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Saudi Moroccan soccer spat symbolizes the Arab world’s new politics

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Saudi sports czar Turki Al-Sheikh

A Saudi Moroccan soccer spat speaks volumes about the depth of change in the Arab world.

The spat over Saudi Arabia’s refusal to support a Moroccan bid for the hosting rights of the 2026 World Cup tells the tale of the rise of individual country nationalism at the expense of Arab solidarity, Saudi determination to safeguard its alliance with the United States at whatever cost, and creeping Saudi and UAE efforts to strongarm countries into supporting their 11-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In the latest round of the spat, Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority and a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, broke with the decades-old, often farcical, principle of Arab solidarity, by suggesting that the kingdom would support a US-led rather than a Moroccan bid for the 2026 World Cup.

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.”

In an earlier tweet, Mr. Al-Sheikh, noting that none of the contenders for the 2026 bid had sought Saudi support, said that “if someone ever asks, we will look for Saudi Arabia’s interests first.”

Mr. Al-Sheikh’s Saudi Arabia First stance reflected Prince Mohammed’s efforts to emphasize Saudi nationalism as a compliment, if not replacement of religion as his regime’s legitimizing ideology.

Applying the principle to soccer, takes on added significance given the fact that few other things parallel the depth of emotion that religion evokes in what is a soccer-crazy part of the world.

Underscoring the importance of soccer, Saudi businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, in one of his first public acts after being released from three months of detention in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel and in a demonstration of fealty to Prince Mohammed, donated in February $533,000 to Saudi soccer club Al Hilal FC.

Prince Alwaleed, who was among the more recalcitrant of the hundreds of members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, senior officials, and prominent businessmen detained last November in what amounted to a power and asset grab under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign, said the donation was in response to a call by the government.

Mr. Al-Sheikh’s apparent support for a joint US-Canadian-Mexican bid to co-host the 2026 World Cup followed a veiled threat by President Donald J. Trump, in violation of guidelines regarding political influence of world soccer body FIFA, against nations that may oppose the US-led proposition.

Morocco is the US-led bid’s only competitor. FIFA is scheduled to choose the 2026 host on June 13.

“The U.S. has put together a STRONG bid w/ Canada & Mexico for the 2026 World Cup. It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid. Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?” Mr. Trump said on Twitter.

“We will be watching very closely, and any help they can give us in that bid we would appreciate,” Mr. Trump added, implicitly linking support for the US-led bid to trade issues.

In his own tweets, Mr. Al-Sheikh made clear that Saudi support for the US-led bid was about more than preserving the kingdom’s alliance with the United States.

He suggested that it was yet another indication of an attempt to strongarm countries into supporting the boycott of Qatar that has failed to garner international support and punish those who opposed it.

Morocco, despite close security, military and economic ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has refused to take sides in the Gulf conflict and has offered to mediate. As Qatar was scrambling last June to ensure food imports in the days that immediately followed the declaration of the boycott and the cutting of land, air and sea links, Morocco sent several plane loads of supplies to the Gulf state.

“Some people went astray. If you want support, you should seek it in Riyadh. What you are doing is wasting your time. Now ask the pseud-state to help you. A message from the Gulf to the Ocean,” Mr. Al-Sheikh tweeted several weeks ago, referring to Qatar in derogatory terms and the fact that Morocco’s shores are on the Atlantic Ocean.

Adding insult to injury, Mr. Al-Sheikh posted his tweet at the very moment that his aide and namesake, Talal Al Sheikh, was meeting in the Moroccan capital of Rabat with the president of the Moroccan Football Federation, Faouzi Lekjaa.

The linking of Saudi Arabia’s position on the World Cup came on the heels of the kingdom’s efforts to force prominent, multi-national financial institutions to take sides in the Gulf dispute. The Saudi push persuaded JP Morgan and HSBC to refrain from participating last month in a $12 billion Qatari bond sale.

The Saudi-Moroccan spat is the latest incident in which the World Cup has become a battleground in the Gulf crisis.

In an indication of the importance Gulf leaders attribute to Qatar’s ability to garner soft power with its hosting of the 2022 World Cup, Dubai security chief Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan suggested in October that the UAE-Saudi-led boycott would be lifted if the Gulf state surrendered its hosting rights.

That may have been an overstatement by the notoriously bombastic law enforcement official, but nonetheless reflected thinking about the political importance of sports in Qatar and among its detractors.

The Saudi-Moroccan spat goes, however, beyond the political significance of soccer in the Gulf. It symbolizes the end of a post-colonial era in the Middle East in which Arab states look out for their individual interests rather than perceive themselves as a true bloc in anything but name. That may be a healthy development, albeit one that promises even greater fracturing in an already deeply divided part of the world.

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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Turkey’s Foreign Policy Balancing Act

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It is often claimed that Turkey made a definitive break with the West in the 2000s after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The argument is that by changing direction internally, Ankara turned away from what the West was hoping to achieve in terms of its relations with Turkey.

Since 2003, Turkey has indeed increased its influence in all the geopolitically important regions on its borders: the Black Sea, the South Caucasus, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and Syria-Iraq. A general concept explaining this development can be found by looking at the map. There is no single great power in Turkey’s neighborhood which opens the door for greater Turkish economic and military engagement along its borders. Even Russia, arguably the biggest power near Turkey, could not prevent Ankara from giving its decisive support to Azerbaijan during the recent Second Karabakh War. Turkish troops, albeit a limited number, are now stationed on Azerbaijani soil alongside Russian.

The real reason for Turkey’s increasing engagement remains the Soviet collapse, though that engagement occurred over a longer period than many analysts expected. It took decades for Turkey to build its regional position. In 2021, it can safely be argued that Ankara has made a success of this venture. It is close to having a direct land corridor to the Caspian Sea (through Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan) and increases its military posture in the Mediterranean, and views northern Syria and Iraq as territories that can potentially provide strategic depth for an Anatolian defense.

A revealing element in Ankara’s foreign policy is that geography still commands the country’s perception of itself and its place in the world, perhaps more so than for any other large country. Rather than being attached solely to the Western axis, over the past two decades, Turkey has pursued a multi-vector approach to foreign affairs.

The country is on the European periphery. Its experience is similar to Russia’s in that both have absorbed extensive western influence, whether in institutions, foreign policy, or culture. Both have been anchored for centuries on the geopolitics of the European continent. Because a multi-vector foreign policy model provides more room for maneuver, economic gains, and growth of geopolitical power, both countries wanted to break free of their single-axis approach to foreign policy.

But neither Turkey nor Russia has had an opportunity to break its dependence on the West entirely. The West has simply been too powerful. The world economy revolved solely around the European continent and the US.

Turkey and Russia have significant territories deep in Asia and the Middle East, as well as geopolitical schools of thought that consider Europe-oriented geopolitical thinking contrary to state interests, particularly as the collective West has never considered either Turkey or Russia to be fully European. The two states have always pursued alternate geopolitical anchors, but had difficulty implementing them. No Asian, African, or any other geopolitical pole has proven sufficient to enable either Turkey or Russia to balance their ties with the West.

No wonder, then, that over the past two decades Turkey has been actively searching for new geopolitical axes. For Ankara, close relations with Russia is a means to balance its historical dependence on European geopolitics. The same foreign policy model can explain Moscow’s geopolitical thinking since the late 2000s, when its ties with Asian states developed quickly as an alternative to a dependence on, and attachment to, Western geopolitics.

Thus we come to the first misconception of Turkish foreign policy: that Ankara is distancing itself from the West with the aim of eventually breaking those ties entirely. Breaking off relations with NATO is not an option for Turkey. Its goal is to balance its deep ties with the West, which for various reasons were no longer producing the benefits it was hoping for, with a more active policy in other regions. Hence Turkey’s resurgence in the Middle East.

Turkey’s Middle East pivot (championed by former FM Ahmet Davutoglu) is not an exceptional development in the country’s foreign policy. During the Cold War, when Turkey’s focus on the Western axis was strong, leftist PM Bulent Ecevit promoted the idea of a “region-centric” foreign policy. The main takeaway was that Ankara should pursue diversification of external affairs beyond its traditional Western fixation, meaning deeper involvement in the Middle East and the Balkans. In 1974-1975, then Turkish deputy PM Necmettin Erbakan tried to pivot Ankara toward the Arab world. There were even attempts to build closer ties with the Soviets.

But throughout this period of reorientation, no move was ever made to sever relations with the West. Turkish politicians at the time believed diversification of foreign ties would benefit the country’s position at the periphery of Europe overlooking the volatile Middle East. The diversification would not hurt the country’s Western axis but would in fact complement it.

Contrary to the belief that Atatürk was solely interested in Turkey’s Western axis, the country under his leadership had close ties with nearby Middle Eastern states, as was necessary considering the geopolitical weight of those states at the time. Thus he hosted Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1934, and in 1937 signed a non-aggression pact with Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The pursuit of a multi-vector foreign policy has been a hallmark of Turkish political thinking. Even during Ottoman times, when a Europe-centered foreign policy was inescapable, the sultans sought alternatives to their dependence on Great Britain and France. Following the disastrous 1877-1878 war with Russia, Sultan Abdul Hamid began a cautious balancing effort by building closer ties with Imperial Germany, a trend that contributed to the German-Turkish alliance forged during WWI.

Returning to the present day, the Chinese factor is causing a reconfiguration in Turkey-West relations. The Asian pivot brings economic promise and increases Ankara’s maneuverability vis-à-vis larger powers like Russia and the EU. This fits into the rise of Turkish “Eurasianism,” the aspirations of which are similar to those that have motivated Russia for the past decade or so.

Turkey’s policies toward the West and the ongoing troubles in bilateral ties can best be described as intra-alliance opposition. It is true that in recent years, Turkey’s opposition to the West within the alliance has intensified markedly, but it has not passed the point of no return. Ankara is well aware that it remains a valuable ally to the collective West.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia today

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Yemen recovery possible if war stops now

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Devastation caused by protracted conflict in Yemen. Photo: UNDP Yemen

War-torn Yemen is among the poorest countries in the world, but recovery is possible if the conflict ends now, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said in a report published on Tuesday. 

Yemen has been mired in seven years of fighting between a pro-Government Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels, generating the world’s worst humanitarian and development crisis and leaving the country teetering on the brink of famine. 

The report sends a hopeful message that all is not lost, arguing that its extreme poverty could be eradicated within a generation, or by 2047, if the fighting ceases.  

A brighter future 

“The study presents a clear picture of what the future could look like with a lasting peace including new, sustainable opportunities for people”, said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner. 

“To help to get there, the entire UN family continues to work with communities throughout the country to shape a peaceful, inclusive and prosperous future for all Yemenis”.  

The brutal war in Yemen has already caused the country to miss out on $126 billion of potential economic growth, according to UNDP. 

Inclusive, holistic recovery 

The UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, has estimated 80 per cent of the population, or 24 million people, rely on aid and protection assistance, including 14.3 million who are in acute need.  

Through statistical modeling analyzing future scenarios, the report reveals how securing peace by January 2022, coupled with an inclusive and holistic recovery process, can help to reverse deep trends of impoverishment and see Yemen reaching middle-income status by 2050. 

Furthermore, malnutrition could be halved by 2025, and the country could achieve $450 billion of economic growth by the middle of the century.  

While underlining the primacy of a peace deal, the report emphasizes the need for an inclusive and holistic recovery process that crosses all sectors of Yemeni society and puts people at the centre. 

Women’s empowerment critical 

Investment must be focused on areas such as agriculture, inclusive governance, and women’s empowerment. 

Auke Lootsma, UNDP Resident Representative in Yemen, stressed the importance of addressing what he called “the deep development deficits” in the country, such as gender inequality. 

“I think it’s fair to say that Yemen, whatever gender index you look at, it’s always at the bottom,” he told UN News ahead of the report’s launch. 

“So, bringing women into the fold, making them part of the labour force, and really empowering women also to contribute to the recovery and reconstruction of Yemen is going to be incredibly important”.  

Act now 

The report was carried out by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver, located in the United States, and is the third in a series launched in 2019. 

While outlining potential peace dividends, it also provides grim future trajectories should the conflict continue into 2022 and beyond.  

For example, the authors project that 1.3 million lives will be lost if the war continues through 2030.  Moreover, a growing proportion of those deaths will not be due to fighting, but to the impacts on livelihoods, food prices and the deterioration of health, education and basic services. 

UNDP said there is no time to waste, and plans to support recovery must be continuously developed even as the fighting rages on.  

“The people of Yemen are eager to move forward into a recovery of sustainable and inclusive development,” said Khalida Bouzar, Director of its Regional Bureau for Arab States.  

“UNDP stands ready to further strengthen our support to them on this journey to leave no one behind, so that the potential of Yemen and the region can be fully realized – and so that once peace is secured, it can be sustained”. 

Grave concerns in Marib

Meanwhile, UN humanitarians are extremely concerned about the safety of civilians in Yemen’s northern Marib governorate, which is home to some one million displaced people. 

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, warned that as the frontlines of conflict shift closer to heavily populated areas in the oil-rich region, those lives are in danger. 

Access to humanitarian aid is also becoming harder, said UNHCR Spokesperson Shabia Mantoo. 

Rocket strikes close to the sites hosting the displaced are causing fear and panic. The latest incident was reported on 17 November when an artillery shell exploded, without casualties, near a site close to Marib City. UNHCR teams report that there is heavy fighting in the mountains surrounding the city and the sound of explosions and planes can be heard day and night”, she elaborated.

UNHCR is warning that further escalation of the conflict will only increase the vulnerability of people in Marib, and is calling for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen. 

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UAE chalks up diplomatic successes with uncertain payoffs

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Image source: Wikipedia

It has been a good week for United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

Headline-grabbing, fast-paced moves reinforce the UAE’s position as a regional power. They highlight the UAE’s willingness to chart a course that increasingly competes with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s regional behemoth; is at times at odds with US policy; and scoffs at assertions of human rights abuse by activists and Western politicians.

Controversial Emirati general Ahmed Naser al-Raisi was elected this week as the next president of Interpol despite calls by the European Parliament for an investigation into allegations that he oversaw physical abuse of detainees. Last month, two British nationals filed court cases against him.

The UAE has denied the allegations. “Major General Al-Raisi is a distinguished professional with a 40-year track record in community and national policing. As the President of Interpol, he will remain committed to protecting people, making communities safer and providing global law enforcement the latest tools in the fight against sophisticated criminal networks,” the UAE embassy in London said.

Mr. Al-Raisi won the election at a gathering of the international policing body in Istanbul weeks before the UAE takes up its seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Turkey has been accused of being a major abuser of the Interpol system.

Human rights activists fear that Mr. Al-Raisi will use his new position to legitimize abuse by autocrats of Interpol’s red notice arrest warrants to detain abroad and extradite dissidents and political refugees. The UAE designated four exiled dissidents as terrorists days before Mr. Al-Raisi’s election.

Mr. Al-Raisi was elected a day after Prince Mohammed paid a ground-breaking visit to Ankara to patch up relations with Turkey and throw President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an economic lifeline. Turkey and the UAE have been at odds for a decade over Turkish support for popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa and political Islam.

The rapprochement is part of a broader effort by Middle Eastern rivals, spurred independently by the United States, China, and Russia, to reduce regional tensions and prevent disputes and conflicts from spinning out of control.

The UAE and Turkey have been on opposite sides of civil wars in Libya and Syria that erupted in the wake of popular revolts and at odds in the Eastern Mediterranean. The UAE has sought to reverse the achievements of uprisings supported by Turkey that succeeded in toppling an autocratic leader like in Egypt. Turkey has suggested that the UAE funded a failed 2016 military attempt to remove Mr. Erdogan from power.

The Emirati moves also include a bid to replace Qatar and Turkey as managers of Kabul’s international airport; efforts to return Syria to the international fold despite US policy that aims to isolate the country; and steps to improve relations with Iran. In addition, the UAE this week concluded a solar energy deal with Jordan and Israel that Saudi Arabia sought to thwart.

The UAE hopes that reviving Syria’s membership in the 22-nation Arab League and reconstruction funding will persuade President Bashar al-Assad to loosen his ties to Iran. Prince Mohammed’s visit to Turkey coincided with talks in Dubai with a senior Iranian official in advance of an expected trip to Tehran by the crown prince’s brother and national security advisor, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The moves reinforce the UAE’s position as an influential middle power on the international stage in defiance of being a small state with a population deficit.

Nonetheless, the moves also prove that reducing tensions and managing differences do not by definition bury hatchets, end rivalries, or reduce competition.

The jury is out on the degree to which the Emirati moves will successfully persuade one-time detractors like Turkey to alter their policies fundamentally. For example, Turkey is unlikely to shutter its military base in Qatar that it expanded during the 3.5-year UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state. Closing the base was one of the boycott’s demands.

Mr Erdogan desperately needs the investments. He sees Prince Mohammed’s economic olive branch as a way to reverse a downturn in his economy that threatens to spiral further downwards. The crisis has already fueled street protests and opposition hopes to defeat him in the next election.

In a welcome step, the UAE announced hours after Mr. Erdogan met with Prince Mohammed that it would put US$10 billion into an investment fund that would target energy, food, health and climate change-related sectors of the Turkish economy as well as trade.

Emirati investments in Turkish ports are likely to significantly strengthen Dubai global ports management and logistics company DP World’s network in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In addition, Iranian officials said the UAE moves had made a transport corridor from the UAE to Turkey via Iran possible. A first ship departing from Sharjah in the UAE en route to Mersin in Turkey docked at the Iranian port of Shahid Rajai a day after Prince Mohammed ‘s visit.

Mr. Erdogan expects the Emirati investments to buoy Turkey’s floundering economy at a time that its currency is tumbling. The Turkish lira appreciated by about one point as Prince Mohammed arrived in the country.

However, Qatar, with US$22 billion already invested in Turkey, may not stand idly by as the UAE improves relations with Ankara. On the contrary, it could well seek to cement its existing relationship with further investments.

It remains unclear how much of a political price, Mr. Erdogan may be paying for UAE support. So far, he has curbed Muslim Brotherhood activity in Istanbul in response to Emirati and Egyptian demands but refused to expel the Brothers or extradite them to Egypt.

Similarly, the UAE’s bid to displace Qatar and Turkey at Kabul airport may prove to be an uphill battle. It is hard to see why the Taliban would want to create friction with Qatar, representing US interests in Afghanistan as well as offering a home to Western diplomatic missions focused on Afghanistan, and hosting talks between the Islamist group and the United States.

In sum, Mr. Erdogan may be down as he rebuilds relations with the UAE, but he’s not out. That, in turn, could put a damper on what reconciliation with the UAE will achieve politically.

“Turkeys s economy might be going through its darkest days decades, yet foreign policy still allows…Erdogan to score points,” said prominent Turkish journalist Cengiz Cander.

Indeed, as he seeks to improve strained relations with Middle Eastern states — the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel — Mr. Erdogan is also attempting to carve out his own sphere of influence by blowing new life into the Organization of Turkic states. The organisation groups Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, with a total population of some 170 million people.

However, the Emirati-Turkish rapprochement could help shape developments in conflict zones like Libya, where the UAE and Turkey supported opposing sides.

With the Libyan election scheduled for next month, the UAE is betting on one of two horses in the race: rebel commander Khalifa Haftar and Aref al-Nayed. Mr. Al-Nayed is a former UAE ambassador to the Emirates who heads a UAE group that propagates the UAE’s moderate but autocratic version of Islam. The group was one of several created to counter Islamist clerics supported by Qatar.

Suggesting that rapprochement with the UAE has not reduced Turkish influence in Libya, unconfirmed reports said that Mr. Haftar’s son, Saddam Haftar, made separate visits to Turkey and Israel to solicit support.

In a move that simultaneously supported UAE diplomacy, Mr. Haftar this week released seven Turkish nationals held captive by his forces for the last two years,

“Turkey is in bad shape economically, and Erdogan seems to be crumbling politically. However, it may still be too early to write him off thanks to foreign developments,” said Mr. Candar.

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