Saudi Arabia, the birthplace as well as spiritual home of Islam, has been in news in recent years as it makes strenuous efforts to enhance its global profile as a leader of (Sunni) Islamic world. It managed the Arab Spring so well that though the phenomenon had struck entire Arab world, starting from Tunisia, just passed by that nation without making any real impact on the Saudi life and politics.
However, Saudi government and the king himself were in anxiety and despair until the “spring” died down.
The fact that Saudi Arabians and royal families are corrupt like other materialistic countries has shocked the world as they thought Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of holy Prophet of Islam, was free from bribery and corruption and Saudi kingdom is a nation of honest people.
Corruption is rampant in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The ruling classes and their allies, close relatives are engaged in wealth creation activities by engaging themselves in corrupt practices.
As the first ever Arab leader Saudi king Salman bins Abdulaziz Al Saud, through his son Crown Prince Mohammad, is now seen taking bold steps to cleanse the Saudi system off corruption and give Islamic laws due place in the system that would g a long way streamlining the Islamic governance in Islamic world beyond Arab nations.
All of a sudden Saudi government under Crown Prince Mohammad decided to check growth of corruption in the Islamic nation, found even many of the royal families within the government corrupt, arrested and put them in jail. According to initial report, at least 11 princes, four current ministers and several former ministers had been detained in the anti-corruption probe.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman has dismissed a number of senior ministers and detained nearly a dozen princes in an investigation by a new anti-corruption committee on Saturday. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman who owns investment firm Kingdom Holding, was among those held. The senior ministers who were sacked include Prince Mitaab bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard.
Those involved in the historic corruption scandal of Saudi kingdom include: Alwaleed bin Talal, owner of Kingdom Holding group; Prince Mitaab bin Abdullah, minister of the National Guard; Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former governor of Riyadh ; Prince Turki bin Nasser, former head of meteorology, environment; Waleed al-Ibrahim, chairman of MBC media group; Khaled al-Tuwaijri, former president of the Royal Court; Adel Faqih, minister of economy and planning; Amr al-Dabbagh, former president of the General Investment Authority; Saleh Abdullah Kamel, chairman of Dallah al Baraka Group; Saud al-Tobaishi, head of Royal ceremonies and protocols; Ibrahim al-Assaf, state minister and executive of Saudi Aramco; Bakr Binladin, owner of construction company Saudi Binladin Group; Saud al-Dawish, former CEO of Saudi Telecom Company; Khaled al-Mulhem, former director general of Saudi Arabian Airlines.
In a statement Salman alluded to the “exploitation by some of the weak souls” who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money” for the creation of the anti-graft committee.
The detentions follow a crackdown in September on political opponents of Saudi Arabia’s rulers that saw some 30 clerics, intellectuals and activists detained. Prince Alwaleed, a flamboyant character, has sometimes used his prominence as an investor to aim barbs at the kingdom’s rulers. In December 2015, he called then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump a “disgrace to all America” and demanded on Twitter that he withdraw from the election.
The arrested officials are believed to be being housed in the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel, which two weeks ago held a high-profile investment summit under the auspices of Prince Mohammed. The convention centre next door was used to receive Donald Trump in May, when the US president travelled to Saudi Arabia to reset relations with his country’s long-term ally, which had deteriorated under the Obama administration that had pivoted to Iran.
Saudis really are on the brink of dramatic changes. In 2015, Mohammed bin Salman became minster of defence. Just a few months ago, he became the head of all the internal security forces because they got rid of the Mohammed bin Nayef, then crown prince. Now he’s taken control of the third most important security apparatus within the country, so he has defence, he is in control of interior and now he is in control of the guards.
Clearly he has the stage set. Clearly all the heads of all the major media networks, newspapers, and commentators were all already groomed, set in motion in order to defend the crown prince and his policies. There are already new songs for the crown prince and his glory, so internally they are definitely setting the stage in terms of the three security apparatuses, the media and so on.
President Trump has given his blessings and support to the crown prince Mohammad with the hundreds of billions of dollars of promised contracts, so he’s certainly supporting his various ambitions in the region, most importantly that of the confrontation with Iran in the region. This is something that Trump really wants as well as apparently a promised rapprochement with Israel.
Rise of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia houses the holiest Mosques of Islam. As the motherland of Islam, Saudi Arabia was a poor nation until oil was discovered last century.
Saudi Arabia is geographically the fifth-largest state in Asia and second-largest state in the Arab world after Algeria. Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north, Kuwait to the northeast, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to the east, Oman to the southeast and Yemen to the south. It is separated from Israel and Egypt by the Gulf of Aqaba. It is the only nation with both a Red Sea coast and a Persian Gulf coast and most of its terrain consists of arid desert and mountains.
Discovery of oil greatly enhanced the economic and financial prowess of Saudi kingdom. Petroleum was discovered on 3 March 1938 and followed up by several other finds in the Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia has since become the world’s largest oil producer and exporter, controlling the world’s second largest oil reserves and the sixth largest gas reserves. The kingdom is categorized as a World Bank high-income economy with a high Human Development Index and is the only Arab country to be part of the G-20 major economies. However, the economy of Saudi Arabia is the least diversified in the Gulf Cooperation Council, lacking any significant service or production sector, apart from the extraction of resources.
Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on oil for income and has been suffering since oil prices crashed from more than $100 a barrel in 2014. The kingdom has been desperately trying to diversify its economy away from the commodity, but is still focused on trying to raise oil values and restore its main income source. Saudi Arabia’s risky plot to raise oil prices to save its economy has failed sending the country into crisis. The kingdom tried to manipulate prices by slashing output to increase demand, but the plan backfired as US shale producers continued to pump more oil. Prices have fallen as low as $43 a barrel and remained well below $50 since the end of May when OPEC announced its plans to tackle oversupply. OPEC members Libya and Nigeria were previously exempt from the cap announced in May, but desperate OPEC and Saudi could now pressure the two countries to comply in the hope of denting supply. Russia has already called on OPEC to cap output from Nigeria and Libya in the near future and it will be interesting to see if any new agreements are proposed for both nations to join the oil production cut agreement.
Among the challenges to Saudi economy include halting or reversing the decline in per capita income, improving education to prepare youth for the workforce and providing them with employment, diversifying the economy, stimulating the private sector and housing construction, diminishing corruption and inequality.
In addition to petroleum and gas, Saudi also has a small gold mining sector in the Mahd adh Dhahab region and other mineral industries, an agricultural sector, especially in the southwest, based on dates and livestock, and large number of temporary jobs created by the roughly two million annual Hajj pilgrims. Virtually all Saudi citizens are Muslim (officially, all are), and almost all Saudi residents are Muslim. Estimates of the Sunni population of Saudi Arabia range between 75% and 90%, with the remaining 10–25% being Shia Muslim. The official and dominant form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia is commonly known as Wahhabism.
According to estimates there are about 1,500,000 Christians in Saudi Arabia, almost all foreign workers. Saudi Arabia allows Christians to enter the country as foreign workers for temporary work. Americans enjoy special status in Saudi as they are not punished there for their crimes and there could be some CIA agents too among them. In 1980, Saudi Arabia bought out the American interests in Aramco.
Saudi Arabia’s command economy is petroleum-based; roughly 75% of budget revenues and 90% of export earnings come from the oil industry. Saudi Arabia officially has about 260 billion barrels of oil reserves, comprising about one-fifth of the world’s proven total petroleum reserves It is strongly dependent on foreign workers with about 80% of those employed in the private sector being non-Saudi.
Saudi Arabia is called in the West as a monarchical autocracy. Saudi Arabia is considered a regional and middle power. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer in 2010–2014. By 1976, Saudi Arabia had become the largest oil producer in the world. King Khalid’s reign saw economic and social development progress at an extremely rapid rate, transforming the infrastructure and educational system of the country; in foreign policy, close ties with the USA were developed.
In 1979, two events occurred which greatly concerned the government, and had a long-term influence on Saudi foreign and domestic policy. The first was the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It was feared that the country’s Shi’ite minority in the Eastern Province which is also the location of the oil fields might rebel under the influence of their Iranian co-religionists. There were several anti-government uprisings in the region such as the 1979 Qatif Uprising. The second event was the Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca by Islamist extremists. The militants involved were in part angered by what they considered to be the corruption and un-Islamic nature of the Saudi government. The government regained control of the mosque after 10 days and those captured were executed. Part of the response of the royal family was to enforce a much stricter observance of traditional religious and social norms in the country (for example, the closure of cinemas) and to give the Ulema a greater role in government. Neither entirely succeeded as Islamism continued to grow in strength.
This partly explains why Saudi kingdom is touchy of Sunni branch of Islam and opposes Iran, accusing it of fomenting troubles in Sunni nations. .
King Khalid died of a heart attack in June 1982. He was succeeded by his brother, King Fahd, who added the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to his name in 1986 in response to considerable fundamentalist pressure to avoid use of “majesty” in association with anything except God. Fahd continued to develop close relations with the USA and increased the purchase of American and British military equipment. Saudi used a good part of its income from oil sales on terror goods from USA, UK and other western countries.
As the USA began pushing its own religious and capitalist agenda in the nation of Islam, many Saudis opposed Washington and Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West began to cause growing concern among some of the ulema and students of sharia law and was one of the issues that led to an increase in Islamist terrorism in Saudi Arabia, as well as Islamist terrorist attacks in Western countries
The vast wealth generated by oil revenues was beginning to have an even greater impact on Saudi society. It led to rapid technological modernisation, urbanization, mass public education and the creation of new media. This and the presence of increasingly large numbers of foreign workers greatly affected traditional Saudi norms and values. Although there was dramatic change in the social and economic life of the country, political power continued to be monopolized by the royal family leading to discontent among many Saudis who began to look for wider participation in government
In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia spent $25 billion in support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran–Iraq War. However, Saudi Arabia condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and asked the US to intervene. King Fahd allowed American and coalition troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Hidden economy and rampant corruption
Oil made many poor Arabs rich and billionaires in a few years and they also began looting the nation’s resources by all possible means. In fact, Saudi is no difference from other corrupt nations like India, Pakistan or USA or UK.
Arabs make huge sums and wealth, both legitimate and illegal. The line between public funds and royal money is not always clear in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled by an Islamic system in which most law is not systematically codified and no elected parliament exists. WikiLeaks cables have detailed the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives as well as various money-making schemes some have used to finance lavish lifestyles.
Most of rich Arabs keep their wealth in USA and UK. Trump responded in typically combative terms accusing the prince of wanting to control “our politicians with daddy’s money”. Trump tweeted: “Dopey Prince Alwaleed_ Talal wants to control our US politicians with daddy’s money. His father, Prince Talal, is considered one of the most vocal supporters of reform in the ruling Al Saud family, having pressed for a constitutional monarchy decades ago”. Al-Waleed had in fact recently promised to donate all his wealth to charity – although he had years earlier purchased a yacht from Trump, and according to Forbes’s profiles, shares the president’s predilection for mocked-up Time magazine covers apparently featuring his exploits.
Prince Al-Waleed a grandson of Saudi’s first ruler and son of a Saudi finance minister, has an estimated net worth of $17bn (£13bn), although he has used them for underestimating his own wealth. He came to prominence internationally as a major backer of Citigroup in the 1990s, and more so when continuing to back the firm as its value evaporated during the financial crisis. His investments extended into major media groups, with substantial stakes in Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, Apple, Time Warner, Twitter, and owning Rotana, whose TV channels broadcast widely across the Arab-speaking world. He has reduced his share in NewsCorp, but his clout was such that an intervention in 2011 in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal was seen as the coup de grace for News International’s Rebekah Brooks, telling the Murdochs from his superyacht in Cannes that “she has to go”.
The investment group he set up in 1980, rebranded as the Kingdom Holding Company in 1996, also owns several global luxury hotel chains, as well as landmark properties such as London’s Savoy Hotel and the George V in Paris. More recently it has backed Uber’s rival ride-hailing firm Lyft. On Twitter in 2015 he called Donald Trump a “disgrace to America” after the Republican candidate floated the idea of a ban on Muslims, and he urged Trump to quit the campaign.
Prince Al-Waleed was an early advocate of women’s employment in Saudi Arabia – hiring a female pilot for his jets, at a time when there was no prospect of women driving on the ground, and speaking out against the driving ban before the regime agreed this year to lift it. His wife, Ameera, who he divorced in 2013, usually appeared unveiled.
Al-Waleed’s international profile was extraordinary – frequently seen with top politicians, Wall Street executives and British royals. But he was an unofficial public face of the Saudi kingdom rather than a key part of the ruling elite – a status underlined by his arrest in King Salman’s crackdown.
In a 2013 court case in London, a judge said that Prince Al-Waleed’s evidence in the witness box was “confusing and too unreliable” as he was forced to pay out in a business dispute. And while the prince already owns a Boeing 747 for his personal use, complete with throne, his ambition to have the world’s biggest superjumbo, the A380, refitted with a concert hall, Turkish baths, luxury suites and a parking bay for his Rolls Royce, remains unfulfilled. Despite placing an order with manufacturer Airbus in 2007 at the Dubai airshow, the plane remains on the tarmac in Toulouse to this day.
Hidden economies promote corruption more than the open ones. Transparency deficit automatically causes corruption on a large scale as it had happened in Russia and now happening in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan etc are ordinary third world countries without any definition of good governance and so corruption is the order of the system in these countries.
The regime and system promote and encourage corruption as a state policy.
Now Arab government seriously considers multi-pronged approach to diversify its economy from oil into other fields of economy, including industries, agriculture, services, military equipment production, modernization, etc.
The highest profile arrest in Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption purge is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a multibillionaire with huge investments in western firms. Prince Al-Waleed, 62 and one of the world’s richest men, has become one of the most familiar – and progressive – faces of Saudi in western media. While he has the lifestyle, jets, yacht and palace of a stereotypical Saudi billionaire, he has burnished a different image with interventions such as backing rights for Saudi women and denouncing President Trump on Twitter.
Arab leaders do not distinguish between their wealth and state wealth as they loot national resources for private use.
Anti-corruption probe and purge for accelerated change
Earlier, former British PM Tony Blaire had to resign for serious charges, including ones related to bribery scandals involving top Saudi officals and ministers. But the issue was never raised in Saudi Arabia or Arab world. Saudi government and king himself were keen not to publicize the corruption sandals of their ministers or officals because that would bring bad name for the nation with Holy sites. But the king or government did not purse anti-corruption drive to cleanse the system and present a positive image of Saudi Arabia.
Now for the first time in modern Arabian history a King, namely Salman has ventured to contain corruption prevalent in Saudi life by his launch of the anti-corruption drive and catching the top culprits in the royal dynasty itself red handed. Well done.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has tightened his grip on power through an anti-corruption purge by arresting royals, ministers and investors including billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal who is one of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen. Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of the king and owner of investment firm Kingdom Holding, invests in firms such as Citigroup and Twitter. He was among 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers detained.
The purge against the kingdom’s political and business elite also targeted the head of the National Guard Prince Miteb bin Abdullah who was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard by Prince Khaled bin Ayyaf. News of the purge came after King Salman decreed the creation of an anti-corruption committee chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his 32-year-old favourite son who has amassed power since rising from obscurity three years ago.
The new anti-corruption body was given broad powers to investigate cases, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions, and seize assets. “The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable,” the royal decree said.
King Salman issued a statement saying that the committee shall “identify offences, crimes and persons and entities involved in cases of public corruption”. The committee has the power to issue arrest warrants, travel bans, disclose and freeze accounts and portfolios, track funds and assets, and “prevent their remittance or transfer by persons and entities, whatever they might be”, according to the statement.
The shake-up of the Saudi government comes just months after King Salman replaced his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef with his son Mohammed bin Salman as the kingdom’s crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman has been responsible for pushing through a number of changes both at home and abroad since he became first in line to the Saudi crown. Ian Black of the London School of Economics said the move fit a “pattern of accelerated change” since Mohammed bin Salman became heir. “We’ve seen since June this year, very far-reaching changes,” he said, adding: “That was when Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman, was appointed crown prince.”Since Mohammed bin Salman became the crown prince in June, we’ve seen a lot of upheaval. We’ve seen the announcement of this very ambitious Saudi plan to transform the country the Saudi economy, Vision 2030.”
The dismissal of Mitaab bin Abdullah as National Guard minister came shortly after a missile attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport. However, Black said the two were probably not related as the sacking came bundled with changes to other ministerial portfolios.
In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has announced an end to its long-standing ban on allowing women to drive, and Mohammed bin Salman has also promised to return the country to a “moderate” form of Islam. Since 2015 Saudi Arabia has been at war against Houthi rebels, who control much of northern Yemen on the kingdom’s southern border.
It is not clear if the Trump visit emboldened the kingdom, which has been locked in a decades-long tussle with Iran for power and influence across the region. Since then, a swath of economic policies has been launched, along with cultural reforms unprecedented in Saudi history. By mid next year, women are expected to be allowed to drive, to enter sports stadiums and travel abroad without the endorsement of their male guardians.
It is also said the arrests were another pre-emptive measure by the crown prince to remove powerful figures as he exerts control over the world’s leading oil exporter. The round-up recalls the palace coup in June through which he ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister. MbS, as he is known, was expected to follow at least by removing Prince Miteb from leadership of the National Guard, a pivotal power-base rooted in the kingdom’s tribes. Over the past year MbS has become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom’s military, foreign, economic and social policies, causing resentment among parts of the Al Saud dynasty frustrated by his meteoric rise.
Saudi Arabia’s stock index was dragged down briefly but recovered to close higher as some investors bet the crackdown could bolster reforms in the long run. The royal decree said the arrests were in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money.”
Many ordinary Saudis praised the crackdown as long-awaited.
King Salman’s purge should be seen as a part of his reform policy.
In September, the king announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted, while Prince Mohammed is trying to break decades of conservative tradition by promoting public entertainment and visits by foreign tourists.
The crown prince has also slashed state spending in some areas and plans a big sale of state assets, including floating part of state oil giant Saudi Aramco on international markets. Prince Mohammed also led Saudi Arabia into a two-year-old war in Yemen, where the government says it is fighting Iran-aligned militants, and a row with neighbouring Qatar, which it accuses of backing terrorists, a charge Doha denies. Detractors of the crown prince say both moves are dangerous adventurism.
The most recent crackdown breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family. Prince Mohammed, rather than forging alliances as the usual strategy, is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military, and the National Guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war.
In September, Prince Mohammed authorised the detention of some of the country’s most powerful clerics, fearing they may not be loyal to his agenda and supportive of his boycott of Qatar, which Saudi leaders accuse of destablising the region. The state moves on the home front followed a striking foreign policy stance earlier in the day that appeared to put the kingdom on a political collision course with Iran. Under Saudi pressure, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, unexpectedly quit his job, citing Iranian interference across the Middle East. Hariri made his statement in Riyadh after twice being summoned to the Saudi capital during the week.
The attorney general, Saud al-Mojeb, said the newly mandated corruption commission had started multiple investigations. The decree establishing the commission said: “The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable.” “The suspects are being granted the same rights and treatment as any other Saudi citizen,” he said. “During the investigation, all parties retain full legal privileges relating to their personal and private property, including funds.”
Prince Mohammed will oversee the corruption commission, adding to his already formidable list of responsibilities, including his role as defence minister and champion of the economic transformation, dubbed Vision 2030, that aims to revolutionize most aspects of Saudi life within 12 years. Prince Mohammed told the Guardian last month that the kingdom had been “not normal” for the past 30 years and pledged to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam.
According to Al Arabiya, the new committee, which is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is looking into the 2009 floods that devastated parts of Jeddah, as well as the government’s response to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus outbreak.
The interests of the Al Saud would remain protected. Both King Salman and heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman are fully committed to them. What they wish to instill, and seem determined to execute, is to modernize the ruling establishment, not just for the 2030 horizon but beyond it too.
Observation: A step in the right direction
Corruption is alien to Islam. The action against corruption shocked the world- not just the Arab nations or Islamic world alone. The world is under the impression, rather illusion that as the Islamic nation Saudi Arabia would not at all allow corruption in any meaner and that Saudis as the decedents of the first ever Muslims of the world would care for projecting a positive way of thinking and living.
The evil of corruption is deep in Saudi Arabia but without any state efforts to contain and reduce corruption the malice has become large scale corrupt practices. The kingdom’s top council of clerics tweeted that anti-corruption efforts were “as important as the fight against terrorism”, essentially giving religious backing to the crackdown.
The state attack on Saudi corrupt machinery at the top level is a well thought out step to root out corruption from the land of birth of Islam and of Holy Prophet of Islam and His infallible companions.
Nearly six months into his tenure as crown prince, which will eventually see him succeed his father as monarch, Prince Mohammed has launched a dizzying series of reforms designed to transform the kingdom’s moribund economy and put the relationship between the state and its citizens on a new footing.
Saudi arrests show crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is a risk-taker with a zeal for reform but the move would enormously strengthen his place in the governance. The move strengthens Prince Mohammed’s control of the kingdom’s security institutions, which had long been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family.
Crown Prince is raising the leverage of power in Saudi Arabia. He certainly has the blessings of his father King Salman and he’s determined to make all kinds of changes in Saudi Arabia itself and in Saudi foreign policy, which led to the war in Yemen and the Gulf crisis. But on domestic front, this is new. Not only do we have a new chapter opening up in Saudi Arabia, we have a whole new book: it’s still all done in secrecy. Why those 11 princes, why those four standing ministers? Is it really just to consolidate power or is there more to it?
In the tradition of Saudi Arabia, revolting against the royals is not a good idea. It’s never been recommended. But does it all end with this or will it lead to more? There have been signs over the last two and a half years that more of this is coming.
Corruption has been rampant in recent generations in Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed had vowed to make business dealings more transparent. The spectacle of royal family members being arrested would add weight to claims of a crackdown on graft. However, such is the manner in which business is done in the kingdom, there would be few senior figures not connected to contract deals that would be considered corrupt in many other parts of the world.
Saudi Arabia’s leadership has pulled off its boldest move yet to consolidate power around its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, arresting 11 senior princes, one of the country’s richest men and scores of former ministers in what it billed as a corruption purge. The move aimed to reshape public behavior in a kingdom where patronage networks often determine business deals and prominent families secure substantial cuts from lucrative contracts.
However, some in the Saudi capital describe the move as a naked attempt to weed out dissent, and political rivals, as the ambitious heir to the throne continues to stamp his authority across most aspects of public life in Saudi Arabia.
The purge aimed to go beyond corruption and aimed to remove potential opposition to Prince Mohammed’s ambitious reform agenda which is widely popular with Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning youth population but faces resistance from some of the old guard more comfortable with the kingdom’s traditions of incremental change and rule by consensus.
Saudi Arabia, if it becomes a totally corruption free, can positively influence not only Arab world or Islamic world but even entire world of capitalism and imperialism to change for the better providing genuine scope for redistribution of nation’s wealth on a possible perfect principle without corruption and inflation.
Gulf rivalries spill onto the soccer pitch
With the 2018 World Cup in Russia behind it, the soccer world’s focus shifts to the 2022 tournament in Qatar. Politics and the Gulf’s internecine political and legal battles have already shaped debate about FIFA’s controversial awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Qatar. The battles highlight not only the sport’s dominance in the Middle East by autocratic leaders but also the incestuous relationship between politics and sports that is at the root of multiple scandals that have rocked the sports world for much of this decade and compromised good governance in international sports.
Three men symbolize the importance of soccer to Gulf autocrats who see the sport as a way to project their countries in a positive light on the international stage, harness its popular appeal in their cultural and public diplomacy campaigns, and leverage it as a pillar of their efforts to garner soft power: Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his nemeses, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi sports czar, Turki al-Sheikh, one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s closest associates.
To be sure, tension between Qatar and its Gulf detractors was spilling onto the soccer pitch long before the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt took their opposition to Qatari policies to a new level with the imposition in June 2017 of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. Since then, debate about the Qatari World Cup has been further politicized with the Gulf crisis driving efforts to deprive Qatar of economic and soft power benefits it derives from its hosting of the tournament, if not of the right to host the mega-sports event.
The UAE-Saudi efforts took on added significance as Qatar and its detractors settled in for the long haul. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt will likely face difficult choices if the Gulf crisis persists when the World Cup, the first such mega-tournament to be held in the Middle East, kicks off in Doha in late 2022.
The choice would involve potential political risk. It would be between maintaining the boycott that has cut off all air, sea and land links between Qatar and its detractors at the expense of fans in a soccer-crazy part of the world in which little evokes the deep-seated emotions associated with religion and football or effectively breaching the embargo to evade political backlash and ensure that supporters have access to a sports milestone in the region’s history. The starkness of the boycotting states’ dilemma would be magnified if any one of them were to qualify for the Qatar World Cup and would be enhanced if they were to play the host country or, for example, Iran.
The issue of ability to attend is magnified by expectations that the demography of fans attending the World Cup in Qatar may very well be a different from that at past tournaments. Qatar is likely to attract a far greater number of fans from the Middle East as well as Africa and Asia. The Asian Football Confederation’s Competition Committee has already urged governments to exempt football teams from travel bans and would almost certainly do the same for fans.
As a result, the UAE-Saudi effort to undermine the Qatar World Cup is about more than seeking to deliver a body blow to Qatar. It is also about avoiding being further tied up into knots in an anti-Qatari campaign that has so far failed to break the Gulf state’s resolve, force it to concede, and garner international support. The campaign is multi-pronged and doesn’t shy away from violating laws as is evident in Saudi bootlegging to deprive beIN, the sports franchise of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network, of the fruits of acquired rights to broadcast World Cup tournaments and European competitions at the risk of being penalized and/or taken to court by the likes of FIFA and the English Premier League. Saudi media reports that the government has launched an anti-piracy campaign, confiscating more than 4,000 illegal receivers that hacked beIN failed to put an end to the bootlegging.
Signalling the political importance that men like the crown princes and Sheikh Tamim attribute to sports, a former top UAE security official, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, suggested that the only way to resolve the Gulf crisis would be for Qatar to surrender its World Cup hosting rights. “If the World Cup leaves Qatar, Qatar’s crisis will be over … because the crisis is created to get away from it,” Mr. Khalfan said.
Mr. Khalfan spoke at a time that leaked documents from the email account of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington and a close associate of the country’s crown prince, revealed a UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency by manipulating the value of bonds and derivatives. If successfully executed, the plan would have allowed Qatar’s distractors to argue that the Gulf state’s financial problems called into question its ability to organize the World Cup.
Serving national interests
Mr. Al-Sheikh, the chairman of the kingdom’s General Sport Authority, makes no bones about harnessing sports to serve the kingdom’s interests. With a career in security rather than sports, he was unequivocal in his assertion on the eve of Saudi Arabia’s debut in the 2018 World Cup in Russia that he made decisions based on what he deemed “Saudi Arabia’s best interest,” reaffirming the inextricable relationship between sports and politics.
Barely 24 hours before the World Cup’s opening match, Saudi Arabia made good on Mr. Al-Sheikh’s assertion that the kingdom’s international sports policy would be driven by former US President George W. Bush’s post 9/11 principle of “you are either with us or against us.”
With Morocco’s bid for the 2026 World Cup in mind, Mr. Al-Sheikh had warned that “to be in the grey area is no longer acceptable to us. There are those who were mistaken in their direction … If you want support, it’ll be in Riyadh. What you’re doing is a waste of time…,” Mr. Al-Sheikh said. Mr. Al-Sheikh was referring to Morocco’s refusal to join the anti-Qatari campaign. Adopting a Saudi Arabia First approach, Mr. Al-Sheikh noted that the United States “is our biggest and strongest ally.” He recalled that when the World Cup was played in 1994 in nine American cities, the US “was one of our favourites. The fans were numerous, and the Saudi team achieved good results.”
Mr. Al-Sheikh was manoeuvring at the same time to ensure that the kingdom has greater say in international soccer governance, including issues such as the fate of the Qatari World Cup and a push to extend international isolation of Iran to the realm of sports. To do so, Saudi Arabia backed a proposal to speed up the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 32, which is scheduled to kick off in 2026, by making it already applicable to the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia hopes that the expansion would significantly complicate Qatari preparations for the event. Implementing the expansion in 2022 would strengthen UAE and Saudi efforts to petition FIFA to force Qatar to agree to co-hosting of the World Cup by other Gulf states, a proposal that was incorporated in the UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency.
In an indication of things to come, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in early 2018 thwarted a UAE-Saudi attempt to get Asian tournament matches that were scheduled to be hosted by Qatar moved to a neutral venue. The AFC warned the two countries that they would be penalized if they failed to play in Doha or host Qatari teams.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s moves were part of a two-pronged Saudi-UAE effort. Global tech investor Softbank, which counts Saudi Arabia and the UAE among its largest investors, is believed to be behind a $25 billion proposal embraced by FIFA president Gianni Infantino to revamp the FIFA Club World Cup and launch of a Global Nations League tournament. If approved, the proposal would give Saudi Arabia a significant voice in global soccer governance.
Complimenting the Saudi FIFA bid is an effort to expand the kingdom’s influence in the 47-nation AFC, the largest of the world soccer body’s constituent regional elements. To do so, Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully tried to create a new regional bloc, the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), a potential violation of FIFA and AFC rules. The federation would have been made up of members of both the AFC and the Amman-based West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups all Middle Eastern nations except for Israel and is headed by Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a prominent advocate of soccer governance reform.
The initiative fell apart when the Asian members of SWAFF walked out in October 2018 in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The killing could also jeopardize Saudi efforts to gain control of the AFC with the Al-Sheikh-backed candidacy of Saudi Football Federation chief Adel Ezzat, who resigned in August 2018 to run for the office..
Benefits outstrip reputational risk
Mr. Al-Sheikh and his boss, Prince Mohammed, share with the crown prince’s UAE counterpart and namesake, a belief that the public diplomacy and soft power fruits of harnessing sports outstrip reputational risks. Simon Pearce, Abu Dhabi’s director of strategic communications and a director of Manchester City, the British club bought by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed’s brother but controlled by the de facto Emirati ruler’s men, said as much in leaked emails to Mr. Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington.
The emails discussed the UAE’s registration of a new soccer club, New York City Football Club, as the United States’ Major League Soccer newest franchise. Mr. Pearce argued that Abu Dhabi’s interests in the US political environment are best served by associating New York City FC with City Football Group, the Abu Dhabi government’s soccer investment vehicle, rather than the government itself to evade criticism stemming from the Emirates’ criminalization of homosexuality, its less than stellar record on women’s rights and its refusal to formally recognize Israel despite maintaining close security and commercial relations with the Jewish state.
The UAE’s sports-related investments, guided by the crown prince, much like the acquisition of important Qatari sports stakes on the behest of Sheikh Tamim also give Gulf states political leverage and create additional commercial opportunity. The investments constitute the flip side of large amounts of Gulf money being channelled to influential think tanks, particularly in Washington. In a series of notes in 2012, Mr. Pearce advised Prince Mohammed, a man obsessed with perceived threats posed by any form of political Islam and a driving force in the campaign against Qatar, to tempt than British prime minister David Cameron to counter what he described as Islamist infiltration of the BBC’s Arabic service in exchange for lucrative arms and oil deals.
To illustrate the UAE and Qatar’s sway in European soccer, Nicholas McGeehan, an independent researcher and former Human Rights Watch executive focussed on the region, looked at recent bookies odds for the Champions League. Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City was the favourite followed by Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain. Third up was Bayern Munich, whose shirts are sponsored by Qatar, fourth was Barcelona, which recently ended a seven-year sponsorship deal with Qatar, and fifth Real Madrid that sold the naming rights to its new stadium to Abu Dhabi.
Saudi and UAE public relations efforts to generate public pressure for a deprival of Qatari hosting rights were at times mired in controversy. The launch in May of the Foundation for Sports Integrity by Jamie Fuller, a prominent Australian campaigner for a clean-up of global soccer governance, backfired amid allegations of Saudi and UAE financial backing and Mr. Fuller’s refusal to disclose his source of funding.
Saudi and UAE media together with UK tabloid The Sun heralded the launch in a poche London hotel that involved a reiteration of assertions of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful World Cup bid. Media like Abu Dhabi’s The National and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya projected the launch as pressure on FIFA to deprive Qatar of its hosting rights. “It is no secret that football’s governing body is rotten to the core. (FIFA) will rightly come under renewed pressure to strip Qatar of the competition and carry out an internal investigation in the wake of the most recent allegations. The millions of fans eagerly anticipating 2022’s festival of football deserve better,” The National said. Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al Awsat newspaper reported that a June 2018 FIFA Congress would hold a re-vote of the Qatari hosting. The Congress didn’t.
Qatar remains vulnerable
Despite so far successfully having defeated efforts to deprive it of its hosting rights, Qatar remains vulnerable when it comes to the integrity of its winning bid. The bid’s integrity and Sheikh Tamim’s emphasis on sports as a pillar of Qatari soft power is at stake in legal proceedings in New York and Zurich involving corruption in FIFA and potential wrongdoing in the awarding of past World Cups. Qatar has suffered reputational damage as a result of the question marks even if the Gulf crisis has allowed it to enhance its image as an underdog being bullied by the big boys on the block.
To Qatar’s credit, it has introduced reforms of its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship system that could become a model for the region. In doing so, it cemented the 2022 World Cup as one of the few mega-events with a real potential of leaving a legacy of change. Qatar started laying the foundations for that change by early on becoming the first and only Gulf state to engage with its critics, international human rights groups and trade unions.
Even so, Qatar initially suffered reputational damage on the labour front because it was relatively slow in embracing and implementing the reforms. Qatar’s handling of the Gulf crisis suggests that it has learnt from the failure of its initial response to criticism of its winning 2022 bid when it acted like an ostrich that puts its head in the sand, hoping that the storm will pass only to find that by the time it rears its head the wound has festered, and it has lost strategic advantage.
The integrity issue remains Qatar’s weak point. For activist critics of the awarding of hosting rights to Qatar, there are two questions. One is, who do they want to get in bed with? Qatar’s detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia hardly have stellar human and labour rights records. If anything, their records are worse than that of Qatar, which admittedly does not glow.
The second question critics have to ask themselves is how best to leverage the World Cup, irrespective of whether the Qatari bid was compromised or not. On the assumption that it may have been compromised, the question is less how to exact retribution for a wrong doing that was common practice in global football governance. Leveraging should focus on how to achieve a fundamental reform of global sports governance that has yet to emerge eight years into a crisis that was in part sparked by the Qatar World Cup. This goes to the heart of the fact that untouched in efforts to address the governance crisis is the corrupting, ungoverned, and incestuous relationship between sports and politics.
Siamese twins: sports and politics
The future of the Qatar World Cup and the Gulf crisis speaks to the pervasiveness of politics in sports. The World Cup is political by definition. Retaining Qatar’s hosting rights or depriving the Gulf state of the right to host the tournament is ultimately a choice with political consequences. As long as the crisis continues, retaining rights is a testimony to Qatar’s resilience, deprival would be a victory for its detractors.
As a result, the real yardstick in the debate about the Qatari World Cup should be how the sport and the integrity of the sport benefit most. And even then, politics is never far from what the outcome of that debate is. Obviously, instinctively, the optics of no retribution raises the question of how that benefits integrity. The answer is that the potential legacy of social and economic change that is already evident with the Qatar World Cup is more important than the feel-good effect of having done the right thing with retribution or the notion of setting an example. Add to that the fact that in current circumstances, a withdrawal of hosting rights would likely be interpreted as a victory of one side over the other, further divide the Arab and Muslim world, and enhance a sense among many Muslims of being on the defensive and under attack.
The silver lining in the Gulf crisis may be the fact that it has showed up the fiction of a separation of sports and politics. FIFA, the AFC, and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), seeking to police the ban on a mixing of sports and politics, have discovered that it amounts to banging their heads against a wall. Despite their attempts to halt politics from subverting Asian tournaments, domestic and regional politics seeped into the game via different avenues.
As a result, FIFA and its regional confederations have been tying themselves up in knots. In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events at the outset of the Gulf crisis, FIFA president Infantino rejected involving the group in the dispute by saying that “the essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics.” Yet, on the same day that he made his statement, Mr. Infantino waded into the crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the request of the UAE. FIFA, beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” appeared to be saying by implication that a Qatari by definition of his nationality could not be an honest arbiter of a soccer match involving one of his country’s detractors. In FIFA’s decision, politics trumped professionalism, no pun intended.
Similarly, the AFC was less principled in its stand towards matches pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against one another. Iranian club Traktor Sazi was forced in February to play its home match against Al Ahli of Jeddah in Oman. It wasn’t clear why the AFC did not uphold the principle it imposed on Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the case of Iran. “Saudi teams have been able to select host stadiums and cities, and Saudi teams will host two Iranian football representatives in the UAE and Kuwait. In return, Iranian football representatives should be able to use their own rights to choose neutral venues,” said Mohammad Reza Saket, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Football Federation in a letter to the AFC.
Soccer governance bodies have long struggled to maintain the fiction of a separation in a trade-off that gave regulators greater autonomy and created the breeding ground for widespread corruption while allowing governments and politicians to manipulate the sport to their advantage as long as they were not too blatant about it. The limits of that deal are currently being defined in the Middle East, a region wracked by conflict where virtually everything is politicized.
The Success of Iranian Activism Shows the Way to Correct European Policies
Western policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran would almost certainly be more assertive and ambitious if the international community was more broadly aware of the power and organization of Iranian activism both inside the country and throughout the global expatriate community.
Fortunately, a growing number of Western policymakers do recognize the influence wielded by Iran’s pro-democratic resistance movement, as led by Maryam Rajavi the President elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its main constituent group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK). Dozens of high-profile political figures and experts in Middle Eastern affairs have taken to participating in the NCRI’s Free Iran rally, which is held near Paris each summer and attended by tens of thousands of ethnic Iranians from throughout the world.
This past June, those participants put their lives on the line by attending at a time when Iran’s domestic affairs are increasingly explosive, with growing consequences for the world at large. On the day of the Free Iran gathering, European authorities arrested two would-be bombers as they attempted to gain access to the event on the orders of a high-ranking Iranian diplomat based in Vienna.
The foiled plot underscored the Iranian regime’s flailing attempts to undermine the Iranian opposition. And it was not the only one of its kind. Months earlier, Iranian operatives were caught plotting an attack on the residence of over 2,000 MEK activists who had relocated to Albania from their former headquarters in Iraq. At the same time, federal investigators in the United States were monitoring two agents of the Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. The subsequent criminal indictment noted that their spying would have surely resulted in attacks on US-based opposition activists if they had been left unchecked.
Finally, in October, another Iranian operative was arrested in Denmark for plotting the assassination of Iranian dissidents. This finally sparked a serious push for collective measures to confront and contain Iranian terror treats. A call to action had already emerged from France following an investigation that concluded there was no doubt about Tehran’s responsibility for the Paris plot. But in the wake of the Danish arrest and a subsequent meeting of European Union foreign ministers, the stage was seemingly set for the entire EU to adopt economic sanctions that France had already imposed on the Ministry of Intelligence and its agents.
This is, of course, an appropriate response to serious Iranian terror threats. It is made all the more sensible and potentially effective because those threats and their underlying causes are still apparent, and because it follows upon a shift toward much more assertive policies by the US government. But the EU has been notably cautious about making that shift.
The desire for continued access to Iranian markets is surely part of the reason for this. But it might also be said that the US administration is much more aware of the existence of powerful allies inside Iranian society and the expatriate population. After all, some White House officials and close confidants of the US president have been regular attendees at NCRI rallies, including the one that was nearly bombed in June.
European hesitancy is fading now that such threats have come to light and have been shown to not be isolated incidents. That hesitancy might evaporate altogether if more European policymakers were made aware of the organizational capabilities of the MEK, including its contribution to the nationwide uprising that began last December and spawned countless other protests featuring the same anti-government slogans.
Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged the MEK’s role in January, when the uprising was still in full swing. In a speech to his officials, he declared that the resistance group had spent months planning for the rapid spread of protests and the promotion of a clear message of regime change. This was a significant break from the regime’s decades-long policy of downplaying the strength and social influence of the MEK and its affiliates.
In case this is not reason enough for global policymakers to conclude that regime change is actually within reach for Iran’s pro-democratic population, the Iranian opposition foreign supporters all throughout the world are working tirelessly to highlight the success of recent and ongoing protests. As one example, Iranian communities in 50 locations throughout Europe, North America, and Australia will be hosting simultaneous conferences on Saturday 15 December to demonstrate both the threats and the opportunities that support adoption of a firm, collective Iran strategy by all Western powers.
As well as keeping a spotlight trained squarely on Iran’s recent foreign terror threats, this global teleconference will provide details about many of the protests and labor strikes that have sprung up and, in some cases, continued for months at a time, in the wake of last year’s nationwide uprising. The persistence of those demonstrations is a clear sign of the activist community’s strength and the very real prospects for the popular overthrow of the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.
The Iranian terror threat is reason enough for the international community to abandon the conciliatory policies that have been prevalent for so long. Proper recognition of the Iranian democratic opposition will prove once and for all that a firm alternative is not only justified but imperative for the triumph of democracy in the Middle East.
Israel in Syria
Over the last two years alone, in complete silence, the Jewish State has already carried out over 200 airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
North American unconfirmed sources also speak about Israeli support for Islamic “rebels” fighting against Bashar el Assad and his allies.
They are supposedly 12 groups of so-called para-jihadist “rebels” operating in southern Syria, who oppose both the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and radical ISIS jihadist militants.
Obviously the Israeli intelligence services closely monitor – with systems active 24 hours a day – the three bridges connecting the Golan Heights with Israel, which are constantly used by the Israeli armed forces to support both the Golan populations and the military operating permanently in those areas.
Israel has named the “humanitarian support” to the region, including the aforementioned anti-Assad rebels, “Operation Good Neighbour”, but the real Israeli spearhead is the air missions in the Syrian skies, which have again much increased in recent times.
Israel has shifted from a policy line of limited tolerance – based on the analysis of the evident severe threat posed by the Sunni and jihadist “rebels” operating in the Southern Syria, who are obviously also enemies of Iran and Assad – to a posture of very clear “zero tolerance” for all the Iranian positions on the Golan Heights and in the rest of the region, which now increasingly dominate Southern Syria. Said positions were created to achieve Iran’s true aim, i.e. the stable, impregnable and strategic corridor between Lebanon – especially Southern and Central Lebanon – and the universal centre of Shiism, namely the Iranian and Twelfth-Imam Shiites (also called the Imamites).
Certainly Iran also hosts Sunni minorities – who are fully integrated with the regime and often act as an operational link with the other anti-Saudi Sunni minorities in Riyadh and in the rest of the region – but also the Zoroastrians, who are a very old minority operating between the para-Islamic armed and unarmed groups in India and the Himalayas, also in tune with the guerrillas supported by China.
But there are also Jewish minorities in Iran, who are entitled to some seats in the Majlis (Parliament) and often communicate with the Israeli motherland, in spite of the covert activity of the Iranian intelligence services.
Currently, in particular, Iran needs to break the Sunni encirclement, which is also a very powerful economic and oil intelligence operation by the Sunni OPEC against Iran.
It is equally certain, however, that the Shiite Republic has some sound Grand Strategy options in the greater Middle East, which are now certain and, in some respects, unavoidable for Iran.
Firstly, Iran will seek any opportunity – even the slightest one – to hit Israel and the USA if they harshly hit its interests in the region.
Hence this is Iran’s main strategic variable in Southern Syria: it has not yet hit Israel because – with its supplies to Hezbollah in the Lebanon – it is waiting to make a new big summer operation jointly with the Lebanese Shiite forces at the edges of the Golan Heights, as happened – to a lesser extent – in the “July war” of 2016.
There was also the strong action of the Iranian Shiite militia of Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq – another factor to support the borders east of Iran and to oppose the Kurds (but there are many Kurdish agents also in the Iranian intelligence services) and the Americans, as well as the link between Israel and Kurdistan, another essential asset of Israel geopolitics.
Nevertheless, Qatar -one of Iran’s rich friends – hosts the large US base that organizes the armed forces throughout the Middle East. It is the Al Udeid base, near the Abu Nakhlah airport, hosting over 12,000 North American soldiers and at least 1,000 aircraft.
An implicit blackmail, which President Trump has not considered at all, while swearing naive loyalty to the Sunnis who are “against terrorism” (nonsense!).
Hence an asset that does not enable Iran to fully use its Lebanese ally and its strongest economic partner, namely the Emirate of Qatar, which also hosts Al Jazeera, the old BBC in Arabic of British imperialism. It should also be recalled, in particular, that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have been stationing in Doha for many years.
The cradle of every contemporary Sunni jihadism, the Ikhwan, which -however – establishes its base in the Emirate which is politically closer to the Shiite Iran and in the traditional geoeconomic and strategic-military opponent of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, namely Saudi Arabia.
Doctrinal paradoxes that are certainly not mere coincidence. As we will see later on, wars are waged with religions and myths, almost more than with AK-47 Kalashnikovs which, if anything, stem from those religions and myths.
Certainly, in the Israeli strategic thought, the current “war of attrition” which opposes Israel and Iran – particularly in Syria – is destined to inflict a psychological defeat on Iran by Israel alone, which – in the short term – deters the Iranian decision makers from launching the primary direct attack.
As seen also recently, traditionally Iran tends to defeat its opponent with the great mass of averagely armed soldiers, who discourage it from continuing its fight (the model with which Imam Khomeini peacefully conquered his own country).
This is a model also at work in Hezbollah’ strategic thinking.
The same model followed by the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae – as the classics teach us.
King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan soldiers, however, fought all to death against the invading Persian forces.
Their sacrifice was commemorated by Simonides in the famous epitaph “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by / That here obedient to their laws we lie” which can still be read on the hill overlooking Thermopylae.
However, two are the weak points of the Iranian Grand Strategy against Israel: firstly, the strong social and economic weakness of the regime, which pushes the Iranian leaders to make wars of attrition “outside”, so as to create a rapid patriot unity “inside”, and possibly even send its dangerous masses to the front.
During the 2017 uprising for supporting their Iraqi Kurdish brothers, the Kurds acted in such a way as to severely jeopardize the Iranian security, while in 2006 the Azeris set fire to the government buildings of their Iranian North-East – not to forget the huge 2009 “Iranian Green Movement”, after the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad. These are all signs that the vast minorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran are capable of severely undermining the stability of the regime. And mass poverty will play its sad role.
Hence, if Israel attacked the Iranian positions in Syria, Iran would likely be unable to react with a direct and significant military strike against the attacker.
The Iranian Shiites’ real and probably sole reaction will be to operate with Hezbollah in the Lebanon or with the Shiite minorities in Bahrain or to provide further support for the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.
But certainly a skilful and smart military strategist does not make the eternal severe mistake of underestimating the opponent and hence takes at least three other variables into account. Firstly, the possibility of a missile attack by the Islamic jihad between the PNA Territories and the Gaza Strip, together with Hamas – the official organization of the Islamic Brotherhood and hence easy to contact and train from Iran, via Qatar.
Secondly, an action by Hezbollah also between the Golan Heights – mainly used as rear zone and areas for diversionary actions – and the traditional Shiite line of the Litani river between the Lebanon and Israel, according to the model of the 2006 “July war” that the Lebanese Shiites still consider to be a successful and winning model.
Thirdly, a land-maritime attack by special forces, either local or with additional forces of the Pasdaran, from Qatar or Syria, but passing through Deirer-Zor or, on the other side of Syria, besides the Turkish forces south of Damascus.
In fact, it takes so little for defaming Israel as a “cruel and ferocious attacker” of the “poor Lebanese or Syrian farmers” and to quickly gain short-lived, but huge consensus in the “streets and squares” of the Middle East.
In spite of rhetoric, Iran does not want – and above all cannot – “destroy” Israel, but currently intends to create many points of friction with Israel, particularly outside the traditional places of clash and confrontation, especially with commando actions on the Israeli borders, but above all from the sea. A myriad of small blows, which hurt like a powerful strike.
Exactly as, in certain phases, the PLO strategy did from the sea and with many small and ferocious operations.
Another stable basis of Iran’s Grand Strategy is again the great importance of indirect strategies and of cyberwarfare – especially nowadays.
It serves above all to reduce the weight of sanctions and, to a greater extent, to keep the EU friendly to the Shiite regime.
As all those who know that they are bound to become poor soon, the Europeans think only about money, namely the rich contracts that Iran grants selectively and “politically” to the EU companies entering its domestic market.
Moreover, the penetration of Arab and Islamic capital in Europe is not only relevant for its size, but for its political and strategic significance.
All over the world, in 2021 the Islamic finance is expected to rise from the current 2 to 3.5 trillion US dollars of assets.
However, there are already 109 out of 622 institutions in the world that provide “education to Islamic finance” in Europe alone.
Hence, as can be easily imagined, the EU ruling classes are particularly pervious – under the politically correct rhetoric – to finance, ideological pressures, consortia and cartels, business mediation and brokerage, coming from Islamic finance and the already huge Islamic properties and investments in the various EU countries.
Currently, at least in Italy, both the so-called “right parties” and the “left parties” have only a minority – albeit variable in size – of openly pro-Israeli politicians.
The “battle for Europe” – as Raymond Aron called it – was lost at the time by the “Warsaw Pact” against NATO and nowadays what is in contrast with Europe’s and the Atlantic Alliance’s old and traditional goals is precisely Islam, in all its forms, ranging from the “sword jihad” to the “business and dialogue jihad”. In all likelihood, Islam will win the real battle between the old two “big prairies”, namely the United States and the USSR, by using Europe as a financial, strategic and industrial “back-shop” (a 5% shareholding of Credit Suisse is owned by Qatar, not to mention Volkswagen, Siemens and many other companies) and as a future coverage area for its military and indirect actions against Israel and against the other European and US interests and allies in the Middle East.
But let us revert to Israel, which is in strategic conflict with Iran through the fundamental link between the two, namely Syria.
The inevitable fulcrum of any operation Israel may launch against Iran and, more probably, vice versa.
With its “asymmetric war” -the only one it currently wages on a continuous basis – Iran will hit primarily the United States – a necessary ally, but not always in agreement with Israel – to immediately isolate the Jewish State. Later, however, it will hit Israel directly and, at the same time, the Gulf powers opposing Shiism, namely Saudi Arabia, Bahrain – possibly triggering here a guerrilla warfare between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority in power – Kuwait and probably other countries.
As Italian jurists say, the European Union “will be less of a defendant”, thus playing second fiddle.
Hence, if tension keeps on mounting – especially in Syria – both Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran could witness an escalation particularly on the Syrian territory or anyway in the strategic link between Syria and the Lebanon.
A guerrilla warfare from the North that could also be triggered by the Palestinian Islamic jihad alone and also by Hamas, but only at a distance and jointly with Hezbollah and Iran in the North.
Nevertheless, this could also make the US or Israeli decision-makers fall into the temptation of a nuclear strike or a conventional and nuclear operation.
A very important variable is Iran’s use of the economic agreements with the EU, which could become essential. A “geoeconomic pact” with the naive and unprepared Europeans that Iran could use against the United States.
Hezbollah, however, already has the weapons that the US strategists consider to be game changer.
Given its long-standing and mounting tension with the Iranian forces operating in Syria, Israel is currently thinking about some primary strategic variables.
Firstly, Israel is not fully convinced of the US pro-Jewish stance and of the current US positions in Syria.
President Trump does not want to send (other) troops to Syria and, anyway, the local US champions have already made a bad impression there.
As a genuine pro-American politician, Francesco Cossiga, used to say “The Americans are always up in arms on a war footing, but -later – when they have taken the warpath, they do no longer know how to come out of it well”.
Israel cannot even fully rely on its good relations with Putin’s Russia which, however, have so far led to good results in the Syrian war.
I was about to write Syriac war, like the one between the Romans and the Seleucid Empire, namely Syria, Persia, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia, which ended in 188 BC.
The number one tension between Russia and Iran is the one in the Yemen of the Houthi insurgency, when Russia strongly resented Iran’s assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an old friend of theirs, on December 5, 2017.
Russia does not even want to deteriorate its excellent relations with a new and important ally, namely Saudi Arabia.
In particular, the Russian Federation does not want a US massive intervention throughout the Middle East.
Among other factors, at the beginning of the war in Syria, the presence of scarcely effective militants of the “Free Syrian Army” and of some gangs of quasi-jihadists trained by CIA or by the Department of State – immediately rushing to join forces with ISIS -led to the Russian presence in Syria.
Russia wants above all to create failed states in the Middle East, dependent on it, and to avoid any possible further hotbed of tension.
Iran wants the same thing, but obviously with its own leadership. It reminds us of the rivalry between Emperor Charles V and King Francis I of France, epitomized by his statement: “My brother Charles V wants the same thing I want”. In that case, it was the Duchy of Milan.
Iran often says it is “a stabilizing force” throughout the Middle East, but Hezbollah’s operations in Syria – the only real serious Shiite armed force, apart from the Iranian Pasdaran, who also train it -prove the exact opposite.
Russia, however, wants its strong hegemony in the region and does not want to share it with anyone.
For Russia, Israel – which is isolated at its borders and does not intersect Russian strategic interests – is already an even more reliable friend than Iran, at least for the future.
As an old Hebrew proverb says, “Friends are not those who wipes your tears away, but those who do not make you cry”.
Hence Russia will be subjected to a long phase of Israeli strategic verification in Syria and in the rest of the world.
Furthermore, the United States is willing to strengthen the Syrian peace talks between Geneva and Astana.
For the Syrian peace talks, Astana is a game especially between Turkey and Russia. Iran arrived in the Kazakh capital later, welcomed by cold smiles.
Currently the United States and Jordan are only “observers” in Astana, but the US diplomacy is waiting for some results, besides the already defined “de-conflict zones”, to fully enter the game.
Certainly the United States now wants Iran’s fully exit from the Syrian conflict.
It will be its card, impossible to play on to the end.
Recently President Trump has spoken of an “indefinite” effort by the US Armed Forces and diplomacy to impose and enforce peace in Syria.
Obviously another problem is the fact that Israel’s ongoing and very harsh polemic against Iran brings the Jewish State closer to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Paradoxes of history.
Some relations between the two countries have taken place also in the field of security and intelligence.
A double result of great importance: Israel no longer has its very dangerous sworn enemies in the Arabian peninsula, which is a great result for its safety and security.
It is also an opportunity for Israel to enter – via Saudi Arabia – the area of oil and political-financial relations that really count in the Arab world.
Israel is no longer a target of the Sunni Islam which, indeed, declares to everyone that it is an ally of what – in ancient times – it called the “Zionist entity” – as currently only Iran does. This is a great success for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli global strategy.
The much desired safety and security of Israel eastwards, so much called for as early as the time of Ben Gurion and of my dear friend Shimon Peres.
Meanwhile, the Iranian economy is severely worsening and this can create the classic effect of a diversionary war.
As early as last September, the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards”, the Pasdaran, declared they had attacked – with their missiles – Kurdish dissidents of Iranian origin based in Iraq.
Hence even the “Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan” can be seen as a danger, while Turkey is constantly air bombing the PKK Kurdish positions in the Qandil Mountains.
Therefore, in this case – apart from future and dangerous Shiite infiltrations in the Syrian-Lebanese axis -the current Israeli strategy could remind us of Mao Zedong’s old motto: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent”.
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