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Saudis’ Yemeni headache won’t go away if and when the guns fall silent

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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These are tough times for Saudi Arabia.

The drama enveloping the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the brutal way in which it was carried out have captured public attention. In reality, however, Saudi Arabia’s real problems began earlier as a result of its conduct of the Yemen war.

Saudi interference in Yemen that culminated in military intervention predates the four-year-old war. Yemen has long been perceived by Saudi Arabia as a threat. That threat went far beyond current Iranian support for the Houthis. In fact, it was Saudi divide-and-rule tactics in Yemen, changing Saudi attitudes towards the Houthis and Saudi Arabia’s global campaign to promote anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that helped pave the way for the current Yemen crisis.

It is only half a century ago that the Houthis were part of a Saudi effort to confront Arab nationalism. As an aside, Saudis and Israelis cooperated already then with Israeli military aircraft dropping weapons for the Saudi-backed rebels that included the Houthis. The deterioration in Saudi-Houthi relations accelerated just after the turn to this century when the Saudis funded the opening of a Salafi centre on the outskirts of the Houthi capital of Saada.

The centre constituted not only a challenge to the Houthis but also to the power of the Houthi leadership. It successfully appealed to the socially disadvantaged as well as youth who were attracted by Salafism’s egalitarianism, resented the power of the older generation and saw puritan Islam as a vehicle to challenge the traditional hierarchy.  Fear of the Wahhabi/Salafi encroachment fuelled the Houthi’s armed fight against the government of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, his Saudi-backed successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and ultimately the Saudis themselves, which led to the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen in March 2015.

To initially counter the threat, the leadership of the Houthis, Zaidis who are Shiites with practices more akin to Sunni Muslim ritual, turned to Iran for support in religious education, a development that further angered the kingdom, and laid the groundwork for a war that has devastated a country that already ranked as one of the world’s poorest.

The Saudi intervention was, however, about more than just confronting an Iranian proxy on its doorstep. For one, if anything, it was the intervention that really drove the Houthis and Iranians closer to one another. Even so, the Houthis remain an opportunity in a far broader Saudi-Iranian rivalry rather than a strategic target for the Iranians.

The Salmans, the king and his son, have since coming to office and despite the emergence of Donald Trump, taken to new heights a far more assertive foreign and military policy that was initially crafted by their predecessors in response to the popular Arab revolts in 2011. Make however no mistake, Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness is not a declaration of independence from the United States even if the kingdom is expanding its international relations as is evident in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent tour of Asia.

On the contrary, Prince Mohammed made that very clear in multiple interviews. His goal was to force the United States to reengage in the Middle East as the best guarantor for regional stability. The Saudis appear to be operating on the basis of Karl Marx’s Verelendungs theory: things have to get worse to get better. That is the part of the backdrop of the stalled military intervention in Yemen. Dangling Iran as the real threat emanating from Yemen serves the Saudis’ purpose.

In doing so Saudi Arabia, has proven to be driven. It is a drive that is fuelled by a perception that Iran poses an existential threat to Saudi Arabia. In fact, that may not be incorrect, certainly from the perception of the monarchy and its ruling family.

Saudi Arabia dazzles with the billions of dollars gained from oil exports that it is able to invest overseas and the investment opportunities it creates in the kingdom itself. But the truth of the matter is that long-term Saudi Arabia’s future is not that of a regional hegemon.

Saudi regional leadership, even if it has been tarnished in Yemen in military and reputational terms, amounts to exploitation of a window of opportunity rather than reliance on the assets and power needed to sustain it. Saudi Arabia’s interest is to extend its window of opportunity for as long as possible. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. For now, punitive economic sanctions and international isolation take care of Iran.

And that is what bites. Iran may not be Arab and maintains a sense of Persian superiority, but it has like Turkey and Egypt assets Saudi Arabia lacks: a large population base, an industrial base, a huge domestic market, a battle-hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete.

Add to all of this two factors. The Islamic regime came to power in a revolution that preceded the 2011 Arab revolts by 32 years. Moreover, the Iranian revolution toppled a monarch not a president and an icon of US power in the Middle East.

Perhaps, more importantly, if one disregards the sanctioning of Iran, it is Iran rather than Saudi Arabia that is likely to shape the future energy architecture of Eurasia. Oil, in terms of demand is a diminishing commodity. If the long-term future is renewables, the medium term will be shaped by gas. Iran has gas, Saudi Arabia does not, at least not the kind of gas it can export. In fact, Iran, has the world’s second largest gas reserves. Again, disregarding the sanctions, Iran would have in the next five years 24.6 billion cubic metres available for annual piped exports beyond its current supply commitments.

If, indeed, Iran poses an existential threat to the rule of the Al Saud family that it cannot eliminate and at best contain with the support of the United States, the question is what Saudi Arabia’s goal in Yemen is as well as in its broader rivalry with Iran. There are those who coherently argue that Saudi Arabia’s goal in Yemen may have initially been the roll-back of Houthi advances with their occupation of the Yemeni capital Sana’s and large parts of Yemen, destruction of Houthi power and forcing them into a situation in which they would have had to accept a Saudi-dictated end to the war.

Four years into the war, that is not a realistic goal. Short of that, the question is how sincere Saudi and for that matter UAE interest is in finding a way out of the war. It is conceivable that short of outright victory, Saudi Arabia would want to keep Yemen weak and the Houthis militarily on the defensive. That is at best only sustainable in the short term. Fact of the matter is that the reputational damage Saudi Arabia has suffered is starting to hurt witness measures taken by the US Congress and Germany’s decision to halt arms sales to the kingdom. Conflicts are only ended, if not resolved if the pain of continuing the conflict is greater than the pain of ending it. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia could well be nearing the inflection point.

The problem is that even if the United Nations mediated peace talks ultimately produce an end to the war, Yemen, if anything, will pose in the post-war era an even greater and more real threat. Yemen for much of post-World War Two history has been an after thought in the international community if it sparked a thought at all. Yet, what a post-war Yemen will represent is a devastated country that largely needs to be rebuilt from scratch, a country whose traumatized population has suffered one the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and will need all the after-care that goes with that.

Beyond the taking care of the most immediate humanitarian issues, there is little reason to believe that investors and governments with massive aid packages and offers of reconstruction will be knocking on Yemen’s doors. Like in Syria and Libya, the risk is of the emergence of a generation that has nothing to look forward to and nothing to lose. In Yemen, that generation is likely to deeply resent what it perceives Saudi Arabia has done to their country. If Saudi Arabia, long saw Yemen as the Gulf’s most populous nation with a battle-hardened military that needed to be managed, that new generation is likely to put flesh on the skeleton.

Its not a pretty picture to look forward to. And it is one in which the damage has already been done. Having said that, its never too late to try to limit the damage, if not reverse affairs. That however would take the kind of courage and vision that Prince Mohammed and others in power elsewhere in the Middle East have yet to demonstrate.

Edited remarks at Stand with Yemen Symposium and Exhibition 23 February 2019

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

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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Middle East

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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