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The United States in Iraq and the new offensives in the region

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Over the last few days, particularly on March 6,  new US troops arrived in Iraq. They in fact arrived in the Iraqi area of Al Anbar, leaving from bases located in both Israel and Jordan, particularly from the Mowaffaq Salti and  H-4 air bases.

 Nevertheless the US troops – quickly attacked by the Iraqi Shiites – probably arrived also from other bases outside Iraq.

 Those US forces had the primary goal of quickly crushing an operation of Shiite brigades connected to Iran, but coordinated by the People’s Mobilization Forces that, albeit linked to Iran, are the political and military axis of the major groups elected to Parliament.

 Moreover, last year, it was exactly the Iraqi legislative Assembly that adopted legislation making the Shiite militias an essential and official asset of the Iraqi political system.

 The Hashd al-Shabi forces –  in their new “civilian” group, Fatah, which is their new political alliance – have also become the second group in terms of seats in the election held last May.

 The Hashd al-Shabi forces consist of at least 120,000 well-armed men, who were the first to declare victory on the Iraqi forces of Daesh-Isis – although we do not know yet to what extent this victory can be considered final.

 It should also be recalled that, precisely with the recent election held in Iraq on May 12, 2018, almost all the traditional ethnic-religious fragmentation and tension among Iraqi voters have slackened.

 The real cleavage among Iraqi political groups is now more focused on the defence of territorial interests and on the Welfare share to be transferred from the centre to the periphery than on the traditional “rift” between religious and ethnic groups.

 Currently the real fragmentations are the internal and economic ones within the various political groups.

 The precarious Iraqi government, however, is led by the Shiite leader, Adil Abdil Mahdi, a member of the party known as the “Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq” (ISCI), linked and derived directly from the old Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Shiite and Khomeinist organization founded in 2007 upon Imam Baqir al-Hakim’s initiative.

 Also the Sunnis, however, gathered and supported their traditional electorate, especially within the rebalancing of financial transfers between their regions and the central State.

 Moreover, the Kurds are increasingly present in the administration and in the central political system but – as can be easily imagined – to favour their autonomous welfare and international and Iraqi investments in Erbil and in their great province between Kirkuk and the non-Iraqi Kurdish areas.

 Later, however, the Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister met with resistance even in his traditional Shiite bloc, among the “Sadrists” of the Sairoon Party and even in some Kurdish sectors.

 Furthermore, with their Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Kurds already have 45 seats out of 100 and traditionally obtain many votes from the Christian and Turkmen minorities.

 Certainly the economic and political relations with Turkey – which constantly acquires many of the Iraqi waters – are essential for both oil extraction and agriculture.

 Another variable between Shiites, Kurds and the United States, as well as in the local relations among Russians.

 Daesh-Isis, however, is coming back onto the scene, particularly in North-Western Iraq.

 In all likelihood, however, the “Caliphate” does not intend to conquer the cities –  which are currently difficult to hold for a long time – but, from now on, it wants to operate as a mobile guerrilla group, possibly with further artillery actions and proposing itself again as the main political-military actor of the Al-Anbar region.

 It will be exactly the “Caliphate” to keep Iraq fragmented and weak. This is its primary strategic aim.

 Even this particular Iraqi internal political set-up leads Iran to consider Iraq the most important strategic pawn of its future foreign policy, especially in the framework of its nuclear issue.

  Certainly the nuclear reactors in Iran’s hands, but present on Iraq’s territory, would be the ideal solution for Iran.

 It should also be recalled that Iran sets great store by Iraq, considering that this country is at the origin of the new “corridor” that -upon the de facto end of the clashes in Syria -will go from the internal areas of the Shiite Iraq to Syria up to Beirut and the Lebanese areas controlled by Hezbollah.

The statement made in July 2018 in relation to the United States by General Soleimani, the leader of the Al Qods militias of the Iranian Pasdaran, “We are near you, where you cannot even imagine…”is probably the key to understanding the current situation.

The visit paid by the Iranian President, Hassan Rohani, on March 6, 2019 is a further factor to understand the Iraqi situation and the region that US analysts define as Syraq.

 The “reformist” President – according to the simplistic Western thinking – is sending a clear signal, above all to the United States, that the Shiite Iran values Iraq very much, mainly its de facto hegemony on it, but also the possibility that Iran immediately and directly clashes with the United States, right on the Iraqi ground, but only and solely where Iran wants.

 The Iranian President has also said that Iraq is the primary solution  “to bypass America’s unjust sanctions imposed on Iran”.

 In this regard, we should also recall the “International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq”, held in Kuwait in March 2018.

 Its main document, drawn up directly by the World Bank, envisages as many as 157 primary projects for a total value of 88.7 billion US dollars, 23 of which are short-term and the remaining ones are medium-long term projects.

 Ii is worth recalling that Iraq is OPEC second largest oil producer and ranks fifth in terms of proven oil and gas reserves.

 Hence the Saudi specific interest in the Kuwait International Conference, although Saudi Arabia has not yet credible points of reference in the Iraqi ruling  class.

 Iraq is the real stake between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the strategic key is the separation of military continuity between the Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

 Saudi Arabia, however, has already provided over one billion US dollars for aid and 500 million US dollars for export support. Also the Emirate of Qatar granted another billion dollars and Kuwait followed suit, while the United States itself promised as many as 3 billion dollars.

 As can be easily imagined, everyone is interested in differentiating their support for Iraq and above all avoiding Iraq falling entirely into Iran’s hands.

It should be noted, however, that the 39 million inhabitants of present-day Iraq are increasing at a very quick pace (one million per year), which is certainly the fastest growth rate in the Middle East. It should also be recalled that the whole Iraqi social and economic system is characterized by the highest number of poor and unemployed people across the Middle East.

 It is therefore obvious that Iran wants to acquire the Iraqi oil market in its entirety and use it – as a political and economic weapon – against the whole Sunni axis and particularly against the United States and its allies within OPEC.

 In fact, after the Shiite forces’ attacks on some US military targets in Iraq – coincidentally carried out during Iranian President Rouhani’s visit – the United States immediately called back their forces in Israel and Jordan, as well as those in the Gulf, and – as always happens in these cases -it also alerted its military in Romania and Bulgaria.

 The two groups that attacked the US forces on March 6 and later are directly linked to Iran.

 It is a first militia called Kata’ib Hezbollah, while the other Shiite organization is known as Hasaib Ahl al-Ahq, i.e. the Khazali network.

 Both organizations stem directly from the Lebanese Hezbollah.

 The Kataib Hezbollah was founded by the Iranian Pasdaran and the military organization known as Al Quds Force,  which is linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

  Hezbollah in the Lebanon was born from the will of Imam Khomeini, who considered the Shiite group “the light of his life”.

 It should be recalled that Kataib is also one of the six groups that established the “People’s Mobilization Forces”, from which the current majority political bloc in Iraq stemmed.

 The Khazali network is also a party in the Iraqi Parliament, with 15 representatives, who are said to be the result of electoral fraud. It was also officially established by the Al Quds Force and, during the war in Iraq, it organized over 6,000 attacks on US and Western targets.

Nevertheless the very recent operations against the US military – in clear connection with Rouhani’s visit and his declarations on the now unique Iranian hegemony on Iraq – were carried out exactly one day after the United States had imposed further sanctions, but against a third Iranian Shiite military network, namely Al-Nujaba.

 More precisely, it is the Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, an organization created in 2013, which has four brigades between Iraq and some cells hidden in the Gulf (hence the apparently obscure reference in the above quoted statement by General Soleimani), including the military group that is explicitly devoted to the anti-Israeli operations on the Golan Heights.

 There is also an Al-Nujaba brigade carrying out special operations in Syria for Bashar al-Assad’s forces – a brigade equipped with several Russian T-72 tanks and, above all, Iranian missiles.

 Furthermore, a very strong signal for the US armed forces came from the statements made by Iraqi parliamentarian Nessar al Rabee, linked to the Sadrist movement and, hence, having direct relations also with the quasi-majority currently in power in Iraq, who asked that “all foreign forces should leave the Iraqi territory” .

 The Shiite Sadrist parliamentarian also added that this request would rescue Iraq from the “terrorist forces” that want to enter the country “under new labels”.

 Hence clear language and terminology.

  Moreover Prime Minister Al Mahdi stated he had spoken directly on the phone with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He also said that the United States can no longer legally establish their new bases on the Iraqi territory and added that the current US military presence is confined only to combating Isis-Daesh and training the Iraqi armed forces.

 The United States, however, is repositioning itself on the border between Iraq and Syria and, particularly, in the Western area of the Al-Anbar province and among the Kurds of Kirkuk.

 Nevertheless it is strange that, also for the Sadrists, this new composition of Iraqi Shiite forces comes after a long struggle of the Iraqi military and political Shiism against Iran’s increasingly heavier hegemony.

 Initially quasi-enemies and certainly Iraqi “nationalists”, probably  enemies of the Khomeinist doctrine of Velayat-e-Faqih, but currently  increasingly linked to Iran’s ideologies and, above all, interests.

 Hence the greater Iran’s economic and strategic reaction against the US  denunciation of the nuclear agreement, the greater the Iranian strongly adverse presence against the United States in Iraq, an inevitable axis for opposing the US troops, who are withdrawing from Syria and repositioning themselves right on the border with Iraq and, above all, at the starting point of the Shiite “corridor” that already reaches the Lebanon through the Syrian-Israeli border.

 Another essential factor of the Iranian strategy has recently been the organization of a fundamental meeting between Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – a meeting that took place in Tehran on February 27 last.

 Bashar al-Assad is the only Middle East leader who “kissed the hand” of Iran’s Supreme Leader.

 The primary signal of the meeting–again sent directly to the United States – is that Bashar al-Assad will never abandon Iran.

 Are we sure, however, that this new collocation of relations between Iran and Syria is really ideal for the Russian Federation?

 We will see at a later stage.

 In his meeting with Rohuani, Bashar al-Assad also explicitly said that  Syria will still be part of Iran’s “Resistance Axis” and currently also of all the guerrilla, terrorist and paramilitary entities that Iranians have so far organized between the Shiite areas and the covert structures operating in the Gulf Sunni world.

 The issue of the Syrian-Iranian relationship also concerns the whole connection between Syria, Iran and Iraq, considering that – during Bashar al-Assad visit to Tehran – General Suleimani said – very clearly, as usual –   “Our safest border is the one between our two countries and Iraq”.

 Here is, in fact, the real problem at the core of Khamenei’s and Assad’s fears, as well as of the current Iraqi leaders’. Both Syria and Iran think they must absolutely avoid the United States being their stable pocket, a strong buffer zone in Syria, always connected to Israeli strong air operations in Syria and, in the future, between the Bekaa Valley and the Golan Heights towards the Iraqi areas and, possibly, even on the Iranian border.

For this reason, in both Assad’s and Khamenei’ statements and recent actions, there are strong signs that make us foresee a new great offensive inside Syria, a massive action that could hit both some remaining Sunni-Caliphate pockets, between Idlib and Deir-Ezzor, and above all the US areas (the El Tanf base) and, more precisely, some Israeli targets.

 In fact, addressing to Israel, in mid-January 2019, General Soleimani said that the Jewish State must “greatly fear Iranian high-precision missiles” and that “in any case, Iran will keep all the military advisers and armed forces it deems appropriate”.

 Hence a new area of contrast is emerging between the Jewish State and the Shiite world, while the true solution to the equation could be a de facto agreement between the United States and the Russian Federation to contain Iran and make Israel safe, also on the border between Israel and the Lebanon.

 In fact, two days after the meeting between Assad and Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Head of the Israeli Armed Forces, Tamir Hayman.

 The Russian leader explicitly ensured to give a free hand – also in relation to the Russian presence in Syria and in other regions –  to a possible Israeli attack against the Iranian positions in Syria.

 Putin also asked Netanyahu to formally accept the Russian primary role in the Syrian “peace-building process”. Hence he implicitly asked Israel to avoid future attacks on Iranian targets in Syria being targeted to areas shared between Iran and Russia and, above all, to implicitly favour the Russian presence on the ground.

 Obviously, the Iranian leaders are well aware of this and have therefore asked Bashar al-Assad to declare that any Israeli attack on Iranian targets in Syria will be considered a direct attack on Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

  In their designs, this could force Russia to have a milder approach vis-à-vis Iran.

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

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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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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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