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Gulf crisis: Soccer trumps politics

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A target of massive Saudi investment, the Maldives severed diplomatic relations with Qatar hours after a Saudi-UAE-led alliance of largely financially dependent states declared in June an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.

That didn’t stop the Football Federation of Maldives from signing a cooperation agreement with its Qatari counterpart five months later, raising questions of the degree of support for the boycott even within the alliance.

The question is not merely hypothetical. It goes to both the heart of the failure of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to garner significant international support for their effort to force Qatar to drop its independent foreign and defense policies, and the two states’ attempts to persuade world soccer body FIFA to deprive the Gulf country of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights. The international community by and large has called for a speedy negotiated end to the Gulf crisis.

The Maldives’ cutting of diplomatic ties with Qatar was in support of the alliance’s demands that Qatar halt support for militants, shutter the Al Jazeera television network, and reduce its ties to Iran. Qatar and the UAE in particular have, moreover, been locked into a covert war that precedes the boycott by several years in which the government in Abu Dhabi targeted Qatar’s hosting rights.

Dubai’s idiosyncratic police chief, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, recently went as far as saying that the UAE and Saudi Arabia would lift their boycott if Qatar surrendered its hosting rights – a demand that was rejected by Qatar out of hand.

Recent German and Austrian media reported that a German campaign to stop extremism by persuading the European Union to take regulatory and punitive action against funders of extremism was funded by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The campaign, which targets left and right-wing as well as Islamic militancy, identified Qatar and Turkey as the main funders of extremism in Europe. Supported by prominent Germans and Austrians, many with an immigrant background, the campaign has denied funding by Qatar’s detractors.

Businessmen with Qatari interests suspect, however, that the campaign will target Qatar’s hosting rights once it has garnered its targeted one million signatures on a petition demanding tougher EU policies on the funding of extremism. “This initiative is to align with the other German Qatar detractors by next year to agitate for a withdrawal of the hosting rights,” one businessman said.

All of which makes the Maldives soccer federation’s forging of closer ties to Qatar the more remarkable. The move followed not only the government’s breaking off of diplomatic relations with Qatar, but also Saudi efforts to squash criticism of controversial potential investments in the island republic as well as assertions that massive Saudi funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative educational and cultural activities has put the Maldives’ traditional adherence to Sufism, a more mystical strand of Islam, on the defensive.

Journalists reporting on a potential $10 billion Saudi-funded real estate project that media reports asserted could involve the acquisition by the kingdom of Faafu, a collection of 19 low-lying islands 120 kilometres south of the Maldives capital of Male, were handed cash-filled envelopes during an event at the Saudi embassy in Mahe to counter the assertion. The project would allegedly involve building seaports, airports, high-end housing and resorts and the creation of special economic zones.

Maldives President Abdulla Yameen denied that the atoll would be sold, and the Saudi embassy said it had no intention “of investing in a megaproject or buying an island or atoll in the Maldives.” But the fact that Mr. Yameen pushed to change the Constitution in 2015 to allow the sale of property to foreign entities has fuelled rumours of potential sales to both Saudi Arabia and China.

Yameen Rashid, a 29-year-old popular blogger and prominent critic of creeping authoritarianism and Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the Maldives was brutally stabbed and killed as he walked home from work earlier this year. His killers, believed to be Islamic militants, have yet to apprehended. Militants have also targeted liberals and other critics of the government.

The rise of ultra-conservatism has put on the defensive the Maldives’ long-standing live-and-let-live tolerance that helped make the atolls a high-end vacation destination. It has increasingly been replaced by more intolerant and puritan expressions of Islam. Public partying, mixed dancing and Western beach garb have become acceptable only within expensive tourist resorts.

Cultural change has been paralleled by a change in the Maldives’ political course. The Maldives has moved from being a small state that balances its relations with regional powers to an outpost of the kingdom’s geopolitical and religious worldview. As a result, the Maldives, in addition to subscribing to the boycott of Qatar, has joined a Saudi-led military alliance that nominally seeks to combat terrorism but has an anti-Iranian undertone, and severed ties to Iran, the kingdom’s arch rival.

The Maldives’ move into the Saudi orbit fortified the kingdom in its fierce struggle with Iran for regional hegemony. The atolls’ strategic position in the Indian Ocean, a straight three-hour shot from the Iranian coast, moreover, strengthened Saudi efforts to position itself as a more strategic ally of China in competition with Iran.

Analysts believe that both Saudi Arabia and China see the atolls as a potential host of military bases that would complement their separate outposts in Djibouti, an East African nation on a key energy export route at the mouth of the Red Sea.

They “want to have a base in the Maldives that would safeguard trade routes – their oil routes – to their new markets. To have strategic installations, infrastructure,” said exiled former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, who lost power in 2012 following protests over rising commodity prices and the nation’s poor economy.

The Saudis “have had a good run of propagating their world view to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades. They’ve now, I think, come to the view that they have enough sympathy to get a foothold,” Mr. Nasheed said.

If soccer is anything to go by, Saudi Arabia’s grip on the Maldives may either be fraying or have been overstated by critics like Mr. Nasheed.

Speaking in Qatar at the signing of the cooperation agreement, Maldives soccer federation Bassam Adeel Jaleel insisted that the government, on which the football body is financially dependent, was “happy” with the forging of closer ties despite the boycott of the Gulf state.

Insisting that the Maldives could learn from Qatari preparations for the World Cup, Mr. Jaleel attempted to shield the government by noting that it adhered to the principle of a “separation of politics from football,” a fiction that governments and sports associations uphold because it gives them license to exploit to their advantage the incestuous relationship between the two. In the Maldives, that appears to amount to hedging the government’s bets as Qatar, five months into the Gulf crisis, has so far been able to resist Saudi and UAE pressure.

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.

Middle East

Risk of Decreased Relief Funding for Palestinian Refugees

Ingrid Stephanie Noriega

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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) recognizes the current United States Department of State’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to reduce funding for the Agency as detrimental to the organization’s efforts for the empowerment and alleviation of Palestinian refugees. This action is of grave concern, as the United States government has prioritized the suppression of relief activity and instead utilized the innate conditions Palestinian refugees face as a political tool, treating this population similarly to that of a commodity. Risks to the UNRWA range from providing ineffective services in food insecurity, education, health, and social services for Palestinian refugees. The United States should increase its funding amounts for the UNRWA.

Policy Issue and Research Question

The UNRWA undertook a study on the needs of Palestinian refugees for the Honorable Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State for the United States Department of State.  The study aimed to:

  1. ascertain the ways in which the United States had previously assisted Palestinian refugees through the UNRWA
  2. evaluate the risk posed to the Department of State by the current lack of involvement, and
  3. suggest to the Department of State procedures and policies to mitigate risk from this phenomenon.

Policy Concerns

The main policy concerns relevant to the Palestinian refugees’ needs are as follow:

The needs of Palestinian refugees are historically contingent. War leading to Israel’s establishment in 1948 allowed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to be forced from their homes. There are 500,000 UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and more than 2 million in Jordan. Palestinians in Syria have the most unsafe situation. There were roughly 560,000 registered UNRWA refugees before the Syrian Civil War. Before this war, UNRWA had 118 schools in Syria. September 2017, 101 of those schools were open. 48,000 Palestinian children were enrolled notwithstanding the conflict and violence, which has resulted in the killing of at least eighteen UNRWA employees. In 2003, the UN refugee agency made a registration campaign of Palestinians in Baghdad. 23,000 Palestinian refugees were counted; the true approximation was between 35,000 and 42,000. Many left their homeland in 1948, while others moved to Iraq from elsewhere in the region, including thousands who settled there following the 1991 Gulf War. In 2003, Jordan took in 386 Palestinians with Jordanian spouses who had fled Iraq for the border camps. There were more than 350 Palestinians left; they had voiced they wanted to go to their homes in the West Bank, Gaza, and even Israel, but UNHCR had yet to find any countries to accept them or to provide temporary asylum. In 2003, Jordan allowed 386 Palestinians into the nation with Jordanian spouses. Most of the 427 Palestinians remaining in border camps had Iraqi resident documents. Jordan accepted almost half of the original population, according to a UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski, from a news briefing in Geneva, which is formidable.

Defunding assistance of Palestinian refugees by the United States leads to inhumane human rights violations. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivered a petition at a meeting of the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The US had announced it would stop 65 million dollars of its intended funding to the UNRWA for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Guterres expressed serious concerns over the shortfall in UNRWA funding caused by the move, which cuts US aid by more than a half. The US decision would impair the agency’s ability to preserve critical services for Palestinian refugees like that of education and health care.

United States involvement in assisting Palestinian refugees should not be politicized. The United States had been a well-regarded donor for UNRWA. In 2017, the US donated more than $350 million. The January 2018 installment, under the administration of US President Donald Trump, had cut in half $125 million it had originally decided to provide. Additionally, $45 million in emergency food was suspended, that of which had been originally decided as an amount December 2017. These actions all resulted after Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel alongside threats to cut aid unless Palestinian leaders agree to resume talks. In 2016, the US had donated more than $364 million to the agency. It provided the Palestinian Authority $400 million annually as well. The Palestinian Authorities are responsible for administrating parts of the West Bank. After receiving threats from the US, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the UNRWA, falsely stating the agency assisted ‘fictitious refugees’. He additionally claimed the UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and the narrative of the right-to-return, to eliminate the State of Israel.

There are political, security and diplomatic repercussions for the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region through miscommunicating Israel’s involvement towards ameliorating Palestinian refugees. The West Bank, inclusive of East Jerusalem, is a vulnerable region for Palestinian refugees. There are harsh socioeconomic conditions based upon occupation-related policies and practices imposed by the Israeli authorities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly endorsed Trump’s position, denouncing the UNRWA. Netanyahu believes the United States should reduce its payments to this organization and instead give that funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Interestingly enough, the Israeli armed forces prioritize positive working relations with the UNRWA, partially to benefit from maintaining humanitarian flows into Gaza that sidestep Hamas. When the US Congress had threatened to cut UNRWA funding, Israel had been a most effective advocate against cuts, as evidenced by experiences at the State Department and Capitol Hill. There have been reports in the Israeli press that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is also against any cuts to UNRWA funding, citing it would likely further exacerbate conditions in Gaza.

Policy and Procedure Recommendations

The UNRWA assesses that the United States, in specific the Department of State, bears considerable risk from reducing its donations towards Palestinian refugees, given its current Arab-Israeli geo-political relations. UNRWA has prepared the following recommendations for policy and procedures to mitigate this menace.

Return United States relief amounts towards the UNRWA to the target $350 million amount.The US had previously supplied 30 percent of total funding to UNRWA, as the Agency’s largest donor. Decreasing or fully getting rid of US assistance could constrain the agency and severely limit its work, which puts great pressure on Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority. Gaza would be severely affected as well.

Depoliticize Palestinian refugees from a United States-Israeli conspiracy, and instead focus upon negotiating concrete relief and security policy measures to assist the needs of Palestinian refugees.Removing the unreasonable stigma of Palestinian refugees being relevant to concessions of a previous 1948Israeli victory and alternatively viewing Palestinian refugees as a population equally to be assisted as refugees of other nations would make negotiated comprehensive reform measures less complex and onerous for all actors.These curitization of refugees is problematic. Most are everyday people attempting to restart their lives after trauma. Viewing refugees as latent security threats, whether through the weakening of host countries or possible terrorism recruits, is an injustice to their real difficulties.

The United States should work with Israel and UN member nations to develop amendments for addressing issues relevant to migration, food insecurity, education, health & social services of Palestinian refugees, notwithstanding geo-political concerns. Amendments to relevant UN Resolutions, as well as UNRWA and UNHCR affiliated documents to be analyzed in conjunction with governments, non-governmental organizations, as well as transnational advocacy networks would be integral to addressing comprehensive reform as guidelines for the international community at large.

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Middle East

Iranian Terror Plot Motivated by Threat of Regime Change

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan

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Last month, Belgian authorities arrested a married couple of Iranian origin after it was discovered that they were in possession of 500 grams of the explosive TATP, which they intended to carry to Paris to inflict mass causalities at a gathering of Iranian dissidents held on June 30. The couple presented themselves as supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the principal constituent group in the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), but were actually Iranian intelligence operatives bent on attacking or undermining the Resistance.

The arrest of Amir Sadouni and Nasim Naami was followed by the arrest in Germany of Asadollah Assadi, a diplomat at the Iranian embassy in Vienna who – in his capacity as an operative for the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) – provided the couple with the explosives. Had the terror plot been successful there is no telling what toll it would have taken on the gathering of roughly 100,000 supporters of the NCRI. In addition to Iranian expatriates and NCRI officials, the event included participation and speeches by hundreds of political dignitaries from throughout the world – including prominent American and European politicians representing multiple political parties.

What is clear is that the plot was foiled at a time when the Iranian regime considers it more imperative than ever to undermine the efforts of the Iranian Resistance and to impede the growth of its international support.

For seven months the world has witnessed unprecedented domestic unrest inside Iran and questions about the clerical regime’s grip on power are becoming increasingly widespread. The nationwide protest movement began in earnest at the end of last year when demonstrators in the city of Mashhad expressed popular discontent with the country’s persistent economic crisis but then quickly spread to every major city and town in Iran, while taking on a much broader anti-government message.

In March, as Iranians throughout the world were celebrating the New Year holiday of Nowruz, Maryam Rajavi, the President elect of the NCRI, issued a statement in which she praised the December-to-January uprising and declared that the year ahead “can and must be made into a year full of uprisings.” The people of Iran responded to this call to action, and reports continue to emerge even today of mass protests and clashes between Iranian activists and Iranian security forces.

The Paris terror plot was a desperate effort by the regime to distract attention from domestic unrest and fire up the government’s ever-shrinking hardline base with promises of asymmetric warfare against Western powers. But the overwhelming majority of Iranian citizens have no interest ideological conflict with the West since they are among the best educated, most pro-democratic and pro-Western populations in the Middle East. Exhibit A? Consider the bold chants of protestors on the Iranian street which, for more than half a year, have included messages like “death to the dictator,” a direct reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and other explicit calls for a wholesale change of government in Tehran.

This message was reinforced at the June 30 ”Free Iran Gathering” and the clerical regime was predictably desperate to disrupt it. Now that it has failed, thanks to the good work of multiple European authorities, the world can expect that Iran’s domestic activist community will be inspired anew, much like they were inspired by the success of the January uprising and by Mrs. Rajavi’s Nowruz statement.

But even after months of organizing and grassroots activity, Iran’s pro-democracy movement cannot be taken for granted by the international community. Neither can the nations of Europe take it for granted that the Iranian regime will simply lick its wounds and walk away from the most recent failed terrorist plot. Even now, Tehran is making efforts to halt the extradition of Asadollah Assadi to Belgium where the case against him is being pursued by investigators, to bring him home, and to refresh the terror networks operating via Iranian embassies in the West.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of using its embassies to plot terrorist attacks in Europe. He said  “There were Iranians arrested in Europe who were preparing to conduct a terror plot in Paris, France. We have seen this malign behavior in Europe.”

In a statement responding to the terror plot, the NCRI recommended that the nations of Europe consider closing those embassies and expelling Iranian diplomats, any number of whom could be operating as part of sleeper cells with a mission to damage the Iranian Resistance and the global movement for democracy in the Middle East.

European leaders are well advised to adopt such measures. By disrupting Iran’s diplomacy-cum-terrorism network, not only would they be safeguarding national security against persistent Iranian threats, but they would also be bolstering the Iranian Resistance movement inside Iran and throughout the world at a time when it is closer than it has ever been to toppling the theocratic regime that has made Iran the world’s foremost sponsor of international terrorism.

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Middle East

NATO and the puzzle of a nuclear deal with Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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A meeting of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Heads of State and Government was held on Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 July 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. NATO leaders met in Brussels amidst a terse environment that threatens to further weaken the post-war order.

This year’s meeting came at a tense time for transatlantic relations since the US president is set to sit down one-on-one with Russian president Vladimir Putin on May 16 in Helsinki. One of the topics the US president sought to discuss with his Western counterparts in Brussels was “the nuclear deal with Iran” and its fate.  Regarding this controversial issue Time wrote:

“After ripping up the Iran nuclear deal in May, the Trump Administration is fanning out across the globe to rally support for a return to economy-crippling sanctions against Tehran.”

It continues: “The effort comes ahead of President Donald Trump’s trip next week to Europe, where he is expected to pressure leaders into joining the far-reaching campaign to handcuff major aspects of Iran’s economy, including driving oil exports to zero. If European allies don’t join, Trump has threatened secondary sanctions on any company that does business with Tehran.”

According to the Time and other Western sources, Donald Trump intends to press NATO leaders over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and “The president hopes his bare-knuckled approach will coerce European leaders to unite behind him, even as they publicly oppose a return to sanctions and scamper to salvage the existing nuclear deal without American participation. This is while the White House keeps to press its European allies for increasing the military and defense budget (to 2% of their GDP).

While the transatlantic tensions are raising day by day due to the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Europe, what meaning can negotiations on the JCPOA imply? Does Trump intend to make a deal with his European partners in this regard? Do NATO’s European members welcome the integration of the JCPOA amid their conflicts with the US?

The British Prime Minister Theresa May has recently asked other European countries to remain silent against Trump’s actions in imposing tariffs on imported goods from Europe, and not to seek retaliatory measures. She also asked European authorities to negotiate with the US president on the JCPOA. Indeed, what’s going on among NATO members?

The truth is that in near future, the JCPOA will turn to the Europe’s leverage for making deals with the United States in security grounds, an issue witch its signs we could well see in the Brussels summit. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in its calculations, the EU is still regarding itself as dependent to the United States. Those like Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are adjusting their policies in the international system based on their security dependence on the United States. It might be possible that the European officials agree on “restraining Trump”, but that’s all, and we can’t expect them to go further as to fulfil their obligations in this regard. The EU would never confront the US seriously, since “resisting against the White House” is in no way defined in Europe’s strategies and tactics.

In the course of the G7 recent meeting in Canada, Donald Trump discussed various subjects with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, including Iran nuclear deal, tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Europe, and the increase of NATO defense budget. But these talks resulted in the intensified disagreements among EU member states and Trump. The tensions were so high that the meeting ended with no final statement. Now the US president is pursuing the same approach I dealing with NATO states.

Trump and the European countries both regard the tensions raised in the international system as a “single package”. In this equation, Trump asks the European authorities to cease their support for the JCPOA and the continuation of the nuclear deal in exchange for a decrease in the US economic and security pressures. It should be noted that one of the main reasons for the European leaders’ refusal of offering a conclusive, detailed and effective package to Iran regarding the JCPOA was their secret negotiations with the American officials. Since the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Mike Pompeo the American Secretary of State had been constantly in contact with the European troika’s foreign ministers, and announced them the exact positions and policies of the US government.

In the course of the NATO summit, we witnessed the continuation of the Europe’s paradoxical game playing towards the JCPOA. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the EU’s main strategy towards Iran and the JCPOA, is to make us remain as part of the nuclear deal as long as possible, and without benefiting from its advantages, so that the influence of the US sanctions would be multiplied. The offering of the EU’s unacceptable and useless package of proposals is also to be analyzed in the same vein; a weak package which is resulted from the special relations between the US and Europe.

First published in our partner MNA

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