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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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Middle East

Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Credit: Institute of Security Studies

Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.

So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.

What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.

The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.

If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.

Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.

The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.

With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.

Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.

In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.

Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.

The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.

Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.

Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.

Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.

The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”

Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”

Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.

The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.

Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.

Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.

The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.

As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.

What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.

All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.

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As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait

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IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.

For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.

Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.

Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’

Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.

But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’. 

These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.

But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’

What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.

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Middle East

Economic reform in the Gulf: Who benefits, really?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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For Gulf leaders, long-overdue economic reforms were never going to be easy.

Leaders like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly discovered that copying China’s model of economic growth while tightening political control was easier said than done. They realised that rewriting social contracts funded by oil wealth was more difficult because Gulf Arabs had far more to lose than the average Chinese. The Gulf states’ social contracts had worked in ways China’s welfare programmes had not. The Gulf’s rentier state’s bargain—surrender of political and social rights for cradle-to-grave welfare—had produced a win-win situation for the longest time.

Moreover, Gulf leaders, struggling with mounting criticism of the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and the fall-out of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also lacked the political and economic clout that allowed China to largely silence or marginalise critics of its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.

The absence of a welfare-based social contract in China allowed the government to power economic growth, lift millions out of poverty, and provide public goods without forcing ordinary citizens to suffer pain. As a result, China was able to push through with economic reforms without having to worry that reduced welfare benefits would spark a public backlash and potentially threaten the regime.

Three years into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for diversification of the economy, Saudi businesses and consumers complain that they are feeling the pinch of utility price hikes and a recently introduced five per cent value-added tax with little confidence that the government will stay the course to ensure promised long-term benefit.

The government’s commitment to cutting costs has been further called into question by annual handouts worth billions of dollars since the announcement of the reforms and rewriting of the social contract to cushion the impact of rising costs and quash criticism.

In contrast to China, investment in the Gulf, whether it is domestic or foreign, comes from financial, technology and other services sector, the arms industry or governments. It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of private sector.

With the exception of national oil companies, some state-run airlines and petrochemical companies, the bulk of Gulf investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s prestige and soft power.

By contrast, Asian economies such as China and India have used investment fight poverty, foster a substantial middle class, and create an industrial base. To be sure, with small populations, Gulf states are more likely to ensure sustainability in services and oil and gas derivatives rather than in manufacturing and industry.

China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that would come closest to some of the Gulf’s soft-power investments. Yet, the BRI, designed to alleviate domestic overcapacity by state-owned firms that are not beholden to shareholders’ short-term demands and/or geo-political gain, contributes to China’s domestic growth.

Asian nations have been able to manage investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia damaged confidence in its ability to diversify its oil-based economy when after repeated delays it suspended plans to list five per cent of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering.

To be sure, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards civilisationalism, populism and illiberal democracy. What differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment. These policies are focused on social and economic enhancement rather than primarily on regime survival. That may be Asia’s lesson for Gulf rulers.

Author’s note: first published in Firstpost

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