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FIFA on Trial: Qatar’s World Cup back in the firing line

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Testimony of a star witness in a New York courtroom has revealed new allegations of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful bid for the 2022 World Cup hosting rights.

The allegations by Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of Argentine sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias, are likely to revive partially politically-motivated calls for Qatar to be stripped of its rights.

Lurking in the background of the Mr. Burzaco’s allegations is, however, the little discussed issue of the nexus of sports and politics that underlies and enables massive financial and performance corruption in sports.

Indicted on corruption-related charges, Mr. Burzaco, who has agreed to a plea bargain, pleaded guilty and is expected to be sentenced next May.

Mr. Burzaco is one of more than 40 officials, business executives and entities that have been indicted in the United States since Swiss police accompanied by FBI agents in 2015 raided a hotel in Zurich where senior FIFA members were gathered for a congress of the world soccer body.

Mr. Burzaco asserted that the first three defendants to stand trial in the warren of FIFA-related cases – former South American soccer confederation CONMEBOL president Juan Angel Napout and past heads of the Brazilian and Peruvian soccer federations, Juan Maria Marin and Manuel Burga – were among several senior Latin American soccer officials who had been paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes for their votes in favour of the Qatari World Cup.

Qatar’s sports-related financial dealings are under scrutiny on several fronts. In a separate investigation, Swiss prosecutors last month opened criminal proceedings against Qatari national Nasser al-Khelaifi, the chief executive of beIN Media Group, the Qatari state-owned Al Jazeera television network’s sports franchise, and chairman of French soccer club Paris St-Germain.

The proceedings involve Mr. Al-Khelaifi allegedly having bribed disgraced former FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke to ensure that beIN was awarded the broadcasting rights for the 2026 and 2030 World Cups.

Qatar as well as Mr. Al-Khelaifi have consistently denied any wrongdoing. A renewal of the debate about withdrawing the Gulf state’s hosting rights comes, however, as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are campaigning to have it stripped of its rights as part of their almost six-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Qatar this week urged the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar to allow their nationals to attend the World Cup despite the travel ban they imposed as part of their boycott. “We separate politics from sports,” said Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general at Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, ignoring the fact that Qatar’s sports strategy is a key part of its soft power policy.

A top UAE security official, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, suggested last month that the only way to resolve the Gulf crisis would be for Qatar to surrender of 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,” Lt. Gen. Khalfan said.

Leaked documents from an email account of Youssef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, 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.

The plan was the latest instalment in a covert UAE-Qatari media and soccer war since Qatar won its hosting rights in 2010.

The intrinsically political nature of the debate about Qatar and the politics that drove alleged financial corruption of the Gulf state’s bid complicate any discussion of what to do if Qatari wrongdoing were legally proven.

It distracts from the fact that Qatar, whose bid has been at the core of multiple scandals in global and regional soccer governance, happens to be in the hot seat at a time that often politically-driven, widespread corruption in past World Cups is becoming ever more evident. In other words, what Qatar stands accused of was common practice even if Qatar was willing to do it on a much larger scale.

The issue of Qatar’s World Cup raises a host of questions that if addressed could contribute to a fundamentally cleaner governance of the sport. No issue is more fundamental than the question of the relationship between a sports and politics.

It is a relationship that sports executives, politicians and government officials deny despite the fact that it is public and recognizable. The relationship has asserted itself repeatedly in recent months with decisions on referees made on political rather than professional grounds as well as FIFA’s refusal to apply its own rules in differences between Palestinians and Israelis under the mum of a separation of sports and politics. 

The denial has long served as cover for sports executives, politicians and officials do whatever they want. In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events, FIFA president Gianni Infantino in June rejected involving the group in the Gulf crisis 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 Gulf 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.

A demand last week by the Egyptian Football Federation (EFA) to disbar a Qatari from refereeing Egyptian and Saudi matches during next year’s World Cup in Russia puts FIFA in a position in which it will have to decide to either opt for professionalism over politics or also disbar game officials from Qatar’s distractors– Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – who have likewise been appointed for the tournament from refereeing politically sensitive matches.

FIFA’s tying itself up in knots in response to the Gulf crisis like the politics underlying corruption charges in New York cries out for putting the inextricable relationship between sports and politics on the table and developing ways to govern a relationship that is a fact of life. Legal proceedings in New York may force FIFA to clean up part of its act, they won’t resolve the underlying structural problem.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Country Forecast: Turkey, Erdogan and Where Policy Leads

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With its 81 provinces and a population of nearly 80 million inhabitants, Turkey continues its state of emergency imposed under President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan after a planned coup in July, 2016. The attempted overthrow of Mr. Erdogan, by a faction of the Turkish Army, was said to be blamed for the putsch.  Though failed, the violence predetermined how Turkey would proceed via Erdogan in the future to prevent further upheavals seen that July. Today, the outcomes of governmental acts have long-term consequences to democratic principles particularly freedom to protest and protect speech, basic tenets of a freely elected and democratic society. Using its emergency powers does question the country’s leadership role in the eastern region of Europe and global image to the outside world. Its stability as a NATO member as well as its prospects joining the EU too comes into question. In addition, extending a state of emergency has a parallel affect regarding foreign investments within an unstable environment, i.e. companies and or countries pulling out from Turkey.

While Erdoğan insists he remains committed to the goal of eventual membership in the EU, he has made clear that he does not intend to let that objective interfere with other priorities, namely, the pursuit of expanded political power at home and what he deems to be Turkey’s national interests abroad. Erdogan feels the state of emergency is needed to deal with ongoing security threats; and, while the President doesn’t seem bothered image wise by a potential extension, this type of instability may negatively impact foreign capital inflows further fracturing new investment opportunities from the outside.

Erdogan’s government re-structure through a referendum back in June, 2017 will change the constitution from a parliamentary style to a presidential form of government consolidating more power to this president in 2018. It abolishes the office of the prime minister while decreasing the powers of Turkey’s parliament. These moves coupled with a more authoritarian disposition from Mr. Erdogan has fractured the nationalistic bloc causing consternation amongst political parties ultimately setting up Meral Aksenar, former interior minister, to challenge the AKP/Erdogan in the 2019 elections(now there’s a chance snap elections will take place this summer). This may have more implications to new investment strategies, and; yes, political instability will continue to develop and unfortunately flourish due to Erdogan’s attempt to reign in critics.

A potential extension of state of emergency for the seventh time erodes government transparency and confidence, and the Turkish government’s rule of law. Since an extension will soon be discussed in Ankara, the question of political stability and policy initiatives promoting economic growth invariably are linked to upticks of foreign investments and portfolios to the nation. While stability versus instability is a main topic of discussion, Turkey’s GDP has grown over 7 per cent in 2017 making the nation an attractive investment center. Not bad for a country with all the volatility described.

Policies Relevant to Investing Strategies and Market Opportunities

Political instability can dampen the attractiveness for direct investment while the need for enhanced security, the issue of domestic uncertainty, and populist spending measures, too, may generate financial market volatility affecting capital inflows. Yet, Turkey, with its strong domestic market and growing economy, remains an attractive point to foreign investors. For instance, over the past year, FDI increased over 50 per cent where both European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries have become key to Turkey’s success as an investment hub.

These successes may be attributed to central government policies. One in particular is The Turkish Commercialization Code(TCC). Enacted in 2012, the code enables foreign investors to decide whether to partner or not to partner with Turkish businesses with respect to new ventures in the country.Also of interest to those companies and countries viewing Turkey as an investment center is the opportunity to obtain Turkish citizenship and its combined benefits, such as the access to all Schengen Zone countries. On that note, Turkey has signed bilateral agreements with other countries for the protection of foreign investments.  One in particular is Japan, which in recent years has invested over $200,000,000 in Turkey in the automotive, consumer electronics, energy and food sectors. As an aside, compared with other countries, Japan did not withdraw or disinvest from Turkey after the attempted coup nor did they remove funding regarding risks related to terror, open borders, and Erdogan’s crack down on dissidents.  Despite the risks involved, Turkey remains attractive to countries wanting to tap into its market of nearly 80 million people. In addition, along with household spending, the country’s economy has grown giving fodder to Japan’s foresight to remain a player in investing and commercial development, job and wage creation.

Bilateral agreements steady the course in future investment opportunities. Japan is a perfect example to how and why these agreements help sow new commercial relations where both countries benefit from these activities.

Tax incentives to entice new business development, both externally and internally, include generous tax breaks, tax reductions and exemptions from import duties to Turkish businesses. These initiatives, for instance, have helped incentivize domestic defense projects within the country which is trying to increase home-grown defense programs such as building unmanned aerial drones, a defense linchpin that many in the Turkish military and civilian leadership see as essential in fighting asymmetric battles against countries like Syria or Iraq.

Regarding economic relations, Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) mark poignant milestones between Turkey and other nations looking to develop new markets in each other’s countries. For example, both the Erdogan regime and nations like Singapore, Algeria, and Serbia to name a few, have benefited through mutual investments. In Algeria, for instance, both countries signed a number of agreements particularly related to the petrochemical sector. Algeria’s state-owned energy company SONATRACH and Turkey’s Rönesans and Bayegan energy firms agreed on a $1 billion investment. Cooperation on agriculture too was signed between the agriculture ministers of the two countries to continue the notion of bilateral investments.

Economic Conditions

Turkey’s economy will be influenced by consumers being a bit more cautious than the previous several years. Compared to last year, consumer credit slowdowns are expected to determine Turkey’s economic outlook for 2018-2020.  2017 saw debt fueled spending. Ensuing years not so much buying via credit; in addition to a slow down credit wise, account deficits and inflation pose downside risks to growth. Yet, Turkey remains one of the world’s top 20 economies due to steady growth and pragmatic fiscal policies.

Yet a dichotomy exists: political risk and monetary policies have impeded the Turkish economy particularly in reference to high inflation rates which hover close to 10.50 per cent. As of January, 2018, inflation did not come down to single digits and remained at 10.2 percent.

Central governments budget balance last year saw TL 47.4 BN or $13BN+ deficit projection. With respect to GDP growth, it is expected to be .80 percent end of Q2/18. In general GDP growth is projected to trend around 1.00 percent in ensuing years.

While business investments will help the country develop new markets for its people, unemployment is still projected to be between 9.9 percent to 10.2 percent in 2018. Gaining the upper hand to overcome high unemployment will take a continuing recovery and new measures to lower the unemployed and create new jobs. Job growth in the country will be driven by the industrial, services and construction sectors.

The Turkish lira, which has struggled in recent months on political concerns as well as worrying inflation has lost over five percent of its value against the dollar since January. This may portend to what Turkey and Erdogan, specifically, are facing in the future.

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Middle East

Algerian controversy over Salafism puts government control of religion on the spot

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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photo: Wikimedia Commons

A controversy in Algeria over the growing popularity of Saudi-inspired Salafi scholars spotlights the risk governments run in a region in which they strive to control religion in a bid to counter militant strands of Islam, often by touting apolitical, ultra-conservative trends.  These efforts are proving difficult to contain within the limits of the government’s agenda.

The controversy over Saudi support of Salafi scholars highlights how state control, frequently exercised through degrees of micro-management of weekly Friday prayer sermons, and/or putting clerics on the government payroll as well as supervision of mosques and school textbooks, often backfires.  For one, the credibility of government-sponsored Islamic scholars is undermined as they become increasingly viewed as functionaries and parrots of regimes.

It also thrusts into the limelight the slippery slope on which governments play politics with conservative and ultra-conservative religion for opportunistic reasons or as in the case of Turkey in a bid to establish state-controlled Turkish Islam as a global force.

Ultra-conservatism’s increasing attractiveness is magnified by the inability of governments to comprehensively police alternative expressions of religion on the Internet and social media as well as halt the popping up of unlicensed mosques and informal study groups.

As a result, Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative as well as militant strands of Islam emerge as the only alternative release valve, particularly in countries that restrict freedom of expression, the media and religion and have failed in their delivery of public goods and services

“Whatever the state does to control the religious realm, it cannot oblige or guarantee that people will rely on official bodies and individuals for their religious guidance. In fact, Algerian youths in particular are disillusioned and have lost confidence in their religious institutions. As such, they may be attracted to other religious voices, especially those offering ‘grab and go’ solutions to complex issues or a Manichean view of the world,” said Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck.

The controversy in Algeria further raises questions about definitions of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s declared effort to return the kingdom to what he termed ‘moderate Islam’ given that Saudi Arabia played a key role in globally promoting Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for almost half a century.

In Saudi Arabia, the jury is still out on Prince Mohammed’s approach to moderation. In an ultra-conservative country in which religious leaders were not only popular, but government employees who shared power with the ruling Al Saud family, Prince Mohammed has whipped the religious establishment into subservience and kowtowing to his reforms with little indication that they have had a true change of heart.

Algeria has long seen Saudi-inspired quietist strands of Salafism that preach unreserved obedience to a Muslim ruler as a way of countering expressions of popular discontent and more militant strands of Islam.

“The onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings only increased the utility of quietist Salafists to the state. All the main quietist figures issued calls for Algerians to resist the wave of political contestation rocking the Arab world… This drove a wedge between rulers and ruled, exacerbating social divisions, which would inevitably lead to a rise in insecurity and worsening corruption,” said international relations scholar Anouar Boukhars.

A recent study showed that many Algerians were turning on social media to Saudi and Egyptian rather than Algerian religious scholars.

Some Saudi scholars like Sheikh Mohamed al-Arefe, a controversial ultra-conservative, known for his misogynist and anti-Shiite tirades, who ranks among the top 100 global and top 10 Arab social media personalities with 21.6 million followers on Twitter and 24.3 million on Facebook boast a larger following in Algeria than in the kingdom itself.

The study concluded that Mr. Al-Arefe had two million Algerian followers as opposed to 1.3 million Saudis.

Algerian media reports, echoing secular concerns, detailed earlier this year Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Islam in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

El Watan and other media reproduced a letter written by Saudi Sheikh Hadi Ben Ali Al-Madkhali, a scion of Sheikh Rabia Al-Madkhali, the intellectual father of what French Islam scholar Stephane Lacroix terms a loyalist strand of Salafism that projects the kingdom as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

The letter appoints three prominent Algerian scholars, including Mohamed Ali Ferkous, widely viewed as the spiritual guide of Algerian Madkhalists, as Salafism’s representatives in Algeria.

“Madkhalism…(is) perhaps Saudi Arabia’s own Trojan Horse,” quipped North Africa scholar George Joffe. “State-approved imams in Algeria now find themselves under considerable pressure, in mosques that have been targeted, to adapt their teachings and doctrines to Salafi precept, even if this challenges the authority of the ministry of religious affairs,” Mr. Joffe added.

The mixed results of the Algerian government’s effort to control and use religion are replicated across the Muslim world.

Pakistan, a country in which ultra-conservatism and militancy has over decades been woven into the fabric of the state and society and that is struggling with political violence against the state as well as minorities, serves as an example of the risks involved in playing politics with religion and state support for non-pluralistic, intolerant and supremacist interpretations of Islam.

Attempting to rollback the fallout of such policies is proving to be a gargantuan task. The Pakistani government earlier this year launched a pilot project in Islamabad to regulate Friday prayer sermons. The problem is that it controls a mere 86 of the city’s 1,003 mosques.

Some critics warn that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be taking his country down a road like that of Pakistan. They compare the Turkish leader to former Pakistani ruler General Zia ul-Haq who in the 1980s accelerated Islamization of Pakistani society.

Former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and director of South and Central Asia for the Washington-based Hudson Institute Husain Haqqani asserted that Mr. Erdogan was adopting the “Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity” and pouring money into Islamic schools.

“Erdogan has taken the Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity. Zia imposed Islamic laws by decree, amended the constitution, marginalized secular scholars and leaders, and created institutions for Islamization that have outlasted him. Erdogan is trying to do the same in Turkey,” Mr. Haqqani told journalist and columnist Eli Lake.

Mr. Lake argued that Turkey, despite having tacitly supported the Islamic State at one point during the Syrian civil war, Turkey had not yet “sunk” to Pakistan’s level of cooperation with Islamic militants in its dispute with India and manoeuvring in Afghanistan.

However, suggesting that Turkey risked becoming another Pakistan, Mr. Lake quoted former US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman as saying: “Turkey is not Pakistan yet, but if it continues the trajectory that Erdogan has put it on, there is a prospect it could become like Pakistan.”

At the other extreme, Chinese authorities in the north-western province of Xinjiang, home to China’s Uyghur Muslim minority, were several months ago shutting down some 100 illegal, underground religious seminaries a month despite creating in the region the world’s most repressive surveillance state, according to a Chinese communist party official.

The crackdown involves the banning of religious practices and the teaching of the Uyghur language in schools and the detention of thousands in political re-education camps.

The controversy in Algeria, Mr. Erdogan’s embrace of Islam, Pakistan’s struggle to come to grips with the fallout of ultra-conservatism, China’s efforts to crackdown on religion, anti-government and anti-clergy protests in Iran earlier this year, and examples of societies elsewhere in Asia turning towards intolerance and conservatism as governments employ or repress religion for opportunistic political purposes, suggest that political leaders have learnt little, if anything.

Yet, the lesson is that government control and/or playing with religion seldom produces sustainable results. The lesson is also that repression, including restricting freedoms of expression, media and religion, aggravates problems and benefits ultra-conservatives and militants.

Finally, the lesson is that the solution likely lies in inclusive rather than exclusionary policies and transparent and accountable governments capable of delivering pubic goods and services that ensure that all segments of the population have a stake in society. That lesson is one that governments in Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China seemingly prefer to overlook.

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A Mohammedan Game of Thrones: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Fight for Regional Hegemony

James J. Rooney, Jr.

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Authors: James J. Rooney, Jr. & Dr. Matthew Crosston*

The people in the United States didn’t think well of those living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There was a basic mistrust and a lack of kind words on both sides. But what you didn’t hear was anyone excitedly talking about wanting to completely annihilate the other side despite both having the capacity to do just that. Fast forward to 2018: to Saudi Arabia and Iran and a new regional Middle East version of Mutually Assured Destruction, where it takes on a whole new meaning. Both of these nations maintain terrible images of each and neither would probably shed a tear if the Earth suddenly opened up and swallowed the other. Forgive the propensity to reach hyperbole, but in truth this rivalry goes back 1,385 years when, just after the death of the prophet Mohammed in AD 632, there arose among the faithful a disagreement concerning the issue of succession. Mohammed drafted a Last Will & Testament and set up an ancient version of a Trust Fund for the kids’ college/ lifeneeds, but never said a word about succession. In hindsight we now know what colossally poor planning this was as it led to a split between two key factions that would come to be known as the Sunni (who favored a vote for succession) and the Shi’a (who favored keeping it in Mohammed’s bloodline). “The Sunnis prevailed and chose a successor to be the first caliph.” (Shuster, 2017, 1) What followed was a swinging pendulum of tension with hundreds of years of both war and peace interspersed between the two sides. Today, it looks like they’re heading back to war in some form. But the real question is, are they heading back to war because of a 1,000+ year old religious grudge match? Many experts think not. Some say that the bad blood that has been forming between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not about religion, but something else: competing and hostile legitimizing myths. “With the aim of uniting peoples behind their leaders in distinction to ‘the other’, as it is so often the case, religion is misused as a dividing tool in order to enforce a political agenda.” (Reimann, 2016, 3) Not surprisingly, there are religious overtones embedded within these regional hegemonic politics pushing both sides continuously to greater episodes of dangerous tension.

The House of Al Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia, is composed of the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Emirate of Diriyah, which was known as the First Saudi state (1744–1818), and his brothers. The ruling faction of the family, however, is primarily led by the descendants of Ibn Saud, the modern founder of Saudi Arabia. The government of Iran is a modern Shia theocracy that was forged in part by the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, in 1979. Today, “Iran is considered a unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house. The country’s 1979 constitution put into place a mixed system of government, in which the executive, parliament, and judiciary are overseen by several bodies dominated by the clergy. At the head of both the state and oversight institutions is a ranking cleric known as the rahbar, or leader, whose duties and authority are those usually equated with a head of state.” (Editorial Staff, 2017. 1) Ironically, many have argued that Iran has one of the most democratically structured Constitutions in the world, if not for these extra-constitutional religious oversight bodies that sit over all of the constitutional structures. Even putting the religious affiliations and religio-political structures aside, these two countries are as different as Persian night and Saudi day.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran view themselves through the legitimizing myth of being the purer form of Islam and true holder of Mohammed’s legacy. As if that wasn’t conflictual enough, to make matters worse, the Wahhabist theocratic leadership in Riyadh sees the government and family of Saud as secular barbarians that strategically use their Sunni Wahhabist religious connections as a hedge to maintain power. The royal family of Saudi Arabia, for its part, views the theocracy of Iran as a bastardized form of Islam led by illegitimate Imams that hold a potentially progressive nation hostage to outdated religious edicts that have no relevance in the modern Islamic world. Even more dismissively, the Saudi royal family sneer at how this ‘Iranian backwardness’ has led directly to decades of crippling American sanctions against the people. Of course, the theocracy in Iran sees the cozy relationship between the Saudis and Americans as proof of the infidel fall of the keepers of the Prophet’s two great cities, Mecca and Medina. The Saudis are in bed with the Great Satan.

These underlying myths that debate ancient religious legitimacy may be fueling the hatred and Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination found on both sides. But disturbingly, there is one more legitimizing myth that might actually rule over all the others and it’s tied to the massive political power and influence greased by black crude. Saudi Arabia comes in as number 2 in terms of the world’s known oil reserves. Iran sits at number 4. That oil, and the wealth and political power it translates to, is not lost on either side. Oil is easily the top revenue-producing commodity in both countries. While ups and downs in the global market can have serious consequences for both countries, it means more damage for Iran than Saudi Arabia. The royal Saudi family has wisely/secretly over the past half century stashed away over half a trillion dollars to uniformly smooth out the revenue curves that are innate to the natural resource market in a volatile global economy. Since Tehran has been the subject of severe sanctions, due to its association with Islamic extremism and terrorism, it simply has not been able to create the same safety net/golden pillow of economic protection. Consequently, Iran has not been able to capitalize on its vast reserves of oil, selling much of it on the black market for rock bottom prices to less-than-ideal market consumers. This disparity in oil wealth, the freedom of action within the world market, and the subsequent ability to wield enhanced political power in the region is the real legitimizing myth that acts as a true political hammer separating the two and concretizing their strife with one another.

Iran’s political and military expansion into Syria, and its alliance with Russia, is another facet of its hegemonic intentions and desire to unseat Saudi Arabia as the real regional power broker. Iran appears willing to become a client or “dependent” ally of Russia, much as Saudi Arabia has a similar arrangement with the United States. Obviously, this is a dangerous recipe: regional power pretenses, advanced weapons from larger global powers, divergent religious positions, and political gamesmanship operating in the middle of another country’s civil war. Both Russia and the United States have cautiously moved their respective chess pieces as events develop in Syria, but unfortunately this caution does not exhibit the press for peace: rather, the American-Russian chess game in Syria only seems to exacerbate the animosity between the Saudis and Iranians. The alleged chemical weapon attacks on rebel positions inside Damascus by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian forces, caused a direct but limited military response by Washington. American cruise missile attacks on Syrian chemical weapons plants, though marginally effective, nevertheless was a message to Russia and Iran that the U.S. would defend its interests in the region. Those interests are decidedly in favor of a Saudi regional hegemonic leadership. Thus, what we have are cross-competing and hostile legitimizing myths being created in real time about what the future role of each of these players is going to be, America supporting the Saudi myth and Russia supporting the Iranian one.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia and Iran are going to remain deeply entrenched in hostile efforts for political and military dominance in the region. Though ancient religious strife seems like a convenient excuse for continued bad feelings between the two powers – and is focused on to a heavy extent by world media – modern strategic reasons are more dangerous and multi-layered. What we can recognize is an old fashion game of power politics in which both sides have aligned themselves with powerful and protective allies. This game is being made manifest in a critical region of the world where resources are converted to global wealth and power. The parties should remember that oil is combustible. Politics built on oil even more so. But politics built on oil, doused in religious fervor, and shaken vigorously by outside players with their own agendas is the most combustible of all. For the time being, this Mohammedan Game of Thrones seems to have a plotline that will be as deadly and bloody as its more famous Hollywood moniker.

*Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu. He is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at:  https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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