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Surrendering a Brussels mosque: A Saudi break with ultra-conservatism?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia, in an indication that it is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, has agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The decision follows mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators as well as social reforms in the kingdom introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a lifting of the ban on women’s driving, the granting of women’s access to male sporting events and introduction of modern forms of entertainment.

Relinquishing control of the mosque reportedly strokes with a Saudi plan to curtail support for foreign mosques and religious and cultural institutions that have been blamed for sprouting radicalism. With few details of the plan known, it remains unclear what the curtailing entails.

It also remains unclear what effect it would have. A report published last month by the Royal Danish Defence College and three Pakistani think tanks concluded that madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan, a hotbed of militant religious education, were no longer dependent on foreign funding. It said that foreign funding accounted for a mere seven percent of the income of madrassas in the country.

Like with Prince Mohammed’s vow last November to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined “moderate” form of Islam, its too early to tell what the Brussels decision and the social reforms mean beyond trying to improve the kingdom’s tarnished image and preparing it for a beyond-oil, 21st century economic and social existence.

The decision would at first glance seem to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the European Union given that the Brussels mosque is the exception that confirms the rule. It is one of a relatively small number of Saudi-funded religious, educational and cultural institutions that was managed by the kingdom.

The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s four decades-long, $100 billion public diplomacy campaign, the single largest in history, aimed at countering post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal, operated independently.

By doing so, Saudi Arabia has let a genie out of the bottle that it not only cannot control, but that also leads an independent life of its own. The Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative environment has also produced groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have turned on the kingdom.

Relinquishing control of the Brussels mosque allows Saudi Arabia to project itself as distancing itself from its roots in ultra-conservatism that date back to an 18th century power sharing arrangement between the Al Saud family and Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, a preacher whose descendants are at the core of the kingdom’s religious establishment.

The decision, Prince Mohammed’s initial social reforms, and plans to cut funding notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia appears to be making less of clean break on the frontlines of its confrontation with Iran where support for ultra-conservative and/or militant groups is still the name of the game.

Saudi Arabia said last month that it would open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen was sparked by its conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, that dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s and early this century.

Saudi militants reported in the last year that Saudi nationals of Baloch origin were funnelling large amounts of money into militant madrassas in the Pakistani province of Balochistan on the border with Iran. Saudi-funded ultraconservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate the region’s educational landscape.

The money flowed, although it was not clear whether the Saudi donors had tacit government approval, at a time that Saudi Arabia is toying with the idea of seeking to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its multiple minorities, including the Baloch.

A militant Islamic scholar, who operates militant madrassas in the triangle where the borders of Balochistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet, was last year named a globally designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was fundraising in the kingdom.

Algerian media reports last month detailed Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as the 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.

The decision to relinquish control of the Brussels mosque that in 1969 had been leased rent-free to the kingdom for a period of 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin followed a Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed. The inquiry advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism, estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported that “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith.”

Saudi Arabia has worked hard in the last year to alter perceptions of its Islamic-inspired beliefs.

Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister and secretary general of the World Muslim League, the group that operates the Brussels mosque and has served for half a century as a key funding vehicle for ultra-conservatism insisted on a visited last year to the Belgian capital that Islam “cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Mr. Al-Issa, in a first in a country that long distributed copies of the Protocols of Zion, an early 20th century anti-Semitic tract, last month, expressed last month on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates Nazi persecution of the Jews “great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Mr. Al-Issa’s comments no doubt also signalled ever closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both bitterly oppose Iran’s regional influence. Nonetheless, they constituted a radical rupture in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic scholars, often described Jews  as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”

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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Evolving Japan-UAE ties

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Mohamed bin Zayed with Japan's Abe. Image Credit: WAM

Japan and the UAE share a unique relationship with each other. Japan recognised the UAE as an independent state in 1971 and opened its Embassy in the UAE in 1974 and on the other hand, UAE opened its embassy in Japan in 1973. Both nations share strong bilateral economic relations, dating back to 1961 when the first shipment of the crude oil was exported from Umm Al-Sharif offshore field in Abu Dhabi to Japan. Japan is known to be the world’s fourth-largest importer of oil. In 2017, it was the second-largest export market, behind China, for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. The UAE became the top destination in the Middle East region for Japan’s exports, valued at $7.18 billion in 2019, taking economic bilateral relations to a great level. However, on 19 July 2020, UAE spacecraft rocketed into blue skies from a Japanese launch centre at the start of a seven-month journey to Mars on the Arab’s world’s first interplanetary mission. This mission gave a boost to its strategic relations as well as space cooperation.

Understanding their bilateral relations

The longstanding cordial relationship between the UAE and Japan has been honored for decades. In 2013, PM Shinzo Abe visited the UAE and both nations jointly announced the statement on the strengthening of the Comprehensive Partnership between Japan and the UAE towards stability and prosperity. The relations between both countries have mostly focused on the economy and trade ever since they established their diplomatic relations. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Japan as an official guest in February 2014 to follow up the Joint Statement issued during the Prime Minister’s visit to the UAE in May 2013.

In 2016, the number of Japanese citizens living in the UAE totalled 4,000, while hundreds of Emirati citizens are in Japan for education and investment purposes.

According to the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), In 2017, Japan imported Dh57.3 billion worth of oil from the UAE.

In 2018, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Initiative (CSPI) was signed between the two countries when Abe visited the UAE. With the signing of the CSPI, the relationship between Japan and the UAE entered a new era of strategic partnership for the future and joint cooperation strategy between the institutions of the two countries. They also agreed to increase trade in areas which included renewable energy, advanced robots, artificial intelligence and health care. Ensuring cordial energy ties are critical under the CSPI. In 2018, Japan also acquired an oil concession in Abu Dhabi for the coming 40 years which proved that Japan is an important strategic energy partner in the UAE.

The leadership of the UAE has been keen on strengthening ties with Japan in areas like education, scientific research and industry. It aims to seek its ties with Japan to new levels as Japan possesses advanced technology which would serve the sustainable and comprehensive development goals in the UAE. Cooperation is very strong in the education field. The first Japanese school was inaugurated in the UAE in 2009 and began teaching the Arabic language, Islamic education and social studies to the students of the Emirates along with the Japanese curriculum. Furthermore, around 100 students from the Emirates are studying in Japanese universities for bachelors, masters and even PhD degrees.

In 2019, an attempt of initiating to teach Japanese as a second foreign language in some UAE high schools was discussed among both countries. Akihiko Nakajima, new Japanese ambassador to the UAE affirmed that ‘both nations are currently giving importance to educational cooperation’. The friendly ties were further strengthened in recent times when Sheikh Hazza Bin Zayed Al-Nahyen, Deputy Chairman of Abu Dhabi Executive Council and Dr Sultan Ahmad Al-Jaber, Minister of State and Special Envoy to Japan, attended the enthronement ceremony of the Japanese Emperor Naruhito in 2019. They wished that Japan shall achieve a brighter and more prosperous future during the ‘Reiwa Era’.

Japan and the UAE have been closely cooperating in space sciences. In October 2018, ‘KhalifaSat’ was launched into outer space from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan aboard an H-IIA rocket. In January 2020, Shinzo Abe made an official visit to the UAE and other Gulf countries to further bolster the strong ties which have been evolving on multiple fronts like trade, energy, technology, space and education. “UAE-Japan relations are historic and based on trust, cooperation, respect and mutual interests,” Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said. Abe and Sheikh Mohammad also witnessed the signing of an Energy Cooperation Agreement between supreme Petroleum Council, represented by Adnoc (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), and Japan’s agency for natural resources and energy.

Space Cooperation

The lift-off of the Mars orbiter named Amal or Hope probe on 19th July 2020, from a Japanese launch centre is to be followed soon by China and the United States. Amal blasted off from the Tanegashima space centre aboard a Mitsubishi heavy industries H-IIA rocket. This has given a major boost to space cooperation between Japan and the UAE. Amal is set to reach Mars by February 2021, which will mark the year the UAE celebrates 50 years since the country’s formation. It points out that the launching of Amal was well planned in line with the celebration of 50 years of the country’s formation. “The UAE is now a member of the club and we will learn more and we will engage more and we’ll continue developing our space exploration program,” UAE Space Agency chief Mohammed Al Ahbabi told a joint online news conference from Tanegashima. The Amal statecraft costs $200 million and it is about the size of a small car, carries three instruments to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change. Japan’s services of such launches are known well for accuracy and on-time record. However, the providers are working to cut costs to be more competitive internationally. Japan also has its own Mars mission planned in 2024, where it aims to send spacecraft to the Martian moon Phobos to collect samples to bring back to Earth in 2029.

The objective of the UAE’S mission is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics and fundamentally, building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 days. Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager said, “What is unique about this mission is that for the first time the scientific community around the world will have a holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day at different seasons. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has said that ‘Hope Probe’ exemplifies the distinctive strategic partnership between the UAE and Japan.

It is the first time that the UAE attempted to send a deep space mission, that of a mission to Mars. It clearly sends a strong message to the Arab youth that if the UAE is able to reach Mars in less than 50 years, then they certainly can do much more. Emiratis also believed that it represented a step forward for the Arab world and for scientists.

However, energy remains a key priority in the ongoing relations between the two countries which may contribute significantly to energy development and economic diversification in the UAE and Japan. Through space and strategic cooperation, the two countries are looking to expand and deepen the fields of cooperation. A successful mission to Mars will indeed be a major step for the oil-dependent economy seeking a great future in space. The launch of the hope probe demonstrates that effective space cooperation is a driving force for strengthening their bilateral ties. Hope is expected to begin transmitting information back to earth by September 2021.

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China-Iran Deal and its implication for the region

Ashish Dangwal

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From the past few years, the increasing partnership between China and Iran has raised major concerns among many countries. Sinking economy and the recent COVID crisis pushed Iran into the corner and China timely manifested itself as a perfect partner for Iran. The diplomatic ties between these two countries were established in 1971 and over the years China’s demand for energy and Iran’s isolation from the international community brings them together. The recent investment and security pact covered almost every sector from Telecom, banking, ports, railways and dozens of other projects. Though the secret details of the pact were leaked but soon rejected by Iranian officials.

In 2016, Xi Jinping made a state visit to Iran and then laid the structure of this deal. Soon after in 2019, China announced its plan to invest $ 400 billion. Iran’s economy is suffering greatly because of the U.S.A sanctions and needs a lifeline to revive their domestic market. Where one side, most of the companies from different nations pulled out their businesses from Iran, On the other hand, Chinese investment can play a significant role in Iran’s survival. This partnership between these two nations directly challenges U.S.A efforts to cut off Iran from the international market arena. China’s ever-growing aspirations to increase its involvement in the Middle East perfectly sync with the geostrategic location of Tehran. However, Iran’s ambition to become a regional power needs huge investment in its domestic market. That’s where both countries see themselves as an emerging partner. 

China-Iran Economic Relationship

As a growing economy, China dependence on Iran’s oil is quite reasonable. Though this relationship is not just based on the energy, but even on the many different aspects. After 2016, China and Iran were agreed to increase their trading relations to $600 billion in the upcoming 10 years. The agreement was concordant with One Belt, One Road framework. A total of 17 agreements were signed, including one which relates to the Iran nuclear programme. The Chinese will help connect Tehran with Mashhad via their high-speed rail technology.  After the sanctions levied by the USA and other western countrieson Iran, its dependence on China increased in recent years. The trading relationship is not only limit to purchase of crude oil but even China’s involvement inIran’s upstream and downstream production processes through major investments.From 2005, both countries signed seven upstream production agreement with each other. All these agreements involve the state-owned Chinese companies, which shows the significant presence of China in Iran.

China-Iran-Syria Nexus

In December 2019, Syrian president while giving an interview to a Chinese media expressed his willingness to join the BRI project and projected Syria as a perfect partner for the Chinese investment. Syria suffered a lot because of the decades of war and wanted to start the reconstruction activities in their country. Iran and China identified themselves as the ally of Syria and they even wanted to make a strategic nexus between these countries. For the reconstruction process, China is helping Syria from Port of Tripoli by setting up it as a logistic base for the reconstruction process. China wanted to link this port with Syria’s “Four sea strategy” and connect the BRI project to the eastern Mediterranean area. This whole economic bloc could challenge the American hegemony in the region. Iran and Syria are already strategic allies in this region and by adding China in this situation, it would promote the autocratic rule in the region to counter America.

The implication for the Region

Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards Iran pushed many countries like India and Japan to cut off the trading ties with Tehran. This was seen as the major diplomatic blunder made by the U.S.A because of the one very simple reason that these countries could play a major role to find the middle ground for the talks between Iran and the west.As claimed by the reports, China will increase its partnership to build the ports too, getting a port in the Persian Gulf will provide the major boost to Chinese strategic plans. If China successfully expands its presence in Iran then it will lead to the major conflict between the U.S.A and China. Though China has already invested heavily on the Gwadar port, it will not hesitate to gain an upper hand in the Persian Gulf. From where Beijing can keep its eye on U.S.A movements in the region. India’s investment progress in Iran was slow and that’s the reason recently Iran started the railway track construction work on its own.

The growing instability in the region will further escalate, as the partnership will grow between these countries. China’s ambitions to expand its BRI projects and Syria’s “Four seas strategy” can become a foundation for future projects in the whole region. Syrian President Bashar Assad has promoted this four seas strategy since 2009 that would transform the Damascus into a major trading hub. Syria wanted to form an economic space between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that will shape a new bloc of nations in the region. This plan includes the four seas of the region from the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf, which makes easy for these nations from investment to transportation. 

The expanding partnership will lead to the architecture of a security structure between these three countries and will directly undermine the U.S.A presence in the region. The gradual consolidation of powers based on Anti-American and Anti-west sentiments can even form a proper security alliance where the inclusion of Turkey would be a possible scenario shortly. All these countries kind of having the same political regime one way or another, so for them it will be a great strategy to stop America’s presence from their domestic issues. If U.S.A wants to stop China’s involvement in the region, it needs to involve its key Asian partner, so that there will be some major power players in the region to maintain stability. 

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Are The U.S. And Its Partners Losing The Grip On Syria’s North East?

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The oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor located in Eastern Syria has witnessed another escalation between the local Arab populace and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Unexpectedly for the SDF and the U.S. military, the protesters have established control over a number of towns, and it seems they are willing to go further.

Sources close to the SDF initially reported that the protesters limited their demands by requesting a solution to a number of minor issues, but soon enough it became evident that it was not the case and the issue – and a major one – was the presence of SDF in the area. The demonstrators were quick to turn from chanting slogans to taking control of towns: in a single day they captured all of Shuhayl, Al-Hawayej, Diban and forced the SDF members to leave before blocking the roads.

The protests were sparked by a series of assassinations of influential leaders of Al-Aqidat and Al-Baqara tribes. Three Deir Ezzor sheikhs were killed in less than a week: Sheikh Suleiman Khalaf al-Kassar from Al-Aqidat was shot in Busayra village July 30. The next day Sheikh Suleiman Al-Weis who belonged to Al-Baqara was shot in the head by two gunmen on a motorcycle in Al-Dahla. Finally, Sheikh Muttshar al-Hamoud al-Hifl was shot in the outskirts of Al-Hawayej on Sunday, August 2. His relative Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl was also wounded in the incident but survived.

In a peculiar coincidence, a few weeks before the assassinations the tribal leaders were invited to a meeting with the SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi with the U.S. servicemen also present. The agenda reportedly included co-operation between the tribes and the SDF. It was reported that at least one of the victims, Muttshar al-Hifti, declined to participate and to engage with the Americans.

An insight into the details of these meetings can be gained through the reports about an oil deal allegedly struck by the SDF and a little known American oil developer Delta Crescent LLC. Delta Crescent was granted exclusive rights for production, refinement and export of the oil from Deir Ezzor fields potentially bringing the participants annual profit of hundreds of millions dollars, according to statements made by U.S. officials. The deal was met with harsh response from the Syrian government who labeled it a “deal between thieves”.

According to sources on the ground, the implication is that those who fell victim to the assassinations shared this view and opposed the deal. Their removal, however, has clearly failed to deliver the results intended by the masterminds behind their deaths, yet another time when the Kurds were thrown to the wolves by the U.S. who is accustomed to making their allies bear the consequences of the reckless pursuit of the American interests.

Meanwhile the SDF started to amass forces in the vicinity of the areas shaken by the unrest. The reinforcements sent from Al-Shadadi, Al-Sousa and Baghuz are gathering at the US military base near Al-Omar oil field. Moreover, two US Apache attack helicopters were spotted patrolling the area. These developments combined with lack of report on any negotiations between the protesters and the SDF leadership paint a grim picture, indicating that the SDF likely intends to use force to disperse the protests.

It is not the first time the SDF resorts to the use of force when faced with the discontent of the local populace in north-eastern Syria, although this approach had never brought the desired result. All areas affected by the protests have been subjected to dozens of raids of the SDF and the US special forces. Reports on these operations unfailingly mentioned arrests of ISIS terrorists. They failed to mention, however, what the Pentagon files under the category of “collateral damage” – deaths of civilians killed in the result of the actions of the US military and their allies.

The upheaval in Deir Ezzor is yet another evidence that the SDF, initially an independent movement, has degraded to a tool or a lever of American influence in Syria, and now finds itself fighting consequences instead of locating the root cause of the unrest – widespread corruption among the officials of the Kurdish administration and dramatic deterioration of the living conditions.

The regional turbulence created by Washington’s constantly shifting stance – or rather a lack of stance – on Syria has grown so strong it finally turned against the American interests. The latest escalation in Deir Ezzor should be considered nothing but a byproduct of this ill-designed policy and, perhaps, marks a beginning of the end of the US and SDF hegemony in Syria’s North East.

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