Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to attend sporting events in three of the country’s stadiums raises as many questions as it provide answers that go to the core of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms and the kingdom’s sports policy.
The announcement that women, long barred from stadia, would be granted access to stadiums in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam came weeks after the kingdom lifted a ban on women’s driving. The moves were designed to project Saudi Arabia in a favourable light at a time that it is seeking to attract badly needed foreign investment.
It was not immediately clear whether women would have access to any sporting event of their choice nor was it evident that the decision would affect wide-ranging restrictions on the encouragement of women’s sports.
Saudi Arabia has until recently rejected demands by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that women be granted the support and facilities to compete in all sports rather than only those disciplines mentioned in Qur’an such as equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery. Operating in a legal netherland, middle and upper class women have been able to expand into other sports such as soccer through private clubs and associations.
The partial lifting of the ban on women’s access to stadiums may also be related to concern within the IOC of greater government interference in Saudi sports, a sector that has always been tightly controlled by the state.
Saudi officials worried that the kingdom like Kuwait and Pakistan could be suspended after Turki Al Asheikh, the president of the General Sports Authority (GSA), replaced officials in virtually all Saudi sports associations with the exception of soccer, since his recent appointment. Soccer may have been excluded to ensure that Saudi Arabia’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was not jeopardized. The IOC suspended Kuwait and Pakistan because of alleged government interference.
Mr Asheikh’s appointees included Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, the first woman to head a mixed gender sports federation. Princess Reema, a successful entrepreneur and daughter of former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was last year appointed to a Cabinet-level position in sports governance.
The tighter Saudi grip on sports governance as well as the lifting of the bans on driving and stadium access fits the pattern of Prince Mohammed’s reforms that are focussed on economic diversification and rationalization coupled with necessary but limited social reforms and a crackdown on any form of dissent.
They also stroke with Prince Mohammed’s recent declaration that he would steer the kingdom away from the Wahhabi ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on which it was built and towards a more moderate form of the faith. The prince did not define what moderate meant and, despite his reducing the power of the religious police and allowing forms of entertainment like music, film and dance that were long banned, has yet to crackdown on religious hate speech, including against Shiites, and endorse religious pluriformity. Saudi Arabia remains a country in which non-Muslim worship is banned.
So far, Prince Mohammed’s moves fit a more general trend among autocrats who realize that their autocracies need to be upgraded to ensure survival. To achieve that goal, autocracies need to be able to deliver public goods, create jobs and economic opportunity and cater to a modicum of aspirations of largely young populations. Prince Mohammed’s reforms, laid out in a document entitled Vision 2030, were geared towards that goal.
Saudi Arabia’s need to shed its image as an inward looking ultra-conservative kingdom is fed not only by its foreign investment requirement but also by its dispute with Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state, and its rivalry with Iran.
Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, has been able to project itself as a more forward-looking country, despite a five-month-old Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led boycott justified by allegations of Qatari support for militancy and political violence, because it does apply numerous restrictions associated with Wahhabism in the kingdom. As a result, in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia, Qatar boasts one of the world’s highest women’s participation in the work force.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have so far failed to garner international empathy for their refusal to enter into unconditional negotiations with Qatar. The two countries have insisted that Qatar accept a set of intrusive and humiliating demands that would curtail Qatari sovereignty before they engage in negotiations. Qatar has rejected the demands and proven so far capable of compensating for difficulties caused by the Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott.
Ironically, the partial Saudi lifting of the ban on women’s access to stadiums gives the kingdom a leg up in its rivalry with Iran, the only other country that does not allow women to attend men’s sporting events. Iran has so far successfully resisted pressure from international sports associations, but is likely to find that more difficult in the wake of the Saudi move.
Commenting on Prince Mohammed’s reforms, Amnesty International this week suggested five crucial elements that would give his plans credibility: an end to death penalties given that Saudi Arabia’s is one of the world’s top executioners; allowing freedom of expression; an end to discrimination of Shiites, halting discrimination of women including abolition of male guardianship, and stopping the killing of civilians in the Yemen war.
“The months since the Crown Prince’s appointment, have seen no improvements, instead, it’s already dire rights record has continued to deteriorate,” Amnesty said in a statement referring to Prince Mohammed’s promotion in June from deputy crown prince to crown prince.
Vienna Talks: US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran
Talks between Iran and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2015/Iran Nuclear deal regarding the revival of the deal resumed at Vienna on November 29, 2021 after a hiatus of five months (the talks which began on April 2021 have been stalled since June 2021). The US has not been participating directly in these talks.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who won the June 2021 election has not been opposed to engaging with other signatories to the JCPOA, including the US, but has repeatedly stated, that Iran would only return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement, if its key demands are addressed favorably, and would give precedence to its national interest.
EU political director, Enrique Mora sounded optimistic with regard to the resumption of the talks, and while talking to reporters said:
‘I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks’
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, also the country’s chief nuclear negotiator, said that the US is adopting a ‘maximum pressure’ approach (referring to economic sanctions) which would not help in achieving any genuine results.
Ali Bagheri Kani’s statement underscores the fact that any significant headway with regard to the Iran nuclear deal is likely to be an uphill task. Iran has increased its uranium enrichment and uranium stockpile, away above the limits agreed upon during the 2015 agreement, and has also restricted access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to it’s nuclear program. Tehran has also made it clear, that if the US lifts all economic sanctions, it will get back to full compliance to the agreement of 2015. Tehran is also seeking a guarantee from the US, that in future it would not withdraw from an agreement, as Donald Trump had done.
The Biden Administration too has been adopting a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Iran in recent months (Iranian officials have gone to the extent of saying that Biden’s Iran policy is no different from that of Trump). The US seems to be unwilling to remove all sanctions against Iran. US has also been saying that if diplomacy fails it will need to explore other options against Iran and would not refrain from exerting more pressure . On Monday, a US State Department spokesman categorically stated that ‘If Iran demands more or offers less than a mutual return to compliance, these negotiations will not succeed,’.
US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran
In recent weeks, Washington has made efforts to reduce tensions with Beijing and Moscow, sending out a message that it is keen to work with both countries on certain issues – especially Afghanistan, Climate Change and Iran.
Both Moscow and Beijing have adopted a different stance from Washington on the Iran issue. Washington’s decision to host a Democracy Summit (December 9-10, 2021) has not gone down to well with either especially Beijing.
During a video conversation on November 24, 2021 with Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi not only supported Tehran’s demands with regard to the JCPOA, but also criticized the Summit For Democracy saying that it will only create further divisions globally. Russia’s Ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, also supported Tehran’s demands saying some of them were pertinent. In a newspaper interview he said:
‘For example, they, the Iranian side, want to guarantee, let’s say, in future Americans wouldn’t repeat the same step as they did before. The Iranian side also needs some guarantees from the European businesses to fulfill and to implement all that contract. It is quite logical’
US President, Joe Biden while seeking to have a working relationship with China and Russia has also been trying to work together with democracies, and also send out a message that democracies can deliver (hours before his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 14, 2021, Biden signed into law an ambitious 1.2 trillion USD infrastructure package). The Summit for Democracy was aimed at greater coordination with other democracies, especially US allies, on important global issues, but it remains to be seen if the Summit will raise tensions between Washington and Beijing and Moscow, and thus indirectly act as an impediment to further progress on talks related to the Iran nuclear deal.
While Biden’s emphasis on democracies working together, and the need to check China’s growing clout is legitimate, it is important that he does not make the same mistakes as Trump and does not compel Iran to become an appendage of China (imposition of further sanctions at a time when Iran’s economy is in the doldrums will only increase the Anti-US sentiment in Iran). It is also important that the US works closely with its allies on the Iran issue. France, Germany and UK should be playing a more pro-active role in the revival of JCPOA and should not be quiet bystanders. Iran on its part also needs to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism.
Testing the waters: Russia explores reconfiguring Gulf security
Russia hopes to blow new life into a proposal for a multilateral security architecture in the Gulf, with the tacit approval of the Biden administration.
If successful, the initiative would help stabilise the region, cement regional efforts to reduce tensions, and potentially prevent war-wracked Yemen from emerging as an Afghanistan on the southern border of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aden and at the mouth of the Red Sea.
For now, Vitaly Naumkin, a prominent scholar, academic advisor of the foreign and justice ministries, and head of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, is testing the waters, according to Newsweek, which first reported the move.
Last week, he invited former officials, scholars, and journalists from feuding Middle Eastern nations to a closed-door meeting in Moscow to discuss the region’s multiple disputes and conflicts and ways of preventing them from spinning out of control.
Mr. Naumkin, who is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, co-authored the plan first put forward in 2004. The Russian foreign ministry published a fine-tuned version in 2019.
Russia appears to have timed the revival of its proposal to begin creating a framework to deal with Houthi rebels, seemingly gaining the upper hand against Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s seven-year-long devastating war.
The Iranian-backed rebels appear to be closer to capturing the oil and gas-rich province of Marib after two years of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war. The conquest would pave the way for a Houthi takeover of neighbouring Shabwa, another energy-rich region. It would put the rebels in control of all northern Yemen.
The military advances would significantly enhance the Houthi negotiating position in talks to end the war. They also raise the spectre of splitting Yemen into the north controlled by the Houthis and the south dependent on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“The battle for Marib could be a final stand for the possibility of a unified Yemen,” said Yemeni writer and human rights activist Nabil Hetari.
A self-declared independent North Yemen would potentially resemble an Afghanistan sitting on one of the world’s critical chokepoints for the flow of oil and gas. North Yemen would be governed by a nationalist Islamist group that presides over one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, struggles to win international recognition, restore public services, and stabilise a war-ravaged economy while an Al-Qaeda franchise operates in the south.
The Russian initiative also appears geared to take advantage of efforts by Middle Eastern rivals Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran to reduce regional tensions, get a grip on their differences, and ensure that they do not spin out of control.
Russia seems to be exploiting what some describe as paused and others as stalled talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran mediated by Iraq. Iraqi officials insisted that the talks are on hold until a new Iraqi government has been formed following last month’s elections. The discussions focused at least partially on forging agreement on ways to end the Yemen war.
Mr. Naumkin suggested that the Russian initiative offers an opportunity to carve the Middle East out as a region of cooperation as well as competition with the United States in contrast to southeastern Europe and Ukraine, where US-Russian tension is on the rise.
In the Middle East, Russia and the United States “have one common threat, the threat of war. Neither the United States nor Russia is interested in having this war,” Mr. Naumkin told Newsweek.
A State Department spokesperson would not rule out cooperation. “We remain prepared to cooperate with Russia in areas in which the two sides have common interests while opposing Russian policies that go against US interests,” the spokesperson said.
The Russian proposal calls for integrating the US defense umbrella in the Gulf into a collective security structure that would include Russia, China, Europe, and India alongside the United States. The structure would include, not exclude Iran, and would have to extend to Israel and Turkey.
UAE efforts to return Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab, if not the international fold, although not driven by the Russian initiative, would facilitate it if all other things were equal.
Inspired by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the proposal suggests that the new architecture would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.
Russia sees the architecture as enabling the creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolving conflicts across the region and promoting mutual security guarantees.
The plan would further involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British, and French forces and bases in various Gulf states and elsewhere in the Middle East.
It calls for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions.”
In Mr. Naumkin’s reading, Middle Eastern rivals “are fed up with what’s going on” and “afraid of possible war.” Negotiations are their only remaining option.
That seems to drive men like UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, his Saudi counterpart Mohammed bin Salman, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi to reach out to one another in a recent flurry of activity.
“These are talks between autocrats keen to protect their own grip on power and boost their economies: not peace in our time, only within our borders,” cautioned The Economist.
Abraham’s peace agreements and the Chinese and Russian coordination towards JCPOA
The Egyptian researcher, as a well-known expert in the Middle East region on Chinese Political Affairs, called for an international interview with the well-known (Bloomberg International News Agency), which is published on Friday, November 26, 2021, regarding (the role of China and Russia in the developments of the Iranian nuclear file within the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”), and its relationship with the “New AUKUS Defense Agreement”, sponsored by Washington to confront the Chinese influence, and its impact on the overall upcoming interactions.
Considering that my mentioned interview with “Bloomberg News Agency” was going done as well with the current permanent official representatives of China and Russia in the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”, namely: the Chinese Ambassador “Wang Qun”, as (the current permanent Chinese envoy to “IAEA”), and Russian Ambassador “Mikhail Ulyanov”, as (the Russian permanent envoy to “IAEA”
But, despite the mentioned interview was being shortened to a very large extent on the “Bloomberg News Agency Website”, due to the available limited space that has been permitted. So, the Egyptian researcher, as an expert in Chinese Politics has decided to present to all those interested around the world this comprehensive analytical file on the Iranian nuclear issue, from my own perspective and experience to understand the Chinese side in the first place and their direct thinking towards the mechanisms of response towards the (American policy of encirclement / scaling/ restriction/ containment against China). Whatever those names or terminologies are, they are all pouring into American tactical plans and strategies against China.
Therefore, it has become imperative for all my fellows and researchers around the world who are concerned with the matter, and with the current international interactions, to try to understand and analyze these new data and developments, and bring them into the heart of the current “international equation” and the (policy of American-Russian-Chinese polarization), and then, all of us should try, as well-known international academics and scholars in our regions, to convey the point of view of all its parties. Concerning the impact of these new interactions on the future of the Middle East region and the other places and areas, and the most dangerous to me is that: “The extent of the impact of peace agreements or Israeli normalization with the Arab Gulf states on the future of Sino-American competition and influence in the Middle East”, which is leading to a comprehensive analysis, regarding:
“The impact of the policy of American alliances directed against Beijing, especially the “New AUKUS Defense Nuclear Agreement”, and before that the “Quad Quartet Agreement” or what is known as “Asian NATO” on the developments of the Iranian nuclear file, within the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”
Here, we find that China’s support for Tehran is one of the most important current global problems, especially in the face of US policies and the constant pressure on Beijing. And through my careful reading of the scene in the region, especially in light of these new changes and the reassessment of international relations on new foundations, and the United States of America’s “politics of alliances” to put pressure on the Chinese side in its areas of influence, especially Washington’s signing of the new “Aukus Defense and Security Agreements” with Australia Britain, and the Quad Quartet Agreement with Japan, India, and Australia. In addition to my meticulous follow-up of all secret American moves and their attempt to include (Australia and Japan) in the membership of the “Nato Military Alliance”, despite this violation of the “NATO constitution” of itself, given their extreme distance from the two shores of the Atlantic and North Atlantic as one of the basic conditions for “NATO’S membership”. Then the provocative American attempt to open a (permanent branch of the NATO’S military office in the “Indo-Pacific” region – in the American sense – which includes the Indian and Pacific regions), with the aim of restricting Chinese influence in its regional and Asian areas of influence themselves.
From here, the Egyptian researcher reached a number of profound changes in the entire global scene, represented in:
China’s intensification of its support for Tehran in confronting the United States of America in alliance with Russia to unify their decisions within the corridors of the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”, especially after the summit of the American challenge to China in its regional and border surroundings, with the signing of the “New AUKUS Defense Agreement of a nuclear nature, in violation of the terms of membership of the International Agency for atomic energy in the first place”, and for Beijing to resort to an official complaint to the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” against the United States of America, alleging a violation and Washington’s violation of the foundations of its membership in the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” by sponsoring the AUKUS nuclear agreement, and the completion of the Australian nuclear submarine deal. This represents a nuclear threat to China, near its neighboring areas of influence in (the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the Pacific Ocean region).
Hence, the new connection came to my mind as an expert in the Chinese political file for many years, with profound changes in the mechanism of making and directing political decisions within Beijing after (AUKUS Defense Alliance sponsored by the United States of America and directed directly to China), then studying and analyzing the extent of its impact on the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”, and even more dangerous to me is raising the following serious inquiry, on:
(Can the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” verify the Chinese complaint against the United States of America for its sponsorship of a nuclear agreement of “Aukus” and the nuclear submarine deal, and pass its decision to impose sanctions on the USA itself)?
In my personal opinion, there are many changes that have occurred in the global scene as a whole, and the division of the whole world and its adoption of the policy of international alliances and polarization, including certainly China and its ally Russia, which is trying to respond to the network of American alliances to surround it with the work of new counter alliances, especially after the “New AUKUS Defense Agreement”. The Chinese side is also supporting building a network of new regional alliances related to the Middle East, throughout forming an alliance, which includes: (Turkish-Iranian-Pakistani) parties, as an attempt by China to pressure the “State of India” by threatening its interests in the region, and thus forcing it not to cooperate and withdraw from the the “Quad Quartet Agreement”, which is sponsored by Washington to contain China, which is also called, as an “Asian NATO”.
Therefore, China has already started planning to respond to “the policy of American alliances against it in Asia in the heart of the Middle East”, by following China’s policy of alliances and polarization of the actors in the region and hostile to Washington, especially in the Middle East, and the Chinese attempt to attract Turkey in particular. Specifically, given its only membership in the Middle East in the (NATO’S Military Alliance), which is an opportunity for Beijing to form an alliance of countries close to the same American spheres of influence, as Washington does. Therefore, an alliance of Chinese banks, known as the “Consortiums”, expressing its willingness to lend Turkey three billion dollars, in order to finance several stalled projects in Istanbul, which can be considered analytically as (the largest financial support provided by China to the Turkish side in the modern history).
Accordingly, we can present this new analysis on the impact of the policy of American and Chinese alliances on the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” in the Iranian nuclear file, or the extent of its ability to exert pressures on the United States of America and its sponsorship of the Aukus nuclear defense agreement, or to impose sanctions on it, according to the official request submitted by the China.
Here, we can analyze that the Sino-Iranian strategic cooperation agreement for 25 years, which was concluded in March 2021, and China’s use of Iran’s card in its growing conflict with the United States of America, represents a challenge and a future problem for many countries in the region. Whatever the outcome of future developments and facts in the course of the intertwined relations between China and the United States and Iran in the future, this basically supports the reality of (the foundations of the inauguration of an era in which the United States of America does not have the keys to the main control over the Middle East, with the entry of major and pivotal players such as China and Russia). Therefore, the (multi-polarity) that China advocates is gaining tangible and realistic dimensions, and may develop to a degree that may increase the intensity of the regional competition between the two superpowers, which may exacerbate the instability that the Middle East is constantly witnessing.
With the growing international role and influence of China and Russia in many files, whichever is (China sharing with Russia the desire to break the American hegemony over the shipping lines in the Middle East), and its most prominent indicators are (China’s pursuit of a military base in Djibouti, and its interest in conducting international shipping operations through waterways).
China is proceeding here, according to long-term plans to challenge the US military hegemony in the region. In addition to the Chinese ambition to maximize its role in ensuring security related to the safety of its trade, products and investments with all countries of the world within the framework of the “Chinese Belt and Road Initiative”, with China’s attempt to build new military bases both in the Arab Gulf and the United Arab Emirates to challenge the American influence as it has been circulated since a period in the Middle East, or China’s pursuit of a presence in the Arabian Sea and others, which means the importance of the Middle East in the strategy of the Cold War between the two parties.
It is worth noting here that recent regional variables may lead to some changes, the most important of which are the “Abraham agreements for political normalization between Israel and the Gulf states, which are signed between several Arab countries with Israel, as they may have strengthened Washington’s position in the region in the face of China”, as an opposing force against the USA. Here, the United States seeks to follow (politics of mobilization and bringing together its partners to confront hostile parties, such as Iran), and then Washington benefits from the political normalization agreements with Israel to consolidate its position and ease the burden of maintaining security against the conflicting partners in the region, especially between the Arabs and Israel.
But, the United States of America, through its current administration of President “Joe Biden” and during the period of the two previous administrations, has sent turbulent signals about (its inability to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East). Former President “Obama” hesitated at the time to intervene in Syria, and was succeeded by President “Donald Trump” that has suddenly withdrawn and reduced the American presence from it, which raised the fears and suspicions of the leading elites in the region, especially the Arab Gulf, regarding the American commitment (to ensure the security of maritime navigation and the protection of waterways in the region).
In light of this current situation and growing doubts about the American position, especially the “Joe Biden administration’s focus on the human rights situation in the various countries of the region”, and the American administration’s invitation to the Iraqi side alone from all the countries of the region to participate in the conference of democratic countries in the world, and the current accusations by the administration of “Joe Biden” to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its involvement in the events of September 11, 2001, and demanding of huge amounts of compensations from the Saudi side. So, most of the countries in the region turned towards the other two superpowers, namely: (Russia and China), by activating the official visits with them at the highest levels, and establishing partnership rules in various fields, with Russia’s desire and ambitions to restore its former global power during the Soviet era, and Russia intensified its military presence in Syria and Libya, as well as the interdependence of the Russian economy with many countries in the Middle East, such as: Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia (through the OPEC Plus system), and then Russia succeeded in restoring its bilateral relations with the countries of the region, and to highlight itself as a neutral mediator in the region’s conflicts. Also, China’s assistance to President “Bashar Al-Assad” against all of the Western pressures, that enabled him to continue and achieve several goals.
The most important point for the countries of the Middle East region was that the “emergence superpowers of China and Russia in the region are peaceful and respect for the national sovereignty, and seek to maintain the status quo, compared to the USA”. In addition to the increasing interest of some countries in the region in the Russian weapons, besides, the desire of both Russia and China to push “Turkey”, as the most important member of the “NATO alliance” in the Middle East region, to play a pivotal role against the interests of the United States and the NATO’s military alliance itself.
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