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Saudi Arabia and the West’s right wing: A dubious alliance

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Traditionally focussed on ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam, Saudi funding in the era of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has been streamlined and finetuned to ensure that it serves his geopolitical ambitions, primarily stymieing the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and North Africa and enhancing the kingdom’s global impact.

The effort, however, has so far produced a mixed bag. Spending is down but more targeted. Saudi Arabia has handed over control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels in a move designed to demonstrate its newly found moderation and reduce the reputational damage of a Saudi ultra-conservative management that had become contentious in Belgium.

Yet, monies still flowed to militant, ultra-conservative madrassas or religious seminaries that dot the Pakistani-Iranian border. The kingdom’s focus, moreover has shifted in selected countries to the promotion of a strand of Salafi ultra-conservatism that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler, a corollary to Prince Mohammed’s crackdown on critics and activists at home.

Saudi governmental non-governmental organizations that once distributed the kingdom’s largesse to advance ultra-conservatism as well as officials have adopted the language of tolerance and respect and principles of inter-faith but have little tangible change at home to back it up.

To be sure, Prince Mohammed has lifted the ban on women’s driving, enhanced women’s work and leisure opportunities and kickstarted the creation of a modern entertainment industry but none of these measures amount to his promise to foster an unidentified but truly moderate form of Islam.

The prince’s moves, moreover, have been accompanied by an embrace of the European right and far-right as well as Western ultra-conservative groups that by and large are hardly beacons of tolerance and mutual respect.

“Saudi Arabia with MBS as Crown Prince has not been advocating Islamic religious reform,” said Middle East scholar HA Hellyer, referring to the Saudi leader by his initials.

“The existing Saudi religious establishment has not been encouraged to engage in a genuine rethinking of its ideas that draws it closer to the normative Sunni mainstream, nor listen to existing Saudi religious scholars who advocate more normative and mainstream approaches. Rather, the establishment has been muzzled. MBS’s ‘reforms’ in this arena are about centralizing power—they are not about restoring the Saudi religious establishment to a normative Sunnism,” Mr. Hellyer added.

Prince Mohammed’s interest in non-Muslim ultra-conservative groups in the West fits a global pattern, highlighted by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, in which technological advances and the increased importance of soft power that lie at the root of Russian intervention in elections in the United States and Europe, have informed the information and public relations policies of multiple autocratic states.

Technology and soft power are, according to Messrs. Mounk and Foa, are likely to spark greater efforts by authoritarians and autocrats in general to influence Western nations and undermine confidence in democracy.

“Indeed, China is already stepping up ideological pressure on its overseas residents and establishing influential Confucius Institutes in major centres of learning. And over the past two years, Saudi Arabia has dramatically upped its payments to registered U.S. lobbyists, increasing the number of registered foreign agents working on its behalf from 25 to 145… The rise of authoritarian soft power is already apparent across a variety of domains, including academia, popular culture, foreign investment, and development aid,” Messrs. Mounk and Foa said.

Saudi Arabia alongside other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, as well as China, have furthermore been major donors to Western universities and think tanks and developed media outlets of their own such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera, Turkey’s TRT World China’s CCTV, and Russia’s RT that reach global audiences. They compete with the likes of the BBC and CNN.

The need for Saudi Arabia to acquire soft power was driven home by mounting Western criticism of its war in Yemen and condemnation of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The Saudi effort to do so by garnering conservative, right-wing and far-right support was evident in Northern Ireland.

Investigating a remarkable campaign by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a key support pillar of British prime minister Teresa May’s government, in favour of Britain’s exit from the European Union, Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole suggested that a senior member of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family and former head of the country’s intelligence service, Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, as well as its just replaced ambassador to Britain, had funded the anti-Brexit effort through a commercial tie-up with a relatively obscure Scottish conservative activist of modest means, Richard Cook.

The ambassador, Prince Nawaf’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al Saud, was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain until last month’s Saudi cabinet reshuffle.

“It may be entirely co-incidental that the man who channelled £425,622 to the DUP had such extremely high-level Saudi connections. We simply don’t know. We also don’t know whether the… Saudi ambassador had any knowledge of his father’s connection to Richard Cook,” Mr. O’Toole said.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has invited dozens of British members of parliament on all-expenses paid visits to the kingdom and showered at least 50 members of the government, including Ms. May, with enormous hampers of food weighing up to 18 pounds.

One package destined for a member of the House of Lords included seaweed and garlic mayonnaise; smoked salmon, trout and mussels; and a kilogram of Stilton cheese. Others contained bottles of claret, white wine, champagne, and Talisker whisky despite the kingdom’s ban of alcohol.

In a move similar to Russian efforts to influence European politics, Saudi Arabia has also forged close ties to conservative and far-right groups in Europe that include the Danish People’s Party and the Sweden Democrats as well as other Islamophobes, according to member of the European parliament Eldar Mamedov.

Writing on LobeLog, Mr. Mamedov said the kingdom frequently worked through the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) bloc, the third largest grouping in the European parliament. Saudi Arabia also enjoyed the support of European parliament member Mario Borghezio of Italy’s Lega, who is a member of Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), a bloc of far-right parties in the parliament.

The kingdom’s strategy, in a twist of irony, although in pursuit of different goals, resembles to a degree that of one of its nemeses, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim non-governmental organization that has opposition to Saudi Arabia’s puritan strand of Islam carved into its DNA and has forged close ties to the European right and far-right in its bid to reform the faith.

The Saudi strategy could prove tricky, particularly in the United States, dependent on the evolution of US special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 election that brought President Donald J. Trump to office.

Mr. Mueller reportedly is set in court filings to unveil efforts by Saudi Arabia, its reputation in the US tarnished by the Khashoggi killing, and the United Arab Emirates, the kingdom’s closest ally, to influence American politics.

Said Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney. “I guess what Mueller has to date has turned out to be pretty rich and detailed and more than we anticipated. This could turn out to be a rich part of the overall story.”

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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The economic summit in Bahrain won’t be about Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Ksenia Svetlova

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In less than two weeks Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt will present in Manama the first part of the long-awaited “deal of the century”, the peace initiative of president Donald Trump designed to find an ultimate solution for the prolonged Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Iraq and Lebanon will not take part in the event, while Tehran had already accused the participants, mainly Saudi Arabia of “betrayal of the Palestinian struggle”. Following the massive pressure on Arab leaders and promises of significant economic development, the American administration was finally able to secure the participation of Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, and probably Morocco. Israel didn’t receive an official invitation for this event yet. It is, however, clear that it will be invited, and some rumors imply that PM Netanyahu himself might come to Bahrain, a country with which Israel doesn’t have any diplomatic relations.

Yet, it seems that this odd event in Manama will resemble a wedding without the bride. The groom will be there, so are the loving parents who will provide the dowry and the guests, but the bride, i.e. the Palestinian autonomy had already declared that it will not send any official or unofficial delegation to the upcoming economic conference.

The relations between the White House and the Palestinian administration had gone sour since President’s Trump decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Palestinians are suspicious of Trump’s attempts to promote “a deal” that might not include a reference to a two-state solution. For the last two years, the sole connection between Washington and Ramallah has been maintained by the respective security agencies.  Recent remarks made by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel on Israeli territorial claims in Judea and Samaria and the hints of Israel’s annexation plans intensified Palestinian concerns towards the unveiling of the first part of “the deal”. Palestinian officials had harshly criticized the participation of Arab countries in Bahrain conference, expressing hope that they will send low-key representation, while the Jordanian Kind explained that he decided to send a delegation to the summit “to listen and remain knowledgeable of what is taking place”.

Yet, the most fascinating thing about the economic conference is that it’s not at all about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite its title. With only one year left prior to the US presidential elections and considering the political turmoil in Israel and the unwillingness of the Palestinian partner to engage in any plan presented by Trump’s administration, there is little hope in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington that the “deal of the Century” will accumulate in peaceful solution in the current century.

Why, then, the American administration is investing time and energy in the upcoming Bahrain summit? The answer is clear: mostly, to consolidate the alliance of the “moderate Arab states”.  Considering the recent dramatic events at the sea of Oman and the attack on two oil-tankers, it will not be far-fetched to imagine that the growing tensions in Iran will overshadow the official reason for the gathering. In the same fashion, the “anti-terror” conference in Warsaw that took place in February this year, was solely about Iran, while all other aspects of anti-terrorism activities were left behind. The deterioration of the situation in the Persian Gulf is crucial for the hosts and their allies – the Arab countries in the Gulf. Egypt and Jordan were required to be there because they are key American allies in the region who also maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. The plan that is envisaged by Kushner and Greenblatt will include economic benefits and development programs for both Amman and Cairo who are dealing with pressing economic hardships. Would they prefer to stay away from the conference that is being shunned by the Palestinians? Probably. Could these two countries, who receive significant economic help from the US say no to the invitation and not show up at the wedding of the century? Highly unlikely.

Ironically, some 52 years ago in Khartoum, it was the Arab league that had unanimously voted on the famous “three no’s” resolution in Khartoum, declining any possibility of dialogue with Israel. Today, when the Arab states are weakened by the “Arab spring” and preoccupied with growing tensions in the Persian Gulf while the focus has shifted from the Palestinian question elsewhere, they are more prone than ever to go along with practically any American plan, while the only ones who refuse to cooperate with Trump and obediently fulfil his orders are the Palestinians who will be absent from Manama gathering. The support of the Palestinian struggle and its importance in Arab politics had dwindled, while other regional affairs had moved center stage. Considering this dramatic change of circumstances, the odd wedding in Bahrain doesn’t seem so odd anymore. It can be seen as yet another step in American attempts to consolidate an Arab alliance against Iran. The Palestinian-Israel conflict that will keep simmering after the conference just as it did before has nothing to do with it.

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Who benefits most of suspicious attacks on oil tankers, tensions in the Gulf?

Payman Yazdani

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The events roiling the Persian Gulf in recent weeks and days have the potential to affect everything from the price of gas to the fate of small regional states.

A look at the tensions going on around the world including the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, East Europe, Venezuela all indicate that these tensions originate from the US administration’s unilateral unlawful measures.

The White House’s unlawful withdrawal from the Iran’s nuclear deal (JCPOA), designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, reimposing sanctions on Iran and trying to drive Iran’s oil export to zero all are provocative and suspicious moves of the US that have fueled the regional tensions.

The US and its regional allies including Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s suspicious and provocative move to accuse Iran of being behind the attacks on two ships at Fujairah in the UAE without presenting any document was also foiled by Iran’s vigilant approach and reduced tensions to some extent.

While the Japanese Prime Minister is visiting Iran after 4 decades and many expected even more reduction of the tensions in the region due his visit, in another suspicious and provocative move two oil tankers were targeted in Sea of Oman, a move that can intensify the tensions more than before.

Undoubtedly the US and its proxies in the region as usual will accuse of Iran being behind the incident without any document in hours once again, but the main question is that who is benefiting the most of the tensions in the Persian Gulf region?

Pondering the following reasons one can realize that the number one beneficiary of the tensions and attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East is the USA and respectively Tel Aviv and the undemocratically  appointed rulers of some regional Arab states seeking their survival in following the US policies.

– Contrary to decades ago the US is now one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the world seeking to grab the market share of the other countries in the world. Following US unlawful withdrawal from the JCPOA and its efforts to drive Iran’s oil export to zero under the pretext of different accusations, in fact the US is making efforts not only to grab Iran’s share of the energy market but also to limit Iran’s income to reduce Iran’s regional influence. The US move to create tensions in Venezuela and East Europe and slapping sanctions against Caracas and Moscow can also be interpreted in this line.

– Any tension in the Persian Gulf not only will increase the energy price in global market but also will create enough pretexts for Washington to boost its military presence in the region. This means control of energy routes by the US in order to contain its rivals like China, EU, Japan and new rising economies like India which their economies are heavily dependent on the energy coming from the Persian Gulf and Middle East.

– Tensions in the region besides Iranophobia project will guarantee continuation of purchase of American weapons by some regional countries such as Saudi Arabia. By continuation of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia the US not only creates thousands of jobs for Americans but also keeps its rivals like China and Russia out of Middle East weapon market.

– Tensions and conflicts created by the US in Middle East has resulted in great rifts and divergence among regional states which is vital for Tel Aviv’s security and its expansionist policies.

From our partner MNA

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The odds of success for Japanese PM’s visit to Iran

Payman Yazdani

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US President’s recent retreat from his previous rhetoric stances towards Iran should not be misinterpreted as the White House’s retreat from its policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran.

In line with its maximum pressure on Iran policy, on Friday the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran that target the country’s petrochemical industry, including its largest petrochemical holding group, the Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company (PGPIC).

The main reason behind the changes to Trump administration’s tone against Iran in fact is internal pressure on him. Americans are against a new war in the region. Also opposition from the US allies which will suffer from great losses in case of any war in the region is another reason behind change to Trump’s tone.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is slated to visit Tehran on Wednesday June 12. He hopes to use his warm relation with Iran and the US to mediate between the countries.

Besides Abe’s warm relations with Iranian and the US leaders there are others reasons that potentially make him a proper mediator including Japan’s efforts to have independent Middle East policy and not having imperialistic record in the region which is a good trust building factor for Iran.

Above all, as the third largest economy of the world Japan is very dependent on the energy importing from the region. Japan imports 80 percent of its consuming energy from the Middle East which passes through Hormuz strait, so any war and confrontation in the region will inflict great losses and damages to the country’s economy and consequently to the world economy.

To answer the question that how Mr. Abe’s efforts will be effective to settle the tensions depends on two factors.

First on the ‘real will’ and determination of the US and Iran to solve the ongoing problems especially the US ‘real will’. One cannot ask for talk and at the same time further undermine the trust between the two sides by taking some hostile measures like new sanctions that the US slapped against Iran’s petrochemical section last night on the eve of Mr. Abe’s visit to Tehran. If there is a real will, even no need to mediator.

Second we have to wait to see that how the Japanese PM will be able to affect the US’ decisions. Iran’s Keivan Khosravi spokesman for the Supreme National Security Council said efforts to remove US extraterritorial sanctions against Iran could guarantee the success of Japanese PM’s visit to the Islamic Republic.

From our partner MNA

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