Connect with us

Middle East

Gulf rivalries spill onto the soccer pitch

Published

on

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.

Difficult choices

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.

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.

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

Abraham’s peace agreements and the Chinese and Russian coordination towards JCPOA

Published

on

The Egyptian researcher, as a well-known expert in the Middle East region on Chinese Political Affairs, called for an international interview with the well-known (Bloomberg International News Agency), which is published on Friday, November 26, 2021, regarding (the role of China and Russia in the developments of the Iranian nuclear file within the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”), and its relationship with the “New AUKUS Defense Agreement”, sponsored by Washington to confront the Chinese influence, and its impact on the overall upcoming interactions.

  Considering that my mentioned interview with “Bloomberg News Agency” was going done as well with the current permanent official representatives of China and Russia in the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”, namely: the Chinese Ambassador “Wang Qun”, as (the current permanent Chinese envoy to “IAEA”), and Russian Ambassador “Mikhail Ulyanov”, as (the Russian permanent envoy to “IAEA”

   But, despite the mentioned interview was being shortened to a very large extent on the “Bloomberg News Agency Website”, due to the available limited space that has been permitted. So, the Egyptian researcher, as an expert in Chinese Politics has decided to present to all those interested around the world this comprehensive analytical file on the Iranian nuclear issue, from my own perspective and experience to understand the Chinese side in the first place and their direct thinking towards the mechanisms of response towards the (American policy of encirclement / scaling/ restriction/ containment against China). Whatever those names or terminologies are, they are all pouring into American tactical plans and strategies against China.

  Therefore, it has become imperative for all my fellows and researchers around the world who are concerned with the matter, and with the current international interactions, to try to understand and analyze these new data and developments, and bring them into the heart of the current “international equation” and the (policy of American-Russian-Chinese polarization), and then, all of us should try, as well-known international academics and scholars in our regions, to convey the point of view of all its parties. Concerning the impact of these new interactions on the future of the Middle East region and the other places and areas, and the most dangerous to me is that: “The extent of the impact of peace agreements or Israeli normalization with the Arab Gulf states on the future of Sino-American competition and influence in the Middle East”, which is leading to a comprehensive analysis, regarding:

  “The impact of the policy of American alliances directed against Beijing, especially the “New AUKUS Defense Nuclear Agreement”, and before that the “Quad Quartet Agreement” or what is known as “Asian NATO” on the developments of the Iranian nuclear file, within the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”

    Here, we find that China’s support for Tehran is one of the most important current global problems, especially in the face of US policies and the constant pressure on Beijing.  And through my careful reading of the scene in the region, especially in light of these new changes and the reassessment of international relations on new foundations, and the United States of America’s “politics of alliances” to put pressure on the Chinese side in its areas of influence, especially Washington’s signing of the new “Aukus Defense and Security Agreements” with Australia  Britain, and the Quad Quartet Agreement with Japan, India, and Australia.  In addition to my meticulous follow-up of all secret American moves and their attempt to include (Australia and Japan) in the membership of the “Nato Military Alliance”, despite this violation of the “NATO constitution” of itself, given their extreme distance from the two shores of the Atlantic and North Atlantic as one of the basic conditions for “NATO’S membership”. Then the provocative American attempt to open a (permanent branch of the NATO’S military office in the “Indo-Pacific” region – in the American sense – which includes the Indian and Pacific regions), with the aim of restricting Chinese influence in its regional and Asian areas of influence themselves.

From here, the Egyptian researcher reached a number of profound changes in the entire global scene, represented in:

    China’s intensification of its support for Tehran in confronting the United States of America in alliance with Russia to unify their decisions within the corridors of the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”, especially after the summit of the American challenge to China in its regional and border surroundings, with the signing of the “New AUKUS Defense Agreement of a nuclear nature, in violation of the terms of membership of the International Agency  for atomic energy in the first place”, and for Beijing to resort to an official complaint to the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”  against the United States of America, alleging a violation and Washington’s violation of the foundations of its membership in the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” by sponsoring the AUKUS nuclear agreement, and the completion of the Australian nuclear submarine deal. This represents a nuclear threat to China, near its neighboring areas of influence in (the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the Pacific Ocean region).

    Hence, the new connection came to my mind as an expert in the Chinese political file for many years, with profound changes in the mechanism of making and directing political decisions within Beijing after (AUKUS Defense Alliance sponsored by the United States of America and directed directly to China), then studying and analyzing the extent of its impact on the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency  “IAEA”, and even more dangerous to me is raising the following serious inquiry, on:

  (Can the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” verify the Chinese complaint against the United States of America for its sponsorship of a nuclear agreement of “Aukus” and the nuclear submarine deal, and pass its decision to impose sanctions on the USA itself)?

   In my personal opinion, there are many changes that have occurred in the global scene as a whole, and the division of the whole world and its adoption of the policy of international alliances and polarization, including certainly China and its ally Russia, which is trying to respond to the network of American alliances to surround it with the work of new counter alliances, especially after the “New AUKUS Defense Agreement”. The Chinese side is also supporting building a network of new regional alliances related to the Middle East, throughout forming an alliance, which includes: (Turkish-Iranian-Pakistani) parties, as an attempt by  China to pressure the “State of India” by threatening its interests in the region, and thus forcing it not to cooperate and withdraw from the the “Quad Quartet Agreement”, which is sponsored by Washington to contain China, which is also called, as an “Asian NATO”.

    Therefore, China has already started planning to respond to “the policy of American alliances against it in Asia in the heart of the Middle East”, by following China’s policy of alliances and polarization of the actors in the region and hostile to Washington, especially in the Middle East, and the Chinese attempt to attract Turkey in particular.  Specifically, given its only membership in the Middle East in the (NATO’S Military Alliance), which is an opportunity for Beijing to form an alliance of countries close to the same American spheres of influence, as Washington does. Therefore, an alliance of Chinese banks, known as the “Consortiums”, expressing its willingness to lend Turkey three billion dollars, in order to finance several stalled projects in Istanbul, which can be considered analytically as (the largest financial support provided by China to the Turkish side in the modern history).

    Accordingly, we can present this new analysis on the impact of the policy of American and Chinese alliances on the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” in the Iranian nuclear file, or the extent of its ability to exert pressures on the United States of America and its sponsorship of the Aukus nuclear defense agreement, or to impose sanctions on it, according to the official request submitted by the  China.

   Here, we can analyze that the Sino-Iranian strategic cooperation agreement for 25 years, which was concluded in March 2021, and China’s use of Iran’s card in its growing conflict with the United States of America, represents a challenge and a future problem for many countries in the region. Whatever the outcome of future developments and facts in the course of the intertwined relations between China and the United States and Iran in the future, this basically supports the reality of (the foundations of the inauguration of an era in which the United States of America does not have the keys to the main control over the Middle East, with the entry of major and pivotal players such as China and Russia). Therefore, the (multi-polarity) that China advocates is gaining tangible and realistic dimensions, and may develop to a degree that may increase the intensity of the regional competition between the two superpowers, which may exacerbate the instability that the Middle East is constantly witnessing.

    With the growing international role and influence of China and Russia in many files, whichever is (China sharing with Russia the desire to break the American hegemony over the shipping lines in the Middle East), and its most prominent indicators are (China’s pursuit of a military base in Djibouti, and its interest in conducting international shipping operations through waterways).

   China is proceeding here, according to long-term plans to challenge the US military hegemony in the region.  In addition to the Chinese ambition to maximize its role in ensuring security related to the safety of its trade, products and investments with all countries of the world within the framework of the “Chinese Belt and Road Initiative”, with China’s attempt to build new military bases both in the Arab Gulf and the United Arab Emirates to challenge the American influence as it has been circulated since a period in the Middle East, or China’s pursuit of a presence in the Arabian Sea and others, which means the importance of the Middle East in the strategy of the Cold War between the two parties.

   It is worth noting here that recent regional variables may lead to some changes, the most important of which are the “Abraham agreements for political normalization between Israel and the Gulf states, which are signed between several Arab countries with Israel, as they may have strengthened Washington’s position in the region in the face of China”, as an opposing force against the USA. Here, the United States seeks to follow (politics of mobilization and bringing together its partners to confront hostile parties, such as Iran), and then Washington benefits from the political normalization agreements with Israel to consolidate its position and ease the burden of maintaining security against the conflicting partners in the region, especially between the Arabs and Israel.

  But, the United States of America, through its current administration of President “Joe Biden” and during the period of the two previous administrations, has sent turbulent signals about (its inability to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East). Former President “Obama” hesitated at the time to intervene in Syria, and was succeeded by President “Donald Trump” that has suddenly withdrawn and reduced the American presence from it, which raised the fears and suspicions of the leading elites in the region, especially the Arab Gulf, regarding the American commitment (to ensure the security of maritime navigation and the protection of waterways in the region).

    In light of this current situation and growing doubts about the American position, especially the “Joe Biden administration’s focus on the human rights situation in the various countries of the region”, and the American administration’s invitation to the Iraqi side alone from all the countries of the region to participate in the conference of democratic countries in the world, and the current accusations by the administration of “Joe Biden” to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its involvement in the events of September 11, 2001, and demanding of huge amounts of compensations from the Saudi side. So, most of the countries in the region turned towards the other two superpowers, namely: (Russia and China), by activating the official visits with them at the highest levels, and establishing partnership rules in various fields, with  Russia’s desire and ambitions to restore its former global power during the Soviet era, and Russia intensified its military presence in Syria and Libya, as well as the interdependence of the Russian economy with many countries in the Middle East, such as: Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia (through the OPEC Plus system), and then Russia succeeded in restoring its bilateral relations with the countries of the region, and to highlight itself as a neutral mediator in the region’s conflicts. Also, China’s assistance to President “Bashar Al-Assad” against all of the Western pressures, that enabled him to continue and achieve several goals.

  The most important point for the countries of the Middle East region was that the “emergence superpowers of China and Russia in the region are peaceful and respect for the national sovereignty, and seek to maintain the status quo, compared to the USA”. In addition to the increasing interest of some countries in the region in the Russian weapons, besides, the desire of both Russia and China to push “Turkey”, as the most important member of the “NATO alliance” in the Middle East region, to play a pivotal role against the interests of the United States and the NATO’s military alliance itself.

Continue Reading

Middle East

UAE and the opportunity for an India-Pakistan “sporting war”

Published

on

The Dubai Cricket Council chief, Abdul Rahman Falaknaz recently said that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was willing to host a bilateral India-Pakistan cricket series, provided both countries agreed. Said Falaknaz:

 ‘The best thing would be to get India-Pakistan matches here. When Sharjah used to host India and Pakistan all those years ago, it was like a war. But it was a good war, it was a sporting war and it was fantastic’

UAE along with Oman had hosted the recent ICC (International Cricket Council) Men’s T20 World cup (won by Australia). The second half of the Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 2021 was also played in UAE (both the World cup and the second half of the IPL had to be shifted from India, because of the Covid19 pandemic). One of the most exciting matches in the Men’s T20 World Cup was the India-Pakistan clash on October 26, 2021 played at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. In spite of political relations between both countries being strained, the match was played in a cordial atmosphere. Pakistan one the contest by 10 wickets, and it was for the first time that it had beaten India in a World Cup match.

While scores and statistics relating to the match will remain only on paper, the image of Indian Captain Virat Kohli hugging Pakistani batsman Mohammad Rizwan after the match, in a wonderful display of sportsmanship, will be etched in the minds not just of cricket fans, but countless Indians and Pakistanis who yearn for normalisation of ties between both countries. The Indian captain did draw criticism on social media from trolls, but his gesture was also lauded by many cricketing fans in India.

India and Pakistan have not played any bilateral series, since 2013 ever since bilateral tensions have risen but have been playing each other in international tournaments. Significantly, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Sharjah was an important cricketing venue, which was witness to many gripping ODI cricket contests between India and Pakistan. After match fixing controversies in 2000, India stopped playing in Sharjah and as a result for some time, UAE’s importance as a cricketing venue declined significantly.

Ever since 2009 Abu Dhabi and Dubai have emerged as important cricketing centres, since Pakistan has been playing most of its home series (Tests and One Day Internationals) in UAE (after a terrorist attack on a Sri Lankan team bus in 2009, most countries have been reluctant to play cricket in Pakistan, though Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and West Indies have visited Pakistan)

Possibility of a cricket series in UAE

While it is always tough to hazard a guess with regard to India-Pakistan relations, there have been some positive developments in recent weeks; the re-opening of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor after 20 months, and Pakistan’s decision to allow a consignment of 50,000 tonnes of wheat and life saving drugs  from India for Afghanistan, to transit through its territory (the Pakistan government stated that it had made this exception, because this consignment was for humanitarian purposes). While there have been calls to revive people to people and trade linkages between both countries, especially between both Punjabs, playing a cricket series either in India and Pakistan seems unlikely at least in the imminent future.

The UAE as a neutral venue, for a bilateral series, has a number of advantages, which include not just the fact, that it is home to a large South Asian expat population (a large percentage of which consists of cricket enthusiasts), but also that matches would be played in a more relaxed atmosphere, with lesser pressure on players from both countries. UAE, an economic hub which has become increasingly cosmopolitan in recent years, has also been trying to promote local cricket and generate interest in the game amongst locals (other GCC countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia have also been trying to do the same, but UAE possesses a number of advantages vis-à-vis these countries). Hosting an India-Pakistan series will benefit the country immensely. Apart from this, if the UAE is able to convince both countries to play a cricketing series, it will also enhance not its diplomatic stock (it would be pertinent to point out, that UAE is supposed to have been one of the countries which played a part in the ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan — across the Line of Control/LOC earlier this year).

  In conclusion, the revival of cricketing ties between India and Pakistan is no mean task, but it would be easier on a neutral territory like UAE, which also has a substantial South Asian expat population interested in cricket. Not only will hosting a bilateral series between India and Pakistan, help the UAE in achieving its objective of emerging as an important cricketing hub for South Asia, and enhance the country’s soft power considerably, but it will also be a big achievement in diplomatic terms. Soft power, including cricket has been one of the important components in the links between UAE and South Asia in the past, it remains to be seen if in the future, the role of soft power, via cricket, becomes more crucial in linkages between UAE-South Asia.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Turkey’s Foreign Policy Balancing Act

Published

on

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

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Trending