Based on remarks at a 19 December 2017 NUS Middle East Institute seminar
The Middle East being the Middle East, everything is interrelated. What happens in the region impacts Yemen and what happens in Yemen impacts the region. The crisis in Yemen, like many conflicts in the Middle East, did not originate with the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but inevitably get sucked into it.
Yemen was a Saudi problem long before it took on the mantle of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war and it may be the conflict that is most important and most sensitive for the kingdom. It also may be the proxy war that comes to haunt Saudi Arabia the most. Beyond cross-border tribal relationships, Yemen, a devastated country where recovery and reconstruction is certain to be a slow process, is likely to have a next generation that will be deeply resentful of Saudi Arabia with all the political and security implications that go with that.
More immediately, two recent factors stick out that potentially have significant geopolitical consequences. First, the recent meeting between the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, with leaders of Yemen’s Islamist Islah party in the wake of the killing of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The presence of Mohammed bin Salman at the meeting was far less remarkable than that of Mohammed bin Zayed and it is not clear what it means. It is Mohammed bin Zayed rather than Mohammed bin Salman who is truly uncomfortable with any expression of political Islam and certainly with any link to the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah remains an Islamist party even if it announced in 2013 that it had cut its ties to the Brotherhood.
The question is whether Mohammed bin Zayed, who for the almost three years of the Yemen war opposed Saudi cooperation with Islah, sees an alliance with the party as an opportunistic one-off move or whether it signals a shift in policy that could be repeated elsewhere in the Middle East. If so, that would have consequences for the dispute with Qatar and there is no sign of that. In fact, Saudi Arabia signalled days after the meeting that there was likely to be no quick end to the dispute with Qatar by declaring its closed border crossing with the Gulf state permanently shut. Similarly, recent satellite pictures show that the UAE air force is gearing up for greater military engagement against Islamists in Libya. As a result, the significance of the meeting is likely to be limited to Yemen.
Nonetheless, the way the meeting was arranged is significant and tells a story that goes far beyond Yemen. The crown princes sent a private plane to Istanbul to pick up the Islah party representatives from an Islamic summit called to discuss US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It was a summit the two men decided not to attend and at which they were represented by lower officials. The message was: Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not their priority and their opposition to Mr. Trump’s move was skin deep. Their priority was the war in Yemen and the larger regional battle with Iran for dominance of the region.
In some ways, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s risky strategy has already backfired. It has given the Brotherhood, violently suppressed in Egypt, outlawed in much of the Gulf and marginalized elsewhere in the region, a new lease on life. Mr. Trump’s decision offered the Brotherhood an issue to rally around in an Arab world intimidated and cowed by the violence, repression, insurgencies and civil wars that have characterized it since the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
With a long history of opposition to a US-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Brotherhood has emerged in the front lines of many of the protests against the president’s recognition of Jerusalem. Muslim Brothers organized the biggest popular protest in Jordan in a decade and demanded the closure of the Israeli embassy in Amman. Beyond leading demonstrations in Kuwait, Brother members of parliament called on the government to review its ties with Washington and disinvest from the United States.
Mr. Trump’s move has also strengthened Brotherhood offshoots like Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Confronted with protests against its inability to break a crippling, economic stranglehold by Egypt, Israel and the Palestine Authority that starved the Strip of electricity and forced government workers to go unpaid for months, Hamas was forced by the UAE and Egypt to enter into a reconciliation agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud’s Abbas’ Al Fatah movement and entertain an independent governance position for powerful but controversial, Abu Dhabi-backed former Palestinian security chieftain Mohammed Dahlan.
The second factor are Houth ballistic missile strikes, including the firing in November of a projectile at the international airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh, subsequent claims and denials of a Houthi missile fired towards the UAE, the December 2017 targeting of the Al Yamama palace of the Saudi royal court as King Salman and Prince Mohammed were chairing a meeting of the kingdom’s leaders, and the Houthi threat of further attacks. A Saudi military spokesman said the kingdom had intercepted 83 ballistic missiles since the Yemen war started almost three years ago.
There is little doubt that the Saudi-UAE intervention in Yemen has fortified ties between the Houthis and Iran. Yet the recent theatrical display of Houthi missile parts and other weaponry that was made possible by Saudi Arabia and the UAE left their provenance in doubt. There was no smoking gun that established beyond doubt that Iran could be held responsible for the missile strikes. The missiles and other items could well have originated in Iran, they could also have come from elsewhere. Whether supplied by Iran or not, United Nations monitors reported to the Security Council that remnants of ballistic missiles launched into Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels appeared to have been designed and produced by Iran.
Iran insisted that it had not supplied the missiles, but said it would continue to support the Houthis and other “resistance forces” in the region. “Victory in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen will continue as long as the resistance coalition defends its achievements. And as long as necessary, we will have a presence in these countries… We must assist these countries and establish a barrier against the American influence,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former foreign minister.
Mr. Velayati’s remarks appeared to contradict Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s denial that Iran had a military presence in Yemen and was assisting the Houthis. So did an earlier admission by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jafari that Iran was providing the Houthis with “advisory military assistance,” the phrase the Islamic republic used for its support of militias in Syria and Iraq.
Evidence of Iranian military support for the Houthis has been mounting. The Australian government released in January pictures of anti-armour weapons that were seized off the Yemeni coast and had been manufactured in Iran. A report in late 2016 by Conflict Armament Research concluded that a weapons pipeline extended from Iran to Yemen as well as Somalia that involved “transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons and weapons that plausibly derive from Iranian stockpiles.”
The Houthis, a fiercely independent actor have, irrespective of the degree of Iranian support, repeatedly demonstrated, however, that they do not take orders from Tehran and at times ignore its advice. Iran opposed the Houthi move on the Yemeni capital of Sana’a to no avail and was against a Houthi advance in the south. The Houthis could well against Iran’s will throw another monkey wrench into the fragile Middle East mix if they continue to target Saudi and/or Emirati cities. The attacks would ultimately elicit a harsh response. The question is who would respond and what would the target be.
The answer seems at first glance obvious. It would be a Saudi and/or UAE response and the target would be the Houthis in Yemen. The deployment of a new, American-trained and supplied Saudi National Guard helicopter unit to the kingdom’s border with Yemen suggests an escalation of the Saudi-UAE campaign. The Pentagon said 36 AH-64E Apaches, 36 AH-6i Little Birds, and 72 Sikorsky UH-60M Blackhawks bought from the US at a cost of $25 billion would be used to protect Saudi Arabia’s borders and oil infrastructure. The deployment constitutes the first expansion of the Guard’s mission beyond protecting the ruling Al Saudi family, guarding oil facilities, and providing security for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina since Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a son of former King Abdullah, was relieved of his command of the Guard in November and detained by Prince Mohammed on corruption charges alongside other princes, senior officials and prominent businessmen.
The retaliatory target could, however, also be Iran and the response could be one in which the United States participates. The implications of such an escalation could be massive. “An Iranian missile fired at Riyadh sheds light on an important bottom line dynamic in the region: the Saudis have a far superior air force, defence system and navy than the Iranians. They have a better equipped military intelligence apparatus and far superior munitions… (Iran) has been wreaking havoc in the Middle East on its own terms and drawing on its own strengths. It must realise that such recklessness could cause its regional adversaries to draw on their competitive advantages,” said Middle East analyst Mohammed Alyahya.
A broader regional military altercation would occur at a moment that emotions are raw in the wake of Mr. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem and because protesters are already on the streets of various Middle Eastern cities. A strike against Iran involving the United States could turn fury about Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision against Arab leaders who would be seen to be cooperating with the United States and willing to sacrifice Palestinian rights to work with Israel. Soccer fans in Algiers who were protesting against the decision recently provoked Saudi Arabia’s ire by carrying placards depicting Mr. Trump and Saudi King Salman as two sides of the same coin. While the protests in recent week were primarily directed against the United States and Israel, they often had an undertone of criticism of Arab regimes that were seen to be meek in their response to Mr. Trump’s decision or in cahoots with the United States.
Ironically, differences among Arab leaders about how to respond to Trump’s Jerusalem decision may have temporarily prevented the Saudi Crown Prince from adding Palestine to a string of failed foreign policy moves aimed at escalating the kingdom’s proxy war with Iran. Prince Mohammed’s devastating intervention in Yemen, botched effort to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign, and hamstrung boycott of Qatar have backfired and only strengthened the Islamic republic’s regional influence.
Inadvertently, Palestinian President Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah did Prince Mohammed a favour when they reportedly rejected pressure by the prince not to participate in the summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul. Mr. Abbas may have further shielded the Saudi leader when his refusal to further accept the United States as a mediator was adopted by the summit.
The two leaders’ stand, coupled with the summit’s rejection of Trump’s move, make it more difficult for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to endorse any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that does not recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. The problem is that the Saudi and UAE crown princes run the risk of misreading or underestimating public anger and frustration in significant parts of the Arab and Muslim world.
The Saudi crown prince responded to the two leaders’ defiance by briefly arresting billionaire Jordanian Palestinians businessman Sabih al-Masri, who also has Saudi citizenship. “The Saudi detention of Masri was a crude but brutal political message to…King Abdullah and…President Mahmoud Abbas on how to behave on the Jerusalem issue and regional alignments. Riyadh wanted to signal to the Jordanian and Palestinian leaderships that it could swiftly cripple their economies and trigger existential crises in which banks would suffer terminal runs, the governments would fail to pay their employees, and the economies would sputter to a halt,” said Middle East scholar and analyst Rami G. Khouri.
Disagreement in the Arab world over how to respond to Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision and Mr. Abbas’ defiance has taken on even larger significance with the battle over a United Nations General Assembly vote on the issue. Mr. Abbas instructed his diplomatic representatives to ensure the passing of a resolution that condemns the US move despite a US threat to cut off aid to countries that vote in favour and at the risk of the Trump administration deciding to close the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington.
How Saudi Arabia and the UAE vote could impact relations with the United States and the degree to which they are sensitive to criticism of their conduct of the Yemen war, if they vote in favour of the resolution and Mr. Trump acts on his threat. In another indication of Saudi and UAE priorities, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled Ben Ahmed hinted at the Gulf states abstaining in the UN vote in a move that likely would contradict public opinion, Mr. Ben Ahmed, referring to Iran, tweeted that “it’s not helpful to pick a fight with the USA over side issues while we together fight the clear and present danger of The Theo-Fascist Islamic republic.”
Saudi, UAE and Bahraini willingness to break with a long-standing consensus in the Arab and Muslim world would have likely been strengthened with the publication of Mr. Trump’s national security strategy that, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, prioritizes combating “jihadist terrorists;” preventing the domination of “any power hostile to the United States,” an apparent reference to Iran and Iranian-backed proxies; and ensuring “a stable global energy market.”
The link between Israeli-Palestinian peace making and Iran, and by extension Yemen, is, moreover, likely to become undeniable when Mr. Trump next month must decide whether to uphold the 2015 international agreement with Iran that put severe restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Under US law, Mr. Trump has to certify Iranian compliance every three months. In October, Mr. Trump refused to do so. He threatened to pull out of the agreement if Congress failed to address the accord’s perceived shortcomings within 60 days. Congress has refrained from acting on Mr. Trump’s demand that Congress ensure that Iranian compliance involves accepting restrictions on its ballistic missile program that is primarily designed to counter perceived US and Israeli threats, and support of regional proxies. A study by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) concluded that to counter challenges posed by regional insurgencies, failing states and extremism, Iran was likely to expand its weapons acquisition program to include surface- and air-to-air missiles, advanced fighter aircraft, tanks, advanced mines, and anti-ship cruise missiles.
Concern that proxies that fought in Syria could turn their attention to Yemen was enhanced by Ali-Reza Tavasol, a founder of the 20,000 man-strong Fatemiyoun Division, an Iranian-led Afghan Shiite militia group. “Our war is an ideological war and does not recognize geography and borders. Anywhere oppressed people need help, we will be present there and assist them,” Mr. Tavasol said. Mr, Tavasol’s statement echoed earlier remarks by Ismail Ghani, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who asserted that Fatemiyoun fighters did “not recognize borders to defend Islamic values.” Afghan officials alleged that some Fatemiyoun fighters has already been dispatched to Yemen.
At the end of the day, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is being fought on the back of the Yemenis who are paying a horrendous price. That is unlikely to change as long as Saudi Arabia sees its struggle with Iran as an existential battle. And to be fair to the Saudis, they have good reason to perceive Iran as an existential threat. Not because Iran engages in asymmetric warfare by using proxies, supporting groups like the Houthis or propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But because post 1979-Iran, even if t were to only sit back and do nothing, poses an existential threat in much the same way that the popular Arab revolts of 2011 posed an existential threat. Iran experienced, alongside Russia, the 20th’s century only true revolution in which a regime and a political system was overthrown. It was a revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of the United States. It was a revolution that introduced an Islamic system of governance that has whatever limited degree of popular sovereignty. That is the threat, it constitutes an alternative to an absolute monarchy that claims religious legitimacy and is seeking to ensure its survival.
And if that were not enough, Iran is one of three Middle Eastern nations, that, irrespective of what state of disrepair they may be in, have the building blocks to be regional powers. The other two are Turkey and Egypt. They have large populations, huge domestic markets, battle-hardened militaries, an industrial base, highly educated populations, geography and a deep sense of identity rooted in empire and/or thousands of years of history. Saudi Arabia has money and Mecca.
If Saudi Arabia and the UAE learnt a lesson during the era of US President Barak Obama, it is that nothing is permanent and that countries need to assert themselves. Yemen is an expression of that lesson. Mr. Trump has given the kingdom and the emirates the umbrella they needed. Saudi regional power is to a large extent dependent on an Iran that is hampered by US-led efforts to contain it. Again, to be fair, the UAE has been better than the Saudis at exploiting the opportunity.
Saudi Arabia has so far ended up with mud in its face. The war in Yemen is backfiring and threatens to create even bigger challenges in the longer term. In a toughening of US criticism of the kingdom’s conduct of the war, Mr. Trump’s nominee for the post of the State Department’s legal counsel, Jennifer Newstead, suggested that Saudi Arabia could be violating U.S. and international law by restricting the flow of humanitarian aid in Yemen. British international development secretary Penny Mordaunt issued a similar warning. A determination that the kingdom is in violation would, amid widespread international criticism of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen sparked by Saudi military action, put at risk US support for the intervention, involving US assistance in mid-air refuelling of Saudi and Emirati fighter planes, the provision of precision-guided munitions, and the sharing of intelligence.
Moreover, with dissent repressed, it is difficult to gauge what public opinion in the kingdom is. Prince Mohammed has so far delivered long-overdue social changes but has yet to deliver on his economic reform plans. There is good reason to question the degree to which he will be able to deliver, not only because there are legitimate questions about his plans but also because of the way he has gone about implementing them. The recent arrests of scores prominent Saudis under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign and the financial settlements being negotiated for their release raises questions about what kind of checks and balances a new Saudi Arabia would offer and defy the principle of the rule of law.
No doubt, Prince Mohammed is an enormously popular figure. The problem is that he has created enormous expectations that have not been managed. Moreover, 40 years of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism rooted in a history of at least 200 years of ultra-conservative thought cannot be erased with the stroke of a pen. Prince Mohammed’s social changes are as popular as they are controversial. In a recent survey, young Saudis said they wanted change: they wanted to date women, they wanted to party, they wanted to drive fast cars, and, yes, they wanted good paying jobs. When asked whether they realized that those same rights would apply to their sisters, they pulled back. In a recent illustration of contradictory attitudes, a Saudi beauty queen withdrew from a Miss Arab World contest after being attacked and threatened online. Similarly, Saudis want jobs but are unprepared for a merit-driven labour market rather than one that offers cushy government jobs.
The long and short of all of this is that the war in Yemen cannot be seen independent of the convulsions of change that have enveloped the Middle East in a convoluted and often violent process with no end in sight. The wars in Syria and Iraq are dying down. Yet, without policies that ensure that all groups in society feel that they have a stake in society, the seeds for renewed conflict are being sown. The same is ultimately also true for Yemen. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Obama, he got it right when he told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Saudi Arabia will have to learn to share the Middle East with Iran.
Saudi sports diplomacy: A mirror image of the kingdom’s already challenged policies
Saudi sports diplomacy is proving to be a mirror image of the kingdom’s challenged domestic, regional and foreign policies.
Overlorded by sports czar Turki al-Sheikh, Saudi sports diplomacy, like the kingdom’s broader policies, has produced at best mixed results, suggesting that financial muscle coupled with varying degrees of coercion does not guarantee success.
Mr. Al-Sheikh, a 37-year old brash and often blunt former honorary president of Saudi soccer club Al Taawoun based in Buraidah, a stronghold of religious ultra-conservatism, and a former bodyguard of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, is together with Saud al-Qahtani among the king-in-waiting’s closest associates.
Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s wealthiest investors, acknowledged Mr. Al-Sheikh’s ranking in the Saudi hierarchy when he made a donation of more than a half-million dollars to Saudi soccer club Al Hilal FC weeks after having been released from detention.
Prince al-Waleed was one of the more recalcitrant detainees among the scores of members of the ruling family, prominent businessmen and senior officials who were detained a year ago in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel as part of Prince Mohammed’s power and asset grab.
Prince Al-Waleed said on Twitter at the time that he was “responding to the invitation of my brother Turki al-Sheikh.”
Mr. Al-Qahtani, who was recently fired as Prince Mohammed’s menacing information czar in connection with the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was banned this week from travelling outside the kingdom. Mr. Al-Sheikh has not been linked to the Khashoggi murder.
Nevertheless, his sports diplomacy, exhibiting some of the brashness that has characterized Prince Mohammed as well as Mr Al-Qahtani’s approach, has largely failed to achieve its goals. If anything, it appears to have contributed to the kingdom’s growing list of setbacks.
Those goals included establishing Saudi Arabia as a powerhouse in regional and global soccer governance; countering Qatari sports diplomacy crowned by its hosting of the 2022 World Cup; projecting the kingdom in a more favourable light by hosting international sporting events; becoming a powerhouse in soccer-crazy Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation; and using the competition for the 2026 World Cup hosting rights to bully Morocco into supporting the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led boycott of Qatar.
To be sure, with the exception of a cancelled tennis exhibition match in Jeddah between stars Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, most scheduled sporting events, including this season’s opening Formula E race in December and the Italian Supercoppa between Juventus and AC Milan in January, are going ahead as planned despite a six-week old crisis sparked by the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.
Yet, if last month’s friendly soccer match in Jeddah between Brazil and Argentina and this month’s World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) Crown Jewel showpiece are anything to go by, major sporting events are doing little to polish the kingdom’s image tarnished not only by the Khashoggi killing but also the war in Yemen that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two. The sports events have so far failed to push Mr. Khashoggi and Yemen out of the headlines of major independent media.
Mainstream media coverage of Saudi sports has, moreover, focussed primarily on Saudi sports diplomacy’s struggle to make its mark internationally. One focus been the fact that Gianni Infantino, president of world soccer body FIFA, has run into opposition from the group’s European affiliate, UEFA, to his plan to endorse a US$25 billion plan for a new club tournament funded by the Saudi and UAE-backed Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
If adopted, the plan would enhance Saudi and Emirati influence in global soccer governance to the potential detriment of Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia and the UAE spearhead a 17-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar designed to force it to surrender its right to chart an independent course rather than align its policies with those of its Gulf brothers.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to engineer a situation in which Qatar is either deprived of its hosting rights or forced to share them with other states in the region, a possibility Mr. Infantino has said he was exploring.
Mr. Infantino has also said he was looking into implementing an expansion of the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams already in 2022 rather than only in 2026. An expansion of the Qatari World Cup would probably involve including others in the Gulf as hosts of the tournament. Qatari officials have all but ruled out sharing their hosting rights.
Another media focus has been alleged Saudi piracy aimed at undermining Qatar-owned BeIN Corp, the world’s biggest sports rights holder, including the rights to broadcast last summer’s Russia World Cup in the Arab world.
Mr. Al-Qahtani reportedly played a key role in the sudden emergence of BeoutQ, a bootleg operation beamed from Riyadh-based Arabsat that ripped live events from BeIN’s feed and broadcast the games without paying for rights. The Saudi government has denied any relationship to the pirate network.
The piracy has sparked international lawsuits, including international arbitration in which BeIN is seeking US1 billion in damages from Saudi Arabia. The company has also filed a case with the World Trade Organization.
FIFA has said it has taken steps to prepare for legal action in Saudi Arabia and is working alongside other sports rights owners that have been affected to protect their interests.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s effort to create with funds widely believed to have been provided by Prince Mohammed an international Saudi sports portfolio that would project the kingdom as a regional power broker collapsed with fans, players and club executives in Egypt furious at the Saudi officials buying influence and using it to benefit Saudi rather than Egyptian clubs.
“No one, no one at all — with all due respect to Turki or no Turki … will be allowed to interfere in the club’s affairs,” said Mahmoud el-Khatib, chairman of Egyptian club Al Ahli SC, one of the Middle East’s most popular clubs with an estimated 50 million fans. Mr. Al-Sheikh had unsuccessfully tried to use his recently acquired honorary chairmanship of Al Ahli to take control of the club.
Al Ahli’s rejection of his power grab persuaded Mr. Al-Sheikh to resign in May and instead bankroll Al Ahli rival Pyramid FC. He invested US$33 million to acquire three top Brazilian players and launch a sports channel dedicated to the team.
The club’s fans, like their Al Ahli counterparts, nonetheless, denounced Mr. Al-Sheikh and the kingdom and insulted the Saudi official’s mother in crass terms during a match in September. Mr. Al-Sheikh decided to abandon his Egyptian adventure after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ignored his request to intervene. “Strange attacks from everywhere, and a new story every day. Why the headache?” Mr Al-Sheikh said on Facebook.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s attempt to form a regional powerbase by creating a breakaway group of South Asian and Middle Eastern soccer federations beyond the confines of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) collapsed five months after the formation of the South-West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) when seven South Asian nations pulled out with immediate effect.
The collapse of SWAFF and Mr. Al-Sheikh’s withdrawal from Egypt were preceded by his backing of the US-Canadian-Mexican bid for the 2026 World Cup against Morocco after he failed to bully the North Africans into supporting the boycott of Qatar.
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.”
That was Mr. Al-Sheikh’s position six months ago. Today, men like Prince Mohammed and Messrs. Al-Sheikh and Al-Qahtani are seething. US President Donald J. Trump is proving to be an unreliable ally. Not only is he pressuring the kingdom to come up with a credible explanation for Mr. Khashoggis’ killing, Mr. Trump is also seemingly backtracking on his promise to bring Iran to its knees by imposing crippling economic sanctions.
Saudi distrust is fuelled by the fact that Mr. Trump first asked the kingdom to raise oil production to compensate for lower crude exports from Iran and then without informing it made a 180-degree turn by offering buyers generous waivers that keep Iranian crude in the market instead of drive exports from Riyadh’s arch-rival down to zero.
Seemingly cut from the same cloth as Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Sheikh, drew his pro-American definition of Saudi Arabia First from the crown prince’s focus on the United States. Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Sheikh and other senior Saudi officials may be considering whether putting the kingdom’s eggs primarily in one basket remains the best strategy.
Whatever the case, Mr. Al-Sheikh’s sweep through regional and global sports has left Saudi leaders with little to leverage in the kingdom’s bid to pick up the pieces and improve its image tarnished first and foremost by Mr. Khashoggi’s killing but also by the trail the sports czar has left behind.
Paris Peace Forum: A missed opportunity for the Middle East
Timed to coincide with the centennial of the World War I armistice, the Paris Peace Forum (PPF) launched by French president Emmanuel Macron adopted a welcome approach to the root causes of contemporary conflict, including climate change and the double-edged sword represented by new technologies.
The forum, which took place from November 11-13, showcased projects that spoke to the innovation and collaboration critical to improving lives and reducing tensions across the globe.
Conspicuous by their absence
Even though the summit saw 65 heads of state from all over the world come together to launch the event, precious few of those leaders came from the Middle East – even though the region could benefit as much as any other part of the world from this “Davos for democracy.” While this first peace summit represented a promising start, any future editions need to find a way to make inroads with citizens in the countries where they are needed most. Of course, this is a two-way street, with leaders in those countries needing to participate in and draw lessons from such gatherings.
The Middle East’s most notable representatives at the event were Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. Their presence was fitting: while so many of their neighbors jostle with each other to secure their own geopolitical ends, Qatar and Lebanon have faced down the instability surrounding them to protect themselves from dangerous regional currents. Unfortunately, the leaders who could have really used reminding of the importance of peace were absent from the stage.
An “island” of stability
Qatar, for its part, has been the subject of a regional blockade for the best part of 18 months. A coalition of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all severed ties with the country since June 2017 for its alleged “support for terrorism” but more realistically for its willingness to deal with Iran against a backdrop of acrimony between the two sides of the Gulf. The Saudis, for their part, have gone so far as planning to cut Qatar off from the mainland with a new canal.
Far from buckling, however, Qatar has proven remarkably resilient and stuck firmly to a strategy of de-escalation with both sides of the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Events since have rewarded that cool-headedness. Global markets nervous about the turbulence in Riyadh are now looking to Qatar as a regional investment driver instead. Ironically enough, none other than Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman praised the performance of the Qatari economy last month.
Delicate peace in Beirut
Lebanon has had greater difficulty insulating itself from the instability across its border with Syria, but Saad Hariri has nonetheless maintained a fragile domestic peace even after an apparent kidnapping and forced resignation (later rescinded) orchestrated by bin Salman in November of last year. Hariri was detained for two weeks and only released on the back of intense international pressure, apparently out of Saudi anger with the Lebanese premier for cooperating with his Shi’a Hezbollah rivals in Lebanon.
In Lebanon’s torturous system of confessional politics, however, difficult compromises are the nature of the game. Hariri and his Sunni-led political movement have no choice but to negotiate with Hezbollah’s Shi’a faction over the balance of political power on an ongoing basis to keep the country stable. Hariri’s resistance to Saudi demands for aggression has helped keep the peace between Lebanese Sunnis and Shi’a, preventing the sectarian fires that have torn Syria apart from jumping across the border.
External actors have key roles to play
Of course, none of the crises in the Middle East can be viewed in a vacuum. One key part of the program at the Paris Peace Forum summit – entitled Global Powers and the Middle East – focused on the responsibility of outside powers like the United States, Russia, China, Europe and India to find common ground and address the causes of Middle Eastern instability. Left unsaid: these same countries are often deeply involved in perpetuating these crises.
If American, European, or Russian leaders truly want to prevent conflicts in the Middle East, their first step should probably be a sort of Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” The arms trade is a notable case in point. The Middle East is responsible for 32% of global arms imports. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are three of the five largest customers; their primary suppliers are the US, UK, France, Italy, and Russia.
Rather than encourage stability, this supply of weapons has fed a volatile arms race. Much of that equipment has been used by the Saudi coalition’s intervention in Yemen, which has left eight million Yemenis are the brink of starvation and the country confronting the fastest growing cholera epidemic the world has ever seen. Russia has openly used the civil war in Syria as a venue for showing off its military hardware to potential customers worldwide, even as Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to massacre civilians.
Instead of helping their local allies arm themselves to the teeth, these outside powers should push Middle Eastern governments to change their damaging patterns of behavior and undertake the kinds of social reforms that are instrumental in easing tensions. Otherwise, systemic inequality and unaccountable leadership will continue to lay the groundwork for conflicts and crises. That might enrich weapons manufacturers, but it will do nothing to achieve the goals pursued in Paris this week.
The sanctions of a split
The tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States against Iran have aggravated conflict between Washington and its close allies. The European Union, the United Kingdom, France and Germany have expressed regret over measures taken by American President Donald Trump and signaled the need to protect their companies. Simultaneously, eight countries have received a six-month “sanctions delay” from the United States, which produced a further negative effect on the balance of strength and set the scene for a further escalation of tension.
The United States announced the resumption of anti-Iranian sanctions, which ban the purchase of Iranian oil and oil products, on November 5. The US Treasury Department pointed out that they were the “toughest” in history: “These are the toughest U.S. sanctions ever imposed on Iran, and will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy, such as the energy, shipping and shipbuilding, and financial sectors. The United States is engaged in a campaign of maximum financial pressure on the Iranian regime and intends to enforce aggressively these sanctions that have come back into effect.”
“The unprecedented financial pressure exerted by the US Treasury Department on Iran should make it clear to the Iranian regime that it will face ever-increasing financial isolation and economic stagnation until it radically changes its destabilizing behavior. From now on, the maximum pressure exerted by the United States will only increase,” – emphasizes US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin. Washington makes it no secret that the ultimate goal of the sanctions is to reduce oil exports from Iran “to zero.”
Over 700 individuals and legal entities have been put on the sanctions list, including the Iranian national air company Iran Air, more than 65 aircraft it owns, and several dozen ships of the merchant fleet. The sanctions prohibit the purchase of Iranian oil and are directed against port operators, shipping and shipbuilding companies, the financial sector, – primarily tanker insurance companies, – and also restrict operations with Iran’s banks and Central Bank.
Fines will be imposed on anyone who trades oil with Iran and works with its banking system. Secondary sanctions (fines and shutout from the dollar system) may be imposed on companies of third countries. The US also demanded that Iran should be cut off from the SWIFT international payment system. According to reports, on November 5 SWIFT suspended access of some Iranian banks to its system, but without reference to the US sanctions.
This step followed President Trump’s announcement in May this year about Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action on the Iranian nuclear program. Adopted in 2015 with the participation of Iran, the USA, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the document envisages easing sanctions against Tehran in exchange for its measures to wrap up its nuclear program under the control of the IAEA. The US president dubbed it “the worst deal ever,” saying that it does nothing to stop Iran from pursing its nuclear and missile programs. After Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the other participants expressed their commitment to this document.
Two days before the sanctions package was put into effect, US President Donald Trump made it clear that the United States was ready to conclude a new agreement with Iran on more stringent conditions. “Our objective is to force the regime into a clear choice: either abandon its destructive behavior, or continue down the path toward economic disaster”, – the US president said on November 3: “The sanctions will target revenues the Iranian regime uses to fund its nuclear program, development and proliferation of ballistic missiles, fuel regional conflict, support terrorism and enrich its leaders”. At the same time, according to Donald Trump, “the United States remains open to reaching a new, more comprehensive deal with Iran that forever blocks its path to a nuclear weapon, addresses the entire range of its malign actions, and is worthy of the Iranian people. Until then, our historic sanctions will remain in full force”.
Having introduced “unprecedentedly tough” sanctions against Tehran, Donald Trump, as part of his business approach to international affairs, left substantial “windows of opportunity” for the subsequent bargaining on a wider range of issues of the international agenda. The USA made an exception for eight states. China, India, Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey and South Korea were allowed to buy Iranian oil temporarily. According to the London-based Financial Times, these countries will be able to import a limited amount of Iranian oil over the next six months.
Simultaneously, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that more than 20 countries have already cut down on oil exports from Iran, reducing purchases by more than 1 million barrels per day. Independent sources indicate that average daily oil production in Iran fell from 3.8 million barrels in May to 3.3 million barrels in early October. This is quite a lot: because of the reduction, Iran loses about 1 billion dollars a month.
Given that the above exemptions from the sanctions list are temporary, the United States will likely resume political and economic bargaining with the eight countries in spring, with a view to preserve a favorable regime for these countries. In the first place, it concerns China. President Donald Trump will try to use the “Iranian factor” in order to achieve maximum concessions on trade and economic issues from Beijing. Among other things, he will probably make an attempt to force the Chinese side to reconsider joint energy projects with Russia. In the meantime, China’s response to the US decision to resume the anti-Iranian sanctions has been markedly restrained. A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry has called on Washington to respect China’s trade rights and expressed “regret” that the United States relaunched sanctions against Iran.
A much more resolute response came from the European Union – whose trade and economic interests are affected by anti-Iranian sanctions first. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, as well as the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement in which they promised to protect their companies from restrictive US measures. “Our goal is to protect the subjects of the European economy that have legal commercial ties with Iran,” the document states.
In the meantime, the European Union is confronted with the problem of creating a specific structure that would allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran without risking falling under Washington’s sanctions. Brussels reported in October that a new mechanism of payment for Iranian oil exports should be legally ready by November 4, and would go into operation in early 2019. However, according to The Financial Times, by the time the current sanctions were introduced, the Europeans did not have even a legal foundation for the defense mechanism and had not come to agreement on the location of the corresponding “special purpose structure” (SPV). “Now we are actively discussing where the SPV will be located, who will participate in it, and are launching the process of registering it. Time is short, and given the complexity and sensitivity of this issue in the light of its geopolitical consequences, we see very rapid and effective progress,” – said a representative of the French Finance Ministry.
For Europeans, sensitivity of this issue lies in their unwillingness to come under tough Washington’s sanctions themselves – especially in the context of deepening trade and economic differences between the US and the EU. “The US authorities are demonstrating that they will act aggressively towards violators of sanctions, which boosts the effect,” warns partner of law firm Morrison & Foerster and former director of the Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Treasury John Smith. “When the United States threatens to punish violators and does it in practice, examples of punished companies force others to think seriously,” he said in an interview published by the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal.
Without waiting for the sanctions regime to come into effect, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani stated that Tehran would be able to overcome it. “America wants to bring down Iran’s oil sales, but we will continue to sell oil to break through the sanctions,” he said.
Tehran could not but point out the fact that the resumption of the US sanctions package against Iran coincided with the anniversary of the capture of the US embassy during the Islamic revolution in Tehran in 1979. Addressing his compatriots, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The goal of American sanctions is to cripple and restrain the Iranian economy, but the result we obtained in reality was the country’s striving for self-sufficiency.” “The main objective of the United States in all this is to regain the supremacy it had in the period of tyranny. But this will not happen,” Ayatollah Khamenei said.
Meanwhile, Tehran does not attach any fundamental significance to the exclusion of eight states from the sanctions regime. “The Islamic Republic could sell its oil even if these eight countries were not excluded, we would still sell our oil,” said Hassan Rouhani in this regard.
The anti-Iranian sanctions imposed by Washington have not yet had a direct impact on Russia. The sanctions list published by the US Treasury contains only the Russian “daughter” of the Iranian Bank Melli – the Mir Business Bank, registered in Moscow (MB Bank). Its shareholder is Bank Melli Iran, which, according to the United States, provides multi-billion financial, material and technological support to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). “Bank Melli enabled the IRGC and its related parties to transfer funds both inside and outside Iran,” the statement of the US Treasury said. JSC Mir Business Bank was registered in Moscow in 2002. Bank Melli Iran is its sole shareholder.
According to reports, the Trump administration has decided not to pursue the Russian direction in its pressure on Iran ahead of a new meeting of the presidents of Russia and the United States due to take place at the end of this year. The meeting could be held on November 11 in Paris, at events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, or — more likely — at the G-20 summit in Argentina in late November – early December this year. However, regardless of the outcome of this meeting, Russia should bear it in mind that its trade and economic ties with Iran, and in a broader context – relations with OPEC – will become the target of a new round of global games of the US administration.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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