Israel’s National Security: What’s an issue?
Since its foundation, Israel has based its defense calculations on two concepts: existential security and current security. Existential security concerns the preservation of the very fundamentals of the Zionist enterprise — the preservation of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. Current security is about maintaining the personal safety and well being of Israelis on a day-to-day basis.
For several decades, Israel has had the good fortune of not having to engage in all-out war with any of its neighbouring states. The country even signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. For decades, however, Israelis have been exposed to a wide range of terrorist assaults: aircraft hijackings, kidnappings, suicide bombings, car rammings, knifings as well as constant rocket attacks. Israelis are, understandably, obsessed with current security — so much that in recent public discourse issues of existential security are being almost completely overshadowed.
At times, Israel’s current security needs are in conflict with the country’s requirements for its long-term existential security. Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is justifiably seen as an asset in maintaining Israel’s current security. However, this very same occupation erodes Israel’s existential security by undermining its Jewish and democratic character as well as its international legitimacy, and thus has an undeniably negative effect on Israel’s long-term survival.
This is exactly what the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon wanted to avoid. His decision to disengage from Gaza was driven not by rockets but by long-term existential security considerations. Sharon’s goal was to preserve Israel’s Jewish character by ridding itself of any remnants of Jewish settlement and the concomitant direct control over more than a million and a half (now closer to two and a half million) Palestinians in Gaza.
The Israeli military plays a vital role in dealing with current security, which is often intertwined with existential security. They are not mutually exclusive because the ideologies of the terrorist organizations, which Israel deems as a threat to its current security, seek the destruction of the State of Israel, which is a threat to its existential security. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) feels that deterrence is the best strategy to discourage states (such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.) and sub-state actors (such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic State [Da’esh], Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra], etc.) from attacking its country. The IDF will not change its deterrence strategy for state and sub-state actors. This is because both actors occupy land and/or have constituencies; thus, they have something to lose.
Israel has three ‘red lines’ of deterrence that are the deciding factors in whether the IDF will respond militarily: (1) transfer of conventional weapons, (2) transfer of chemical weapons, and (3) any projectile(s) landing on its territory. Israel will respond almost immediately with a strike, usually at the source of the weapons exchange or the point of origin of the projectile. It will strike regardless of where or when the incident occurs, all the while coordinating with its partners that might be affected by its actions. This ex-plains Israel’s rationale for military airstrikes against Iranian, Hezbollah, Syrian, and (Salafi) rebel targets in Syria throughout the Civil War.
A Regional Rumble in Syria: Israel’s Concerns over Iranian presence in Syria
Israel sees Iran as both an existential and current security threat. Iran’s rhetoric of wanting to destroy Israel and, according to Israel, attempting to acquire nuclear weapons makes this a cause for grave concern. Moreover, since 1979, Iran has sought to export its Islamic revolution and, over the decades, it has funded many Shi‘a militias—some of which have emerged in the Syrian Civil War—including Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shi‘a political party-cum-militia with a strong military presence in Lebanon and now in Syria—a threatening presence on Israel’s northern border. The reason Israel also deems Hezbollah an existential and current threat is because of Hezbollah’s militant aspirations and its stated goal of eliminating the State of Israel.
The question now remains whether Israel will completely engage in the Syrian Civil War due to the recent incidents in southern Syria. Other than engaging in a complete military conflict in Syria, Israel will continue to monitor the developments in Syria, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that its security concerns are addressed. Currently, Israel is disturbed by recent developments, as there is now an Iranian militarily presence directly in southern Syria. The IDF will continue to implement its red line policy. Escalation will only occur if Israel feels provoked by its enemies in the south of (or other parts of) Syria. The higher the provocation, the stronger the response will be. This is why Israel has reacted to developments in the south of Syria by striking military targets, all the while communicating with its Russian partners.
From Israel’s Binoculars: A View of Damascus
While Israel came very close to concluding a peace agreement with Syria in 1949 under President Husni al-Zaim, the two countries (since the 1949 Armistice Agreement) have had no diplomatic ties and are officially in a state of war. They have fought three wars (1948, 1967, and 1973) and were involved briefly during the second Lebanese Civil War when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Prior to 1967, there were hostilities between the two countries in the demilitarized zones (DMZs) as well as continuous shelling and infiltration into the Golan Heights by the Syrians. Since 1967 the two major points of contention are Israel’s demand that Syria recognizes the State of Israel and Syria’s demand that Israel returns the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered at the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This is the essence of what is commonly known as “land for peace” for any future agreements between the two countries.
According to Israel, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been confrontational to-wards Israel by aiding and abetting Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as being the conduit by which Iranian weapons are transferred to Hezbollah and other Shi‘a militias. Both Iran and Hezbollah, in Israel’s view, are respectively state and sub-state actors that are a threat to its national security. For the same reason, Israel also views Syria as a national security threat. The Israeli establishment was clearly expecting the al-Assad government to fall to the Sunni jihadist rebels, who were supported by Saudi Arabia, prior to Russia’s limited intervention in September 2015. If the ongoing peace negotiations in Sochi and Geneva are successful, it is almost certain that President al-Assad will remain in power or whatever the warring parties in Syria agree upon. Nevertheless, Israel is concerned about a strengthened al-Assad government remaining in power. That would be the best explanation for why it was recently revealed that Israel is arming some Sunni jihadist rebels. Israel is willing to ally itself with Salafist rebels in order to prevent the “Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis” from proclaiming victory in the Syrian Civil War. Whether this proves to be a wise decision for Israel, remains to be seen.
Russia’s Syrian Foreign Policy: The Israeli’s Vantage Point
Russia intervened in Syria in 2015 at the request of Syrian President al-Assad. Russia has no particular affinity for al-Assad; rather it sees him as the only alternative to an Islamic fundamentalist state. Russia’s main objective is that the Middle East remains stable while Syria was heading towards anything but stability. There are two reasons why Russia entered the Syrian fray.
First, while the Caucasus region is not entirely in Russia proper, it is on its border and presents a “zone of vulnerability.” Given the recent history of US-sponsored “regime changes” in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus, Russia is on high alert. This is because many Muslim citizens of the Caucasus countries were joining extremist organizations to fill the power vacuums created by US “regime change” policy. This is the main reason why Russia came to the aid of al-Assad’s government in September 2015 in the Syrian Civil War. It did not want to see a chaotic “Libya outcome” in Syria or see Da’esh or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Damascus.
The second reason is that Russia has a large Muslim population (estimated at 12-15 percent or 16 million to 20 million ethnic Muslims) that it also fears might become radicalized. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia deems Islamic radicalization as one of the most serious challenges to its national integrity and stability. A destabilized region will pose grave problems within Russia’s borders. Thus, it has created a strong partnership with Israel to coordinate these stabilizing efforts.
Russia and Israel share a common concern towards international terrorism spreading throughout the region. When Russia entered the Syrian Civil War, the Israeli government immediately contacted their Russian counterparts. It appreciated the concern Russia had towards the jihadist terrorist threat in Syria, but the intervention led to an equally alarm-ing concern for Israel. That is, Israel worried that this would increase Iran’s influence in Syria. This should not be interpreted as a cooling in Russo-Israeli relations. There has al-ways been dialogue between the two governments on all-levels. Given Russia’s intervention in Syria, both countries’ military and intelligence apparatuses are in contact in the Syrian arena to avoid unfortunate outcomes. Moreover, Israel relies on Russia to be the intermediary to resolve border issues. We saw this recently in Lebanon and Syria given Russia’s ever-expanding presence and many contacts in the region. However, the con-cerns in Israel regarding Iran in southern Syria still remain. For instance, Israel has made it clear that it is concerned with the recent agreement between the US and Russia for a “zone of de-escalation” in southern Syria. In the view of the Israeli establishment, this prevents Israel from reacting to security concerns in the area—namely, military activities by the “Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis.” Nevertheless, given the US absence, Israel under-stands that it must balance between protecting its security and awareness that its activities could, as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned, lead to “a new round of dangerous consequences for the region.” In other words, Israel now understands that it cannot take a militant line in the Syrian arena.
From the Israeli Lens: America’s Policy in Syria
Israel was never entirely sure what to expect from the Americans throughout the Syrian Civil War. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both balked at intervening in the Syrian arena. However, like President Obama, President Trump does not have a com-plete grip on his administration and it is difficult to tell what the US foreign policy is in Syria.
Under President Obama, the CIA covertly armed opposition forces, many of which were jihadis (some even linked to al-Qaeda). To his credit, President Obama hesitated to enter the Syrian Civil War, knowing the dire implications of intervention. Unfortunately, his biggest flaw was that he was not in full control of his administration. As a result, powerful forces within the military, foreign affairs and intelligence communities decided to act independently of the President. For instance, President Obama and President Putin agreed to cooperate in Syria to destroy Da’esh and other terrorist organizations after a weeklong ceasefire (organized through their foreign ministries). However, only 48 hours prior to the implementation of full US-Russian cooperation in Syria, the Pentagon sabotaged the efforts made by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
While President Trump had ended the CIA program to covertly give weapons to ji-hadi forces, he too had his fair share of mistakes in the Syrian arena. While mentioning on numerous occasions during the 2016 US presidential election campaign that he wanted to cooperate with Russia in Syria, President Trump has been unable to fully implement his campaign promise due to anti-Russian sentiments in the American political class. As a result, due to his inexperience, he has had to deal with the same conundrum as President Obama. For instance, relying on very weak intelligence that Syrian President al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, President Trump authorized a launch of 59 tomahawk missiles on the Syrian Army’s outposts—raising tensions in Syria of a possible ‘hot war’ between the United States and Russia as well as forcing Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to proclaim that US-Russian relations were “destroyed”. While the situation has settled down, the US retains a military presence in Syria, making it unclear what their foreign policy is for Syria. Is the US policy to destroy terror-ism in Syria (as President Obama professed at the UN Security Council and President Trump promised during his campaign) or is it, as it was at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, to remove al-Assad from power? Unfortunately, due to infighting in the US foreign policy establishment over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, President Trump does not have a free hand in dictating foreign policy and this includes the Syrian arena. As a result, there is no clear answer.
The Israeli establishment views the ongoing conflict in US politics, as an internal mat-ter but was hopeful that the al-Assad regime would fall. Given that events seem to suggest that al-Assad will remain in power, Israel is acting according to its security concerns. Regardless of what happens (or who is in power) in Syria, Israel will observe its red lines accordingly with caution (given that Russia is the “new sheriff in town”). However, the internal US political struggle has convinced the Israeli establishment that the Americans are retreating from the Middle East. There has been no significant US military presence in the region for over a decade and the US has been coming less and less to Israel’s defense on the political scene. This has made it increasingly hard for the Israelis to rely on and seek political assistance from their American partners. Having said that, the Israeli establishment still considers the US its number-one ally. While some might consider US bipartisan support for Israel to be on the wane, the two countries share decades of deep ties in the political, economic, cultural, military, and intelligence spheres. In other words, they share the same values and it is highly unlikely that the Israelis and Americans will completely relinquish this relationship for the foreseeable future.
Russo-Israeli Relations: Détente or Full-Partnership?
To conclude, the question must be asked: can Israel and Russia find common ground? That answer is yes. Israel’s two major national security concerns converge with Russia’s. While the current Israeli government sees no interest in seriously negotiating for a two-state solution, Russia, like the Israeli Left, understands that a two-state solution is the most viable and practical answer to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would address Israel’s existential national security concern and, by extension, significant-ly reduce its current security concern. If both parties (Israeli and Palestinian) are serious about negotiating, Moscow is more than willing to be that broker to resolve this matter—as we saw in 2016. In the Syrian arena, both the Russians and Israelis share the belief that the threat of international terrorism is not only a threat to the region but to the international community as a whole. Where the two countries’ national security concerns do not converge is on Iran, specifically the “Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis.” Nonetheless, here too we see cooperation. The two countries have found a way to communicate when their countries’ security concerns are at odds. Even so, they continue to cooperate on a military and intelligence level in the Syrian arena. There are big changes afoot in the global arena. Unlike the Cold War era, the United States is retreating from the region. Israel will have to rely more and more on Russia to resolve security issues. The ball is in the Israelis’ court to make that decision. Russia shows that it is willing to be Israel’s primary partner in the region; Israel must do the same.
First published in our partner RIAC
Gulf rivalries spill onto the soccer pitch
With the 2018 World Cup in Russia behind it, the soccer world’s focus shifts to the 2022 tournament in Qatar. Politics and the Gulf’s internecine political and legal battles have already shaped debate about FIFA’s controversial awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Qatar. The battles highlight not only the sport’s dominance in the Middle East by autocratic leaders but also the incestuous relationship between politics and sports that is at the root of multiple scandals that have rocked the sports world for much of this decade and compromised good governance in international sports.
Three men symbolize the importance of soccer to Gulf autocrats who see the sport as a way to project their countries in a positive light on the international stage, harness its popular appeal in their cultural and public diplomacy campaigns, and leverage it as a pillar of their efforts to garner soft power: Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his nemeses, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi sports czar, Turki al-Sheikh, one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s closest associates.
To be sure, tension between Qatar and its Gulf detractors was spilling onto the soccer pitch long before the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt took their opposition to Qatari policies to a new level with the imposition in June 2017 of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. Since then, debate about the Qatari World Cup has been further politicized with the Gulf crisis driving efforts to deprive Qatar of economic and soft power benefits it derives from its hosting of the tournament, if not of the right to host the mega-sports event.
The UAE-Saudi efforts took on added significance as Qatar and its detractors settled in for the long haul. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt will likely face difficult choices if the Gulf crisis persists when the World Cup, the first such mega-tournament to be held in the Middle East, kicks off in Doha in late 2022.
The choice would involve potential political risk. It would be between maintaining the boycott that has cut off all air, sea and land links between Qatar and its detractors at the expense of fans in a soccer-crazy part of the world in which little evokes the deep-seated emotions associated with religion and football or effectively breaching the embargo to evade political backlash and ensure that supporters have access to a sports milestone in the region’s history. The starkness of the boycotting states’ dilemma would be magnified if any one of them were to qualify for the Qatar World Cup and would be enhanced if they were to play the host country or, for example, Iran.
The issue of ability to attend is magnified by expectations that the demography of fans attending the World Cup in Qatar may very well be a different from that at past tournaments. Qatar is likely to attract a far greater number of fans from the Middle East as well as Africa and Asia. The Asian Football Confederation’s Competition Committee has already urged governments to exempt football teams from travel bans and would almost certainly do the same for fans.
As a result, the UAE-Saudi effort to undermine the Qatar World Cup is about more than seeking to deliver a body blow to Qatar. It is also about avoiding being further tied up into knots in an anti-Qatari campaign that has so far failed to break the Gulf state’s resolve, force it to concede, and garner international support. The campaign is multi-pronged and doesn’t shy away from violating laws as is evident in Saudi bootlegging to deprive beIN, the sports franchise of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network, of the fruits of acquired rights to broadcast World Cup tournaments and European competitions at the risk of being penalized and/or taken to court by the likes of FIFA and the English Premier League. Saudi media reports that the government has launched an anti-piracy campaign, confiscating more than 4,000 illegal receivers that hacked beIN failed to put an end to the bootlegging.
Signalling the political importance that men like the crown princes and Sheikh Tamim attribute to sports, a former top UAE security official, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, suggested that the only way to resolve the Gulf crisis would be for Qatar to surrender its World Cup hosting rights. “If the World Cup leaves Qatar, Qatar’s crisis will be over … because the crisis is created to get away from it,” Mr. Khalfan said.
Mr. Khalfan spoke at a time that leaked documents from the email account of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington and a close associate of the country’s crown prince, revealed a UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency by manipulating the value of bonds and derivatives. If successfully executed, the plan would have allowed Qatar’s distractors to argue that the Gulf state’s financial problems called into question its ability to organize the World Cup.
Serving national interests
Mr. Al-Sheikh, the chairman of the kingdom’s General Sport Authority, makes no bones about harnessing sports to serve the kingdom’s interests. With a career in security rather than sports, he was unequivocal in his assertion on the eve of Saudi Arabia’s debut in the 2018 World Cup in Russia that he made decisions based on what he deemed “Saudi Arabia’s best interest,” reaffirming the inextricable relationship between sports and politics.
Barely 24 hours before the World Cup’s opening match, Saudi Arabia made good on Mr. Al-Sheikh’s assertion that the kingdom’s international sports policy would be driven by former US President George W. Bush’s post 9/11 principle of “you are either with us or against us.”
With Morocco’s bid for the 2026 World Cup in mind, Mr. Al-Sheikh had warned that “to be in the grey area is no longer acceptable to us. There are those who were mistaken in their direction … If you want support, it’ll be in Riyadh. What you’re doing is a waste of time…,” Mr. Al-Sheikh said. Mr. Al-Sheikh was referring to Morocco’s refusal to join the anti-Qatari campaign. Adopting a Saudi Arabia First approach, Mr. Al-Sheikh noted that the United States “is our biggest and strongest ally.” He recalled that when the World Cup was played in 1994 in nine American cities, the US “was one of our favourites. The fans were numerous, and the Saudi team achieved good results.”
Mr. Al-Sheikh was manoeuvring at the same time to ensure that the kingdom has greater say in international soccer governance, including issues such as the fate of the Qatari World Cup and a push to extend international isolation of Iran to the realm of sports. To do so, Saudi Arabia backed a proposal to speed up the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 32, which is scheduled to kick off in 2026, by making it already applicable to the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia hopes that the expansion would significantly complicate Qatari preparations for the event. Implementing the expansion in 2022 would strengthen UAE and Saudi efforts to petition FIFA to force Qatar to agree to co-hosting of the World Cup by other Gulf states, a proposal that was incorporated in the UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency.
In an indication of things to come, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in early 2018 thwarted a UAE-Saudi attempt to get Asian tournament matches that were scheduled to be hosted by Qatar moved to a neutral venue. The AFC warned the two countries that they would be penalized if they failed to play in Doha or host Qatari teams.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s moves were part of a two-pronged Saudi-UAE effort. Global tech investor Softbank, which counts Saudi Arabia and the UAE among its largest investors, is believed to be behind a $25 billion proposal embraced by FIFA president Gianni Infantino to revamp the FIFA Club World Cup and launch of a Global Nations League tournament. If approved, the proposal would give Saudi Arabia a significant voice in global soccer governance.
Complimenting the Saudi FIFA bid is an effort to expand the kingdom’s influence in the 47-nation AFC, the largest of the world soccer body’s constituent regional elements. To do so, Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully tried to create a new regional bloc, the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), a potential violation of FIFA and AFC rules. The federation would have been made up of members of both the AFC and the Amman-based West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups all Middle Eastern nations except for Israel and is headed by Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a prominent advocate of soccer governance reform.
The initiative fell apart when the Asian members of SWAFF walked out in October 2018 in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The killing could also jeopardize Saudi efforts to gain control of the AFC with the Al-Sheikh-backed candidacy of Saudi Football Federation chief Adel Ezzat, who resigned in August 2018 to run for the office..
Benefits outstrip reputational risk
Mr. Al-Sheikh and his boss, Prince Mohammed, share with the crown prince’s UAE counterpart and namesake, a belief that the public diplomacy and soft power fruits of harnessing sports outstrip reputational risks. Simon Pearce, Abu Dhabi’s director of strategic communications and a director of Manchester City, the British club bought by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed’s brother but controlled by the de facto Emirati ruler’s men, said as much in leaked emails to Mr. Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington.
The emails discussed the UAE’s registration of a new soccer club, New York City Football Club, as the United States’ Major League Soccer newest franchise. Mr. Pearce argued that Abu Dhabi’s interests in the US political environment are best served by associating New York City FC with City Football Group, the Abu Dhabi government’s soccer investment vehicle, rather than the government itself to evade criticism stemming from the Emirates’ criminalization of homosexuality, its less than stellar record on women’s rights and its refusal to formally recognize Israel despite maintaining close security and commercial relations with the Jewish state.
The UAE’s sports-related investments, guided by the crown prince, much like the acquisition of important Qatari sports stakes on the behest of Sheikh Tamim also give Gulf states political leverage and create additional commercial opportunity. The investments constitute the flip side of large amounts of Gulf money being channelled to influential think tanks, particularly in Washington. In a series of notes in 2012, Mr. Pearce advised Prince Mohammed, a man obsessed with perceived threats posed by any form of political Islam and a driving force in the campaign against Qatar, to tempt than British prime minister David Cameron to counter what he described as Islamist infiltration of the BBC’s Arabic service in exchange for lucrative arms and oil deals.
To illustrate the UAE and Qatar’s sway in European soccer, Nicholas McGeehan, an independent researcher and former Human Rights Watch executive focussed on the region, looked at recent bookies odds for the Champions League. Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City was the favourite followed by Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain. Third up was Bayern Munich, whose shirts are sponsored by Qatar, fourth was Barcelona, which recently ended a seven-year sponsorship deal with Qatar, and fifth Real Madrid that sold the naming rights to its new stadium to Abu Dhabi.
Saudi and UAE public relations efforts to generate public pressure for a deprival of Qatari hosting rights were at times mired in controversy. The launch in May of the Foundation for Sports Integrity by Jamie Fuller, a prominent Australian campaigner for a clean-up of global soccer governance, backfired amid allegations of Saudi and UAE financial backing and Mr. Fuller’s refusal to disclose his source of funding.
Saudi and UAE media together with UK tabloid The Sun heralded the launch in a poche London hotel that involved a reiteration of assertions of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful World Cup bid. Media like Abu Dhabi’s The National and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya projected the launch as pressure on FIFA to deprive Qatar of its hosting rights. “It is no secret that football’s governing body is rotten to the core. (FIFA) will rightly come under renewed pressure to strip Qatar of the competition and carry out an internal investigation in the wake of the most recent allegations. The millions of fans eagerly anticipating 2022’s festival of football deserve better,” The National said. Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al Awsat newspaper reported that a June 2018 FIFA Congress would hold a re-vote of the Qatari hosting. The Congress didn’t.
Qatar remains vulnerable
Despite so far successfully having defeated efforts to deprive it of its hosting rights, Qatar remains vulnerable when it comes to the integrity of its winning bid. The bid’s integrity and Sheikh Tamim’s emphasis on sports as a pillar of Qatari soft power is at stake in legal proceedings in New York and Zurich involving corruption in FIFA and potential wrongdoing in the awarding of past World Cups. Qatar has suffered reputational damage as a result of the question marks even if the Gulf crisis has allowed it to enhance its image as an underdog being bullied by the big boys on the block.
To Qatar’s credit, it has introduced reforms of its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship system that could become a model for the region. In doing so, it cemented the 2022 World Cup as one of the few mega-events with a real potential of leaving a legacy of change. Qatar started laying the foundations for that change by early on becoming the first and only Gulf state to engage with its critics, international human rights groups and trade unions.
Even so, Qatar initially suffered reputational damage on the labour front because it was relatively slow in embracing and implementing the reforms. Qatar’s handling of the Gulf crisis suggests that it has learnt from the failure of its initial response to criticism of its winning 2022 bid when it acted like an ostrich that puts its head in the sand, hoping that the storm will pass only to find that by the time it rears its head the wound has festered, and it has lost strategic advantage.
The integrity issue remains Qatar’s weak point. For activist critics of the awarding of hosting rights to Qatar, there are two questions. One is, who do they want to get in bed with? Qatar’s detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia hardly have stellar human and labour rights records. If anything, their records are worse than that of Qatar, which admittedly does not glow.
The second question critics have to ask themselves is how best to leverage the World Cup, irrespective of whether the Qatari bid was compromised or not. On the assumption that it may have been compromised, the question is less how to exact retribution for a wrong doing that was common practice in global football governance. Leveraging should focus on how to achieve a fundamental reform of global sports governance that has yet to emerge eight years into a crisis that was in part sparked by the Qatar World Cup. This goes to the heart of the fact that untouched in efforts to address the governance crisis is the corrupting, ungoverned, and incestuous relationship between sports and politics.
Siamese twins: sports and politics
The future of the Qatar World Cup and the Gulf crisis speaks to the pervasiveness of politics in sports. The World Cup is political by definition. Retaining Qatar’s hosting rights or depriving the Gulf state of the right to host the tournament is ultimately a choice with political consequences. As long as the crisis continues, retaining rights is a testimony to Qatar’s resilience, deprival would be a victory for its detractors.
As a result, the real yardstick in the debate about the Qatari World Cup should be how the sport and the integrity of the sport benefit most. And even then, politics is never far from what the outcome of that debate is. Obviously, instinctively, the optics of no retribution raises the question of how that benefits integrity. The answer is that the potential legacy of social and economic change that is already evident with the Qatar World Cup is more important than the feel-good effect of having done the right thing with retribution or the notion of setting an example. Add to that the fact that in current circumstances, a withdrawal of hosting rights would likely be interpreted as a victory of one side over the other, further divide the Arab and Muslim world, and enhance a sense among many Muslims of being on the defensive and under attack.
The silver lining in the Gulf crisis may be the fact that it has showed up the fiction of a separation of sports and politics. FIFA, the AFC, and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), seeking to police the ban on a mixing of sports and politics, have discovered that it amounts to banging their heads against a wall. Despite their attempts to halt politics from subverting Asian tournaments, domestic and regional politics seeped into the game via different avenues.
As a result, FIFA and its regional confederations have been tying themselves up in knots. In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events at the outset of the Gulf crisis, FIFA president Infantino rejected involving the group in the dispute by saying that “the essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics.” Yet, on the same day that he made his statement, Mr. Infantino waded into the crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the request of the UAE. FIFA, beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” appeared to be saying by implication that a Qatari by definition of his nationality could not be an honest arbiter of a soccer match involving one of his country’s detractors. In FIFA’s decision, politics trumped professionalism, no pun intended.
Similarly, the AFC was less principled in its stand towards matches pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against one another. Iranian club Traktor Sazi was forced in February to play its home match against Al Ahli of Jeddah in Oman. It wasn’t clear why the AFC did not uphold the principle it imposed on Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the case of Iran. “Saudi teams have been able to select host stadiums and cities, and Saudi teams will host two Iranian football representatives in the UAE and Kuwait. In return, Iranian football representatives should be able to use their own rights to choose neutral venues,” said Mohammad Reza Saket, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Football Federation in a letter to the AFC.
Soccer governance bodies have long struggled to maintain the fiction of a separation in a trade-off that gave regulators greater autonomy and created the breeding ground for widespread corruption while allowing governments and politicians to manipulate the sport to their advantage as long as they were not too blatant about it. The limits of that deal are currently being defined in the Middle East, a region wracked by conflict where virtually everything is politicized.
The Success of Iranian Activism Shows the Way to Correct European Policies
Western policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran would almost certainly be more assertive and ambitious if the international community was more broadly aware of the power and organization of Iranian activism both inside the country and throughout the global expatriate community.
Fortunately, a growing number of Western policymakers do recognize the influence wielded by Iran’s pro-democratic resistance movement, as led by Maryam Rajavi the President elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its main constituent group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK). Dozens of high-profile political figures and experts in Middle Eastern affairs have taken to participating in the NCRI’s Free Iran rally, which is held near Paris each summer and attended by tens of thousands of ethnic Iranians from throughout the world.
This past June, those participants put their lives on the line by attending at a time when Iran’s domestic affairs are increasingly explosive, with growing consequences for the world at large. On the day of the Free Iran gathering, European authorities arrested two would-be bombers as they attempted to gain access to the event on the orders of a high-ranking Iranian diplomat based in Vienna.
The foiled plot underscored the Iranian regime’s flailing attempts to undermine the Iranian opposition. And it was not the only one of its kind. Months earlier, Iranian operatives were caught plotting an attack on the residence of over 2,000 MEK activists who had relocated to Albania from their former headquarters in Iraq. At the same time, federal investigators in the United States were monitoring two agents of the Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. The subsequent criminal indictment noted that their spying would have surely resulted in attacks on US-based opposition activists if they had been left unchecked.
Finally, in October, another Iranian operative was arrested in Denmark for plotting the assassination of Iranian dissidents. This finally sparked a serious push for collective measures to confront and contain Iranian terror treats. A call to action had already emerged from France following an investigation that concluded there was no doubt about Tehran’s responsibility for the Paris plot. But in the wake of the Danish arrest and a subsequent meeting of European Union foreign ministers, the stage was seemingly set for the entire EU to adopt economic sanctions that France had already imposed on the Ministry of Intelligence and its agents.
This is, of course, an appropriate response to serious Iranian terror threats. It is made all the more sensible and potentially effective because those threats and their underlying causes are still apparent, and because it follows upon a shift toward much more assertive policies by the US government. But the EU has been notably cautious about making that shift.
The desire for continued access to Iranian markets is surely part of the reason for this. But it might also be said that the US administration is much more aware of the existence of powerful allies inside Iranian society and the expatriate population. After all, some White House officials and close confidants of the US president have been regular attendees at NCRI rallies, including the one that was nearly bombed in June.
European hesitancy is fading now that such threats have come to light and have been shown to not be isolated incidents. That hesitancy might evaporate altogether if more European policymakers were made aware of the organizational capabilities of the MEK, including its contribution to the nationwide uprising that began last December and spawned countless other protests featuring the same anti-government slogans.
Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged the MEK’s role in January, when the uprising was still in full swing. In a speech to his officials, he declared that the resistance group had spent months planning for the rapid spread of protests and the promotion of a clear message of regime change. This was a significant break from the regime’s decades-long policy of downplaying the strength and social influence of the MEK and its affiliates.
In case this is not reason enough for global policymakers to conclude that regime change is actually within reach for Iran’s pro-democratic population, the Iranian opposition foreign supporters all throughout the world are working tirelessly to highlight the success of recent and ongoing protests. As one example, Iranian communities in 50 locations throughout Europe, North America, and Australia will be hosting simultaneous conferences on Saturday 15 December to demonstrate both the threats and the opportunities that support adoption of a firm, collective Iran strategy by all Western powers.
As well as keeping a spotlight trained squarely on Iran’s recent foreign terror threats, this global teleconference will provide details about many of the protests and labor strikes that have sprung up and, in some cases, continued for months at a time, in the wake of last year’s nationwide uprising. The persistence of those demonstrations is a clear sign of the activist community’s strength and the very real prospects for the popular overthrow of the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.
The Iranian terror threat is reason enough for the international community to abandon the conciliatory policies that have been prevalent for so long. Proper recognition of the Iranian democratic opposition will prove once and for all that a firm alternative is not only justified but imperative for the triumph of democracy in the Middle East.
Israel in Syria
Over the last two years alone, in complete silence, the Jewish State has already carried out over 200 airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
North American unconfirmed sources also speak about Israeli support for Islamic “rebels” fighting against Bashar el Assad and his allies.
They are supposedly 12 groups of so-called para-jihadist “rebels” operating in southern Syria, who oppose both the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and radical ISIS jihadist militants.
Obviously the Israeli intelligence services closely monitor – with systems active 24 hours a day – the three bridges connecting the Golan Heights with Israel, which are constantly used by the Israeli armed forces to support both the Golan populations and the military operating permanently in those areas.
Israel has named the “humanitarian support” to the region, including the aforementioned anti-Assad rebels, “Operation Good Neighbour”, but the real Israeli spearhead is the air missions in the Syrian skies, which have again much increased in recent times.
Israel has shifted from a policy line of limited tolerance – based on the analysis of the evident severe threat posed by the Sunni and jihadist “rebels” operating in the Southern Syria, who are obviously also enemies of Iran and Assad – to a posture of very clear “zero tolerance” for all the Iranian positions on the Golan Heights and in the rest of the region, which now increasingly dominate Southern Syria. Said positions were created to achieve Iran’s true aim, i.e. the stable, impregnable and strategic corridor between Lebanon – especially Southern and Central Lebanon – and the universal centre of Shiism, namely the Iranian and Twelfth-Imam Shiites (also called the Imamites).
Certainly Iran also hosts Sunni minorities – who are fully integrated with the regime and often act as an operational link with the other anti-Saudi Sunni minorities in Riyadh and in the rest of the region – but also the Zoroastrians, who are a very old minority operating between the para-Islamic armed and unarmed groups in India and the Himalayas, also in tune with the guerrillas supported by China.
But there are also Jewish minorities in Iran, who are entitled to some seats in the Majlis (Parliament) and often communicate with the Israeli motherland, in spite of the covert activity of the Iranian intelligence services.
Currently, in particular, Iran needs to break the Sunni encirclement, which is also a very powerful economic and oil intelligence operation by the Sunni OPEC against Iran.
It is equally certain, however, that the Shiite Republic has some sound Grand Strategy options in the greater Middle East, which are now certain and, in some respects, unavoidable for Iran.
Firstly, Iran will seek any opportunity – even the slightest one – to hit Israel and the USA if they harshly hit its interests in the region.
Hence this is Iran’s main strategic variable in Southern Syria: it has not yet hit Israel because – with its supplies to Hezbollah in the Lebanon – it is waiting to make a new big summer operation jointly with the Lebanese Shiite forces at the edges of the Golan Heights, as happened – to a lesser extent – in the “July war” of 2016.
There was also the strong action of the Iranian Shiite militia of Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq – another factor to support the borders east of Iran and to oppose the Kurds (but there are many Kurdish agents also in the Iranian intelligence services) and the Americans, as well as the link between Israel and Kurdistan, another essential asset of Israel geopolitics.
Nevertheless, Qatar -one of Iran’s rich friends – hosts the large US base that organizes the armed forces throughout the Middle East. It is the Al Udeid base, near the Abu Nakhlah airport, hosting over 12,000 North American soldiers and at least 1,000 aircraft.
An implicit blackmail, which President Trump has not considered at all, while swearing naive loyalty to the Sunnis who are “against terrorism” (nonsense!).
Hence an asset that does not enable Iran to fully use its Lebanese ally and its strongest economic partner, namely the Emirate of Qatar, which also hosts Al Jazeera, the old BBC in Arabic of British imperialism. It should also be recalled, in particular, that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have been stationing in Doha for many years.
The cradle of every contemporary Sunni jihadism, the Ikhwan, which -however – establishes its base in the Emirate which is politically closer to the Shiite Iran and in the traditional geoeconomic and strategic-military opponent of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, namely Saudi Arabia.
Doctrinal paradoxes that are certainly not mere coincidence. As we will see later on, wars are waged with religions and myths, almost more than with AK-47 Kalashnikovs which, if anything, stem from those religions and myths.
Certainly, in the Israeli strategic thought, the current “war of attrition” which opposes Israel and Iran – particularly in Syria – is destined to inflict a psychological defeat on Iran by Israel alone, which – in the short term – deters the Iranian decision makers from launching the primary direct attack.
As seen also recently, traditionally Iran tends to defeat its opponent with the great mass of averagely armed soldiers, who discourage it from continuing its fight (the model with which Imam Khomeini peacefully conquered his own country).
This is a model also at work in Hezbollah’ strategic thinking.
The same model followed by the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae – as the classics teach us.
King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan soldiers, however, fought all to death against the invading Persian forces.
Their sacrifice was commemorated by Simonides in the famous epitaph “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by / That here obedient to their laws we lie” which can still be read on the hill overlooking Thermopylae.
However, two are the weak points of the Iranian Grand Strategy against Israel: firstly, the strong social and economic weakness of the regime, which pushes the Iranian leaders to make wars of attrition “outside”, so as to create a rapid patriot unity “inside”, and possibly even send its dangerous masses to the front.
During the 2017 uprising for supporting their Iraqi Kurdish brothers, the Kurds acted in such a way as to severely jeopardize the Iranian security, while in 2006 the Azeris set fire to the government buildings of their Iranian North-East – not to forget the huge 2009 “Iranian Green Movement”, after the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad. These are all signs that the vast minorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran are capable of severely undermining the stability of the regime. And mass poverty will play its sad role.
Hence, if Israel attacked the Iranian positions in Syria, Iran would likely be unable to react with a direct and significant military strike against the attacker.
The Iranian Shiites’ real and probably sole reaction will be to operate with Hezbollah in the Lebanon or with the Shiite minorities in Bahrain or to provide further support for the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.
But certainly a skilful and smart military strategist does not make the eternal severe mistake of underestimating the opponent and hence takes at least three other variables into account. Firstly, the possibility of a missile attack by the Islamic jihad between the PNA Territories and the Gaza Strip, together with Hamas – the official organization of the Islamic Brotherhood and hence easy to contact and train from Iran, via Qatar.
Secondly, an action by Hezbollah also between the Golan Heights – mainly used as rear zone and areas for diversionary actions – and the traditional Shiite line of the Litani river between the Lebanon and Israel, according to the model of the 2006 “July war” that the Lebanese Shiites still consider to be a successful and winning model.
Thirdly, a land-maritime attack by special forces, either local or with additional forces of the Pasdaran, from Qatar or Syria, but passing through Deirer-Zor or, on the other side of Syria, besides the Turkish forces south of Damascus.
In fact, it takes so little for defaming Israel as a “cruel and ferocious attacker” of the “poor Lebanese or Syrian farmers” and to quickly gain short-lived, but huge consensus in the “streets and squares” of the Middle East.
In spite of rhetoric, Iran does not want – and above all cannot – “destroy” Israel, but currently intends to create many points of friction with Israel, particularly outside the traditional places of clash and confrontation, especially with commando actions on the Israeli borders, but above all from the sea. A myriad of small blows, which hurt like a powerful strike.
Exactly as, in certain phases, the PLO strategy did from the sea and with many small and ferocious operations.
Another stable basis of Iran’s Grand Strategy is again the great importance of indirect strategies and of cyberwarfare – especially nowadays.
It serves above all to reduce the weight of sanctions and, to a greater extent, to keep the EU friendly to the Shiite regime.
As all those who know that they are bound to become poor soon, the Europeans think only about money, namely the rich contracts that Iran grants selectively and “politically” to the EU companies entering its domestic market.
Moreover, the penetration of Arab and Islamic capital in Europe is not only relevant for its size, but for its political and strategic significance.
All over the world, in 2021 the Islamic finance is expected to rise from the current 2 to 3.5 trillion US dollars of assets.
However, there are already 109 out of 622 institutions in the world that provide “education to Islamic finance” in Europe alone.
Hence, as can be easily imagined, the EU ruling classes are particularly pervious – under the politically correct rhetoric – to finance, ideological pressures, consortia and cartels, business mediation and brokerage, coming from Islamic finance and the already huge Islamic properties and investments in the various EU countries.
Currently, at least in Italy, both the so-called “right parties” and the “left parties” have only a minority – albeit variable in size – of openly pro-Israeli politicians.
The “battle for Europe” – as Raymond Aron called it – was lost at the time by the “Warsaw Pact” against NATO and nowadays what is in contrast with Europe’s and the Atlantic Alliance’s old and traditional goals is precisely Islam, in all its forms, ranging from the “sword jihad” to the “business and dialogue jihad”. In all likelihood, Islam will win the real battle between the old two “big prairies”, namely the United States and the USSR, by using Europe as a financial, strategic and industrial “back-shop” (a 5% shareholding of Credit Suisse is owned by Qatar, not to mention Volkswagen, Siemens and many other companies) and as a future coverage area for its military and indirect actions against Israel and against the other European and US interests and allies in the Middle East.
But let us revert to Israel, which is in strategic conflict with Iran through the fundamental link between the two, namely Syria.
The inevitable fulcrum of any operation Israel may launch against Iran and, more probably, vice versa.
With its “asymmetric war” -the only one it currently wages on a continuous basis – Iran will hit primarily the United States – a necessary ally, but not always in agreement with Israel – to immediately isolate the Jewish State. Later, however, it will hit Israel directly and, at the same time, the Gulf powers opposing Shiism, namely Saudi Arabia, Bahrain – possibly triggering here a guerrilla warfare between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority in power – Kuwait and probably other countries.
As Italian jurists say, the European Union “will be less of a defendant”, thus playing second fiddle.
Hence, if tension keeps on mounting – especially in Syria – both Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran could witness an escalation particularly on the Syrian territory or anyway in the strategic link between Syria and the Lebanon.
A guerrilla warfare from the North that could also be triggered by the Palestinian Islamic jihad alone and also by Hamas, but only at a distance and jointly with Hezbollah and Iran in the North.
Nevertheless, this could also make the US or Israeli decision-makers fall into the temptation of a nuclear strike or a conventional and nuclear operation.
A very important variable is Iran’s use of the economic agreements with the EU, which could become essential. A “geoeconomic pact” with the naive and unprepared Europeans that Iran could use against the United States.
Hezbollah, however, already has the weapons that the US strategists consider to be game changer.
Given its long-standing and mounting tension with the Iranian forces operating in Syria, Israel is currently thinking about some primary strategic variables.
Firstly, Israel is not fully convinced of the US pro-Jewish stance and of the current US positions in Syria.
President Trump does not want to send (other) troops to Syria and, anyway, the local US champions have already made a bad impression there.
As a genuine pro-American politician, Francesco Cossiga, used to say “The Americans are always up in arms on a war footing, but -later – when they have taken the warpath, they do no longer know how to come out of it well”.
Israel cannot even fully rely on its good relations with Putin’s Russia which, however, have so far led to good results in the Syrian war.
I was about to write Syriac war, like the one between the Romans and the Seleucid Empire, namely Syria, Persia, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia, which ended in 188 BC.
The number one tension between Russia and Iran is the one in the Yemen of the Houthi insurgency, when Russia strongly resented Iran’s assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an old friend of theirs, on December 5, 2017.
Russia does not even want to deteriorate its excellent relations with a new and important ally, namely Saudi Arabia.
In particular, the Russian Federation does not want a US massive intervention throughout the Middle East.
Among other factors, at the beginning of the war in Syria, the presence of scarcely effective militants of the “Free Syrian Army” and of some gangs of quasi-jihadists trained by CIA or by the Department of State – immediately rushing to join forces with ISIS -led to the Russian presence in Syria.
Russia wants above all to create failed states in the Middle East, dependent on it, and to avoid any possible further hotbed of tension.
Iran wants the same thing, but obviously with its own leadership. It reminds us of the rivalry between Emperor Charles V and King Francis I of France, epitomized by his statement: “My brother Charles V wants the same thing I want”. In that case, it was the Duchy of Milan.
Iran often says it is “a stabilizing force” throughout the Middle East, but Hezbollah’s operations in Syria – the only real serious Shiite armed force, apart from the Iranian Pasdaran, who also train it -prove the exact opposite.
Russia, however, wants its strong hegemony in the region and does not want to share it with anyone.
For Russia, Israel – which is isolated at its borders and does not intersect Russian strategic interests – is already an even more reliable friend than Iran, at least for the future.
As an old Hebrew proverb says, “Friends are not those who wipes your tears away, but those who do not make you cry”.
Hence Russia will be subjected to a long phase of Israeli strategic verification in Syria and in the rest of the world.
Furthermore, the United States is willing to strengthen the Syrian peace talks between Geneva and Astana.
For the Syrian peace talks, Astana is a game especially between Turkey and Russia. Iran arrived in the Kazakh capital later, welcomed by cold smiles.
Currently the United States and Jordan are only “observers” in Astana, but the US diplomacy is waiting for some results, besides the already defined “de-conflict zones”, to fully enter the game.
Certainly the United States now wants Iran’s fully exit from the Syrian conflict.
It will be its card, impossible to play on to the end.
Recently President Trump has spoken of an “indefinite” effort by the US Armed Forces and diplomacy to impose and enforce peace in Syria.
Obviously another problem is the fact that Israel’s ongoing and very harsh polemic against Iran brings the Jewish State closer to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Paradoxes of history.
Some relations between the two countries have taken place also in the field of security and intelligence.
A double result of great importance: Israel no longer has its very dangerous sworn enemies in the Arabian peninsula, which is a great result for its safety and security.
It is also an opportunity for Israel to enter – via Saudi Arabia – the area of oil and political-financial relations that really count in the Arab world.
Israel is no longer a target of the Sunni Islam which, indeed, declares to everyone that it is an ally of what – in ancient times – it called the “Zionist entity” – as currently only Iran does. This is a great success for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli global strategy.
The much desired safety and security of Israel eastwards, so much called for as early as the time of Ben Gurion and of my dear friend Shimon Peres.
Meanwhile, the Iranian economy is severely worsening and this can create the classic effect of a diversionary war.
As early as last September, the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards”, the Pasdaran, declared they had attacked – with their missiles – Kurdish dissidents of Iranian origin based in Iraq.
Hence even the “Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan” can be seen as a danger, while Turkey is constantly air bombing the PKK Kurdish positions in the Qandil Mountains.
Therefore, in this case – apart from future and dangerous Shiite infiltrations in the Syrian-Lebanese axis -the current Israeli strategy could remind us of Mao Zedong’s old motto: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent”.
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