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The meeting between Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani in Tehran

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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After the meeting of last April, Iranian President Rouhani, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met again in Teheran (and in Tabriz) on September 6-7, within the now usual setting of the Astana talks.

The specific aim of these last negotiations was to normalize the Syrian situation in the long term, as well as to further promote the eradication of international terrorism and the stabilization of the infra-Syrian political process and finally to create the necessary conditions for a return of Syrian displaced people and refugees abroad.

There are now innumerable peace meetings for war in Syria, which has been going on for about seven years.

In this case everything stems from the foreseeable failure of the “six-point peace plan for Syria” proposed by Kofi Annan in 2012, with the authorization of the Arab League and the United Nations.

The first point of the peace plan proposed by Annan envisaged the commitment “to work for an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people” – and here I confine myself to quoting the text, whatever it may mean.

Secondly Annan called for the commitment “to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective UN supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilise the country”. And what if sometimes weapons were needed to defend civilians?

At that juncture, the former UN Secretary-General asked the Syrian government to “immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.” What about light weapons? Another ambiguous sentence. In Annan’s six-point peace plan, however, no mention was made of the rebels’ military operations, i.e. the huge amount of at least 56 groups, including the openly or not overtly jihadist groups that even today form the large-mesh net of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”.

However, the UN Envoy who drafted the “six-point peace plan” should have sought, above all, the agreement of the “opposition” – hence of jihadists, Kurds and Isis at the same time, as well as the other “holy war” groups connected directly to the Caliphate.

Nevertheless, obviously we do not know how he could have achieved an “effective cessation of armed violence”. What should he have given in return? With which operating limits? Mystery of abstract idealism also in the very concrete field of foreign policy.

The third point of Annan’s peace plan asked to “ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by fighting”. However, how could these areas be reached? Possibly unarmed as little angels?

The fourth point urged “to intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons”. Once again we cannot understand how the safe return of detained persons (1,3 million people) and displaced ones (currently 6.1 million people) can be ensured without weapons.

The fifth point urged “to ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists” – journalists, who are often agents in disguise.

Finally the six point called for “respecting freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed”.

This plan -better suited to Presbyterian Churches rather than to those who have read the classics of politics – was at the basis of the UN resolutions calling for very harsh sanctions against the Syrian regime – obviously only against the Syrian regime – in the period between 2011 and 2012. Idealistic sanctions that were reasonably and rightly blocked by Russia and China in the Security Council.

At that juncture, in April 2012, Kofi Annan definitively stepped down as UN-Arab-League mediator and the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was dismantled.

Furthermore, after Annan’s failure, Obama’s Administration stated that Assad could not “reasonably” remain President of Syria.

Hence was Daesh-Isis a better option? We will never know. We know all too well, however, to what extent Saudi Arabia and other Sunni and non-Sunni countries supported Al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate. At that time, Putin spoke about 14 countries that used the services of the old Isis but, for example,the then spokesman of the Caliphate, Al-Adnani, revealed in a speech of May 2014 that their “forces and Al Qaeda’s forces had been ordered not to attack the lines of communication between Iran and the Lebanon”. Not to mention the large body of evidence demonstrating the vast infiltration of Assad’ Syrian forces into the Caliphate’s jihad and the Turkish, Saudi and Qatari operations within the wide range of jihadist organizations opposing Assad.

At that juncture, both Syria and other international actors, including some jihadist resistance groups, participated in the Geneva Talks, but failed to form a transitional government with all the warring parties, which was precisely the goal of the Geneva Talks.

Hence in January 2014 the so-called Geneva II phase started, with the aim of creating the conditions for new more effective talks – and nothing else.

Nevertheless, neither the Kurds nor the various jihad groups participated in Geneva II. Not even Assad participated directly, given Obama’s warning on his staying in power.

At that point, the ISIS operations between Iraq and Syria began and, at the same time, the United States created a “global” coalition of 79 States to hit the Caliphate, in particular.

The rest of the story is well-known: the Russian Federation intervened directly in the Syrian war. Hence, in November 2015, the International Syria Support Group with twenty States and international organisations, including Iran, was established within the UN framework, with a view to drawing up a draft agreement to be submitted to the future Vienna Conference.

Here Churchill’s memorable witty remark springs to our mind: “Ambassadors should be silent in at least six different languages”.

The final proposal of the Group was included in UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254, with a “Road Map for the Peace Process in Syria and the definition of a Timetable for further Talks”.

Resolution No. 2254 envisaged a maximum period of six months for negotiations between the Ba’athist government and the opposition – without further details and specifications on the latter – hence indirectly accepting at the negotiating table the Caliphate that as many as 79 nations should fight together with the United States. It also envisaged further political elections (with which parties or lists?) within that six-month period.

In December 2015 Saudi Arabia offered to organize a High Negotiations Committee(HNC) by its own, with most of the jihadist groups operating at the time in Syria and also in Russia, as well as with the major countries of the region.

The HNC included 33 members from the following political and military opposition organizations: 9 members of the “National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces”; other members of the Kurdish National Council, who withdrew after a short lapse of time; 5 members of the “National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change”; a bunch of 13 Syrian left parties, with others that later disappeared thanks to Assad’s intelligence services and after an eventful  meeting in China.

The HNC also declared that it wanted “religious and political pluralism” and, for that reason, was often hosted by the British government.

In that case the primary issue was the Syrian Kurds, who were excluded from negotiations thanks to Turkish pressure alone.

Later even Geneva III began, which immediately failed due to the Russian and Iranian military initiatives on the Syrian territory.

Finally, a new Geneva IV phase started, which hosted other talks between Bashar el Assad’s government and the aforementioned High Negotiations Committee. Nevertheless, also the Astana Talks began – an indirect series of Talks between the Syrian Ba’athist regime and Russia and later Iran and Turkey, which were anyway sponsors of the negotiations. With a range of jihadists, who participated in the talks held in Kazakhstan with unusual attention.

In the first meeting held in the capital of Kazakhstan, the Head of the HNC of the time – who was the leader of the jihadist group Jaish al-Islam – defined the Syrian government as a “terrorist entity”.

Although characterized by unimaginable offenses and insults, the Astana talks managed to reach a truce between the fighting parties.

In fact, in late October 2017, four de-escalation zones were established between the States and the Syrian jihad.

They included the city of Idlib and the surrounding countryside, in addition to the provinces of Latakia and Aleppo; the Northern Homs countryside; Eastern Ghouta and parts of Deraa and Quneitra. Almost all areas which, apart from Idlib, have already been currently conquered by the Syrian government on a permanent basis.

Hence they were zones defined by agreements – especially bilateral agreements – between Russia and the jihadist groups operating in the region.

In fact, Russia signed an agreement with the so-called “Southern Front”, so as to keep Iran out of Deraa, while Russia replaced the militia of the allied countries with its Chechen and Dagestan police.

Russia also reached a specific agreement with the jihadist group Jaish al-Tawhid, directly in Cairo – an agreement that is known to be very costly for the Russian State budget.

Meanwhile, Iran was working to strengthen its connection and communication line between Tehran, the Iraqi Shiite military areas and, finally, the Lebanon.

It is Iran’s primary project in Syria – the idea of finally closing Israel strategically, which would currently find a far more solid defence than the Syrian one in the Golan Heights and on the border of the Litani River with the Lebanon.

Therefore only Russia is currently playing its role as great broker and mediator for the whole Syria, after having de facto won on the ground.

Hence what results have the three governments reached at the last meeting in Tehran, which is, however, part and parcel of the “Astana process”?

Iranhas recorded the undoubted success of being part of the winning coalition, in Syria, together with Turkey and Russia – a highly useful relationship, just when the United States and Saudi Arabia are doing their utmost to marginalize Iran on the international scene.

The Islamic Republic of Iran wants to be part of the great and rich reconstruction program for Syria, thus ensuring its presence on the ground.

In fact, there had been various and contradictory news about the upcoming US military pressure to reduce only the Iranian presence in Syria.

Currently the United States will try to organize a harassment guerrilla warfare to keep the Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces on the ground beyond the limit; to increase the Russian, Iranian and Syrian military spending and finally create the peripheral destabilization of the new Assad’s Ba’athist State.

With or without the collaboration of old and new jihadist groups, having anyway relations with Saudi Arabia, which would like to harass Iran so as to reduce the Shiite pressure on the Houthi rebels of Yemen.

Iran was very cautious in providing significant and steady support to the Turkish government during and after Erdogan’s repression of the coup staged in August 2016 –  the most vulnerable phase of the Turkish system, which is very subtle and careful, a “deep state” system built around Erdogan’s AKP Party and the Sunni destruction of the  previous initiatory-Masonic-Kemalist Ergenekonsect in April 2011.

Hence any monetary, tax or political tension between Trump’s USA and Turkey, which is NATO’s second largest Army, is music toIran’ Shi’ite ears.

Another aspect to be underlined is the good and new economic relations – through the tripartite commitment in Syria – between Russia, Turkey and Iran, which are essential to create a sort of “replacement or substitution economy” during the period of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and some European countries.

Particularly in the Iranian oil system, but also in the banking sector.

Furthermore, Erdogan wants a sound military agreement with Iran for a targeted approach on Idlib.

In Erdogan’s plans, the Turkish intelligence services (MIT) shall eliminate the Al Qaeda network in Idlib, while leaving the Sunni opposition untouched – a favour to Assad but, above all, to Iran.

Iran cannot certainly afford the destruction of its relations with the Sunni majority in Syria, which occupies precisely the territories of its future networks uniting Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon.

Just while Turkey held two US citizens and was subjected to a “money-laundering operation” through foreign operations abroad on its Lira and the new US tariffs on aluminium and steel, Erdogan played all his anti-American cards betting on the success of the Astana talks, so as to recover – to the East – the power that was now forbidden to the West.

For Assad and his Russian allies, the only way to put an end to the war is to take effective, and above all, quick action in Idlib.

An action which is, by majority, still organized by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the Syrian faction of Al Qaeda.

As we will see at a later stage, the United States is fully opposed to the final operations on Idlib.

Russia, however, wants to attack Idlib so as to avoid keeping – on the border with Turkey – a pocket of jihadists who, by now, would immediately be out on the market for sale to the highest bidder, be it Western or Sunni.

Moreover, the liberation of the Kurdish city of Idlib would be an excellent calling card to deal with the three main Kurdish Armed Forces, which already actively cooperate with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Hence Turkey wants to convince Russia to accept its new influence in the region, so as to conquer the city’s terrorist bases at first and later protect the inhabitants.

Conversely Russia wants to keep full control and command over the process for eradicating jihadist terrorism in Syria, which is still the necessary basis for the upcoming jihad in the Islamic republics of Southern Russia.

This is the reason why Russia has significantly increased its maritime presence on the Syrian coast.

Syria will soon accept considerable support from Russia, China, Iran and all the countries that will be at the top in the list of countries having the possibilities for investing in the deal of the century: the full reconstruction of Syrian cities and infrastructure after a bloody and ferocious war.

A deal from which the countries that have accepted an ambiguous, naive and inconsistent diktat will be excluded.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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The fallacy of soccer’s magical bridge-building qualities

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Imagining himself as a peacemaker in a conflict-ridden part of the world, FIFA President Gianni Infantino sees a 2022 World Cup shared by Qatar with its Gulf detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as the magic wand that would turn bitter foes into brothers.

It may be a nice idea, but it is grounded in the fiction that soccer can play an independent role in bringing nations together or developing national identity.

The fiction is that soccer has the potential to be a driver of events, that it can spark or shape developments. It is also the fiction that sports in general and soccer in particular has the power to build bridges.

Mr. Infantino’s assertion that if foes play soccer, bridges are built is but the latest iteration of a long-standing myth.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Soccer is an aggressive sport. It is about conquering the other half of a pitch. It evokes passions and allegiances that are tribal in nature and that more often than not divide rather than unite.

In conflict situations, soccer tends to provide an additional battlefield. Examples abound.

The 2022 World Cup; this year’s Qatari Asian Cup victory against the backdrop of the Gulf state’s rift with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt; the imprint the Palestinian-Israeli conflict puts on the two nations’ soccer; or the rise of racist, discriminatory attitudes among fans in Europe.

The Bad Blue Boys, hardcore fans of Dinamo Zagreb’s hardcore fans, light candles each May and lay wreaths at a monument to their comrades who were killed in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. They mark the anniversary of a riot during the 1990 match against Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, their club’s most controversial match, as the first clash in the wars that erupted a year later and sparked the collapse of former Yugoslavia.

Fact of the matter is that sports like ping pong in Richard Nixon’s 1972 rapprochement with China or the improvement of ties between North and South Korea in the most recent Summer Olympics served as a useful tool, not a driver of events.

Sports is a useful tool in an environment in which key political players seek to build bridges and narrow differences.

The impact of soccer in the absence of a conducive environment created by political not sports players, is at best temporary relief, a blip on an otherwise bleak landscape.

The proof is in the pudding. Legend has it that British and German soldiers played soccer in no-man’s lands on Christmas Day in 2014, only to return to fighting World War One for another four years. Millions died in the war.

Similarly, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites poured into the streets of Iraqi cities hugging each other in celebration of Iraq’s winning in 2007 of the Asia Cup at the height of the country’s sectarian violence only to return to killing each other a day later.

Soccer’s ability to shape or cement national identity is no different. In other words. football can be a rallying point for national identity but only if there is an environment that is conducive.

The problem is that soccer and the formation of national identity have one complicating trait in common: both often involve opposition to the other.

That is nowhere truer than in the Middle East and North Africa where soccer has played and plays an important role in identity formation since it was first introduced to the region in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Qatar has been in some ways the exception that proves the rule by plotting its sports strategy not only as a soft power tool or a pillar of public health policy but also as a component of national identity. That element has been strengthened by the rift in the Gulf and bolstered by this year’s Asian Cup victory.

Qatar’s efforts to strengthen its national identity benefits from the fact that the Gulf state no longer operates on the notion that Gulf states have to hang together. Today its hanging on its own in a conflict with three of its neighbours.

Soccer’s role in identity formation in the Middle East and North Africa was often because it was a battlefield, a battlefield for identity that was part of larger political struggles.

Clubs were often formed for that very reason. Attitudes towards the country’s monarchy in the early 20th century loomed large in the founding of Egypt’s Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC, two of the Middle East and North Africa’s most storied clubs.

Clubs in Algeria were established as part of the anti-colonial struggle against the French. Ottoman and Iranian rulers used sports and soccer to foster national identity and take a first step towards incorporating youth in the development of a modern defense force.

Zionists saw sports and soccer as an important way of developing the New Jew, the muscular Jew. To Palestinians, it was a tool in their opposition to Zionist immigration. And finally, soccer was important in the shaping of ethnic or sub-national identities among Berbers, Kurds, East Bank Jordanians and Jordanian Palestinians.

In other words, soccer was inclusive in the sense of contributing to the formation of a collective identity. But it was also divisive because that identity was at the same time exclusionary and opposed to an other.

The long and short of this is that soccer is malleable. Its impact and fallout depend on forces beyond its control. Soccer is dependent on the environment shaped by political and social forces. It is a tool that is agnostic to purpose, not a driver or an independent actor.

Edited remarks at Brookings seminar in Doha: Lessons from the 2019 Asian Cup: Sports, Globalization, and Politics in the Arab World

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Syrian Coup de Grâce

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The Middle Eastern land has a diverse blend of history with conflicts and developments in knowledge. Where on one hand Baghdad was considered as the realm of knowledge on the other hand Constantinople was a symbol of power and domination. But now it seems that all has been shattered completely with conflicts.

The Middle Eastern landscape is facing its worst time ever: a phase of instability and misery. The oil ridden land is now becoming conflict ridden, from Euphrates to Persian Gulf; every inch seems to be blood stained nowadays.  The region became more like a chess board where kings are not kings but pawns and with each move someone is getting close to checkmate.

Starting from the spring which brought autumn in the Middle Eastern environment, now the curse is on Assyrian land where blood is being spilled, screams have took over the skies. The multi facet conflict has caused more than 400,000 deaths and 5 million seeking refuge abroad whereas 6 million displaced internally.

What began with a mere peaceful civil uprising, has now become a world stage with multiplayers on it. Tehran and Moscow are playing their own mantra by showing romance with Assad while Washington has its own way of gambling with kings in their hand. Involvement of catchy caliphate from 2014 is worsening the complexities of the Syrian saga. The deck is getting hot and becoming more and more mess, chemical strikes, tomahawk show, carpet bombing, stealth jets and many more, Syrian lands is now a market to sell the products exhibiting fine examples of military industrial complex. While to some, Syrian stage seems to be a mere regional proxy war, in reality it seems like a black hole taking whole region into its curse. One by one every inch of the country is turned into altar as the consequence of war. A country is now ripped into different territories with different claimants, but the question still remains as “Syria belongs to whom?”

The saga of Syrian dusk has its long roots in past and with each passing moment it is becoming a spiral of destruction. What is being witnessed in current scenario is just a glimpse of that spiral. It has already winded the region into it and if not resolve properly and maturely it can spread like a contagious disease that can take whole Middle East into its chakra.

With recent development in Iran nuclear deal which left whole world into shock; and house of Sauds forming strong bond with western power brokers and Israel, to counter Tehran (because kings of holy desert have so much engraved hatred towards shiaits, that they prefer to shake hands with Jews and establish an unholy alliance) is making matters worse. This all has the potential to push the region into further more sectarian rifts. With Syrian stage already set. The delicacy of the situation is not secluded from the palette of the world.

Despite the condemnations from across the globe, humanitarian watch remains blind and failed to address the issues in Syria leaving Syrians in long lasting agony and despair The symphony of pain and suffering continues in the Middle Eastern region while world watches like a vicious sadist, the region becomes a playground for major powers as ‘Uncle Sam” has their own interests in engaging, Kremlin have their own concerns same goes for every single actor who is party to the conflict.

The panacea to the Arabian pain is simple “a sincere determined approach” to the disease. Even if every party with draws from the conflict the situation can get worse due to the generated power vacuum and can make Syria a replica of Iraq. The Syrian grieve needs to be addressed through proper management skills, if not the curse is upon whole region.

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The battle for leadership of the Muslim world: Turkey plants its flag in Christchurch

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became this weekend the first high-level foreign government delegation to travel  to Christchurch they were doing more than expressing solidarity with New Zealand’s grieving Muslim community.

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu were planting Turkey’s flag far and wide in a global effort to expand beyond the Turkic and former Ottoman world support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s style of religiously-packaged authoritarian rule, a marriage of Islam and Turkish nationalism.

Showing footage of the rampage in Christchurch at a rally in advance of March 31 local elections, Mr. Erdogan declared that “there is a benefit in watching this on the screen. Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”

Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “we have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday. You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”

Mr. Erdogan was responding to an assertion by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in which 49 people were killed in two mosques, that Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe.”

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu’s visit, two days after the attacks, is one more facet of a Turkish campaign that employs religious as well as traditional diplomatic tools.

The campaign aims to establish Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world in competition with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Morocco.

As part of the campaign, Turkey has positioned itself as a cheerleader for Muslim causes such as Jerusalem and the Rohingya at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Muslim nations are taking a step back.

Although cautious not to rupture relations with Beijing, Turkey has also breached the wall of silence maintained by the vast majority of Muslim countries by speaking out against China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Mr. Erdogan’s religious and traditional diplomatic effort has seen Turkey build grand mosques and/or cultural centres across the globe in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, finance religious education and restore Ottoman heritage sites.

It has pressured governments in Africa and Asia to hand over schools operated by the Hizmet movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan holds Mr. Gulen responsible for the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has in recent years opened at least 26 embassies in Africa, expanded the Turkish Airlines network to 55 destinations in Africa, established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and negotiated a long-term lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island in the Red Sea.

The Turkish religious campaign takes a leaf out of Saudi Arabia’s four decade long, USD 100 billion effort to globally propagate ultra-conservative Sunni Islam

Like the Saudis, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) provides services to Muslim communities, organizes pilgrimages to Mecca, trains religious personnel, publishes religious literature, translates the Qur’an into local languages and funds students from across the world to study Islam at Turkish institutions.

Turkish Muslim NGOs provide humanitarian assistance in former parts of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East and Africa much like the Saudi-led World Muslim League and other Saudi governmental -non-governmental organizations, many of which have been shut down since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, has significantly reduced global funding for ultra-conservatism.

Nonetheless, Turkey is at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkish support for Qatar in its dispute with the Saudis and Emiratis; differences over Libya, Syria and the Kurds; and Ankara’s activist foreign policy. Turkey is seeking to position itself as an Islamic alternative.

Decades of Saudi funding has left the kingdom’s imprint on the global Muslim community. Yet, Turkey’s current struggles with Saudi Arabia are more geopolitical than ideological.

While Turkey competes geopolitically with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Syria, ideologically the two countries’ rivalry is between the UAE’s effort to establish itself as a centre of a quietist, apolitical Islam as opposed to Turkey’s activist approach and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, the UAE projects itself and its religiosity as far more modern, tolerant and forward looking.

The UAE’s projection goes beyond Prince Mohammed’s attempt to shave off the raw edges of Wahhabism in an attempt to present himself as a proponent of what he has termed moderate Islam.

The UAE scored a significant success with the first ever papal visit in February by Pope Francis I during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

The signing was the result of UAE-funded efforts of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to depoliticize Islam and gain control of Al Azhar that Sheikh Al-Tayeb resisted despite supporting Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup.

To enhance its influence within Al Azhar and counter that of Saudi Araba, the UAE has funded  Egyptian universities and hospitals and has encouraged Al Azhar to open a branch in the UAE.

The UAE effort paid off when the pope, in a public address, thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration.

“Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist.

The Turkey-UAE rivalry has spilt from the geopolitical and ideological into competing versions of Islamic history.

Turkey last year renamed the street on which the UAE embassy in Ankara is located after an Ottoman general that was at the centre of a Twitter spat between Mr. Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan..

Mr. Erdogan responded angrily to the tweet that accused Fahreddin Pasha, who defended the holy city of Medina against the British in the early 20th century, of abusing the local Arab population and stealing their property as well as sacred relics from the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb,. The tweet described the general as one of Mr. Erdogan’s ancestors.

“When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours? Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery. What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has,” Mr. Erdogan retorted, referring to Mr. Al-Nahyan.

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