long overdue but was made unavoidable by the drop in oil prices sparked by Saudi oil policy that focussed on market share rather than price.

Economic reform and limited social change but no political liberalization amounts to ruling families unilaterally rewriting social contracts by rolling back the cradle-to-grave-welfare state. The reforms cater to aspirations of significant segments of the youth who constitute the majority of the region’s citizenry. But they also go against the grain of vested interests and deep-seated ultra-conservatism. With few exceptions, there is little indication that the reform process is being well-managed, certainly not in terms of the gap between expectations and delivery. With other words, the jury on the reform process is still out. Moreover, nowhere in the Gulf is the legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts potentially more potent than in Saudi Arabia given its size and repressed diversity in terms of popular aspirations. It goes without saying, that what happens in the kingdom would ripple across the Gulf.

The short-term silver lining of events in the Middle East may be developments in Palestine with the reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestine Authority in the West Bank as a result of engineering by the UAE and Egypt. It will no doubt bring relief to Gaza which has effectively been blockaded by both Egypt and Israel. The decisive factor however will be the ability of the government to provide jobs and services, the outcome of elections and how Hamas fares in those polls,

For sure, in theory the deal removes a major obstacle to peace talks: the division among the Palestinians themselves. Yet, fact of the matter is, even if a peace can be negotiated, it may not be worth the paper it is written on without Hamas being part of it. The good news is that the United States and Israel have been muted in their response to the reconciliation. Nonetheless, fundamental differences between Hamas and the Palestine Authority have not been resolved, including the terms of any peace talks and a unified military command.

The bottom line of all of this is that short-term, opportunistic policies will not provide solutions unless they lead to a tackling of fundamental problems. Without that, they could exacerbate situations, meaning that ultimately the threats and problems mushroom rather than shrink. If that happens, Israel’s alliance with Gulf could shift from an asset to a liability.

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

“Today Saudi Arabia finally lost the war on Yemen.”

Eric Zuesse

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On August 17th, an anonymous German intelligence analyst who has perhaps the world’s best track-record of publicly identifying and announcing historical turning-points, and who is therefore also a great investigative journalist regarding international relations (especially military matters, which are his specialty) headlined at his “Moon of Alabama” blog, “Long Range Attack On Saudi Oil Field Ends War On Yemen”, and he opened:

Today Saudi Arabia finally lost the war on Yemen. It has no defenses against new weapons the Houthis in Yemen acquired. These weapons threaten the Saudis economic lifelines. This today was the decisive attack:

Drones launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels attacked a massive oil and gas field deep inside Saudi Arabia’s sprawling desert on Saturday, causing what the kingdom described as a “limited fire” in the second such recent attack on its crucial energy industry.  …

The Saudi acknowledgement of the attack came hours after Yahia Sarie, a military spokesman for the Houthis, issued a video statement claiming the rebels launched 10 bomb-laden drones targeting the field in their “biggest-ever” operation. He threatened more attacks would be coming. 

New drones and missiles displayed in July 2019 by Yemen’s Houthi-allied armed forces

Today’s attack is a check-mate move against the Saudis. Shaybah is some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from Houthi-controlled territory. There are many more important economic targets within that range.  …

The attack conclusively demonstrates that the most important assets of the Saudis are now under threat. This economic threat comes on top of a seven percent budget deficit the IMF predicts for Saudi Arabia. Further Saudi bombing against the Houthi will now have very significant additional cost that might even endanger the viability of the Saudi state. The Houthi have clown prince Mohammad bin Salman by the balls and can squeeze those at will.

He went on to say that the drones aren’t from Iran but are copies from Iran’s, “assembled in Yemen with the help of Hizbullah experts from Lebanon.”

He has been predicting for a long time that this war couldn’t be won by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MbS). In the present report, he says:

The war on Yemen that MbS started in March 2015 long proved to be unwinnable. Now it is definitely lost. Neither the U.S. nor the Europeans will come to the Saudis help. There are no technological means to reasonably protect against such attacks. Poor Yemen defeated rich Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi side will have to agree to political peace negotiations. The Yemeni demand for reparation payments will be eye watering. But the Saudis will have no alternative but to cough up whatever the Houthi demand.

The UAE was smart to pull out of Yemen during the last months.

If he is correct (and I have never yet found a prediction from him turn out to have been wrong), then this will be an enormous blow to the foreign markets for U.S.-made weapons, since the Sauds are the world’s largest foreign purchasers of those, and have spent profusely on them — and also on U.S. personnel to train their soldiers how to use them. So (and this is my prediction, not his), August 19th might be a good time to sell short U.S. armament-makers such as Lockheed Martin.

However: his prediction that “the Saudis will have no alternative but to cough up whatever the Houthi demand” seems to me to be the first one from him that could turn out to have been wrong. If the Sauds have perpetrated, say, $200 billion of physical damage to Yemen, but refuse to pay more than $100 billion in reparations, and the Housis then hit and take out a major Saudi oil well, isn’t it possible that the Sauds would stand firm? But if they do, then mightn’t it be wrong to say, at the present time, that: “Today Saudi Arabia finally lost the war on Yemen.”? He has gone out on limbs before, and I can’t yet think of any that broke under him. Maybe this one will be the first? I wouldn’t bet on that. But this one seems to me to be a particularly long limb. We’ll see!

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The message behind the release of Iranian oil tanker

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Gibraltar court ordered the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 to be released. The tanker was seized by the British Royal Marines about a month ago. 

This verdict was the ending of an elaborate game designed by John Bolton National Security Advisor of the United States and Mike Pompeo, carried out by the Britain government. 

With seizing the tanker, Bolton was trying to put psychological and political pressures on Iran and force other countries to form a consensus against Iran, but he couldn’t fulfill any of these goals. 

Iran’s firm, logical and wise answer to the seizure of Grace 1 (like making solid legal arguments) and the seriousness of our country’s armed forces in giving a proper response to Britain’s contemptuous act, made the White House lose the lead on reaching its ends. 

Washington imagined that the seizure of Grace 1 will become Trump’s winning card against Iran, but the release of the tanker (despite disagreement of the U.S.) became another failure for the White House in dealing with Iran.  

Obviously, London was also a total loser in this game. It is worth noting that U.S. was so persistent about keeping the oil tanker in custody that John Bolton traveled to London and insisted on British officials to continue the seizure of the ship. Their failure, however, clearly shows that the White House and its traditional ally, Britain, have lost a big part of their power in their relations with Iran. 

Clearly, the illegal seizure of the Iranian oil tanker by Britain proceeded by the seizure of a British tanker by Iran and the following interactions between the two countries is not the whole story and there is more to it that will be revealed in coming days. 

What we know for sure is that London has to pay for its recent anti-Iran plot in order to satisfy Washington; the smallest of these consequences was that Britain lost some of its legal credibility in international arena as it illegally captured an Iranian oil tanker. 

The order of the Gibraltarian court revealed that London had no legal right to seize the Iranian oil tanker and nobody can defend this unlawful action. Surely, Iran will take all necessary legal actions to further pursue the matter.  

In this situation, the Islamic Republic of Iran is firm on its position that it doesn’t have to follow the sanctions imposed by the European Union on other countries (including Syria). 

No entity can undermine this argument as it is based on legal terms; therefore, Iran will keep supporting Syrian nation and government to fight terrorism. This is the strategic policy of the Islamic Republic and will not be changed under the pressure or influence of any other third country. 

Finally, it should be noted that the release of Grace 1 oil tanker was not only a legal and political failure for Washington and London and their allies but it was also a strategic failure. Undoubtedly, the vast consequences of this failure will be revealed in near future. 

From our partner Tehran Times

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Business and boxing: two sides of the same coin

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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What do a planned US$15 billion Saudi investment in petroleum-related Indian businesses and a controversial boxing championship have in common?

Both reflect a world in which power and economics drive policy, politics and business at the expense of fundamental rights.

And both underscore an emerging new world order in which might is right, a jungle in which dissenters, minorities and all other others are increasingly cornered and repressed.

Rather than furthering stability by building inclusive, cohesive societies both support trends likely to produce an evermore unstable and insecure world marked by societal strife, mass migration, radicalization and violence.

A world in which business capitalizes on decisions by a critical mass of world leaders who share autocratic, authoritarian and illiberal principles of governance and often reward each other with lucrative business deals for policies that potentially aggravate rather than reduce conflict.

No doubt, the planned acquisition by Saudi Arabia’s state-owned national oil company Aramco of 20 percent of the petroleum-related businesses of Reliance Industries, one of India’s biggest companies, makes commercial and strategic economic and business sense.

Yet, there is equally little doubt that the announcement of the acquisition will be read by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, days after he scrapped the autonomous status of the troubled, majority Muslim region of Kashmir, as a license to pursue his Hindu nationalist policies that discriminate against Muslims and other minorities and fuel tensions with Pakistan, the subcontinent’s other nuclear power.

The ultimate cost of the fallout of policies and business deals that contribute or give license to exclusion rather than inclusion of all segments of a population and aggravate regional conflict could be far higher than the benefits accrued by the parties to a deal.

Underscoring the risk of exclusionary policies and unilateral moves, cross border skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani forces erupted this week along the Kashmiri frontier in which at least five people were killed.

The timing of the announcement of the Aramco Reliance deal in a global environment in which various forms of racism and prejudice, including Islamophobia, are on the rise, assures Indian political and business leaders that they are unlikely to pay an immediate price for policies that sow discord and risk loss of life.

Like in the case of Saudi and Muslim acquiescence in China’s brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled, north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang, the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history, the announcement risks convincing embattled Muslim minorities like the Uighurs, the Kashmiris or Myanmar’s Rohingya who are lingering in refugee camps in Bangladesh that they are being hung out to dry.

To be sure, Kashmiris can count on the support of Pakistan but that is likely to be little more than emotional, verbal and political.

Pakistan is unlikely to risk blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, at its next scheduled meeting in October by unleashing its anti-Indian militants.

Anthony Joshua’s controversial fight with Andy Ruiz scheduled for December in Saudi Arabia, the first boxing championship to be held in the Middle East, pales in terms of its geopolitical or societal impact compared to the Saudi Indian business deal.

Fact is that Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the championship has provoked the ire of activists rather than significant population groups. The fight is furthermore likely to be seen as evidence and a strengthening of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s selective efforts to socially liberalize the once austere kingdom.

Nonetheless, it also reinforces Prince Mohammed’s justified perception that Saudi Arabia can get away with imprisoning activists who argued in favour of his reforms as well as the lack of transparency on judicial proceedings against the alleged perpetrators of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia insists the killing was perpetrated by rogue operatives.

What Saudi investment in India and the scheduled boxing championship in the kingdom have in common is that both confirm the norms of a world in which ‘humane authority,’ a concept developed by prominent Chinese international relations scholar Yan Xuetong, is a rare quantity.

Mr. Yan employs the concept to argue without referring to President Xi Jinping, Xinjiang, China’s aggressive approach towards the South China Sea or its policy towards Taiwan and Hong Kong that China lacks the humane authority to capitalize on US President Donald J. Trump’s undermining of US leadership.

Mr. Yan defines a state that has humane authority as maintaining strategic credibility and defending the international order by becoming an example through adherence to international norms, rewarding states that live up to those norms and punishing states that violate them. Garnering humane authority enables a state to win allies and build a stable international order.

Mr. Yan’s analysis is as applicable to India and Saudi Arabia as it is to China and others that tend towards civilizational policies like the United States, Russia, Hungary and Turkey.

It is equally true for men like Anthony Joshua promoter Eddie Hearn and business leaders in general.

To be sure, Aramco is state-owned and subject to government policy. Nonetheless, as it prepares for what is likely to be the world’s largest initial public offering, even Aramco has to take factors beyond pure economic and financial criteria into account.

At the end of the day, the consequence of Mr. Yan’s theory is that leadership, whether geopolitical, economic or business, is defined as much by power and opportunity as it is by degrees of morality and ethics.

Failure to embrace some notion of humane authority and reducing leadership and business decisions to exploiting opportunity with disregard for consequences or the environment in which they are taken is likely to ultimately haunt political and business leaders alike.

Said Mr. Yan: “Since the leadership of a humane authority is able to rectify those states that disturb the international order, the order based on its leadership can durably be maintained.”

What is true for political leaders is also true for business leaders even if they refuse to acknowledge that their decisions have as much political as economic impact.

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