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Saudi engagement in Iraq: The exception that confirms the rule?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Stepped up Saudi efforts to forge close diplomatic, economic and cultural ties to Shia-majority Iraq in a bid to counter significant Iranian influence in the country appear to be paying off. The Saudi initiative demonstrates the kingdom’s ability to engage rather than exclusively pursue a muscular, assertive and confrontational policy towards the Islamic republic and its perceived allies. It raises the question whether it is a one-off or could become a model for Saudi policy elsewhere in the region.

The kingdom’s recent, far more sophisticated approach to Iraq is testimony to the fact that its multi-billion dollar, decades-long support for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that at times involved funding of both violent and non-violent militants had failed in Iraq. It constitutes recognition that Saudi Arabia’s absence effectively gave Iran a free reign.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Iraqi charm offensive amounts to a far more concerted and successful effort than attempts more than a decade ago by then Saudi King Abdullah to reach out to Iraqi Shiite leaders, including firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr and involving the organization of a meeting in Mecca between Sunni and Shia Iraqi religious leaders. King Abdullah’s efforts did not at the time involve a crackdown on funding by Saudi sources of a devastating Sunni Muslim insurgency.

King Abdullah’s initiative notwithstanding, Saudi policy towards Iraq for more than a decade since Iraq’s Shiite majority emerged from the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni Muslim rule as a result of the 2003 US invasion was one of non-engagement, sectarianism, and support of the country’s Sunni minority.

It took the kingdom 11 years to open its first embassy in post-Saddam Iraq, the kingdom’s first diplomatic presence in the country since it broke off diplomatic relations in 1990 because of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Even then, relations got off to a rocky start with Iraq demanding the replacement of the kingdom’s first ambassador, Thamer al-Sabhan, after he publicly criticised Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs and the alleged persecution of Iraqi Sunni Muslims.

The emergence in 2014 of Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who succeeded Nuri al-Maliki, seen by the Saudis as an Iranian pawn, coupled with the rise of Prince Mohammed and the Saudi charm offensive in the wake of the defeat of the Islamic state has produced a remarkable turnaround that holds out the prospect of the kingdom becoming an influential player in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Iraq.

Beyond the opening of the embassy, Saudi Arabia is slated to open a consulate in Basra as well as in Najaf, widely seen as Shia Islam’s third most holy city that rivals Iran’s Qom as a centre of Shiite learning. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Prince Mohammed may visit Najaf after Iraqi elections scheduled for May 12.

The two countries have reopened their Arar Border Crossing that was closed for 27 years and restored commercial air traffic for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. More than 60 Saudi companies participated earlier this year in the Baghdad International Fair.

A Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council, inaugurated last year aims to strengthen security ties as well as economic and cultural relations envisions student and cultural exchanges and Saudi investment in oil and gas, trade, transport, education, light industry, and agriculture. Saudi Arabia pledged $1.5 billion for Iraqi reconstruction at a donors’ conference in Kuwait in February.

Saudi Arabia garnered substantial brownie points in February by playing its first soccer match in Iraq in almost three decades, boosting Iraqi efforts to persuade world soccer body FIFA to lift its ban on Iraqi hosting of international matches. The kingdom subsequently promised to build a 100,000-seat football stadium in Baghdad.

In shifting gears in Iraq, Prince Mohammed appears to have broken with decades of Saudi efforts to primarily confront Iran in proxy and covert wars. It remains, however, unclear to what degree Prince Mohammed’s policy shift in Iraq is an indication of a broader move away from sectarianism and support for ultra-conservative militants and towards engagement.

The record is mixed. Saudi Shiite activists see little positive change and, if anything, assert that repression in their heartland in the kingdom’s Eastern Province has increased since Prince Mohammed’s rise.

“Bin Salman is already acting like he’s the king of Saudi Arabia. He keeps telling the West that he will reform Islam, but he keeps raiding the homes of Shia and stripping us of any political rights,” one activist said.

Nonetheless, a Saudi-funded Bangladeshi plan to build moderate mosques to counter militancy, the kingdom’s relinquishing of control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, and the newly found propagation of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue by the government-controlled World Muslim League that for decades funded ultra-conservatism globally would suggest that Saudi money may be invested in attempting to curb the impact of the kingdom’s decades-long support of ultra-conservatism.

There are, however, also indications that Prince Mohammed is not averse to funding militants when it suits his geopolitical purpose. Saudi funds have flowed since his rise in 2015 to militant religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan at a time that the kingdom was drafting plans to destabilize Iran by exploiting grievances and stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities, including the Baloch. Those plans have not left the drawing board and may never do so, but ultra-conservative militants figure prominently in them.

Nevertheless, the magnitude of the shifting of gears in Saudi policy towards Iraq as well as other steps that Prince Mohammed has taken to curb, redirect, and reduce, if not halt, Saudi support for militant ultra-conservatism is highlighted by the conclusions of a 2002 study of funding of political violence conducted by the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations.

Coming in the wake of the 9/11 attacks when Saudi funding and counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States was put under the magnifying glass, the study suggested that the kingdom’s global support for ultra-conservatism was woven into its fabric.

“It may well be the case that if Saudi Arabia…were to move quickly to share sensitive financial information with the United States, regulate or close down Islamic banks, incarcerate prominent Saudi citizens or surrender them to international authorities, audit Islamic charities, and investigate the hawala system—just a few of the steps that nation would have to take—it would be putting its current system of governance at significant political risk,” the study warned.

In many ways, Saudi support for the Iraqi insurgency was a textbook example of the decades-long, $100 billion Saudi campaign to confront Iran globally by promoting ultra-conservatism and sectarianism and in a minority of countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia Herzegovina, Iraq and Syria – funding violence.

Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi scholar with close ties to the government, said Saudi options at the height of the Sunni Muslim insurgency included supplying the insurgents with the same type of funding, arms and logistical support that Iran was giving to Shiite armed groups. Another option, he said, was to create new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias.

“Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks — it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse,” Mr. Obaid said in 2006.

US and Iraqi officials at the time suspected Saudi Arabia of covertly supporting sectarian Sunni jihadist insurgents opposed to the US military presence in the country and the rise of a Shia-dominated government. While there was no evidence of government assistance, the lines between the actions of private citizens and authorities were and remain often blurred in the kingdom.

An Iraq Study Group report in 2006 at the height of the Sunni Muslim insurgency concluded that “funding for the Sunni insurgency comes from private individuals within Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.”

Without identifying them, Iraqi officials asserted that funds were also flowing from Saudi charities that often operated as governmental non-government organizations. They said some of the funds had been channelled through Saudi clerics who decided who the beneficiary would be.

Truck drivers at the time described transporting boxes of cash from Saudi Arabia that were destined for insurgents. The transports frequently coincided with pilgrimages to Mecca.

“They sent boxes full of dollars and asked me to deliver them to certain addresses in Iraq. I know it is being sent to the resistance, and if I don’t take it with me, they will kill me,” one driver said. He said he was instructed to hide the money from authorities at the Iraqi border.

One official said $25 million was sent by a Saudi religious scholar to a senior Iraqi Sunni cleric who bought Russian Strela shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles on the black market in Romania.

Baath Party loyalists claimed at the time that a US Air Force F-16 jet that crashed while flying in support of American soldiers fighting insurgents in Anbar province had been downed by a Strela. The US military denied the claim.

“We have stockpiles of Strelas and we are going to surprise them (the Americans),” a spokesman for the party, said.

The Iraqi cleric involved in the purchase of the missiles was suspected to be Sheikh Harith Sulaiman al-Dhari, a tribal chieftain dubbed “the Spiritual Leader of the Iraqi Resistance” with a lineage of opposition to foreign rule dating back to the killing in 1920 of a British colonel by his father and grandfather. Iraqi authorities issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Al-Dhari in late 2006, who has since passed away, on charges of inciting sectarian violence after he visited Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s approach to Iraq has come a long way since the days of the insurgency. The question is whether the kingdom will draw a lesson from its success in the way it manages its regional rivalry with Iran. So far, there is little indication that Iraq is more than the exception that confirms the rule.

Said political analyst Hussein Ibish in a just published study of Saudi-Iraqi relations: “Iraq is the only major regional battleground at present in which Saudi Arabia is relying almost entirely on carrots rather than sticks. Yet, arguably, more has been accomplished by Riyadh over the past year in Iraq than, for example, in either Yemen or Lebanon… Saudi Arabia’s outreach in Iraq, particularly in 2017, belies the stereotype of a rash, reckless, and uncontrolled new major regional actor, showing instead that Saudi Arabia can be deft and delicate when it wants to. That’s an important lesson for the rest of the world, but also for Saudi Arabia itself, to ponder.”

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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Climate change: UAE and Russia eye geopolitical and commercial mileage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Climate change, much like war, could prove to be a geopolitical and commercial gold mine. At least, that is the take of DP World, Dubai’s global port operator, and Russia’s sovereign wealth fund.

DP World is partnering with the fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) to create an all-year round maritime sea route from Europe to Asia through the Arctic.

“Time is money in business and the route could cut travel time substantially more than traditional trade arteries for cargo owners in the Far East wanting to connect with Europe, coupled with benefits to the Russian economy,” DP World chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem told the Arab News.

In partnering with DP World, RFID brings to the table Rosatom, Russia’s atomic energy agency, which operates nuclear-powered ships that could ply the route, and Norilsk Nickel, a mining and commodities company.

Dubai and Russia are betting that climate change, which has dramatically shrunk the Arctic ice sheet in the past two decades, has made possible what eluded Europeans for centuries: ensuring that the Northeast Passage linking the Northern Atlantic with the Pacific is accessible all year round even if rail remains faster than carrying cargo by ship.

The commercial and geopolitical implications of all year-round passage are significant.

Beyond challenging the status of the Suez Canal as the foremost link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Artic route would grant Russia the one thing it has so far failed to achieve in its partnership with China: a key role in the transportation linkages between Europe and Asia that the People’s Republic is seeking to create with massive investment in its Belt and Road initiative.

That role would be bolstered by the fact that the Arctic route would cut the maritime journey from Northeast Asia from somewhere between 34 and 45 days through the Suez Canal to 23 days via the Northeast Passage.

“Because of global warming, there are some things happening that open some opportunities. Russia has this frozen coast all of the seasons. Now it’s opening up and it’s possible to navigate for nine months. When you have special ships, you can actually have 12 months navigation,” RFID CEO Kirill Dmitriev told the Saudi paper.

The partnership with Dubai gives a new laese on life to Russian aspirations to become a key node in Belt and Road linkages after Russia failed to persuade China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEC) to invest in converting the Trans-Siberian Railway into a high-speed link that would connect St. Petersburg with the Far East.

CREEC  last year definitively dashed Russian hopes, declaring that the “the high-speed rail through Russia will never pay off.

In a further setback, China simultaneously opted for an east-west road link through Kazakhstan after efforts to complete a Moscow-St. Petersburg highway as well as a ring road around the Russian capital and a Volga-Kazakhstan road stalled.

Frustrated with the lack of Chinese interest, state-run Russian Railways is itself investing heavily and reaching out to Japan to significantly increase freight traffic on the almost 9,300-kilometre-long trans-Siberian route.

The rail company aims to increase by a factor of 100 the number of containers transported from Japan to Europe from 3.000 last year to 300,000 and tonnage by 50 percent from less than 90 million to 180 million, according to Russian Railways first vice president Alexander Misharin.

Mr. Misharin told Nikkei that the investment, including US$745 million last year, involves laying double tracks, linking the railroad to seaports and automating the system.

Mr. Misharin was hoping to cooperate with Japan Railways Group to create a door-to-door cargo transportation system between Japan and Europe that would reduce transportation time to at most 19 days. He said the Russian rail company was looking at building logistics centres with Japanese trading firm Sojitz.

Upgrading the Trans-Siberian Railway would significantly bolster Russia’s geography as a key bridge in the emergence of Eurasia, the gradual integration of Europe and Asia that ultimately would erase the seemingly artificial division of one landmass into two continents.

It would also significantly facilitate linking the railway to the Belt and Road by making it financially feasible.

That is less far-fetched with China Railway International Group lending Russia US$6.2 billion for the construction of a 790-kilometre long Moscow-Kazan high speed rail line, envisioned as the first phase of a link between the Russian capital and Beijing that would cut travel between the two cities to two days.

To secure the loan, Russia agreed to use Chinese technology and construction equipment.

Russia has also expressed interest in linking its Trans-Siberian Railway to the Chinese-controlled Pakistani port of Gwadar, a Belt and Road crown jewel.

Russia is betting that the combination of the Northeast Passage and upgraded Trans-Siberian rail links would make its positioning as a transit hub significantly more attractive.

That is true even though the Northeast Passage is too shallow for giant box ships that traverse the Suez Canal and lacks the kind of ports capable of accommodating those vessels. The Passage is likely to see primarily smaller container ships.

One way or the other, DP World, expecting to operate ports that Russia plans to build along an Arctic route, would emerge a winner by expanding its global footprint. “We were always missing Russia. Russia is a link,” DP World’s Mr. Sulayem said.

Said Russian shipping giant Sovcomflot CEO Sergey Frank: “Trade is growing and there is space for everybody. If the cargo originates in the south part of China, it will go through the Suez. If it originates in Northern China, the NSR (Northern Sea Route) will be seriously considered. Cargo will always find the fastest way to move.”

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Iran-US Tensions Are Unlikely to Spill into War

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To the south of Georgia trouble is brewing as Iran and the US (and its allies) are almost openly engaged in a military competition around the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

True, Georgia does not share a border with Iran, but its close economic and cultural relations with Tehran might be further endangered. It is unlikely that the US will tolerate Georgia’s neutral position in a potential conflict between the two states. Therefore, the Georgian government will find itself in a difficult position but will most likely act according to wider US interests in the South Caucasus. Even if a military conflict does not ensue (as explained below), Georgian-Iranian relations will take a hit.

The US recently announced plans to set up a multinational military coalition to protect the waters around Iran and Yemen, particularly commercial routes where about $554 billion worth of trade, mainly oil and gas, passes through the Straits of Hormuz each year. The military confrontation between Iran and the US could cause disruption, costing the biggest trader, Saudi Arabia, $3.5 billion a week, but also negatively impacting many Asian shippers.

This comes on top of what happened last month when Iran came close to war with the US after Tehran’s unprecedented decision to shoot-down a US drone with a surface-to-air missile. Back then, the US officials, including President Donald Trump, said that this could trigger retaliatory strikes. According to various sources, Trump green-lighted a limited air-strike against Iran’s surface military capabilities but cancelled the decision some minutes later when fighters were in the air.

The root of Iranian-American tensions lies in the differences regarding Tehran’s nuclear program. Washington abandoned the nuclear agreement the world powers reached in 2015 and Iran recently announced it has reached a high level of uranium production.

The tensions, as said above, induced the US and its allies, primarily in the Persian Gulf, to create a coalition. This is a very good example of what kind of future naval coalitions the US will be able to muster to prevent a certain group of countries from controlling vital economic choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Malacca in Asia. But this also raised an alarm among politicians and the world’s analytical community that we might see a military confrontation between the US (and its allies) and Iran. First, it should be emphasized that Iranians understand well that a military confrontation would be deadly for the country’s economy, leading to potential unrest in various regions. Second, a military confrontation with the US is simply beyond the Iranian resource base. However, it is also true that the US does not want to engage Iran as the latter is a completely different story from what the American forces did during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And it is not about Iran’s far superior military capabilities than those of Iraq: the major difference lies in geographic factors.

A look at the map shows that Iran’s major population centers are surrounded by almost impregnable mountains and deserts as well as water barriers. In the west and northwest are the Zagros Mountains, which bar Iran from Iraq. In the north, the Elburz Mountains as well as Armenia’s mountainous lands serve as a defensive shield. The Caspian Sea to the north and the Arabian Sea to the south are yet more impregnable barriers. To the east and northeast lie the harsh climate of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkmenistan’s semi-barren steppe-lands keep Iran’s provinces more or less safe (barring occasional attacks by nomadic peoples).

The fact of being both geographically contained and geographically defended has defined the Iranian grand strategy from the ancient Persian empires to modern Iran. The country’s mountains and deserts have made it almost impossible to conquer and then keep under control. Consider, for example, several of history’s greatest conquerors. The Mongols and, later Tamerlane successfully invaded the Iranian plateau, but to keep it, they either had to deploy tens of thousands of troops (which they were unable to do) or co-opt the local population (which they did) by allowing them to participate in the country’s governance. The same goes for Alexander the Great, Iran’s most successful conqueror. Following his conquest of the land, he co-opted the local elites to hold onto the state – and after he died, Iran quickly regained its independence.

Iran and the US want to avoid a direct military clash, but also do not want to lose their face among their respective allies. Still, the attempts to diminish tensions between the two powers become less and less effective as Iran grows its nuclear-related capabilities and the US sees less and less room to entice Tehran into a mutually beneficial understanding.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Algerian soccer success is a double-edged sword

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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It took Algeria barely two weeks to charge Algerian soccer fan Samir Sardouk and sentence him to a year in jail for harming the national interests of his country.

Mr. Sardouk was convicted for shouting “There is no God but Allah, and they will come down” during the African Cup of Nation’s opening match in the Egyptian capital of Cairo on June 21.

Four other Algerians were given six-month suspended sentences for lighting firecrackers in the stadium.

Mr. Sardouk’s slogan referred to demands put forward in months of mass anti-government protests that all those associated of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s long-standing president who was toppled in April, be removed from office.

Mr. Sardouk’s sentencing casts a shadow over the Algerian squad’s achievement in reaching the African Cup final for the first time in 29 years after defeating Nigeria.

Together with celebrations of Algeria’s earlier qualification for the African Cup’s semi-finals after defeating Ivory Coast, it demonstrates the risk for autocrats and illiberals who use sports in general and soccer in particular to project their country in a different light internationally and polish their tarnished images by associating themselves with something that evokes the kind of deep-seated passions akin to the power of religion.

If celebrations of Algeria’s semi-final qualification and subsequent victory over Nigeria are anything to go by, an Algerian triumph in the finals, like past soccer victories in countries like Egypt and Iran, are likely to inspire rather than distract anti-government protesters.

Algerians fans in France took to the streets in Paris, Marseille and Lyon within hours of Algeria reaching the final. Their celebrations were mired by violence.

Similarly, the semi-finals celebrations spilled over into mass anti-government protests despite a huge police presence on the streets of Algiers and Paris added to the significance of Mr. Sardouk’s conviction. The protesters demanded a “civilian, not a military state”

Algerian police reportedly detained a dozen demonstrators. “There is a clear desire to prevent peaceful marches in Algiers, the deployed security device says it all.” tweeted Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH).

African Cup-related Algerian fan violence precedes the 2019 tournament. A massive brawl between players and fans mired a 2014 Libya-Algeria African Cup qualifier.

Violence associated with this year’s tournament was nonetheless minimal when put into the context of violence in Algeria having become a norm prior to this year’s revolt and the fact that the uprising has been largely peaceful.

The apparent shift away from violence is all the more remarkable given Algerian psychologist Mahmoud Boudarene’s assessment in 2014, a time of multiple soccer-related incidents.

“Violence in Algeria has become ordinary and banal. Hogra, the word Algerians use for the government’s perceived contempt for ordinary citizens, has planted a sickness in Algerian society. People feel that the only way to get anything done is to have connections or threaten the peace. It is a system where hogra and social injustice rule. Social violence has become the preferred mode of communication between the citizen and the republic — today in our country everything is obtained through a riot,” Mr. Boudarene told the Associated Press at the time.

This year’s popular revolt, inspired by lessons learnt from the 2011 popular Arab revolts, has emboldened protesters and given them a sense of confidence that is likely to ensure that potential African Cup final celebrations-turned-protest remain largely peaceful.

With Algeria having qualified for the final, the Algerian defence ministry, despite the police posturing, was preparing six military planes to fly 600 fans to Egypt for the African Cup final.

The gesture underlined soccer’s political importance and constituted an attempt by the military to align itself with the Algerian squad’s success.

The significance of soccer makes Mr. Sardouk’s sentencing all the more remarkable despite the assertion that his slogan mired Algeria’s march towards soccer victory.

For starters, it sought to draw a dividing line between national honour and protest in a country where a majority are likely to be soccer fans.

He was convicted at a time that Algeria has been wracked by protests since February in support of political reforms that would dismantle the country’s long-standing, military-dominated regime with a more transparent and accountable government.

The conviction is also noteworthy because Mr. Sardouk’s protest, coupled with acts of defiance by militant Egyptian soccer fans, threatened to turn the African tournament into a venue for the expression of dissent from across the Middle East and North Africa, a region populated by autocratic, repressive regimes and wracked by repeated explosions of poplar anger.

Finally, the sentencing was striking because it violated the spirit of both the military’s effort to retain a measure of control by co-opting the protests and a long-standing understanding with militant soccer fans that preceded the recent demonstrations that allowed supporters to protest as long as they restricted themselves to the confines of the stadium.

The Algerian military’s attempt to curtail fans and co-opt the revolt bumps up against the fact that the protesters, like their counterparts in Sudan, Morocco, Pakistan and Russia, have sought to avoid the risks of the military seeking to implement a Saudi-United Arab Emirates template to blunt or squash the protests.

The core lesson protesters learnt is that the protests’ success depends to a large extent on demonstrators’ willingness and ability to sustain their protests even if security forces turn violent. An Algeria that emerges from the African Cup final as the continent’s champion would give the protesters a significant boost.

It also constitutes an opportunity to ensure that Algeria does not revert to an environment in which violence is seen as the only way to achieve results.

Said a former senior Algerian intelligence official: “We will return to violence if there is no real democratic transition. The African Cup doesn’t fundamentally change that but does offer a window of opportunity.”

Author’s note: This story first appeared on Africa is a Country

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